A question on no-Self, Bernadette Roberts, Advaita, Buddhism - Francis Answers - 138

Francis Lucille

Dear Francis,

Thank you very much for giving me your address. What a beautiful way of starting the new year.

Some time ago I sent you a question to which no answer ever appeared on your website. Probably there was an error and my question did not reach you, or perhaps you had some reason not to answer. The question was about one Bernadette Roberts, who is a Christian mystic, and who to her astonishment discovered that what is regarded as the final ‘stage’ in her tradition – which she thinks is the same as the Sat-Chid-Ananda of the Advaitins – dropped away one day, swallowing up and dissolving completely everything that could ever be called the true Self, ‘I AM’ or God. She calls it the ‘state’ of ‘No Self’.

Since she could not find anything about this in the Christian mystic literature, she started studying Hinduism and Buddhism, and she says that the only place in literature where she found anything pointing to this was one reference of the Buddha.

She says that it is very easy to confuse the state of no ego with the state of no Self, but that it is entirely different. It happened to her totally unexpectedly, 25 years after the ego had dropped away.

To Bernadette it seems that all the books and enlightened ones talk about the no-ego state, not about the stage of no Self. Though she is convinced that it has been reached by many.

I know, that at my total-ego stage it is of no immediate consequence. I have to free myself of this hypnosis. Still, the question sits deep inside and I cannot help asking for your comment. This age old discrepancy between Hinduism and Buddhism as to the eternal existence vs. the non-existence of Self. Is it, as is often said, rhetorical, or is it real after all? Here is a part of an interview with Bernadette:

Bernadette: That occurred unexpectedly some 25 years after the transforming process. The divine center - the coin, or “true self” - suddenly disappeared, and without center or circumference there is no self, and no divine."

Initially, when I looked into Buddhism, I did not find the experience of no-self there either; yet I intuited that it had to be there. The falling away of the ego is common to both Hinduism and Buddhism. Therefore, it would not account for the fact that Buddhism became a separate religion, nor would it account for the Buddhist’s insistence on no eternal Self - be it divine, individual or the two in one. I felt that the key difference between these two religions was the no-self experience, the falling away of the true Self, Atman-Brahman.

Unfortunately, what most Buddhist authors define as the no-self experience is actually the no-ego experience. The cessation of clinging, craving, desire, the passions, etc., and the ensuing state of imperturbable peace and joy articulates the egoless state of oneness; it does not, however, articulate the no-self experience or the dimension beyond. Unless we clearly distinguish between these two very different experiences, we only confuse them, with the inevitable result that the true no-self experience becomes lost. If we think the falling away of the ego, with its ensuing transformation and oneness, is the no-self experience, then what shall we call the much further experience when this egoless oneness falls away? In actual experience there is only one thing to call it, the “no-self experience”; it lends itself to no other possible articulation.

Initially, I gave up looking for this experience in the Buddhist literature. Four years later, however, I came across two lines attributed to Buddha describing his enlightenment experience. Referring to self as a house, he said, “All thy rafters are broken now, the ridgepole is destroyed.” And there it was - the disappearance of the center, the ridgepole; without it, there can be no house, no self. When I read these lines, it was as if an arrow launched at the beginning of time had suddenly hit a bulls-eye. It was a remarkable find. These lines are not a piece of philosophy, but an experiential account, and without the experiential account we really have nothing to go on. In the same verse he says, “Again a house thou shall not build,” clearly distinguishing this experience from the falling away of the ego-center, after which a new, transformed self is built around a “true center,” a sturdy, balanced ridgepole.

Bernadette also wrote very detailed book on this, parts of which are available to read online: http://books.google.be/books?id=-ujxTTC7vjQC&printsec=frontcover&dq=Bernadette+Roberts

I’m sorry to trouble you once again with the same question. If for some reason you do not wish to comment on it, please let me know.

Many thanks and greetings and the best wishes for the new year (though to you there are no wishes and no time :-))



Dear Vishvarupa,

A few remarks:

  1. Different writers or teachers use words with different meanings. I define Self, consciousness, awareness, Presence, experience or Atman as that, whatever that is, that truly perceives these words right now. Obviously, Ms Roberts uses the word “Self” with a different meaning, since she talks about a no Self experience, which implies experience of no Self, therefore of awareness as the experiencer of no Self. In other words what she calls “Self” is an object, the absence or disappearance of which can be experienced.

  2. “The ridgepole is destroyed”: the Buddha refers here to Self-realization, the final stage following the revelation of Atman-Brahman, our true nature, a revelation that potentially destroys ignorance, the belief that we are a separate consciousness. Self realization may or may not correspond to the experience Ms Roberts describes as the “no Self” state. It is known in the Indian tradition as Sahaja Samadhi. The prior glimpse or revelation that paves the way to this abidance in Presence is known as liberation or moksha. That may or may not correspond to the experience Ms Roberts describes as the falling away of the ego.

  3. The distinction between Buddhist, Advaitic, Sufi, Christian, Taoist, Alchemist, Pre-Socratic etc… realization is artificial. Our true nature is the same and always will be, and is independent from latitude, longitude and time. The differences are only in the teaching methods being used, not in the experience of the Divine.

  4. The “anatman” doctrine of some buddhists is in fact a heresy that arose about a millennium after the death of the Buddha. This heresy perpetuated itself as the Tradition of the Buddha was lost by his distant followers. It is significant that this doctrine is implicitly denied by the great sages of Chan Buddhism, such as Hui Hai and Huei Neng:

    “Q. When the sound ceases, does hearing (consciousness) cease?

    A. Hearing never ceases." (Hui Hai“)

    Consciousness or Atman is nothing else than the “true nature” or “Buddha nature” to which the Chan teachings refer. The recognition of its eternity and divinity is moksha or satori. A Sage or a Buddha is one who knowingly and unshakably abides in it and as it. There is only one Sage, only one Buddha, only one Atman.

  5. Misinterpretations may arise when a tradition is accessed through books instead of through a living teacher.

  6. Even a liberated one may in the beginning misinterpret his own experience, especially if he is not assisted by a living teacher. It took Ramana Maharshi many years and the reading of Advaita scriptures to put his experience in the correct perspective. This doesn’t invalidate or change in any way the experience itself. However, in the case of a spiritual teacher, clarity does matter. That is why Ramana didn’t start teaching before he had this clarity.

  7. I reluctantly answered this question because I feel that you should have asked Ms Roberts and also because it is a waste of time and energy for a seeker to try to reconcile the sayings of different teachers or traditions. Stick to the best available teaching. If you are seeking water, it is better to keep digging at the spot which seems the most suitable rather than to dig shallow little holes everywhere. We should find the teacher whose teaching we feel to be the best according to our heart and intelligence, and follow him/her for as long as we feel that way. We should choose our teacher for this reason alone, not for convenience such as proximity, access, gender, tradition, etc… We should honor the Truth buy seeking the best teacher. We cannot buy the Truth on sale. Also, the teaching that can be conveyed through words, and therefore through texts, is a very tiny portion of that which is required in most cases and cannot be conveyed through words. The Internet is a very limited teacher. Seek the real presence of your human teacher. Remember that Ramana Maharshi used to say that the “silent teaching” was the highest form of teaching, a teaching which is often denied by those who only have a limited intellectual understanding and cannot speak of that which they have no experience of. It is the same silent teaching that Gautama and his disciple shared when they smiled after the Buddha silently showed the flower. It is “a direct transmission, independent from the words” according to the Chan Buddhist tradition, the baraka of the Sufi, and the “transmission of the flame” Jean Klein speaks of.