There 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!”