Atma Bodha is a short text attributed to Shakara and was written approximately 1400 years ago. It literally means ‘Self Knowledge’ (atma = self, bodha = understanding or knowledge) and it outlines a methodology to lead a seeker from suffering to liberation. Incidentally, bodha is the same root word that forms the word Buddha, which means ‘the one who knows or understands’.
It comprises a class of scriptures called prakarana granthas. Prakarana means ‘procedure’ or ‘task’ and grantha means ‘text’. Taken together prakarana grantha means ‘instruction manual’. These instruction manuals were written for those who do not have the capacity or time to read the voluminous traditional texts such as the vedas and upanishads or for those who were looking for a synopsis of their vedantic studies, and so give us a summary teaching which we can practically apply to our lives.
Ramana Maharshi thought this text important enough to translate it from Sanskrit to Tamil so that Tamil-speaking locals who could not understand Sanskrit could still benefit from its teachings. In his introduction to his translation, Ramana describes Shankara as the one who brings forth enlightenment. Similarly in the Inchegarei Sampradaya, the lineage to which Nisargadatta Maharaj belonged, Shankara is considered an enlightened sage and his writings are studied as a matter of course.
1) Firstly viveka, or distinguishing between what is Brahman and what is not. Brahman is identified as the unchanging subject and the world of objects (ie. the body, mind and world) is said to be not-Brahman. This is an artificial duality that is temporarily set up in order to counter and remove the deeply ingrained belief in the doer-entity or ego (ahamkara). We will see how this duality is later resolved into non-duality and furthermore into non-conceptuality.
2) Once the subject-object distinction (viveka) has been properly made then this knowledge or understanding is to be practised. This is done by the practise of identification with the subject, Brahman, and turning away from the phenomena that arise in our awareness.
3) Eventually, after long practice of this, the doer-entity that we once took ourselves to be is seen to be an illusion. This ignorance is removed.
5) Everything is ‘resolved into Brahman’, not literally, but in the way we label reality. Before, at the first step of viveka, the unchanging subject was considered Brahman/Atman and the changing world of objects (the mind, body and world) were said to be not-Brahman/Atman. Now ignorance is removed, everything is seen to be Brahman and the duality set up by viveka is removed.
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.
This understanding of no doer may initially take time to become embedded, and you may have to ‘practice’ it to start with. It’s just like many other forms of knowledge:
Take the example of a child learning his (or her) name. At first he doesn’t know his name. Upon his parents repeating his name to him multiple times, he finally starts to realise that his name is ‘Tom’. Maybe at first he forgets his name a few times and doesn’t respond when someone calls him. After sometime it becomes ingrained and embedded into his mind and he no longer has to think about it.
Eventually he can’t help but know his name. When someone calls out ‘Tom’, he automatically knows someone is calling him, whether he like it or not.
It’s the same with the understanding ‘there is no doer’. Initially the understanding may be a bit shaky, but after sometime, after repeated practice, after going through the logic behind it a few times and seeing the truth of it, it becomes more ingrained. Eventually it becomes effortless as knowing your name.
Q: But who sees there is no doer? Isn’t it the ego itself that sees through the illusion of self?
I use the word ‘ego’ to be synonymous with ‘doer’. Because there is a belief in being a doer, there is the notion that ‘I can change this’, ‘I can get somewhere better’, which is the seeking. This seeking is a subtle form of suffering.
When the doer is seen to be false, the seeking starts to collapse, and suffering fades.
To answer your question: who or what sees there is no ego? That which previously saw the ego is that which sees there is no ego. It is never the ego that sees: the ego is a construct of thought, which is always the seen.
In my previous two posts (here and here) I’ve described the aims of the of yoga as being twofold:
Knowledge: to see/know/realise that the notion of being a separate doer-entity is an illusion
Peace: to become peaceful (sattvic) and remove compulsive desires
Each of these two aims of yoga are there to solve a basic problem. First, as long as you take yourself to be a doer, you suffer. This is corrected with Knowledge as defined above. Note that this Knowledge is not knowledge of something new (additive or positive knowledge) but it is realising something is false (negative knowledge).
And second, as long as you are a slave to compulsive desires, right action (ethical and intelligent action in accordance with natural law or dharma) will not fully manifest, and the flow of the innate natural intelligence will be impeded and distorted by these addictive and compulsive tendencies (vasanas). This is corrected by becoming sattvic (peaceful).
There are many forms of yoga and some can be very technical and detailed. However in general, some yogas work upon the body, others on the breath/voice, and some focus more on the mind. However the main purpose of yoga is to affect the mind, as this is where the core problems described above lie. Those yogas that work primarily upon the body, voice or breath do so in order to directly or indirectly effect the mind to which they are connected.
Each type of yoga strives to achieve the two points mentioned above in a slightly different way. Often there is a conceptual framework within which the yoga operates. When the aim of the yoga has been achieved (ie. by achieving the two points above), then the conceptual framework within which the yoga operated can be dismantled and left behind.
Improving your posture
Let’s give a simple example of how concepts, even when false, can aid us. If you want to improve your posture an expert may recommend you imagine a length of string attached to the crown of your head, pulling the top of your head upwards towards the sky/ceiling. When you imagine this, you naturally straighten your posture in line with the visualised imaginary piece of string.
After practicing this for sometime, your posture improved and now you no longer have to imagine a piece of string. At no point did you actually thinks there was a piece of string actually there, but you can see how this concept was useful to correct your posture.
Concepts in Yoga
Lets take a look at some of the main traditional forms of yoga to see how this works. In the sections below there are many aspects of the yoga I have not gone into, as the purpose of this text is to demonstrate how yoga can use concepts to achieve the two goals mentioned above, and then the concepts can be thrown away, to be picked up again only when this needs to be taught to someone else.
Jnana means knowledge in Sanskrit, and Jnana Yoga is the Yoga of Knowledge.
In this yoga the concept of Brahman is introduced and is initially equated as being being-consciousness-bliss (sat-chit-ananda). Brahman is initially defined as being our basic sense of presence-awareness and the teachings show this to be (apparently) Unchanging, Ever-Present/Permanent, Eternal, Infinite and Indestructible. This is stark contrast to the subtle and gross objects that appear within it which are ever-changing, temporary, transient, limited and subject to creation and destruction.
The Jnana yogi is taught to identify him/herself as that Unchanging Absolute Brahman and not to identify as the ephemeral objects. Through this process of de-identification with the body-mind and identification with that which does not change, insight into experience occurs.
We start to realise that the body-mind entity that we formerly took ourself to be actually is not us at all. We thought that we we responsible for our thoughts and action, whereas from the point of view of Brahman or Absolute Consciousness, it is seen that there is no doer and the body-mind-entity functions by itself. At this point the doer-entity is seen to be non-existant, and Knowledge as defined above in objective (1) arises.
At this point the essential job of jnana yoga has been completed, and the concepts of Brahman as being an unchanging essence can then be dropped and life goes on, living itself. There is no attachment to concepts such as the relative and absolute or concepts of the infinite, all of which are ultimately unverifiable in our experience.
Incidentally, once the doer has seen to be non-existent, sattva tends to arise over time as the processes that fuel compulsive desires are slowly wiped away, and so objective (2) is also indirectly achieved.
We can see that in Jnana yoga the concept of an Absolute Brahman has been useful to us to serve a purpose. However ultimately we cannot know for sure from our experience alone that there is such as thing as the Absolute Unchanging Brahman. Because Knowledge, ie. seeing through the doer, has occurred, Freedom is innately realised, and concepts are not clung to, and no beliefs are required.
Karma means action in Sanskrit, and Karma Yoga is the Yoga of Action.
There are a few ways karma yoga can be performed according to the traditional scriptures, but one of them is to set up the concept of a personal God, an all-powerful entity that is responsible for everything and every action in the universe. The Karma yogi is taught to realise that it is this God that ultimately has control and not the limited body-mind that it thinks itself to be.
The karma yogi therefore practices gladly accepting everything that comes his or her way as a gift from God, working to the best of their ability, but not being attached to the results of their actions.
As the Karma yogi starts to learn to be happy regardless of what is happening, this has the direct result of eroding away compulsive desires, converting them into non-compulsive desires, and so eventually objective (2) is achieved.
Thereafter, over time, the sense of identification with the body-mind entity loosens and is seen through. It can become apparent to the Karma yogi that actions happen by themselves: thoughts happen by themselves, but there is no thinker, just a spontaneous thought occurring, one by one, in quick succession. Similarly actions happen by themselves: limbs move, lips speak in the same way that dogs bark, leaves rustle and clouds float by – all happens spontaneously, and there is no doer. Here Knowledge arises.
Now the yoga has completed its aims: Freedom has been realised and we are seen to be free from suffering – we are seen to have always been free from suffering and the world. Now we no longer have to worry about concept of an infinite all-powerful personal God that is ultimately unknowable and unverifiable.
Again, the concept of the infinite God, as with the concept of the Unchanging Indestructible Brahman for Jnana yoga, can be seen to have been a useful tool, aiding the seeker to attain Liberation, but now no longer needs to be believed in.
So here are just two examples of how concepts are utilised in yoga to achieve a greater end than perhaps could have been achieved without them.
Remember, don’t cling to concepts, beliefs and ideas. Use them by all means, but when you no longer need them, let them go. Ultimately, stay with what you know, stay with what’s true, question your beliefs, be unafraid to admit if you’re wrong, and don’t pretend to know something you don’t. Keeping to these guidelines will safeguard you from dogma, and the suffering that results from it.
The word yoga can be used to describe a series of specific methods which aid and direct the seeker towards the goal of the ending of suffering or of attaining realisation. So let me start by saying something quite obvious: all of the yogas* are practices to be performed or actions to be done. They are therefore meant to be performed by a person who thinks themselves to be a separate doer-entity.
The very existence of the (illusory) separate doer implies a duality – in fact the imagined doer is the essence of duality, the first conceptual step from which all other dualistic notions proceed from. The duality that it sets up is between that of the subject (the doer) and objects (the objects of the world in which actions are done).
The aim of all yogas is, through practice, to facilitate a seeing/realisation that the separate doer-entity is an illusion. And therein lies the apparent paradox. Yoga is action undertaken by the (imaginary) separate doer in order to see through this illusion of doership.
*Traditionally there are several key yogas outlined in the vedic texts, the main ones being Jnana Yoga (yoga of knowledge or understanding), Karma Yoga (yoga of action), Bhakti Yoga (yoga of devotion) and Raja Yoga (the king of yogas).
‘Once you realise the Self, it becomes your direct and immediate experience. It is never lost.’
Time and time again I hear from spiritual seekers that they glimpsed the Self, they experienced that ecstasy, but it slipped through their fingers and fell away. Their question to me is how to get it back again. This is the wrong question, this is the wrong way, as it is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the path.
Everything that comes can also go. Everything that comes, all experiences that have been attained, are not the Self.
The Self is no particular experience. It is always here, fully manifest, fully evident. Everything that is perceived is It. It is not different from whatever is being perceived to be happening.
Realising that ‘this is It’ is Self-realisation. It is simply seeing what already is the case. When it is seen, there is no desire to reach a new experience, and a seeing that everything happens spontaneously without the presence of a separate doer-entity. Here suffering falls away as the simple truth of no-doer is seen.
Actions, thoughts and desires continue to manifest themselves, spontaneously, but there is nobody doing it, just like the wind blowing or digestion happening. Things happen, no doer.
As long are you are alive, you always are, you always exist. No matter what happens, you are. This knowledge of (your) being is Self-knowledge. It is not something to attain, just something to be ‘acknowledged’. It is not separate from whatever is perceived to be happening. How can this ‘knowledge’ be lost?
“There will come a time when one will have to forget all that one has learned.”
from ‘Who am I’ by Ramana Maharshi
Ultimate truth is simply that which never changes. It is here, now, everywhere and always already in its full glory. It is not separate from whatever is happening or from what is currently being experienced. Ultimate truth does not require you to believe in it or even do anything for it. Just drop all wrong thoughts and whatever remains is It. It cannot be caught in concepts.
The main role of the spiritual path is not to learn about ultimate truth, as it cannot be accumulated, but to discard falsehood. Seeing through false assumptions is what is called ‘spiritual knowledge’. It is not knowledge in the conventional sense at all really.
Conventionally speaking, learning is about accumulation of knowledge, but spiritual learning is more like pruning a hedge or chipping away at a block of stone to reveal a beautiful sculpture beneath. Put simply, spiritual learning is unlearning. Spiritual knowledge is seeing through false ideas.
“The state of Self-realisation, as we call it, is not attaining something new or reaching some goal which is far away, but simply being that which you always are and which you always have been. All that is needed is that you give up your realisation of the not-true as true.”
Anything that is learnt as being true is in the realm of relative knowledge. Anything that is learnt can also be forgotten whereas the Ultimate neither comes nor goes. Any statement posited as being true can be questioned and doubted leaving with it the bitter taste of uncertainty.
The Ultimate cannot be conceptualised. Conceptualisation itself relies on the Ultimate for its existence. All statements of truth rely on supporting structures and logic, eg. underpinning scientific or philosophical reasoning. The Ultimate truth stands by itself without needing outside support. It is none other than what you truly are. Look and you shall see.