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: Could you please comment on the awareness watching awareness method of meditation by Michael Langford.He appears to follow Ramana Maharishi teachings,however he recommends many hours of this private meditation,what is your viewpoint on this? (His book is freely available on the net)

A: I haven’t read Michael Langford’s book, though I have read some of his posts in the past.

The bottom line on questions such as these is that practice (of any sort, including meditation) is for preparing the mind, not for bringing enlightenment. To remove self-ignorance, only self-knowledge can succeed. (I seem to say this in response to most questions but it really is so fundamental.) To my mind, the value of Ramana’s Self-Inquiry lies in its helping us to see for ourselves what has already been explained by the teacher/scriptures etc. i.e. it functions as nididhyAsana and cannot *in itself* bring self-knowledge (which is the same as enlightenment).

Q: What do you make of the notion that qualitatively we are one with God, but quantitatively we cannot be God? For example, qualitatively, if God is the ocean, then we are waves on that ocean. We are capsules of the spirit soul of God. Quantitatively, however, we cannot be one with God, because God is not susceptible to sin and temptation, like us. Do you think that Advaitins forget the quantitative relationship/disparity we have with God?

A: There is much confusion over the wave-ocean metaphor. The best way to understand it is that the wave is a *part* of the ocean but both are one and the same water. Similarly, at the level of vyavahAra, the jIva is a *part* of Ishvara but, in reality both are one and the same brahman. The notion of god only has relevance at the empirical level. In reality, there is only non-dual brahman.

Q: You mentioned that the notion of God only has relevance at the empirical level. Do you mean that our notion of God, then, is dualistic, because our own concept of God does not have its own identity? For example, we cannot know and appreciate good without knowing evil. Does this same dualism apply to the notion of God? Is this how you would come to the conclusion that the only reality is nondual Brahman?

A: I'm not sure what you are saying here regarding qualitative/quantitative. The point is that, in reality, there is ONLY brahman; it is not that 'we' are one with god. At the empirical level, there is effective duality so that there are jIva-s and there is Ishvara. Yes, these are concepts and are only relevant in vyavahAra. All concepts are necessarily dualistic since there is a subject-object relationship. And, of course, god is also a concept. Self-knowledge comes when all of the self-ignorance has gone. The precise 'final' bit of self-knowledge that constitutes akhaNDAkAra vRRitti may have something to do with this or may not. Hope this helps.

Q: You really seem to have got it in for the modern nondualism teachers. It's starting to come across as slightly obsessive! ;-)

I have two points to make:

Firstly, these communicators (why I am not going to call them neo's will become clear) have never set themselves up as being teachers of Advaita. Their message is a distillation of the pure nondualism that is found at the esoteric core of many systems: Zen, Dzogchen, Taoism, Advaita, Sufism and others. Neo Advaita is a term only used by yourself, Möller de la Rouvière and a few others to catagorize something that never purports to be a teaching of Advaita Vedanta.

Secondly, some of the criticisms that you level at them could equally be applied to the methods (non methods) of teachers in most of the systems above (even Sankara, in the main, wasn't insistent on the necessity of any practice or means for the realisation of Brahman - conceding that yogic practice may have some limited value "for those of inferior intellect".)

Since you readily admit to only having limited knowledge of other 'systems' of nonduality, do you think it appropriate and fair to rebuke all modern nondual communicators in this way? (Of course many certainly do deserve criticism - purely for their lack of grasp of their subject, but this could be applied to teachers of Advaita Vedanta too.)

A: Thanks for your open and forthright comments – this is appreciated!

You are right in at least two respects. The message of the neo-advaita teachers IS a distillation of non-dualism from various traditions. (I will continue to use the term ‘neo-advaita’, if that is ok. I accept your point that many of these teachers do not claim any association with advaita but it is gaining wider usage and most of those who read my website will know what is meant.) However, the fact that it IS a distillation is one of my main complaints. The teaching is distilled so much that no teaching as such is present any more. All that is left are terse statements which, though often true, do little to help those seekers who are ‘new to the game’. It may also be true that the criticisms apply equally to modern teachers of any other non-dual tradition, since non-duality of any ‘sort’ must essentially be the same. Since, I am unfamiliar with those teachings, however, I would not presume to attempt to criticize them directly.

I cannot agree that the criticisms apply equally to Shankara or to any other traditional teacher because traditional teaching by definition incorporates proven methods. Shankara most certainly DID insist that initial practice was needed in order to prepare the mind. He specifically stated that those without some preparation would never become enlightened; those with some might become enlightened but would not reap the associated benefits such as peace of mind etc, while those who were fully prepared could enjoy both.

Your assertion that I may be rebuking some teachers unfairly is not really justified I think because, in those essays etc where I do criticize teachers, the precise grounds upon which the criticism is based is always made clear. So, I guess the platitude would be ‘if the cap fits...’.

I hope that my next book, unfortunately not due out until next summer, will clarify this whole subject once and for all. It is entitled: “Enlightenment: the path through the jungle – a criticism of non-traditional teaching methods in advaita”.

Incidentally, my concern is not ‘obsessive’; I simply want to help all of those seekers who feel that they are not getting anywhere or, much worse, beginning to feel depressed or even suicidal in the light of some of the messages they are hearing at satsangs or reading in books.

Q: You mention the "no path" teachings and refer to neo-advaita.  This seems to be a sticking point for you.  It is interesting, as this understanding evolves, that, for the "person", there is definitely a path needed.  Whether that be reading, writing, scriptures, whatever, there is some sort of "polishing the stone" that seems to be needed.

I don't know what the stance of the "neo-advaita" teachers is, however I agree with you that the mind must go through a process in which all possibilities are exhausted - the mind becomes frustrated and gives up,  even on spiritual experiences, as these always come and go. 

At this point of exhaustion, a simple looking without thought occurs.  In this seeing, it may be clear that there never was a person to seek.  Of course it seemed like there was hence the search in the first place.  This seems to be the path. 

I also agree with you that there seems to be a period of integration - the old mental habits continue to arise and are seen in the clear space of knowing - immediately extinguished like a moth flying into a bonfire.

It all boils down to the fact that there is no separate self in the organism.  The human body is not much different from a tree or a cat - other than the advanced brain capable of logic.  In this logic we take what seems evident and place a belief that there must be some separate person in there.  If this is clearly seen, then all paths and all seeking and all problems drop away because there is no one there to do any of this.  It is only in the mind that suffering or enlightenment can occur.  Our true nature is that which is seeing, not anything seen.

A: Neo-advaita is not a ‘sticking point’ for me. The reason that I am particularly interested in it is that it is clear that many are confused by it and some very frustrated (even approaching the suicidal). I wanted to explain to such people how it can be that what the neos say can be essentially true yet no help at all. I have accordingly spent some significant time studying the problem and writing about it (book to appear next year).

On the specifics of what you write, I have never said that “the mind must go through a process in which all possibilities are exhausted - the mind becomes frustrated and gives up”. Enlightenment is of the mind, the self-knowledge that destroys the self-ignorance takes place in the mind. There is no frustration at all when advaita is taught correctly. On the contrary, it is a joyful process in which aspects that caused confusion are replaced by clarity. It is also the person that seeks enlightenment and the person that finds it, even though the ‘finding’ also includes the realization that there never was a ‘person’ in reality.

Q: Very well said.  Within the dream of being a person, delusion and enlightenment can arise.  Beyond both and clearly present NOW is our true nature - that in which suffering or bliss appears.  Although thoughts still arise, when the belief in the separate person falls away, suffering is known as false immediately in the light of knowing.

What I take to be "neo-advaita" is the concept that there is nothing to be done and no one to do it, hence you're already enlightened.  There is a false but very "real" wall of concept built around this person.  Many teachers, including Bob Adamson and Gilbert Schultz, who I'm most familiar with, spend a lot of time breaking through these concepts of a separate person in the world who suffers. 

It is then possible, if this is truly looked into deeply, that this false sense of self drops away, leaving the understanding that there never was a seeker in the first place.  The search was a chasing of the tail, however "necessary" in order to see through the mind and the web of illusion of the person.  This is what is meant by frustration and wearing out of the mind.  In seeing that all spiritual experiences eventually pass, the expectations and false beliefs of enlightenment fall away and there seems to be just a naked looking without thought, a noticing of this silent witnessing that's always going on and is not dependent on anything that may arise, whether enlightened or suffering.

A: There is also much confusing use of language in neo-advaita. When the subject under discussion is so elusive (and ultimately, indeed, cannot be spoken of at all), it is extremely important to use words very precisely.

‘Dream of a person’ is such a confusing usage – who is dreaming? It is not the case (for a seeker) that ‘you are already enlightened’. In vyavahAra, the person is a reality and this remains the case until the person becomes enlightened. It is only then, that it becomes meaningful to say that the person does not exist (and never did). The seeker only knows the apparent reality of vyavahAra and this is the level that the teacher has to address. Neo-advaitin ‘teachers’ attempt only to make statements at the level of paramArtha and this is why they fail.

Q: I would like to ask a question relating to dharma, after reading your book (The Book Of One). When you say that a person should act according to his own  svadharma or essence, I was wondering what if one's essence is that of a Hitler or Saddam, or if aperson is inclined towards violence, a rapist etc. If your prArabdha karma determines these negative attitudes, is this what you would follow even if it is faulty?

A: Dharma in this context refers to the unwritten moral laws governing behaviour in the sense that ‘this is what you should do if you are working towards enlightenment’. The idea is that one should behave in a certain way in order to ‘cancel out’ the accumulated saMskAra resulting from past actions. If one continues to behave badly, it will simply accumulate more pApa. One has to act according to one’s own particular nature, i.e. to cancel out the accumulated fruits of one’s own past actions, not someone else’s – this is the meaning of svadharma.

The idea of karma is that you are presented with situations in life in accordance with past actions. Your vAsanA-s will certainly incline you to act in the same way that you always have (i.e. badly in the case of a Hitler or Saddam!) In the new situation, there is the opportunity to act in response to the needs of the moment and not out of habit. Thus, following svadharma is the *opposite* of acting in accord with one’s vAsanA-s in this case.

Q: If I (mind-body) cannot access Brahman (because Brahman is beyond any concept and, thus, beyond me, mind-body), how can I (mind-body) ever be that Brahman? At neo-advaita meetings we were told that we ARE that (Brahman). But who are 'we'? Mind-body?

The same question can be posed from the different sides:

If I (mind-body) am not Brahman and cannot ever know Brahman, why bother with the teaching?

If I (mind-body) am already Brahman but somehow still cannot know myself (Brahman), that simply sounds ridiculous!

If I am NOT the mind-body but still somehow (?) cannot know Brahman, then who am I? I can surely observe how thoughts are arising and going away; hence I'm NOT those thoughts. But nevertheless I still do not feel myself as Brahman.

If I am NOT mind-body and already Brahman, then where is the difference between the teaching and non-teaching?

A: You are not a body or mind. Whatever you aware *of*, you can be sure that you are not that. You cannot be an object of any kind - you are the ultimate subject. This is the reason why you cannot point to 'I' or give it any attributes. A crude analogy is that the eye can see all things except itself.

Your words indicate that you believe yourself to be a body-mind. ["If I (mind-body) cannot access Brahman..."] You *are* brahman so that you are like the eye that cannot see itself. It is understandable that you find the concept difficult to 'take on board'. This is why there is a need for teachers and a proven methodology for explaining everything. It is true that this teaching cannot 'describe' brahman either but what it can do is give you pointers to the truth, stories and metaphors that enable you ultimately to come to a realization of the truth for yourself. (See the definition of bhAga tyAga lakShaNa for an example. The problem with neo-advaita is that it simply tells you that there is no person, no path etc., only brahman, none of which actually helps you to come to this understanding.

You also point out that it is difficult to understand how you can be brahman without knowing it. The problem is that dualistic knowledge - knower, knowing, known - takes place in the mind and the mind does not know that you are brahman! The process of self-knowledge eliminating self-ignorance takes place in the mind and it is there that realization takes place when all of the ignorance has been dispelled. Without the benefit of proper teaching to enable this process, you will remain ignorant despite the fact that you are already brahman.

Q: If Brahman is absolute truth, consciousness and bliss, is it valid to conclude that unhappiness is due to eternal bliss being covered over by ignorance; is mithyA and does not have an existence independent from bliss? Could we also say the same about other pairs of opposites - good/evil, truth/untruth, eternity/transience etc? Is it the case that evil is the absence of good and does not have an independent existence apart from good? I realise that "good" and "evil" are mental constructs but could you please provide some illustrations which would appeal to someone on the Way of Knowledge?

A: The word Ananda, used as a 'description' of brahman is confusing. A much better word to use is anantam - unlimited. Happiness (of any degree, from mild to ecstatic) arises from and is the nature of the Self. The value of the word is in pointing us to the Self as the source of happiness.

Everything in vyavahAra is mithyA, including the world itself and the ignorance (mAyA) that apparently creates it. All of the pairs of opposites continue to appear until such time as investigation reveals that none of them exist separate from brahman. Ultimately, you cannot describe anything in the universe as good/bad, true/false etc. because there is no 'thing' there to describe; every apparent thing is only name and form of the non-dual substrate - brahman. (Of course, the pairs of opposites continue to be very relevant to the person who does not know this - for him the world is very real, along with all of its injustices and unhappiness.)

It is worth noting, too, that the 'descriptions' of brahman (such as truth, consciousness bliss) are only relevant in vyavahAra. Swami Paramarthananda uses the metaphor of night and day. It is meaningful to speak about these while we are living on the earth (i.e. vyavahAra) but this would become meaningless if we lived on the sun itself (paramArtha).

Q: Re: Traditional Vs Neo-Advaita Debate

Reading some of the essays in respect of the above, as you have invited comments I thought to respond as follows: Maybe I have missed the point here but it strikes me when engaging in philosophical arguments of this nature, who is trying to prove what to who and why bother anyway to argue the toss concerning the significance or non-significance of a bunch of concepts!

On the level of appearance surely all is valid and has its place. So if we find it is not possible to measure perfection/imperfection, there being no-one to measure it - all must come together, therefore nothing is rejected or needs to be changed, attacked or defended. All being wonderful as it is.

A: You are employing neo-arguments! Which means you are confusing absolute and relative realities. At the absolute level, there are no persons, no arguments, no right or wrong; indeed no descriptions at all have any relevance or meaning. There is not even any knowledge, consciousness or advaita!

But everything in the world takes place in relative reality. Here, all this IS valid. There are persons, with minds – and most of these are full of self-ignorance. Self-knowledge is needed to remove this and it almost invariably comes in the way of teaching of one sort or another, along with reason and even philosophical argument. Valid teaching will successfully remove self-ignorance; invalid teaching will not.

End of story!

Q: The things that I am afraid of are mostly just thoughts. Why should I be affected by a thought? How can a thought hurt me?

A: It all depends upon who you think you are! Nothing can affect who-you-really-are because there is nothing other than that in absolute reality. But, while you believe yourself to be a body-mind, those things that can affect the body-mind (such as death!) will be believed (by the mind) to affect you also. Emotions such as fear are triggered by thoughts, even when there is nothing actually present here and now that can harm the body-mind.

Therefore, to answer your specific questions, while you believe that you are a body-mind, you have no choice about whether a thought will cause fear - it is an automatic, cause-effect happening dependent upon your particular nature. Even though the thought cannot ever affect who-you-really-are, the mind will be disturbed and, being identified with the mind, you will seem to be affected also.

Q: What is the difference between samAdhi and the deep sleep state?

A: Both samAdhi and suShupti are states of consciousness - they have a beginning and an end in time - and they are both characterized by absence of duality. This being the case, it would not make any sense to differentiate between them - non-dual is non-dual! More importantly, however, they are also characterized by a return to the normal waking state in which there is still ignorance of the non-dual reality.

samAdhi does not actually have any relevance in traditional advaita - it is a practice in the yoga darshana, although it has been taken up as significant by many more recent proponents (especially in the Ramakrishna tradition). The word does not even occur as such in the major Upanishads. You might want to read Michael Comans' essay.

According to traditional advaita, our problem is one of self-ignorance and this can only be remedied by self-knowledge. No experience can bring this about.

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

Return to list of questions.



Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012