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Satsang Not Good for Teaching
Steve: Hi, James. My question/discussion revolves around having a teacher (or not), but first let me give you a brief biographical summary of my spiritual path. I am 60 years old, and learned Transcendental Meditation in college. I also practiced other mantra meditations after that, and then developed an interest in Buddhism. I read books, practiced vipassana meditation and went to a retreat or two. One of my first books on non-duality was Wake Up Now by Stephan Bodian, a former Zen monk who studied under Jean Klein. I also read some classics by Ramana Marharshi and Nisargadatta, as well as other books by various teachers. I took to the non-dual teachings, as they made sense to me, at least intellectually. At the time, I wasn’t aware of the Neo-Advaita classification, so I was digesting writings by genuine masters as well as Neo teachers.
I recently finished your book How to Attain Enlightenment and found it a very clear and incisive work on what enlightenment is and isn’t and the best ways to get there. Around the same time, I finished a retreat/satsang with a teacher from what is called The Direct Path. These teachers are disciples of Atmananda Krishna Menon, and included Jean Klein and more recently Francis Lucille, Greg Goode and Rupert Spira. I’m not clear whether you consider these guys Neo teachers or not.
James: They are all good guys and definitely a cut above the Neos, but they do not teach traditional Vedanta, so their teachings are only useful for highly-qualified individuals and more or less only reveal the nature of awareness. They do not prescribe a comprehensive sadhana. There is basically only one tool in their toolkit – inquiry. Karma yoga, Isvara, values, the three gunas, qualifications, bhakti, meditation, etc. are missing. And there is no overview that presents the big picture. This they share with the Neos. The path was basically designed for sanyassis, advanced contemplatives with no karma. It doesn’t work unless you are qualified. And those qualifications are not discussed.
Steve: Anyway, after attending three satsangs by some of these teachers in the past year, I came to the conclusion (independent from, but verified by your book) that satsangs are not a good way to receive non-dual teachings and make progress on the path (please indulge my dualistic references, as I’m aware there is no progress nor a path, on an absolute level). I’m not trashing any particular teacher, just the manner in which the teachings are delivered. One of the main problems as I see it is that these gatherings have people from all points on the path, from beginner to long-time seekers as well as a few who have no idea what non-duality is about. Consequently, the questions and dialogues with the teacher are all over the map. The discussions range from the pointless to the absurd (wondering if the Eiffel Tower is real if we can’t see it now, but people in France can).
I also get the sense that some of the participants want to get the teacher’s attention, kind of like the teacher’s pet back in school. One woman I spoke with was visibly distressed that the teacher didn’t know her name, even though she attended three satsangs with him in less than a year. They follow certain teachers around, kind of like the hippies following The Grateful Dead, which can get expensive taking into account fees for the teachers, lodging, airfare, etc. To be sure, there were nuggets of wisdom dispensed, as well as contemplations/visualizations to loosen association with the body and world as we know it.
James: This is an excellent observation. It is true. The way satsang is conceived in the West makes it a very poor way to teach. In fact it is not a teaching mechanism. Q and A is very useful in the context of a complete teaching. Otherwise it is, as you say, very ineffective. A person needs to be exposed to a comprehensive proven means of knowledge and it needs to be taught. The seeker, who is by definition undiscriminating, is the last person qualified to evaluate the meaning of the teachings.
Steve: Even though the consensus seems to be that it’s best to have a teacher, what if that is not possible? You can’t exactly look in the Yellow Pages under “Advaita teachers” and give one a call. Even if you could, how would you know they are qualified? It seems to me there are too many seekers, and not enough teachers to go around; that’s why Eckhart Tolle and Adyashanti have hundreds of people attending their presentations.
James: This is true, but there are so few qualified teachers because there are so few qualified students, although I cannot keep them away because I teach traditional Vedanta, which is definitely red meat, not the instant-enlightenment fast food that is served up these days. Actually, there are quite a few qualified inquirers – people like yourself who have been through the spiritual mill and are mature and have understood the limitations of the meager offerings of the Neos and others.
Steve: I feel very frustrated and like I am in limbo. If I drop out of the “satsang circuit,” how can I continue to move forward without a teacher? I can’t move backward into previous ignorance, nor would I want to even if that was possible. And without a teacher, it seems I can’t go forward either. What is a person to do in this situation? (And I know there are others out there like me.) Any advice and words of wisdom would be greatly appreciated. Thanks for your time and consideration.
James: Tell me your doubts and I will try to help you clear them. At least five or six people a year tell me that the satsangs, the book, the website and a few emails with me have finished their seeking. I also do Skype on a donation basis. You may be a lot more enlightened than you think. Have you watched my videos? They are almost as good as coming to live teaching, some say better insofar as you can review topics that are not clear. I have a full teaching schedule, so maybe I will be in your neck of the woods sometime. Or come to India. I will do five weeks of Bhagavad Gita starting January 2013.
~ Om and prem, James