Q.379 – Practice, Enlightenment and Reincarnation

Q: My understanding is that the purpose of spiritual practice is to purify the intellect so that it ‘reflects’ Consciousness without distortion. This enables the mind to recognize the delusion caused by ahaMkAra. This would mean that ‘enlightenment’ is a function of the mind. Is this correct?

If this is so, it would seem to mean that any ‘benefits’ gained from enlightenment would only apply to this body-mind, in this life. Is this so?

Scriptures indicate that one may have to undergo many lives before gaining mokSha, and suggest that fruits of previous lives accumulate to enable this. But, if enlightenment is an event in this mind, how can previous lives be of any benefit? Is there something in the mind that is ‘carried over’ into future births?

A (Ramesam): The most fundamental aspect of Advaita teaching is that an individual (jIva) is non-different from the Supreme Self (brahman). It follows, therefore, from this that a seeker is already of the nature of ever pure, all-knowing and liberated entity. As Gaudapada explains in his kArikA on mANDUkya Upanishad, by Its own freedom, brahman takes the form of an individual (and the world) and there is neither a creation nor liberation, neither a seeker nor something to be sought.

Now in order to bring the above hard to crack deeply meaningful Advaita teaching down to the level of a seeker who presumes that s/he is a finite and limited entity confined within a separate body-mind, various teachers formulated different conceptual models. Two of the most prominent post-Shankara models are i) bhAmati and ii) vivaraNa schools of thought. The model of ‘reflection’ and the purification of the intellect which you seem to go by is promoted by the vivaraNa school. The bhAmati school says that all purificatory efforts would only help in generating an intense desire for liberation. Those efforts do not liberate.

Similarly, the two schools differ about the ‘role’ mind has in the process of liberation. While both accept the importance of the mind, one school posits that mind is only an enabling factor whereas the other says that mind is the cause. Further, the ‘concept’ of “benefits of enlightenment,” which you refer to, is a misrepresentation propagated by some teachers. Enlightenment does not yield any “benefits.” It is merely a revelation of who truly you are. It is a shedding of your misunderstanding and being (or remaining) as you are in your pristine original nature – unborn, eternal and infinite.

“You,” being unborn, there is no question of ‘this’ life or next. Going by “The Doctrine of Nothing is Born” of Advaita, no creation has ever happened and it is a mistaken idea to identify oneself with the perishable body-mind and think that there are several lives (rebirths) that one has to go through.

But if one happens to believe that s/he is ‘born’ and there is a pre-existing creation into which he is born, then the teaching (shruti), out of compassion to the individual, constructs a fictitious provisional model accepting provisionally the ‘birth’ of the individual. As per this model, one goes through several births and deaths before a desire for liberation dawns and an effort is made by him to attain liberation as a result of performing some meritorious deeds.

But what exactly are births and deaths? One may interpret that a person is born with each thought and is dead with the ending of that thought. Or one may presume that he is born and dead every day that he wakes up from bed and goes back to deep sleep. But, at any rate, a logically consistent edifice is built to appease the believer in birth that ‘death’ of a born person takes place gradually in layers. That is to say that a person dies through layers of subtler and subtler bodies (at gross physical body level, then at mental body level and then at causal body level etc.), and that there is a messenger-body (AtivAhika sharIra) that carries a memory of the individual as an ID with it from one body to the other and so on till he is reborn.

You have a choice. Either you can be lost in all these stories of reincarnation (rebirth is a better word as the flesh (carna) is never reborn but recycled only) or take up your own investigation (Self-inquiry) to find out the Ultimate Truth using several “tools” that Advaita provides like – neti-neti, superimposition and sublation, objection cognition, analysis of the three states of consciousness, analysis of five sheaths of bodies, analysis of seer-seen etc.

A (Ted): The aim of spiritual practice is to purify the mind, which essentially boils down to neutralizing binding raga-dveSha, likes and dislikes. Binding likes and dislikes agitate the mind with desire and extrovert its attention toward objective phenomena (i.e. both subtle sensations, emotions, and cognitions, and gross physical objects) and thereby prevent it from sustaining the inward focus necessary to do effective self-inquiry and cultivating the subtlety to “see” or recognize the pure awareness that is the substratum of all objective phenomena.

The buddhi (i.e. intellect) already reflects awareness adequately, for essentially it is nothing other than awareness. It simply doesn’t recognize the true nature of what it is reflecting (i.e., the awareness that is enlivening and illumining it).

This delusion is caused not by ahaMkAra (i.e., ego), but by avidyA, self-ignorance. The effect that avidyA exerts on the buddhi is to make it believe that the body-mind-sense complex of which it is part is a separate, volitional individual. Since what appears to be an individual person is actually nothing other than pure awareness conditioned by the upAdhi, conditioning adjunct, of the body-mind-sense complex, the ego is fundamentally nothing other than an erroneous notion.

“Enlightenment” is essentially the removal of ignorance from the buddhi, the eradication of the notion that one’s true nature is anything less or other than Brahman, (i.e., pure, limitless awareness). Under careful scrutiny, one realizes that as awareness mokSha, freedom, is one’s true nature and, thus, is an already existent fact and not something that needs to be “gained.” Moreover, awareness already knows it’s free, so to speak, for awareness itself is not affected by avidyA. Only the mind suffers from ignorance. Thus, the beneficiary of the self-knowledge that is tantamount to mokSha can only be the apparent person.

Scripture tells us that the subtle body, which includes the antaHkaraNa (i.e., the general mind that consists of manas, the function of non-discriminative thinking; buddhi, the function of discriminative thinking; ahaMkAra, the I-thought; and chitta, the memory), carries on beyond death. It is the container of the vAsanA-s that determine the nature of the apparent person, and is the “soul” that transmigrates through a countless progression of body-mind-sense complexes until at last it realizes its true identity as Brahman, pure consciousness. Within the context of this paradigm, the past actions associated with the subtle body do influence its spiritual growth, its progress toward gaining self-knowledge and becoming free of the ignorance that makes it believe it is whatever limited person it is associated with.

Just the same, in the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna, speaking from the perspective of pure awareness, basically says that the doctrine of reincarnation or transmigration is simply a fairy tale told to pacify the minds of the ignorant.

Though it is hard for the linear mind to accept, both perspectives are valid. The truth is comprehensive and, thus, includes both the reality and the apparent reality. From Brahman’s perspective, nothing is happening. From the apparent individual’s perspective, a process of spiritual awakening is occurring over the course of innumerable lifetimes.

Each mind enjoys its own realization. There are an infinite number of minds that have and will continue to manifest, and every mind is essentially nothing other than Brahman, pure awareness. Brahman will continue to infuse every mind that manifests, so it’s not that once the mind realizes its true nature is Brahman that no mind ever manifests again. Neither is it the case that when one mind gains self-knowledge, the ignorance afflicting other minds is completely eradicated. Within the transmigratory paradigm, the particular subtle body of which the mind is a part will cease transmigrating. But awareness will continue to illumine each and every other subtle body that continues to do so. Thus, mokSha is only appreciated within any given mind that has assimilated self-knowledge and only “obtains” within that mind for as long as that mind remains manifest.

A (Sitara): You ask: This would mean that ‘enlightenment’ is a function of the mind. Is this correct?

I am not sure what you mean by function. But if I read it as “happening in the mind” I can answer: yes and no.

If you mean by enlightenment the very moment of realizing your true Self, yes, this is happening in the mind.

If you mean by enlightenment the irrevocable knowledge that you are sat-chit-Ananda, then no: this is not something that is part of the mind.

The mind’s way of knowing anything always involves objectification. As knowing the Self consists of the knowledge about the very subject, this is not relevant to the mind’s way of knowing. After all, first and foremost you realize your true nature, not somebody else’s nature. As your own true nature happens to be the true nature of all there is, you also realize, as though as a side effect, the nature of everything you so far did not call ‘your self’.

How come the moment of realization is in the mind but the knowledge that goes with it is not?

Counter question: who is asking the question “who am I?” The questioner is the mind, more precisely buddhi. So the realization has to be in buddhi too. But the answer to the question being “I am all there is” can only mean that once this answer is realized, buddhi immediately outperforms its status of being separate from what it has realized, i.e. Brahman.

The knowledge that comes along with the realization of your true nature cannot be that of an object – which it would be if it was in the mind. The very realization of who you are involves the subject and nothing else.

You ask: it would seem to mean that any ‘benefits’ gained from enlightenment would only apply to this body-mind, in this life. Is this so?

Exactly, this is how it would be if the logic of your first question was valid. This enlightenment would not be much of a benefit at all.

Scriptures indicate that one may have to undergo many lives before gaining mokSha, and suggest that fruits of previous lives accumulate to enable this. But, if enlightenment is an event in this mind, how can previous lives be of any benefit? Is there something in the mind that is ‘carried over’ into future births?

Another counter question: Who or what reincarnates?

Who you are does not reincarnate. Who you are is always the same and never dies. Neither does the body reincarnate. The body dies and after death it goes back to the elements.

Reincarnation is of the mind only. It does not involve the entire “content”, otherwise we would remember all of our past lives. But a kind of a blue print of the mind is in fact ‘carried over’ into future births.

Having said that, I do not agree with mokSha being something that is caused/enabled by puNya, or good karma. PuNya and/or the help of the Gods can create the best possible conditions. Your own doing can be conducive too. But there it ends. MokSha cannot be an effect of anything.

A (Martin):

  1. a) Yes, develop buddhi by study and reflection – shravaNa, manana, and nididhyAsana.
    b) Yes, enlightenment in/by the mind, whereby the mind is transformed and ‘becomes’ chit /consciousness without residue and without división. In other words, reality is revealed
  1. a) Siddhi-s from past lives/reincarnation is mythology or legend, as is often stated by Dennis and others in this site. They can be considered as a provisional teaching, to be given up when one is ready.
    b) Once you have attained self-knowledge there is no longer a ‘you’, ‘me’ (i.e. “I” as a separate, independent subject) – of course, one continues to use those terms as normal parlance, but knowing full well how things stand. The mind is as if transformed, ‘becoming’ a transparent conveyor or transmitter for consciousness. The mind is/’was’ a superimposition of asat (unreality) on sat (reality) through avidyA – specific or technical sense of ‘ignorance’ in advaita Vedanta.

A (Dennis): First of all, be clear that the whole of this question relates to vyavahAra, to the seeming ‘person’ who has an apparent life in what seems to be a separate world. All of this is appearance only – it is mithyA, which means that it has no reality of its own, depending upon brahman for its existence. (A metaphor that is often used is that streams, rivers and oceans seem to have a separate existence but have no reality of their own, depending upon water for their existence.)

Within this mithyA existence of ours, the person carries out various ‘spiritual practices’ in order to purify the mind so that it is able to take on board this teaching. The practices do not in themselves ‘enable the mind to recognize the delusion’. In order for it to do this, it has to be told (by a teacher or book). Then it has to reflect on what it has learned and usually ask questions of the teacher in order to clear up confusions and doubt. Subsequently, usually after further time to assimilate, the realization of the truth of the teaching takes place in that mind. This ‘event’ in the mind is often called ‘enlightenment’.

‘Benefits’, in the form of peace of mind, lack of disturbance from desires and fears etc, accrue from the mental practices rather than from the ‘enlightenment’. (Some of the other bloggers do not agree with this and you will find debates elsewhere on the site.) But of course you are correct: these ‘benefits’ only apply to this body-mind in this life. However, according to the traditional teaching, both ‘past’ and ‘future’ karma are destroyed upon enlightenment and ‘present’ karma runs out with this life. Since extant karma is the determining factor for future lives, the realized person is not reborn, because there is nothing left still to bear fruit.

Karma that has still to come to fruition can be ‘good’, in a spiritual sense. Someone may have been practicing in a yoga sense and pursuing the teaching of advaita and the benefits of this will be carried over to a future life, thus reducing the effort required next time, so to speak. (This explanation has been give to rationalize how Ramana was able to gain Self-knowledge without needing to follow the usual path.)

The mechanism that ‘explains’ how this can happen involves the storing of karma. The subtle body (which incorporates the mind) resolves into the causal body at death and it is this that eventually dictates the nature of the future life and situation. There are complex processes involved in this. I will repost a two-part Advaita Academy blog on this topic in due course but suffice to say that it is for ‘mythological’ interest only!

9 thoughts on “Q.379 – Practice, Enlightenment and Reincarnation

  1. If I may add to these great responses, a couple of pertinent quotes.

    First Sri Ramana from Supplementary Verses to Ulladu Narpadu – Anubandham, v.6:
    Disciple: Who is God?
    Guru: He who knows the mind is God.
    Disciple: But my mind is known by me, the Self.
    Guru: Therefore thou are God; and the srutis proclaim loud and clear that God is but one.

    Second, from J Krishnamurti:
    In that total stillness of the mind, there is no watcher, no observer, and therefore no experiencer at all; there is no entity who is gathering experience, which is the activity of a self-centered mind . . . So, to meditate is to purge the mind of its self-centered activity. And if you have come this far in meditation, you will find there is silence, a total emptiness. The mind is uncontaminated by society; it is no longer subject to any influence, to the pressure of any desire. It is completely alone, and being alone, untouched, it is innocent. Therefore there is a possibility for that which is timeless, eternal, to come into being.

    So the mind, which is just a bundle of thoughts, creates the illusion, the idea of separation. But the mind, the thoughts, are witnessed by something apart from thoughts – call it Consciousness, God, the Self. So when the egoic / separative activities of the mind subside, then all that is left is ‘pure’ Consciousness.

    So is enlightenment a happening in the mind?

  2. Venkat,

    When you say mind is witnessed by something apart from itself, like Consciousness, God, Self… how do you come to this conclusion? Do you think that consciousness is something apart from mind, thoughts, self, and whatever arises as experience? That witness is always within the field of consciousness and so is self. All these things you mention dissolve with the body in death. Consciousness is a human experience associated with existence. It is associated with a self who is an experiencer. Pure consciousness is a concept and not your experience. Take away the body, self and consciousness disappear. Consciousness is not an Absolute. Contemplation of your own existence proves this and nothing else. There is no practice that can remove this sense of self. It is not within the power of a human being to do it. Perhaps Enlightenment begins here with an Absolute intervention. But, how could we know if there is no one to witness it? This is really the great mystery.

  3. Thanks for the clarification anon.

    Along these lines, Ramana said:
    “That state in which one does not see what-is-other, does not hear what-is-other, does not know what is other, is alone the infinite”

    And Nisargadatta:
    “That which is totally dissolved or obliterated is observed, That which IS always is not perceptible. That principle ever remains.”
    “You can never have knowledge about your Self because Parabrahman cannot be witnessed. You know what you are not – what you are you cannot know.”

  4. Venkat, whether realization happens or not in the mind, the mind is a neccesary element, a conduit. As JK writes, the mind being ‘completely alone, and being alone, untouched… is innocent. Therefore there is a possibility for that which is timeless, eternal, to come into being’.

    In other words, the mind is as if transformed, empty, or lapsed (‘being a mere reflection of the light of pure consciouness’ – RM) on the realization of the truth. It does not necessarily disappear and, certainly, there is no need of killing it (a pretension which, as such, is only of the ego).

  5. Martin, I’d love to explore this with you over a glass of wine . . .

    I’m not sure that I agree that mind is a necessary element, beyond the fact understanding / recognition that it is, as JK would say, forever limited, conditioned, and never able to grasp what may be beyond.

    Mind is in fact the problem, the creator of the illusion – we live in a world of our own imaging. I can readily quote Ramana, Nisargadatta, Vasistha, JK to this end.

    When they say the mind must be killed, they are of course referring to the killing of the ego – which I think can occur; Ramana, JK and others have clearly stated that this is possible. But this amounts to silencing of much of the chatter of our mind, which if we reflect on it, accounts for 90% of mind’s activity. Of course mind doesn’t literally die, but it is quiet, simple, and clear for the performance of its daily functions. Hence why the scriptures talk about detachment, surrender, because in the absence of ego, then the body functions simply without undue regard for itself over ‘others’

    Of course we (the ego) can’t kill our own ego. That is the conundrum. Hence as anon says all that can be done is contemplation of your existence, by which I infer he means Nisargadatta’s “abiding in ‘I am'” and Ramana’s self-enquiry, abiding in the self.

    Best,

    venkat

  6. Martin,

    Just as references . . .

    v31 of Bhagavan’s Ulladu Narpadu reads:
    “When it (the Reality) surges forth and appears for Him (the jnani) who enjoys the bliss of the Self, which has risen by destroying the (individual) self (the ego), what single thing exists for him to do? He does not know anything other than Self (which shines as the one reality); therefore how to conceive what His state is?

    In his Upadesa Saram, verses 18-20 read:
    18:The mind is only [the multitude of] thoughts. Of all [these thoughts], the thought ‘I’ [the feeling ‘I am the body’] alone is the root. [Therefore]what is called mind is [this root-thought] ‘I’.
    19: When one scrutinizes within thus, ‘What is the rising-place of ‘I’?’, the ‘I’ will die. This is Self- enquiry [jnana-vichara].
    20: In the place where ‘I’ [the mind or ego] merges, the one [existence-consciousness] appears spontaneously as ‘I-I’ [or ‘I am I’]. That itself is the Whole [purna].

    From Guru Vachaka Kovai
    917: Just as the sun cannot be seen in a densely clouded sky, so one’s own Self cannot be seen in a mind-sky which is darkened by a dense cloud of thoughts
    918: One who has destroyed the mind is the emperor who rides on the neck of the elephant of supreme Jnana. Know for certain that the turmoil of the mind is the sole cause of the miserable bondage of the cruel and fierce birth (and death).
    Murugunar comments: Since the turmoil of the mind is the root of the miseries of birth, thoughts alone are here said to be bondage. Since one’s own nature [Self] shines forth as soon as thoughts are destroyed, the one whose mind is thus destroyed is glorified in a figurative manner as an emperor riding on the elephant on Jnana.

    In Musings on Yogavasistha part V:
    Rama! A man should become a jivanmukta right in this life practising various methods of calming down the mind. He should attain the Supreme Self. However please note that some worldly matters remain to be attended to even after the attainment of jivanmukti. You may say that involvement in worldly affairs automatically implies the presence of remnant mind. The state of such a man’s mind will be like the ripple marks on the sands of an island after the floods have receded. They appear as waves in the sand. But are they really waves? The mind of a jivanmukta will also be like that.

  7. All these lovely verses talking about the killing of the ego and somehow enjoying the ‘bliss of self’. The Indians are so poetic and so anti-life. They want to forget about the body and focus on the mind. Existence encompasses much more than thinking and it is all taking place through the alchemy of the body. To contemplate your existence is to feel your existence, not just think about it. That feeling connects to the energy of your life. Transformation is a bodily experience that happens through the center of your being. That ego is not killed. It is a function of your human existence. It is an involuntary function just like your heartbeat. Ego is transformed from contracting on itself. Instead of centering on itself, it is centered on God or the Divine, or whatever you want to call that experience. Samadhi is an experience of this union but it is not Enlightenment. The experiencer is still present but begins to experience Union. This is where the Indian point of view seems to stop, with realization of Self. Of course, this is no small matter, but it isn’t finished as so many of you seem to believe and strive towards this state. If there is any such realization of the Absolute, it will be with the disappearance of Self Realization, the jivanmukta, and all consciousness (knowing as experience). What remains is a transformed body that is able to function in a way that is devoid of any kind of self or self interest. It is totally present. Unfortunately, this is completely unimaginable to us and not obtainable by any effort on our part.

    And so, I repeat Venkat’s quotes:

    Ramana said:
    “That state in which one does not see what-is-other, does not hear what-is-other, does not know what is other, is alone the infinite”

    And Nisargadatta:
    “That which is totally dissolved or obliterated is observed, That which IS always is not perceptible. That principle ever remains.”
    “You can never have knowledge about your Self because Parabrahman cannot be witnessed. You know what you are not – what you are you cannot know.”

  8. Venkat, thank you for the references.

    The mind recognizing that it is ‘forever limited, conditioned, and never able to grasp what may be beyond’ is the first step, as you suggest. Ergo the mind is absolutely necessary to initiate the journey. What then follows has been abundantly illustrated in the various comments here and elsewhere. I have often observed that in order to go beyond philosophy you have to be a good philosopher.

    Think of the mind as ‘the slayer and also the healer’ (and think of Durga and Lakshmi, and many other images in Tibetan Buddhism). There is, or was, a book with that title, ‘Mind the Healer, mind the Slayer’.

    ‘Reason (or mind) cannot ascend above itself without affirming the reality of that which is above itself’. Plato (Crito).

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