Shankara’s way to Enlightenment, with verses from Atma Bodha

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.

Below are some selected quotes from Shankara’s Atma Bodha. We will see how in these quotes the basic methodology (after the entry criteria for this teaching are briefly alluded to) is:

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.

4) Once the doer-entity is seen to be unreal, then the interpretive notions of subject and object can also be done away with. Having completed their purpose, the concepts of subject and object are also seen to be false beliefs and are allowed to fall away.

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.

6) Eventually we stop needing to label reality at all. What we are left with is just this, this present experience, devoid of concepts of self or reality or even Brahman. So simple, so direct, how can it be put into words?

Verse 5. The knowledge [I am Brahman], when unceasingly practiced, drives out all ignorance, then itself disappears.

Shankara - the knowledge then itself disappears

37. The mental impression ‘I am Brahman’, created by ceaseless practice, destroys ignorance and the resultant suffering, just as medicine destroys disease.

Shankara - I am Brahman destroys ignorance (1)

41. There are no distinctions such as ‘Knower’, the ‘Knowledge’ and the ‘Object of Knowledge’ in the Supreme Self

Shankara- there are no distinctions in the Supreme Self.

64. All that is perceived, or heard, is Brahman and nothing else

Shankara- All that is perceived is Brahman and nothing else

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Integrating knowledge, spontaneous action

This post is continued from Discarding Knowledge as Ignorance

Do you go around repeatedly saying your name so that you remember it? Do you have to walk around saying “I am Tom, I am Tom, I am Tom?” (obviously substitute in your name).

Or do you spend most of your life not even thinking about your name, but when someone calls out your name, the understanding ‘My name is Tom’ automatically acts: you turn your head and respond?

It’s the same with understanding there is no doer: initially you may need to think about it, go through the reasoning, and realise there is no evidence for a doer. It is a conscious process. Because we have been conditioned to think of ourselves as being a doer, there is often a process of deconditioning.

It may also take time for all the suffering based on the ‘I am the doer’ notion to fall away. Other notions such as ‘I am to blame’ or ‘I could/should have done it differently’ or ‘I am not worthy’ may still all be at play. All these depend on the root belief ‘I am a separate doer-entity’. Again, there may be a conscious process of applying this understanding in order to deal with suffering as it arises and uprooting the associated beliefs upon which suffering depends.

But once this has been done, then we don’t need to think about it. The knowledge of ‘there is no doer’ has been ingrained into us. We do not need to think about it, we no longer need to repeat the process of understanding.

But just as when someone asks your name, you can spontaneously respond ‘My name is ____’, when someone asks you ‘Are you a doer?’, you can instantly reply ‘there is no doer’.

This post is continued here: Am I the body? Am I not the body?

Jiddu Krishnamurti: We are talking of something entirely different

‘We are talking of something entirely different, not of self-improvement, but of the cessation of the self’
Jiddu Krishnamurti

Tom’s Comments:

Seeing there is no self (ie. no doer, no independent entity that is the author of thoughts and actions) is ‘cessation of the self’.

It is not something you have to do – that would be more self-improvement.

With this insight suffering falls away by itself, as a side-effect. Not that it matters, for there is no choice, just spontaneous happening.

Roadmap to enlightenment: a (fairly) comprehensive guide to spiritual practices

This is one of the most important posts I have written – it condenses years of spiritual seeking which has involved exploring dozens of spiritual teachings, reading hundreds of books and texts from spiritual teachers and spiritual traditions across the world, undergoing all sorts of spiritual practices and meditations over the years, entering samadhi’s and experiencing visions of infinite oneness, and a genuine realisation of the Freedom-that-already-is.

The aim of the post is to guide you to a Freedom beyond words, but also stay concise. For all those people who have asked me: ‘That’s all very well but how do I actually become enlightened? How can we free ourselves from suffering? What do we do?’, this is for you, and others like you.

Continue reading

It’s too ordinary to notice

tea leaf

It’s too ordinary for you to notice.

Whenever you’re seeking,
Whatever you’re seeking,
You’re seeking something else,
A mental projection,
A fantasy.

The self that causes all the mischief,
All the suffering,
Is an imagined entity.
It is seeking its own end
– how absurd!

No-self is already here.
To notice this,
There is nothing that you need to notice,
(Nothing you need to do)
As it is always being noticed.
It is simply the totality of whatever is already being perceived,
And in that totality there has never actually ever been a perceiver,
The perceiver being an imagined entity.

Ask yourself “Who am I?”,
“What is the I”,
And you will find no “I” there,
“I” being just an empty thought.

Reality is simply that which remains
When no actual “I” is seen,
When things are seen as they are,
Which is always the case.

There is nothing you need to do,
Nothing to realise,
Only cease adding the notion of “I”,
Only cease to believe in that “I” for which there is no evidence.

Then the notion of “I” can still appear,
The “I” can still come and go as it pleases,
(for this “I” is just a thought,
and like all phenomena,
its appearance cannot be controlled,
spontaneously appearing and disappearing by itself)
But it is no longer believed in.

The “I” being seen through,
Reality shines by itself,
As it has always done.

This is nothing new,
I hesitate to say nothing special,
As it is also truly wonderful.

Reality being everywhere and ever-present
– what is more ordinary and commonplace than that?

Insight

Insight is not personal insight.

With personal insight, you have an insight,
You realise this or that,
You realise x, y or z.

All personal insight is based on concepts or thought,
– they are all subject to change,
– they are all subject to doubt.

With Insight it is the person that is seen through;
Insight is there without a person having an insight:
Everything is just Insight,
There is only Insight.

Like realising the lake is a mirage:
Your personal insights and doubts were just ripples on its surface;

Then the whole of spirituality is done for,
No need for any of it anymore,
What else is there to do?
What can be done when there is no doer?

Unknowable yet known (Upanishads, Sufism, Ramana and Taoism)

sparrow branch

If you think: “I know Brahman well,” then surely you know but little of Its form
Kena Upanishad

One of the astounding things about this is that it is impossible to put this into words. Put what into words you may ask?….this! Just this! Call it Tao, God or call it Brahman – these are really just meaningless words unless we understand what the words are pointing to.

All the great teachings have tried to express the Inexpressible. They have tried to indicate That which gives meaning to life but is beyond meaning, That which is transformative but at the same time nothing changes when It is ‘realised’ (how can that be?), That in which suffering and separation are seen to be imaginary and illusory. When That is understood, all the scriptures can be made sense of, and all of the scriptures are also seen to be ultimately inaccurate.

The Tao Te Ching, that wonderful poem from ancient China, starts with the confession that what it is writing about cannot be written about:

The Tao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao
Tao Te Ching, verse 1

What you are seeking is constantly being realised, whether you realise it or not! One of the advantages of the concept of God is that God is not meant to be knowable. However with the concept of self-realisation and the ever increasing preponderance of the all-knowing guru on the spiritual scene, it is often thought that this is something that can be known by the mind. Here’s what our Sufi friend Abol-Hasan has to say about it.

One may speak of those absent,
but one who is Ever Present,
one can say nothing of
Sheikh Abol-Hasan, saying 92

Throughout the ages, people from all walks of life have spontaneously awoken to this ‘understanding’: scholars and illiterates, men and women and children, those with a spiritual tradition and those without one.

All true knowers of truth are always fuzzy when it comes to how to realise this for oneself, for there is no single path and no single practice that has the monopoly here. This is not always a popular message, and certainly not one that is easy to grasp (it’s impossible to grasp) and pass on through the generations.

Here we can see the Kena Upanishad trying to express the futility of organising a spiritual system around this understanding:

The one who has thought it out does not know it.
It is not understood by those who understand it;
it is understood by those who do not understand it.
Kena Upanishad

This is ever present, it is none other than Our-True-Self, which is simply life devoid of the illusion of doership. It is here, yet cannot be known by the mind or senses. It cannot be captured in words.

I do not think I know It well, nor do I think I do not know It. 
He among us who knows the meaning of “Neither do I not know, nor do I know”
— knows Brahman.

Kena Upanishad

This realisation is nothing to be gained. When you realise, there is no realisation at all. It all just falls away. What is there to realise? Who is there to realise? There is just this. This is enough. Realisations come and go in this. And this is not a concrete thing that you can grasp or possess, but it is life just happening right now as it is.

Boddhidharma, the Indian monk and founder of Zen (Chan) Buddhism tells us just this, and he says it repeatedly – here is just one example:

“To say he attains anything at all is to slander a Buddha. What could he possibly attain?”
Boddhidharma from the Bloodstream Sermon

Ramana Maharshi was someone who had a spontaneous realisation of all of this as a teenage boy. He had no guru and knew little of any spiritual teaching. Over the years he learnt the language of Advaita Vedanta and found that its teachings described that which he was already experiencing. Here’s what he has to say about self-knowledge (Atma-Jnana in Sanskrit):

Q: When a man realises the Self, what will he see?

M: There is no seeing. Seeing is only being. 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 realization of the not-true as true…At one stage you will laugh at yourself for trying to discover the Self which is so self-evident.
Ramana Maharshi

And he repeats this again and again (italics added by me):

If we talk of knowing the Self, there must be two selves, one a knowing self, another the self which is known, and the process of knowing.

The state we call realisation is simply being oneself, not knowing anything or becoming anything. If one has realised, one is that which alone is and which alone has always been. One cannot describe that state. One can only be that.
Ramana Maharshi

So if this is unknowable, how to reach this ‘understanding’ at all? Let us listen to the Maharshi:

Q: But how is one to reach this state?
M: There is no goal to be reached. There is nothing to be attained. You are the Self. You exist always. Nothing more can be predicated of the Self than that it exists. Seeing God or the Self is only being the Self or yourself. Seeing is being.

You, being the Self, want to know how to attain the Self. It is something like a man being at Ramanasramam asking how many ways there are to reach Ramanasramam and which is the best way for him.
Ramana Maharshi