For nearly a millennium and a half, Buddhism and the Hindu tradition of Advaita Vedanta have shared terminology and ideas, argued about philosophical fine points, and pointed to nondual experience. In recent decades, Advaita has had a powerful influence on many Western Buddhist teachers and practitioners as well.
In the early eighties, after more than ten years of intensive Zen practice, I hit a wall. The traditional rituals and forms, which had once seemed so comfortable and familiar to me, now felt constricting, like a tight, narrow box that stifled my life energy and dried out my sitting practice. I had been lured to Zen by the freedom and spontaneity of the great masters I had read about in books, but my practice seemed to be making me more uptight and self-conscious. The more I tried to push past the obstacles, as my teacher instructed me to do, the more arid and lifeless my meditation became. Eventually, after much agonized soul-searching, I set aside my monk’s robes, bid farewell to my teacher and community, and left to study Western psychology.
In the next few years, I dabbled in Vipassana and practiced with several Tibetan teachers. But I never managed to regain the freshness and enthusiasm—the Beginner’s Mind—that had drawn me to Zen in the first place. Then one day a friend introduced me to an elderly European gentleman named Jean Klein, who taught an ancient Indian philosophy called Advaita Vedanta. Skeptical at first—after all, he wasn’t a Buddhist—I soon warmed to the relaxed atmosphere, the lack of prescribed forms, and the new terminology, which seemed to point directly to the spacious, nonlocalized awareness that had, in my experience at least, only been hinted at in Zen. Most of all, I was captivated by the teacher’s presence: the deep silence that resonated beneath his words, his accessibility and lack of pretense, and the power of his pithy teachings to stop my mind and turn my awareness back toward its source. For the next ten years, until his death in 1998, I spent as much time in Jean’s company as my busy householder schedule would allow.
My path, it turns out, was not an unusual one. Numerous Buddhist teachers and practitioners have been influenced and inspired by the sayings of the great Advaita sages and been drawn to sit at the feet of contemporary masters like Nisargadatta Maharaj, H. W. L. Poonja, Ramesh Balsekar, and Jean Klein. For some, the contact has enriched and enlivened their Buddhist practice. Others have left the orthodox Buddhist fold for a time to focus exclusively on the study of Advaita, only to return later with a renewed enjoyment and appreciation of Buddhist practices and teachings. And still others have stepped beyond the conceptual borders that appear to separate the two traditions, and have embraced them both.
Advaita Vedanta is widely considered, by scholars of religion and Hindus themselves, to be the philosophical culmination of the Hindu tradition. (Advaita is Sanskrit for “nondual,” and Vedanta literally means “the end of the Vedas,” referring to the spiritual teachings of the Upanishads, which were the last revealed Hindu scriptures known as the Veda.) But the central teaching of Advaita is deceptively simple. Advaita teaches that the phenomenal world, though real at a relative level, is merely the manifestation of the one abiding reality, the absolute ground of being, known as Brahman. In the words of one traditional Vedantic saying, “Brahman alone is real. The world is an illusion. Brahman is the world.”
For the Advaita sages, the goal of the spiritual search is the liberating realization that this apparently separate self (atman) has no ultimate existence but is essentially an expression of Brahman itself (sometimes referred to as consciousness, or Self with a capital S). “The one who has realized the Self knows he is the Self, and that nothing, neither his body nor anything else, exists but the Self,” taught the great twentieth-century sage Ramana Maharshi. According to Advaita, this truth can be realized directly and experientially, in a single moment, even without long years of striving, study, and practice. And this breakthrough has the power to transform a person’s life, conferring the same freedom from fear, grasping, and self-cherishing as the awakening insights described in the Buddhist tradition.
Although the Upanishads, which predate the Buddha, often teach that the individual soul, or atman, is essentially identical to the divine ground of being, or Brahman, this nondual formulation wasn’t elaborated into a separate school until the sage Shankara appeared in the eighth century C.E. The philosophy propounded by Shankara and his followers had such a powerful influence on Hindu thought, according to Hindu scholar S. N. Dasgupta in A History of Indian Philosophy, that “whenever we speak of the Vedanta philosophy we mean the philosophy that was propounded by Shankara.” In India today, the lineage of teachers tracing itself back to Shankara continues to thrive. In addition, any sage who preaches the nondual wisdom of the Upanishads, even if he or she does not belong to Shankara’s lineage, is generally referred to as an Advaita teacher.