Q.435 How can we be sure?

Q: I have a friend who became a born-again Christian as a young man. I knew him before his ‘conversion’ experience, and he became very different afterwards. For decades, he has maintained his rock-solid belief in Jesus and evangelical Christianity. He has that ‘glow’ of certainty and confidence that seems to come with believing in such a system with 110% conviction. His faith is literally unshakeable, and he is dead certain that he is right. I have a back-of-the-mind concern that when someone ‘gets it’ in terms of Advaita after a long period of seeking, that something similar is happening. We cannot think directly about the nondual Brahman, cannot experience non-duality, cannot even really talk about it. How can we be sure that we are not simply hypnotizing ourselves into this conviction after long years of painful seeking?

A (Dennis): How can we be sure? I, too, encountered someone who was a ‘certain’ Christian. We had quite a few discussions and, as you say, the belief was unshakeable. The difference is though, in my experience, that such people are unable to back up their beliefs with reason. They will blithely quote from the bible as though that ends the matter. As you know, in the kArikA-s, Gaudapada uses more reason than he does scriptural citations, although scriptures are traditionally the final authority. Although I included some scriptural quotations in my book ‘A-U-M’, this was principally for completeness and so that the related commentaries might be referenced. The intention was that all that I said was reasoned and hopefully unarguable. I cannot imagine there is any Christian text that can claim that.

The key tool and argument is probably one of the earliest – the ‘neti, neti’ of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Rather than trying to ‘find’ the answer, you keep discarding all attempted explanations when you find that they do not stand up to reason. When everything has been rejected, you are still left with you, the ‘rejecter’. You can use reason to reject those religions/philosophies that rely on scriptural authority alone, because you can always ask: ‘Why should I accept what is written here when it can never be supported by reason or experience?’ Advaita cannot be rejected in this way. It is the difference between ‘belief’ and ‘knowledge’.

11 thoughts on “Q.435 How can we be sure?

  1. “How can we be sure that we are not simply hypnotizing ourselves …. [when someone ‘gets it’ in terms of Advaita after a long period of seeking ] ?”

    A very pertinent and deeply interesting question.

    Congratulations to the seeker who posed the Question # 435.

    The curiously surprising position of Advaita is that if one claims that s/he got “IT,” s/he did NOT get IT !!!

    The very first mantra in kena upanishad (Part 2) cautions:
    यदि मन्यसे सु वेदेति दभ्रमेवापि नूनं त्वं वेत्थ …
    (In case you think that “I know IT well, surely you know very little (of brahman)… …).

    Subsequently in its 3rd mantra in the same Part 2, the upanishad is very categorical:
    अविज्ञातं विजानतां विज्ञातमविजानताम् ॥
    (It is unknown to those who know and known to those who do not know).

    The point being made out is that brahman cannot be known using our minds. What are known to (or through or by) our minds are things (objects) only. “brahman” is not an object – a finite entity with some limitations and descriptors.
    Our mind can grasp only those things which are limited in some aspect. We cannot conceive which is truly undimensional (without any dimensions of size, shape, color, properties, qualities, birth, death, shelf life (age) etc.).

    But then, the situation is also not totally helpless.

    If you are caught up even in the darkest of dungeons where there is utter silence and nothing to touch or hold on to, you intuitively know that you “are.” That means, you know without any need of an external proof that you “exist.” Therefore, your “beingness” is “knowable” to you. But then, you cannot have “known” anything unless you “are.”

    In other words, you know you are because you exist, and you are because your own existence is known to you. The existence and knowingness are in fact not two things. They are one and the same and that hyphenated beingness-knowingness is what “YOU” (or “I”) are. And that Itself is “brahman.”

    regards,

    • Anything that is ‘knowable’ or an experience that can be measured or evaluated is NOT brahman. As the Upanishad says: “It is unknown to those who know and known to those who do not know”.

      Does Existence=You Existing? Where does this personalization take place? Logic does not allow you to infer that you are an ultimate. Logic is about what you are not. Logic only deals with the known, not with the unknown. If I am That is an inference, that is not the same as a truth.

      The impermanence and changeability of all phenomenon are not you. You is not findable when sought for, yet no one denies they exist. What you call existence is a vast network of information that the senses take in and are ‘processed’ through stored memories, perceptions, and cognition. All these activities are ‘personalized’ and for ease of communication, we call it ‘me’. This is just a convention, not an inherent existence. How can existence be personalized and thought about? That is reflection, not what is. If reflection is not logical, belief and all sorts of errors are made. The error of self is the biggest.

  2. Taking on from Ramesam (“your “beingness” is “knowable” to you”)

    1). Cartesian meditation … Dennis: “When everything has been rejected, you are still left with you, the ‘rejecter’”.– The rejecter, the thinker, doubter, debater – a subject or center of reflection, thinking, etc.…. So, ‘thinking’, etc. IS — it is not a priori a supposed separate ‘me’ or ‘I’ (pointing at this body or mind), just a ‘centre’ which appears to be intelligent and clearly self-reflecting… a something; call it ‘centre’ or ‘subject of reflection’. Call that subject or thinking centre, brahman or Spirit or Consciousness (not ‘me’ or ‘I’, or ‘emptiness’). Everything else, all particularities, are derivative and conceptual. Brahman, Consciousness, etc. IS; ‘me’, which is just a thought, an unsupported idea, is NOT.

    2). Questioner: “when someone ‘gets it’ in terms of Advaita after a long period of seeking…”

    Comment: One thing is getting it “after a long period of seeking”, and another getting it after a long period (usually years, or a life-time) of persistent, undivided study of and reflection on the tenets of Advaita along with a close reading of the Upanishads, Gita, etc.– without any preconditions or expectations.

  3. Taking on from Ramesam (“your “beingness” is “knowable” to you”)

    “1). Cartesian meditation … Dennis: “When everything has been rejected, you are still left with you, the ‘rejecter’”.– The rejecter, the thinker, doubter, debater – a subject or center of reflection, thinking, etc.…. So, ‘thinking’, etc. IS — it is not a priori a supposed separate ‘me’ or ‘I’ (pointing at this body or mind), just a ‘centre’ which appears to be intelligent and clearly self-reflecting… a something; call it ‘centre’ or ‘subject of reflection’. Call that subject or thinking centre, brahman or Spirit or Consciousness (not ‘me’ or ‘I’, or ‘emptiness’). Everything else, all particularities, are derivative and conceptual. Brahman, Consciousness, etc. IS; ‘me’, which is just a thought, an unsupported idea, is NOT.”

    The resultant ‘negator’ is itself an activity, not a static ‘me’. A thought is not a centre. It is has no inherent existence. When this is established through reasoning and logic, the idea of a centre is let go of. Any idea or thought remaining is viewed in the same way. All ideas of a centre are related to perception, cognition, and memory which are all conditioned and impermanent. Total negation, including the negation of the negator, is what is called for. What is left is ineffable with no activity trying to ‘know’ it, define it, or identify with it. It is not explainable. Logic is confined to the relative, not to the absolute. This is not an easy thing to comprehend.

  4. I don’t actually agree with Martin says either: “Call that subject or thinking centre, brahman or Spirit or Consciousness (not ‘me’ or ‘I’, or ‘emptiness’).”

    You can’t do this. Brahman does not ‘think’, except via its reflection in a mind at the empirical level. So any ‘subject’ (which by definition must have an object) is in duality and therefore mithyA. This includes the so-called ‘witness’.

    In fact, I agree with Anon, although I wouldn’t have put it quite like this. Of course “Total negation, including the negation of the negator, is what is called for” is not possible except conceptually. The mind always remains as the ‘negator’. It is still the mind that is making the leap to this understanding. This is why it is said that brahman is beyond thought; it is that which enables thinking.

  5. Negating the negator can only happen within the relative. You are correct, Dennis. Thinking negates itself because it finally sees the impossibility of knowing anything beyond the relative. That which is present, without inherent existence, unfolds. Inherent existence is a ‘thing’. Brahman cannot be a thing as subject and object cannot be applied to it.

    What enables thinking is not Brahman. Thinking is an activity of the body/mind, consisting of perception, memory, and cognition. It is a self-created activity that is time and space based, has beginning and an end. It can only function in the relative and not in any absolute way. It is a dependent orgination with no inherent existence.

  6. Dennis is of course right, from the perspective of AV, in reacting to my post the way he did. Only the mind thinks, Consciousness being its unmoved background. My ‘Cartesian meditation’ pretended to get at a primary source, ‘the beginning of things’, the ‘unmoved mover’ of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. If there is no ‘creation’, there is manifestation (principle and manifestation being interrelated metaphysical categories), but, again, we cannot say that Consciousness or brahman manifests Itself – there is the notion of saguna brahman for that… a proxy for nirguna brahman?

    Although I would like to bring in that other notion, Plotinian ‘emanation-ism’, I cannot do it here. However, ‘unmanifest-manifested’ are bona fide notions in AV. I will leave it at that.

    Anon. brings to bear at least one of the traditions of the emptiness teachings, but, though I am not against it, there does not seem to be much enthusiasm for that here in Advaita Vision. It would result in a protracted discussion on comparative non-dual traditions (nothing wrong in itself).

  7. Anon: “What enables thinking is not Brahman. Thinking is an activity of the body/mind, consisting of perception, memory, and cognition. It is a self-created activity that is time and space based, has beginning and an end. It can only function in the relative and not in any absolute way. It is a dependent orgination with no inherent existence.”

    This is Buddhism-speak, I suspect, and is not acceptable from an Advaita point of view. Brahman IS what enables thinking because there is ONLY Brahman. The ‘relative’ or ’empirical’ or ‘vyAvahArika’ realm is merely a device to provide an interim explanation for the apparent and a platform for discussion. It has to be dropped in the final analysis, at which point no further discussion or thought is possible.

    Martin: “Anon. brings to bear at least one of the traditions of the emptiness teachings, but, though I am not against it, there does not seem to be much enthusiasm for that here in Advaita Vision. It would result in a protracted discussion on comparative non-dual traditions (nothing wrong in itself).”

    I have always discouraged such discussions because I want to keep the site clearly focussed on Advaita. I don’t want visitors to be confused by what they read here; I want them to be able to rely upon coming here and finding only Advaita teaching – consistent, reasonable and helpful. I’m sure that ’emptiness’ teachings are (equally?) valuable to those who are using that methodology but again, fo comparison of non-dual teachings, I am sure there some really good sites out there. This is not one of them!

    • Dennis,

      Your point is well taken and that is why I generally don’t post on this site. When I post something that is taken as ‘Buddhist’ teachings, I am both trying to show similarity to references to the Absolute and differences to how some may ‘think’ about it. I believe that Mahayana’s statement that Nirvana is Samsara is similar to what Advaita posits as there is ONLY Brahman. That the absolute truth is also the relative truth. Personally, I have no problem with this. But, I do have some problems with the inference of Only Brahman in a logically conducted investigation of phenomenon.

  8. Absolute truth incorporates relative truths rather than ‘is’ the relative truth or truths. Brahman is the jiva (individual person), but the jiva is not brahman. Continuous discontinuity.

  9. Martin,

    It’s always best to try to avoid ‘mixing’ levels of reality if possible. When you do, you have to be ever so careful. I don’t mind your first sentence too much but you have the second the wrong way round – it does not follow from the first. You should have said ‘Brahman incorporates the jIva…’.

    In the context of what you are saying, you have to say that the jIva IS Brahman, but Brahman is not the jIva, just as the ring IS gold but gold is not (necessarily in the form of the) ring. But even this is potentially confusing. Better just to say that there is ONLY Brahman… ever. There just appears to be all of these other things at the level of the world, because of our ignorance and adhyAsa.

    It’s best to use the term ‘mithyA’ to say that the substantial reality of all things and jIvas is Brahman but the names and forms themselves have no reality of their own.

    (I know that you know all this and that what you said was just a slip of the pen. But I wanted to make this clear for readers.)

    Best,
    Dennis

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