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The One Who Knows It Knows It Not
Anurag: Dear James, with your grueling schedule, it is devilish on my part to inflict you with this satsang, considering it’s a bit lengthy and shall burn more of your time. Yet I wanted your help with this. I do not understand why the Upanishads have these statements which we have to defend. ☺ This is a satsang with a friend of mine which has been going for about a month. He is well-intentioned and always polite but not willing to giving up easily on the intellectual front. He has done a smattering of reading from various philosophies of East and West and had a very yogic view when we started. As our satsang has proceeded he has at least begun to understand that yoga and Vedanta are different. I have been carrying on this satsang because he is intelligent, and by answering his questions I am learning how to approach people who have a strong yogic bias towards self-realization.
He has particularly asked about your view. My answer to his query is reproduced below, which is based almost entirely on your book How to Attain Enlightenment. It is a little longish. I have put in a lot of effort in answering him because, according to me, this is one of the cornerstones of Vedanta. Therefore it is my humble request to go through my answer in entirety and let me know your comments.
Just to give you a little bit of history, I have been a little hard-hitting on him to shake up his frozen intellect a bit. I know he won’t mind it, being a good friend and a mentally tough guy. Otherwise, he would have left the satsang long time back. He is against the concept of gurus and feels he can realize the self just by reading. This is part of a lengthy debate going on between us, that the self is to be realized through experience or knowledge. Having the yoga view, my friend thinks that it has to be an experience.
It would be great if you could also answer this query in the way you deem fit, so that I get an opportunity to learn from you. Here is his email. He says, “I would like to know what Vedanta says about this Upanishad verse.”
“He understands It who comprehends It not; and he understands It not who feels he has comprehended It. It is unknown to the Master of True Knowledge but to the ignorant It is the known.”
Anurag: The verse before this states that “I do not think that I know it well. But not that I do not know; I know too. Who amongst us comprehends It both as the Not Known and as the Known. He comprehends it.”
Since I know that you have picked it up from Swami Chinmayananda’s book, I am giving you his own explanation of this verse. Before I quote him, I hope you know that this verse is an utterance from a student of a guru. The whole Upanishad is actually a dialogue between a guru and his students and therefore we must understand all the verses as a part of a continuous dialogue rather than independent standing utterances.
Chinmayanada writes: “An object other than yourself can be known by you as well or not so well, etc. (Because it is an indirect knowledge. It is a dualistic knowledge depending upon an experience between a subject and an object. Knowledge will depend upon how the experience is assimilated by the subject.) But your knowledge of yourself is not the same as your knowledge of your son or wife. You know yourself through and through better than any object in the world. It is too deep to express in words.”
So without mincing, Chinmayananda says that you know your self. What is talked about in this verse and the next is not about the possibility of knowing or not knowing self but of two problems:
1. Difficulty of knowing the self as an object, because it is subtler than the faculty of knowing, body-mind-intellect.
2. Difficulty of conveying this knowing in words directly, because it is not an experience.
So there is no question of self not being known.
Your query actually brings us to the very tricky and very subtle question about means of self-knowledge. Since you have specifically asked to know what James would say to this, I am giving you a series of quotes from James’ book How to Attain Enlightenment in order to explain this verse to you. I have structured the quotes with my titles and a certain order to show how the means of knowledge operate in self-inquiry. And as you rightly said, enjoy the language of pure Vedanta in James.
I have bracketed my own comments.
“Awareness, self, cannot be known by body-mind-intellect because it cannot be objectified.
“For knowledge to take place a means is necessary. It so happens that our God-given means, the senses, mind and intellect, are not capable of knowing the self, because they require objects to function. To know sounds, ears are necessary. A heart or mind is required to feel emotions. Ideas can only be grasped by the intellect. But the self, awareness, is not available for objectification because it lies outside the scope of these means. A light bulb can illuminate the objects in the room but it cannot illumine the electricity of which it is a transformation; the effect cannot comprehend its cause.” (Self, awareness, which is the cause of the organs, body-mind-intellect, cannot be known by its effects. As it has created them, it is more subtle than them.)
(However awareness, self, is always present. )
“Awareness, you, is always here. You are always the same (you who witnesses the body-mind-intellect remains unchanged at all times). You are what is real. You are the truth. Without you the world of appearances does not exist – you can count on it because it never changes. You cannot dismiss it because you, the object of knowledge, are always present and cannot dismiss yourself. If this knowledge stands under you, you are free. Hence the path of understanding.”
(Self-inquiry is not about experiencing self. )
“Self-inquiry does not promise to give you an experience of the self because whatever you are experiencing at any time is the self. The self is just your being, your existence. Self-inquiry is not intended to to prove that you exist either – if you need someone or something to establish your existence you need a psychiatrist, not a means of self-knowledge.”
(The absurdity of trying to attain something that one already has (awareness). The absurdity of experiencing what one is always experiencing.)
“I know that through effort I can attain something I do not have, but how would I attain something that I do have? When a secretary answered the phone she put her pencil behind her ear. After a lengthy conversation, during which many important subjects were discussed, she began searching for the lost pencil. A co-worker asked why she was agitated, and upon discovering the reason, revealed the pencil’s location. In this case, her search was ineffective as she had the object all along. It was revealed by (external source) knowledge.”
(You need an external means of knowledge to reveal who you truly are. Awareness is you and therefore not completely unknown.)
“The problem with any means of knowledge, with reference to consciousness, is that consciousness cannot be objectified. Because it cannot be objectified it cannot be the object of any means of knowledge, including self-inquiry. As we have pointed out, the individual who wants to know awareness is only capable of operating perception and inference. This shows that even before one perceives or infers, awareness exists. Unless you are aware you will be unable to operate anything. Although awareness is not available as an object it is not completely unknown. In fact it is obvious that I exist and that I am aware.” (Like in the previous example, the pencil was already there on the ear of the secretary but she could not locate it. She needed an external source of knowledge/co-worker to reveal it to her.)
(Self-inquiry is a means of knowledge to remove wrong notions about who you are.)
(Awareness is already present and partially known to us.) “But because most of us are so busy trying to make life work we forget to ask who the us is. In the process we pick up all sorts of strange notions that cover up our core identity. A list of these notions would fill volumes.”
(For self-inquiry to work I need to expose myself to its logic without intellectual arrogance.)
“Self-inquiry is a refined means of enlightenment that appeals to the intelligent individuals – intelligent people are often saddled with a certain intellectual arrogance and believe that they can figure out enlightenment simply by reading the texts but even a genius must sit down and listen because the only means of knowledge under the control of individuals are perception and inference (and awareness is subtler than them). Perception and inference only operate with reference to objects, so they are not going to work with reference to consciousness. Just because you have control of perception and inference does not mean that you have control over the means of self-knowledge. Even Einstein needed to study physics at a very advanced level before he could work out his famous equation. Yes, the existence of self can be inferred but inference is indirect knowledge. Inference shows that there is a self but it does not show you are the self. Only direct knowledge makes you free.”
(So how can you make self-inquiry work for you?)
“For it to work you need to accept the following logic. I want lasting happiness. Lasting happiness is freedom from dependence on objects. I cannot get it through the pursuit of objects. I cannot get it through spiritual practice because practice produces limited results. Knowledge is the only other option. For knowledge I need a means. Self-inquiry is a proven means. Therefore I am ready to expose my mind to the teachings. Other factors that are required to make the teaching work are related to qualities of an aspirant, which I am sure you are aware of.
“There is no perceiver, feeler or thinker required involved in the pursuit of self-knowledge because the means of knowledge is not controlled by you. You put yourself in the teaching situation by your own will, relax and let the teachings take over. You are wrong if you think that you can roam the spiritual world, pick up a bit of knowledge here and there and expect that one fine day it will miraculously jell into the knowledge that sets you free.”
(Ignorance is very intelligent.)
(It is next to impossible to remove your own ignorance because) “…it is very intelligent. It protects itself beautifully by projecting aggressively, projecting the entire universe like an image on a screen, filling the mind with desire and turning the senses and mind outward. The projection is so lifelike, so fascinating and in hi-definition that it fools everyone. For example, you actually believe that you are the person on your passport: a living, breathing human being. If you were told that you exist without breathing you would think it madness.”
(How did Vedanta originate?)
(So, like me, you may be wondering, where does the knowledge of self-inquiry of Vedanta come?) “Vedanta is not a philosophy, in the sense that it is the outgrowth of somebody’s mind or a group of minds. Nor did it come through the human mind because the human mind being conditioned would pollute the knowledge and science of self-inquiry. The Vedas are said to be revealed scriptures, they were seen or heard.”
(Sounds incredible but it helps us come out of suffering.) ☺
“Skepticism with reference to the claim that self-inquiry has a scientific basis is understandable because consciousness is subtler than the senses. Inference does not work either, as consciousness is subtler than the intellect. However, this does not mean that it cannot be known. In any case, whether or not the means of self-knowledge has mystic or scientific origins or whether it came to us by some other means, it does destroy suffering. It is hoped that the reader will consider the teachings – with reference to common sense and the logic of his or her own experience. In any case, at some point more than a thousand years ago, a systematic, verifiable, experience-based body of knowledge that is the last word on the topic of existence crystallized.”
James: Your use of my quotes is perfect. Your friend resists knowledge because he wants a revelation. Fair enough, but how is he going to interpret the revelation? If he doesn’t know his self – and he obviously doesn’t or he wouldn’t be seeking – then his self-ignorance will interpret the revelation to mean that enlightenment is experiential. i.e. a “permanent” revelation. Or if he does extract the knowledge from the revelation it will not stick because discrete experiences do not destroy thinking patterns (ignorance) except temporarily.
They are hardwired. So once the revelation wears off – which it will because it is a discrete experience, one that comes and therefore goes – he will be left the same limited identity he had before the revelation. The solution is to expose his mind to a valid means of knowledge, Vedanta, understand the logic that proves that he cannot be who he thinks he is and that he is actually awareness. Then he should apply that knowledge to the ignorance that apppears constantly in the form of his fears and desires until the knowledge destroys his tendency ( vasana) to think of himself as a limited, experiencing entity. He is limitless, meaning who he does not modify to experience, although this is not how it appears to him yet.
He is a non-experiencing witness, not the experiencing witness he thinks he is now. His identification with the experiencer is so strong that he believes that the self can be an object of experience. But it can’t.
“He understands It who comprehends It not; and he understands It not, who feels he has comprehended It. It is unknown to the Master of True Knowledge but to the ignorant It is the known.”
This verse says that the self can be known but not as an object. How can a limited intellect understand its source? It is impossible. The intellect is gross and awareness is “subtler than the subtlest.” The “master of true knowledge” is the self. It can only be known by itself when its apparent ignorance is removed. This is why scripture and a teacher is needed.
Your friend is already the self, was never anything but the self, could never be anything but awareness, but owing to maya in the form of conditioning by parents, society, etc. has come to take himself to be the experiencing entity. It is virtually impossible for intelligent people who think they are exclusively experiencing entities to see through the trap of experience because maya, ignorance, makes them feel continually incomplete. The feeling of incompleteness began at such an early age, when the child had only one source of information about his nature – the ignorance of people meant to care for him – that it is completely “natural” to feel this way. It feels normal to think one is limited. Not knowing you are awareness, you take yourself to be the body and mind, which whose incompleteness are revealed at every turn, and after suffering this sense of incompleteness, if you are lucky, you start to question it.
Then you become a seeker. Naturally, you will assume that what you seek is another discrete experience since all you know are discrete experiences. You believe that there is some kind of experience that never ends but there isn’t.
Experience never ends because it is just awareness appearing as the subject-object duality but any experience you can gain, any revelation, definitely ends.
But you can rarely tell an experiencer this. They have a stubborn vanity that keeps all but the most humble stuck seeking themselves, not knowing that the seeker is the sought.
Self-knowledge is unlike any other form of knowledge, because the self is not an object of knowedge/experience. Knowledge always is. Only the removal of ignorance is required. But such is the nature of this kind of ignorance that the ignorant cannot remove it himself or herself, particulary if he or she reads a lot and reads different sources. If you do you may get the indirect knowledge that the self exists, but that it is you and what it means to be awareness, i.e. direct knowledge, is not in the hands of the experiencer. People imagine that enlightenment is for the experiencer, but it is freedom from the experiencer.