Advaita Gurus and Critics – part 8

by Prof. Phillip Charles Lucas

<Read Part 7>

Theme Five: Pre-transcendence, Depersonalization and Level Confusion

A fifth and final theme of the critics is that NTMAs make no allowance for the Advaita distinction between absolute and relative levels of awareness. As a result, these teachers allegedly tend to devalue a life of engaged spiritual practice and the balanced development of physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual dimensions of the self. By placing all their emphasis on the most advanced state of spiritual realization, NTMA teachers and students are seen as being prone to “pre-transcendence,” a premature assumption of ultimate spiritual liberation that leads to de-personalization and disengagement from ordinary life. California-based NTMA teacher John Wheeler articulates this radically depersonalized position:

The real clarity comes from seeing the absence of the person. It is the person that gums up the works and creates all the problems and supposed solutions. Just keep coming back to the fundamentals. Your nature is luminous, ever-present, radiant, perfect, being-awareness. This is fully realized and complete right now…. With the emphasis off of the mind and the [personal] conceptual story, you will be much more present, because there is no filter. There is no person with all of its preferences and partialities trying to negotiate every experience.

But who is the one who is going to try to be wholehearted and fully involved? It would only be the separate person who would try to make an attempt to become something, even wholehearted and fully involved. Awareness, the light of life that you are, is always wholehearted and fully involved, because it is the factor that informs and supports all experience. There is no need to try to become something, even some more present and engaged person. This will subtly emphasize the sense of separateness, under the guise of trying to become something. [John Wheeler, “No Person,” Advaita Vision, at <>, accessed 6 May 2013.]

According to critics such as respected Advaita scholar John Grimes, the NTMA position ignores Advaita teaching by recognizing only absolute reality and dealing insufficiently with apparent, day-to-day reality. Therefore, NTMA teachers deny that there is a seeker, seeking, and something to be sought. But from the standpoint of the seeker, critics like Waite maintain, the apparent reality is real enough, just as the dream is real enough for the dreamer. Thus there is identification with the body-mind form, the search for enlightenment, and a very convincing objective world for most seekers. Pretending this is not the case does not help those whose moment-by-moment experience is deeply conditioned by this identification. [Waite, Enlightenment, 53-55, 112; John Grimes, Ramana Maharshi: The Crown Jewel of Advaita (Varanasi: Indica Books, 2010), 61-63. Grimes taught at Michigan State University and University of North Dakota before retiring in Chennai, India.]

In traditional Advaita, the phenomenal world of objects and forms has a relative reality. It is neither real (in an ultimate sense) nor unreal. In the eyes of their TMA critics, NTMA teachers make a mistake when they deny the existence of this phenomenal level, insisting that only absolute reality exists. TMA proponents maintain that the strong delusion of relative existence (sometimes termed maya) requires strenuous effort to eradicate, and Advaita provides unarguable logic and various subtle methods designed to reduce the hold of the limited ego self. In Waite’s view, by prematurely forcing an unprepared mind to accept the absolute truth—for example by asserting that in reality there is no seeker, no doer, and no path, “this is it!”—students are left in a state of cognitive dissonance: they accept that the ego and the world of forms are illusions and that only Brahman is real, but the conviction persists that they are body-mind organisms existing as separate, discrete selves.

It is of little use to deny the existence of a reality in which most people are trapped, asserting that it is a result of ignorance. Far better, Waite maintains, is to provide the means, methods and practices to dispel that ignorance through knowledge, as happens in traditional Advaita. Otherwise seekers are left in the position of the beginning math student who insists upon learning quantum mechanics before mastering elementary arithmetic.[Dennis Waite, “Traditional versus Neo-Advaita,” Advaita Vision, at <>, accessed 6 May 2013.]

Timothy Conway believes that NTMA’s misunderstanding of Advaita’s relative and absolute levels leads to inadequate efforts to overcome the vasanas and continued rebirth and suffering at the relative level of empirical experience. Moreover, the compulsion to focus solely on the absolute level of reality neglects “the multiple worlds and beings emanated by the God-Self for the sake of Divine lila or relationship-play.” A resulting tendency to devalue human relationships can lead to a state of depersonalization, “a syndrome marked by a strong, pathological dissociation and detachment, apathy, and loss of empathy. Basic humaneness, warmth, and tender loving care vanish in a preference for a cool, robotic demeanor.” This state of pre-transcendence, Conway asserts, dishonors the significance of the Divine’s expression as unique and beautiful human persons. [Conway, “Neo-Advaita or Pseudo-Advaita.”]

Conway also argues that NTMA’s denial of the relative level of ordinary experience can lead to indifference toward what he terms “engaged spirituality,” the addressing of economic, environmental, gender, racial and political injustice in the world. Because in the Absolute level of reality such injustices are merely maya (illusion) or samsara, NTMAs can come to view political action in the world as absurd and not worth the trouble. For Conway, authentic spirituality requires detachment from the world and at the same time a paradoxically compassionate engagement with the relative world of sentient beings caught in webs of suffering. He cites the example of Ramana Maharshi, who carefully read the newspapers each day and listened to radio broadcasts out of a genuine interest in the welfare of human persons, society and the animal realm. [Conway, “Neo-Advaita or Pseudo-Advaita.”]

An even greater danger, in Conway’s view, is that NTMAs may rationalize their own harmful behavior as “God’s Will” or a maya-like dream. Conway cites Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta as two sages who taught that those who realize the Self must remain clear of desires and harmful behavior that are karmically binding. In response to NTMA Tony Parson’s statement, “Once awakening happens it is seen that there is no such thing as right or wrong,” Conway cites the admonitions of Shankara, Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta that, at the level of relative reality, disciples must be able to distinguish between right and wrong actions and their karmic consequences. In the end, responsible Advaita teachers instruct their students on the relative level concerning ethical behavior and the laws of karma and rebirth. [Conway, “Neo-Advaita or Pseudo-Advaita.”]

This last critical theme arguably has the most tenuous connection to traditional Advaita. The use of terms and concepts such as “pre-transcendence,” “depersonalization,” “engaged spirituality,” and the valorization of social justice issues in TMA critiques owe more to contemporary Western transpersonal psychological, progressive political, and engaged Buddhist discourses than to the Advaita teachings of the Upanishads and Shankara. Although Advaita teachings do discuss karma yoga, the fulfillment of dharmic duties, ethical living and a life of service in various ways, the understanding of these dimensions does not clearly relate to contemporary Western notions of psychological health and engagement with social justice causes. This is one example of TMA criticism where the Western cultural frame has already translated traditional Advaita teaching into modes of intelligibility accessible to contemporary Western concerns and agendas.

 *** Read (final) Part 9 ***

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