Participatory Spirituality for the 21st Century
The article belongs to a set of articles in which various authors debate the veracity of "neo-advaita" as opposed to "traditional advaita."
One curious feature of this debate is how some followers of Ramana have classified themselves as "traditional advaitins." This is curious, because in many articles I've read concerning "neo-advaita," it is typically the followers of Ramana and Nisargdatta who are called "neo-advaitins." And indeed, when we compare the advaita of Ramana with that which has been labelled "neo-advaita" by the Ramanites, we find that there is much more commonality between those two than there is between the advaita of Ramana and Shankara.
What appears to have happened is that the Ramanites have chosen to interpret themselves as "traditional" advaitins. Why? It may serve as a safeguard against critiques that have been leveled against them by certain apologists for "traditional" advaita. It's as if they are saying, "No, no, we're on your side. It's those other guys that are the problem." There is also a tendency in Ramana's own thinking and writing to associate his teaching with that of Shankara. But this particular problem is not specifically what I want to discuss in the present blog.
What struck as I was reading the above article was that it seemed to me to be a particularly excellent example of the application of the so-called distinction between "transformation" and "translation." In his article, the author distinguishes between 1. pure (or absolute) advaita; 2. practical (or relative) advaita; and 3. "neo-advaita," which he calls the "non-duality belief system."
Armed with this distinction, we can see where he is going with it almost immediately. Here is his commentary on the nature of neo-advaita or "the non-duality belief system":
"It boils down to reading whatever the books of whomever is the top selling non-dual teacher du jour.... The point is that belief systems are subtle, and often what people are doing is not practicing a system...or abiding in consciousness... but rather embedding themselves in another belief system... They read a bunch of books on Enlightenment and Waking up that sound really great; they do what they've always done.... The problem is that Neo-advaita is about supporting the ego with a new way of thinking; making oneself feel better... Real advaita is about the destruction of the ego, that very thing that obscures the Truth of non-duality. It's about... Slashing and Burning all beliefs that stand in the way of that."
It is difficult to deny that this sounds very much like the description of the distinction between "transformation" and "translation" that we find in the works of Wilber and Da.
This particular application of the distinction reveals a weakness with this sort of thinking. Now, the above may very well be a fair critique of what the author calls "neo-advaita." The problem is this: why is it not also a critique of "pure advaita," of Ramana, or the "practical advaita" of Shankara? Why is the advaita of the Ramanite immune from this sort of critique? What is it, in other words, that sets the advaita of the Ramanites apart from this "neo-advaita?"
One implication appears to be that the advaita of the Ramanite is bereft of a belief system (since belief systems are "bad," of course, as they entail "dualistic thought"). But what allows us to say that this is the case? Do Ramanites not sit around and read books about Ramana? Do they not hear discourses about Ramana? Do they not have photos of Ramana sitting on their desks? I think it is rather misleading, or even delusional, to suggest that the followers of Ramana are without a belief system.
This kind of move parallels another so-called distinction that we sometimes hear invoked: that between "religion" and "spirituality." But there is no essential difference between religion and spirituality. What passes for "spirituality" is really just religion dressed up in another garb. There may be something of a distinction here, but it is not essential; it is largely sociological. It is, in other words, no more than the distinction between organized or institutional religion, on the one hand, and free-form, make-it-up-as-we-go-along, non-institutionalized religion, on the other. Both entail belief systems; one just happens to be "groovier" than the other.
Such distinctions also remind me of a distinction, that I have heard applied, between so-call "experiential" advaita, on the one hand, and traditional (non-experiential?) advaita, on the other. In that case, the implication is that traditional advaita lacks an "experiential" dimension. But who is to say that traditional advaita is not "experiential?" In truth, there can be no such distinction as applied to the traditions of Vedanta. This is a merely a form of polemical chest puffing and pounding. It is the claim: "I, on the basis of my personal experience, have priviledged access to the truth, which is lacking in you, lacky."
Again, my point here is not to defend either traditional advaita, or neo-advaita, but merely to say that what's good for the goose is good for the gander. If such a charge is going to be levelled against another tradition one better be damn sure that the same charge cannot be leveled against one's own tradition. Along this line of thought, I would go so far as to say that there are no "pure" traditions, bereft of "beliefs" and "dualistic thought." Such animals are idealizations, and the attempt to boost any tradition on such grounds is mere rhetorical noise making.
All of this, I think, reveals the problem with the distinction between "transformation" and "translation." The problem is not so much the distinction itself. Who would really want to deny that there are times when we change authentically and times when we are simply buttressing our own ego? The problem is that the distinction makes for easy polemical cannon fodder. And that is precisely how it is often applied.