A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt.30

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Ashtavakra said:
18:16 – One who has seen brahman meditates, “I am brahman.” What does one who has transcended all thought think, when they see no second?

“One who has seen brahman” is someone with indirect knowledge—they’ve been told about brahman by a teacher or text but they don’t yet understand that they are brahman. Meditating on their identity with brahman is therefore required until they can see for themselves that it’s true. Then they “see no second,” meaning they understand that everything in the universe is none other than their own self. This is self-knowledge, the vision of non-duality, which by definition transcends all thought, seeing as all thought, being based on words and concepts, is dualistic by nature.

18:17 – One who sees distraction in themselves practices control. But the great one is not distracted. Having nothing to accomplish, what do they do?

When you believe that you’re the mind, you identify with its various states. For instance, if the mind is distracted, you think “I’m distracted.” In that case you may attempt to control and concentrate the mind through meditation. But when you become a “noble one” (one with self-knowledge), you see that the mind neither belongs to you nor affects you—as the self you’re never distracted. So as the self there’s nothing to be done because no amount of meditation can change your true nature. But that doesn’t mean meditation suddenly becomes useless for the mind. In that regard it’s always a helpful, healthy exercise that promotes focus and calm—even after enlightenment—should you choose to do it.

18:18 – The one with knowledge is no ordinary person, although they may live like one. They see neither concentration nor distraction nor defilement of their own self.

The one with knowledge is no ordinary person because they know that they’re not a person at all. But that doesn’t mean the body-mind they appear to be will act any differently than an ordinary person. For instance, if a banker realizes that they’re the self, they’ll most likely keep going to work, setting up accounts, giving out loans etc. They’ll still come home, eat dinner and spend time with their family. Outwardly, they appear totally ordinary. But inwardly, the way they think of themselves—as the self—is not like an ordinary person at all.

18:19 – The wise one who is beyond duality is satisfied and free from desire. They do nothing even when they appear to be acting in the eyes of the world.

The meaning of this verse is similar to the one above: the one with knowledge acts like a regular person. But the difference is that they know that they’re always the action-less self, despite the actions of the body-mind.

18:20 – The wise one who lives happily, doing what needs be done, does not feel eagerness either in activity or in inactivity.

When you’re a “wise one,” one with self-knowledge, your perspective on action changes. Knowing you’re not the doer—the body-mind—you can relax a bit and let the body-mind respond to what needs to be done, without excessive concern about what it does or doesn’t do.

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A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 29

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Ashtavakra said:
18:11 – It makes no difference to the yogi whose nature is unconditioned whether they gain or lose, live in society or retire to the forest, rule in heaven or beg for alms.  

“Unconditioned yogi” can be taken two ways.  Literally, it refers to someone that’s assimilated self-knowledge to such a degree that it neutralizes their negative emotions.  In other words, they’re so used to thinking of themselves as the ever-free, unchanging self that they no longer get upset when faced with unpleasant circumstances.  For the record, becoming a person without negative emotions isn’t the objective of Vedanta—it’s a side effect.  The real objective is to see that you’re the self, which isn’t a person in the first place. 

And that brings me to my next point: Metaphorically, “unconditioned yogi” refers to the self.  Since the self isn’t a person, it’s ever unconditioned (unaffected) by the circumstances body-mind finds itself in.     

18:12 – Where is dharma (performance of ritualistic or meritorious works), where is artha (worldly prosperity), where is kama (sense-enjoyment), and where is discrimination for the yogi who has transcended such dualistic notions as “this is to be done” and “this is not to be done”?

Another way to phrase the question is this:  What is to be gained from action when you’ve transcended dualistic notions and realized that you’re the limitless self?  Nothing, because merit, prosperity, pleasure and discrimination (self-inquiry) only apply to the illusory body-mind. Alternately, what action can you perform or avoid when you’re the action-less self, ever-free of the doer (ego)?            

18:13 – The yogi who is liberated while living, has neither attachment nor a sense of duty.  Their actions pertain to the present life only, being merely the effects of his past karma.

In relation to enlightenment, the theory of karma goes something like this:  You have a storehouse of karma accumulated in innumerable past lives.  At birth, a portion of your stored karma manifests to create a body-mind along with the appropriate conditions the body-mind needs to experience the effects of its past karma.  As you go through life identifying with the body-mind, thinking its actions belong to you, new karma is created that will come to fruition in either your present life or a future life. 

But when you realize that you’re actually the self and not the body-mind—the doer of karma—the storehouse of your karma is cleared.  Regardless, the stored karma that’s already been released to create your current life still has to play out, similar to the way that an arrow, once loosed from a bow, has to travel on its predetermined trajectory.  However, since this process is merely the exhaustion of previous karma, it doesn’t create new karma.  And without new karma, there’s no necessity for the future birth of another body-mind to reap the effects.  This is how the actions of a yogi who’s liberated while living only pertain to the present life—their actions are merely the effects of past karma that don’t create the seeds for future rebirth.     

I’m glossing over this topic because frankly, it’s silly.  And my opinion is in accordance with Vedanta texts such as Aparokshanubhuti which say that explaining how karma relates to enlightened beings is only for the benefit of those who don’t understand the nature of enlightenment.  Why?  Because the entire theory of karma hinges on the notion that you’re a body-mind that performs action and experiences it’s effects.  But enlightenment unequivocally negates that notion, showing that you never have been, and never will be, the body-mind.  That means in light of self-knowledge, the theory of karma loses its relevance.   

So you don’t have to destroy your storehouse of karma—you just have to see that it doesn’t belong to you in the first place.  Once you’ve realized that, there’s no reason to explain how and why the body-mind–which never has and never will belong to you– continues to act. 

18:14 – Where is delusion, where is the universe, where is renunciation, moreover where is liberation for the great-souled one who rests beyond the world of desires?

That which “rests beyond the world of desires” is your true nature, the self.  The self, being the sole non-dual reality, is “beyond” (meaning it’s unaffected by) the dualistic illusion of the universe and everything it contains, such as delusion etc. 

18:15 – One who sees the universe may try to deny it. What has the desireless to do? They see not, even though they see.

When you believe the world is real, you may deny it by trying to manipulate it, change it, negate it or outright avoid it.  But when you know the world isn’t real, what is there to deny?  Even though you still experience the world, you know it’s not really there—you see not, even though you see.  With that, the logic behind wanting to manipulate, change, negate or avoid the world is nullified.   And this is immensely freeing because you can approach the world from the standpoint of self-knowledge, knowing that it isn’t some objective problem that needs to be solved.  It just is what it is—a strange illusion—and you’re always okay regardless.     

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A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 28

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I was recently asked why I don’t give more extensive explanations for the verses in this text.  One reason is that the Ashtavakra Samhita is an advanced text that assumes prior knowledge of the subject matter it teaches.  The other is that the most common teaching method of Vedanta is dialogue.  If an inquirer has a question, they discuss it with a teacher so the teacher can help them get the proper perspective on their query.  So if you need further clarification on any of these verses, feel free to ask.      

Ashtavakra said:
18:6 – Illusion ceases and sorrow is dispelled when one sees clearly that their true nature is the self. 

As far as Vedanta is concerned, illusion comes in two basic forms.  The first is the belief that the body-mind and the world it inhabits are real.  The second is the belief that the body-mind, or at least some part of it, is the self. 

By realizing the true self, consciousness-existence, the illusion ceases.  But does that mean the body-mind and the world literally disappear?  Not at all.  They continue just as before.  But despite their continued appearance, you know they’re not real, similar to the way you can realize a dream is unreal while you’re still having it.    

Does knowing that the body-mind and world are like a dream make all sorrow disappear?  No.  Sorrow is part and parcel of the dream.  When you still think the dream is real, you identify with the suffering of the body-mind and think it belongs to you. But when you know the dream is unreal—and that you’re actually the self—you understand that you always have and always will be untouched by sorrow.       

18:7 – Knowing all as mere imagination and the self as free and eternal, does the wise one need to resort to study or practice like a child? 

At the beginning of self-inquiry, the attention of the mind is usually fragmented and projected outward in an attempt to find satisfaction in external situations.  Like a child, it needs training.  In Vedanta, that training usually takes the form of scriptural study and spiritual practice.  Through repeated hearing of the texts and dedication to practices such as meditation and yoga, the mind of the inquirer becomes calm and focused, which allows it to turn ‘inward’ in order to consistently investigate—and hopefully see firsthand—the nature of the self. 

In light of the knowledge, “I am the self,” all scriptures and spiritual practices are seen to be just another aspect of the illusory world—they are known to be “mere imagination.”  At that point they can be given up.  But not before that.  The scriptures and practices are like a boat that helps you get from one bank of the river to the other.  Once you know who you are, you don’t need to keep studying and practicing, the same way that once you get to the other side of the river you don’t need to carry the boat on your head.  But similar to the way you’ll be left treading water if you discard the boat before you reach the opposite bank, you’ll make little to no progress in self-inquiry if you discard study and practice before gaining self-knowledge.   

Does that mean enlightenment isn’t possible for people who don’t do Hindu spiritual practices or study traditional Vedanta texts?  Since I’d have to know the backstory of every enlightened person that’s ever walked the planet in order to answer that, I have to admit that I’m not certain. 

But what I do know is that Vedanta is an excellent tool for discovering your true nature, one that’s helped me and many people I know.  It’s the accumulated wisdom of countless people over thousands of years, so a lot of thought has gone into how it operates.  Because of that I teach the Vedantic method and encourage others to give it fair consideration. If you find another method that works better, great.  Because the point is to get enlightened, not how you get enlightened.     

18:8 – Knowing for certain that oneself is brahman and that existence and non-existence are imaginary, what does one who is free from desire, know, say or do?

The answer is simple:  They know, say and do whatever they feel is necessary with the understanding that as the self, they’re never knowing, saying or doing anything. 

18:9 – For a yogi that knows all is the self, false notions such as, “I am this” or “I am not that” are destroyed.  Such a yogi becomes silent. 

Discrimination, the fundamental practice of self-inquiry, is continuously affirming that you’re the self (“I am this”) while negating your identity with the body-mind (“I am not that”).  Once you’ve negated your identity with the body-mind, inquiry points you towards the vision of non-duality where your viewpoint shifts from, “I am not the body-mind.  I am the self” to “There is only me, the self.  The body-mind is me, but it’s only an illusory appearance of myself that never affects me.”  When this is realized, you “become silent,” meaning you no longer need to practice discrimination, seeing as it employs false dualistic notions like “this” and “that.”         

18:10 – The yogi who has attained tranquility has no distraction, no concentration, no increase in knowledge, no ignorance, and neither pleasure nor pain.

The “yogi who has attained tranquility” is the one who knows that they’re the self.  As the self they’re free from the body-mind and all its states such as distraction and concentration, even though those states continue for the body-mind itself.  So while there’s no happy ending for the body-mind, the one with self-knowledge can rest easy regardless of what condition the body-mind happens to be in.  

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A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 27

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CHAPTER 18: Part One

While a final book version of this commentary is still in the works, I changed my mind and decided to publish the last three chapters online for free.  I’m not saying I’ll never write a book with the intention of selling it (many teachers do), but it always feels a little awkward to set out to create a “product” to be sold rather than giving away the knowledge to those who need it.  Still, studying these texts and commenting on them takes up a great deal of time, so if you find these posts beneficial and you feel inclined to donate to support the ongoing work, I am grateful.  Without further ado…      

Ashtavakra said:
18:1 – Salutations to that peaceful effulgence whose nature is bliss, knowing which all delusion becomes like a dream. 

The self—meaning your true nature—is peaceful insofar as it’s unchanging and free from the activities of the body-mind.  And it’s effulgent—shining—as the light of consciousness that illuminates the body-mind.  When you know you’re the actionless, shining self, any former ideas of thinking you’re the body-mind—or that the world it inhabits is real—become like a dream.  Yes, the body-mind and world remain as they are, but you’ve seen through their illusion. 

18:2 – One can get plenty of enjoyment by acquiring worldly objects. But surely one cannot be happy without renouncing all.

Gaining things in the world gives enjoyment.  But since everything in the world is temporary, the enjoyment never lasts.  So in order to be truly happy—meaning satisfied—you need something to rely on that’s always available and never changes.  The only ‘thing’ that fits the bill is your own self, which luckily, you can never be apart from.  When you clear away the false notions you have about yourself—the main one being, “I am the body-mind”—you see that ironically you’ve been the self the whole time you’ve been futilely searching for satisfaction in the body-mind or the circumstances it inhabits. At that point, you can “renounce all” by turning your attention away from external objects in favor of dwelling on your true nature.  In other words, when life gives you lemons—which it frequently does—you can drink the sweet lemonade of self-knowledge and be content knowing that no matter what, you’re always just fine. 

18:3 – How can there be tranquility for one who has been burnt by the painful sun of doership without the continuous shower of the nectar of happiness? 

When you believe you’re the body-mind, you think, “I have to do such-and-such or avoid such-and-such to be at peace.”  Because of that, you’re continuously scorched by the sun of feeling like you have to do—or not do—something to be satisfied.  What’s the solution?  It’s the nectar of happiness, the ‘lemonade’ of self-knowledge I mentioned in the previous verse.  Because doing or not doing something can never be the solution to the burden of doership—it can only perpetuate the problem.  To be free from doership, you need self-knowledge to see that you’re never the doer in the first place.    

18:4 – This universe is merely imagined.  From the standpoint of the highest reality, it is nothing.  But there is no non-existence for those that discriminate their true nature from both the existent and non-existent. 

A wave is normally thought to exist as a standalone, independent thing.  But when you know the wave is really just an appearance of water, the wave is seen to be “nothing,” as in nothing but water—it has no existence apart from water.  In the same way, the universe usually is believed to be an objective reality.  But when you know the universe is just an appearance of the self, you understand that it’s “nothing,” meaning nothing but your own the self. 

In everyday language, objects in the world fall into the categories of “existent” or “non-existent.”  For example, the sun is existent, while the son of a woman who can’t have children is non-existent.  Or in another context, when the body-mind is born, it’s existent.  And when it dies, it’s non-existent.  Now, if you’re the body-mind, that’s a problem.  But when you discriminate your true nature from both existence and non-existence—which are both just concepts that apply to unreal objects—you understand there can be no non-existence for you, the self.  It’s not as if you find out that you’re a permanently existing object.  Rather, you see that you’re existence itself, the very essence of all conceptually existent or non-existent objects, the same way that water is the essence of all conceptually existent or non-existent waves.             

18:5 – The self which is absolute, effortless, immutable, and spotless, is neither far away nor limited. It is verily ever attained.

The self is never far away because it’s your true nature.  And there’s nothing you can do to become (attain) what you already are.  At best, you can only divest yourself of the notion that you’re the body-mind and appreciate the fact that you’ve been the self all along. 

Note:  The Ashtavakra Samhita is an advanced text that offers little to no supporting logic for its claims—it generally assumes you already know what it’s talking about.  That being the case, it can be a difficult text for beginning to intermediate students.  If you’re such a student, please feel free to contact me for further clarification on verses you don’t understand.  I’m always willing to help sincere inquirers.  

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