How Can A Changeless Reality Undergo Change?

One of the basic questions for nonduality in general and for Advaita Vedanta in particular is: “How can a changeless, partless Brahman undergo change?” The basic answer would take us deep into an account of unreal causation.

For now, let’s simply turn to Ananda Wood’s words from his Ways to Truth: A View of Hindu Tradition (2008):

The illumination of consciousness [i.e., the self-luminous nature of Consciousness] is not a changing act, which is put on at one time and taken off at another. No action needs to be put on, for consciousness to shine. It does not shine by any changing act, but just by being what it always is. It shining is thus changeless, and involves no movement in itself. Appearances are lit by its mere presence, as it stays unmoved within itself. (p. 153, my emphases)

The above concerns the nature of light, or luminosity. What about sound?

So also the vibration [the sound quality] of consciousness. As it bursts out into appearance or draws back in, it seems to change; but the change is only in appearance. Outwardly, a change appears; but in itself, consciousness remains unmoved and unaffected, just as it always is. As differing appearances keep getting manifested forth and drawn back in, each manifests the unchanged nature of consciousness. As the cycle keeps repeating, it is just a repetition of that unchanged nature, over and over again. (Ibid)

1. Brahman is self-luminous and self-vibrating. Mere appearances of changes can be explained by appealing to a vantage point of a finite mind. For a finite mind, Brahman appears to change, appears to throw forth light, appears to vibrate in space and time. But in the absence of this vantage point, there is only Brahman Itself as Itself.

2. The above paragraph lays out one light of thought. Another is that, of course, Brahman’s self-luminosity would shine, Its self-vibrating nature vibrate. But nothing changeable is required of self-luminosity to appear to throw off light just as the sun requires no further luminosity in order to shine. That’s what the sun does: self-shining, it shines forth. Or–in the case of vibration–imagine that a drum’s single membrane had a natural tendency to vibrate. Then nothing further would be required of the membrane in order for it to vibrate: self-vibrating, it would simply, “generously” vibrate forth. In neither case would the self-luminosity or self-vibratoriness need to undergo change. It would remain unchanged, “unmoved in itself” and by itself.

‘A Chicken’s Beak Held By A Chalk-line’: On The Illusion Of The Existence Of Egoity

Wu Wei Wu nicely summarizes the teaching of Zen and Advaita on the non-existence of the ego-self:

If one seeks to rid oneself of, or even to transcend, a false self, ego, or personality, one thereby accepts as a fact the existence of such [an] entity and so-doing affirms its strangehold (a constraint can be real or imaginary–such as that of the chicken’s beak held by a chalk-line).

Why Lazarus Laughed: The Essential Doctrine, Zen–Advaita–Tantra, p. 6.

In my exposition, let me elaborate on what I’ll term “the early teaching” and then on “the later, advanced, direct teaching.”

I. The Early Teaching

The early teaching presumes the existence of samskaras–or false identifications–in order to allow the practitioner to skillfully identify all such samskaras. In my view, it can be quite helpful not just to vaguely label some experience as derivable “from ego.” Instead, clarity makes a difference: “I am powerless,” and this experience is arising on behalf of this samskara.

This early teaching is a fudge, yes, in order for there to be an opening to a taxonomic inquiry. (For more, see, e.g., this post.)

II. The Later, Advanced, Direct Teaching

The later teaching undercuts the central assumption by inviting the practitioner to ask: “Is there a samskara in the first place? Does it really exist?”

1. Does samskara X even exist?

2. That is, “Can I find a separate self (i) in the thought (I am powerless) or (ii) behind this thought?”

As you go looking for the existence (sat) of this separate self, all you’ll find is Awareness. In the case of (i), the thought merges with Awareness, thereby “becoming” nothing but Awareness. And in the case of (ii), what is “behind” thought is only ever Awareness.

III. Two Steps

Through these two steps, we can dispel the illusion of the existence of egoity (this illusion is called avidya or ajnana in Advaita) and thereby immediately grasp Wu Wei Wu’s conclusion: “That of which we need to rid ourselves, to transcend, is the false concept whereby we assume that entity’s existence” (p. 6, my emphasis). Or as Ramana Maharshi often says, “All you need to do is to get rid, right now, of the notion that you are not presently Self-realized.”

First, unknow what you aren’t. Second, know directly what you are.

What Is The Difference Between The Soul And Consciousness?

Question: What is the difference between the soul and consciousness?


1. Non-difference

There is a non-difference between the soul and Consciousness (which is usually capitalized). Synthesizing The Upanishads, The Brahma Sutra states, “And the effulgent Self [= Consciousness] appears to be different [from the soul] during activity, as is the case with light etc.; yet (intrinsically) there is non-difference [from the soul] as is evident from repetition (of “That thou art”), my emphasis.

2. Definitions

Soul (jiva): Limited, localized, individuated transmigratory essence; not identical with mind, body, or senses, all of which perish; storehouse for samskaras (innate ego tendencies).

Consciousness (cit): Pure Awareness without objects; THAT which essentially IS; THAT on account of which every manifestation temporarily appears.

3. Truth, Revisited: Direct Pointing

Since Consciousness is what essentially IS, the soul is reducible to Consciousness. Therefore, there really is no soul.

How Everything ‘Gets Transformed’ Into Pure Consciousness

Out of compassion, Atmananda sometimes tells the earnest reader or disciple that every experience “gets transformed” so that it can be witnessed by Consciousness.

Take the following representative example: “[T]he I-principle [one of his favorite terms for the Ultimate] is said to be the witness of thoughts. The ‘I’ cannot come down to the mind’s plane to witness the thoughts. But thoughts get transformed into pure Consciousness in order to be witnessed by the I-principle; and Consciousness is the real nature of the ‘I’-principle” (Notes on the Spiritual Discourses of Shri Atmananda: Volume I, no. 38).

This is such an elegant line of higher reason. How can an apparently physical object be witnessed by Consciousness? It cannot unless it’s directly understood that the physical object is nothing but form (mind) and that mind is nothing but Consciousness. Hence, in the language of “transformation” (it’s a fudge, a teaching tool, and Atmananda, teaching with compassion, knows it), the object “gets transformed” into the idea and the idea “gets transformed” into Consciousness.

The truth is that there is only Consciousness-without-an-object. Yet this truth, for many sadhakas, often requires some “step ladders” in order to be “reached.” Those step ladders, of course, are sadhanas, one especially stunning one being the Direct Path as expounded by Atmananda. The above is but one way in which (what I’ll term) the Way of Reduction works. With immense skill does Atmananda trace out other lines of higher reason.

You noticed, I trust, that I put “step ladders” and “reached” in quotes. This is because

[r]ealization consists in becoming deeply aware of the fact that you have never been in bondage. Because realization can never happen; it can never occur in time. To the question: ‘When shall one realize?’, the answer can only be: ‘When the “when” dies.’

Ibid, no. 84.

How Can Atma Choose Who Gets Realized?

The Katha Upanishad states, “Only he realizes whom Atma chooses.” But how can Atma, which has no personal qualities, choose anything or anyone at all?

Let’s listen to Atmananda:

It is ordinarily said that a thing attracts one. It is not on account of anything done by that particular thing that it is said to attract, but one gets attracted to it of himself. It is in this way that Atma’s ‘choosing’ has to be understood. It means that he who is earnest about getting to Atma–the ultimate Truth–gets attracted to it without anything being done by Atma itself. That is the choosing.

Notes on Spiritual Discourses of Shri Atmananda: Volume 1, ed. Nitya Tripta,p. 54.

Atmananda sounds patently Neoplatonic here: there is something, presumably, so peaceful (ananda) about Atma that some wish not just to see Atma (for seeing still implies duality) but to be Atma.

Thus, what grows and grows in the sadhaka is what I term earnest resolve: only to be Atma and nothing else. This, and this alone, is what drives more and more of the spiritual aspirant’s activities and inactivities.

That natural attractiveness of the Source, however, mustn’t mean that the spiritual aspirant finally “gets merged” with the Source; it must mean, rather, that ignorance gets shed and shed to the point at which there is nothing remaining but the Source alone.