Who Am I – Sri Shankaracharya and Maitreya

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“Who am I?” This question was boldly taken up by the great Indian philosopher Sri Shankaracharya (788-820 AD), who wrote commentaries on some of the spiritual treatises known as the Upanishads, which form the latter part of the Vedas, the holy scriptures of India.

Although he addressed himself to the scholars, philosophers and monks of his day, both Buddhist and Hindu (and has even been considered as a ‘secret Buddhist’ by many because of his affinity with important aspects of Buddhist thought), the deep enquiry into the nature of the Self, and of the theme of man’s bondage and liberation, afford interesting parallels with Maitreya’s current teachings.

The teachings received from Maitreya have a dynamic, direct, universal appeal. It is said that out of compassion for the layman Shankara wrote another work, the Aparokshanubhuti, some of whose verses I propose to examine and compare with aspects of Maitreya’s teaching. The appeal of these verses is also direct and universal. The nature of the Self and its relation to the Creator is a basic theme in the Upanishads themselves: “Concealed in the heart of all beings is the Atman, the Spirit, the Self; smaller than the smallest atom, greater than the vast spaces. The man who surrenders his human will leaves sorrows behind, and beholds the glory of the Atman, by the grace of the Creator.” (Katha Upanishad)

The concern that man should free himself from bondage by coming to know the nature of the Self is already evident in the Upanishads: “When a man knows God, he is free: his sorrows have an end, and birth and death are no more. When in inner union he is beyond the world of the body, then the third world, the world of the Spirit, is found, where the power of the All is, and man has all: for he is one with the ONE.” (Svetasvatara Upanishad)

Shankaracharya did not think the Self can be known through the powers of reason and logic alone. The Self is not an ‘object’ which can be known by thought. The Self is known, ultimately, through direct experience. Nevertheless, his verses for the layman are offered as signposts: “Indicated by the personal pronoun ‘I’ abides the transcendental Self, one and only one. How can the physical bodies which are many be the Self?”

Here we have two interesting ideas: the Self is one and indivisible, yet it can be pointed to via the personal pronoun ‘I’. This suggests that man comes to know the Self as ‘I’; in other words, this identity with the Self is experienced in consciousness. Shankaracharya develops a comparison: “I am without attributes, actionless, eternal, ever free and indestructable; I am not the body which is ever changing and unreal. This the wise call knowledge.”

It is notable that, while Shankara did not accord a permanent reality to the material world, as some of the realists of his day did, he was also at pains to defeat the idealists, because the ‘unreal’ did not mean, to him, ‘non-existent in time and space’, but rather, in his view, that the world of phenomena and appearance have a relative reality. This reality is relative because it arises and passes away; what is real does not appear and disappear, but rather, it endures. The task, for man, is one of discernment, until the moment he comes to experience in himself what is real, imperishable, enduring: “The Self, which is in fact the Lord and which is called I (Spirit) because it abides in the body, is different from the physical and subtle bodies. I am that Spirit. I am the Self of all. I am all, imperishable and beyond all.”

In the first of Shankara’s verses quoted above, we are told that the Self is without attributes and does not act. Maitreya, in this regard, teaches that the Self witnesses; it is not the body, the emotions or the mind. Maitreya says that the Self plays the “mini- role” of the Almighty, because the Self is the spark of the Almighty. In His words: “There are times when you become aware that someone is behind you, within you, over you, around you – something is present. That ‘something’ is the Almighty. It does not participate; it observes. No one need struggle for this step. Everyone qualifies at this stage.”

The importance of detachment

Sri Shankaracharya did not think the purpose of philosophy was merely to engage in clever argument. Self-knowledge and therefore freedom from the bondages or conditioning which causes suffering in life are the ultimate goals. Maitreya has called this “the art of Self-realization” which He has come to teach. For Shankaracharya, detachment (vairagya) and renunciation (samnyasa) are essential prerequisites for Self-realization. The true essence of the Self is freedom, and this freedom cannot be experienced without detachment.

Professor A.N.Pandey, in his book Shankara’s Interpretation of the Upanishads, points out that the individual self thinks that he is in bondage and, after liberation, other individuals think that he is now liberated. “But the pure Self does not think either.” In effect, the Self does not ‘think’; the Self is, and its true nature is awareness, a state which goes beyond either. Maitreya says that the Self makes itself known through awareness.

Shankaracharya thinks that man can help himself by taking certain steps, as follows:
(1) discrimination of what is eternal and what is non-eternal;
(2) detachment;
(3) possession of six qualities: self control, abstinence, the ability to endure pain and pleasure alike, concentration, and faith in the teacher and the scriptures;
(4) the desire for liberation.

Professor Pandey points out that detachment is the notion which is central to all of these. He emphasizes that, for Shankaracharya, knowledge of the Self is not to be equated with intellectual understanding. The knowledge Shankaracharya speaks of is direct experience of the Self and therefore of the state of being of the Self, which is “pure awareness”. Maitreya suggests three disciplines which lead man to the state of awareness which enables him to experience himself as the Self: honesty of mind, sincerity of spirit and detachment.

These three should be practised together, because they are interconnected in interesting ways and enhance each other. For instance, in order to practise honesty of mind, it is necessary to endure seeing yourself in an unflattering light.

If you exaggerate, or try to deceive yourself about something, and you then examine yourself mentally you may see that you are dependent on the approval of others, or afraid of ridicule, or you may be trying to cover feelings of envy or jealousy. You need courage to see yourself as you really are, and if you practise watching yourself with the disinterested detachment of one who observes another whom he does not know, this courage is strengthened.

Maitreya goes further, however, because an honest mind is a mind freed from ‘isms’, from unexamined beliefs which man has accepted, sometimes without knowing when or how they were accepted. Sincerity of spirit refers to the life of feeling, perceived, lived and responded to as it really is. One way we can come to know and express this attitude, according to Maitreya, is to be found in our relationships with other people when we engage in ‘heart to heart’ communication.

This is not the same as indulgent exhibition of feeling. It is communication from the deepest part of ourselves. In Maitreya’s view, this sincerity has the power to transform, and miracles can occur. When two people communicate in this way, old rancours dissolve, mistaken beliefs fall away, wounds are healed. Detachment, for Maitreya, is essentially detachment from erroneous identification with our physical, emotional and mental life. He says: “You are not your thoughts, you are not your emotions, you are not your body.”

Gradually, the person becomes in consciousness the one who observes, who witnesses, the ‘seer’ rather than the ‘doer’. This does not mean adopting a passive attitude in life; it means not becoming attached to the things that you do. You can do your best in a given situation, for example, yet be detached from the results, knowing that you have done everything you can do. In Maitreya’s view, nothing can liberate man without the practice of detachment. It is this detachment which creates the space for the Self to manifest itself as awareness. Maitreya says: “In awareness there is no burden. You remain meticulous, immaculate, pure. There is grace, peace and happiness. These are the blessings of the Lord.”

It is the natural state of the Self, and according to Maitreya: “Textbooks cannot describe it, because there is no beginning nor end to it. Awareness can only be experienced. It is a seed in all creation and in every individual.”

Overcoming fear

He who knows himself as the Self conquers fear, according to Shankaracharya: “The dull-witted man who persists in making even the least distinction between the embodied Spirit (Jiva) and the Spirit Absolute (Brahman) is subject to fear.” And he affirms: “All beings are born of Brahman who is the Supreme Spirit; they are therefore Brahman. Be convinced of this.”

Hari Prasad Shastri (in Direct Experience of Reality) adds this beautiful thought: “All being the one Self, whom shall we hate, whom shall we consider a stranger?” He adds, by way of explanation in his study of Shankaracharya’s thought, that fear is our greatest enemy: “It cripples our judgement and robs us of all initiative to do good and to make investigations into truth.”

Fear, according to Maitreya, is a poison. To overcome it, we have to come to know that “The Lord is within.” We can come to know that we are not the body, the mind or the emotions. When we gradually cease to identify with these, when we come to know ourselves as the Self, we lose our fear.

Reprinted with the kind permission of Share International Magazine.

Authors Details:Patricia Pitchon

Patricia Pitchon started her journalistic career with “El Tempo”, a Columbian newspaper, studied philosophy at Bedford College, University of London, and is now a freelance journalist in London.

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