Shankara And Nisargadatta On Sheaths And Investigation

Sri Shankara writes in Atma Bodha,

14. In union with the five sheaths this pure self appears to take on the nature of the one or the other, just as a crystal reflects the blue or other colors of objects which come near it.

The five sheaths, or koshas, are annamaya kosha (the physical sheath or that of gross matter), pranamaya kosha (the sheath of energy), manamaya kosha (the mental sheath or that of emotions and feelings), vijnanamaya kosha (the knowing sheath or that of I-am-ness), and anandamaya kosha (the sheath of bliss). Each sheath, as Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati writes, is like a lampshade covering the pure light of Awareness, or the Self.

Hence, “Verse 15” as well as “Verse 17” of Atma Bodha:

15. Pure awareness must be disengaged by intense investigation from the sheaths within which it is enveloped, as a grain of rice is separated from its husk.

17. This Atman must be distinguished from external perceptions, bodily sensations, feelings, and thoughts. It must be directly seen as the eternal witness of these activities as a king is seen watching over his ministers.

One especially direct way of doing so is through Self-inquiry (atma vichara). Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj seems to have his own version:

  1. Realize that the misery arises once there is the belief in “I am this.”
  2. So, drop every this and hold onto “I Am-ness.” This is equivalent to going straight to the vijnanamaya kosha, the sheath of I Am-ness. In other words, it must be clear in experience that I am not the gross matter sheath, the energy sheath, or the mental sheath.
  3. Investigate to discover the source of “I Am-ness.” As he states in Consciousness and the Absolute: The Final Talks of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, “So, I went back, tracing this original Self, and I reached a stage [I Am-ness] where I wanted to know what my state was before this consciousness [I Am-ness] arose” (p. 24, my italics).

What, indeed, is this original state before the arising of I Am-ness? Or in Huineng’s version of the koan, “What is your original face before your parents were born?”

What Is The Subject Of All Experience?

I. The Text

The Kena Upanishad begins with the student asking one of the most fundamental questions there is. That question, essentially, is: “Who am I?”

Who makes my mind think?

Who fills my body with vitality?

Who causes my tongue to speak? Who is that

Invisible one who sees through my eyes

And hears through my ears?

The teacher answers,

The Self is the ear of the ear,

The eye of the eye, the mind of the mind,

The word of words, and the life of life.

Rising above the senses and the mind

And renouncing separate existence,

The wise realize the deathless Self.

He elaborates:

That which makes the tongue speak but cannot be

Spoken by the tongue, know that as the Self.

This Self is not someone other than you.

That which makes the mind think but cannot be

Thought by the mind, that is the Self indeed.

This Self is not someone other than you.

And so on.

We’re now in a position to grasp the central question with greater specificity. It is: “What is the Subject of all experience?” The answer: “It is the Self.”

Be That knowingly.

II. Contemplation

Contemplate this teaching.

For That on account of which these fingers are moving is none other than That on account of which those eyes (“yours”) reading these lines are moving.

That which enables thought, the expression of this thought in words, the reading of these words, the questions that may arise, and all the rest is nothing but the Self.

In fact, every single experience—“yours” and “mine,” “his” and “hers”—is really made possible by the Self and is—also really—none other than the Self. Know this for sure: the Self is “none other than you,” none other than me, none other than each and all.

The Self is the miracle of breathing, thinking, feeling, desiring, and sensing, of all acts of breathing, thinking, feeling, desiring, and sensing. The Self is all.

You are the Self: know This and be free.

There Is No Such Thing As Mind Control

If you’ve started meditating, initially you felt some sense of peace. After a bit more meditating, you began to realize the predicament you’re in: the mind keeps rising and seems out of control. And when mind rises, there is suffering (dukkha).

Naturally, at this point it may have occurred to you to use meditation as a way of bringing about mind control. Therefore, you may have begun to see the aim of meditating as precisely that.

While this is a natural move to make, it’s also a mistake. In a loose sense, sure, it could be said that meditation brings about mind control. Yet in a strict sense, this is not only untrue; it’s also misguided.

Listen to Sri Ramana Maharshi as he spells out the mistake and then offers a remedy:

D[isciple]: How to control the mind?
M[aharshi]: What is mind? Whose is the mind?
D.: Mind always wanders. I cannot control it.
M.: It is the nature of the mind to wander. You are not the mind. The
mind springs up and sinks down. It is impermanent, transitory,
whereas you are eternal. There is nothing but the Self. To inhere in
the Self is the thing. Never mind the mind. If its source is sought,
it will vanish leaving the Self unaffected.

“Talk 97,” Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, p. 95

The bad news is the mind cannot be controlled since it is of the nature of the mind to wander. The good news is that the mind needn’t be controlled, only its source found.

Yet again, we arrive at the preeminence of Self-inquiry (atma vichara). Elegantly (stunningly so) does Self-inquiry take what seems to be a deficit, a ‘bug’ (if you will) and turn it into an asset. “Dang, you say that thoughts keep coming atcha. No problem! Thoughts are precisely what allow one to begin in earnest. In fact, you’re in luck: thoughts, indeed, are the initiating force of the inquiry!”

Begin by tracing each thought back to its source. The latter, it turns out, is the mind, or the I-thought, or the ego I, or the “false” I (Ramana gives us different names for the same shadowy borrowed existence at different times).

Next, because you see that the ego has risen, trace the ego’s rising back to its source. That source is the Self.

Discover the source, abide in it, and thenceforth there will be no mind rising and therefore no need for mind to be controlled.

Voila! So much better than a cheap party trick!

On Sacred Art And Profane Art

We might contemplate, as if drinking cool spring water to quench our spiritual thirst, the following passage from Frithjof Schuon on the prerequisites for creating sacred art:

In the ancient Church, and in the Eastern Churches even down to our own times, icon painters prepared themselves for their work by fasting, by prayer and by sacraments; to the inspiration which had fixed the immutable type of the picture they added their own humble and pious inspirations; scrupulously they respected the symbolism–always susceptible of an endless series of precious nuances–of the forms and colours. They drew their creative joy, not from inventing pretentious novelties, but from a loving recreation of the revealed prototypes, and hence came a spiritual and artistic perfection such as no individual genius could ever attain.

The Essential Frithjof Schuon, p. 374

Sacred art, Schuon states elsewhere, is “Heaven descended to earth, rather than earth reaching towards Heaven.”

As the manifestation of the divine in form, sacred art is beautiful. That beauty is only channelable, however, for those who have prepared themselves–through deep spiritual practices–for the reception of divine inspiration. Similarly, sacred art is only appreciable, nay lovable, by those who have become spiritually ripened to the point at which the apprehension of simple, perhaps understated beauty can be immediately felt and fully imbibed.

For some years, I’ve been horrified by preponderance of profane art. One such example is Tracey Emin’s “My Bed” (1998). In this piece, we see Emin’s actual bed where she slept, had sex, smoked, and drank alcohol for four days straight.

To be clear, we need pass no uncompassionate, uncharitable moral judgment on Emin or on her life, both of which are of no concern to me nor is such a judgment on point here. Instead, our hearts should feel weighed down by the direction that much postmodern art has taken, a move where an unsound, disordered life–an ugly soul–is treated to critical acclaim on the grounds that one is being at once courageous and original. To the ugly soul, alas, there goeth ugly art–and we are the worse off for it, for our souls are in no way blessed by the near ubiquitous experience of ugliness, hollowness, and, above all, a sense of lostness.

Our souls, when prepared by spiritual practice and when opened by grace, long for more: for the kind of humble beauty that uplifts and encloses.