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.
Advaita teachers appear to have particular appeal for Western Buddhists because they transmit truth directly through their words and their presence, without relying on rituals or practices or making extensive demands on their students. Unlike Tibetan teachers, who usually expect students to complete lengthy preliminary practices before gaining access to advanced instructions, or Zen masters, who often require a demonstrated dedication to meditation practice before working closely with their disciples, Advaita teachers have tended to be open and available to all seekers who arrive at their door, regardless of previous or current spiritual practice. For example, Ramana Maharshi, who died in 1950, spent most of his time in a room at his ashram where visitors could approach him at any time of the day or night, and Nisargadatta Maharaj welcomed all seekers to his tiny apartment in Bombay, where he offered regular dialogues until his death, in 1981. Ramesh Balsekar, a student of Nisargadatta Maharaj, continues the tradition today in his own Bombay apartment with open dialogues every morning.
“The contact with Papaji felt very intimate and personal,” says Buddhist author and meditation teacher Kate Wheeler of the six weeks she spent with the Indian teacher H. W. L. Poonja in 1990. “He was so kind and sweet, so accessible. He said he didn’t have anything to teach us, and he clearly didn’t want anything from us.
“Being with him challenged my seeker mentality,” Wheeler continues. “Even though I had been drawn to Vipassana in the seventies because it gave me permission to just be with my experience, I had developed this habit of trying to be something other than what I already was, which is a false premise for practice. Papaji worked outside the box. He kept encouraging us to 'give up the search without finding anything.’
“While I was there, I spent days in intense inquiry, looking for the mind. When I finally admitted, with a sense of failure, that I couldn’t find it anywhere, Papaji told me that was good, I should just stay there, without getting gripped by searching again. I felt ecstatically rooted in the resting, without searching or doing, and this feeling lasted for several years. Eventually I started doing Buddhist retreats again, not to get somewhere, but to enhance and deepen the experience of resting.”
Advaita also appeals to some Buddhist practitioners because it tends to diverge from the mainstream of Buddhist tradition over the issue of seeking and practice. Most Buddhist schools teach the value of meditation practice as the only effective way to remove the poison arrow of dukkha, or suffering. By contrast, Advaita emphasizes not meditation, but jnana, discriminating wisdom, the capacity to identify our true nature directly and differentiate it from mere appearance. For Advaitins, the path to liberation lies in studying the teachings of the sages and, if possible, listening directly to the wisdom of a living master. Once jnana awakens through such contact, the approach is to nourish and sustain it by resting in our true nature from moment to moment. (Much of this language will resonate with those who have practiced Dzogchen.)
Psychotherapist Judith Shiner became a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in the early seventies because she felt “tremendous spaciousness” in his presence, and his teachings initially gave her the impression that “I didn’t have to go looking for who I am, I could just sit and experience it. But over time he began to add more practices and requirements, and I began to wonder why, instead of feeling more open and free, I was feeling more constricted and fearful. I had received a basic foundation in mindfulness, but something was missing. My spiritual nature just wasn’t flourishing in this environment.” Finally, after seven years in the Vajradhatu community, Shiner left.