Reflections on Body-Mind and Liberation

shankaraThere has been much healthy debate recently on the Advaita Vision Blog about Liberation, who or what is a jnani or jivanmukta, and what it means to follow traditional Advaita. The theme of this post is that we cannot resolve such questions without first gaining a clear understanding of the body-mind and its role in the context of Liberation. What follows are some reflections inspired by a spirited discussion with Ramesam, with due credit to him for stimulating many of the thoughts below. Any errors or possible misunderstandings are entirely my fault. Or perhaps not, since “Words fall back from it.”

We face a paradox when we try to understand Self-Knowledge from the point of view of a “person in the world.” Over and over again, the mind will try to turn That which it seeks into an Object, so that it may be examined. Yet what is sought is not an Object, has never been an Object, and can never be objectified. No matter how hard “you” try, “you” are never going to “see the Self.” This is simply because the body-mind instrument itself is but an Object. The Subject is trying to see Itself but all it can see is the objective body-mind and its sensations. How can it make any sense then to speak of “directly experiencing the Self”?

The body-mind is just another apparent thing arising in Consciousness, like the tree in the yard or the stone on the road. All such apparitions are subject to transformation and are temporal in nature. The acorn, sapling, and full grown oak are all equally just objects arising in Consciousness. The same is true for the embryo, infant, child, and adult human, all just one complicated Object apparently arising and transforming in Consciousness, and therefore no more Real than a dream of pink elephants under the bed. Is there any more value in talk of Liberation for our apparitional body-minds than for our pink dream elephants?

Listen to Wei Wu Wei, from Ask the Awakened, (p: 161):

A myriad bubbles were floating on the surface of a stream. “What are you?” I cried to them as they drifted by. 

“I am a bubble, of course” nearly a myriad bubbles answered, and there was surprise and indignation in their voices as they passed. 

But, here and there, a lonely bubble answered, “We are this stream,” and there was neither surprise nor indignation in their voices, but just a quiet certitude.

The body-mind of any person is just another bubble on the river. There can be no freedom for this body-mind bubble. (That’s because “Moksha” is not freedom for the person, but rather freedom from the person, not freedom from Samsara, but freedom despite Samsara.) And when the bubble pops and the body-mind is no more, the amount of water in the river will be precisely the same as before and nothing at all of importance will have been lost. Therefore any talk of “my enlightenment,” as though it were some property that an individual could possess, is entirely from the point of view of the bubble and not the stream.

The above line of discourse may raise a problem. Are we saying that jivanmukti is a non-existent concept, that there are no Liberated sages after all? Are we deviating from the traditional teaching of Advaita on this important topic? Before we try to say anything further about Liberation, perhaps we should take a closer look at what we mean by “traditional teaching.” Strictly speaking, can we call it “following the tradition,” if we are not going the whole nine yards? If we are not joining an ashram founded by Shankara, becoming a renunciate, remaining strictly celibate, striving to take the orange robe, and so on, can we still legitimately claim that we are following “traditional Advaita”? Does not the system taught by Shankara require full renunciation in a literal sense?

On the other hand, we can use the idea of a “tradition” more loosely, in order to distinguish a full and well-rounded teaching based on the traditional texts from teachings that are incomplete or not rooted in tradition. This is fine, but shouldn’t we still be honest with ourselves and admit that we are picking cherries, simply taking from the tradition what we think works for us and rejecting the rest as non-essential? For example, how many traditional Advaitins take seriously nowadays Shankara’s quaint commentary on the Northern Path and Southern Path taken by the “soul,” etc.?

If we take literally the orthodox criteria found in the scriptures, then the only qualified jnani are those (a) celibate and without a family, (b) sitting in isolation someplace, (c) never taking any action to fend for themselves and only accepting what comes along. What of Nisargadatta Maharaj then? Do we take the position he was not a jnani because he was married, had children, ran a business, engaged with the world on a daily basis? Has any Liberated sage in history ever truly matched the glowing descriptions of the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutras?

Many say that Ramana Maharshi provides us with the classic example of a jivanmukta, and some want us to believe he had no Ego, did not have thoughts or even a mind, or that he did not “see the world of duality.” All these claims are perhaps necessary to match the scriptures, or at least a common interpretation of those scriptures. But is this not merely the projection of dualistic concepts onto the non-dual Reality?

To all outward appearances, Ramana had a rich personal and inner life, and it certainly seems illogical to assume otherwise. He possessed an extraordinarily calm and sattvic mind, yes, the “still center of the turning world,” as some have said, yet an operative and fully engaged mind nonetheless. The man read newspapers and talked about the content of the articles with other people present. He testified in court, directed an ashram, conducted daily interviews, and wrote texts. None of these things would be possible for someone who had no thoughts ever arising in his mind. It is we who are trying to fit Ramana to our interpretations of scripture on jivanmukti. He did not speak of himself in such terms, because he knew the body-mind Ramana was just another Object arising in Consciousness.

Further, we can legitimately ask: Does the traditional description for a jnani apply across the board for all times, places, or cultures? What would happen if we whisked an alleged jnani from his remote cave and placed him in the middle of Kansas with $10 and no map? How would he fare? Robert Forman made this point in his wonderful little book, Enlightenment Ain’t What It’s Cracked Up To Be. Forman notes that if most so-called sages (whether they be from the Advaita, Buddhist, or Tao traditions, etc.) were taken from the environment in which the culture supports their renunciate lifestyle and then plopped down in the USA somewhere, they would not be able to function or survive and would quickly start appearing to be a lot less holy. We don’t take kindly here to people sitting around in caves expecting food to be brought to them, and it’s an obvious point that modern life in the West is far more complicated than life where all one’s basic bodily needs are met without much effort. Sam Harris also tells a funny true story along this line, about a revered Indian sage brought to America to teach a group of pupils. The sage in question discovered ice cream for the first time in his life, and suddenly took to demanding it for breakfast every morning. Before long he was sent packing. 🙂

Perhaps things are different now and “jnani” or “jivanmukta” looks different in the West? Let’s not forget that Maya is always far more clever than we allow for. Maya is what makes the impossible possible. So maybe it’s totally possible (from the relative point of view) that there are liberated sages who have wives, families, busy lives in the world, and so on, and the so-called traditional descriptions no longer apply. Perhaps Liberation is simply a matter of non-attachment to the distractions of the world, and does not necessarily require the elimination of distractions that are never taken to be Real anyway.

That said, we also have to be careful to watch for misunderstandings about Liberation and the body-mind. There are many “gurus” who present enlightenment as a spiritual lollipop, a blissful treat for the body-mind to experience and enjoy. Such teachers always seem to have a great epiphany story, and the “how I became enlightened” episode is usually in the first chapter of the book, or one link away from the home page of their website.

Some tell us we can have both Liberation and still enjoy Samsaric life, have our cake and eat it too. No need to give up my house, my loved ones, my world, my name? I can keep all these things and still have my glorious enlightenment experience at the same time? Where do I sign up? The problem with the lollipop approach is that it doesn’t set you free. There remains the nagging sense that nothing has been solved at all. And, that will always be the case until all possessive notions like “I,” and “me,” and “mine” take a hike.

If you think you “get” Advaita but you’re still searching for answers and looking for Liberation, that just means you still think the body-mind is Real and you remain attached to it on multiple levels, including the subconscious or subliminal. The seeker is taking the view of the body-mind looking for enlightenment or spiritual wisdom and attainment. Therefore he or she is still looking from the jiva point of view, from a sense of lack and limitation, and seeking to reduce or remove that limitation in order to become whole and complete again. A jiva who is still trying to “attain enlightenment” is looking through the wrong end of the telescope. The key to understanding enlightenment is to realize there is no such thing as enlightenment in Reality.

Further, you can try if you like, but there is no point to working toward becoming a bigger and better bubble on the river, looking for “spiritual advancement” in measured steps with signs and checkpoints along the way. Instead, all that is needed is to stop any focusing on the bubble and just float there on the stream. The realization is already there, “I am nothing, I am everything, and I don’t have to care what any others think because in Reality there are no others.” The body-mind bubble then just peacefully plays out its remaining existence, not worried at all about “achieving Liberation.” There can be no salvation for these bubbles anyway, these forms arising and subsiding in Consciousness. Yet the forms are also just Brahman, so what does it matter? There is no actual separation between the apparent forms/objects and the substrate, and therefore no need for salvation.

It may be that all we can really say is that in Reality there is no “one” to get it and therefore no “one” to become Liberated. Or as David Carse put it in Perfect Brilliant Stillness, “The lights are on, but nobody’s home!”

25 thoughts on “Reflections on Body-Mind and Liberation

  1. Then, why are you still talking about ‘liberation’, ‘enlightenment’? These are all regurgitated ideas that you keep toying with in your own mind. It’s an ADDICTION. Please seek help right away. 🙂

  2. The Road To Recovery from Addiction begins something like this….Hello, my name is Anonymous and I am an addict. You have to admit to yourself and others that you are addicted to something or other. In this case, the addiction is to thinking, especially conceptual thinking.

    The mind turns on itself and enters a question and answer ‘loop’ that plays itself involuntarily. All that is going on are the various tapes that the mind has made its own through its experiences, reading, etc. No answer that it gives itself relieves this movement. If there were an answer to our questions, the questions and analysis would stop immediatelly. It doesn’t. Why? Because you haven’t come to terms with the nature of this mind and its activity. It simply can’t give you the peace that you seek. When this ‘realization’ or ‘insight’, whatever you want to call it, happens, you immediately open into your feeling center which some call ‘being’ and a different way of knowing/perceiving begins. A different perspective becomes your everyday experience and the habit of your addiction, conceptual thinking, begins to take a backseat and is no longer the driver of this car. Conceptual thinking can never lead to this. It is not in its nature. Remember, the first step is the admission of addiction. It is the beginning of honest observation of what is.

    • Anonymous,

      LOL, isn’t posting the same comment over and over again also a form of addiction? 🙂

      “All that is going on are the various tapes that the mind has made its own through its experiences, reading, etc.”

      I disagree. You are conflating “knowledge” with “conceptual thought,” when these are not necessarily the same. We don’t need Advaita texts to understand this point. Kant made it clear more than 200 years ago when he established the limits of pure reason to secure valid judgments about empirical experience.

      “It simply can’t give you the peace that you seek.”

      I think you must be projecting here. If you had actually read the above post carefully — instead of using it as a platform to talk about your favorite meme again — it would be clear that I consider any notion of “seeking peace” to be part of what blocks the direct knowing of peace as one’s very self-nature.

      “When this ‘realization’ or ‘insight’, whatever you want to call it, happens, you immediately open into your feeling center which some call ‘being’ and a different way of knowing/perceiving begins.”

      What you seem to be overlooking is that your position is logically self-refuting. Here we are on a blog published for the very purpose of discussing non-duality and the teachings of Advaita. You keep telling us that we shouldn’t bother talking about this stuff at all, since it’s all just “conceptual pollution.” Yet here you are participating in the discussion too. If all talk is just pointless, then to what purpose do you keep posting comments? You constantly criticize any discussion of notions like “enlightenment” or “liberation” as being so much useless conceptual thinking, yet all you do is shift the discussion to your own conceptual words like “insight,” “realization,” or “feeling center,” and so on. You’re doing the exact same thing you’re complaining about.

      “Conceptual thinking can never lead to this.” Lead to what? What “this” are you talking about?

      Best Regards,
      Charles

  3. What I wrote doesn’t use the Advaita terminology, but nevertheless, there is no difference in actuality. What I am always trying to engage you or anyone else in is the experiential reality of what is, your own state. Since I cannot talk about Brahman and Truth, I must confine myself to consciousness and self, which are synonymous.

    There is no ‘knowledge’ aside from your conceptual thinking that can discuss these matters. Conceptual thinking cannot lead to peace, liberation or enlightenment and neither does taking the position that there is no one there to become enlightened, or that attachment to the body/mind is not real. These are just mind games just as you imagine you are a bubble floating on the river. A nice image. I want to hear what your experience is, not what you’ve read or been told. Your own experience is what is to be valued, not philosophy. I can read Dennis’ books if I want to know what Advaita says about this or that.

    Since you and many others are fond of quotes, please indulge me:

    Nisargadatta: ‘This consciousness in which concepts arise is itself a concept, and so long as consciousness remains, all other concepts will continue to arise.’

    How do you interpret a statement like this? And, what relationship does it have with your own experience?

    And, sorry for any misunderstandings. It is not my intention to single you out or criticize what you are actually experiencing.

    • Thanks, and no offense taken, Anonymous. It’s just a blog conversation anyway. If my own comments seem pointed at times, I don’t mean it personally. Besides, in your case I have no idea who I’m writing these comments to anyway. 🙂

      Let me be candid and tell you I think we’re just talking past one another, mainly because we don’t mean the same thing by words like “knowledge” or “concepts.” And the irony is we may actually be saying the same thing in different ways. The problem is that the discussion about it can take place *only* via concepts. Somehow you’ve come away with the impression that most of us here are only talking about intellectual stuff, regurgitated quotations, mind tapes, i.e., what you call conceptual thinking and mind games. It’s unfortunate you have that impression, because it means that most of your darts get aimed at straw targets. All these texts, quotes, words, and concepts are just pointers and mean exactly nothing in the end. The word we use is mithyA, but yes, that too is just another concept. “Brahman” too is a concept, a placeholder term like Pi or the square root of negative one, a way of talking about something that can’t be talked about.

      Let’s see if we can find some common ground, and then perhaps we can have a more fruitful discussion. I will make two specific claims. You tell me whether you agree or disagree:

      1. All words are concepts. Therefore all discussion can only take place via concepts.

      2. I know that I exist and that I am self-aware. Although I can have thoughts about this self-awareness that would qualify as conceptual or intellectual, raw self-awareness constitutes a type of knowledge that is direct and not merely intellectual or conceptual.

      • Charles,

        1. Agreed
        2. Not sure what you mean by ‘raw self-awareness’.
        If you recognize that you are ‘self-aware’, it is conceptual. How can you ‘step aside’ from self-awareness? If you exist, you are self aware.

        • Anonymous,

          Thanks for your concise reply.

          1. Since we agree that all words are concepts, and therefore that all discussion can only take place via conceptual thought, perhaps we can make some further progress here. You talk a lot about “experience,” while simultaneously dismissing many posts and comments as just useless “conceptual thinking.” The point is that you too are in the same trap the rest of us are. You cannot talk about your “experience” without using words, and since words are all just built on concepts, you also are just relaying so much “conceptual thinking” in your posts. It does not seem to have occurred to you yet that “getting rid of concepts” is also itself just a conceptual thought. Hence my repeated assertions that your argument collapses on itself. You’re not achieving what you hope to by taking this approach of shooting down concepts whenever they appear. We already know these are just concepts, only pointers to Something beyond any conception, including the conception “beyond.” Why keep telling us that your pointers (which are only based on what you have experienced) are any better than the pointers we already have from thousands of sages, via the distilled wisdom of the Upanishads?

          2. “If you recognize that you are ‘self-aware’, it is conceptual.”

          No, here we are in disagreement, and I think your response perfectly illustrates the root misunderstanding. You think “knowledge” is 100% conceptual/intellectual, and I’m trying to tell you this ignores Shankara, as well as a lot of deep analysis from Kant forward that bears on this question. As I said, there can be thoughts about being self-aware that qualify as merely intellectual or conceptual. But there is also a form of knowledge that is PRIOR to all external inputs and mental conceptions. There is no need at all to “step aside” from self-awareness to have this knowledge. That would be trying to turn the subject into an object again. Not possible. This is a PURE DIRECT knowing that is before all mentation or conception. It is what Shankara was getting at with his recommendation to practice Seer-Seen discrimination. When we talk about “knowledge” in Advaita, we’re not only talking about concepts or relative knowledge. We’re also talking about what is called para vidya, the “higher” knowledge that is direct and not based in Samsara, etc. Yes, this too is just another concept so we can talk about it, but it is understood that the words “para vidya” are merely a conceptual pointer to something that is not conceptual. Is this getting any clearer now?

          Best Regards,

          • 1. Yes, all we are talking about is conceptual. Mine is not better, it’s just mine. But I’m not interested in talking about ideas. I want to hear what your actual bodily experience is from moment to moment.

            2. I understand what you are referring to. My only question is are you living this or are you just thinking about it? If you are living it, changes happen in your body/mind. That other way of knowing that you refer to takes you past all that conceptual stuff into what is. The conceptual becomes a bunch of baggage that is no longer needed except for the business of living moment to moment. All the naming and analysis melts away. If that is your experience let me know.

            • Anonymous,

              “Mine is not better, it’s just mine.”

              Fine, but that is not how you have been coming across. I can only speak for myself, but to me it sounds like you think you are on to something we’re not seeing or understanding. And for whatever reason, you feel the need to “guru” others here. It looks like you are trying to get us to see things your way and drop all this Advaita stuff. 🙂

              “But I’m not interested in talking about ideas.”

              Well, that’s just too bad! Perhaps you should write your own blog posts then, and stop trying to pick apart posts written by other people. Unlike you, I’m very much interested in ideas. I’m pretty sure some others here are as well, so I wrote a blog post filled with some ideas Ramesam and I were discussing. Please stop assuming we are all interested in the same thing as you.

              “I want to hear what your actual bodily experience is from moment to moment.”

              If you want to know about the experience of this particular body-mind, then all I can say is you missed the entire point and purpose of the original blog post above. I have zero interest in talking about myself personally. I want to talk about the stream and you want to know about the bubble’s moment to moment experience. 🙂

              “If you are living it, changes happen in your body/mind.”

              Are you sure? What sort of changes? How do you know this applies to all who have this vision? Do you have any actual evidence to this effect or are you stating your opinion? Also, the more you say, the more it sounds like you are talking about some sort of enlightenment event without calling it that. You refer to a different way of knowing, perceiving, being, so obviously you are talking about some sort of an epiphany or experience of awakening, etc. Yet your very first comment above asked, “Why are you still talking about enlightenment?” Ok, why are *you* still talking about enlightenment without calling it that?

              “The conceptual becomes a bunch of baggage that is no longer needed except for the business of living moment to moment.”

              There is nothing inherently wrong with concepts. Concepts are just objects arising in awareness. If there is either attachment or aversion, the illusion of separation remains.

              Why do you have such a bias against book learning, philosophy, scholarly argumentation, and so on? Why this either/or approach you advocate? Instead of ignoring all the great minds and masterful works, why not study them and *then* evaluate your personal experience against what they are saying? Shankara would be a good place to start. 🙂

              Best Regards,

              • Charles,

                I can understand how you could see what I wrote as you’ve described. It really isn’t my point.

                There is nothing wrong with concepts, books, or the sharing of ideas with others. We all do it. But, when you say you are not interested in discussing the ‘personal’, I don’t mean your upbringing and particular psychological disturbances. By personal, I mean how you are actually viewing and functioning in this life. You cannot separate the stream from the bubble. It is one living process. Talking about ideas is not the same as entering that stream. Entering that stream has effects on the body/mind. Everything is related. In order to enter that stream, you have to leave the words and ideas behind. This is my experience. I’m not quoting from anyone but I can if you want me to. But I am coming to the point where there is no point in sharing my views here. It is a club I cannot join. One of the main reasons I post is because of Venkat. His interest in the same teachings that I have been involved with resonate with my own life and experience. It’s just that simple. I don’t feel the sense of any problem other than trying to say something that cannot be said. So, I’ll leave it like that.

                • Anonymous,

                  Fair enough. It’s been stimulating to engage with you, and if it seems like I’ve been pushing back hard on your comments, no offense or disrespect was intended. Just a little friendly “dharma combat,” as Venkat recently described in one of his comments. It’s clear that you have a deeply held and passionate view of these matters. I certainly respect that and appreciate the time you’ve put into commenting on my post.

                  Best Regards,
                  Charles

  4. Actually Charles, Ramana Astavakra and Vasistha all did speak about no ego, no mind, no thoughts. I’ve quoted from them often enough. You may think they are delusional in saying so, or perhaps, just perhaps, they were pointing to something that was beyond this conceptual knowledge?

    As readers are aware, there has been an intense discussion on this site on what constitutes, atma vichara (self-enquiry or scriptural enquiry), jnana (conceptual knowledge or direct experience) and jnana phalam; and whether Dayananda’s teaching is the only authoritative traditional interpretation of these issues to be followed.

    Lest you be misled about the actual import of advaita, it is important to appreciate the many nuances and perspectives about it.

    I have often quoted from Ramana who was very clear on this, e.g.:
    “The supreme jnana which destroys deceptive delusion, will be born only out of a true enquiry in the form of an attention towards that which exists as the Reality [‘I am’] in the heart. Be mindful that a thorough enquiry into lucid scriptural texts is like the picture of a bottle-gourd drawn on a paper – it can’t be used to cook a delicious curry”.

    In full concordance with Ramana, I just came across this humbling dialogue with Sri Chandrasekhara Bharati, the 34th Sankaracharya of Sringeri. Hopefully Dennis would recognise him as a traditional and authoritative teacher on advaita vedanta. And Anonymous – hopefully this demonstrates that advaita is not inconsistent with what you write.

    An elderly gentleman, Mr. R., who had some acquaintance with the Vedanta literature, once approached His Holiness and said:

    I have tried to understand the Advaita philosophy but numerous doubts and difficulties keep on cropping up now and then, which I don’t find it possible to solve by myself or with the help of the scholars whom I have met. I shall be very grateful if your Holiness will be pleased to initiate me into the Advaita-Vedanta yourself.

    His Holiness: I shall certainly be very glad to do so, if I can do it. But it is quite beyond my competence.

    Devotee: I am sure Your Holiness is not serious. If Your Holiness professes incompetence to teach Advaita, I do not see how anybody else in the world can claim to teach it.

    HH: What can we do? It is the nature of the subject. THE UPANISHAD ITSELF PROCLAIMS ‘HE WHO CLAIMS TO KNOW, KNOWS NOT’. THE ADVAITA IS NOT SOMETHING TO BE LEARNT; THEREFORE IT CANNOT BE A THING TO BE TAUGHT. IT IS ESSENTIALLY SOMETHING TO BE REALISED BY ONESELF. I cannot therefore undertake to teach you. If, however, in the course of your Vedantic studies you want any passage to be explained either in a text or in a commentary, I shall certainly try my best to explain it. I can thus help you only to understand the significance of words or of sentences which are composed of words, or of ideas which are conveyed by sentences. But it is impossible to convey to you a correct idea of what Advaita is, for it is NEITHER A MATTER FOR WORDS NOR IS IT A MENTAL CONCEPT. IT IS, ON THE OTHER HAND, PURE EXPERIENCE WHICH TRANSCENDS ALL THESE. Suppose I do not know what sweetness is. Can you describe sweetness in words sufficiently expressive to convey an idea of sweetness to me?
    D: That is certainly impossible.
    HH: Sweetness can be known only when I put some sweet thing on my tongue. It is impossible of being explained in words or of being learnt from another person. It has to be realised in direct experience. If a thing so familiar to us as sweetness transcends all expression, how much more transcendental will be the truth of Advaita, which is the supreme sweetness.
    I am reminded in this connection of a gentleman who came here sometime back. He was a Brahmana but his training had all been on the ‘modern lines’ so that he was a Brahmana only in name; and thanks to circumstances, he had attained a prominent position in public life. It was his first visit to this place. He seemed to have been very much enchanted with the crystal clear water of the river, the natural scenery all around, the peaceful atmosphere and other things. When he came to me, he expressed the delight he experienced and added ‘Why, it is brahmananda’. He evidently meant, of course, that it was like brahmananda, the bliss of Brahman, the Absolute. It struck me that, in spite of his training and habits so divorced from our time-honoured religion, this idea that brahmananda was the highest of all anandas and that, therefore, that alone could be used as a simile to express a delight which defies adequate expression was still un-eradicated from his mind.
    I mention this incident to show that, even in common parlance when we find words wanting to express an intense sensuous pleasure, we resort to brahmananda alone as an adequate or expressive simile. That means that it is universally recognised that the ananda of Brahman which is the same as Advaita is beyond all words. ASK ME NOT THEREFORE TO TEACH YOU ADVAITA, FOR IT IS AN IMPOSSIBILITY. BUT YOU MAY ASK ME TO UNRAVEL FOR YOU SOME GRAMMATICAL CONSTRUCTION OR TO SOLVE SOME OF YOUR DOUBTS IN THE LOGIC OF THE SYSTEM. THAT IS THE BEST THAT I CAN DO FOR YOU.

    • Hi Venkat,

      Thanks for your comment. Great to see you back, and I see you are in good form with an excellent quotation at the ready. 🙂

      I loved the long excerpt from Sri Chandrasekhara Bharati, and feel honored to have it quoted on the same page as anything I may have written. Thank you for taking the time to type it out to that extent. It’s a beautiful, clear, and pure teaching, all the while claiming not to be teaching anything. 🙂 It’s almost like something a Zen master might have said.

      You wrote: “Actually Charles, Ramana Astavakra and Vasistha all did speak about no ego, no mind, no thoughts. I’ve quoted from them often enough. You may think they are delusional in saying so, or perhaps, just perhaps, they were pointing to something that was beyond this conceptual knowledge?”

      Yes, Ramana, Astavakra, and Vasistha all did speak about “no ego,” “no mind,” “no thoughts” just as you say, but they did so as individuals writing their thoughts down on paper, or communicating them out loud to someone else present. The act of writing or speaking is impossible for someone without a mind and thoughts. But no, I don’t think they were delusional at all. I have nothing but effusive praise for all three sages you named. Further, I fully agree with you! They were all pointing to something beyond conceptual knowledge.

      So what are we disagreeing about then? I think it’s mostly just semantic misunderstanding and not actually substantive disagreement. You seem to be equating “cognition” with “mental concept” and/or “conceptual knowledge.” To me these are not the same at all, not by a wide mile. There can be cognitive knowledge that has nothing to do with concepts or thoughts. “Cognition” means far more than just “intellectual knowledge,” and here, I think, is where the main difficulty lies.

      A close reading of Swami Dayananda will make clear that he is not talking about Moksha as “conceptual knowledge” at all. Somehow Swami’s careful teaching on the difference between apara vidya and para vidya, as per his commentary on the Mundaka Upanishad, for example, has been collapsed to pertaining solely to apara vidya. The commentaries of his that I’ve studied show a far more subtle and nuanced reading than he has been given credit for in these blog discussions.

      “Even though one can have all the words of the Upanishads in one’s head, still one will not gain the knowledge of Brahman.” Swami Dayananda

      I’d also like to note that I’ve never once heard Dennis or any other blogger or poster here say that the only acceptable traditional teaching is that of Swami Dayananda. I think you are overstating the case here. Swami’s views have been defended as being a reasonable representation of the teaching, yes, but that’s about all that I have seen take place here on AV. In fact, there are numerous resource links on the main part of the site pointing to books and places that have nothing to do with that teaching or lineage. Anyway, for my part, I’m quite fine with saying it’s a version of the traditional teaching and leaving it at that.

      Best Regards,

    • Venkat,

      The teachers that I met that had the most impact for me, deflected all questions that I had back to my own experience and gave me the responsibility of embracing what I am, not what someone else said. The first time this happened to me was when I was a very young man. It changed me deeply. In one moment of simply being present, there was no longer a problem to be solved. Ego, mind, thoughts seemed to disappear and what was left was what is, sheer joy about nothing.

      Many people experience this kind of thing to one extent or another. Why or how this happens, I cannot say, it just does. Most of us are ill prepared for this kind of glimpse. What usually takes place sooner or later is an interpretation of what happened based on someone else’s experience and we start all over again trying to regain that ananda. It takes a long time to see how we block ourselves or deceive ourselves. We need to embrace all of it, all experience, all self, not a portion of it. Experience is what we are on a very deep level, not just a conceptual level, but a molecular one. There is no experience without you being present. Our existence and experience are one process. Problems arise when we divide it up. A unified consciousness, (experience/self as a whole) is possible and very desirable, but it takes an honesty that few of us are ready to face.

      Just some thoughts for whatever they are worth. I enjoyed reading yours……….

      • Thanks anonymous.

        When you say “experience is what we are on a very deep level”, and that without ego, mind, thoughts there is sheer joy with what is . . . how does that reconcile for you to a world which is self-evidently burning?

        • Venkat,

          When we embrace experience as what is, we also embrace the ego and mind as they are not separate from what is. When this happens, consciousness unifies and the division that ego and mind usually create begin to take a back seat, so to speak. The fullness that you feel connects you in a different way to how you view life. Some people call this love, some call it joy or bliss. It’s a force more compelling than me and my world. The separateness is not there in the same way it used to be. Me becomes something much more than I thought it was. The sense of problem shrinks exponentially. There is no more fixing the world or yourself.

          This is territory that is difficult to describe and communicate. It is to be lived.

          Not sure if I answered your question.

        • Anon,

          We have been conditioned from childhood to believe that competition, self-promotion is better than cooperation, living without trace. An individual can perhaps free himself from this conditioning, from this ego, but it is not easy, it goes against the grain of everything we have been taught.

          But then, in this state of living without ego, without separation, what is your reaction to seeing the facts of corruption, the ever-increasing inequality, the endless bombings that we seem to inflict on the world and the consequential millions of deaths, lives destroyed, human displacement?

          What feeling, what response does that engender? Surely it cannot be joy?

          • Venkat,

            I didn’t say I was living without ego and separation. I said they begin to take a back seat in the face of what is. All of the sadness and horror is still present in the face of world events and personal events. Anger, too. But, they don’t take root.

            Wanting things to be different is not the same as responding to something happening in front of you. I don’t spend any time thinking about changing the world.

  5. Is there ever a thinking that is not conceptual?

    Charles: Thank you for a complete and lucid exposition, reading which leaves nothing of substance to be added to the current discussion. You took the words out of my mouth when you wrote that all words are concepts, used as pointers, and that there cannot be any discussion without them (evidently we are all thinkers when we express our thoughts or mentations here and elsewhere). Your refutation of Anonymous’ utterances (or regurgitations) has been masterful.

    Venkat: The two excerpts you have provided are quite good (such as these are always welcome, though I find that the number of quotations of RM and Nisargadatta, by you and others, to be somewhat excessive, in my opinion, given that the other contributors here are sufficiently knowledgeable about them and their respective doctrinal positions.

    In fact, the whole of the extended quotation from Sri Chandrasekhara tells us exactly the same as Charles has already said, namely, ‘concept. “Brahman” too is a concept, a placeholder term like Pi or the square root of negative one, a way of talking about something that can’t be talked about’.

    Also, the meaning of words, as you know, depends on what the writer intends – usually in particular context, though it is usually consistent and personal for each one, making it difficult to compare the different meanings for the same term in other authors. A case in point is ‘consciousness’ as used in advaita Vedanta vs. Nisargadatta. For the latter, ‘consciousness’ is equivalent to ‘being’ or Ishwara or ‘I am’, where there is the complementarity or opposition subject-object (duality), but not so for advaita, where the invariable meaning is that of the Absolute (beyond being – non-duality). This shows the confusion and lack of understanding of these issues on the part of Anonymous. Had he known that Nisargadatta uses the term ‘awareness’, and also ‘passive consciousness’ as place-holders for the ultimate reality (Brahman, etc.), he would not have made such a blunder.

    • Dear Martin,

      Thanks for your comment. Glad you enjoyed the post, and I appreciate you taking time to comment on the discussion.

      Best Regards,
      Charles

  6. Martin,

    I’m not sure we are talking about the same thing, but you never seem to regard whatever I say as helpful. Such cold feelings you have where there were no cold feelings between Charles and myself. What to do? You are a traditionalist that interprets everything accordingly. Never mind. As I mentioned to Charles, I am only interested in discussing what is one’s actual experience, not the words issued by Nisargadatta or Sankaracharya. There is no merit in conceptual understanding or debate by scholars unless perhaps you’re a professor at a school, which I am not. Being a practitioner is what interests me. Being present is the practice. xxoo

  7. Hey Charles!

    Finally found my way over to your fabulous post to leave a comment. I can see you attract quite a bit of banter/philosophising/sharing… the thing that comes to mind is something I surrender to as a “counsellor” and that is, it makes no difference if someone agrees or disagrees with me. What’s important is that they know their own truth. Either way – in so-called harmony or conflict – I am doing my job : )

    That seems a valuable part to play here for all those who comment on your posts. And no doubt you already see it is a beautiful thing to remember that whether we meet the appearance of loving kindness or that of rejection, we are merely being present to the moment (however that makes sense to us).

    Love your work!
    Melanie

    • Hi Melanie,

      Thanks for your comment! Yes, the discussion is part of a long-running debate here on AV. All good though. You’re right that it should not be about insisting other people agree. Vedanta is certainly a critical tradition but we can argue with the goal of “winning” (jalpa or vitaNDa) or with the aim of getting at Truth (vAda). I’m trying for vAda in my responses, but I’ll be the first to admit it’s not easy!

      Cheers,
      Charles

  8. Anonymous (to Charles): ‘I want to hear what your actual bodily experience is from moment to moment … If you are living it, changes happen in your body/mind ` [Well, perhaps].That other way of knowing that you refer to takes you past all that conceptual stuff into what is’.

    Well, isn’t that it (after concepts have played their role)?

    Charles: ‘It is what Shankara was getting at with his recommendation to practice Seer-Seen discrimination. When we talk about “knowledge” in Advaita, we’re not only talking about concepts or relative knowledge.’

    Really, the thing is simple (not complicated), though not easy (because paradoxical, among other things), and usually needing years of sustained and repeated study and reflection for ‘it’ to sink in – where? Where else? – In the intellect (buddhi) *or* mind?

    The simplicity I am referring to consists in really understanding that the main problem – or one of the main ones – lies precisely in the body-mind which, according to advaita, is, or are, merely adjuncts of the ‘individual’ soul or jiva, identification with which leads indefectively to metaphysical error, such as giving reality to multiplicity, for example, the apparently distinct and separate spaces within jars, or the birth of multiple individuals – leading to their final disintegration or death.

    That is why, among other considerations, Charles recommended study of the ‘five sheaths’. Another aid is analyzing the three states of human experience – waking, dream, deep sleep – to show that the underlying witness- consciousness (turiya) transcends them all as the only reality that is.

    Finally, one cannot go very far without correctly understanding the two intimately related concepts (CONCEPTS again!): avidya (ignorance in a particular or technical – Shankarian – sense, and maya. This, together with the assimilation of what is implied by the two gnoseological perspectives, higher and lower.

  9. I have to say: thanks to everyone for a brilliant discussion without rancour or argument, just each putting their views intelligently. Hope it hasn’t got anything to do with the fact that I did not participate! Special thanks to Charles for originating and coordinating it.

    Best wishes,
    Dennis

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