Advaita Vision


Advaita for the 21st Century

Questions and Answers
Dennis Waite

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How to Meet Yourself cover   The Book of One cover  Back to the Truth cover  Enlightenment: the path through the jungle

Read extracts from and purchase my books: For beginners to Advaita - 'How to Meet Yourself (and find true happiness);
For intermediate Advaita students - 'The Book of One';
For advanced students - 'Back to the Truth: 5000 Years of Advaita'.
For a comparison of teaching methods in Advaita - 'Enlightenment: the Path through the Jungle' .

Advaita and Buddhism

Q. What major differences are to be found between advaita and Buddhist Abhidhamma? I ask because having spent some time in the study of serious Buddhist thinking, it seems that both advaita and Abhidhamma are, so to speak, walking around the same elephant - they see different parts and use different terms, but both aim at showing what is real (?) as opposed to offering just another self-made reality, i.e. more illusion. I am eager to hear your thoughts.

A. I�m afraid I have to answer you as I have answered other Buddhist-related questions: I don�t know anything about Buddhism so cannot really comment. What I can say is that the �reality� of advaita is non-dual and has no parts or terms so that nothing can actually be said about it. I also know that Vyasa and Shankara specifically refute many other philosophies in the Brahma Sutra and commentary (respectively) and this includes Buddhism.

Gaudapada (and Shankara) acknowledge that the yogachAra branch of Buddhism comes very close to advaita and they join with that branch in refuting the rest of the Buddhists. But, in the end, they also refute the yogachAra because of his meaningless claims about the momentary nature of Consciousness. And that�s about the extent of my Buddhist knowledge! Greg Goode is the person to ask for this sort of question.

Why do we see duality?

Q. From the pAramArthika standpoint, everything is brahman, and nothing exists other than brahman. Thus, the world that we observe should be names and forms of brahman, which must be 'real' (since it is indeed brahman). Given this understanding, the following question arises: Why do we observe ever changing and diverse forms of the non-dual brahman?

If the apparent world is nothing other than brahman, which is homogeneous and non-changing, why do we not recognize the world as such? Is this the result of adhyAsa? At the vyAvahArika truth, I cannot believe we always perceive the rope as a snake. Without accounting for this seeming contradiction, advaita suffers from logical inconsistency, even if it rejects any creation theories. Or is this question already subject to category errors? Or is it simply that we cannot explain this using language that presupposes the duality? Does the world of pAramArthika truth deny any attempts to make verbal explanations? I would greatly appreciate it if you could provide some comments on this question.

A. This is really a formulation of the unanswerable question which has been asked before in many forms, such as �Why is there something rather than nothing?� (the Western philosopher, Schelling) or �Why, if brahman is already perfect and complete, does he create the universe?� or even �Which comes first, the jIva or ignorance?�

The yoga vAsiShTha (II.xxi.35) sums up advaita�s view: 'This universe of plurality is verily an illusion. The reality is the undifferentiated Absolute and I am That. The proof of this is the Upanishads, the great Teachers who have realized the truth of the Upanishadic doctrine, and one�s own personal experience,' (translation A. J. Alston in, A Shankara Source Book, Volume 1).

We fail to see this because of ignorance, which as you say gives rise to adhyAsa. In truth, there is no ignorance; you only think there is (hence the question about it). But, if you believe you are affected by ignorance, you must be �seeing� ignorance as an object � which means that it does not belong to you, the subject. The Self only appears to be deluded and subsequently liberated. [This is paraphrasing Alston�s summary of Shankara�s views.]

And, as regards the ontological status of ignorance, I made the following comment in an earlier question (261): 'Shankara says, "We agree that the Absolute is not the author of Ignorance and that it is not deluded by it either. Even so, there is nothing other than the Absolute which is the author of Ignorance, and no other conscious being apart from the Absolute that is deluded by it," (from bRRihadAraNyaka upaniShad bhAShya (I.iv.10)). Basically, everything is brahman, including so-called ignorance! This is one of the inevitable paradoxes that you run into when trying to talk about the indescribable. The objector in the bRRihadAraNyaka upaniShad bhAShya goes on to say that, "In that case the scriptural instruction is useless." Shankara replies: "Quite so, let it be, when the truth has been known." And he points out that we can actually see for ourselves that the knowledge imparted by the scriptures removes ignorance. So that to deny it would be contradicting your own experience.'

Q. Thanks very much for your always insightful comments. Although I still need some time to fully understand your comments, it seems that the formulation of the unanswerable question is caused by my jAgrat state. Is it correct to say that paramArtha ways of understanding reality are only made possible by the person in the turIya state?

If this is correct, we can only imperfectly describe the pAramArthika satya using language since, by definition, we are in the jAgrat or svapna states in this case. Using a metaphor, we do not really understand how to swim by reading the text, only until we actually get into the water and practice swimming (but then, the serious problem is that we are not sure how we can get into the turIya state).

Besides these concerns, my tentative understanding on the seeming contradition between our perception and brahman is as follows. Since we can only observe the Absolute through the lense of time-space-causality, as Vivekananda described, we can recognize only a limited set of the Infinity. In this respect, I assume nirguNa is a set of infinite attributes. Then, observed diversity is owing to this imperfect recognition of the infinity as oneness, while the change is attributed to our changing recognition of a finited subset of the inifinite attributes, owing to the mAyA of time, although the Absolute itself does not move. Thus, apparent diversity and change are caused not by unchanging brahman as oneness, but by our limited cognitive power, which could be defined as avidyA. Is this understanding valid? Or does it still suffer from some serious logical inconsistencies? I greatly appreciate your comments.

A. You can never understand brahman intellectually � brahman cannot be �known�; you are brahman.

There is no such thing as �pAramArthika ways of understanding reality�. paramArtha is itself a concept (in vyavahAra). There are only vyAvahArika ways of understanding anything. advaita presents concepts, metaphors, etc., which only point to the reality. It says things about brahman which enable you to discard previous false ideas but, eventually, you have to drop the new ideas as well. All ideas about brahman must fail to capture the true essence because you cannot predicate anything whatsoever about brahman.

turIya is not a state; it is effectively a synonym for brahman, which you already are. All states are mithyA. nirguNa is not a �set of infinite attributes�; it is an absence of attributes of any kind � �nir� guNa means �beyond� the guNa; having nothing to do with guNa. The observed diversity is owing to adhyAsa; mistakenly superimposing false notions upon the non-dual reality.

If you want to ask a question, and do not object to its being included in this section, please email me.

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Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012