The Progressive Path Vs. The Direct Path

It’s taken me some time to understand why some teachers–most especially, perhaps, Atmananda and Jean Klein–have circled back quite often to critiques of the progressive paths and to apologias for the direct path. Since my background is in Zen Buddhism and in Advaita Vedanta, I’ve only ever known, with any especial tintimacy, direct path teachings. I can now see, I think, what the thrust of the critique of progressive paths are, at least as these are presented by certain Vedantins.

My interpretation of Jean Klein’s critique of the progressive path, a critique that can be found in an extended form in Who Am I?: The Sacred Quest, is that it amounts to spiritual materialism (Trungpa Rinpoche’s term here, not Klein’s). Klein’s worry is that one on a progressive path is engaged in a long, arduous, and ultimately fruitless quest: the fundamental presupposition is that the subject is not in play, only the object, with the tragic result that through “elimination” and “purification” the spiritual seeker will pass, dialectically so, through higher and higher stages of “development.” The terminus of this path is what Klein terms “the blank state”: a trance-like state that is empty of objectivity.

What’s the problem, then?

It’s two-fold. In the first place, the presupposition that there exists an ego-self, a subject, is left intact even at the end, and this presupposition becomes harder to undercut–or so Klein avers–by the time the practitioner reaches “the blank state” (or manolaya in Sri Ramana’s language). And in the second place, such an ego-self has set off on a journey in which there is, from the outset, the assumption that there is something to achieve, that there is an attainment to be had. In other words, the ego exists as a striver. By the end of this path and because of these rigidified presuppositions that only serve to reinforce an illusory sense of a separate self, the seeker is “stuck,” with no going “forward” or “backward.” Hence the tragedy.

By contrast, Klein states, “The basic supposition of the direct way is that your global non-state is already there [or: here], is natural to you [since it is you], and it ‘waits’ for the deep relaxation of the habits of mind and body. This is God, grace, the presence that appears [initially] in the openings between your egoistical pursuits. It is always present” (Who Am I?, p. 118).

In other words, the direct path places, in all experiences, the accent on the Background of all experience. Hence, Atmananda, for instance, will speak of all experience as “pointing to” You, the Ultimate; of all experience as “rising” and “falling” in You, the Ultimate; as all experiences as being “made up of” You, the Ultimate. Every single experience, then, is nothing but You.

While I think defenders of the direct path tend to overplay their hand (after all, some provisional levels, as teaching tools, are often smuggled in here and there–examples include Witnessing, body work to allow the bodymind to become more sattvic, and so on), I’ll leave for another time a more nuanced account of how the direct path can sprinkle in, as helpful devices, some progressive elements when such, in keeping with upaya, are called for.