A Journey from Advaita to Buddhism: By Upasika Bach Lien
I remember when I used to do the exercise, “I Am”.
For years I did that exercise. I thought it would lead me to the discovery of who or what I was. There was “Who Am I?,” “I Am That” and “Thou Art That.” I did those exercises for a long time. I loved Ramana Maharshi and Nisargatta Maharaj and Ramesh Balsekar, the great non-dualists who propound those exercises. They certainly found out a lot about who they were. I read their books with a fervor and I adored the way I felt when I read them and I was propelled into a tremendous longing to find out what they found. And I was assured that this particular wanting was OK because it was about the one thing that matters; who “I” am. That wanting was real strong. And it made me happy because I felt like I could know. After all, those guys, they knew!
And then I found out that there were actually people here in the U.S.A., right now, who knew who they were. And I found out that I could know them! So I made it a point to get to know some of them. And I met with them and I spoke with them. That was something. I soon became convinced that I was beginning to know who “I” was when I began to understand that the “I” who was wondering was the wrong “I.” Well, wrong in the sense that this particular “I” was really a “me.” And the “me” can’t know the “I.” At least that’s what I understood. I think.
Yes, I began to see that what “I” am is everything. Just one thing, that is. That “I” that was trying to know itself was really just an “i,” mistaking itself for “I.” “I” got a new name at one point. It was called “Consciousness.” And that’s all there is. Or was.
So my practice naturally became about “me” letting go so that I could just be Consciousness. I could also see how that letting go was in a way doing nothing. That was like a revelation when I thought about it. But, darn it, I just couldn’t seem to let go or do nothing. And try as I might, I just could not stop trying. But I kept at it and called it practice. It was Work. Frustrating as it was. It was very clear, back then. But something was off. Somehow. Why was it so clear that I was Consciousness, when I didn’t feel like it? Why did I have to do that extra step of letting go? If letting go was really nothing, why did it feel like something? If I have always been Consciousness, why were all the satsang teachers talking as if there was something still left to get, even when they said there was nothing to get? Even by just sitting in front of the room, the teachers seemed to be implying that people needed to hear something or do something beyond just being Consciousness. This seemed off to me.
That was a few years ago. Then I met someone, actually a couple of people, who were also looking at “I” but from a different sort of angle. I found out that even Buddha asked, “who am I” for six years. He found something completely different from what the advaitins found, although it looks the same sometimes. I began to look at “I” from this new point of view – the view my new friends were looking from, the view that Buddha had. The search came out differently.
What I liked at the beginning of my search in Buddhism was the clear logic used to find this “I.” There are meditations in Middle Way Buddhism that make it very easy to see the “I” and the “i” for what they really are. At first I was really drawn to the logic of these meditations. It doesn’t so much matter whether it’s my “I” or someone else’s. The meditations bring out the same point.
Then another thing happened that goes along with this. After about a year, these meditations allowed me to become less self-involved. And they made me appreciate spiritual practice. Advaita said not to practice, but to just know and let go. Which was very hard, and I didn’t really understand it. In Buddhism, you concentrate on practice. Many of the practices are directed towards other people, such as lovingkindness, right speech, etc. In Buddhism I never heard a teaching saying not to do anything. That’s so much easier to understand! Because practice seems like what I’m doing anyway, if I’m honest!
—Upasika Bach Lien (Sandra Pippa) studied Advaita Vedanta at the School of Practical Philosophy for 12 years, and was a satsang student for several years after that. She now studies Middle Way and Pure Land Buddhism. She is in the lay dharma teacher training program at the Hai An Pagoda in New Britain, CT, and meditates at the Chuang Yen Monastery in Carmel, New York.