I think we have probably had enough discussion on the ‘Experience versus Knowledge’ question. I cannot imagine many visitors wanting to read through 50+ comments on the topic! So here is an article that I have just had published in the Newsletter of Ramana Maharshi Foundation UK. It is on a subject closely related to the above question and indeed was touched upon in some of the comments…
Language and Teaching
Language is something we tend to take very much for granted. When someone says something to us, and providing we recognize the words, we think that we understand what it is that the speaker intends to communicate. And we respond appropriately. This is often not verbal – when it is, there is a subsequent opportunity to resolve any misunderstanding. Our response is usually to form an immediate mental opinion or judgement upon what has been said. And this is probably not merely a spoken or unspoken comment upon the particular topic expressed but also upon the person who made the statement. This all happens instantaneously and automatically. Thus it is that it can actually be worse for our comprehension if we already know something about the topic to begin with than if we are completely ignorant. What we take in will be significantly coloured by what we believe to be our prior knowledge (which may actually be ignorance).
We tend to learn the meanings of the everyday words that we use as we grow up, in the family-and-friends context. Here, repetition and normal interpersonal interactions will usually clear up any wrong ideas quite quickly so that any particular group or stratum of society will reach a consensus of meaning. The exceptions would principally relate to any word encountered only infrequently, in which case one might take away an entirely wrong conception of its meaning. I used to read several books per week in my childhood (mostly science fiction!). When I encountered a new word, I would sometimes assume that I understood what it meant by the context in which it occurred. The next time I met the word, I recalled that assumed meaning and continued reading. On several occasions in later life, I have been somewhat disconcerted to discover that such a word meant something quite different.
As regards more specialized terms, these usually relate to education in a school or college context. Here, any errors are corrected through reading, listening, communicating and, as a final resort, tests and examinations!
By the time we reach early adulthood, most of us have a command of virtually all of the words that we will use or encounter in our day to day lives. And we all know how to use a dictionary to look up any new ones. No problems, then, you might say!
Not so! The problems arise when we encounter a word that we have always used in a particular way but in which the speaker or writer means something else entirely. Even worse, there are also situations in which the speaker has an incorrect understanding of a word and assumes that the hearer will have the same (mis)understanding. Here, the scene is set for total confusion!
Words can change their meaning over time, as well. Children today would think I had gone mad if I said I was going to hang a mobile over the baby’s cot. Words can even come to mean precisely the opposite of their original ones, as evidenced by the well-known example of ‘person’ (from the Latin persona, meaning ‘mask’). And new words are coming into existence all the time. Today I saw, in the racks of ladies’ trousers in Marks and Spencer, sections labelled ‘Treggings’ and ‘Jeggings’!
So, why all this preliminary talk about words and their meaning? Well, in Advaita, this potential problem is seriously compounded by another problem. Many of the key terms used in the teaching were originally in Sanskrit. And some of these Sanskrit terms have no clear translation.
Unfortunately, many seekers have mistrust or even a phobia about Sanskrit. After all, they want to find out about such things as freedom and happiness; they are not interested in spending years learning a new, and particularly difficult language! In fact, not only are they expected to learn lots of new words and weird ways of combining them, but also they have to learn a strange new alphabet. Even if they ignore the correct, scripted form, they are expected to understand all of those lines, dots and squiggles or cope with seemingly random capital letters in the middle of words! Surely this is all unnecessary?
What we find in the teaching of Advaita is that there are many words, terms and concepts that have no direct equivalent in English. Of course, this is not to say that you need to learn Sanskrit in order to understand the concepts. English (and all other modern languages) are sufficiently complex, mature and robust that all of the teaching can be explained, given time and application. But, in order fully to appreciate all of the nuances and to avoid mistaken ideas, we really have to go through a similar process as was traversed for our everyday language capability.
The sort of example I have in mind is a typical question by a seeker: “Is the world real or illusory?” It is likely that the questioner expects a single word answer, with maybe some explanation for that answer. But that single word answer would have to be ‘No’, followed by an answer that is perhaps rather longer than the questioner expected! The reason is simple: unless you are a cosmologist, quantum physicist or philosopher, you probably find it hard to conceive that there could be something other than ‘real’ or ‘illusory’. If it is not one, surely it must be the other, you might think.
Advaita is able to explain this – but not in a single-word answer! The world is not an illusion – we experience it whenever we are awake. But then we experience a dream world whenever we go to sleep and dream, and surely that is not real? It does not help much to say that others also experience this waking world, because I could equally well say that others in my dream also experience my dream world. The first great Advaitin, Gaudapada, wrote lots about this in his commentary on the Mandukya Upanishad (my latest book, ‘A-U-M: Awakening to Reality’, reveals all of this) and the bottom-line conclusion is that there is no world at all! (But that is another story.)
Another, extremely important example is the word ‘enlightenment’. Seekers use this word all the time and assume that the person to whom they are speaking uses it in a similar way. But it may convey all sorts of mistaken ideas. It is rarely used in traditional teaching for that reason. The Sanskrit term with which it is usually thought to correspond is mokSha, which actually means ‘liberation’, in the sense of being freed from the eternal cycle of rebirth.
Enlightenment has nothing to do with God (merging with, returning to or coming from), because there is no God in reality. Nor is it an experience of any kind, even ‘of oneself’, so that blinding lights, feelings of peace or supreme happiness may signal eye disease or use of drugs – but not enlightenment. It is not about getting what you want (or getting rid of what you do not want). Modern seekers frequently confuse seeking enlightenment with ‘self-help’, looking to somehow become complete and fulfilled. There is no ‘higher self’ to be reached; enlightenment is not an enhanced state of consciousness and you cannot be ‘almost’ or ‘partially’ enlightened – you either are or you are not. It is not even about becoming liberated, which you might think given the meaning of mokSha. You are in fact already free – the problem is you do not know this. And there are other misconceptions, equally erroneous (see my book ‘Enlightenment: the Path through the Jungle’ for a detailed analysis).
Enlightenment is simply the realization, in the mind of the person, that I am not the body-mind but Consciousness – and that is all there is. It is the replacement of Self-ignorance by Self-knowledge. It is the certainty that reality is non-dual; the knowledge that the world is not real in itself; the reality of the world is also Consciousness. It is its apparent separateness that is illusory.
These, then, are examples of why we need carefully to define all our words before embarking upon any attempt to ‘explain’ life, the universe and everything to someone else. A statement which may be revealing and extremely helpful to someone who understands the meaning of each of the words may be confusing or quite misleading to someone who does not.
So, we have a problem! Someone may ask a question of a teacher and an answer may be given. Ideally, this will be in the context of a gradual unfoldment of Advaita over a period of many years. The key words used in question and answer will have been defined and used in specific ways and both will clearly understand their meaning.
In the much less ideal context of a ‘satsang’ meeting, where the teacher may only just have encountered the seeker and the meeting may only last a couple of hours, there is a clear danger of misunderstanding. However, if the teacher is experienced and able to intuit the essence of what is being asked, he or she may be able to provide a response in such a manner that the student will understand and benefit.
But, if a seeker is only able to read a transcript of a dialog, is entirely unaware of the level of the questioner and probably does not have his or her own clear understanding of the topic and its many related aspects, then the likelihood of misunderstanding increases dramatically – and there is often no possibility of asking the teacher for clarification. Even worse, the written material may have been translated from another language. Now we compound the problem even further because the translator has first to understand the dialog before it can be translated. (And the original may also include Sanskrit terms so there is further scope for corruption of meaning.)
This, then, is the situation with respect to all written material from any teacher. If the material is, for example, a commentary on an Upanishad, then it may not be so serious. It is likely that translations of Sanskrit words will be given and that the commentary will use these in the manner originally intended by the scripture. Thus, we have what is potentially a gradual unfoldment, defining the terms that will be used subsequently. Obviously nowhere near so good as being in the presence of the teacher (where questions can be asked to eliminate doubt) but much better than randomly asked questions and answers without prior explanation of the words which will be used.
Unfortunately, this problem applies all Q&A type material – including that of Ramana and Nisargadatta. No one doubts that both were brilliant at answering live questions from seekers, to their obvious benefit. But this format does not constitute a systematic teaching, even in the live context, as already explained. In the case of a seeker merely reading (a translation) from a book, the answers may prove inspiring and even revelatory but they may also instil confusion or erroneous notions which prevent, rather than aid enlightenment. Seekers should be aware of this danger. Ideally, all such material should be used as an adjunct to traditional teaching and never as the only source of Self-knowledge.
Obviously I do not claim that my own writing is in the same league as the transcribed discourses of sages such as these (even where they are second-hand and translated). What I do always endeavour to ensure is that I explain topics ‘bottom-up’, defining all the terms first and ensuring that concepts needed to be understood for any particular topic have already been explained earlier. And there is a comprehensive glossary of terms in every book, usually with Sanskrit script and transcription-with-capital-letters. My hope is that, in this manner, I can at least avoid some of the problems described above.