Which Philosophy Personally Appeals More to You, Buddhism or Advaita Vedanta?

(This is a repost of the answer that I wrote in Quora for the same question)

Both point to the same truth!

I have noticed that many people don’t agree when it is said both are the same, because they are only looking at both of them in philosophical level. When it comes to ultimate reality, no matter what words we use, they can be always misleading.

I am talking from my own experience. Oneness with the rest of the existence is a living reality for me. But I will back up my statements by quoting both Vedantic and Buddhist scriptures.

The main source of suffering in our lives is caused by identification. We get identified with our mind, our body, our thoughts, our emotions etc. This identification of mistaking something that is not Self as Self is termed as Avidya or ignorance. Ignorance causes us to think that there is a separate individual self which needs to be protected and enhanced.

In other words, we feel experientially that we are separate from the rest of the world. This separation causes us to crave for fulfillment. That is why Buddha said craving is the root cause of suffering. It is Avidya, the ignorance which causes craving. Buddha is talking about the immediate cause and Vedanta is talking about the original cause.

Some people will object to this by saying that Buddhism doesn’t say that there is something eternal. First of all, when you realize that time itself is an illusion, you will also realize that eternity is only an idea. Buddha was more specific and straight forward, while Vedanta is little compassionate and gives you something that your mind can grasp.

When anyone asked Buddha any metaphysical questions such as ‘Is there anything eternal’, Buddha was silent. It is called Noble Silence .He talked about the impermanence of aggregates, but what we call in Vedanta as absolute reality is not one of the aggregates. It is not anything that is objective. It cannot be put into words. But both Vedanta and Buddhism has actually hinted about this absolute reality with striking similarity.

See the below examples:

Vedanta:

“It is this Akshara (the Imperishable), O Gargi, so the knowers of Brahman say. It is neither gross nor subtle, neither short nor long, not red, not viscid, not shadowy, not dark, not the air, not the ether, not adhesive, tasteless, odourless, without the sense of sight, without the sense of hearing, without the vital principle, mouthless, without measure, neither interior nor exterior,. It eats nothing, nobody eats it.”

– Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 3-8-8.

Buddhism:

“There is that dimension, monks, where there is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor wind; neither dimension of the infinitude of space, nor dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, nor dimension of nothingness, nor dimension of neither perception nor non-perception; neither this world, nor the next world, nor sun, nor moon. And there, I say, there is neither coming, nor going, nor staying; neither passing away nor arising: unestablished, unevolving, without support [mental object]. This, just this, is the end of stress.”

– Buddha (in Nibbāna Sutta: Unbinding (1))

Buddha directly talks about something that is eternal too, but he uses the word ‘unborn’:

There is, monks, an unborn— unbecome — unmade — unfabricated. If there were not that unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, there would not be the case that escape from the born — become — made — fabricated would be discerned. But precisely because there is an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, escape from the born — become — made — fabricated is discerned

– Buddha (in Nibbāna Sutta: Unbinding (3))

So, why did Buddha reject Vedas when Vedanta says that Vedas are the only authority?

We need to take Buddha’s time into account. Buddha lived sometime around 800 BC- 600 BC. It was during those times when many rishis were able to realize that there is something beyond the benefits that was got from mere rituals..Vedic rituals only focused on materialistic benefits that people could enjoy in three worlds. They were never about ultimate reality. That is when two great upanishads, Brihadaranyaka upanishad and Chandgoya upanishads were compiled. It must have taken a century or two; Buddha started talking to people at the same time period. So, we can safely conclude that when Buddha was alive, upanishads were not a part of Vedas.

This will raise many objections. Because, many people believe that Vedas are eternal and infallible. Even Shankara believed so. But, consider the following verses from Brihadaranyaka upanishad and the commentary from Shankara:

From chapter 6, section 4:

Verse 6: If man sees his reflection in water, he
should recite the following Mantra : ‘ (May the
gods grant) me lustre, manhood, reputation,
wealth and merits.’ She (his wife) is indeed the
goddess of beauty among women. Therefore he
should approach this handsome woman and
speak to her.

Shankara’s commentary:

If perchance he sees his reflection in water, he
should recite the following Mantra : ‘(May the gods
grant) me lustre,’ etc. She is indeed the goddess of
beauty among women. Therefore he should approach
this handsome woman and speak to her, when she has
taken a bath after three ‘nights.

Verse 7 : If she is not willing, he should buy her
over; and if she is still unyielding, he should
strike her with a stick or with the hand and
proceed, uttering the following Mantra, ‘I take
away your reputation,’ etc. She is then actually
discredited.

Shankara’s commentary:

If she is not willing, he should buy her over,
press his wishes through ornaments etc.; and if she is
still unyielding, he should strike her with a stick or
with the hand
, and announcing that he was going to
curse her and make her unfortunate, he should ·proceed,
uttering the following Mantra : ‘I take away your
reputation: etc. As a result of that curse, she comes
to be known as barren and unfortunate, and is then
actually discredited.

The above verses show how totally male dominative the society was those days.. Even though this doesn’t have anything to do with enlightenment, this example shows how one should not take everything just because it comes from a scripture or a person who is regarded as an authority.

And I don’t think that such infallible and eternal upanishads can advice someone to beat his wife if she doesn’t agree for sex.

You may say that these were later interpolations. But if that is the case, how could we trust Vedas in the first place?

But I know that Vedic verses such as Nasadiya Suktha and almost all upanishads have immense wisdom. We have to see them as collection of various poems composed by different people, instead of seeing them as infallible and eternal scriptures. I know that it is very difficult for many Indians to accept, because we are deeply blinded by pride and confirmation bias.

So, Why did Vedanta say that Vedas are only pramana (means of knowledge)?

Let us talk about three different methods of acquiring knowledge in general. (Vedanta uses six, but let us talk about three important ones here)

  1. Direct experience
  2. Inference
  3. Testimony from an authority.

In our daily life, we can get to know about many things through direct experience and inference. But we would never know the path to end the suffering unless someone tells us, simple!

So our ancient Indians selected the Upanishads as the only reliable authority to teach us the path towards liberation. It is just a standardization made by humans to avoid any conflict. And according to the social structure that prevailed those days, instead of relying any random person’s words as authority, it was reasonable to accept Upanishads as authority.

But we live in 21st century now. We are aware of things like confirmation bias and we are more keen towards human rights. While we do appreciate and show immense reverence to our ancient scriptures, it is nothing wrong in changing certain things to suit our modern society.

Also, Vedanta uses a certain teaching method called Adyaropa Apavada while Buddhism teaches directly and precisely. Vedanta is poetic where as Buddhism is empirical. Buddhism gives you the raw truth but Vedanta offers to you with added sweets and flavors. The only problem in Vedanta is that people may get stuck with the words and concepts.

You can find more details in my post here where I have included some additional points: Buddhism and Vedanta are the Same – A Detailed Comparison

If you are looking for a great spiritual authority to confirm the validity of Buddha’s message, then I will quote some of the words from Bhagwan Ramana Maharishi:

Disciple: Research on God has been going on from time immemorial. Has the final word been said?

Maharshi: (Keeps silence for some time.)

Disciple: (Puzzled) Should I consider Sri Bhagavan’s silence as the reply to my question?

Maharshi: Yes. Mouna is Isvara-svarupa.Hence the text: “The Truth of Supreme Brahman proclaimed through Silent Eloquence.”

Disciple: Buddha is said to have ignored such inquiries about God.

Maharshi: And for this reason was called a sunyavadin (nihilist). In fact Buddha concerned himself more with directing the seeker to realize Bliss here and now that with academic discussion about God, etc.

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Buddhism and Vedanta are the Same – A Detailed Comparison

Buddhism and Vedanta are two big schools which have dominated the spiritual world till date.  Among many schools which have existed in the past, only these two have made a great influence all over the world and still continue to exist. But they seem to be contradictory to each other in many ways.

But based on my own experience and based on what I have read, these two schools only seem to differ because they use different conceptual languages. They also have different teaching methods. But the essence is the same.

When it comes to Vedanta, Prasthanathrayi, consisting of main Upanishads, Brahmasutras and Bhagwad gita is  the authority. In Buddhism, Tripitaka, consisting of Vinaya Pitaka, Sutra Pitaka and Abidharama Pitaka, is the source of all conceptual details. When you go through the scriptures with an open mind and with the support of your own spiritual realization, you will see that both are essentially the same.

Both schools talk about the cessation of suffering. The process of the cessation of suffering is called Moksha in Vedanta and Nirvana in Buddhism. Now let us see how these two schools define the nature of this liberation and the ultimate truth:

Vedanta

“It is this Akshara (the Imperishable), O Gargi, so the knowers of Brahman say. It is neither gross nor subtle, neither short nor long, not red, not viscid, not shadowy, not dark, not the air, not the ether, not adhesive, tasteless, odourless, without the sense of sight, without the sense of hearing, without the vital principle, mouthless, without measure, neither interior nor exterior,. It eats nothing, nobody eats it.”

– Brihadaranyaka Upanishad  3-8-8.

Buddhism

“There is that dimension, monks, where there is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor wind; neither dimension of the infinitude of space, nor dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, nor dimension of nothingness, nor dimension of neither perception nor non-perception; neither this world, nor the next world, nor sun, nor moon. And there, I say, there is neither coming, nor going, nor staying; neither passing away nor arising: unestablished, unevolving, without support [mental object]. This, just this, is the end of stress.”

– Buddha (in Nibbāna Sutta: Unbinding (1))
Do they sound similar? Yes, Because they talk about the same thing.

Now consider the following quotes:

There is, monks, an unborn— unbecome — unmade — unfabricated. If there were not that unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, there would not be the case that escape from the born — become — made — fabricated would be discerned. But precisely because there is an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, escape from the born — become — made — fabricated is discerned

– Buddha (in Nibbāna Sutta: Unbinding (3))

………………………………………………..

Verily, that great unborn soul, undecaying, undying, immortal, fearless is Brahman

–        Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.25

 

This Sunyata or the ultimate truth doesn’t have any attributes. It is the conscious space in which everything takes place. It is the substratum of everything that is in the reality, like a movie screen that acts as a substratum to show the moving pictures on it.

This substratum itself is empty of anything that we can call as a ‘thing’, including abstract things. A ‘thought’ is a thing; a feeling is a thing’ a sense perception is a thing; and an experience is a thing too. All these are witnessed as the existing things or stuff that occupy the space of consciousness itself. This underlying consciousness is called shakshin ( witness), satchitananda (truth -consciousness -bliss), nurguna brahman, sunyata and so on.

 

Buddhism and Vedanta
Buddhism and Vedanta are the same!

Adyaropa Apavada – The Teaching method of Vedanta

 

So, when Buddhism calls it as sunyata, why does Vedanta defines the reality in positive terminology?  Because, Vedantins  use a different teaching method called ‘Adhyaropa apavada’. The teaching method intentionally superimposes some attributes to the ultimate reality first to distinguish it from everything that it is not. So, even though no concept can define something that lacks any kind of thing that is conceived by a concept, these intentional attributes are made in order to help the mind to grasp it  as a concept at the initial stage.

Then Vedantins negate everything that it is not. They reject the body as not it because body can be witnessed as a thing. They reject the mind as not it because mind can be witnessed as a thing too. You first understand that you are Brahman and then you negate everything that is not ‘You’ by closely monitoring the mental processes every moment, with the detached witness attitude.

Finally, even the intentional attributes are also rejected. This helps to drop the initial concepts that were formed to understand Brahman. Once you let go of all the concepts of reality and narrow down to the bare reality of yourself, people say that you have realized the truth.

Let us see some excerpts from Vedantic scriptures which support this:

“Who so knows the Self, thus described, as the fearless Absolute (brahman), himself becomes the Absolute, beyond fear. This is a brief statement of the meaning of the entire Upanishad.  And in order to convey this meaning rightly, the fanciful alternatives of production, maintenance and withdrawal, and the false notion of action, its factors and results, are deliberately attributed to the Self as a first step. And then later the final metaphysical truth is inculcated by negating these characteristics through a comprehensive denial of all particular superimpositions on the Absolute, expressed in the phrase ‘neither this nor that’. Just as a man, wishing to explain numbers from one to a hundred thousand billion (points to figures that he has drawn and) says, ‘This figure is one, this figure is ten, this figure is a hundred, this figure is a thousand’ , and all the time his only purpose is to explain numbers, and not to affirm that the figures are numbers; or just as one wishing to explain the sounds of speech as repre sented by the written letters of the alphabet resorts to a device in the form of a palm-leaf on which he makes incisions which he later fills with ink to form letters, and all the while, (even though he point to a letter and say “This is the sound “so and so”‘) his only purpose is to explain the nature of the sounds referred to by each letter, and not to affirm that the leaf, incisions and ink are sounds; in just the same way, the one real metaphysical principle, the Absolute, is taught by resort to many devices, such as attributing to it production (of the world) and other powers. And then after wards the nature of the Absolute is restated, through the concluding formula ‘neither this nor that’, so as to purify it of all particular notions accruing to it from the various devices used to explain its nature in the first place’.

– Brhadaranyaka  Bhasya IV.iv.25  – by Shankara

……………………………………………………………………………………….

“Nor can the Absolute be properly referred to by any such terms as Being or non-being. For all words are used to convey a meaning, and when heard by their hearers convey the meaning the speaker had in mind. But communicable meaning is restricted without exception to universal, action, attribute and relation….

The Absolute, however, does not belong to any universal (genus), so it cannot be expressed by a noun such as ‘Being’ or ‘non-being’. Being without attributes, it cannot be described by any adjective denoting an attribute. And being actionless, it cannot be expressed by any verb denoting activity.

For the Upanishad speaks of it as ‘Without parts, without activity, at rest’ (Svet .VI.19) . Nor has it any relation with anything. For it is ‘One’, ‘without a second’, ‘not an object’ and ‘the Self. Hence it cannot be expressed by any word. And the upanishadic texts themselves confirm this when they say ‘That from which words fall back’ (Taitt .ll.9) , and in other passages.”

– (Bhagwad Gita Bhasya XIII.12) – Shankara

……………………………………………………………………………………

And because the Absolute has no particular characteristics, the Veda indicates its nature by denying of it the forms of all other things, as is shown, for instance, in the following pa sages: ‘And so, therefore, the teaching is “neither this nor that”‘ (Brhad.II.iii.6) , ‘It is other than what is known, and above the unknown’ (Kena I.U), ‘That from which words fall back without obtaining access, together with the mind’ (Taitt .II.9)

And the Vedic texts also relate how when Badhva was questioned by Baskalin he gave his answer merely by not speaking. ‘Sir, teach me in words’, Ba§kalin said. But the Teacher remained silent. Finally, at the second or third time of asking, Badhva replied, ‘I am telling you, but you do not understand. This Self is utter silence’

– (Bramasutra Bhasya III.ii.17) – Shankara

………………………………………………..

(a) In order to disclose the nature of the self as Brahman in itself Srutis like the following negate all specific features superimposed on it by the unenlightened common mind :-

“It is this Akshara (the Imperishable), 0 Gargi, so the knowers of    Brahman say. It is neither gross nor subtle, neither short nor long, not     red, not viscid, not shadowy, not dark, not the air, not the ether, not    adhesive, tasteless, odourless, without the sense of sight, without the    sense of hearing, without the vital principle, mouthless, without measure,   neither interior nor exterior,. It eats nothing, nobody eats it.”    – Br.3-8-8.

(b) Lest, by this strict denial of all properties it may be taken to be absolute nothing (s’unya), it is taught by means of illusory attributes seemingly pertaining to it owing to Upadhis (apparently conditioning factors).

(c) At the close of the teaching the rescission of even the imputed attributes used as a device for purposes of teaching, lest it should be regarded as actually belonging to it.
Hence that Brahman cannot be denoted by the epithet ‘jnanam’ (knowledge) either. Nevertheless, it is indicated though not expressed, by the word ”jnanam’  denoting the semblance of consciousness which is really a modification of the mind. It is not directly denoted by that term because Brahman is devoid of genus and other specific features which alone are the occasion for the application of words to a thing. So is it with regard to the term ‘Satyam’ (truth). For Brahman is by its very nature devoid of all specific features. The term Satyam really refers to the genus ‘being’ inhering in external objects, and when Brahman is described as ‘Sat yam’ (Real), it is only indicated by that term. But Brahman is not actually expressed by the term ‘Satyam’.

Tai. Bh. 2-1, p. 285 – Shankara

 

Atman and Anatman – The difference

 

Whatever you  observe in our conscious field is not You.. Therefore they are not the Self (or Bhrahman).. That is what the word ‘Anatta’ (Anatman) means..  Atman is Self. Anatman is that which is not Self.

This Atman or Brahman or Self cannot be put into words. Any name that is given to it is actually misleading to some extent. Thats why Buddha only talked about Anatta- that which is not the Atman.

Read this excerpt, it will make sense:

“Objection : “Is not even Atman denoted by the word ‘Atman’ ?

Reply: No. for there are Srutis like ‘From which words fall back’, ‘That in which one sees nothing else’.

Question: How then do texts like ‘Atman alone is below … .’ and ‘It is Atman’ reveal Atman ?

Reply:  This is no fault. For, the word (Atman), primarily used in the world of differences to denote individual soul as distinct from the body it possesses, is extended to indicate the entity which remains after the rejection of body and other not-selfs as not deserving that appellation, and is used to reveal what is really inexpressible by words”.

– Shankara – Ch. Bh. 7-1-3, p. 542.

Neti -Neti in Buddhism

 

Now, let us read Atmashatkam, a vedantic short poetry attributed to Shankara and Anattalakhana sutta, a Buddhist Sutta that discusses the Buddhist teachings on Anatta – no self.  Once you read it carefully, you will realize that both say exactly the same.

AtmaShatkam

1) I am not mind, nor intellect, nor ego, nor the reflections of inner self (citta). I am not the five senses. I am beyond that. I am not the ether, nor the earth, nor the fire, nor the wind (the five elements). I am indeed, That eternal knowing and bliss, the auspicious (Śivam), love and pure consciousness.

2) Neither can I be termed as energy (prāṇa), nor five types of breath (vāyus), nor the seven material essences, nor the five sheaths(pañca-kośa). Neither am I the organ of Speech, nor the organs for Holding ( Hand ), Movement ( Feet ) or Excretion. I am indeed, That eternal knowing and bliss, the auspicious (Śivam), love and pure consciousness.

3) I have no hatred or dislike, nor affiliation or liking, nor greed, nor delusion, nor pride or haughtiness, nor feelings of envy or jealousy. I have no duty (dharma), nor any money, nor any desire (kāma), nor even liberation (mokṣa). I am indeed, That eternal knowing and bliss, the auspicious (Śivam), love and pure consciousness.

4) I have neither merit (virtue), nor demerit (vice). I do not commit sins or good deeds, nor have happiness or sorrow, pain or pleasure. I do not need mantras, holy places, scriptures (Vedas), rituals or sacrifices (yajñas). I am none of the triad of the observer or one who experiences, the process of observing or experiencing, or any object being observed or experienced. I am indeed, That eternal knowing and bliss, the auspicious (Śivam), love and pure consciousness.

5)  I do not have fear of death, as I do not have death. I have no separation from my true self, no doubt about my existence, nor have I discrimination on the basis of birth. I have no father or mother, nor did I have a birth. I am not the relative, nor the friend, nor the guru, nor the disciple. I am indeed, That eternal knowing and bliss, the auspicious (Śivam), love and pure consciousness.

6) I am all pervasive. I am without any attributes, and without any form. I have neither attachment to the world, nor to liberation (mukti). I have no wishes for anything because I am everything, everywhere, every time, always in equilibrium. I am indeed, That eternal knowing and bliss, the auspicious (Śivam), love and pure consciousness.

Anatta-lakkhana Sutta

“So, bhikkhus any kind of form whatever, whether past, future or presently arisen, whether gross or subtle, whether in oneself or external, whether inferior or superior, whether far or near, must with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not myself.’

“Any kind of feeling whatever…

“Any kind of perception whatever…

“Any kind of determination whatever…

“Any kind of consciousness whatever, whether past, future or presently arisen, whether gross or subtle, whether in oneself or external, whether inferior or superior, whether far or near must, with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not my self.'”

……………………………………………………………………………..

It is obvious.. Both say the samething. This is called Neti Neti method in Vedanta – rejecting whatever that is observed as not-self. Here, it is important to see the thoughts, emotions and feelings etc are different from you, as they arise and pass away. As you witness these thoughts, you see yourself as a witness instead of identifying with thoughts and mental processes.

 

Nididhyasana  and Mindfulness  are the same

 

I understood that  Nididhyasana which is prescribed in Vedanta and Mindfulness that is prescribed in Buddhism are exactly the same, when I read Swami Satchidanandendra Saraswati’s interpretation of Nididhyasana.

 

You can read the book ‘Adyatma Yoga’ of Swami Satchidanandendra Saraswati to know how he explains it. He was a Sanskrit scholar and vedantic monk. He dedicated his whole life in bringing out the kind of teaching method that was actually adopted by Shankara. He lived up to the age 94 and has written over 200 books. He has worked hard enough to bring out the true teachings of Shankara.

 

Conclusion

 

We can compare Buddhism and Vedanta to two languages that evolved from a parent prolanguage. They split into two when Buddha refused to accept the authority of Vedas.

As centuries passed and different things evolved in each school, they became like two mutually unintelligible languages which belong to the same parent.

 

Oldest Teaching Of Advaita – Excerpt from Chandogya Upanishad

Upanishads are the basis for Indian schools of thought.  Of this, Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and Chandogya upanishad are the oldest. These are the earliest available literature in India which teach non-duality. I have been reading these texts for the past few days and I came across this wonderful section, which is the 6th prapathaka of Chandogya Upanishad. I found it very impressive and it brought tears in my eyes as I read it. So, I am sure you will enjoy this as well.

It narrates the story, which is a conversation between sage Aruni and his son Svetaketu. It contains the famous mahavakya ‘Tat tvam asi’. It has some great pointers which are useful for the spiritual seekers. I am posting the entire 6th prapathaka here… (Translated by Swami Nikhilananda). You can find the entire text here: http://www.swamij.com/upanishad-chandogya.htm

Khanda I — The Non—Duality of the Self

  1. Om. There once lived Svetaketu the grandson of Aruna. To him his father said: “Svetaketu, lead the life of a brahmacharin; for there is none belonging to our family, my dear, who, not having studied the Vedas, is a brahmin only by birth.”

2—3. Svetaketu went to his teacher’s house when he was twelve years old and studied the Vedas till he was twenty—four. Then he returned to his father, serious, considering himself well read and arrogant. His father said to him: “Svetaketu, since you are now so serious, think yourself well read and are so arrogant, have you, my dear, ever asked for that instruction by which one hears what cannot be heard, by which one perceives what cannot be perceived, by which one knows what cannot be known?” Svetaketu asked: “What is that instruction, venerable Sir?”

4—6. “Just as, my dear, by one clod of clay all that is made of clay is known, the modification being only a name, arising from speech, while the truth is that all is clay; “Just as, my dear, by one nugget of gold all that is made of gold is known, the modification being only a name, arising from speech, while the truth is that all is gold; “And just as, my dear, by one pair of nail—scissors all that is made of iron is known, the modification being only a name, arising from speech, while the truth is that all is iron—even so, my dear, is that instruction.”

  1. “Surely those venerable men did not know that. For if they had known it, why should they not have told it to me? Therefore do you, venerable Sir, tell me about it.” “So be it, my dear,” said the father.

 

Khanda II — Brahman: the Cause of the Universe

 

  1. “In the beginning, my dear, this universe was Being (Sat) alone, one only without a second. Some say that in the beginning this was non—being (asat) alone, one only without a second; and from that non—being, being was born.”
  2. Aruni said: “But how, indeed, could it be thus, my dear? How could Being be born from non—being? No, my dear, it was Being alone that existed in the beginning, one only without a second.
  3. “It (Being, or Brahman) thought: ‘May I be many; may I grow forth.’ It created fire. That fire thought: ‘May I be many; may I grow forth.’ It created water. That is why, whenever a person is hot and perspires, water is produced from fire (heat) alone.
  4. “That water thought: ‘May I be many; may I grow forth.’ It created food (i.e. earth). That is why, whenever it rains anywhere, abundant food is produced. From water alone is edible food produced.

 

Khanda III — The Threefold Development

 

  1. “Of all these living beings, there are only three origins: those born from an egg, those born from a living being and those born from a sprout.
  2. “That Deity thought: ‘Let Me now enter into those three deities by means of this living self and let Me then develop names and forms.’
  3. “That Deity, having thought: ‘Let Me make each of these three tripartite,’ entered into these three deities by means of the living self and developed names and forms.
  4. “It made each of these tripartite; and how these three deities became, each of them, tripartite, that learn from me now, my dear.

 

Khanda IV — The Threefold Development further explained

 

  1. “The red colour of gross fire is the colour of the original fire; the white colour of gross fire is the colour of the original water; the black colour of gross fire is the colour of the original earth. Thus vanishes from fire what is commonly called fire, the modification being only a name, arising from speech, while the three colours (forms) alone are true.
  2. “The red colour of the sun is the colour of fire, the white the colour of water, the black the colour of earth. Thus vanishes from the sun what is commonly called the sun, the modification being only a name, arising from speech, while the three colours alone are true.
  3. “The red colour of the moon is the colour of fire, the white the colour of water, the black the colour of earth. Thus vanishes from the moon what is commonly called the moon, the modification being only a name, arising from speech, while the three colours alone are true.
  4. “The red colour of lightning is the colour of fire, the white the colour of water, the black the colour of earth. Thus vanishes from lightning what is commonly called lighting, the modification being only a name, arising from speech, while the three colours alone are true.
  5. “It was just through this knowledge that the great householders and great Vedic scholars of olden times declared: ‘No one can now mention to us anything which we have not heard, thought of, or known.’ They knew all from these three forms.

6—7. “Whatever, appeared red they knew to be the colour of fire; whatever appeared white they knew to be the colour of water; whatever appeared black they knew to be the colour of earth. “Whatever appeared to be unknown they knew to be the combination of these three deities (i.e. colours). Now learn from me, my dear, how these three deities, when they reach man, become each of them tripartite.

 

Khanda V — The Threefold Nature of Food

 

  1. “Food when eaten becomes threefold. What is coarsest in it becomes faeces, what is medium becomes flesh and what is subtlest becomes mind.
  2. “Water when drunk becomes threefold. What is coarsest in it becomes urine, what is medium becomes blood and what is subtlest becomes prana.
  3. “Fire when eaten becomes threefold. What is coarsest in it becomes bone, what is medium becomes marrow and what is subtlest becomes speech.
  4. “The mind, my dear, consists of food, the prana of water and speech of heat.” “Please, venerable Sir, instruct me further.” “So be it, my dear.”

 

Khanda VI — The Physical Nature of the Mind, the Prana and Speech

 

  1. “That, my dear, which is the subtlest part of curds rises, when they are churned and becomes butter.
  2. “In the same manner, my dear, that which is the subtlest part of the food that is eaten rises and becomes mind.
  3. “The subtlest part of the water that is drunk rises and becomes prana.
  4. “The subtlest part of the fire that is eaten rises and becomes speech.
  5. “Thus, my dear, the mind consists of food, the prana consists of water and speech consists of fire.” “Please, venerable Sir, instruct me further.” “So be it, my dear.”

 

Khanda VII — How the Mind consists of Food

 

  1. “A person, my dear, consists of sixteen parts. Do not eat any food for fifteen days, but drink as much water as you like. Since the prana consists of water, it will not be cut off if you drink water.”
  2. Svetaketu did not eat any food for fifteen days. Then he came to his father and said: “What, Sir, shall I recite?” His father said: “The Rik, Yagus and Saman verses.” He replied: “They do not occur to me, Sir.”
  3. His father said to him: “Just as, my dear, of a great blazing fire a single coal, the size of a firefly, may be left, which would not burn much more than that, even so, my dear, of your sixteen parts only one part is left; and therefore with that one part you do not remember the Vedas. Now go and eat and you will understand me.”
  4. Svetaketu ate and approached his father. Then whatever his father asked him, he showed that he knew it.

5—6. Then his father said to him: “Just as, my dear, of a great lighted fire a single coal the size of a firefly, if left, may be made to blaze up again by adding grass to it and will thus burn much more, “Even so, my dear; of your sixteen parts only one part was left and that, when strengthened by food, blazed up. With it you now remember the Vedas. Therefore, my dear, the mind consists of food, the prana consists of water and speech consists of fire.” After that he understood what his father said, yea, he understood it.

 

Khanda VIII — Concerning Sleep, Hunger, Thirst and Death

 

  1. Uddalaka the son of Aruna said to his son Svetaketu: “Learn from me, my dear, the true nature of sleep. When a person has entered into deep sleep, as it is called, then, my dear, he becomes united with Pure Being (Sat), he has gone to his own Self. That is why they say he is in deep sleep (svapiti); it is because he has gone (apita) to his own (svam).
  2. “Just as a bird tied by a string to the hand of the bird—catcher first flies in every direction and then finding no rest anywhere, settles down at the place where it is bound, so also the mind (i.e. the individual soul reflected in the mind), my dear, after flying in every direction and finding no rest anywhere, settles down in the Prana (i.e. Pure Being); for the mind (the individual soul) is fastened to the Prana (Pure Being).
  3. “Learn from me, my dear, what hunger and thirst are. When a man is hungry, as they say, it is water that has led (i.e. carried away) what was eaten. Therefore, just as they speak of a leader of cows, a leader of horses, a leader of men, so do they speak of water as the leader of food. So, my dear, know this offshoot (i.e. the body) to have sprung forth from a cause, for it cannot be without a root.
  4. “And where could its root be except in food (earth)? And in the same way, my dear, as food too is an offshoot, seek for water as its root. And as water too, my dear, is an offshoot, seek for fire as its root. And as fire too, my dear, is an offshoot, seek for Being (Sat) as its root. Yes, all these creatures, my dear, have their root in Being, they dwell in Being, they finally rest in Being.
  5. “When a man is said to be thirsty, it is fire that has led (i.e. carried away) what was drunk by him. Therefore as they speak of a leader of cows, a leader of horses, a leader of men, so do they speak of fire as the leader of water. So, my dear, know this offshoot (the body) to have sprung forth from a cause, for it cannot be without a root.
  6. “And where could its root be except in water? And in the same way, my dear, as water is an offshoot, seek for fire as its root. And as fire too, my dear, is an offshoot, seek for Being as its root. Yes, my dear, all these creatures have their root in Being, they dwell in Being, they finally rest in Being. “And how these three deities (fire, water and earth), on reaching a human being, become each of them tripartite has already been said. When a person departs hence, his speech merges in his mind, his mind in his prana, his prana in heat (fire) and the heat in the Highest Being.
  7. “Now, that which is the subtle essence—in it all that exists has its self. That is the True. That is the Self. That thou art, Svetaketu.” “Please, venerable Sir, give me further instruction,” said the son. “So be it, my dear,” the father replied.

 

Khanda IX — The Absence of Individuality in Deep Sleep

 

1—2. “As bees, my dear, make honey by collecting the juices of trees located at different places and reduce them to one form, “And as these juices have no discrimination so as to be able to say: ‘I am the juice of this tree,’ or ‘I am the juice of that tree’—even so, indeed, my dear, all these creatures, though they reach Pure Being, do not know that they have reached Pure Being.

  1. “Whatever these creatures are, here in this world—a tiger, a lion, a wolf, a boar, a worm, a fly, a gnat, or a mosquito—that they become again.
  2. “Now, that which is the subtle essence—in it all that exists has its self. That is the True. That is the Self. That thou art, Svetaketu.” “Please, venerable Sir, give me further instruction,” said the son. “So be it, my dear,” the father replied.

 

Khanda X — The Absence of Particularized Consciousness in Deep Sleep

 

1—2. “These rivers, my dear, flow—the eastern toward the east and the western toward the west. They arise from the sea and flow into the sea. Just as these rivers, while they are in the sea, do not know: ‘I am this river’ or ‘I am that river,’ “Even so, my dear, all these creatures, even though they have come from Pure Being, do not know that they have come from Pure Being. Whatever these creatures are, here in this world—a tiger, a lion, a wolf a boar, a worm, a fly, a gnat, or a mosquito, that they become again.

  1. “Now, that which is the subtle essence—in it all that exists has its self. That is the True. That is the Self. That thou art, Svetaketu.” “Please, venerable Sir, give me further instruction,” said the son. “So be it, my dear,” the father replied.

 

Khanda XI — The Indestructibility of the Jiva

 

  1. “If, my dear, someone were to strike at the root of this large tree here, it would bleed but live. If he were to strike at the middle, it would bleed but live. If he were to strike at the top, it would bleed but live. Pervaded by the living self, that tree stands firm, drinking in again and again its nourishment and rejoicing.
  2. “But if the life (i.e. living self) leaves one of its branches, that branch withers; if it leaves a second, that branch withers; if it leaves a third, that branch withers. If it leaves the whole tree, the whole three withers.
  3. “In exactly the same manner, my dear,” said he, “know this: This body dies, bereft of the living self; but the living self dies not. “Now, that which is the subtle essence—in it all that exists has its self. That is the True. That is the Self. That thou art, Svetaketu.” “Please, venerable Sir, give me further instruction,” said the son. “So be it, my dear,” the father replied.

 

Khanda XII — The Birth of the Gross from the Subtle

 

  1. “Bring me a fruit of that nyagrodha (banyan) tree.” “Here it is’ venerable Sir.” “Break it.” “It is broken, venerable Sir.” “What do you see there?” “These seeds, exceedingly small, “Break one of these, my son.” “It is broken, venerable Sir.” “What do you see there?” “Nothing at all, venerable Sir.”
  2. The father said: “That subtle essence, my dear, which you do not perceive there—from that very essence this great nyagrodha arises. Believe me, my dear.
  3. “Now, that which is the subtle essence—in it all that exists has its self. That is the True. That is the Self. That thou art, Svetaketu.” “Please, venerable Sir, give me further instruction,” said the son. “So be it, my dear,” the father replied.

 

Khanda XIII — The Invisibility of an Existent Object

 

  1. “Place this salt in water and then come to me in the morning.” The son did as he was told. The father said to him: “My son, bring me the salt which you placed in the water last night.” Looking for it, the son did not find it, for it was completely dissolved.
  2. The father said: “My son, take a sip of water from the surface. How is it?” “It is salt.” “Take a sip from the middle. How is it?” “It is salt.” “Take a sip from the bottom. How is it?” “It is salt.” “Throw it away and come to me.” The son did as he was told, saying: “The salt was there all the time.” Then the father said: “Here also, my dear, in this body you do not perceive Sat (Being); but It is indeed there.”
  3. “Now, that which is the subtle essence—in it all that exists has its self. That is the True. That is the Self That thou art, Svetaketu.” “Please, venerable Sir, give me further instruction,” said the son. “So be it, my dear,” the father replied.

 

Khanda XIV — The Means of Self—Knowledge

 

  1. “Just as someone, my dear, might lead a person, with his eyes covered, away from the country of the Gandharas and leave him in a place where there were no human beings; and just as that person would turn toward the east, or the north, or the south, or the west, shouting: ‘I have been brought here with my eyes covered, I have been left here with my eyes covered!’
  2. “And as thereupon someone might loosen the covering and say to him: ‘Gandhara is in that direction; go that way’; and as thereupon, having been informed and being capable of judgement, he would, by asking his way from one village to another, arrive at last at Gandhara—in exactly the same manner does a man who has found a teacher to instruct him obtain the true knowledge. For him there is delay only so long as he is not liberated from the body; then he reaches perfection.
  3. “Now, that which is the subtle essence—in it all that exists has its self. That is the True. That is the Self That thou art, Svetaketu.” “Please, venerable Sir, give me further instruction,” said the son. “So be it, my dear,” the father replied.

 

Khanda XV — Ultimate Liberation

 

  1. “Around a dying person afflicted with illness, my dear, his relatives gather and ask: ‘Do you know me? Do you know me?’ He knows them as long as his speech is not merged in his mind, his mind in his prana (breath), his prana in heat (fire) and the heat in the Highest Deity.
  2. “But when his speech is merged in his mind, his mind in his prana, his prana in heat and the heat in the Highest Deity, then he does not know them.
  3. “Now, that which is the subtle essence—in it all that exists has its self. That is the True. That is the Self. That thou art, Svetaketu.” “Please, venerable Sir, give me further instruction,” said the son “So be it, my dear;” the father replied.

 

Khanda XVI — Liberation for the Knower of Brahman

 

  1. “My dear, they (i.e. the police) bring a man whom they have seized by the hand and say: ‘He has taken something, he has committed a theft.’ When he denies it, they say: ‘Heat the axe for him.’ If he has committed the theft but denies it, then he makes himself a liar. Being false—minded, he covers himself with falsehood, grasps the heated axe and is burnt. Then he is killed.
  2. “But if he did not commit the theft, then he makes himself what he really is. Being true—minded, he covers himself with truth, grasps the heated axe and is not burnt. He is released.
  3. “As that truthful man is not burnt so also one who has known Sat is not born again. Thus in That (Sat) all that exists has its self. That is the True. That is the Self. That thou art, Svetaketu.”

 

Clarifying Confusions in James Swartz’s Vedanta Teachings

This article aims at removing some of the confusions and correcting some of the wrong information found in the teachings of James Swartz’s Vedanta teachings. He deserves an applause though, just for his efforts to spread traditional Vedanta in the west.  However, as a person born and brought up in India, I can clearly see that he is misinformed on a lot of things. I am not going to argue whether he is enlightened or not; he may be or may not be. I have no way of knowing that.  But to be honest, I have doubted his enlightenment sometimes and wondered if he is on some kind of ego trip in thinking that he is one of the very few ‘qualified’ teachers of Vedanta. When he said that Ramana Maharshi was not a qualified teacher, my doubts became even strong.

A little about myself

Before I start, let me give a short introduction of my own spiritual journey. I had no physical guru, but I was a very sincere seeker. I had tried yoga and Vedanta when I was a boy, but couldn’t understand it much. 15 years ago, I learnt basics of vedanta, zen and mindfulness and I had a glimpse of my own nature that changed my life. I continued mindfulness and self-inquiry for the next 12 years. Mindfulness and self-inquiry was not like two different practices to me, because both have the same procedure of inquiring into each arising thought and experience.

Three years ago (in 2014), a complete shift occurred that completely removed the psychological boundaries between me and the world. Since  then, I never had a distinct feeling of a separate ‘me’ and an ‘other’. The seeker of enlightenment had died and there was no doer anymore. In the next three years, things got settled down . But I still have thoughts and vasanas, even though they don’t affect me. Now, according to James Swartz’s definition, I am already enlightened. Because, now I have an irreversible hard and fast knowledge that I am the non-dual, limitless awareness and not the contents of my consciousness. It is not just intellectual, but my actual reality every moment. But, I don’t want to claim any enlightenment yet. First, claiming enlightenment is not going to make any difference in me. Second, according to Ramana Maharshi, this is not enlightenment. There seems to be a need to wait until all the vasanas are removed (not merely rendering them unbinding) and the thoughts created by all vasanas are removed.

If you ask James, he would say that one doesn’t have to remove the vasanas but just have to render them unbinding by liberation. Again, I am not going to argue whether Ramana’s definition was correct or James’s definition was correct. But Ramana’s life and his words themselves  indicate  that he might have actually removed all the vasanas and involuntary thought movements. He himself said that he usually didn’t have thoughts running in his mind; also, the way he lived his life shows that he probably was completely vasana free. So, that gives me every reason to believe that Ramana was right. But I am no longer a believer of things. I choose to remain open minded on this and say ‘I don’t know yet’ at this point.

Having said that, I am completely sure about some of the wrong information that James is preaching. I know they are wrong. So, I am just going to make some corrections here. This is not intended to offend James or his students. I just feel that wrong information should be corrected. So, let us get started.

Was Ramana a qualified teacher?

If James Swartz reads what I have said above, the first thing he is going to say is ‘Ramana was not a qualified teacher’. According to James, a qualified teacher is someone who systematically unfolds the teachings of traditional vedanta. By this definition, Buddha, Bodhidharma , many enlightened Zen masters and Tao masters are not qualified teachers. When someone even utters the name of Ramana Maharshi, James Swartz’s first response is always ‘Ramana Maharshi was not a qualified teacher’.

Sri_Ramana_Maharshi_-_Portrait_-_G._G_Welling_-_1948

First of all, what we call as traditional Vedanta is solely based on Shankara’s works and his commentaries on Brahma Sutras, Gita and Upanishads. There is a claim that Vedanta assumes Gita, Brahma Sutras and Upanishads as authority, but the actual truth is, the school (Advaita) was developed by basing Shankara as the authority. We need to remember here that Shankara was just one human being who had a certain teaching and certain way of life. It is not necessary that every enlightened person in the world should completely teach according to Shankara’s teaching model. Long before Shankara, words like Vedanta, Yoga and Samkhya were just words to represent different aspects of one essential teaching. For example, In Bhagavad Gita, chapter 3, verse 3, Krishna says that Samkhya is called as Jnana Yoga; And we all know that Jnana Yoga is another term for Vedanta. So, Shankara just revived the ancient teachings and presented according to the time he was living. (James Swartz himself has written commentaries of Bhagavad Gita, but the words Samkhya and Jnana Yoga is in the original Sanskrit verse which is translated to path of knowledge in English).

Second, Ramana taught mostly in Tamil. What a westerner would read is an English version of talks which was translated by a translator guy in Ramana’s ashram.  So, when the translator interprets Ramana’s Tamil words and translates to English, a part of the original teaching is lost; when that is further interpreted by the Western guy who wrote them down, another part of the teaching is most likely lost. And, the teachings given to westerners was only a very small percentage of what Ramana taught in his entire life. Because, he was talking to thousands of Tamil seekers all his life and taught them in Tamil. Ramana also wrote a lot of poems in Tamil which have his essential teaching. There are hundreds of books written in Tamil by people who were taught by Ramana and who lived with him in the ashram.

Third, most of the seekers who met Ramana were very advanced. We can see that in the conversations themselves. There was no need to teach them about three gunas, five koshas, creation theories or qualifications needed for spiritual practice. In India, especially in Ramana’s time, knowledge on these subjects was abundant. With long term residents of Ashram like Annamalai Swami and others , Ramana talked about everything, probably more than what James has taught to his students. He also met visitors who just stayed in the ashram for a day or two and to them, he just answered their questions according to the level of their seeking.

I also heard another reason from James for calling him not a perfect teacher. James says that Ramana’s devotees are confused by experiences and knowledge of Atman because Ramana didn’t make a clear distinction. He is completely wrong. Ramana is very clear in the essential teaching about self-realization.  If Ramana’s devotees are confused with anything at all, it is  just because Ramana is no longer alive to clarify their doubts.

Ramana was a perfect teacher in every way. He talked and walked the talk. Being a simple guy in an Ashram, he attracted attention from people all over the world. Vedanta would be half dead by now without Ramana.

Is path of Yoga all about chasing blissful experiences?

I read James Swartz opinion about Yoga in many of his articles and talks. He says that Yoga is just about getting some blissful experiences and not a complete path to realization. He says that Yoga is only helpful in preparing the mind and will not help in liberation at all.

That is completely wrong. The goal of Yoga is Nirvikalpa Samadhi, which is not a dualistic experience. In Nirvikalpa samadhi, experiencer and experience merge into one. However, Ramana used to say that Nirvikalpa samadhi should become Sahaja samadhi so that the yogi can lead a normal life and guide others. Also, Ramana always insisted that self-inquiry is the best path of all but he never said that Yoga doesn’t lead to enlightenment. He only said that all the other paths are indirect ways.

Yoga may be a long and difficult path, but perfect for people who can’t surrender the ego;  but saying that Yoga only leads to experiences and not to realization is completely wrong.James might have probably met some wrong yogis or wrong teachers of Yoga and came to this wrong conclusion.

(Update – 26th July 2017 : However, I understand that there is a disagreement in Vedantic community itself regarding this. I recently read some of the Shankara’s commentaries where  he himself says that yoga is not a means of liberation. But then we have to dismiss all those yogis who prescribe yoga as a means to liberation as unenlightened. These things cannot be really known for sure without empirical research. That is why I have stressed the importance of bridging science and spirituality in my previous posts)

Is enlightenment experience or knowledge?

This is a very complicated question.

First of all, let me make a distinction between truth and enlightenment.

Truth is Brahman, which is the absolute witness of everything that is observed. Truth cannot be an experience because experience can be witnessed. Also, experience generally implies a dualistic experience, which constitutes an experiencer and experience; But in truth, there is no duality. This also applies for knowledge, because in truth the knower and knowledge merge together.

Enlightenment on the other hand, refers to the event of realizing the truth. We have heard that for some people it is gradual and for some people it is a sudden event. Any event is always accompanied by some kind of experience; it may be dual or non dual but the aspect of the experience still exists when the experience and experiencer merge together. In that sense, there is nothing wrong in calling a sudden enlightenment as an experience as long as it is clarified with a proper context.  Because, not talking about the experiential aspect of it may mislead people to believe that just intellectual understanding is enough to call it as enlightenment.

But both experience and knowledge are poor word choices, we unfortunately have no other words in English. The English word experience can be misleading because a person may believe that truth is some kind of special experience that he is going to experience for the rest of his life. The word knowledge can be equally misleading because a person may believe that enlightenment just involves committing some information to memory after understanding it intellectually.

In Sanskrit, we have different words.  Experience, which just represents an affective state is called Vedana. Vedana can be positive, negative or neutral. (This word is rarely used, but found in many buddhist texts). The experiential aspect of enlightenment is known as either anubhava or anubhuti, which is actually a pramana (means of knowledge); The word actually means experiential knowledge. The word Anubhava in Tamil (my first language) is exactly that but just with one additional letter: ‘anubhavam’.

Also, we have two words for knowledge as well. Knowledge that refers to mere information is called Vidya or veda. The knowledge gained by enlightenment is called Jnana.

Instead of providing such a detailed clarification, James seems to be obsessed with giving a lecture stating ‘enlightenment is not experience’ whenever he hears someone talking about some experience. He gives detailed reasons for why enlightenment is not an experience which is not at all necessary. Because, people who may have already read English translations of Indian texts may often use the word ‘experience’ to mean the valid experiential knowledge, Anubhuti. If James reacts the same way to these people, it is actually like giving them wrong information because of some linguistic confusion. Also, arguing why enlightenment is not an experience by providing arguments for why truth is not an experience is a huge fallacy.

To wrap up, a sudden enlightenment similar to what happened to Buddha can be actually an experience (vedana, the affective state). The enlightenment itself is anubhuti (experiential knowledge) which is translated to English as ‘experience’.

Is Self-realization and Enlightenment different?

James Swartz adds another big confusion. He uses the word ‘Self-realization’ for a glimpse of truth, an awakening experience and he uses the word ‘enlightenment’ for Moksha, the liberation. But this will mislead a lot of people. Because self-realization and enlightenment are generally understood as synonymous. In Ramana Maharshi’s translated talks, you will only find the word ‘self-realization’ for final enlightenment. Why change the meaning of a word instead of using it in the conventional way? Why not just call the glimpse of truth as awakening, as it is usually called?

This is not a big problem in itself, but big enough to cause a lot of confusion.

Is criticism a part of Vedanta?

James criticizes a lot of teachers. He would name each and every teacher he thinks as not qualified and just thrash them like anything. I agree with some of the criticism, especially on neo-vedanta. Although I agree that neo-advaita  seems to be lacking a practical method for enlightenment, obsessively criticising the teachers and naming them is unnecessary. (Here is the weird part. James claims he knows a lot of enlightened people.. If you ask him to name them, he would say ‘No, I won’t name people’… When he names all the imperfect teachers, why not name the enlightened ones? ).

Anyway, that’s not the point. To justify all this, James often says that criticism is a main aspect of Vedanta. That is not true. He probably got this idea from Sankara’s debates with Buddhists. But those are debates! He met people face to face and debated with them. Debate is not same as criticism.Even if  Shankara  criticized people, it would not be right to say that criticism is a main aspect of vedanta itself. This is like saying smoking  is an essential part of psychology, just because Sigmund Freud smoked a lot.

Does Buddhism have an issue in understanding the reality?

I came across a Satsang article in James’s website. There was a discussion regarding Buddhism between a seeker and James Swartz. Here is what James says:

“I am not surprised that they don’t know the self. That is our issue with Buddhism since time immemorial. I have yet to meet a Buddhist that understands it. There is a video on my website of a Buddhist – the only one I ever came across who seems to know what it is and that he is it – that seems to indicate that self-knowledge is alive somewhere in the Buddhist world, but it is very rare. They are doer-oriented, experience-oriented, particularly the jhana guys.”

Really? First of all, any Buddhist you meet will tell you there is no self. But it is not contradictory to Vedanta. Buddha used different terminology. He didn’t define reality in  positive terminology so that nobody will form a concept about truth in their mind. So, he simply called it as sunyata (similar to nirguna Brahman) which literally means ‘emptiness’. So, no matter how many enlightened Buddhists you meet, you are never going to find someone who says ‘I am the self, the limitless non-dual awareness’.

Also, Buddhism is not just about Jhanas. Jhanas are just concentration practices. The stress is actually on Vipassana, getting insight into the true nature of things. It is similar but more powerful than self-inquiry in my experience. In fact, understanding the theory and practicing mindfulness helps to do self-inquiry better.

James Swartz seems to be obsessed with words. He would only agree with Advaita terminology. He fails to understand that the path of truth can be expressed with different words, which is exactly why we have so many traditions.But such an obsession with words and concepts would only make people suspect if his enlightenment was purely intellectual.

If someone claims that He, his wife, his students who were authorized to teach, his guru and some swamis he knows are the only qualified teachers on the planet, there is every reason to doubt that something is wrong.

 

 

 

Is There a Scientific Evidence for Spiritual Enlightenment?

I see a lot of people asking this question.. What does science say about spiritual enlightenment? Is it possible to prove it scientifically? What are the possible neural correlates of nondual awareness? Can there be a scientific way out of suffering?  I have explained the possible scientific explanations for spiritual awakening in my earlier articles  ‘Theory of Enlightenment – by Scientific method’ and ‘Awakening Through Mindfulness – Bridging Science and Spirituality’. But in this article, I am going to elaborate further on the scientific model for spiritual enlightenment and I will mention many significant studies that have been conducted on this topic.

Operational Definition for Enlightenment

Before we attempt to prove that something called enlightenment exists, we need to come up with an operational definition for enlightenment. If you are new to the term ‘operational definition’, I can explain it a little bit for you. First, Operationalization is a process of defining the measurement of a phenomenon that is not directly measurable, though its existence is indicated by other phenomena. Operationalization is thus the process of defining a fuzzy concept so as to make it clearly distinguishable, measurable, and understandable in terms of empirical observations.So, an operational definition for enlightenment should be defined in such a way that it can be easily distinguishable, measurable and understandable by observation.

spiritual enlightenment

The problem with that is, each tradition has its own definition for enlightenment. Even within a single tradition, there are various schools which define it in their own way. It is also very hard to put a lot of subjective aspects in words. Rather than defining enlightenment based on its subjective aspects, it may be easier to define it based on the neural correlates of enlightenment/non-dual awareness which can be observed.

Jake H. Davis, Postdoctoral Associate at New York University published a paper in 2013 titled ‘Can enlightenment be traced to specific neural correlates, cognition, or behavior?‘ in which he discusses this issue in detail. He says that by integrating evidence from neuroimaging with evidence of behavioral transformations specified in particular traditional descriptions of meditation practices, some important obstacles may be mitigated. He talks about various studies which have been previously conducted on people who claim spiritual enlightenment.

Here is what he concludes in the paper:

“It is therefore, necessary to responsibly unpack traditional constructs into common psychological and neurocognitive terms that can correlate with first-person experience with some consistency, but without unwittingly dismissing the deepest and most fundamental features of the practices from which they originate. We are, in the end, cautiously optimistic that progress can be made on well-defined projects in this area that integrate behavior and phenomenology with neuroimaging evidence, but not without a careful consideration of the methodological obstacles. Responsible scientific investigations of enlightenment can proceed only on the basis of rigorous understanding of particular experiential states or behavioral traits within a particular tradition as part of a whole value system, embedded in many other aspects of the models employed in that specific tradition of how the mind works and how awakening progresses.”

Another paper that was published in Scientific God journal was very interesting. Before I talk about the paper, let me tell you what this Scientific God journal does in their own words:

“The purpose and mission of Scientific GOD Journal (“SGJ”) are to conduct scientific inquiries on the nature and origins of life, mind, physical laws and mathematics and their possible connections to a scientifically approachable transcendental ground of existence – we call “Scientific GOD.” By “scientific inquiries”, we mean building concrete and testable models and/or hypotheses connected to hard sciences (e.g., physics, neuroscience, biochemistry and physiology) and doing the experimental testing.

We believe that in this golden age of Science the GOD in whom we trust should be spiritual as well as scientific. Indeed, since we are all made out of the same subatomic, atomic and genetic alphabets, the scientific GOD each of us seeks should be one and the same whatever our race, religion and other differences.”

The paper ‘A Natural Explanation of Spiritual Enlightenment’ published by James Kowal attempts to explain enlightenment and the ultimate reality (non dual consciousness) through quantum physics. Here is the abstract of the paper:

“ Recent developments in theoretical physics, which include attempts to unify the laws of the universe, as in string theory, and attempts to explain the origin of the universe, as in inflationary cosmology, are interpreted in terms of the theater of consciousness mental model of the world. This scientific paradigm dates back to ideas that Plato first discussed in the Allegory of the Cave, and is consistent with the holographic principle of quantum gravity, the many world interpretation of quantum theory, and the Gödel incompleteness theorems. This mental model of the world leads to a natural theory of the mind, and is consistent with spiritual discussions of creation, as found in Genesis, and expressions of nondual wisdom, as found in the Tao Te Ching. A natural explanation of spiritual enlightenment in the nondual sense of ‘no-self’ or ’emptiness’, and the concept of ‘nothingness’ as expressed in Buddhism, Zen and Hinduism, are also discussed.”

If you search for ‘James’ in Scientific God journal you fill find a lot of interesting papers published by him. In those papers, he has discussed many things regarding to consciousness and how the experience of world arises from consciousness.

Identification with the ‘Egoic self’ and the sense of duality

Based on my own experience and based on the essential teachings of various traditions that talk about spiritual enlightenment, there is one thing that I have found which is common in all these traditions. It is all about removing the duality, the solid psychological distinction between ‘me’ and the ‘other’ or ‘me’ vs ‘world’. People who are spiritually enlightened feel that their experience of the reality is nondual and they don’t derive a separate sense of an egoic self based on their life story and their self-concepts.

So, it all boils down to one thing – Change in the perception of self. Let us first discuss various brain functions related to this feeling of separate identity.

Your Brain – The Seat of your Conscious Experience

Before we go further, it is essential to understand the basics of your brain. Your brain has specialized cells called ‘neurons’ which communicate with other neurons through electrochemical signals called ‘Action potentials’. Everything we think, feel and experience is the result of the constant activity in the neural network of your brain.

Let us talk about two distinct parts of the brain – the higher and lower. The upper part of the brain, that is involved in higher cognitive functions is divided into four lobes – Frontal (just behind your forehead), parietal (second half of the top part of your brain, behind the frontal lobe), occipital lobe (in the back of your head) and temporal lobe (two sides of the head, near the ears). Frontal lobe is responsible for executive functions like planning, analysing etc. It has a structure called neocortex which is the recently evolved part of the brain. Your brain also has a lower part that includes limbic system, brainstem and hindbrain which take care of the basic functions of the brain like arousal, sleep, hunger etc. It also prepares the brain to face a threat and initiates the flight or fight response. Amygdala in this region is responsible for emotions such as fear; hippocampus is responsible for forming new memories. This whole lower part is the oldest part of the brain which reminds us that we are essentially animals.

Your upper brain, the cerebral lobes, can be divided into two hemispheres. Each hemisphere dominate the other in certain cognitive functions. This phenomenon is called lateralization of the brain. A very important distinction is language. Your left hemisphere plays a major role in language production and understanding the language.

The Left brain interpreter – The creator of duality and the cause of suffering

Now, let us try to understand what creates the separation between ‘you’ and the rest of the world. This basic categorization is done by our left brain and it can be explained by something called left-brain interpreter. This is what creates categories like ‘you’ vs world, self image vs ideal self, good vs bad etc. The categorization of ‘you’ vs ‘world’ becomes very solid in the long run, as a result of learning and neuroplasticity.

To give you a brief introduction of this left brain interpreter, let me quote from Wikipedia:

The left brain interpreter refers to the construction of explanations by the left brain in order to make sense of the world by reconciling new information with what was known before. The left brain interpreter attempts to rationalize, reason and generalize new information it receives in order to relate the past to the present. The concept was first introduced by Michael Gazzaniga while he performed research on split-brain patients during the early 1970s with Roger Sperry at the California Institute of Technology.] Sperry eventually received the 1981 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his contributions to split-brain research

The drive to seek explanations and provide interpretations is a general human trait, and the left brain interpreter can be seen as the glue that attempts to hold the story together, in order to provide a sense of coherence to the mind. In reconciling the past and the present, the left brain interpreter may confer a sense of comfort to a person, by providing a feeling of consistency and continuity in the world. This may in turn produce feelings of security that the person knows how “things will turn out” in the future.

However, the facile explanations provided by the left brain interpreter may also enhance the opinion of a person about themselves and produce strong biases which prevent the person from seeing themselves in the light of reality and repeating patterns of behavior which led to past failures.The explanations generated by the left brain interpreter may be balanced by right brain systems which follow the constraints of reality to a closer degree. The suppression of the right hemisphere by electroconvulsive therapy leaves patients inclined to accept conclusions that are absurd but based on strictly-true logic. After electroconsulsive therapy to the left hemisphere the same absurd conclusions are indignantly rejected.

Chris Niebauer is a neuroscientist who received his Ph.D. in Cognitive Neuropsychology from the University of Toledo where he specialized in left-right brain differences. He has written a book called ‘The Neurotic’s Guide to Avoiding Enlightenment: How the Left-brain Plays Unending Games of Self-improvement’ in which he explains this left-brain interpreter in detail. This book is based on the teachings of Eckhart Tolle and attempts to integrate his teachings with neuroscience. Let me quote a few lines from his book:

“The interpreter in the left brain has a preference for consistency and little tolerance for ambiguity. There are right and wrong answers and things need to be predictable and orderly.Paradox is a turn-off to interpreter. Left brain is so based in categories, it categorizes everything as right and wrong, good and bad. Categories divide and the interpreter has divided itself into ‘How i am’ and ‘how i want to be’ “

“The left-brain interpreter is categorical, it creates division outwardly and inwardly, so let it do its job, let it do its thing. Here we might ask why you want to go beyond your ego and more importantly, is it your ego that wants this? Because if it is, it can’t. Going beyond the ego is nothing like what the ego thinks it is, how could it be? When the ego tries to drag itself beyond itself it may bring along a little anxiety and conflict, so remember that all scary things are pretend. Also, Alan pointed out in the 70s that the biggest ego trip of all was in believing that one was beyond the ego. Today this is also true but with one more level to it, today there is the ego trip of pointing out that the 6i:4:est ego trip of all is in believing you have gone beyond the ego. The notion that you can improve yourself by going beyond your ego stems directly from the interpretive mind, and as such, is an interpretation that something is wrong and there is something that needs be done about it. Again, there is the interpreter created category of “me as I am” vs. “me as I want to be” which are both just thoughts bouncing around in the skull. So, ironically, if you are trying to improve yourself, you can’t. The notion that your self needs improving is an interpretation and we are going around interpretations. There is an irony in most bookstores called the “self help” section. I might suggest renaming this as “Books that reinforce the illusion that the left-brain interpreter can be what it isn’t free of itself.”

“The interpreter also creates and sustains our collection of categorical thoughts called our beliefs.”

Here the story of Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor is worth mentioning. She is a Harvard-trained and published neuroanatomist who experienced a severe hemorrhage in the left hemisphere of her brain in 1996. This permanently changed her perception of reality.

She says, “It was as though my mind had shifted away from my normal perception of reality—where I’m the person on the machine having the experience—to some esoteric space where I’m witnessing myself having this experience.”

“My perception of physical boundaries was no longer limited to where my skin met air,” she has written in her memoir, “My Stroke of Insight”. The core message of the book is that people can choose to live a more peaceful, spiritual life by sidestepping their left brain. You can read here whole story here.

As we see, the interpreter plays a major role in dividing the reality. It also creates a split between our self-image and our ideal self. We all have a self-concept (called ‘Ahamkar in Indian traditions’) which consists of various beliefs about who we are and what we want to be. As clear borders have been defined for this egoic identity, there is a constant need to protect and enhance this identity. Most of our suffering results from our constant identification with this conceptual entity by giving it a solid reality in our minds. A threat to the self-concept or self-image is perceived by our body and mind like any other threat in the world (like a threat faced by an animal of being killed). So, all of such experiences create the same physiological reactions by activating the amygdala and initiating a fight-or-flight response.We are also in a constant pursuit of enhancing the self-concept by accumulating wealth, knowledge and beliefs about ourselves. We depend on our past to define who we are and we depend on the future to enhance it. Because of this, we are stuck in a hedonic treadmill.

Let me quote from Wiki again to define ‘Hedonic treadmill’

“The hedonic treadmill, also known as hedonic adaptation, is the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. According to this theory, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness. Brickman and Campbell coined the term in their essay “Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society” (1971). During the late 1990s, the concept was modified by Michael Eysenck, a British psychologist, to become the current “hedonic treadmill theory” which compares the pursuit of happiness to a person on a treadmill, who has to keep walking just to stay in the same place’”

Spiritual enlightenment promises to end suffering by ending this hedonic treadmill. It leads one to resolve all the internal conflicts and to feel one with everything. It removes the idea that there is a separate entity inside which has to enhance itself for fulfillment. The left brain may still continue to categorize things, but they are not solidified in our consciousness and urge us to protect those solidified entities.

Neural Correlates of the egoic self

To study about the enlightenment in neuroscientific perspective we have to know about a neural network called ‘The Default Mode Network’ in the brain.

The default mode network (DMN) refers to the structures in the brain which are active when we are not focused on any task in particular. If you are idle, this network is activated by default. This network is activated when we are mind wandering, thinking about others, thinking about one’s self, remembering the past, and envisioning the future. This network has everything to do with the egoic self that we are identified with. The main structures of default mode network are precuneus, posterior cingulate cortex, medial prefrontal cortex and certain other areas.

This indicates that the solid entity of ‘me and my story’ categorized by the left-brain interpreter has a need to be enhanced and protected. The whole process of enhancing and protecting this entity can be observed as a constant activity in the default mode network during the resting state of the brain. This activity can in turn feed and activate the left-brain interpreter again.

Excessive activity in default mode network has been correlated with depression. It has also been found that decreased activity in default mode network correlates with increased happiness.

Based my own experience and according to various studies done on mindfulness meditation, I can say mindfulness reduces the activity in default mode network and changes the perception of self. The practise of Buddhist mindfulness and contemplating on the nature of reality ultimately leads to removing the psychological boundaries of ‘me’ and the ‘world’. The effects of mindfulness in improving emotional regulation and changing the perspective of ‘self’ has been discussed in detailed in the papers ‘‘How Does Mindfulness Meditation Work? Proposing Mechanisms of Action From a Conceptual and Neural Perspective’’ and ‘Neuroscience of Mindfulness’.

Neural mechanisms of suffering

Dr. Rick Hanson, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist, has written a wonderful book called ‘Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom’. In this book, he has attempted to bridge science with the traditional Buddhist teachings. He explains the neural mechanisms of suffering and explains how, by meditation, one can bring neuroplastic changes in the brain and end suffering.

So, what exactly happens when our brain perceives a threat to our self-image?. Our brain regards it as a danger and activates the amygdala. Here is how he describes it:

“Something happens. It might be a car suddenly cutting you off, a put-down from a coworker, or even just a worrisome thought. Social and emotional conditions can pack a wallop like physical ones since psychological pain draws on many of the same neural networks as physical pain (Eisenberger and Lieberman 2004); this is why getting rejected can feel as bad as a root canal. Even just anticipating a challenging event—such as giving a talk next week—can have as much impact as living through it for real. Whatever the source of the threat, the amygdala sounds the alarm, setting off several reactions: The thalamus—the relay station in the middle of your head—sends a “Wake up!” signal to your brain stem, which in turn releases stimulating norepinephrine throughout your brain. norepinephrine throughout your brain. The SNS sends signals to the major organs and muscle groups in your body, readying them for fighting or fleeing. The hypothalamus—the brain’s primary regulator of the endocrine system—prompts the pituitary gland to signal the adrenal glands to release the “stress hormones”epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol.

Within a second or two of the initial alarm, your brain is on red alert, your SNS is lit up like a Christmas tree, and stress hormones are washing through your blood. In other words, you’re at least a little upset. What’s going on in your body? Epinephrine increases your heart rate (so your heart can move more blood) and dilates your pupils (so your eyes gather more light). Norepinephrine shunts blood to large muscle groups. Meanwhile, the bronchioles of your lungs dilate for increased gas exchange—enabling you to hit harder or run faster. Cortisol suppresses the immune system to reduce inflammation from wounds. It also revs up stress reactions in two circular ways: First, it causes the brain stem to stimulate the amygdala further, which increases amygdala activation of the SNS/HPAA system—which produces more cortisol. Second, cortisol suppresses hippocampal activity (which normally inhibits the amygdala); this takes the brakes off the amygdala, leading to yet more cortisol. Reproduction is sidelined—no time for sex when you’re running for cover. The same for digestion: salivation decreases and peristalsis slows down, so your mouth feels dry and you become constipated. Your emotions intensify, organizing and mobilizing the whole brain for action. SNS/HPAA arousal stimulates the amygdala, which is hardwired to focus on negative information and react intensely to it. Consequently, feeling stressed sets you up for fear and anger. As limbic and endocrine activation increases, the relative strength of executive control from the PFC declines. It’s like being in a car with a runaway accelerator: the driver has less control over her vehicle. Further, the PFC is also affected by SNS/HPAA arousal, which pushes appraisals, attributions of others’ intentions, and priorities in a negative direction: now the driver of the careening car thinks everybody else is an idiot. For example, consider the difference between your take on a situation when you’re upset and your thoughts about it later when you’re calmer. In the harsh physical and social environments in which we evolved, this activation of multiple bodily systems helped our ancestors survive. But what’s the cost of this today, with the chronic low-grade stresses of modern life? “

This constant  ‘SNS/HPAA arousal’ (Sympathetic nervous system –  hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis) when a threat is perceived for this ‘egoic self’ is the reason why we go through unnecessary stress and suffering. Practices like mindfulness shrinks amygdala and inhibits SNS/HPAA arousal. Many years of mindfulness practise combined with insights of reality produces neuroplastic changes in the brain which results in spiritual enlightenment.

In addition to this Rick also explains how a duality is created:

 

  • “The parietal lobes of the brain are located in the upper back of the head (a “lobe” is a rounded swelling of the cortex). For most people, the left lobe establishes that the body is distinct from the world, and the right lobe indicates where the body is compared to features in its environment. The result is an automatic, underlying assumption along the lines of I am separate and independent. Although this is true in some ways, in many important ways it is not.

 

  • Since we are each connected and interdependent with the world, our attempts to be separate and independent are regularly frustrated, which produces painful signals of disturbance and threat.”

Neural Correlates of Non-dual Awareness

Now, we are going to look at another paper called ‘’Neural correlates of nondual awareness in meditation‘, which talks about a nonconceptual nondual awareness (NDA) that abides, ordinarily unrecognized, in the background of all conscious experiencing.

The paper gives a detailed  description of the non-dual awareness:

“This background awareness appears in meditation to be unitary and unchanging—a cognizance that is in itself empty of content, yet clearly aware and blissful—whereas various sensory, affective, and cognitive contents, and the various states of arousal appear to it as dynamic processes or, as a well-known metaphor states, like images in a mirror.NDA is characterized, among others, by its reflexive property—it knows itself to be conscious without relying on subsequent moments of conceptual cognition. According to some traditions,our inability to ordinarily detect NDA is due to an obscuration of this reflexive property by mistaken cognitions arising from substrate consciousness.

Although NDA is experienced in meditation as a vivid presence of empty awareness that knows itself directly without mediation by conceptual thought, substrate consciousness is experienced as a pleasantly restful absorbed state, akin to deep sleep yet not entirely unconscious, which one knows retroactively. The question of what may be the relationship of NDA to subjectivity and a sense of self has been a matter of considerable debate among various Asian philosophies and is beyond the scope of this review.”

The result of the studies suggest that ‘Precuneus awareness network’ is responsible for the non-dual awareness:

“Although our previous study did not find statistically significant differences in connectivity of individual ROIs, the connectivity of the central precuneus ROI was marginally higher for the NDA condition. The above statement has led us to hypothesize that the central precuneus network might be significantly involved in NDA. Our interest in this region was furthered by participants’ reports of the presence of two particular features of NDA: reflexivity, traditionally described as awareness being aware of itself; and spatial extendedness, described as the sameness of space inside and outside of one’s body.

Preliminary data from this study indicate that NDA resulted in an increase in connectivity between the central precuneus and the dlPFC, accompanied by a decrease in connectivity between the central precuneus and the right angular gyrus (rAng), whereas the connectivity of the rAng to the right dlPFC and left dorso-medial prefrontal cortex increased, and the interhemispheric connectivity between the left and right dlPFC decreased.

Interestingly, no significant changes in connectivity have been observed between the central precuneus and the medial prefrontal cortex, and between the dorsal anterior cingulate (ACC) and other ROIs.”

Following are the interpretations made based on the observation:

    1. An increase in functional connectivity between the central precuneus and dlPFC could be indicative of a degree of unity of awareness 95 and related to the reflexivity of NDA, as information from the central precuneus is maintained online in working memory.
    2. The observed decrease in connectivity of the central precuneus to the right angular gyrus may be contributing to experiences of spatial extendedness, as the two areas are together involved in integrating spatial reference frames.
    3. The absence of significant changes in functional connectivity between the central precuneus and the areas of the medial prefrontal cortex may indicate that during NDA, even with minimized phenomenal content, there is no active suppression of self-referential processing such as that seen in FA or OM meditations.
    4. The absence of significant changes in connectivity of the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) may be indicative of the more effortless, less cognitively controlled nature of NDA meditation.

A Contemporary Theory of Awakening – by Richard Boyle

Another noteworthy scientist who did research on spiritual enlightenment is Dr.Richard Boyle. He has worked as a Senior Research Scientist at the Institute for Social Research, University of New Mexico. He has written a book called ‘Realizing Awakened Consciousness – Interviews with Buddhist Teachers and a New Perspective on the Mind’ which has a collection of interviews with eleven prominent Western Buddhist teachers (Shinzen Young, John Tarrant, Ken McLeod, Ajahn Amaro, Martine Batchelor, Shaila Catherine, Gil Fronsdal, Stephen Batchelor, Pat Enkyo O’Hara, Bernie Glassman, and Joseph Goldstein) and one scientist (James Austin) who have experienced awakening.

He has published a paper called ‘Cracking the Buddhist Code:A Contemporary Theory of Awakening’ in  Journal of Consciousness Studies. Here is the abstract of the paper, which makes a lot of sense:

“The theory proposes that what Buddhists and others have called awakening is the same thing as “pure perceptual experience,” defined as the awareness our perceptual systems would present to us if they acted on their own, with no interference from conceptual systems. Two forms of interference are particularly apt to interfere with pure perceptual experience: uncontrolled inner speech (wandering thoughts, monkey mind) and distortion of perception to fit reified conceptual structures. Monkey mind has been shown to be caused by hyper-activity in the Default Mode Network (DMN) of the brain, which happens whenever nothing else demands our attention. Reification occurs, especially, in three kinds of symbolic structures, all of which we acquire as part of the culture we are born into:

  1. Scripts, which describe situations and events and prescribe appropriate behavior.
  2. Conceptual systems – theories, belief systems, social reality, world views, theologies and ideologies, etc.
  3. The underlying construct of four dimensional spacetime, in which we think we live.

The fact that predispositions toward uncontrolled DMN activity and reification of conceptual structures are essentially universal among humans means (at least within the realm of science) that they must have evolutionary roots. However, some people have and do overcome these two biological predispositions by engaging in such special practices as meditation and forms of inquiry. The theory seeks to specify how all this works in more detail and a way that allows the predictions to be studied.”

Persistent Non-Symbolic Experiences

Dr. Jeffery A. Martin is a founder of the Transformative Technology space, serial entrepreneur and social scientist who researches personal transformation and the states of greatest human well-being. He spent the last 10 years conducting the largest international study on persistent non-symbolic experience (PNSE), which includes the types of consciousness commonly known as: enlightenment, nonduality, the peace that passeth understanding, unitive experience, and hundreds of others. More recently, he has used this research to make systems available to help people obtain profound psychological benefits in a rapid, secular, reliable, and safe way.

He has done research on over 1200 participants (who claim to be enlightened) all over the world and he has made many publications. He has documented various traits that he has observed in enlightened people in his paper ‘Clusters of Individual Experiences form a Continuum of Persistent Non-Symbolic Experiences in Adults’ . The list of his publications can be read at his website.

Other scientists who were involved

Apart from the ones that I have mentioned, there are many other scientists who have done research on this topic and have written books about it.

Arthur J. Deikman, who was a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California did a lot of research on the subject and coined a term called ‘Mystical psychosis’.This term is used to to characterize first-person accounts of psychotic experiences that are strikingly similar to reports of mystical experiences. When Arthur himself went through a mystical experience, he became more interested in this subject. You can find many of his articles on his website. One particular article ‘Awareness’ explains the non-dual awareness in detail.

Modern scientists like Culadasa and Sam Harris are also worth mentioning. They have written books about meditations and spiritual awakenings. Abraham Moslow’s theory of self-actualization is the earliest description in psychology of the ultimate human potential, which is very close to self-realization. Willaim James, an early psychologist have studied various spiritual experiences and have written a book about it.

Conclusion

What do we get from all these studies which have been conducted? They all offer various clues on the direction that we need to go, in order to do more research. While we can’t derive strong conclusions based on the existing evidence, they make it very easy to narrow down to the exact neural correlates involved in spiritual enlightenment.

Many neuroscientists are interested in researching spiritual awakenings, as they now know that it is about something that definitely exists as a possibility for human beings to end their suffering and live a more peaceful life. As Neuroscience grows, we will soon have many ways to study the brain and understand exactly how a spiritual process works.

You can read about my own spiritual transformation in the following two articles:

  1. The Journey of a Seeker
  2. Spiritual Enlightenment – Is it a Myth or Real?

 

 

Spiritual Enlightenment – Is it a Myth or Real?

What the hell is this spiritual enlightenment or spiritual awakening? Can you come up with one definition that everyone in the world will agree with? Many words have been associated with it: Moksha, Mukthi, Brahmajnana, Atmajnana, Nirvana, Bodhi, Kensho, Satori, Samadhi, Kevali, Kaivalya, Salvation, union with God etc. Many of them have different definitions, paths (practices) and theories.

But, one thing this enlightenment implies is that it is the purpose of the human life…For example, Indian tradition lists four main pursuits of life; virtue (dharma), wealth (artha), pleasure (kama) and enlightenment (moksha)… Modern psychology has another word for whatever the human life is progressing towards; it is called self-actualization, which is similar to the concept of enlightenment in many ways.

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When I went through a spiritual transformation myself, I found that whatever that happened to me agrees with one aspect which is almost present in all these traditions. It is the liberation from the identification with your self-concept. It literally destroyed the psychological boundaries between me and the world. It resulted in a drastic reduction of self-referential thought and emotional reactivity and made me peaceful forever. As far as I am concerned, there is nothing I can do to add more to who I am…. It is, with no doubt, a complete irreversible transformation which left me complete and fulfilled in the present moment. I had blissful epiphanies for a couple of months when I was going through this transformation.  I felt like I was out of a prison. After that, I didn’t think about enlightenment for at least three years.. The life went on like a comfortable and joyful train journey.

Read my story of spiritual seeking, prior to this transformation: The Journey of a Seeker

But there are other concepts which are associated with enlightenment and mentioned by many of the enlightenment gurus we have seen so far…  Here is a list of some of those concepts:

  • Being enlightened is like being in ecstatic bliss 24/7.
  • Once you are enlightened, you will remember your past lives.
  • You radiate some kind of energy which can be felt by people near you.
  • You can recognize another enlightened person by sight.
  • You don’t have any cravings or ego anymore… You are just pure consciousness with no thoughts, no cravings, and no ego!
  • If you want to die, you can do it by your own will and by causing no pain or damage to the body.
  • You can see auras of other people.

Nothing like that ever happened to me after the transformation and it has been three years now. But some people used to say that I was the happiest person in the world. I had a smile in my face whenever I met any of my friends and I looked happy and full of energy all the time. But I did face challenges and even went through some suffering time to time. They were not at all felt personal and left no trace in my psyche but they did give me a hard time.

Another thing that is noteworthy is that I felt like I was born again. This is consistent with the concept of ‘dvija’ in Indian tradition. In a couple of months after transformation, I was left with no motivation. I felt like there is nothing more to do with this life. So, I had to create a motivation that would give me a direction for life.  For the time being, I decided to perform as well as I can at work.

But I noticed that when it came to social behaviour, I made no attempt to impress others, influence the behaviour of others or even gossip with others, which affected a few things in my life. I was running a family. So, it was very important for my dependants that I influence other people to get things to happen the way I wanted them to happen.  For example, I needed to get promoted soon so that I could take care of my family in a better way. Because of these demands, certain things began to change. I had to consciously create a subtle ego and personality. I also had to choose a mission for my life, (not a goal that I want to reach but a direction I want to go towards) which will keep me motivated to do things in life. These changes happened very gradually and soon I realized that I had been relearning certain things in life as a total new born. My brain was creating fresh associations with each stimuli and experience.  I started to get classically conditioned all over again. But all of this happened very consciously and I could see those changes for what they were. I also noticed that my genetic factors were intact and they still influenced the way I thought and behaved.

Around May 2016, I bought a book called ‘Psychology’ 5th edition written by Robert A. Baron and Girishwar Mishra. Learning psychology changed a lot of things. It was very interesting to learn about why people behaved the way they did and it offered a lot of new insights to my own transformation. (I was also using cannabis everyday during this time). At the same time, I also suffered from Insomnia because I always felt energetic and I could never get myself to sleep so easily. Sleep deprivation, vigorous study of psychology and hard work at office caused me to be active all the time. My highest record was set when I was awake continuously for 45 hours with maximum activity.

I started seeing many connections in totally disconnected happenings of my life in the past .Things were happening so fast that I was not able to keep myself balanced. It was like riding in a roller coaster most of the time.  Every bit of my body and mind was throbbing with energy. The valence of my emotions kept changing every hour. It would be miserable for an hour; then I would feel peaceful as if nothing had happened, for the next hour.

I started behaving like a lunatic and things got worse. Soon I left my job and went to my parent’s home. The roller coaster continued and I was admitted in a psychiatric hospital for 10 days. The doctor prescribed haloperidol and chlorpromazine. (They are usually prescribed for schizophrenia. But I know the symptoms and I was not schizophrenic. ) The doctors didn’t even bother to talk to me or counsel me. And, there was a serious side effect with these tablets; they cause Akathesia, the worst disorder one could ever get. If you have akathesia you cannot sit still or stand in one place for more than 3-4 minutes. You will always have an urge to keep moving your body. I suffered from akathesia for more than a month. It was cured by taking trihexphenydil  and clonazepam (The doctors were not helpful. I had to search in Wikipedia to find out which antipsychotic drugs were causing the problem and just skip them).

These symptoms that I underwent is actually known as spiritual crisis which was listed first in DSM-IV ( Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). They are supposed to be diagnosed and treated differently. But usually, a lot of psychiatrists who are not aware of this treat these symptoms as indications of a regular mental disorder.

Now, I feel like I have become a grown up boy in this new second birth. (I am talking about ‘dvija’; not about a previous incarnation). I have a better clarity of what exactly happened in me in the last three years. U.G Krishnamurti went through a similar transformation in his life and he used to call it a ‘calamity’. Also, he has said in his interviews that he had to learn certain things from scratch as well. I haven’t read his books much, but the word ‘calamity’ actually suits what I went through.

After I was cured from Akathesia, I settled down in my new job and everything became fine. Life is beautiful now. As far as my subjective well-being is concerned, there is no way it can be any better than this. I am not seeking anything anymore (as I already feel complete and liberated) but I am still interested in this concept of enlightenment and find out the neural correlates of it in the brain. I cannot do this alone. But my mission is to contribute towards a scientific research on human transformation. I spend my time reading psychology journals, science papers and articles, writing blog posts, reading about the awakening experiences of others etc.

My life is now full of awe and curiosity, and this awakening seems to be deepening; I see no limits for the depth. Whether this is enlightenment or not doesn’t matter to me. If someone says that this is enlightenment, I would probably say ‘oh, I see’… If they say I still have to work towards another shift called ‘enlightenment’, I wouldn’t bother about it. Because, anything beyond this will be an unnecessary luxury.

Even though I personally don’t have to worry about it, I still have to study about enlightenment and compare my experience with other authentic awakened people so that I can contribute something to the scientific research. I began to search in forums and Quora for personal testimonies of awakening. I found out that most of the testimonies are similar to my own awakening and it is very common as well. I also found that there is no scientific evidence for paranormal powers in spite of thousands and thousands of studies conducted on alleged psychics so far. A guy called James Randi even challenged people that he would offer millions of dollars to any person who proves he has such powers. Many people volunteered but nothing was proved.

I am not saying that nothing paranormal exists; I am just saying that I don’t know.. There is no evidence, I have no first hand experience and I don’t believe in ‘believing’ anymore!

At the same time, there are always cult movements showing up which cause a lot of controversies. Some of them do offer useful guidance towards self-realization, but they are often mixed with the authority’s own opinions. In some cases, there have been even abusive behavior towards the followers. If a public science of spiritual awakening is created and a way to recognize awakened people with brain imaging technology has been established, then all these problems will be solved.

At this point, all I can say based on my own experience is that freedom from self-concept does exist and it does liberate you and make you peaceful and free human being. Most of the people call this enlightenment. But a few people claim the ever-bliss, paranormal spiritual awakening as enlightenment. Whether such a thing exists or not, I don’t know yet.

As a young scientist, I want to take this very carefully and step by step. Even If I don’t manage to get the public attention in my lifetime, my findings and theories will remain in my blog forever, so that people can read it even after I am gone.

 

 

 

Awakening Through Mindfulness – Bridging Science and Spirituality

One of the reasons for much of the suffering that we go through in life is taking life too seriously. It is not uncommon though; almost everyone is so serious about the drama of life. So, everyone has assumed that there is no way out of it. But, there is a potential for a change in your attitude towards life which will make you to treat life as the lifelong movie in which we all are just characters. There is also a potential to remove all the unwanted suffering that we have imposed on ourselves by removing the serious identification with the character called ‘you’ and your story.. I went through a journey myself that helped me to realize this potential and make it possible. (You can read more about my journey here: The Journey of a Seeker). I will call that whole process as ‘Awakening Through Mindfulness (ATM)’.

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If you believe in God, you can use the belief itself as an aid towards changing your attitude. Many people consider themselves as a puppet of the God’s hands. That helps them change the way they react to the situations and stop taking everything personal. But it is just a coping mechanism; No one is actually sitting up there and directing your life. Life and the force of the life itself is a deep and interesting mystery. If you want to call that force God, you can. That is a beautiful personification. Warning! For many people,  beliefs have actually been a hindrance in the whole process.

There is a way to really experience life as a movie and to be not affected by your self-image. You can completely detach yourself from the identification you have with the self image.  .. Changing the attitude is the first step to ending the self created suffering and experience the life impersonally.. Your personality and your ego that projects the personality are just a part of the mask that you, as the character of this movie, are wearing. What hurts the mask doesn’t hurt you anymore, once you start experiencing life this way. Not only your ego and personality, but every thought, emotion, experience and knowledge that you witness in your consciousness is a part of that mask. Remembering this analogy of the mask and contemplating on it can help you to change your attitude to be favourable in the process of awakening.

As you proceed with this journey, you will eventually have to drop a lot of your beliefs and directly choose to know what you believed is true or false. Then, either you know or you don’t know. There is no need in believing something. The sense of security that we get from beliefs will not at all be needed anymore once you start experiencing the life devoid of self-created suffering. You don’t need any solace from the beliefs anymore. That life experience which stands apart and independent from your identity is what I call as an ‘awakened life’.

What you Call as Self is an Illusion!

The next step is just to realize and remember always that there is no self; I am not kidding! It is a scientific fact. What you perceive, think and experience every moment is the result of millions of neurons in your brain communicating with the neighboring neurons through electrochemical signals. This constant perceptual activity gives an illusion that there is a static self. This self which is experienced as being the one who inhabits the body, being the one who is thinking the thoughts, being the one experiencing emotions, being the agent of actions and having free will is an illusion. Also, every person you see is a complex network of forces communicating with each other in cell level, chemical level and atomic level. 2500 years ago, a man called Gautama Buddha revealed the truth of the no-self for the first time.

Seeing this in neuroscientific perspective, what you experience as you and your story is just a result of activity happens in a combination of brain structures called Default Mode Network DMN). This network is active when you are mind-wandering,thinking about others, thinking about yourself, remembering the past, and planning for the future. Hyperconnectivity of the default network has been linked to rumination in depression. Studies have shown that meditators and people who claim spiritual awakening have less or almost no activity in DMN.

This illusory  self is not consistent and static; it is ever changing. But the only thing which is consistent and constant throughout your life is your existence; the conscious, moment to moment experience that you are alive.

Three Aspects of the Absolute Reality

There are three aspects to what that is consistent: Existence, Consciousness and experiencing.

Existence can be defined as whatever that exists in the ultimate, absolute level. You perceive and know that objects exist because of this. It is the sense of being alive.

The objects may keep changing but the existence itself is something that is constant. It is not a ‘thing’ though. It is the basis of anything that is subjective.

Consciousness is like a light that shines up everything in the existence. It can be compared to the light in a movie screen using which your thoughts, emotions, perceptions and experiences are constantly being played. The movie screen is static all the time. It also exists in sleep, but there is nothing to show. Since consciousness is completely dark and since voluntary functions of the mind are shut off, there is actually nothing much is happening that is worth to be recorded in the brain and stored in long term memory.

Experiencing is not about various experiences that you go through every moment. It is the base of all experience, which is naturally peaceful. Peace is always the first and last experience of the lifetime. Even in death, the final moment is peace; a lot of scientists believe that a neurotransmitter called Dimethyltryptamine or DMT released in the brain during the last moment of death which gives peace and bliss. You are so peaceful during the birth too. You can obviously see that in the new born babies. Even throughout the life, you go through a lot of peaceful moments where you are ultimately content, all drives seem to be temporarily satisfied and you experience the ultimate peace and contentment. That peace is not really something that comes and goes. It is the subtle backdrop of all the noisy perceptions happening in the mind and never changes too. It is the base experience of all the experiences. An awakened person may often go through peak experiences (rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality, and are even mystic and magical in their effect upon the experimenter – Abraham Maslow) when they touch the ultimate level of peace. During peak experiences, the boundaries of experiencer, experiencing and the experience dissolve and they all become one. The same happens with the knowledge as well. The  knower, knowing and  the known become one.

Note that, when I say experiencing,  I am talking about the ‘experiencing’ aspect of your existence; not about an independent experience. Any experience, including the peak experience com and go. But the ‘experiencing’ part of that which is consistent never changes.  It would be better to use a different word than experiencing but I can’t think of anything that comes closer right now.

So, whatever that is consistent which has the aspects of existence, consciousness and experiencing can be called with any  name you want to use. You can call it XYZ if you want! Some words that have been used in eastern traditions are absolute, Om, brahman, Sat-Chit-Ananda etc… Some call it as your ‘true self’. The problem with all these labels is that you start to see this XYZ as some object, a thing; Something that can be either perceived, experienced or known. But it is actually like the space or the field in which everything is perceived, experienced or known. So, it is very important to not to get too attached to the word.

Seeing the illusory self for what it is and completely removing the identification with it lets you to relax yourself in the truth of being alive and conscious. It will eventually let you free from hedonic treadmill and the pursuit of subjective self worth. You will feel liberated from the prison of this illusory self. This will give you a tremendous acceptance of what is; You will see life as a game with its own rules and challenges. But seeing that as just a game which will eventually end, makes you to play it with enjoyment and a great sense of peace.

Many practises have been suggested which help you to go through this process of awakening; self-inquiry, contemplation of the truth and so on. The practise that I can suggest for you is the one which worked for me.. It is called Sati in buddhism, Shikantaza in Zen, Shakshi bhav in Upanishads and mindfulness by buddhists as well as modern psychologists.  Mindfulness is used not only as a path to awakening, but also in modern therapies as a means to decrease depression and stress, increase well being, control addictions, slow down emotional reactivity etc.

What is Mindfulness and How to Practice it?

Mindfulness can be defined as focused nonjudgmental attention to experiences of thoughts, emotions, and body sensation in the present moment that is practiced by simply observing them as they arise and pass away. The paper ‘Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition’ which was published by University of Toronto in 2014 suggests a two-component model of mindfulness:

1) Regulation of attention in order to maintain it on the immediate experience

2) Approaching one’s experiences with an orientation of curiosity,openness, and acceptance, regardless of their valence and desirability.

When you try to observe your thought process, you may lose your attention many times. Once you notice that the mind has wandered, you just bring it back to the awareness of thought process or body sensations again. No matter how many times the mind wanders away, you must take it easy and accept it. You can do this while doing whatever you are doing, like walking, eating, working out, waiting in a queue etc. Notice the flow of thoughts as if you are watching a stream flowing or traffic moving. Eventually you can extend the time that you practise mindfulness to most of the waking hours of the day. This may take years and years of practise.

When practicing mindfulness, don’t approach it as if you are working towards a goal. That would simply mean that you are enhancing the self-concept and strengthening the identification with it .Awakening is not an achievement. It is getting rid of the craving for any achievement that increases your self-worth or enhances your self-concept. Seeing mindfulness as a means for something to be achieved itself is a trap which may slow down the process of awakening.

In a couple of months of practise you may start noticing gaps in your thought process.You may also notice reduction in the number of thoughts. Also, a lot of unconscious patterns and repressed thoughts may start to come up and appear in the light of your conscious observation. It is quite normal. Just pay attention to whatever that comes up without reacting to it. But if you do react to it, that’s ok. Just notice that and wait to see what comes up next. As you do it more and more, the gaps will be more frequent and you may even start to wait for the next thought or feeling to arise. In a few months, you will start to feel more peaceful and relaxed. Your emotional regulation would also have improved.

While practising, become aware of the defense mechanisms of the ego whenever you notice them. Notice the repeated thought patterns and your attempts to maintain and protect your self-esteem.

Reading the authentic sources of Zen and Advaita can help you a lot in moving through the process. Personally for me, reading the transcribed talks of Osho and J.Krishnamurti were helpful in understanding how mindfulness works and how to go about practising it. Osho called it ‘witnessing’ and J.Krishnamurti called it as ‘Choiceless awareness’. The names are different but the meaning is exactly the same.

Once you have practised mindfulness for long term for a year or two, you may go through a crisis at times, usually called ‘Spiritual Crisis,’ a form of identity crisis where you experience drastic changes to your meaning system (your unique purposes, goals, values, attitude and beliefs, identity, and focus). It may cause a lot of disturbance, but don’t be alarmed. It happens to everyone but it will pass. The fruits of mindfulness always outweighs the disturbances caused by spiritual crisis.

Benefits of Mindfulness

I came across an interesting paper ‘How Does Mindfulness Meditation Work? Proposing Mechanisms of Action From a Conceptual and Neural Perspective’ published in 2011 by Association For Psychological Science. It lists 4 major benefits of mindfulness and also lists the details of studies which support them.

Here are those four benefits:

  1. Attention regulation
  2. Body awareness
  3. Emotion regulation, including a. Reappraisal b. Exposure, extinction, and reconsolidation
  4. Change in perspective on the self.

The fourth one, ‘Change in perspective on the self’ is very important, which explains in detail about a lot of what we discussed about ‘Self’ in this post. You can search for this paper in ‘Academia’ and download it for free.

There have been many other studies done on mindfulness which show that mindfulness decreases suffering and increases subjective well being. Buddha prescribed mindfulness as the path to spiritual enlightenment. Whether you are looking for spiritual enlightenment or just improved well being, there is no doubt that mindfulness is the way to go.