# Chapter 10. The Teaching of Non-Duality
# 10.1. The metaphysics of non-duality
By now you may be getting the impression that we will be questioning the reality of all objects in this course, and if you are, you will be correct. No object will be excluded from this examination because until you understand that no object is real, and all are conceptual, you will not be free.
The statement of non-duality is that Consciousness is all there is. Advaita, the Sanskrit word for non-duality, means absence of both duality and non-duality. There is neither duality nor non-duality in Consciousness, since both are nothing but concepts. This means that Consciousness cannot be objectified — rather, it is transcendent to all objectification. Consciousness includes all existence, all absence of existence, and all that transcends both existence and non-existence. Even though it cannot be described, we attempt to represent it by the structure shown below.
Although concepts themselves are unreal, we use them in order to point to what is real. For example, the structure in the figure above is conceptual only, not real, because, in fact, there is no separation of any kind. All separation is conceptual, thus, all objects are conceptual. Since no object is real, no object exists. In fact, existence itself is only a concept (see more discussion of this in Section 11.2). In non-duality, there is only Consciousness and there is nothing but Consciousness (see Section 9.3). There are no separate individuals and there is no separate ‘I’ (this also means that there is no separate soul).
In Buddhism, the concept of no-self is equivalent to the concept in Advaita of no separate ‘I’. The Buddha taught practices for seeing directly that there is no self (see Section 24.2). In Advaita, the analogous direct practice is inquiry into the self (see Section 10.2, Section 23.2).
The illusion of separation (Maya, see Section 12.7) is the illusion that the world and all of its objects and individuals are separate from us. In non-duality, since there is no separate ‘I’, there is no ability, volition or freedom, to think, feel or act separately. Everything that happens, including all of the thoughts, feelings, emotions, sensations, perceptions and actions of the ‘individual’, happens completely impersonally and spontaneously (causelessly). Indeed, the manifestation itself, including the illusion of causation (see Section 12.3), appears completely spontaneously.
In the meditation for September 12 in A Net of Jewels (1996), Ramesh Balsekar says:
We are neither different nor separate from Consciousness, and for that very reason we cannot ‘apprehend’ it. Nor can we ‘integrate’ with it because we have never been other than it. Consciousness can never be understood in relative terms. Therefore, there is nothing to be ‘done’ about it. All is Consciousness and we are That.
In the meditation for September 24, he says:
We neither exist nor not exist. Our true nature is neither presence nor absence but the annihilation of both.
In the meditation for June 15, he says:
When personal identification vanishes, all that then remains is a sense of presence without the person, which gets translated into a feeling of life as total freedom.
In the meditation for July 9, he says:
There is only one state. When corrupted and tainted by self-identification, it is known as an individual. When merely tinted by the sense of presence, of animated consciousness, it is the impersonal witnessing. When it remains in its pristine purity, untainted and untinted in primal repose, it is the Absolute.
In the meditation for September 23, he says:
It is impossible to describe the sense of magnificence that comes out of the true apperception of the nature of the individual in relation to the manifestation. The loss of personal individuality is exchanged for the gain of Totality of the cosmos.
In chapter 40 of I Am That (1984), Nisargadatta Maharaj says:
[The sage] is happy and fully aware that happiness is his very nature and that he need not do anything, nor strive for anything to secure it. It follows him, more real than the body, nearer than the mind itself. You imagine that without cause there can be no happiness. To me dependence on anything for happiness is utter misery. Pleasure and pain have causes, while my state is my own, totally uncaused, independent, unassailable.
In chapter 94, he says:
True happiness is uncaused and this cannot disappear for lack of stimulation. It is not the opposite of sorrow, it includes all sorrow and suffering.
Spiritual ignorance is the result of Consciousness identifying with the concept of a separate ‘I’ (see Section 5.12, Section 7.6, Section 7.7, Section 7.8 and Section 11.4), resulting in an illusory ‘me’ which is separate from all other objects and entities, and which is erroneously accompanied by the belief that it has the power to do, think and choose. Self-realisation, awakening, enlightenment and disidentification are terms applied to the disappearance of this sense of personal doërship simultaneously with the realisation that there is nothing but Consciousness. Awakening is experienced as absolute, total and timeless freedom and peace, either with or without activity. Simultaneously there is the deep intuitive conviction that our true nature is pure unmanifest Awareness, pure Subjectivity, and that it transcends and underlies all phenomena. Because of this, it is without limits. Other terms that we shall use for pure Awareness are the Self, Noumenality and Reality. Reality is not something that can be conceptualised or described, but it can be pointed to. Enlightenment, or awakening, is the natural result of spiritual evolution.
In the meditation for April 17 in A Net of Jewels (1996), Ramesh Balsekar says:
The beginning of inner transformation is a deep feeling of utter dissatisfaction with life, otherwise called dispassion. This is the point of the inward turning of personal consciousness. It is the point of no return in the quest for life’s source.
Before enlightenment, the movement outwards towards the world and separation is driven by desire, fear and suffering, while the movement inwards towards Reality is driven by intuition, apperception (non-dual awareness), decreasing attachment to the external and the urge to know one’s true nature. It is accompanied by an increasing sense of freedom, wholeness and peace. These are not true movements because there is no place to go, for Consciousness is always What-We-Are, but initially they may be experienced as movement. The perception that we are separate and we are what is perceiving, doing, thinking, feeling and acting is a movement outward, while understanding and inner awareness are movements inward. Before enlightenment, the inward and outward movements alternate with each other because neither can be sustained indefinitely by itself. Whereas phenomenal events occur in time and appear to obey the law of causality; awakening, or enlightenment, obeys no laws of phenomenality and therefore it occurs from outside of time and cannot be predicted, achieved, attained or provoked.
# 10.2. The practices
None of the concepts in the teaching of non-duality are mere dogma. They are all empirically verifiable. For example, the absence of free will, or volition, has been confirmed scientifically (Section 5.9, Section 5.10 and logically (Section 5.11, and can be verified simply by watching the mind, and seeing that all thoughts, without exception, appear out of nowhere (Section 5.13). Thus, the thought that ‘I’ shall decide one way or another also appears out of nowhere, and therefore is not an act of free will. Likewise, whenever intention arises, it also appears out of nowhere and is not a result of free will. The absence of an individual thinker is verified by asking, “Who is it that is thinking this?”, or, “Who is the ‘I’ that is thinking this?”, then looking for the thinker, which cannot be found. Similarly, the absence of the doër is verified by asking, “Who is it that is doing this?”, or, “Who is the ‘I’ that is doing this?”, and looking for the doër, which also cannot be found. Now if we ask, “Who is it that is looking?”, the observer cannot be found either. These are examples of the practice of inquiry, which we have used and shall continue to use extensively throughout this course.
Try the following exercises in self-inquiry, then describe your experiences. They are best done when you are alone and quiet.
- Ask, “Who is it that is thinking this?”. Then see if you can see the thinker.
- Ask, “Who is it that is doing this?”. Then see if you can see the doër.
- Ask, “Who is it that is observing this?”. Then see if you can see the observer.
Is there anything we can do to awaken?
The practices just described give confidence in the teaching. To advance the inward movement towards enlightenment, one can inquire further by asking, “What is it that is aware of all of this?”. Asking such questions and looking inward in this manner allows us to begin to sense that we are not really individuals, but in fact are unmanifest, impersonal Awareness, which is not an object so it cannot be seen. The way to know what we are is to see what we are not. We are pure Awareness in which the body–mind organism, and indeed the entire universe, appears and disappears. Because the disappearance of the phenomenal self is not the extinction of pure Awareness (see Figure 1), there is no reason to fear it.
The practices described above are called inquiry and are discussed in greater detail in Chapter 23. They really include two practices: Self-inquiry (capitalised) is inquiry into our true nature, while self-inquiry (uncapitalised) is inquiry into the ego or ‘me’. They are variants of the basic practice, which is to ask, “Who/what am I (really)?”. This seemingly simple practice is actually extremely profound because it expresses the only true purpose in anybody’s life. All seeking for happiness, satisfaction or fulfillment is merely a distortion of this one purpose of realising our true nature. Whether we realise it or not, we who think we are individuals are all seeking to find our Source, which is our true Self. Inquiry stops the mind and turns it towards Source, which seems to be inward, but which is really all there is. Inquiry is emphasised in the teachings of sages who consider themselves to be disciples of Ramana Maharshi.
Who or what is it that practices? Look and see!
What is it that is aware? Look inward and see!
An alternative approach to Reality is not really a practice, but rather is the increasingly deep intuitive understanding (discussed further in Chapter 20, Chapter 23) of the absence of the individual doër. Spiritual understanding arises as we see that all functioning of the manifestation happens completely spontaneously and impersonally. We see that the concept of doërship (including thinkership, feelership and observership) is equivalent to the concept of the individual, and this is the source of all bondage and suffering.
The deeper the intuitive understanding, the clearer it is that the individual is and always has been nothing but an illusion. This is equivalent to seeing that there is no doër and there never has been a doër. Total acceptance of this means the disappearance of all envy, jealousy, regret, guilt, shame, blame and hatred, and is equivalent to surrendering to the functioning of Totality. This understanding is emphasised in the teaching of Ramesh Balsekar and his enlightened disciples.
What would it be like to feel no envy, jealousy, regret, guilt, shame, blame or hatred?
Ramana Maharshi (1879–1950), considered by many to be the greatest Indian saint of the twentieth century, taught that inquiry and surrender (see Section 19.1) are the only practices that lead to awakening. Nisargadatta Maharaj (1897–1981), Ramesh Balsekar (1917–2009) and Wei Wu Wei (1895–1986) all stress understanding (see Chapter 20), which is really a form of inquiry (see Chapter 23). All other practices must eventually reduce to these at some time or other if understanding is to deepen further.
# 10.3. The paths
In the meditation for October 18 in A Net of Jewels (1996), Ramesh Balsekar says:
Though in itself limited, a developed intellect is nonetheless necessary as the one faculty that can bring us to the brink of true Advaitic understanding. The person with a keen intellect becomes enlightened even when the instruction of the guru is imparted casually, whereas without it the immature seeker continues to remain confused even after a lifetime of seeking.
A mature and penetrating intellect will not have divorced itself from intuition and bound itself so extensively in logic and reason as to obstruct its natural receptivity to the spontaneous arising of divinity.
Inquiry and understanding comprise the spiritual path known as jnana yoga, the path of understanding (a sage of jnana is called a jnani). It is one of four classical Hindu spiritual paths. The other three are karma yoga, or selfless service; bhakti yoga, or devotional surrender (the devotee is called a bhakta); and raja yoga, or discovering our true nature through meditation and contemplation. Raja yoga is often practiced concurrently with the other three. Jnana, karma and bhakti yoga each tend to attract a specific kind of personality. Bhaktas are usually ‘feelers’, karma yogis are usually ‘doërs’ and jnanis are usually ‘thinkers’. In general, we can say that there are far more bhaktas than jnanis or karma yogis, and there are far fewer jnanis than bhaktas or karma yogis. However, there is much overlap among all of the paths, and no person ever exclusively follows one or the other. Jnana is particularly well suited for academic study because of its emphasis on the intellect. However, intellectual understanding is only the first step, and, indeed, it can become a hindrance later when it must be succeeded by intuitive understanding and surrender to pure Awareness.
If you were to classify yourself according to a spiritual path, would it be jnana yoga, karma yoga or bhakti yoga?
Buddhism has the Noble Eightfold Path, consisting of the following eight observances (from What the Buddha Taught (1974) by Walpola Rahula):
- Ethical conduct, consisting of 1) right speech, 2) right action and 3) right livelihood.
- Mental discipline, consisting of 1) right effort, 2) right mindfulness and 3) right concentration.
- Wisdom, consisting of 1) right thought and 2) right understanding.
Many volumes have been written on these observances. Right mindfulness is the basis of a path called insight meditation. The Buddhist path has nothing to do with belief, prayer, worship or ceremony. It leads to freedom, happiness and peace through morality, concentration and wisdom.
The Noble Eightfold Path is not to be considered as rules for behaviour or even as rules for spiritual practice. Rather, they are investigations into the underlying meaning of the Buddha’s teachings.
The path of prayer is the principal path of Christianity. Three Trappist monks at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, CO have recently developed two forms of prayer called Centring Prayer and Contemplative Prayer that are intended to bring the soul into union with God. These are based on the 14th century anonymous book, The Cloud of Unknowing. When union happens, the soul disappears and only God remains (this is similar to the yogic state of nirvikalpa samadhi, see Section 23.6).
# 10.4. About death
Because all bodies die, if we identify with the body, we will fear death. When we see that we are not the body, we will be indifferent to death. In Chapter 20 and Chapter 23, we shall see directly that we are Awareness, which is unchanging and cannot die. We are not what changes, which is unreal and which must die.
All sages attempt to answer the seekers’ questions, “What was ‘I’ before the birth of the body?”, and, “What will ‘I’ be after the body dies?”. Ramesh Balsekar teaches that, when the body dies, Consciousness simply disidentifies from it. Indeed, the death of the body is the result of Consciousness disidentifying from it. Since there was no separate ‘I’ before death, there is none after death, so there is no entity to continue after death. Thus, there is neither an after-death nor a before-death state for the ‘I’ since it has never existed in the first place. Without a body there is only pure unmanifest Consciousness.
In the meditation for April 13 in A Net of Jewels (1996), Ramesh says:
Once the body dies, manifested consciousness is released and merges with the impersonal Consciousness like a drop of water merges with the ocean. No individual identity survives death.
In the meditation for May 20, he says,
When you are dead, you will be back in the primordial state of rest which existed before you were born, that stillness before all experience. It is only the false sense of a limited, separate ‘me’ that deprives life of its meaning and gives death an ominous significance which it really does not have.
In the meditation for June 19, he says,
What is born must in due course die. The objective body will thereafter be dissolved and irrevocably annihilated. What was once a sentient being will be destroyed, never to be reborn. But the consciousness is not objective, not a thing at all. Therefore, consciousness is neither born nor dies, and certainly cannot be ‘reborn’.
And in the meditation for October 14, he says,
Although one may be afraid of the process of dying, deep down one very definitely has the feeling, the intuitive conviction, that one cannot cease to exist. This feeling has been misrepresented as the basis for the theory of rebirth, but the fact of the matter is that there exists no actual entity to be either born or reborn or to cease to exist.
Since there never is a separate ‘I’, there can be no entity either to incarnate or to reïncarnate. Ramesh explains the existence of individual characteristics of the body–mind organism as a result of conditioning and heredity (see also Section 5.15).
Ramesh says that heredity includes differences projected from the ‘pool’ of consciousness (see Section 8.1) as well as genetic differences. (The ‘pool’ is a concept that cannot be verified; see Section 8.2.) Ramesh uses this concept to try to explain the origin of body–minds that are strikingly similar to previous ones, as in the concept of reïncarnation. From the ‘pool’, he says the body–mind may have inherited characteristics from previous body–minds, but there is no previous lifetime of the ‘I’ since there is no ‘I’.
Some sages teach that, in the absence of the body, Consciousness is still aware of itself. The evidence they cite is an awareness that they say exists during deep (dreamless) sleep. For example, in I Am That (1984), chapter 11, the following dialogue ensues between Nisargadatta Maharaj and a questioner:
Questioner: What do you do when asleep?
Maharaj: I am aware of being asleep.
Q: Is not sleep a state of unconsciousness?
M: Yes, I am aware of being unconscious.
Q: And when awake, or dreaming?
M: I am aware of being awake or dreaming.
Q: I do not catch you. What exactly do you mean? Let me make my terms clear: by being asleep I mean unconscious, by being awake I mean conscious, by dreaming I mean conscious of one’s mind, but not of the surroundings.
M: Well, it is about the same with me, Yet, there seems to be a difference. In each state you forget the other two, while to me, there is but one state of being, including and transcending the three mental states of waking, dreaming and sleeping.
In Truth Love Beauty (2006), Francis Lucille says:
Consciousness knows itself, with or without objects.
However, note that, in the February 4 meditation in A Net of Jewels (1996), Ramesh states:
The original state of the Noumenon is one where we do not even know of our beingness.
This is the state before birth and after death. Since there is no body in this state, there is only Noumenon. This state is not identical with the states in dreamless sleep, under anaesthesia or while comatose, because, objectively speaking, in those states there is still rudimentary sentience associated with the brainstem. Dreamless sleep, anaesthesia and coma are examples of the presence of absence as depicted in Figure 1. These are not the same as death because, before the body was born and after it dies, there is a double absence — the absence of the presence of the manifestation and the absence of the absence of the manifestation. The only way to describe this state is that it is neither presence (waking) nor absence (sleep), neither existence nor non-existence.
What is the experience of dreamless sleep? Can you remember it? What is the experience of being under anaesthesia? Can you remember it?
Although all religions attempt to give some picture of what we will be after death, they are all based on ego fears and desires rather than on personal experience. The ego may insist that it will continue to exist after the death of the body, but in so doing, it defies the direct evidence of everyone’s disappearance during deep sleep or anaesthesia. If the reader cares to imagine some picture of personal life before birth and after death, he or she should be aware that there never can be any kind of direct proof of such states. Some people think that thought can exist without a body, so that the ‘I’ concept (the soul) may prevail after the death of the body. But if that state cannot be verified, how can it be said to have existed at all?
Many Buddhist teachers claim that the Buddha taught that, after death, the individual is reborn in another body. To them, this seems logical because of the Buddha’s teaching of karma (or causality, see Section 12.3). However, because he taught that there is no self, there hardly could be a rebirth of the self. In the words of the Buddha:
—What is it, Venerable Sir, that will be reborn?
—A psycho–physical combination, O King, is the answer.
—But how, Venerable Sir? Is it the same psycho–physical combination as this present one?
—No, O King. But the present psycho–physical combination produces karmically wholesome and unwholesome volitional activities, and through such Karma a new psycho–physical combination will be reborn.
After-death states, such as those described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, by necessity are intuited or cognised by a living person, so the reliability and motives of that person must be considered. Any intense personal experience, such as a near-death experience, cannot be proof because such experiences by definition and necessity are not death experiences. The appearance of discarnate entities, such as spiritual guides, deceased relatives or religious figures, are also not proof because they always appear in living body–mind organisms and therefore could merely be mental phenomena.
Because near-death and out-of-body experiences require the presence of a brain, they cannot reflect what happens after death. In fact, out-of-body experiences can even be produced at will by electrically stimulating the right angular gyrus region of the brain. Near-death experiences have been shown to be more common in people for whom the boundaries between sleep and wakefulness are not as clearly defined as in those not having near-death experiences. Thus, in near-death experiences, the rapid eye movement (R.E.M.) dream state of sleep can intrude into normal wakeful consciousness.
In the April 7 meditation of A Net of Jewels (1996), Ramesh says:
There are many reports of what are popularly considered ‘death-experiences’, which are mistaken as evidence of what happens after death. These are in fact only hallucinations experienced by the ego arising from stimulation of certain centres of the brain before, not after, the completion of the death process. Most of the mystical phenomena recorded as yogic experience are of the same order, movements in consciousness experienced by the ego. But when man finally surrenders his miserable egoïc individuality, there is no experience of anything. He is the Totality itself.
In the April 4 meditation of the same book, Ramesh says:
My relative absence is my absolute presence. The moment of death will be the moment of highest ecstasy, the last sensorial perception of the psychosomatic apparatus.
In chapter 40 of I Am That (1984), Nisargadatta (Ramesh’s guru) says:
Everybody dies as he lives. I am not afraid of death, because I am not afraid of life. I live a happy life and shall die a happy death. Misery is to be born, not to die.
And in chapter 30, he says:
To be a living being is not the ultimate state: there is something beyond, much more wonderful, which is neither being nor non-being, neither living nor non-living. It is a state of pure awareness, beyond the limitations of space and time. Once the illusion that the body–mind is oneself is abandoned, death loses its terror; it becomes a part of living.
Does the thought of death frighten you or make you feel uneasy?
# 10.5. Summary diagram
When Figure 1 is stripped of all non-essential concepts, it becomes the following:
see, e.g., The Teachings of Ramana Maharshi, edited by Arthur Osborne, 1962 ↩︎
Milinda Panha 46 ↩︎
see Blanke, Ortigue, Landis and Seeck, Nature 419 (2002) 269–270); and by video camera and 3D goggles (H. H. Ehrsson, Science 317 (2007) 1048; and Lenggenhager, Tadi, Metzinger, and Blanke, Science 317 (2007) 1096–1099 ↩︎
see Kevin Nelson, Neurology 66 (2006) 1003 ↩︎