A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 17

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Ashtavakra said:
10:1 – Be indifferent to everything:  Give up the enemy of desire (kama), the pursuit of gain (artha) which is inevitably mixed with loss, and their cause, the performance of good works (dharma).   

Desire is a helpful tool for achieving your goals but it’s the enemy of happiness because no one is truly happy when they want something.  Even when desire helps you get what you want, the happiness you feel won’t last because you’ll inevitably lose what you’ve gained.  And in the meantime you still won’t be happy because desires for other things will most likely pop up.  The takeaway here is that happiness isn’t maximized by wanting more.  Rather, it’s by wanting less. 

Since getting what you want is usually accomplished by dharma—here meaning skillful right actions—Ashtavakra recommends giving those up as well since they’ll just lead to more accomplishments which lead to more desire.  But take note that in this verse the dharma Ashtavakra is imploring you to give up is not proper everyday conduct.  That should never be given up, especially if you’re interested in happiness.  If you act like a jerk and break the accepted rules of society, you’ll have so much conflict in your life that happiness will be very difficult to come by.            

10:2 – Rightly understand that friends, spouses, land, houses, wealth, gifts and such other marks of good fortune are like Indra’s Net, a dream that does not last.

The symbol of Indra’s Net is employed by certain schools of Buddhism to represent the interdependent and inherently empty nature of all things.  But that isn’t the case here.  Contrary to Buddhism, Vedanta says that the inherent nature of everything is the fullness of consciousness-existence i.e. yourself.  So in this verse, Indra’s Net is used in the Vedic, pre-Buddhist sense of illusion or magic.  Ashtavakra is pointing out that friends etc. (meaning objects in general) are like a dream—they’re transient and unreal.  This means they’re an unreliable—and therefore unsuitable—source of satisfaction.  Being aware of this allows you to appreciate objects for what they’re worth while not depending on them for contentment, the true source of which is your own self, consciousness-existence.  That’s why self-knowledge should be sought above all else.           

10:3 – Know that wherever there is desire there is samsara (the world). To become content and free of desire, seek recourse in a mature dispassion.

Desire isn’t pleasant.  And reducing desire through mature dispassion—meaning a cultivated sense of objectivity—undoubtedly improves your mental state.  But seeing as 1) desire never truly ends and 2) the true definition of samsara is identifying with the contents of the mind (such as desire), the real solution to samsara is to break identification with the mind altogether through self-knowledge.        

10:4 – Bondage consists of desire itself.  Liberation is said to be the destruction of desire. Only by non-attachment to the world does one attain constant joy.

On the relative level, being a slave to the pursuit of desired objects is bondage and breaking that cycle is liberation.  But truly speaking, bondage consists of self-ignorance alone.  And liberation is either the destruction of that ignorance or the gain of self-knowledge, however you want to think of it.  As pointed out above, gaining self-knowledge is the only solution to desire—it’s the true liberation. 

All the same, non-attachment to the world of objects is a crucial step on the path to self-knowledge.  Why?  Because if you haven’t truly seen that attaining objects won’t solve the problem of desire then you’ll most likely keep seeking them compulsively.  And when that’s the case, you won’t see the value of seeking the real solution: self-knowledge. 

10:5 – You are the one pure consciousness.  The universe is non-conscious and unreal.  Ignorance itself is nothing (unreal / non-existent).  What can you yet desire to know?

Pure consciousness is one—there’s nothing but consciousness.  So from the absolute viewpoint, when you know that you’re consciousness there’s nothing left to know.  At that point, it’s still necessary to learn relative knowledge about the universe since it pertains to your day-to-day life but on the issue of your true nature, the case is closed.  And since you know that the universe is unreal, you don’t take the pursuit of relative knowledge too seriously. 

10:6 – Kingdoms, sons, wives, bodies and pleasures have been lost to you birth after birth—being attached to them has never stopped this from happening. 

Whether reincarnation is real or not, the point of this verse remains true:  holding on to something doesn’t keep you from losing it and grieving for its loss doesn’t bring it back.  Hence, other than pain, there is nothing to be gained from attachment.  For peace of mind, enjoy things while they last.  And when the time comes, let them go.      

10:7 – Enough of wealth, desire and good deeds—they are part of the forest of samsara.  The mind will not find peace in them. 

Samsara is identifying with the body-mind.  And when you identify with the body-mind, it seems like acquiring wealth, fulfilling your desires and doing good deeds will lead to satisfaction.  But unfortunately this isn’t possible because no accomplishment in samsara lasts. It makes sense, therefore, to seek what does last—consciousness-existence.  When you realize that you are consciousness-existence the mind has a reliable source of satisfaction to draw on at all times.    

10:8 – For how many births have you done hard and painful work with body, mind and speech? Therefore cease today.

Striving with the body-mind for even a single lifetime is an arduous task, one that never leads to lasting satisfaction.  Knowing this, it makes sense to ‘cease’ doing work with the body-mind (which includes speech).  But does that mean you should literally stop the mental and physical activity of the body-mind?  No, because refraining from activity is just another activity that continues to presuppose you’re the body-mind.  So to ‘cease’ here means to give up the idea that you’re the body-mind in the first place.   

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A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 16

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Ashtavakra said:
9:1 – What is done and what is not done, as well as the pairs of opposites—when do they cease and for whom? Knowing thus, be indifferent to everything, even renunciation.

Action is defined according to the opposites of good and bad.  And resolving to avoid bad actions is renunciation.  Renouncing bad actions is essential for purifying the mind in order to prepare it for self-knowledge but upon gaining self-knowledge, renunciation loses its meaning.  Why?  Because you see that duality—such as good and evil—is not real.  And furthermore, you understand that as consciousness-existence you’re not the doer.  So you can’t perform any action, good or bad, let alone renounce any action. 

When you know you’re consciousness-existence, does that mean the body-mind you formerly identified with can abandon all notions of decent behavior and start robbing, killing or just being a self-centered jerk?  No.  Because as the verse astutely points out, doership and the pairs of opposites never cease.  They still totally apply to the body-mind, assuming it wants to avoid being an inmate or an outcast from society. 

If you contend that doership and duality cease for you, consciousness-existence, you’d be wrong.  Why?  Because they never applied to you in the first place.            

9:2 – One is fortunate whose desire for life, enjoyment, and learning have been extinguished by observing the ways of the world.

When you observe the world and truly see that everything in it is impermanent, it’s to your benefit to become dispassionate, meaning objective.  Because if everything is impermanent attachment is illogical and unnecessary, assuming you enjoy peace of mind.  But dispassion isn’t cold-hearted stoicism, it’s simply appreciating things while they last and for what they’re worth, never expecting them to give something they can never give e.g. permanent happiness.        

9:3 – Everything is indeed impermanent, spoiled by the threefold affliction of being worthless, contemptible and fit for rejection.  Understand this clearly and you come to peace. 

This verse reinforces the last and it employs a bit of hyperbole.  Are friends and family really “worthless, contemptible and for rejection”?  Well, maybe some people’s family and friends are but really, the meaning here is the same as before: Be clear that nothing in the world lasts; accept that fact and be at peace.  

9:4 – At what time or at what age do the pairs of opposites not exist?  Disregard them and you will attain perfection.

Duality is a problem for people of every age.  But the good news is that anyone at any time can disregard it by seeing that it’s an illusion.  Then you ‘attain’ perfection by seeing that you’re the ever-perfect, undivided self.  Technically, you can’t attain this status because you are, and always have been, the self.   

9:5 – After observing the diverse beliefs of the great seers, saints and yogis, attain equanimity by becoming completely indifferent to them. 

Every religion and philosophy has different views about your true nature.  And since those views often conflict with one another, they can’t all be right.  So at some point you have to investigate the ones that appeal to you and with luck, you’ll find out who you really are.  Once you’ve seen that for yourself, the so-called spiritual quest is over and you can rest easy.  And then the innumerable beliefs of various teachings which formerly seemed bewildering become completely immaterial.  Because what does someone’s opinion matter in the face of firsthand experience and understanding?          

9:6 – A teacher is one who has gained clear knowledge that they are consciousness.  Through indifference, equanimity and reasoning, they help others escape self-ignorance (samsara).

Knowing that you’re consciousness-existence is the most important prerequisite for being a teacher (because how can you teach what you don’t know?).  Your personal behavior, even though it can be an inspiring example to students, is secondary.  So don’t be concerned if your mind isn’t perfectly indifferent and equanimous—after all, self-knowledge is knowing you aren’t the mind in any way.  But if your mind lacks the ability to reason, meaning the ability to employ reason based on the logic of Vedanta, you’re dead in the water (at least as a teacher).  In that case, shut down your website, disband your satsang and quietly enjoy your enlightenment—otherwise you’ll just confuse people.          

9:7 – Look upon all objects as modifications of the elements and abide in your true nature (consciousness-existence) and you will at once be free from bondage.

Anything that changes is unreal.  If all objects—both mental and physical—are simply modifications of the elements (matter), they’re unreal and can’t be you.  Furthermore, as matter they’re non-conscious—another reason they can’t be you.  Once you see that you’re not an unreal, non-conscious object (specifically the body-mind) you’re free from bondage because you know that as consciousness-existence, you were never bound.   

9:8 – Your vasanas alone are samsara. Knowing this, renounce them all. The renunciation of your vasanas is the renunciation of samsara.  Be established [in your true nature] regardless of external circumstances. 

Your vasanas are your personal collection of desires and mental inclinations.  Samsara, in a general sense, is the world.  But more specifically it means the everyday cycle of identifying with objects (specifically the body-mind) and the suffering caused by trying to gain or keep desired objects while avoiding or getting rid of undesired objects.  If you think about it, what’s your personal world comprised of other than what you want, what you don’t want and how you’re inclined to go about getting what you want or avoiding what you don’t want?  In that way, your vasanas are samsara. 

Knowing this, it seems reasonable to try and escape samsara by renouncing or destroying the vasanas.   But this method won’t work.  Because even though you can achieve a significant reduction in desire and a drastic change in your personal inclinations, unless the body-mind is dead, there’s no end to your wants and mental conditioning.  So there’s no end to your samsara.  A different approach is needed. 

Enter Vedanta, which says that to escape the samsara of your vasanas, you simply need to realize that they aren’t your vasanas in the first placeThe mind, the container of all desires and inclinations, is an unreal, transient object.  And it’s not you, consciousness-existence, which is ever-free of the mind and all its vasanas.  So to end samsara, stop identifying with the mind. 

To be clear, working on the mind to rid it of excessive desire and negative inclinations is a very constructive endeavor, one that is an essential preparatory step on the spiritual path.  But it doesn’t equate to self-knowledge which is dis-identification with the mind in general.    

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A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 15

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In Vedanta, the definition of bondage is self-ignorance i.e. believing that you’re the body-mind when you’re actually consciousness-existence.  Liberation, therefore, is 1) The clear understanding that you’re consciousness-existence and 2) The subsequent dis-identification with the body-mind and its various states.  This means from the absolute viewpoint that liberation has absolutely nothing to do with the state of your mind.  Whether it’s angry, desirous, attached and full of egoism or happy, unattached and free of desire and egoism is inconsequential because as consciousness-existence you’re always untouched by the mind.

But on a relative level, a mind burdened with excessive desire, attachment, egoism and negative emotions can be conditionally defined as ‘bondage’ insofar as it’s uncomfortable and generally detrimental to conducting your day-to-day affairs.  In that regard, it’s sensible to be aware of those states of mind in order to manage them for maximum efficiency and mental peace. 

Of course, it could be argued that the mind doesn’t need to be managed because it doesn’t affect you, consciousness-existence.  And that would be completely true.  But if you extend that logic, it could also be argued that if you fall down the stairs and break your leg there’s no need to seek treatment because the body doesn’t affect you either.  Or that there’s no need to go to work or tend to the welfare of your family and friends because it doesn’t matter to you, consciousness-existence.  And that would also be completely true. 

But in the same way that you’d prefer to have a healthy body, keep your job and maintain good relationships with your family and friends, it’s preferable to take care of your mind to ensure that it too remains healthy and happy.  You just do it because it makes sense to do it.  And you do it knowing that you’re always okay, whether or not your efforts bear fruit. 

If, however, you’re satisfied with your mind being miserable, then so be it—it’s your choice.  It doesn’t affect the fact that you’re unchanging consciousness-existence one single bit. 

In this chapter, Ashtavakra discusses what bondage and liberation are from the relative level.  Those interested in mental well-being take note.  For all of you hardcore enlightened beings out there who don’t care, feel free to skip to the next chapter 🙂        

Ashtavakra said:
8:1 – Bondage is when the mind desires anything or grieves at anything, rejects or accepts anything, feels happy or angry at anything.
8:2 – Liberation is when the mind does not desire or grieve or reject or feel happy or angry.
8:3 – It is bondage when the mind is attached to any sense experience. It is liberation when the mind is unattached to all sense experiences.
8:4 – When there is “I,” there is bondage.  But when there is no “I,” there is liberation.  Knowing this, easily refrain from accepting or rejecting anything.

The gist of what he’s saying is that it pays to be objective and dispassionate about your everyday life.  Desire never solved anyone’s problems because it always leads to more desire.  Grief over loss, at least excessive grief, isn’t warranted because it’s the nature of things to be impermanent—losing them is inevitable.  Acceptance and happiness or anger and rejection aren’t necessary because the value assigned to objects to determine whether they should be accepted, rejected etc. is completely relative.  What one person deems worthy of rejection might just as soon be accepted by someone else.  Furthermore, all objects are unreal, and nothing unreal deserves to be the source of real desire, grief, acceptance, rejection, happiness or anger.     

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