Dennis Waite, the writer of several books based on Vedanta philosophy, like The Book of One: The Spiritual Path of Advaita and Advaita Made Easy, is currently putting together his next work, Answers to the Difficult Questions, in which he is compiling several questions on Vedanta asked by his readers, and his answers to these questions. He shares thoughts on his life, his Vedantic journey, and Vedanta philosophy, in an email interaction with Pratyasha Nithin. The interview has been conducted with inputs from Nithin Sridhar.
When was the first time you were introduced to Vedanta?
The principal reason for people becoming seekers is that they are deeply dissatisfied with their lives. They have discovered that worldly pleasures do not bring happiness and they start to think about meaning and purpose. They consider looking for answers in religion or philosophy, which is chosen, probably, depending upon the extent to which the person thinks and intellectualises.
I had a very intensive education. For seven years, I attended a school that was a significant distance from home, so that, each day, I had a three-hour return journey, plus, a couple of hours of homework, in addition to the school day itself. I did not have time (or opportunity) for any ‘worldly pleasures’. University provided plenty of opportunities, but I had never acquired the social skills. By the time I began to work, I was pretty dissatisfied with life.
I began attending the School of Economic Science (SES) in London, in response to the ‘Course of Philosophy’ lectures that they advertised on the Underground. I stayed there for a couple of years until they wanted me to part with a week’s salary to be initiated into Transcendental Meditation. But at that time, they were still mainly influenced by Ouspensky, and their teaching was a bit weird.
After a break to get married, have a child, get divorced and re-marry, I returned to SES in the mid-1980s, by which time their teaching was much more influenced by Advaita. I stayed until around 1998, by which time, I had been teaching for a number of years.
After re-joining SES, I made a number of attempts to discover the source of their teaching. I looked in bookstores and libraries and searched philosophy books, but it was quite a few years before I actually discovered that the main influence came from Advaita. Unfortunately, this source was either confused or the ideas had become corrupted or unfavourably ‘enhanced’ as a result of transfer to the West.
The confusion was certainly transferred to me. I remember buying a copy of Swami Nikhilananda’s translation of the Mandukya Upanishad and Gaudapada kArikA-s. Needless to say, I struggled to read it. I tried asking senior members of the school to explain certain passages, but they were quite unable to help. This episode was clearly very influential in my writing of A-U-M: Awakening to Reality, which endeavours to achieve what they could not, and explain this magnificent work to Western readers. In the end, I decided to leave because I had realised, as a result of my outside reading, that the school’s Advaita was corrupted by other philosophies such as Sankhya, Yoga and Grammarians. From that time on, I relied upon reading, discussion with contacts on the Internet, and listening to the talks of Swami Paramarthananda to complete my understanding.
One point I would like to make in passing is that one does not ‘practise’ Advaita Vedanta. Advaita is a teaching methodology to provide Self-knowledge. In the early stages, karma yoga and meditation may be used as tools to purify the mind (stillness, discipline, etc.) in order that it may be in a suitable state to take on board this teaching. But that is the extent of any related ‘practice’. Also, the tools that are used derive mainly from the Yoga philosophy, but other sources, such as Buddhist ‘Mindfulness’ would be equally good.
Tell us about your upcoming book, Answers to the Difficult Questions.
Soon after establishing a website, I introduced a ‘question and answer’ section and invited readers to ask me about any aspect of Advaita. This was around 2004. The questions have continued to arrive, and, to date, I have posted 400 of these questions to the site. I am organising all these questions into meaningful sections within the context of Advaita teaching and I will be writing introductions and overviews for each section. The end result should then be a summary of the entire teaching and a highlighting of the key aspects which tend to cause the most problems for seekers.
In one of your writings contrasting traditional Advaita and Neo-Advaita, you call Neo-Advaita ‘an impossibility’. How is the Neo-Advaita approach different from the traditional Advaitic approach taught in various Advaita sampradayas?
Actually, what I said in my article ‘Traditional versus Neo-Advaita’ was “The word ‘neo’ means ‘new’, so that ‘neo-Advaita’ is an impossibility.” My reference was to the word itself. “Advaita means ‘not two’, referring to the non-dual reality that always was, is and will be unchanging because change would necessarily be from one thing into another, which would be contradictory. There cannot, therefore, be an ‘old’ and a ‘new’ Advaita. Only the one truth.”
I have also conceded somewhere that the ‘bottom line’ statements of both traditional and neo-Advaita are the same — there are not ‘really’ any separate people or things and never has been any ‘creation’. If you wanted to be provocative, you could say that Gaudapada was the first ‘neo-Advaitin’ in spirit; the message that he puts across in his exposition on the Mandukya Upanishad is, every bit, as controversial to the new seeker as Tony Parsons might seem.
The crucial difference between the traditional and the neo-teaching lies in the method. Traditional is slow, methodical, always amenable to reason, never going faster than the seeker’s ability to understand and accept. A traditional teacher would never attempt to use the Mandukya and Gaudapada as lesson text unless the attending students had already covered the other main Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita (which together would have taken many years).
Neo-Advaitin teachers, in contrast, try baldly to state the final truth. This is ostensibly to shock their listener into self-realisation (they almost invariably fail), but is more likely because they know that their clientele may only be attending one satsang. Most new seekers are not really looking for truth in any case; they want an end of suffering and a route to personal happiness and fulfilment. Traditional teaching recognises this and provides a gradual disenchantment, which releases them from those ego-imposed shackles. Neo-Advaita may, in the shock of the moment, provide some imagined revelation, but all too soon, the seeker returns to the mundane, seeming reality of his or her unsatisfactory life more confused than ever. And now, in addition, they may feel that what they thought was a way out – following a spiritual ‘path’ – has now been closed.
Also, sampradAya teaching has a wealth of proven tools – stories and metaphors – with which to explain, and to maintain progress. The scriptures provide a source of knowledge stretching back thousands of years, and the sampradAya ensures that the ways of explaining them are systematically passed from teacher to disciple. Neo-Advaitins have no method and no source. They deny the value of the scriptures. As I put it in Enlightenment: the Path through the Jungle: “The message has now been reduced to an almost content-less ‘This is it!’ – a high-energy message, low in spiritual nourishment; the ‘fast food’ of non-dual teaching.” This book, incidentally, is principally about explaining why traditional teaching is infinitely superior to neo-Advaita if a seeker genuinely wants to gain self-knowledge. Also, much more is said about differences and the relative value of the two approaches.
Advaita philosophy’s claim that “There is no jIva and no world”, may seem unrealistic to many people. How would you explain it?
The question implies a mistaken understanding. The point is that most people believe that they are the body, mind or ego and none of these is real in itself. The body is just gross matter. The mind, if you like, is ‘subtle’ matter. The ego is just the process by which we identify with these. But who the person really is very much exists. In fact, it is the only thing that does exist. Consciousness. (In the person, this is called ‘Atman’. The more ‘generic’ term is ‘brahman’ and, of course, Atman is the same as brahman.) A metaphor often used is that of gold and ring. We think of the ring as a real object in itself, somehow different from the gold out of which it is made. But, if you think about it, you realise that the ring is only a particular form of gold to which we give the name ‘ring’. The only reality is the gold itself, as you would quickly understand, if I suggested that you could give me the gold and keep the ring for yourself. Similarly, the jIva-s and the world are simply names and forms of brahman.
A certain section of modern practitioners of Vedanta holds that the traditional recommendation of a gradual and progressive spiritual path to attain self-realisation that starts with Karma and Bhakti to attain mental-purification is quite unnecessary. It is the result of what Tony Parsons calls “an assumed and inconstant sense of being a separate individual who needs to attain something called enlightenment.” Your comments.
Seekers are obliged to start from where they are in terms of their understanding. Most are confused, dissatisfied with life, constantly swayed by desires and fear. As you pointed out in your last question, a teacher’s “claim that ‘There is no jIva and no world’, may seem unrealistic to any commoner.” This is an understatement for most people. They will question the teacher’s mental state! Yet, this is effectively what the neo-teacher does! The seeker is told that there is ‘no separate individual who needs to attain enlightenment’.
That statement is almost true. There is not really any separate individual and no one needs to become liberated. Unfortunately, there are separate individuals as far as the seeker is concerned. Accordingly, because the seeker’s mind has wrong understanding, it is necessary to convince them otherwise. This ‘convincing them otherwise’ is what is meant by ‘enlightenment’. So a correct restatement of what Tony said is that there effectively is a separate individual, who needs to be given correct understanding (enlightenment). They are already free – they just do not know it.
This failure to differentiate, between how things appear to be, the empirical world, and how things really are, is probably the main distinction between traditional and neo-Advaita. The neos attempt to make absolute pronouncements about reality to people who are still mired in the world and its seeming problems. This is ironic, of course, because all statements are necessarily made within the context of the world. It is impossible to say anything at all about the absolute reality.
As I said earlier, it is also necessary that the mind of the seeker is ready to consider such revelatory statements. This is where the preparation (karma yoga etc) comes in. Bhakti yoga may be useful for some people, but often does not appeal to most modern Westerners, for whom anything remotely ‘religious’ is a turn-off. It is certainly not a necessary practice. Karma yoga, on the other hand, is almost certainly helpful for all. Meditation of some sort may actually be essential, since a seeker has to be able to give undivided attention to a teacher, listening without mental agitation for the duration of a talk. New ideas have to be considered in stillness, recognising the automatic arising of pre-conceived, conflicting ideas and letting those go.
What are the four-fold qualifications for Vedanta?
A mind is constantly rebelling against what the teacher is saying, and is unable simply to sit still and listen; is unlikely to continue attending classes for the length of time needed to reach an understanding. The so-called fourfold qualifications spell out the various qualities of mind that are needed:
Discrimination – the ability to recognise the difference between self and not-self, transient and eternal, good and pleasant; between what matters (as far as reaching enlightenment is concerned) and what does not.
Dispassion – dropping the desires that usually motivate all our actions in the world; the ability to ‘stand back’ and ‘see things for what they are’ — to use a couple of common clichés.
The ‘six-fold discipline’. This comprises the following: control over the mind, control over the senses, avoiding sensual enjoyment, patience, (provisionally) trusting the teacher and the scriptures, ability to concentrate the attention.
Usually acknowledged as being the most important, the overriding desire for Self-knowledge (enlightenment). Nothing else is as important as discovering the truth about the nature of self and reality.
These qualifications are time and society-independent. They are relevant to all seekers.
In his commentary on verse 2 of Vivekachudamani, Jagadguru Sri Chandrashekara Bharati of Sringeri states, “An astika alone is qualified to embark on the study of Vedanta Shastra.” How does the Advaita tradition describe astika and nAstika and how important is it for one to be astika to undertake Vedantic enquiry?
My understanding of the meaning of the term “astika” is as follows (from Nomenclature of the Vedas by Swamini Atmaprajnananda Saraswati): “Philosophical systems that accept the Vedas are known as Astika or orthodox schools; these include nyAya vaisheShika, sAMkhya, yoga, pUrva-mImAMsA and uttara-mImAMsA. (The last one comprises Advaita, vishiShTAdvaita and dvaita incidentally.) The term Astika or nAstika here is not based on acceptance or non-acceptance of god. It is based on whether the school accepts the Vedas as pramANa or not.” The last two regard the Vedas as ‘self-evident’ means of knowledge; the first four just try to show that their systems do not contradict the Vedas. The nAstika philosophies are Buddhism, Jainism and the chArvAka-s (materialists). The neo-Advaitins are self-proclaimed nAstika-s!
If you are going to use the shruti to find out about Advaita, you have to have faith, that what is said there has proven value; you ‘define’ yourself, thereby as an astika. To say that you first have to be an astika in order that you can study the scriptures makes no sense to me.
I must confess that I am not happy about appearing to disagree with a Sringeri AchArya, but that is my understanding, and it is in accord with reason.
The Jagadguru, after saying that astika alone has the competency for Vedanta Shastra, defines Astika as “one who believes in the existence of the Atman apart from the body.” This is another strange statement. It seems to me to be confusing ‘jIva’ and ‘Atman’. It is the jIva which is said to continue to be reborn in further bodies until Self-knowledge brings mokSha. The Atman is who we really are, and there is only one of these, which is the same as brahman, the non-dual reality. The Atman is never born and never dies.
He says later that the Atman ‘cuts itself off from involvement in bodily birth’ and speaks of the Atman’s ‘distinctness from the body’ in other places. Again, he seems to be confusing ‘Atman’ and ‘jIva’.
If we take the verse 2 of the vivekachUDAmaNi as a whole, what it is saying is that it is rare for the jIva to obtain a human birth. Even rarer is a strong mind and body, and rarer still for these to be pure (sAdhana chatuShTaya). Even more difficult is to live a spiritual life, and rarest of all, to understand the scriptures. This is presumably why the AchArya is referring to Astika, even though the word itself does not appear. I have no other explanation for what, on the face of it, is a very strange commentary.
In your article Continuing Reflections (on reflections), you quote Swami Paramarthananda ji as saying “only the mithyA has utility – brahman itself is quite useless!”. Please elaborate.
Brahman is the non-dual reality. This means there is nothing, nowhere, no-when else. Brahman is all there is. Consequently, brahman cannot ‘do’ anything. Action implies changing something from one state to another, which is meaningless for brahman. ‘Utility’ means ‘able to be used’ (for some benefit or value), which entails action of some sort. In the empirical world, this is meaningful. A hammer can be used to knock a nail into a piece of wood; the hammer has utility. The hammer, nail and wood are also all mithyA. They do not have any substantial reality of their own; they depend upon brahman for their existence. Hence, only mithyA has utility and brahman, itself, is quite useless.
Advaitic text which has impressed you:
In recent history, the book which has most impressed me in this respect has been Vedanta: the solution to our fundamental problem, by D. Venugopal. This presents a very comprehensive introduction to Advaita following sampradAya methods. It is based on the teaching of Swami Dayananda and Swami Paramarthananda, who (in my view) are the best teachers of modern times. Aspects often considered difficult are explained simply and clearly. The book is being serialised on my website.
One lesson from Advaita Vedanta that every individual can apply in his/her life:
Advaita is not a practical regime and its purpose is only to provide that final understanding. There may be interim levels of understanding along the way but these are dropped as understanding progresses. While it is not correct to say that life is an ‘illusion’, it is certainly not absolutely real. So, there cannot really be any lesson that can be ‘applied’ in the usual sense of that term. There is really only one ‘lesson’ that is valuable: becoming a ‘seeker’ and endeavouring to discover the truth about the nature of Self and reality. This is the fourth of the ‘fourfold qualifications’, mumukShutva, the intense desire for liberation from saMsAra, the eternal round of birth and death. And now, hopefully, you can see why it is deemed to be the most important.