Neo Advaita or Pseudo Advaita and Real Advaita - Nonduality by Timothy Conway

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Neo-Advaita or Pseudo-Advaita and Real Advaita - Nonduality
by Timothy Conway

For the guru profile of Timothy Conway see

In the Zen tradition there is a saying, "Nothing matters... and everything matters." It is in this context that we say there's a lot at stake in who gets to define Advaita or Nondual Spirituality. Is it going to be the "neo-Advaita" throng of "enlightened" or even "fully enlightened" teachers (as they usually style themselves) who go around the USA, Europe, India and elsewhere, presuming to teach (usually for a price) the "highest level" of nondual spiritual truth? Or is it going to be the real Advaita sages like Shrî Ramana Mahârshi, Shrî Nisargadatta Mahârâj, Shrî Râmakrishna, Amma Amritânandamayî, Swâmî Gñânânanda, Nârâyana Guru, and much earlier luminaries like Shankara, Jñâneshvar, Nâgârjuna, and other avatârs, adepts, sages and saints--who never charged any fees or "suggested donations" and who generously, virtuously, compassionately and heroically lived and exemplified the Advaita or Advaya, not just talked about it.

The pre-eminent Mahâyâna Buddhist sage Nâgârjuna (2nd century CE) and Hindu Advaita Vedânta sage Shankara (c.700 CE), both of them staunch advocates of nonduality (advaya or advaita) made clear, on the basis of old teachings from the Buddha (c.586-486 BCE) and the oldest Upanishad texts (800-400 BCE), respectively, that there are "two truths" (dvayasatya) or two possible levels of discourse:

1) the conventional, relative level of ordinary experience (samvriti-satya or vyâvahârika-satya), and

2) the ultimate, absolute level of discourse about nondual spiritual Truth (pâramârthika-satya).

The conventional truth-level acknowledges a world of personal beings ("you," "me," "him," "her," "they," "we"), things and processes, right and wrong (appropriate and inappropriate), justice and injustice, clarity and delusion, freedom and clinging, authentic spiritual realization and inauthentic (not yet complete) realization.

The absolute truth-level knows that only infinite, eternal, formless, spaceless, timeless, birthless, deathless Awareness is really "Real," in the sense of being unchanging, abiding, permanent, and truly solid (partless, seamless), whole, and Holy.

(And notice that i have posited several paragraphs ago an intermediate level between these conventional and absolute levels, namely, namely, the reality-level recognized in knowing "everything is perfect," whatever happens is Divine Will, all souls are coming Home to fully awaken as the Absolute Self in complete liberation.)

A misunderstanding of the subtle nuances connected with these two (or three) truths can lead to the following problems and syndromes for those teachers and students of what has been called the “neo-Advaita” or “pseudo-Advaita” movement of our own era.

Neo-advaita, which attempts to articulate nondual spirituality, and often does a very good job of presenting some of the traditional advaita teachings (though usually, it seems, quite ignorant of the specific ancient sources for these teachings), can be fairly summed up by its main teaching: "Call off the search, You are already the Self, no need to seek for It, and no need to make any efforts or engage in any practices."

Now, traditional Advaita—as articulated by authentic sages from Yajñavalkya to Shankara to Ramana Mahârshi in Hindu Vedânta—along with real nondual spirituality in all our genuine "pure mysticism" traditions, also would have one abandon any neurotic, selfish seeking for a desirable goal-state for "me."

But the obvious limitation of neo-advaita is that it tends to completely ignore the "ego-free holy aspiration" for real Divine expression that ensues for the true sages and saints once selfish seeking drops off in initial levels of awakening. Neo-advaita also completely ignores the "pre-requisite virtues" that Shankara and all true masters have insisted upon for one to even be considered mature or "ripe" enough to hear the Absolute teaching. Thus, while traditional Advaita Vedanta speaks of the ultimate efficacy of Jnana (Wisdom-Knowledge) alone, that is to say, Knowledge is the sole "way" or "means" for waking up, what so often gets ignored by neo-advaita is the great emphasis on what Sankara called the "four pre-requisites" for authentic Knowledge: namely, vairâgya (unattachment, dispassion), viveka (discernment of the abiding real from the fleeting unreal), mumukshatva (supreme earnestness or yearning for authentic liberation), and the shatkasampatti "six attainments," entailing shama-concentration, dama-control of the sense organs, uparama-contentment through dharma (virtue), titiksha-equanimity/forbearance, and shraddhâ-supreme faith in the Self. The cultivation of all four pre-requisites or "attainments" (as the last category is explicitly named) is a sina qua non for Shankara, and he is often to be heard urging this cultivation of such virtues in his scriptural commentaries and independent treatises.

So to speak of "Knowledge alone" (the Knowledge that there is only the Self, Absolute Awareness) is the ultimate, purist/purest way of putting the matter of liberation, but realistically, pragmatically, there's much more to talk about in this Self-Realization zero-distance "journey" from here to HERE. We could metaphorically say that Atma-bodha or Atma-jñâna Self-Realization/Knowledge is the very "last step" back into release and clarification of our own True Nature as spaceless, timeless, birthless, deathless, formless, shapeless Awareness. Yet there's a lot of "dis-identification" or "extrication" or "liberation" from momentary ego-involvements, selfish identifications and karmic entanglements that has to happen for one to become "ripe" so that the Jñâna is irreversible and the samskâra binding likes and dislikes utterly lose their distracting and enticing power. That's why eminent sages like Nisargadatta frequently spoke of "getting out of" or "receding back from" egoic tendencies.

Nisargadatta, his Guru Siddharâmeshvar Mahârâj, Ramana Mahârshi, Sankara, Jñâneshvar, Vasishtha, Ashtâvakra, Yajñavalkya, Nâgârjuna and other true sages are all quite clear about this. But nowadays, far too many people simply want to hear the "highest truth" that they are "always already the Self," therefore there is "nothing to be done, no efforts to be made," and that they are "ever-free" in/as the Self. Meanwhile, their selfish tendencies (samskâras, vâsanâs) rage on, fueling either a thick or insidiously subtle egoic self-sense that will only perpetuate the dream of the samsâra-rebirth cycle and experientially-binding karmas. All the aforementioned sages and texts will deny rebirth or individual self-hood on the Absolute level but affirm rebirth and limitation as being unfortunately quite true on the relatively real level of most everyone's empirical experiencing.

Therefore, liberation from the dream of "selfish me" and "my actions/reactions (karmas / samskâras)" is the real aim in this Divine dream-game of apparent bondage-liberation. Mere cognitive knowledge alone doesn' cut it.
To reiterate: just to merely have "the Understanding" (as some have made a fetish out of it) that "only the Self is Real," or that "Consciousness is all there is" and think that there is nothing more to spirituality than this conceptual understanding and a corresponding "blanked-out" zombification is simply not sufficient for authentic awakening from the selfish "me-dream."
In an analogy given by genuinely free sages like the awesome holy woman Mâtâ Amritânandamayî (the "hugging mother" Ammachi), we can say that it is certainly true on one level that the acorn is in some "potential" sense an oak tree, destined to grow into one if conditions are right. But the acorn is not yet fully functioning and serving as a full-grown oak tree. In the same way, all sentient beings truly have the Divine Atma-Self as their real Identity. But are they maturely functioning and fully serving as the Self? Are they really manifesting the Divine virtues of self-sacrificing compassion, generosity, empathy, goodness, kindness, and all-embracing love that we find in the true spiritual masters? Or are they still plagued by egotism in various subtle or not-so-subtle fashion, but rationalizing and justifying all such egocentricity as "God's will"? Recall Jesus' great criterion for genuine spirituality: "By their fruits ye shall know them."

Here follow some other less-than-wholesome aspects of neo- or pseudo-advaita:

1) Many neo-advaita teachers, not fully balanced or compassionate in their living and teaching, exploit the two-level nature of discourse by repeatedly, chronically one-upping their dialogue-partner, their interlocutor. For instance, they respond to questioners' legitimate queries and concerns with: Who is asking the question? or What are you before your thoughts and feelings arise? or What happens when all such concerns entirely stop? Such questions subrate or undermine the finite, personal sense of self and intuitively point to the Infinite, Transpersonal Vastness of our abiding, eternal Reality. Now granted, going to the ultimate, absolute level of discourse is an ancient way for the Guru to undermine false thinking and ego-identification by a disciple. When used in certain circumstances, at the right time, it can have a beautifully liberating effect. The problem is that many so-called spiritual teachers in the neo-advaita movement evidently feel a contrarian compulsion (it is definitely characteristic of the “mis-matcher” personality style or temperament) to repeatedly prove their superiority over any and all dialogue partners by using this technique in chronic oneupsmanship manner to stay “on top” in any relationship by posturing as the Guru of Infinite Awareness mentoring the lowly disciple, still identified with the finite self. This is just egocentric attachment to power over others in a posture of “being right”—it is not compassionate, skillful means (upâya) to help sentient beings fully awaken. A true sage, one who is authentically free, feels entirely at ease to communicate on either the absolute or conventional truth-level, at any time in any situation. A true sage acknowledges the partner/interlocutor (a disguise of the God-Self) as both Infinite Awareness and wonderfully, poignantly human. And the usual human being will naturally have some legitimate concerns and questions from time to time, deserving care-full consideration, not just the "oneupping" strategem.

2) Similarly, the pseudo-advaitin labors under and suffers a chronic compulsion to always absolutize everything onto the “ultimate” or “final” truth-level of discourse (paramârtha-satya). There’s no appreciation for the Divine manifestation—the Form of the Formless, i.e., the multiple worlds and beings emanated by the God-Self for the sake of Divine lîlâ or relationship-play. All relationship is negated, dismissed or de-valued in a manner that verges on or falls completely into de-personalization, a syndrome marked by strong, pathological dissociation and detachment, apathy and loss of empathy. Basic humaneness, warmth and tender loving care vanish in a preference for a cool, robotic demeanor.

3) Often needing to go perfectly still and stare and smile (or not smile!) in human interactions with a partner and in other ways go "numb & dumb" (insensitive and silent) in one's relationships with fellow beings, especially fellow human beings. This is the "playing possum" approach to relationships. There's nothing wrong with and actually something very beautiful with being able to silently "gaze at the Beloved" in the form of a dear fellow human being, with a tremendous sense of gratitude and veneration for the Manifest Divine Self. But when one feels the chronic need to go cool or cold on someone and suppress or ignore our warm expression as human beings on the relative plane of existence, this comes close to or falls right into the de-personalization disorder, not honoring the richly meaningful Divine manifestation as the beautifully unique and wonderful person. Yes, it is true (on the absolute level) that any and all personalities and worlds are deconstructively realized in penetrating spiritual wisdom to be “just a dream,” but the final wisdom/love/devotion realizes, “Wow! What a dream the Divine Self dreams!” In this consummating realization, well-known to the Ch’an/Zen tradition in the daily-chanted Heart Sûtra, it is clearly seen that “Emptiness is form, form is emptiness, emptiness is not different from form, form is not different from emptiness,” and so on with each of the other aggregates (skandhas) of personality (i.e., not just form/energy, but sensations, perceptions, emotions and volitional impulses, and the cognizing sense of personal consciousness). In other words, the personality-aggregates need not always, chronically be deconstructed via literal stillness-frozenness and "blanking out." No, the personality can be appreciated as a wondrous, miraculously-manifest Appearance of the Void. As Zen might say: Guest (Phenomenon) meets and is welcomed and suffused by Host (Noumenon, Awareness). Ultimately, Host and Guest are nondually the same Formless-Formfull Reality.

4) The aloof pseudo-advaitin condemns any forms of engaged spirituality (politically aware-active spirituality) as “mâyâ” (illusion) or “buying into samsâra” (the cycle of cause-effect, death-rebirth). For the pseudo-advaitin, matters of justice and injustice (e.g., economic justice, environmental justice, gender justice, racial justice, political justice, etc.) have no meaning and are simply absurd, not worth bothering about. Of course, this makes a mockery of everything the Buddha and other sages taught about morality, virtue, ethics, and a just society. Engaged spirituality heroes and heroines like Mahâtma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, et al., according to this stunted view of spirituality, were just wasting their time. A woman is being raped or a child is being physically abused on the street? No problem for the pseudo-advaitin. “It’s all just a dream. Nothing’s really happening. Whatever happens is God’s will, the insubstantial play of the One.” (This is staying stuck at "levels two and/or one" in my earlier-mentioned model of "the three simultaneously true levels of Nondual Reality.)

5) A pseudo-advaitin's own misbehavior can be quickly rationalized away in the same glib manner as merely "a dream," "God's will," "Mâyâ". On this point, the towering sage of nonduality, Sri Ramana Mahârshi (1879-1950), has strongly critiqued this confused mixing of levels and "misplaced advaita" by saying that advaita should NOT be applied to action, in the sense of non-discrimination between proper and improper behavior. The great Advaita master Siddharâmeshvar Mahârâj (1888-1936) and his famous disciple, the sage Nisargadatta Mahârâj (1896-1981), always taught that one must realize the Self "and behave accordingly," staying clear of desires, selfish behavior and anything else that binds one to the dreamlike samsâra-cycle of egoic rebirths according to the law of karma. Yet one Western neo-advaitin has written, in the type of remark echoed repeatedly by other neo-advaitins: “Once awakening happens, it is seen that there is no such thing as right or wrong.... All concepts of good or bad, karma or debt of any kind are products of an unawakened mind that is locked into time and the maintenance and reinforcement of a sense of father, mother and self.” (Tony Parsons, Open Secret, p. 40) To this we can only reply: Oh really? Then the Buddha, Nâgârjuna, Shankara, Ramana Mahârshi, Siddharâmeshvar Mahârâj, Nisargadatta Mahârâj and many, many other great advaitins were all by this neo-advaitin definition quite unenlightened, because all of them taught that, on the conventional level, we must still be able to distinguish between wholesome and unwholesome actions, and be well aware of karmic consequences. The Buddha, for one, often defined the disbelief in karmic consequences as that dangerous heresy of nihilism (uccheda-ditthi). Much of what is taught by neo-advaita (and postmodernist versions of Buddhism, for that matter) is clearly a form of the nihilist heresy, as defined by the Buddha. Ramana Mahârshi said, "It is true that we are not bound and that the real Self has no bondage. It is true that you will eventually go back to your Source. But meanwhile, if you commit sins, as you call them, you will have to face the consequences of such sins.... Whatever is done lovingly, with righteous purity and with peace of mind, is a good action. Everything which is done with the stain of desire and with agitation filling the mind is classified as a bad action.... Therefore even the means of doing actions should be pure.... What is the use of merely saying with your lips, 'I am free'?" Shankara wrote some 1300 years ago, in his famous commentary on the Bhagavad Gîtâ (xiii.2): "We see that an ignorant man regards the physical body, etc., as the Self, and is impelled by attachment and aversion and the like, performs righteous and unrighteous deeds, and is repeatedly born and dies, while those are truly liberated who, knowing the Self to be distinct from the body etc., give up attachment and aversion, and no longer engage in righteous or unrighteous deeds to which those passions may lead." So a perfectly released, unidentified sage, no longer caught up in the "me"-dream, is certainly free from all karma and rebirth (that is, if he or she stays impeccably clear and lucid, and does not fall for karmic involvement with any objects), but he/she will still teach others on the conventional level about right and wrong, karmic consequences and rebirth, as well as sharing the "secret teaching" about our Real Nature as beyond all action, birth and death.

6) One of the most characteristic marks of pseudo-advaita is the premature demanding that people “call off the search” when they’ve not yet authentically intuited their true Identity as the vast, open, empty, formless, boundless, changeless, birthless, deathless Âtma-Self, but instead are still stuck in confusion or mere concepts about the Self and yes, are still riddled with samskâra-reactions of attachment and aversion, the karmic ties of binding likes and dislikes. And yet this is fallaciously termed “Enlightenment” or “Freedom.” Not by any stretch of the imagination! Real advaita is about being awake and lucidly dreaming the dream of manifest life with great unattachment, virtue, compassion and generosity, it is not about having the mere "Understanding" that "life is but an empty dream" and yet continuing to act with ego-driven greed, lust, anger, fear, competitiveness, jealousy, violence, insensitivity and/or apathy. Siddharâmeshvar Mahârâj often spoke of the "Auspicious Aspiration" and Nisargadatta Mahârâj frequently emphasized the "great earnestness" needed to recover real spiritual freedom and virtue, not just have a glib cognitive "understanding" of Truth. As Siddharâmeshvar puts it: "It is not enough to have a merely intellectual understanding of the concepts of the Self, humility, etc. Putting this teaching into practice is what really matters.... Never let the Knowledge be contaminated with impurities.... Those who are not true devotees [of the Self] do not attain the ‘Bliss of the Self.’ They... drink of the world, and not of the Self.... One should carefully consider as to how far he has succeeded in giving up pride and curbing body awareness.... One should give up being obsessed with the body. Only then does one discover one’s true Self.... One should investigate and find out how much body consciousness and how much consciousness of the Self one possess, and in what proportion.... Loyalty towards the ‘Ultimate Truth’ leads to Self-realization, whereas loyalty to desires leads only to the generation of more desires. The Self is present everywhere, even present even in desires, but desires have blinded the Self into believing that ‘I am male, female, etc.’ The Master weans his disciples from desires and reveals their ‘True Nature’ to them. To get rid of the inclination towards desires, it is necessary not only to say that the desires are untrue, but also to bring this understanding directly into practice." (Amrut Laya, vol. 2, pp. 61, 128, 79, 43, 60, 40).

In short, it is not enough merely to be "enlightened" about the cognitive Truth that "there is only the Self." One must be thoroughly liberated into/as this Truth on the affective and motivational-behavioral levels, i.e., fully established in real freedom from binding samskâra/vâsanâs. Put even more simply: one must "walk the talk."

7) Neo- or Pseudo-Advaita condemns or denigrates any form of devotional spirituality as more “mâyâ” or “dualism.” This, despite the fact that the most towering figures of Advaita nonduality in India, from Shankara to Jñâneshvar to Utpaladeva to Râmakrishna, Ramana Mahârshi, Swâmî Gñânânanda, Pâpâ Râmdâs, Siddharâmeshvar, Nisargadatta, Ammachi (Mâtâ Amritânandamayî) and others, all featured a strongly devotional side--albeit a nondual devotion (abheda bhakti, "devotion without difference," or parabhakti, "transcendent devotion"). In truly mature and full Self-realization, a spontaneous love flows nondually in/by/from the transcendent Self for the Self immanent within all persons, human, celestial and divine. Thus there can blossom the ancient nondual play of love for the Beloved, who is both Subject-ively and Object-ively alive as Transpersonal and Personal One. I'm speaking here of this delightful sense of wondrous awe that an appearance of worlds and beings is happening at all, through the almighty power of this Self or Awareness. A blissful zest and "nondual heartfelt gratitude" spontaneously express over the fact that the One is somehow Many, and the Many are really this One, i.e., that Emptiness is Form, and Form is Emptiness. “All this is indeed Brahman” (Sarvam Khalvidam Brahma) (Chândogya Upanishad, iii.14.1)

8) Another serious flaw in neo- or pseudo-advaita is a strong aversion to or apathy about genuine spiritual education or intuitive-intellectual development, an attitude shared with many New Agers, right-wing Christians, and others in our tragically dumbed-down modern society so rife with spiritual, political, and environmental ignorance, often quite willful ignorance. Yet the great nondual wisdom traditions of India, China, Japan and Tibet (as well as western mystical traditions) all put a strong emphasis on study of wisdom texts as an essential part of the spiritual curriculum. Consider how the eminent modern-era jñâni-sage Ramana Mahârshi, so famous for his wisdom-inducing silence and whose own powerful spiritual opening occurred without any significant intellectual preparation (he had read a book about the great Shaiva saints before his awakening in 1896), in the ensuing years actually spent much time listening to and promoting the reading of sacred texts, especially the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gîtâ, Yoga Vâsishtha, Tripura Rahasya, Bhâgavatam Purâna, Ashtâvakra Gîtâ, Ribhu Gîtâ, Avadhûta Gîtâ, the works of Shankara and stories of saints. Ch'an-Zen-Son Buddhist masters of the Far East likewise spent much time poring over classic texts of their own tradition, as well as the earlier Chinese and Indian classics. The Tibetan Vajrayâna masters are well known for their devotion to textual study. All this study promotes a balanced understanding of the various subtly nuanced teachings about authentic spiritual realization, the avoidance of common pitfalls, working through more insidious forms of delusion and attachment, and so forth. Such study is, of course, the prime ingredient in the classic "triple method" of de-hypnosis utilized in both the Hindu Advaita Vedânta tradition and Nâgârjuna's and Mahâyâna Buddhism wisdom path: repeatedly, diligently hearing the scriptural teaching about our real Identity/Nature as the birthless, deathless, spaceless, timeless Awareness or Self-Nature, pondering It ever more deeply through intensely penetrating reflection and rumination, and meditating upon this Truth (or having the Truth "meditate" you). (These are respectively, in Vedânta, shravana, manana, and nididhyâsana; and for Nâgârjuna: shruti, cintâ, and bhâvanâ.) Alas, modern pseudo-advaita advocates no such study of the classic works of the Great Tradition, and is mute on the subtle dynamics of the classic "triple method" of hearing/pondering/meditating. Instead, one is seduced and trapped by neo-advaita in a "false choice" of either-or logic: "You are coming either from your head [bad!] or your heart [good!]." Yet a mature, balanced sage is not at all lopsided. A true sage knows s/he is neither the head nor the heart energy, but THIS Absolute Awareness prior to and beyond both; and yet the sage utilizes the clarity of a well-developed mind-instrument and the warm loving-kindness and compassion of a fully-feeling heart to help all sentient beings (paradoxically, none other than the One Self!) consciously come Home to the Self-effulgent Light and omni-healing Love.

9) Along this line, much of neo-advaita presents itself as an attack on the mind, an attempt to stop the mind in its tracks and destroy it forever. Nothing wrong with the "no mind" or "mindlessness" state from time to time, especially when a person is addicted to mental contents in lieu of a pure, open intuition of their Real Identity as THIS bodiless, mind-free Awareness always prior to the mind. It's also well-known to Buddhist "mindfulness" meditators that one can very easily "drop" below the mind and its concepts-perceptions-reactions by simply paying exquisite attention to sensations and energies (the first two khandhas of the five-levels of personality). But the notion that a sage no longer has any kind of mind at all and just spends the rest of his or her days in some kind of a tranced-out zombie state is ridiculous. Ramana Mahârshi, we have already noted, made great and beautiful use of the mind, utilizing it as an instrument for editing and translating texts, monitoring correspondence, resolving the doubts and clarifying the confusions of his interlocutors, inquiring into their well-being, managing the kitchen work, and so forth. There were clearly paranormally gifted ways in which his ego-free mind worked, too. But a really interesting Zen-like kôan-riddle for neo-advaitins is this: Ramana Mahârshi was observed on almost a daily basis to carefully read the newspaper. If there was "no world" and "no need for the mind" for anything, what was this daily newspaper-browsing all about? The old-timers i've talked to insist that Ramana was not just "looking at the pictures," nor using the newspaper as some kind of a "cloak" or "cover" merely to go into interdimensional states or avoid any visitors assembled in the old hall. He was genuinely interested in the well-being of people, animals, and society. The newspaper (along with the radio, to which he oftened listened) was a conventional way for him to access information about sentient beings at other places, just as the Mahârshi obviously seemed to have paranormal ways of accessing information about them, too.
Let us here further consider how too many neo-advaitins in their anti-intellectual bent put down all book-reading as a waste of time being stuck at the mere "mental" level. (Would they like to return us to the medieval and/or totalitarian days of massive public book-burnings?) And yet, in a quite unintended but hilarious stroke of irony, we are encouraged by many of these same neo-advaitins or by their disciples and PR persons to buy all the books (and CDs and DVDs) of their Great Teacher's teachings. We are to ignore classic gems of spiritual instruction like Shankara's Upadesha Sâhasrî and Jñâneshvar's Amritânubhava, and the Yoga Vasishtha, but by all means we should hasten to buy the dumbed-down, distorted pile of deconstructivism from the latest "fully enlightened" neo-advaitin.

10) So much of neo-advaita, as revealed by many quotes from its main proponents, can be seen as a stunted form of spiritual development in only emphasizing the deconstructive via negativa or "negating way." Ch’an/Zen Buddhism has long taught a truly complete model of unfolding spiritual realization that, in its more elaborate form, is depicted as the “Ten Oxherding Images,” but more simply and memorably schematized in threefold manner as follows: “First there are mountains and rivers. Then there are no mountains, no rivers. Then there are mountains and rivers.” The first of these three stages represents the average sentient being who treats the manifest world as solid, real, something to be reacted to from an equally solid, real, but narrow and alienated position of “me and my.” The second stage refers to the utter dropping or relaxing of all sense of self or world. Mystics with an aptitude for it can in this stage easily merge in formless trance states (nirvikalpa samâdhi, etc.), thereby literally blanking out any perceptible inner or outer world of phenomena. The third stage in this Zen model refers to the “intrinsic/natural oneness” of sahaja samâdhi wherein the sage lovingly honors and responsibly interacts with a world of beings, promoting their wellbeing and awakening from the selfish dream of “me.” Such action spontaneously flows, however, from a nondual intuition of nonseparation from the world and no distorting presumption of an alienated, addictive, or aversive “me”-self.

In its presentation of spiritual teaching, neo-advaita stumbles badly here, falling into the “dark cavern” of second-stage “no mountains, no rivers.” Indeed, it is actually an even stranger state of nihilism that neo-advaita falls into--i.e., denying the relative reality and meaningfulness of “persons”; denying any Divine purpose or plan to life; denying the validity of any and all phenomena, including moral distinctions between help and harm, virtuous morality and selfish sinfulness, ego-free behavior and egocentric behavior. In this way, neo-advaita nihilistically stays stuck in a strange “no man’s zone” which at best can only be considered an intermediate, deconstructive level of spiritual development. The only “purpose” for the “No-thingness” teachings of this intermediate level (as originally presented by the true advaita sages) is to clear out all false egoic-identifications with the bodymind and relax all worldly or otherworldly attachments-aversions. Once free and liberated from these identifications and attachments-aversions, it makes no enlightened sense to fixedly dwell in the vacuous limbo of “mere nothingness,” amorality and impersonality, like so many neo-advaitins do. (Many neo-advaitins appear like a team of "demolition wrecking crew" men who delight in exploding and collapsing all the old beautiful buildings in a neighborhood, and then triumphantly standing atop the pile of rubble.)

Truly enlightened spirituality is transcendence so fully transcendent as to be fully immanent within and involved with a manifest world of distinctions. The famous modern-era Zen master Shaku Daibi (Unkan), abbot of Kokutai-ji, declared, "Wisdom can be divided into two: the original wisdom, and the wisdom gained after satori [first major enlightenment]. Original wisdom is the Great Wisdom of Equality, and is inborn; but the wisdom gained after satori is the wonderful Wisdom of Differentiation." So authentic spirituality is to be fully disengaged and established as "No-thing," while paradoxically fully engaged with a world of differentiation. Yes, the world is "a dream," but the great spiritual adepts are compassionately engaged with it for the sake of liberating sentient beings who are, paradoxically, none but the One Self! We see this holy, helpful and healing involvement exemplified by the most acclaimed sages and saints. They know that, ultimately, there is no “absolute” reality to personality or morality, but on the conventional, relative level these holy ones (the One!) are themselves supremely moral persons (by Divine Grace) and they invite “other” “persons” to come into this same beautiful and benign “morality” or enlightened ethics. Such is the “Pure Land Paradise” realm/no-realm of “mountains and rivers” appearing as Divinely-dreamed appearance. And these mountains are flowing and rivers are solid! :-)

Let me close this section with a quote from the Avatâr Incarnation and nondual jñâni-bhakta Shrî Râmakrishna, "In the beginning, when a man reasons following the Vedanta method of 'Not this, not this' [neti, neti, i.e., 'I am not the body, not the mind, not the soul'], he realizes that Brahman [Reality or Spirit] is not the living beings, not the universe, not the twenty-four cosmic principles. All these things become like dreams to him. Then comes the affirmation of what has been denied, and he feels that God Himself has become the universe and all living beings…. After realizing God, one sees that it is He Himself who has become the universe and the living beings. But one cannot realize this by mere reasoning." (Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, p. 345)

Srî Nisargadatta Mahârâj simply put it this way: "When you see the world, you see God." (I Am That, Vol. 1, 1979 ed., p. 71)

May all beings (the One Being in disguise) be awake to real Freedom, Bliss, Peace, Clarity and Love.

Copyright © 2000/2006 by Timothy Conway.

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RandomStu's picture

Superior Nonduality

Conway wrote...
> there's a lot at stake in who gets to define Advaita
> or Nondual Spirituality.

Why?? Each of us perceives Truth directly in our own experience. This Truth isn't dependent on words and ideas. Our experience isn't affected in the slightest by how other people play with definitions of words like "Advaita" or "Nondual."

It's just speculation... but I'm guessing that Conway, the author of this piece, put lots of effort into following his understanding of Nonduality, that was based on teaching from someone like Ramana Maharishi. After all that effort, he felt that he'd achieved a Higher State or Superior Understanding, compared to the masses of common folk.

Then he hears someone else say that everything is already Truth, that all his ideas of being Higher and Superior etc are mind-created. That's a threat to his belief in his great status/attainment. Therefore, he writes this piece, claiming, "No, no, no! MY Nonduality is better than YOUR Nonduality!"

If we take just a moment to consider the simple plain English meaning of non-duality... we can hope that somehow Conway comes to at least appreciate the IRONY of his claim that his non-duality is better than someone else's.


RandomStu | Thu, 10/22/2009 - 18:09
abra's picture

You misunderstood completely what Conway tries to convey

You misunderstood completely what Conway tries to convey. I suspect that you didn't read the whole article at all. I suggest you to do so with attention and carefulness. In a nutshell, pure Advaita itself is simple and thus beyond any games of words and definitions, it was not born out of nothing but out of scriptures such as of Shankara.

The problem emerged when hasty people, especially in the west, started to try to redefine it and reinterpret it in a way that does not understand the core essence of Advaita. A typical ignorant move of Westerners encountering ancient doctrines like Yoga, Advaita, Buddhism.

As for example: These Neo Advaitans confuse between relative reality and absolute reality.

Conway doesn't speak about higher and lower Advaita. He speaks about pure Advaita as well documented for eaons and explained by sages such as Maharaj, Maharashi and others and neo derivatives of the pure Advaita which are based on ignorance and misunderstanding of Advaita and therefore arrive at ridiculous conclusions which are in contradiction to basic ideas of Advaita and cause so much harm to disciples and students.

Conway in his profound essay warns in a reasoned way against the phenomenon of the ease in which so many unqualified wanna-be spiritual teachers in the West (and also in the east) make their own convenient interpretation of Advaita and just run to grab attention and money not caring at all about the poor naive listeners who will get confused and deceived.

PS. what you perceive subjectively is not the truth but your own belief/assumption of the truth, the difference is huge and it is completely irrelevant to the article and this subject.

abra | Sat, 04/24/2010 - 16:52
RandomStu's picture

Re: You misunderstood completely...

> In a nutshell, pure Advaita itself is simple and thus
> beyond any games of words and definitions

When you open your mouth to say "pure Advaita," you're playing games of words. How can you fail to see that "pure Advaita" is words??

> it was not born out of nothing but out of scriptures
> such as of Shankara.

It's one thing to look at some dusty old book for Truth. It's quite different to attend to direct perception and experience.

> These Neo Advaitans confuse between relative reality
> and absolute reality.

With your thinking, you're creating a duality: this is relative reality, and that's absolute reality. Why do you do that? And if you do create this distinction of relative/absolute... how could you be so deceptive as to call it NON-duality??


RandomStu | Sat, 04/24/2010 - 18:05
lilian's picture

Another excellent resource on that issue of Neo/Pseudo Advaita

I would also strongly recommend the following interview with Dennis Waite in the Non-Duality magazine who pinpoints in a distilled way the difference between Neo Advaita and Advaita and explains the former's problems -

lilian | Sat, 11/24/2012 - 18:00