Please visit Amazon Author Page at

https://www.amazon.com/author/balu



Friday, June 24, 2022

Following rituals blindly

 Those of you who have been following my blogs know that I do not like to follow rituals blindly or chant mantras without looking at the original source, the context in which they were written and understanding the “substance” behind them. I found a humorous anecdote on how rituals might have started, written by the famous Tamizh writer Pi. Sri. (பி.ஸ்ரீ.) in his book on Tamizh Festivals.

A Swamiji raises a cat to take care of mice in his hut. The cat insists on sitting on Swamiji’s lap whenever he sits to meditate. This becomes a nuisance and therefore the Swamiji ties the cat down every time he sits down to meditate. His disciples note this routine and start a routine of tying down a cat – any cat – before they sit down to meditate.  This becomes a ritual among his followers!

Friday, June 17, 2022

Thoughts arise (எண்ணங்கள் உதிக்கின்றன)


Friends, my apologies to those who cannot read Tamizh. This was a sudden inspiration and I had to do it only in Tamizh. 

எண்ணங்கள் உதிக்கின்றன. 

எண்ணங்கள் உள்ளே உதிக்கின்றன. அவை மொழியாக தோன்றுகின்றன. சில பொழுது தமிழில் தோன்றும். சில பொழுது ஆங்கிலத்தில் தோன்றும். இன்று தமிழில் தோன்றியது.

காலை நேரம். மெதுவான வெய்யில். குளிறான காற்று. இயற்கை அன்னையின் உள்ளே நிற்கிறேன். இயற்கையை அனுபவிக்கிறேன்.

இயற்கை எனக்கு வெளியிலா, தனிப்பட்டதா?

ஆனால் நான் அதை அனுபவிக்கிறேனே.  அப்படியானால் அது எனக்கு உள்ளேயா?

இரண்டும்தான். நானும் இயற்கையும் ஒன்று.

இயற்கை என்பது எது? அது எனக்கு உள்ளே தோன்றும் காட்சியா? அப்படி இருக்க முடியாது. அந்த காட்சியில் நான் என்ற தனிப்பகுதி சேர்ந்து விட்டது. இயற்கையின் உள்தன்மையை எப்படி காண்பது?

நானும் இயற்கையும் ஒன்று.

நீயும் இயற்கையும் ஒன்று.

நான் யார்?  அதுதான் ரமணரின் கேள்வி.

நான் என்பது இயற்கையின் ஒரு சிறு பகுதி.

அதற்கு உடல் உண்டு, உயிர் உண்டு,

உணர்வு உண்டு, உள்ளம் உண்டு,

உடலை காண, உயிரை காண,

உணர்வை காண, உள்ளத்தை காண,

உள்ளுணர்வு என்று ஒன்றும் உண்டு.

அது எனக்கும் உண்டு.

அது உனக்கும் உண்டு.

ஊமைக்கும் உண்டு.

மீனுக்கு உண்டு, மயிலுக்கு உண்டு, முயலுக்கு உண்டு.

அந்த உள்ளுணர்வுக்கு மூலம் எது?

மூச்சு அடைக்கிறது!

 

Friday, June 10, 2022

Consciousness and meditation - old concepts and modern views

 

Ancient texts from Vedas, Vedangas and Buddhist texts have elaborate descriptions of several levels of consciousness. They include consciousness during waking period, during dream state, during deep sleep state and the base on which these three levels of consciousness are experienced as one’s own. This is called atman. This is then connected to Universal Consciousness, the root of all kinds of consciousness, the base of all the atmans of this universe, called Brahman or Mahat or Buddhi.

In the Buddhist texts, there two levels of consciousness – Mind Consciousness (mano vignana) and Store Consciousness (alaya vignana). There is a state beyond both these levels which can only be experienced.

These are great visionary insights by the ancient rishis and particularly Buddha. Now modern neurosciences have started exploring the mind and its functions including consciousness. Many old observations have been confirmed. Weaknesses of these old concepts have also been exposed. Let me try and correlate some of the old ideas with current knowledge.

The idea taught in Indian texts about our awareness during waking hours, dream state and deep sleep is easy to reconcile. It is also easy to accept that there must be one common state of awareness which makes it possible for any individual to be aware of all three states of awareness and his/her ownership of these states. Further, all these four states of awareness are objects of our thoughts and part of our awareness. That is probably the meta-awareness of modern psychology.

Is there one Universal class – somewhat similar to the idea of Plato – of a prototype of all kinds of consciousness on the basis of which everything is known. Upanishads say that there is and asks: “How can you know That by which you know?”  “That Knower is Brahman” say the Upanishads.

Adepts in meditation tell us that in the final stages of meditation the observer and the observed are one. In this state the observed is as it is. The awareness of the observer is still, with no chains of thought generated by the object observed and does not include his/her own awareness. It is the blissful state they reach.

In Buddhist school, the mind consciousness is like the branches of a tree exposed to responding to all the elements such as sunlight, water and air. It receives input from all the senses. It needs to focus on one thing at a time and learn. It is slow to learn and cannot act in a reasonable way on its own. For that it depends on the store consciousness.

Store consciousness has all the natural tendencies, mental formations such as emotions and memory of experiences. It is the source of desire, fear, anxiety, anger, and ignorance. Since it is the base for survival it is active even when we are asleep. It can act on its own but may respond quickly, based on habits and tendencies.

As I understand, the training in meditation is for the mind consciousness to focus on our sensory inputs, feelings and emotions, reflect on them and transform the tendencies at the base, namely store consciousness.

When we think of our current understanding of how the mind works, the mind receives inputs from our sensory organs and also from our own body. They go through thalamus and are processed first at the base or lower part of the brain where survival reflexes are generated. This assumes that the inputs can be registered in the first place. That depends on the reticular formation where there are centers to maintain our awareness are located. (They are turned off when we are asleep, under anesthesia and when they are damaged by some disease leading to coma).

 

These basic input signals are then relayed to the inner portion (medial side of the halves of the brain) where the registered messages are recognized as one’s own (ownership area). This area communicates not only with centers which register signals, and which generate basic emotions, and survival responses but also with the so-called higher centers. These areas are considered to perform our Executive Functions. There is direct two-way communication between the ownership areas and the executive areas, but not between executive areas and the survival areas.

Therefore, emotional triggers generated at the survival areas have to be first recognized as one’s own, the ownership area has to send the signals to the executive area to process and evaluate. Of course, this area will be checking with the ownership area, areas for past memories, evaluate odds of risks vs benefits and decide what to do. This is the reflective decision-making process.

Now the executive part of the brain sends signals to the motor areas of the brain to initiate appropriate action. This is what we probably call “the will” to act. Most interestingly all these steps take place in milli-seconds.

There are even more steps involved because the brain adjusts its actions as they are taking place depending on immediate feedbacks. It also stores the process and outcome of each experience for future reference. It stores the information on the value of each action as helpful or not. If the process or outcome generates happiness, it may reinforce the “addiction circuit” so that it gets activated each time the stimulus appears. If the process or outcome generate pain and suffering, the information goes into the “aversion circuit.”

Both ancient knowledge of meditation and modern neuroscience suggest that even if our brain cells degenerate or lost, parts of the brain circuits can be retrained. That is neuroplasticity. Our reactions and behavior can be retrained using some of the ancient meditation methods. That is Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy.

 

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Tower of Babel

 Thinking about the way we humans use words to confuse each other, to mislead and bully others, sell unwanted goods, make lies into truths and truths into lies, “sculpture” words (also called “word-smithing”)  and create so much confusion even when speaking in our own languages, I decided to re-read the Tower of Babel in Genesis, Chapter 11.   Here it is as written in one version of the Bible (New International Version).   

The Tower of Babel

“Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.  As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building.  The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language, they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel —because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth”.

The way we humans behave, it appears that the Lord did a pretty good job! Look how proficient we have become in misusing this special gift.

Scholars tell us that the word Babel means “confused” in old Hebrew language. (Is that the origin of our word “babbling”?) Babel may also be to indicate Babylon where the tower was supposedly built.

 

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Genius of Adi Sankara

 

                By Adi Sankara I refer to the original saint-philosopher-poet-genius who lived more than 1,000 years back to differentiate that founder of the Advaitic-Vedanta schools of Hindu philosophy from the religious heads of the four major centers (Dwaraka – Kedarnath-Puri and Sringeri) he established – some would add Kanchi to this list – who are also called Sankaraharyas.

Reading a book with collection of Adi Sankara’s commentaries on Brahma Sutra and the Upanishad was the turning point in my spiritual journey. Adi Sankara’s words influenced me greatly in the way I started thinking about life in general and about reading sacred texts. Those words influenced me also in how I read scientific works and how I think on my own on any issue.  But I did not know how much those words had influenced me subconsciously until this week when I started re-reading that book after almost 60 years!

Re-reading that book (Sankara’s Teachings in His Own Words, Swami Atmananda. Bhavan’s Publication, 1958) made me admire Adi Sankara even more for his astute, visionary, and bold thinking. Fortunately, Swami Atmananda had collected Adi Sankara’s commentaries on the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutra, arranged them by topic and given them with the original Sanskrit texts in Sankara’s own words and their translations in English. There are many passages on Brahman, Atman, Karma etc. But I wish to summarize Adi Sankara’s general statements on his approach to understanding the Vedas. These ideas are easily applicable to reading any text, including modern scientific studies.

After reading the following list of his ideas, I am sure you will agree that it is sad people know about Aristotle and Plato, but not about Adi Sankara.

1.       Facts cannot be challenged on the basis of improbability.

2.       Facts of perception cannot be nullified by inference.

3.       Inference is no authority against direct perception.

4.       The means of knowledge are powerful in their own respective spheres (ear for hearing, eye for vision etc.,)

5.       But one means of knowledge does not contradict another.

6.       The scope of one source of knowledge is what is not within the scope of other sources of knowledge. (He is trying to establish that in spiritual matters, one must rely on the Vedas and not on our perceptions and inference)

7.       The Vedas are independent sources of authority on knowledge in spiritual spheres and cosmic truth.

8.       The value of statements in the Vedas is based on their capacity to generate fruitful knowledge, not whether they state facts or prescribe some action. (This rule can be applied to any sacred text)

9.       Vedas delineate the nature of Reality (वस्तु प्रतिपादनं तत्परत्वम्).

10.   Scriptures only inform us of this reality. (They are informative) They are not commands. (ज्ञापकं हि शास्त्रं न तु कारकं)

11.   Since they are not considered commands, where is the question of disobeying them?

12.   The impulse for actions (performance of rituals etc.,) come from our own nature, looking for favorable results. Action is seen in all creatures.

13.   Self-realization (Brahma Vidya) does not create something new (Atman, Brahman). Nor does it alter what there is already. It just reveals.

14.   Vedas cannot become authority as against observation. “Even if hundred Vedic texts declare that fire is cold and devoid of light”, we need to realize that this sphere is not in the domain of the Vedas.

15.   Srutis (vedas) do not seek to alter the nature of things. They supply information about spheres unknown to us.

16.   Nor can a scripture impart power to a thing.

17.   Scriptures do not hinder or direct a person by force as if he were a servant.

18.   Scriptures remain neutral, like sunlight. They just illuminate.

19.   Perception of the true nature of reality is not just a product of man’s intellect (पुरुष तन्त्र). It depends on the nature of the object. (वस्तु तन्त्र)

20.   Mere recitation without understanding the meaning is considered by some to be a meritorious act. Adi Sankara disagrees. He says that Vedas do lead to a result that can be experienced in this life but only when recited with understanding of their meaning.

21.   Mere sound of the word does not constitute the object of reality. The word is different from the object it denotes.

22.   When literal meaning is inappropriate no authority enjoins that literal meaning alone should be accepted.

23.   When literal meaning does not fit, then alone the metaphorical meaning is to be adopted.

24.   It is unreasonable to give up the plain meaning of words used in Sruti and put new meaning in their place.

25.   There can be alternatives (differences) in rituals and actions – but not in Truth.

26.   Good and evil are not absolute; they depend on each one’s opinion.

27.   The stories (aakyayika, आख्यायिका) are used in the Vedas as means of easily imparting ideas with common example from life. They should not be taken as historical facts. They are made to make us understand astute points. (example referred to is that of Indra, Virochana and Prajapati explained in https://timeforthought.net on May 7, 2022)

28.   Similarly dialogues with questions and answers are used to make us understand important points.

29.   The stories in the Puranas are not given as historical facts and should not be taken at face value.

30.   “We never see a formless thing active.” This last statement is from Adi Sankara’s commentary on Briharadanyaka Upanishad 4-3-15. In an elaboration of this statement, Swami Atmananda says that Adi Sankara did not accept the position of the Meemasaka philosophy that the priests performing the yagnas have to imagine a Devata when propitiating them with ahuti.

31.   Adi Sankara’s point is that devata’s (deities) obviously have a form and a name. But Vedas say and we know that anything that has a form has a beginning and an end. In other words: “Why worship an impermanent devata for a temporary residence in heaven, when we can experience bliss during this life by experiencing the Brahman within?”

Having summarized these points, I must also say that Adi Sankara was a synthesizer. He realized that different personalities need different approaches. He encouraged actions (karma marga) and rituals and worship (bhakti marga), but as steppingstones to prepare oneself for the meditative intellectual approach (gnana marga). He did not condemn them outright but incorporated them into the mainstream.

That is the genius of Adi Sankara.

Friday, May 27, 2022

Advaita and Zen Buddhism (3)

 Adi Sankara invoked the concept of maya to explain that unity in diversity, Brahman in Atman. But maya is not illusion, real or unreal. It is relative truth, ignorance – also called avidya. It is relative unreal – unreal in relation to absolute reality. But Buddhist texts deny the concept of atman.

Both the Buddhist word sunyata and Advaitic word maya (which also means ignorance) are, to my simple non-philosophical mind, used to indicate something beyond the phenomenal world, an undefinable, root cause of everything, something from which everything manifest.

To my mind, Buddha and Adi Sankara started with the Vedic teachings and the religious practices current in their time and reached similar conclusions. But they gave different explanations and took different paths.

 Buddha rejected the old methods and rituals and hierarchy, although he was driven by basic texts of the Vedas, particularly the Upanishads. He went on his own way, became a heterodox and established the “middle way” – not too ascetic, not too ensnared in samsara. A whole new religion started.

Adi Sankara also criticized the methods then existent in his time, particularly the Meemsa tradition with emphasis on Vedic Karma. But, instead of rejecting them, he interpreted them differently and incorporated them into the mainstream. He was a synthesizer and harmonizer. He started a new point of view (darshana, a philosophical school) and not a new religion. He re-established Hinduism as it is practiced today.

It is also important to note that they lived at different historic times. Buddha started with asceticism and difficult practices of Vedic times and left them.  Adi Sankara came almost 1,000 years late. The caste system was well-established, temple worship had started, Buddhism and Jainism were ascendent and even within the Vedic tradition there were many sects worshipping in many ways. In addition, the Tantric system had taken firm holding on the practices of both Hinduism and Buddhism.  Adi Sankara was a synthesizer. He accepted several other methods such as karma marga and bhakti marga, but only as steppingstones to gnana marga. However, he left no doubt in his writings about the superiority of  gnana marga to reach a state of bliss during this life.

It is also interesting to note that Buddha was included as one of the Avatars in Agni Purana, Bhagavata Purana, and Matsya Purana. Since they mention Buddha, they must have been written after Buddha’s time. But the authors write as if Buddha’s birth was predicted by the gods.

Even more interesting is that in Padma Purana (said to have been written only in the 1200’s), which has been quoted and discussed in many essays and books, Adi Sankara is referred to as “crypto-Buddhist”. In this Purana, there is an episode where Lord Shiva is talking to Parvati and says that he has decided to send a Brahmin boy to dispute “mayavada”. According to some scholars, “mayavada” is Buddha’s atheistic teachings. Some scholars assert that Lord Shiva was referring to Adi Sankara as the Brahmin who was come to “conquer” these Buddhist teachings.

Unfortunately, this is how mythology gets converted into history.   (Concluded)

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Advaita and Zen Buddhism (2)

 Going deeply into a few more details, there is a concept called Apranahita in Buddhism. In English, it is translated as “aimlessness” by some authors. I do not understand what it means. However, the context in which this word is used suggests that this is a state of our consciousness at which all edges gave merged and therefore no separateness of form and therefore no separate identification marks (animitta).   All dualities have ceased, and one is in touch with reality as it is, at the very foundation of everything. This concept is based on the interconnectedness of things.

In the Advaitic philosophy, this state is called turya. However, this concept is described in relation to states of consciousness in some texts and in relation to the individual body with life, mind, and consciousness in other texts. In relation to consciousness, it is called the Turya state. This is the state on the basis of which one is aware of one’s wakeful, dream and deep sleep states.

In relations to the body, it is related to several “sheaths” or kosha. It is the “inner-most” absolute existence called anandamaya Kosha. Its outer coverings include the following sheaths from outside in – annamaya kosha as the body, pranamaya kosha as life, manomaya kosha as the mind and vignana maya kosha or consciousness.

Since this state is beyond any description, beyond form and a name, one has to refer to it only in a negative way (via negativa). Vedic texts used the words: “neti, neti”(meaning, this is not, this is not). Buddhism said this is animitta, without signs or apranahita, aimless.  This state indicates a stage at which edges of multiplicity of forms merge. One sees the universal in the individual.

Buddhist teaching has another concept called sunyata. In precise translation this word means “absence of anything”. “Thay” translates sunyatta to mean “empty of ”.  He asks: “empty of what?” and goes to explain that “everything we see is empty of itself”, because everything we see is made of other elements. For example, a flower we see is made of substance from the earth, water from the rain, the sunshine etc., If you trace backwards, you will see that everything is made of something else until you see its true nature, which is called “suchness” in English and thathata in Pali. In other words, everything in the phenomenal world is empty of intrinsic existence.

I have read that some schools of Buddhism have translated the word “sunyata” to mean “nothing”. Extending this further they say everything is a mental construct out of moment-to-moment awareness, nothing is permanent, and  that the entire world is an illusion etc., That is nihilism. That was what Adi Sankara disagreed with in his Advaitic philosophy.

He said that something could not have come out of nothing.  That One is Brahman. Brahman pervades everything in this universe. He/It/That is without qualities, nirguna. In individuals, it is seen as Atman. That One appears to be many because of maya (to be explained later). 

Sankara argues that atman (Self) is different from the mind because this Self (atman) understands several states of mind such as “I am sad, I am happy” etc., It is the basis of our awareness and continuity through the wakeful dream and sleep states. It is also common experience for all of us to feel “I know this” and “I do not know this”. Therefore, knowledge and absence of knowledge themselves are objects of knowledge of a “knower”. The Self of man (Atman) is that knower. Thinking cannot reveal Atman because the process of knowledge depends on a knower (Atman). Atman must be posited before knowledge. Atman is the “witness” and the light of the witness.

He went on to refute the Buddhist idea that there is no atman as follows: “ When one accepts the position that both Brahman and Atman are illusions, not real…….all that remains are a group of impermanent things; permanent happiness and someone who can realize that permanent happiness cease to exist”. He further said: “Emptiness (sunyata) and absence of self (anatman) of Buddhism are dark and bleak concepts. If you can see Brahman in everything it is blissful and full of light”.

In my own thinking, sunyata can be aligned with the nirguna concept of Brahman in Advaita. Brahman is Atman according to Advaita. The name Advaita or “no-two” things or non-duality itself means that concept of oneness of Brahman and Atman.

To explain how that one Brahman became many, Adi Sankara came up with the concept of maya. He said that the world we see is “not real but appears to be real” due to maya. It is not to say that the world is an illusion. But to say that there is a truth in the phenomenal world (vyavaharika satyam, also called Reflected Truth or pratibhasika satyam)  and there is the cosmic, eternal truth, Truth as is, which is called Paramartika satyam. This cosmic eternal truth is probably the “suchness” of things in Buddhism referred to earlier.

In the Buddhist literature, the corresponding words are samvritti satyam for relative truth and paramarta satyam for the cosmic truth. (to be continued)

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Advaita and Zen Buddhism (1)

                 One of our regular followers asked me about the similarities and differences between Advaita and Zen Buddhism. Here is a summary of my understanding. Please feel free to correct my errors or wrong understanding. Thank you.

From the beginning of my journey into spirituality, I thought that it is better to read the original sacred texts of various traditions, if you can, or an authentic translation, and try to understand them rather than depend on or get confused by the explanations and discussions by later scholars. With that in mind, I have read several originals or primary translations of sacred texts from the Vedic schools and Buddhist schools. I have also read scholarly articles and books on the similarities between Advaita philosophy of Adi Sankara and Zen Buddhism. Here is what I know at present.

Zen Buddhism is an offshoot of Mahayana branch of Buddhism which originated in Japan in the early part of the 11th century. The word Zen is a variation of the Sanskrit word dhyan which became Chan in China, Zen in Japan, Sŏn in Korean, and Thien in Vietnam. Also known as Zazen, in which Za means “sitting”, Zen is meditation or sitting meditation.

Bodhidharma (probably from the southern part of India), who took Mahayana Buddhism to China in the 5th century, emphasized the importance of seeing and experiencing the “true nature” of things through meditation, not relying on words and concepts. His teachings are in accordance with the Upanishadic teachings which emphasize gnana marga (intellectual approach) with emphasis on meditation.

Buddha’s teachings were focused on how to reduce human suffering and live a life of peace and harmony in this world. In the process, he looked both inwards looking at how human mind works and also outwards into the true nature of things. But it was not easily taken up by the masses. As Adi Sankara pointed out almost 1,000 years later, Buddhism was not appealing to the masses because of its perceived nihilism, and its emphasis on asceticism and intellectual approach. Most wanted to keep on to some of the symbols and rituals of the Hinduism prevalent in those days. This resulted in early divisions within Buddhism. For example, the Tibetan type of Buddhism is indeed full of images of Bodhisattvas and rituals. Mahayana Buddhism and Zen Buddhism went back to the meditative aspects of Buddhism.  Both were considered heterodox and atheistic since Buddhism rejected many of the basic teachings and rituals of the Vedas.

Venerable Thich Naht Hanh (popularly known as ““Thay””) was from the Zen school (Thien, Vietnamese school)  of Mahayana Buddhism. This school emphasizes the practice of meditation as the way to awaken our inner nature and grow towards compassion and wisdom. “Thay” popularized the idea of “mindfulness” as a path to meditative practice. He also practiced what he called “engaged Buddhism” to help people live in this complex world and to promote compassion and non-violence

Zen teaches that all of us are already enlightened beings, and we just have to realize it by meditative practice. Enlightenment is attained when one goes beyond all names, forms and dualities and experiences the “oneness” at the base. Enlightenment cannot be explained in words or reached through logic. “It can only be experienced” says Zen.

This is exactly what Adi Sankara also said in his Advaita teachings. In Vivekachudamani, he says that the Absoute Truth, (sat chit Ananda) cannot be reached through logic, discussion, and actions but only through experience.

Both Adi Sankara and Buddha were critical of excess emphasis on rituals and emphasized asceticism. Both leaned towards the Upanishadic intellectual approach to gnana marga. Both  wanted people to think on their own. Both said that it is possible to reach the blissful state in this life by touching the “suchness” of things through meditation. This blissful state of sat-chit-ananda (Absolute Truth, Absolute Knowledge, Absolute Bliss) is Brahman in Advaita and thathata and nirvana in Buddhism. (to be continued)

Sunday, May 15, 2022

More thoughts on Meditation and Faith

 

More on Meditation

Meditation, it seems to me, to be a personal journey in which I am seeking inside of me a sense of something that is sacred, an abiding energy which is always there. By that definition, that abiding energy, that sacred something must be present in every life and everything.

During a guided meditation with “Thay” on “Sitting with the Buddha”, the words he suggests for helping to focus are: “I am sitting with the Buddha; I am breathing with the Buddha”. I found myself asking “Who am I?” and also “What is that I?”

If I ask myself: “Who am I?”, the answer I get is: “I am an impermanent historical entity made of several elements which came together to make this body with life and those elements will go back to nature when the body is gone”.

If I ask myself: “What is that I?”, the answer I get is that it is that sacred abiding energy which is at the base of this “I”, and of all the “I”s and of all there is in this Universe.

In the epilogue to his famous sloka called Manisha Pancakam, Adi Sankara relates to body, life, and the abiding energy (spirit) as follows: “Oh Lord, in the form of the body I am your servant. In the form of life, I am part of you. You are within me and within every other life in the form of soul/spirit.”


More questions on Faith

“Thay” says: “Do not try to be peaceful. Just Be Peace”

“J.K” says: “Do not try to be yourself. Just be that You”

Buddha, Sankara, Jesus, Ramana and other realized souls ask us to have faith in our inner self and experience the Divine within. Is it possible to have faith in oneself without getting arrogant and self-righteous? Those Divine figures could do it. Can we, ordinary people, do it?

If we cannot reach that level of experiencing the Divine in oneself and yet stay humble, like they did, our faith is more likely to lead to intolerance and harm to others, and even to oneself. This is one reason given in the Vedic Hindu tradition to stay with and learn from a Guru, an enlightened one, so one can learn humility in addition to knowledge.

Putting our faith completely on an external source is also not without its problems. It is not conducive to growth since we lean on others and do not think on our own. It may also be dangerous as we have seen over the centuries with faith-based wars. But it is an easier path. And, if things go wrong, we have someone else to blame!

 



Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Japamala (Rosary)

 I learnt from a Buddhist teacher that when using a japamala (rosary), the focus must be on the interval between the beads and not on the mantra (the words you use) or the beads you are touching when you say it. That interval between the beads is for silence. The goal should be to prolong that silent interval and “touch” the thread that connects those beads.

I just read a passage in Laghu Vakya Vritti of Adi Sankara (Sloka 9) which gives support to this teaching. It says: “Pure consciousness is like a string that holds together many pearls. That string can be seen between those pearls. Similarly, the Pure Consciousness is hidden by the modifications of the intellect and can be seen clearly in the interval between modifications (thoughts mental formations) of the mind”.

The focus must be on the silence between thoughts. One can start with focusing on the interval between breaths by prolonging that interval gently and slowly. Then one can try to prolong the interval between in-breath and out-breath. The next step is prolonging the interval between thoughts. 

Later in this book, Adi Sankara uses the word “nirodha”, which means "suppression". In sloke 11 he says: “Suppression of mental modifications (thought) must be practiced to be able to see the string between the pearls.” Patanjali maharishi also starts his book on Yoga Sastra with the aphorism that “Yoga is for control of the mind”. I doubt these great masters meant "suppression of the mind." We all know how difficult it is to suppress thoughts and how it can be unhelpful. Suppressed thoughts tend to show up at unwanted times. Besides it sounds violent, suppression.

Is it possible that the word "nirodha" is meant to indicate "to restrain, to channelize" rather than "to suppress or annihilate".  That is what Buddha did. Buddha asks us to focus, channelize, look deeply at the objects of the mind rather than annihilate thoughts. This is more non-violent. 

He asks us to be just an observer of thoughts. In the Vedic philosophy also, we are asked to be a "witness to the thoughts". Buddha asks us to be a non-judgmental witness, not clinging to those thoughts or trying to suppress them or escape from them. He said: “just observe it with loving kindness, like a mother will handle a crying baby. Acknowledge it. Accept it. Name it. Later look deeply into it to know what it truly is. Let it be. Let it go”. Of course, there is more to it than this. Yet this is more compassionate, realistic and attainable.

Saturday, May 7, 2022

Indra, Virochana and Prajapati

 There is a story about Indra, the chief of the gods (sura), Virochana, the chief of the demons (asura) and Prajapati (the primordial progenitor) in Chandogya Upanishad, Book 8, Chapter 7, section 12. I have read it several times and do not have a grasp of it yet. This is my latest take on it.

Indra and Virochana go to Prajapati to learn about Atman. Prajapati says: “ ya yesho akshini purusho drishyata yesha atma iti”. Word by word translation will be: “that Person who is seen in the eye is Atma” or “the Person that is seen in the eye is the self”.

As I understand Sanskrit, pashyati means seeing (active seeing) and drishyati is passive, to be seen or perceived, become visible, to be seen with the mind. If I am correct, Prajapati is saying “that which is the basis of what is seen is Atma”. Let me see whether subsequent passages support my understanding.

Indra and Virochana ask: “is it the same as what is seen as reflection in the water or in a mirror?” Prajapati’s answer is that “the Seer referred to is the same perceived in everything” (sarveshu anteshu parikhyayate)  Both students mistake this to mean that Prajapati was referring to the body, the lower self. Virochana is convinced of that interpretation and goes to his group and starts teaching this point of view.

Indra is not satisfied. He goes back to Prajapati and says: “No sir, your answer does not help because when I look at the reflection in water or in the mirror, the body appears to be adorned when I am adorned. It appears to be crippled when I am crippled. How can that be when you say that the Self is devoid of any blemish?”

Prajapati makes Indra stay with him for 32 and then says: “the one who, being adored, moves about in the dream, is the Self”. As indicated in intervening texts, Prajapati is taking his student gradually though stages. He is now teaching about the dream state.

Indra goes away, thinks about this teaching, comes back to Prajapati, and says: “that cannot be true because in the dream state, the body is not crippled even if my real body is crippled. When I have running nose and eyes that dream body does not have them. The body suffers happiness and unhappiness which the dream-body does not. I need a better answer”.

Prajapati makes him stay with him for 32 more years and then says: “When one is in deep sleep in such a way that he has all organs withdrawn and is tranquil, he does not see any dream. That is the Self”. Indra is not satisfied with that answer either because he reasons: “This one in deep sleep is not aware of himself or of any other thing. He is lost as it were. I do not find it acceptable”.

Now that Prajapati has taken Indra through the Awake, Dream and Deep sleep stages (jaagra, svapna and sushupti), is ready to take Indra to the fourth or the turya stage. Prajapati asks Indra to stay with him for five more years (now this adds up to 101 years from the start of the first discussion). Finally, Prajapati agrees and says this body is indeed mortal. But the Atman which is beyond all these three states namely awake, dream and sleep is indeed the ground state based on which one becomes aware of and experiences those three states. Atman is immortal and cannot be just this body. “Atman is yoked to this body just as a horse or a bull is yoked to the car” says Prajapati.

Extending this further, I interpret the final answer to the initial questions as: “Atman is the basis of what you see and is the ground of your consciousness and your perceptions of the external world”.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Why would anyone want to live on the Moon or the Mars?

 During a nature walk, when I was experiencing and enjoying the colors of flowers, the sounds of birds, the cold gusts of wind and the warm sun, my thoughts jumped from this beautiful planet to the moon and spacewalk.

I wondered why anyone would want to live in a Lunar colony or Martian colony? I can certainly understand the curiosity and the exploring nature of us humans. A visit to the moon or the Mars is OK. But why would I want to live there?

These planets do not have such beautiful bounties of nature like we have on Mother Earth. What beautiful mountains? What beautiful waterfalls and rivers? How many varieties of trees and flowers with so many colors and fragrance? How many beautiful birds and animals? Even the volcanoes have their own beauty if we stay away from them. How about the rainbows and the aurora borealis?

Why would I – for that matter anyone- want to go to a barren land without any scenery and live there? Come to think of that, we cannot even live in those places without our own oxygen supply, temperature control and food. Why would I want to live in any place other than earth?

This is not to disagree with space exploration. This is to keep space exploration in proper perspective while appreciating the wonders of nature right here on earth and protecting her for future generations.

How about exploring our own planet and our own “interior landscape” with respect and better understanding?

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Understanding of Human Mind in Buddhist Teachings

 “A cloud never dies” is the name of a documentary on the life of Venerable Thich Naht Hanh narrated by Mr. Peter Coyote. Watching it was a moving experience since I have been in the presence of “Thay” on  two occasions for extended periods listening to his Dharma talks and taking part in his morning walking meditation on two occasions.

Reflecting on my own growth in spirituality, I know how much his teachings helped me. I consider him Buddha reborn in the 20th century to re-establish the original teachings. “Thay” calls his approach “engaged Buddhism”. It is a perfect designation.

I consider myself a spiritual person at this stage in life. I was born and brought up in a traditional Hindu family immersed in the daily rituals of worshiping the Divine in everything. I have delved deeply into my tradition. I have also read extensively about other traditions from both the east and the west. I am no scholar. But have reflected deeply looking for common  threads, and messages of peace, and harmony in the various traditions of the world.

Based on my readings and reflections, it appears that Buddhist tradition is one which places emphasis on living a wholesome life in this phenomenal world and at the same time makes us aware of the spiritual dimension of the universe and of ourselves. It emphasizes respect for all forms of life. Buddhist psychology (called abhidharma)  tries to understand the way human mind works. These ancient ideas have been substantiated by modern neuroscience to the point that Buddha is now called the “Physician of the Mind”.

Buddhist meditation techniques offer practical methods, simple to practice and accessible to everyone. One can use it for body relaxation or pain reduction. One can use it for understanding oneself and others and develop compassion and loving-kindness. One can use these techniques to make connections between the historical elements and the Universal elements. It can help overcome the pitfalls in human perceptions, reasoning, and actions without demanding absolute faith in any dogma, even its own.

One other attractive and useful approach of  Buddhism-inspired meditation (particularly the Mindfulness idea) is that it starts with helping to build on one’s strengths before touching the weaknesses. This is the opposite of the approach of traditional psychology and psychiatry, which focuses on the “problem” area, trying to find its cause in the psychology and behavior of the individual.

In Buddhist abhidharma, we learn that all of us are born with 51 mental formations. Some of them are wholesome and helpful, such as loving kindness, compassion, and mindfulness.  Some are unwholesome and harmful, such as hate and prejudice. All of us have all of them in our “store consciousness” as seeds. We have to learn how to water the “good” seeds. Meditation techniques have been developed and practiced over centuries to help “water the good seeds” in us.

Because of the reasons I have listed in the previous paragraph, these ideas can be practiced by anyone from any religion, tradition, or culture. Hopefully the abhidharma (spiritual psychology) of Buddhist teachings which should be acceptable to all cultures and traditions can become the foundation for peace and harmony in the 21st century.  

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Antahkarana, The Inner Organ of Awareness and Mindfulness Meditation

 मनो बुद्धिरहङ्कार- श्चित्तं करणमान्तरम् । संशयो निश्चयो गर्वः स्मरणं विषया इमे ॥ अन्तःकरणं त्रिविधम्

This is a definition of our inner organ of awareness called antahkarana (अन्तःकरणं )in Indian philosophy. What an amazing understanding of our mental functions, expressed in so few words, centuries ago!

This “non-physical” organ of the mind called antahkarana has four components, and they are listed with their corresponding functions  in this sloka (or better called sutra since it is an aphorism, packing lots of information in a few words).

First is manas (मनो) whose function is doubt (संशयो); desires and feelings also belong here.

Second is buddhi (बुद्धि), is intellect including reasoning, judgement and therefore certainty/conclusion निश्चयो.

Third is ahankara (अहङ्कार) or ego whose function is ownership (I, me, and mine)indicated by the word गर्वः

Fourth is chittha (चित्तं) which stands for will, mood, memory (स्मरणं) etc., which drives action.

What is antahkarana? (अन्तःकरणं)  It is a psychological component of the physiological mind. It is subject to changes and fluctuations resulting in different perceptions at different times. Even if perceptions are proper, it can falsely attribute properties to the objects of perception, resulting in illusions and wrong conclusions. It is also the repository of virtues and vices of the evolved mental functions and pleasure and pain experienced in the body and  of fear and desire in the field of basic emotions.

But how is antahkarana aware of all these states? What is the ground on which these become evident? What is the screen on which the movie is projected? That “ground” is the object of spiritual quest. It is, however, the subject itself! “The seeker is the sought” says the Vedas. 

When understood from the point of view of modern neurosciences, manas indicates functions of the basal parts of the brain which react to desires, fear, anger etc. We call it the reptilian brain. Buddhi corresponds to the higher cortical functions of the brain called the executive functions. This is the function of the neo-cortex or the newly arrived brain. Ahankara corresponds to the insular cortex and other medial parts of the cortex of the brain connecting all the sensations as belonging to one’s body requiring action. It is the ego, personal self. Chittha corresponds to higher functions making one’s decision and eliciting a will to act based on memory, mood, and judgement.

Neuroscience tells us that our primitive, reptilian brain registers the emotions related to events and sensations and is made for the organism to survive. It is reflexive in nature. The middle brain, which is present in all mammals and birds, is where internal and external sensations are always relayed through and remembered. These parts function to store and retrieve memory to explore, learn, to seek food or a mate or avoid dangers, based on prior experience. The inner surface of the brain and the front end have centers involved in registering all the inner and outer sensation as belonging to this body which experiences them, helps make sense of them, and help take a perspective of the surroundings and of other people. Finally comes the areas of the brain doing the highest functions of the brain in judging, prioritizing, planning, and executing.

It is very interesting that modern neuroscience shows that the emotional brain and the executive brain do not have direct communication lines. However, the “emotional brain” and the “ownership brain” do. They exchange information. The only way the emotional brain can be controlled is through the “ownership brain”.  Therefore, all the perceptions, external and internal, are by nature constructed to act quickly, since that is the “survival” mode. For a thoughtful response the message has to go through the “ownership” part which then can request orders from the “executive brain”!

Hope this shows how mindful meditation methods help to make these connections. In mindful meditation we are asked to accept the feelings, emotions, and sensations without judging, without clinging or ignoring, owning them and looking at them deeply (vipassana).  By accepting them and owning them we can bring helpful communication between the executive, reflective part of our mind with the reflexive, emotional part of it.

Buddhism is practical and helps to learn how to live with peace and harmony – with oneself, with the outside world and with nature. It shows how our life is shaped in this world by causes and conditions, how we ourselves are responsible for creating those conditions by our actions, and how our mind creates its own ideas about others and the world based on our emotions, beliefs, bias, and dogmas. It teaches how look deeply and see how we are trapped in our habitual reflexive responses and how we can step out of these automatic, unwholesome responses to actions based on reflective thinking and understanding.

This is mind-training. It is neuroplasticity in modern terminology with strong empirical support. At present we use mindfulness practices mainly to reduce stress, relax muscles, relieve pain and anxiety and practical living, behavioral modification, and general well-being. But this takes care of only the body and the mind.

We can and we  must go further and use it for spiritual enlightenment also.

  


Saturday, April 23, 2022

Starting point for inward journey - atma vicara

  When reading and thinking about atma gnana – realization of our inner self – the following ideas emerged.

The basic premise behind the Vedic Hindu and the Buddhist philosophies is a simple one. All of us want to be happy and avoid suffering. That is just impossible because life is a mixture of happiness and suffering. That is the reality.

If we want to experience never-ending or eternal happiness, there are only two ways.

 One is to imagine another world where conditions for happiness are always present. This is what we call svarga or heaven. We can do the right things (punyam) and be a virtuous human being so we can get there. There are two problems though. One is that conditions for happiness such as milk, honey, wish-fulfilling trees (kalpaka vriksham) and wealth-yielding cows (kamadhenu) are said to be there. But our stay in heaven/svarga as the experiencer is short-lived. It will end as soon as we draw down from our account of good deeds in this world. We have to return to the earth according to this concept of heaven.

The other problem is that no one knows for sure there is a place called heaven. As my mother once remarked: “No one who got there has come down to tell us about it”.

We can take this course only on faith. Faith is a good thing.

The other method for continuous happiness, or at least freedom from suffering is through inward journey. That is the path of atma gnana, realization of our inner self. This is available here and in the now – during this life. This is what Buddha, Adi Sankara and Ramana Maharishi kept saying.

When Adi Sankara says: “tat brahma nishkala aham, na bootha sanghaha” (I am that eternal blemishless Self, not this aggregate of elements) and when Ramana Maharishi asks “naan yar?” (Who am I?), they are not saying “I am not this body” but saying that “I am not JUST this body”.

That is meant to become a starting point for meditation on the atman/brahman or the Inner Spiritual Self. 

 

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

What is complete knowledge

 To be able to assert that my knowledge about some subject is complete, that knowledge must have been acquired by my body, mind, and spirit. It must be verified by logic, emotions, and ethics.

To know anything in its entirety, one must know about the knowledge, knower and the known, says Vedic teachings. Western philosophers say that you can have complete knowledge of a thing only if you can know that thing with the body, mind, emotions, and the spirit.

I wish to add that you have to know “it” (the object of knowledge) from both inside and outside. How can I get a perfect understanding and knowledge of the Universe when I can never look at it and experience it from outside? On the other hand, I do have a better understanding of this planet, since I can get a glimpse of how the earth looks like from space even though not by my own eyes. I can definitely see that the national boundaries are our creations. They just do not exist in ultimate reality, although they are realities of life on this planet. 

You can know the knower through reflections and insight if the knower is oneself. What if the knower is someone else? How can you know that knower unless you can get into that person’s world from inside that knower?  How can you know how a bat experiences the world unless you can get into it, live upside down in dark caves, and experience “what does it feel to be bat” as pointed out by Thomas Nagel?

One can know the “known” only by experiencing the real world in its “suchness” (a thing as is and not as perceived) says Buddhism.

 

Friday, April 15, 2022

Real Time and Potential Time - An important addendum

 

I wrote the piece on real and potential time a few days back and posted it today. It is amazing that I did not know that a whole book is being published on this topic this year. The title of the book is: Out of Time: A philosophical study of Timelessness and is written by Samuel Baron, Kristie Miller and Jonathan Tallant. It is published by the Oxford University Press.

A summary of this book was just published yesterday (April 14, 2022) written by one of the authors, Samuel Baron in The Conversation and is also available at Phys.org under the title: Time might not exist according to physicists and philosophers – but that is okay. (Time might not exist, according to physicists and philosophers, but that's okay)

Of course, these authors are scientists (physics, I think). Their book is based on analysis of available facts. My idea is pure intuition. I am not a physicist or cosmologist. My idea is not based on any scientific analysis. It is pure intuition, looking at the universe like our ancient rishis did, like a child, with awe and innocence. 


Real Time and Potential Time

 Today’s reflection (deep looking) was on cause and effect, antecedent and subsequent, potential and manifest. All these concepts of awareness operate in time. They lead to one THING or to one EVENT and to another thing or event.

If time was not always an entity, before TIME came into the equation, what was there “before”? In this vast unmeasurable universe, maybe TIME is also potential, not actual. It shows its head only when something moves from one place to another or one thing changes to another! The first involves moving through space and in the second the thing is stationary but the form changes.

In other words, movement in space and changes in form shows us, the observers, passage of time. An observer becomes a necessary requirement for time to be perceived.

If there is no movement, or if there is no change in the form or if there is no observer what happens?

Time is there, but just as a potential. It appears to be real and of consequence because of us observers and experiencers.

This is the same for matter, energy, and information too. They can all be manifest or potential. Since time and space are intertwined, is Space the only constant?

Did our ancestors know this in their intuition? Is that why Vedic philosophy considers Space (dahara akasha) as the first of five principles? It is “Knowledge-Space or Ether of the Heart”, according to one dictionary. That Space is in our hearts, which is referred to as “guha”. Since Sound is the property associated with Space, the idea of Cosmic Dance and Nataraja evolved.

This idea of Cosmic Dance and Cosmic Sound has captured the imagination of astronomers and cosmologists to the point that a huge Vigraha of Nataraja stands at the entrance to CERN in Geneva, Switzerland.  (File:Shiva's statue at CERN engaging in the Nataraja dance.jpg - Wikimedia Commons)

Friday, April 8, 2022

Who am I? Am I particles of memory?

 Science and spirituality are points of view, systems of philosophy. Both try to understand life and cosmos. One focuses on reproducible evidence and therefore trustworthy for future actions. It breaks down whole into parts to understand better. It is objective. The other is intuitive and understands the whole and nature as is. It is a combination of subjective and objective and understands that what appears to be objective has the subject also included in it.

I tend to synthesize science and spirituality, whenever possible. I hope I am not going too far with the following thoughts.

When I read that the migration of birds depends on quantum changes in the molecules in their brains, something clicked. It appears that quantum effects of earth’s magnetism acts on two specific molecules in the brains of birds. The molecules are called Trip and FAD. Earth’s magnetic force trips one electron to flip from one molecule to the other and triggers release of neurotransmitters. This is coded as memory, in addition to other clues helping the birds navigate. This is “electromagnetic” memory which depends on quantum particles! May be, the same applies to any kind of memory, since it is a neuro-biochemical process.

If that is true - and that is a big “if” - does it apply to the philosophical question of “Who am I”? My “I” is not the same as the one born almost 89 years back in another part of the world. Every particle in this body has been replaced and changed over the decades – even the genetic material. How is it then that I am still me?

The fundamental particles which make me have changed. My location has changed. Many decades have passed. In other words, matter and energy keeping “me” together in space and time have changed. Yet I am still the same “I”. How is that?

That is because the template is the same as in the famous philosophical experiment in which the question is about an old chariot or a ship whose parts have all been replaced. Is it still the same chariot or ship? The parts are different. But the template is the same. It is another way of saying that the “form” is determined by information giving us a template.

The particles of the chemicals making up my current genes are totally different from the originals with which I was born. But the message has been kept the same by the genetic codes, which are molecules of information. Therefore my “form” is the same except for the changes in it due to passage of time. Information is the same.

The other common factor is my consciousness with its important function of memory. As pointed out by Buddha many centuries back, confirmed more recently by the work of Antonio Tomasio and others, “I” am made up of memories of events in my life (autobiographical memory) and a sense of ownership of those memories as mine (Thanks to our insular cortex). Therefore, I am aware and can say: “I am the continuity of what I was born with although I look and think different”. Others see that continuity too giving me another point of reference.

Since particles are parts of matter which change over space and time and since information, memory and consciousness are concepts and not concrete objects, our ancestors were correct when they challenged us to think “Who am I” and also suggested that may be “I am ultimately the same as the original even though I am separate and different”.  And yes, it seems correct that consciousness shines on its own and illuminates everything.

But that consciousness needs a body (matter) to operate from and information acts with the help of energy on the particles which make up the body. May be Buddha was also correct when he talked about “dependent co-arising” (pratitya samutpada) and said that “I am made of non-I elements”.