Are spiritual teachings prescriptions or descriptions? Sudden vs. gradual teachings
3 stories of awakening: no path vs sudden path vs gradual paths to enlightenment
Neo-Advaita (or ‘new advaita’), itself a modern-day term, is used to refer to teachings or communications that do not accept the existence of separation or duality in any way shape or form: there is no seeker, no separation, and therefore no need for a teaching or practice or communication even.
The term ‘neo-advaita’ is often used pejoratively by more traditional Advaita Vedantins, who do advocate teachings and practices, in order to discredit the neo-style ‘communications’. I use the word ‘communications’ when describing neo-advaita rather than teachings as often neo-advaita ‘speakers’ do not like to refer to themselves as teachers or as having teachings, as ‘teaching’ can imply a separation between a seeker who needs to be taught and a teacher who knows something and is teaching something to someone.
Below is a wonderfully instructive excerpt from Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi that addresses the apparent conflict between the two types of teaching in talk number 57. It is well worth reading. See if you can see some of the parallels and issues that are raised. This except also explains in brief the method of Advaita Vedanta but is also heavily littered with Sanskrit words which may obstruct the understanding for some. I therefore have added some comments in italicised red which I hope are helpful in fully explaining the text’s meaning:
Ramana Maharshi: Some people think that there are different stages in jnana. The Self is nitya aparoksha, i.e., ever-realised, knowingly or unknowingly. Sravana [hearing the teachings], they argue, should therefore be aparoksha jnana (directly experienced) and not paroksha jnana (indirect knowledge). But jnana should result in duhkha nivriti (loss of misery) whereas sravana alone does not bring it about. Therefore they say, though aparoksha, it is not unshaken; the rising of vasanas is the cause of its being weak (not unchanging); when the vasanas are removed, jnana becomes unshaken and bears fruit.
In the first sentence of the above paragraph Ramana hints that there are no stages in Jnana. He then goes on to state that The Self is ever-realised. Sometimes the mind ‘knows’ this, sometimes it doesn’t. Either way the Self is ever-realised as it is what we are, already and always.
The argument that is therefore proposed by some is that because we are already the Self – limitless, whole and complete – just by hearing the teachings that point this out to us (sravana in Sanskrit), we will now knowingly ‘be the Self’ and have a direct experiential understanding of this (aparoksha jnana: ‘direct knowledge’ aparoksha means umediated or direct; jnana means knowledge or understanding and in a spiritual context means liberation or self-realisation), ie. through hearing the teachings alone self-realisation will result. This view is essentially stating that practices such as meditation and contemplation are not required for liberation as we are already fully realised and so no progressive path is required. Only direct pointing out alone is required and all else is illusion.
Ramana then points out the flaw in this argument. He states that the problem with this teaching is that liberation must lead to the cessation of suffering (duhkha nivriti in Sanskrit: duhkha means hurt or pain or suffering; nivriti in this context means cessation) and merely listening to teachings alone does not yield this result. Essentially, whilst mere sravana or listening to the direct teachings can yield direct insight (aparoksha jnana), this insight is weak and not stable. This is also my experience with seekers who have been exposed to these teachings. Whilst the can be direct and profound and trigger a realisation of sorts, the effects are often short lived and do not end suffering. This can, in some cases, lead to flip-flopping, in which the sense of liberation seems to come and go, alternating with confusion, seeking and suffering. In many it can also lead to an over-emphasis on concepts, although I am sure this is not the intent.
Ramana explains that the reason why insight is weak is due to the vasanas. Vasanas is a Sanskrit word that I often use in my teachings. It refers to habitual egoic tendencies that, through the force and momentum of ingrained habit, cause us to seemingly re-identify and re-immerse ourselves back into egotism, separation, illusion and suffering. It is the energy and momentum of the egoic vasanas that prevent liberation from appearing to be stable and lasting, even though liberation or the Self is all there is already and always.
Lastly, Ramana states that once the vasanas are removed, then realisation becomes stable and bears the fruit of cessation of suffering. This is the point of spiritual practices – not to bring liberation about – as that is all there is already and ‘we are that’ – but to remove the habitual wrong notions/beliefs or vasanas.
Others say sravana is only paroksha jnana. By manana (reflection) it becomes aparoksha spasmodically. The obstruction to its continuity is the vasanas: they rise up with reinforced vigour after manana. They must be held in check. Such vigilance consists in remembering = “I am not the body” and adhering to the aparoksha anubhava (direct experience) which has been had in course of manana (reflection).
Such practice is called nididhyasana and eradicates the vasanas. Then dawns the sahaja state. That is jnana, sure.
Ramana here explains an alternative theory which in practical terms is a the same argument I explained above as the vasanas have to be removed, but with some technical differences. Here Ramana explains that another view is that listening to the direct teachings (sravana) leads only to intellectual understanding (indirect understanding or paroksha jnana). In order to have a direct understanding or genuine experiential understanding (aparoksha jnana), one has then to reflect on the conceptual teachings (manana) and see the truth of them for oneself in one’s own direct experience. This then leads to spasmodic direct realisation which comes and goes.
We can see that the only difference between this second theory and the first one is that the first theory states that listening to the teachings (sravana) alone leads to direct realisation where as this second theory adds in another stage in which sravana leads to indirect or mere intellectual understanding and this intellectual understanding is converted into direct experiential understanding through reflection (manana). In both cases what results from sravana or sravana-manana is spasmodic unstable direct realisation which comes and goes and alternates with confusion and suffering.
Ramana proceeds to point out that once we have attained a genuine direct insight, the egoic suffering-causing vasanas rise up with a newfound vigor and so the realisation we ‘attained’ is quickly dispelled.
How to dispel the suffering-causing vasanas? Through Nididhyasana, the 3rd stage of the traditional teaching in Advaita Vedanta (the first two stages are Sravana and Manana). The literal translation of Nididhyasana is meditation and there are different forms and aspects of this part of the teaching. Here Ramana explains two aspects of Nididhyasana, firstly a conceptual aspect: knowing ‘I am not the body’ or ‘I am not the body-mind’. The second aspect is to remember the experiential insight or direct realisation-experience that was obtained from sravana-manana and remain there.
What then results is removal of the wrong notion ‘I am the limited body-mind’ and removal of the associated habitual tendencies (vasanas) that obstruct suffering. This then results in what is usually termed Samadhi (the 4th and last stage of the traditional Advaita Vedanta teachings), and the culmination of Samadhi is Sahaja Samadhi, what Ramana here calls the Sahaja state. Sahaja means easy or natural in Sanskrit, so this is the Easy State or Natural State, a synonym for Liberation itself (ie. ‘Jnana sure’ in the text).
I have written several more posts on this and done a few videos that go into this in more detail, so feel free to take a look:
You are innate divine power
How to recognise false or incomplete spiritual teachings
Ramana Maharshi summarises the entire spiritual path in his Introduction to Shankara’s Vivekachudamani (Crest Jewel of Discrimination)
Essential teachings for liberation: we need a ‘double teaching’ as we suffer from ‘double ignorance’| The ‘two wings’ of the teaching | Buddhism | Vedanta