Q. 432 ‘Definition’ of brahman

Q: So brahman is, ‘by definition’, that which is beyond mind, conceptualization, understanding etc. If one takes this seriously, not just metaphorically/allegorically, how can one validly say anything at all about brahman? E.g. Brahman is: unchanging, timeless, attribute-less.

If it’s unknowable, how can we know these attribute-less attributes about it? We are told that Brahman is real; we are Brahman. But if we can’t know Brahman, how can we know it is real or that we are it? Does it ultimately all come down to believing the conclusions and insights of the scriptures?

A: Brahman is not anything ‘by definition’, because we cannot define it.

It is true that you cannot, strictly speaking, say anything at all about it. All of these statements from the scriptures are simply pointers. You know what those words mean so that your mind can gain some insight. Ultimately, the accumulation of insights enables the mind to make that catastrophic (in mathematical terms) ‘rearrangement’ that we call enlightenment. The problem is simply that all concepts and objects are ‘known’ so cannot be Atman-brahman. Atman is the ‘knower’ and there would have to be another knower to know it. Since there is only brahman in reality, there cannot be anything else to know it.

But Atman is not something that is not known. Indeed it is known more intimately than any concept-object because we are the Atman. And the Atman is neither an object nor a concept. Here is what Sureshvara says (naiShkarmya siddhi III.47 – 48):

“Because the Self is of the form of constant awareness, it requires no second means of knowledge to reveal it; because it is without sound or other attributes it is beyond the sphere of doubt. The Self cannot be known through the empirical means of knowledge such as perception, etc, which are but phlegm coughed up by the thirst for life. Indeed, it is not a possible object of empirical cognition, since it is the innermost Self and since it exists for its own sake.”

Another reason is that all forms of perception are directed outwards, so that we could never ‘perceive’ the Self. And, since inference is itself based upon perception, we cannot infer the Self either.

So, yes, you are effectively right that, when it comes down to topics such as this, the scriptures are the final, indeed the only, authority. But it is not exactly ‘faith’ as this word is normally understood. The scriptures do not ask us to believe in anything that is unbelievable. That we are the Atman is effectively self-evident. What the scriptures tell us is that this Atman is Brahman.

* Note that I have posted a series of four articles, entitled ‘What is brahman?’ that discusses this whole subject and explains the two ways in which we can talk about brahman – svarUpa and taTastha lakShaNa-s, intrinsic and incidental definitions. The articles begins here: http://www.advaita-vision.org/what-is-brahman-part-1/.

 

Q. 431 Emergence vs. Consciousness

Q: In Advaita one learns to ‘unravel’ objects: table as wood, wood as cells, cells as molecules, molecules as atoms, atoms as subatomic particles, etc. (neti neti!) all the way down. What Advaita says ‘lies at the bottom’ is Brahman, the oneness from which all apparent objects of form manifest.

What seems just as (if not more) intuitively plausible to me is that what lies at the bottom is: a few primal emergent ‘rules’. Perhaps even just one rule: attraction/repulsion. Electrons are attracted to protons and repelled by other electrons giving way to atoms, atoms are attracted to other atoms giving way to molecules, and so on, all the way up to the forms we know and love.

In this view of reality, there is no top-level overarching ‘organizational’ principle: Consciousness. There is instead a vast web of ‘stuff’ that arises from a few simple low-level emergent rules. As with all emergent systems, the application of these rules, once sufficiently complex, creates a system that seems to have an overarching top-level intelligence/intentionality/organizational principle, but in reality doesn’t.

So, friends: Who wins? Emergence or Consciousness? Or is it a non-zero-sum game: Are emergence and Consciousness not mutually exclusive?

A (Dennis): If you have read my articles about science and its views, you will know that I do not regard it very highly when it comes to consciousness and reality!

The ‘unraveling’ is an explanation of the concept of mithyA and provides an intuitively reasonable explanation as to why all ‘things’ are just name and form of brahman. If you try to turn this around you are then tacitly assuming that the empirical reality has some absolute reality, which it doesn’t (unless you are just accepting that ‘everything is brahman’). Or you are just attempting to use science to ‘explain’ Ishvara. Because Advaita would call your ‘fundamental laws’ or ‘primary emergent rules’ Ishvara. Ishvara is both intelligent and material cause for the (apparent) creation. In reality, of course, there has never been any creation. Both the ocean (universe) and the wave (individual) are always only water.

Q. 430 Brahman=changeless, eternal?

Q: I’m aware that I’m on (very) shaky ground when I talk/think about brahman. But there’s something that’s been bugging me for a long time now about the ‘definitions’ of brahman I’ve read.

Brahman is always described as changeless and eternal.

Let’s start with ‘changeless’. When I think (conceptualize, make images) about a changeless ‘force’ (for want of a better non-object word), I envision something static and dead, without animus, without vitality. Absolute zero, utter lack of motion/vibration, fixed-ness. But I can’t put this static-ness together with brahman, the ‘mother of all existence and vitality’. How could utter stillness give rise to such a vibrant universe?

Onto ‘eternal’. Why does brahman have to be eternal? Why couldn’t it have arisen with the Source Event (Big Bang, etc.) and evolved into its ‘current’ fullness? Likewise, why couldn’t it end with the collapse of the universe back to a zero-dimensional point?

So changeless and eternal elude/confuse me. But I suspect that’s because I’m trying to image-ine them, which is an oxymoron: conceptualizing the non-conceptual. Continue reading

Q. 429 Discussion on ‘I am That’

Q: I have a couple of questions about ‘I Am That’.

As I understand it, this essentially says: Atman = brahman. So the ‘I’ is not the ahaMkAra ‘I’, rather the Atman ‘I’.

1. Did I get that right?

2. When one begins to reflect upon ‘I Am That’, is one expected to feel the I as the ahaMkAra I? And then move, gradually, towards realizing the I is in fact Atman?

3. The reason I ask (2) is because I have a great deal of difficulty ‘feeling’ my ahaMkAra I. It just doesn’t ‘compute’ with me. Does this brain/body sense things, have feelings, emotions, thoughts; am I aware of external and internal things? Yes! All the time. But are these sensations, feelings, thoughts, etc. = ahaMkAra ‘I-me’? No. They’re just… stuff that happens, electrochemical dances in a brain in a skull in a body that is identified as ‘Jack’ Is this a problem – that I can’t consciously/directly feel my ahaMkAra I? That when I look for it, I see mithyA, nothing of essential substance? Could my not being able to directly experience my ahaMkAra I be a stumbling block? Continue reading

Q. 428 A dialog on getting to know brahman

Q: I’m struggling (a lot) with ‘believing in’ Brahman.

I realize the problems inherent in this struggle: (1) It’s probably futile in my early stage of Advaita studies; (2) Brahman is beyond mind, so any attempt to truly apprehend it is doomed to failure. And yet I persist. 😉

I can walk with Advaita Vedanta through all the Neti-ing – I/Truth am not this, not this – but when Advaita makes the leap to IS THIS … I shake my head and turn away. Brahman seems like an abstraction born of fear/uncertainty, like other similar abstractions such as Heaven, The Ground, The Truth, etc. (I am not saying I know that Brahman IS an abstraction born of fear, rather that it seems to me that it could be.)

So I keep looking for analogies, things I can/do or ‘believe in’ that might be similar enough to Brahman that I could relax into it a bit.

Today I thought: Perhaps Brahman is (quasi-)synonymous with Nature? Nature – ‘everything that is’ – is all-encompassing in a way that suggests Brahman to me. Science’s take on Nature is conceptual, but the essence of Nature is, I think, not conceptual.

So: ‘Everything that is’ + non-conceptual – this sounds Brahman-esque to me. Yes? No? Continue reading

Q. 427 pramANa and reason

Q: Regarding the relationship between scripture, logic, and experience in the context of Vedanta being a pramANa:   It seems like the ‘rule’ is that for scripture to be considered valid it must be both supportable by reason and non-negatable by reason. But what exactly does that mean?

A (Dennis): Basically, according to Advaita, THE pramANa is scripture (shruti). In practice, this should be unfolded by a qualified teacher, who you trust not to mislead you. You make the conscious decision to take what is said ‘on trust’ until such time as you realize its truth for yourself. Shankara said that you should not accept any scripture that is contrary to reason. But ‘unreasonable’ scriptural statements usually turn out to be gauNa, which effectively means ‘figurative’, and are explained (reasonably!) somewhere close by in the text in which they occur.

Q. 426 Flow

Q: In response to my question “Can one ever KNOW that reality is non-dual?”, Ramesam wrote: “Yes, when you are in ‘zone’, (the flow of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi).”

I’m a big fan of flow, know it quite well, teach it in fact to my students. I’d like to know what your take is on flow, specifically: Do you agree with Ramesam, that being in flow is knowing that reality is non-dual?

– Is being in flow a desirable ‘state’ according to Advaita Vedanta? In other words, if, as often happens, I spend most of the day in flow, is this a ‘good thing’ for my Advaitin development?

The reason I ask is because I’ve wondered a bunch about the difference between pure awareness and flow. Flow is very goal oriented; pure awareness is not. Also, when in flow, you are deeply aware of that which you need to be aware of to keep flowing (holding a conversation, skiing a narrow downhill trail, etc.), but you are typically NOT aware of your awareness. In fact, if you become aware of your awareness, you’ll probably lose the flow, get tripped up in the conversation, fall down on the trail, etc. It’s as if you were completely lost in the activity.

So, is flow a less desirable state than pure awareness? Or some other state that Advaita recommends?

A: I came across Csíkszentmihályi when I was writing ‘How to Meet Yourself’ and of course the feeling of ‘flow’ is recognizable. And it is a great feeling, obviously invaluable for sports and other activities. It represents single-mindedness, concentration etc – the control of the mind and senses – dama, shama etc. And it is in this sense that it has some relevance for Advaita – mental preparation to make one ‘ready’ for taking on board self-knowledge.

But that is as far as it goes. It has nothing to do with actually knowing that reality is non-dual. In fact, I would suggest that the vast majority of people who know about ‘flow’ have no interest (and have probably never heard of) non-duality. They are interested in its value in furthering their materialistic ends (by this, I don’t mean obtaining objects but improving their sporting achievements or whatever). If one also has spiritual ‘ambitions’, then pursuing flow could even be counter-productive. It is said that mokSha has to become your sole, overriding aim in life to the exclusion of everything else if you are to succeed in this life.

So your assessment is correct, except that you do not really become ‘aware of awareness’. The non-directed stillness of the mind in deep meditation is the nearest you come to such a thing. nirvikalpa samAdhi has nothing as its object whereas, as you say, flow is invariably goal-oriented.

Finally, Ramesam said that it was possible to know that reality is non-dual when you are in the zone, not that being ‘in flow’ is knowing it.

Q. 425 Truth and reality

Q: As I see/feel it, Truth (with a capital T) is a human concept, and like all concepts, is not real (except in our minds). “What is” is simply “what is” … period, end of story (literally).

Advaita Vedanta seems to say that Truth (Brahman) is real, that it is in fact the only reality.

  1. Are the two assertions above incompatible? (I have the feeling that, ultimately, they’re not, because the Truth I’m talking about is a concept and Brahman is not.)
  2. If they are, is my take that ‘Truth is a human concept and therefore not real’ a deep obstacle (perhaps even a show-stopper) to my studying Advaita?

A: It is not possible to talk about brahman/reality because it is non-dual and without attributes (see Q. 328). You need to accept/appreciate this. But of course, as part of the process of removing self-ignorance from the mind, we do need to ‘as if’ talk about it. And we do this via pointers, negation and so on. All of these are concepts and have to be dropped IN THE END. But, in the interim, we make use of them without worrying about the fact that they are mithyA.

The other point is that words are very slippery things and different people can understand different things. The word ‘sat’ can certainly mean both ‘reality’ and ‘truth’ (as well as ‘existence’). Whether or not you regard these as synonyms may cause you a problem of the sort you describe. But the word ‘reality’ is as much a concept as the word ‘truth’! These are the sort of things that twentieth century Western philosophers argued about. Don’t worry about it! Gain Self-knowledge and you can then happily drop all the concepts, or simply use them as appropriate when you want to talk to someone who doesn’t have Self-knowledge!

Q. 424 Paradox of the Illusory Self

Q: I’ve read your wonderful book, Back to the Truth, and much from your website. I’ve learned so much from what you’ve offered, it’s impossible to thank you enough. I do have a question that continues to arise again and again. Though simple, it’s never quite answered head-on. It’s hard to phrase it in a single sentence, so here goes: 

Sometimes it seems that nondual teachers are simply saying “Did you notice you’re conscious? That’s what you are.” There are many such teachers, as I’m sure you are aware. Some, similarly, seem to say that realizing there is no person is all there is too it, everything else stays the same. Meanwhile there are many many accounts of realization that include an understanding of the nature of consciousness, of seeing he world of objects as empty or transparent, and many have said that the mark of realization is an awareness that does not go away (or seem to go away) during deep sleep. These understandings seem beyond no-self.

So when an instructor says something like “who wants to know” or “who wants enlightenment” I get very frustrated. I get it that there is no person that wants to know. Maybe I don’t get it enough (certainly not experientially), but just dropping the idea of a self and saying “yep I’m conscious, I’m aware” does not lead to these other powerful understandings, or deeper truths. 

Body minds that have realized no-self still go on through life with a few desires and interests that they try to satisfy (Ramana Maharshi reading the news, for instance). This body-mind is interested in big Truths. So why tell me that seeing through the self, knowing that I am aware (or awareness) is enough? There seem to be another, bigger, even more interesting truth to be discovered. 

So, I guess a simple way of asking my question is: Paradoxes rise from a illusory self seeking to see through itself. but they don’t arise from a body mind (or even an illusory self) seeking to understand oneness, consciousness, the universe, etc. I assume we have to see through the self to realize the rest, but why do so many seem to ignore the rest? Continue reading

Q. 423 Logical proof

Q: Is there a logical proof that all souls are multiple personalities of the same self, and of what therefore  to do?

A (Dennis): ‘No’ is the simple answer. If there were, scientists would not still be looking for the origin of consciousness in the brain! It is rather that there exists a body of knowledge from those who have realized that this is how it is. ‘Teachers’ draw on this, together with their own experience, to explain things to seekers until such time as they realize the truth for themselves. To one who has been through this process, there is no problem in understanding that this is perfectly acceptable. To one who has not, however, it seems quite unacceptable and not really any different from the ‘faith’ of religions.

Incidentally, the phrasing of your question indicates that you do not appreciate the ‘bottom line’ message of Advaita. There are no individual ‘souls’ or ‘personalities’ and nothing to ‘do’ in reality. There is only the Self – and you are That (already). You just do not realize this. I.e. all that needs to happen is to remove the ignorance that is preventing you from seeing what is already the case.