A popular dichotomy has emerged about Enlightenment in the West since the 1970s between the schools of “gradual enlightenment” and “instant enlightenment”. Some of this can probably be traced back to Poonja ji’s and Nisargadatta Maharaj’s disciples returning to the west in the 1970s and 1980s from India and bringing their understanding of Advaita Vedanta with them as given to them by their teachers. However, because many of these students deviate from traditional Advaita as taught in the classic lineage of Adi Shankracharya, they are referred to as neo-advaitins.
Given this thesis and antithesis between the gradual path and the direct path, I address the following question:
It is said that there are two approaches to the Truth of Being or Reality which some call Enlightenment or Self-Realization. A gradual path and a direct path. What is the truth of it? Are their really two paths? If not, which approach is the correct one? What road should a seeker of truth take?
First we look at the two paths and what these are about.
The Gradual Path
In the gradual path, one engages in meditation and other spiritual practices and disciplines, refines and purifies the mind over time, and is able to rise above the body limitations in ecstatic and trance states.
At some point, the mind beholds the divine directly or is able to surrender itself and be absorbed in the divine. Most yoga paths in various Eastern traditions fall into this category. One can check the ancient Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras for reference.
Such schools of thought are also common to Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and other religions as well. In these traditions, personal prayers, effort, and practice to reach the supreme divine is emphasized and considered vital to success on the spiritual path.
Criticism of the Gradual Path
The yogic paths and meditative approaches based on effort are criticized by the proponents of the direct path (the neo-advaitins) as being misguided.
The advocates of the direct path point out that since Advaita Vedanta states that the Self is always realized, expending effort to find it, is itself counterproductive. Their essential position is that since any effort towards enlightenment is based on ignorance, it cannot lead to true understanding or Enlightenment.
If I were to frame the objection of the neo-advaitin to the gradual path in the form of a question, it would be this: ” How can spiritual effort based on the false assumption of ignorance lead to the Truth of Reality?”.
Logically, It is a quite a beautiful and a powerful assertion.
Criticism of the Direct Path
On the other hand, the “direct path students and teachers” are viewed by many traditional yogis and practitioners of meditation as deluded individuals who at best have convinced themselves due to the power of sheer ignorance that they are enlightened. Such self-deception in the long run is bound to prove frustrating and disappointing to themselves as well as those unfortunate enough to fall for their hype of “Instant Enlightenment”.
Many traditional practitioners also claim that the “direct path teachers” tend to be on power trips and underneath the facade of their “Enlightenment” lies the basic human nature of greed and the hunger for power and the usual sexual and financial exploitation of those who follow them. They point to numerous examples of this happening in various spiritual communities and satsangh circles.
Unfortunately, the traditional practitioners and gurus are also not free from such issues. So neither can win the argument on the ground of excessive purity in behavior and conduct.
Support for Both Schools of Thought Exists
Such criticisms and counter-criticisms that the practitioners of two schools hurl toward each other all appear to have some degree of validity. Both schools also have their own particular strengths. An integrative understanding can lead one to relax one’s position on such matters.
In the direct path, the insight or the revelation is sudden like thunder. Truth of the Self appears as lightning and illuminates one’s being in a flash. The ignorance drops away as if it never was and one is at ease with one’s nature. Buddhists call it the Original Face, the Buddha mind, or the Buddha nature. Hindus and Jains call it Atma Jnana, Kevala Jnana, or Moksha.
There are various examples of this particular mode of thought in Hinduism and other religions as well. In this approach, for many, the Grace of God or Guru becomes the focal point on the spiritual path and the role of personal effort is downplayed. Support for this is found in the Upanishads (sacred scriptures of Hindus) where we see statements like, “Self reveals Itself to whom It chooses.” For reference, see the Katha Upanishad, where Yama, the Lord of Death, explains to Nachiketa,” The Self cannot be known through the study of scriptures, nor through intellect nor through hearing learned discourses. It can be attained only by those whom the Self chooses.”
On the other hand, in many schools of Hinduism, the emphasis is on works and on spiritual practices such as meditation, pranayama, fasting, etc. Similarly, in Jainism, the spiritual aspirant must bravely work out his/her karma (destiny) in this world following the path of forgiveness, compassion, and nonviolence. This was demonstrated over 2600 years ago by the Tirthankara Bhagavan Mahavira who bore physical and mental hardships with a feeling of amity and nonviolence towards all living beings. Eventually, as his karma dropped, the heavy burden of his soul becomes lighter and led to Self-Realization and Kevala Jnana (Which Jains view as Omniscience).
We see that in Jainism, the actual working out of karma through indifference to suffering, doing good deeds and by cultivating universal love for all beings is emphasized. The same is true in most schools of Hinduism. Even in Buddhism, originally Buddha taught the doctrine of effort and walking the spiritual path with care and compassion. Buddha’s last words to his students are said to be, “Work out your salvation with diligence.” Essentially, Buddha was saying to his students that after receiving his teachings, it was up to them to walk the path and attain their Buddha nature.
Where is the Truth in this Forest?
So then where lies the Truth of Enlightenment? Is the Truth of Realization achieved through walking the path gradually and carefully while engaging in spiritual practices? Or is Realization attained suddenly through a Zen like Satori or when the Zen master does something strange and shocking as depicted in many Zen stories. Can Realization really come unannounced knocking at the door as was the case with Sri Ramana Maharshi?
Sri Ramana, the great sage of Arunachala, has simultaneously endorsed both perspectives and said that the Truth of the Self is indeed simple and within everyone’s grasp. We simply mix the underlying feeling of “I AM” which is there in all of us (and always the same from childhood to old age) with the circumstances of our life, and the ever changing currents and patterns of our mood and personality.
The self-feeling of existence, the “I AM” which animates our life and consciousness and gives light to identity becomes invisible and goes in the background as we become captivated with our perceptions and invest in our daily relationships. That is only according to nature, and one is meant to engage in these things.
All relationships inevitably end. Even when we love someone dearly and they love us, eventually we are separated through circumstances, old age, or illness. If someone is married for 50 years, there is no guarantee that they will make it another year or another 10 years. In due time, one person will pass away due to old age or illness or another cause.
Coming together and separating are the nature of life. Underlying all these events and relationships is the silent presence of “I AM”. If we are paying attention we can feel it. In our quiet moments it comes upon us and we can stay with it. The truth is so simple and ordinary and that is why we take it for granted. If we remain with this self-feeling of existence, the stainless “I AM” free from the contents of the mind, we can come to see the value and beauty of it. It is only pure being. Our own being.
The Role of Spiritual Effort
The spiritual effort needed in terms of meditation and inquiry, to make the mind subtle and to refine the intellect so that this simplicity of being can be grasped with immediacy and certainty, should not be dismissed.
If some people do not need such efforts and can recognize the truth of their being immediately by hearing someone restate or paraphrase what the ancient sages have said, that is wonderful indeed. It shows that their mind already had requisite subtlety, depth, and maturity.
The Sense of Being I AM: The Open Secret
If there is a deep sense of quiet within, it can be like a mirror and we can see the image of “I AM” reflected in the mind. I am reminded of that passage where God said to Moses, “I AM That I AM”. I am not a scholar or religious expert but sometimes it seems to me that this is a symbolic message telling us to pay attention to the “I AM” within because it is God sitting in our own being and Heart saying, “Here I AM, I AM, Come to Me”.
It is said that man (woman) was made in the image of God. If the nature or identity of God can be described best as “I AM THAT I AM” it stands to reason that the nature of Man (Woman) is also similar. Our essential nature can be captured by this feeling we all have; the simple feeling of being-existing, free from conflicts, “I AM”. According to Advaita, this “I AM” within us is the link to God. Prayer, meditation, contemplation all make us reflect on this sense of being within us.
The Sahaj State
The state of the Self is natural. Easy and natural because the Self remains as It Self. It is devoid of sorrow and has nothing to attain being whole and complete and what the Advaita scriptures refer to as One without a second. Sages called this Realization the Sahaj state.
Sahaj in Sanskrit means easy and natural. That which requires no effort is Sahaj. To understand the Sahaj state of the Self, we can start and reflect on our body and see what is natural to it. What is easy and natural differs among people. Some people are able to sit in the lotus posture in an easy and natural way (see the picture of this young woman at www.harshasatsangh.com sitting in the lotus posture).
However, the lotus posture is not easy and natural for everyone. For most people, to sit like that would hurt their knees and ankles and is very uncomfortable. God did not say to Moses, “Here I Am, sitting in the Lotus Posture.” God only said, “I AM THAT I AM”. The feeling of “I AM” within us is independent of posture. Physical postures pertain only to the body and not to the spirit.
What is Natural Differs Among People
In life and on the spiritual path we have to see what is easy and natural for us. For some, walking is easy and natural and such people practice their prayers, mantras, and pranayama taking a morning stroll. Others are not satisfied unless they lift very heavy weights and scream “Oh God”, “Oh God”, and breathe rapidly and heavily. This is their form of being natural. For such people becoming very muscular becomes natural. If you were to tell weight lifters to take it easy and just take a nice walk every morning, they would not agree to it. They like to have big muscles and low body fat. That is natural for them but not for everyone.
In Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna tells Arjuna that actions and paths of people differ according to their natural inclinations and therefore one should follow one’s own Dharma not someone else’s. In other words, we need not seek or follow someone’s path because it may not be natural for us. We should be natural, authentic, and true to our self. Without it, there would be inner conflict which is not conducive to being quiet and meditative.
What Path Should One Follow?
Gradual or Direct or Just Stay Home
In this essay, I have suggested that the philosophies and perspectives of the gradual or the direct path are not inherently meaningful. Their truth lies only in being teaching tools. Words and concepts such as the “direct path” and the “gradual path” are meant to point at the truth but they are not themselves the truth. The Truth must reveal itself to us in our own Heart.
Therefore, one should not be rigid about which notion is correct or more important or higher than the other. Asking whether the direct path is better than the gradual, one misses the point. The real question is, “What feels natural to you and makes sense?”
Being rigid in one’s view, one misses the obvious. Both the notion of “direct” and “gradual” depend on each other for meaning and have no basis in the Reality of the Self.
According to Advaita Vedanta, the Self Always Is. It cannot be seen by “another” directly. Neither is it approached by “another” gradually. Self Reveals It Self Alone to ItSelf. To understand it in plain English, you can say to yourself, “I am always going to Me. And Here I Am.” Just stay with that.