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' .

Q: Awareness seems only to include the sensations that *this* mind/body seems to have, not those that *that* mind/body seems to have. Your pain doesn't hurt me, or even seem to. If there is only one awareness, and I am that, it would seem to follow that there are no sensations that any other mind/body seems to have (none are present in *this* awareness, therefore none are present in awareness, therefore none exist, even in the realm of illusion). However, I don't understand you to be saying that other apparent people are any different from "me", or that this particular mind/body is somehow a focal point for the one self. I hope you see my confusion. I imagine the answer is something to do with the concepts of this and that being dualistic in nature, but in a sense that is my point: awareness seems to be differentiated and to exist in separate pockets, but this would contradict the idea that it is the real and reality is non-dual. Perhaps I have not grasped what is meant by non-dual yet. I would certainly be grateful for any clarification you can offer.

A: This sort of question is indicative of too much thinking! The mind can tie itself into all sorts of knots trying to sort it out. If you want an intellectual approach to it which may help, read the discussion at the site on 'Why can't I read your thought?'- http://www.advaita.org.uk/discourses/teachers/mindreading_benjamin.htm. Here, Greg Goode and myself tried (unsuccessfully) to argue about it with another member of the Advaitin group, Benjamin.

A simpler approach is the dream analogy but your intellect will pick holes in it if it really wants! In your dream, while you are dreaming, there are other characters in your dream but you are unable to read their minds or feel their sensations. You might say that there aren't actually any others; that it is all in your mind but wouldn't that be arguing in favour of your being able to do these things? In the waking state, again there seem to be other characters but why is this any different from the dream (while you were dreaming). Of course, you know the dream as 'only a dream' once you have woken up but not at the time.

You should also avoid confusion of levels of reality - the source of most of the confusion in Advaita. It is safest to refer to the non-dual reality as brahman. Awareness of pain or objects requires a body and sense organs and these only 'exist' at the empirical level of reality. Actually they are all mithyA, names and forms of brahman. If you are speaking 'at the level of 'brahman, there are no other bodies. *Nor is there a body-mind of your own.* There is nothing to sense (as something separate from yourself) because there is nothing separate.

An even simpler way of looking at it is this: at the level of absolute reality there is only brahman; at the level of empirical reality, there appears to be many separate things, sensed by any one of them as 'other', but again there is actually only brahman. This truth is obscured by ignorance.

Q: In respect of lIlA and reincarnation, is Truth always one or are is it the case that reincarnation actuallyhappens if we believe in it or are still in some way caught up in mAyA?. Is Truth relative?

A: Advaita is a gauged philosophy. A skilled teacher will answer the questions at the students level of, or readiness for, understanding. For some students, the concepts of lIlA and reincarnation are ones that 'strike a chord' and provide satisfactory answers 'for the time being'. There comes a time, if the student continues to study, assimilate and validate the teaching, when these explanations no longer satisfy and a different approach is needed. All study, question and answer, experience, student and teacher and the world of objects are at the 'empirical' level of reality. 'Truth', in the absolute sense, is always only One - there is only the non-dual brahman.

At the level of empirical reality, there is simply the ever-changing names and forms that we, in our ignorance, take for the truth. But that, too, is in fact only the non-dual brahman. The material form that is referred to as X will certainly eventually 'die' and decay and change into more basic forms. The more subtle forms that make up the saMskAra-s of X may continue according to the law of karma and reappear sometime later 'attached' to a new physical body. This might be regarded as the 'reincarnation' of X. But the Truth is still the same.

Q: As I am a scientist , it is inevitable that "Why" questions are going to crop up in the mind. After all the objective universe is ruled by a cause and effect chain. When Vivekanada was asked why Brahman projected the 'illusion', the magic of mAyA, the pair of opposites, the universe, he always replied that while we are still caught within mAyA, the question cannot be answered for as yet we are not ready. The intellect which answers questions is also bound in mAyA. And once we have 'become' then the question, the questioner, and the answer , will no longer exist for us.

I still have a couple of questions: Why is there the empirical reality in the first place? And why are there these subtle forms, They must come into existence at some stage, since the Law of karma operates in time. Ofcourse there is also the question of who made the Law of karma. How did it come about and who defined the rules?

I have read Vivekanada, Ramana Maharashi and listened to Swami Chinmayananda's lectures onthe Gita. Could you recommend one or two books? On saMskAra and reincarnation, there must have been a point in time in this transmigration process when they were sattvic and then got contaminated with rajasic and tamasic tendencies. Also there was a time when this planet was just a ball of fire i.e no humans and therefore no subtle bodies. Then humans appeared and the population has now expanded to nearly 5 billion. Are these subtle bodies being manufactured on line so to speak and if so why? Also, prior to the birth of the planet, the sun came into existence from the dust left behind by a supernova. Now since there were no humans to observe this, can we say this never happened?

A:  In truth there has never been any creation - this is the ultimate teaching of Advaita - ajAtivAda. There appears to be a manifest universe because of adhyAsa - our mistakenly superimposing a separate reality on the forms; mixing up real and unreal as with the rope-snake metaphor. So, in truth, there is no empirical reality, only the non-dual paramArtha.

The 'law of karma' is part of vyavhAra, too; an attempt by the deluded mind to make sense of what it thinks it sees. According to it, saMskAra-s accumulate as a result of action, in the cause-effect manner that you mention. They must have their effect in due course, even if this requires another 'life'. It is not ultimately meaningful to ask questions about who made the law etc. If your mind is of the nature to be satisfied with being told that 'Ishvara' made the law, then fine. I suspect from your comment about being a scientist that your mind is not. (Neither was mine, since I too had a scientific education.) If you want a detailed explanation that will satisfy the most critical scientific mind, you will have to study something like Gaudapada's kArikA on the mANDUkya upaniShad. This is the 'advanced' Advaita text, if you like, for those who have moved up through the earlier material. I am currently listening to lectures by Swami Paramarthananda on this subject and I can say without reservation that they are excellent! But there are 80 hours' worth of them. If you are based in India, I recommend that you purchase them - you will not regret it. If based in the west, the price is very high but, if your desire to understand is sufficiently great, they are still more than worth the expense. (N.B. There is a lot of Sanskrit in these talks, though words are usually translated when first introduced.) The organisation that issues them is Sastraprakashika and the lectures can be purchased in MP3 format on 8 CDs.

Books that I would particularly recommend are:
. 'Methods of Knowledge According to Advaita Vedanta' by Swami Satprakashananda.
. Practically anything by Swami Dayananda - you can get a 'Collection of Talks and Essays' from the same source as the Paramarthananda talks above.
. For a clear and rationally acceptable explanantion of karma, 'Karma and Reincarnation' by Swami Muni Narayana Prasad is very good.

Your questions about the provenance of subtle bodies etc. are not worth pursuing. Any questions about the nature of the empirical realm are equivalent to asking whether the snake is poisonous. Once you realise that it is a rope, the question no longer has any meaning. Hope these answers provide a degree of satisfaction for the scientific mind!

Q: Regarding the Direct path of Ramana Maharishi, "Who Am I".

When asked what is tapas, he always replied 'seek the source of "I" and the mind will sink into That, seek the source of thoughts, and the mind will sink into That, that is tapas.'

Now there is some confusion regarding the "I" here. As I understand from David Godman's book, "i" was a reference to the ego, some however are of the opinion it is the "I" of the "SELF". I wonder what you make of it. Also, I would appreciate your comments on Ramana's teachings, especially the Self Inquiry method, in the light of the Vedantic teachings.

A: The Self is already the Self and doesn't do or need to do anything. It is the identified self that thinks it is limited and has to seek liberation. Seeking takes place until such time as the ignorance of that identification is dissolved by knowledge.

I must admit that I hae never really thought about the value of Self-inquiry as a method. Ramana's teaching in general is, of course, excellent. I suppose I would say that, if one has to try to reach understanding without the aid of an enlightened teacher, then Self-inquiry is a better method than most.

Q:I am just back from a vacation in Greece where I enjoyed a few days of reading taoism: living in the spirit of tao is the easy way of just floating with the stream of life. This means just living from our intuition instead of using our intellect performing the mental acrobatics of advaita vedanta. Indeed, such as Wittgenstein pointed out correctly, one should remain silent instead of speaking (words are merely hindering tautologies) the unspeakable .

We lost our so-called enlightenment through our education/conditioning which did not happen where people still live (or lived) in harmony with the "natural flow of life". This also means that for us to recover enlightenment, life (tao) is the only teacher and no so-called person should be considered a teacher.

I appreciate your comments.

A: It is certainly true that silence avoides the ambiguity of words! But since our problem is one of self-ignorance, clearly knowledge is needed. If you believe that life can bring you that knowledge - fine! My own experience is that life tends to increase identification and sense of separation. I suggest that most people leave life with greater self-ignorance than they had to begin with. The words of Advaita do not, in any case, speak the truth; they merely point to it.

 Also, are not education and conditioning an inevitable part of life? In which case, if life brought us to this condition, how should more life now remove it?

(But yes, although I don't know much about Taoism, I sort of know what you mean. Chacun à son goût!)

Q: The whole "problem" with Advaita seems to be that IT, Realization, Enlightenment, non-dual awareness must be so simple that "we" just have a hard time getting down to that simplicity. "I" intuit that it MUST be utterly simple, the simplest thing of all and yet I constantly seem to "work toward it", make effort for it, usher it in as if it were apart, something separate. Well, I don't know what else to do other than continue questioning "Who am I?", "For whom are these images and concepts?" questions like those and really question, not just pay lip service to it. I do find that those questions, asked with intensity, do momentarily shut off thinking. And I wonder if that's what it is really about, inquiring so intensely that thought stops for a moment and then the moments become longer with the questioning, longer and longer until at some point the mind of duality just stops.

A: You are right - it is simple. Unfortunately, all of our lives, everyone and everything around us - parents, teachers, friends, newspapers, tv, etc. - have been pointing us in the wrong direction and it is difficult to think outside of the conditioning. Even some of the modern western 'teachings' on non-duality may inadvertently be doing this. Neo-advaita in particular is constantly trying to apostrophize this 'I' as you are doing in your question. This 'I' is just a story, they say; there is no seeker, no path, nothing to do; everything is already perfect as it is. This view is most unhelpful.

The essential feeling of 'I' that you have, without adding on any 'thought' of anything at all: that 'I' is brahman. You are That, regardless and always. Nothing that you do can bring this about since it is already the case. Trying 'harder', 'inquiring more intensely' will probably only give you a headache. There is no need to stop the mind. The mind is the problem only in the sense that it has wrong ideas and you have identified with these. Get rid of the wrong ideas and you will see that there is no further problem. The mind must be used (with logic, reason, discrimination etc.) in order to do this so 'stopping the mind' would be counter-productive!

Q: That feeling of I seems to get lost in the midst of activity. I just came from my step father's funeral. I was greeting people, etc, all the things we do at funerals. The "I" didnt' seem to be in the midst of those activities. I was "doing" stuff, talking etc, responding to the circumstance, thinking about other people, what to do next, thinking about what was said, paying attention etc. It seems as if "I", the awareness of it, isn't present in most daily activities. I'm not aware of it then.

The above paragraph is essentially what I can't seem to reconcile. I forget that I'm the witness and get involved in "doings".

A: Yes, I understand. But clearly you cannot be aware of 'I' in an objective sense. Even the witness concept is just another stepping stone. In the ocean metaphor, all of the doing is only movement of waves on the surface. You think that you are one of the waves interacting with another wave but there is never anything other than water in essence. Everything else is just form. It is the nature of the mind to get involved and carried away. You may discipline it but never really change it. As long as the knowledge is there, don't worry about it!

Q: Is a still mind important?

Moments of stillness that come unnannounced. Without effort. Where thought stops. These are then recognised.

Tony Parsons said today that these are just 'another state' of no more importance than any other. Eckhart Tolle seems to suggest an entirely different understanding of this.

Surely moments of quiet, where the mind is just aware, living in the moment, where there is a sense of balance and calm are the beginning of what Krishnamurti termed 'The Awakening of Intelligence'? Out of this come compassion and love. Once this begins to happen it has its own volition and is not dependent on the seeker.

What are your thoughts about this?

A: It is certainly true that a still mind is 'just another state' but not true that it is of no more importance than any other. If you have ever tried to solve a difficult problem, you will surely have found that it is made even more difficult by a mind in which lots of other things are going on, hopes, fears, imaginings, arguments this way and arguments the other. Discrimination and reason operate better in a still mind.

It was not simply a whim that caused traditional advaita and yoga to identify different 'levels' of student according to their degree of mental 'readiness' or 'preparedness' or that Shankara laid down the chatuShTaya sampatti requirements before a seeker could become enlightened. Since the problem is the ignorance in the mind, it stands to reason that the quality of the mind is going to be instrumental in dissolving that ignorance.

So, I guess the result on this one would have to be something like: Eckhart Tolle - 2; Tony Parsons - 1.

Not sure what you mean about 'it has its own volition and is not dependent upon the seeker', though. By 'it', I presume you mean the mind? What do you mean by the 'seeker'? You see, I think I would have to say that, at the level of vyavahAra (which is what we are discussing), the seeker and the mind are effectively the same thing. It is because of identification with ideas in the mind that I think I am not brahman and am consequently seeking to 'discover' this fact. In reality (paramArtha), I am already free and seeking has no meaning.

So yes, at the empirical level, things such as a still mind do have an effect, acting as part cause for a subsequent realization. And realization certainly affects the mind (and the seeker), though who-I-really-am remains throughout unaffected by anything (since there isn't anything else).

Q: By 'it' I certainly dont mean the mind, I refer to that quality of silence and comes without effort, without volition. The seeker being that part of the self that would try to grasp that SILENCE or pursue it, and hold it as its own - which is of course impossible. It is only when the seeker is absent that there is the possiblity of that otherness, or silence/stillness, or Being, or whatever term seems appropriate to convey that which cannot be conveyed, but only pointed at. 

Hope that makes my question/statement somewhat clearer!

A: Yes, that's right. I don't know whether you have practised meditation. I used to for many years. You initially find that, when the thoughts and distractions begin to break up leaving a complete stillness, there is a tendency to grasp this with a 'wow - this is it!' and, of course, it immediately disappears. It is only when you can witness with complete detachment that it comes (or not) and stays, often for quite some time.

Q: What is the difference between non-dualism and monism?

A: I said the following on P. 117 of Book of One:

"Nor is Advaita the same as monism. Monists say that there is only one 'thing' and various pre-Socratic Greek philosophers claimed that this one thing was variously, water, fire, and air to mention three! Advaita insists that the Self is not a 'thing'; it is not any sort of object but the universal Subject. Even this is not strictly accurate because 'subject' necessarily implies the existence of at least one 'object' and Advaita denies this - ultimately, words, and concepts, are simply inadequate to comprehend reality. Nor is Advaita equivalent to any branch of Idealism. The Self is not an appearance or concept
(which is actually just another object, albeit a subtle one) and it exists in the mind of no one, including that of God."

It occurs to me that a simpler way of putting it is that monism states that all the separate things in the world are actually made out of the same stuff. Advaita states that there are no separate things.

I may just be being pedantic here, though. My knowledge of western philosophy is not very good. If you want to call advaita 'monism', most people would probably not be too upset.

Q: Having just read your book, I'm somewhat overwhelmed by the complexity behind the simplicity of 'not two' and I truly enjoyed reading it. Isn't it somewhat masochistic to do all these mental gymnastics when stilling the mind/ego dissolves the illusion? I must be my own saboteur when yielding to the mind's thirst for ever new, ever different books -- all saying the exact same thing -- Advaita cannot be understood!

And the book (Back to the Truth) is a great read.

A: Glad you enjoyed it. You are right that essentially it is very simple. The problem is that the mind makes it complex and each of the ways in which it does this (and, by so doing, obscures the truth) has to be tackled in turn. The seemingly complex problems require carefully reasoned arguments to dissolve them. Stilling the mind may well dissolve the illusion - but only for a time. Only self-knowledge will remove the self-ignorance and that cannot come by any 'doing'. Practice of meditation or samAdhi is only an event in time and will never bring about the timeless. We are already free but the mind needs enlightening! Hence the need for scriptures and their interpretation (ideally by a qualified teacher)!

Also brahman (advaita) does not need to be understood - because you are That. But this IS something that has to be discovered and understood.

Q: Sometimes when questions surface I feel the impetus to enquire ie look for an answer such as "how do I live in the world of duality" where everyone is asking my opinion on a whole range of topics but they don't like the answers they get and think I'm mad because they don't get what they expect. I know there are really no answers or questions but I can't seem to communicate this in a way that can be understood and what's the point anyway.

A: You cannot escape the world of seeming duality, even if/when you gain enlightenment. There will always be seeming others asking questions and being happy (or not) with the answers they receive. While you actually believe that the word is real, you are obliged to ask questions yourself if you are less than 100% happy with things (as is inevitable!) It is only through asking questions and receiving good answers that you can come to the realization that the world is mithyA and you are actually brahman. When you have come to this realization, it no longer matters that there are still these questions from the seeming others. You then know that they are not separate and, if they are seriously interested in understanding the nature of the world and themselves, you may even be able to help them!

That is the point!

Q: How can the statement that the Self is the still, silent observer who does not act, be reconciled with the action that is taking place in the universe, which is a manifestation of the Self?

A: This is essentially a paramArth-vyavahAra question (most of the seemingly difficult ones turn out to be). A good way into this is to consider the dream state. There usually seems to be lots of action in dreams - whole cities with transport and people all going about their apparent business. But what is seen when you wake up? That nothing was 'really' happening at all; it was all an imagined scenario taking place in the mind. The 'actions' were only movement of 'mind-stuff', to which we had temporarily assigned name and form.

The same applies to the 'real' world, which isn't real at all. In reality, there is only ever brahman, unchanging, eternal etc. The apparent world with its objects and people and action is our mistaken interpretation as a result of adhyAsa. In fact, it is only the movement of name and form of mithyA objects whose essential nature is the same non-dual brahman.

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