Does Brahman Have Attributes?

Q: Advaita says that ‘sarvam khalvidam brahma – all this (including all objects, which have form) is brahman’. Therefore, how can we say that brahman is without any attributes at all (including form)? Surely brahman must be both with and without form? Isn’t this what neti, neti means (not this, not that)?

Brahman – pure limitless awareness – is indeed non-dual. The names and forms that apparently exist within Brahman and which seem to be attributes of “it” are essentially nothing other than Brahman and, thus, do not fundamentally qualify, limit, enhance, diminish, change, or in any way effect Brahman’s singular nature. Brahman is sat, or pure being. Brahman is the sole reality. Brahman is all there is. The innumerable names and forms that appear within Brahman – i.e. awareness – are completely dependent upon Brahman for their existence. In fact, Brahman is the “substance” of which they are made. From Brahman’s point of view, therefore, these names and forms are nothing other than itself. A wave is not a characteristic of water; it is water. In the same way, the objects appearing within Brahman are not characteristics of Brahman; they are Brahman.

Though reality – Brahman, or pure limitless awareness – is non-dual, there exists within its scope an apparent reality that is brought about by the power of Maya, or ignorance. Maya is not separate from Brahman, but is rather a power within Brahman by means of which Brahman is able to apparently delude itself – though, to be clear, it should be always borne in mind that Brahman is not a volitional entity who executes actions in accordance with a personal agenda, but is rather a personification of pure, limitless, actionless awareness. Ironic as it is that Brahman should have the power to apparently forget its true nature, were it not capable of doing so it would not be limitless and all-powerful.

Wielding its power of Maya (ignorance), Brahman (awareness) becomes Isvara (the creator) – which is another personified entity that represent the paradoxical “mixture” of awareness and ignorance – who is the omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent “source” of the apparent reality in both its gross and subtle aspects. In short, it is by means of Isvara that non-dual awareness “becomes” the dualistic apparent universe.

This “becoming,” however, is a rather curious kind of conversion, for no fundamental change in the essential nature of the substance actually takes place. Awareness does not transform into the apparent reality in the same way that milk transforms into cheese and thereafter cannot be returned to its original liquid form. Rather, to use a traditional Vedantic analogy, awareness “becomes” the apparent reality in the same way that a spider “becomes” its web. Just as the spider extrudes the silk with which it weaves its web out of its own self and once the web has served its purpose can draw the web back into itself, so awareness through its power of ignorance projects the apparent universe of myriad names and forms “out of” and “upon” its own being without in any way or to any degree altering its essential nature.

As a result of this cosmic “slight of hand,” there apparently arise two distinct orders of reality: satya and mithya.

Satya is what is real, which according to Vedanta is “that which never changes” or “that which cannot be negated.” In short, satya is awareness. And everything else is mithya.

Mithya is everything that exists in satya, all the objects – both gross and subtle – that appear within the scope of awareness, which is the ultimate subject. All such objects and indeed mithya itself are limited and temporary phenomena, impermanent entities that are, moreover, dependent upon awareness for their existence. Take away awareness and all the objects appearing within it as well as the time-space continuum that provides the parameters of the apparent reality itself would cease to exist. In light of its mutable, impermanent, and dependent nature, it is important to note that while the apparent reality does undeniably exist – how otherwise could it be experienced? – it nevertheless is not real. Satya is the sole reality.

While satyam, pure awareness, is the substratum of all names and forms, the subject in which and to which all objects appear, the apparent existence of any object is inextricably bound to the limitations, features, boundaries, and characteristics by which it can be “separated” or singled out from the totality of existence and identified as an individual entity. In other words, the existence of an object is the result of its objectification in relation to a subject who observes it. Since, by definition, the subject cannot be the object – the observer, that is, cannot be what it observes – the only reasonable conclusion that can be drawn regarding the subjective nature of awareness in relation to all perceivable and conceivable objects is that it must necessarily possess no observable or experienceable attributes itself.

Still, though the entire apparent reality is essentially nothing other than pure awareness, there is no denying that the apparent reality is riddled with apparent attributes. So by what means exactly is it that these apparent attributes have been made to appear?

Awareness in its guise as the manifested universe is conditioned by two fundamental upadhis, or limiting adjuncts: Maya and the pancha-koshas, or the five “sheaths” or bodies.

Maya, or macrocosmic ignorance, which ironically is the total intelligence that is Isvara (God the Creator), is responsible for “creating” the entire universe. It projects both the vast array of apparent objects that constitute both the gross and subtle aspects of the universe and the dharmas, or physical, psychological, and moral laws, that govern and sustain the “creation.”

The pancha-koshas, or the five “sheaths” or bodies, comprise the mind- body-sense complex that constitutes the jiva, or the apparent individual. These five “sheaths” are anamaya kosha, the food body composed of the five elements; pranamaya kosha, the five physiological systems – i.e. prana (respiration), apana (elimination), samana (digestion and assimilation), vyana (circulation), and udana (initiation of thought and ejection of the subtle body from the gross body at the time of death); manomaya kosha, the mind, which is responsible for the functions of perception, integration of incoming sensory data to create a coherent singular experience, doubting, and emoting; vijnanamaya kosha, which houses both the intellect, which is responsible for the functions of discriminating, deciding, and directing, and the ego, which is fundamental “I”-thought responsible for the sense of being an separate, independent, volitional doer and enjoyer; and anandamaya kosha, the bliss body, which is governed by the three gunas, or qualities that color all phenomenal objects – i.e. sattva (peace, beauty, and knowledge), rajas (activity, passion, and projection), and tamas (dullness, inertia, denial, and veiling) – and houses all the impressions of past experiences that form one’s vasanas, or behavioral, emotional, and intellectual tendencies based on one’s likes and dislikes, desires and fears, as well as the being the subtlest reflection of limitless awareness and substratum of all experiential peace and happiness.

An upadhi, or limiting adjunct, is a conditioning agent whose characteristics are apparently assumed by the object of its influence. For instance, if a red rose were situated next to a clear crystal and you were asked to identify the color of the crystal based on its appearance, you would assuredly say it was red. Because the crystal has no color of its own, it is able to apparently assume the color of the rose.

Similarly, attributeless awareness is apparently conditioned by the innumerable upadhis, all the objective phenomena – both gross and subtle – superimposed upon it through the projecting power of ignorance and, thus, appears to have attributes. Because these attributes are experienceable within the matrix of the relative apparent reality, they can be said to exist. Enjoying neither an independent nor permanent existence, however, they are not real. Their essential nature, the very fabric of their being, their fundamental reality is pure awareness.

Moreover, pure awareness is not made of parts and, thus, possesses no characteristics, qualities, or attributes. It is a partless whole. Only by means of its own deluding power of Maya does pure awareness appear to assume attributes. In reality, however, awareness alone is.

Discrimination is the Determining Factor

Hello Ted,

Thank you for your thoroughness and swiftness. It’s really invaluable to have someone to talk to about this, and I really appreciate you taking your time to respond, on top of job, family(?), and whatever else you have in your life at present.

The “path” of Vedanta is becoming ever-clearer as I discuss and inquire about it with those in the know. As I continue to study it, and as your answers reflect, the varying, and at times contradictory views, found within Vedantic literature and post-Vedanta philosophy attempting to reconcile and explain it all, seem to entirely be missing the point.

Ted: I know what you mean when you say “post-Vedanta,” but be clear that there is no such thing as post-Vedanta. Vedanta is the means of knowledge that reveals the true nature of existence. It’s not a fad that will one day go out of vogue. Actually, any means of knowledge that reveals the vision of non-duality is technically Vedanta. The teachings of Vedanta, though associated with the scriptural texts called the Vedas, deals with timeless and place-less truth. It is not Indian philosophy. It is the essential reality of all human beings — and all that is, for that matter. When people “see” or know the truth, what they “see” or know is what Vedanta reveals, whether they call it Vedanta or not.

Brent: I continued reading Krishnananda’s commentary on some of the Upanishads (I have a lot of free time on my hands, thankfully) and it seems that rather than presenting a discrete set of philosophical tenets, the teaching is more a way of exploring, through pointers, the seeker’s own experience to guide the them to a recognition of the Self. What I wondered, then, was why no teacher has actually come-out and said this!?

Ted: Actually, this is not the case. I don’t know how Krishnananda presents it, but Vedanta is a very systematic and logically structured analysis of existence. It begins with an analysis of human motivations (purushartas), or what we want out of life and how we go about trying to get it, and proceeds from there through a series of further inquiries to explore (1) why we remain repeatedly unfulfilled by our pursuit of joy through myriad gross and subtle objects, (2) why we need a valid means of knowledge rather than “spiritual” experiences to realize the true nature of the self or reality, 3) what the nature of the self actually is, 4) the qualifications necessary and various yogas, or practices, that will effectively help us cultivate these qualifications and prepare our mind for the assimilation of the knowledge should we not at first grasp it, and 5) how to apply the knowledge to our daily experience in order to not only realize but actualize our true nature — i.e. how to live with firm conviction from the understanding of our true nature rather than falling back into the quagmire of our old erroneous belief patterns and wallowing in the muck of ignorance and the inevitable suffering caused by it.

Though the teacher does meet the student at the student’s present level of understanding and does employ specific teaching methods (prakriyas) to remove the particular doubts arising within the student at a given time, the overall system of Vedanta is quite coherently organized. It is a complete means of knowledge that proceeds from A to Z and gives one an understanding of both the absolute reality that is the self or pure awareness and the apparent reality that is comprised of the innumerable objects — both subtle (thoughts and emotions) and gross (physical objects) — appearing within it.

Initially, Vedanta shows the student through self-inquiry how to discriminate between what is real, which Vedanta defines as “that which cannot be negated” or “that which never changes,” and what is only apparently real, which Vedanta defines as “that which is dependent upon something else for its existence.” This discrimination is the basis of self- inquiry and ultimately self-knowledge. It is called atma-anatma-viveka. Atma refers to the self, awareness, or what is real. Anatma refers to that which exists but is not real because it changes and is dependent upon awareness for its existence. Viveka is discrimination, which in this case is the discrimination between the real and the not-real. It is important to note with regard to this distinction that Vedanta does not deny the existence of the apparent reality. It does exist and is, undoubtedly, experienced. It simply is not real. The ability to make this discrimination is essentially what sets one free. Once you know who you really are and that you, yourself, are the fundamental security, the true source of the joy you seek in objects, and that your nature is unconditional love (which is not, not, not something you do or feel, though your actions and emotions will be influenced by your recognition of it, but something you are), then you will no longer be duped into believing that anything “outside” yourself can enhance, diminish, or otherwise change you in any essential way. Rather than seeking peace and happiness outside yourself, you will cut out the middle man, so to speak, and go directly to the source of joy, which is yourself — not Brent, mind you, but pure awareness. And, since the relative cause of suffering is unfulfilled desire (the real cause being ignorance, the belief that one is incomplete and inadequate because of which one’s desires arise), suffering is essentially eradicated because one is never without access to oneself, which in fact need not be “accessed” at all because quite simply it is what you are.

Once one knows one’s true identity and can discriminate between what is permanent, and thus real, and what is impermanent, and thus not-real or only apparently real, then one is mature enough to understand the more fundamental truth of non-duality, the simple fact that one is all that is, and yet at the same time free of all that is. Though all objects — i.e. everything that exists — dependent upon me, awareness, for their existence, I as limitless awareness am ever free of all objects. Whether objects appear or do not appear, I remain completely unaffected. Whether objects appear or do not appear, I always am.

That said, there is a teacher who lays out the whole system in logical order and thoroughly explains it: James Swartz. I don’t want to sound like a huckster here, but if you are serious about wanting to undertake a study of Vedanta, engage in the practice of self-inquiry, gain self-knowledge, and attain moksha, or liberation, then I strongly, strongly, strongly recommend that you purchase a copy of James’ book, “How to Attain Enlightenment” (you can get it on Amazon), and read it cover-to-cover. If you choose to do this, be sure to read the book slowly, chapter-by-chapter in the order they are presented, and to sign on with the logic of each chapter before moving on to the next. In this way, you will subject yourself to the systematic methodology that is Vedanta. Moreover, I recommend you do this before we continue our correspondence. I am not blowing you off when I say this. I thoroughly enjoy our dialogue. But you will find that many of your doubts will be answered in the book, and then we can focus on any particular sticking points that still remain after you have been exposed to the overall teaching. Your familiarity with the book and the fundamental concepts, terms, and analogies employed by Vedanta will give us, as well, a common language that will lend our dialogue added precision and clarity and, thus, make it ultimately more fruitful with regard to helping you assimilate the teachings and thereby gain self-knowledge and freedom, which after all is the whole point.

Brent: Instead, what Krishnananda went on about was just posing various philosophical explanations about the origins of the universe and then, as soon as introducing them, negating their very truth, while also pointing to the omni-present Self.

Ted: I haven’t read Krishnananda, but who actually knows about the origin of the universe? Even the Vedantic model, called panchikaranam, is only a model. The import of creation theory with regard to Vedanta is to illustrate how pure awareness, Brahman, the self — i.e. you — pervades every aspect of “creation” and to thereby establish the non-dual nature of existence.

Brent: You also said something about “no suffering.” This is a big one for me, being a Buddhy and having a deeply personal interest in this body/mind, but I continue to hear so much conflicting information as to what the actual fruits of enlightenment are. What do you mean by suffering? In Theravadan Buddhism it is quite clear: the arising of greed, hatred, or delusion within the mind – these qualities cause what most people define as suffering, or a sense of dissatisfaction and unpleasantness.

Ted: You know what suffering is. Suffering is the same for everyone, Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Muslim, or whatever. There is a difference, however, between the Buddhist and the Vedantic approach to suffering.

Buddhists believe that desire or craving is the fundamental cause of suffering and, therefore, focus on removing all desires or cravings. For this reason, Buddhists become preoccupied with ethical behavior, mental purity, and making the world a better place, and focus primarily on practices through which they can cultivate these traits and contribute to the betterment of the world. And while such a focus does sound righteous and highly lauded in the spiritual world, it nevertheless has a fundamental flaw that interferes with the understanding of the true nature of reality and ultimately stands in the way of liberation. Placing so much focus on the individual’s predicament, condition, and improvement only serves to reinforce the idea that the individual is real. In this way, the individual never gets free, for no matter how virtuous one becomes there is always room for improvement.

Vedantins agree that desire or craving causes suffering, but disagrees with the notion that desire or craving is its fundamental cause. Vedanta points out that desire is the result of ignorance, and therefore ignorance is the true culprit. For the reasons I previously mentioned, once one knows one’s true nature, one will no longer be troubled by “binding” desires. Vedanta asserts that desire is part of human nature and will never fully abate, and moreover that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with desire itself. In fact, we would not survive without desire. Desire only becomes a problem when we are bound by it, when its demands become commands that we are compelled to obey, sometimes even in lieu of our better judgment. Vedanta, therefore, places its emphasis not on self-improvement, but on self-knowledge. Knowledge, not action, removes ignorance. And it is only once ignorance has been removed that the problem will be solved. Self- knowledge neutralizes one’s binding desires, and, moreover, by means of the discrimination between the real and the not-real, eradicates one’s sense of doership, for no unreal entity can actually be executing action. Only when such knowledge has dawned will one’s innate freedom be recognized. Then everything else will naturally fall into place. Hence, according to Vedanta, liberation is not for the individual, but from the individual. This doesn’t excuse adharmic or immoral behavior or alleviate one’s responsibilities, but simply frees one from the feeling that one is bound to it and limited by it. Hence, one can continue to play one’s role in the grand cinematic extravaganza, the three-dimensional kaleidoscopic hologram presented in “Sense-a-round” that constitutes the apparent reality, while simultaneously enjoying one’s innate freedom as whole and complete, limitless, actionless, ordinary, unborn, ever-present, all- pervasive, non-dual awareness.

Again, read the book, and all will be revealed.

Brent: Thank you again for your time and thoughts.

In thanks,


All the best to you, my friend.


A Thorn to Remove a Thorn

Dear Mr. Schmidt,

I am considering devoting myself to Advaita, but am highly sceptical as well and taking my time to thoroughly understand it and resolve my doubts before diving in.

Ted: Sounds wise. But, as you will see if you decide to stick with it, it will be Vedanta that resolves your doubts. The mistake people often initially make when deciding to expose themselves to the teachings of Vedanta is to measure those teachings in light of what they already know. The irony is that if what you already know was capable of setting you free, it would have already done so and you would no longer be searching for an answer through Vedanta. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t duly consider your commitment to any spiritual “path” before undertaking a study of it, but just that as you expose yourself to the teachings of Vedanta try to set aside your preconceived notions and previously accrued understanding so that you can truly “hear” what Vedanta has to say. Vedanta is the oldest means of knowledge known to mankind (Buddhism, in fact, is referred to as “a chip off the tooth of Vedanta”), and it has set countless seekers free for thousands of years. Given its track record, it might be wise to give it the benefit of the doubt.

Brent: To give you some personal background, I’m coming from a highly- speculative, pragmatic take of Theravadan Buddhism, but the beauty and robustness of Vedanta and Shwartz’s articulation of it “got me,” though.

Ted: Sounds like you’re ripe for knowledge. If so, you’ve come to the right place.

Brent: His statement in “What is Advaita?” has me both baffled and intrigued. He said that, “Vedanta is not philosophy, it is a means of knowledge,” and yet, it appears to me that all of the discussions of Vedanta and expositions use philosophy and logic and analysis to validate itself – how is this not philosophy?

Ted: What James means when he says that Vedanta is not a philosophy is that it is not a system of thought that was cooked up by human beings.

Vedanta is referred to as apurusha-jnanam, knowledge that did not come from a human being. Vedanta is revealed knowledge. What that means is that ancient seekers just like you and me had revelatory insights concerning the non-dual nature of reality and the limitless nature of the self. These seekers came to be known as rishis or “seers” because they did not hypothesize or imagine or otherwise think up the understanding which came to them. They “saw” it or “heard” it or otherwise realized it. Over time, perhaps hundreds or even thousands of years, there were enough accounts of such insights that people were able to weed out the personal biases and discrete experiences and retain only the bare-boned knowledge that is the truth of existence. In short, Vedanta has been thoroughly vetted and now rests before us as a gleaming jewel of pure wisdom.

Moreover, Vedanta is not a philosophy that simply seeks to explain the nature of reality. Vedanta is a means of knowledge that is employed according to a systematic methodology that if followed from beginning to end will set the student free. The assertion that Vedanta inevitably lead to self-realization and set the student free the wheel of samsara — i.e. end one’s existential suffering — is based on the criterion that the student is qualified to assimilate the knowledge. If the student is not qualified, however, Vedanta doesn’t leave one out in the cold or cast one aside. As a means of knowledge, it provides as well the methods by which one can become qualified. The point is that rather than being simply theory and argument, Vedanta is a means of knowledge based on a practical methodology — i.e. atma-vichara, or self-inquiry — that leads one step-by- step to liberation.

Brent: Take this, for example, from Krishnananda’s Introduction to the Upanishads:

This is a very important point at the rock bottom of our thinking that we have to recognise. If everything is changing, who is it that is telling us that everything is changing? Are we also changing with the things that change? If that is the case, how do we come to know that all things are changing?

Logical analysis of this peculiar analytical circumstance tells us that there is something in us which does not change; otherwise, we would not know that things are changing.

Contained within his logic is an apparent contradiction: How can something which is unchanging know that which changes? If something is unchanging, then that quality, logically, can have no connection to or with what is changing. If something “knows” something, however, then it must be subject to the same conditions in order to effect it. The only point at which the teachings of Vedanta do not have internal contradictions (ie, there is no change, all there is is Brahman) is the point at which it most drastically contradicts the stance of the aspirant.

So then is the student, during the unfolding of Vedanta, supposed to look the other way when it comes to these contradictions in the teachings? Does that leave much room for integrity?

I find myself continuously stuck on the fact that all philosophies leave you at extremes and have a lot of difficulty wrapping my mind around the unfolding of Vedanta. It just seems highly philosophical and bound-up in apparent contradictions as it attempts to explain or point at the absolute. I tried rereading the article, especially the section, “Vedanta is not a School of Thought,” but still am struggling with the above questions.

Ted: I’m not exactly sure where Krishnananda’s comments end and yours begin, but with regard to you doubt about the apparent contradictions in the scriptures/teachings it doesn’t really matter.

Here’s the lowdown.

As mentioned, Vedanta is a systematic means of knowledge. Its fundamental teaching methodology is adhyaropa-apavada, or superimposition and negation. The beauty of Vedanta is that it meets the student at the student’s present level of understanding and then takes him or her from there to the understanding of the truth. Invariably, students begin their inquiry under the assumption that reality is a duality and that they are separate, unique, volitional individuals. Such being the case, it is highly ineffective — as Neo-Advaita has proven — to simply tell the student that he or she is whole and complete, limitless, actionless, all-pervasive, ever-present, non-dual, attributeless awareness and that everything is exactly perfect exactly as it is and he or she has no cause for suffering or grief and that he or she should simply wake-up and get it and end the search and thereafter enjoy life without a care in the world. This is the truth, but the student is probably not yet ready to understand it. If he or she was, he or she wouldn’t be still seeking.

So what Vedanta does is grants the seeming reality of duality that currently characterizes the student’s vision and the apparent predicament of incompleteness and inadequacy that the student suffers and then systematically debunks the erroneous notions the student harbors through a logical analysis of the student’s very own previously unexamined (or, as may be the case, inaccurately examined) experience. In this way, the student is “shown” the reality rather than simply being told of it. Consequently, the student owns the knowledge rather than simply believing in it. In the context of this methodology, what the teacher says about reality at one point or to one student may differ significantly from what he or she says at another point or to another student. It all depends on where the student is at in his or her understanding. Hence, the reason for most of the apparent contradictions in the scriptures (the others arising from the fact that language is inadequate to comprehensively describe limitless, actionless, all-pervasive, attributeless, non-dual awareness and so such descriptions as “It is bigger than the biggest and smaller than the smallest,” which indicates the all-pervasive nature of awareness — i.e. the self — are used). The analogy that is often used to describe the process of superimposition and negation is that of using a thorn to remove a thorn.

Finally, when the last thorn is removed, the thorn used to remove it is thrown away as well.

Brent: Any further thoughts would be greatly appreciated. Thank you again for your time and your consideration.

In gratitude,


Ted: My pleasure, Brent. Please feel free to contact me anytime if you have any further questions.

A Litany of Lakshanas

Dear Ted,

I have been chanting the mantra of self-knowledge as enjoined by our teacher, Ramji, and find myself elaborating on it as I go along. This is how it came out today:

I am One, whole and complete, all knowing, un-concerned, objectless, ever present, all pervading, self-luminous, unlimited, actionless, non-dual awareness.

Ted: As Ramji says, there is scripture being written today!

Artaud: The words, ‘all knowing’ and ‘objectless’ crept into the mantra today. I was wondering if you see fault with that terminology and if so what your reasoning would be. As I look at it, I see that if awareness is objectless, then there would be nothing to pervade, but as Awareness knows only itself then it would be true, correct? But would that then make the adjective, ‘objectless’ redundant?

Ted: Impeccable understanding, Artaud. And who cares if it’s redundant? I mean if you want to get technical once you’ve stated that you are whole and complete, the entire litany of adjectives that follow are unnecessary.

But that doesn’t mean I would cut them out. I developed a similar mantra myself — illumined minds think alike, eh? :- ) — and it is more extensive than this one, so I’d say keep adding on as you feel so inspired.

That said, it is great that you are alert to the implications of these lakshanas, or pointers that indicate un-indicate-able attributeless, non-dual awareness.

In that vein, my only comment is to be clear — and your reasoning implies that you are — that awareness is self-aware, but not in the way that a subject is aware of an object. “Its” “awareness” is rooted in the fact that “it” is self-evident. In other words, it knows itself because it is itself. It doesn’t need a mind to know itself. Neither does it know itself as a discrete experience, or by any experience for that matter. Whether objects appear (but, as you indicate, are understood as having no independent objectivity, nature, or existence of their own) or do not appear, awareness always is.

With love and humility,


Much love and respect to you, Artaud.


A Judicious Degree of Wiggle Room

I have read the book, “How to Meet Yourself.” I understand, I think, about desire, that it’s a searching for a return to our natural state of happiness that we are already. But when around women or just bored I start moving toward pornography to get relief from the desire. How exactly can I just access this happiness? Do I not take the desire seriously and not look at women or do I need a more practical way to cope and not go down this spiritual route, so to speak?

All desire is rooted in ignorance of one’s true nature. You already are the happiness that you are seeking through the fulfillment of your desires. Such being the case, the desire for objects – both gross (i.e. material wealth, relationships, physical health, etc.) and subtle (i.e. status, mental and emotional states, etc.) – that you believe will bring you lasting peace of mind or permanent fulfillment is gratuitous. No object or action, which is itself an object (i.e. observable phenomenon), can give you what you’ve already got.

Moreover, it should be understood that what you are is not a state of being. All states are experienceable and, as such, are limited objects, for all objects/experiences begin, continue for a given period of time, and inevitably end. The nature of all objects – indeed, the entire apparent reality itself – is change or impermanence. All states are, therefore, nothing more than ephemeral phenomena. You, however, are not a temporary entity. You – awareness – do not come and go. The body comes and goes. The emotions come and go. The thoughts come and go. But you remain ever-present throughout their appearance and despite their disappearance. You do not begin when any of these factors first “show up.” You do not end when any of these factors “shut down.” You are the awareness out of which all objects arise, in which they abide, and back into which they subside. You are the eternal witness who remains ever untouched by all that seemingly transpires within its scope. Though the entire apparent reality thus depends upon you in order to be, of it you – limitless, attributeless awareness – remain forever free.

On top of this, it is a common misconception that the happiness to which Vedanta refers as one’s fundamental nature is experiential. In other words, many seekers harbor the erroneous notion that once they know the self, a perpetual smile will grace their face and they will always be in a good mood. Though I hate to be the bearer of bad news, this is simply not so. The whole idea, which is quite ludicrous within the context of a non-dual reality, is based on a misinterpretation of the Sanskrit word ananda. Though ananda does mean “bliss,” it is rooted in the word ananta, which means “eternal” and is a much more appropriate term with which to indicate the self – i.e. limitless awareness. Given the inherent incapability of language, which is conceptually oriented, to comprehensively denote that which is at once both formless and all-pervasive, both ananda/bliss and ananta/eternal are misleading terms for the self, lending as they do experiential and temporal qualities respectively to attributeless, unborn awareness. Ananta/eternal is the more appropriate of the two terms, however, if it is understood to mean that the self exists altogether beyond time and space, which are only yet two more objects – albeit extremely subtle ones – appearing in awareness. This limitlessness is your true nature. Admittedly, self-knowledge can and most often does have a positive impact on the apparent individual’s emotional state, because quite simply freedom feels good. The fact remains, however, that the happiness that is said to be the inherent nature of the self manifests experientially as a rock solid conviction in one’s essential inviolability as pure awareness, the hard and fast knowledge that nothing can enhance, diminish, or otherwise affect you that results from the removal of ignorance concerning one’s true identity and the assimilation of self-knowledge. It does not mean that you will rollick through life happily ever after in a perpetual state of grins and smiles and giggles and laughs. Reality, remember, is non-dual, which means that bad moods are just as much the self as good ones.

In light of this, desire itself is not a problem per se. In fact, desire is actually nothing other than awareness or the self in subtle form. As Krishna – a personification of pure awareness – says in the Bhagavad Gita, “I am the desire that is not opposed to dharma.”

Dharma is the collection of universal physical, psychological, and moral laws that govern both the gross and subtle aspects of the apparent reality and ensure that the mechanism of the universe runs smoothly and maintains its overall balance. In this sense, dharma is the coordinating factor that determines the chain of cause-and-effect that we refer to as karmic consequence, or the idea that “what goes around comes around.” Dharma is completely impersonal. It is simply the law that determines the outcome of action. For instance, exposing water for a certain length of time to a temperature below freezing will cause the water to harden into ice. Bad-mouthing someone with a violent disposition may very well elicit from the person a punch in the nose. The higher up the food-chain we go, the more subtle and myriad the factors become that influence the outcome of action, but dharma is infallible. Were we able to account for every factor involved in any event, we would see that nothing happens by chance. Everything occurs due to the precise and predictable operation of dharma. When we observe and act in accordance with dharma, positive results are produced. When we disregard and violate dharma, negative results nip back at us. Though these results are not always immediately forthcoming, they do inevitably arrive for a shorter or more extended stay in our lives and impact us to a greater or lesser degree depending upon the intensity of the action that initiated them.

Such an understanding of dharma enables one to see the truth in Krishna’s words. Desire itself is neither desirable nor undesirable. We need desire. None of the scientific discoveries and inventions, none of the artistic accomplishments and innovations would have occurred without the impetus of desire. In fact, without desire, there would literally be neither jagat, the apparent reality nor jiva, the apparent person you take yourself to be, for both the macrocosmic vasanas – God’s vasanas, we might say – that have projected the universe as well as the microcosmic vasanas that have associated with and express through a particular jiva’s mind-body- sense complex and thus “create” the apparent individual’s unique experience are essentially nothing other than desires.

The fundamental dharma of a seeker of truth, however, is to remain focused on the pursuit of self-knowledge through the persistent and continuous practice of self-inquiry. Within this context, lust can be seen as an adharmic behavior because is agitates the mind and “extroverts” its attention toward an objects (i.e. women, fantasies, sex) that inherently incapable of producing permanent happiness and lasting fulfillment. It is not that sexual desire is “bad,” but simply that it obstructs one’s non-dual vision (i.e. understanding), impedes one’s ability to discriminate between the real and the apparent, prevents one from remaining dispassionate, and obliterates one’s peace of mind.

Desire itself, therefore, is not the problem. Ignorance is the real issue, the underlying initiator of all the agitation that upsets the subtle body (i.e. the aggregate of mind, intellect, and ego). Ignorance is the disease, so to speak, and gratuitous desire merely its symptom.

In order to effectively deal with the disturbances seemingly caused by desire – lust, in this case – it is helpful to understand how desires develop and how unconscious compliance with their demands reinforces their dictatorial hold over our thoughts, words, and deeds.

Desires sprout from the fertile soil of the subconscious mind, or what Vedanta calls the Causal Body. The seeds from which they spring are the subtle impressions sown as a result of one’s past experiences. These subtle impressions are called vasanas. And these impression-based vasanas inevitably manifest as our tendencies and proclivities, our likes and dislikes, our attractions and aversions, our desires and fears.

Regarding the vasanas, it is important to understand that they are part and parcel of being a person and neither can nor need be completely eradicated. Vasanas are the inescapable remnant of experience – at least until you are set free from the experiencing entity you take yourself to be through the assimilation of self-knowledge. As long as you are an apparent person, you will have vasanas. In fact, the only reason you are the apparent person you appear to be is by virtue of the vasanas. The vasanas not exhausted in a previous lifetime find their way “into” or associate with a “new” mind-body-sense complex through which they can seek expression. In this way, vasanas are what set your prarabdha karma (i.e. the actions you are programmed to execute during the lifetime of the apparent person you currently take yourself to be) into motion and see it through to its end. Despite what some spiritual paths would have you believe, it is therefore neither desirable nor necessary to rid yourself of all desire, for had you no vasanas the apparent person you take yourself to be would have no life.

Ironically, the vasanas are impersonal and not under your control. You, the apparent person, did not choose the vasanas that influence – and most often compel – your actions. While your current indulgence of or resistance to them does serve to either strengthen or weaken their command, you did not consciously choose the preferences and proclivities associated with the apparent person you take yourself to be. What you as an apparent person consider your vasanas are actually Isvara’s vasanas expressing through a mind-body-sense complex “created” by Isvara in the first place precisely for that purpose. Understanding this fact, however, doesn’t mean that you throw caution and common sense to the wind and wantonly seek to fulfill all your desires without conscience, courtesy, compassion, or any sense of self-control. To the contrary, it allows you to take a dispassionate attitude toward your vasanas and rather than denying or repressing them temper their expression with an attitude of intelligent moderation.

As an apparent person you do have apparent free will and with it a modicum of influence within the complex web of factors that influence the results of any action that you can use to cultivate the kind of vasanas that are conducive to practicing self-inquiry and assimilating self-knowledge. Though you have no control over the desires and fears that arise within you, you can control how you respond to their demands and, thus, the degree of influence you continue to allow them over your life. As mentioned earlier, it is not necessary to completely eradicate all desires. What is important – assuming you seek self-knowledge and freedom from suffering – is to neutralize those binding vasanas (i.e. those whose directives you cannot resist) that extrovert your mind and prevent you from appreciating the innate fullness and inherent freedom that are your true nature.

With regard to the issue of sexual desire specifically, there are two practical approaches you can take to neutralizing its powerful influence over your mind.

The fundamental practice is to continually contemplate the inherent defects in object-oriented happiness. When you eventually realize that all joy that seems to come from objects offers only temporary relief from craving, and moreover that every indulgence in and experience of object- oriented pleasure only produces a vasana that exacerbates the desire, the allure of such counterfeit contentment drops away of its own accord. If this practice is coupled with the understanding that all objective joy is actually due to the dissolution of extroverting desire that ensues when you are momentarily satisfied with your lot and allow yourself to simply rest in the peace and happiness that are your true nature, your binding desire for objects quickly abates and eventually dissolves altogether. Fundamentally, “accessing” your innate happiness is a matter of knowledge. Putting stock in discrete transcendental experiences and spiritual epiphanies – or, for that matter, sexual gratification, which is itself a sort of transcendental bliss – only serves to maintain the separation of subject and object and leads to inevitable infatuation with such states and repeated frustration over not being able to indefinitely sustain them. Only knowledge can reveal that you’ve already got that which you so desperately seek to get over and over again. A whole-hearted commitment to self-inquiry under the guidance of a qualified teacher, therefore, is the most effective method by which to gain self-knowledge, permanently put an end to mental and emotional agitation and overall existential angst, and abide in the peace and happiness of pure awareness, which is you.

Because the vasanas are not going to simply vanish into thin air, it is vital that, in conjunction with a committed practice of self-inquiry, you also observe the dictum of the great modern Vedantin, Swami Chinmayananda, who urged seekers to “sin intelligently.” Keeping the goal of self-realization and freedom from samsara firmly in mind, you mindfully indulge those desires you cannot resist in moderation and allow yourself to enjoy “earthly” pleasures to the extent that they remain non-binding. The moment notice them beginning to burden your mind with agitation, bully you about with their demands, or blossom into gluttonous behavior, however, you restrict their diet, so to speak, until they have returned to a manageable size. Though it is a popular trend among serious spiritual seekers to embrace the practice of renunciation, too often this practice is misconstrued as simply a matter of ridding oneself of worldly possessions and refusing to perform certain profane actions. True renunciation, however, is fundamentally an attitude of dispassion resulting from both the knowledge that the self – i.e. pure awareness – was never attached to nor ever owned any object in the first place and the repeatedly reinforced realization that no object is capable of delivering anything more than temporary peace and happiness. In this regard, it is important to understand that neither denial nor repression is an effective means of neutralizing binding desires. Though you might be able to willfully restrain yourself from indulging them for a period of time, such powerful desires will inevitably erupt out of the Causal Body, agitate the Subtle Body, and express through the Gross Body, quite often in inappropriate and even adharmic ways. Figuratively speaking, denial and repression serve only to lock the monster in the dungeon, but fail to do away with it altogether. The moment the bolts of your willful control loosen, the monster breaks free and resumes wreaking havoc. It is best, therefore, to allow your wants a judicious degree of wiggle room until such time as self-knowledge finally lays them to rest.

A Game of Hide-and-Seek

Hi Ted,

My wife and I met you at James’ Trout Lake retreat.

I wanted to share this with you as a way to begin a dialogue if you have the time. I know you have begun your busy school year so I understand if your time is limited.

Last night I bought a homeless person some food. Sounds simple, and it was, in the end, but after reviewing the whole event afterward, it was interesting to look at all the drama that went on inside Tracy’s head.

Ted: Sounds like your assimilation of the teachings is taking hold since you are able to so readily make the discrimination between the apparent individual — i.e. Tracy — and you — i.e. pure awareness. This fundamental discrimination, which Vedanta refers to as atma-anatma-viveka, or the discrimination between the self and the not-self, between the real and the apparent, is the basis of liberation provided that it neutralizes one’s binding vasanas and cancels the sense of doership/enjoyership, the sense of being a separate, independent, volitional entity.

Tracy: I had just ordered some takeout food for myself and was waiting outside the restaurant while my order was being prepared. The restaurant was in a little strip mall with other restaurants and a convenience store so there was lots of activity. A young woman approached me and asked if I had a couple of dollars I could spare. As it was, I did not have any cash and told her so. She was very disappointed and I felt there was something dark and desperate about her. I continued to watch as she moved around the parking lot asking others for money and not receiving any. Mostly people just ignored her. She began to cry openly. I suddenly got the strong notion to buy her some food but didn’t immediately act because I was afraid of how I would be perceived by all the other people that were coming and going and who were also aware of this woman’s suffering. I had a strong message to act but I was frozen by vasanas, and illogical fears. It was quite an interesting little drama going on inside my subtle body.

Ted: You hit the nail on the head with this observation. The subtle body is basically a Broadway stage — or perhaps in your case I should say a Hollywood movie set 🙂 — on which Maya’s never-ending story plays out.

Actually, it is more accurate to say that Maya (macrocosmic ignorance) as wielded by Isvara (God the Creator, or the personification of the Macrocosmic Causal Body) is the stage/set itself, and the apparent individual’s avidya (microcosmic or “personal” ignorance) is what projects the vasana-based interpretations upon the “creation” that basically constitute one’s experience. Isvara’s projection/”creation” is completely sattvic, and being so it is value neutral. The apparent individual’s vasanas are composed of combinations of various degrees of the three gunas and, thus, superimpose rajas and tamas upon the purely sattvic “set” of the apparent reality, which color it according to the values with which the apparent individual programmed and by which he or she has been conditioned.
Both Isvara’s projection of the apparent reality and the apparent individual’s interpretation and consequent experience of that “creation” are the effects of Maya (macrocosmic ignorance) and are only apparent in the sense that neither is permanent. The individual’s vasana-based interpretation of the apparent reality, however, while fundamentally rooted in macrocosmic ignorance, is a second “layer” of personal or microcosmic ignorance (avidya) that is projected upon the apparent reality.
Tamas, which is a veiling or concealing energy, blinds the apparent individual to the true nature of the apparent reality, and rajas, which is a projecting energy, compels the apparent individual to superimpose his or her vasana-based interpretations upon the objective world. The point is that when under the spell of ignorance nothing about the apparent individual’s understanding and experience of the world is real. It is all one elaborate drama. I like to refer to it as a high-definition, three-dimensional, kaleidoscopic, holographic, cinematic extravaganza presented in sense- around. And it all takes place in the theater of the subtle body.

It is important to note that the individual’s vasanas were not of his or her own making. In other words, the apparent individual did not create or choose his or her vasanas. The vasanas stored in the apparent individual’s Causal Body are actually the property of Isvara. In fact, there is really only one Causal Body, which is a gigantic storehouse of all the vasanas that comprise the apparent creation and compel the apparent beings that inhabit it to act as they do. The vasanas that one considers one’s own are only those vasanas existing within the Macrocosmic Causal Body with which one’s mind-body-sense complex — i.e. one’s subtle body — identifies, so to speak. And who caused this identification? Isvara. It is true that the apparent individual has been imbued with apparent free will by means of which he or she can execute actions that will strengthen or weaken his or her vasanas, but even the sense of personal will and the choices one makes while apparently wielding it are essentially determined by Isvara. This understanding does not negate one’s responsibility with regard to exercising his or her apparent free will — indeed if he or she doesn’t wield it wisely he or she will never get free from ignorance — but it does alleviate the burden of personal responsibility for the way things are on both a microcosmic and macrocosmic level. Knowing I’m not personally in charge of any aspect of the apparent reality, I take whatever action I feel is most appropriate in a given situation and leave the results to Isvara, and moreover, knowing that Isvara is taking care of the whole in whatever way serves the best interests of the total (i.e. that the field of existence is absorbing and reconfiguring itself in order to accommodate whatever actions are executed within it in a way that will ultimately maintain the balance, harmony, and well-being of the whole), I accept whatever results manifest as a gift from God.
Tracy: She came near by again and I asked her if she needed something to eat and she said yes. She said she was feeling sick and going crazy because she was so hungry. So we walked across the parking lot to a Chinese food place and she told me what she liked and I ordered it for her and I paid with my credit card. She sat down to wait for her food and she thanked me as I left.

What I saw later, upon reflecting, was that simply following dharma, the clear message to buy someone some food, was effortless.

Ted: Yes, dharma is a built-in feature of the subtle body. It is based on mutual expectation and is part of our programming. In other words, I know how I would like to be treated and, since really there is only me, know that everyone else would like to be treated with the same respect, courtesy, and kindness. Thus, we know what is “right” and what is “wrong,” but as you noticed sometimes our conditioning freezes us or our vasanas compel us to violate dharma in order to get something that, due to ignorance of our true nature as whole and complete limitless awareness, we erroneously feel we need to complete us.
Tracy: There was a feeling of power, expansion and clarity, as all of Tracy’s petty little fears vanished. In a sense, most of the world, the part not involved with buying this young woman some food, seemed to drop away. From the perspective of awareness, nothing really happened at all but the movement of thoughts coming and going and the following of dharma nothing more than Tracy surrendering to Ishvara, the puppet master. It seems we’re animated by Ishvara and forgetting causes tension.
Ted: Dharma is essentially Isvara, for Isvara is only a personification of the laws that project, sustain, and govern the field of existence. For this reason, when we follow dharma it does feel effortless because it is essentially, as you point out, an act of surrender. The ego gets out of its own way by dropping the pretense that it is actually doing something and “allows” Isvara to take care of business, which is actually what has been going on all along anyway despite the ego’s ignorance of this fact.

Tracy: I can see the beauty in the practice of karma yoga in making that knowledge abiding. This seems to be my sadhana: watching my thoughts come and go, watching emotions as they arise and my habitual urges to react and finding that sometimes I’m not reacting habitually anymore, but striving to remain dispassionate in any event and coming back to the perspective of the self, seeing how everything is apparently happening within awareness. It all just seems to be thoughts arising and dissolving from and back into the field creating an illusion that there is something happening.

Ted: You’ve got the idea, my friend. But you can let go of the striving. I understand that sometimes it feels like Tracy is doing the work, the spiritual practice, the sadhana, but remember it is awareness “striving” through you to recognize itself through the vehicle of the intellect. In other words, though awareness has never actually forgotten itself, when seemingly under the spell of its own power of ignorance it identifies with a particular limited mind-body-sense complex — in this case, Tracy — and having assumed that perspective illumines the subtle body of the apparent individual it takes itself to be who then thinks it has forgotten itself and, therefore, has to do spiritual practice to purify the mind and prepare it to assimilate the knowledge of its true identity as whole and complete, limitless, actionless, ordinary, unborn, ever-present, all-pervasive, non-dual awareness. See how absurd the whole “striving” business is? It is simply awareness playing a game of hide-and-seek with itself. So give up the idea that Tracy needs to strive for liberation. Quite honestly, Tracy will never get liberated. Tracy is an apparent individual who by definition will always be limited. The good news, of course, is that you are not Tracy. So, yes, stay vigilant, but let the knowledge free you from Tracy rather than allowing the ego to co-opt the process and believe that it is getting enlightened through its own efforts. In short, keep in mind who you really are and let the chips fall where they may. Isvara has it all under control. And you, pure awareness, are ever free of it all anyway.

I appreciate any thoughts or questions you might have for me that would serve to strengthen my knowledge of self.