Advaita and Zen and All That

Posted on October 31, 2020

“I get that life sort of happens out of our control … and I can see somewhat that the ego is a story. I just don’t understand what is the need to constantly teach and discuss about it?”


The “Advaita experience” or “Zen kensho” is seeing clearly that life sort of happens, out of our control, and that our sense of “I” is a story.

And the first time we become fully aware of this may get etched in our memories. At least that’s how it went with me. For you the experience may be quite different. The shape of our awakenings does not matter much. In any case, there is nothing to teach and there is not much to discuss.

Attempts to “revive” that first experience and attempts to theorize about it are misguided because they are preventing the natural flow of life. I certainly made these attempts, but in vain, and in retrospect they were mistaken. Why? Because life just sort of happens, because flow is what matters, and because there is not much to say about all that.

We tell ourselves stories about ourselves all the time, and once we are aware of that some of these stories can start to dissolve and fade away. One story I used to tell myself is that I was exceptionally bright. That’s what people around me told me when I grew up, and I believed them. But that story has been a hindrance to my development. When I dropped all the stories that made me ‘special’, my life became much simpler, and my relationships with people improved greatly. There is absolutely no need anymore to feel special. And this shedding of stories about “me” is still going on. And my life is getting simpler and simpler.

Instead of talking about the Advaita experience we better dance or make music. Or if we want to talk about it we may prefer to use poetry:

Sitting quietly,
doing nothing,
Spring comes,
and the grass grows,
by itself.

– Matsuo Basho

Once we get that life sort of happens out of our control, the great mystic poets become our friends, because we get what they are about:

The minute I heard my first love story,
I started looking for you, not knowing
how blind that was.
Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere.
They’re in each other all along.

– Jalaluddin Rumi

I have had the great good fortune of spending time with Thich Nhat Hanh, poet and Zen master.

Drink Your Tea

Drink your tea slowly and reverently,
as if it is the axis
on which the world earth revolves
– slowly, evenly, without
rushing toward the future;
Live the actual moment.
Only this moment is life.

– Thich Nhat Hanh

I don’t think that the insight that life sort of happens out of our control precludes us from doing what is morally right, by the way. Once we see that our sense of self is a story, we can open ourselves to the experience of connection, with our fellow humans, with animals, with plants, with the earth, with the universe. And we start to feel the interconnectedness of all things.

Life happens the way it does. The moral stirrings in my heart are among those happenings. Following the flow of life, I see myself taking part in Extinction Rebellion protests or writing blog posts about conspiracy thinking, or aligning myself with the Deep Adaptation movement. My personal experience is that getting the facts that life sort of happens out of our control and that my “I” is a made-up story has brought me closer to my fellow humans and to nature. Life happens the way it does, and the urge to connect with people around me and to connect with nature blossoms in me, all by itself. Rumi’s poem quoted above also expresses this.

There are awakenings. I know there are; I know it from having experienced them myself. I also know that I am not enlightened, and my life partner agrees. Whether there are fully enlightened beings I do not know. I tend to doubt it. What I do know is that I have never encountered any, neither in the flesh nor on YouTube video. When Thich Nhat Hanh talks about enlightenment he always does so in an inclusive way:

If you breathe in and are aware that you are alive - that you can touch the miracle of being alive - then that is a kind of enlightenment. Many people are alive but don’t touch the miracle of being alive.

On the topic of enlightenment, I tend to side with Shiv Sengupta:

To me, ‘enlightenment’ is not some pinnacle state of consciousness but rather is a continuous process of ever-increasing clarity about self and reality - one that every sentient being is engaged with whether one is aware of it or not.

Shiv Sengupta, Advaitaholics Anonymous - Sobering Insights for Spiritual Addicts.

I had my share of training in critical thinking and studying the works of the great philosophers. This has helped me somewhat to gain clarity, but I also know that the power of thinking should not be over-estimated. Gottlob Frege, the inventor of modern logic and one of the founders of analytic philosophy, was a hard-core right-wing, anti-democrat, anti-liberal, racist, nationalist anti-Semite. Martin Heidegger, a hero of continental philosophy, reflected deeply on Being but he sided with Hitler and the nazis, he reviled his Jewish colleagues (including his own teacher Edmund Husserl), and he encouraged his right-wing students to rough up their left-wing adversaries. So much for the beneficial effects of philosophical thinking.

And we may ask ourselves if spiritual culture (gurus, schools, practices, traditions) is an obstacle rather than a help in the process of walking our own path. Sometimes we meet a teacher who opens our eyes to an aspect of reality that was hidden from us before. I have had the great good fortune of encountering such teachers. But one has to be very careful. Gurus, schools and (fixed) traditions tend to obscure the fact that life sort of happens out of our control, and that it is just fine that life happens the way it does. Spiritual authority figures cannot help us with the task of rejecting spiritual authority in favour of experiencing life for ourselves.