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Thomas: Dear Sundari and James, I’ve had an issue with you going for a while, and realized I needed to address it.
I think you both realize how deeply committed I am to Vedanta. It’s beyond commitment, actually. It sings to me the eternal song of the soul. It is a lamp that outshines all other lights in this world. So I have no argument with Vedanta here. The issue I am dealing with has to do with this putting down of other teachers and traditions.
Here’s the essence of it for me: The universe is way too diverse for there to be only one effective way to the One. There must be innumerable ways, and thus innumerable kinds of teachers and teachings to suit the many different kinds of seekers. A Sufi enters through his door, only to find the One on the other side. A Christian Gnostic enters through his door, only the find the One waiting on the other side. A Tibetan enters through his meditation of Chenrezig…
There is plenty of nonsense associated with Neo-Advaita. Certainly there are plenty of half-baked teachers with half-baked teachings. But to say across the board that it is not a valid means of knowledge, that the teachers have no method, or that the teachers are not qualified to teach simply because they aren’t tied to a specific sampradaya doesn’t make sense to me. Isvara can qualify anybody He wants, whether it fits conventional protocol or not. Ramana is a case in point. Nisargadatta is another. They did not teach classical Vedanta, but they both pointed to the truth. When Nisargadatta pointed to the “I Am” and instructed people to seriously question their pseudo-identities, he was giving out a method for realizing the truth. When Ramana instructed students to ask the question Who Am I?, he was pointing out a pith instruction. For mature seekers, simply sitting in these masters’ presence was method enough. They didn’t have to read the Gita or Upanishads. These masters were living scriptures. To say they were not qualified is ridiculous. They may not fit the qualification in a classical Vedanta sense for teaching in a traditional Vedanta sampradaya. But traditional is not the only way.
My own first guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi simply served his guru wholeheartedly. His guru was Swami Brahamananda Saraswati, the great Shankaracharya of Jyotir Math in North India. This was the very monastery Adi Shankara himself had built. He got realization simply through service. When asked if he studied Vedanta during this time, as Guru Dev was not only established in brahman but also a great exponent of Vedanta, he said he didn’t have time. His whole heart and mind was on Guru Dev 24/7. High discussions were going on all the time as scholars and pundits, etc. visited from all over India. But Maharishi simply attuned to his master. Afterward, when Guru Dev had passed, Maharishi opened the various texts. He read the Gita, Upanishads and Brahma Sutras. But his task was not to teach Vedanta, but to provide a highway for the householder. This had been his master’s wish, and it was Maharishi’s destiny to fulfill it.
But the point here is this: Guru Dev did not give Maharishi an elaborate, carefully laid-out method for raising his understanding. Given Maharishi’s receptivity, his presence was enough. His devotion to Guru Dev dissolved his ignorance. You can disagree with Maharishi’s teachings, but you cannot deny his totally one-pointed devotion to his Guru Dev and to the Vedic tradition. In 40 years I never heard him say a word about himself. I never saw him without a picture of his guru behind and above him. I never heard him finish a lecture without saying, “Jai Guru Dev.” He pointed out over and over, in every conceivable way, through every conceivable discipline, the One eternal Reality behind this great Facade. He revived Ayurveda, taught 12,000 Vedic pundits and initiated over six million people into yogic meditation and samadhi. Yet he never taught Vedanta proper, nor did he take credit. Ultimately, I think it was his service to his guru that qualified him to teach. He did not need the stamp of approval from anyone to do what he did. He obviously had God’s approval.
I know this concept about Neo-Advaita teachers not being qualified to teach is not yours personally. I’ve read it on other Vedanta teachers’ websites as well, along with the criticism that they lack a proper methodology. I would say some are indeed not qualified. But there are also some very fine teachers, highly skilled, who would be labeled Neo-Advaita in that they are not connected to traditional lines. If a sincere student has a genuine experience of the One through a given teacher (and especially if he gets the final understanding), this idea simply does not hold up. People have gotten the final understanding through many teachers that you criticize as not being legitimate or qualified, or having a method. Ramesh got it from Nisargadatta, Wayne Liquorman got it from Ramesh, and the list goes on with various teachers and students. Ramesh studied Vedanta with a conventional teacher for 20 years. In his own words, it was practically a waste of time. It was not until he met Nisargadatta that he progressed quickly. Naturally, Ramesh was not going to teach Vedanta proper. That wasn’t the way for him. Nisargadatta did enter through a traditional Vedanta sampradaya, but did not seem moved to teach in that way. Who can say why? The how, when and why of awakening is too vast to ever comprehend, as are the ways of teaching and expression. I think because of this it is better to leave the criticism behind. Vedanta certainly needs no defense. Or at least be very specific, accurate and efficient with it.
If it is dharma combat you are doing, then do it properly. Set up a debate and go at it. Invite your opponent to a one-on-one. That’s what they used to do in the past. But to rip into these other teachers and teachings without a truly objective, balanced approach risks creating greater confusion all around. If a student has had a powerful opening through a given teacher, and then you callously dismiss the teacher, there’s going to be a rub somewhere. It will be difficult to finally convince the student of your position if it goes against his or her heart. And he may turn off to Vedanta if he associates the teachings with your personal opinions.
I will also add this about your critique of Buddhism: it, like Hinduism, is far too vast to try to compare to Vedanta. I can’t say much about the other schools, but Tibetan Buddhism has survived fairly intact for well over a thousand years. Contrary to your suggestions, it was not run out of India by Shankara. They [the Buddhists] were being slaughtered by the Muslims, and all their extraordinary universities were destroyed. The teachings migrated to Tibet where a whole society was molded by the dharma and unified in their pursuit of moksha. If a teaching is validated by the fruit it bears, consider the plight of Tibetan peoples. Through full-on genocide and loss of their ancient homeland, their spiritual tradition remains very much intact. The basis of their teaching, that the cultivation of wisdom and compassion must proceed together all the way to moksha, is being broadcast at every corner of the earth. A serious inquiry into Buddhist thought will unfold the same non-dual teachings at its core. But, like the Vedic tradition, it is taught only when the student is mature. In one of Sundari’s satsangs, she was asked to comment on the difference between Buddhism and Vedanta. Well, aside from it being the wrong question, she went on to say that it’s hard to tell just what Buddhism is, and that it lacks a clear method of teaching, etc. Now, what if someone asked you what Hinduism is, and how it relates to Vedanta? Hinduism is as vast as the sky, and equally confusing at first glance. There are countless sects, millions of gods, countless methods for self-development and vast texts exploring all these various takes on reality. And how does it relate to Vedanta? No doubt it can be explained. But even Hindus know little about classical Vedanta.
Buddha’s teaching was a response to the need of the time. The Vedic tradition was strangling under the orthodoxy of the caste system and the Brahmin elite. He was not opposed to the Vedas. That would have been impossible. He restated the eternal message of the Vedas and infused it with life, like all the great prophets have in the past and will again in the future.
The debates that Shankara was said to have had with the Buddhists were obviously necessary for the time. They no doubt brought greater clarity to the whole field of inquiry, and helped to re-establish Hindu dharma. But if you look back to the great mahasiddhas of that time, many are recognized in both Hindu and Buddhist camps. More than likely, Buddhism was indeed another sect off the Vedic tree, as Ram says all the time, but a very strong and vital one. The Dzogchen teachings [of Tibet] hold their ground with anything I’ve encountered in Vedanta. There may be a strong experiential flavor to some of the teachings. Fair enough. But at the final step it is understanding alone that matters. Everything is born in awareness. Everything is sustained in awareness. And everything dissolves back into awareness. All there is is awareness. Being established in this understanding would be just enough to handle a Chinese invasion, 20 years of imprisonment and torture, the loss of all that is precious and dear, and in the end still be able to forgive, pray for all sentient beings and continue chanting, “Om mani padme hum.” Such are the fruit of these precious teachings.
I am not a Buddhist. The Vedic tradition is just too deep in my system. I am full. But Faye has been touched here. Tibetan Buddhism appeals to her aesthetics, her artistic nature: The beauty of the mandalas and tankas, the kindness of the Tibetan people, the integration of wisdom and compassion. She gladly serves her Bhutanese Rinpoche. And he blesses our farm each summer with amazing Fire Ceremonies. When he and I discuss things, he knows and I know that we’re not talking religion here. We’re talking dharma. And dharma is universal. Now, as I said, Faye’s heart has been touched here; she takes dharma teachings seriously, from whatever source they come. Imagine how she feels in her heart when a callous, uninformed remark is made against Buddhism. She experiences it as being toxic. Vedanta, taught properly, should not leave any kind of toxic residue. It can, and should, challenge. But it should not, and really cannot if taught properly, offend the heart.
I think I’ve said what was in my heart. Sundari, thank you so much for our dialogues. And thank you for inviting me to write something for the newsletter. I haven’t quite got inspired yet to work out the subject matter. Shamanism and Vedanta are so different, at different ends of the pole in a way. Both seek to relieve suffering, but they work at very different levels, one through experience first, the other through knowledge first. But if I get inspired I will let you know. Your openness to me and my journey is so much appreciated. I love you both so much. Ram was the link for me in my return to my Vedic roots in Vedanta. He communicated Vedanta in such a way that it bloomed in my heart. It was a transmission. It was difficult for me to begin this discussion today because I feel so connected to you both and this work. It is not easy to criticize you. But I have heard extensively your arguments and logic around these issues, and I have heard others. It felt like it was time to lay out my perspective.
James: I have never criticized you, nor has Sundari. We are welcoming, compassionate people, loved by many. Where is your discrimination? I am not Vedanta. One aspect of Vedanta is criticism. It is an important and positive part. It was hugely helpful for me, coming as I did from the yoga background. As Krishna says, “There are many erroneous notions of enlightenment.” For every complaint about my critical remarks – which, incidentally, are supported by airtight logic – I get scores of thank-yous. They are very helpful.
This is an emotional issue that has nothing to do with me, Buddhism or Vedanta. Although you have never asked for advice, I suggest you inquire into why criticism bothers you. In any case, I never tried to recruit you. You came to the teachings of your own free will. You are certainly welcome to keep coming, but if you can’t listen without prejudice, why not stick with the Buddhists? All roads lead to Rome, but Vedanta is a superhighway, assuming certain qualifications. Anyway, I am sorry to give you a hard time, but you need it.
Thomas: For the record, I never suggested either you or Sundari ever criticized me. It’s an interesting comment about why criticism bothers me. Let me think it over. Also, I don’t go along with the all-roads-lead-to-Rome idea. Some lead nowhere. Others, God knows where.
I don’t get the logic in some of your criticisms. I get the positive aspect of it up to a point, in that it can help hone discrimination, but it can also cultivate intolerance. I do know I’ve read similar arguments before though, by other teachers of this sampradaya.
No need to apologize. It’s all grist for the mill. I think you’re right. It is emotional. Huh... I’m dealing with it.
James: One of the qualifications, perhaps the most important qualification, is dispassion. It means not letting one’s feelings determine one’s thoughts. There is this warm fuzzy “we are all one” idea in the modern spiritual world that frankly makes me rather ill. It is often used to avoid inquiry. It requires no particular training or skill to tout oneself as a teacher. Coupled with the generally mindless attitude of “surrender,” these bad ideas flourish. It is a valuable service to criticize them if you can supply common-sense reasons. Vedanta supplies them. Most everyone that comes to Vedanta comes after a long and difficult sadhana. The paths they have followed have not delivered the goods. People need to know where they went wrong in their thinking. Mature people can handle bad news. If I didn’t criticize bad teachings and mention the teachers with whom they are associated, I would not be following my dharma as a Vedanta teacher. I don’t have bad relationships with anybody. A few people don’t like me for various reasons, one of them often is the fact that I have the temerity to question the words of various so-called enlightened beings. But I don’t see myself as an enlightened being. I am just a person who is entitled to his opinion which in this case is supported by irrefutable logic.
So the issue is always “why” a particular thing disturbs the mind. There is some vasana that has not been resolved. With criticism, it is usually because one was criticized by one’s parents and a sensitive spot developed. It always amuses me that people who don’t like my criticisms of their sacred cows don’t mind criticizing me. Another reason that criticism agitates spiritual people is that it is “duality.” Of course it is. Duality is a fact. It is not something that should go away when one has non-dual knowledge. There is no contradiction between duality and non-duality. They are not beliefs. They are facts that inhabit different orders of the one reality. If you are the self, you will understand this fact and see criticism for what it is. In fact, humans are experts at criticism. It is what we do best. The only issue is the nature of the basis of the criticism. Is it personal and irrational? Is it impersonal and logical?
Thomas: Yeah, you’re spot on. I dealt with a lot of criticism as a kid: from parents, teachers, neighbors. And I’m a Virgo. The Virgo script deals a lot with judgment and discrimination, sorting out the wheat from the chaff when we take the high path, judgment and criticism of self and others on the low one. We can be awfully hard on ourselves (and our loved ones) when the pattern kicks up. I’ve softened up a lot as I’ve matured, but obviously it still kicks up occasionally.
Putting it back on my plate was very skillful. I had to face it. First thing I hit up against was not wanting to admit I was wrong. And that what I was dealing with actually had nothing to do with you. I had to accept the sting, and see where the hell it was coming from in me. Projection is interesting. It happens unconsciously. So it’s just not something we can see as it’s happening. We know it only when we’re able to reflect on our emotional reactivity. Sometimes we catch it. In fact, plenty of times. But if some vasana is coming up from deep enough inside, and with enough force, it can be very difficult to recognize in present time. Emotional reactivity is, of course, the key, the indicator. But when we’re in the thick of it, it’s not easy to admit.
Your response is beautifully instructive, and I will contemplate it more in the morning. I think you ought to post it for others to benefit. It’s clear as a bell. I appreciate your pointer about dispassion. I keep hearing this one a lot these days. It’s obvious. Without it there’s no discrimination. Thank you both for your insights and your patience. I’m sorry I had to run all this out on you guys.
~ Love, Thomas