Does stillness of mind lead to liberation?

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Advaita Bodha Deepika is a traditional text and a masterpiece, summarising the methods and techniques of advaita vedanta. It was a favourite text of Sri Ramana Maharshi and was often recommended by him. Here is what it says about how to attain liberation, the following is from Chapter 3:

17…Master: With complete stillness of mind, samsara will disappear root and branch. Otherwise there will be no end to samsara, even in millions of aeons (Kalpakotikala).

18. Disciple: Cannot samsara be got rid of by any means other than making the mind still?

M: Absolutely by no other means; neither the Vedas, nor the shastras nor austerities, nor karma, nor vows, nor gifts, nor recital of scriptures of mystic formulae (mantras), nor worship, nor anything else, can undo the samsara. Only stillness of mind can accomplish the end and nothing else.

19. D: The scriptures declare that only Knowledge can do it. How then do you say that stillness of the mind puts an end to samsara?

M: What is variously described as Knowledge, Liberation, etc., in the scriptures, is but stillness of mind.

D: Has any one said so before?

20 M: Sri Vasishta had said…


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Beloved Ramana Maharshi says the same in Guru Vachaka Kovai, verse 141:

All the jnana* scriptures that teach the way to redemption proclaim in unison that restraining and stilling the mind is the best means for liberation. This is also emphasised by jnanis*.

If, after a certain amount of study, one knows this to be the inner purport of the scriptures, one should then direct ones whole effort towards that [practice]. What is the use of continuously studying more and more scriptures without doing this?

*Jnana, literally meaning knowledge, refers to the teachings of spiritual liberation, whereas jnani, literally ‘knower’, refers to the spiritually liberated sage.

 


In Ramana’s ‘Who am I?’, the question as to the nature of Jnana arises and is simply answered:

Questioner: What is wisdom-insight (jnana-drsti)?

Ramana Maharshi: Remaining quiet is what is called wisdom-insight.


The Katha Upanishad states the same, in verse 2.3.10:

When the five organs of perception become still, together with the mind, and the intellect ceases to be active: that is called the Supreme State [Brahman].

 


The Amritabindu Upanishad equates the controlled/stilled mind with Jnana (knowledge) and liberation:

2. It is indeed the mind that is the cause of men’s bondage and liberation. The mind that is attached to sense-objects leads to bondage, when unattached from sense-objects it tends to lead to liberation. So they [the sages] say.

3. Since liberation is based on the mind devoid of desire for sense objects, therefore, the mind should always be made free of such desire, by the seeker after liberation.

4. When the mind, with its attachment for sense-objects annihilated, is fully controlled within the heart and thus realises its own essence, then that is the Supreme State (Brahman is gained).

5. The mind should be controlled so that it becomes merged in the heart. This is Jnana (knowledge) and this is Dhyana (meditation). All else is argumentation and verbiage.


The Advaitic giant, Sri Gaudapada, (Shankara’s guru’s guru) writes in his Mandukya Karika:

The controlled mind is verily the fearless Brahman’ Chapter 3, verse 35

And in verse 37 of the same chapter he writes:

[Atman is] beyond all expression by words and beyond all acts of mind; It is all peace, eternal effulgence free from activity and fear and attainable by samadhi’ Chapter 3, verse 37


Also see:

The key to nonduality and yoga

The ‘ultimate means’ to liberation

Ramana Maharshi: be still

Ramana Maharshi: a quick and simple method to self-realisation

False enlightenment

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Advaita Vedanta: Gaudapada’s Method (Mandukya Upanishad Karika)

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Gaudapada is a giant in the history of Advaita, and he is often known as the great-grandfather of Advaita Vedanta. Here in this post I want to focus on the practical aspects of the principle text of Gaudapada, the Mandukya Karika, aimed at the seeker of liberation. What is Gaudapada urging the seeker of liberation to actually do? There are many other aspects of the karika too, such as the metaphysical and philosophical elucidations, but maybe I will save discussion of these for a future post.

Gaudapada (c. 6th century CE) was the great-guru of Shankara (788-820 CE), ie. he was Shankara’s guru’s guru. And for those of you who don’t know, Shankara is the person who made the word non-duality (Sanskrit: Advaita) famous. It was he who brought together various texts and propped them up with logic and scriptural arguments and essentially systematised and founded what is today known as Advaita Vedanta.

While we know very little about Gaudapada and his life, he is famous for writing a commentary on the Mandukya Upanishad called the Mandukya Karika or Gaudapada’s Karika. Whilst Gaudapada was not a Buddhist, it is clear that he drew heavily on Buddhist teachings in the karika, often using near exact copies of some Buddhist phrases in his writings, and much of what he writes will be very familiar to those who have studied Mahayana Buddhism or Tibetan Buddhism.

In my view much of the methodology for spiritual practice as well as the conceptual framework within which Gaudapda forms his views is much more similar to Buddhist thought that any Vedanta scripture that we know of that comes before Gaudapada. Conversely, we have many Buddhist scriptures that in essence give the same practical method for enlightenment as Gaudapada, the only substantive difference with Gaudapada being their philosophical way of interpreting and writing about the nature of reality. Now whilst I have been studying both Vedanta and Buddhism for over twenty years, I still do not consider myself to be an expert on the scriptures, so I welcome any corrections or alternative views you want to put my way.

As an interesting aside, the only copies of the Mandukya Upanishad we have are those which are combined with Gaudapada’s commentary. As no earlier versions without the commentary have been found, this has led some to speculate that perhaps Gaudapada himself wrote the Mandukya Upanishad. Textually and stylistically this seems unlikely, but, like with many upanishadic texts, their precise origins and authorship remains shrouded in darkness.


I thought I’d start with verse 90 of Chapter 4 of Gaudapada’s Karika, as it gives an overview of his approach:

IV 90. One should be conversant, at the very outset, with four things. These are as follows: the things to be avoided, the goal to be realized, the disciplines to be cultivated and the tendencies to be rendered ineffective. Of these four, all except the goal to be realized i.e. the Supreme Reality exist only as products of the imagination.

Gaudapada lists four things we should know from the outset as a spiritual seeker: what we are looking for, what we should do, what we should not do and what habitual tendencies we should get rid of. The supreme reality he is speaking of is none-other than Brahman. This is the goal to be realised, and all else, he states, is illusory. Essentially Gaudapada is saying there appears to be a spiritual path with a seeker and a goal and things to do and things to not do, but actually all there is is reality. The spiritual path is an illusion.

He makes this clearer in this famous oft quoted verse from Chapter 2 verse 32:

II 32. There is neither dissolution nor creation, none in bondage and none practicing disciplines. There is none seeking Liberation and none liberated. This is the absolute truth.

As we are stuck in illusion, what is the (illusory) way out? What is the (illusory) path we should follow? Gaudapada has already stated that the goal of the search is Brahman. Much of the Karika is devoted to philosophical explanation and reasoning about the nature of Brahman, illusion, cause and effect, duality vs. non-duality, etc, but in the following verses Gaudapada gives us a method we can use, and in doing so he also gives us an experiential definition of Brahman. The following verses are from Chapter 3:

III 40. Yogis who are ignorant of non-duality depend on the control of the mind for attaining fearlessness, the destruction of misery, Self-Knowledge and imperishable peace.

First Gaudapada makes it clear that for one who is not already self-realised or liberated  (‘ignorant of non-duality’), control of mind is the method. What are the fruits of this method? They are fearlessness, the end of suffering, knowledge of the supreme reality and unending peace. That control of mind is required was already stated in verse III.35 in which he writes ‘The controlled mind is verily the fearless Brahman’ – he is essentially saying that the mind is to be still and egoic vasanas (habitual tendencies) need to be removed – a point which he will reiterate later in verse III.46 below.

III 41. The mind is to be brought under control by undepressed effort; it is like emptying the ocean, drop by drop, with the help of a blade of kusa grass.

Gaudapada then says that this (illusory) path takes much effort, ie. a spiritual practice is required, and he likens this to using a blade of grass to empty the ocean drop by drop. Whilst Brahman is already fully here and now, an (apparent) path is required to remove (apparent) ignorance. As I said before, this post will not dwell too much on the philosophical aspects, but focus on practical steps for the (apparent) seeker. So how do we proceed on this path?

III 42. The mind distracted by desires and enjoyments should be brought under control by proper means; so also the mind enjoying pleasure in inactivity (laya). For the state of inactivity is as harmful as the state of desires.

Here Gaudapada states we should not be distracted by desire for sensual pleasures and warns us that dwelling in the pleasure of inactivity (laya) is also not the way, for this is actually just another sensual pleasure that fuels the egoic process further.

Already here, for those of you versed in a variety of Buddhist thought, you will see the familiarity in the methodology, in which dwelling on any sense object is pointed out as nothing other than egoic desire. But why should we turn away from these desires? Isn’t desire for pleasure natural and human?

III 43. Turn back the mind from the enjoyment of desires, remembering that they beget only misery. Do not see the created objects, remembering that all this is the unborn Atman.

We see another classic Buddhist teaching here. It is pointed out that seeking pleasure, or ‘enjoyment of desires’, just leads to further suffering. This is akin to the Buddha’s teachings on Dukkha (Pali for suffering). In fact the Sanskrit word here used is ‘Dukkham’, almost paying homage to the Buddha’s teachings. All pleasures come and go, and though they may please us for a short time, eventually they leave us. And when they do, they leave us wanting more, feeling incomplete, addicted to our desire for more and more and more. And so the seeking-suffering, the wheel of samsara, continues

The remedy suggested here is to see all this as the ‘unborn Atman’, and not to see the objects themselves at all: ‘Do not see the created objects, remembering that all this is the unborn Atman.’

What problems may we encounter on this path, and how do we remedy them?

III 44. If the mind becomes inactive, arouse it from laya; if distracted, make it tranquil. Understand the nature of the mind when it contains the seed of attachment. When the mind has attained sameness, do not disturb it again.

This verse mimics the Buddhist scriptures we see detailing various Buddhist meditation methods, in which remedies for both inactivity and distraction are advised so that the meditator can find that still point of equanimity. Again, the idea is of neither slipping into the dull state of laya with all its bliss and laziness (tamas), nor being hyper-agitated and enamoured with thoughts and the world (rajas), and thus peace (sattva) is attained.

Are there any further stumbling blocks on this path?

III 45. The yogi must not taste the happiness arising from samadhi; he should detach himself from it by the exercise of discrimination. If his mind, after attaining steadiness, again seeks external objects, he should make it one with Atman through great effort.

The instructions Gaudapa give us are extremely concise, and each of these terse verses could be unpacked in much greater detail. Here the seeker is warned not to become attached to happiness, which is nothing other than another subtle object. Seeking objects in order to gain fulfillment is a sure way of perpetuating the ego-illusion together with its addiction to feeling good.

The second sentence also highlights another important aspect of the teaching, namely that even after steadiness of mind is attained, there can be a lapse back in to delusion/ignorance, where the ego and it’s object-centred desires raise their head. The remedy for this is continued practice. Avoid this step at your peril.

What about when the mind no longer falls back into egoic desire or laya?

III 46. When the mind does not lapse into inactivity and is not distracted by desires, that is to say, when it remains unshakeable and does not give rise to appearances, it verily becomes Brahman.

Here we are given a pragmatic definition of self-realisation or Brahman – ie. when ignorance no longer remains, when the mind is still and no longer deviates and follows egoic desires, where the grasping mind has essentially died.

To put this into vedanta-speak, Gaudapada is equating realisation of Brahman with stilness of mind and removal of the egoic vasanas, something reiterated by Shankara when he famously wrote vasana kshaya moksham, which means ‘destruction of the vasanas is Moksha (liberation)’. It is also completely in line with Sri Ramana Maharshi’s teachings, see here or here for an example.

So I will end this post here. The actual instructions are few, and for those with faith they can easily be followed. Be patient – remember – slow and steady wins the race. Re-read the above verses a few times so they sink in, and best wishes.

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti

See also:
The ‘Ultimate Means’ to Liberation
False Enlightenment

4 things you (may) need before you can be enlightened

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Over the centuries, the lives of countless enlightened and self-realised sages have been studied and investigated, contrasting how they were prior to and after enlightenment, searching for clues as to what may aid other seekers in reaching total and complete liberation. Through this investigation several common qualities have been found which, if developed, aid the spiritual seeker to reach their goal.

In Vedanta, traditionally, there are four qualities (sadhana catustaya in Sanskrit) that a person should cultivate prior to engaging with the higher teachings of vedanta. These qualities, or qualifications,  are deemed necessary to have, at least in some degree, before enlightenment can subsequently be achieved.

A similar notion that a certain level of attainment or qualification is required before higher teachings are taught are found throughout spiritual traditions, including many ‘no-path’ schools such as Dzogchen, Mahamudra and Zen (all types of Buddhism).

The idea is that without these qualities being present the seeker may have many insights and epiphanies, but the results will be unstable, with insights often coming and going, the results being a continued sense of lack and frustration. In a more mature seeker this may result in so-called ‘flip-flopping’, when the seeker has repeated experiences of being enlightened only to find, much to their dismay, that these experiences also end and suffering resumes.

The idea is that without these qualities being present the seeker may have many insights and epiphanies, but the results will be unstable, with insights often coming and going, the results being a continued sense of lack and frustration.

Conversely, when a seeker has developed these qualities, when exposed to the higher teachings of vedanta they make quick progress and quickly attain moksha (Freedom), which does not come and go.

Below Shankara, that great proponent of advaita vedanta (non-duality), tells us that these qualities are more important than other factors in attaining moksha. This quote is taken a text attributed to Shankara called vivekachudamani, one of his most famous texts and one of my favourites when I was a seeker:

Ultimate success in spiritual endeavours depends chiefly upon the qualifications of the seeker. Auxiliary conveniences such as time and place all have a place indeed, but they are essentially secondary.
Vivekachudamani by Adi Shankara, verse 14

The 4 Qualities (sadhana catustaya)

Here are the 4 qualities, sometimes known as the ‘4 Ds’, (with the Sankrit word in brackets):

  1. Discrimination (viveka): being able to tell the difference between what is permanent and what is transient
  2. Dispassion (vairagya): not desiring what is transient/impermanent; turing away from the impermanent towards what is permanent
  3. Discipline (samadisatkasampatti): dropping trivial activities and turning towards the teaching and what is permanent.(Samadisatkasampatti  more literally refers to the six treasures, each of which will be discussed in later posts).
  4. Desire for freedom (mumuksutvam): this helps overcomes the ups and downs that life may bring and enables the seeker to overcome obstacles along the way.

There are several texts that outline these 4 qualities, perhaps the most succinct being Shankara’s Vivekachudamani which I have already mentioned above:

17. He alone is considered qualified to inquire after the supreme Reality (Brahman), who has discrimination, detachment, qualities of calmness etc., and a burning desire for liberation.
18. Great sages have spoken of four qualifications for attainment which, when present, succeed in the realization of Brahman and in the absence of which the goal is not attained.
Vivekachudamani by Adi Shankara, verses 17 & 18

Risk Factors vs qualifications

Before we look at each of the qualities in turn (in forthcoming articles), I would like to give my view. I don’t think these qualities are definite prerequisites for Freedom or self-realisation, important as they are. I think of them more as risk factors – ie. there may be an increased risk of enlightenment if these qualities are cultivated. Having the qualities does not guarantee enlightenment, and not having them does not bar one from Freedom.

It should be obvious really, but just because a particular tradition states something is necessary, doesn’t mean it is so – that’s my take on things at least. For me this Freedom is so simple, beyond simple actually, as it already is, that the whole notion of qualifications seems a bit arbitrary.

That being said, I do think they are of importance, and understanding and practising them will benefit many seekers, both in terms of increasing their day-to-day happiness, and in  terms of realising Freedom.

It has been said that this knowledge of the four qualities required for enlightement has come about by looking at and studying the lives of hundreds of spiritual seekers and knowers-of-Freedom (Jnanis) and seeing if they had anything in common. When we go through each of the four qualities I hope that you will be able to see, in a commonsense way, how these qualities work together and the principles that underlie them, and how they can indeed aid the attainment of moksha (the realisation of Freedom).

At the same time I feel it is important that we bear in mind that there are also inherent problems with the notion of qualifications which must also be understood if one is to engage with them effectively, namely that the very idea of a progressive path to Freedom (implied by the need for qualifications) can itself be an obstacle to realising that-which-already-is.

I will explore each of the above 4D’s in turn in forthcoming articles.

Nisargadatta Maharaj: In reality there is no person

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The person is merely the result of a misunderstanding. In reality, there is no such thing.

Feelings, thoughts and actions race before the watcher in endless succession, leaving traces in the brain and creating an illusion of continuity.

A reflection of the watcher in the mind creates the sense of “I” and the person acquires an apparently independent existence.

In reality there is no person, only the watcher identifying himself with the ‘I’ and the ‘mine’.

Taken from I Am That by Nisargadatta Maharaj

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

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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

Isha Upanishad: That is full, this is full

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“That is full, this is full,
From that fullness comes this fullness,
If you take away this fullness from that fullness,
Only fullness remains”
Invocatory verse of Isha Upanishad

Gandhi famously declared the Isha Upanishad to be the summit of human wisdom. He said if all the scriptures in the world were lost, as long as the first verse of the Isha Upanishad remained then Hinduism would last forever.

To the rational mind devoid of spiritual experience this verse makes little sense – how can you take fullness from fullness, and for fullness to still remain? However to the one whose heart has glimpsed the Lord, the poetry reverberates and delights.

That is full, this is full…I can imagine the anonymous rishi (seer or wise person) who composed the verse pointing  away from him when saying ‘that’ and pointing near him or even perhaps towards himself when saying ‘this’. That is full, this is full…We are surrounded by the infinite. That is the infinite, I am also the infinite. The infinite is everywhere, nothing is not it. Nothing is limited, everything is free and unbound, one.

In the invocation above, the sanskrit word that has been translated as ‘full’ ispurna. Purna can also be translated as complete, whole, infinite, limitless or perfect. Taking this into account, what does it mean? It means that we are already whole and complete. You are whole and complete, I am whole and complete – already. You do not have to make yourself whole. Sadhana (spiritual practice) will not make you complete – it cannot. Sadhana can only reveal the completeness that is already here.

The problem for a spiritual seeker is not that they are un-enlightened or deficient in any way. It is that they do not realise they are already enlightened and whole.

This lack of realisation of one’s true nature is called ignorance, meaning that you do not see what is already the case, you do not know your true identity as That which is already full.

This ignorance or misunderstanding of reality has been demonstrated using many metaphors in the classic texts of vedanta, such as the woman who thinks she has lost her necklace only for a look in the mirror to reveal it is on her neck. The snake on the dimly lit ground that scares the man was actually a rope all along; when revealed by the light the rope is seen and the man’s fear is abated. Or when ten men have crossed a river the group leader becomes worried when he can only count nine men on the other side. A passer-by reassures the leader: he has merely forgotten to count himself.

In all these examples, all was well the entire time, only the protagonist made a mistake. The protagonist did not need to make things well, they only needed to see things clearly. The mirror, the light and the passerby in the analogies above represent the scripture or guru that reveals the mistake and thus ends suffering.

The solution to suffering and lack is therefore not one of self-improvement in which you build your small-shallow self up into some perfect super-duper being: you are already the perfect super-duper being. In fact we are all that One Being. We just don’t see it. All we have to do is look deeply at reality as it is now and investigate it and our assumptions about it. Then we can see for ourselves that the sense of lack is based on illusion and that we are already free.

As Jesus said, “seek and ye shall find” and “the truth shall set you free”.

Don’t take spiritual concepts too seriously

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“The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao” Tao te ching, verse 1

We don’t need to take spiritual concepts too seriously. They are there to guide us, to point us in the right direction only. The reality they point to cannot be described. When we start to take teachings too seriously we miss this point and start to become dogmatic.

Any interpretations that are set up and established as truth become meaningless phrases” Bankei

I’ve met people who follow Advaita Vedanta who say that consciousness is what we really are, and others who say what we are is beyond consciousness. Both of these are useful teachings, but don’t take them too seriously, either one of them. Both are useful and untrue. If you take a single position as being true, then that is a belief. Your attachment to a conceptual truth indicates the belief in ego/individuality that underlies it. Continue reading