Advaita Gurus and Critics – part 3

by Prof. Phillip Charles Lucas

<Read Part 2>

TMA proponents strongly disavow these claims and emphasize the necessity of lifelong, sustained sadhana. An essential aspect of this sadhana is mental preparation, which entails the development of habits of discrimination (discerning what is real from what is only appearance), detachment (releasing attachment to the world of forms), calmness of mind and a profound desire for liberation. Only once this preparation is well underway can the student’s mind fruitfully engage with advanced Advaita teaching. As put by American TMA teacher/author James Swartz, a one-time student of Swami Chinmayananda:

Swartz also claims that the removal of the vasanas can take many years, and thus progress is usually incremental, rather than sudden.

Author Dennis Waite, British-based creator of the respected website Advaita Vision, is accepted as a discerning spokesperson for the TMA faction. Waite has pointedly criticized popular NTMA teacher Tony Parsons, founder of The Open Secret publishing enterprise, for his claim that efforts, doctrines and progressive spiritual systems only serve to perpetuate the illusion of separate self-identity. For example, Parsons writes that TMA teachers are misguided in their belief that, in order to resolve the real and constant sense of separation and become enlightened, the individual should choose to follow a progressive spiritual path.

This path involves practice, meditation, self-inquiry and the eradication of ego and ignorance through a clear understanding of the scriptures and the guidance of a teacher. The Open Secret recognizes that the above beliefs and recommendations are generated out of an assumed and inconstant sense of being a separate individual who needs to attain something called enlightenment. It is also recognized that an investment in the above recommendations can reinforce and maintain the assumed sense of being an individual who can resolve its sense of being separate….

The Open Secret recognizes that there is no such thing as enlightenment or liberation, or an individual that can become enlightened or liberated…. Traditional Advaita is a teaching of becoming, The Open Secret is not, but involves the dissolution of the myth of seeking. [Tony Parsons, “Traditional Not Two-ness versus Neo Not Two-ness,” at <>, 20 January 2013.]

Waite argues that practice in its traditional Advaita sense is mental preparation, which dissolves the conditioned and inborn tendencies so that authentic self-knowledge can emerge naturally. “When the self-knowledge occurs, there is no practice involved; its happening is inevitable.” [Waite, Enlightenment, 31, 94]

He also quotes Ramana Maharshi, who observed, “Self-realization itself does not admit of progress, it is ever the same. The Self remains always in realization. The obstacles are thoughts. Progress is measured by the degree of removal of the obstacles to understanding that the Self is always realized.” [Waite, Enlightenment, 31, 94.]

Put another way, sadhana and progress, according to TMA teachers, pertain to the degree to which misunderstandings and false perceptions have been removed from the student’s mind, not to the Self as it is.

Another essential aspect of sadhana, according to Waite, is the careful elaboration of Advaita doctrine by an authentic guru who leads students step-by-step to a direct recognition of non-dual truth. In most cases, association with the guru takes place over an extended period of time, so that students’ wrong views and deep-seated ignorance can be patiently and thoroughly questioned and rooted out. If students are given the ultimate Advaita truth that “you are the One Non-Dual Self or Brahman” before their preexisting beliefs in a dual world of independent forms and selves have been systematically removed, the truth simply will “not take” at any deep level since it runs so counter to ingrained habits of (dualistic) perception and experience. [Waite, Enlightenment, 44-47.]

In the view of TMA proponents, Advaita methods for self-realization have been verified through practice over many centuries, thus there is no need for these methods to change with changing trends and conditions. [Waite, Enlightenment, 53-55, 112.]

According to Swartz:

The essence of Vedanta, the teachings that remove Self ignorance, do not change because they effectively do what they are intended to do…. So in this sense Vedanta, like the Sanskrit its mantras are formulated in, is a perfected body of knowledge. Nothing needs to be added to it, no timely modifications are necessary to help it adapt to recent times. [Swartz, “What is Neo-Advaita?”]

To be sure, criticisms of this kind have plagued North American versions of Advaita Vedanta since Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) spoke at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 and delivered his subsequent lectures in the United States in 1893-95 and in 1900. Influenced by nineteenth-century neo-Hinduism, Vivekananda attempted to combine Advaita Vedanta’s teaching of non-dual reality with a more Western concern for progressive activism.

French Perennialist René Guénon (1886-1951), ever a defender of esoteric orthodoxies, wrote the most scathing of these criticisms, observing trenchantly, “This so-called Vedanta…which pleased the West all the better the more completely it is distorted, has practically nothing left in common with the metaphysical doctrine the name of which it bears.” [Quoted in Harold W. French, The Swan’s Wide Waters: Ramakrishna and Western Culture (Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1974), 145; Williamson, Transcendent in America, 36-39; and Urban, Tantra, 163.]

TMA proponents of Advaita Vedanta often cite Ramana Maharshi’s teaching on sadhana. His method of self-inquiry (atma vichara) entailed an introversion of the mind grounded in the question, “Who am I?” By following this inquiry with single-pointed focus, the root of the I-thought would eventually be reached, and the conventional ego-self would be seen as a relative position within the cosmic awareness of Brahman. But before inquiry could be practiced fruitfully, indifference toward sense attraction and a continual realization of the transient nature of the body and its pleasures must be cultivated. The development of these attitudes, combined with devotional practices and service to others, purified the mind, preparing it for effective self-inquiry. [B. V. Narasimha, “The Sri Ramana Gita of B. V. Narasimha Swami,” The Maharshi 20, no. 4 (July/August 2010): 2; Lucas, “When a Movement is Not a Movement,” 96.]

American TMA proponent Timothy Conway of Santa Barbara, California, a former Buddhist monk and current satsang teacher, alleges that NTMAs “call off the search” prematurely, eschewing practice and substituting cognitive knowledge for authentic realization of the self. As a consequence, they remain confused concerning the real nature of the self and deeply mired in karmic habits of attachment and aversion.

Just to merely have “the Understanding” that “only the Self is Real,” or that “Consciousness is all there is” and think that there is nothing more to spirituality than this conceptual understanding and a corresponding “blanked-out” zombification is simply not sufficient for authentic awakening…. One must be thoroughly liberated into/as this Truth on the affective and motivational-behavioral levels, i.e., fully established in real freedom from binding samskaras/vasanas [inherited tendencies from the karma of previous lives]. [Conway, “Neo-Advaita or Pseudo-Advaita and Real Advaita-Nonduality.”]

A final critic, South African founder of Spiritual Humanism Möller de la Rouvière, contends that students who hear from NTMA gurus that nothing must be done (since non-dual reality is already the case) become confused and disempowered because their present experience of themselves does not reflect this absolute state. The very practices (self-observation and self-inquiry) that would help them discover what fosters the illusion of separate existence are not allowed because they are alleged to be ego-enhancing. After all, any personal effort assumes the existence of a separate personal self who is making the effort. Such eschewal of practice develops in students the “false sense that they are already free and it is this very false sense of intellectual freedom that frustrates and obscures the natural process of inner unfolding.” [“Spiritual Humanism vs. Neo-Advaita: A 3-way Discussion between Möller de la Rouviè, Tony Parsons and Alan Stoltz,” Advaita Vision, at <>, accessed 6 May 2013.]

*** Go to Part 4 ***