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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.
Then, several years later, she met Jean Klein. “It was a great relief when I heard Jean say that you don’t have to do any practices to be who you are. This had been my initial intuition, but I had lost it over the years in the expectations of the community. With Jean I discovered that there is no path to follow, this awareness that we are is always here, close at hand, and we don’t have to spend years finding it but can simply recognize it in the moment. In my experience, the path gets too solidified in the Buddhist teachings. There’s always more to study, and you never get to graduate. Even though the teachings talk about the inherently clear, luminous, diamond-like nature of mind, I never got the sense, as I did from Jean, that who I am right now is complete and sufficient of itself.”
Of course, Buddhism also teaches the crucial importance of discriminating wisdom, called prajna, but contends that it cannot be cultivated without the benefit of the mind training provided by meditation practice. Without such deliberate cultivation of awareness, Buddhists believe, the mind will continue to repeat the same negative patterns and the eye of wisdom will remain closed. Emphasizing the dangers of not having a practice for guidance and support, Buddhist teacher Stephen Levine has called Advaita the “high path with no railing” because seekers can fall off so easily. Whereas Buddhism risks becoming rigid in its insistence on certain prescribed practices and forms, the Advaita approach risks leaving seekers with no external guidelines or moral precepts to prevent them from becoming smug or complacent or assuming they are already enlightened when in fact, as Jean Klein used to say, they haven’t yet left the garage.
Many Advaitins believe that training the mind merely deprives it of its inherent openness, spontaneity, and aliveness. Besides, Advaita argues, each of us is already the perfect expression of Brahman, or consciousness, just as we are. Instead of working to change, improve, or purify ourselves, we merely need to awaken to this inherent perfection through contemplation of the teachings and contact with a teacher, which then naturally reveals the essential qualities of love, compassion, peace, joy, and equanimity. From the Buddhist point of view, however, such an emphasis on inherent perfection can tend to lead to self-satisfied passivity or self-serving, unethical behavior. (Of course, the practice—no practice distinction is not writ in stone, and many Advaita teachers have recommended practices, most notably Ramana Maharshi, who taught self-inquiry using the question “Who am I?”)
Despite such cautions, many Buddhist practitioners have found that the two traditions can work hand in hand. Catherine Ingram, author of Passionate Presence, studied Vipassana for more than a dozen years in the seventies and eighties, one of which was spent in Asia, before meeting Poonjaji in 1991. “My practice had begun to feel lifeless and joyless,” she recalls. “I could watch and note my experience like a computer, but I couldn’t feel anything. Simultaneously there was a growing disconnection from the beliefs of Buddhism, such as karma and rebirth. Buddhism was still my community and my language, but my heart wasn’t in it anymore. I fell into a deep depression.”
Then Ingram traveled to India to spend time with Poonjaji, at the urging of friends who had come back transformed. “In a shockingly short time I understood that there was nothing more to do or seek, it was about relaxing right where I was, in my own being, without making any effort in any direction. Indeed, to make effort toward pure beingness was contraindicated.”