In the early eighties, after more than ten years of intensive Zen practice, I hit a wall. The traditional rituals and forms, which had once seemed so comfortable and familiar to me, now felt constricting, like a tight, narrow box that stifled my life energy and dried out my sitting practice. I had been lured to Zen by the freedom and spontaneity of the great masters I had read about in books, but my practice seemed to be making me more uptight and self-conscious. The more I tried to push past the obstacles, as my teacher instructed me to do, the more arid and lifeless my meditation became. Eventually, after much agonized soul-searching, I set aside my monk’s robes, bid farewell to my teacher and community, and left to study Western psychology.
In the next few years, I dabbled in Vipassana and practiced with several Tibetan teachers. But I never managed to regain the freshness and enthusiasm—the Beginner’s Mind—that had drawn me to Zen in the first place. Then one day a friend introduced me to an elderly European gentleman named Jean Klein, who taught an ancient Indian philosophy called Advaita Vedanta. Skeptical at first—after all, he wasn’t a Buddhist—I soon warmed to the relaxed atmosphere, the lack of prescribed forms, and the new terminology, which seemed to point directly to the spacious, nonlocalized awareness that had, in my experience at least, only been hinted at in Zen. Most of all, I was captivated by the teacher’s presence: the deep silence that resonated beneath his words, his accessibility and lack of pretense, and the power of his pithy teachings to stop my mind and turn my awareness back toward its source. For the next ten years, until his death in 1998, I spent as much time in Jean’s company as my busy householder schedule would allow.
My path, it turns out, was not an unusual one. Numerous Buddhist teachers and practitioners have been influenced and inspired by the sayings of the great Advaita sages and been drawn to sit at the feet of contemporary masters like Nisargadatta Maharaj, H. W. L. Poonja, Ramesh Balsekar, and Jean Klein. For some, the contact has enriched and enlivened their Buddhist practice. Others have left the orthodox Buddhist fold for a time to focus exclusively on the study of Advaita, only to return later with a renewed enjoyment and appreciation of Buddhist practices and teachings. And still others have stepped beyond the conceptual borders that appear to separate the two traditions, and have embraced them both.
Advaita Vedanta is widely considered, by scholars of religion and Hindus themselves, to be the philosophical culmination of the Hindu tradition. (Advaita is Sanskrit for “nondual,” and Vedanta literally means “the end of the Vedas,” referring to the spiritual teachings of the Upanishads, which were the last revealed Hindu scriptures known as the Veda.) But the central teaching of Advaita is deceptively simple. Advaita teaches that the phenomenal world, though real at a relative level, is merely the manifestation of the one abiding reality, the absolute ground of being, known as Brahman. In the words of one traditional Vedantic saying, “Brahman alone is real. The world is an illusion. Brahman is the world.”
For the Advaita sages, the goal of the spiritual search is the liberating realization that this apparently separate self (atman) has no ultimate existence but is essentially an expression of Brahman itself (sometimes referred to as consciousness, or Self with a capital S). “The one who has realized the Self knows he is the Self, and that nothing, neither his body nor anything else, exists but the Self,” taught the great twentieth-century sage Ramana Maharshi. According to Advaita, this truth can be realized directly and experientially, in a single moment, even without long years of striving, study, and practice. And this breakthrough has the power to transform a person’s life, conferring the same freedom from fear, grasping, and self-cherishing as the awakening insights described in the Buddhist tradition.
Although the Upanishads, which predate the Buddha, often teach that the individual soul, or atman, is essentially identical to the divine ground of being, or Brahman, this nondual formulation wasn’t elaborated into a separate school until the sage Shankara appeared in the eighth century C.E. The philosophy propounded by Shankara and his followers had such a powerful influence on Hindu thought, according to Hindu scholar S. N. Dasgupta in A History of Indian Philosophy, that “whenever we speak of the Vedanta philosophy we mean the philosophy that was propounded by Shankara.” In India today, the lineage of teachers tracing itself back to Shankara continues to thrive. In addition, any sage who preaches the nondual wisdom of the Upanishads, even if he or she does not belong to Shankara’s lineage, is generally referred to as an Advaita teacher.
Jack Kornfield, one of the first Western teachers of Buddhist Vipassana meditation, spent time in the late seventies with Nisargadatta Maharaj, an Indian sage who was a member of a Hindu tantric lineage but whose teachings were pure Advaita. “He was a very meaningful and inspiring teacher of what liberation was really like when you were no longer identified with the body and mind,” recalls Kornfield. “The amount of joy and freedom he expressed touched me deeply.”
Anna Douglas, a founding teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, in Woodacre, California, was similarly impressed by her encounter with H. W. L. Poonja (affectionately known as Papaji), a popular Advaita teacher in the lineage of Ramana Maharshi. “With Poonjaji, I experienced a profound realization of emptiness, which I had heard about in the Buddhist world but hadn’t realized until I met him,” says Douglas. “I told him, ‘I had to come to you to realize the heart of Buddhism,’ and we laughed.”
Both Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta are rooted in the Hindu tradition. (Although Buddha challenged Hinduism’s concept of a divine atman with the teaching of “anatman,” or “no self,” he was raised a Hindu, studied with Hindu teachers, and to this day is revered by Hinduism as one of its greatest sages.) And, while often arguing over philosophical fine points, the two traditions have always had a great deal in common, most notably, the view that the separate self doesn’t exist. Many traditional Buddhist teachers would object to the view that the individual self is identical with an absolute, abiding reality, arguing that the historical Buddha explicitly rejected such a view. Yet the Mahayana Buddhist notion of emptiness (shunyata) did evolve in certain traditions into an abiding substrate, an unchanging, underlying reality, where both “emptiness” and “Buddha-nature” pointed (and continue to point, in the Zen tradition) to some deeper mystery unfathomable by the mind. Likewise in some Tibetan Buddhist schools, “emptiness” became a term pointing to the abiding, underlying nature of reality, even though the doctrine of no-self was never explicitly abandoned.
The most important point at the experiential level is that Advaita, Mahayana schools like Zen, and Tibetan Dzogchen are all direct approaches to truth; that is, they point directly to the core realization that reality, though apparently composed of innumerable elements and phenomena, is actually one and indivisible, and that this one, indivisible reality—whether it’s labeled emptiness, Brahman, or the nature of Mind—is what you and I are, essentially. In the words of the Upanishads, “You are That.” Awakening to this truth is the liberating spiritual moment in these traditions, a moment that transforms the seeker’s life irrevocably.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given their philosophical similarities, the cross-fertilization between Buddhism and Advaita dates back to the first half of the first millennium C.E., when they were two of the most prominent and influential religious schools in India. Indeed, according to the Buddhist scholar Richard King, author of the book Early Advaita Vedanta and Buddhism, religious historians now agree that the early development of Advaita as a separate philosophical school was profoundly influenced by Mahayana Buddhism. Though Shankara, the founder of Advaita, strongly criticized Buddhism and purportedly defeated its representatives in dharma combat, his own teacher and his teacher’s teacher borrowed freely from Buddhist terminology and ideas and showed an interest in Buddhist-Vedantic relations. In particular, says King, the notion that the world is an illusion (maya) and the teaching that there are two levels of truth, relative and absolute, originated with the Mahayana and then found their way into Advaita.
No wonder, then, given their similarities, that so many contemporary Buddhists have been influenced by Advaita Vedanta. But why have these practitioners felt the need to step outside their own milieu to study with teachers from another tradition? “Different people have different temperaments,” explains Douglas. “In the Buddhist world many people have profound experiences in the context of a particular Buddhist practice and form. But some, like me, seem to really get the teachings when they come in a more formless manner, through teachers who are outside the form.”
Advaita teachers appear to have particular appeal for Western Buddhists because they transmit truth directly through their words and their presence, without relying on rituals or practices or making extensive demands on their students. Unlike Tibetan teachers, who usually expect students to complete lengthy preliminary practices before gaining access to advanced instructions, or Zen masters, who often require a demonstrated dedication to meditation practice before working closely with their disciples, Advaita teachers have tended to be open and available to all seekers who arrive at their door, regardless of previous or current spiritual practice. For example, Ramana Maharshi, who died in 1950, spent most of his time in a room at his ashram where visitors could approach him at any time of the day or night, and Nisargadatta Maharaj welcomed all seekers to his tiny apartment in Bombay, where he offered regular dialogues until his death, in 1981. Ramesh Balsekar, a student of Nisargadatta Maharaj, continues the tradition today in his own Bombay apartment with open dialogues every morning.
“The contact with Papaji felt very intimate and personal,” says Buddhist author and meditation teacher Kate Wheeler of the six weeks she spent with the Indian teacher H. W. L. Poonja in 1990. “He was so kind and sweet, so accessible. He said he didn’t have anything to teach us, and he clearly didn’t want anything from us.
“Being with him challenged my seeker mentality,” Wheeler continues. “Even though I had been drawn to Vipassana in the seventies because it gave me permission to just be with my experience, I had developed this habit of trying to be something other than what I already was, which is a false premise for practice. Papaji worked outside the box. He kept encouraging us to ‘give up the search without finding anything.’
“While I was there, I spent days in intense inquiry, looking for the mind. When I finally admitted, with a sense of failure, that I couldn’t find it anywhere, Papaji told me that was good, I should just stay there, without getting gripped by searching again. I felt ecstatically rooted in the resting, without searching or doing, and this feeling lasted for several years. Eventually I started doing Buddhist retreats again, not to get somewhere, but to enhance and deepen the experience of resting.”
Advaita also appeals to some Buddhist practitioners because it tends to diverge from the mainstream of Buddhist tradition over the issue of seeking and practice. Most Buddhist schools teach the value of meditation practice as the only effective way to remove the poison arrow of dukkha, or suffering. By contrast, Advaita emphasizes not meditation, but jnana, discriminating wisdom, the capacity to identify our true nature directly and differentiate it from mere appearance. For Advaitins, the path to liberation lies in studying the teachings of the sages and, if possible, listening directly to the wisdom of a living master. Once jnana awakens through such contact, the approach is to nourish and sustain it by resting in our true nature from moment to moment. (Much of this language will resonate with those who have practiced Dzogchen.)
Psychotherapist Judith Shiner became a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in the early seventies because she felt “tremendous spaciousness” in his presence, and his teachings initially gave her the impression that “I didn’t have to go looking for who I am, I could just sit and experience it. But over time he began to add more practices and requirements, and I began to wonder why, instead of feeling more open and free, I was feeling more constricted and fearful. I had received a basic foundation in mindfulness, but something was missing. My spiritual nature just wasn’t flourishing in this environment.” Finally, after seven years in the Vajradhatu community, Shiner left.
Then, several years later, she met Jean Klein. “It was a great relief when I heard Jean say that you don’t have to do any practices to be who you are. This had been my initial intuition, but I had lost it over the years in the expectations of the community. With Jean I discovered that there is no path to follow, this awareness that we are is always here, close at hand, and we don’t have to spend years finding it but can simply recognize it in the moment. In my experience, the path gets too solidified in the Buddhist teachings. There’s always more to study, and you never get to graduate. Even though the teachings talk about the inherently clear, luminous, diamond-like nature of mind, I never got the sense, as I did from Jean, that who I am right now is complete and sufficient of itself.”
Of course, Buddhism also teaches the crucial importance of discriminating wisdom, called prajna, but contends that it cannot be cultivated without the benefit of the mind training provided by meditation practice. Without such deliberate cultivation of awareness, Buddhists believe, the mind will continue to repeat the same negative patterns and the eye of wisdom will remain closed. Emphasizing the dangers of not having a practice for guidance and support, Buddhist teacher Stephen Levine has called Advaita the “high path with no railing” because seekers can fall off so easily. Whereas Buddhism risks becoming rigid in its insistence on certain prescribed practices and forms, the Advaita approach risks leaving seekers with no external guidelines or moral precepts to prevent them from becoming smug or complacent or assuming they are already enlightened when in fact, as Jean Klein used to say, they haven’t yet left the garage.
Many Advaitins believe that training the mind merely deprives it of its inherent openness, spontaneity, and aliveness. Besides, Advaita argues, each of us is already the perfect expression of Brahman, or consciousness, just as we are. Instead of working to change, improve, or purify ourselves, we merely need to awaken to this inherent perfection through contemplation of the teachings and contact with a teacher, which then naturally reveals the essential qualities of love, compassion, peace, joy, and equanimity. From the Buddhist point of view, however, such an emphasis on inherent perfection can tend to lead to self-satisfied passivity or self-serving, unethical behavior. (Of course, the practice—no practice distinction is not writ in stone, and many Advaita teachers have recommended practices, most notably Ramana Maharshi, who taught self-inquiry using the question “Who am I?”)
Despite such cautions, many Buddhist practitioners have found that the two traditions can work hand in hand. Catherine Ingram, author of Passionate Presence, studied Vipassana for more than a dozen years in the seventies and eighties, one of which was spent in Asia, before meeting Poonjaji in 1991. “My practice had begun to feel lifeless and joyless,” she recalls. “I could watch and note my experience like a computer, but I couldn’t feel anything. Simultaneously there was a growing disconnection from the beliefs of Buddhism, such as karma and rebirth. Buddhism was still my community and my language, but my heart wasn’t in it anymore. I fell into a deep depression.”
Then Ingram traveled to India to spend time with Poonjaji, at the urging of friends who had come back transformed. “In a shockingly short time I understood that there was nothing more to do or seek, it was about relaxing right where I was, in my own being, without making any effort in any direction. Indeed, to make effort toward pure beingness was contraindicated.”
In 1993, after assisting Ram Dass at one of his retreats at Omega Institute, Ingram began offering what she calls Dharma Dialogues, interactive public conversations intended to help “dispel” the obstacles to “present awareness.” “Of course, my presentation is part Buddhism and part Advaita,” she acknowledges, “but I try to strip things bare and offer something fresh and uniquely of my own experience and observation. I honor the precision of Buddhism and its understanding of the workings of the mind, and I love in Advaita the emphasis on nondoing and no efforting and the understanding of what always already is. But Advaita can become dreamy and imprecise, and Buddhism can tend toward the repression of experiences it considers negative or bad, such as sex or power.” Ingram offers silent retreats that include dialogues but no prescribed practices, yet she admits that “some people can benefit from a lot of practice.”
When Howie Cohn, a founding teacher at Spirit Rock, met Poonjaji in 1990, he had already experienced the profound depths of insight as outlined in the Vipassana tradition. Yet he had become disillusioned by the dogmatism and rigidity of one of his Asian teachers, and his faith in the practice had begun to waiver. Poonjaji asked him why he had come. “I already know that the seeker and the sought are one,” Cohn told him, “yet I’ve traveled around the world to see you, so I must still be seeking something.”
“Remove the seeker and remove the sought,” Poonjaji said. On hearing those words, Cohn says, he experienced a cessation of consciousness and the dissolution of mind and body, just as he had at the end of three-month retreats in the past. “But now I realized they weren’t dependent on forms like sitting practice or retreat. This was my very nature. I didn’t have to do anything or go anywhere to experience it.” Though he wasn’t doing formal meditation, his mind remained quite silent for a month.
“Poonjaji urged me to continue what I was doing,” says Cohn, “so I went back to teaching Vipassana. But now the emphasis was on reminding people that there’s no place to go and nothing to become. I often say that you’re immersed in what you’re seeking, and practice can help you to recognize it and then to get used to and stabilize the recognition. If I’m careful with my language, meditation practice can bring people closer to where they already are and wake them up out of the imagination of being a someone with a past and a future.”
Inspired by their contact with Advaita Vedanta, Buddhist teachers like Cohn, Douglas, and Wheeler practice and teach meditation not as a progressive path to self-improvement but as an opportunity to reconnect directly with our timeless nature. “On the Vipassana retreats I offer,” says Cohn, “people often find that the effort of becoming starts to dissolve, the seeking mind exhausts itself, and the recognition dawns that they’re already complete just as they are.”
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