Inquiry 5: What Validity Has Vedanta?
The root problem is that in the end, even Advaitic teachings finally rely on ‘blind faith’ to put their point across. There’s nothing wrong in having faith. All religions ask for blind belief in the almighty to get you your promised ‘Kingdom of God’. It’s only in Advaita that folks try to push their case by saying: “No, it’s not pure faith, it’s by reason and discourse that we reach the truth etc”.
To quote Gaudapada in his Mandukya Upanishad kArikA, “That which is stated in the scriptures ‘and is supported by reason’ is true and nothing else”. The ‘reason/discourse’ argument for following Advaita is pure bunkum, in my opinion. It relies on blind faith not on a deity, but in an obscure ‘Self’.
The implication of this series of questions is that the self is wholly theoretical, that it is some philosophical conjecture cooked up and served to the mindless masses as a means of pacifying their angst over an apparently purposeless existence. It further suggests that the self is either a half-baked notion to be accepted on blind faith or an intricate intellectual construct whose validity is so be settled through argument alone.
Vedanta, however, is neither a faith-based religion nor a theoretical philosophy. True, its method of self-inquiry does require faith in its initial stages because the student’s understanding is still clouded by ignorance. But the truth revealed by Vedanta is verifiable through a conscientious examination of one’s own experience. This isn’t to say, of course, that self-knowledge is a discrete experience, but rather that the knowledge contained in experience and which can be culled from it through thoughtful, logical inquiry does serve to reveal the truth when it is properly understood and assimilated.
Actually, according to Vedanta, the quest for a discrete experience of the self is completely gratuitous. The fact of the matter is that we are already experiencing the self every moment of our lives. If reality is non-dual – which it is – then quite obviously there exists nothing other than the self that can be, ever has been, or ever will be experienced.
This assertion, of course, voicing as it does the fundamental understanding upon which the whole science of self-inquiry is based, begs an answer to the question, “How do we know that the nature of reality is non-dual?”
As is the case with all Vedantic conclusions, the irrefutable evidence that proves the singularity of existence is uncovered through a careful consideration of the logic of ones’ own unexamined experience. An open-minded reconsideration of our apparent relationship to objects, both gross and subtle, clearly exposes the erroneous assumptions we have made about the nature of reality.
Since our experience of the world is essentially defined by our observation of and interaction with objects, let us consider the location of these objects. Let’s say, for example, that I see a boy standing on the street corner opposite me holding an ice cream cone in his hand. Where is the actual location of the ice cream cone? The usual assumption, based on the collective societal conditioning I have received throughout my lifetime, is that the cone is situated in the boy’s hand at a distance of, perhaps, twenty yards from me. But is this true?
To answer this question, we need to first consider the mechanism of perception, which in this case is vision. The way visual perception occurs is that light bounces off an object and is received by our eyes through the retina, and thereupon a reflected image of the perceived object appears in the mind. At this juncture, we come to the realization that what we are actually seeing is not the apparent object, but an image or idea of it within our mind. Our next consideration, then, is the mind itself. How far is my mind from awareness? In other words, how far is my mind from me? The obvious answer is that there is no gap between my mind and me. There is, therefore, no separation between the objective world and me, the subjective perceiver of it, or more accurately the pure awareness in which all apparently objective phenomena appear. It is true that if I take myself to be my body, then I seem to be separate from the objects that surround me. But if I recognize that my body is itself nothing more than an object appearing within me, then I inevitably realize the true non-dual nature of reality.
Of course, you might challenge the conclusion drawn from this inquiry by pointing out that it fails to disprove the reality of the apparently independent object whose reflected light was initially taken in by our eyes. Further inquiry, however, will effectively discount this objection.
Before proceeding, we should pause for a moment to clarify what we mean when we say that something is real.
The materialist definition of reality – which, though generally accepted as valid, crumbles upon under logical scrutiny – relies to a large degree upon the characteristic of physical separation or autonomous existence enjoyed by a given object, as if the object was a specific container distinct from all the other containers populating the world. Despite its virtually unanimous and unquestioned acceptance, it is easy to see how such a seemingly clear definition becomes rather blurry with regard to the reality of emotions and ideas.
According to Vedanta, what is “real” is what cannot be negated, that which is always true in all places and at all times, or more accurately that which is the substratum of the entire time-space continuum that defines the apparent reality. Reality is essentially that upon which all apparent objects depend for their existence, but which itself is self-dependent and self-luminous and, therefore, ever-free of all the phenomena appearing within and made of it. In other words, though all objects are me in the sense that they are reflected awareness, I – pure awareness – remain untouched by and eternally independent of all objects.
Contrary to some interpretations of Buddhism and the proclamations of many Neo-Advaitans, Vedanta does not say that the realm of dependent objects does not exist. Our direct experience attests to the existence of objects. If objects did not existent, we would not experience them. The issue regarding objects is not whether or not they exist, but whether or not they are real.
According to Vedanta, there are three ontological categories: the real (i.e. satya), the not-real (i.e. asat), and the apparent (i.e. mithya).
Sat means “being” or “what is,” so satya refers to what was previously described as that which cannot be negated, or that which does not change. It cannot be enhanced or diminished. It is what is always good. There is only one “thing” that is ultimately real: the self, pure awareness, me.
Asat refers to that which does not and cannot exist. The horns of a hare, the fur of a fish, or the philosophical conjecture of a cactus are all examples of what is not-real.
Mithya is the curious ontological status enjoyed by the entire objective universe in both its gross and subtle aspects. Though the physical objects, emotions, and thoughts appear to us and are experienced by us, they are nothing more than temporary apparitions in a state of constant flux even as they appear solid and/or stationary for any given period of time. Because they are impermanent we cannot say that these objects are real, yet at the same time because we experience them we cannot say they are entirely unreal or non-existent. Moreover, further inquiry will reveal that all such objects enjoy no independent nature of their own, but are entirely dependent upon awareness, me, for their existence. We, therefore, say they are apparently or dependently real.
The whole of Vedanta basically boils down to an understanding of the difference between the real and the apparent. Vedanta refers to this in practical terms as the discrimination between the self and the not-self (i.e. atma-anatma-viveka).
Carried out to its inevitable conclusion, however, the inquiry founded upon this discrimination will ironically lead us to the realization that reality is fundamentally non-dual.
If we consider our experience of seemingly independent objects, the first realization we make is that the way we identify, recognize, and gain knowledge of any object is through the specific type of sense data we are able to gather from it. In other words, shape and color appeal to our vision, sound or absence of sound appeal to our hearing, texture and hardness appeal to our sense of touch, aromas appeal to our sense of smell, and flavors appeal to our sense of taste. In short, our analysis reveals that all objects (both gross and subtle) are only verifiable through sense perception and/or sensory-based inference, both of which occur in awareness and have no verifiable existence outside of awareness.
This basic method of object-analysis can be applied to all seemingly independent phenomena both gross and subtle, for as is obvious with regard to dreams and even emotions – which are invariably evoked by images, vivid or vague – even subtle phenomena have a sensorial aspect. The thoughtful application of this inquiry leads inevitably through a series of four illusion-shattering realizations.
First, no sensory experience verifies the existence of an independent perceiver. In other words, through your sensory experience of a supposedly independent object, you do not experience some other perceiver who exists independently from you (i.e. you don’t see another seer, smell another smeller, etc.). The upshot of this realization is that you are the only witnessing entity whose existence can be undoubtedly determined.
Second, no sensory experience verifies the existence of an independent object. Honest analysis of your own direct experience reveals that the perceptions of any one sense organ do not add up to the whole of the object you think has its own independent existence (i.e. the visual sensations of color and shape you experience when looking at the driver’s side of a car do not account for the existence of the front and back ends nor the passenger’s side of the car; you only assume that those aspects exist because of the way you have been conditioned to accept the three-dimensional nature of the world). This observation leads to the realization that what you are actually experiencing is not an independent physical object, but only one or more particular sensorial qualities (i.e. the sense of sight perceives the qualities of color and shape; the sense of touch experiences degrees of heat and coolness, hardness and softness, wetness and dryness, roughness and smoothness, heaviness and lightness; and so on for the other senses). The upshot of this realization is that the sensory qualities that we experience cannot be verified as coming from any separate object that exists outside of ourselves.
Third, no sensory experience verifies the independent existence of any sensorial quality. In other words, these qualities are not just sitting around “out there” in the world waiting to be experienced. In order to verify that such were the case, we would have to be able to experience the quality by way of some other sense, which is clearly impossible (i.e. we can’t hear a color or shape, we can’t see a sound, we can’t feel a smell, etc.). The upshot of this realization is twofold. First, we see that the sensorial quality and the sense organ that perceives it are essentially one and the same. In other words, smelling only occurs when a smell registers in our mind. That is, when a particular odor arises in our mind, we call that experience “smelling.” In general terms, then, it can be said that the smell and the sense of smell are mutually dependent upon one another. Neither exists without the other, and so neither can be said to have an independent existence. Second, we see that the sense of smell is the substrate of any particular smell. In other words, the sense of smell is what allows for the experience of any specific odor, and though any specific odor is only temporary the sense of smell remains the sustaining element of any experience of smelling. In essence, then, we can say that while any particular smell is dependent upon the sense of smell for its existence, the sense of smell is free of dependence on any particular smell. That is, no particular smell can exist independent of the sense of smell, but the sense of smell is experienced in connection with a wide variety of odors and thus does not depend on any particular smell for its existence.
Fourth, no sensorial experience verifies the independent existence of any sense organ. As is the case with the sensory qualities, the sense organs are not just sitting around “out there” in the world like a bunch of tools waiting to be picked up and used by awareness in order for awareness to have experiences. Rather, the sense organs are actually modes of awareness itself and are thus not separate from awareness. Another way of looking at it is to understand that while the instruments with which we gather sensory data – and which are commonly referred to as sense organs – are located on the physical body, the sense organs as such are actually functions of the mind. Thus, as we realized through our previous inquiry, all seemingly objective sensory experience is actually “happening” in the mind. And, of course, the mind is simply awareness appearing in subtle form.
Upon analysis, therefore, all seemingly independent objects resolve back into the one awareness that is the substrate of all existence. The upshot of this realization, of course, is that nothing other than awareness exists and, therefore, the fundamental nature of reality is non-dual. The surrounding world (including our own body and mind) that seems to be composed of so many diverse and independent objects, entities, circumstances, events, situations, and experiences is actually nothing more (or less) than awareness watching awareness. In essence, I (not the ‘I’ on my driver’s license, but the ‘I’ who witnesses whatever that seemingly limited little person who for so long I have taken myself to be experiences) am all that is, and all this – the world, the body, the mind – is nothing other than me, the witnessing awareness in which all objects arise. I alone am.
The following consideration serves to effectively illustrate the absurdity of the notion that objects exist independently of my awareness: If any particular object was independent of us (and, hence, of our awareness) and was somehow “out there” in “the world”, there would be so many minds crowded around it that we would never see it.
The implication of this discovery or realization is profound. If nothing – whether it be a seemingly external object, our own apparent body itself, or the sensations, thoughts, and emotions that appear to register or arise within our personal being – is experienced independently or apart from awareness, then there is no way to verify the “substance” of anything as separate from or other than awareness. The inevitable conclusion to which our inquiry leads is that not only do all apparent objects appear in and depend upon awareness, but they consist of awareness as well. Take awareness away and objects don’t exist.
In this way it can be seen that both the essential nature of all apparent objects and the “substance” of which they are made is nothing other than awareness. Each and every perceived (i.e. gross) and conceived (i.e. subtle) object “arises out of,” “abides within,” and “subsides back into” pure awareness. Just as the spider spins its web out of its own being and can later withdraw its design back into itself, pure awareness is both the intelligent and material cause of the universe. Reality is awareness, and awareness is non-dual. Truly speaking, my life is a continuous, unbroken, seamless experience of my own self.
Rather than a philosophy or faith-based religion, Vedanta or self-inquiry (i.e. atma vichara) is a means of knowledge (i.e. pramana). More specifically, it is a sound-based means of knowledge (i.e. shabda pramana). Sound is the foundation of words, and it is through the implied meaning of words that Vedanta removes ignorance and reveals the self. Though words are by definition concepts, they are used in Vedanta as a means of freeing one from the limitation of concepts. They function as pointers (i.e. lakshanas) that guide the mind beyond the boundaries of the objective and into the open expanse of pure subjectivity.
The reason that scripture is held in such high esteem and why scriptural authority is the essential litmus test for any interpretation of “spiritual experience” or understanding based thereon is because it chronicles the wisdom initially revealed to the ancient rishis that has since been repeatedly verified by seers throughout the ages and purified of all personal interpretation and bias. Its teachings, therefore, stand as a polished mirror in which can be seen a direct reflection of the self. As such, the words of the scriptures are nothing in which to blindly believe, but instead are meant to offer insight into one’s own unexamined experience and thus remove one’s ignorance of one’s true nature as whole and complete, limitless, actionless, non-dual awareness.
Vedanta is thus a thorn that is used to remove a thorn. It is a means of knowledge employed to emancipate one from the confines of relative understanding and enable one to bask in the freedom of one’s true nature as limitless awareness – that upon which the dual phenomena of ignorance and knowledge depend for their existence but which remains always and ever free of both.