A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 12

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Ashtavakra said:
4:1 – The one who is steadfast in self-knowledge enjoys playing the game of life, unlike the deluded beasts of burden who are trapped in it.

An enlightened person can lead a regular life just like an unenlightened person.  But the difference is that an enlightened person’s understanding of life, and their relationship to it, stands in stark contrast to that of the unenlightened person.  Here the unenlightened person is unflatteringly—and I might add, disrespectfully—characterized as a beast of burden.  The beast of burden metaphor only applies insofar as the unenlightened person is ‘trapped’ by the belief that they are an individual body-mind.  And by extension they are ‘burdened’ by the weight of performing actions and reaping results in the world.  But the enlightened person who understands that they are the action-less self and that the body-mind and universe are unreal, can ‘play’ the game of life, never taking it too seriously and enjoying it for whatever it is worth. 

Ultimately, describing the behavior of an enlightened person is unproductive because an enlightened person knows that as consciousness-existence they are not, nor have they ever been, a person.  As such, whether the body-mind performs action as sport or under the delusion of being a doer and enjoyer never has, and never will, apply to them.      

4:2 – The yogi does not take pleasure in attaining steadfast self-knowledge even though the gods, wishing to attain that state, feel afflicted.   

The Vedic religion—in which Vedanta has its roots—asserts that you can become a god through religious rituals and strenuous discipline.  While this may sound alluring, the drawback is that once the merit of the deeds that earned you godhood is exhausted, you return to being a normal person.  Or worse, you drop down a couple of rungs on the evolutionary ladder and become an animal or a plant.  This is why Janaka says that even the gods, despite their exalted position, wish for something more i.e. self-knowledge.  

While I doubt these religious myths are literally true, they do point to something true—that anything acquired by action has a beginning and an end.  This means that accomplishing something, whether incredible like becoming a god, or mundane like getting hired for a new job, is never a permanent solution to the problem of suffering. 

Self-knowledge, however, is a permanent solution to the problem of suffering because it’s a matter of understanding rather than action—understanding that as the eternal, unchanging self you are never subject to suffering, whether you be a god, a man, a dog or a houseplant.    

4:3 – Knowing that (consciousness-existence), one is not touched by good or evil, just as the sky is not touched by smoke, even though it appears to be.

The empty space we refer to as the sky seems to be tainted when smoke appears in it.  But in reality, the space remains the same.  Similarly, consciousness-existence seems to be affected by the good and evil deeds of the body-mind.  But in truth, it is never affected because the body-mind and the actions it performs are illusory.  Knowing that, you are never touched by good or evil.           

4:4 – Who can prevent the wise one who knows the universe to be the self alone from acting spontaneously?

The wise one knows that as the self, they are action-less and free of the body-mind.  So from the absolute viewpoint, whether the actions of the body-mind are spontaneous or otherwise is irrelevant.  But from the empirical viewpoint, when one understands that the universe is really the changeless self they’re not obligated to act with a motivation in mind because they know that nothing can really be accomplished.     

4:5 – Out of all beings in the universe, the wise one alone is capable of renouncing desire and aversion.

The wise one doesn’t need to renounce anything because as the self, states of mind such as desire and aversion don’t apply to them.  But taking into account the body-mind from the empirical viewpoint, those with self-knowledge are better equipped than anyone else to renounce desire and aversion for two reasons. 1) They know that neither desirable nor undesirable objects are real and that there’s no reason to compulsively desire or avoid something unreal.  2) They know that as non-dual changeless consciousness-existence, a desirable object can’t add anything to them and an undesirable object can’t take anything away.   

4:6 – Rare is the one who knows the lord, the self, the one without a second.  That one feels no fear anywhere.   

When you know you’re one without a second, there’s nothing to fear because everything is yourself.  Alternately, there’s no reason for fear because anything feared is an object and all objects are unreal.  In the same way that no one needs to fear a dream object when, upon waking it’s seen to be unreal, no one needs to fear anything in the world when, upon self-realization it’s known to be an illusion. 

In this verse Janaka refers to the self as the lord (isvara) but then declares that the self is one without a second.  This shows that the title of “lord” is only figurative because the self could only be a lord in the literal sense if there were something other than itself to lord over. 

A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 11

Read Part 10

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Janaka said:
3:9. The steadfast person who ever sees the self alone, is neither pleased nor angry, whether feasted or tormented. 

You can’t literally see the self because it isn’t an object of perception. So to “see the self” means to know that you are the self.  And as the self you are never affected by the states of the mind—in this way you are “neither pleased nor angry.”  But when you know you’re the self does that mean the mind is never pleased nor angry?  No.  It is impossible to have a mind completely devoid of emotion. 

It is arguably not even practical.  Can you imagine if you told your child or significant other “I love you” and they replied, “I feel nothing.  I am the self”?  Or if you informed someone of the death of a loved one and they simply stared at you blankly and said, “I don’t care.  I am the self and I don’t have emotions”?  That would be absurd. 

However, for the mind to be overly emotional about external circumstances is definitely not desirable because this can cause it a great deal of unnecessary suffering.  That’s why self-knowledge should help the mind put its emotions in perspective.  It clearly demonstrates that there’s no need for excessive attachment because everything is transient and unreal. 

Keeping that in mind, you can appreciate your external circumstances for what they’re worth, without having your sense of well-being or self-validation depend on them.  And when those circumstances inevitably change or take a turn for the worse, you can take it in stride, knowing that as consciousness-existence you are completely fine.  For instance, if a loved one dies, it is totally normal and healthy for the mind to experience sorrow.  But with the knowledge that all is consciousness-existence, the sorrow is ameliorated by the fact that as the self, no one is ever really born and no one ever really dies.         

3:10 – Witnessing the body acting as if it were another’s, how can the wise person be disturbed by praise or blame? 

Taking credit for a good or bad deed is the result of falsely identifying with the body-mind.  But when a wise person understands that they are consciousness-existence—ever actionless and free of the body-mind—the belief that they can be either praised or blamed for the actions of the body-mind is negated.  They simply witness the actions of ‘their’ body-mind as if they were observing the actions of another person’s body-mind.   

But it’s crucial to understand that non-responsibility for the actions of the body-mind only applies to consciousness-existence.  Non-responsibility never applies to the body-mind itselfAfter enlightenment the body-mind remains part of the illusory world and therefore the rules of the illusory world continue to apply to it.  So if the body-mind breaks those rules, consequences are sure to follow—this means that self-knowledge can never be used to justify improper behavior. 

3:11 – After realizing the universe is illusory, desire for it and curiosity about it goes away.  How can one of steady mind (firm self-knowledge) be afraid when death draws near? 

When the universe is seen to be an illusion, the basis for seeking satisfaction in it is negated because no satisfaction can be found in something unreal.  And there is no reason to be curious about the purpose of the universe because an entity that has no real existence can’t have a purpose, the same way a snake falsely seen where there is really a rope can’t have a purpose.  

Does knowing this justify nihilism?  No, because you’re free to find whatever relative meaning in the illusory world that you choose.  And it’s no problem that this relative meaning, being transient, offers no lasting comfort because you know that as consciousness-existence, you are the true ‘meaning’ of the universe insofar as you are its very essence—without you no relative meaning is even possible.             

Death is an unreal state that applies to an unreal body-mind.  And as consciousness-existence, the eternally self-existent reality, it’s not possible for you to die because you were never born.  For both reasons, there is no need to fear death.        

3:12 – What comparison can be made to the wise one content with self-knowledge, whose mind is free from desire even in disappointment?

As the self you are naturally free from the mind, so it’s ultimately irrelevant whether or not the mind has desires.  But from the relative viewpoint, when the mind truly assimilates the implications of self-knowledge—that at its essence, it’s none other than consciousness-existence—it can rest in the truth that everything is completely fine, even during the inevitable disappointing moments of life.  Nothing needs to be done or can be done to make everything okay, because everything is always okay.                

3:13 – Why should one of steady mind (firm self-knowledge), who knows that objects of perception do not really exist, consider one thing acceptable and another unacceptable?

There are two ways to look at this verse. 1) There is nothing to accept or reject because there is nothing other than the non-dual self to accept or reject and the self cannot be accepted or rejected because you are the self.  2) If an object of perception does not really exist, then its being acceptable or unacceptable is also illusory.    

Does this mean that a person with firm self-knowledge, who knows that nothing is actually acceptable or unacceptable, would just as soon drink a glass of cold muddy water as a cup of hot tea?  Or cause harm rather than give help?  No. They make choices like any other person, based on personal preference and accepted rules of conduct.  The difference is that they are not unduly disturbed by the outcome of those choices, whether acceptable or unacceptable, because they know that as the self, they are unaffected by both.          

3:14 – When experience arises naturally, it causes neither pleasure nor pain for the one who has given up interest in the world, who is free from desire and the pairs of opposites (the duality of experience).  

This verse is tricky because it mixes the empirical and absolute viewpoints.  “The one who has given up interest in the world” must be the empirical body-mind because you, consciousness-existence, have no interest in the world in the first place.  But the phrases “it (experience) causes neither pleasure nor pain” and “who is free from desire and the pairs of opposites” must be the self from the absolute viewpoint because the body-mind is always subject to desire and the opposites of pleasure and pain, which continue to arise “naturally” even after self-knowledge.  Regardless, a body-mind free of self-ignorance should become increasingly objective about its desires and dispassionate about the ups and downs (opposites) of life.     

A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 10

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Chapter Three is usually characterized as Ashtavakra testing Janaka after the latter makes a statement of self-knowledge in Chapter Two.  But there doesn’t appear to be a coherent line of questioning.  And some of the verses are not questions at all, but statements.  Additionally, owing to a lack of definitive background information about Janaka to give them context, it is not even clear whether Ashtavakra’s questions and statements pertain directly to Janaka or not.  In a way, this is preferable because it allows Chapter Three to be more of a universal lesson about the effect of self-knowledge on the thinking and behavior of the body-mind rather than a critique of a specific person.      

Ashtavakra said:
3:1 – Having known yourself to be one (non-dual) and indestructible, how can you feel attached to acquiring wealth? 

If the body-mind knows itself to be non-dual unchanging consciousness-existence, there is no reason for it to be attached to the idea of possession or non-possession of wealth.  Why?  Because being wealthy or impoverished are states that only apply to an illusory body-mind.  So there is no virtue in the body-mind being poor nor any vice in the body-mind having wealth—neither one has any effect on you, consciousness-existence. 

3:2 – From self-ignorance comes attachment to illusory objects of perception, just as from ignorance of mother-of-pearl comes greed for illusory silver. 

When you don’t know that you’re the non-dual self, the sole existent reality, you think that 1) objects are real and 2) that they are different or separate from you.  These beliefs are what makes attachment possible, because why would you be attached to an unreal object?  In the same way that greed for silver dissipates when it is known to be mother-of-pearl, attachment for objects dissipates when they are known to be illusory.    

Does this mean that a person with self-knowledge has no desires?  First, if someone knows that they’re the self, they understand that they are not, never have been, and never will be a person.  Therefore, whether the person (the body-mind) has desires or not is ultimately immaterial. 

Regardless, self-knowledge can—and should—inform the way the body-mind thinks and behaves.  So when the mind knows that at its essence it’s the sole unchanging existent reality, its desire for illusory objects should naturally decrease.  The next verse illustrates this point perfectly.     

3:3 – Having known yourself to be that in which the universe appears like waves on the ocean, why do you run after objects as if you are in need? 

If you have self-knowledge, you know that the body-mind is illusory and has nothing to do with you.  But despite being unreal, it does not suddenly disappear.  And according to rules of the universe the body-mind inhabits, it still needs food, shelter, clothing etc., assuming you do not want it to wither away and die; jobs, relationships and family commitments need to be maintained, assuming you want to keep them.  The difference is that you can tend to the body-mind and its circumstances without the undue stress caused by thinking it is real and that your well-being somehow depends on it.  As consciousness-existence, you are always completely fine, regardless of the state of the body-mind—even when it is running after objects as if it is in need.        

3:4 – After hearing oneself to be pure consciousness and surpassingly beautiful, how can you continue to be attached to the impurity of sex?

Pure consciousness, the self, can be considered “surpassingly beautiful” in a few different ways.  1) It is the most attractive ‘thing’ there is insofar as all actions are done for the sake of the self. 2) Beauty is often considered to be a measure of perfection; in this regard, owing to its utter lack of defect, the self—as opposed to inherently flawed objects—is “surpassingly beautiful.” 3) Since no beauty in the empirical world is even possible without consciousness being there as its very essence, it is “surpassingly beautiful.” 

If you have discovered your own ‘inner beauty’ as the self, there is no need to be preoccupied with sensual pleasures such as sex that can never bring any lasting satisfaction.  But like the issue of wealth discussed in 3:1, there is nothing inherently wrong with sex, even for one who is free from self-ignorance.  It is a natural part of life and done consensually and respectfully, it is a healthy part of loving relationships. 

Being an ascetic, perhaps Ashtavakra would not agree with this sentiment.  But having a monastic lifestyle doesn’t make a person more pure than someone who leads a normal life in the everyday world.  As Ashtavakra points out, you are pure consciousness; since purity is your nature, you can never be impure. 

3:5 – It would be astonishing for the sense of ownership to continue in the wise one who knows that he is the self in all and that all is in the self.

If you know that everything is yourself, then you can’t say you own anything for the simple fact that you can’t own yourself—you simply are yourself.  Does this mean that on the empirical level you suddenly lose all notions of having a body, a house, a car etc.?  No.  But the idea of ‘owning’ those things is put into perspective in light of the truth of non-duality–even though notions of ownership may persist, they are known to be completely baseless. 

3:6 – It would be strange for one dwelling on the highest non-duality and intent on liberation to be impaired by the desire for enjoyment. 

When you realize that transient objects can never give lasting satisfaction, your desire for them should become subservient to your desire to seek freedom from objects through self-knowledge. 

3:7 – It is astonishing how one debilitated and approaching death could still have desire, even after ascertaining that its arising is unfriendly (contrary) to knowledge.

After a lifetime of trying and failing to find fulfillment in fleeting objects it would be unfortunate if it didn’t become obvious that attainment of desires isn’t the key to satisfaction.  Ironically, pursuing desires is the main impediment to the fulfillment that is being sought because it keeps attention riveted outward, looking for solutions in external objects, thereby inhibiting the contemplation of the non-object ‘inner’ self—‘inner’ meaning it is the essence of everything—that leads to actual satisfaction through self-knowledge.      

3:8 – It is strange that one who is unattached to the objects of this world and the next, who discriminates the eternal from the transient, and who longs for liberation (moksha), should yet fear liberation! 

Even highly qualified students who are dispassionate (“unattached to the objects of this world and the next”) and able to discriminate the eternal (the self) from the transient (the ‘not-self’ i.e. objects) may fear the very liberation they are seeking.  Why?  Because it appears to be the destruction of their own individuality.  But this fear is unfounded and it stems from a basic misunderstanding of liberation.  Liberation, instead of being the destruction of the individual (the body-mind), is the destruction of self-ignorance. 

This means that while the body-mind persists after liberation, the belief that you are the body-mind is what is destroyed.  Granted, since you have identified with the body-mind your entire life, this may still seem unsettling.  But seeing as the body-mind is the seat of all suffering, both mental and physical, negating the notion that it is who you are should be a welcome change. 

Here is another way to look at it: the word “individuality” normally means to be an entity distinct from other entities and this is how people suffering from self-ignorance normally view themselves; they think they are one unique body-mind among many body-minds.  Self-knowledge does negate individuality in this sense.  But a word that is synonymous with “individuality” is “uniqueness,” which means to be “one of a kind.”  So even when self-knowledge destroys the idea that you are an individual body-mind, you still retain your individuality in the sense that as non-dual consciousness-existence—you are one of a kind because there is nothing other than you.  

A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 9

Read Part 8

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Janaka said:       
2:21 – I see no duality, despite the appearance of a multitude of human beings.  They have become like a wilderness. Of what interest are they to me? 

When you come to the doubt-free understanding that you are the non-dual reality, the appearance of duality continues.  But similar to the way someone is alone in the wilderness despite being surrounded by trees, you are ‘alone’—meaning you know that you alone exist—even though it still looks like you are but one among many individual beings. 

2:22 – I am not this body, nor is the body mine.  I am not an individual embodied being (jiva); I am consciousness. Desire for life—this indeed was my bondage. 

It is evident from the preceding verses that you are not the body.  But to dispel the potential doubt that the body may somehow belong to you, Janaka states, “nor is the body mine.”  As non-dual consciousness, there is only you, so there is nothing for you to possess.  The appearance of the body makes it seems like there is something other than yourself that can belong to you.  But the body is an illusion—it can’t belong to anyone because it doesn’t really exist. 

By saying “I am not an individual embodied being (jiva),” it seems like Janaka is merely restating his previous point of not being or having a body.  But “embodied being (jiva)” is a specific technical term—by using it he’s ruling out the possibility that the self is some kind of individual soul that incarnates in one body, only to transmigrate to another body after the first body dies.  Consciousness-existence is all-pervasive like space so it can’t be contained in one place, confined to a particular body.  And it can’t transmigrate from one place to another because it’s absolutely everywhere.  The implication here is that there is no such thing as reincarnation—it is just a product of self-ignorance.        

There is one last point to be made regarding the notion of the self being an individual soul.  Some hold the view that there are innumerable separate selves, each one its own self-contained unit of infinite, eternal consciousness.  But this belief is untenable for the following reasons: 

1) To be infinite is to be limitless and all-pervasive.  But if there is one individual self that is limitless and all-pervasive, there can’t be a second limitless all-pervasive self.  Why?  Because the existence of a second self would limit the existence of first self.  To be two distinct selves, they could not exist in the same place.  And if there were a place where the two selves didn’t exist, they would no longer be limitless and all-pervasive.   

2)  There can’t be multiple selves of the nature of consciousness-existence because there are no distinctions whatsoever in consciousness-existence—it’s the same everywhere just like water is H2O whether it’s in a puddle, an ocean or a raincloud.  Just as there’s no difference in the H2O of two raindrops, there’s no distinction between the consciousness-existence of two beings.  It could be argued that two raindrops—despite both being H2O—are distinct entities because they are separated by space.  But this doesn’t apply to the case of consciousness-existence because it’s all-pervasive. 

Since consciousness-existence is everywhere without exception and always of the same nature there can’t be multiple selves.              

2:23 – On the rising of the wind of the mind, the various waves of the world are produced in me, the limitless ocean [of consciousness/existence]. 

The mind doesn’t literally produce the world because both the world and the mind are equally the products of self-ignorance.  However, the mind is the instrument to experience “the various waves of the world.”  So it can be said that when the mind ‘rises’ from the dormancy of deep sleep, that experienced is ‘produced’ i.e. made possible. 

Student:  What produces ignorance? 

Teacher: It’s never really produced, the same way that water is never really produced in a mirage.  Ignorance is only ‘there’ until you realize that it’s not really there, like water in a mirage.  You alone exist—ignorance is not a second reality that exists over and above consciousness-existence.      

2:24 – To the misfortune of the individual embodied being (jiva), the merchant, the ship of the world is destroyed when the wind of the mind comes to rest in me, the limitless ocean [of consciousness/existence]. 

Here the individual is likened to a merchant because, owing to its sense of egoism, it is constantly ‘sailing’ around in the ‘ship’ of the world conducting ‘transactions’ of experience; it offers up its actions as payment and expects to be reimbursed with the results of its actions.  But when the world is destroyed—meaning when it is seen to be unreal—the belief in individuality is also destroyed, along with the sense of being a doer and enjoyer. 

If you were an individual this would be most unfortunate.  But you are consciousness-existence—you never have been, and never will be, an individual embodied being.  Therefore, being divested of the belief that you’re an individual is quite fortunate because you’re relieved of the tremendous burden of feeling obsessively compelled to do certain actions; you’re released from the anxiety of wondering whether your actions will yield the appropriate results; you’re freed from the effort required to protect and maintain what you have accomplished. 

Does this mean that when you understand that you’re consciousness-existence that the individual—the body-mind you thought you were—should simply lay around, inactive?   That it should quit its job, abandon its family and responsibilities, stop eating and just sit under a tree not caring what happens?  No, because the appearance of the world continues just as before and the nature of the body-mind is to perform action until it dies; even lying around doing nothing is an action. 

This means the body-mind can, and will, do what it has always done.  And this is just fine because the body-mind is not real and it’s not you.  As consciousness-existence, you are relieved of the burden of doing action, released from anxiety about its results and freed from the effort of maintaining those results in the sense that you know that those things never had anything to do with you in the first place. 

Granted, the body-mind is none other than you, consciousness-existence, the same way a clay pot is nothing but clay.  And it can benefit from keeping that fact in mind insofar as when it does actions it can do them knowing that as consciousness-existence it is never really doing anything.  And that it’s never truly affected by the results of action.  So in the midst of everyday life, the individual can have peace of mind, regardless of its circumstances.             

2:25 – It is strange how individual embodied beings appear in me, the limitless ocean [of consciousness-existence].  Like waves they rise, play for a time, clash with one another and are eventually reabsorbed (disappear), each according to their own nature.

The appearance of the world and the individual beings that inhabit it is truly inexplicable–despite any theories made by religion and philosophy, there is no explanation why things happen the way they do.  To rationalize the sickening abuse of a young child or the shocking carnage of genocide as the outcome of a just law of cause and effect is naïve and insensitive.  More importantly, it is unprovable.  The truth is that things simply happen and we have no idea why. 

But when you have self-knowledge, this is not troubling.  The world and its inhabitants, although strange, are known to be an illusion, a dream.  Even when things appear to be happening, nothing is happening at all.  Consciousness-existence is merely existing, ever action-less and unchanged.  Awaken from the dream and know that everything is alright.