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Enlightenment, Just a Name for the Self
Alexander: Hello Sundari, “enlightenment” has been missing for about a decade. I “borrowed” I Am That (Nisargadatta) from the local library in 2004 – in the month of March, to be exact. Its front cover had been shorn off from overuse and it is sitting in the trunk of my car, unused presently.
Sundari: I presume by saying “‘enlightenment’ has been missing for about a decade” you mean the word “enlightenment.”
Enlightenment is just a word that refers to you, awareness, therefore enlightenment has never been missing. It is your true nature and synonymous with the self, unfortunately covered up by ignorance: the misapprehension of reality as a duality instead of a non-duality. The so-called spiritual world has hyped the word enlightenment to mean something extraordinary, only achieved by the select few. We use the word “ordinary” to refer to enlightenment, or awareness, because it is meant to negate the idea that there is some kind of special, spiritual, mystical otherworldly, transcendental enlightenment/awareness to seek.
Awareness/enlightenment is the most ordinary thing there is because it is all there is. There is only one awareness and everything arises from and dissolves into it. The apparent person as a person, however, remains limited enlightened or not even though the essence of the person is limitless awareness. This is because the person never leaves the apparent reality. Awareness is and always has been unlimited. When the self is actualised you are no longer conditioned by the idea of being the person because you know that your true nature is limitless (meaning unconditioned) awareness. So you live free of limitation. This is the true meaning of enlightenment. Enlightenment is not about perfecting the person, it is understanding that they are not real, i.e. dis-identifying with them.
Alexander: How to Attain Enlightenment arrived two days ago, shipped to my mailbox from “Somewhere,” Ontario. A business card marks the point where I have stopped reading. It is downstairs sitting on my coffee table. To which book shall I turn for truth, I Am That or How to Attain Enlightenment? From which object shall I retrieve “enlightenment”? From the trunk or from the table?
Sundari: Enlightenment is not to be found IN a book, Alexander. In fact, enlightenment/awareness is not to be found anywhere in particular because it is you and you are what you are looking for. And there is nowhere that you are not because awareness pervades every atom of the apparent reality.
If a book contains a teaching which is based on an independent and valid means of knowledge such as Vedanta, if the mind is sufficiently qualified to hear the teachings and IF the teachings are unfolded by a qualified teacher of Vedanta, then there is a good chance that ignorance can be removed from the mind by self-knowledge. However, there is another IF involved: the inquirer needs to dedicate themselves 110% to self-inquiry, exposing the mind to the scripture with great dedication and commitment, assuming liberation from ignorance/existential suffering is truly their main motivation. Anything less than total commitment will not cut it.
James’ book How to Attain Enlightenment is based on pure, uncontaminated Vedanta and he is a qualified teacher of Vedanta. You are very fortunate to have come across him because he is one of the very few genuine Vedanta teachers alive today. James met Nisargadatta and has a lot of respect for his teachings. However, the problem with Nisargadatta was that he was not a qualified teacher of Vedanta, although he definitely knew who he was and was a very great soul. He often used language that is confusing and misleading, or at the least, the way he was interpreted and published contains many misleading statements.
Vedanta is very specific about words and how they are used because Vedanta employs the implied meanings of words to teach. Unfortunately, the way language has developed and is used is so open to interpretation, misinterpretation and the contamination of one’s own conditioning that it is very often the greatest source of misunderstandings. Vedanta is called a sabda pramana, the oral or spoken testimony of competent witnesses (a valid means of knowledge), meaning that the words are time-tested, impersonal and they work to remove ignorance IF the mind is qualified and ready to hear the truth.
I cannot tell you what you must read. It is up to you. Much depends on how ready (or qualified) your mind is to hear pure Vedanta.
Alexander: My freedom depends on the answer to the following question: must I understand myself before gaining enlightenment, or must I be enlightened to gain an understanding of myself?
Sundari: As awareness you are already free and enlightened. Alexander just has an ignorance problem because he believes that enlightenment is something to be gained, something he does not possess. That is why James used the title he did for his book: How to Attain Enlightenment. It is meant to be provocative because you cannot attain enlightenment, because you cannot gain something you already have. You can only remove the ignorance standing in the way of the truth of your nature being fully known to you. This is the whole point of self-inquiry. I have attached an exchange between an inquirer and myself on what self-inquiry entails. The most fundamental teaching on which the whole of Vedanta (and therefore moksa) depends is this: it is only knowledge and not experience that is capable of removing ignorance. If you want to become a finder instead of remaining a seeker, this has to be fully understood. I suggest you read the booklet available on the website called Knowledge and Experience.
Alexander: My question is based on page 73 of How to Attain Enlightenment, the chapter entitled “Qualifications,” sub-headed “A Disciplined, Observant Mind”:
“It is impossible to withstand your desires without self-understanding.”
If I were to understand myself, then I would have the capacity, according to the passage above, to withstand my desires. If I were to have the capacity to withstand my desires, then would that not mean I understood myself? And if I were to understand myself, would that not mean I were enlightened?
Sundari: Yes, if you understood that your primary identity is awareness and not Alexander, then you would understand Alexander and his conditioning in the light of self-knowledge and you would be free of him. You ARE enlightened, Alexander, because you are the Light which makes light possible. But as you said, it is only intellectual knowledge. You know about awareness, which is indirect knowledge. To know what that means you need direct knowledge, to stand in awareness as awareness and to live as awareness. Without understanding Alexander’s conditioning (desires or likes and dislikes) in the light of self-knowledge, you will not be able to withstand your desires, meaning render the binding vasanas non-binding and negating the doer.
The vasanas and idea of doership will run the mind because the mind is identified with them. Through self-inquiry and with proper teaching, Vedanta will reveal to you what gives rise to your conditioning and how to dis-identify with it. In other words, it will help you to dis-identify with being the person so that you can be free of the person and live as the self. This is where all the teaching takes place in Vedanta. It is fairly simple to understand what it means to be the person; it is also self-evident that you must be aware or you would not be here. Understanding what the means is what self-actualisation is all about. I have attached an article on the difference between self-realisation and self-actualisation for you to read.
Hello again, Sundari,
Re-reading my email to you, now I realized that it might have a tone of insincerity or even of criticism in it. I am writing again to assure you that the tone of my email is one of pure inquiry, an uncritical and sincere request for clarification, and my intention is not in the spirit of any type of negativity, be it contrariness or what have you. In fact, I recognize that my question might be a stupid one and not worth addressing, which is fine. James’ book is more than adequate to get me on my way.
Sundari: Your inquiry is not stupid at all, Alexander, and no, I did not think it sounded insincere, quite the contrary, in fact. It is a very respectful inquiry and I am very happy to be of service. Please read the attached emails. We also strongly advise new people writing us to read as many of the e-satsangs on the website as possible, read How to Attain Enlightenment as many times as possible signing on to the logic and going slowly through it. Do not skip. Corroborate the teaching by watching as many of the videos available on ShiningWorld as possible. Write to us when you get stuck.
Alexander: However, I do want to add here that I have never been moved or motivated by anything I have ever read before on the topic of Advaita Vedanta insofar as wanting to write to a teacher. I was 35 a decade ago when I first came across Advaita Vedanta. It has changed my life for the better but I am far, far from knowing myself as “limitless awareness” – I mean, I know it intellectually but… well, as ironic as it may sound, life keeps getting in the way of my living what I know. Does that make any sense? (Probably not.)
Sundari: It makes total sense, Alexander. Life does get in the way because the mind is extroverted (rajas) and clouded (tamas), identified with objects. Liberation is the ability to discriminate what is real, the subject, that which is always present and never changes, meaning you, limitless awareness, from that which is only apparently real, meaning not always present and always changing, the objects appearing in you, awareness. And to never confuse the two again. It sounds simple but it is the hardest thing anyone will ever do because ignorance is hardwired and very tenacious. The belief in duality, what Vedanta calls samsara, is highly hypnotic and seductive. There is also a tendency to think that there is something you can do to remove ignorance. To actualise the self is a limitless result and no action taken by a limited entity (the doer) will achieve a limitless result. However, self-inquiry is also an action but it leads to self-knowledge, which is a limitless result. It is only self-knowledge that removes ignorance, nothing else.
Alexander: In any case, if this email does reach you, please say hello to your husband Ram whose book I am reading now. I am taking it very seriously because I sense that Ram took writing it very seriously… and he really knows what he is talking about. I am most impressed with his advice to be careful with Neo-Advaita/pseudo-Advaita. I always intuitively shied away from it but James is the first teacher that I am aware of who articulates so well what I’ve intuited.
Sundari: I have passed on your good wishes. Ram says to say thank you. It is grace that brought you to hear his teaching, you are blessed to have found him and your discrimination is obviously pretty good to have avoided the Neo-Advaita trap.
Alexander: So you and Ram are obviously both very, very busy people and I don’t expect an immediate reply, nor in truth do I actually expect a reply from either of you. You may decide that I am not qualified or whatever, and that’s fine. I’m okay with it. My wife and I are also very busy people so I totally understand “schedules” and such.
Sundari: We always have time for everyone who writes in. You are clearly a very sincere inquirer and you have our attention!
Alexander: Anyhow, you and Ram are blessed. Keep doing what you are doing. The world certainly needs more people like you!
~ Sincerely, Alexander