Atman And Anatta

According to a Wikipedia entry comparing Advaita Vedanta with Mahayana Buddhism,

Advaita Vedanta holds the premise, “Soul exists, and Soul (or self, Atman) is a self-evident truth.” Buddhism, in contrast, holds the premise, “Atman does not exist, and An-atman (or Anatta, non-self) is self-evident.”

This seems like a dubious “difference without a distinction” so long as one remains married to direct experience. To see this, we have to remember that all mystics are coming to a Reality that is prior to all language and therefore also prior to specific cultural, historical, and conceptual differences. Naturally, when they “report” on what they have directly discovered, they will avail themselves of the language–the analogies, the metaphors, and the concepts–that are ready to hand, sometimes using such culturally specific tropes in creative, innovative, and spellbindingly poetic ways.

Atman, recall, is the True Self. It is an answer to the question: “Who, really, am I?” And the answer, state spiritual adepts, sages, and saints, is that there is an unlimited, pure Awareness that, according to the dictates of dualistic language, will, alas, be put into the “subjective category,” the category of the “I.”

Now, when the Buddha suggests that anatta is true, he is saying that there is no such thing that “fits the bill” for being a personal, individuated, soul-like self. The Buddha’s, you see, is a deconstructive move: see through the illusion of a separate, allegedly self-standing self and then simply see who you really are.

This is so clear to one twentieth century Zen master, Shibayama, that, in The Gateless Barrier, he freely and without scruples calls ultimate reality Absolute Subjectivity. So much for that purported distinction!

Therefore, both are true: anatta points to the fact that no separate, personal self “holds together” the lived experience of any psycho-physical organism (human beings included) while Atman gives us an ultimate, positive answer to this pressing matter of ultimate concern. The Buddha demolishes while Advaita affirms. The via negativa and the via positiva here quite naturally join hands in universal fellowship and in pristine, reverent understanding.

A final word: we do well to trust the great mystical masters, not the scholarly debates that, so long as they are engaged in discourse alone, are starting off on the wrong foot. Chan, Zen, and Advaita Vedanta, in fact, all share a commitment to beginning, and ending, this existential inquiry into the nature of the ultimate by appealing first and above all to experience, not to scripture. The latter, yea a pointer, supports, but the former must bear the weight of the inquiry if this inquiry is to bear very beautiful fruit.

Nachiketa’s Greatest Boon: Going Beyond Death

The Katha Upanishad is remarkable for its poignancy, beauty, and clarity. Poignantly does it describe a dialogue between a teenager Nachiketa and Yama, the presider over death. Nachiketa, afraid of death and rightly so, asks how he might go beyond death.

What is clearly articulated are the whispers of a path. So:

When the five senses are stilled, when the mind / Is stilled, when the intellect is stilled, / That is called the highest state by the wise (Katha Upanishad 3:10-11, Easwaran translation)

In beautiful verse, the youth is urged to “go back the way he came” (to quote Maharshi). Therefore, he is to begin with the physical senses and accordingly withdraw both from sense objects and from the sense organs (sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste). Next, he is to view the mind and, through practice, “look at the mind from outside of the mind” (Nisargadatta). Behind the intellect, as Maharshi has gone to great pains to show, is the ego, which is most purely witnessed in the form of the I-thought.

Elsewhere, the Katha Upanishad tells us that consciousness, which is universal but which has already tumbled forth into being, gives way to what is “prior to consciousness” (to quote Nisargadatta). And what is prior to consciousness but the True Self?

Beyond the physical senses, the mind, and consciousness, then, is the True Self, standing supreme, abiding as Itself. This is what Nachiketa seeks; in seeking This, he seeks Himself. And “That is called the highest state by the wise.”

This “highest state” is, in fact, a “no-state state” (Stephen Wolinsky) in the sense that it is timeless, spaceless, changeless, and more. States change, but only This remains.

Death applies to the physical and mental forms, but the Deathless, prior to all births and deaths yet also tumbling forth in countless temporary names and forms, reigns supreme. The simple formula, “Atman is Brahman,” reveals the highest truth: that who I essentially am is none other than the supreme, single, unborn, and deathless Reality. Whatever is temporal I am not; whatever is eternal That I am.

The poem ends:

Nachiketa learned from the king of death / The whole discipline of meditation [which was said to be necessary for Self-realization]. Freeing himself from all separateness [to wit, the belief and feeling that he is a separate self], / He won immortality in [and as] Brahman. / So blessed is everyone who knows the Self!

Samskaras And Thoughts: On Ramana Maharshi’s Fresh Approach

Yesterday, I sought to show that there is an especially close relationship between samskaras and Ultimate Reality. I’d like to expand on those reflections here. To do so, I return to Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi.

A disciple, who is also a busy householder, is asking Maharshi about the role that meditation plays in realizing one’s true nature. “No separate meditation is necessary?,” he asks.

Maharshi replies, “Meditation is your true nature now” (p. 279). For adept meditators, this bit, so far, is old hat: meditation is not what you do; it’s what you are. The crux, for me, comes later when he offers, “Other thoughts arise more forcibly when you attempt meditation” (p. 279, my emphasis).

Oh, and the text just here states that “[t]here was a chorus of questions by a few others” (p. 279). No doubt!

So, Maharshi continues, “Yes, all kinds of thoughts arise in meditation. It is but right. What lies hidden in you is brought out. Unless they rise up how can they be destroyed? They therefore rise up spontaneously in order to be extinguished in due course, thus to strengthen the mind” (p. 279, my emphasis).

There’s a lot here to unpack! To begin with, let’s recount what we often hear about thoughts during meditation:

–Note them (a labeling exercise) and then let go of them.

–Be mindful of them and let go of them. Return to (e.g.) the breath, the mantra, the count, etc.

–Allow them to arise, but remain uninvolved, unconcerned.

–See where thoughts come from and where they go off to.

–Ask, “What do these thoughts arise from?”

–Use the koan or huatou like a vajra sword.

And so on. All of these are, in their place, good cues, but can we, in this context, start to see how much more profound Maharshi’s remarks are?

1. Let’s be a bit anthropomorphic and say that Universal Consciousness is “sending” us exactly these thoughts as a blessing. It is precisely these thoughts that need to be witnessed right now.

2. These thoughts are very often samskaras. Accordingly, to be sent just these is to be in a position to see them off. (“What lies hidden in you is brought out.”)

3. Buddhism emphasizes that “delusions are endless” (until one gets to the root of all delusions). Sometimes that first part can be colored by quiet despair. “Endless, you say?” Geez, what’s the point then? Return to Maharshi’s remarks now: let us say that there is a kind of “order” to the arising of thoughts as well as a “mission” or an “agenda.” The more this order and mission are ascertained, the clearer it becomes that seeing them off is one perspicuous way that personal consciousness becomes more transparent with Universal Consciousness. Full transparency is identity.

In short, samskaras, by this analysis and by virtue of the sustained practice that Maharshi tacitly proposes, become ready pointers to Universal Consciousness. You might say that Maharshi has adroitly “defanged” suffering for those willing to heed his words.

Samskaras And The True Self

On November 30, 1936, Ramana Maharshi is speaking with a visitor at Ramanasramam. The visitor is wondering about how the nature of Ultimate Reality could have seemed to have forgotten Itself, and Maharshi supplies him with an answer to his question.

And then things, by my lights, get really interesting.

“Having heard this truth,” the devotee asks, “why does not one remain content” (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, p. 257)? In other words, I was just listening to you intently, but I haven’t realized my true nature. What am I missing? Or even: say, what gives?

On the following page (p. 258), Maharshi will walk the visitor through Advaita’s “triple method” of listening, pondering/contemplating, and meditating, a method that reveals that listening to the teaching is, on its own, very rarely enough (save in the rare exceptions of especially ripe students).

But talk of the triple method is not, in fact, the place where Maharshi begins. Instead, he starts thus: “Because samskaras have not been destroyed. Unless samskaras cease to exist, there will always be doubt and confusion (sandeha, viparita). All efforts are directed at destroying doubt and confusion. To do so their roots must be cut. Their roots are the samskaras” (pp. 257-8).

Before I unpack what Maharshi is suggesting, it would be good to know what a samskara is. A samskara is an ego tendency or predisposition. Suppose, for example, that you tend to get enraged when you feel that someone has slighted you. Well, that is a samskara–and perhaps a sticky one!

Maharshi’s point is quite sharp. As long as personal consciousness is very much gripped by these little “eddies” of ego-self tendencies, it won’t be able to merge with Ultimate Reality. Gripping onto these samskaras, it shall continue to be gripped by them.

What Maharshi helps me to see here is that there is, in truth, a very close relationship between Cleaning Up and Waking Up (in Ken Wilber’s terms). Whereas it can seem as if exploring various forms of psychological suffering is its own modus operandi and whereas it can also seem as if the path of enlightenment is another mode entirely, it is far better, it turns out, to regard Cleaning Up and Waking Up as two strands braided together like a double-helix–provided, that is, that Cleaning Up is in the service of Waking Up. (If not, it can easily spill over into “insight porn.”)

And this makes a good deal of sense. Cleaning Up and Waking Up come at our true nature from, as it were, two different angles and “meet” just when and where there is utter transparency, the transparency of being. What is personal consciousness that is totally clear of samskaras but the true nature of reality? And what is our original nature as it is expressed in form but personal consciousness that is now a transparent vessel?

As the Heart Sutra says, “Form is formlessness, formlessness form.” Could this statement be any clearer thanks to Maharshi?

Inward Training (Nei-yeh): A Meditation In Two Voices

Translated variously as “inward training,” “self-cultivation,” and “inner development,” the Nei-yeh is an early Daoist work consisting, according to the translation we have followed, of 26 interconnected verses. Set out in these subtle, beautiful poems is a program concerned with aligning one’s posture, breathing, and mind with the Way of things. Some Daoist scholars, therefore, have come to regard this “biospiritual” text as an important complement to the social and political aspects of the Daodejing as well as to the mystical aspirations of The Inner Chapters.

In contrast with its competitors then and now, Inward Training makes no promises about longevity or eternal life. This is because its aim is not supernatural but more humbly human: it is to lead the best kind of life a human can. Though the details of the program are obscure, the rough outline is fairly clear. The practitioner who is diligent and regular in his practice may discover that the substantial force that animates all things is now also animating his life and this more and more. Whatever flows through the cosmos also flows through him; whatever would otherwise tend to depart now remains with him; no longer “an obstruction,” he is a vessel for receiving, his life an example of proper attuning to this higher, all-pervading force. To be sure, as he aligns his breath and calms his mind, the results will be revealed, at least in part, in his countenance, in his easy strength, in the kindness others show him. Moreover, because he has learned proper measure, he may also lead a longer life than those who would recklessly go contrary to the Way. Yet good health, good reputation, and longevity have never been his reasons for following the Way; rather, it is to accord himself with this reality for its own sake.

One final word. These readings were recorded over a two-week period in late April and early May of 2014. In keeping with Daoist philosophy’s requirement that one come to experiential awareness of its teachings, Alexandra and I went about learning how to read this work as we learned what it was about: our exploration of diction was to be spiritual exercise in itself. In all this, however, we make no claims to be Daoist sages nor would we. As is evident, we are but learners nearer to the beginning of the course than the end.

–Alexandra and Andrew Taggart Joshua Tree, California, Spring 2014