Namaskaar. Part 3 of the 4-Part series titled “Vedanta is a Means of Knowledge” by Ted Schmidt. Another very nice and logical explanation of uncovering the Self through self-knowledge.
The Relationship between Knowledge and Experience
The foremost illegitimate belief in the spiritual world is that self-knowledge is intellectual while enlightenment is experiential. In non-dual reality, knowledge and experience are one. Both knowledge and experience take place in awareness and are, in fact, nothing other than awareness. For instance, my knowledge of a tree and my experience of a tree are one. Seeing or otherwise sensing—i.e., experiencing—an object makes that object known to me.
Nevertheless there abounds throughout the spiritual world the erroneous belief that scripture is simply for conceptual or intellectual understanding while yogas (spiritual practices) and various samadhis (transcendental states/non-dual epiphanies) are what produce and constitute self-realization. In this regard, the great irony is that the vast majority of seekers fail to understand the cognitive implication of the term self-realization.
The confusion between knowledge and experience is caused by the failure to recognize the invariable presence of awareness in all situations. Because the self is always present, the proper unfoldment of scriptural wisdom by a qualified teacher is a direct way of experiencing the self, because this unfoldment reveals the nature of the self. Simply put, it acts as a “word mirror” in which you see your reflection.
When you focus on experience alone, you take what is eternal to be non-eternal and what is non-eternal to be eternal. This mutual superimposition of the attributes of the apparent reality on the reality and vice versa is the essential character of ignorance. Experience is basically a decaying time capsule of information, which in some cases can reveal—if properly understood and assimilated— the underlying truth of the self, or pure awareness, that is the essential nature of the fundamental fabric of experience.
Whatever experience is taking place is awareness, but awareness cannot be comprehensively characterized or defined by a particular experience. It is for this reason that Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita, “All these are in me, but I am not in them” (9.4). Truly speaking, as pure awareness, the self is never interested in either knowledge or experience. While it illumines both objects, it remains ever free of them.
With regard to self-knowledge, experience itself does not remove ignorance. Certainly, experience can potentially reveal a broader vision of reality than was previously had, and can affect one’s emotional state for longer or shorter periods of time. However, it does not automatically or immediately erase erroneous but deeply ingrained thought patterns and replace them with valid ones. Additionally, since inherent in all experience is an experiencing entity who does the experiencing, neither does experience cancel the doer/enjoyer. Rather, it serves to reinforce the fundamental subject-object dichotomy that is the central characteristic of ignorance.
It is for this reason that freedom is only “attained”—i.e., understood as one’s true nature—through knowledge. Only knowledge remains after experience ends, and only knowledge liberates one from the need for any particular type of experience in order to feel adequate and complete, peaceful and unconditionally happy.
Therefore, the careful and logical analysis of experience, in line with a proven means of self-knowledge, is what is necessary. The knowledge that results from the meticulous analysis of experience is the fundamental nature of their relationship, or how they work together, so to speak. Moreover, it is through such inquiry that knowledge and experience are revealed to be essentially the same thing—pure awareness.
The Difference between “Worldly” Knowledge and Self-Knowledge
Self-inquiry deals with two types of knowledge: relative and absolute.
“Worldly” or relative knowledge concerns everything we experience with the senses, mind, and intellect. Each of these means of knowledge has its own field of experience. The senses allow us to access the material world, the mind to access emotions, and the intellect to access thoughts and ideas. As explained earlier, these means operate on the basis of direct perception and perception-based inference. In other words, they require objects to function. These means, therefore, provide only relative knowledge because the entire manifestation is in a constant state of flux.
Self-knowledge is absolute because limitless awareness is ever present and never changes. Though the self cannot be objectified and thus cannot be directly known as one would know an object, awareness is by its very nature self-evident. It is obvious that I exist and that I am aware, for unless I am aware, I cannot know or experience anything.
Even though the self cannot be known as an object, its nature can be revealed through self-inquiry. This is because self-inquiry does not produce or locate an object, but simply removes my self-ignorance. The self is ever-present and simply needs be unveiled. Self-knowledge is not a matter of addition, but rather the subtraction of that which obscures it. Thus, it is essentially the removal of ignorance that constitutes self-knowledge. For once ignorance is eradicated, limitless, ever-present, all-pervasive awareness stands revealed as it is. Moreover, self-inquiry works for everyone because there is, in reality, only one self. Though many houses stand throughout the world, the same air fills them all. Similarly, though many apparent individuals inhabit the apparent reality, the same pure awareness is the self of all.
Self-Knowledge Is Necessary for Liberation
While relative knowledge is necessary in order to negotiate life in samsara, self-knowledge is necessary in order to get free of samsara.
The problem with relative knowledge is that it is subject to negation because it changes depending upon the point of view from which it is gathered. For instance, that which from a certain standpoint is perceived as a shirt progressively resolves into ever more fundamental substrata—i.e., threads, cotton, atoms, subatomic particles, waves, etc.—until it resolves altogether from a material object into pure awareness.
Self-knowledge, however, cannot be negated because there exists nothing other than awareness to negate it. Simply put, you cannot negate yourself. Who would be doing the negating? This also serves to explain why you cannot effect your escape from samsara through effort. As long as a doer is doing things, there remains an underlying acceptance of the subject-object dichotomy. This dichotomy characterizes the apparent reality, and is the fundamental cause of the feeling of inadequacy and incompleteness that keeps us sucked within the whirlpool of desire and fear, and frenetically splashing about in the pursuit of object-oriented happiness. Eliminate the doer through understanding, however, and you immediately find yourself admiring the view from the sunny beach of liberation.
What Self-Knowledge Does and Does Not Do
Despite the countless seekers seeking it, not many people are clear about what enlightenment actually is. Actually, “enlightenment” is a nebulous word to use to convey the consequent release from bondage to the pursuit of objects, and the unavoidable suffering that is an intrinsic aspect of an object-oriented lifestyle. The word used in the Vedantic scriptures to denote the ultimate goal of life is moksha, which means liberation or freedom.
The liberation referred to in the scriptures is freedom from identification with the apparent person. Ironically, I am already free from this seemingly independent entity. The only problem is that I simply do not know it. Such being the case, it is important that we clearly understand what the teachings of Vedanta and the practice of self-inquiry will and will not do for us in order to circumvent erroneous notions. These notions include those about the nature of self-realization, and serve only to cloud the mind and waylay one’s ability to see—i.e., understand—the ever-present, all-pervasive, non-negatable truth.
To be clear, Vedanta neither proves that you exist nor promises to give you an experience of the self. As previously explained, your existence is self-evident. The very fact that you are inquiring into the nature of your existence proves in itself that you exist. Moreover, since existence is non-dual, you are already experiencing the self at all times, in all places, and throughout all states of experience because nothing else exists. Though most of our daily experiences are seemingly mundane, and thus do not fit the romantically conceived and commonly accepted profile of some cosmic transcendental experience, every objective experience as well as the awareness in which the experience appears is the self. Simply put, Om —the self—is the only one home.
Vedanta does show you that you are limitless, not separate from anything, and eternal. While the universe is a cosmic carnival of entities, all entities are only apparent. The entire gamut of names and forms resolves into awareness. This recognition gives you the vision of non-duality. This vision, however, is not an assemblage of a bunch of theoretical puzzle pieces that you have to intellectually hold together. Rather, it is simply the result of dropping the limited ideas about yourself that seemed to divide your being into innumerable parts. Once you know your true nature in the wake of self-inquiry, you will be unable to hold on to limited ideas about yourself. What is more, Vedanta gives you complete knowledge, or knowledge of both the self and “not-self”. Rather than spouting the highest truth from the ultimate perspective and denying the apparent reality altogether, it explains the relationship between the jiva (the apparent person), the jagat (the world), and Isvara (God-the-Creator). It also reveals the underlying identity of all three as Brahman, pure awareness. In this way, Vedanta ultimately gives you direct knowledge of the self.
To be concluded in Part 4
Pranaam from Kamal Kothari