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
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
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!
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
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?
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
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
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
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
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.
. “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
. “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
- 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
. 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
. 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
- 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
“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
“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
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.
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*.
||Buy the book from Amazon US or UK.
Dennis Waite ©2009
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