A team of attorneys I once worked for in Manhattan specialized in the purchase and sale of aircraft between countries. Transactions often involved a slew of lawyers from different corners of the world and required that the legal team as a whole put together a set of documents so an aircraft could be properly transferred from Seller to Buyer: Escrow, Contract, Sale, Purchase, blah blah blah.
Since definitions of important terms differed slightly from country to country, and because even minor misunderstandings could lead to serious problems as the deal meandered on, the first order of business was for these lawyers to pool their definitions of relevant terms. When agreement on the meaning of terms was reached, a document would be created that would stay in place for the entire deal.
The document listing these agreed-upon definitions was known as the Definition of Terms—and only when it was finalized did the deal take off into the stratosphere. During the transaction (which could go on for months or even years), members on the transaction team could easily clarify confusions regarding specific terms by referring to this key document.
This legal necessity to be absolutely clear on definitions led me to ruminate on the misunderstandings that often erupted in my own life. You see, although I took pains to get my message across, confusion often arose due to the different backgrounds, the gender divide, mother-tongues, education levels, orientations and natures of those involved. These glitches in communication could sometimes trigger within me emotional explosions that prevented me from moving smoothly toward my personal goals. Soon I realized that in order to achieve harmony with another, there had to be at least basic agreement on the meanings of words we used to communicate with each other. (Here I refer strictly to the verbal aspect of communication; as we all know, there are other forms of communication even more powerful than words, but these lie beyond the scope of this post).
Today, years later, Advaita has become my preferred philosophy of enlightenment; while I am light years from being a scholar, I have found it necessary to understand its most basic terms in order to appreciate this ancient teaching of Oneness. For instance, the great Indian sage Shankara’s simple three-line verse on the nature of reality is bound to mystify a seeker who does not possess a fundamental comprehension of the language of Advaita:
Brahman alone is real.
Brahman is the world.
Shankara’s message made brilliant sense to me only after I understood the meaning of the words Real and Unreal (as they pertain to Advaita). Simply put, Real is that which is permanent and lasting, while the Unreal is the ephemeral, or that which comes and goes. (As for Brahman, it is a Sanskrit word translatable as God/Divine/Absolute Consciousness).
Real and Unreal are (in my view) synonymous with what the Buddhists call the Two Truths of Absolute and Relative Reality. Absolute Reality is our true and unchanging nature and its nature is pure existence-consciousness and bliss. Relative Reality is what emerges from the Absolute; since it is fashioned by the unique karma (thought, speech and action) of each individual, it is experienced variously, and dissolves back into the Absolute, when a particular karma is over and done with.
In Shankara’s verse is embedded the essence of Advaita: 1) that Brahman (Absolute Reality) alone is immortal and unchanging; 2) that the World (Relative Reality) emerges from the Absolute as an ephemeral thing that each one of us is forced to perceive differently; 3) that since the Absolute includes the Relative, Brahman/Absolute is also the World (Relative Reality). Cutting to the chase, Absolute/Real and Relative/Unreal are two sides of the same coin and dance together to form one single reality.
Does this mean that the Unreal (that which comes and goes) does not possess a valid reality? Not so! Personally I interpret Shankara’s verse to mean that those of us who seek permanent peace and joy should increasingly focus our attention on that which is Real (our true nature, existence-consciousness-bliss or sat-chit-ananda in Sanskrit)—because the shifting and relative world on which most of us pin our hopes and dreams can never bring us lasting happiness.
Greetings from Arunachala, the sacred hill that vows to destroy the ego of the committed seeker so that we can experience the luminous and blissful Self (Absolute/Real) that we are beyond our earthly identity (Relative/Unreal)!