QUESTION: I recently read a book on the topic of enlightenment and its attainment. The book covered Advaita Vedanta and professed it to be the only true path. The author said many modern teachers are appealing to the Western mind because of our lack of attention and "want it now" attitude. He was even critical of Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta Maharaj, due to their lack of being true Advaita teachers. I've read many authors and teachers, and find them useful.

My question is: do you think in the West - we are looking for an easy way to enlightenment and is there only one true teaching?

ANSWER: I personally always become wary when someone professes the belief that there is only one way to know or do any thing. Fundamentalism in any guise is bitter. One can see one’s reflection most clearly in a mirror, but can also catch a glimpse of it in a body of standing water. Or get an idea by running one’s hand over one’s face or listen to someone describing how one looks. Possibly these latter methods will enforce the desire to look for a mirror. If that is the case, then is looking for one’s reflection by these other methods a mistake? Are these other steps not to be honored as means to the same end? I have seen people with the same serious illness get healed through a wide array of methods. It could be allopathic medicine, complementary medicine, diet, meditation, psychological work, or shamanic practice. If these people were attached to only one way, they would be dead. They had to take an honest inventory of themselves and their needs, and follow their own path. It must be added, that at many times, they had to push back the resistance of those around them and their prevailing opinions.

We can spend a long time dissecting what enlightenment is. Is it an event or a process? Does a glimpse of one’s true nature mean it is everlasting, or does it come in stages? In what I have observed, it is the latter for most of us. Instant enlightenment: here is the irony; the part that wants “it” is the exact thing that keeps the perceived desire at bay. It is that exact opaque mass that keeps the light from being seen, that desires it, and hence keeps it from being seen. But the light is always there, always has been, and always will be. Stepping away from thinking is the most direct path. But that can entail decades (in fact, lifetimes) for it to be gently put aside. Or just moment to moment to moment.

Advaita and its teaching of nondualism is a direct and elegant explanation of what is. However, using words to describe what is beyond words is impossible. At best, it points to the general direction, and at worst, enforces the illusion of separation. But words can be helpful if one realizes their limitations. Words are like a path on land that leads to the ocean. One walks on land to reach the ocean, but still has to jump in to get wet. One has to make sure that the path is not leading deeper into the desert, although many times that too is part of the journey. Advaitic teaching itself can be quite tricky, as the ego can really do a number with its sharp edge to groom itself. It seems straightforward enough in concept, but the thing that we are looking for/that needs to be remembered - is not a concept, but direct experience. This simple but important fact can escape us.

When death comes knocking on our door, only we are responsible for how our journey was. With that as your guide, keep digging until you reach water. When the desire is strong enough, rest assured that your thirst will be quenched. Even if that quenching comes in the manner of the realization that the "you" that was thirsty was, in fact, the ocean. The irony: you are that you seek.