Nuggets Of Pure Gold: Introduction To Shankara
Oh how I love these old first editions of books out of India – this one published in 1969 by Calcutta’s Firma K. L. Mukhopadhyay, with the generous title of Introduction To Shankara: Being parts of Shankara’s commentary on the Brahma Sutras rendered freely into English. Its pages are yellowed and musty-smelling – and contain nuggets of pure gold!
The esteemed author is Rasvihary Das, Ph.D. whose extensive credentials as an academic philosopher are listed in bullet-point fashion on the first page, right below the title. And just as is indicated in the lengthy subtitle, Mr. Das has offered selections of the Indian sage Shankara’s commentary on the Brahma Sutras (aka the Vedanta Sutras): those which the former deems as the most philosophically revealing. The introduction lays out the basic premises of Advaita Vedanta, with the commentaries themselves presenting all variety of possible objections to these premises, and the answers to these objections. As promised, the English translation is (to my ear) clearly rendered, and philosophically on point. Highly recommended! [And – as a bonus — available here at Abe Books for less than the cost of a chai in a U.S. café.]
However clear the presentation, many of the issues discussed are rather intricate. I thoroughly enjoy such discussions – love how they clarify my understanding, and point to places where my view is still a bit (or quite a bit) cloudy. The challenge, however, is to remain anchored in – and return frequently to – the utter simplicity of Advaita’s core insight: tat tvan asi (That thou art).
So after reading the book for a while, I found myself inspired to review the basic steps of the process, in as concise a manner as I could – reflective, of course, of my current level of understanding.
From Ignorance To Turning The Light Around
In confusion, in ignorance (Sanskrit: avidya) I identify as a human body, mind, or body-mind: a separate, autonomous, limited “me” who is the (supposed) subject of the various objects of the external world. Perception/attention (from the point of view of the human body-mind) is directed outward.
At some point there is a turning-around of the perception/attention/interest – away from external objects and toward the Awareness within which these objects arise and dissolve. In Taoism this is referred to as “turning the light around,” and in Zen/Ch’an Buddhism it is referred to as “taking the backward step.”
Pure Awareness As My True Identity
I let go of the assumed identity as a human body, mind or body-mind, i.e. as any “thing” phenomenal – and consider the possibility that my true identity is Pure Awareness: that which remains unchanging in the face of ever-transforming phenomenal appearances.
I recognize directly and intimately — via intuition, apperception — my true identity as This – the Pure Awareness that is the source and true substance of all appearances, including the bodies and minds of sentient beings.
So now I clearly know that who I am essentially is not a body, not a mind, but rather Pure Awareness.
The Universality Of Awareness: Yes, No or Maybe?
Now I begin exploring the (non-phenomenal) qualities of Pure Awareness, e.g. spaciousness, emptiness, luminosity, cognizance, peace and joy (aka Sanskrit: sat-cit-ananda).
Perhaps the most important of these qualities is (what mind might name as) its “universality” – i.e. instead of there being a unique, separate Awareness for each of the earth’s seven billion humans, there is and must be only a single (in the sense of “one without a second”) Awareness that we all (so to speak) “share.”
A Roadmap, Of Sorts
Certainty around this issue (of the universality of Pure Awareness) is reached step-wise:
1. I see that Awareness is independent of any given (gross or subtle) waking-state phenomenon – because perceptual and conceptual objects come and go, but I (as Awareness) remain. But is Awareness independent of waking-state phenomena as a whole? (How do we establish this without succumbing to the fallacy of composition?)
2. I see that Awareness is independent of the waking-state as a whole – because I am aware also in my dreams, which are devoid entirely of waking-state phenomena.
3. I consider the possibility that Awareness is independent not only of waking-state and dream phenomena, but also independent of space-time altogether (what physicists refer to as “nonlocal”).
4. When I can say “yes” to this possibility, then the universality of Awareness is a given – because there can be no multiplicity without a space-time context in which this many-ness of phenomena is extended and perceived. Without space and/or time, separation of one object (in this case a separate Awareness) from another simply cannot appear. If Pure Awareness is ontologically prior to space-time, then it must be (what mind names as) “universal.”
Speaking The Unspeakable
From the point of view of the direct experience of this universality of Pure Awareness, language (with its separate words) no longer exists. But from the point of view of mind, we can approximate the truth by saying that this “universality” of Awareness is: the “same” beyond the same/different polarity; and “one” beyond the one/many polarity (i.e. one without a second); and “unlimited” beyond the limited/unlimited polarity; and “infinite” beyond the infinite/finite and large/small polarities; and “universal” beyond the universal/particular and universal/individual polarities.
As Pure Awareness, I know my independence and (paradoxically) non-separation from all appearances, including (what mind names as) sentient beings.
Conceptual-mind can know via inference, and subtle-body can know via yogic direct perception that the same is true for all (apparently) other sentient beings: that this universal Pure Awareness is their true identity.
So both directly and via the functioning of conceptual-mind and subtle-body I realize my essential identity with all sentient beings: how, as Pure Awareness, we are not-two – even as bodies and minds retain the playful appearance of separation, in and as the dance of Lila.