Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

Traditional versus Neo-Advaita

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The word ‘neo’ means ‘new’ so that ‘Neo-Advaita’ is an impossibility. Advaita means ‘not two’, referring to the non-dual reality that always was, is and will be - unchanging because change would necessarily be from one thing into another, which would be contradictory. There cannot, therefore, be an ‘old’ and a ‘new’ Advaita, only the one truth.

Having said that, Advaita is a concept, a philosophical term in a language which is necessarily dualistic, devised for use in this world-appearance in which ‘we’ seem to exist. This concept is intended to refer to the non-perceivable reality that underlies the appearance. And, to the extent that language is able to point to this reality (rather than ‘describe’ it, which is impossible), the words used by both traditional teachers of Advaita and by modern, ‘neo’, satsang teachers are essentially the same.

The approaches diverge, however, as soon as any attempt is made to rationalise the apparent world and ‘my’ seeming place in it with this non-dual reality. Traditional Advaita refers explicitly to a phenomenal level – vyavahAra – in which there appears to be objects and people, some of whom become seekers, following a path towards self-realisation. Neo-Advaitin teachers attempt to deny all of this, insisting upon the reality and only the reality – there is only ‘perception’ or ‘stories’; there is no one, no seeker, no doer and no path. There is nothing that could be done to lead a non-existent seeker towards something that already exists here and now.

The teaching of traditional Advaita is gradual. It begins from where we believe ourselves to be. It acknowledges an identification with the body-mind organism, desires and fears etc. and aims to educate and undermine this belief gradually, using unarguable logic and a variety of devices aimed at reducing the dominion of the ego. In contrast, Neo-Advaita attempts to force the truth of the matter upon an unprepared mind at the outset (denying indeed the very existence of a mind), offering no process of gradual discrimination or logical development. It says ‘this is it’ and that is that! The bewildered ego is possibly left with an intellectual acceptance that it doesn’t really exist but, in fact, it remains as strong as it ever was.

Every few months or so, an old friend of mine appears in my dreams. We talk, go places together and all seems perfectly normal. The only problem is that this friend has been dead for over thirty years. Of course, my waking ego is well aware of this but the dreaming ego is not. Nothing seems untoward in the dream. If a dream character were to come up to me and say: “Look here! This can’t be your friend because he is no longer alive.’, I would probably reply something to the effect of: ‘Rubbish! Look – I can see him right here. Do you think I can’t recognise him? I talk to him and he answers me in a perfectly intelligible manner. How can he possibly be dead?”

One of the metaphors used in classical Advaita in respect of enlightenment is that of the dream lion. The idea is that we continue along quite happily in the dream state, accepting all of the events as real no matter how silly they might later seem to the waker, and nothing in the dream serves to awaken us to the ‘reality’ of the waking world. But, should we come across a lion in the dream and it sees us, turns and charges, then we are very likely to awaken. It is said that, in a similar way, an event in our waking ‘dream’ can serve as a dream lion to awaken us to the true reality.

Now it seems to me that the teacher of Neo-Advaita is rather like the character in the dream who comes up to me and says that I must be imagining the person to whom I am clearly talking because he is dead. The information does not tally with my experience. It seems that no matter how much such a teacher talks about how things ‘really are’, how there is no person, no seeker, no liberation and so on, it is never going to make a difference because the everyday experience continues regardless and clearly refutes such assertions.

In contrast, the teaching and practices of traditional Advaita function like a dream termite, burrowing away almost imperceptibly at the foundations of our grand illusion until the whole edifice of ignorance is so riddled with knowledge-holes that it all comes tumbling down. It functions within the context of our actual experience gradually negating, for example, all of the things that we imagine ourselves to be. It provides exercises to discover that we do not act or do not originate our thoughts and so on. All of these things are artificial devices that are themselves part of the illusion but they work, slowly but surely, to loosen the grip of our misunderstandings.

The reality about which both teachings speak is the same – there is only one. And Neo-Advaita may even be better at this, since its adherents use the language of modern society and shun Sanskrit terms that may be confusing to western minds. But this seems to be all that Neo-Advaitins do. They deny the level of appearance in which everyone (probably including themselves) is trapped. They assert that there is nothing that can be done to remove the ignorance because ignorance itself is simply ‘part of the story’.

Traditional Advaita, in contrast, claims that the ignorance can be dispelled by knowledge, enabling the illusory snake to be seen for what it always was – a rope. And they claim that the mind can be prepared to accept this knowledge through practices such as the renunciation of the ego via bhakti yoga or the reduction of the ego’s power in the desireless action of karma yoga.

The attraction of Neo-Advaita is undeniable – there is nothing to do because there is no doer, no revelation to be discovered because this is it, here and now. We can stop seeking because there is no seeker and nothing to be sought. There is no need to learn Sanskrit, to spend a lifetime (or many lifetimes) studying with a teacher. Gaining more knowledge will not help, only hinder by virtue of deluding the ego into thinking it is making progress. Indeed, seeking itself serves only to reinforce the ego. Everything is already fine as it is. We just need to accept this.

But this is simply the restatement of the truth. It is the dream guru telling the dream disciple about the waking state. ‘The dream is fine’, he says. ‘It is simply an appearance in mind; both you (the dreaming ego) and the (dream) world are nothing but the mind itself’. True though all of this might be, it does not help awaken the dream disciple into realisation of the truth of the waker. It does not allow the waker to dissolve into the waking dream so that the dream world may simply be enjoyed as an elaborate construction in which Consciousness, the true Self, can never be affected. To that extent, it is ultimately of little value to the seeming seeker who wants precisely that – to enjoy the waking dream knowing that ‘he’ does not really exist, will never die etc. (Of course, in reality, nothing is of any value, as the Neo-Advaitin will be quick to point out, but then all of this discourse is at the level of appearance.)

There are also two significant dangers regarding the Neo-Advaita ‘movement’. Firstly, there is the clear possibility of charlatans who, having read a little or heard the fundamental elements of ‘descriptions’ of reality, can devise a few ‘routines’ of their own and then advertise themselves on the circuit. Providing that they are good speakers/actors, it is certainly possible to make a living from deceiving ‘seekers’ in such a way, without ever giving away their true lack of knowledge or the fact that they are no nearer any ‘realisation’ than their disciples.

Secondly, seekers themselves may be deluded into a belief that some specious realisation has been obtained when, in fact, all that has happened is that they have come to terms with some psychological problem that had been making life difficult. The ending of such suffering could well be seen as a ‘liberation’. Of course, such a thing would not be at all bad – it simply would have nothing to do with enlightenment. Indeed, such people might well go on to become teachers in their own right, not charlatans in the true sense of the word, since they genuinely believe that ‘realisation’ has taken place.

The use of the language of non-duality (e.g. avoiding use of the word ‘I’) cannot be relied upon to mean that the ego of such a speaker is dead. Indeed, an ego can quite happily put up with non-reference to itself when it thinks it is ‘realised’ whilst everyone else is not! (And conversely, of course, there is no need or desire to avoid the use of the word ‘I’ in the absence of an ego.)

This is not to say that these dangers do not also exist in traditional Advaita but it might at least be argued that someone who has spent many years studying scriptures, reading and attending classes etc. must at least not be in it just for the money! Also, several thousand years of traditional teachings have emphasised that preparation, in the form of acquiring knowledge of the truth, is of value. Such characteristics as renunciation, discrimination and self-restraint etc. are also advocated, topics which are most unlikely to be mentioned at the meetings with any Neo-Advaitin teacher. And is it surprising that many of the attendees of Neo-Advaita satsangs are simply not interested in any of this? Why bother to listen to all of the preparatory stuff when you can get the final message straight away? ‘Don’t bother telling me about arithmetic, I want to learn quantum mechanics!’

Finally, of course, the message given by the Neo-teachers is not the ultimate truth anyway, which can never be spoken of. The claim that ‘everything is a story’ is itself a story. I can only quote again, the message from Greg Goode that I used at the end of ‘The Book of One’:

“In Advaita Vedanta, there are various reductive stories and theories that are taught in a certain clever order. Each one reduces attachment to the previously-cherished metaphysical view. The ladder’s rungs get kicked out one by one. The goal is not to hang out on the highest rung (e.g. “It's all Consciousness” is one of the highest rungs in that teaching, and a sticky one) but to be free from the ladder. What actually gets said and believed about the nature of a ‘what’ is nothing but another ‘what’.”

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Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012