Neo-Advaita Vs. Rinzai Zen: The Paradox Of Effort

In a 2010 Buddha at the Gas Pump interview with Timothy Conway, Rick Archer and Timothy discuss, starting at 1:31:30, the errors in Neo-Advaita. To summarize almost verbatim:

–There is no need to meditate.

–There are no degrees of perfection on the path.

–All “you” need “to do” is to realize that “you” are That and “you” are done (quotes indicating Neo-Advaita’s rejection of the personal).

They go on to shine a critical light on the social and political dimensions:

–It’s a power game in which the one espousing Neo-Advaita uses oneupmanship to make the other feel inferior. If John says, “I have a headache but I’m fine,” his Neo-Advaita interlocutor will swiftly say “What is the source of that thought? Who really has the headache?” This stunt, which in the right context is a genuine question in the spirit of self-inquiry, only enhances the sense of separation.

–This power game, briefly described in the last point, “forces” (Timothy Conway’s word) the relationship into a teacher/discipline frame. “I’m the sage and you’re not.”

–Concerning this power game, Rick Archer observes that it’s a “cop-out” in the sense that any unwholesome behavior, thoughts, or emotions are written off because the alleged realizer has already realized It.

I’m sure there are other penetrating and wholesome critiques of Neo-Advaita, but the above suffices for my purposes to point to what, in connection with the great Indian teacher Nisargadatta, Timothy Conway calls “the paradox of effort.” It is effort, the need for meditation, and the value of cultivation that I wish to bring out here.

Zen, much to its credit, is superb at pithily illuminating the paradox of effort to us. In one famous story about Huineng, the Sixth Patriarch of Chan, we learn about a contest the point of which is to determine who will be a certain abbot’s successor. One monk who was favored wrote the following poem:

Our body is the bodhi tree,

And our mind a mirror bright.

Carefully we wipe them hour by hour,

And let no dust alight.

To this, Huineng replies with his own poem:

There is no bodhi tree,

Nor stand of a mirror bright.

Since all is void [emptiness or sunyata],

Where can the dust alight?

The former urges us to clarify the mind, bringing it to the unified state of samadhi. The latter seems to imply that the latter is not necessary. If this were a game of oneupmanship, then it would seem as if the latter is right, the former wrong.

But is that so?

In actuality, they’re both right. A practitioner needs to meditate with a view to polishing the mind and there was never anything to polish in the first place. Great efforts need to be made–with “earnestness” as Nisargadatta often said–and Big Mind was always only the one acting in the first place. Mental vexations should be removed and the One Reality is ever pure, ever clear. Meditation is what one does and meditation is only ever what one is.

The paradox of effort only resolves itself when the ignorance is completely seen through or–to put it differently–when divine grace reveals itself. Until then, best to keep humbly, openly, lovingly polishing and wiping, polishing and wiping–with greater and greater care and subtlety…