A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 14

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Note: This will be the last installment of the commentary until the New Year. 

CHAPTER 6

Ashtavakra said:
6:1 – I am like limitless space and the universe is like a pot.  Knowing this, there is nothing to grasp, renounce or destroy. 

In the same way that space remains unaffected even when a pot seems to limit or divide it, existence-consciousness remains unaffected even when objects seem to limit or divide it.  So when you know you are existence-consciousness, there’s no reason to grasp, renounce or destroy objects because gaining an object, giving up an object or destroying (changing) an object has no effect on you whatsoever.     

6:2 – I am like the ocean and the universe is like a wave.  Knowing this, there is nothing to grasp, renounce or destroy. 

A wave and the ocean are non-different as water, just as the universe and the multitude of objects comprising it are non-different as existence-consciousness.  If everything in the universe is you, existence-consciousness, then there is nothing to grasp, renounce or destroy because you can’t grasp, renounce or destroy yourself.      

6:3 – I am like mother of pearl and the illusion of the universe is like silver.  Knowing this, there is nothing to grasp, renounce or destroy.

Just as there is never any silver in mother of pearl, even though there appears to be, there is never a universe in existence-consciousness, even though there appears to be.  Since the universe, like the silver, is only an illusion, it can’t be grasped, renounced or destroyed because you can’t grasp, renounce or destroy something that isn’t real in the first place. 

6:4 – I am in all beings and all beings are in me. Knowing this, there is nothing to grasp, renounce or destroy. 

“I am in all beings” doesn’t mean that existence-consciousness is contained in living beings like some kind of soul.  Existence-consciousness is only “in all beings” insofar as it is the essence of all beings, the same way that water is the essence of all waves.  “All beings are in me” means that all beings appear in the field of existence-consciousness and are nothing but existence-consciousness, the same way that all waves appear in the ocean and are nothing but water.  The meaning of this verse is similar to the meaning of Verse 2—that everything is you, existence-consciousness, and you can’t grasp, renounce or destroy yourself. 

But there is a subtle difference.  Verse 2 only mentions that the universe is existence-consciousness.  For some this could lead to the idea that only inanimate objects (the material world) are part of existence-consciousness and that living, conscious beings are something else.  But to dispel that doubt, this verse explicitly states that existence-consciousness is the essence of all living beings and that all living beings are “in” existence-consciousness, just the same as the inanimate, material universe.  Reality is non-dual: absolutely everything is existence-consciousness.     

CHAPTER SEVEN

All five verses of Chapter Seven are ideal for contemplation.  Saying them to yourself and thinking about their implications is an excellent practice for gaining confidence in your identity as existence-consciousness.  In a nutshell, each of these verses is saying, “No matter what happens, I am just fine.”  So even if you don’t yet understand how you can be existence-consciousness, repeating these verses to yourself can help you start to take the stance of being existence-consciousness.     

Janaka said:
7:1 – In me, the limitless ocean, the ship of the universe moves about by its own inner wind (nature)—I remain unaffected. 

Like a ship adrift at sea, the world goes about its business, impelled by forces that no one truly understands.  And for many people, that uncertainty can be unnerving.  But if you are existence-consciousness (which you are), then there is no reason to have fear about what happens in the world because it never affects you.  

7:2 – In me, the limitless ocean, the wave of the world—according to its inherent nature—arises and comes to an end.  I gain nothing by its presence nor do I lose anything by its absence. 

In this verse the metaphor is a wave instead of a ship but the meaning is basically the same as in Verse One.  But it does elaborate on what it means for you (as existence-consciousness) to remain unaffected in spite of the appearance of the universe.  Most people want to get rid of what they don’t want and gain what they do want.  But this verse clearly states that in either case you remain unchanged.  So there is no reason to be obsessed about gaining things or overly concerned about losing them.    

7:3 – The universe is merely name [and form], an imaginary concept that appears in me, the limitless ocean.  Despite its appearance I remain formless and at peace.  In this (knowledge) alone do I abide. 

There’s no need to be concerned about the world because it’s just an illusion that appears in you, existence-consciousness.  An illusion can never disturb you or limit you by superimposing its form on you.  For instance, even if you dream that you’re being beaten, your body remains untouched.  In the same way, no matter what happens to you (the body-mind) in the world—either good or bad—as existence-consciousness you remain completely untouched.     

7:4 – I am not an object nor am I within an object.  I am infinite, free from attachment and desire and ever at peace.  In this (knowledge) alone do I abide. 

The only object to really be concerned about in the world is the body-mind because it’s the one that you feels like it’s you.  No one—at least no one sane—worries about being a tree or a refrigerator.  So the question is, “Am I the body-mind?”  Verse Four answers that question by saying you aren’t the body-mind nor are you contained within it.  It never limits you in any way.  And because attachment and desire are purely products of the mind, you are never subject to desire and attachment. 

This means the presence of desire or attachment in the mind doesn’t change the fact that you are existence-consciousness.  The implication here is that you don’t need to completely eliminate desire and attachment to be enlightened.  Being enlightened is knowing that you’re existence-consciousness.  And if you know that you’re existence-consciousness, you know you’re existence-consciousness no matter what’s going on in the mind.     

7:5 – I am consciousness alone—the world is merely a net of illusion.  How and where can there be any thought of rejection or acceptance?

It’s completely normal to reject one thing as bad and accept another as good.  This happens all the time, especially in spiritual life when you determine what parts of your life are good or bad, meaning whether they promote or inhibit spiritual growth.  While those definitions do serve a purpose, at some point they have to be given up, at least on the mental level, the level of understanding.  Why?  Because how can you truly call something good and accept it, or deem something bad and reject it if it isn’t real in the first place?  It would be like saying, “Wow, that soup I dreamed about last night was really good.”  It was never there so it can’t really be good. 

A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 13

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CHAPTER 5

Vedic cosmology posits that creation is cyclical—the universe arises from consciousness-existence and eventually ‘dissolves’ back into consciousness-existence, lying dormant until the time comes for it to arise again.  This dissolution of the universe into consciousness-existence is called laya.  Another meaning of laya is “absorption,” which in relation to enlightenment pertains to the belief that a person attains freedom by merging their ‘relative self’ (the individual soul) into the ‘absolute self’ of consciousness-existence. 

But here in the four verses of Chapter Five, Ashtavakra offers a very different perspective on these traditional notions of laya.  He declares the universe doesn’t need to be physically dissolved into consciousness-existence because it naturally ‘dissolves’ into the consciousness-existence through the understanding that the universe is nothing other than consciousness-existence.  In the same way, the relative self does not have to be literally merged into the absolute self because the relative self—in its true nature as consciousness-existence—already is the absolute self.  And understanding that fact is freedom (enlightenment) because freedom is the nature of the absolute self.                     

Ashtavakra said:
5:1 – You are ever pure and untouched—what is there to renounce? [Knowing this] destroy the collection of matter known as the body-mind and attain dissolution.

The universe is an illusion that never affects you so only the belief that it’s real can be or need be renounced.  And by extension, nothing can be or need be destroyed or dissolved.  But figuratively speaking, by renouncing the belief that the universe is real, the body-mind is ‘destroyed’ through understanding and you attain ‘dissolution’ (freedom from the body-mind).               

5:2 – The universe arises from you like bubbles arising from the ocean. Having known yourself to be one alone, attain dissolution.

All of the objects that comprise the universe are nothing but you, consciousness-existence, in the same way that bubbles arising from the ocean are nothing but water.  Unlike bubbles that literally dissolve back into the water from which they came, the universe is ‘dissolved’ into you by understanding that is none other than yourself.      

5:3 – The universe that appears in you is like a snake being seen where there is only a rope—it is unreal. It does not exist in you who are ever-pure. [Knowing this] attain dissolution.

Just as an illusory snake is ‘dissolved’ upon realizing it is a rope, so the universe is ‘dissolved’ when it is known to be none other than you, the ever-pure self.   

5:4 – You are perfect and changeless in pleasure and pain, hope and despair, and life and death. [Knowing this] attain dissolution.

To escape the uncomfortable duality of pleasure and pain etc., some people may seek a literal dissolution of the universe.  But this isn’t necessary when you understand that duality is merely an appearance that never affects you.      

A Conversation with Ashtavakra Pt. 12

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CHAPTER 4

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

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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. 8

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Janaka said:
2:15 – Knowledge, knower and that which is known—these three do not exist in reality.  Through ignorance, they appear in me, the stainless (the self). 

At first Vedanta says that you, consciousness, are the knower and that all objects known to you—because they are transient—do not really exist.  So why is Janaka saying that the knower doesn’t exist?  Because knowing is also a transient object.  It may seem like Vedanta is contradicting itself but there is a good reason for the teaching to initially describe consciousness as the knower and that is to deny the idea that consciousness could be a known object.  Once that notion is refuted, the idea that you are the knower no longer has any purpose—so the teaching negates it.   

Student:  If my nature is consciousness, how can I not be the knower?  Consciousness is what knows. 

Teacher:  Knowing is an action.  But in Verse 1:12, Ashtavakra explicitly denies all action on the part of the self by calling it “action-less.”  So consciousness can’t be the knower.  At best you can say that consciousness makes knowing possible by ‘illuminating’ knowledge of an object and the knower of that knowledgeAnd it does this without any action on its part because as consciousness, its very nature is ‘luminous.’ 

But this is only a temporary explanation because, being non-dual, there is nothing other than consciousness for it to illuminate.  That’s why the verse says that knowledge, the knower and the known objects don’t exist.  They only seem to exist when the non-dual nature of consciousness is not known.               

2:16 – All misery is rooted in duality.  There is no other cure for it except the realization that all that is experienced is unreal.  I am one alone; I am of the essence of pure consciousness. 

The body-mind is where all suffering—both physical and mental—occurs.  Since the existence of the body-mind, and subsequent identification with it, is only possible owing to a belief in duality i.e. self-ignorance, duality is the root of all misery.  And the only cure for this misery is to understand that the body-mind is not real and that, despite any appearances to the contrary, you are non-dual pure consciousness. 

Now, when you come to this realization, does the body-mind suddenly disappear? No.  Does it stop suffering and experience unending peace and happiness?  Absolutely not.  The body-mind continues just as it did before.  The difference is that you know for certain that the problems of the body-mind are totally unreal and that they do not belong to you in any way whatsoever, similar to the way you understand that the problems of other people’s bodies and minds have nothing to do with you.    

2:17 – I am pure consciousness. I am conceived as limited only through ignorance.  Constantly reflecting on this truth, free from all doubt, I remain established in myself. 

Even when you have no doubt that you are limitless consciousness, habitual thoughts of limitation may continue to appear in the mind, causing negative emotions.  To combat those patterns of limiting thoughts, you simply need to remind yourself of what you know to be true.  In this way you remain ‘established’ in yourself, meaning you get the thinking of the mind in harmony with what you know to be true about yourself.       

2:18 – I am neither bound nor am I free.  Delusion, no longer having a support, has come to rest (ceased).  The universe, though appearing to exist in me, does not in reality exist.

Bondage is only an idea based on the delusion of identifying with the body-mind—in your true nature as consciousness-existence, you can never be bound.  This means, however, that you can also never be free for the simple reason that freedom is also just an idea, the idea of being released from imaginary bondage. 

This may seems like an unnecessary point to make but it isn’t because to say, “I am now free from bondage (ignorance)” is to admit that you were once bound by it, which is itself the product of ignorance!  Granted, it can be figuratively said that as non-dual consciousness-existence you are ‘free’ of the illusory body-mind.  But technically, since both bondage and freedom are purely dualistic concepts—and therefore unreal—you are never affected by either of them.        

2:19 – I have known for certain that there is no such thing as this body and this world.  There is only me (the self), pure consciousness.  [If this is so] on what can the imagination [of the body and world] now be based?

When you understand that everything is yourself, pure consciousness, there is no longer any possibility of imagining the body and world to be real.  The basis of this imagination, ignorance, is gone. 

2:20 – Body, fear, heaven and hell, bondage and freedom—all of these are fictional (imagined through self-ignorance).  What do they have to do with me, consciousness? 

If the body—and by extension, the mind—is imaginary, then there is no real reason to fear since fear always pertains to the state or circumstances of the body, whether it be ‘your’ body or someone else’s.  Regardless of whether the body is in a pleasant state or circumstance such as heaven or freedom, or in an unpleasant state or circumstance such as hell or bondage, it is of no concern to you, consciousness.  Since all of those states and circumstances are unreal, they have absolutely nothing to do with you. 

Now, does this mean that when you know that you’re consciousness-existence that the body-mind should abandon all conventions of the illusory world and step out into a busy street declaring, “There is nothing to fear!”?  Assuming the body-mind does not want to be maimed or killed, no.  Instead, it should conduct its everyday affairs just as it did before enlightenment, but with the understanding that all actions are illusory.  Knowing that, there is no need for undue concern about action and it can be performed for its own sake simply because it needs to be done.  And no matter what the outcome you can have peace of mind knowing that as consciousness-existence, you are always completely fine.