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Buddhism, Yoga and Vedanta
Bethany: Hi, Sundari, I wonder if you could give me some basic instructions for my meditation practice. I’ve been a practicing Buddhist vipassana meditation for nearly 30 years… but anything else you could advise that would embrace the Vedanta teaching would be very welcome too.
I emailed you before about other learning resources. I’ve watched all 16 the Westerwald 2014 talks that James did at YouTube, and am reading his book The Essence of Enlightenment, but anything else you might suggest to enhance my understanding of Vedanta would be appreciated as well.
Thank you for your time.
Sundari: Apologies for the delay in replying to you; we have been swamped of late. I would advise that you keep reading The Essence… carefully, as it unfolds a particular methodology which must be adhered to for self-knowledge to obtain. Each chapter presents the next stage of self-inquiry – the teachings are progressive. There is a 12-month teaching course that corresponds to The Essence… at the ShiningWorld website, which I recommend you follow.It has corresponding questions and answers relevant to each chapter. Go slowly, don’t rush. Sign on to the logic and don’t skip. Vedanta is a difficult and counter-intuitive teaching.Ignorance is hardwired and tenaciously resistant.
The Essence… lays out the whole teaching methodology employed in Vedanta, but there is also a progression in the texts, which go from entry to advanced level. We have them all at the website, with the corresponding videos of James teaching these texts available too. Watch as many as you can.
Entry-level are: Tattva Bodh and Aparoksanubhuti; entry- to mid-level: Bhagavad Gita and The Yoga of Love (Narada Bhakti Sutras); advanced level: Panchadasi (Inquiry into Existence).
Also, use the e-satsang section at the website as a major resource of all the questions and answers you could think of.
Buddhism, Yoga and Vedanta
Buddhism is based on yoga, and its primary aim is to improve the person and end desire by getting rid of the mind through meditation and good deeds. Vedanta teaches that you cannot improve the person nor get rid of the mind, because they are not real and – not the problem. Identification with the person, the mind and desire is the problem. It is neither possible nor necessary to get rid of the mind; it can only be understood to be not-self through the removal of ignorance by self-knowledge. Once the true nature of the mind is known to be the self, binding vasanas are rendered non-binding and the sense of doership is negated. But the mind remains – and is not a problem for the jiva anymore. Moksa is freedom from and for the jiva because, as the self, you are already free.
Meditation is yoga, and yoga is designed for people who think they are doers. The word yoga has two primary meanings in Sanskrit. The most common and popular meaning is the first: union, contact or connection. The second meaning is “topic,” traditionally used in conjunction with another word, pramana, which means “a means of knowledge.” So Vedanta is a means of knowledge that ends the quest for knowledge. A common misconception is that Vedanta is a traditional path of yoga known as jnana yoga – or the yoga of knowledge.
Yoga is a dualistic path for doers who want to connect with or contact the self, based on the idea that reality is dual and that there are two selves, a real, or true, self and a limited self, a person. It says that the two are different, but both are real. Yoga says that the limited person can experience limitlessness, i.e. freedom, if it can “contact” the true, or “higher,” self, and involves many practices that are meant to put the limited self “in contact” or union with the real or true self, i.e. limitless awareness. In reply to the idea that yoga is a system of experience-oriented practices that yoke the limited self to the limitless self, one of our great sages, Badarayana, says that Vedanta is “the yoga of no-contact.” He means that it is only knowledge. So Vedanta is the knowledge that there is only one self, and it is the means (teachings) that deliver that knowledge when wielded by a qualified teacher to a qualified inquirer. However, Vedanta endorses yoga as a means to prepare the mind for self-knowledge. It argues that in most cases, one can’t get the knowledge of non-duality and enjoy the fruit of the knowledge as long as the citta vrittis (vasanas) are binding. So Vedanta endorses yoga as a means of purification of the mind (anta karana shuddi) and preparation of the mind, since a pure, prepared mind is necessary for the assimilation of self-knowledge. The reason Vedanta is not a path of yoga is that Vedanta negates the doer, the yogi. It shows that the doer, the yogi, is an apparent, not a real, self. It establishes the apparent person’s identity as limitless, actionless consciousness, not as a limited doer of actions.
Traditional Vedanta, although non-dual, teaches two paths: a path of action (yoga) for doers and a path of knowledge for inquirers (see Bhagavad Gita). Vedanta integrates the two paths in this way: people start out looking for freedom as doers. But you can’t “do” your way to freedom, because you are already, and have always been, free. As you practice yoga, karma yoga particularly, one’s hang-ups (citta vrittis/vasanas) are ameliorated and the mind of the yogi, the doer, becomes increasingly contemplative. He or she discovers the limitation of action and becomes an inquirer, i.e. a contemplative, and is capable of appreciating the essence of Vedanta, brahma satyam jagan mithya, jivo bramaiva na parah, which means that the consciousness is the limitless self and that the individual, the yogi, is non-different from consciousness. Once self-knowledge is assimilated, the yogi remains as an apparent self, but that apparent self appears as an unreal object to you, awareness/consciousness (chaitanyam). Something that is apparent is as good as non-existent (even though it does exist), but it, and the world it inhabits, has no effect on you, consciousness. So Vedanta breaks one’s connection to one’s apparent identity and establishes one’s identity as limitless awareness. Therefore freedom is attained only by knowledge, not by action.
All the same, Vedanta is all for meditation. But meditation practice does not equal self-inquiry, because meditation is not a valid means of knowledge. It is a tool to aid self-inquiry; it does not equal self-inquiry; unless you have realized that you are not the meditator but the one who knows the meditator, meditation can keep one stuck for years trying to have an experience of the self, which many meditators do have, but the problem is the identification with the experiencer/meditator (the doer) is still there. Unless the knowledge that meditation is designed to impart is fully assimilated – i.e. “I am whole and complete non-dual awareness” and not the meditator – the experience ends because it was just that, an experience. All experience takes place in time and therefore has a beginning and an end, which is true of any spiritual experience: epiphany, samadhi or kundalini awakening.
As you have probably discovered, the experience of self-realization that meditation can bring does not necessarily lead to freedom, moksa. It does not necessarily result in peace of mind either. Stepping up the meditation practice merely compounds the problem because the main issue remains unaddressed, which is why there are so many frustrated meditators or spiritual experiencers around, trying to get the feel-good experience back. Even if they succeed, they will most likely “lose” the self-realisation once again because the knowledge that they are that which makes all experience possible, i.e. awareness, escapes them. The benefit of meditation is lost without self-knowledge and a valid means of knowledge to unfold what it means to be awareness. As soon as the meditation ends, the person is still there – with all their problems, very often even worse off than before because of the feeling of failed expectations, as you have experienced.
Meditation is no different from any other activity done to achieve a particular result; it is truly useful only if practiced with the karma yoga attitude. Karma yoga involves consecrating every thought word and deed to Isvara (the Field of Existence) with an attitude of gratitude and taking whatever results that do come as prasad. Maybe the part of the problem is that you have not applied this knowledge to your meditation, so you are often disappointed by the results. But the results are not up to you. They are up to Isvara – the creative force that brings about maintains and destroys everything in the apparent reality.
The knowledge that the meditation points to is that meditation is just another object appearing in you, allowing the reflection of the self to appear in a still mind. However, seeing as no experience can take place without you, awareness, and because as awareness you are actionless, no special experience is required to experience the self. You are always experiencing the self, whether you are meditating or not. You just don’t know this.
Self-inquiry is not an experience; it is the application of discriminative knowledge. Self-inquiry is thus very different from meditation. Its success depends on the qualifications present in the mind. Self-knowledge reveals that awareness is your true nature and all experience (objects) arise from you and appear in you, but you are free of the objects. The objects are you, but you are not the objects. Keeping this knowledge in mind and continually contemplating it is self-inquiry. Self-inquiry as a practice is different from meditation because knowledge is maintained by an act of will, whereas in meditation the knowledge “I am awareness” appears (or not) during a particular experience. Self-knowledge does not generally appear in meditation; if it does, the meditator usually does not realise the importance of the thought or understand what it means, and therefore does not take awareness as his or her identity, so the knowledge is not assimilated.
Therefore self-inquiry is superior to meditation because the doer does not need to maintain a particular state and wait for the knowledge. He or she has the knowledge already and applies it continually. Meditators do not know the value of self-knowledge, whereas inquirers do. That is why the meditators are meditating. The act of will required for self-inquiry is a burning desire for freedom from limitation born of the knowledge that there is nothing to gain through objects. You cannot compare self-inquiry with meditation; they are completely different. Self-inquiry involves subjecting the mind with great dedication to a valid and independent means of knowledge, i.e. Vedanta. As stated above but bears repeating: assuming self-inquiry is done correctly, i.e. with the karma yoga attitude, the necessary qualifications are present and you are taught by a qualified teacher, self-knowledge does “the work” of removing ignorance. No action taken by a limited entity can produce a limitless result, so meditation as an action without karma yoga most often results in frustration because it will not remove ignorance. Self-inquiry on the other hand, although an action, can produce a limitless result because the outcome is self-knowledge, which is limitless and has the power to remove ignorance. Meditators, in general, are not interested in negating the meditator; they are interested in getting a particular experience for the meditator. So the mediator remains intact, in fact the meditator or doer is reinforced by meditation.
Vedanta states that moksa is viveka, meaning discrimination based on knowledge. Its teaches that only self-knowledge, not experience, is capable of removing ignorance. Most Westerners involved in yoga have the idea that vritti/vasana kyshaya – removal of all thoughts and vasanas, constitutes moksa. If you view moksa as yoga, i.e. chitta vritti nirodha, it is not moksa, because the self is free and can be known as one’s self whether or not the chitta vrittis exist. Yoga is good for removing vrittis, and we can successfully argue that it is highly unlikely that a yogi will discriminate the intellect from the self if the tamasic and rajasic vrittis have not been attenuated by yoga. Vidyaranya Swami says (and we agree) that yoga may be a “leading error” insofar as a yogi working on his or her samskaras and achieving various samadhis may after some time convert the desire to experience samadhi into self-inquiry that will lead to viveka, discrimination. But it is the exception rather than the rule because yogis tend to take up yoga with the belief that moksa is samadhi, not discrimination.
We say that Vedanta is superior to yoga in the context of the knowledge-experience debate about the nature of moksa, not because we have a bone to pick with yoga. Most seekers want to relieve their suffering with some kind of beatific experience and are attracted to yoga for that reason. If they are occasionally successful, they usually continue to put more effort to gain subtler and subtler samadhis. They tend to end up frustrated because no jiva can control experience; that’s Isvara’s job. You may have found this out for yourself. And yogis tend to have big egos because they can more or less achieve high states of mind with will power, believing they are responsible. The doer is alive and well.
When you have self-knowledge, there is no longer any need for meditation, spiritual experiences of whatever ilk or “high states” of being, because as the self you are beyond all states – you are meditation. One no longer chases the experience of awareness, because you know that you are only ever experiencing awareness, no matter what is or is not happening in the mind. There is no need for long beards and flowing robes to make a statement that one is enlightened or “look the part.” You can just be a regular and very ordinary person, living a seemingly ordinary life, knowing full well that you are not the person but awareness, thus unobtrusively experiencing an extraordinary life.
This is a long answer to your question. I hope it helps!
~ Love, Sundari