Monday, January 28, 2008

Traps of the Neo-Advaita

How easily can the Indian philosophy of Advaita Vedanta be separated from the spiritual culture within which it was developed? Is it possible to take the Indian philosophical idea of ‘advaita’, translate it as ‘non-dualism’, and then promote it as a ‘cognitive skill’ which is freely, and instantly, available to anyone who is able to ‘get it’?

The original exemplars of Advaita (and Advaya, its Buddhist equivalent) were, on the whole, monastic renunciates, or sannyasin, living in a pre-modern culture. They were generally practitioners of Indian spiritual disciplines which by modern standards were extremely austere. Being renunciates, sannyasins would generally give away all of their possessions, shave their heads, and live only on what was provided by the community. Some would live on the outskirts of villages, or in seclusion in caves and forests; others, in religious communities and ashrams. In either case, their behaviour was governed by strict observance of the Yamas and Niyamas, ethical laws and maxims which require abstinence from sexual relations, intoxicants, and also non-stealing, non-harming, and so on.

It was in this cultural milieu that the philosophical teachings and meditational practices of both Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta were developed. And, as their adherents point out, they have been handed down both orally and by way of sacred texts for more than two millennia in India, China and much of the rest of Asia.

Fast forward to the 21st Century. Eastern Philosophy has become a big business. Books, retreat centres, the ‘spiritual speakers circuit’, workshops and seminars and the like have become an industry in their own right. Within this context, there is a lot of demand for enlightenment ‘to go’, something which you can download and webcast and imbibe and benefit from without the burdensome requirements of austerity and yamas and niyamas. In other words, keep the fun bit - enlightenment, conceived as Permanent Happiness - while jettisoning all the archaic, ‘superstitious’, ‘tradition-bound’ attitudes to sexuality and morality and discipline. Nirvana, pursued in the foyers of hotels and office blocks and exhibition centres, in lifestyle talk shows and suburban yoga classes.

Within this milieu, non-dualism has become an important franchise. Go to Amazon and type in non-dualism - you will get almost a thousand books. And many of them say more or less the same thing. I won’t repeat it here, but it was nearly all anticipated by Alan Watts in the 1950’s and 60’s. (And it is sad to note, but perhaps prophetic as well, that Watts was not a shining exemplar of non-dualism in practice, despite his brilliant writing and insight. Drink was a major contributor to his early death - may he rest in peace. )

Far be it from me to disparage the core tenets of non dualism, or the brilliance of Alan Watts. I am a Believer (or rather, an aspiring practitioner, as it really is a skill rather than a dogma). What is bothering me, however, is this idea that you can cut straight to the Chase, without engaging in the Quest.

Everyone who wants to learn this teaching needs to engage in the Quest. And what is the Quest? 'A Quest' is asking a Question, but asking it with your whole life, with your whole being. Living the question, not just idly riffing through a book or two and saying ‘I wonder’... The Quest is the search for truth, and betting your life on the outcome. For if you are interested, you really do need to search. This is what the Sannyasi leaves hearth and home for. Believe me, they put up with a lot of suffering for which you would pay considerably more than the price of a book or a seminar to avoid.

Now at a certain point, it may become clear that you need search no longer. As it has been said, ‘seek and you will find’, as well you might. But you must seek. I think the idea that you can pick up one of these neo-Advaita books from Amazon, read it, and be forever liberated is quixotic at best. I mean, How is your life? Do you like to smoke the odd joint? Do you like a drink? Have relationship problems? Is your subconscious utterly purified of emotional reactions stemming from your past life (= ‘vasanas’)? Has this book you’re reading caused you to ask these questions of yourself?


These points are also discussed in this essay.

I am no 'holier than thou'. I too wrestle with these things. It is all I can do to maintain a very basic discipline and commit to a regular meditation. (And the ‘dry work of meditation’ is always easily criticized. 'Routine', 'mechanical', and so on. But it seems all I am capable of.)

I would be interested to know, of the buyers of these non-dualist titles on Amazon, how many are actually able to follow through with the radical implications of this non-dualist teaching. Hopefully, many will find their lives transformed by it. I hope so. The purpose of these teachings are to transform your life and if you do indeed 'get it', then that outcome is inevitable. On the other hand, this too can just become a thicket of delusion within which anyone can guess that they are 'already enlightened' and nothing further is required. I suppose from the viewpoint of book sales, it doesn't matter much. But if you care about the outcome, it matters a great deal.

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