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?”