So, everything that exists is metaphysical, including language and thought, sticks and stones, trees, all bodies, etc. In other words, there is nothing that is ‘material’ or ‘physical’ per se (which is a pure abstraction or a metaphysical theory).
Q: Do objects exist independently? For example, if one is not seeing the moon then does moon exist or not?
A: From the perspective of absolute reality (paramArtha), of course there is no problem; no question or answer! There is only Brahman; no creation and no objects. But I assume that your question relates to empirical reality (vyavahAra). Here, Advaita teaches that Ishvara governs the ‘creation’, setting and maintaining the physical laws that apply to the universe and the karmic laws that apply to the jIva-s. It is only some post-Shankara philosophers who try to make out that there is only one jIva so that, as soon as this jIva is enlightened, the apparent creation comes to an end. You can read all about the ‘world disappearing on enlightenment’ in the seemingly endless discussions we had on that topic beginning in 2020 (I think).
So, as regards your specific question, objects continue to exist when you go out of the room (for example). Otherwise, other jIva-s would not be able to enjoy them! Suppose that you go outside at night with a friend and both look at the moon. And suppose that you turn away but your friend doesn’t. If the moon ceased to exist, so would your friend (who is also an object at the gross level).
Advaita is not subjective idealism. Objects are not ‘in the mind’ (although the names and forms that we give them ARE in the mind – hence we can see a rope as a snake). But the moon is not ‘real’ in an Advaitic sense; it is mithyA. The story of the sage and the wild elephant is relevant here. A seeker saw his guru run away when a rogue elephant charged. Afterwards he asked why his teacher had run when he would say that the elephant is mithyA. The teacher replied that the ‘running away’ was also mithyA. (At least, that is how I recall the story.)
Q: How can the mind perceive something which is outside of time, when the mind itself is caught in time like a prisoner? Perception in itself is a movement in time so how can mind even claim to perceive the concept of Brahman and say that Brahman is eternal?
A: The mind cannot perceive anything ‘outside of time’. As you say, perception occurs within time (and space). And, more to the point, that which you perceive is also within time and space. Thus, you can never perceive Brahman. But conceptions are not quite the same. The concept itself is in the mind, which is also limited. But what is conceived is not limited. You can conceive of a unicorn with no problem at all, even though you also know that they do not really exist. Scientists also conceived of black holes, long before any proof was found for their existence – and still no one has ‘really’ perceived such a thing.
But perhaps the simplest way of thinking about it is to consider deeply who you actually are. It is possible to eliminate body, sense organs, mind, and anything else that you can think of as ‘not I’. But it is not possible to eliminate the one who is doing this. There has to be an ‘ultimate subject’ after everything else has been eliminated. That is who you really are and that is Brahman.
Q: According to science, there was a world prior to humans where there were no living, conscious things. If nothing can exist independently of consciousness like Advaita suggests, then how could there have been a world prior to a perceiver? If there was no sentient being to experience the Big Bang, how could it have possibly existed?
A: Your questions relate to the apparent creation. The final teaching of Advaita is that there is no creation – there is only the non-dual Brahman. This means that the entire teaching of Advaita is interim only since it takes place in what is only empirical reality.
Having said this, the traditional teaching says that the creation, maintenance and dissolution of the universe is ‘managed’ by Ishvara, using the ‘power’ of mAyA. This means that He governs all of the laws that relate to creation and the jIva-s who inhabit it. Now you have to realize that science has ‘advanced’ significantly since the time of the Vedas. While they speak of the raw elements being space, earth, water, fire and air, we have a somewhat more complex cosmology! And I don’t think it is particularly fruitful to try to map one onto the other. Science can never explain Consciousness so is of no value in trying to understand the nature of reality.
Yes, it is a trap for individual mind – that is, the mind that considers itself a separate and independent individual, a doer and enjoyer. After usually many years of seriously studying Advaita (emphasis on ‘seriously’) with full force and dedication, it may dawn on that mind that the belief described above was actually a trap and a lie. Realizing this, by a stroke of magic as it were (so one might think without straying much from the truth), BINGO! you are free… free from the mind’s doubts, fears, hopes, projections, and tribulations. You then realize that only universal consciousness (a.k.a awareness) is true, and that that is what You are —the quotidian mind has disappeared, become no-mind, that is, pure unalloyed consciousness.
It is a misconception to think that the process of Self-inquiry “leads” the seeker to the “Self.” It is not a positive process of movement like travel – starting from a station ‘A’ and arriving at the destination ‘B,’ keeping me, myself and my luggage intact safe and secure. One cannot look for novel experiences enroute like on a train journey nor does one hope to devour the scenic beauty along the path. Nor “I,” the inquirer, will find the Self at the end to shake hands or get a hug.
Self-inquiry is actually a process of becoming totally naked. Yes, Absolutely naked – not even retaining the modest covering that we dearly call as our body. It’s a negative process, a process of being disembodied. One has to lose not only whatever one thinks that s/he possesses (the entire bundle that can be put under ‘mine’ including objects, people, relationships etc.), but also whatever s/he thinks s/he is (all that defines what a ‘me’ is).
Q. How can we inquire into our true self, if the one inquiring (mind) is not actually the self?
A: You are not the mind – it is an instrument if you like. You are the Consciousness that ‘reflects’ in the mind.
Q: By saying that the mind is an instrument, are you suggesting that the mind can refer to our true self (pure consciousness) during contemplation?
A: I am not clear what you are asking here. By ‘mind is an instrument’, I mean that who-you-really-are is not the mind; you are using the mind to interact with the world. (Indeed the ‘mind enlivened by Consciousness’ effectively ‘creates’ the world by separating out forms and giving them names.) The mind is itself inert and cannot do anything without Consciousness (your ‘true self’).
Q: If thought has some form of awareness, as demonstrated by introspection, and its ability to refer to contents of the mind, would it be out of the realm of possibility to assume that it is the one responsible for direct experience of mental objects? How can we be certain that awareness is an independent entity when it is something that seems to also be possessed by thought in some instances?
Q1. Many advaita teachings suggest that on the absolute level of reality, there are no objects, no people, no selves, and many times, people will say that, ‘from awareness’ point of view, there is just awareness’… However, in my experience it seems that awareness has the ability to know finite objects because ‘I’ (awareness) am the observer of thoughts, feelings, and sensations (all finite objects). So how can we say that from awareness’ point of view there are no objects, when awareness is aware of finite things? To piggyback off of this, is there some way to differentiate between the witnessing position and the absolute viewpoint? because I think this is where I am really getting mixed up.
Q2. Why does it seem that awareness can know something finite when it is infinite? I’ve heard from certain advaita teachers that consciousness takes the form of the mind in order to know finite objects, but this confuses me because that would imply that awareness becomes the mind, but is also simultaneously aware of the mind. It seems a little far fetched in my opinion, but maybe I’m just not understanding it completely.
A: I never use the term ‘awareness’ for precisely this sort of reason. It is a term used by Nisargadatta and his disciples and causes much confusion. I only use it in the context of X being ‘aware of’ Y, in duality.
The non-dual reality in Advaita is called Brahman, strictly speaking. Being non-dual, it has no ‘attributes’ If it had the attribute X, this would mean that it could not be ‘not-X’, which would then negate the fact that Brahman is said to be unlimited or infinite (anantam). You might find the 3-part post beginning https://www.advaita-vision.org/satyam-gyanam-anantam-brahma/ useful.
Following an extended, off-line discussion, I have added a new sub-section to Volume 1 of my next book, ‘Confusions in Advaita Vedanta’ and I am posting this below. I am currently in the process of editing the proof copy of the book and it will be published by Indica Books in Varanasi, hopefully in 2022. Details will, of course, be provided as soon as it is available. It will be printed in hardback and paperback but unfortunately not in electronic format.
As Sureshvara puts it in his Naiṣkarmya Siddhi (1.73):
“And tell me what possible cause could there be for action on the part of one who is established in the Absolute and has become everything, both individually and collectively, not seeing anything as other than himself.” (Ref. 7)
Q: How can I be sure that the true nature of Brahman is happiness? Also, can Brahman’s nature be happiness if happiness has objective qualities, and Brahman doesn’t?
A: Brahman cannot be described. If it had a property, it would have to ‘not have’ the opposite property. And Brahman is non-dual – there is nothing other than Brahman. All ‘adjectives’ apparently used to describe Brahman are not in fact adjectives in the usual sense. They are ‘pointers’ to help you to understand Brahman intuitively.
Q: Oftentimes in my inquiry, phrases will pop up that say, ‘I am not thought,’ ‘I am not that which I am aware of,’ ‘I am the awareful witness,’; however, aren’t these phrases simply just contained, and being said by thoughts themself, thus invalidating their truthfulness? – thought is not awareness, thought is thought.