Self-Inquiry In Ramana Maharshi’s Advaita Vedanta
As I understand it, asking the question ‘Who am I?’ -- in a self-enquiry fashion -- facilitates what is basically a two-step process. The first step isolates the “I-thought” or “I-feeling” from the thoughts and perceptions to which it typically attaches itself, so that the practitioner is left face-to-face with a naked experience of “I am”: the habitual sense of “being someone” independent of “being a body” or “being thoughts.”
Once this “I-thought” is thus isolated, the Self (i.e. Pure Awareness or God or Tao) is then able to draw and dissolve that I-thought fully into its “home” in the Heart (an esoteric/energetic center on the right side of the chest) -- which is the second and final stage, during which the I-thought (the ego) is permanently dismantled, ushering in what is known as Self-realization.
In other words, there is first an active stage of enquiry, which brings the practitioner to a point of openness or availability; and then a completely passive or surrendered stage, mediated, if you will, by the Grace of God (or Self or Guru), which represents the final “death” of the ego.
Here Sarada describes her perception of this Heart-center, from dualistic and nondualistic perspectives, offering an insight relevant to any practice which utilizes subtle anatomy (including, for instance, qigong or yoga asana):
”Before Self-realization I sometimes went into samadhi. As I went into and came out of these states there was an awareness of the Heart-center on the right side of the chest. However, since realization I know that the Heart cannot be located in the body. The Heart is the Self and it is immanent in all things. It is the source of everything and it is neither inside the body nor outside. It is everywhere.”
Taoist Meditation & Self-Inquiry
A similar two-step process is articulated in Taoist meditation practice as: (1) Turning The Light Around, during which the practitioner withdraws the habitual absorption of attention into the objects and the external world, and directs attention instead “inward” -- becoming curious about the “subject” or “seer” rather than the perceived objects; and (2) Dissolving Into Universal Qi and the subsequent Holding The One -- in which personal Jing-Qi-Shen has been dissolved fully into transpersonal Tao.
Buddhist Meditation & Self-Inquiry
In Buddhist analytic meditation, the practice of looking for and not-finding the “I” (as body or as mind, etc.) is more-or-less the equivalent of the first stage of self-inquiry, in which the “I-thought” (the “object of refutation” in Madhyamaka) is isolated independently from its habitual identification with the skandhas. The Buddha-Nature teachings represent something akin to the second stage of self-inquiry -- during which enlightened qualities manifest spontaneously out of the emptiness revealed via analytic meditation.
The dialectics of the Diamond Sutra [a is not-a; and therefore is truly-a] offer another analog to the two-step self-inquiry process. Or, in zen-speak: mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers; then mountains are not-mountains and rivers are not-rivers; then once again (but very differently!) mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers.
In the following passage, Sarada points to the difference between the first “mountains are mountains” and the later, Self-realized “mountains are mountains.” In the first, what is perceived as “mountains” is actually no more than an egoic mental/emotional projection. A Self-realized being perceives mountains as Self (Buddha or Tao), which is how they truly-are. The intermediate stage is one in which one wakes up to the fact that “mountains are not-mountains,” i.e. how they’ve habitually been perceived (via egoic filters) is not the truth of the matter.
”I don’t see the world, I only see the Self. Seeing the Self everywhere I look is such a fundamental property of my being that I sometimes forget that devotees are not also seeing what I am seeing. When this happens it is only when they speak that I am reminded that they all have minds, and that when they look at the world they are only looking at their minds.”
The Body In Self-Realization
One thing I found uniquely fascinating, and a bit disturbing, about Sarada’s account of her Self-realization, was her consistent desire (in the months subsequent to her awakening) and repeated attempts to “drop the body,” i.e. to dissolve so fully into Self as to precipitate the “death” of the body. As identification with her physical form was fully relinquished, so was any real motivation to maintain it as a viable vehicle through which to appear within the human realm of manifestation.
Such an attitude seems, for one, quite at odds with the general spirit of Taoist practice, which treats the body as temple -- as a precious vehicle quite worthy of our care and respect. It caused me to think in a new way, also, about the Bodhisattva vow which defines Mahayana Buddhist practice: how generating a clear intention to remain in human form, in order to be of benefit to others, perhaps serves a vital yogic purpose, namely to cultivate in ones mindstream an intention with enough potency to serve as an anchor to prevent one from the kind of full dissolution into formless Self that Sarada so frequently was tempted by.
So here, it would seem, is where the type of Advaita Vedanta described in No Mind, I Am The Self parts ways with Taoist and Mahayana Buddhist practice, for the latter are generally rooted in a view of simultaneous mind according to which the direct experience of awareness-itself (i.e. Tao) and the contents of experience (i.e. the ten-thousand-things) arise together as an inseparable pair. In other words, mental, emotional and physical phenomena are self-liberated as they arise -- in a way similar to how words written with ones finger on the surface of a pool of water are never separate from and immediately “return to” the water. This includes the physical body, which is understood and experienced simply as an aspect of the play of natural mind. And -- vis-à-vis the Bodhisattva vow -- awakened wisdom and skillful means also are inseparable.
From this point of view, Sri Sarada’s strong preference for “dissolution” and her indifference if not active repulsion for the physical body might be considered as a kind of attachment to emptiness -- rather than realizing fully the inseparability of emptiness and compassion. It should be pointed out, however, that after “choosing” (as Self) to maintain connection to a physical form, she now has assumed a more active teaching role.
In any case, I thoroughly enjoyed No Mind, I Am The Self, and recommend it highly to anyone with an interest in nondual spiritual practice, or in authentic and successful guru/disciple relationships.