M: Hi Vishnu, I have enjoyed your video series on the Tatva Bodha but I’ve got a few questions.
Am I a person or not? Or both?
V: You are not a person. It just seems like you are when the distinction between you, the self, and the body/mind is not clear.
M: If objects are not real, then the person cannot be real?
V: Correct. An object is anything and everything that is known by you. The body-mind (the person) is known to you so it is an object. Therefore it is unreal.
M: I don’t understand “objects exist, but are not real.” I would rather say: if something doesn’t exist, then it is not real?
V: No, because a mirage of water in the desert is not real but you can’t say it is non-existent. If it were non-existent, you wouldn’t be able to experience it.
So a better way of putting it is: “Objects can be experienced but they are not real. They are an illusion.”
By the way, the definition of “real” in Vedanta is “that which has no beginning, no end and never undergoes change of any kind.” By this definition, objects exist (can be experienced) but they are not real.
M: Am I both the Jiva and the awareness of the Jiva, and all Jivas?
V: You are only awareness. You are aware of the jiva. There is only one you, one awareness, so by extension you are the awareness of all jivas. The next question is of course, “Why don’t I know what all jivas are experiencing?” The answer is, because you are taking M’s mind, with its limited perspective, to be your perspective.
Here is an example. One day, the sun—which shines on everything equally, never being affected by what it shines on—was happily doing its job illumining the world. But suddenly it noticed its reflection in a bucket of water and began to panic. He called out “Oh no! Someone help!” The moon, being a longtime friend, came along and asked what the trouble was. The sun said “I’m trapped in this bucket! Help me out! I’ve got to shine on the whole world and I can’t do it if I’m stuck in here.” The moon assessed the situation and pointed out to the sun that he was merely looking at his reflection, mistaking it to be himself. He was never limited by the bucket at any time. He was, and always had been, shining on the whole world. It just seemed like he wasn’t when he mistook himself to be his reflection.
You, awareness, are like the sun. You shine on M’s mind, which is like the bucket of water. It “reflects” you, meaning it appears to be aware, the same way a reflection resembles what is reflected. When you mistake yourself to be the reflection, you assume the limitations and the perspective of the reflecting medium, the mind. The mind, along with the senses, creates a three dimensional point of view so when you identify yourself with the mind, it makes it seem like you exist in a particular place. But in reality, you are awareness simply shining on a mind that appears to be in a particular place when, like the sun to the bucket, you are not limited to that place at all. The mind’s perspective is not yours, you simply illumine it. By necessity, you must be outside of time and space since both are objects known to you.
This does not mean that when you understand that you are awareness that you will suddenly know everyone’s mind. Why? Because knowing information, such as someone else’s thoughts, belongs to the mind itself, not you, awareness. You simply shine on the mind and what it knows. So understanding that you are awareness and not the mind does not somehow turn you into someone else’s mind.
M: Everything seems to suggest that I am a person that is aware of my surroundings.
V: Yes, it does. But everything in experience also suggests the world is flat, that the sun rises and sets, and that straws bend when you put them in a glass of water. But that does not make it so.
M: Sight seems to happen through my eyes. Smell seems to happen through my nose etc. All experiences seem to happen in and through this body.
V: Yes, eyes see. Noses smell. Experience happens through the body (and mind). But that does not mean you actually have eyes, a nose or a body (or that they belong to you). For instance, when the eyes see, you do not see. You are merely aware of what they eyes are seeing.
M: And awareness seems to be connected to the body too, following it around.
V: Yes, it seems to. But appearances are not truth. Based on appearances, people used to think that the sun followed the earth around but upon investigation the earth actually moved around the sun.
Similarly, it seems like you, awareness, are connected to the body, following it around. But like the sun, it is you who are not moving while the body moves around in your light. Also like the sun to the earth, you are never connected to the body, you only illuminate it.
M: I am never conscious of anything without the body, it seems?
V: It’s true that in the absence of the body (and mind) you’re not going to see, hear, taste, touch, smell or think anything. Using consciousness in the normally accepted sense we could say that in this case you would not be conscious of anything. But in the absence of sensory data and thought you are still conscious-ness itself. Being conscious of something is merely a turn of phrase that we use to describe the action of the mind knowing something. But conscious-ness is not a thought, it is not something that you do, like knowing. It is what you are and the presence or absence of external objects can never change what you truly are.
Let’s go back to the example of the sun and do a thought experiment. On a normal day, the sun sits in its place, illumining the Milky Way galaxy. Being luminous is not an action it performs because it luminous by nature. It gives off light effortlessly because it is light. With that in mind, let’s say that absolutely everything (except the sun itself) suddenly disappears from the galaxy, leaving a completely blank void. Now, in the absence of anything to reflect its light, does the sun stop being luminous? No, it continues to shine whether or not there is anything present for it to shine on.
Like the sun to the galaxy, you, as awareness, “illumine” all objects with consciousness. Being conscious of something is only the mind collecting and collating data. But in the absence of the mind, such as in dreamless sleep, do you stop being conscious-ness itself? Do you stop being consciousness when the mind is not there to be conscious of anything? No, just like the sun wouldn’t stop being luminous if there was nothing there to reflect its light.
So no, without the body and mind, you can’t be conscious of anything. But you can never not be conscious-ness.
M: I don’t know what is happening in the USA, right now so…
V: Don’t worry, I barely know what’s happening in the US right now either. There’s a lot going on outside of my personal experience.
M: …does the USA even exist, right now?
V: Well, I can’t say for certain because, owing to the time difference, I was probably asleep when you wrote this 🙂 But I can say for certain that it exists right now.
M: I honestly must say no, not in my experience. It is just a thought, right now, isn’t it?
V: For you, yes. For me, no. Please understand that I know why you’re asking these kinds of questions. Everyone always does at some point, myself included. But I assure you, it’s an unproductive line of inquiry. Why? Because there is absolutely no way to determine if the world exists when you don’t know it’s there. In order to do so you’d have to develop a second awareness so you could step outside of your first awareness to try to observe the world when your first awareness was not present. Aside from the fact that awareness is never not present and the idea of observing your own awareness is absurd, there is a third problem. Let’s say hypothetically that you somehow manage to get a second awareness, make the first awareness disappear and then determine that lo and behold the world is still there. Hurray, problem solved! But wait…now the question is, “Does the world exist when your second awareness is not aware of it?” Then you have to develop a third awareness to observe your second awareness and a fourth awareness to observe your third awareness and on and on ad infinitum. Hence the problem is insoluble and you’re left to speculation alone which doesn’t help anything.
But for the sake of argument let’s say you were able to determine that the world was there when you were not aware of it. How would this affect your day to day life? It wouldn’t, and the world would carry on as usual. You’d still have to go to work, eat, sleep and be polite to the people around you. You would still have all the same problems you had before you knew the world existed when you weren’t aware of it. So there’s no practical purpose to knowing one way or the other.
One thing you do know for sure is that the world is there when you do observe it. And that’s precisely when it’s a problem. You don’t care about the world when it’s not there, like when you sleep, right? But when you wake up you need a solution to the suffering the world causes. That’s why Vedanta is not concerned with determining whether the world exists when you don’t see it. Instead it is trying to show you that even when the world appears 1) It is not real, so there is nothing real to worry about and 2) You are never affected by it. Honestly, this is what matters.
M: You say that I am the consciousness in which the body and the world appears in. But this consciousness doesn’t seem to be impersonal, like I would imagine it would be. It feels very personal. Like what I experience, no one else experiences.
V: The body-mind is what experiences. And yes, that is personal insofar as no other body-mind is experiencing what another body-mind is experiencing. Even two body-minds experiencing the same external object will experience it slightly differently. But you, consciousness, are not the experiencer. You are what illuminates the particular experiences of all body-minds. So you are impersonal, just like the sun is not personally involved in anything it illuminates.
M: And is there an external, objective world at all? Does the universe exist in someone else consciousness when I, the person, is not there anymore to experience it?
V: I think I covered this above but I’ll reiterate that the status of the objective world only matters to us when it appears in our subjective world, which we know for a fact is there because we experience it. So the subjective world is the only one that matters. This means we only need to concern ourselves with the problem of our subjective world, the problem of suffering.
M: But different persons do not have different consciousnesses, do they?
V: No. Consciousness is one.
M: There is only one consciousness, but is it divided between different people? I don’t get it.
V: Yes, there is only one consciousness. No, it is not divided between different people, the same way the sun is not divided when it reflects in many different mediums. The sun can simultaneously be reflected in a bucket, a puddle and a lake and while this appears to divide the sun, it remains one alone. Similarly, consciousness can be reflected in many different minds and while this appears to divide consciousness, it remains one alone.
All my best – Vishnudeva
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