Q: I have tried several spiritual paths and I was always stopped in my search by this question: How do we explain suffering?. Why does all pervading, partless, actionless Consciousness create, allow, dream of Auschwitz? Surely Consciousness could do better than this?
A (Ted): Your question is certainly understandable. It is the same question just about everybody has at an early stage in their spiritual understanding. It is based on a fundamental erroneous assumption we make about the nature of reality due to the conditioning we receive either directly from religion or indirectly from the religious beliefs that undergird the generally accepted perception of reality that informs the society.
Our mistaken assumption is that awareness is an anthropomorphic (i.e. human-like) entity who has some overarching personal agenda and is orchestrating—or at least overseeing—the activities and events transpiring in the world with a vested interest in their nature and results. But this is not the nature of awareness.
As you state in your query, awareness is all pervading, partless, and actionless. All three of these aspects of awareness preclude any possibility of awareness being a creator, doer, or even an “allower.” In fact, its all-pervasive nature alone renders awareness incapable of acting. Because there is nothing other than it and thus no location where it is not, awareness has no “arena” in which to move. Because it has no boundaries by which it can be distinguished as a discrete entity in contrast to a contextual background or any other entity, there is no way for it to undergo any change. Therefore, since movement or change is the defining characteristic of action, its absence as an aspect of awareness makes awareness by definition actionless.
In addition, because it is partless, awareness has no attributes, organs, or “equipment” with which to act. And what’s more, due to the fact that awareness is all-pervasive, it is whole, complete, full, and neither lacks nor needs anything. Thus, awareness harbors absolutely no desire that could possibly compel it to act.
It is for these reasons that awareness is actionless, not because it is some entity that is choosing not to act.
Awareness simply is. It is the self-dependent, self-effulgent “light” by means of “whose” illumination all objects, both gross (i.e., tangible objects) and subtle (i.e. sensations, thoughts, and emotions), are known. It doesn’t try to illumine objects so that they can be known. Rather, its nature is illumination. It doesn’t direct its “light” toward or turn its “light” upon anything. It simply is the all-pervasive, ever-shining “light” in which all things appear.
In fact, you can verify the actionless nature of awareness for yourself through a simple inquiry into your own experience. For you are awareness. THE awareness. Awareness is all-pervasive, remember, so reality is non-dual. Due to the limited mind-body-sense mechanism with which you, awareness, have associated in order to have a human experience, your scope is limited. But your essential nature is the same awareness as absolute awareness. Just as the space inside a pot is no different from the space surrounding it, your seemingly personal awareness is no different from universal awareness. So, bearing that in mind, do you—not Juan, mind you, but the awareness to whom Juan is known or the “light” in which Juan appears—have to try to “shine” or exist? Do you have to try to know the objects that appear within the scope of your being (i.e., awareness)? Granted, there are things you in the guise of an apparent individual do inquire into or study or make an effort to experience or understand, but that’s not the issue here. Here, we are talking about the spontaneous perception of whatever objects present themselves within the scope of your (i.e., the apparent individual’s) perceptive organs and mind. For instance, when the sun is shining, you don’t have to try to see the sun. You “illumine” the object of sunshine and spontaneously experience it. Such is the nature of pure awareness—though, to be clear, awareness itself is not even an experiencer. It is the “light” by means of which it is possible for the intellect of the apparent individual to experience and know objects.
The bottom line is that awareness itself doesn’t do anything.
However, within awareness there exists a power called maya, or ignorance. Maya has two powers: concealing and projecting. It causes awareness to apparently forget its true attributeless, all-pervasive, actionless nature, and then it projects the vast array of objects that comprise the manifest universe on the “screen” of awareness, thus making awareness seem to be all the objects, interactions, and events taking place in the “creation.” The “creation,” however, is not real. It is simply a projection, an apparent reality that is no more real than a dream.
So, to repeat, awareness itself isn’t actually doing anything.
When pure awareness “mixes with” or is conditioned by its own inherent power of ignorance, it seems to forget who it really is and assumes the apparent identity of Isvara, or God-the-Creator. Thus, blasphemous as it may sound, ignorance is actually the nature of God.
To be clear, ignorance doesn’t mean stupidity in the relative sense of not knowing facts and figures or being naïve about “the ways of the world.” Rather, ignorance in this context refers to not knowing the true nature of reality, the essence of all the names, forms, and functions that abound in the universe.
When we say that God created the world, what we are really saying is that ignorance veiled the true nature of non-dual awareness and projected upon the “screen” of its being the dualistic universe. Therefore, ignorance, not awareness, is the “cause” of both the bad and the good, the dark and the light, the positive and the negative, the beautiful and ugly, the kindness and the cruelty that are intrinsic to dualistic existence. Awareness is neither executing nor sanctioning the actions occurring within the “movie” of the apparent reality. Awareness is simply the “light” that illumines the projection.
Even ignorance, or God, is not a volitional anthropomorphic entity orchestrating events according to some personal agenda, or, worse, testing the allegiance of individuals by subjecting them to a battery of alluring temptations and then severely punishing those who disobey his rules or succumb to his enticements.
God is simply the set of impersonal and inviolable dharmas (i.e., universal physical, psychological, and ethical laws) that govern the cause-and-effect functioning of the apparent reality (i.e., manifest universe). There is no personal agenda involved. Awareness has no volition and is incapable of doing and so it doesn’t try to delude itself. Ignorance is an insentient object—power is an object, for it can be observed and experienced—and thus has no personal will and so it doesn’t try to condition awareness. It is simply the way it is. Maya conditions pure awareness and thereby projects the dualistic universe, which operates according to impersonal laws that maintain its overall harmony, balance, and wellbeing.
Admittedly, from our perspective as apparent individuals, it doesn’t always seem as though what is happening is serving the best interests of the total. But earnest and honest scrutiny does bear out the fact that life is essentially a zero-sum game. For every pleasure, there is a pain. For every loss, there is a gain. Thus, while ignorance is responsible for seeming injustice and consequent suffering, it is also inherently self-corrective and infallibly sustains the cohesive functioning of its projection.
Essentially, the apparent reality is a gigantic mechanism that is capable of continuously reconfiguring itself in order to accommodate any action executed within itself in such a way that will serve the best interests of the total mechanism. In other words, all actions are integrated into the dharma-governed chain of cause-and-effect that sustains the functionality of the mechanism. Its laws are impersonal and inviolable. For instance, fire burns so if you stick your finger in a flame it will get burned. In terms of ethical values, a sense of dharma (i.e. right and wrong) is part of our programming, so to speak. If we lie, cheat, steal, or otherwise injure someone, we feel guilty and experience an agitated mind. Thus, all deeds meet with their just rewards, so to speak. This is the basis of the saying that what goes around comes around.
Though this understanding does not warrant turning a blind eye to moral atrocities or failing to address ethical transgressions, it does help alleviate the unbridled umbrage, existential angst, and inconsolable suffering that ensues from believing the world to be inherently unjust. When we understand that the apparent reality is taking care of itself, and, moreover, that the apparent reality is just that—only an apparent projection within awareness—and thus has no affect on the essential nature of awareness, it enables us to do our best in any given circumstance to uphold dharma while simultaneously accepting things as they are. In short, while pain persists (and indeed calls upon us for an appropriate response), suffering ceases.
Upon analysis, we realize that all ethical transgressions and existential angst are rooted in self-ignorance. As has been shown, awareness is neither executing nor sanctioning injustice, and it is not the cause of suffering. Instead, ignorance is the culprit. Because we are ignorant of our true identity as whole, complete, limitless, all-pervasive, ever-present, non-dual awareness and believe we are limited, inadequate, and incomplete, we pursue objects that we hope will complete us and thereby provide us with lasting happiness and permanent peace. When our desire or perceived need for these objects becomes too strong, we are compelled to seek them at all cost—even if we have to violate the universal value of non-injury. If you contemplate this point, you will see that on both the microcosmic (i.e., personal) level and the macrocosmic (i.e., societal or global) level this basic ignorance is invariably the cause of all the unethical and immoral behavior in the world.
Though unethical and immoral behavior will never be eliminated from the world, for they are intrinsic to the dualistic nature of the apparent reality, one’s personal suffering can be alleviated by the removal of self-ignorance through the assimilation of self-knowledge. Understanding the true nature of reality enables one to bear the pain that is an integral and unavoidable aspect of worldly life without being swept away by feelings of anger, impotence, and/or grief. And understanding one’s own true nature frees one from the compelling desire to seek fulfillment through objects and the endless frustration caused by their inability to provide lasting satisfaction. Thus, one neither continues to wallow in a state of self-pity nor compound one’s own suffering as well as that of the world through the execution of deviant actions. Knowing one’s true nature to be both whole and the whole, one plays one’s role within the grand drama of the apparent reality to the hilt while simultaneously reveling in one’s own inherent peace and happiness.
A (Martin): Consciousness or Awareness does not create, or allow for, anything. It is only a pure, actionless, impassible witness. It should not be difficult to understand that all difficulties in understanding reside in an unprepared, unaided mind, and this includes the seemingly intractable ‘problem’ that you allude to: ‘the problem of evil’.
Concerning good and evil, suffering and enjoyment, there is an interesting passage in one of the main texts of Advaita Vedanta, the Brahma Sutras. As the teaching goes there is no essential difference between the individual and Brahman (Consciousness or the Absolute). But then, an objector observes:
On account of the other (the individual soul) being stated as non-different from Brahman there would arise (in Brahman) the defect of not doing what is beneficial.
In his commentary to this passage Shankara, the greatest Indian philosopher, admits: If Brahman were the cause of the world, He/It would be open to that charge, and He would not be omniscient. Rather, It/He would have created a world where everything would have been pleasant for the individual soul, without the least trace of misery…
In the sequence, the scripture (sruti) itself retorts: … Brahman is something more than the individual soul. Shankara then comments: He (the Creator God) knows the unreality of the world and what is taken to be an individual, and is not attached to them, being merely a witness. He has neither good nor evil… For the individual soul, however, there is good and evil so long as it is in ignorance… the differences between the individual soul and the Creator are based on imaginary distinctions due to ignorance. It is only when Knowledge dawns that the individual soul realizes its identity with Brahman. Then all plurality vanishes, and there is neither the individual soul nor he Creator.
A (Sitara): Maybe you noticed yourself that your question “why does all pervading, partless, actionless Consciousness create, allow, dream of Auschwitz? This Consciousness could not do better than this?” is a contradiction in terms.
Something that is actionless can neither create, allow, dream or do better than this; simply because it does not act. Consciousness is the very substance of all, meaning, it is in and through you, me, and everything else that is. Consciousness is not separate from anything; in the final analysis consciousness is all there is.
But it certainly does not seem like this. For most people there seems to be a lot of separation, i.e. there seems to be a multitude of good and bad stuff around, not just one consciousness. According to Advaita this impression is based on an inborn misconception: beginningless ignorance. Luckily it is possible to end it.
Why luckily? Because the very idea of separation leads to suffering.
Suffering is part and parcel of the misconception.
In short: Advaita says that suffering is brought about by ignorance. Knowledge, therefore, is the only antidote to suffering. Advaita Vedanta is the path of knowledge. Advaita Vedanta goes to the very roots of the problem because the end of ignorance (i.e. knowledge) will result in the end of suffering. Therefore this path is not about ending suffering but about ending ignorance.
You ask for an explanation of suffering. I am sure that in all the approaches that you have discarded you must have come across a lot of different explanations for suffering (it is the devil tempting us, it is god testing us, it is due to original sin etc. etc.). So behind your question seems to be the idea that a proper spiritual path should be able to end suffering, not just explain it. Advaita Vedanta is able to explain suffering as well as end suffering. But not in the way you may expect.
In the preparation of the seeker he learns to act according to dharma, which basically means that he learns to not do to others what he does not want others to do to him. The effect of this is that he will be much less likely to cause suffering to others. Even though this measure will not end suffering completely it does contribute to making the world a better place.
But Advaita Vedanta is not about making the world a better place, so dharma is not considered an end in itself. Acting according to dharma is for one’s mind to become calm and clear – because this is the kind of mind that the seeker needs in order to understand that he (and everything else) is all pervading, partless, actionless consciousness. Only this understanding will end his suffering for good.
Please feel free to challenge what I said. I (and I am sure others too) will be happy to take up any objection or question.