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The Emperor Has No Clothes

A Critique of neo-Advaitanism and Adyashanti

By Dhammaccariya Jhanananda (Jeffrey S, Brooks)
157th day of a solo wilderness retreat
Inyo National Forest
October 7, 2005

(copyright 2005 all rights reserved)

In the first week of June, 2004 Elliot Isenberg, of San Francisco, took me to Mountain View, California to see Adyashanti speak. The discourse was in the rec. center of a neighborhood church. Adyashanti appeared to be in his 30s or 40s at that time.  It was my second time to see him. The first time I saw him was in Tucson, AZ, during the winter of 2003. Each of the two times I saw him lecture I found his discourse and teaching method mostly unchanged.  Both times I was very happy to see that he began each of his talks with about 15 minutes of meditation. 

Even though Adyashanti claims to have come from a Zen based practice tradition he calls himself an 'Advaitan,' or non-dualist spiritual teacher, His discourses he calls "Satsang," which is a Sanskrit term used in Hinduism for spiritual discourse.  The term 'satsang' literally means the "company of truth."  Sat, or truth, is understood to be spiritual truth.

Before Adyashanti began to teach he was a competitive touring bike racer who worked in a bike shop among other things then later as a machinist for his father who produced medical device prototypes. During 14 years of that time period Adyashanti studied Zen meditation from one of the American, South SF Bay area, Zen teachers (Arvis Justi) who was a student of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center.  After 14 years of ardent practice and study under his teacher, Justi recognized her student, Adyashanti, as an "awakened" one.  He now teaches around the San Francisco Bay Area, Tucson, Santa Fe and other localities.

This teacher is a pleasant break from the typical non-dualist, or neo-Advaitan, because he meditates and he recommends meditation to his students.  This is in stark contrast to the typically neo-Advaitans who rejects meditation as something they call 'striving.'  Striving, under their belief system, is seen as an ego driven activity.  The reasoning behind the neo-Advaitan rejection of meditation, and any other spiritual endeavors, is because the Advaitan is interested in cultivating an egoless state, and since meditation, which they believe is 'striving,' and is thus an activity of the ego, is consequently rejected. 

The neo-Advaitan rejection of spiritual aspiration, discipline and practice, and their method of dialog to trigger a non-dual state in their students, reminds me of Nancy Regan's 'Just say, 'No' to drugs,' campaign.  To just say 'no' to drugs is naïve, because people become addicted to drugs.  To deal with drug addiction, which is the number one social problem of the industrial nations, one needs more of a program than to just say 'No.'  Drug addiction is a consequence of a history and a life-long pattern of unproductive thinking, and so is the addiction to thinking and egoism. It is just naïve to just say 'No' to dualism and the ego, because people are addicted to their mental constructs, thus they need a methodology to relinquish their thought patterns and their ego clinging.

This rejection of meditation and other spiritual endeavors has brought some people to say the neo-Advaitans are pseudo-Advaitans because, for the most part, it seems their method is a pretense.  However, in Tibetan Buddhism (Vajrayana), they have a school that is based upon the cultivation of the view, or concepts and beliefs of the enlightened mind, which is much like the neo-Advaitan concept. This school is called 'Dzogchen.'

One could consider that cultivating the view, or concepts and beliefs of the enlightened mind seems rather superficial, however we must keep in mind the Buddha's Noble Eight Fold Path was articulated with the first of the 8 folds as 'samma-ditthi,' which means 'right view.'  Thus Dzogchen, Advaita and other schools and teachers who work toward cultivating the point of view of the enlightened mind, which is called 'Bodhichitta' in Mahayana Buddhism, are working on the first of the eight folds of the Noble Eight Fold Path.  Which is very good in deed. But, what about the remaining 7 folds?.

This rejection of meditation by the pseudo-non-dualists is in fact in stark contrast to the key figures in Advaita Vedanta and non-dualism.  Sankarachara, one of the early patriarchs of Advaita Vedanta, taught a rigorous meditation practice.  Sri Ramakrishna, a key 19th century non-dualist, taught a rigorous meditation practice, as did Ramanamaharshi, who was a key 20th century non-dualist.  Therefore we probably should conclude those "teachers" of non-dualism who reject meditation as an aspect of ego striving, are most probably simply fooling themselves and others.  Therefore they really should be called 'pseudo-non-dualists.'

The typical method of the non-dualist is to use dialog to "trigger" a non-dual state in their student. This method was used by Nisargadatta, Ramana Maharshi and others in the "Who am I" question and its variations.  Adyashanti's "satsang" method is geared toward this model. 

In the Adyashanti' "satsang" model he invites people to join him on his dais where a dialog takes place.  It is through this dialog that he endeavors to cajole the mind of his student into submission.  While his satsang method really comes from this Advaitan dialog, it however manifests as a kind of New-Age personal growth modality with a non-dualist philosophical construct laid over it.  It is in fact reminiscent of Gestalt.

While it is refreshing to find a non-dualist, like Adyashanti, embracing meditation as a means of cultivating an egoless state, it seems rather peculiar to me that Adyashanti seems to invoke more Hinduism than he does Buddhism, even though he claims to have been a student of Buddhism for 14 years.  In fact in the two discourses of Adyashanti's that I have attended, I heard very little Buddhist philosophy spoken.  I found he seems to mostly come from a Hindu and Advaitan theoretical construct.

There is certainly ample context for the dialog and the cultivation of the view within Buddhism and even Zen.  So, we really should ask why Adyashanti has resorted to Hindu and Advaitan constructs.  I can only conclude he simply did not do much reading of Buddhist literature during his 14 years of "study" in Zen. Thus, he is probably not familiar with the various schools of Buddhism, or even the foundations of Buddhist thought as found in the Discourses of the Buddha, where he would have found the Buddha's concept of 'anatta' which is fundamentally a non-dualist premise.

While it is admirable that Adyashanti has arrived at a place of suspended thought, which he calls a non-dual state, if he was more familiar with the foundations of Buddhist thought he would have found that The Buddha call the silence and stillness of the non-dual state 'passaddhi,' which means 'tranquility.'  And, for him tranquility was simply the second stage of meditative absorption or ecstasy (jhana), which is certainly a noble attainment, however there are six more stages of meditative absorption for Adyashanti to attain.

It seems rather curious, why one would follow a teacher who does not teach a method or a goal.  It would seem that it would leave one with nothing whatsoever for consolation, such as the security of a method.  But, then maybe those who are drawn to pseudo-non-dualism do not have a meditation practice, so perhaps they are consoled by the lack of a method.  This is called a faith-based religion.  The world is full of them.

The foundations of Buddhism, if Adyashanti even understands them, are based upon the Four Noble Truths, which state that the Noble Eight Fold Path is the means by which one comes out of dukkha (suffering), thus central to Buddhism is most definitely a practice path and an endeavor or seeking for freedom.  And, the Noble Eight Fold Path specifically articulates a practice path that includes a meditation practice as described under 'samma-sati' in the Maha-satipatthana Sutta (DN 22). 

In that sutta the Buddha even defined the culmination of the Noble Eight Fold Path as 'samma-samadhi,' which means 'right absorption,' which he defined in terms of bliss (piiti), joy (sukha) and ecstasy (jhana), so there is most certainly an intention, and a practice, and a goal within the Buddhist methodology. 

So, this may explain why Adyashanti has chosen to express himself in neo or pseudo Advaitan terminology, since he rejects a practice and a goal for that practice.  However, the historic record is clear that it just took many hours and years of meditating to bring Sidharta Gotama, Sri Ramakrishna and Ramana Maharshi to full enlightenment.

In conclusion if Adyashanti bothered to do a little study in Buddhism he would have found the Pali term 'dhamma-desaná’ which is the Buddhist term for 'satsong.' with further study he would have found the Buddha's reflection on no-self, which he called 'anattá;' and with still further study he would have found the view of Dzogchen, which would be very compatible with his idea of cultivating a non-dual view of an enlightenment mind.  Even some study in his own tradition of Zen he would have found various methods to trigger a non-dual state, such as the koan, and even the slap, as well as other methods, which were used by various Zen masters to startle the mind into submission, and thus producing a silence or stillness that produces a non-dual state. Thus Adyashanti would not have had to invoke Hinduism and Advaita Vedanta out of thin air.

It does not seem that Arvis Justi did a very good job of training her student. Perhaps we should ask, who is Arvis Justi to recognize anyone as enlightened?  By presuming that she can recognize someone as enlightened, must mean that she accepts herself as an enlightened one.  Or maybe it is just a deal that the two of them made between themselves, "Hey, I'll recognize you if you recognize me."  Lineage is one of those things everyone seems to have to need if they are going to teach meditation and philosophy these days.  And, lineage works best if the teacher is enlightened as well as the student. Let us just hope that Justi is not a diamond studded, drug addicted, alcoholic sex addict, as so many of these gurus are these days.

I can only hope this writing has served to inspire and direct skillfully.

May you be enlightened in this very lifetime,

Jhanananda (Jeffrey S. Brooks)

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