Conversation with ‘H’ (Knower, Witness) Prelude & Part 1

H. ‘… as regards the somewhat artificial distinction (ontologically speaking) that I make between awareness and consciousness, then this is something I do of my own choosing, accepting that there is an objectless state of mind that cannot correctly be termed ‘consciousness’ as it is not ‘with knowledge’ of any kind. In its stricter, more formal sense, then in the language of Pali this would be one of the Arūpajhāna, as you may well know – i.e. neither perception nor non-perception. I often find myself in dispute with phenomenologists over whether an objectless awareness is possible. Although the (8th) Arūpajhāna itself is of course a very rarified state, the very fact that it is a state gives me – I hope – the liberty to introduce the idea of a Tabula Rasa of mind, and which, again due to the ubiquity of the term, I call ‘awareness’ for the purposes of creating a template for learning only. I do not consider it to be its own ontological category.’


(From another dialogue in Quora – being an interlude in the above conversation)

M. ‘In Advaita, how is it that the witness is the same for everyone?’ (Q. in Quora)’Witness’ is just an epithet, and it can be used interchangeably with other epithets, such as ‘pure consciousness’, ‘supreme intelligence’, ‘Atman’, ‘Paramatman’, ‘Anubhava’, etc. It is not other than the Knower behind the (‘individual’) knower, the Light behind the (reflected) light, the Mind behind the mind – when the second of each pair is taken as an individual – each one being a projection of, or vehicle for, the first.

Ultimately, there is only one Observer, one Light, one Knower, etc., with the clarification that It is changeless, immutable, not affected by the ‘changing scene’, as it were. The image of a clean mirror is often used here.

One of the main tenets of Advaita Vedanta is that multiplicity is an illusion (Plotinus, Ibn al’Arabi, Rumi, and many other sages, had the same intuition). The light reflected in many ponds is only one light – that of the sun. The space contained in a multiplicity of pots is only one space.


Part 1

M. In my previous comments as a preliminary reply to H – taking into consideration his scruples on the use of language and of certain anthropomorphic-sounding expressions in particular – I accepted that much of the language in Eastern texts – whether mythological or philosophical – is wrapped in a florid, imaginative language, which contains an exuberant use of hyperbole and other devices, such as metaphors, stories, and unlikely dialogues in the forest by a master and his disciple or disciples. Should this, however, detract from whatever truth is contained in them? Often, if not as a rule, spiritual or metaphysical doctrine is the main focus in such writings (I mentioned the Mahabharata, but there are many other writings, called Puranas, that are equally imaginative and entertaining as well as being didactic). Who can complain about such works of the creative imagination if the ship or vessel takes you finally to the safe harbour of truth – a truth, that is, that can never be fully conveyed by any kind of language? The only problem, really, is that there is not enough time to immerse oneself and get lost in such marvels!

Examples of the language I am referring to were given (separately), such as the presence or absence of ears and eyes (and feet) in the supreme deity itself; the quality of fearlessness, etc. – which cannot but be a decoy for the absolute or reality in itself. Indulging a little more in such delights, we hear about “brilliant bodies like the sun, the moon and the stars – all the celestial luminary bodies that are the all-pervading Lord Vishnu… “ There is a wonderful story in one of the Upanishads (sacred texts) about a boy, Svetaketu who, having undergone a 12 year long education in a hermit’s ashram, returned home with a swagger, very proud of himself. His father, on noticing this, asked him: ‘Oh son, you are so egoistic and proud! Have you learned about that Entity or Reality which is to be taught, hearing about which all that which is not heard about becomes heard, all that which is not deliberated upon becomes deliberated upon, all that which is not cognized becomes cognized?’ The father then goes on to teach him…

The language of these sacred texts (some of them are one rung below that, and are called ‘remembered’, while the former come under the epithet of ‘heard’) is not descriptive with regard to the ultimate reality; rather they are evocative and metaphorical, and this is true of most of the ‘sacred’ or religious texts in the world. As a friend, Dennis Waite, wrote recently in ‘Advaita Vision’, “you cannot have ‘concepts’ from the standpoint of absolute reality – that would be duality! Secondly, you cannot mix levels of reality”.

The following is an illuminating commentary to one of the Upanishads by the great Indian philosopher Shankara:

“Even revelation makes Atman (supreme Spirit) known to us only by negating the function of a knower or of any means of knowledge …. ‘Seen by whom, and by what means? Known by whom, and by what means’? it asks. ‘… Where everything is the Spirit alone?’ It does not assume the usual descriptive function of speech which rests on the presumption of the relation of words and things denoted by them.”

I already mentioned the value and function of ‘neti, neti’ in this context, that is, that of removing misconceptions. I also referred to superimposition and subsequent rescission as existing, though un-acknowledged (or un-intended) in normal language and also as a teaching devise, which was an insight or discovery of the above mentioned Shankara. One of the texts puts it this way: ‘this is pulling up all ignorance by the roots’.

“The ultimate means of knowledge [i.e. scriptures] removes the knowing nature itself superimposed on Atman (the Spirit) and, simultaneously with that removal, It ceases to be a means of knowledge just as the means of dream knowledge ceases to be such on waking up”. (Bhavagad Gita)

In my previous post I included an excerpt related to the meaning and significance of witness (who or what is a witness according to the non-duality of advaita Vedanta), and also mentioned briefly two types of knowledge but, rather than abounding on this, I will end with another quotation: (The god-avatar Krishna teaching the warrior Arjuna):

“I am born as everything by virtue of my illusory power – everything is merely an appearance of Me, who am the absolute reality beyond time, space, and any talk of causation.”


One thought on “Conversation with ‘H’ (Knower, Witness) Prelude & Part 1

  1. Martin,
    Let me make it easier for you to understand the formless jhanas and how they fit into the Theravada teachings and the experience of the Buddha. Attached is a 2 page pdf explaining the various states and what they correspond to.

    Beyond The 4 Jhānas – Arūpa Samādhi (May 2016)
    Q&A Forum with Ven. Dr. M. Punnaji Maha Thera

    Progress of Meditation (Bhāvanā) through
    the 4 Jhānas and Arūpa Samādhi:

    EMOTIONAL REALM (Kāma-bhava)
    • Eliminating the Five Hindrances and progressing through the 5 constituents of
    Ecstasy (Jhāna).

    MENTAL IMAGE REALM (Rūpa-bhava)
    • One passes through the 1st, 2nd, 3rd & 4th ecstasies (Jhāna’s);
    • The gradual progress through the 4 ecstasies (Jhāna’s) is a gradual reduction of the
    Subjective experience.

    IMAGELESS REALM (Arūpa-bhava)
    This progress through the imageless realm is a gradual reduction of the Objective

    • Realm of Infinite Space ( kāsānañcāyatana)- Emptiness of the objective experience;
    • Realm of Infinite Perception (Viññāṇañcāyatana)- Emptiness of perception;
    • Realm of Nothingness ( kiñcaññāyatana)- Emptiness of all experience;
    • Realm of Neither Sensation Nor No Sensation (Nevasaññā nāsaññā yatana)- The
    threshold of perception.

    INSENTIENCE (Avijjā): The end of perception
    Cessation of Sensation and Feeling (Saññā Vedayita Nirodha).
    An individual in this state is similar to a dead body in having no mental activity at all, yet
    differs from it, due to the presence of metabolism (ayu) in the body, and temperature in the body (ushna). One will not remain in this state for more than 7 days. When one awakens from this state, one begins to become aware of how the mental process creates the world and the self one is aware of, and also how the notion of existence creates stress and distress (dukkha).

    1) Entering the Realm of Infinite Space ( kāsānañcāyatana):

    • When one has entered the 4th ecstasy one’s attention is focused on the subjective
    experience (upekkha). The objective experience is empty. This empty objective
    experience cannot have bounds or limits and is therefore limitless or infinite.
    Therefore it is called the Realm of Infinite Space. This means to go beyond the 4th
    ecstasy is to enter the Realm of Infinite Space.

    2) Realm of Infinite Perception (Viññāṇañcāyatana):

    • As one proceeds further one begins to realize that the empty objective experience is
    in fact a subjective experience, which is also infinite. Therefore it is known as the
    Realm of infinite Perception.

    3) Realm of Nothingness ( kiñcaññāyatana):

    • When one recognizes the emptiness of the process of perception one realizes that
    one is aware of nothing. This means one has entered the realm of awareness of
    nothing ( kiñcaññāyatana).

    4) Realm of Neither Sensation Nor No Sensation (Nevasaññā nāsaññā yatana):

    • When one has withdrawn attention completely from the Realm of Nothingness, one
    enters the threshold of perception where one is not sure whether one is
    experiencing a sensation or not. Thus one enters the Realm of Neither Sensation
    Nor No Sensation (Nevasaññā nāsaññā yatana);

    • This is not yet the complete disappearance of Sensation (saññā) and Feeling

    Absence of Sensation and Feeling (Saññā Vedayita Nirodha)

    • When one withdraws completely from Sensation (saññā) and Feeling (vedanā);
    • Sensation and Feeling, the rudiments of the Cognitive Process, ceases;
    • When this happens one has entered the state of Absence of Sensation and
    Feeling (Saññā Vedayita Nirodha);
    • This absence of sensation and feeling is an absence of what we call the mind;
    • This means the mind is not an entity separate from the body but an activity of the
    • An activity cannot exist. It can only start, continue, and stop;
    • Existence is a static concept while an activity is a dynamic process. This is why an
    activity cannot exist;
    • Therefore this absence of the activity called mind, where there is no sensation or
    feeling is called Insentience;
    • The ascetic Siddhartha Gotama, when he entered this state of stopping the mind
    and restarted this activity called mind and saw how the mental process was creating
    the world, the self and the distress called suffering, he became enlightened about
    the Suffering, its cause, its end and the way leading to its end. This was how he
    became a Buddha;
    • The Buddha called this knowledge or Enlightenment Vijja;
    • This knowledge or Enlightenment (vijja) began to grow from the time when the
    activity called mind was stopped and started again;
    • When the activity called mind was stopped the Enlightenment (vijja) was absent;
    • When the activity called mind was started the Enlightenment (vijja) began to grow;
    • Therefore the stopping of the mind naturally becomes the Absence of
    Enlightenment (avijja);
    • As one emerges from Cessation of Sensation and Feeling (Saññā Vedayita
    Nirodha), one begins to become aware of the Antecedental Concurrence (Paṭiccasamuppāda);
    • When one is fully awakened from this state of Insentience (avijjā), one has ceased
    to exist (bhava) because one goes through a paradigm shift and Awakens from the
    dream of existence (Nirodha-samāpatti).

    The death-like state described above seems to be shared by those such as U.G, Ramana, & Nisargadatta and countless others throughout history. The unique Buddhist twist on this is the absence of ‘inherent existence’, ’emptiness’, of the person and phenomenon of an existent self. It is way beyond nihilism as that would be possible in one of the formless states, the realm of nothingness, if one stopped there and concluded that this was the ultimate state. But, as you can see, there is a lot more coming after that.

    I hope this helps you clarify the first part of your post which is incomplete and not in sequential order as put forth by the Buddha.

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