Pathways To The Tao #6: A Partial Commentary On Sri Ramana's 'Forty Verses On Reality'
I. Is The World Unreal? A Dialogical Meditation
II. Talk 33: Is The World Real?
The following, i.e., below “*”, is an excerpt from Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi (PDF).
A visitor: “The Supreme Spirit (Brahman) is Real. The world (jagat) is illusion,” is the stock phrase of Sri Sankaracharya. Yet others say, “The world is reality”. Which is true?
M. [Ramana Maharshi]: Both statements are true. They refer to different stages of development and are spoken from different points of view. The aspirant (abhyasi) starts with the definition, that which is real exists always; then he eliminates the world as unreal because it is changing. It cannot be real; ‘not this, not this!’ The seeker ultimately reaches the Self and there finds unity as the prevailing note. Then, that which was originally rejected as being unreal is found to be a part of the unity. Being absorbed in the Reality, the world also is Real. There is only being in Self-Realisation, and nothing but being. Again Reality is used in a different sense and is applied loosely by some thinkers to objects. They say that the reflected (adhyasika) Reality admits of degrees which are named:
(1) Vyavaharika satya (everyday life)—this chair is seen by me and is real.
(2) Pratibhasika satya (illusory)—Illusion of a serpent in a coiled rope. The appearance is real to the man who thinks so. This phenomenon appears at a point of time and under certain circumstances.
(3) Paramartika satya (ultimate)—Reality is that which remains the same always and without change. If Reality be used in the wider sense the world may be said to have the everyday life and illusory degrees (vyavaharika and pratibhasika satya). Some, however, deny even the reality of practical life - vyavaharika satya and consider it to be only projection of the mind. According to them it is only pratibhasika satya, i.e., an illusion.
III. A Partial Commentary On “Forty Verses on Reality”
“Forty Verses on Reality”
“Forty Verses on Reality” is a poem by Sri Ramana Maharshi; it is also one of the succinctest expressions of his astonishing teaching.
In this case, I used S.S. Cohen’s translation of “Forty Verses,” which is more straightforward and less British than Arthur Obsborne’s.
It’s clear that Verses 25-30 can be regarded as a ‘single whole’ within the larger whole of this beautiful work. Therefore, what follows is a “partial commentary” on only these five verses.
An Overview of Verses 25-30
Verses 25-30 provide us with a very coherent trajectory: we’re given an account of the ego; it’s implied that the rise of ego is the central concern in the inquiry; and we’re shown how to go to the source when ego arises.
Verse 25 gives us an account of the emergence, and nature, of the ego-self.
Verse 26 alludes to the tripartite structure—God, world, and body—that is an ‘extrusion’ or ‘projection’ of the ego-self.
Verse 27 alerts us to how we can, in Sri Ramana’s words from elsewhere, “go back the way we came” and, in so doing, see through the illusion of egoity.
Verse 28, more focused on the practice, suggests that Self-inquiry (atma vichara) requires “intense activity” to find the source of ego-arising.
Verse 29 dispels some misconceptions about Self-inquiry.
Finally, Verse 30 points to the end of the inquiry, which is Self-abidance.
Know that this formless ghost (the ego or “I”) springs up in a form (body). Taking a form it lives, feeds and grows. Leaving a form it picks up another, but when it is inquired into, it drops the form and takes to flight.
The ego, not self-existent and therefore not Real, ‘has’ but a borrowed existence. It requires a form and thus can be formulated as “I am this” or “I am that.”
In fact, there is not one illusory ego but a myriad of illusory egos. For every ego-type requires a specific form (e.g., “I am powerless.” “I am alone.”)
Sri Ramana coyly states that “when it is inquired into, it drops the form and takes to flight” (my emphasis). Indeed, the ego doesn’t really take to flight (since, in Truth, isn’t Real), but for a while it can seem as if it’s taking to flight, as if the inquiry only reveals its temporary absence and then, when another thought arises, another apparational presence. After a time, it can be revealed, in the language of Zen, that “It is unattainable,” i.e., unreal.
The ego existing, all else exists. The ego not existing, nothing else exists. The ego is thus all. Inquiring as to what the ego is, is therefore surrendering all.
By “existing” and “exists,” Sri Ramana means temporarily existing and not what is sat ( = Real). And what depends on the ego for its temporary existence?
Elsewhere and often, Sri Ramana will say that it’s only on account of the rising ego that there is a conceptual projection of God (as a concept),
world (as a seemingly independent entity), and body (as, I’d put it, an identification, localization, and limitation).
Through deep inquiry, it’s demonstrated that without ego, there is no God-construction (no dualistic Other), no world construction (no allegedly independently existing ‘something’ ‘out there’), and no body (no identification, localization, and limitation/boundedness).
What’s implied in Verse 26 is discrimination: learning to discriminate between the Real and the unreal (i.e., ego → God, world, and body). Hence, there is fuel for the inquiry: what is it that is Real?
The non-emergence of the “I” is the state of being THAT. Without seeking and attaining the place whence the “I” emerges, how is one to achieve self-extinction – the non-emergence of the “I”? Without that achievement, how is one to abide as THAT – one’s true state?
How are we to understand the practice of Self-inquiry?
Well, undeniably a thought has arisen in phenomenal experience. We know (this needs to be confirmed) that any rising thought requires an ego-I for its rising. Since every ego is of the form “I am this,” the content of thought will supply us with the “this.”
The point of Self-inquiry is to walk backwards. We start with the content of thought and then ask, “To whom has this thought arisen?” This question ‘moves us’ from the content of thought to what makes the latter possible.
Following the tracks laid out by “To whom has this thought arisen?”, we can pinpoint the “I-thought” or ego-I, and so we say, “To me.” Finally, keen to discover the source and substance of this rising ego-I, we ask, “Who am I?”
Sri Ramana’s pointer couldn’t be any clearer: so long as (due to samskaras-vasanas) the ego-I continues to rise, just so long shall THAT seem to be veiled. Hence, when, by virtue of “going backwards,” we come to that from which the ego-I has risen, we not only “destroy” the illusion of the existence of an ego-I; we also abide as THAT (see Verse 30 below).
Like the diver who dives to recover what has fallen into deep water, controlling speech and breath and with a keen mind, one must dive into himself and find whence the “I” emerges.
In “Self-inquiry,” Sri Ramana states that whenever the mind is controlled, the breath is controlled, and whenever the breath is controlled, the mind is controlled. You need to check this out in practice: is the breath more seamless and so is the mind arising less frequently and with less agitation? You can check the breath or the mind or both and see that (in the very least) a correlation between mind attenuation and breath elongation obtains.
Now, how are we to inquire into “whence the ‘I’ emerges”? With (a) earnestness, (b) one-pointedness, and (c) concentration.
(a)Concerning earnestness, we need to ‘give our all’ to the inquiry. We must be so resolved to realize our true nature that the latter comes first. We may make a vow to realize our true nature during this lifetime.
(b)Concerning one-pointedness, we need to move from “many thoughts” to “one thought.” That is, we need to move from dispersive energy to a gathering of ‘all’ into one.
(c) I submit that concentration can refer to holding onto one-pointedness. For certainly, we may–momentarily–move from “many thoughts” to “one thought,” but only through earnest discipline can we come, more and more, to stabilize in concentration.
If one-pointedness, in the above construal, is how we come to oneness, then concentration is how we hold ourselves in oneness.
It’s due to concentration (so understood) that diving very deep with a view to finding the source of the ego-I only now becomes possible and thus can be sustained.
Seeking the source of the “I” with a mind turned inwards and no uttering of the word “I” is indeed the path of knowledge. Meditation on “I am not this, I am that” is an aid to the inquiry, but not the inquiry itself.
Very succinctly does Sri Ramana distinguish Self-inquiry from (a) japa mantra and (b) meditation on “I am Brahman-Self” and other such formulations.
It cannot be underscored enough that Self-inquiry is an inquiry, not a repetition of a divine name nor an affirmation whose point is to enable one to ‘become’ what it is that one meditates on.
Is Sri Ramana disparaging these other meditation techniques? He is not. He’s simply, out of compassion, alerting us to precisely how the mind turns inwards in order to investigate its provenance. And he asserts that Self-inquiry is the most direct path to Self-realization just because it takes the centerpiece–the nature and source of the mind, or ego–as precisely where it ‘screws itself in.’
Where Verse 28 tells us that we need to dive deep, Verse 29 assures us that doing so is both necessary and sufficient and thus does not require any other adjunct practice. Just point the arrow straight–and keep it up!
Inquiring “Who am I?” within the mind, and reaching the heart, the “I” collapses. Instantly, the real “I” appears (as “I-I”), which although it manifests itself as “I” is not the ego, but the true being.
How does Self-inquiry come to an end? With–and only with–knowledge (jnana)!
The ego-I ceases to rise and only the “I-I” (the “I am that I am”) remains as Itself. But this is the Self!
Hence, Self-inquiry ceases just when Self-abidance is clear. Such, at least, is a glimpse of liberation (what Zen calls kensho or satori).
From here, with deeper and deeper practice, one can be established in Self-abidance. In Advaita Vedanta, this is known as sahaja samadhi, or the natural state.