Interview with Dennis Waite (part 1)
non-duality magazine (NDM): When and how did you first become aware of 'Neo-advaita' and can you please tell me what your immediate impression was?
Dennis Waite: I think my first exposure to those teachings (which I did not come to know as ‘Neo-advaita’ until much later) was through the Ramana Maharshi Foundation UK around 1999 – 2000. They used to have a regular newsletter, in which they advertized forthcoming satsangs (without necessarily endorsing the teachers) and a quarterly journal of essays, satsang and book extracts, etc. Around that time the names of Tony Parsons and Nathan Gill began to appear and, later, there were some intriguing extracts. Initially, I found their material fresh and exciting. It spoke of the ‘here and now’ and seemed immediately relevant. I bought Tony’s book The Open Secret and Nathan’s booklet Clarity after reading the essays.
NDM: What exactly happened when you read Tony Parson’s book, The Open Secret? How did it go from it being fresh and exciting to something other than this? Was there a particular moment, a sentence or a paragraph when you began seeing red flags?
Dennis Waite: I can’t remember much about what I read yesterday, so there is no chance of remembering from ten years ago! What I have done for the past five plus years, however, is to mark up (in 3B pencil) any passages in books I read that trigger comment or seem particularly useful. And I know that, for example, by the time I came to read books such as Nathan Gill’s Already Awake, I was scribbling quite a few comments, not always complimentary! I guess that it was simply the case that, as I read more in general and came to understand advaita more and more, I became more critical. Probably because of my scientific education, I have always insisted that any teaching that I encounter is totally amenable to reason. There is a proviso here that I am prepared to take something new ‘on trust’ temporarily if I am sufficiently familiar with previous books or teaching of that author/teacher and therefore know that they are ‘trustworthy’. (This is effectively a practical definition for the Sanskrit term ‘shraddhA’.)
NDM: Do you know who first coined the term 'Neo-advaita'?
Dennis Waite: I don’t know who first coined the term. I know that Greg Goode has attributed it to me but I don’t think this is strictly accurate. Probably someone else casually used it in an email and I then started referring to it regularly through my website and then later took it for granted in my books. Certainly it is an obvious term, when the proponents claim to be speaking of non-duality but reject the traditional teaching, so I don’t think any kudos should be attached to its inventor!
NDM: Do you see that this would also apply to other traditions such as Zen, Sufism, Kaballah, Taoism, Gnosticism and so on? Does it apply to anything that deviates from traditions? Or does this just apply to vedAnta?
Dennis Waite: I don’t know anything about other non-dual traditions but since the final message is presumably the same, I guess there might be people trying to teach those and bypass the related methodology. In fact, I suppose that it is only because of a particular teacher’s background, or the background of their attendees, that one can identify a ‘neo-teaching’ as related to advaita rather than another tradition.
NDM: What are the criteria for being labeled a Neo-advaita teacher? Is it simply someone who teaches advaita, but without the traditional methods of meditation, Self-enquiry, study of the scripture, use of the Sanskrit terminology and so on? Or is it someone who has not been initiated by a guru, but deemed qualified by the sampradAya system, through a succession or lineage? As Wright and Wright put it, ‘If one cannot prove natal legitimacy, one may be cast out as a bastard. The same social standard applies to religious organizations. If a religious group cannot prove its descent from one of the recognized traditions, it risks being dismissed as illegitimate.'
Dennis Waite: A Neo-advaita teacher typically claims that the world and the person are unreal. Consequently, there is no one searching for the truth and no one who can help them to find it (i.e. neither seeker nor teacher). There is therefore no point in wasting time and effort looking for the truth; the scriptures are of no value and so on. So no, you cannot say that ‘they teach advaita but without the traditional methods’ because the traditional methods are really what constitute advaita. advaita is a proven methodology for helping seekers to remove the ignorance that is preventing them from realizing the already-existing truth, namely that there is only brahman (or whatever you want to call the non-dual reality). Neo-advaita makes the same claim but offers nothing at all to help the seeker remove the ignorance.
Given that there is only brahman, we are obviously already That. But clearly we do not know this to be true. Simply saying that it is true is of little help, but this is effectively all that the Neo-advaitins do.
NDM: When Nisargadatta was asked about this by a questioner who wished to join the Navnath sampradAya, he said, 'The Navnath sampradAya is only a tradition, a way of teaching and practice. It does not denote a level of Consciousness. If you accept a Navnath sampradAya teacher as your guru, you join his sampradAya... Your belonging is a matter of your own feeling and conviction. After all it is all verbal and formal. In reality there is neither guru nor disciple, neither theory nor practice, neither ignorance nor realization. It all depends upon what you take yourself to be. Know yourself correctly. There is no substitute for Self-knowledge.'
Question: How does one become a Navnath; by initiation or by succession?
Maharaj: Neither. the Nine Masters' tradition (Navnath paramparA) is like a river – it flows into the ocean of reality and whoever enters it is carried along.
Question: Or is it simply acceptance by a living master belonging to the same tradition?
Maharaj: Those who practice the sAdhanA of focusing their minds on 'I am' may feel related to others who have followed the same sAdhanA and succeeded. They may decide to verbalize their sense of kinship by calling themselves Navnaths, it gives them the pleasure of belonging to an established lineage.
So if this is the case, could anyone who has realized the 'I Am' call himself or herself a Navnath (as Nisargadatta stated here)? Or would that still not make them legitimate enough to teach advaita?
Dennis Waite: The usage of the term ‘sampradAya’ is not in accord with the tradition as it comes down through Shankara. The key point about teachers in a sampradAya is that they are qualified to pass on the teaching of that sampradAya. And the key point about such teaching is that it has been proven time and again to work. Thus, in order genuinely to ‘belong’ to a sampradAya, one has to have studied with a teacher of that sampradAya for however long it takes fully to understand all of the aspects (i.e. many years). (In the past, this would have meant learning scriptures by heart, in the original Sanskrit, and knowing how to explain their meaning to a seeker.) And in order to become a teacher oneself, one should also have the appropriate skills of a good teacher. Ideally, one should be enlightened, too, but Shankara himself pointed out somewhere that this is actually of lesser importance.
NDM: What about the sampradAya roots of these often followed teachers: Sri Ramana and Papaji. Which sampradAya system did Sri Ramana belong to? Which sampradAya system did Papaji belong to?
Dennis Waite : Ramana did not belong to any sampradAya. He is someone who is acknowledged to have attained enlightenment without any of the usual prior teaching and is therefore held up as proof by many modern teachers that prolonged studies with a qualified guru are not necessary. Unfortunately a single example does not disprove the general rule, and history shows that most do need prolonged formal teaching. Papaji is generally regarded as having been a disciple of Ramana. He did not belong to any recognized sampradAya either. As far as I am aware, neither formally recognized anyone as their ‘successors’ either, although numerous teachers now claim that they were ‘authorized’ to teach by Papaji.
NDM: There are a number of teachers in the United States who advertise and claim lineage from both of these teachers. Such as this one see here. Would this lineage claim to be considered legitimate or rather an illegitimate lineage according to the sampradAya teaching system?
Dennis Waite: The term sampradAya (for advaita) implies a lineage effectively stretching back to Shankara and Gaudapada in a continuous guru-disciple chain. So, the answer to this question is that no one claiming to be a follower of Ramana and/or Papaji belongs to a sampradAya.
NDM: So in effect, this chain is an offshoot? There are about 75 well known teachers here from all across the world who give satsang, write books, give seminars, retreats and so on.
Since none of these can prove natal legitimacy to the sampradAya dating back to Shankara and Gaudapada, should they all be cast out as a 'bastards' so to speak? Or to put it in polite terms, considered Neo-advaita?
Dennis Waite: You will see the note at the top of the Ramana ‘lineage’: '(Note that a solid line represents a direct teacher-disciple link ("in the flesh") and a dotted line an "influence" only. All entries are to the best of my knowledge and may be mistaken.) N.B. Strictly speaking, Ramana Maharshi never authorized anyone to teach in his name. This is therefore not a formal lineage.'
I derived pretty much all of the information for these charts by looking at the websites of the teachers mentioned. So, in many cases, a teacher has been added simply because his or her website states that they were influenced by Ramana – i.e. I trust what they say.
You seem to be making much of this sampradAya issue. Not formally belonging to a sampradAya does not mean that a teacher is ipso facto not worthy of reading/listening to. What it means is that they are much less likely to have a complete grasp of all of the teaching methods and aids, stories, metaphors and so on that would automatically be handed down, learned and totally understood within a sampradAya. But they may still be a good teacher by virtue of their own reading, understanding, etc., and because whoever taught them had a good grasp. The point is that the probabilities are imponderable outside of the sampradAya. It is unfortunately the case that there are many self-claimed teachers who are simply in the business of making money (a sampradAya teacher would never ask for money), and who are neither good teachers nor enlightened.
NDM: I don't see Mooji on the list by the way. Shouldn't he also be on this list since his guru was Papaji?
Dennis Waite: The ‘home page’ of the lineage information has the following statement: 'In the charts, I have listed teachers as accurately as possible, given the limited information I have available - i.e. primarily the Internet. I have not contacted every living teacher to ask them where they consider they should be placed. Also, there will no doubt be many teachers who do not have an "Internet presence" so that I will be unaware of them. Finally, my judgment as to whether a given teacher is a teacher of advaita is often dependent upon a quick appraisal of the content of their website. Some indicate other traditions as being specially influential (e.g. Zen or Dzogchen) but nevertheless write articles that "read" as if they were advaita - I have given these the "benefit of the doubt" in some cases. Others may have been excluded because there is simply no material on their website by which to make an assessment. Some teachers may appear on more than one chart. Accordingly, I am asking for help from all visitors to correct errors, suggest additions (or deletions), etc.'
Despite this, I think only about three or four people have ever contacted me to tell me about errors or omissions. So thank you! I have now added Mooji to the Ramana chart – and my apologies to him if he reads this.
NDM: So what about Nisargadatta and his line? How does this differ since according to your chart, his line only seems to go back to the 13th century and not to the 8th century and Shankara? However, doesn't his line go all the way back to Dattatreya?
Dennis Waite: As before, I have only been able to take whatever information I could find on the Internet. I am not setting myself up as any sort of authority.
You also have to accept that, in the past, Indians had no real interest in documenting any personal history. In advaita, after all, the person is not a real entity. Even in the case of Shankara, academics still argue about when he lived, with conclusions being anything from several centuries BC to around the 8th century AD. (Most agree that it was probably the latter.) The only probably valid historical records of lineage are in the Shankara mathas.
NDM: Can you give me the names of any Western teachers today who belong to the lineages dating back as far as Shankara?
Dennis Waite: Westerners probably only began to learn about this teaching with the advent of people like Ramana and Nisargadatta and we have already spoken about these. Teachers such as Swamis Chinmayananda and Dayananda are associated with Swami Sivananda and the former now have Western disciples who are teaching. For example James Swartz was a disciple of Chinmayananda and Michael Comans of Swami Dayananda. But I don’t know if Sivananda and Tapovanam can be traced back to Shankara. John Lehmann, of the Advaita Meditation Center in Massachusetts receives guidance from Shri Bharati Tirtha Swamigal, who is the present Shankaracharya of Sringeri Sharada Peetham; so maybe he is the only Westerner I am aware of who can trace back to Shankara. But then he has not been formally accepted into the lineage as far as I am aware so that reduces the number to zero!
NDM: Why do you think that no Westerner has been accepted up to this point? What are they missing? Is it their skills or something else? Wouldn't His Holiness Shri Bharati Tirtha Swamigal make this decision, being the pontiff of advaita vedAnta?
Dennis Waite: The formality of the lineage is part of the Hindu tradition. I understand that only saMnyAsI-s are given the title of ‘Swami’ and a new name, and I don’t think that lifestyle appeals to most Westerners! Also, as I said earlier, advaita did not really come to the attention of Westerners until very recently, relatively speaking. But I think this is another red herring; it doesn’t say anything about ability or worthiness. Certainly a number of Westerners have studied with Swami Dayananda and become excellent teachers in their own right. Michael Comans is now ‘Sri Vasudevacharya’.
I think the other point about the tradition is that, as implied by the name, procedures are long-established. I don’t think any individual, Shankaracharya or not, could unilaterally decide to do things differently.
But all this discussion is really outside of my field of expertise. If you want to ask Indian cultural-type questions, you need to ask someone else.
NDM: Can you please take a look at this question and answer below with Suzanne Foxton and tell me how morality is understood according to traditional advaita vedAnta?
Q. Where does morality (right and wrong) play into this equation?
Suzanne Foxton: There is no right or wrong. There is what is. Including many differing ideas about what is right and what is wrong. However, compassion often seems preferable; yet if every apparent individual were consistently compassionate without exception... gag, barf! How dull would THAT be? AND there'd probably be a loved-up population explosion.
We live in Utopia. We are Utopia. We are the perfect, dualistic playground with every possibility shining, weaving, tearing, growing, destroying, creating NOW.
Dennis Waite: Hindu dharma is a vast subject with many entire books written about it. And I am certainly no expert! Very simplistically (according to my understanding), the key point is similar to Kant’s ‘moral imperative’: behave towards others as you would wish them to behave to yourself. You try not to hurt others, either physically or emotionally, just as you would not want others to hurt you. You allow others to believe what they like as long as, by doing so, it does not cause you any harm.
NDM: Do you believe that some Neo-advaita teachings are violating Hindu dharma by misleading others about the nature of reality and truth?
Dennis Waite: As I said, I know very little about Hindu dharma but I think that is a red herring here, anyway. In the context of spiritual seeking, the function of a teacher is to help the disciple to realize the truth. The seeker usually has a lifetime of misconceptions and erroneous convictions about this and the process of resolving these is necessarily a gradual one, requiring skill and patience on the part of the teacher. It is ludicrous to expect that one or two satsang attendances, probably with different teachers who know nothing about the seeker’s personal level of understanding, can bring about enlightenment. A qualified teacher will know this and acknowledge that any implication to the contrary is both misleading and effectively immoral.
Having said this, most Neo-advaitins deny that they are teaching anyway so one might argue that they avoid this contradiction and escape any possible charge of deception or dishonesty. But then they do advertize their satsangs and residential courses and they do charge seekers to attend them. So, at the very least, it is a somewhat ambiguous situation.
... Read Part 2 of this interview ...
Interview conducted via Email July 2010