Q. 377 – Desire and suffering

(Also discusses Buddhism versus Advaita; analysis versus experience; need for practice)

Q: Your work is both beautiful and rigorous, and I’ve appreciated your continuous efforts to continue the much-beloved tradition of Advaita Vedanta.

As I consider devoting myself to the path of Advaita Vedanta, I find that I keep coming up against a few constant, nagging protests:

First, it seems that the tradition and methodology (although I also assume that there is quite a lot of variety of how Vedanta is taught and realized) is overly academic and scholastic, at least as I view it from the information that I’ve gleaned during my research.  The unfolding of the teaching of Vedanta seems to leave the student engaging in a lot of analysis, rather than a deep exploration of how they genuinely experience the world, which lacks transformative power because it remains something objective.

Second, according to some of the sources that I’ve gleaned, it seems to place Vedanta on an extremely high pedestal, as something engaged in only following years of other preparatory practices.  But modern practice appears to demonstrate that such preparation, while helpful, is not necessary.  I cite websites like “Liberation Unleashed” and Scott Kiloby’s excellent work which show that directly exploring and inquiring into the truth of statements like, “All there is is pure awareness,” etc., can still be highly transformative outside of the context of a more robust regime of spiritual purification and development.

My fear is that if I follow the traditional route, I will end up entangled in these preparatory practices.  I’ll just be getting the appetizer for years before getting the meal, in other words, but, in my opinion, why wait?

Is this perception true (given that there will be a lot of diversity)?  Do most AchArya-s make their disciples engage in such practices for prolonged periods of time before discussing Vedanta?

I have heard you and many other teachers in the traditional Advaita lineage say things like, “Unless you have a very pure mind…” or “Unless you are highly developed…”  etc., the practice of Vedanta will be fruitless.  But, if you read the logs, for example, of the website “Liberation Unleashed,” you will find some very impure people – depressed, addicted, desperate, you know, the usual seeker lot!, who come out transformed after only a few days of directly looking into their experience.

I appreciate your thoughts on this and your generosity in helping so many confused seekers.

A: Thanks for the kind words!

A qualified (sampradAya) teacher is never academic. But it is certainly true that a lot of the books around ARE overly academic. If you look at the books in the library pages – http://www.advaita.org.uk/library/library.html – probably 60% of them are written by university types as theses or critiques, with far too much Sanskrit content and lots of refutations and affirmations rather than unfoldment. So you do have be very careful when purchasing a book on Advaita that sounds as though it ought to be good!

Good teaching does not encourage analysis; it elicits recognition.

The correct (i.e. the one that works) approach to Advaita is the traditional one – shravaNa, manana and nididhyAsana. There is no question about this. But not everyone is immediately able to assimilate the teaching. A degree of sAdhana chatuShTaya sampatti is necessary. Again, this is a proven fact. Someone with no qualifications will simply not ‘get’ it. But it does not require ‘years of preparation’ before you can embark upon listening to/reading Advaita. You can still gain Self-knowledge. The only thing is that you will not immediately gain the full benefit (jIvanmukti).

Exploring and inquiring is extremely unlikely, on its own, to bring about enlightenment. You will not discover that everything is brahman by looking! And simply hearing the words, without the methodology, is not very useful. You may well read of “very impure people – depressed, addicted, desperate, who come out transformed after only a few days”. You also read about alien abductions and people who communicate with angels…

Q: Thank you for taking the time to respond so thoroughly and thoughtfully.  It has clarified a lot.  I think that I should also be honest about my current situation, which might help you better situate me: I am a Theravadan Buddhist considering to change my views and practice to Advaita Vedanta.  I still have many reservations, and would appreciate your thoughts:

It seems to me that Advaita Vedanta has the wrong question and goal.  The teaching aims at Self-Knowledge, which does not necessarily equate to the ending of suffering (which, as a Buddhy, is top on my list! – a very personal agenda indeed).  If happiness is the aim of Advaita Vedanta, and not Knowledge, then shouldn’t we be asking, “What is suffering/happiness?  What is its cause?  What is its cessation?  What causes its cessation?” instead of “Who am I?”  Does the Knowledge of the Self still not eradicate the arising of suffering?  Doesn’t the arising of suffering indicate that the conviction/knowledge of the Self is not yet firmly established in the mind of the seeker?  And what I mean by suffering is any mental affliction, pain, or anguish arising.

I read very conflicting statements, sometimes by the same people in the same book! (James Swartz comes to mind) about this.  On the one hand, for example, he writes that there is only happiness when the Self is realized, and then later he writes:

“Enlightenment is the hard and fast knowledge that I am Awareness and as such I am already free of desires so their presence or absence has nothing to do with me. Realize your nature and let desire be desire.”

I realize that you did not write this, but it’s just an example of something I’ve read repeatedly.  To me, Self-Knowledge just sounds like a belief, but if there continues to be suffering, then it just sounds like a bit of a cop-out to say, “Yea, there is suffering, but it’s not me, I am desireless.”  If that statement were true, what would cause suffering to arise in the first-place?

On the other hand, so much in the Advaita Vedanta tradition and the Vedas and Upanishads makes so much sense, is so beautiful, intricate, and rigorous, that I just keep thinking to myself, “There has to be a reason the rishis chose to focus on Self-Knowledge, because they were, and countless yogis and seekers following them, ultimately seeking liberation.”

Thank you again for your time.  This is a particularly crucial turning point for me, a time in which I’m understanding both Buddhism, Advaita, and, ultimately, the path of freedom in ways and with a depth and clarity hitherto unimagined.  Having someone knowledgeable to discuss and question about these things has been invaluable.

A: As you obviously know, the ‘bottom line’ of Advaita is that there is only Brahman or Consciousness if you prefer. And who-you-really-are is therefore That. It is the person (who can be regarded as ‘reflected Consciousness’) who realizes this. Once it is realized, it does not mean an end of pain and empirical unhappiness. But it is now known that these things do not happen TO you; rather they happen IN you, as part of the endless play within apparent creation. You now know that YOU are not affected by them, whatever happens. ‘Suffering’, as I understand it, occurs because you believe it is happening to you; that who-you-really are is somehow being diminished by the events. Interpreted in this way, it is possible to say that suffering does end.

Similarly, desires do not end on enlightenment. These result from the particular nature of the person. Prior to enlightenment, the belief is that my happiness is dependent upon those desires being satisfied. After enlightenment, it is known that I am already perfect and complete and that the outcome of any desire has only limited, temporal, empirical value – and this does not really matter at all because all this is mithyA.

Hope this helps!

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