Let us compare some Zen teachings with that of Advaita Vedanta and Sri Ramana Maharshi.
Hui Hai was one of the great Ch’an (Zen) masters from the 8th Century CE. This excerpt is taken from Hui Hai’s Text on the Importance of Sudden Enlightenment, Dialogue 2.
I have interspersed quotes from Ramana Maharshi and Shankara in red type to compare and contrast the teachings:
Question: what method must we practice in order to attain liberation?
Answer: It can be attained only through the gate of sudden illumination (or sudden enlightenment).
Q: What is a sudden illumination?
A: ‘Sudden’ means instantaneously ridding yourselves of deluded thoughts’. ‘Illumination’ or ‘Enlightenment’ means the realisation that illumination is not something to be attained.
[Tom – This can also be translated as ‘Enlightenment’ means the realisation there is no ‘Enlightenment’ to attain, there is nothing to attain’. Compare this with : ‘The benefit of this Light of Supreme Truth is the understanding that there is not the least thing such as ‘attainment’, since the Supreme Self is the Ever-Attained One Whole.’ Sri Ramana Maharshi, Guru Vachaka Kovai, Verse 8]
Q: From where do we start this practice?
A: You must start from the the beginning, the fundamental root.
Q: And what is that?
A: Mind is the fundamental root.
Q: How can this be known?
A: The Lankavatara Sutra says:
‘When mental processes (hsin) arise, then do all phenomena (dharmas) spring forth; and when mental processes cease, then do all dharmas cease likewise.’
[Tom – compare: ‘If the ego rises, all else will also rise; if it subsides all else will also subside.’ Sri Ramana Maharshi, Who Am I?]
The Vimalakirti Sutra says:
‘Those desiring to attain the Pure Land’ must first purify their own minds, for the purification of mind is the purity of the Buddha Land.’
The Sutra of the Doctrine Bequeathed by the Buddha says:
‘Just by mind control, all things become possible.’
[Tom – compare: ‘If only the mind is kept under control, what matters it where one may happen to be?’ Sri Ramana Maharshi, Who Am I?‘]
In another sutra it says:
‘Sages seek from [their own] mind, not from the Buddhas; fools seek from the Buddhas instead of seeking from [their own] mind.’
‘The Wise regulate their minds rather than their body; fools regulate their body rather than their minds.’
The Sutra of the Names of the Buddha states:
‘Evil/sin springs forth from the mind, and by the mind is evil/sin overcome.’
[Tom – compare ‘…man’s bondage is caused by the mind, and Liberation too is caused by that alone.’ Shankara, Vivekachudamani verse 172]
Thus, we may know that all good and evil proceed from our minds and that mind is therefore the fundamental root. If you desire liberation, you must first know all about the root, mind. Unless you can penetrate to this truth, all your efforts will be vain; for, while you are still seeking something from forms external to yourselves, you will never attain.
The Dhyana Paramita Sutra says:
‘For as long as you direct your search to the forms around you, you will not attain your goal even after aeon upon aeon; whereas, by contemplating your inner awareness, you can achieve Buddhahood in a single flash of thought.’
[Tom – compare: ‘Let people quote the Scriptures and sacrifice to the gods, let them perform rituals and worship the deities, but there is no Liberation without the realisation of one’s identity with the Atman, no, not even in the lifetime of a hundred Brahmas put together.’ Shankara, Vivekachudamani verse 6]
Q: By what means is the root-practice to be performed?
A: Only by sitting in meditation, for it is accomplished by Dhyana (Ch’an) and Samadhi (Ting). The Dhyana-Paramita Sutra says:
‘Dhyana and Samadhi are essential to the search for the sacred knowledge of the Buddhas; for, without these, the deluded thoughts remain in confusion and tumult, and the roots of goodness suffer damage.’
Q: Please describe Dhyana and Samadhi.
A: When wrong thinking does not arise, that is Dhyana.
When you sit and see your original nature, that is Samadhi, for indeed that original nature is your eternal unborn mind. In Samadhi, there is the natural situational response of no-mind, and the ‘eight winds’ do not function.
The ‘eight winds’ are gain and loss, calumny and eulogy, praise and blame, sorrow and joy. By practising in this way, even ordinary people may enter the state of Buddhahood. How can that be so? The Sutra of the Bodhisattva-Precepts says:
‘All beings who observe the Buddha-precept thereby enter Buddhahood.’
There are those who in this way have crossed over to the other shore and attained liberation, transcending the six rafts (the six Paramitas), and freeing themselves from the three worlds (greed, anger and delusion). The great power of the ‘Enlightened Ones’ is the infinite power of the Honoured, the Courageous, the ‘Conqueror’!
In the traditional path of Knowledge or Jnana, first we are to know our True Self (Atman) and know this to be the same as the Absolute (Brahman). Then we are to be still and renounce all desires.
This spiritual knowledge (Jnana) of ‘I am Brahman’ (Aham Brahmasmi) allows the mind to become still and desireless. Note this does not mean that the body becomes totally inert – no – rather it continues to function naturally according to its destiny (Prarabdha Karma) until the body dies.
Shankara states this multiple times, eg, in Vivekachudamani, and also in his many commentaries, eg. in his commentary upon the Kena Upanishad – in his introduction to the Kena Upanishad Shankara writes:
And [the Self] being eternal, it is not to be secured by any means other than the cessation of ignorance. Hence the only duty is to renounce all desires after the realisation of the unity of the indwelling Self and Brahman.
This is akin to Self-Surrender, as spoken by Sri Ramana Maharshi:
There is no destiny. Surrender, and all will be well. Throw all the responsibility on God. Do not bear the burden yourself. What can destiny do to you then?”
and again here:
Question: Surrender is said to be Bhakti [the path of devotional love]. But Sri Bhagavan [Ramana Maharshi] is known to favour enquiry [ie. the path of Knowledge or Jnana] for the Self. There is thus confusion in the hearer.
Ramana Maharshi: Surrender can take effect only when done with full knowledge. Such knowledge comes after enquiry. It ends in surrender.
Disciple: Is the aforesaid Self-experience possible, even in the state of empirical existence, for the mind which has to perform functions in accordance with its prarabdha (the past karma which has begun to fructify)?
Ramana Maharshi: A Brahmin may play various parts in a drama; yet the thought that he is a Brahmin does not leave his mind. Similarly, when one is engaged in various empirical acts there should be the firm conviction “I am the Self”, without allowing the false idea “I am the body, etc.” to rise.
If the mind should stray away from its state, then immediately one should enquire, “Oh! Oh! We are not the body etc.! Who are we?” and thus one should reinstate the mind in that (pure) state. The enquiry ‘Who am I?’ is the principal means to the removal of all misery and the attainment of the supreme bliss. When in this manner the mind becomes quiescent in its own state, Self-experience arises of its own accord, without any hindrance. Thereafter sensory pleasures and pains will not affect the mind. All (phenomena) will appear then, without attachment, like a dream. Never forgetting one’s plenary Self-experience is real bhakti (devotion), yoga (mind-control), jnana (knowledge) and all other austerities. Thus say the sages.
Disciple: When there is activity in regard to works, we are neither the agents of those works nor their enjoyers. The activity is of the three instruments (i.e., the mind, speech, and body). Could we remain (unattached) thinking thus?
Ramana Maharshi: After the mind has been made to stay in the Self which is its Deity, and has been rendered indifferent to empirical matters because it does not stray away from the Self, how can the mind think as mentioned above? Do not such thoughts constitute bondage? When such thoughts arise due to residual impressions (vasanas), one should restrain the mind from flowing that way, endeavour to retain it in the Self-state, and make it turn indifferent to empirical matters. One should not give room in the mind for such thoughts as: “Is this good? Or, is that good? Can this be done? Or, can that be done?” One should be vigilant even before such thoughts arise and make the mind stay in its native state. If any little room is given, such a (disturbed) mind will do harm to us while posing as our friend; like the foe appearing to be a friend, it will topple us down.
Is it not because one forgets one’s Self that such thoughts arise and cause more and more evil? While it is true that to think through discrimination, “I do not do anything; all actions are performed by the instruments”, is a means to prevent the mind from flowing along thought vasanas, does it not also follow that only if the mind flows along thought vasanas that it must be restrained through discrimination as stated before?
Can the mind that remains in the Self-state think as ‘I’ and as ‘I behave empirically thus and thus’? In all manner of ways possible one should endeavour gradually not to forget one’s (true) Self that is God. If that is accomplished, all will be accomplished.The mind should not be directed to any other matter. Even though one may perform, like a mad person, the actions that are the result of prarabdha-karma, one should retain the mind in the Self-state without letting the thought ‘I do’ arise. Have not countless bhaktas (devotees) performed their numerous empirical functions with an attitude of indifference?
Is there any way of adoring the Supreme which is all, except by abiding firmly as that!
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:
A young man from Colombo, Ceylon, said to Bhagavan:
J. Krishnamurti teaches the method of effortless and choiceless awareness as distinct from that of deliberate concentration. Would Sri Bhagavan be pleased to explain how best to practise meditation and what form the object of meditation should take?
Ramana Maharshi: Effortless and choiceless awareness is our real nature. If we can attain that state and abide in it, that is all right. But one cannot reach it without effort, the effort of deliberate meditation. All the age-old vasanas (inherent tendencies) turn the mind outwards to external objects. All such thoughts have to be given up and the mind turned inwards and that, for most people, requires effort. Of course, every teacher and every book tells the aspirant to keep quiet, but it is not easy to do so. That is why all this effort is necessary.
Even if we find somebody who has achieved this supreme state of stillness, you may take it that the necessary effort had already been made in a previous life. So effortless and choiceless awareness is attained only after deliberate meditation. That meditation can take whatever form most appeals to you. See what helps you to keep out all other thoughts and adopt that for your meditation.
We need a ‘double teaching’ as we suffer from a ‘double ignorance’. We could say the teaching has two wings to it, one for each aspect of ignorance. Let me explain: you could say ignorance has 2 steps:
Ignorance step (1) – Structural Ignorance: identifying as this or that. This creates a false notion of self, also known as ego or the jiva. This is also known as a limiting belief or identifying as being a limited entity. The most common form this identification takes is the thought-concept ‘I am the body-mind’. ie. we take the body-mind to be our primary identity. This limited identity is the ego or jiva.
Ignorance step (2) – Functional Ignorance: that ego/jiva, sensing it is limited, vulnerable and incomplete, then seeks pleasure and security in the world of objects. This seeking tendency eventually becomes ingrained and habitual and these habitual egoic tendencies are known as vasanas in Sanskrit.
In Step (1) we create the structure or form of the ego, namely ‘I am the body-mind’. Step (2) represents the movement or function of the ego in which the body-mind entity then goes on to seek security, pleasure, as so on, and is also afraid of death, misfortune, ill health, etc, and so suffers.
So we have described the ego’s form (1) and function (2), or its structure (1) and movement (2).
A ‘Double Teaching’
Each of these aspects of ignorance usually have to be tackled and resolved, so there are two aspects or ‘wings’ of the teaching. Most teachings that one comes across usually focuses only on one of these two wings. This is because on a practical level it is more difficult to teach both together, and many are unaware of how these two aspects of the teaching fit together. But when we do bring both together, the teachings tends to be much more potent in actually pointing the way directly to Moksha/liberation.
So, what are the two aspects of the teaching? Structural ignorance (1) is rectified by insight or knowledge teachings, and functional ignorance (2) is resolved by purification teachings.
Insight teachings basically point out the belief ‘I am a body-mind’ is a false limiting belief. When seen, the illusion of separation and doership naturally fall away. Insight is also known as knowledge, gnosis or realisation
So why do we need the purification teachings then? Well, for most, due to the strong habitual tendencies to identify as a body-mind, the ‘I am the body-mind’ concept keeps on arising and egotism is continued. Without a spiritual practice to remove this habitual ignorance the egotism usually quickly returns and with it suffering also returns.
Examples of Insight Teachings
Insight teachings include negating teachings such as ‘You are not the body-mind’ and ‘You are not the doer’. Sometimes they take on affirming forms such as ‘You are That’ or ‘You are Brahman’ or ‘You are Pure Consciousness’, etc.
In order for insight teachings to work, usually the mind needs to be relatively calm so that there is enough mental space for the insight to arise through an in-seeing into the nature of every-day experience. Therefore it can be useful to practice calming or purification practices prior to insight.
Limitations of Insight Teachings
Insight teachings by themselves, which tend to be spoken or written teachings or ‘pointers’, can be very freeing but usually do not lead to full realisation/liberation unless the egoic vasanas/tendencies are already very much diminished. Usually, whilst insight is present all is apparently well, but then though daily life the egoic vasanas rear their head and wreak havoc. This leads to flip-flopping in which one alternately seems to ‘get it’ then ‘lose it’. For most, without purification, the insight remains fairly superficial on the level of the mind. I regularly come across many seekers in this predicament, where suffering continues and the approach is predominantly intellectual. What is required is purification, usually devotion, surrender, mantra and prayer – all the things that the stereotypical ‘western rational mind’ is often repelled by.
Examples of Purification Teachings
I have spoken and written about this more extensively elsewhere (eg. here and here) but these are essentially practices that calm the mind and reduce seeking, agitation, addiction and other egoic tendencies. From a more traditional perspective the cardinal purification teachings are devotion, prayer, gratitude, mantra recitation, meditation, hatha yoga and other things such as mindfulness practice and adopting a health diet and lifestyle. Simpler forms of purification are simply to relax, be still, accept whatever happens, surrender practices, etc, etc.
Purification teachings enhance the ability of insight and also allow insight to deepen and be more stable. Therefore traditionally devotion, mantra recitation, yoga and meditation are all considered to be essential foundational practices to purify the mind and enhance the ability of Self-Realisation to occur. Similarly, purification is usually limited without insight. ie. unless the belief ‘I am the body-mind’ is removed, purification will not be as effective. This is because it is this limiting ‘I and the body-mind’ belief that gives rise to the sense of incompleteness and vulnerability that fuels these egoic tendencies.
Limitations of Purification
Like insight-only teachings, purification-only teachings, which tend to be practices, can be very freeing of themselves. Unless the sense of being a limited entity (ie. structural ignorance) is already very weak, purification alone tends not to lead to liberation. This is because the limiting notion ‘I am the body’ goes unchecked and perpetuates itself.
In Vedanta, these two aspects of ignorance are known as the two Shaktis (energies or powers) of Maya:
1. Avarana Shakti – also known as Avriti Shakti, this is the veiling energy of Maya which prevents us from knowing ourselves as limitless Brahman. We therefore adopt a limited notion, namely ‘I am the body-mind’. Avarana Shakti keeps us from discovering our true nature and shedding this wrong knowledge or ignorance. It is related to Tamoguna. You can see that this is another way of talking about what I call Structural Ignorance above, but in a slightly different way.
2. Vikshepa Shakti – this is the projecting power of Maya. Once Avarana Shakti has veiled our true identity as Limitless Brahman and we (seemingly) take on the limited identity of the body-mind, the Vikshepa Shakti projects forth a body, mind and world in which the limited body-mind (ie. ego or jiva) can roam, seek, fear and suffer. It is related to Rajoguna. I hope you can see how this notion is related to what I call Functional Ignorance above.
In Shankara’s Vivekachudamani (see here for a summary by Ramana Maharshi), a full teaching is given that explains the above shakti’s: in the first portion of the text the knowledge teachings are explained and in the latter portion the focus is on meditation or nididhyasana. I also talk about this more here: False Enlightenment.
Is there really a double ignorance?
If you look closely, these two aspects of ignorance are deeply related and are not separate at all. Most seekers will tend towards either knowledge or purification in the first instance, and only when some headway is gained on that particular aspect of the teaching will they intuitively be drawn to the other less-explored aspect of the teaching
So, in practical terms what should I do?
Essentially, follow your heart – it will guide you. You will know, if you listen to that ‘voiceless voice’ within what teaching is right for you right now. Perhaps you need to listen to a teacher or read more. Perhaps you need to practice devotion or surrender. Perhaps both. If you remain truly open in both heart and mind and do not overly cling to fixed conceptual views, your Heart will lead you home and attract/bring into your experience exactly what you need.
That said, as a general rule, I encourage regular attendance to Satsang or a similar meeting in which these teachings are repeatedly given. The mind is resistant and egotism/ignorance is deeply ingrained in most, and so regular contact with a teacher you resonate with is usually very important. This alone can save many months or years of erroneously seeking in the wrong direction. In just a few conversations with seekers I have often been able to quickly point them in the right direction in a matter of minutes after having had a real-time interaction with them, although obviously this is not always the case. Please see my meetings page if you are interested in attended an Online Meeting or In-Person meeting with myself.
Devotional practices and mantra recitation can both be extremely powerful. I often call them spiritual bulldozers as they are able to plough their way through years and years of egoic vasanas with relative ease compared to insight style teachings in many cases. My experience is that many with a Western scientific mindset (which in many ways is my own background) do not readily resonate with these practices, especially if they have had negative experiences of organised religion. However, there are ways these practices can be explained to allow even fairly atheist seekers benefit from these teachings.
Lastly meditation and stillness are also usually essential for the teachings to penetrate the deeper layers of the body-mind and root out egotism/ignorance at a deep energetic non-verbal level.
Summary and Ego Tricks
One trick I have noticed the ego-mind does is that is tries to avoid the above by use of clever reasoning. Whilst sometimes this logic is reasonable and sound, in most cases it is the ego trying to perpetuate itself and claim knowledge and experience for itself.
Sometimes the mind will say ‘I do not need to attend Satsang as I know everything that will be said’. I met someone for a 1 to 1 just recently who had heard and read all the teachings multiple times and was growing weary of it all. They felt there was no point to asking further questions, but on some level knew that there was something missing. Through a direct interaction we were quickly able to see where the sticking points were. This was only possible as the seeker in question was open to this possibility and maintained contact and dialogue with me even though their mind was saying ‘I know all this already’. The seeker was also open to their heart which guided them, in their case, to arrange a 1 to 1 with me.
In summary, listen to your heart with an open mind. The True Guru is Within. For most, having a teacher is essential. Consider listening to knowledge teachings (eg. attending satsang), and undertaking devotional practices, mantra recitation and silence/ meditation.