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Ram: Hi, Marlene. I’m very happy to hear that these teachings are working for you. Things are just humming along Vedanta-wise. It’s funny how these questions all fit together. I just got an email from a person in England asking the same question, so I can kill two birds with one stone with my reply.
Vedanta says that there is no free will from the self’s point of view, but there is free will from the individual’s point of view. It’s a tricky question because one needs to “take a stand in awareness” – assume the self’s point of view until the mind is purified of its dualistic orientation – if one wants to be free. But the motivation for this is not always self-realization but an attempt to avoid unwanted karma. They think that if they are the self they will be karma-free. It is true that the self is karma-free – it is not affected by karma. But you do not avoid karma by asserting your identity as the self – until this assertion destroys your self-ignorance. You are asserting your true identity because you are ignorant. It is essential that you do this or you will not get rid of your self-ignorance. However, it means that you are still identified with the body-mind to some degree and as long as that identification obtains your karmic account is still open and new karmas can be deposited. Karma doesn’t care if you say you are enlightened, so the results of your actions come back no matter what. In short, you are not free of karma and your fate is determined by your past actions. But if you have no doubt about your true identity as the self, the karma only comes back to the body-mind, not to you. And since you are not the body-mind it doesn’t matter what karma comes to them. And because you are the self you don’t create any more karma – because you know that karma won’t make you fuller – so eventually the karma in the pipeline stops and your body-mind dies. But you don’t care, because you are not the body-mind. It’s not even a relief, because you are full with the body and without.
An individual who wants to be free needs to follow dharma and this involves action. By dharma I mean responding appropriately to every life experience. We know that action cannot be avoided by the body-mind entity, so that even someone who ascribes to the “no free will” doctrine is continually doing something even if he or she thinks that there is no free will or that he or she is not a doer. This free will versus determinism teaching needs to be carefully explained from both the individual’s and the self’s point of view. If it isn’t properly explained, a dull person will use it as an excuse to avoid spiritual work. This avoidance is often justified with the view that enlightenment – which is always seen as some kind of experience – will just happen by “grace” one fine day – as if the commitment to self-inquiry and karma yoga wasn’t “grace.”
The beauty of Vedanta is that it expands the intellect’s understanding beyond its conditioned, dualistic viewpoint. People who have not had the benefit of the teaching tend to see ideas in an either/or perspective, but a thing and its opposite can both be “true” – if you take into account the points of view from which they can be considered. Take the idea of “grace” again. Most think that grace is a specific event, a positive experience, indicating that a higher power is working in one’s life. But if this is a non-dual reality then everything that happens and doesn’t happen is “grace.” Vedanta says that in reality there is no point of view whatsoever and that if there is a point of view we need to look into the one to whom the point of view belongs. That doesn’’t mean, however, that assuming the self’s point of view is not useful, as I mentioned above and don’t mind repeating. In fact at a certain point in one’s spiritual journey – sooner rather than later is preferable – it is absolutely necessary to take the self’s point of view to be one’s own if one really wants to be free from limited and limiting views about oneself and the world. Once the absolute point of view destroys the limited point of view there is no need for the absolute point of view either, because “absolute” is only absolute with reference to what is relative. At this “final” stage – which is neither final nor a stage – one is just left as one is – without any point of view whatsoever. Even Vedanta, as beautiful and liberating as it is, disappears when self-ignorance disappears. So the answer is that there is free will and there isn’t free will.
Basically, your thinking about the self and the doer is correct; the self shining on the field (the vasanas, the three bodies and the elements) causes action. So the self in conjunction with maya is the doer. If I put my finger in the fire, I could say that fire burned me. This is true, but it is not true, because fire has no intention to burn anything. Burning is its nature. So it is not a burner, a doer. If you can’t see that action is impersonal and you take yourself to be a doer then you should make your decisions based on the purest, highest and noblest impulses that arise in your mind. On the individual level there are always choices and the most sattvic choices will eventually lead to the understanding that there is no doer – which is moksa, freedom. Today little Ram had to decide whether to have orange juice or coffee. He likes coffee but it makes his mind rajasic, and he can’t write his satsangs properly when it is rajasic. So he took the orange juice and his brain was brilliant. Did he make that decision or was it made for him? As a little Indian man I met in the Himalayas one time said, “About such things no man can say.”
The important thing concerning action is seeing that action is natural and easy. But this is not always straightforward either. It can be a tricky issue from the individual’s point of view because sometimes apparently dharmic actions – actions that “feel good” – lead to suffering. Take sense pursuits, for example. They tend to feel great and one is tempted to believe that the pleasure is God’s will – which it is from the non-dual perspective. But attachment always develops where there is pleasure and attachment is painful – so how “good” is that extra piece of cake? And sometimes a painful choice that results in an apparently selfish action will have a beneficial result. As the Gita says, “About the topic of karma even the sages are confused.” The confusion is based on uncertainty concerning the desired results, but since the results can never be known with certainty even when they are happening, ultimately one needs to have a very non-attached view toward both one’s decisions, good or bad, and the actions that flow from them. I was trying to copy a DVD of one of the satsangs we did in Tiruvannamalai in January – they will be available soon, so you can show them to your friends – and although my intentions were noble I did actions that screwed up my computer and which will take a lot of work and money to fix. So on the level of action and its results one never knows. One can only do what one does with discrimination and take the result with dispassion.
One truth that I found that takes care of this whole doing issue from the individual’s point of view is the fact that the individual is going to die one day. If the net result of all one’s decisions and actions is death, action has no lasting meaning. On the other hand, while one is living the results of one’s choices and actions determines whether one suffers or enjoys in the present, so it pays to figure out as best as one can how to act appropriately. As you can see there is no “right” answer, no “final” answer, to any of these questions. There is an upside and a downside to everything. At the same time there are answers that need to somehow be destroyed, just like the questions to which they are the answers. There are few things worse in life than someone who has all the answers, myself excluded. ☺ One day one sees that one is just the all-seeing eye of consciousness, and all questions and answers rise and fall within the scope of its panoramic awareness. There is nothing to say about it.
In any case, it is so good to hear from you, Marlene! I love you a lot. Keep up the good work! Call anytime or let me know when you are home and I will call you.
~ Much love, Ram