I’m Martin, a fledgling student of Vedanta. I’ve read James Swartz’s book, some other books, and a lot of articles on his website and yours, but there’s still a niggling question I want to ask you about. Why do enlightened beings want to do anything?
I understand that from your position reality is non-dual, so you aren’t actually doing anything. But, as long as your body is alive the body-mind-intellect complex is still reading emails, teaching English classes, teaching Vedanta, et cetera. I don’t understand why you have any motivation to do these things with your body if reality is non-dual. If you’re already perfectly content with the way the world (which is an illusion) is, why do you care about teaching Vedanta or teaching high school English or reading even just reading my email? What’s the point in “doing” these actions if reality is non-dual and everything is perfectly fine?
I’ve tried to answer this question myself, but I haven’t figured it out yet. Are any of these correct?
1. You “do” things because you have compassion for self-ignorant people like me, and want to help me understand that I’m limitless awareness.
2. There is no difference between action and inaction from your non-dual perspective, so the choice to act is as meaningful as the flip of a coin.
3. The scriptures exalt dharmic actions, and you want to live your life dharmically.
4. As a limitless being you have no desire to act, but the body-mind-intellect complex lives on as a sort of non-sentient automaton until its karma runs out and it dies.
If number one is true, how can you have motivation to help me when you know that I’m already perfectly fine? I may be trapped in a painful illusion, but that illusion shouldn’t matter to a self-realized person like you, right? Why do you want to interfere?
Ted: Despite appearances, I am not a human being. I know that sounds weird from the perspective of the apparent individual person’s standpoint — and within the context of the apparent reality I do indeed seem to be an individual person and carry out my functions as such. The truth is, however, that I am pure awareness. Within the context of the apparent reality I am conditioned by the upadhi, or limiting adjunct, of the mind-body-sense complex, which when illumined and thereby enlivened by me carries out its functions as an apparent individual person. Because I know who I really am, I am able to shift perspectives back and forth between my real identity and the relative identity that operates spontaneously due to my illumination. Though I have ceased to identify with the limited adjunct of the mind, I still am associated with the mind-body-sense complex through which I am looking and the subtle body component of that mechanism and thus witness, so to speak, the sensations, emotions, and thoughts manifesting within it. If I look at these from the limited individual’s perspective, then these phenomena seem like they belong to me or are “mine.” If I look at them from the standpoint of me, then I recognize them to be simply objects appearing within the scope of my being. While I am always essentially free, the subtle body with which I am associated continues to operate according to its design and thus interpret sensations and generate emotions and thoughts. These emotions and thoughts are actually part of the larger mechanism of the entire manifestation, which as part of its design allows for the intellect of the apparent individual person to apparently realize its true identity as limitless awareness, or me. Hence, when you ask Ted to help you understand who you really are, I recognize me asking myself to remind me of who I am. And why wouldn’t I help myself? Its not interfering. I don’t go out to change “others,” but if “they” ask then I tell them who “they” really are, which is me.
Martin: If number two is true, does that mean enlightened beings decide how to live their lives randomly, with no real interest regardless of the choices they make?
Ted: No, just because I know who I am doesn’t mean that the vasanas expressing through the mind-body-sense complex with which I am associated stop expressing. Vasanas are the impressions of my past experiences that lead to the formation of preferences, my likes and dislikes, my desires and fears. When an experience is pleasurable it leaves me with a desire for more of the same or similar experience. When an experience is painful, it leaves me with a fear, or a desire to avoid that experience or similar experiences. Beings with self-knowledge still have preferences and act like any other human being. They simply know these preferences are not them, but appearances within them. Because they have developed this degree of detachment, their desires or fears compel them to act. Rather, having recognized that fulfilling one’s desires does not lead to permanent fulfillment, for no limited object can produce limitless peace and happiness, one with self-knowledge simply observes his desires and fears and acts on them in a way that accords with the universal laws that govern the functioning of the total manifestation. There is no reason to upset the apple cart because there is nothing to gain by the obtainment of an object. So one with self-knowledge enjoys what comes, and may for that matter choose to execute actions intended to bring about a desired result. But he is not swept away by the desire for objects nor upset by either their absence or loss. Moreover, once one enters the apparent reality as an apparent individual, one is subject to the laws governing the apparent reality. The physical, psychological, and ethical laws are collectively known as dharma. These laws are what account for the impeccable cause-and-effect functioning of the mechanism of the apparent reality. So one who knows his true identity simply makes choices and acts in accordance with dharma, knowing that whatever results ensue are ultimately what is in the best interests of the total, even if the immediate results don’t accord with his intentions or, for that matter, appear to be beneficial from the limited individual’s point of view.
Martin: If number three is true, why do you care about dharma if reality is non-dual? There’s nothing to worry about, right? How can you be motivated to follow dharma if it doesn’t need to be protected? Wouldn’t that be like trying to find happiness in security? This one makes the least sense to me, so it’s probably wrong.
Ted: While it is true from the ultimate perspective that I am free of dharma, dharma does need to be protected within the context of the apparent reality. Based on my comments in response to the previous point, you might argue that if the apparent reality is governed by impeccable laws that process whatever actions take place within it in such a way as will maintain the overall harmony, balance, and wellbeing of the total, why would one care about acting in accordance with these laws. It would seem that there is actually no way that transgressions of these laws could ultimately injure or damage the total. While this is true, there remains the issue of the quality of the apparent individual’s experience while existing within the apparent reality. To put it simply, if you live in accordance with the universal laws, your life will generally run more smoothly and your mind will remain more peaceful and happy. If you violate these universal laws, you will end up suffering, or at least experiencing pain. And though this will certainly make no difference the self, it will make a hell of a lot of difference to the apparent individual. The bottom line, therefore, is that protecting dharma by living in accordance with it to the best of one’s ability helps ensure the harmonious functioning of the total — at least in the sense of balancing transgressions of dharma that you could argue are also necessary or at least inevitable within the context of a dualistic reality. And it also produces a more peaceful and happy experience for the apparent individual.
Martin: If number four is true, does that mean you are just passively observing Ted Schmidt work out his vasanas until he dies, without really caring about what he does?
Ted: Bingo. And though in essence it is as mechanical as that, part of the mind-body-sense machine’s operation is to generate emotions and thus the apparently enlightened — you can’t actually be enlightened since you are the light and always have been all along though you apparently had forgotten this fact — apparent person does still appear to experience desire and does seem to care about things. As mentioned, however, these desires no longer control him and compel him to act at their behest. The apparent individual is thus free from the identification with limitation, but still can enjoy his apparent individuality, knowing that he is actually the self, which is ever untouched by whatever happens. We’ve basically covered the reasoning behind this in the responses to the previous doubts.
Martin: When I read things about life post-realization, the main idea seems to be, “Now that you’re enlightened, you can do whatever you want with firm knowledge that you are limitless awareness.” I don’t understand why you would want to do anything after attaining firm knowledge that you are limitless. Why do you want anything if it doesn’t matter? Where does the desire come from?
Ted: Desire comes from ignorance. Because the self has apparently forgotten who it is and has identified with being a limited apparent person, the mind of that apparent entity believes it is incomplete and inadequate and therefore seeks objects to complete itself. There is no reason for this. Ignorance, oddly enough, is simply a power within limitless awareness — for were limited awareness incapable of apparently limiting itself it would not be unlimited. It thus appears to project the apparent reality, and then through the mechanism of that cosmic dream affords certain components within it to recognize their true identity as limitless, actionless, ever-present, all-pervasive awareness. Weird. But what to do? It’s the only game in town.
Martin: Does anything still matter to you in the long run, and if so, why?
Ted: To the apparent individual, yes. But not in the same way that things used to matter. I know no object will complete me as I am already whole and complete. I enjoy objects and still have preferences. Those last until one’s prarabdha karma, or the karma that is slated to express through one’s current mind-body-sense apparatus in the present lifetime. We liken it to an unplugged fan. The blades don’t just stop dead when the electricity is cut off. They slowly decelerate until they finally come to a complete stop. Though still spinning, however, there is no more compelling force in them. Just so, while I do have likes and dislikes, it doesn’t really matter that I get what I want. Either way, I remain ever the same.
Martin: Thank you for your help.
Ted: My pleasure. Let me know if you have further questions.