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Subtle Doubts About Self-Inquiry
Martina: Dearest Ramji, I am enjoying lazy days in the sunshine, sitting in the garden and reading satsangs. What a life! In the last few weeks I compiled all our satsangs since last summer 2002 and read through them a few times. I found some old questions which you did not answer yet. I hope it is alright to ask them again. If you have time, wonderful. If not, wonderful too. The result is up to Tara, who is the self, who am I, and it does not touch me in any way.
Here are my questions.
I understand that ahamkara is the thought which owns what arises in the mind: thoughts, emotions, sense perceptions, patterns, desires, vasanas, samsakaras… whatever. When I do self-enquiry and tell myself, “I am whole and complete, actionless awareness,” – my favourite these months – then I try to identify with the self.
Question: Is this identifying with the self done by ahamkara? It looks like it. When the subtle shift occurs and suddenly the self looks at ahamkara and knows it as a thought, is ahamkara not any more ahamkara as a special thought but just a thought?
Ramji: Yes. Ahamkara is never special from the self’s point of view. It is only special from its own point of view. In the first case the ahamkara identifies with the self. The self here is an object to the ahamkara. It can do this because in this non-dual reality (if there is an ahamkara) it has to be the self. This is the stage of self-realization. The “shift” is caused by inquiry, that is, the thought “I am the self” induces recognition of the self as self. The self has “become” the subject. So when you have the self looking at the self in the form of the ahamkara the individuality is neutralized. The example the scriptures use is that the ahamkara looks like a “burnt rope.” It looks like a rope with all the interwoven strands but it is just ash with no power to bind. In India the jnanis symbolize this by smearing their foreheads with ash. The head is the place where the I-thought, the ahamkara, is most commonly experienced, so the ash signifies that this thought has been burnt by self-inquiry.
Martina: Or could one say it dies the moment the self looks at it and is it at the same time, as the self is all?
Ramji: Yes. It is not quite right to say “the moment the self looks at it,” because the self is always looking at it. It is probably more accurate to say that the assertion of one’s selfness by the ahamkara causes the ahamkara, which is just a thought of limitation or contraction, to dissolve, leaving only the self shining. Then there is no longer a question of identifying with anything. One’s being is known as one’s identity.
Martina: Does the Buddhist approach of “neti neti” or “anatta, anatman” apply as long as I identify with less than the whole? It seems useful up to a point. Then “I am whole and complete, actionless awareness” is much more powerful to dissolve a small identity, like “I have a problem.”
Ramji: Correct. The ahamkara practices neti neti. When the whole world has been negated, this leaves the ahamkara standing alone in the presence of the self. Then something needs to be done with the ahamkara. So it is asked to commit suicide by using the knowledge “I am whole and complete, actionless awareness.” It cannot sustain itself as a limited entity in the face of the truth and so it dissolves.
Martina: Enlightenment is the shift from identification with a small identity to identifying with the whole, which leads to the understanding “I am the whole.” But there is still a functional identification with my limited body-mind. So the training would be: “I am not only the body, not only the mind, not only the sense perceptions, but all what is.” Rather an inclusive approach and not an exclusive, neti neti, anatman.
Ramji: Yes, very well expressed. You don’t lose an identity. You gain a larger identity. The ahamkara can stay as a “functional” identity. There is no harm in it, because you know that it is not the whole thing. You see this in the icons of the gods. Ganesh, for example, has a small rat at his feet. This rat symbolizes the ahamkara. Rats are perhaps the best symbol of desire in the world. They are constantly craving food. If they don’t use their teeth continually the teeth will grow up into the brain and kill them. The ahamkara is nothing but ignorance-inspired desire that produces endless doings. So at the time of enlightenment the ahamkara is shifted from center stage to the “feet of the Lord.” This means that the residual desires are pressed into the service of the self, the total, and no longer represent personal cravings.
Martina: Vedanta and Mahayana and Tantric Buddhism: this is a more historical question. It seems that there are many parallels between the Buddha-nature idea in Mahayana and the Vedanta interpretation by Shankara. I understand he lived in the seventh to eighth century AD, the time when many famous Mahayana scriptures and commentaries were written. Do you know anything about influences and contacts between them?
Ramji: Shankara continually debated the Buddhists. He loved it. He was absolutely ruthless and as I understand it he was basically responsible for driving what was left of Buddhism out of India – aside from the fact that the Hindus are theists and will not countenance the removal of their deities. No one could match him. Buddhism had gained a lot of influence in India because many were fed up with Brahminism. By attacking the self concept he reduced the power of the Brahmins who were corrupt, selling indulgences and the like. If there is no self, then you don’t need to pay a priest to contact it. The Hindus, however, did not resent Buddhism. They have a remarkable capacity for acceptance of spirit. In fact the Vaishnavites have enshrined Buddha as the tenth Avatar of Vishnu.
It was a very common practice in India for the different schools to debate. The Vedantins aggressively debated everyone, including the materialists. This was how the doctrine remained pure. Vedanta has to resist other “new” ideas because it works perfectly as it is. Taking on other doctrines would only have muddied the waters. This is always a problem and even little Ramji feels inclined to help keep Vedanta free of unhelpful concepts, like the Yoga views. I’m sure the Buddha was quite clear that the Buddha-nature and the self were just different words for the same thing. But over time right understanding of Buddha’s anatma teaching by Buddhists who had not attained enlightenment or who were practicing Buddhism as a religion was lost. They thought it was meant to negate the self. It was actually a statement that there is no second or separate self, so it was meant to negate the ahamkara, which isn’t a proper self.
The Vedantins basically refuted the anatman conception of the Buddhist by asking, “Who says there is no self?” Nothingness is not going to assert the non-existence of anything. So they saw the “void” of the Buddhists not as non-existence of being but as an apparent non-existence of objects. Most of the problems came about because people think the teachings about “not-self” are statements about physical or spiritual facts, something to be believed in or not. But they are simply throwaway tools meant to remove ignorance.
Martina: From what they teach, the parallels are stunning. Do you know anything about the state of Vedanta at the time of the Buddha, circa 400 to 500 BC?
Ramji: Vedanta as a means of knowledge or Vedanta as a school of thought? As a means of knowledge it was just the same. As a school of thought it was the dominant idea. But as I mentioned above, the karma kanda of the Veda was in the ascendant and ritualism prevailed – giving the Buddha a big issue.
Martina: I wonder why he stressed so much the exclusive approach of anataman. There must have been a lot of confusion about what identity is and probably a misuse of the Vedanta teachings, justifying bad behaviour with “all is the self anyway.” This happened in Vajrayana a lot and inspired more dualistic approaches again and again in the history of Buddhism.
Ramji: I think this is correct. Buddhism has always been closer to Yoga than to Vedanta. There are actually very few statements by the Buddha about the nature of the self. So it has always been fundamentally an “enlightenment by default” path: exhaust the vasanas and you are enlightened. I hope this has been useful.
~ Love, Ram