Q.452 Why is non-duality teaching ‘cold’?

Q: I am wondering why none of the teachings on Advaita/non-duality address the seeker with compassion or answer the question directly in a manner that would embrace the seeker. I have read several questions regarding thoughts and the creation of observed reality. Understanding that the person asking is still seeking, why would the near hostility of the answer that there is “no person to think, no concrete reality to experience, etc.”. possibly be acceptable from the standpoint of pure awareness.

Wouldn’t it be aware that this is not just ‘not an answer’, but a steering away from the question, and in terms of attaining a nondual experience not helpful? I would think awareness should know to first answer the question and then provide the next level view.

This is by far not the only site/teaching/vision of non-duality where this semi-hostility and often circular logic is present. I frequently see angry articles that just say “LOOK, it’s all right there, just LOOK”, as if that is helpful for someone who is seeking to understand. It’s not. It’s off-putting.

By far the worst answer I frequently come across is: “but who is asking?” That answer, while I have yet to see it here, is reprehensible. It is not an answer intended to help; it is intended to put people off and convey a sense of superiority. It shows less than no compassion and is ostracizing.

Why does it seem that the modern teaching of non-duality is hostile, cold and harsh with an almost elitist and upper crust air that defies an idea of an ever present awareness? What am I not seeing? Is there no teacher that can lead without being dismissive?

A: The problem with emailed Q and A is that they are one-off; not part of a continuous, probably years-long teaching. Ideally, a seeker finds a teacher whom they can trust and are prepared to listen to for as long as it takes. Then that teacher begins from the seeker’s present level of understanding and takes the teaching one step at a time. The specific teaching methodology of Advaita is called adhyAropa-apavAda, which means that one explanation is given to begin with. Later, as understanding grows, that explanation is taken back and another, slightly more ‘advanced’ explanation is given. And so on. Obviously this is not possible when someone asks a single question, gets an answer and then goes away, probably never to ask anything again. Accordingly, when someone emails a one-off question, there is a potential dilemma. Does one give an ‘interim’ answer, aimed at where one thinks that particular seeker presently stands, knowing that it is actually not like that? Or does one give the ‘bottom-line’ answer, even though the seeker may not be ‘ready’ for it?

What I try to do is to state the truth of the matter, while at the same time pointing out that to do this is going against the intention of traditional Advaita teaching. And the ‘bottom-line’ answers are inevitably going to seem ‘impersonal’ because the truth is that there are no persons. The answers are going to seem abrupt because it is not possible to give long, complete explanations to everyone. (I usually recommend that they read one of my books. And the one I recommend depends upon what I judge to be the level of their present understanding.) Because answers are inevitably short, I also take great pains to insure that I use language which is clear and unambiguous. I always re-read my answers, often several times, and make changes as necessary to insure this objective is met. Accordingly, it may sometimes appear ‘cold’. But I certainly never say anything like “LOOK, it’s all right there, just LOOK”!

I can certainly sympathize with your general attitude. My book ‘Enlightenment: the Path through the Jungle’ specifically addresses the very many problems with most of the modern-day, Western teachers. I do not even accept that they have precisely the same problem that I am talking about here – namely the need to answer one-off questions out of context – because this problem is one of their own making! If, instead of travelling the world holding two-hour satsangs in different cities, they remained in one place and held regular meetings to the same audience for years at a time, this problem would not arise. If you were to attend the classes of a qualified, traditional teacher, you would soon find that there is no suggestion of a “hostile, cold and harsh with an almost elitist and upper crust air that defies an idea of an ever present awareness”.

I hope you feel that this has answered your concerns. And thank you for raising it – it is a topic which merits clear explanation!

13 thoughts on “Q.452 Why is non-duality teaching ‘cold’?

  1. (Q) “Why does it seem that the modern teaching of non-duality is hostile, cold and harsh with an almost elitist and upper crust air that defies an idea of an ever present awareness?”

    Lest we think it a strictly modern phenomenon, the “elitist and upper crust air” in Advaita teaching goes way back and is conspicuous as a reflection of societal reality in Shankara, one of the world’s great thinkers and the primary systematizer of Advaita who taught that only male monastics of the elite Brahmin caste could study Vedanta, realize this truth, and thereby gain liberation. Shankara was deeply conditioned by Hindu hierarchical social thinking and embraced it wholeheartedly. His profound metaphysical vision arose in the context of an ancient spiritual tradition that was conservative, elitist, and thoroughly stratified. The result: a system, authored by an elite, in which social exclusivity exerted a controlling influence on soteriology. Saving rare exceptions, in traditional Advaita liberation is available directly only to male Brahmins who have, through renunciation, taken to the path of knowledge. Those in the active life have two lesser options. One is to be satisfied with karma-mukti and a wait of countless thousands of years until the current world-cycle comes to an end. The other is to hope for rebirth as a male Brahmin. Noblesse oblige.

    • Dear Rick:

      Aldous Huxley’s foreword to
      The First and Last Freedom by J Krishnamurti, 1954
      —————————–
      Even the best cookery book is no substitute for even the worst dinner. The fact seems sufficiently obvious. And yet, throughout the ages, the most profound philosophers, the most learned and acute theologians have constantly fallen into the error of identifying their purely verbal constructions with facts, or into the yet more enormous error of imagining that symbols are somehow more real than what they stand for. Their word-worship did not go without protest. “Only the spirit,” said St. Paul, “gives life; the letter kills.” “And why,” asks Eckhart, “why do you prate of God? Whatever you say of God is untrue.” At the other end of the world the author of one of the Mahayana sutras affirmed that “the truth was never preached by the Buddha, seeing that you have to realize it within yourself”. Such utterances were felt to be profoundly subversive, and respectable people ignored them. The strange idolatrous over-estimation of words and emblems continued unchecked. Religions declined; but the old habit of formulating creeds and imposing belief in dogmas persisted even among the atheists….

      In every region and at every period of history, the problem has been repeatedly solved by individual men and women. Even when they spoke or wrote, these individuals created no systems – for they knew that every system is a standing temptation to take symbols too seriously, to pay more attention to words than to the realities for which the words are supposed to stand. Their aim was never to offer ready-made explanations and panaceas; it was to induce people to diagnose and cure their own ills, to get them to go to the place where man’s problem and its solution present themselves directly to experience.

      In this volume of selections from the writings and recorded talks of Krishnamurti, the reader will find a clear contemporary statement of the fundamental human problem, together with an invitation to solve it in the only way in which it can be solved – for and by himself. The collective solutions, to which so many so desperately pin their faith, are never adequate. “To understand the misery and confusion that exist within ourselves, and so in the world, we must first find clarity within ourselves, and that clarity comes about through right thinking. This clarity is not to be organized, for it cannot be exchanged with another. Organized group thought is merely repetitive. Clarity is not the result of verbal assertion, but of intense self-awareness and right thinking. Right thinking is not the outcome of or mere cultivation of the intellect, nor is it conformity to pattern, however worthy and noble. Right thinking comes with self-knowledge. Without understanding yourself you have no basis for thought; without self-knowledge, what you think is not true.”
      —————–
      Unnecessary thinking is the problem, and the only problem.

      • Shishya,

        As I have said several times before, this site is about Advaita (the clue is in the title). What Krishnamurti said is not relevant. If you want to make an observation of your own, that has been influenced by him, that is fine, as long as it is also substantiated by an Advaita source. Any future posts of this sort are likely to be deleted without warning.

        As for the observation that “Right thinking comes with self-knowledge”, Advaita says that Self-knowledge comes from right thinking. Where does your Self-knowledge come from (apart from Krishnamurti)?

        • Sorry to have upset you, Dennis. Your sarcasm is spot on especially – “the clue is in the title”.

          You ask – “Where does your Self-knowledge come from (apart from Krishnamurti)?…”

          I am simply astonished ! (I’ve added an exclamation mark at end, just like you always do!)

        • Dear Dennis:
          Amartya Sen, the brilliant Nobel Prize winning economist wrote a very interesting book called “The Argumentative Indian” which immediately brought an image of Shankara to my mind when I first encountered it. As Rick says:

          “[…] Shankara, one of the world’s great thinkers and the primary systematizer of Advaita who taught that only male monastics of the elite Brahmin caste could study Vedanta, realize this truth, and thereby gain liberation. Shankara was deeply conditioned by Hindu hierarchical social thinking and embraced it wholeheartedly. His profound metaphysical vision arose in the context of an ancient spiritual tradition that was conservative, elitist, and thoroughly stratified. The result: a system, authored by an elite, in which social exclusivity exerted a controlling influence on soteriology[…]”

          The cultural baggage of this teaching seems to involve elaborate rituals, ochre robes , circumambulation with ash on the forehead (even Maharshi Ramana did this), and so on, which some may find very helpful.

          But for me the following approach which may be a form of surrender, or “going with the flow” is more intellectually and psychologically agreeable

          “One who sees dependent origination sees the Dhamma; one who sees the Dhamma sees dependent origination.”

          That is why I find the essence of the Bhagavad Gita in verses 18.59 – 18.62.

          Hope all this meets with your approval!

          Shishya

          • Sishya,

            Every age inevitably has its own culture, which tends to turn into ‘baggage’ as time moves on. This means that teaching may well be influenced by the age in which it was developed. But that does not invalidate it. It is necessary for the seeker to see through the cultural aspects in order to reap the maximum benenefit relevant to his or her own time.

            And I’m afraid that quoting Buddha is no better than quoting Krishnamurti in the context of this site.

            Dennis

      • Shishya, thank you for the excerpt from Huxley. He is a sympathetic figure and a veritable geyser of well-chosen words.

        • Yes, Rick, this is what I found very inspiring.
          ————
          The First and Last Freedom
          Question and Answers
          THE FIRST AND LAST FREEDOM QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS QUESTION 18 ‘SURRENDER TO `WHAT IS”
          ————
          Shishya

          • Shishya, there is a Rg Veda mantra that says ‘may wisdom come to us from all sides’ (āno bhadrāḥ kratavo yantu viśvato). Shankara engaged many sophisticated spiritual traditions in spirited debate, although, let us admit, without always fairly representing the positions he was trying to refute, and wound up incorporating many of these competing beliefs, thereby enriching the Advaita tradition. In Vedanta and some other spiritual traditions there is the claim of having exclusive knowledge of final, full, and absolute truth which may easily slip into arrogance and elitism. Let’s hope we can continue with humility to explore and have a dialogue with other contemporary traditions in a serious, open, and fair-minded way so that an enriched truly 21st century Vedanta can emerge.

            • Rick, below from Hinduism stack exchange. I detect a very vedic desire for “cattle and sons” in the extract, with gain and advancement, etc.
              ————————-
              आ नो भद्राः क्रतवो यन्तु विश्वत्व् अदब्धासो अपरीतास उद्भिदः |
              देवा नो यथा सदमिद्वृधे असन्न-प्रायुवो रक्षितारो दिवे-दिवे || 1.89.1 ||

              ā no bhadrāḥ kratavo kṣyantu viśvato adabdhāso aparītāsa udbhidaḥ |
              devā no yathā sadamid vṛdhe asanaprāyuvo rakṣitāro dive-dive || 1 ||

              May auspicious works , unmolested ,unimpeded , and subversive (of foes) , come to us from every quarter . May the Gods , turning not away from us , but granting us protection day by day , be ever with us , for our advancement. – H.H. Wilson.

              May noble thoughts come to us from every side,unchanged, unhindered, undefeated in every way;May the gods always be with us for our gain and our protectors caring for us, ceaseless, every day. – Alternate Translation

              • Shishya, please feel free to ignore the quote if it conjures up only distracting thoughts of materialistic ambition. It is not an integral part of my homily.

  2. There is obviously some truth in what you say, Rick, and it is certainly the view of many modern writers. But I think it may be based upon an unavoidable lack of familiarity with society in Shankara’s time.

    It was natural for housholders to pursue the ‘path of action’. Only after bringing up the children did they consider beginning spiritual studies ‘in the forest’ and then maybe renouncing all action entirely and becoming a renunciate. This was how they all did things so I don’t think it can be called ‘elitist’.

    Shankara, I think, almost equates the saMnyAsin with mokSha and jIvanmukta. The Gita differentiates between pravRRitti – ‘the path of action’ and nivRRitti -‘the path of renunciation of action’. pravRRitti corresponds with the injunctions and prohibitions of the karmakANDa, while nivRRitti corresponds with the j~nAna yoga of the Upanishads. The understanding at the time of Shankara was that the householder followed the former, pursuing artha-kAma while the saMnyAsin followed the latter route, seeking mokSha.

    This was simply what they believed and how they acted. And Shankara was bound to write with this as his background. shruti has examples of non-saMnyAsins (and even women!) seeking the truth and gaining mokSha. And Shankara certainly does not contradict these in his commentaries.

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