Q. 431 Emergence vs. Consciousness

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q. 428 A dialog on getting to know brahman

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q. 427 pramANa and reason

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

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

The Sublime Homecoming

A chapter from the novel by Mukesh Eswaran has just been posted to the main site.

Here is a brief description of the book by the author:

The life of Michael Pearson, an American scientist, falls apart when his wife accidentally dies. His search for a way to deal with his grief, which takes him to India and back, leads him to spirituality. Since he firmly accepts Darwin’s theory of evolution, he is skeptical of the validity of the claims of spirituality. But Socratic dialogues with an enigmatic man in India called Swami and his subsequent life-experiences compel him to gradually rethink his position. The novel traces Michael’s arduous odyssey to self-discovery in a secular life, ending in a crisis that decidedly resolves his doubts about the compatibility of spirituality with evolution. This novel clearly illustrates how everything in life—from the mundane to the sublime—can be approached in the light of nonduality or Advaita. And if one wants to understand how and why spirituality is completely consistent with the theory of evolution, this novel is worth reading.

Mukesh Eswaran is deeply interested in spirituality, especially Advaita. He is an academic by profession and teaches at a university. He lives in Vancouver, Canada.

Tattvabodha – Part 31

Part 31 of the commentary by Dr. VIshnu Bapat on Shankara’s Tattvabodha.This is a key work which introduces all of the key concepts of Advaita in a systematic manner.

The commentary is based upon those by several other authors, together with the audio lectures of Swami Paramarthananda. It includes word-by-word breakdown of the Sanskrit shloka-s so should be of interest to everyone, from complete beginners to advanced students.

Part 31 provides the bare Sanskrit shlokas in Devanagari script and concludes this series.

There is a hyperlinked Contents List, which is updated as each new part is published.

Q. 426 Flow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q. 425 Truth and reality

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

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

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

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

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

Tattvabodha – Part 30

Part 30 of the commentary by Dr. VIshnu Bapat on Shankara’s Tattvabodha.This is a key work which introduces all of the key concepts of Advaita in a systematic manner.

The commentary is based upon those by several other authors, together with the audio lectures of Swami Paramarthananda. It includes word-by-word breakdown of the Sanskrit shloka-s so should be of interest to everyone, from complete beginners to advanced students.

Part 30 provides a short summary of the entire work.

There is a hyperlinked Contents List, which is updated as each new part is published.

Tattvabodha – Part 29

Part 29 of the commentary by Dr. VIshnu Bapat on Shankara’s Tattvabodha.This is a key work which introduces all of the key concepts of Advaita in a systematic manner.

The commentary is based upon those by several other authors, together with the audio lectures of Swami Paramarthananda. It includes word-by-word breakdown of the Sanskrit shloka-s so should be of interest to everyone, from complete beginners to advanced students.

Part 29 explains what happens to the j~nAnI and his accumualted karma on enlightenment.

There is a hyperlinked Contents List, which is updated as each new part is published.