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 1993, after assisting Ram Dass at one of his retreats at Omega Institute, Ingram began offering what she calls Dharma Dialogues, interactive public conversations intended to help “dispel” the obstacles to “present awareness.” “Of course, my presentation is part Buddhism and part Advaita,” she acknowledges, “but I try to strip things bare and offer something fresh and uniquely of my own experience and observation. I honor the precision of Buddhism and its understanding of the workings of the mind, and I love in Advaita the emphasis on nondoing and no efforting and the understanding of what always already is. But Advaita can become dreamy and imprecise, and Buddhism can tend toward the repression of experiences it considers negative or bad, such as sex or power.” Ingram offers silent retreats that include dialogues but no prescribed practices, yet she admits that “some people can benefit from a lot of practice.”
When Howie Cohn, a founding teacher at Spirit Rock, met Poonjaji in 1990, he had already experienced the profound depths of insight as outlined in the Vipassana tradition. Yet he had become disillusioned by the dogmatism and rigidity of one of his Asian teachers, and his faith in the practice had begun to waiver. Poonjaji asked him why he had come. “I already know that the seeker and the sought are one,” Cohn told him, “yet I’ve traveled around the world to see you, so I must still be seeking something.”
“Remove the seeker and remove the sought,” Poonjaji said. On hearing those words, Cohn says, he experienced a cessation of consciousness and the dissolution of mind and body, just as he had at the end of three-month retreats in the past. “But now I realized they weren’t dependent on forms like sitting practice or retreat. This was my very nature. I didn’t have to do anything or go anywhere to experience it.” Though he wasn’t doing formal meditation, his mind remained quite silent for a month.
“Poonjaji urged me to continue what I was doing,” says Cohn, “so I went back to teaching Vipassana. But now the emphasis was on reminding people that there’s no place to go and nothing to become. I often say that you’re immersed in what you’re seeking, and practice can help you to recognize it and then to get used to and stabilize the recognition. If I’m careful with my language, meditation practice can bring people closer to where they already are and wake them up out of the imagination of being a someone with a past and a future.”
Inspired by their contact with Advaita Vedanta, Buddhist teachers like Cohn, Douglas, and Wheeler practice and teach meditation not as a progressive path to self-improvement but as an opportunity to reconnect directly with our timeless nature. “On the Vipassana retreats I offer,” says Cohn, “people often find that the effort of becoming starts to dissolve, the seeking mind exhausts itself, and the recognition dawns that they’re already complete just as they are.”
Stephan Bodian is a Zen teacher, a psycholotherapist, and the author of several books, including Meditation for Dummies. He studied with Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, Taizan Maezumi Roshi, and Jean Klein before recieving dharma transmission from Adyashanti.
Image 1: Untitled, anonymous, 1993, gouache, watercolor, and tempura on paper, 10 x 8.625 inches. © Frank André Jamme, Courtesy of The
Image 2: Untitled, anonymous, 1997, gouache, watercolor, and tempura on paper, 12.875 x 9.75inches. © Frank André Jamme, Courtesy of The