The State of Enlightenment

Hello Everyone. I wanted to say that I am still here despite not updating this site with any regularity. I am still writing and teaching. I am still doing video call consultations. I have also been answering questions about Advaita Vedanta on Quora. If you are interested, you can follow me there.

Here is an answer to a recent question:

Q: When is the state of enlightenment attained? Can it be maintained? How can it happen?

A: If moksha (enlightenment) is, as Advaita Vedanta claims, permanent, eternal freedom, then enlightenment cannot be attained, nor can it be maintained. Why? Because something permanent and eternal is, by definition, uncaused and beginningless and ever-present. Anything that has a cause is merely a temporary effect. Anything that has a beginning has an end. This means that any state of “enlightenment” caused by one’s actions will, by necessity, come to and end. And temporary enlightenment is no enlightenment at all. It is like getting a day pass from prison, only to have to return in the evening.

Does this mean you shouldn’t do anything to “attain” enlightenment? Not at all. But it will be necessary to examine and understand what role action, or karma, plays in the “process” of enlightenment. It will also be necessary to examine and understand your current beliefs on enlightenment to see if what you are trying to accomplish is actually feasible. For instance, if you believe that enlightenment is some kind of blissful spiritual state, then you are going to have to accept that the blissful state of mind you acquire, because it had a beginning, will eventually go away.

If temporary enlightenment is acceptable, then by all means, pursue temporary states of spiritual bliss (they are actually quite nice). But if permanent freedom is your goal, then it pays to eschew temporary states of spiritual bliss in favor of inquiring into what is eternal and permanent.

And what is eternal and permanent? As the Upanishads say, that which is eternal and permanent is Brahman: Infinite, eternal, unchanging pure consciousness and pure existence (satyam-jnanam-anantam). Brahman is eternal because it has no beginning and it has no cause; it is self-existent and self-sustained. The very nature of Brahman, therefore, is permanent freedom. And further, as the Chandogya Upanishad says, “All this (universe) is Brahman alone” and “You are That (Brahman).”

Since you already are Brahman, then you are already free. There is nothing you can do to “attain” or “reach” or “merge” with Brahman because you already are Brahman. The only problem is that you do not know that you are Brahman, you do not know that you are already free. The problem then, is not one of action, acquisition or attainment. It is a problem of understanding.

With that being said, what is the role of action, of spiritual practice and personal effort, in the process of understanding, “I am Brahman”? The purpose of spiritual practice and personal effort is to purify the mind because a mind that is clouded by anger, greed, selfishness, excessive desire and fear is not prepared to understand much of anything, let alone something as subtle and abstract as your non-difference from Brahman. Therefore, Advaita Vedanta teaches that you should wholeheartedly engage yourself in spiritual practice to prepare your mind for self-knowledge, or moksha.

When your mind has been purified, you are ready to receive the teachings that explain how you are Brahman i.e. Vedanta, you are equipped to use reason to remove your doubts (self-inquiry), and then you are able to fully assimilate your doubt-free self-knowledge into your thinking. When you have removed the notion, “I am a body-mind that needs to get enlightened” and replaced it with the knowledge, “I am Brahman” you realize that you were free all along. At that point you see that the spiritual practice and self-inquiry you did was not the cause of your freedom because freedom was already your inherent nature. But ironically, without the spiritual practice and self-inquiry, you would have never known that you were free. This means spiritual practice can never be avoided.

To rule out the doubt that self-knowledge (enlightenment/moksha) is something caused and acquired, and thus impermanent, it is important to point out that self-knowledge is not actually the acquisition of knowledge. Rather, it is the negation of the self-ignorance in the form of, “I am the body-mind. I am born, I suffer, I will die.”

But isn’t the removal of self-ignorance also an action, and thus impermanent? No, because the removal of self-ignorance reveals what already is: Brahman. Because Brahman is eternal, and therefore ever-present, it is never unavailable to be known. And once you have “seen” it (through understanding), you cannot “un-see” (forget Brahman) because it is your very self. In your everyday life, Brahman is completely obvious as Consciousness, meaning that Consciousness is self-evident; it does not require an external means to be known or proved or remembered because it is knowingness itself, and knowingness (Consciousness) is the fundamental basis for all proofs. Because how can you prove anything at all if you are not first conscious?

This means that you do not need to walk around all day saying, “I am Brahman, I am Brahman, I am Brahman” to maintain your self-knowledge because Brahman is completely self-evident, the same way that you do not need to walk around outside all day saying, “That is the sun, that is the sun, that is the sun” to maintain your sun-knowledge because the sun is completely and self-evident. Just as you do not need a second source of light to illuminate and reveal the sun because the nature of the sun is light itself, you do not need an external means to reveal Brahman because it is Consciousness, which by its very nature is the revealer of all things. The point is that Self-knowledge, or rather the removal of self-ignorance, once it has “happened” is not dependent on any action to be maintained. Knowledge is always true to the object of knowledge and Brahman is never not present to be known.

To summarize: Action is a necessary means to purify the mind and enable it to do sustained self-inquiry. Self-inquiry divests you of self-ignorance and reveals what is already true: That you are Brahman, that you are free. You have always been free and you will always be free. Knowing that freedom is your inherent nature is permanent enlightenment because your inherent nature is Brahman and Brahman is uncaused and unchanging.