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Copyright 2001 Realization.org.



I Don't See Any Wisdom

How to totally, totally, totally miss the point of one of the best enlightenment books ever written.




Be As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi

by Sri Ramana Maharshi and David Godman (editor)
Published by Viking Penguin
$13.95 list, $11.16 by mail
Paperback, 251 pages.


WANT TO SEE something pathetic? Here's a review of one of the best instruction manuals for getting enlightened that have ever been written:

I am having a difficult time seeing in this book what many of the past reviewers apparently are. With [the] exception of one review I'm to believe this book gives every answer to every possible question that could be asked. I've read it, then reread it. Where they evidently behold golden wisdom I find questions answered with additional questions. What great wisdom is revealed by these methods [is] beyond me. Possibly this might [be] more valuable to psychiatrists than spiritual seekers.

That's from a review on Amazon.com. The person who wrote it totally missed the point of the book. She's disappointed because there's no wisdom in the book.

Well, of course not.

Enlightenment books -- the useful ones -- contain instructions for getting enlightened. You're supposed to follow the instructions, get enlightened, and become wise.

Unfortunately, this reader's misunderstanding is very common. People think enlightenment is about absorbing wisdom from wise sayings.

Sorry, that's not how it works. The way it works is, the book tells you what to do. The doing makes you wise.

One of the reasons a lot of people are confused about this is that some methods for getting enlightened require the student to adopt and hold specified convictions about the mind and universe. For example, Sankara's method of discrimination requires you to believe that the real you (the Atman) is something eternal that cannot be an object of experience. He writes:

The wise man who seeks liberation from bondage must discriminate between Atman and non-Atman. In this way, he can realize the Atman, which is Infinite Being, Infinite Wisdom and Infinite Love. Thus he finds happiness.

The Atman dwells within, free from attachment and beyond all action. A man must separate Atman from every object of experience, as a stalk of grass is separated from its enveloping sheath. Then he must dissolve into the Atman all those appearances which make up the world of name and form. He is indeed a free soul who can remain thus absorbed in the Atman alone.1

The reader who wrote that foolish review would probably read these paragraphs from Sankara and think, "Ah, now I see! Atman is independent of every object of experience! Now there is a fine piece of wisdom!"

But what do you do with such a piece of wisdom? Have it laminated and hang it on the wall where you keep profound truths? That's not enlightenment. That's an opinion.

What Sankara is really doing here is telling you what to do. Look at the verbs in those two paragraphs: must discrimate... realize... finds... must separate... must dissolve.. .remain absorbed. These are your instructions. They are Shankara's recipe for getting enlightened.

True, Sankara makes assertions about Atman -- he describes it -- but that's only so you can find it and do something with it: dissolve appearances into it and remain absorbed in it.

In other words, the assertions, and the beliefs they induce, are operational parts of the instructions.

(This raises the question, "Are Sankara's assertions true?" If they successfully induce enlightenment and you adopt a pragmatist definition of truth, then probably so. Otherwise, what difference does it make? There is nothing troubling about having to believe something that may not be true in order to become enlightened. The troubling thing would be if we have to believe something that may not be true after we are enlightened in order to remain enlightened. And we do not, because conceptual opinions are irrelevant in the enlightened state.)

Now let's go back to Ramana Maharshi's book. It describes several techniques for getting enlightened, but the main one is self enquiry. This is basically a method of mindfulness/concentration meditation (although he doesn't describe it that way) that requires you to continually bring the mind back to the question, "Who am I?" To ponder this question you must fix your attention on your sense of self, and over time this causes the sense of self to detach from objects of experience. When this process reaches a certain depth, enlightenment occurs.

Ramana's method is similar to Sankara's, but with one huge difference: Ramana's method doesn't require you to believe anything (although it may be facilitated by certain beliefs). You merely hold your attention in a certain way as much as possible and wait for something to happen. Therefore Ramana doesn't need to tell you anything to believe. Perhaps that's why our reviewer at Amazon couldn't see the wisdom in Ramana's book.

1. Shankara's Crest-Jewel of Discrimination translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, Hollywood: Vedanta Pres

Copyright 1999 Elena Gutierrezs, 1978, pp. 56-57.

Elena Gutierrez is a contributing editor of Realization.org.


This page was published December 7, 1999 and last revised on May 9, 2000.

Copyright 2001 Realization.org. All rights reserved.