This video gives a summary of how the teachings often work, and explains about conceptual teachings and contrasts this to Silence. It also speaks of whether or not a teacher is required at all.
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This post is continued from a prior post: Integrating knowledge, spontaneous action
Q. I’ve been reading Ramana Maharshi recently and he keeps on saying ‘I’m not the body’.
Tom: Yes, that’s right.
Q: But I don’t really hear you talk about not being the body.
Tom: Yes, that’s because it’s a ‘thorn’. Remember the phrase I’ve mentioned: ‘Use a thorn to remove and thorn and throw them both away’?
Q: Yes, I’ve heard you say that. Please can you explain it again?
Tom: Sure. The first thorn represents a wrong concept that is active in your mind and causes suffering, just as a thorn in your foot causes suffering. You then take a second thorn and use it as a tool to remove the first thorn, but then you throw them both away. If you don’t throw away the second thorn, then you now have a new thorn (concept) that will cause you to suffer.
Ramana often talks about rooting out the ‘I-am-the-body’ concept, and the concept ‘I-am-not-the-body’ is just to negate the initial thorn. But then you throw it away too.
Q: So I am not the body is not true either?
Tom: Exactly. Or, lets put it like this: for a moment just forget what Ramana says, forget what I say – for all you know we could both be talking a load of rubbish! Afterall, lots of intelligent people believe strange and silly things, and we could be no different, right? So forget what we say.
So let me ask you a question: do you know for sure that you are a body?
Q: Well it often seems like I am a body…
Tom: But do you know for sure?
Q: No, not for sure.
Tom: Good. Now, do you know for sure that you are not the body?
Q: No, not for sure.
Tom: Good. That’s our basic experience. We don’t know either way. The body appears and follows us around, as it were, but we don’t know exactly what it means. Is the body me? Is it not me? The truth is I don’t know. That’s it. That’s the truth. We don’t know. Isn’t that right?
Q: But when I say to myself ‘I am not the body’, it feels so good, it just feels really nice.
Tom: Yes, of course, because you are negating the concept (I-am-the-body) that causes so much suffering. It’s a good thing to practice, it’s a great practice in fact. If it works for you I recommend you practice it.
Q: Oh, I see, so it’s a practice.
Tom: Exactly. We are not saying don’t practice. We may need the second thorn, that’s why it is there, that’s why it is taught. So use that thorn, use that tool, practice ‘I am not the body’. When it has done its work, when it has weeded out the ‘I am the body’ concept, then you won’t need it any more and you can throw it away too.
Q: OK, I got it now. Wow, there are so many thorns, aren’t there?
Q: I often get confused about whether or not the world is a dream or illusion or not, but that’s just another thorn too, right?
Tom: Exactly. ‘The world is an illusion’ – it’s a very powerful thorn, one that benefited me a lot whilst I was seeking. But again, do you know for sure if the world is an illusion?
Q: No, not for sure…I know what you’re going to ask next…
Tom: …And do you know for sure that the world is not an illusion?
Q: No, not for sure . I knew you’d say that.
Tom: (laughing) That’s it! We don’t know either way! It’s so simple – Got it?
Q: (laughing) Got it.
Tom: so you can practice these, all these thorns. All these thorns are concepts. Use them – they are most definately useful – use them if you need them. The concepts are used to weed out the beliefs. You may need to practice them for weeks or months, but when their work is done, and the suffering has dissipated, throw them away.
Also see Ranjit Maharaj talk about this.
This post is continued from my previous post: Practicing knowledge
Discarding knowledge as ignorance
Once the purpose of the tool has been fulfilled, then the tool can be dispensed with. There are two main problems with this. Firstly, you can dispense with the tool too quickly, before it has done its work of rooting out ignorance. Secondly, you can cling onto the tool for too long, which essentially means that you have started to believe in it.
I see both of these errors happening all the time. People often dismiss the need for practice completely. While there are different paths to follow (including no-path ‘paths’), that does not mean that for some a path or teaching cannot be of benefit. All teachings are provisional which means that they produce limited results. This is true of all teachings and all actions/practices – they are all limited and produce limited results. But these limited results can still be of use to us in recognising what is already (and always was) present , ie. Freedom.
Other people believe the conceptual tool. They have merely substituted one concept for another, one ignorance for another.
Hence the traditional advice is to liken these conceptual tools as being thorns, to remind you not to hold onto the second thorn, useful as it was:
Then, like the thorn used to remove a thorn, throw them both away.
See Ranjit Maharaj discuss this here.
This post is continued in the next article: Integrating knowledge/spontaneous action
This is continued from a previous post Problems with utilising conceptual tools:
This brings us to the idea of practicing knowledge. Just to be clear, the knowledge we are talking of here is in the form of concepts, as described previously above. In this case whenever we notice ourselves suffering, we notice it is because we have identified as being the doer/body-mind. We then take up the sword of knowledge ‘I am not the body’ and use it to slay the ignorance ‘I am the body’.
Other similar ideas are concepts of identifying as being the witness or identifying as consciousness or considering the world and body-mind to be an illusion. These concepts all which work in a similar way to negate the identification as the doer/body-mind. Here’s an example from Yoga Vasisthta:
You are bound firmly on all sides by the idea, I am the body’. Cut that bond by the sword of knowledge ‘I am Consciousness’ and be happy.
Whenever ignorance rises, we cut it down. When it doesn’t rise, we can leave it alone. Initially we may have to repeat the phrase ‘I am not the body’ or ‘I am Consciousness’ or ‘I am Brahman’ in our heads repeatedly, like a mantra, until it sinks in, but after sometime it is ingrained into us and we only unsheathe the sword when it is required.
To be continued in a future post: Discarding knowledge as ignorance
Continued from 2 previous posts:
Problems with utilising conceptual tools
Generally speaking, the more you believe in the concept, the better it works, but conversely the harder it is to throw it away once the task at hand (rooting out the ego/’I am the body’ notion) has been completed.
Other problems with believing in the concepts is that it sets you against other traditions and teachings that either utilise other concepts, thus breeding division and sectarianism, and also it can lead to some unintended consequences, some of which can be quite unpleasant.
These include spiritual bypassing, which is where emotional and psychological issues are not dealt with properly as ‘I am not the body-mind so I have no issues’ or where the body is neglected and not properly respected as it is deemed to be ‘insentient, inert and not me’.
Another problem with utilising concepts is that the ego is perpetuated and can even be strengthened during this part of the teaching. Eventually it can be seen that all teachings are also subtle ways of continuing/perpetuating the egoic process which is itself based on the illusion of being a separate doer-entity. Until then, these conceptual teachings and practices based upon these concepts may be useful, but eventually we see that all teachings are potential obstacles. Why? Because Freedom is already fully present, and on a subtle level all teachings assume that Freedom is not already here and reinforce the notion that this moment is deficient in some way.
You can probably think of other negatives of this approach yourself, and perhaps have seen spiritual seekers on this journey fall into one of these traps.
To be continued in a future post: Practicing knowledge
I have often seen people talk and write about various levels of reality. Typically, they talk of the level of the absolute and the level of the relative. On the level of the absolute, everything is one, so they say. Whereas on the relative level, the level of being a person different rules apply. On the relative level differentiation exists, we talk to each other, we love one another, we get annoyed and irritated, we buy fast-food from time to time, and yet ultimately, at the highest and truest level we are told this is all oneness.
Well let me start off by saying that I reject the notion of levels of reality. I think reality has various aspects, but not levels per se. Now this may seem like a minor difference, a play of semantics if you will, but let me explain the difference.
Talking about the same thing in different ways
When I say reality has various aspects, all I really mean is that there are various ways you can talk about reality – actually there are various ways you can talk about anything. That doesn’t mean there are different levels of reality.
Lets take a simple example: lets take a human body. You can talk about a human body in different ways. You can talk about it in terms of its size: you can say it is big, small, medium. You can talk about its age: is it a young or older body. You can talk about it in terms of organ systems such as the cardiovascular system or digestive system and how they function and describe the body that way, or you can talk about its anatomy and how various parts of it fit together. You can talk about the body’s name and culture – eg. maybe it is called John and it comes from the United Kingdom, you can talk about its occupation. You could talk about its fashion sense, its muscularity…
…ok ok, hopefully you get the idea: there are different ways you can talk about things. There are different conceptual frameworks from where we can view the body. And this is true for anything. We can talk about a pebble in terms of its age, size, geology or how good it would be to skim on a lake’s surface. We can talk about a lake in terms of its scenic beauty, how choppy its water are, its phosphorus content, or remark how it is all made up (mainly) of water.
Now, how many levels does a body or a pebble have? It doesn’t actually have any levels at all – there is only one body or stone (in the above examples) – it’s just that we can talk about them in various ways. In the same way there are no levels in reality, just different ways of talking about it.
No particular conceptual framework is intrinsically higher than another
Also note that no particular way of talking about the body or a pebble is intrinsically better that any other way. It just depends on what you want the conceptual framework to achieve. For example, if you want to skim a stone on the surface of a lake, then it’s less useful to talk about the geology of the stone, and more useful to look at it in terms of its shape and size with respect to achieving your goal (skimming it across the lake). You can’t legitimately claim that one way of viewing something is intrinsically higher and another way is lower, which is something you often hear when talking about ‘ultimate reality’ or the ‘highest level’. It just depends on how well the way you are conceptualising and viewing the object(s) in question fits in with your goal.
It depends on what you want to achieve
Similarly, it is not necessarily better to talk about the body in terms on physiology or organ systems compared to it’s occupation or fashion sense. As previously stated, it just depends on what you want to achieve. If the body has a disease, then understanding the physiology and how to correct any imbalance or defect in this is useful. Conversely if you are going out on a first date, then perhaps a degree of fashion sense would be useful.
No paradoxes, no contradictions
Also there in no contradiction in talking about a single object in different ways depending on the context. There is no paradox that a stone has both an age and a shape, or that a river is a single system made up of a variety of different things, all of which are in motion. There is a consistent underlying reality that underpins the various ways we talk about it. No contradiction or paradox at all.
Different ways of talking about the same experience
Remember, what we are talking about here is our experience of reality. Our reality is our experience – that’s all we know. We can talk about how everything we perceive is non-different to our consciousness, and we can also talk of how things interact within this consciousness, and the rules and consequences thereof. These are just different ways of talking about our experience and our experiences. No particular way is higher or lower, and there are no actual ‘levels’ that exist apart from our conceptualisations.
The description is not the described
We can chose how to conceptually carve up and talk about our experiential reality in order to achieve certain specific aims. To that end these conceptual maps are useful and often necessary. However we must not mistake any particular conceptual map of (our experience of) reality for reality, just as no particular way of describing the body is the body itself.
The cards have collapsed now
The concepts lie in tatters
Freedom has exploded – it was always here!
The ego thinks it has all the ‘answers’,
Thinks it knows exactly how the enlightenment game works,
Thinks it knows which practice is best,
All its concepts lined up.
Of course it has no clue.
Pride means it pretends to know what it doesn’t,
Clinging to what it hopes will work,
According to its limited understanding.
Who can blame it?
My advice: realise first, talk later.
The Buddha likened his teachings to a raft that takes you from the shore of suffering (samsara) across the river to the shore of enlightenment (nirvana). When you get to the land on the other side, you do not carry the raft around with you – the raft would actually be an impediment on land.
The teachings are therefore provisional constructs and concepts and are not true in themselves. Ultimately we can let go of attachment both to the teaching and teacher once it has done its work.
If we fall in love with the teaching or teacher, this is not necessarily a bad thing. It can serve as a useful and positive motivation force, keeping our search and inquiry strong through both good and bad times, and may well continue after a genuine enlightenment. However I have often seen how the attachment to (and belief in) a teaching or teacher can impede a genuine realisation, as it can restrict our ability to freely inquire and see things as they really are.
‘Use a thorn to remove a thorn, then throw them both away’
In this Hindu saying, a thorn represents a concept that gives rise to suffering when it pierces our skin. The teachings are another concept/thorn that you can use to remove the first thorn from your body. However you must throw the teaching away too when it’s work is done, otherwise it simply becomes a thorn in your side that binds you.
Ramana Maharshi used to speak of his teachings as being like a wooden stick used to prod the burning carcass in the funeral pyre. Once the teaching has done its job of ‘burning the ego (sense of being a separate doer)’, the stick is also pushed into the fire and it too burns away.
Kill the Buddha
‘When you realise that which is indicated by the words, then naturally you will abandon the jugglery of words’
Some of my analogies and thoughts on how teachings work
- The teachings are not themselves ultimately true. They are just words. But like a finger pointing to the moon, they point to something greater than themselves.
- Teachings use words and concepts to point to or indicate that which is beyond all words and concepts.
- The teachings are like a virus. Once you have heard them, they get to work within you, chipping away at false beliefs and in doing so the Truth is revealed.
- Like when matter and anti-matter collide, the teachings destroy false notions and then when its work is done, the teaching also self-destructs.
- We think we chose to read or hear the teachings and apply them. When we understand the teachings more fully, we realised that the teachings came to us, they were a gift to us, that they chose us, and they work their magic on us.
- If you cling to words of the teachings, it is a sure indicator you have not understood what they are pointing to. Eventually you have to go beyond the teachings. Excessive clinging to notions such as Absolute Consciousness or ‘You are the Witness’ or overly complicated metaphysics is a sure sign of not seeing the essence of what is being pointed to.
- The teachings are like a recipe – you follow the instructions and get the results. Until the food is made, you treasure the recipe for it is the gateway to your meal. Note that the cooked meal looks nothing like the recipe and you can throw away the recipe once you have mastered the cooking and are eating the meal. However, please don’t worship the recipe, please don’t (just) discuss recipes endlessly with your friends, and please don’t forget to do what it says!