Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

'The Transparency of Things' by Rupert Spira

Book Review by Dennis Waite

flower picture
Rupert Spira photo

book cover

The following is a review of Rupert's book: 'The Transparency of Things:
Contemplating the Nature of Experience
' .

There is an essay from the book here and the essay on Cézanne may be read at the awakened eye website.
Purchase from Amazon US or UK.

Visit Rupert's Website

The Transparency of Things: Contemplating the Nature of Experience by Rupert Spira


First of all, I would like to apologize for the length of this review. Unfortunately, it is not possible to make all of the points I wish to make in a few sentences and I want to do justice to this important work.

I would like to be able to endorse the book unreservedly because it is clear that a tremendous amount of effort has gone into it, unlike many of the present day books which merely reproduce the highlights of satsangs. It is also very important in that its analysis, to some extent, bridges the gap between traditional teaching and the attempts by neo-advaitins to speak directly about the nature of absolute reality (an impossible task). There are whole sections which are quite brilliant in the manner in which they capture the essence of key aspects of advaita, presented in clear and concise paragraphs, each of which might serve as an exercise for meditation. However, it is also the case that there are a number of places where his teaching diverges from traditional advaita and even becomes contradictory or misleading. Some of these will be pointed out below.

It is quite likely that this review may upset virtually all seekers to some degree: the traditional followers, who may wonder how I can endorse such material; the neo-advaitins, who may complain that they have been saying the same things all along and yet I have been vilifying them; and the direct path adherents themselves who may feel that I am criticizing them unfairly or misunderstanding what has been said. I doubt that it is possible to win!

I have mentioned before in my reviews that I have acquired the habit of making pencilled notes (3B pencil!) in the paragraphs of the books that I read (since, otherwise, I would have great difficulty in recalling what aspects I found ‘good’ or ‘bad’). This particular book may well exceed in quantity of comments all of the other books that I have read. Many of these comments are favourable, often applying to entire sections (more of this later) but there are also significant numbers of question marks and scribbled objections. The fact that the 253 pages took me over 6 months to read is an indication of the challenging nature of the book (although maybe my busy schedule or lethargy also had something to do with it).

One general point is that the fact that there are so many questions indicates that the explanations are not always very clear. The mark of good teaching and explanations is that it prompts few questions, and the ones that are prompted are anticipated and subsequently answered. It is clear that Rupert himself believes that each sentence follows logically from what has been said earlier. It may be that part of the problem is that I am subjecting what is said to the logic of traditional teaching and, because this is not traditional teaching, there is often a mismatch. There is also the need to ‘tune in’ to the particular ways of thinking in Direct Path. I definitely concede that, if I were to read the book again (and I will probably do so), there would be far fewer criticisms because I am now more familiar with the style and logic behind the presentation.

I. Use of language

Perhaps it would be a good idea to make three points from the outset. Firstly, it is not possible to speak about the non-dual reality, precisely because it is non-dual and language is necessarily dualistic. Accordingly, anything at all that we say about reality will be wrong in the final analysis – even that it is non-dual. This is always the case whether we are talking about reality from a traditional standpoint or a neo-advaitin standpoint. Accordingly, the way in which a teacher ought to use words, and the way in which the seeker ought to understand them, is as pointers only. Secondly, the way in which any teachings work is by questioning our false assumptions about the world and ourselves, undermining them and eventually destroying them. Both of these points are effectively made by Rupert himself in the Foreword.

From the point of view of the seeker, however, the main point has to be that his or her assumptions are very much present, validated from moment to moment and reinforced by virtually everything and everyone else in the world. It really does seem to be the case that I am a separate entity, suffering in an alien and hostile world. This has to be the starting point for any teaching that is likely to work and this is where traditional teaching begins. Neo-advaitins try to impose their absolutist viewpoint from the outset and, regardless of the fact that what they say may be true, it is most unlikely that the typical seeker will benefit. Direct Path teaching seems to try to tread a path between the two but, if advaita itself is the “razor’s edge”, then Direct Path must be the ‘microtome edge’! It attempts to take our experiences and immediately begin to explain them from the standpoint of absolute reality. By attempting to describe the ineffable instead of simply accepting that paramArtha is beyond words and making do with the paradox of vyavahAra, there is a very real danger of crossing the boundary into the nonsense land of extreme neo-advaita.

I feel that the inevitable outcome of such an approach must be that, even with very careful analysis and skilled writing (and Rupert succeeds well at both), sometimes a description will work and sometimes it will not. The same description may also ‘click’ with some readers but antagonize others. Accordingly, it is a hit and miss affair and a good teaching should not be like this. Of course, one has to make allowances for the written word. An argument such as this applies equally to traditional teaching – if you pick up an Upanishad at random and attempt to read it, you may well find it either incomprehensible or nonsensical. This is why it is so necessary to have a teacher who can explain it to you and answer your questions. But here, we are obliged to review only the book and not the teacher!

II. Experience

At the very beginning of his foreword, Rupert emphasizes that the purpose of the book is ‘to look clearly and simply at experience itself’. Indeed, the subtitle is: ‘Contemplating the Nature of Experience’. He “does not address the particular qualities of experience itself” but “explores only its fundamental nature. What is this ‘I’? What is this ‘other’, this ‘world’? And what is this ‘experiencing’ that seems to join the two together?” He goes on to use the brilliant metaphor of the paper on which the words are written and speaks of the awareness that is present behind and within every experience. “Every experience”, he says, “only expresses Awareness or Consciousness”.

This sounds good but it seems to rely on an intuitive leap rather than reasoned argument. Any experience must involve an experiencer and an experienced thing (otherwise, how can there be an experience?) I.e. it is firmly rooted in a dualistic world. And any subject related to an object cannot be absolute reality. A non-dual reality must, by definition, be relationless. In fact, at one point (II.5) in his commentary on Gaudapada’s Karikas on the Mandukya Upanishad, Shankara actually says that something is unreal because you experience it. The dream world seems perfectly real... until I wake up. Everything only has a relative reality, depending upon the observer for its existence. So, to my mind, any teaching that relies on subjective experience for its conclusions is on shaky ground. When Rupert says that: “We allow the naked clarity of experience itself to relieve itself of the burden of duality”, we can’t help but wonder how it could possibly do this without self-contradiction. When he says: “...if we make a deep exploration of our experience, we discover...”, one has to ask whether an ‘exploration’ is not just another experience.

Rupert says that: “...if we are to make an honest investigation into the nature of reality, we have to discard any presumptions that are not derived from direct experience.” From a traditional standpoint, I would have to disagree with this. The reality turns out to be the subject ‘I’ and, as I keep pointing out to those who would try to argue that science and spirituality are coming together, the subject can never investigate the subject objectively. Our experience only confirms duality. This is why traditional advaita refers back to the scriptures for its authority. It is the correctly interpreted words of the wise that will remove our Self-ignorance, not any mere inquiry into our experience.

I think there is also a problem with words here. At one point, Rupert says that experiences are “an object of Consciousness.” But if we take the sentence ‘I see the book’, ‘I’ is the subject and ‘book’ is the object. The ‘experience’ relates to the ‘seeing’ and this is not an object; it is a word which tells us more about the verb, or possibly the subject but nothing at all about the object.

III. Misuse of language

Several other practices/beliefs in the book jar with this reviewer. First is the tendency to use obscure words or even coin new ones. This is characteristic of neo-teachers and it seems to take refuge in the fact that the new word is so alien-amorphous that either it doesn’t really mean anything at all or you can substitute your own meaning, so that it seems to make sense for you. Neither way seems guaranteed to convey the intentions of the writer.

For example, what is ‘unknowingness’... oh, sorry, I mean ‘Unknowingness’ – it does seem that these sorts of words always have to have an initial capital letter. (Apologies for the slight sarcasm here!) Rupert first uses the word in the sentence: “Awareness or Consciousness is the open Unknowingness on which every experience is written.” Actually, this may not be a very good example, since I see that it is actually present in the OED (I was wondering why MS Word had not flagged it as spelling error). The dictionary says: “unknowing; not knowing or aware; lack of awareness or knowledge”. So, if we wanted to be really nasty (!), we could say that this implies that, in this context, the sentence must be understood as ‘Awareness is the lack of awareness...”

But, if we allow ‘unknowingness’, can we also allow ‘experiencingness’? (MS Word definitely flags that one as an error!) “Consciousness is Experiencingness and because Consciousness is always present, so experiencing is always present. How could this Experiencingness not be experiencing itself all the time?” If the experience is not the same, is it meaningful to say that ‘experiencing’ is the same? Obviously, Consciousness is the same; why not say that? Why complicate the issue?

IV. Anthropomorphism

Secondly, and more significant, is the habit of ‘anthropomorphizing’ Consciousness (he never uses the term brahman, or any other Sanskrit for that matter). The bottom line has to be that the Self/Atman/brahman/Consciousness/whatever does not act – it is akartA, abhoktA – not a ‘doer’ or ‘enjoyer’. Accordingly, to speak of Consciousness ‘doing’ anything, whether physical or mental, is a contradiction in terms. (The former needs a body and the latter a mind.) But Rupert does so speak – frequently: (Below are just a few examples of this)

1. “As a result of Consciousness contracting upon itself and imagining itself to be a fragment in this way, it projects outside of itself... Having denied its own birthright... Consciousness confers this same status on the world... (it) exchanges its own nature... Consciousness forgets that it has done this... In short, Consciousness creates an appearance that is consistent with its own beliefs.”

From the standpoint of absolute reality it has to be the case that there has never been any creation. As Gaudapada puts it (II.32): “There is no dissolution, no origination, none in bondage, none possessed of the means of liberation, none desirous of liberation, and none liberated. This is the ultimate truth.” But, since we clearly have the experience of existing as separate entities in a world of objects, we require some interim explanation until we are ready to accept that ultimate truth. This is why traditional teaching speaks of Ishvara creating the universe through the power of mAyA. Certainly such an explanation has its inevitable limitations (since it is not actually true from the absolute standpoint) but at least it is internally consistent. Neo-advaita tries to escape the problem by ignoring it – but it doesn’t go away! Attempting to acknowledge a non-dual reality but at the same time attributing agency to it is not going to work, however, because it is a blatant self-contradiction.

2. “That empty space is the presence of the background, the presence of Consciousness, ‘I’. It is referred to as being empty only from the mind’s point of view, because there is nothing objective there. However, from its own point of view, it is experienced as fullness, as Presence, Self-luminous, Self-knowing and Self-evident.”

I would suggest that a ‘point of view’ is only meaningful when applied to a mind. Traditional teaching tends only to speak of this reality in a negative way – unseen, nothing to do with worldly things, beyond understanding, without characteristics, indefinable etc; or in neutral, abstract, absolute ways – limitless, tranquil, favorable, Consciousness, existence etc.

3. “Nothing binds Consciousness, except its own desire to bind itself through belief.”

Consciousness cannot have any desire, because this would imply that something was lacking and it is necessarily full, perfect and complete. This, again, is the attempt to ‘explain’ the seeming world. It cannot be done in such a way because to do so would cancel out the absolute status accorded to Consciousness.

4. “Consciousness arbitrarily divides this seamless experience of sensations/perceptions into two, into sensations and perception.” “It thinks…”

These are functions of the mind, part of the grand illusion itself. It is not Consciousness that thinks and does – it is the mind. It is, of course, true that, in the final analysis, the mind is Consciousness (since there is only Consciousness) but, in that same final analysis, there is no thinking or doing. So, to talk in this way, is confusing levels of reality. Consciousness can only ‘think’ and ‘know’ through a mind. And then you are in duality. Neo-advaita and, it seems, Direct Path, are both trying to have their cake and eat it.

Similarly, Consciousness is not exactly ‘happiness’; it cannot be ‘happy’, just as it cannot be miserable. Consciousness is that which illumines the mind, which may be either. Ananda is better understood as anantam – limitlessness.

5. “Consciousness learns to identify exclusively with one part of the totality of whatever appears within itself – that is with a body/mind. It chooses this identification out of its own innate freedom.” “Consciousness creates the appearance of time by bestowing its own continuity on objects and then forgetting that it has done so.” “Consciousness forgets that it is always experiencing itself…”
“Consciousness veils itself from itself by pretending to limit itself to a separate entity and then forgets that it is pretending.”

All attempts to ‘explain’ why it is that there appears to be a world of people and objects are doomed to failure. Concepts such as lIlA only provide temporary explanations for some. To most, they just create more problems than they solve. It is best to ignore them altogether. They are only either myths or artificial contrivances. If we accept ajAtivAda – the doctrine of no creation, no theory of creation is needed.

6. There seems to be an explicit attempt to describe creation somehow in 169 – 71 and 178 but this contains statements such as: “At some point, and that moment is always now, Consciousness begins to select some objects over and above others. Instead of allowing everything to flow freely through itself, as the creator witness and substance of all appearances, it focuses on some objects in favor of others.” So we have desire and preferential action as well as other things in this non-duality!

V. Deep Sleep (State)

The third main area of contention is the status of deep sleep. All discussions on the topic of deep sleep are at variance with classical advaita and do not make any sense to me. (I raised this with Francis Lucille many years ago but have studied the Mandukya Upanishad since then!) Rupert says that: (Deep sleep) only becomes a state, appears to become a state, when it is mistakenly conceived of by the mind to have lasted for a certain length of time. However there is no time in deep sleep.” But deep sleep is a state because it has a beginning and an end, just as do waking and dream. It is characterised by ignorance (non-perception), whereas waking and dream are characterised by both ignorance and error (non-perception and misperception). Therefore, it cannot possibly be my real nature, which is eternal, limitless and changeless, without either ignorance or error. When Rupert says that: “divested of duration, deep sleep is in fact the timeless presence of Consciousness”, this cannot be true because ignorance is not an attribute of Consciousness.

The dreaming world does not “emerge within deep sleep”. According to Gaudapada, the deep sleep state can be regarded as the ‘gateway’ between waking and dreaming – you cannot go from one to the other without passing through deep sleep. It is true that the ‘ignorance’ element of the deep sleep state remains and acts as the cause for the subsequent misperception of brahman as the waking world or the world of dream but it hardly makes sense to say that deep sleep ‘remains’. How could this differ from saying that we remain in deep sleep? What remains, what is the same in all three states is who-I-really-am, Consciousness or, as it is usually called in the context of a discussion of the three states – turIya.

He says that: The deep sleep state, which is conceived to last a certain amount of time, seems to come and go. However deep sleep itself is always present.” What can this possibly mean? Why the aversion to introducing turIya? And I have to disagree with the following statement: “Deep sleep is the experience of Consciousness knowing its own luminous Self.” Deep sleep is total ignorance (and therefore bliss!); I do not know that ‘I am brahman’ in deep sleep. Gaudapada says (I.12): prAj~na (the deep sleeper) does not know himself nor others; he does not know the reality nor the unreality (of the world); he does not know anything. turIya on the other hand is ever the illuminator of everything.

It is worth mentioning in this section that Rupert also has a non-traditional view of dream. He claims that it is ‘one-dimensional’ having only time but no space. This is quite wrong and indicates the common mistake of viewing the dream state from the vantage point of the waking state. When viewed correctly, from its own vantage point, the dream clearly has both time and space, exactly like the waking world. The point is that they are the dream’s own time and space and bear no relation to those of the waking state.

VI. False premises and contradictions

There are a number of instances where points are made that seem to rest on false premises or to contradict what has been said elsewhere. For example:

. “Ignorance is an illusion, It is an illusion that is wrought through the conceptual powers of the mind, through erroneous beliefs.”

- Aren’t ‘erroneous beliefs’ an effective definition of ‘ignorance’? In which case, this is saying that ignorance arises from ignorance. What arises as a result of ignorance is misperception, as in the example of seeing a snake because we are ignorant of the rope.

. “This line of reasoning leads to understanding. However, understanding does not take place in the mind. It is beyond the mind. It is a moment when Consciousness experiences itself directly and knowingly.”

- Isn’t this an effective definition of ‘enlightenment’? Where else could it take place except in the mind?

. “We cannot answer the question ‘Why?’ because the question itself creates the ignorance about which it is asking.” - Why would we ask why if we were not ignorant to begin with?

. On page 61, he says: “They (the perceived and the Perceiver) are in fact always one seamless totality; they are not two things in our actual experience.” Yet, on the following page, we are asked to focus on the subjective aspect of experience rather than the objective aspect. The purpose of this is to “draw attention to the... Perceiver..., which witnesses whatever it is that is being experienced from moment to moment.”

. On page 65, he says: “There is no mind as such. The existence of a mind is simply an idea, a concept.” yet, only 9 lines further on: “...this apparent body... is made of mind...”

. On page 75-6, he is discussing the nature of perception and reality of objects and says: “Everything apart from the Existence or Being or Reality of an object is removed with the removal of the instruments of perception, with the removal of mind.”

- The trivial comment on this might be: will there still be an object if there are no senses or mind to detect it? But there are a number of serious issues in this discussion, which I feel are not understood or at least not well explained. First of all, there are no objects at all, existing separate from the substantive brahman – the concept of mithyA is not explained at all yet is crucial to this discussion. Secondly, the mechanism of perception according to advaita is not explained and what is said does not tally with this. The vedAnta paribhAshA is the classic text on this, currently being fully explained by Dr Sadananda at my website.

. On page 89: “...objects, including the concept of time, appear from time to time.”

. On page 125: “Consciousness and its object are always one.” Followed 12 lines later by: “Consciousness loses itself in the world of objects.”

. Enough – there are many more of these minor points but this review is already too long. Since there is a great danger that many will not read it, I don’t want to spend more effort writing it!

VII. Neo-like statements

And there are some ‘neo-like’ statements that did not make any sense to me such as:

. “...the experience of ‘experiencing itself’ is colorless, transparent and invisible. It has no objective qualities. There is nothing that is being objectively experienced.”

. “...even in ignoring itself, something is known and that knowing is the Knowingness of Consciousness knowing itself.”

. “...Consciousness creates an appearance that is consistent with its own beliefs.”

. “Identity is inherent in Consciousness. Consciousness is by nature aware, conscious. That is what it is. And because it is aware, it is by definition Self-aware, Self-conscious.”

– Identity with what, if Consciousness is non-dual? Why should awareness mean Self-awareness as well (‘by definition’)? A worm is aware but is it self-aware?

VIII. Positive Aspects and aphorisms

To turn to some positive aspects of the book (and obviously there are some, otherwise I would not be recommending it highly). As noted in the introduction to this review, it is very well written and it is obvious that an awful lot of work has gone into it – no mere transcribed satsang material here. He compares it to a piece of music in which the central theme is continually “explored, questioned, modulated and restated” and it really is like this. It consists entirely of short paragraphs, sometimes of only a single sentence, often of very dense material that must be considered for some time, almost meditated upon. At times, the style is very reminiscent of Wittgenstein. I attempted to do this myself with my last book but, although I numbered each of the points, I did not usually make them so succinctly and often poetically. Many of these could be extracted and provided as quotable aphorisms in advaita.


“It is the ‘I am the body/mind’ belief that gives rise to the ‘I am not the world’ belief. These two beliefs are co-created.”

“Consciousness projects the appearance of the mind, body and world by taking the shape of thinking, sensing and perceiving.”

“Attention is Consciousness with an object. When the object vanishes, attention simply remains what it always is, Consciousness.”

“There is no purpose to meditation. The purpose is already accomplished.”

“Everything that is experienced is experienced by, through, in and as Consciousness.”

“The seen cannot be separated from seeing and seeing cannot be separated from Consciousness.”

“The Reality of any experience is not hidden in the appearance, it is expressed by the appearance.”

“Once we see that everything is Consciousness... Maya still dances, but it is a dance of love not seduction.”

There are some truly excellent sections such as a long one taking, as a starting point, the following quotation from the painter Cézanne: “Everything vanishes, falls apart, doesn’t it? Nature is always the same but nothing in her that appears to us lasts. Our art must render the thrill of her performance, along with her elements, the appearance of all her changes. It must give us a taste of her Eternity.” Rupert begins: “That statement must be one of the clearest and most profound expressions of the nature and purpose of art in our era.” And he goes on for some 14 pages to elaborate on this claim, examining the nature of the ‘elements’ Existence, appearance and Consciousness and their relationship.
“This Reality is the support or ground of the appearance. The appearance may be an illusion, but the illusion itself is real. There is an illusion. It has Reality.” He refers to the rope-snake metaphor and says that: “We do not see anything new. We see in a new way.” “So that we know that nature is real, that there is something present, that there is a reality to it, even if everything that appears to us is insubstantial and fleeting.”

Here is a list of the pages that contain paragraphs that I marked as ‘good’, ‘v. good’ or ‘excellent’:

xii – xiii, 26, 47-9, 50-7, 77-8, 86, 114-7, 126-7, 131-3, 145-51, 152-65, 194-6, 202-4, 210-2, 219, 221, 223-4, 245, 249-50.

IX. Conclusion

I suggest that this book is going to be of most interest to seasoned seekers, who may find new and insightful views into some of the familiar topics in advaita. I fear that those who are not already used to the manner of speaking about non-duality will quickly discard the book – it will simply be too difficult for them. It requires both serious interest and genuine commitment to stay with it. But, for those who are prepared to make the effort there is much to savour and I recommend it highly to them. I personally found it to be a delight and a frustration (in equal measure!) and, on that basis, perhaps I ought not to award more than 4*. But there is so much good stuff in here, and it towers above most other modern books on the subject, that I have few qualms about awarding 5*.

book cover
Buy the book from Amazon US or UK.

Dennis Waite ©2009

Return to list of topics in Discourses by Teachers and Writers .
See the list sorted by Topic.
See the list sorted by Author.

Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012