By Robert Epstein
Hinduism is the most complex of all religions.
It’s really an umbrella term for several different Indian systems. Large percentages of Hindus either believe in a personal God (purusha) or are followers of Brahma, Shiva or Krishna—the three declensions that descend from the Formless Brahman. Brahman is closest to what the Western God is supposed to be (formless and unnameable/unimaginable).
Then there are the followers of the Divine Mother (Kali/Shakti), representing the feminine spiritual power (Kundalini). There is also Kriya Yoga (Path of Purification), Agni Yoga (Inner Light-Fire purification), Jnana Yoga (Path of Knowledge,) Raja Yoga (a meditation-based practice) and Ashtanga Yoga (the eight-limbed system of Yogic exercises and meditation leading to samadhi, the deepest meditative state). And there are multiple systems of Hatha Yoga, Kundalini yoga, and Tantric Yoga.
Then there’s the part of Hinduism that’s closest to Buddhism, but it’s still not the same as Buddhism: Advaita Vedanta.
In Advaita, there’s the idea that the formless Brahman—the pure formless consciousness—is Dreaming the Dream of Maya (Illusion). The illusion is our life as separate living beings. This consciousness has a representation in the heart of every living being which represents their True Self within the illusion. Through meditative attention to the inner heart where the Inner Self resides, one can discover and awaken to it as one’s true identity. This is the Atman, the Eternal Self, which Buddha explicitly said does not exist.
The Buddha said, “Sorry, you don’t have a personal self or soul,” with his doctrine of anatta (Anatman = no Atman). The Buddha blew away any idea that there was a personal core to the self and declared it to be changeable (anicca) and empty (sunya).
The enlightenment that Buddha says we can awaken to is our true nature as impersonal awareness, not any kind of a permanent spirit or persona. Well, the truth is that if you awaken to the actuality of Atman, you probably find the same impersonal awareness that Buddha talked about. And that reality of the Self is presented in Advaita Vedanta.
That idea of having an empty core and that the only true identity is Awareness/Pure Consciousness is very challenging and still the most radical of the Buddhist teachings. And this becomes equally challenging for those Hindus who follow the higher teachings of Advaita Vedanta, or non-dualism as taught in the Vedas and Upanishads.
Teachers like Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta make it clear that the Self in Vedantic scriptures is not a soul or Godhead, but is instead pure impersonal consciousness, just as self-nature or true self in Zen turns out to be very similar—the experience of presence, sentience or awareness itself.
So, it’s true that Advaita and Zen are closer than other parts of Hinduism and Buddhism, as they represent the most direct acknowledgments of this core nature as awareness.
It is possible in both Advaita Vedanta and Zen to get attached to enlightenment and reject the reality of everyday life. In Zen, the solution to this is to go back, “Into the marketplace,” forget enlightenment and embrace everyday reality as an ordinary person. Having lost the weight of a false self to protect, the “lighter” Zen self goes back into life and blends into the flow of human reality.
In Advaita Vedanta a sort of parallel modern movement—sometimes called Neo-Advaita—likewise embraces the flow of everyday reality and says that what is experienced in the moment as a human being is no different than awareness itself, and thus should not be rejected but completely embraced.
Some think that Robert Epstein has TOO eclectic of a background. He studied three forms of T’ai Chi and Taoist standing meditation, learned The Sedona Method from Lester Levinson and his staff, introduced a friend to his lifelong path studying the Seth work, studied and taught Iyengar Yoga for 15 years, practiced deep tissue massage and was certified in Reiki, studied inner light meditation at the school of Actualism for almost a decade, was ordained an Interfaith Minister after attending an intensive seminary program in NY and did some spiritual counseling, was certified in hypnotherapy, introduced his wife to her lifelong path studying the Course in Miracles. He learned basic Buddhist meditation from zen and Tibetan teachers, briefly met Chogyam Trungpa and attended the Vajra Crown Ceremony in Boston, studied Theravadin suttas, Mahayana Sutras, Abhidhamma and the Blue Cliff Record, studied Advaita Vedanta and attended retreats with Ramesh Balsekar—Sri Nisargardatta’s Dharma heir, and then practiced Vipassana meditation for a period of years. Then a series of events led him back to Chan and zen and his current practice: sitting zazen, koan study, and exploring Hua Tou meditation. If hearing that list made you dizzy, think of how Robert must feel! In addition to collecting spiritual practices, Robert plays sax, piano and other instruments, writes poetry, plays and screenplays, and teaches acting classes for a living.
Editor: John Lee Pendall
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