Neo-Advaita or Pseudo-Advaita and Real Advaita-Nonduality
—traps and pitfalls in the “Neo-Advaita” or “Pseudo-Advaita” form of Advaita (Nondual) spirituality—what might also be called “Problematic Advaita”
—discussions of Indian sage Papaji (HWL Poonja), and various figures such as Karl Renz, Andrew Cohen, Gangaji, and others
—a discussion of money-charging and Advaita spirituality
—a conversation on Advaita instruction in the West
Copyright © 2000/2006 by Timothy Conway.
Last revision/additions: March 1, 2008.
[Dear Reader: internet traffic statistics indicate this is one of the most heavily viewed pages at our Enlightened Spirituality website, no doubt because other websites have strong recommendations to visit here. It is one of several very "critical" pages at this Enlightened Spirituality website. I invite anyone visiting to read also the many, many other essays (more than 100 essays and a few book-length manuscripts) at this website—much more positive in tone— pertaining to authentic spirituality. You might wish to read the basic essay, "Our Real Nature" as well as the much longer "Questions & Answers on Nondual Spiritual Awakening" and many other essays to be found at the Nondual Spirituality section of this website. You can also read the useful essay on "Nondual Relationships" at the Relational Spirituality section; the "Criteria for Authentic Spiritual Realization" page at the Healthy Spirituality section, and profiles of illustrious sages and saints like the Buddha, Milarepa, Bankei, Jñāneshvar, Ramana Mahārshi, Nisargadatta Mahārāj, Lao-tzu & Chuang-tzu, Jesus, Bāyazīd Bistāmī, Hakīm Sanā'ī, Jalāluddīn Rumī, Meister Eckhart, the Ba'al Shem Tov, and so many other luminaries at the Nondual Spirituality section and, especially, the Religion & Spirituality and Women of Spirit sections. (The 1,200-page equivalent Women of Spirit book was uploaded in Oct-Nov 2017.)]
--Love to all beings, who are transparent for the One Divine Reality.
+ + + + + + +
Prefatory Remark on the Crucial Need for Critical Thinking
Some spiritual teachers and their disciples have become boxed into a viewpoint which constrains them to only see whatever happens as "good" or "perfect" or even as "nothing really happening," and have abandoned all capacity for evaluating phenomena and distinguishing what we can identify as the
3 levels of nondual Reality:
--level 3: the conventional level of the "appropriate & inappropriate," "helpful and harmful," "right and wrong," "justice & injustice," "up and down," "female and male," etc.;
--level 2: the "psychic heavenly truth" that whatever happens for all immortal souls is "perfect," the "exquisite manifestation of Divine Will," the "flawless play of Awareness" bringing these souls Home to God-Realization; and
--level 1: Absolute Reality, wherein it is realized that whatever happens is a dream, so nothing is really happening, there are no distinct worlds, no distinct beings, no multiplicity, only GOD, only Divine Awareness.
It is a grand paradox that nondual Reality should have these different truth-levels, but such is borne out by nondually-oriented texts and teachings from sages across cultures about the nature of Reality on the conventional level, the psychic soul level, and the Absolute "level" (which is, strictly speaking, not a "level" but the sole Reality, absolutely True, while the levels 2 and 3 are "relatively true," dependent on the Absolute Reality or Parabrahman).
The relevant point here is that if people don't simultaneously honor all three of these "levels" of Reality, especially the conventional level (level 3 in the above model), they will mistakenly think that being discerning or critical—i.e., critiquing any form of thinking or behavior—is "being negative" or "deluded" or "coming from the head, not the heart." (Actually, a true sage is free to utilize both head and heart as instruments of consciousness, sensitivity, and response-ability.)
Yet critical thinking is the ancient art, expressed on the conventional level of daily reality, of assessing or evaluating beliefs and consequent behavior for the sake of the individual and common good, that which fully serves us, not weakens or imbalances us. Critical thinking can 1) identify any faulty thinking, self-deception, blind spots, distortion, misinformation, propaganda, and prejudice on the cognitive level of our views, and 2) identify external attitudes and behaviors that don't serve our private and public welfare—the commonweal; i.e., attitudes and behaviors that don’t truly free us and empower us and/or fail to accord with an ethics and value-system promoting authentic liberation, justice and fairness.
An informative Wikipedia article on the topic says that critical thinking values “clarity, credibility, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, logic, significance and fairness.” No wonder that experts in the field of psychology and education believe that our society and our schools need far more emphasis, not less emphasis, on critical thinking skills, so that we can better function from facts and sound premises, not from delusions, lies, half-truths and biases. For instance, in the realm of politics, healthcare, corporations and mass media, and certainly in the field of religion and spirituality, much more critical thinking, not less, is needed for distinguishing fact from fiction, truth from untruth, the proper from the improper, good from evil.
Ancient India hosted a healthy tradition of critical thinking and debate—debating the merits and demerits of certain philosophical and/or metaphysical positions and behavioral lifestyles. The sages of the Upanishads, the Buddha, Nāgārjuna, Śaṅkara, and other famous spiritual luminaries all strongly display this healthy tendency of constructive criticism and debate. Likewise with our ancient Greek wisdom tradition in the West. The Wikipedia article on “critical thinking” explains how any Greek-English lexicon will clarify that the verb krino- means to choose, decide or judge, and to separate or winnow the wheat from the chaff, or that which has worth from that which does not. Hence a krites or critic is one who can usefully discern, judge or arbitrate.
Jesus is alleged to have said, “Judge not, lest you be judged,” but the Gospel accounts indicate that Jesus himself frequently judged and evaluated the good from the not-good. His “judge not” message was addressed to the hypocrites, it was not meant as a general instruction to never engage in serious critical thinking. And consider how Jesus confronted the money-men and animal murderers in the temple at Jerusalem—and then he threw them out of that place.
Again, therefore, we can say that those who are kritikos, critical, have the ability to discern truth from delusion and the appropriate from the inappropriate.
An overall point to remember about critical thinking and critiquing flawed views/behaviors is that we always strive to maintain empathy and humility and a spirit of “constructive criticism.” We can steer clear of destructive criticism, and all manner of arrogance, hypocrisy and malice as we endeavor to criticize untruth and assert a greater truth.
+ + + + + + +
+ + + + + + +
+ + + + + + +
Traps and Pitfalls in the “Neo-Advaita” or “Pseudo-Advaita” form of Advaita (Nondual) Spirituality
In the Chán/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 allegedly "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 supposed "highest level" of nondual spiritual truth? Or is it going to be the real Advaita sages like Ramana Mahārshi, Nisargadatta Mahārāj, Rāmakrishna, Ānandamayī Mā, Anasuya Devī, Swāmī Gñānānanda, Nārāyana Guru, and much earlier luminaries like Śaṅkara, Jñāneshvar, Nāgārjuna, and other avatārs, 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 Mahāyāna Buddhist sage Nāgārjuna (2nd century CE) and Hindu Advaita Vedānta sage Śaṅkara (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 (900-400 BCE), respectively, that there are "two truths" (dvaya-satya) or two possible levels of discourse:
1) the conventional, relative level of ordinary experience (samvriti-satya or vyāvahārika-satya), and
2) the ultimate, absolute level of discourse about nondual spiritual Truth (pāramārthika-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 Śaṅkara to Ramana Mahārshi in Hindu Vedānta—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 Śaṅkara 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 Vedānta speaks of the ultimate efficacy of Jñāna (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 Shankara called the "four pre-requisites" for authentic Knowledge: namely, vairāgya (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 shraddhā-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.
Therefore, 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 Ātma-bodha or Ātma-jñāna 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 Jñāna is irreversible and the samskāra binding likes and dislikes utterly lose their distracting and enticing power. That's why eminent sages like Nisargadatta (one of my mentors) frequently spoke of "getting out of" or "receding back from" egoic tendencies.
Nisargadatta, his Guru Siddharāmeshvar Mahārāj,
Ramana Mahārshi, Śaṅkara, Jñāneshvar, Vasishtha, Ashtāvakra, Yajñavalkya, Nāgārjuna 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," and so 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 (samskāras, vāsanās) rage on, fueling either a thick or insidiously subtle egoic self-sense that will only perpetuate the dream of the samsāra-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 / samskāras)" is the real aim in this Divine dream-game of apparent bondage-liberation. Mere cognitive knowledge alone doesn't cut it.
To reiterate: just to merely have "the Understanding" or the "Enlightened realization" (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 ancient Hindu tradition, 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, all personal consciousnesses truly have the Supra-personal Divine Ātma-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, Supra-personal 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 (upāya) 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 "one-upping" 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 (paramārtha-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 līlā 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 and a slavish adherence to speaking “Absolutish” and always having to sound “profound.”
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 Chan/Zen tradition in the daily-chanted Heart Sūtra, 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 “māyā” (illusion) or “buying into samsāra” (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 Mahātma 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 "level two" and/or "level 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," "Māyā". On this point, the towering sage of nonduality, Ramana Mahārshi (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 Siddharāmeshvar Mahārāj (1888-1936) and his famous disciple, the sage Nisargadatta Mahārāj (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 samsāra-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, Nāgārjuna, the Chan-Zen-Son masters, Śaṅkara, Ramana Mahārshi, Siddharāmeshvar Mahārāj, Nisargadatta Mahārāj 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 Mahārshi 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'?" Śaṅkara wrote some 1300 years ago, in his famous commentary on the Bhagavad Gītā (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 [self-servingly 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 Ātma-Self, but instead are still stuck in confusion or mere concepts about the Self and yes, are still riddled with samskāra-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. Siddharāmeshvar Mahārāj often spoke of the "Auspicious Aspiration" and Nisargadatta Mahārāj frequently emphasized the "great earnestness" needed to recover real spiritual freedom and virtue, not just have a glib cognitive "understanding" of Truth. As Siddharāmeshvar 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 possesses, 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 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 cognitively "enlightened" about the philosophical Truth that "there is only the Self." One must be thoroughly liberated into/as this Truth on the affective-emotional and motivational-behavioral levels, i.e., fully established in real freedom from binding samskāras/vāsanās, the problematic attachments and aversions. Put even more simply: one must "walk the walk, not just talk the talk."
7) Neo- or Pseudo-Advaita condemns or denigrates any form of devotional spirituality as more “māyā” or “dualism.” This, despite the fact that the most towering figures of Advaita nonduality in India, from Śaṅkara to Jñāneshvar to Utpaladeva to Rāmakrishna, Ramana Mahārshi, Swāmī Gñānānanda, Pāpā Rāmdās, Siddharāmeshvar, Nisargadatta 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 Supra-personal 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) (Chāndogya 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, Korea 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 jñāni-sage Ramana Mahārshi, 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 Gîtā, Yoga Vāsishtha, Tripura Rahasya, Bhāgavatam Purāna, Ashtāvakra Gītā, Ribhu Gītā, Avadhūta Gītā, the works of Śaṅkara and stories of saints. Chan, Zen and Seon 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 Vajrayāna 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 Vedānta tradition and Nāgārjuna's and Mahāyāna 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 Vedānta, shravana, manana, and nididhyāsana; and for Nāgārjuna: shruti, cintā, and bhāvanā.) Alas, modern pseudo-advaita ignores 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 or skandhas of the five levels of embodied personhood). But the notion that a sage no longer has any kind of functioning 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 Mahārshi, 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, preparing food and 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 kōan-riddle for neo-advaitins is this: Ramana Mahārshi 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 often listened) was a conventional way for him to access information about sentient beings at other places, just as the Mahārshi 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 publicity 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 Śaṅkara's Upadesha Sāhasrī and Jñāneshvar's Amritānubhava, and the Yoga Vāsishtha, 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." Chan/Zen Buddhism has long taught a truly complete model of unfolding spiritual realization that, in its more elaborate form, is presented in Kuo’an Shiyuan’s “Ten Oxherding Images and Verses,” but more simply and memorably schematized by the earlier Chan sage Chingyuan Xingsi (d.740) 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 samādhi, 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 samādhi 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 Avatār Incarnation and nondual jñāni-bhakta Rāmakrishna, "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)
My sagely teacher Nisargadatta Mahārāj simply put it this way: "When you see the world, you see God." (I Am That, Vol. 1, 1979 ed., dialogue 19, p. 71)
May all beings (the One Being in disguise) be awake to real Freedom, Bliss, Peace, Clarity and Love.
* * * * * * * * *
More on Pseudo-Advaita from Various Writers
Jessica Roemischer, for issue 22 of the magazine What Is Enlightenment? (now renamed EnlightenNext), weaves together an imaginary satsang with a group of neo-advaitins, adeptly patching together a revelatory compilation of what these neo-advaitins (Tony Parsons, Wayne Liquorman, Esther Veltheim, Gangaji, and Isaac Shapiro) have actually said about the empty purposelessness of life, the meaninglessness of the personality and morality, and so on. The URL for her article is
Very much worth reading and linked to that same webpage is editor Tom Huston's INTRODUCTION to Jessica's article (www.enlightennext.org/magazine/j34/stacey-intro.asp), wherein he talks, in part, about "the numinous narcotic [of neo-advaita] that nearly destroyed me," creating the distorted view of looking "upon everyone and everything as nothing but an illusory display of light and energy."
Tom Huston goes on to say:
"Nothing was real, nothing was important.... Even the global crises of the mid-nineties appeared empty to my eyes. Global warming? Ha. Species extinction? Please. The Rwandan and Balkan genocides? Atrocities, sure, but all part of the same illusion. In me, the overarching apathy of Generations X and Y had reached an all-new high. And why? Because the truth revealed by Neo-Advaita makes nihilism seem sublime. Through its warped lens, the entire universe appears, beyond all doubt, to be ultimately pointless and absurd.... A deep understanding of universal Oneness, or the seamless 'nonduality' of Being, seems to be exactly the kind of spiritual truth the world needs to help bridge the countless divides that continue to keep human beings separate and conflicted, within and without. In fact, that’s what spiritual enlightenment is all about, and it’s what saints and sages throughout history have willingly died to defend, convinced that the sacred truth of nonduality is more important than anything else. But Neo-Advaita [in stark contrast to traditional Advaita] serves up the glory of cosmic unity with a distinctly sour twist.... It places no explicit value on moral growth, spiritual purification, or character development....The perspective of nonduality can quickly turn disastrous and be easily abused. 'If all is One, then nothing is wrong,' said the notorious murderer Charles Manson. And while I didn’t actually kill anybody as I spread my love of Neo-Advaita far and wide, [in conversations, especially in cyberspace] I probably did as much damage as one can with words alone, subverting all beliefs, trouncing all opinions, actively denying all values, hopes, and dreams—and loving every second of it, as I savored my absolute power over all relativity. Like a spiritualized teenage Terminator, I couldn’t be reasoned with, I couldn’t be bargained with, and I would not stop until all unenlightened views of reality were dead. So what, if anything, turned me around? It started with me nearly failing to finish high school, after having spent my senior year in a Neo-Advaita daze.... Isolated from its Eastern religious and historical context and taught as a quick-fix, no-frills contemporary path to spiritual enlightenment, [Neo-Advaita's] tendency [is] to ignore traditional values like ethics and the cultivation of personal integrity. What’s more, it doesn’t give much credence to the values of the Western Enlightenment, either. Rationality, critical analysis, and common sense all take a back seat in its mind-transcending philosophy."
Critique of prominent Neo-Advaita teacher Karl Renz:
[Around 2005, a very wise, sincere and spiritually sensible young American, "J," with his wife attended a few gatherings around German neo-Advaita teacher Karl Renz, while the latter was, like many neo-advaitins, conducting a series of meetings near Ramanashramam in Tiruvannamalai, South India. Ramanashramam is the ashram that arose in the 1920s around famous sage Ramana Mahârshi, and thus this vicinity is the perfect place for neo-advaitins wanting to lure new recruits. "J" confronted Karl on the limited nature of his (Karl's) views and teaching style. Here below is the concerned and "care-full" message that J sent me about this encounter. (I subsequently spent several hours with "J" on a visit to his parents home and can vouch for his character.) Note that, in the following text sent by J, all boldfacing, italics and bracketed remarks  are by myself. --Timothy]
Dear One Timothy,
Regarding Karl Renz…
Before I begin, I would like to point out that I am not on some vengeance mission here… I don’t have it out for this man. I am sincerely concerned about the direction in which these precious teachings of the advaita non-dual traditions are being represented by immature teachers in the west, and what impact it may have on the generations of would-be aspirants in the future. Knowing what I know, I feel it is my responsibility to speak openly on these matters. I am focusing here on Karl because of his growing popularity, and the disquieting way in which I see him creating confusion around the teachings of authentic advaita vedanta, as represented by the great masters.
The fact of the matter is, I have associated with many of these neo-advaitin teachers, and am well aware of the now common trend to teach before being fully “ripe,” or having stabilized in a state of sahaja samadhi [the Natural Oneness of authentic, irreversible spiritual liberation]. I do not hold such expectations of every teacher out there who is willing to point the way, and help guide others. I am grateful for those, who with some understanding or illumination, give of their time and energy to serve as a spiritual guide. I have benefited immensely from such teachings, and they have served as a wonderful introduction, platform for further inquiry, and reminder to awaken from a state of slumber. Yet, for those who assume authority without having received it from a genuine source, or speak from a position of not having realized the ultimate understanding, I am most concerned for the possible abuse of power and distortion of truth.
Thus, having said that…
I have been going through a lot of material available on the web, which includes videos and transcripts of his dialogues, in the attempt to get a clearer idea of what it is about Karl Renz’s satsangs that trouble me. (I am being "affected"… oh, no! People will think I’m "unenlightened"! [NOTE from Timothy: in this remark, "J" is being humorously ironic].)
And Timothy, I deeply appreciate your article on the matter of common pitfalls of neo-advaitin teachers, as the ten point system you have presented, which has given me a very useful framework to organize my thoughts with. I agree with you that point #10 is most apparent in this case; that Karl is stuck in the deconstruction phase, fixated on “neti-neti” ['Not this, not this'], and abides in a nihilistic understanding of the absolute. Yet, as I read through your point system, numbers 1,2,4,5,6,and 9 are also very relevant to the flaws I see in Karl’s teaching[...]. I could go into more detail about each of these points in relation to Karl’s teaching, but I hope that what I have to report here will make it apparent enough.
What has become more clear to me in sifting through all this available documentation (and I must admit, I have not read his book… but then, such a pre-meditated offering would not be so representative of his teaching methods) is that Karl seems to be acting out of a concept of what the “Absolute” means, which is more akin to a state of nihilistic no-thingness, and to which makes all phenomenal existence valueless and meaningless (which ultimately, it is beyond value or meaning, but also not without value or meaning…like you reiterated with the two truths of absolute/relative, or the Zen saying “nothing matters, yet everything matters.”).
Moreover, he states that there is nothing to be done to realize that absolute state, as you are already realized in your Self, and there is no changing that fact, whatever you do. Again, mostly true, but not entirely true. He basically nullifies all necessity to seek, practice, study, etc, which is a major aspect to overlook. Essentially, he makes a mockery of the spiritual path, and the desire to awaken, and this alarms me.
[NOTE from Timothy: see my point-by-point critique of the identical "utterly-nothing-to-be-done" view promoted by neo-advaitin
a view that utterly neglects those many, many teachings from our sagely teacher, Shri Nisargadatta Maharaj, on the need for great "earnestness" in meditation on either the vital, animating Power or the beingness-consciousness-"I-Am-ness," and also for "zestfully doing one's duty" and "compassionately caring for others."]
[The email from "J" here continues:]
When I saw him [Karl Renz] in Tiruvannamalai, my wife and I initially went because we had been told by many people that “he was the real deal” and thought to be genuinely enlightened. Out of curiosity, we attended a couple of satsangs. At first, I just witnessed, and what I saw appalled me. [My wife] was horrified… she felt physically upset, and I’m not exaggerating (she is very sensitive). As for myself, I am not so easily put off, but here I perceived a very clever man playing his audience, and I was dismayed to think it was considered a “satsang”, and that the people gathered thought so highly of him.
He would say things like “Who is next? Who wants to step up into the boxing ring?” Because it was a public execution for whoever spoke out, and the audience appeared enthusiastic for the next ignorant jiva [self, soul, person] to have their “ego” dismantled. Whenever Karl struck his nonchalant blows… disregarding the person, confusing them, nullifying their relative stance, and pulling the rug out from under their feet (as you mentioned in points 1 and 10)… the crowd would laugh and laugh, delighted to see the ego be so openly beaten and censured! There was a delirious kind of self-righteous “I know better because I have transcended the need to ask questions and now I’ve got it” complex, which seemed perversely eager to see the next poor, ignorant seeker snuffed out by Karl’s quick mind and clever retort… because isn’t it true that to stop seeking is the mark of a superior understanding? (Or so they seem to think).
And no one could ever win in this boxing match of wits, because Karl always had the upper hand (the one-upmanship you mentioned), and would pull out some “absolutes” from his bag of tricks to render his questioners speechless. In some cases, it would instill a temporary sensation of thoughtless presence, which could be considered a glimpse into the enlightened state (a temporary high). But often, it seemed to result in a kind of confusion, or stupefaction, and not a genuine samadhi. In either case, the main point is that Karl was unwilling to take accountability for his side in the debate, and to engage in a way that demonstrated humility or a mature form of fair and even-handed discussion; which, because he is the facilitator of this happening, makes it an abuse of power. Also, the use of “absolute” logic to justify or manipulate a sincere aspirant, is, in my opinion, an indicator of an immature teacher.
There were a few brave souls (or foolish) who stood up to the task, however, and questioned him directly about holes or contradictions in his teachings. To these, he cleverly side-stepped the question, failed to answer it completely, or just ended it with a joke and some irreverent behavior… which got the crowd laughing in solidarity with him (he doesn’t really need to answer the stupid question anyway, because it's all just concepts and more ignorant seeking, right?!). To one young man, who posed some seriously thought-out and very pointed questions, Karl simply made fun of his thick French accent, and left it at that, without even addressing the question (the crowd was obviously satisfied, based on the level of laughter in the room).
Equally disturbing was his lack of compassion or sympathy for others. He was notoriously indifferent and even harsh, a fact that made his irreverence and careless deconstruction all the more caustic. I witnessed an elderly woman raise an issue that she was obviously upset about. She was emotionally choked up, having realized that she had been holding onto a very poor self image of herself… one that made her feel ashamed of who she was for how she has acted towards others, especially her daughter, whom she felt estranged from. It was a sincere and touching confession that this sensitive woman was making, in revealing her human weaknesses and shadow side. Karl responded to her in a very insensitive and apathetic way, saying things like, “you just have to come to terms with the fact that you ARE an asshole! Just accept that you will be how you are, and other people may not like it.” (I have seen Karl make this remark a few times… saying it’s absolutely fine for him to be an asshole to people, meaning he could be mean or whatever, without consequence, because the absolute self is beyond being affected by actions of any kind). This brought the woman to tears; a steady stream of sobbing. He continued to try to make the woman understand his detached and callous perspective of needing to transcend any desire to be nice, self-dignified, or good to others. After some moments of her verbally unresponsive sobbing, he moved on…obviously not letting the matter concern him (must be a sign of enlightenment, that he is not "affected" by anything!). The woman continued crying for some time, comforted by the man sitting next to her.
The next day, after thinking it over, I decided to return, to pose my own questions. I have always been a bit of an antagonist to “teachers,” for my scrutinizing way of getting to the bottom of things, my dislike of charlatans, dogma, or assumed authority, my dedication to a holistic perspective, and the fact that I don’t take anyone’s word for the final answer (even my own).
I confronted him first on the issue of “ego,” bringing up the contradiction that he claimed there was “no one home,” being that he was free of both ego and concepts, and yet here he was speaking to us all from an obvious body/mind persona, exhibiting many signs of conditioned identification, and speaking to us with concepts, notions, and mental formations.
I asked him to explain this [contradiction]. His response was, “If you don’t like it here, you can go!”
I told him I see a contradiction in his teaching and wanted to know why. Again, he said, “You are free to leave. Just go if you don’t like what I say.”
I had to convince him that I was sincerely interested in understanding the truth, after he repeatedly pointed the way to the door.
An argument, or debate, ensued, and I tried to remain as composed as possible, after a period of attempts by Karl to belittle and discredit my stance. But I did not resign so easily, and continued to pester him for the answers he was not giving me. It went on for many uncomfortable minutes, and he kept trying to brush me off with humor and irreverence. At one point, he gestured to a man sitting on a chair, an obvious accomplice and great supporter (a tall Israeli man whom I saw many times later in Rishikesh, following Ganga/Mira, like a bodyguard, and who reportedly had a very hardened and arrogant disposition) and said to him in an exasperated tone, “what shall we do with this guy?!” The man, sitting on a chair next to me, looked down at me, snickering with a kind of smugness that comes from being "in the group of those who know," and I met him with an open gaze and wide-open heart. I kept my gaze with his to show him I had nothing to hide, and he deferred, silent, realizing, I believe, that I was sincere.
Finally, Karl gave me a long, very mental explanation of ‘how it is’… his great formula for the cosmic order of things.
I realized then that what he was describing as the ultimate state, and the way to realize it, was no different than nihilism, and told him so. He responded with something like, yeah sure, or “call it what you like”; typical non-committal way of answering.
I criticized the way in which he conducted the gatherings, and the lack of serious investigation into the truth, or the manifestation of heart and compassion. I told him it was nothing more than a kind of entertainment for people, and he agreed, saying “its all just entertainment, it’s all just a show, anyway! (ha, ha) What more to do!”
I put forward that I believe satsangs are for the sole purpose of exploring and disseminating the truth.
He ended with, “you don’t have to like it.”
And I ended with, “I don’t. I think these satsangs are bogus, and I don’t even think you are funny.”
[My wife] was there with me, and after we both realized how pointless the whole affair was, we walked out of the satsang. I turned to acknowledge him before leaving, but he refused to look at me.
We met many individuals who found his talks most welcome and enlightening. Obviously, they are getting something out of it. I have also gotten a great deal out of this encounter, by the way in which it has inspired me to contemplate the authentic nature of advaita teachings. So, I do not want to stand as judge of what people should or should not entertain, or appear as a kind of puritanical advaita police. But I really do not like the fact that he is teaching in Tiruvannamalai, under the assumed umbrella of our beloved Advaita masters who are now no longer alive to correct his follies. I do not like the fact that he is gaining popularity amongst non-dual seekers, and given such favorable reputation. I feel that he is turning advaita into something of a theatrical play, or at least confusing the matter… especially with his callous way of saying there is nothing to do to realize the Self.
Also, I find his indifferent, bad-boy approach of “anything goes” a very dangerous concept to put out to a general audience, let alone adopt. Not so much that I am afraid someone is going to use it to commit massive crimes, but for the way in which it undermines the authentic teachings, which include safeguards of ethical behavior, and promotes further suffering from those who misuse this kind of logic.
I am certainly one that appreciates unorthodox ways of teaching. My life has been inspired by the world’s holy fools and crazy-wise adepts. I love rocking the boat of conformity myself! And I was also a big fan of Gangaji [a disciple of Papaji, see below] in her early stages of teaching, when she wielded a very sharp sword of discrimination and ego-busting. But there is a way in which extreme, eccentric, or unconventional teaching methods are a skillful demonstration of the awakened mind acting appropriately at the right moment to awaken the questioner from continued neurosis, and there is a way in which it is simply indicative of the teacher’s abidance in egocentric behavior. And when a teacher claims to be free of egoistic tendencies (which itself is quite dubious), and yet clearly continues to exhibit egoistic manners, this kind of denial or deception should be called into question.
[--End of email letter from "J"]
Greg Goode's Critique of "Neo-Satsang" Movement
[The following is an analysis of what has come to be called “Advaita Syndrome” or “Advaita Disease,” written by a philosophical counselor, Greg Goode (see his website: www.heartofnow.com). This piece has often circulated anonymously, but Greg is the author. He recently wrote to me:
"Dear Timothy... Writing about these satsang conceits was inspired by several years of close observation of the zoological type satsangus teacheritis. I used to visit and hang with two or three satsang teachers per month for several years as they came through NYC [New York City]. Boy could I tell you stories. I bet you have some too! I'm glad to see your page on the craziness of the neo-satsang movement. There's not much advaita to it so I don't call it neo-advaita."]
LUCKNOW DISEASE - linguistic malady befalling seekers at Papaji's [HWL Poonja, 1913-97, of Lucknow, India]. Characterized by never using the word "I" to encourage one's self and also to show others that there is no one [no reified ego] at home here. Instead, they would say things like "This form is going to the rest room."
ADVAITA SHUFFLE - Conversational gambit. What [Papaji disciple] Andrew Cohen accused [another Papaji disciple] Gangaji of doing when she didn't want to talk about ethics and enlightenment. Jumping to the absolute level at odd times. Like when the receptionist asks why you were late for your doctor's appointment. "There's no one here to go anywhere or be late for anything."
LANDING - Losing one's enlightenment. What Gangaji accused Andrew Cohen of having done. Term used by those who think of enlightenment as a kind of thing that can be lost. Something like claiming enlightenment and then getting peevish and petty over who pays the tip at the dinner.
NONDUAL POLICE - Those who badger others to use nondual terminology. Whenever they hear someone saying something like "I'm going out for coffee," they barge in: "WHO is going out for coffee??" Nondual police want everyone to always be in constant Ramana-self-inquiry-mode.
THE EYE THING - Keeping eye contact with the other person as long as possible. Whoever drops their gaze first is not as established in the Beloved. Some blinking is OK, but not too much. The deeper into the Self you are, the longer you can hold it. Used by many satsang teachers. One of my friends can out-stare anyone. He kinds of drops into a Candidiasis-mind-fog, and hours can go by.
[Roy Gibbon sent out the following in July 2002:]
[Following the above piece by Greg Goode,] I myself wrote [some] new ones. Much as I love Advaita, I can recognize these symptoms in many of the Papaji lineage people:
THE ABIDING FORMULA - The injunction to answer all questions with "Don't go into your STORY, just abide in the SELF." Any question that can't be simply answered with this formula is dismissed as intellectual mind stuff or mere involvement in one's personal story (MAYA). Everything is very simple, and if you don't think so, you are just caught up in the mind!
THE SILENCE COMPETITION - Contest to see who can stay silent longer than the other. The person who speaks first still has a personal story they are caught up in, and are therefore no longer abiding in the Self.
THE VULCAN COMPLEX - The importance of keeping your voice tone very soft and even. Never show emotion or passion. Whoever shows a trace of care or concern for anything is still attached and caught up in more personal Story.
THE PAPAJI PEDESTAL - It is admitted that all beings are in reality the Self, and not their personal identity. On the level of the Self, we are all the same and all equal. The Self is not thought to have any unique qualities differing from one person to the other. The particular body and personality of the individual is considered incidental. Paradoxically, the bodymind individual of Papaji is very special and worthy of great admiration and devotion (but just don't call it devotion). As George Orwell said, "We are all equal, but some are more equal than others."
RED LIGHT GREEN LIGHT - This is the contradiction of advising that we don't need to have a teacher and we don't need to come to Satsang [“assembly in Truth,” “holy company,” etc.]. All we need is to stop everything and just remain in Silence and Abide in the Self. There is nothing to "get" at Satsang. At the same time one is encouraged to [financially, emotionally] support the teacher and the Satsang.
DISSAPPEARING PERSONALITY TRICK - Now you see it, now you don't. This is the amazing ability of the Advaitin to have their personality absorbed in the Self at any convenient moment. When this occurs, they remain aloof and impersonal. Don't invite them to dinner when this is occurring. And definitely don't ask them anything personal. "Who is hungry?"
* * * * * * * * *
[The following important revelations are excerpted and adapted from Jerry Katz's Nonduality Salon website, at www.nonduality.com:]
Papaji himself made it clear, in his teachings included in the book Nothing Ever Happened, edited by his students, that those he sent to teach not only are not enlightened, they are not even temporarily enlightened, in the fullest sense.
#1. When asked about those he sent to teach, Papaji said that the purpose was to have them point the way to Lucknow, not to pose as awakened teachers.
#2. Papaji said that many can fool others into thinking they are liberated but they are the false coin.
#3. When asked about the experiences that so many people had in Lucknow, he said they were false experiences.
#4. When asked, "Why did you give them false experiences?" he said to get the leeches off my back.
[Note from Timothy: this seems a bit duplicitous; this attitude, along with point #1, which appears rather self-serving, and some other aspects of Papaji discussed below, are why some of us do not regard Papaji as having been the most "purely" realized among those who encountered Sri Ramana Mahârshi (1879-1950).]
#5. Papaji said he met only two Jñânis [truly realized sages] in his lifetime. One was Ramana Maharshi. The other was a man who appeared from out of the jungle into the town of Krishnagiri. [NOTE: In the book Papaji: Interviews, edited by David Godman, 1993 edition, pp. 48-9, two jñânis other than Ramana are mentioned by Papaji as having "attained full and complete Self-realisation": the jungle sadhu in Karnataka and a Muslim pîr. On page 64, in endnote 5, David Godman reports, "Sri Poonja told me that he thought his mother's Guru was also a jñâni." In the 3-volume Nothing Ever Happened biography-autobiography of Papaji compiled by David Godman and others, there is the implicit or explicit acknowledgment that a few others were completely Self-Realized: Nisargadatta Maharaj, Swami Gnanananda of Tirukoilur, Bhagavan Nityananda, and J. Krishnamurti (though J.K. is criticzed by Papaji for not being a good teacher-transmitter of Realization). On page 50 of the Papaji: Interviews book, Papaji states: "Though many people have had a temporary direct experience of the Self, full and permanent realisation is a very rare event."]
#6. Ramana Maharshi said that there is a false sense of liberation that aspirants reach that very few ever go beyond.
Traditional versus Neo-Advaita
--By Dennis Waite
[Note: A fine new book by Dennis, tentatively titled, Enlightenment, The Path Through the Jungle: A Criticism of Non-traditional Teaching Methods in Advaita, will be out in print by 2008. I had the pleasure to go through the entire manuscript and can report that it is an extremely thorough, careful, and eloquent case for traditional, "classic" Advaita over the "neo-advaita" approach, which Dennis persuasively argues is riddled with myths, mistakes, and self-contradictions. This book, and the following article, serve as a corrective to Dennis' first book on Advaita, The Book of One, wherein far too many neo-advaita teachings (and teachers) were mixed in with traditional Advaita teaching.]
[...] 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 – vyavahâra – 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. [...]
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’.”
--On the Beautiful, Enigmatic, Problematic Papaji (1913-97) of Lucknow
[Note to the reader: much of a long letter i had written to a friend in 2005, and uploaded to this site in Jan. 2007, with some additions for this webpage, on the topic of the enormously influential Papaji (HWL Poonja), has been taken OFF this webpage. In early July 2007, Papaji's official biographer, David Godman (see his 3-volume biography, Nothing Ever Happened, and David's website, www.davidgodman.org), kindly sent me a long, detailed email, knocking the reliability of the "Julio report" about Papaji contained in the 1992 book Autobiography of an Awakening (pp. 114-5), written by Andrew Cohen, Papaji's first "major" American disciple. Cohen later turned against Papaji and then himself became a very abusive, "dysfunctional cult" leader in the USA (as documented by Cohen's former disciple Hal Blacker and others at the latter's website whatenlightenment.blogspot.com). In the earlier edition of what appeared on this page, i had expressed strong warnings about Andrew Cohen, but had let the "Julio report" stand. Frankly, i was hoping that someone would write to me to confirm, deny or qualify that "Julio report." After reading the detailed email by David Godman, an author whose work on other sagely disciples of Ramana Mahârshi I greatly respect (e.g., his books on the great Annamalai Swâmi and Lakshmana Swâmi), I dropped Andrew's "Julio report" on Papaji here.
Yet Hal Blacker informed me on July 18, 2007 that he sees no reason to doubt the report, for an old friend of Hal's heard Julio report his experiences at that meeting with Andrew and, moreover, Papaji's attendant Sujata in the late 1980s knew of a Julio who had been a Papaji student in Europe (thus undermining David Godman's claim that there is no record of a Julio as a student of Papaji). Note well that some of the significant personality flaws reported of Papaji in that "Julio report"--megalomania, using students to promote himself, lying, gossiping, playing people off each other, promiscuity, etc.-- are, except for the last one (promiscuity), FAR more true of Andrew Cohen himself than of Papaji, by all reported accounts. Yet some of these flaws have independently been reported to me as being true of Papaji by two other (and quite reputable) persons who are critical of Papaji, yet who are not in any way connected with Andrew Cohen or Julio. But, in a further twist, another confidential source tells a friend of mine that reports of Papaji's alleged "promiscuity" are not to be trusted, that Papaji did not have this particular flaw or others attributed to him by Julio and Andrew, and that Papaji was a truly wonderful man. This same friend of mine further remarks: "Speaking with Meera (Papaji's second wife), whom I spoke with extensively, she was with Papaji constantly when he was in Europe, for example [from 1971-76], and she would certainly have known if Papaji was 'promiscuous' - the word that Andrew used, and if there was a big uproar over that which led people to leave Papaji. (She would have been furious, and she would have left him, if that was the case.) She did say that a lot of folks were upset when they found out that Papaji fathered her daughter [in 1972], and they left Papaji."
In sum: the rumor of Papaji's alleged "promiscuity" seems to have arisen over the fact that he married another woman, the Belgian spiritual aspirant Meera, in 1968, about two years after his Indian wife had already given him permission to go free; and the other personality flaws attributed to Papaji by Julio and Andrew seem to be largely projections by the deeply disturbed former disciple Andrew Cohen, who suffers even more intensely from these same flaws.]
In an ever-increasing flood, dozens of people now "hold satsang" in the U.S., Europe, and India. Almost all of them charge money for their satsangs and sessions. Most of them have cheapened the notion of enlightenment by disconnecting Absolute-level teachings from pragmatic, conventional-level teachings on behavior, ethics, virtue and karma and its practical consequences on the empirical level (the latter is generally ignored). And many of these teachers (certainly not all of them) explicitly claim to be "in the lineage of Sri Ramana Maharshi" because of their connection with Hariwansh Lal (Harilal) Poonja—a.k.a. "Papaji" (1913-1997) of Lucknow, India. Or they are "in the lineage" via his disciples such as Papaji's longtime former partner, the Belgian woman Meera/Ganga, as well as those who more recently knew and followed Papaji for a much shorter period of time, like Gangaji, Isaac Shapiro, Neelam, et al. Perhaps the several websites devoted to nonduality, like the NonDuality Salon and Sarlo's "Guru rating" site, have mapped out all the names and interconnections. [These sites also have served up their own valuable critiques of neo- or pseudo-advaita.]
One VERY important thing to note from the outset is that there was NO LINEAGE stemming from Ramana Mahârshi. Bhagavân Ramana appointed NO "successors" and, unlike Papaji, told no one to teach in his name or as his representative. It is obvious to many that Ramana did have some deeply, perhaps “fully” enlightened disciples, i.e, people who actually lived the teachings from a context of real freedom, not just talked the teachings. Annamalai Swâmi, whom i had the good fortune to study with for many weeks [in 1980-1 and 1988], was one of these fully, nondually “surrendered” sages. Ramana even allowed and encouraged him to build an ashram right next door to Ramanâshramam. Some of us think Annamalai Swâmi and a few others are as close to being “successors” or “spiritual sons” of Ramana as one can find. David Godman, who wrote the official 3-volume biography of Papaji (Nothing Ever Happened), considers Papaji to be a true sage. Others, like longtime Vedanta teacher Jean Klein of Europe-California (who was featured at a dinner party with Papaji in Europe in the early 1970s and openly warned all students of both teachers to not get involved with Papaji), are not so sure Papaji was a purely Self-Realized sage.
But, to repeat, we must be very careful in not speaking of “a lineage from Ramana Mahârshi.” None existed. Those who claim otherwise deceive themselves and others. Papaji himself is on record as stating that he did not intend to appoint anyone to carry on his teaching duties when he died and that "Wherever there is a lineage, impurity enters." (Nothing Ever Happened, vol. 3, p. 350) He elsewhere stated, in talking about his ongoing relationship to his Guru, Bhagavan Ramana, that he, Poonja, is just a mouthpiece for Ramana’s teachings.
So, about Papaji, let me initially say that he was not a “successor” or “lineal heir” to Ramana in any way, and Papaji did not intend to create any lineage of teachers that would succeed him.
Regarding Papaji's "Absolute-truth level" teachings: He is frequently brilliant and dazzling on the level of his teachings about sudden enlightenment. Papaji speaks the paramârtha satya or "Absolute-truth level" parlance quite well, with real flair and amazing energy. And his words are VERY effective at producing for many people an initial awakening from the dream of "me." David Godman reports to me in a personal communication (July 10, 2007): "I interviewed several of his Indian devotees who had been with him for decades. Three of them had had experiences of the Self on their first meeting, and decades later the experiences were still there. So... the power to wake people up permanently was [also] there."
Therefore, i want to communicate a big POSITIVE assessment here: Papaji's Absolute-level teachings are quite fine—positively electric—in riveting people to a silent inner stopping, wherein they have a chance to intuit their Original Nature prior to the arising mind, moment by moment.
Papaji had honed this style of “stopping you in your tracks”—delivered in a very insistent, “in your face,” confrontational manner since at least 1953, when, in our first published account of his non-compromising style of interacting with people, he confronted the French Benedictine Catholic monk, Henri Le Saux (later to be famous as Swami Abhishiktananda) with this kind of Absolutist dialectical exchange. (See the section on Harilal Poonja in the book by Le Saux / Abhishiktânanda, Secret of Arunachala and also Guru and Disciple, the latter mainly about Henri’s Guru, the deeply enlightened and respected sage Swami Gnanânanda of Tirukkoilur, Tamil Nadu.) We also hear that Poonja / Papaji had already been teaching advaita Realization since the late 1940s to early disciples like Dr. Hafiz Syed, but we have no record of what he actually said to these earliest devotees.
An aspect of Papaji that i find really beautiful is his “nondual devotional” side (abheda bhakti or parabhakti). He had a very deep devotion to Krishna since he was young, thanks to his strongly devotional-turned-advaitin mother, Yamuna Devi (d.1978), had visions of goddesses and saints, and he even had a vision of Christ in his mid life (as reported by Le Saux). In fact, it would seem that Poonja/Papaji's strong, one-pointed bhakti devotionalism is what made him so ripe for his deeper spiritual opening under the influence of Srî Ramana Mahârshi.
I love that parabhakti quality of the nondually-devoted heart. It softens and sweetens a sage. All the greatest jñânis have this side—even the fiery Nisargadatta expressed it, as I have frequently mentioned, on the basis of my own experience of seeing the man in 1981 in his Bombay apartment chanting bhajans, and anointing and garlanding images of his line of Gurus and images of Srî Ramana Mahârshi, et al.
However, many of Papaji’s own western disciples ignore or criticize the bhakti devotional temperament in preference for a very dry jñâna approach that doesn't seem to involve an open heart. Why do they reject their own master's heart-felt orientation to life and God and the beauty of devotion? We know for a fact from the first volume of the three-volume biography of Papaji by David Godman (e.g., see p. 300) that Papaji often taught bhakti-devotion along with jnana-wisdom to his Indian followers in the 1950s through the 1980s. His own letters to beloved correspondents prove this point. David was told by Papaji, in a rather sweeping, critical generalization, that westerners' hearts were too "contaminated" by worldly desires for the practice of pure Divine devotion.
Along this line, there is one flaw in the teachings we have from Papaji: it is not so much in what he says, but more in what isn't much talked about or, even when it is mentioned, usually isn't emphasized clearly enough.
Namely, the need for staying clear of the various kinds of samskâras or vâsanâs (the binding likes and dislikes, the unwholesome tendencies of attachment and aversion) that can so easily subvert enlightenment and turn it into a subtle or not-so-subtle form of megalomania or ego inflation.
Papaji himself actually does with some frequency talk about being "free from desires" and being "holy" and "worthy of enlightenment". But evidently very few of his disciples holding neo-advaita-style satsang in the western countries ever talk in this vein. This is likely due to two facts: first, many of these Papaji disciples were formerly disciples of the pseudo-"Bhagavân" Rajneesh / Osho (1931-90), who notoriously urged and celebrated a life of desires (see articles and books by former disciples like Christopher Calder, James Gordon, Ma Satya Bharti, Hugh Milne, et al. and my own very long critique of Rajneesh at this website). Second—with some notable exceptions— not nearly as much attention is given by Papaji himself to the topic of freedom from desire and living from integrity or holiness compared to the radically "absolutist" teachings on the Self that he seems to much more greatly relish when interacting with his interlocutors. The Papaji texts mainly emphasize to people that they can be "utterly free right now," "completely awake," "not wasting another moment." He does not carefully and deeply emphasize how certain samskâra tendencies, on the empirical level, actually sabotage or undermine genuine freedom and that it may take time to be fully established in real spiritual liberation. This is not very adept upâya, or skillful teaching, to use a well-known Buddhist term. It tends to create gigantic expectations of a magical "enlightenment" moment, madly elated states of feeling that one is indeed "enlightened," and then, for the honest and humble aspirants, a sense of disappointment, even melancholy or depression or despair, when the temporary elation passes (and all such "states" must pass).
Papaji's Guru, Bhagavân Ramana Mahârshi, was insistent (along with other wise, authentic sages) that people actually get established or firmly stabilized in Truth and live from the real freedom of Absolute Awareness, not from the "euphoric high" gained by contemplating Absolute-level teachings and the idea of "being enlightened" on the cognitive level of mere understanding. If one still frequently indulges selfish ego-tendencies, that's not "freedom" or "liberation" or real "enlightenment."
In other words, Papaji tends to under-emphasize—and most of his disciples almost completely ignore— an old, old practice among Hindu and Buddhist sages in India to not just teach an enlightened VIEW or DOCTRINE, but also to properly emphasize enlightened or appropriate VIRTUOUS CONDUCT or MORALITY.
The Buddha presented a complete and balanced triple training of morality, meditative stillness, and insightful wisdom (sîla, samâdhi, pañña)—NOT JUST WISDOM! This "triple training," incidentally, is the simpler version of the Buddha's "Noble Eightfold Path."
The other two most respected sages of ancient India, Nâgârjuna and Sankara, also taught that the Absolute level (paramârtha) wisdom teachings are not nearly enough; one must also teach on the conventional level--samvriti-satyam, the vyavahâra level of the ordinary world with its persons and personal tendencies, good and bad. Both Nâgârjuna and Sankara, like the ancient sages of the Upanishads (the oral texts of "secret teachings"), make it quite clear that the highest level truth-teachings should ONLY be given out after a disciple has been seen and assessed by the sage to be truly humble, unattached, self-sacrificing, and full of integrity.
In our modern era, by contrast, most or all of the preliminary teachings (let alone the actual preliminary training!) have been left behind as "uncool" and "not hip" to talk about. Addicted to instant gratification, many folks want their dose of highest-level nondual truth-teachings given here and now, in the most "sexy," glamorous way possible, and, of course, they want to have some grand (or is that grandiose?) experience of "enlightenment" very soon, too.
Papaji, more like a Rinzai Zen master than a Soto Zen master, usually loved to emphasize Enlightenment as the Big Experience, available RIGHT NOW! It is more rare to hear him emphasizing (as do the Sôtô Zen Masters, and nondual Vedânta sages Ramana Mahârshi, Nârâyana Guru, Anasûyâ Devî, and others) the simple, quiet dignity of living "the natural state," without making any hoopla or hyperbole over "enlightenment" as an experience to be successfully gotten or not. Papaji himself would often discount all experiences, including the experience of "enlightenment." But he would sooner or later come back to emphasizing the enlightenment experience in a climactic way.
So, in the great fanfare around Papaji in the last several years of his life, from late 1991 (when so many followers of the late Osho-Rajneesh [1931-90] moved into Lucknow) until his passing in 1997, there was, it seems, an excessive concern among people over "who's enlightened?"; "why am i not yet enlightened?"; "when will i become enlightened?" This does NOT seem to be a healthy attitude about spirituality. There are just too many things that can psychologically and spiritually go wrong—from deranged states of imbalanced euphoria over apparent "Enlightenment," to insidiously subtle forms of pride over "I am now enlightened," to a self-inflated feeling that one is now entitled to go around calling oneself "enlightened" and charging money for time with oneself as the "great teacher" or "facilitator" or "energy-conduit" for enlightenment, as some Papaji followers have done. Etc., etc.
Crucially important in all of this is to note the Rinzai and Soto Zen Buddhist traditions' exquisitely balanced and mature understanding that there are initial enlightenment or epiphany episodes possible—what they call kenshô or satori—and then there is the Ultimate Release, termed Nirvana or Anuttara Samyak Sambodhi (supreme, unexcelled Enlightenment). This is characterized by all wholesome qualities and real freedom from any harmful and/or binding selfish tendencies. In Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese traditions of Chan/Zen/Son/Thien, all of this is neatly summed by emphasis on the phrase, "sudden enlightenment, gradual cultivation" (Chinese: dùnwù jiànxiū, Korean: dono-jeomsu, Japanese: tongo-zenshu). The gradual cultivation is for the sake of allowing a virtue-suffused TOTAL ENLIGHTENMENT and COMPLETE LIBERATION (from the karmic rebirth cycle) to be firmly established.
Papaji was certainly very effective at promoting the initial, sudden kenshô or satori-type epiphany experiences, or at least something close to them. It could be argued that many people simply enjoyed a sudden, very powerful surge of highly unusual self-esteem in being told they were the “ever-free Supreme Self”—rather like having some VIP tell you how wonderful you are, and you bask in the afterglow of the flattery for several weeks or months!
Papaji is well known for telling (or perceived as telling) far too many people after an initial powerful Opening experience, a glimpse-realization of their true Self Nature (in a context wherein he couldn't realistically determine just what their psycho-spiritual or moral capacity was) that now they were "enlightened" and "finished" and could go start teaching on their own. This is to confuse a brief epiphany with full, irreversible enlightenment.
Papaji himself said to David Godman, in Nothing Ever Happened (vol. 3, p. 359): "The power of the Self cannot work on an unreceptive mind.... Rain cannot make crops grow in a barren land.... If the mind is not free from all vasanas [selfish tendencies of desire, etc.], it will always reassert itself later.... If one who is not free from vasanas is pushed into having a direct experience [of the Self], that experience will not stay. The mind of such a person will eventually come back with all its former force." And in an interview quoted in Papaji: Interviews (p. 273), Papaji admits: "Perhaps I am too generous, perhaps I do not read people properly. Maybe it is a mistake because I think that everyone is good.... Only a holy person can receive this teaching. Such a person will be worthy of it.... Westerners want intellectual understanding.... I sent a messenger to the West, but he tried to become a king. Many people have been troubled by this."
Papaji is here clearly indicating Andrew Cohen, ample proof of what can go very wrong with this approach, and a lot of people, as noted by Papaji, have suffered as a result.
I'm quite aware that certain neo-advaitins might hasten to glibly state the old esoteric truth, "Whatever happens is Divinely meant to happen, whatever happens is perfect, everyone is experiencing what they need to experience"; and, on the deepest level of Absolute Truth, one can go further to state, "Nothing is really happening, this is all a dream, there are no beings, only the God-Self."
But we need to be reminded that there is also this conventional, pragmatic, human level within the dream, affirmed by all the true sages, and on this level there is appropriate and inappropriate behavior, justice and injustice, right and wrong. And, clearly, it is not very "wise" or "right" to prematurely tell people they are "enlightened" and appoint them to teach—people who will then go off and use this "confirmation" or "appointment" to presume to play oneupsmanship guru games, control disciples and boss them around, seduce them sexually, take their money, etc., all the while exalting and hyping themselves as "fully enlightened."
For instance, when i was finally persuaded to go see Andrew Cohen in northern California for the first time (circa 1989) at the adamant behest of a friend who had known Papaji from the 1980s and who raved about Andrew, i was shocked within the first 15 minutes of a large public meeting to see Cohen employing all sorts of "dysfunctional cult leader" tricks and base tactics to manipulate and control his audience. That Andrew's problematic authoritarian tendencies were not obvious to the slavishly attentive crowd, nor to Papaji who first authorized Andrew to teach and continued to send people to him, spoke volumes to me about people's large capacity for delusion.
Two of Papaji's close disciples, Karl B and Berthold Madhukar Thompson, were told by Papaji (in 1986 and 1991, respectively) that they were now "enlightened" and "finished" after each man had enjoyed a powerful spiritual opening to some kind of Self-realization, but these men were honest and humble enough to recognize that their so-called "enlightenment experience" came and went. Madhukar Thompson traveled around India and met other enlightened, sagely disciples of Srî Ramana like Annamalai Swâmi (with whom i spent a lot of time in 1980-1 and 1988) and Lakshmana Swâmi (whom I also met in 1988) [NOTE: David Godman has assembled two beautiful books on each of these sages], and it became apparent to Madhukar Thompson as well as to Karl B that AUTHENTIC, FINAL ENLIGHTENMENT requires a lot of deepening and becoming truly liberated from one's egoic tendencies. Madhukar wrote about his time with Papaji and other great and not-so-great sages in his book, The Odyssey of Enlightenment (Mt Shasta: Wisdom Editions, 2002). While he dearly loves Papaji (and Osho/Rajneesh, his earlier teacher), in this book he was also quite honest about Papaji's shortcomings as a teacher.
[Clarification: for some months in early 2007 i had this Madhukar Thompson conflated with another German-speaking disciple of Osho and Papaji who is also named "Madhukar" (easy to see why there was confusion of the two!), who has set himself up as a "tough love" teacher with a style of teaching very similar to Papaji's. This latter, younger-looking "Madhukar" (who goes by no other names) has been critiqued by knowledgeable observers as a serial womanizer who violates the ancient teacher's ethic by having sex with his female students.]
Papaji himself was asked by some disciples why he authorized so many "half-baked" disciples to become teachers. He equivocated. A very nice guy named Sarlo, who has a wonderfully wacky and extremely popular website, "Guru Ratings," sums up the findings of the NonDuality Salon website (Jerry Katz):
"Papaji made it clear in the book Nothing Ever Happened [the official biography of Papaji, painstakingly compiled by David Godman] that those he sent to teach not only are not enlightened, they are not even temporarily enlightened.
"#1. When asked about those he sent to teach, Papaji said that the purpose was to have them point the way to Lucknow, not to pose as awakened teachers.
[As i have noted in an earlier section, this seems a bit self-serving. Ramana Mahârsi never did anything like this.]
"#2. Papaji said that many can fool others into thinking they are liberated but they are the false coin.
"#3. When asked about the experiences that so many people had in Lucknow, he said they were false experiences.
"#4. When asked, 'Why did you give them false experiences?' he said 'to get the leeches off my back.'
"#5. Papaji said he met only two Jnanis [sages] in his lifetime. One was Ramana Maharshi. The other was a man who appeared from out of the jungle into the town of Krishnagiri.
[NOTE: In the book Papaji: Interviews, pp. 48-9, two jñânis other than Ramana are mentioned by Papaji as having "attained full and complete Self-realisation": the jungle sadhu in Karnataka and a Muslim pîr. On page 64, in endnote 5, David Godman reports, "Sri Poonja told me that he thought his mother's Guru was also a jñâni." In the Nothing Ever Happened biography-autobiography of Papaji compiled by David Godman and others, there is the implicit or explicit acknowledgment by Papaji that a few others were completely Self-Realized: Nisargadatta Maharaj, Swami Gnanananda of Tirukoilur, Bhagavan Nityananda, and J. Krishnamurti (though J.K. is criticzed by Papaji for not being a good teacher-transmitter of Realization). On page 50 of Papaji: Interviews, Papaji states: "Though many people have had a temporary direct experience of the Self, full and permanent realisation is a very rare event."]
"#6. Ramana Maharshi said that there is a false sense of liberation that aspirants reach that very few ever go beyond.
"In these passages, Papaji suggests that the folks he told to be teachers weren't really qualified to be teachers. It's all quite confusing to some of Papaji's longtime disciples."
The complete excerpts from Nothing Ever Happened (Vol. 3, edited by David Godman, pp. 366-7, 379, 362, 364) concerning the important points #2-#6 are reproduced below:
David: “You used to give experiences to a lot of people. Why did you do it if you knew that the effect would not be permanent?”
Papaji: “I did it to get rid of the leeches who were sticking to me, never allowing me to rest or be by myself. It was a very good way of getting rid of all these leeches in a polite way. I knew that in doing this I was giving lollipops to the ignorant and innocent, but this is what these people wanted. When I tried to give $100 bills to them, they rejected them. They thought that they were just pieces of paper. So I gave them lollipops instead.”
David: “Many of the people you gave lollipops to left Lucknow thinking that they were enlightened. Does the fact that they accepted the lollipop and left indicate that they were not worthy to receive the $100 bills?”
Papaji: “If one is not a holy person, one is not worthy to receive the real teaching. Many people think that they have attained the final state of full and complete liberation. They have fooled themselves, and they have fooled many other people but they have not fooled me. A person in this state is like a fake coin. It may look like the real thing. It can be passed around and used by ignorant people who use it to buy things with. People who have it in their pocket can boast of having a genuine coin, but it is not real. But it has no value. When it is finally discovered to be a fake, the person who is circulating it, claiming that it is real, is subject to the penalties of the law. In the spiritual world, the law of karma catches up and deals with all people who are trafficking in fake experiences. I have never passed on the truth to those whom I could see were fake coins. These people may look like gold and they may glitter like gold, but they have no real value. There are many people who can put on a show and fool other people into believing they are enlightened. They can... say that they are enlightened, and they can play that role very well.... Why does hearing the truth only work in a small percentage of cases? The simple answer to that is that only a small percentage of people are interested in the truth.”...
David: “Many people have heard you say, ‘I have not given my final teachings to anyone.’ What are these final teachings, and why are you not giving them out?”
Papaji: “Nobody is worthy to receive them. Because it has been my experience that everybody has proved to be arrogant and egotistic… I don’t think anyone is worthy to receive them. You have to prove holiness to be worthy.... If the worthiness is not there, the truth will enter the head and become [mere] intellectual knowledge.... I never spoke to anyone about the secret that was silently revealed to me by the Master. It still remains a secret. I do not want to give it away to a person who will misuse it.”
In short, Papaji, the source of so much of the modern neo-satsang movement, declared that those teaching in his name were/are not enlightened, and had not received his "final teaching." On that topic, one observer of the neo-satsang scene has opined that Papaji's "final teaching" was "one of the tricks Papaji picked up in guru school… keep them dependent on you by shrouding yourself in mystery. Why would a truly enlightened teacher perpetuate this myth? He or she wouldn’t because the whole purpose of enlightenment teaching is to give you the tools that will set you free, including freedom from gurus. When you take into account the contemptuous and cynical attitude that Papaji expresses in this interview toward his ‘disciples’ and the fact that he knew that the people coming to him were not qualified for enlightenment… and neglected to tell them and also neglected to provide teachings and techniques that would prepare them for it… one is tempted to conclude that less noble motivations were at work. In another portion of the interview Papaji says that he did not authorize people to teach in his name, only to send them [i.e., get their followers to go] to Lucknow to get the ‘final teachings.’" (The source of this quote is James Swartz, who considers himself a more traditional teacher of Advaita Vedanta, but who has been seriously criticized for harming and traumatizing certain people with his words and actions.)
A student of Papaji on Nov. 9, 2006 posted this useful clarification at the blog guruphiliac.blogspot.com/2006/10/jaxon-bear-boinks-student-bounces-self.html: "When I met Poonja, an elegant man, Andrew Cohen's book had just been reviewed in The Mountain Path [the Ramanashrama journal], where it was trashed as narcissistic drivel. I laughed at it and Poonja grabbed my arm really hard and said, 'some people come to me and get it and don't say anything about it and others get something of it and run around and tell everyone they are enlightened.' And he looked at me pleading, 'don't be another one.' I assured him I had no such agenda…. It is sad, that Toni [Papaji's supposed "enlightened" student Gangaji] who kind of 'got it' [in 1990] declared herself enlightened and then has been tapping others as enlightened. There are many who got it more deeply than Toni, who never bothered to declare themselves enlightened let alone tap others as enlightened. They had no desire to do so. Beware those who desire to be teachers. Ramana never left his little mountain. Poonja worked as a government employee after his encounter with Ramana. He never gave a damn about numbers or foundations and he was so enthusiastic that he declared that everyone is enlightened, but not that they are equal. He told me again and again that there are indeed levels of realization. He was gifted and he was very free."
Somewhere in here i should strongly highlight the fact that Papaji had a very strong service ethic throughout much of his life, especially in his mid-life and then last years, consistently working hard, not just to support his extensive Indian family, but also to help free people from delusions and to wake up. At different periods in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, when not off working or "laying low" in relative seclusion with family or friends, he would be in places giving satsangs for long hours each day and night, without charging a dime. After he became world-famous in late 1991 through the teaching careers of Andrew Cohen and then Gangaji, both of whom pointed people back to Papaji in Lucknow, he gave satsang five days a week into his last years, though, in his very last year, videos and tapes often had to be played due to his progressively worsening illness.
A dear friend who often visited Papapji in the 1980s, a few years before the big crowds began to come (most of these were disciples of the late teacher Osho-Rajneesh), writes to me, in an assessment also affirmed by David Godman: "Papaji spent years avoiding crowds, and making it very difficult for people to find him. People used to have to write him to get permission to visit him, but they usually would find it hard to find him even if they got permission. In the first few years of Andrew's teaching career [from the latter 1980s on], Papaji would send Westerners who would come to see him away and tell them to go be with Andrew, as Papaji would say that Andrew could communicate the message better than he himself could to Westerners! Yes, Papaji was a mysterious character, all around, as we have talked about!"
What can we "conclude" about the amazing "force" that was this mysterious man known and loved by many as Papaji? Clearly, he was an extremely talented, incredibly magnetic teacher in helping people have initial awakening experiences, and, in at least three cases (e.g., the Indian devotees Sharda and Shashikala and others, as documented by David Godman), evidently permanent spiritual awakenings.
Yet there are persistent questions about 1) Papaji's own character and whether, after his purported enlightenment, it was actually free, free of desires and other quirks (though we reiterate that, against the view of my two anonymous sources, David Godman and others were convinced that Papaji was an authentic sage) and, furthermore, questions about 2) Papaji's actual wisdom in “authorizing” as “enlightened” so many people who obviously were NOT very enlightened at all--like his first American disciple-turned-teacher, Andrew Cohen, and several others running around presuming to be “enlightened” or “awake” or “Self-realized,” but not demonstrating any real enlightenment on the level of their behavior, where it truly counts.
People often ask me about another one of Papaji's "appointees," Gangaji (Toni Varner), who, with her husband Eli Jaxon-Bear, has become very prominent as a traveling advaita teacher in the USA since her supposed "enlightenment" in India in April 1990, but I don't know enough about what she is teaching these days to comment on the content of her presentations. I wasn't greatly impressed with her teachings when a friend played an audio tape of Gangaji way back in 1990—albeit there was some very helpful, basic psycho-spiritual wisdom she was sharing. But Gangaji was still quite new to her teaching career then, and i had been associating with authentic sages since the late 1970s and had enjoyed much direct realization. By most accounts, Gangaji has matured and deepened as a teacher. Someone this year emailed me several of Gangaji's poems--which i find exquisitely beautiful. But what's this i hear about Gangaji and her people selling photos of herself and of Eli at marked up prices? Is she passing herself off as more than a helpful spiritual friend, but the all-pervasive Guru whose image connects one with Gangaji on the inner planes? Yes, ultimately people can do whatever they want, so long as it’s not harming fellow sentient beings, but this all seems a bit silly to some of us who’ve been more-or-less awake to Advaita since the early 1970s.
Gangaji has people who've sat with her and met privately with her saying that she is a very loving, kind, and gently humorous woman. Other people have gone on record at blogsites to tell a much different, darker side of Gangaji. One teacher going by the e-name "tao" wrote on Nov. 6, 2006 to the blog hinessight.blogs.com/church_of_the_churchless/2006/10/gangaji_eli_and.html: "Gangaji is a fraud and a money scammer…. Gangaji has clearly revealed self-possessed egotism, narcissistic self-importance, and arrogant intolerance towards others, as well as attempting to demand and extort money from her gullible followers. There are witnesses, documents, and facts to prove that."
In the wake of the scandal over Eli's behavior with a female student, and Gangaji's cover-up of the same [see below], one disgruntled former student wrote the Gangaji and Leela Foundations, "They manipulated us to reveal our deepest secrets and expose our deepest scars while they sat upon their thrones, passing judgements, mocking people, condescending, (throwing bean bags at those who dared question or who were too slow to learn) and lying to us the entire time about their own despicable behavior and cover-ups…. [These] two people … have taken my money for the past four years to support their increasingly lavish, 1st class, Trump Tower, gas guzzling, philandering lifestyles."
In the ongoing furor (most of the posts reproduced in October 2006 available at the guruphiliac.blogspot), someone else wrote: "They live like kings off a mostly volunteer force that literally slave away for them. Five-star hotels [and] 1st class everywhere they go, face-lifts and the finest clothes from the highest end shops, two homes, etc. etc. It benefits two white, upperclass Americans living the American dream while telling everyone else that they are dreaming. The discrepancy is the lie that they live in the public eye versus who they are 97.5% of the time."
Another student spoke of how Gangaji and Eli have been "promoting personality worship under the guise of 'nondual truth.'" Then there was the outrage by students over receiving emails from the Gangaji and Leela foundations announcing a new retreat: “The Jewel in Disillusionment Retreat.” Cost: $465. To which one former student wrote: “This is nerve. Both Gangaji and Eli have shut down free and open dialogue about the scandal at the behest of their lawyers and now they ask us to pay them to discuss the pain they've caused…. She clearly doesn't get it. When is she going to get off the pedestal and become human?”
—Whatever the full truth on the conventional "dream" level, I wish Gangaji and Eli all the very best and full awakening from the dream!
The "big scandal": People have asked me to comment on the news of Oct.-Nov. 2006 about Gangaji, husband Eli and his erstwhile young female lover of three years, someone whom the couple at an earlier point had considered adopting, for she was "like a daughter to Eli," his hypnotherapy client and spiritual student. This revelation has greatly disturbed a number of people, but this specific sort of thing is none of my business because i'm not a player in that scene—hence, i can only urge "Divine love and healing for all beings involved!"
More generally, though, i think the REAL PROBLEM isn't the specifics of the sexual abuse of the teacher-student or therapist-client relationship by Eli, the coverup by Gangaji, and the aftermath of their secrecy, lying and then "spinning" of the situation to preserve their reputation and assets, but the original corrupt dynamics of trying to institute a "lineage," a lineage "from Ramana Maharshi", and then "appointing teachers" and succumbing to favoritism, unclear criteria regarding who gets to be an "acknowledged teacher," not having total transparency about these criteria, and so forth. For instance, what would one have to demonstrate, merit or do to become a "teacher" in that lineage? And what does it mean to say that someone is a "teacher" in that line? What is s/he offering? And with what competence? Just like in organized educational systems, what are the teacher's qualifications and real expertise? In the case of all the folks who've been "appointed" by Gangaji (and then these folks "appoint" others in turn, etc., in some kind of "club of the newly enlightened"), is it that they simply have the cognitive "understanding" of nonduality and can parrot back the Great Teacher's wisdom? And that they've learned the "tricks of the neo-advaita trade" as outlined and critiqued near the outset of this web-page? If this is the deal, i'm not at all impressed.
(NOTE: For a parallel form of corruption in another religious tradition of nonduality, Zen Buddhism, the interested reader might want to read the several essays on the Web by Stuart Lachs. A practitioner of Zen for over 30 years, Lachs has for over two decades been strongly critical of the ego-inflation, self-aggrandizement and inauthenticity that has occurred among too many Zen teachers and practitioners in Japan, America and Europe, with their attachment to exaggerated claims of enlightenment, special status, fancy titles, extraordinary capacities, "beyond morality" license to misbehave, overlooking or dismissing injustices, etc., all for the sake of preserving their own exalted roles and their self-serving, myth-making institutions.)
On this matter of all the supposed "enlightened teachers" in the "lineage of Ramana Maharshi" via Papaji (and there are several other persons i could have spoken about here)...
Well, we have to reaffirm, as has the website www.ramana-maharshi.org at its "News" section (see article "Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi – Great Sage or Milch Cow?"), there's NO LINEAGE FROM MAHARSHI and most of these figures are NOT fully enlightened or liberated in any really meaningful sense of the term. On the latter point, Papaji, as we have seen, himself stated as much.
At least Papaji, along with Mira/Ganga, Neelam, Isaac Shapiro, Yudhishtara, and yes Gangaji/Toni and some others have had a very positive influence for many people. And these and others claiming a connection to Papaji do seem (some better than others) to finally be balancing out Papaji’s “sudden enlightenment” teachings on the level of mere views with more emphasis on actual enlightened living and behavior.
Along this line, I think more folks interested in Papaji might want to make deeper acquaintance with the stupendous avatâr-sage Bhagavân Ramana Mahârshi (d.1950), as well as Papaji's uncle Swâmi Râma Tîrtha (1873-1906), Nisargadatta Mahârâj of Bombay (d.1981) (whom Papaji visited a few times) and the latter's great advaita guru Siddharâmeshvar Maharaj (d.1936). Also one might make a book-acquaintance with a sterling mystic saint, Father Henri Le Saux / Swami Abhishiktânanda, Papaji’s sagely Catholic friend from the 1950s, who was very much initially helped in his advaita understanding by Papaji, but helped even more by the illustrious and truly saintly sage of Tirukoillur, Swami Gnânânanda (d.1974), whom Papaji also met and greatly respected. How lovely, these true sages who so thoroughly live what they have intuitively realized!
Here are a few specific, constructive SUGGESTIONS--intended for anyone in the Advaita "business" (as so many have made it):
1) Instead of calling oneself "enlightened" or "fully enlightened," and making claims and setting up expectations that wind up being somewhat or very fraudulent, why not adopt the old Buddhist parlance and simply market oneself as "a helpful spiritual friend" (kalyana mitra)?
2) Instead of charging money, why not trust in the God-Self and see what spontaneously comes in the form of unsolicited donations, and perhaps get a "day job" so that one does not have to lure in paying disciples and "clients"? (I.e., don't turn spirituality into a business transaction.)
3) Please honor the ancient sacred trust given to anyone in the helping professions and NOT solicit students/clients for any kind of favors or gifts such as free labor, excessive amounts of time or energy, or anything having to do with one's own sexual pleasure.
4) Utterly refrain from saying that anything one is doing is "in the lineage of Ramana Mahârshi." One has no right to usurp this unspeakably selfless, generous, gracious, authentically free, and dearly beloved spiritual master for one's own selfish marketing purposes.
A last comment for this section: I repeat that the great and glorious Dharma-teaching and lifestyle bequeathed to us by Ramana Mahârshi and other truly adept Advaitins is entirely too beautiful to be tarnished by the opportunists and exploiters, however well-intentioned they may seem to be in their own minds. Hence the need to be critical of anything less than the full and balanced Truth.
On Charging Money for Spiritual Services
[The following is the second part of the letter i had written in 2005 in response to my friend, who had asked of me a number of questions about Advaita spirituality.]
Now, C---- [name deleted], about money...
>Do you believe that anyone who charges money for spiritual teachings is taking advantage of others?
A qualified "Yes." I would prefer to simply say it is inappropriate behavior for any spiritual teacher to demand or require money, otherwise the entire thing becomes an operation to commodify spiritual teachings for personal gain. Virtually NONE of the greatest sages I’ve ever met or read about ever charged a dime for their time. The very few that did demand money, like the famous old avatâr, Sai Baba of Shirdi, India (d.1918), immediately re-distributed that money to the needy.
>How is a teacher supposed to support themselves if they don't ask for money?
If their spirituality and Dharma is pure, God will find a way to support that person! [On a personal note: this has been true for this one, Timothy, who has always offered satsang and many other ongoing classes entirely for free, and who has received remarkable Divine support without asking.] Lord Krishna promises this in the Bhagavad Gita, Jesus promises it in the Gospels, and some of us know from direct experience that such support miraculously shows up. Far too many of these spiritual teachers teach that "It's all God," but they don't really trust God to provide for "their ministry," which, of course, for a number of them also includes trying to live rather regally with the funds they demand or "suggest."
Some of these teachers have also learned (consciously or unconsciously) that charging lots of money creates that old perverted fascination in some people's minds: "OOooohhh—they're charging lots of money! They must be offering something REALLY special!" Once persons buy into this, the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance sets in and these poor folks are hooked—they have to neurotically keep rationalizing to themselves that what they lavished their money on was in fact “really special” and so great that now they must go out and tell all their friends about it and rope them in to convince themselves that the event was truly worthwhile (of course, most of this works on the sub-conscious or semi-conscious level).
Many folks have paid tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars to exploitative organizations like Scientology, TM, SYDA Yoga, est (later known as Landmark Forum), Adi Da's church, Kalindi's Miracle of Love group, the Golden City or Oneness/Dîksha-movement in India ("Bhagavan Kalki & Amma") and that ilk. The heads of these corrupt organizations have been laughing all the way to the bank, living in luxury while their staff usually live in virtual servitude, and many of their “sucker”-consumers fall deeper and deeper into debt as they keep buying into further promises of enlightenment if only they’ll come to the next retreat or seminar or whatever.
The sense of elitism promoted by such pricey affairs appeals to a certain base quality in unripe students; they like the feeling of being part of a special "in-group."
Moreover, all that money can then be used to create very palatial, nay, celestial-looking ambience (luxurious ashram decor, renting out glamorous meeting spaces when on tour, etc.)—and of course this is a HUGE draw for unripe aspirants drawn to glamour, and whose notions of spirituality are too often oriented more toward some kind of indulgent sensual heaven and "special state for me the enlightened one" than actual transcendence of ego or Self-Realization. The Buddha and other sages adamantly warned about getting attached to glamorous looking states—whether on heaven or on earth—as pseudo-nirvana, a big ego-trap on the spiritual path.
One wonders: why can’t the organizers of these events be less extravagant about trappings and actually re-distribute some more of the massive wealth they’re generating to the truly needy folks in our world?
So a big question for any spiritual organization that gets created and charges substantial sums for participating is this: WHERE IS THE MONEY GOING?... WHO BENEFITS?... WHY DO THEY NEED THIS MONEY? WHY DOES SPIRITUALITY NEED TO BE COMMODIFIED AND EXPLOITED IN THIS WAY?
[Update point: I haven't heard of really severe money-grubbing in neo-advaita circles (for instance, anywhere close on the scale to whas has happened in Scientology, TM, SYDA Yoga, Da's Adidam, the Golden City/"Deeksha" movement, etc.), but then I don't keep much in touch with this neo-Advaita movement (much better things to do with one's time!). I did hear of some financial "gouging" going on for people who attended seminars in India with Ramesh Balsekar, about whose shenanigans i have written elsewhere. The Gangaji-Eli couple and Saniel Bonder, a former Adi Da disciple, also appear to be charging far more than the "market price" for services and products in this pathetic new "business" of neo-advaita. If anyone thinks that greed is occurring or has occurred with any neo-advaita teachers, they can feel free to let me and our readers know.
[UPDATE: Someone forwarded to me in late 2011 an email flyer from Eckhart Tolle's big business wherein, among many products, services and events advertised for sale, one has the "opportunity" to pay him $300 just for the privilege to be part of the group audience for one of his television show tapings for a couple of hours. Talk about chutzpah. But then, as declared in comments from an old associate of Ulrich Tolle (his real name), found at Rick Ross' anti-cult site, Tolle has long been intent on self-promotion, and created some alluring myths about himself. More recently i was informed that his central concept about the "pain body," which made him so attractive to so many wounded seekers, was stolen from a teacher of Tolle's named Barry Long, without giving Long any credit in Tolle's famous first book.]
I am glad to hear from Nirmala that a few matured neo-advaita teachers (let's go ahead and simply call them advaita teachers), including Nirmala himself, are now making their financial accounts perfectly transparent as to where the money goes that is collected at their talks and retreats. This is a big step forward in accountability and bringing these more mature teachers fully into what we can go ahead and call the authentic, living wisdom tradition of advaita, not merely neo- or pseudo-advaita.]
Another point here: our modern society today in the USA and elsewhere in the world generates so much wealth disparity, such a wide range from the mega-rich “have-it-all” folks to the middle-class “haves” to the “have virtually nothings” that, if money is to be charged at all (because of, say, rental hall fees), it should be explicitly stated that there will be a sliding fee of $0- $20 (or whatever). For some folks, pulling in $200,000 or $1 million or more each year, making money in their sleep through investment earnings, throwing down $100 or $200 for an event is absolutely nothing. But for an increasing number of people on limited budgets, even small sums of money ($10-$20 for an evening talk) only increase their load of debt to usurious credit card banks or make it difficult to pay their monthly expenses on basic utilities, food and medications, etc.
Our modern technologized, automatized, corporatized society also generates so few living-wage jobs, resulting in so much economic insecurity, that some people have begun to exploit spirituality out of a certain self-preserving anxiety, not fat-cat greed (it's actually an age-old phenomenon); they make a commodity out of spirituality and start their "careers" as spiritual teachers, looking for customers as "clients."
Previously and in other traditional cultures to this day, spiritual teachers had learned a trade or worked in manual labor at an ashram or monastery as a contributing member of a community. In such day-in, day-out circumstances, one learned how to live a straight life of contributing, working cooperatively, being humble and accountable, cultivating the virtues, and so forth.
One became a true “giver,” not a “taker.”
When one examines the background of many “blab it and grab it” contemporary “teachers,” including everyone from numerous Christian evangelicals to New Agers to certain neo-Advaitins, one usually finds a disturbing pattern of 1) having studied with too few teachers (and not very respectable ones at that); 2) too little time deepening, grounding and balancing one's supposed "Divine Realization"; and 3) a pathetic lack of understanding of the writings of the spiritual tradition they claim to represent.
On the first and last point, note that the great Ch'an and Zen masters of China, Japan, and Korea, though they taught the way of "sudden enlightenment," usually had spent decades of study of the scriptures and scriptural commentaries and usually years of traveling around meeting other highly respected Dharma Masters before presuming to teach. Rarely does one find such depth and breadth and maturity in those who presume to be facilitating neo-Advaita satsang or various other spiritual movements today.
We might here also talk about the phenomenon of producing books, since that is something with which i've been involved to a limited extent. It's one thing to carefully study the spiritual traditions for many years and share the depths of one's research with others in the mode of a helpful “spiritual friend” with a high-quality literary product on which one spends thousands of hours, a book that brings a lot of good, useful info and inspiration to others. It's quite different to have a few big “Eureka!—I've found it” experiences, then sit around “giving satsang,” while others are required to “volunteer” (or for paltry slave wages) transcribe, edit, publish and market “the brilliant Guru's talks” and then charge money for it—almost all funds then going solely to the teacher.
The truth is that “giving satsang” in the way many people do it today is the easiest thing in the world! Once one has learned some of the Absolute-truth rap (easily available after reading just a few books or articles), a certain basic peacefulness and ease in social settings, and, last but not least, the dialectical questioning “maneuvers” (e.g., “Who is asking the question?” “Who wants enlightenment?” “Have you traced that thought/feeling back to its source?” “What would you be if you gave up that belief?” etc. etc.) one could “give satsang” easily, endlessly, while half-asleep. It all flows out quite “effortlessly” from the conditioning one sets up in the mind.
And much of it is nothing more than a fancy-looking oneupsmanship game by those who've mastered a certain kind of "social virtuosity." Those with lots of bravado and chutzpah, little humility and no capacity for self-criticism or self-doubt will do really well at this! In other words, what we have here with more than a few "neo-satsang leaders" is a chronic form of subtly or not so subtly shaming others for being attached to an ego-sense, while regarding oneself as the great Presence Itself, the “living Invitation” to Freedom and Bliss. But a true sage primarily sees only God in everyone she or he meets, not the ego. To presume the ego and not to presume God-Self-Tao-Buddha is not the way of the enlightened sage. Yet the true sage will compassionately guide the aspirant to realize a way of dis-identification or liberation from any empirical sense of ego that experientially is felt to be coopting or preventing this realization that there is only God, only the Self. But this will never be done in a condescending or "oneupping" manner, for who is separate from whom? (In some ways the pseudo-Advaita oneupsmanship game is worse than the dysfunctional forms of Evangelical-Pentecostal Christianity, wherein everyone is regarded—including the minister—as being a "sinner," their salvation only to be found in God / Jesus Christ.)
The corrupt social dynamics of this “shaming-the-ego,” “I'm-enlightened-are-you-enlightened?” set-up should be obvious.
Okay, enough of the Bill Maher-style rant...
Dear C-----, I love your passion for truth and clarity and DEPTH.
Enjoy being thy True Self and enjoy thy Sacred Relationships with everyone and everything in your life by just naturally allowing the reality of WHO YOU ARE.
Pranama and Namaste ["I salute the Divine within you"],
[The following letter, posted with his permission, is a thoughtful and considerate email received from Nirmala, a disciple of Neelam, who is, in turn, a disciple of the late Papaji of Lucknow. Nirmala's email letter expresses appreciation yet concern for some of the things i had written in my letter to "C," which used to be posted immediately above Nirmala's letter, but which i have taken offline, replaced by the essay preceding this section. After Nirmala's letter below, which is still worth keeping at this webpage, I have added as an "Addendum" some musings on the state of affairs with advaita instruction in our society. I have then given Nirmala the last word on our discussion with his follow-up e-letter to me.
The essential point is that I am very happy to hear Nirmala's report that many neo-advaita teachers have in fact matured, expanded and balanced their message to spiritual aspirants in the last 10 years --not so lopsided on just presenting the Absolute-level truth, but also compassionately including the "conventional" or "human" level of truth. An interesting question is whether these neo-advaita teachers would have become so very "popular" in the first place had they started off with a more balanced, mature, and less "dramatic" or "hip" teaching.
In any case, a good sign is that a few of the more respectable teachers, including Nirmala himself, have begun to make their finances openly accountable. This is a healthy development, and shows that many of these teachers are moving beyond or have already moved well beyond the "neo-advaita" position that I have critiqued above, based on my intermittent earlier exposure to certain individuals presuming to function as teachers. Some of the teachers that Nirmala recommends, whom I have never critiqued and have a good feeling about, can therefore justifiably be described as teaching within the hallowed tradition of advaita, not merely in the "neo-advaita" category. As will be noted below, we can still have some reservations about anyone who is trying to make a "career" out of teaching advaita for "customers/clients," rather than trusting the God-Self to manifest whatever is to be manifested.]
[Email letter from Nirmala, March 25, 2007:]
After reading through some of your informative and helpful website, I feel moved to write you and share my perspective about the neo-advaita movement that you sometimes single out as a repository of half-baked and sometimes even harmful teachers, especially since I am mentioned by name [Timothy: Nirmala is mentioned neutrally, i would add] in one of your discourses about neo-advaita. Unfortunately, much of what you report and suggest is true in specific cases and of course in those cases one can only lament the shortcomings of the teacher and the teachings, and, as you often do on your site, wish the best for all involved.
However, it seems at times that the portrait you create of neo-advaita and the people offering satsang is one-sided and unbalanced. Even though you often soften your comments by pointing out that there may be positive examples of teachers in this vein, the overall impression is that if this were so it would be a rare exception. And so I am writing to share my own experience since it mostly contradicts any suggestion that the abuses by spiritual teachers in this genre are widespread.
Of the spiritual teachers offering satsang including many who were directly or indirectly influenced by Papaji that I have met, most are sincere, loving, thoughtful individuals who present a balanced and healthy teaching. Specifically, I will mention my own teacher Neelam who in the 10 years I have known her has continued to deepen and broaden her own perspective on spiritual awakening and embodiment. Her style of teaching has shifted and changed to incorporate more and more of an emphasis on a truly complete meeting of everything about our nature including our relative human side, and has also incorporated an emphasis on living as fully as possible from the deepest wisdom of our being. And I have seen this same broadening and subtlety in the work of many others that I have met and observed in (and sometimes out) of satsang, including Adyashanti, Pamela Wilson, Gangaji, Catherine Ingram, and Francis Lucille. Again, I mention these examples to hopefully give a sense that there are teachers out there doing meaningful and helpful work within the very loosely defined category of neo-advaita. It is in large part through my own contact with these teachers that my own life and perspective have been profoundly transformed.
I also wanted to address your comments in the same piece about neo-advaita regarding the collection of donations at spiritual gatherings, again because I and others I know and respect do ask for donations at our events. I was struck by how in response to a question about people asking for donations at satsang, you offered examples of truly gross abuses of money grubbing by spiritual organizations that have nothing to do with adavita such as Scientology. In contrast, it is my experience that most of the people mentioned above have shown integrity and a sense of balance regarding money at satsang. And in some cases, they are just getting by and are not profiting in any way beyond a barely adequate support of their basic needs.
As for myself, I have always clearly communicated that money never needs to be a reason for someone not to come to my satsangs. And while there is a suggested donation, this message is clearly being heard since the donations received rarely average even half of the suggested amount. This is fine with me as I have also directly experienced the kind of divine grace you describe that seems to support me in my work in many unexpected and wonderful ways. However, I do not think it is necessarily a sign of spiritual advancement that money is never asked for at a satsang, and I think it can at times even be an imbalanced approach in an opposite way from those demanding exorbitant sums for their teachings. If money is a part of the relative truth, why not be completely open and transparent in one’s dealings regarding finances? Donations can be just one more way for the Divine to support the teaching work, and so why treat them as something that can not be spoken about? In my announcements at satsang, I am also willing to share the general picture of the financial requirements for my work and how well they are currently being met. And after recently seeing this on another teacher’s site, I plan to post the financial statements of my non-profit organization on my website. It seems respectful of the people attending to give them as much information as possible and allow them to determine what is truest for them regarding the offering of a donation. Again, if there is complete openness and transparency, then why does the subject of donations have to be avoided?
[This willingness by Nirmala and the other unnamed teacher to be financially transparent and accountable is a big, positive step forward.
Naturally, I still have some concerns, which I think every mature person in the field of advaita instruction would share, about turning this instruction into a "career" or a "gig," because of the obviously inherent danger that, once one's livelihood is dependent on income from students attending satsang or private sessions, there will always be the temptation to find ways to "attract" and "hold on" to students, to "boost one's ratings and marketshare in the competitive advaita field," etc., so as to get a steadier, more reliable, and ever-more substantial income.]
[Nirmala's letter resumes:]
Mostly, I have appreciated the clarity of your writings on your site, and I also appreciate your willingness to directly confront the actual abuses and unhealthy activities that are occuring. I especially appreciate your descriptions of absolute truth and relative truth, and how both are relevant. I just hope that you might consider a further softening of the impression you might be giving that everyone out there offering satsang in the current blossoming of neo-advaita teaching is somehow implicated by the unfortunate actions of a few.
As you have also suggested, there is a wonderful gift in much of what is being shared so openly and directly about our ultimate true nature, so that it would be a shame if people threw the baby out with the bathwater and concluded that all the teachers and teaching in this somewhat new approach were somehow suspect. There are many people I have met and shared with through the years who have had their lives deeply and permanently transformed by their association with teachers within neo-advaita.
With love and gratitude,
Addendum by Timothy
I am heartened by Nirmala's words, and can see that he and others who are sincere and genuine with this work are certainly wanting to "do the right thing." As a longtime lover of this advaita tradition, its teachers old and new, male and female, Asian, and non-Asian, as well as a lover of babies (getting so clean in the bathwater), I am happy to honor and recommend any advaita instructor or advaita coach whose heart is in the right place with all of this. Having spent quality time with Annamalai Swami, Nisargadatta Maharaj, and many other respected sages in this field, I have not felt the need to "seek out" or even spend more than a little time to "check out" contemporary figures in the west who have been a mouthpiece for advaita teachings. I am happy to take Nirmala's words of approval and appreciation for the men and women he mentions in his email as deserving attention and support (I have also heard quite positive things about these specific individuals in the past and have read with appreciation snippets of their teachings in recent years).
In his e-letter's last paragraph, Nirmala mentions "this somewhat new approach" of advaita teachings and teachers here in the west.
And this leads me to comment that our situation here in the west is, in fact, unusual in certain respects in contrast to the traditional contexts for Vedanta, Ch'an/Zen, Vajrayana and other nondual circles in Asia. In those hallowed traditions, royal and lay patrons often gave considerable financial and even institutional support to respected spiritual leaders and their satsang/sangha followings. Look at the considerable financial support that the Buddha and his sangha received in his own day, and the amplification of all that support for the Dharma and Sangha by Emperor Ashoka and his Dharma-ministers. Nagarjuna had considerable support from the Satahana king of Andhra Pradesh. The great Buddhist monastic universities at Nalanda and later Somapuri, Vikramashila, and Uddandapuri, were extremely well-endowed by the post-Gupta and Pala era kings. The T'ang, Song and later dynasties in China saw massive support for Buddhist and Taoist monasteries, shrines, hermitages, etc., and the same situation has prevailed in Japan, Korea, Tibet, and all the Theravada Buddhist countries over the centuries. (Obviously, the sanghas have been challenged and persecuted, often to horrific extent, in some of those countries in the modern era and at certain times in past eras.)
Here in America, there is, as yet, no such large-scale support for a pure Advaita Vedanta "sangha(s)" inspired by (NOT "in the lineage of") Ramana Maharshi or other well-respected sages like Nisargadatta Maharaj, Atmananda (Sri Krishna Menon), et al.. Obviously, such support would almost certainly never come from the U.S. or other governments as happened in Asia. (It may be of interest that, as part of my overall instruction work, i have been able to teach advaita and other aspects of spirituality and transpersonal psychology through state-supported local adult-education classes entirely free to the public, through Santa Barbara City College’s nationally-renowned Continuing Education program. The ambience is not quite the same as a satsang hall, but rather close to it.) Unless Bill Gates, the Walton family, Ted Turner, and others among our mega-wealthy class of billionaires, centimillionaires or decamillionaires open up to radical nondual realization and launch a network of ashrams and dharamshalas, it is unlikely that private funds will flow forth to adequately support a pure advaita sangha and a few dozen instructors who by all accounts are mature and balanced in their teaching of students. The advaita movement would, in any case, have to have some level of identifiable institutional or organizational structure (like the Buddhist sangha) for this support to begin to happen, anyway.
An ideal situation, i suppose (and I'm NOT the organizational or institutional type) would be a loosely organized institution or "collegial network" of advaita instructors who know and respect each other's work and who can lightly but sincerely "regulate" (dare i say "police"?) each other's approach with students so that no students are being exploited sexually, financially or in those subtler areas of "one-upsmanship" social gaming and power-tripping which i have described near the beginning of this long webpage. It's not enough that Papaji disciples teaching on the traveling "satsang scene" all promote each other and "appoint" or designate some of their followers as "teachers in the lineage of Ramana Maharshi through Papaji." As i and others have already suggested, this so-called “lineage” is far too problematic to constitute the core of the collegial network i have in mind.
As i observe, one form that such a collegial network is already developing is the series of conferences in the San Francisco Bay Area on "Nondual Wisdom and Psychotherapy" convened by my good friend John Prendergast, which is open to having presentations be made by all competent Dharma instructors as well as psychotherapists who have integrated nondual awakening into their therapy sessions with individual clients and groups. Matt and Joan Greenblatt and their Inner Directions organization held some well-attended conferences on nonduality commencing nearly a decade ago--but i'm not aware of any attempts coming out of that series of conferences to create the "self regulating collegial network" that i have in mind to keep this Advaita field honest with itself.
A collegial network has in fact already arisen to some extent in the North American Zen Buddhist communities, and also in the Theravada Buddhist vipassana/insight meditation communities led by the Barre, MA "Insight Meditation Society" and Marin County, CA "Spirit Rock Meditation Center" and the newspaper Inquiring Mind: A Semiannual Journal of the Vipassana Community. As is well known, both these Buddhist communities (Zen and Theravada/Vipassana) have had to deal internally with various problems in their midst with certain Asian and non-Asian teachers misbehaving. This is par for the course, something that all other religious movements old and new have had to address and resolve (some do it better than others--just look at the fiasco created by the Catholic Church's refusal to look at the sexual molestation of minors committed by a small but significant fraction of its priests).
Advaita, with its even more insistent radically HERE-NOW realization of the Absolute, has not seen, and may never see, any institutional development of a collegial network here in the West of the kind that could allow for this self-regulation. The "organizations" that have been thus far growing are mainly narrowly focused organizations to promote the books, teaching schedules and retreats connected with certain individual "charismatic" teachers who've grown big followings fairly rapidly.
What seems unfortunate is that some of these teachers grew their organizations very large before they were fully ripe, and part of the initial big attraction was the very kind of "one-upping," power-grabbing behavior and unbalanced "Absolute" teachings that i have described at the outset of this webpage. This is especially true in the case of people like Adi Da/Free John (in the 1970s and 80s), I.M Nome (in the 1980s), and Andrew Cohen (in the 1990s) and others, including some Papaji disciples. Adi Da has been exposed by former close disciples for a long list of abuses. Nome, who looked so promising at the outset and for the first few years, turned out to be a very problematic figure, as has been revealed on the Internet. As for Cohen, whom I mentioned earlier in the long report at this webpage, many of his former followers (like Hal Blacker) are still quite concerned about his competence and qualifications to be a spiritual teacher (let alone an embodiment of the Guru function to whom people should surrender their lives).
Who else from the current crop of "advaita teachers" will wind up being added to this list?
Some of the current "non-problematic" advaita figures (or "no longer problematic" because, as Nirmala suggests, they've matured and their teachings are now more balanced and nuanced to include both the Absolute level and also conventional "human" level) have burgeoning organizations. Transparency with their funds would be most welcome at this point. And we can all be "benevolently curious" as to what the situation will be like around these teachers in, say, ten to fifteen years, by which time hindsight will be able to better tell if these teachers have had the competence and authentic freedom and maturity to manage the attention, devotion and resources being given to them.
After all, the study of cults ("any group centered around a charismatic authority figure") reveals how so very many, many groups that started off well have certainly not ended well. What looked initially like it would be a very empowering situation for aspirants has instead become, because of "shadow" elements in the psyche of the teacher (in unconscious collusion with shadow elements in the psyches of the followers), a very disempowering, dysfunctional situation, rife with overt abuse--or the abuse can be less obvious, a more insidious form of exploitation of students for the teacher's own needs for attention, fame, etc.
As i have mentioned elsewhere on this website, yes, "this is all a dream," but our best elder brothers and sisters in the Dharma or True Way of Spirit have shown how essential it is to impeccably live Dharma in full freedom and virtue within this dream, not just talk about Dharma while still stuck in attachments and aversions to the dream content.
I again wish to thank Nirmala for his insights and re-assuring status report on the maturing and balancing of this emerging field of Advaita instruction in the West. The more dialogue we can have about this, the better.
Homage to Thy wondrous forms, O Formless One, O Self of all, right HERE as Self-shining Awareness.
+ + + + + + +
[Nirmala promptly responded to my remarks above with some gracious words and also some further comments, and a few humor items, which i have excerpted and post here below as the "final word" on this topic:]
[...] I am very touched and heartened by your willingness to include my comments and to soften your own remarks. I am not surprised since I find your writings overall to be quite clear, balanced, helpful and yet direct and unflinching in addressing the shadow side of the spiritual teaching scene. I have just added a link to your site on my links page so that others may find their way to your words.
I too often wonder what the long term effects on a specific teacher and teaching will be when there is a large following that develops, especially given the many examples of unhealthy results including the ones you mention below. [...] I remember someone saying the worst thing that can happen to an artist is early success because they often become locked into doing the art that brought them so much attention, and perhaps the same is sometimes true of spiritual teachers and organizations.
I have also found it very important to stay connected with other teachers and also other teachings to keep my views from calcifying in any way.[...] Since I am also not an "organization" person, I am glad to have found ways to balance out the limitations in my own background.
So thanks again for your willingness to engage in and share our dialogue, and I will leave you with a couple of my favorite "pure Advaita" jokes (possibly for inclusion on your spiritual humor page):
Q-How many Advaita masters does it take to change a lightbulb?
A-Who is it that wants to know?
and my absolute favorite:
--with light and love,
* * * * *
And for those who want to feast on some great nondually oriented humor from the Ch'an/Zen traditions of China and Japan, link here to this long, whimsically-illustrated
Zen humor page.