Nisargadatta’s I Am That: Crucial Distinctions In Advaita Vedanta

In Nisargadatta’s I Am That, we find an astonishingly clear articulation of important features of the teaching of Advaita Vedanta.

Three distinctions in particular are used to good effort:

1.) Change / changelessness:

  • Whatever changes is unreal.
  • Whatever is unchanging is real.


  • Whatever changes is unhappiness.
  • Whatever is unchanging is happiness.

Ponder this. Is it true? See how pondering it “drives you inward.”

2.) Dependence / independence:

  • Whatever is dependent is unreal.
  • Whatever is independent is real.

Ponder this:

  • The world depends on the senses. In this sense (and also because it is changing), the world is unreal.
  • The senses depend on the mind. Example: seeing depends on the concept of color. Therefore, the senses are unreal.
  • But the mind depends on the witness. Since the mind is nothing apart from thought, the witness is that which is aware of the thought. Therefore, the mind too is unreal.
  • But the witness falls back into I Am. 
  • And when one abides deeply and earnestly in and as I Am, I Am falls back into the Supreme State, the Absolute.
    • Only the Absolute is independent.
    • Therefore, only the Absolute is real.

3.) Subject / object:

  • The subject is not the object. 
  • OR: The witness is not the witnessed.
  • OR: The perceived is not the perceived.


  • If I am aware of seeing, am I identical with seeing? (No.)
  • If I am aware of anger, am I identical with anger? (No.)
  • If I am aware of mind (= thought), am I the mind? (No.)


  • If the witness is without anything to witness, is it true that what remains, so far as the “first vibration of manifestation goes,” is simply I Am? See.

How One Wakes Up

How can we describe the process by which one Wakes Up? I sketch what I take to be a fairly standard process below. Is it the only way? Of course not. But does it account for many stories of enlightenment? I think so.

Many Small Glimpses

A glimpse can be said to a brief “seeing” of our Real Nature. The teaching, therefore, often points to (a) the interval between two thoughts or feelings, (b) the time just before falling asleep, (c) the moment upon waking up and before ego arises, (d) the state of non-thought when dumbstruck with wonderment, and so on.

Daily seated meditation can readily reveal “many small glimpses.” Each glimpse is not only a taste of our True Nature; it’s also an appetite whetter that encourages us to dive deeper in order, as Zen master Dogen put it, to find the “one bright pearl.”

Satori or Nirvikalpa Samadhi: Sudden Awakening

Zen accounts in particular provide ample evidence for sudden awakening. To paraphrase Dogen, mind and body drop off–and what remains?

A glimpse, however significant this may be, is not to be confused with satori, this flash of Waking Up. To illustrate, if only obliquely and post facto, what satori or (what is the same thing) nirvikalpa samadhi is, we can do no better than to quote at length from the famous account of Sri Ramana’s sudden awakening, which occurred when he was just 16-years-old:

It was quite sudden. I was sitting alone in a room on the first floor of my uncle’s house. I seldom had any sickness and on that day there was nothing wrong with my health, but a sudden violent fear of death overtook me. There was nothing in my state of health to account for it, and I did not try to account for it or to find out whether there was any reason for the fear. I just felt “I am going to die” and began thinking what to do about it. It did not occur to me to consult a doctor or my elders or friends; I felt that I had to solve the problem myself, there and then. [cf. what Zen calls “the Great Matter of Birth and Death.”]

The shock of the fear of death drove my mind inwards and I said to myself mentally, without actually framing the words: “Now death has come; what does it mean? What is it that is dying? “This body dies,” and at once dramatized the occurrence of death. I lay with my limbs stretched out stiff as though rigor mortis had set in and imitated a corpse so as to give greater reality to the enquiry. I held my breath and kept my lips tightly closed so that no sound could escape, so that neither the word “I” nor any other word could be uttered. [Ramana engages in spontaneous Self-inquiry that’s combined with pranayama.]

“Well then,” I said to myself, “this body is dead. It will be carried stiff to the burning ground and there burnt and reduced to ashes. But with the death of this body am I dead? Is the body I? It is silent and inert but I feel the full force of my personality and even the voice of the “I” within me, apart from it. So I am Spirit transcending the body. The body dies but the Spirit that transcends it cannot be touched by death. That means that I am a deathless Spirit.”

All this was not dull thought; it flashed through me vividly as living truth which I perceived directly, almost without thought-process. “I” was something very real, the only real thing about my present state, and all the conscious activity connected with my body was centered on that “I”.

Sudden awakening effects a profound paradigm shift: I am not, nor have I ever been, this bodymind; I am what I have always been: Pure Spirit or the Self.

Post-enlightenment Sadhana

A huge problem can set in upon sudden awakening: some feel that they are “fully baked” when they are not. Traditions like Rinzai Zen can offer the practitioner more koan cases so as to enable one to cut through any remaining “taint of enlightenment.”

Without any prodding, Sri Ramana naturally engaged in post-enlightenment sadhana for at least a couple of years. He moved to Tiruvannamalai where, as he tells it here and there, he sat for hours and hours in the deepest silence and, in so sitting, was able to allow Divine Grace to work its magic.

And what magic, brought about through post-enlightenment sadhana, is thereby worked? The bodymind slowly becomes a keen instrument for nothing but the Divine Will. We might say that there are now no more samskaras (or ego tendencies) or we might say that there is no more prarabdha, that is, no more karma to be lived out.

This is true, that is, complete liberation. Wonderful biographies of Sri Ramana’s life (one being Arthur Osborne’s Ramana Maharshi and the Path of Self-knowledge) show with what grace, ease, sweetness, love, and intelligence he met all who came to sit with him.

He saw none as other than the Self. And before the body fell off, he said, “They say that I am dying but I am not going away. Where could I go? I am here.”

Sri Ramana’s Tears

Anyone with a big heart can’t help but cry when reading this story about Echammal from Arthur Osborne’s Ramana Maharshi and the Path of Self-knowledge. It must be noted that Ramana is not crying for “himself” (whatever this could possibly mean); he is only crying on behalf of Echammal, whose sorrow runs deep.

The following is an excerpt from pp. 53-4 of the aforementioned book. The prose is Obsborne’s. My brief remarks follow the second “* * *.”

* * *

It was not only to the restless mind of the intellectual that the Grace of Bhagavan brought peace but to the grief-stricken heart also. Echammal, as she was called at the Ashram (her previous name had been Lakshmiammal), had been a happy wife and mother in the village of Mandakolathur, but before the age of twenty-five she lost first her husband, then her only son, then her only daughter. Stunned by her bereavement, tortured by memory, she could find no rest. She could no longer endure the place where she had been happy, the people among whom she had been happy. Thinking it might help her to forget, she travelled to Gokarnam in Bombay State to serve the holy men there, but she returned as grief-stricken as she went. Some friends told her of a young Swami [Sri Ramana] at Tiruvannamalai who brought peace to those who sought. At once she set out. She had relatives in the town but did not go to them as the very sight of them would bring back her bitter memories. With a friend she climbed the hill to the Swami. She stood in silence before him, not telling her grief. There was no need. The compassion shining in his eyes was healing. A whole hour she stood, no word spoken, and then she turned and went down the hillside to the town, her steps light, the burden of her sorrow lifted. 

Daily she visited the Swami thereafter. He was the sun that had dispersed her clouds. She could even recall her loved ones now without bitterness. She spent the rest of her life in Tiruvannamalai. She was able to take a small house there — her father left her a little money and her brothers helped her out — and many visiting devotees enjoyed her hospitality. She prepared food for Sri Bhagavan daily — which meant for the whole Ashram, because he would accept nothing that was not shared equally among all. Until age and failing health kept her away, she used to carry it up the hillside herself and would never eat until she had served them. As they grew in numbers her contribution came to be only a small addition to the general meal, but if ever she was delayed Sri Bhagavan would wait till she came so as not to disappoint her. 

With all the grief she had passed through and the peace she had found, she was still mother enough to form a new attachment, and she adopted a daughter, not without asking Sri Bhagavan’s permission. When the time came she arranged her marriage and rejoiced at the birth of a grandson whom she named Ramana. And then one day, utterly unprepared, she received a telegram that her adopted daughter had died. The old grief broke upon her again. She rushed up the hill to Sri Bhagavan with the telegram. He read it with tears in his eyes and, appeased but still sorrowful, she left for the funeral. She returned with the child Ramana and placed him in the arms of Sri Bhagavan. Once more there were tears in his eyes as he held the child and his compassion brought her peace.

* * *

The highest teaching is silence (mauna)–and silence heals.

“Yet why,” we might ask, “would there be tears in Ramana’s eyes?” He is, after all, the Sage for whom all is basically right. Because, being Peace Itself, Ramana can nonetheless feel the seemingly inconsolable depths of suffering that Echammal, apparently mired in ignorance, is feeling. He has “no filter”; he is sensitivity itself.

We’ve all had experiences in which the intensity of others’ emotions have touched us so thoroughly, so resonantly that we can barely contain ourselves. At these moments, the purity of emotion shines forth, a purity that comes out of–because it is none other than–Love.

(It’s still astonishing to me how Ramana was not only a true jnani but also the rarest of bhaktas.)