Chapter 14. Religion, belief, and nonduality,

14.1.  The difference between religion and nonduality

In the meditation for April 30 of A Net of Jewels (1996), Ramesh says,

"Religions were originally based on direct or absolute Truth. In the course of time they degenerated into concepts. And on these concepts has been erected gradually an enormous, amorphous structure enchanting enough to attract and mislead millions of people."

Because suffering is often grounded in deep-seated religious beliefs (Section 11.8), such suffering will not end until these beliefs are deeply questioned. However, because there are no doers (see Section 11.4), nobody has any choice about what he/she believes, or about whether or not to question them. If questioning happens, it happens. If not, it doesn't.  Nevertheless, in this chapter (and for much of the course), for the purpose of ease in communication, we shall use the active (doer) mode of speaking instead of the more accurate passive (nondoer) mode.

Question: Have you suffered as a result of religious teachings?

Religion can be defined as a belief system plus a power structure to enforce the belief system. The power structure can be overt, as in a conventional religion, or it can be a subtle pressure from a group to conform. Within this definition, the Western culture of individual identity and striving is a religion, politics is a religion, science is a religion, materialism is a religion, medicine is a religion, idealism is a religion, even Advaita can be a religion. Whenever we try to correct somebody's belief, we are acting as the thought police to enforce a belief system. When there is no "we" to do anything, a response to a belief may arise but it will never be separative because it will come from the absence of separation.

This is a course in seeing and understanding, not in belief.  In nonduality, Reality transcends all concepts, so Reality cannot be conceptualized. Nonduality as a teaching contains many concepts, but all of them are meant to be pointers to Reality that can be verified by experience. To mistakenly believe the concepts as Reality Itself would actually prevent one from realizing Reality. In the end, the only validity of any concepts is in their usefulness in bringing about awakening and the end of suffering.

Question: Why can't belief bring you to Reality?

On p. 109 of The Wisdom of Nisargadatta (1992) by Robert Powell, Nisargadatta says:

"By following any religion, cult or creed, one becomes inevitably conditioned, because one is obliged to conform and accept its disciplines, both physical and mental.  One may get a little peace for some time, but such a peace will not last long.  In your true nature, you are the knower of concepts and therefore prior to them.”

On p. 65 of the same book, Nisargadatta says:

"Those who know only scriptures know nothing. To know is to be."

In the meditation for August 25 in A Net of Jewels (1996), Ramesh says,

“Belief, any belief, is based on the sense of insecurity. Only when all belief is given up are you free to know yourself. In self discovery what you find is the Truth - that Truth which is total, self-evident and which needs no outside support or justification.”

There is an enormous difference between the teachings of nonduality and those of religion. There is no theology in nonduality, whereas theology is the basis of all religion. A theology is a dualistic belief system which contains critical concepts that one is asked to believe as Truth but which cannot be verified within the individual’s own experience. The teaching of nonduality differs from religion by heavily relying on practices (see Chapters 22, 23, 24, 25) that are aimed at revealing your true nature in a way that mere concepts cannot. Without the practices, nonduality is nothing but metaphysics.

The world's scriptures can be interpreted in many different ways. At one extreme are the fundamentalist interpretations, which assume that the words are literal truth. These interpretations are necessarily dualistic because all words taken literally are dualistic (see Section 11.1), and they always conceive of God and humans as separate beings.  Examples of scriptures that are interpreted literally by fundamentalists are the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. At the other extreme are the nondualistic interpretations, which regard the words as nothing but pointers to Reality.  An example of a scripture that is most naturally interpreted nondualistically is the Ashtavakra Gita.  (See, e.g., a highly regarded translation without commentary called The Heart of Awareness by John Richards, available at translation with commentary, entitled Duet of One (1989), was authored by Ramesh Balsekar, see Appendix).  A scripture that lends itself in some parts to a dualistic interpretation and in other parts to a nondualistic interpretation is the Bhagavad Gita (

14.2.  Religion as the belief in a dualistic god

In the meditation for August 28 of A Net of Jewels (1996), Ramesh says,

"When a person finds that his own efforts are fruitless, then he turns to a power, he creates a power, conceives a power which will give him what he himself cannot get.  He creates a concept, worships it, prays to it and begs it to give him what he wants.  When even that entity fails to give him what he is seeking, further frustration and misery arise."

In religion, mankind creates its gods in its own images, and each religion then justifies its actions by claiming it speaks for its god. The more vengeful and punitive is the god, the more vengeful and punitive are the people who created it and who believe in it. Furthermore, if we think of God as being separate from us, we will not be able to avoid asking such questions as, "Why did God create suffering?", or, "Why is God doing this to me?" Thus, many adherents to Christianity are described as being God-fearing, not God-loving. Any belief in a separate god induces guilt, expiation of which often takes the form of trying to induce guilt in others. It is no accident that the most peaceful religions are the ones, like Buddhism, that have no concept of god.

Questions: Have you ever asked the question, "Why did God create suffering?" or, "Why is God doing this to me?"

Religions often preach love without knowing what Love is (see Chapters 16 and 25). Many religious fundamentalists interpret their god's love for them to be inseparable from its hatred for others. The U.S. political movement known as the Christian religious right is one such group (see Its primary spokesmen are Robert Grant, Pat Robertson, John Hagee, Rod Parsley, Franklin Graham, James Dobson, and Jerry Falwell (deceased 2007).

The scientific paradigm (see Section 2.1) has produced the theory of biological evolution. Since God is unnecessary in this theory, fundamentalist Christians are attempting to impose an antievolutionary doctrine on the educational systems in several States in the U.S. This doctrine takes two forms, creationism and intelligent design. Both doctrines are derived from Biblical stories of a universe created by God, and as such, require a belief in a dualistic God (see

Fundamentalists often create enemies on whom to displace their feelings of self-punishment, self-fear, and self-hatred (see Section 11.8). Their (unrecognized) self-punishment can be so unbearable that they try to compensate by believing that they are god's favored few, and, in the name of this god, endeavor to eliminate a competing religion by trying to convert, demonize, or kill its adherents. Their fear of another religion or teaching can be even greater than their fear of death.

The belief that God has sanctioned violence leads to additional violence, not only among believers, but also among nonbelievers. (The daily news contains ample evidence that this is so.) Scientifically, this has been demonstrated by having a group of 500 students read a passage depicting violence in the Old Testament. Half of the students also read another passage saying that God commanded that the evil-doers be chastened. The half reading the additional passage were more likely to act aggressively in a later exercise, whether they were believers or not (Nature 446, 114-115 (8 March 2007)).

Following are a few examples of violent clashes between competing religious beliefs that resulted in executions, massacres, and wars:

·        In less than a century after Mohammed (570-633) died, Muslims, in their missionary zeal to convert the "infidels", conquered Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia, Egypt, North Africa, and the South of Spain. In the eighth and ninth centuries they conquered Persia, Afghanistan, and a large part of India, and in the twelfth century they had already become the absolute masters of all Western Asia, Spain and North Africa, and Sicily.

·        Between 1095 and 1270, with the blessing of the popes, and with the intention of protecting the Holy Land and keeping the pilgrim routes open to Jerusalem, Christians launched several crusades, mostly from France, slaughtering hundreds of thousands of Muslims.

·        In 1478, Pope Sixtus IV initiated the Spanish Inquisition in order to purify Christian communities of all Jews and Muslims, even those who had converted to Christianity. This quickly became an instrument to expand state power and to fill its treasury with the estates of those found guilty of being less than fully Christian.

·        In 1517, Martin Luther (1483-1546) in Wittenberg, Germany, repulsed by papal authority and its practice of buying and selling indulgences (the remission of religious penalties for sinning, including freeing the soul from purgatory) rebelled by posting his "Ninety-five Theses" on the door of the Wittenberg Castle church. Simultaneously, he called upon lay people to take responsibility for their own salvation and to renounce Roman authority.

·        In Switzerland in 1523-1524, peasants in the Zurich district, using the argument that ruling authority should be based on the Scriptures, revolted against the town council, claiming that they should not be required to pay tithes on their produce because there was no biblical justification for doing so. Townsmen, with their own interpretation of the Bible, rejected the peasants' demand, noting that the Bible did not forbid such payments, and said that the peasants should make them out of "love". This so provoked the peasants that the revolt grew to hundreds of thousands in several countries. In 1525, territorial princes and large cities reacted by raising large armies that defeated and destroyed the revolt.

·         In 1535, in Münster, Germany, believing that protection of "true" religion demanded harsh measures, Protestants, allied with the Catholic Church, persecuted and executed thousands of Anababtists (a sect that believed only adults should be baptized, founded in 1525 by Konrad Grebel, Balthasar Hubmaier, and others, and from whom the Baptists, Amish, Mennonites, Quakers, and Hutterites of today are descended).

·        Between 1550 and 1650, about 100,000 people in Europe, mostly women, were persecuted for alleged witchcraft, and about 60,000 were executed. Under torture, or the threat of torture, many confessions were obtained, but no proof that an accused person ever attended a Devil-worshipping "black" Sabbath was ever produced in any witch trial.

·        From 1618 to 1648, the Thirty Years' War was fought between Protestant and Catholic states in the Holy Roman Empire (comprised largely of present-day Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic) with considerable opportunistic meddling by surrounding countries. The war ended with the Peace of Westphalia (1648), which required that all subjects follow their rulers' faiths.

·        Many Christians willingly joined the Nazis in trying to exterminate the Jews during World War II. Islamic fundamentalists have declared holy war on "infidel" nations, particularly on the powerful ones. Muslims, Jews, and Christians continue to kill each other today.

·        On September 11, 2001, perceiving the U.S. to be anti-Islamic because of its support for the presumed anti-Islamic policies of Israel and other countries, Osama Bin Laden, an Islamic extremist headquartered in Afghanistan, directed coordinated suicide attacks by fanatical Muslims on the World Trade Center in New York City and on the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., killing nearly 3000 people. These attacks inspired the following exchange on September 13, 2001 between Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson (see above) on Pat Robertson’s cable television program, "The 700 Club" (as reported by various websites):

Falwell: "What we saw on Tuesday, as terrible as it is, could be miniscule if, in fact, God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve."
Robertson: "Well, Jerry, that's my feeling. I think we've just seen the antechamber to terror, we haven't begun to see what they can do to the major population."
Falwell: "The ACLU has got to take a lot of blame for this. And I know I'll hear from them for this, but throwing God...successfully with the help of the federal court system...throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools, the abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked and when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad...I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who try to secularize America...I point the thing in their face and say you helped this happen."
Robertson: "I totally concur, and the problem is we've adopted that agenda at the highest levels of our government, and so we're responsible as a free society for what the top people do, and the top people, of course, is the court system."
Falwell: "Pat, did you notice yesterday that the ACLU and all the Christ-haters, the People for the American Way, NOW, etc., were totally disregarded by the Democrats and the Republicans in both houses of Congress, as they went out on the steps and and called out to God in prayer and sang 'God bless America' and said, let the ACLU be hanged. In other words, when the nation is on its knees, the only normal and natural and spiritual thing to do is what we ought to be doing all the time, calling on God."

·        In late August 2005, hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast of the U.S. and caused more than 1300 confirmed deaths. On September 1, 2005, Pat Robertson (see above) proclaimed on "the 700 Club" that "New Orleans asked for this tragedy by advertising itself as a destination for jazz music. As every Christian knows, jazz music is sinful and lures people into eternal damnation. The connection is obvious" (from Reverend Franklin Graham (see above), son of Reverend Billy Graham, suggests the city was targeted because of the city's sinful reputation. At a speech in Virginia, he said, "This is one wicked city, OK? It's known for Mardi Gras, for Satan worship. It's known for sex perversion. It's known for every type of drugs and alcohol and the orgies and all of these things that go on down there in New Orleans." Reverend Graham continued, "There's been a black spiritual cloud over New Orleans for years. They believe God is going to use that storm to bring revival" (from

·        As a result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the removal of Saddam Hussein as dictator, Shiite Muslims waged civil war against Sunni Muslims in revenge for the atrocities committed by the Sunnis under the leadership of Hussein.

 •  In Silent No More (2005), Rod Parsley (see above) says, "I cannot tell you how important it is that we understand the true nature of Islam, that we see it for what it really is. In fact, I will tell you this: I do not believe our country can truly fulfill its divine purpose until we understand our historical conflict with Islam. I know that this statement sounds extreme, but I do not shrink from its implications. The fact is that America was founded, in part, with the intention of seeing this false religion destroyed, and I believe September 11, 2001, was a generational call to arms that we can no longer ignore."

·        In Jerusalem Countdown (2006), John Hagee (see above) says, "The final battle for Jerusalem is about to begin. Every day in the media you are watching the gathering storm over the State of Israel. The winds of war are once again about to sweep through the sacred city of Jerusalem. The world is about to discover the power of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Keeper of Israel, "who ...  shall neither slumber nor sleep" (Ps. 121:4). His righteous fury will be evident in the defense of Israel."

Question: What was your reaction to this list? Was it anger, sadness, depression, cynicism, indifference, acceptance, compassion?

14.3.  A nondualistic view of God

On p. 61-62 of I Am That (1988), Nisargadatta Maharaj says,

"When you see the world you see God. There is no seeing God apart from the world. Beyond the world to see God is to be God. The light by which you see the world, which is God, is the tiny little spark, 'I am', apparently so small, yet the first and the last in every act of knowing and loving."

On p. 200 of Be As You Are (1985), David Godman summarizes Ramana Maharshi's statements on God:

"1. He is immanent and formless; he is pure being and pure consciousness.
2. Manifestation appears in him and through his power, but he is not its creator. God never acts, he just is. He has neither will nor desire.
3. Individuality is the illusion that we are not identical with God; when the illusion is dispelled, what remains is God."

Nondualistically, God is Consciousness, which is all that is. But, just as we distinguished conceptually between Noumenon and phenomenon in Chapter 9, we can now distinguish conceptually between transcendent God and immanent God. God is both transcendent and immanent. Transcendent God is Consciousness at rest (Noumenon, Awareness), while immanent God is Consciousness in motion (phenomenon, experiencing). As Noumenon is prior to phenomenon, so Awareness is prior to experiencing, and is what enables experiencing to occur. Since we know that we are aware, we can be aware that we are pure Awareness (see exercise below and Section 23.3).

Exercise: Close your eyes and rest for a few minutes. Now, consider whether or not you are aware. If you think you are not aware, who/what is it that thinks you are not aware? Look and see if you can find it. If you can find it, who/what is it that finds it? Investigate that. Is it aware? If you cannot find it, can it exist?

If you know you are aware, who/what is it that knows you are aware? Find out by inquiring, Who/What is it that is aware of Awareness, and then investigate it. If you see an object or form, inquire, Who/What is it that is aware of this object or form? Then investigate that which is aware of it. If you don't see an object or form, what can you conclude is the nature of pure Awareness?

If experiencing is not conceptualized into separate objects, it is pure Presence (see Sections 9.2, 23.4). If it is conceptualized into separate objects, Presence is the background of all objects, and objects are seen to arise out of it (see Sections 20.5, 23.5).  When we feel that we are present, we can know that we are pure Presence. Awareness/Presence does not require the existence of separate objects, which seem to appear only when conceptualization begins (see Section 5.8).

Exercise: Close your eyes, go inward and downward out of the head and into the body, and concentrate on feeling the breath. After about 10-20 minutes, see if you can sense pure Presence. If you can sense it, is it there even when there are thoughts, feelings, emotions, and body sensations? Can you sense that it is the background of all such objects?
Now open your eyes and see if you can still sense the background of Presence. If you don't sense it, why would it not be still there?

Nondualistically, God is not an entity that is separate from us, that can do something, and to which we might ascribe emotions and intentions. God is not an object or entity at all, let alone one that has emotions or intentions. God does not and cannot "do" anything, because there is nothing but God, so there is nothing separate for God to act on, to feel about, or to think about. Because there is nothing but God, I am God and You are God.

While Christianity is basically a dualistic religion, a few passages from the Bible can be interpreted nondualistically. For example, consider some often-quoted passages from Exodus 3 (all Biblical passages were taken from the Revised Standard Version at

13: Then Moses said to God, "If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, `The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, `What is his name?' what shall I say to them?"
14: God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM." And he said, "Say this to the people of Israel, `I AM has sent me to you.'"
15: God also said to Moses, "Say this to the people of Israel, `The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you': this is my name for ever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.

Nondualistically, the name of God is "I AM". I AM points to both transcendent God and immanent God, both pure Awareness and pure Presence.

Now, a familiar passage from Psalms 46:

10: "Be still, and know that I am God. I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth!"

By being still, we know I AM.

Now, some passages from John 14:

6: Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.
7: If you had known me, you would have known my Father also; henceforth you know him and have seen him."

Nondualistically, realizing ourselves as pure Awareness/Presence ( Figure 1, Section 10.1) is the means and the end (the way and the truth). If we know this, we also know the Absolute (unmanifest Consciousness, the Father).

8: Philip said to him, "Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied."
9: Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, `Show us the Father'?
10: Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father in me?
[I am in Awareness and Presence is in me.] The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.

Philip wants Jesus to show him pure Awareness/Presence, but Jesus tells him again that only by knowing his own true nature, can he know pure Awareness/Presence.  

16: And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever,
17: even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you.

The "other Counselor", or Holy Spirit, is spiritual intuition (see Figure 1, Section 10.1), which few know (it cannot be seen with the body's eyes), but it can be known by all who want to know. (Spiritual intuition, not blind belief, is the true meaning of faith.)

26: But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.
27: Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.

Our own spiritual intuition will bring us to Reality and peace.

Now, three passages from John 8:

57: The Jews then said to him, "You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?"
58: Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am."
59: So they took up stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple.

Jesus tells them that his true identity has always been pure Awareness/Presence (as it is for everyone).  (This assertion incited an all-too common reaction among those who fear having their beliefs challenged.)

Jesus’ identification with pure Awareness/Presence (again with the reaction of those who were afraid to question what they had been taught) is reinforced in the following passages from John 10:

30: I and the Father are one."
31: The Jews took up stones again to stone him.
32: Jesus answered them, "I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of these do you stone me?"
33: The Jews answered him, "It is not for a good work that we stone you but for blasphemy; because you, being a man, make yourself God."
34: Jesus answered them, "Is it not written in your law, `I said, you are gods'?
35: If he called them gods to whom the word of God came (and scripture cannot be broken),
36: do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, `You are blaspheming,' because I said, `I am the Son of God'?
37: If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me;
38: but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father."
39: Again they tried to arrest him, but he escaped from their hands.

14.4.  Religion as the belief in objective reality

An even more universally held religion than the belief in god is the belief in objective reality. This belief can be just as staunchly and vociferously defended as the belief in any god.  The religion of objective reality contains an ideology that is every bit as dualistic and as unverifiable as any other religion. It is dualistic, because it decrees the presence of objects whose existence is independent of the observer. It is unverifiable since all objects, whether perceived or not, are nothing but concepts in the mind (see Section 9.2). In fact, the only nonconceptual, verifiable experience that we can have is that we are aware (see Sections 1.5 and 9.3). Because the belief in the independent existence of any object, whether it is god, nature, or human, always implies a threat to the security of the ego and the body-mind, all religiously held dualistic beliefs, including the religion of objective reality, must lead to suffering.

14.5.  Buddhism--religion, or not?

Buddhism is generally viewed as one of the world's great religions.  Because, like Jesus, the Buddha left no writings, what he actually taught is open to speculation. However, a generally accepted account is given in the following three paragraphs taken from

Siddhartha Gautama, known as the Buddha, was born in the sixth century B.C. in what is now modern Nepal. His father, Suddhodana, was the ruler of the Sakya people and Siddhartha grew up living the extravagant life of a young prince. According to custom, he married at the young age of sixteen to a girl named Yasodhara. His father had ordered that he live a life of total seclusion, but one day Siddhartha ventured out into the world and was confronted with the reality of the inevitable suffering of life. The next day, at the age of twenty-nine, he left his kingdom and newborn son to lead an ascetic life and determine a way to relieve universal suffering.

For six years, Siddhartha submitted himself to rigorous ascetic practices, studying and following different methods of meditation with various religious teachers. But he was never fully satisfied. One day, however, he was offered a bowl of rice from a young girl and he accepted it. In that moment, he realized that physical austerities were not the means to achieve liberation. From then on, he encouraged people to follow a path of balance rather than extremism. He called this The Middle Way.

That night Siddhartha sat under the Bodhi tree, and meditated until dawn. He purified his mind of all defilements and attained enlightenment at the age of thirty-five, thus earning the title Buddha, or "Enlightened One". For the remainder of his eighty years, the Buddha preached the Dharma [a set of teachings, most of which can be interpreted as pointers] in an effort to help other sentient beings reach enlightenment.

According to What the Buddha Taught (1974) by Walpola Rahula (an excellent summary of the teaching of the Buddha without the religious intrusions of later authors), faith and belief played no part in the Buddha’s original teachings. Rahula says on p. 8 of his book, 

"Almost all religions are built on faith--rather 'blind' faith it would seem. But in Buddhism emphasis is laid on 'seeing', knowing, understanding, and not on faith, or belief ...  However you put it, faith or belief as understood by most religions has little to do with Buddhism. The question of belief arises when there is no seeing--seeing in every sense of the word. The moment you see, the question of belief disappears."

On p. 9, he says,

"It is always a question of knowing and seeing, and not that of believing. The teaching of the Buddha is ... inviting you to 'come and see', but not to come and believe." 

This invitation is the only true "religion" because it does not depend on beliefs, which always conflict with other beliefs.

The heart of the Buddha's teaching consists of the "Four Noble Truths". On p. 93, Rahula presents the Buddha's teaching of the First Noble Truth:

"The Noble Truth of suffering (Dukkha) is this: Birth is suffering; aging is suffering; sickness is suffering; death is suffering; sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; association with the unpleasant is suffering; dissociation from the pleasant is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering."

On p. 17, Rahula says:

"It is admitted that the term dukkha in the First Noble Truth contains, quite obviously, the ordinary meaning of 'suffering', but in addition it also includes deeper ideas such as 'imperfection', 'impermanence', 'emptiness', 'insubstantiality'."

In Mindfulness in Plain English (2002), Henepola Gunaratana says,

"Suffering is a big word in Buddhist thought. It is a key term and it should be thoroughly understood. The Pali word is dukkha, and it does not just mean the agony of the body. It means that deep, subtle sense of unsatisfactoriness which is a part of every mind moment and which results directly from the mental treadmill.

The essence of life is suffering, said the Buddha. At first glance this seems exceedingly morbid and pessimistic. It even seems untrue. After all, there are plenty of times when we are happy. Aren't there? No, there are not. It just seems that way. Take any moment when you feel really fulfilled and examine it closely. Down under the joy, you will find that subtle, all-pervasive undercurrent of tension, that no matter how great this moment is, it is going to end. No matter how much you just gained, you are either going to lose some of it or spend the rest of your days guarding what you have got and scheming how to get more. And in the end, you are going to die. In the end, you lose everything. It is all transitory."

The First Noble Truth teaches us that all experience is underlain with anxiety and insecurity. (Anxiety and insecurity are unavoidable consequences of the sense of separate existence, see Sections 9.2, 9.3). We can see this directly by careful examination of our own lives. Clearly, whenever, we feel separate from something, we feel fear/desire regarding it (see Section 11.6). However, can we truthfully say that anxiety and insecurity do not tinge even those moments when we seem to feel content and complete? At the very least, such moments are always afflicted with the feeling that "this cannot last"--- and what will replace it?.

Exercise: (This is similar to the exercise in Section 7.2.) Sit or lie quietly with your eyes closed. Be aware of your thoughts, feelings, emotions, and sensations. Is there anything that does not change? Now see whether some things change faster than others. Which things change the fastest and which the slowest?

Question: What are some specific forms of suffering in your own life?

The Second Noble Truth as given by the Buddha is cited by Rahula on p. 93 of his book:

"The Noble Truth of the origin of suffering is this: It is this thirst which produces re-existence and re-becoming, bound up with passionate greed. It finds fresh delight now here and now there, namely, thirst for sense-pleasures; thirst for existence and becoming; and thirst for non-existence."

Buddhism teaches that clinging creates a sense of individual existence and this is the basis for all suffering. Superficially, Buddhism (suffering caused by clinging) might seem to differ from Advaita (suffering caused by identification). However, we saw in Section 11.6 that clinging is inseparable from the sense of "me". Thus, identification can be thought of as clinging to whatever seems to be our identities. These might include notions of holiness, self-righteousness, pride, superiority, or smugness; or feelings of anger, anxiety, defectiveness, worthlessness, or wrongness. All clinging is suffering, especially clinging to the notion that we should have more control despite careful examination that shows us that we have no control at all (see Sections 5.9 through 5.13). In this sense, the Second Noble Truth is consistent with Advaita.

Question: Think of an event when you thought you should have had more control. Was it an experience of suffering? Did you really have any control, or did everything happen spontaneously?

Question: Think of an event when you wanted to be invisible. Which of the thirsts in the First Noble Truth does this represent?

Question: Do you have a need to be "right"? If so, does this sometimes lead to anger and hatred towards yourself? Do you have a need for others to be "wrong"? If so, does this sometimes lead to anger and hatred towards them?

Question: Does suffering seem to be part of your identity? Does it help in structuring your life? What would happen if you let it go?

While the First and Second Noble Truths may seem pessimistic, the Third Noble Truth is optimistic because it shows us the way out of suffering (Rahula, p. 93):

"The Noble Truth of the Cessation of suffering is this: It is the complete cessation of that very thirst, giving it up, renouncing it, emancipating oneself from it, detaching oneself from it."

The cessation of suffering is Nirvana, the Buddhist term for enlightenment.

The Fourth Noble Truth is the path leading to the end of suffering (Rahula, p. 93):

"The Noble Truth of the Path leading to the Cessation of suffering is this: It is simply the Noble Eightfold Path, namely right view; right thought; right speech; right action; right livelihood; right effort; right mindfulness; right concentration."

Superficially, the Eightfold Path might seem to be a set of rules for proper living, but they are much more than that. The Buddha spoke to all levels of understanding. To the unaware, the Eightfold Path is indeed a set of rules, but to the more aware, they are pointers to our true nature.

What did the Buddha say about the existence of a self or soul? On p. 51, Rahula says, 

"Buddhism stands unique in the history of human thought in denying the existence of such a Soul, self, or Atman [what we have called the "me"]. According to the teaching of the Buddha, the idea of self is an imaginary, false belief, which has no corresponding reality, and it produces harmful thoughts of 'me' and 'mine', selfish desire, craving, attachment, hate, ill-will, conceit, pride, egoism, and other defilements, impurities and problems. It is the source of all the troubles in the world from personal conflicts to wars between nations. In short, to this false view can be traced all the evil in the world."

[Note: Rahula is incorrect in stating that Buddhism is unique in denying the existence of a Soul, self, or Atman since the Buddhist concept of no-self is consistent with the Advaita teaching of no-self.]

On p. 55, Rahula goes on to say, 

"It is therefore curious that recently there should have been a vain attempt by a few scholars to smuggle the idea of self into the teaching of the Buddha, quite contrary to the spirit of Buddhism. These scholars respect, admire, and venerate the Buddha and his teaching. They look up to Buddhism. But they cannot imagine that the Buddha, whom they consider the most clear and profound thinker, could have denied the existence of an Atman or self which they need so much."

Thus, the purest of teachings can be corrupted by unenlightened teachers. Buddhism became a religion when its teachings were corrupted by the introduction of the "me". In contrast to Rahula's purist description, today's actual teaching of Buddhism includes a great deal of religious dogma. For example, in The Story Of Buddhism: A Concise Guide To Its History And Teachings (2001), Donald S. Lopez, Jr. says (from the excerpt at,

“What is encompassed by this dharma [what is attributed to the Buddha] is indeed vast. It can include chanting the Buddha's name; circumambulating his relics; prostrating before his image; copying, reading, or reciting his words; painting his image; taking and maintaining vows; offering food and robes to monks and nuns; writing arcane commentaries; sitting in meditation; exorcising demons; visualizing oneself as the Buddha; placing flowers before a book; burning oneself alive.”

Clearly, Buddhism in this form was not taught by the Buddha. Because of its emphasis on doctrine and rules instead of understanding, seeing, and knowing, Buddhism as religion tends to reinforce the imaginary "me" and its sense of doership, and therefore it is unlikely to eliminate suffering.

In the Second Noble Truth, the Buddha taught that craving produces reexistence and rebecoming. Some Buddhists think this means reincarnation. However, since the Buddha taught that there is no soul to be reincarnated, what did he mean by reexistence? Rahula says on p. 33:

"What we call death is the total nonfunctioning of the physical body. Do all these forces and energies stop altogether with the nonfunctioning of the body? Buddhism says, 'No'. Will, volition, desire, thirst to exist, to continue, to become more and more, is a tremendous force that moves whole lives, whole existences, that even moves the whole world. This is the greatest force, the greatest energy in the whole world. According to Buddhism, this force does not stop with the nonfunctioning of the body, which is death; but it continues manifesting itself in another form, producing reexistence, which is called rebirth."

Question: When you read the previous paragraph, does it ring true? If so, what feelings are evoked--relief, liberation, detachment, anticipation, fear, anxiety, sadness, or something else? Are your feelings concerned with yourself, with others, or with both? If it doesn’t ring true, what about it seems incredible? Why?

Any vision of departed souls is just an image in the mind. Any belief in reincarnation of the person is a belief in objective reality, not a direct experience (see also Section 10.4). Reexistence and rebecoming actually occur many times each second, some evidence for which we saw in Section 7.2. This can be seen directly by advanced Buddhist meditators (see Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha (2004) at, a free downloadable book by Daniel Ingram).

There are many schools of Buddhism. Theravada, which is thought to be closest to the original teachings of the Buddha, is aimed at one's own individual liberation. It spread to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in about 240 B.C.E. and from there to Southeast Asia. Mahayana, whose goal is the freedom of all sentient beings, not just the individual, was heavily influenced by other Indian teachings, and arose in the 2nd and 3rd centuries C.E. The third major vehicle of Buddhist theory and practice, Vajrayana, is thought to have arisen between the 6th and 12th centuries, and is a blend of Mahayana, Indian Tantrism, and the indigenous Bon tradition of Tibet. The distinctly Chinese form of Buddhism called Ch'an arose in the 6th century. It migrated to Japan where it evolved into Zen in the 12th century. The four schools of Vajrayana in Tibetan Buddhism arose between the 11th and 14th centuries. Finally, the school of Dzogchen, regarded by many Tibetans as the culmination of Vajrayana, arose in the 17th century.

Teachers of Advaita and Theravada differ in their concepts of Reality. Of fundamental importance in all Advaita teaching is the knowledge of our true nature as pure Awareness/Presence (God, see Section 14.3). For comparison, some teachers of Therevada say it has no concept of pure Awareness (see, e.g.,, but others regard pure Awareness, or Buddha-nature to be the goal of the practice (see, e.g., see pp 156-157 of "Dancing With Life" (2008) and by Phillip Moffitt).

Some Advaita groups have teachers who lead ordinary lives. These groups may mix other disciplines, such as yoga, Buddhist practices, and book study groups into their teaching. An example of one such group is the Advaita Meditation Center (

Therevada practice in the West consists largely of Vipassana (see Section 14.6, and There are many Vipassana teachers and groups, so it is not as difficult to find a Vipassana teacher as it is to find an Advaita teacher.

14.6. Vipassana meditation

Vipassana (Vi-pah-sa-na) as practiced in Theravada is the understanding of the Four Noble Truths as taught by the Buddha. It is the understanding of the transitory nature of phenomena and the selflessness of objects, that the "me" does not exist. The Buddhist meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg says about Vipassana meditation (

"Vipassana meditation quiets the mind and refines our awareness so we can directly experience the truth of our lives with a minimum of distraction and obscuration. This style traces directly to the way the Buddha himself practiced, and is common to all Buddhist traditions. Simplicity, stillness, and attention are its qualities. 

"The first pillar of meditation is concentration—stability of mind. We focus our normally scattered energy. The state we cultivate is tranquil, relaxed, open, yielding, gentle and soft. We let things be; we don’t try to hold on to experiences. Our mind is alert and deeply connected with what’s going on. 

"The second pillar is mindfulness. We are aware of what is happening as it actually arises—not being lost in our conclusions or judgments about it. We pay attention to our pleasant experiences, our painful experiences and our neutral experiences—the sum total of what life brings us."

This description is similar to our description of self-inquiry, i.e., inquiry into the contents of Awareness (see Section 23.2), but it stops short of Self-inquiry, i.e., inquiry into Awareness itself (see Section 23.3). Instructions for the practices of concentration and mindfulness are given in Section 24.2.

14.7.  Zen

Centuries after Buddhism began in India, it spread through the trade routes into China where it was reshaped by contact with Confucianism, Taoism, and folk religion in Chinese culture. Many schools of Chinese Buddhism were then formed. In the 6th century, the "Intuitive School", called Ch'an (derived from the Buddhist meditation called dhyana), was introduced. From China, in the 8th century, Ch'an spread to Japan  where, by the 12th century, it evolved into Zen, the Japanese pronunciation for Ch'an.

(The following three paragraphs are extracts from p. 36-38 of an article by Norman Fischer entitled Nothing Holy, in Shambala Sun, March 2004).  

Zen is a pithy, stripped-down, determined, uncompromising, cut-to-the-chase, meditation-based Buddhism that takes no interest in doctrinal refinements   Not relying on scripture, doctrine, or ritual, Zen is verified by personal experience, and is passed on from master to disciple, hand-to-hand, ineffably, through hard, intimate training.  

Although Zen created controversy at first in all of the countries it spread to, eventually it became by far the most successful school of Buddhism in China, Korea, Japan, and Viet Nam.  By the mid-1980s, the Zen traditions of all these countries had been transmitted to America.  

Although Zen eventually developed traditions of study and ritual, its emphasis on personal experience has always made it a practice-oriented tradition.  The practice is meditation, or sitting Zen (zazen).  Zazen is an intensely simple practice that is generally taught without steps, stages, or frills.  The master teaches sitting in good, upright posture, paying full attention to breathing in your belly until you are fully alert and present. This sense of being present, with illumination and intensity, is the essence of zazen.  

We see that the aims of Zen are similar to the aims of Vipassana, except that Zen emphasizes illumination (satori) resulting from meditation, while Vipassana emphasizes insight. In this sense, Zen is very similar to Self-inquiry as described in Section 23.3, while Vipassana is similar to self-inquiry as described in Section 23.2.  

14.8. Other nondual teachings

In nondual teachings, we can distinguish between two types of concepts, those that negate what is false, and those that assert what is true. The former always point away from what is false, while the latter attempt to point towards what is assumed to be true. Concepts that assert what is true can be misleading pointers. For example, to assert that Consciousness is infinite implies that 1) Consciousness can be described in conceptual terms, and that 2) Consciousness has no limits. Neither of these concepts applies to Consciousness, which is beyond all concepts. On the other hand, concepts that negate what is false can be useful pointers. For example, the statement that Consciousness is not a concept, entity, or object clearly means that Consciousness cannot be described in conceptual terms. A very useful negative pointer is the statement that there there is no separation.

Because concepts are to be used only as pointers, it is clear that two different conceptual systems may both be effective pointers to Reality. This should not worry one who realizes the purpose of concepts. Which conceptual system one accepts will depend on how effectively it points to Reality in the intuitive eyes of the student. That is why different conceptual systems will usually appeal to different individuals. Clear examples of two perhaps equally effective conceptual systems are Ramesh’s teaching, which emphasizes deep understanding of the absence of the doer, compared with Ramana Maharshi’s teaching, which emphasizes inquiry into the "me" in order to discover its absence. Which one is chosen depends on the personality characteristics of the individual. (This course is a composite of both of these teachings.) Other systems of pointers to nondual experience are Vipassana and Zen.

Because the awakened teacher is not an individual but a body-mind organism through which Consciousness functions spontaneously and impersonally, from the point of view of the teacher (i.e., Consciousness), there is no personal sense of obligation or responsibility (although there will often be from the disciple’s point of view), so there is no concern about whether a specific person will accept the teaching.

Because a conceptual system of pointers to Reality can be effective only if it is understood and accepted by the disciple, as experience is gained by the teaching body-mind organism, the teaching will usually naturally become simpler and more focused. Somewhat ironically, the simpler and more focused it becomes, the more some people will be driven away from it, and the more others will be drawn towards it.  

In addition to the fact that spiritual beliefs cannot be true, no mere conceptual system can ever satisfy the yearning for Truth, which is the drive behind all spiritual seeking (e.g., "Know Thyself"--Inscription on the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi, Greece, 6th century B.C.). Only clear seeing can satisfy this, and in the end, only clear seeing can lead to the realization of our true nature. Because the intuition is constantly pulling us towards this realization, any practice based only on mentation rather than on clear seeing must strive to ignore this pulling. Furthermore, any belief system is constantly being challenged by competing belief systems. The result is that any belief system, in order to be sustained, requires constant effort at defending it, reinforcing it, and shoring it up. This effort invariably strengthens the sense of separation that the belief system is supposed to dissolve.

This page last updated November 13, 2009.
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