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: What is the mind? I have heard many descriptions of what it does and of its qualities etc but I have never had a satisfactory definition of what it is.

A: The mind is a term of convenience rather than an actual entity, applying to processes rather than objects. We say that thoughts arise in the mind and think that this is somewhere in the brain just as some say that emotions arise in the heart. (It was once thought that the mind was co-located with the physical heart rather than the brain, which accounts for the references to our 'soul' being in the 'cave of the heart' and so on. Nowadays, it is probably more common for us to think that the mind is responsible for both.) So the mind is really just the linguistic locus for our thoughts and emotions. In Hindu philosophies, of course, there is more to it than this. Thoughts arise in manas, where the basic, automatic processing takes place. Memory is associated with chitta and discrimination with buddhi. And the process of identifying the sense of I with any of these or with body, roles etc. is assigened to another 'organ of mind', ahaMkAra. But they are all processes and functions rather than physical structures and no dissection of a brain is going to locate any of them.

One of the things that should be appreciated about any description of anything in vyavahAra is that it is provisional only. If it satisfies the curiosity or search for understanding at this point in time, it serves its purpose. Ultimately, all descriptions or definitions about anything have to be discarded because all is brahman and brahman is beyond description.

Q: Could you please explain the following words of the Buddha:
There is suffering but no one who suffers (so there is no one to help and no one who needs help?)
There is doing but no one who does
There is a path but no none who treads on
There is nibbana but no one becomes free

A: This is Buddhism and not advaita!

However, it can easily be explained from an Advaitin perspective. The quotation is (presumably deliberately!) mixing paramArtha and vyavahAra viewpoints. In reality (paramArtha), there is only brahman; there are no jIva-s to suffer, act, follow a path or become free - 'we' are already complete and perfect. From the empirical viewpoint (vyavahAra), where the mind is deluded into thinking there are separate people and objects, there is bound to be suffering (for the mind), choice and action for the person and a path to lead the mind to loss of self-ignorance. When the mind loses that self-ignorance, it realizes that 'I am brahman' and already free. This event is called enlightenment or nirvANa in Buddhist terms.

Q: It is indeed Buddhism, but yes I expected an Advaitin response. The point is that "I" must/can not help a suffering individual because he doesn't even exist. So why are all the Buddhists through history trying to help there suffering brothers if they know they don't exist?

A: Again, this is a paramArtha-vyvahAra problem The others do not exist in absolutey real terms. But, while there remains self-ignorance in the empirical world, the mind will genuinely suffer. Having been there, the jIvanmukti has compassion and will help if at all possible, even knowing that the Self can never suffer. (Note that I said jIvanmukti and not simply j~nAnI. Only one with the fruits of self-knowledge - peace of mind, love, fearlessness etc. - will certainly respond in this way. Those who were not suffiently mentally prepared prior to enlightenment may not.

Q: Could you say something about practice with reference to bhakti and j~nAna in bringing about enlightenment?

A: Practice is only about mind preparation. So, to the extent that the mind is not fully prepared, practice is useful. Ultimately, however, the root problem is self-ignorance and the only remedy is self-knowledge. And knowledge is itself objective (in the sense of being dualistic) so, since reality is non-dual, it cannot in itself bring about realization. Nevertheless, it is the best we can do. It really does not matter very much if you 'cover the same ground' several times. Different teachers will have different perspectives and you will learn something new. Despite all of the books I have read, covering effectively the same material probably dozens of times, I still learn new things from new sources. The problem with this approach as a 'path' is that some writers will themselves not have understood correctly. If you go to the original material (effectively Upanishads etc.), these are not readily understood - especially if you do not know any Sanskrit! So, ideally, you do need assistance from someone who already understands all this stuff.

Unfortunately, family and friends are most unlikely to be interested. It is surprising but most people seem not to have concluded yet that lasting happiness will never be found in external things, people, events etc. and they will think that anyone claiming this is seriously deluded and try to put them right! Also, however, once you are on this path there is no escape!

I'm not really the best person to ask about bhakti, since it has never appealed as a path. As I point out in the book, the word itself does not really occur in the scriptures at all and there are really only the two paths defined - karma and j~nAna. My early understanding was that bhakti was for the tamassika person, karma for the rajassika and j~nAna for the sattvika. Whatever the case, if you have been following direct path writers (presumably Atmananda, Francis Lucille, Jean Klein? - you didn't say), then j~nAna is the appropriate path. I have also read somewhere that one can regard devotion to the truth as the ultimate bhakti!

'Back to the Truth' attempts to cover all aspects of advaita to some depth but it is not primarily a book of instruction, more like an encyclopaedia (though it is not written in that style). Hope you find it useful anyway and by all means ask further questions if necessary.

Incidentally, there is no problem per se with claiming enlightenment - this is an event in time that occurs in the mind (regardless of what else you may have read, and there are some really confused ideas about what it is)! My next book is all about this angle - enlightenment and the teaching of it in advaita.

Q: (Continuation of question on 'What is the Mind?') From the point of view (or frame of reference) of a seeker, I have difficulty accepting that " the movement of name and form of mithya objects" is as unsubstantial as movements in a dream. Surely the world and its movements (from the heavenly bodies to the minutest thought) has a degree of reality - albeit a dependent one. Even though all is Brahman, they are still movements, so my question still stands. To accept the advaita position would be to deny reason, experience and science.

A: Of course the world has seeming reality from the vyAvahArika standpoint - but then the dream world has seeming reality from the standpoint of the dreamer. It is only when you wake up that you can 'look back' as it were and realize that the dream was all in your mind. This view certainly denies experience and science - both these are subject-object 'activities' in the dualistic world. Advaita is not contrary to reason, however. Indeed, it is one of the precepts of advaita that you must employ reason to verify what you are told or read. From the pAramArthika standpoint, there cannot be any action because there is no 'actor/thing-to-be-acted-on'; there is no 'cause-effect'; there is no time or space; there is no duality.

Q: Thanks for the clarification of the mind as process rather than locus.  Elsewhere (with regard to free will) you have said that we cannot will our thoughts.   I fully accept this with regard to what might be called “primary thoughts”.  Do we have some influence over subsidiary thoughts?  For example a thought arises, unbidden, that I will go to town.  Do I not then will thoughts such as whether  I go by bus or car and what are the advantages of each.

A: I believe some of the other questions are on this topic so look up those answers. The traditional view is that the jIva has limited free will - to choose to do, not do or do differently - within the constraints of his or her mental make-up (vAsanA-s). But it is perfectly possible to believe (as I do) that there is no free will whatsoever. In the example you state, the logical process of 'deciding' is all quite deterministic, based upon your past experience and knowledge of pluses, minuses, frequency and cost of buses etc. etc. It may be difficult but a computer programmed with all of your knowledge on the matter (and your reasoning processes) would come to the same answer. If you decide to choose the opposite answer just for the hell of it, that would be because that consideration was also part of your nature so you can't win.

Q: How does the message of Advaita deal with the possibility of spirits? My own wife claims to see the dead, and some modern so-called, mediums seem to be very convincing. If there is no self and we are just life, "being," is there some accounting for the possibility that the energies we identify as our selves exist somewhere else after the individual mind dies?

A: The bottom line is that there is the reality (paramArtha) and there is the appearance (vyavahAra). The reality is that there is only the non-dual Absolute (or whatever you want to call it) and that is the (beginning and) end of the matter. The appearance - people and the world etc. - has the effective status that a dream has when viewed by the waker. Within it, what is seen is always mistaken because, in reality, there is no duality of subject and object. Traditional advaita does speak of gods, spirits and demons, heavens and hells etc. and all of these may be relevant to any particular person at some time in their apparent life. But, whatever forms this may take are ultimately false. Who we really are was never born and will never die so there is no question of spirits, mediums, heaven and hell etc. having any actual existence.

Q: I've just read your dialogue with Jeff Foster. I think you both have something valuable to say.

It seems that both traditional and 'neo' advaita do the same thing: they point out to the person that there is no person! The difference is that the neo's don't like to acknowledge the 'person' who they are pointing this out to - because ultimately there isn't one...

So the neo's operate from the ultimate perspective (so to speak). The problem with this arises in the communication of it. Any attempt to point to, to describe or communicate this ultimate nature of reality, belongs by default at the level of the empirical. It involves apparent time, progression and cause and effect (the neo's themselves talk of 'seeing through', 'when the penny drops', 'it can be seen' etc.)

Other than the failure to acknowledge this shuffle between the empirical and the ultimate levels, I think that the actual core 'message' of the modern nondual 'teachers' is as sound and as powerful as some of the great zen and dzogchen masters.

A: The difference between the two approaches is that traditional is self-consistent, whereas the neo-advaitin one is not. Neo is actually hypocritical in a sense because it denies the person yet still attempts a dialog with one. Traditional positively acknowledges the person at the level at which the discussion takes place. And only the latter approach can work really because the person firmly believes that he or she does exist no matter what anyone says and education can only lead the person from where he/she is. Furthermore, it is not possible to 'operate from the ultimate perspective' - brahman does not act and there is no space, time or causation in reality (as you, yourself, say). I have never disputed that the 'bottom-line message' of traditional and neo-advaita is the same. Since the bottom-line is non-duality, this is necessarily the case. What is in dispute is whether neo-advaita constitutes a valid method of teaching and, having gone into this in considerable depth, the answer has to be that it does not.

Q: On page 258 (of How to Meet Yourself) you seem to suggest that someone can come to an understanding. Who is that someone? And why is it that so few have? Surely this is dependent on your upbringing and genes as you rightly say we have no control over.

From 224 you suggest meditation as a path to removing the ego which practice do you suggest. Is it possible we might be creating the illusion of a meditator? Is it not suggested that we give up any and all paths? You continue then with religion brings about the destruction of the ego. Where in the Christian and Islamic faith is this apparent? Most religious paths and scriptures are an incomplete instruction book to enlightenment and seem to conflict with regard to explanation,understanding and expression.

Would it be better just to recognize that the ego is an expression of consciousness and can be bypassed not destroyed. Haven't met too many enlightened people but stories about them would indicate they still had egos!

A: One general point before I answer your specific questions: Any attempt to describe the way things 'really are' is certain to fail. Each of the descriptions, metaphors, stories etc. aims to clear up particlular aspects of misunderstanding and there will always be contradictions. Also, 'How to Meet Yourself' was specifically written for those knowing nothing at all about advaita and it does not go into much detail. If you want more accurate explanations, you should go to 'Back to the Truth'. Finally, as my own studies continue, I come across better ways of explaining things and sometimes realize that previous explanations have fallen short or possibly even misled. OK - that's the disclaimers and excuses out of the way!

Who is it who 'comes to an understanding'? It is the person, the jIva, the mind, as we normally understand these terms in vyavahAra. If circumstances in life lead us towards questioning these matters and if our brain is genetically able to reason and comprehend the answers, then it is quite likely that we will end up on a 'path'. A good path, such as advaita, will bring about a gradual removal of self-ignorance. Ultimately, if circumstances are favourable (i.e. good teacher, sufficient time before the body dies etc!) then all self-ignorance will be removed and the Self will fully reveal itself as it were. The reason so few people do is that so few genuinely want to do. We are so programmed to believe that fulfillment will be found through objects, achievement etc.

It is regarding the second question that I made all of the excuses above. HtMY was written quite a few years ago and I definitely would not now use expressions such 'destroy the ego or mind'. The purpose of meditation is rather to 'prepare' the mind, to inculcate mental discipline, stillness, discrimination etc. (See all of the material on sAdhanA chatuShTAya sampatti in BttT.) My next book, due out around Aug. 2008, will be the definitive one (from my understanding) on what enlightenment is and the process/path for getting there. There are in fact two aspects to enlightenement. And, since I have just posted to the Advaitin group on this precise topic a few days ago, I will reproduce that here:

"...the distinction between j~nAna - the knowledge gained as a result of one's sAdhanA through to enlightenment - and j~nAna phalam - the fruits of that knowledge in the form of peace of mind, equanimity in the face of adversity etc. Thus it is the case that one can have all the knowledge and be enlightened yet still be subject to the sort of disturbances of mind that you describe. According to commentaries on Gaudapada's mANDUkya kArikA (III.40 - 2), it all depends upon the extent of preparation (sAdhana chatuShTAya sampatti) that was done in the past. The seeker who has done none will gain neither enlightenment nor the fruit. The middling student will gain enlightenment but not the fruit. The one who was fully prepared will gain both.

The one who is now enlightened but does not have the peace of mind etc. (the madhyamA adhikArI) must perform nididhyAsana to recover the situation. This will convert the emotional blockage into j~nAna phalam. This practice should take the form of repeatedly listening to, reading or writing scriptures or discussion or teaching. (Alternatively, Vedantic meditation, as per Patanjali yoga, may be practiced.)"

The meditator is not an illusion from the perspective of the person in vyavahAra. This is the perennial mistake made by the neo-Advaitin. It is only from the perspective of the one Self, that there is no person etc. The seeker does not appreciate that perspective by definition (i.e. if he did, he would not be a seeker). It is definitely NOT suggested by traditional advaita that we 'give up all paths'. This is again the stance of the neo-advaitin and is possibly the most damaging idea that there is for the seeker. If the typical seeker takes this idea on board then he is doomed. The intellectual ideas of the neo-advaitin will never bring about enlightenment - and the fact that such a thing as 'enlightenment' is denied meaning only adds to the confusion.

Could you point me to the passage where I suggest that religion brings about the destruction of the ego? I don't recall claiming this and can't think why I would. My stance on religions is that most have lost their way, with the original teachings having been subsumed into misguided and mythologized versions devised to prop up the political structures within the hierarchy, (i.e. not a postive view!)

The ego is certainly an expression of Consciousness (as is everything). But what do you mean by ego? It is best to use the term ahamkAra, so that everyone (!) knows what is being discussed. To the extent that we define ego as a 'mistaken identification of the non-dual Self' with something in the mithyA world', then the ego does naturally disappear with enlightenment, because it is then known that 'I am brahman' and not the body/mind/role etc. But, as noted above, such things as desires, preferences, fears etc. may still arise, according to how much preparation was done in the early stages.

Q: Why is there so much misinformation about enlightenment? Can you recommend some reading? What about Patanjali and Christian scriptures?

A: That's an interesting question. From the seeker's side, I think it is simply ignorance.  The available information has increased dramatically over the past 50 years, accelerating out of sight since the Internet. But the basic ignorance is still the same. People want something for themselves (as they perceive themselves to be). They want to feel good and get the idea that enlightenment will make them feel permanently good! Unfortunately, from the teachers' side, many seem to see this as an opportunity in the commercial sense and travel about the world making easy money. Whether this is their primary aim is beside the point  - many no doubt genuinely believe what they say and may even feel they are providing some sort of service. (This is less easy to argue in the case of the neos since they deny the very existence of others - what are they doing?) But the genuine teachers have always been there and the genuine student will eventually find their way to one - it is usually that way round; these teachers do not usually travel or ask for money.

Patanjali is useful preparation but the final beliefs are dualistic. Christian scripture (and almost certainly others) is most unlikely to help. It has been distorted and censored too much by others with self-interest. The Upanishads are best by far but often too cryptic to appreciate without guidance. Of all the material I have read, the easiest to read and embodying the most wisdom has been that by Swami Dayananda. Read practically anything by him (see Arsha Vidya Gurukulam for books to buy and Arsha Vidya Satsangs and Yoga Malika for free downloads). I did not find his spoken material quite so good - he speaks so slowly, I sometimes forgot what he was talking about by the time he reached the end of the sentence! I am currently listening to the lectures by Swami Paramarthananda on the Gaudapada karikas and this is the most informative of anything I have ever found. But there is lots of Sanskrit and the Mandukya Upanishad is the most difficult by far. There are loads of other mp3 files of his talks though and, on the strength of the Mandukya, I would recommend any of them. You can get them from shAstraprakAshikA Trust - http://www.sastraprakasika.org/ - (order on-line but expensive to post outside India.) There are also ongoing talks on-line at http://www.vedantavidyarthisangha.org/.

The easiest upanishad is probably the kena. The best introductions to advaita are probably those attributed to Shankara, such as vivekachUDAmanI, Atma bodha and vakya vRRitti.

Hope these are useful. N.B. Avoid falling for neo at all costs! It will not take you anywhere useful. Incidentally, you mention 'path' in respect of modern Christianity - what path? As far as I understand it (admittedly not much), the path is 'believe all this stuff and you will go to heaven, otherwise you go to hell'.

Q: (In the dialog with Jeff Foster) in the first four questions, you seem to be trying to establish how Jeff would describe the status of the person. You go on to say; "Appearing to no one" is simply meaningless.

I found this comment quite jarring (I may have misunderstood something here though!)

If I'm allowed to change the wording slightly (keeping what I believe Jeff's meaning to be intact) to 'Arising for no one', I would say that this is almost a definition of nonduality. In Zen they might say something like: Firstly, there is me here and the mountain over there, then there is just the experience (it has to be said; for no one) mountain! This is the nondual 'moment', One taste as the Tibetan masters say! The middle of the equation falls away and there is just IS-ness! Of course if there is an experiencer of this, we are back in duality.

Manifestation proceeds and phenomena arise, not for the person, but AS the person, world, thought, feeling, body etc. Any claim to these arisings, is more arising.

As I say I may have misunderstood something here since the comments on both sides were rather brief.

A: Yes, I understand what you are saying but I have to stand by what I wrote. It is simply not possible to talk about seeing or experiencing reality. This must be to confuse dual and non-dual. The point is surely that all that we see, think, feel etc. is objectively perceived by the mind in vyavahAra; i.e. it is a person to whom the <whatever> is arising. From the vantage point of the absolute (if such a thing has any meaning), there is ONLY the absolute; i.e. no 'arisings' whatsoever. The idea of  'manifestation' or 'creation' is just that - an idea in the mind of a person to rationalize what is perceived by the mind; i.e. all within vyavahAra.

Q: OK Dennis, I agree that there is not a major difference in opinion - it may have something to do with our different backgrounds.

My background is in Buddhism, Zen and Dzogchen, primarily the nonduality emphasis in those traditions. I don't have a great deal of knowledge of traditional advaita but I have been influenced by Sri Ramana Maharshi, Sri Atmananda Krishna Menon and Jean Klein amongst others.

Still, I feel that there is not a problem with 'arising for no one'. Here is my take on nonduality:

(Throughout this I'm aware of the shortcomings of the word 'experience' [as with 'knowing'] and it's normally dualistic implications.)

There is not me here and the computer there... there is just the experience 'computer'... a truck rumbles by outside... there is not 'me' hearing the truck.... there is just the experience 'truck'!  There is no two-ness in present experience... There is the sound of the truck, then the thought "but I am hearing the truck", there is not a 'me' and that thought, there is just the experience 'thought'.

So, there is not me here observing the computer there - those are two sides of the same ONE experience. All there is is the selfshining display of 'reality' with no observer to be found (that would be more display). That is (as far as I'm concerned) the meaning of nonduality!

Whatever is arising IS consciousness - not me and objects, just what is! No twice-ness, just what is, as it is!!

After the fact (so to speak), we can analyse that ears were needed to hear, the brain was required to process and translate information etc. I'm also not particularly knowledgeable about metaphysics, science and philosophy and I don't really know about the ontological status of 'objects' and 'events' etc.  But it doesn't matter - nonduality is the 'shift' from the experience of a separative me to the experience of reality as it is - which includes the experience 'me'! 

On a broader note I agree that it is meaningless to think that there could be an experience of the 'ALL'! How could it be known, there would be no distinctions etc. Reality presents AS the particular, but that particular is NOT SEPARATE from the 'all'!  So in that sense, every experience is an experience of oneness/Self!

I've had dialogues with Greg (Dr. Greg Goode, Philsophical Counsellor and teacher of Direct Path Advaita) in the past and I love his take on all this, but I also think that he would have no problem with 'arises for no one'.

A: Yes - I recognize the sorts of statements I have heard from Greg in the past - I think he would be happy with what you say. Indeed, I have no real quibble with your full explanation. My quibbles with the neos are twofold (in respect of our discussion). Firstly, speaking like this is fine from one who is knowledgeable in non-dual philosophy to one who is also knowledgeable. It is not acceptable (or does not constitute helpful teaching) when speaking or writing to one who is unfamiliar and trapped in their dualistic problems. Secondly, I believe that many (most?) neos do not actually understand or appreciate what you are saying here.

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