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. 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:
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: 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 these teachings. Whilst they can be direct and profound, 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.
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, so this is the easy state or natural state, a synonym for liberation itself (‘Jnana sure’).
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
This is simply about the energy of the ‘me’ totally disappearing or collapsing.
And of course it doesn’t matter if that happens or not!
Liberation simply and always already IS as EVERYTHING and NO-THING
When it is said ‘all is full’ or ‘all is whole’,
All that is really meant is nothing is required for liberation.
When it is said ‘nothing is real’,
All that is really meant is nothing is required for liberation.
When it is said ‘nothing is required for liberation’,
What is meant is that there is no separate ‘me’ that could require anything.
Too simple for words!
Question: How is it possible to develop the Supreme-Enlightenment Mind?
Huang Po: Bodhi [enlightenment or enlightened mind]* means nothing to attain. Even now, just as you allow thought to arise, you get nothing. Thus, realising that there is absolutely nothing to attain is the Bodhi Mind.
The realisation that there is nowhere to abide and nothing to attain is the Bodhi.
Therefore, Shakyamuni Buddha [the original Buddha, also known as Gautama Buddha] said ‘…there was really no Dharma [teaching or method] by means of which the Tathagata [the Buddha] attained Supreme Enlightenment…’
*[Tom – square bracket comments added by me]
If you have found a spiritual or non-dual teaching that makes sense for you, or if you think you have ‘almost got it now’, know that it is way off the mark! This doesn’t make sense! 😂 Non-duality or advaita doesn’t make sense! Liberation or enlightenment doesn’t make sense! It cannot be understood!
What’s more – no learning is required. It just is! It is everything. It is ‘what is’. And ‘what is’ works all by itself without need for a ‘me’ or ‘you’. Simply THIS in its totality, beyond all concepts and including all concepts.
But words, even the most precise and wonderfully erudite words, may only give a flavour, an indication of what they are pointing to.
You CAN get quite a good conceptual understanding of liberation- eg. just THIS, as it is, empty of belief in separation/me/subject-object, empty of the personal stories, but allowing everything/all without exclusion (you can substitute in your own personal understanding of non-duality or liberation here if you like).
But the words and concepts are not it – they are never it. They are (initially at least) for the illusory ‘me’ that believes it lives in time and space and has free will. The ‘me’ now thinks it understands, and this conceptual understanding allows the perpetuation of this illusory ‘me’ as well as the concomitant suffering.
…yes, where the ‘me’ is, suffering follows…
There may, however, and apparently, be a ‘transmission’ beyond the words…’one Guru enlightening another Guru’ (not that there are really two)…and the ‘me’ may totally and completely collapse…it is Mystery…it is Grace in Action…what is left cannot be understood at all! It is Self-Celebrating and it doesn’t need to be understood.
…but, paradoxically, there is also no need for any transmission, no need for any collapse, no need for a ‘moment’ – for THIS cannot go anywhere or be lost – it is already whole and unfractured – it is already complete and not lacking a single thing – it has never been lost, and always IS whatever IS.
(How can you lose ‘whatever is’?)
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ALL teachings are dualistic, even the so-called non-teachings, and ALL teachings utilise fictions, at least initially, and your favourite non-dual teaching is no exception!
-Pointing out teachings or descriptions of what-is and teaching of any kind all imply duality. What (object) is being pointed out? And to whom (subject)? Pointing implies a subject-object duality, at least initially. Non-duality strictly speaking doesn’t need a teaching.
-To compare different teachings to each other is dualistic.
-To call one teaching truly non-dual and another dualistic is itself dualistic and relativistic, obviously.
Not that there is anything wrong with apparent duality!
It’s just a matter of degree: some teachings are far less dualistic than others and point the way out directly and efficiently, which doesn’t necessarily mean they are better teachings, whereas others take a different route, which actually may be more helpful than the more direct teachings at certain points on the journey.
So either ALL teachings/expressions/non-teachings are dualistic….or alternatively one could say that ALL teachings are essentially non-dualistic, as non-duality is all there ‘is’!
To have it any other way would be dualistic, and duality is a fiction!
Another way of putting is that there are not really lots of different teachers and teachings at all – although that is how it may appear from within the fictional dualistic paradigm – there is only Oneness Being ❤
If we are earnestly seeking, relentlessly seeking, honestly seeking, it can be quite easy at times to loose faith in the spiritual path. After some time of seeking we can become disillusioned with the whole thing and question it totally, especially if we are a long-time seeker. This is actually a great gift to us. We are taken back down to solid earth with a bump and can start afresh with new eyes. We may ask ourselves questions such as:
-Does enlightenment even exist?
-What if all these teachers are just deluding themselves?
-What if this whole spirituality thing is utter nonsense?
In the light of our disillusionment, as we have discovered that our seeking has not thus far worked, we can assess things in a more sober light. We may start to have thoughts such as:
-Spiritual practices have not really got me anywhere. They may have improved my life somewhat and given me glimpses of something beyond, but they have not given me lasting joy-peace-love that I so yearn for. At most they have given me fleeting joys, and this is not enough.
-Spiritual teachers, despite their promissory words, spiritual airs and smiling faces, have not really taken me to the place where suffering has ended. And all I am left with are empty second-hand words, mere dust in my hands.
-I find Spiritual books to be tiresome. They say similar things in different ways, and these words now no longer nourish me. I want more than this. This is not working. These teachings no longer touch me or move me deeply. I am fed up of all these words and paper. I want more.
-The so-called spiritual people I know are no better off than me. Beyond the thinly veiled smiles, baggy clothes and Namastes I can see they are just as caught up in illusion as I am, suffering as I am, groping in the dark as I am. What can they really give me in terms of enlightenment/self-realisation?
At this point we have essentially had enough of all the central aspects of the ‘spiritual journey’: we are fed up of spiritual teachers, teachings, practices, books and spiritual people/groups. We are questioning our very concept of spirituality. We are now wondering if there is such a thing as spirituality or enlightenment or self-realisation.
Hopefully, together with the disillusionment in seeking fulfillment in spiritual things, we are also disillusioned in seeking absolute fullfilment in the so-called world, eg. through relationships, wealth, pleasure, society, etc.
Having come ‘this far’, if we are lucky, we may start to lose faith in one more thing: our own mind. We can also realise that not only can teachers/ teachings/ practices/ communities NOT bring us to the enlightenment we desire, but neither can we ourselves get us there. Our own minds, our own thoughts, ideas and ideologies are also equally as useless as everything else as they too have not worked. Despite listening to our self for this long, where has it got us? Are we not still as ‘unenlightened as ever’?
Now we are totally disillusioned. We have no faith in anything. We know that teachers, teachings, practices and the mind – none of them work. We no longer rely on spirituality, the world or on our mind. All seeking here just continues the struggle, the labour, the burden…
We no longer lean on external authorities, we no longer hand our authority over to them, we no longer rely on thought as a means to escape suffering.
At the same time, the teachings are firmly implanted in the mind. We know them back to front due to our time seeking – we can trot off the words like ‘there is nobody here’, ‘there is no mind’, ‘all is one’, ‘separation is an illusion’…it’s just that these words do not do it for us anymore.
So now what do we do? What can we grab hold of? Are you waiting for a teacher to tell you what happens next, or are you done with all of that? Is there even anyone here to do anything? What’s going on?
There is a great gift here for one who has travelled this far…