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Reading Vedanta or Conducting Self-Inquiry?
Justin: First off, I would like thank you and James for all the wonderful work you have done and the wisdom you have shared with the world. ☺
I have a question about the Vedanta teacher. I have watched James’ videos on YouTube inconsistently for about three years or so. The first time was when I was around 19. I watched a 16-part lesson by James recorded in Germany, I believe. I religiously watched and listened carefully to an hour video each day. After the final video, I thought I was enlightened. But I hadn’t fully “got it.” I stopped watching the videos and slipped into old habits, which in turn led me to Vedanta yet again. I basically repeated that cycle again two more times. Currently, I’ve started watching the videos again, but this time I’m paying close attention to each and every word, and writing down the most important bullet points of each video so I can go back and read. My question is this: It’s made clear by James that Vedanta says you can’t learn this on your own and you need a teacher and a means of knowledge; I have never met James in person, so should I consider him my teacher? Or can I only truly assimilate the knowledge if a physical teacher is presented to me?
Sundari: Hello, Justin, I’m glad you wrote to us.
Although it is beneficial to be in the presence of a qualified teacher, it is not a requisite for moksa. There is no real boundary between you and the guru, because a “guru” literally means “one who dispels the darkness,” and in doing so reveals that the Self is the only guru because this is a non-dual reality. We are just mouthpieces for Isvara, for the Truth. It is not our truth or based on our experience, although it confirms both.
Whether we are physically with you or connecting via technology, the knowledge is wielded in the same way by us because we are qualified teachers of Vedanta. We see you as the Self, as non-different. Vedanta is a teaching tradition based on friendship and equality. If the mind is prepared and qualified and you are firmly dedicated to Self-inquiry, Self-knowledge will do “the work” of removing ignorance. We are all here to help you with any questions that arise, but we cannot remove your ignorance. Only Isvara can do so. James and I have taught thousands of people around the world and helped many find moksa, most of whom we never meet.
The qualifications for moksa are a prerequisite though, as well as adhering to the methodology of the teachings. Vedanta has a very specific, progressive methodology which will work to remove ignorance if:
1. you are qualified for and dedicated to Self-inquiry;
2. the mind is qualified;
3. a qualified teacher wields it for you.
Although not all the qualifications need to be present to begin with, they must be understood and developed. So both qualifications and a qualified teacher are not negotiable, assuming moksa is the aim.
Vedanta pramana is a valid means of knowledge to discriminate satya from mithya, the real from the apparently real, which is the essence of moksa – freedom from bondage to the limited, small egoic self, or jiva. It offers a “toolkit,’’ as it were, which if applied to your life with utmost dedication will result in permanent peace of mind and freedom from the limitations of the doer. For this to take place, your lifestyle must be in accordance with the scripture, not the other way around.
You need to be properly taught because although reading the books and watching videos is very good, you need to sign on to the logic every step of the way. It is best to check with a qualified teacher if you are indeed doing this. As the mind is conditioned to think a certain way and non-duality is counter-intuitive unless the mind is guided in its exposure to Vedanta, it will interpret Vedanta according to its conditioning, or vasanas, and Self-knowledge will not obtain. There are apparent contradictions within the teachings, which are not real contradictions and need to be resolved by a qualified teacher. Teachings and teachers abound who teach according to their methods and experience, but this is always misleading, flawed and limited. Unless a teaching is independent of the teacher, it will be contaminated by his or her beliefs, opinions and experiences, no matter how lofty or “enlightened” they claim to be.
We can definitely teach you, but – we cannot do “the work” of Self-inquiry for you, nobody can. It takes a burning desire for freedom to commit to Self-inquiry. As James is fond of saying, Vedanta is the court of last appeal for those fortunate souls whose karma prepares them for moksa, freedom. And there is one more factor to consider: grace. It is only by the grace of Isvara that anything happens – and grace is earned.
Vedanta is taught in a very specific way for a very good reason – the mind is very conservative and ignorance is hardwired and tenacious. Unless all the qualifications for Self-inquiry are present and you follow all the stages of Self-inquiry carefully and methodically, assimilation of Self-knowledge will not take place. You may “get it” for a while and then you will “unget it,” because the mind has not been sufficiently purified, your lifestyle does not conform to the dharma of an inquirer and/or you are not putting into practice the teachings, mainly karma yoga.
Self-inquiry is the application of Self-knowledge to one’s life. There is no fine print to Vedanta if you want it to work in your life. If all you do is read Vedanta and then go off on your merry way and live life as you always have, clearly Self-inquiry will not bear fruit, because you are not really conducting it properly. Reading and inquiring/applying the teachings to your life are two very different things.
Self-inquiry requires an ability to be ruthlessly honest and to have the courage to look at your life objectively and impersonally, to conduct a fearless moral inventory to determine if your values support Self-inquiry. If there is a part of you that still thinks there are things to gain in this world and chases experience/objects, you are not ready for Self-inquiry. You are very young to have come to Vedanta; most people get to it when they are much older in life and have had time to convince themselves that life is a zero-sum game. You are fortunate, but it is also harder when so young, because you have not yet had time to really experience the world.
The three stages of Self-inquiry in brief are:
1. Sravanna – Listening and Hearing the Scriptures
The first stage of Self-inquiry requires that you start at the beginning with the teachings, sign on to the logic and stick with it. It is taught in a progressive and methodical way to answer all doubts that can arise at each level of understanding. It is very important not to rush seeking instant answers (which is often what spiritual types are after) because that will NOT work. If you are too attached to your own ideas, beliefs and opinions acquired and developed from your exposure to multiple teachings, Vedanta is probably not for you. It requires that you admit to yourself that what you think you know has not worked thus far, so there must be something you don’t know. If you are chasing a life-changing spiritual experience, Vedanta is definitely not for you.
As stated, very importantly, this stage requires that you make sure you understand the qualifications required for Self-inquiry, check if they are in place, develop the ones that are not, track yourself on them on a moment-to-moment basis. Conduct a fearless moral inventory of your values and lifestyle, and implement necessary changes that you stick to. Your sadhana (Self-inquiry practice) should be the most important part of your day, not incidental to it if you truly want freedom from existential suffering.
2. Manana – Reasoning, Contemplation
The second stage of Self-inquiry requires thinking about what the scripture is saying, examining the unexamined logic of your own experience and starting to apply the teachings to your life. At this point, you look at your beliefs and opinions in the light of what the scripture says, NOT the other way around. If you have not developed the qualifications for Self-inquiry, do not have faith in it and are not dedicated to it or find yourself making excuses for the way you live because you are in denial about binding vasanas, you will not progress. Even if you do realize the Self, it will not stick. You will not actualize Self-knowledge unless you surrender to the teachings and address every aspect of the jiva’s life.
Even though this stage is about contemplating the scriptures, it overlaps with the last and final stage, so you begin applying karma yoga and guna management. Karma yoga, the knowledge that you can act to gain a certain result but you are not in charge of the results, will eventually destroy the notion of “doership” if properly understood and faithfully adhered to in every thought, word and deed. In the manana stage, it is meant to clear the mind of enough likes and dislikes until it becomes composed enough for sustained Self-inquiry.
Guna management (also called jnana yoga) is understanding the forces/gunas that run the Field of Existence and everything in it (including of course “your” body-mind), how they work and generate vasanas and why the mind modifies to them. It is essential for managing thoughts and feelings that dominate the mind. Jnana yoga is also understanding Isvara, the ordainer of the Field, and the identity between the jiva and Isvara, why they are the same and what is different. Without this understanding it is impossible to negate the jiva/doer and all its fear/desire programs, so you will not progress to the last and final stage of inquiry. Many people do realize the Self at this stage, but that is really where the “work” of Self-inquiry BEGINS. To progress to the final stage requires full and complete faith in and compliance with the scripture – it alone is the boss of your life, not the jiva, and it requires the final stage of karma yoga, nididhyasana.
3. Nididhyasana – Self-Actualization
Self-realization is not Self-actualization. Nididhyasana is the final “stage,” which comes after all the previous stages mentioned so far and is the hardest. It usually takes the longest. The knowledge that you are the Self has obtained, but complete freedom from the jiva program has not, there are still some binding mental/emotional patterns to purify. For most people who have realized the Self but not actualized it, this stage in a way is like “requalifying” – re-examining qualifications and strengthening those that are weak. It requires the final negation of the idea of yourself as an individual, a jiva. Karma yoga is a preliminary form of nididhyasana. Up to now, karma yoga went from relinquishing results of actions to Isvara and taking given results as prasad, a gift, to the next level, karma jnana sannyas – renunciation of the idea of doership and of desire.
But here, in the last stage of Self-inquiry, karma yoga becomes a different kind of mind management – it is the transformation of our remaining binding mental/emotional conditioning into devotion to the Self, along with the final renunciation: renouncing the idea of seeking moksa, because you ARE moksa. As the Self, you have never been bound.
Nididhyasana is managing the mind’s involuntary, habitual thoughts and feeling patterns, which are bedrock duality and often survive Self-realization. These patterns can still hijack the mind without a moment’s notice, denying it access to the Self in the form of Self-knowledge, so you are still bound to the jiva program. There is nothing inherently wrong with involuntary thoughts, but they tend to immediately morph into actions which are liable to create unwanted karma in the form of obscuring thoughts and emotions. Therefore guna/mind management continues. Until this stage is complete, Self-actualization has not taken place and discrimination can be lost, if not permanently at least temporarily. You are not free, because limiting thoughts/feelings like fear, smallness, need, shame, confusion, low self-esteem, etc. can still strike, destroying peace of mind.
To be fully Self-actualized means (1) that you have fully discriminated the Self (consciousness/awareness) from the objects appearing in you – all objects, meaning all gross objects as well as one’s conditioning, thoughts and feelings (all experience) – and do so spontaneously, 24/7, (2) Self-knowledge has (a) rendered the binding vasanas non-binding and (b) negated your sense of doership, completely. In other words, the jiva program is understood and fully negated. The jiva still exists with its inborn nature and operates in the world, but it is like a burnt rope – it no longer has the power to bind. It is as good as non-existent and rests in the fullness of the Self. The world neither attracts or repels it. There is nothing left to identify with other than your Self.
Therefore, once Self-knowledge is permanent, you never think of yourself as a person again. Your primary identity is fully established as the Self. And you are totally fine with the apparent person as they are and their role in the world. All desires from here on will be not opposed to dharma. They are preferences, no longer binding. Karma yoga is no longer a practice as such, it is just knowledge. It can be said that nididhyasana never ends even when Self-actualization has taken place, because the jiva, although no longer binding, is a constantly changing entity due to the gunas and lives in the Field, which is also always constantly changing because of the gunas. Thus, though the mind may no longer condition to the gunas, mind management continues but Self-knowledge works spontaneously and instantly to nullify any effects.
There is no karma for the Self, and no rules for it either. Adharma is no longer possible once Self-knowledge has actualized, because as the Self you know there is nothing to gain in the world and it is all you.
~ Love, Sundari