Like most young seekers of the 1970s-80s, I too had my requisite copy of Nisargadatta Maharaj’s famed book I Am That. To be honest, however, I struggled with it. It seemed to contrast poorly with the wonderful lucidity and simplicity of Ramana’s works (especially as presented with commentary by Arthur Osborne, who must have been one of finest chroniclers of the life of an awakened sage ever, as well as a true prose master).
I Am That is basically the Finnegan’s Wake of Advaita literature. (Okay, I exaggerate—Joyce’s work occupies its own unapproachably abstruse universe—nothing is the Finnegan’s Wake of anything except Finnegan’s Wake itself, but I’m sure you get my idea). However in a very real sense, this is what ultimately makes Nisargadatta’s great book so valuable because it requires the reader to focus and make effort at understanding.
The typical Arthur Osborne-edited Ramana book is wonderful for most serious seekers, but there is a particular type of seeker who can be especially benefited by a more difficult teacher like Nisargadatta. It is the seeker who has been at the matter of self-realization for some time, but who struggles with mental laziness.
Other teachers and certain books are also good for this kind of seeker: Gurdjieff’s Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, or even A Course In Miracles. These books are all dense, wordy (Gurdjieff’s work to an intentionally absurd degree), and simply cannot be read on mental auto-pilot. They require presence, or else nothing will stick. It will be the reading equivalent of having coffee with your friend, and realizing that for the past five minutes their mouth has been moving but you haven’t heard a word they’ve said. (I’m reminded here of the terrific film Memento, about a man who suffers short-term memory loss. The man is staying in a cheap motel when he finds out that the manager is trying to rip him off by booking him in two rooms and charging for both. After he finds out, the manager apologizes. ‘Thanks for at least being honest with me about trying to rip me off’ replies the amnesiac man. ‘No problem,’ counters the manager. ‘You won’t remember anyway’. All a great metaphor for our spiritual unfolding, in which we continually find ourselves ‘going over old ground’ as a test to deepen our understanding—a test we either ‘pass’ or ‘fail’, the results of which are, er, unforgettable).
Back somewhere in the prehistoric 1990s I stumbled upon two VHS videos by Inner Directions: one was called Abide as the Self and the other, Awaken to the Eternal. The first, Abide, was about Ramana, and was introduced by a placid and blissed out Ram Dass counting beads as he spoke. The second, Awaken, was based on Nisargadatta’s life and teachings, and was introduced by Allan Anderson, a retired professor of religion whose folksy yet professorial demeanor contrasted amusingly with Ram Dass.
The more striking contrast was between Nisargadatta and Ramana, however. Ramana in appearance fit most people’s stereotype of the ethereal guru. (It is perhaps an irony that the Sanskrit word ‘guru’, in its adjective form, means, according to Feuerstein, ‘weighty one’—as in weighty with wisdom, not carbs—and yet Ramana’s bearing is the quintessence of light, in most meanings of that word). Nisargadatta was a salty character, however, a sort of fisherman’s guru. He didn’t pontificate like one of those collegiate sages, nor did he gaze heroically into space like other silent swamis. He ranted, squinted, and rarely smiled. In fact, he far more often snarled. I once showed these two videos to a group of about 12 of my students. All seemed quite taken with the Ramana video. But the Nisargadatta video produced all kinds of varying responses. Some liked his fierceness; others could not get past his guy-on-the-park-bench-with-the-bottle-of-gin mannerisms and struggled to keep a straight face. I subsequently lent the videos to a psychotherapist friend of mine. He returned them a few weeks later with two comments: ‘Ramana…ah, such sublime wisdom! And Nisargadatta…(frowning slightly as if searching, and then suddenly brightening)…such passion!’
Nisargadatta did not teach the lazy man’s way to enlightenment. He was a fierce teacher who had much more in common with the old Chinese and Japanese Rinzai Zen masters and the path of ‘sudden awakening’. The fact that he himself had attained Self-realization in a relatively short time (under three years of intensive meditation practice) no doubt shaped his teaching style. There are many stories of his passionate approach, his bluntness and ruthlessness, and his seeming lack of patience with lazy students or seekers who were merely ‘spiritual tourists’ come to see the latest guru. All of this is clear enough in surviving videos of some of his talks and interactions with students. One can see from these videos, mostly recorded when Nisargadatta was already in his 80s, his fiery nature, as well as his obvious passion. His manner was diametrically opposite to Ramana Maharshi’s serenity.
But before I forget where I was, back to I Am That.
Nisargadatta’s student Maurice Frydman, a Polish Jew who had once lived at Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram, recorded a series of Nisargadatta’s talks, translated them from Marathi (Nisargadatta spoke no English), and published them in 1973 as the book I Am That. As mentioned, this book went on to achieve classic status, having a strong influence on many young Western seekers, especially during the 1970s and 80s (and continues to do so). The main quality of the book is the direct forcefulness of Nisargadatta’s presence, and the uncompromising clarity of his answers to questions put to him. A number of seekers over the years would report that they’d had profound openings and even direct awakening experiences merely by reading the book. More than one seeker claimed that the book itself was a legitimate spiritual transmission.
On the jacket of I Am That is the line, ‘The real does not die, the unreal never lived’. We can contrast that with a well-known line from the mystical text A Course In Miracles: ‘What is real cannot be threatened, what is unreal does not exist’. This is one of the classic refrains of Advaita-based teachings, and it was the central point that Nisargadatta drove home over and over again in thirty years of teaching. When his guru had said to him, ‘you are not what you take yourself to be’, he was preparing Nisargadatta for that essential realization, which ultimately became his main teaching tool. That is the ultimate pointer toward higher truth, and the time-honoured rallying cry of genuine mystics and Self-realized sages everywhere. It is what shakes a seeker, or a potential seeker, out of the conventional slumber of typical life, where we (remarkably) come to take for granted mediocrity, that we should somehow be satisfied with what has been put in front of us. Truth-seekers throughout history have had to work against the grain of convention, and frequently against an unspoken taboo not to challenge these conventions, foremost of which seems to be the consensual agreement that you are what you take yourself to be. It may be confidently said that no movement toward Reality can occur until we first begin to challenge that assumption. I am not what I take myself to be is the beginning of awakening, the first glimmer of light upon a murky inner landscape.
Similar to Ramana, Nisargadatta did not exclusively teach Self-remembering or Self-enquiry, both of which are part of the path of jnana yoga (realization of the Divine via mental discipline and penetrating insight). If he felt that a seeker’s temperament warranted it, he would advise them to follow a path of devotion (bhakti yoga). Regardless of the choice made to follow whichever path, Nisargadatta taught (paradoxically) that at the ultimate level there is no such thing as ‘free will’ or a ‘doer’. He said that the mind and body, created as they have been by endless preceding causal factors, are merely mechanical. The mind has the ability to create the illusion of being a ‘doer’ or a ‘chooser’, but in fact it is ‘doing’ and ‘choosing’ based purely on past causes. The true Self actually does nothing, being merely a silent witness to all that is arising in the field of consciousness.
Accordingly, there is ‘doing’ but there is no ‘doer’. There is walking, but no walker. There is reading, eating, and sleeping, but no reader, eater, or sleeper, and so forth. To see directly into the illusion of the wilful doer is the same as seeing into the illusion of the false self, the separate personality. There is always only functioning occurring, but no actual ‘entity’ behind the scenes pulling levels to make things happen. Because there is no actual doer, the questions of ‘bondage’ and ‘liberation’ are therefore rendered meaningless. For who is there to be in bondage? And who is there to achieve liberation? The whole idea of enlightenment, or any sort of ‘spiritual path’, is rendered meaningless once we grasp the essential truth, that there is no discreet entity that is ‘me’ to attain any such thing—and nor is there any discreet entity that is ‘me’ to suffer miserably. We suffer only because we are caught in a deep illusion in which we appear to exist as distinct entities.
All these ideas have become well known amongst sincere Western seekers in recent years, especially those who have studied some Advaita (or Buddhism). All of them are easy to misunderstand and misuse. The idea of there being ‘no doer’ is extremely susceptible to a confused interpretation and to being hijacked by the ego. It needs to always be born in mind that when sages like Ramana or Nisargadatta speak of there being no real personality, or no actual doer, they are speaking from the perspective of one who has put enormous effort into coming to that realization. Ramana may have awakened in one thirty minute burst of intense focus and longing for truth, but he subsequently spent many years sitting in solitary meditation, sometimes in dark and miserable vaults, almost starving his body, perfecting his clarity and wisdom. Nisargadatta spent nearly three years meditating many hours—‘all my available time’ was how he put it—without fail, making stupendous concentrative efforts. And so while these sages ultimately saw into the illusion of the personal self and free will, they only got to that place of clarity by making profound effort—and an effort that was, above all, full of a burning passion for truth. No less is required of us for the same realization. There is no free pass to awakening. To merely ‘know’ that there is no separate self, or wilful doer, and yet to not attempt to directly realize this—to summon no effort or burning passion to truly see and know this—is worse than useless, because we run the risk of dreaming that we are awake.
We may in (absolute) truth already be enlightened, but we still need to do something about it—and by ‘doing something about it’, I’m speaking ultimately of cultivating passion. Nisgardatta’s extraordinary energy was, in my eyes, a demonstration of his aliveness and passion for truth.