Thursday, December 1, 2011

  An ontological (pertaining to the nature of reality) statement is easy to make. We do it all the time. “He is an idiot” is an ontological statement because it is a statement about the reality of the person being referred to. “I am a good person” is an ontological statement about the reality of myself because it refers to the nature of who and what I am. “The world is an ugly place” is an ontological statement because it refers to the nature of the reality of the world.

When it comes to myself, others and the world, there can be as many different and competing ontological statements and notions as there are people. These ontological notions are important in Vedanta because they are ways of seeing which totally determine how you understand and experience your life.

In terms of living in this world, you could say there is a law: “As you SEE so MUST you BE”. If I have a notion about someone, I can’t help but live out that notion in relation to them. If I see my partner as a wonderful person, I can’t help but feel and act accordingly; if on the other hand they do something I don’t like and my notion of them as a wonderful person is replaced by a notion that they are an inconsiderate person, I can’t help but feel and act accordingly as well.

In Vedanta we are not talking of adding to our seeing and understanding as it is at present. We are talking of an entirely different order of Knowledge that does not come from ordinary daily existence but which profoundly changes the way we see and understand daily existence. When we are talking about seeing and understanding, we are talking about the nature of knowledge. What it is and what are its possibilities and limits. The term for such a study in Western thought is called Epistemology.

There is seeing and understanding in the context of our desires and aversions. In this context, our understanding or seeing is entirely restricted to those objects, the presence of which makes us feel happy within ourselves and those objects the absence of which makes us unhappy within ourselves. In terms of our existence or our existential situation, our seeing and understanding is entirely enclosed within the context of our desires and aversions. Anything not related to these desires and aversions, we are indifferent to. Knowingly or unknowingly, our attention is entirely taken up with our desires and aversions, to the extent that we are interested in nothing else.

This means that even though we have many different experiences and come across many different philosophical, psychological and spiritual ideas (including Vedanta), they are only seen and understood from a seeing and understanding that stands in reference to our desires and aversions. Unless a seeing and understanding becomes active in our lives that is derived from an entirely different context (the truth of ourselves, the world and God, which we are entirely ignorant of), we just move around and around thinking we are getting somewhere but in fact arriving no where.

Vedanta is an epistemological method in that it brings about an entirely different kind of seeing and understanding, not an extension of the ordinary kind of seeing and understanding that we are familiar with. The teaching is designed to have an epistemological impact, which is a transformation of our seeing and understanding, that takes us beyond the epistemological limitations within which we are enclosed.

According to Vedanta all my notions (good and bad) about myself, others and the world are ALL erroneous notions (not exactly a feel good suggestion). This is because whilst I am ignorant of the nature of myself, others and the world, all my notions are subjective and all arise from my ignorance. More importantly, subjective notions take the form of my experience which convincingly appears as a reality completely independent from the very notions which bring it about. Hence our ontological notions are entirely hidden or unconscious once they appear as experience. This is made more complicated by the fact that what we “know” to be true we never bother to question. We normally depend on our experience to tell us what is real. We don’t SEE that what is SEEN is our SEEING. We just KNOW that our partner IS an insensitive person and we just KNOW that we ARE right. The ontological notions in operation here are entirely invisible to the person subject to them.

Vedanta does not use preaching as a means of knowledge. It does not try to convince you about a new set of ontological notions about yourself, others and the world by presenting them for your agreement. So what if I like the idea that I am free already and find comfort in it? I have no hope in hell of resolving the unconscious notions about my self, others and the world, except in the light of the truth of what I really am (please note, this truth is not a philosophical assertion).

As my teacher, Swamini Atmaprakasananda, puts it only a clear doubt free vision of the Self resolves erroneous notions. Trying to replace the thoughts I have aboutmyself with other thoughts about myself (especially spiritual ones) does not resolve the problem, even if these ideas are derived from Vedantic texts. At best, this will result in friction between how I want to see myself and how I actually experience myself to be. In this situation I am identified with my erroneous thoughts about myself and now I am trying to identify with some new thoughts about myself that I get from Vedantic writings or conversations. These notions are simply philosophical mental constructs that only add content to the mind, not point to what is beyond them. Words used in this way have nothing to do with the Traditional Vedantic method.

In Vedanta we are not trying to think about ourselves in a better way, we are interested in discovering who and what we are. This discovery alone resolves the unconscious erroneous notions about ourselves. It is not about adding new notions about myself on top of old notions about myself. Remember any notion I ascribe to myself is erroneous. When I am identified with notions that I take myself to be and make the statement that I am the Self this is a lie, because what I am really saying is that my thought “I am the Self” is what I am. This is absurd. The reality I am is not a thought. What I am in myself is the truth. Statements about me are not the truth of myself.

Swamini Atmaprakasananda often says that “we don’t know ourselves and we don’t know we don’t know ourselves”. In other words “we live, move and have our being” in ignorance. When I can talk eloquently and brilliantly about consciousness, the Self, God, joy, peace, love, freedom in a confident manner, it is so easy to think I SEE the meaning of these words. When people talk about what they don’t REALLY know as if they know, they are ontologically “lying”. In this sense there are plenty of people in the spiritual market place who are good liars. They are not blameworthy because they don’t see that they are lying but this does not alter the fact that lying is occurring.

The more convincing the spiritual presentation the more convinced I am. If I accept and confidently agree with Vedantic notions, all I am doing is adding to my conditioning and hence become more ignorant whilst thinking I am seeing clearer. Swamini Atmaprakasananda says that the statement “I am the self” is to be understood, not to be said. Talking to myself in this way is self hypnosis, nothing more.

If our existential condition is one of being entirely and unknowingly enclosed in ignorance, knowledge of Vedantic statements taken philosophically mean absolutely nothing, in terms of resolving this ignorance. We need to understand this thoroughly from the beginning so we are not seduced by slick presentations which are no more than preaching and hence nothing to do with Vedanta, even though they are full of Vedantic terminology.

Vedanta is not a set of philosophical propositions to be accepted. It is not trying to get you to conform to a new set of beliefs about yourself, others and the world. It is not a philosophical theory about Reality. It is not cognitive psychology that attempts to replace unhelpful thinking with a more helpful kind of thinking. At the existential level this can be helpful but it must be understood a change of mental notions, mental content, does not result in a change of the epistemological levelfrom which we look at life. It does not result in the growth of a clarity which, in itself, is the transformation of our daily life. This growth of clarity is so important because it is only within this clarity or understanding that we can SEE ourselves, others and the world in a less distorted light.

My teacher says that Vedanta is not preaching - which is an attempt to get you to believe what the preacher is saying, rather it is a method to get you to SEE what the teacher SEES. Vedanta is an epistemological method - related to knowing, what it is and its possible range. It is not a philosophical, religious or psychological method. If this is not clearly understood from the outset, the transforming effect of its epistemological methodology will not be available to you.

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