Ramana Maharshi is making some bold yet also reasonable claims. The first is that Self-inquiry (atma-vichara) is the most direct means to Self-realization. The second is that, unlike other spiritual practices (sadhanas), it provides us with “the only raft” (Be As You Are, p. 55, my italics).
Let’s see whether we can make sense of these two claims while also softening both.
Maharshi’s critique of other forms of meditation (dhyana) is that they amount to holding on to an ego-object structure. So, he states, “Dhyana is concentration on an object. It fulfils the purpose of keeping away diverse thoughts and fixing the mind on a single thought, which must also disappear before realisation” (p. 54).
To see the point he’s making, consider some form of breath control (pranayama). During pranayama, the mind may become one-pointed as attention remains, say, on the third eye. But what is it like 30 minutes after pranayama? The same mental chatter resumes, and the key is that the mind required an object for the meditation itself. That is to say, the key, for Maharshi, is to relinquish all objectifying tendencies, and so any form of meditation that does not necessitate that relinquishment cannot take you Home.
Another way of putting this critique is to say that Maharshi is focused on pure awareness, not on attention. The latter, necessarily, is always objectifying while pure awareness is beyond as well as prior to all attention. Therefore, any practice worth its salt must ultimately bring us beyond attending and to pure awareness.
Claim #1: The Most Direct Means
Maharshi suggests that Self-inquiry is the most direct means, and about this he is right. It must be the most direct just because it is pointing us straightaway to the Ground of all becoming.
Yet the claim needs to be softened a bit. I would say that any approach can called the most direct so just long as it points straightaway to This Very Reality. Understood thus, the natural koan in Zen and the huatou in Chan also fit the bill. And, in actual practice (i.e., “from the inside”), I can make out no essential difference between Self-Inquiry, the natural koan, and the huatou.
The scope of Maharshi’s claim so widened, any meditation that is a direct pointing would also count as being the “most direct means” of realization.
Claim #2: The Only Raft
Arguing along similar lines, I would submit that Self-inquiry is the only kind of raft that can bring us Home. For Maharshi is surely right to say that the “mental modification of the ‘I'” (the short, though perhaps somewhat misleading or confusing translation is the “I-thought”) grabs a hold of an object. When the I is modified, it is already grabbing on to something: a thought, a perception, a memory, a sensation (which is implicitly called “mine”), etc. Therefore, he is right on the mark when he states that only when the “I-thought,” being intensely held on to, relinquishes all objectivity can it sink back into the Heart/Self. That sinking back or dissolution is realization.
In Rinzai Zen, it is said that once the doubt sensation has arisen, there can be the Doubt Block (or the Great Doubt). This is all-encompassing, all-pervading, so much so that all ego-thought freezes.
My interpretation is that different cultural traditions–Advaita and Zen, for instance–and different spiritual paths–Self-inquiry and huatou, say–are converging on the same basic insight. Now, during what may be the beginning of a Second Axial Age, is the time to spell all this out as clearly as possible.