Here are some possible reasons why it is difficult for Western Advaitins to access the traditional teaching of Advaita Vedanta and vice versa.
The main reasons to me seem to be a different language and a different cultural background plus (related to the latter) a different way of teaching.
Note: Here I am only referring to those, Indian or Western, who want to know their non-dual nature, i.e. Traditional and Western Advaitins in the narrowest sense.
Intention of teaching
West and Traditional: Both want to realize the Self as non-dual and their teachers want to help the students to do so.
Language of teaching
Traditional: Whatever the language of teacher and audience may be, in proper teaching it will be underpinned with Sanskrit terms which are either assumed to be known or are explained in detail. Even though Sanskrit usually is not a spoken language, for Indians who form the main part of the audience, Sanskrit is not entirely foreign.
West: the language of the teacher is the language that the audience speaks in their daily life (be it English, Spanish, French, German etc.). Even in non-English speaking countries it may be English, of which most educated Westerners have some command. There are no or very few other foreign words used.
Conclusion: Westerners usually have to learn a completely new terminology in order to follow a traditional teachers teaching, especially if they want to study the scriptures (which is essential in traditional Advaita Vedanta). Sanskrit usually has no similarity with their own language plus a different script. This may be discouraging. The seeker wants to understand who he is, instead he has to learn words and terms of a foreign language.
Indians generally have an easier access to Sanskrit, many Sanskrit words are used in their own languages, especially in Hindi, where even the script is identical.
On top of that educated Indians usually have perfect command of English. So the language itself cannot place an obstacle to their understanding of Western Advaita. What may place an obstacle is a certain expectation: If secular language is used, what is conveyed cannot be of much value.
Content of teaching
Traditional: in shravana issues revolve around the scriptures themselves, the teacher lectures and there is little or no possibility for the student to ask questions. There are opportunities to approach the teacher and ask him about issues that occur in day-to-day life though. Those are normally handled in a practical way, meaning the advice remains on the level the question is asked, i.e. vyavaharika. There usually is no pointer to paramarthika level, the advice is in terms of karma yoga and dharmic living.
West: the issues talked about in Western Advaita Satsangs are coming from the people themselves. Even if the teacher introduces something, it is in regard to their past, actual or possible questions. Most of the questions show that the seekers in their day-to-day lives are constantly occupied with the attempt to find out who they are.
Whatever they present, the Advaita teacher will try to evoke an understanding from a non-dual perspective; in traditional terminology: the teacher tries to raise the seekers understanding, even of his personal issues, from one restricted to vyavaharika perspective to one including paramarthika level. There is no moral code and solutions for practical problems are not usually offered.
One could say that the content of teaching is in the form of manana, even though there has been no shravana to precede it.
Both students will tend to feel that they do not get what they look for if trying to attend a meeting with a teacher of the other “party”. The traditional student may feel that the Western teaching is either too personal (regarding the issues) or too vague (regarding the pointers to paramarthika level which he does not expect). He may even think that by introducing paramarthika perspective the teacher wants to calm him down instead of raising his understanding.
The Western student on the other hand may feel that traditional teaching is asking him to spend a lot of time on things that do not relate to his quest. And as he is not interested in moral advice and “how to live your life-instructions” he will be frustrated if those are presented as answers to his personal questions.
Methodology of teaching
Traditional: Traditional Advaita Vedanta insists on Sampradaya teaching as the only valid form of teaching. The methodology is millennia old and accordingly extremely refined. It requires long and dedicated study and a sound knowledge of Sanskrit. Teachers who have had such a training will teach students who highly respect their knowledge and want to learn from them or even go through Sampradaya teaching themselves.
Traditional students want to understand the scriptures in order to realize their true nature. The scriptures themselves are considered the means to Self-realization. Thus the traditional student has the patience and trust that all the keys needed are in the scriptures and that the teacher by explaining them will remove the student’s ignorance layer by layer until Self-knowledge occurs. At the same time the student assumes that a proper lifestyle and moral attitude are essential to enabling him to understand what is taught. So he is ready to listen to practical advice from the teacher, too.
West: as pointed out in an earlier blog the Western Advaita teaching cannot really be called teaching. I prefer the word guiding. The teacher, i.e. guide, does not teach anything, there is no study of scriptures, also he/she does not usually give practical advice or show the way.
What is done is individually assisting the student (i.e. the one asking for help) to find a different perspective on whatever issue he presents – an answer that points in the direction of non-duality. The guide does not have a methodology and if he has one, it is based on his individual background of knowledge (psychological, philosophical etc.). Primarily his ability to guide rests on him having realized the Self.
The rest of the audience usually can relate well to the question of the one asking the teacher in front of the others, they learn for themselves by listening to others being guided by the teacher. (Anyone at any time can ask to come forward with his own question).
Conclusion: Again both students will tend to feel uncomfortable with a teacher of the other party. To say it more bluntly: Both may feel that they are wasting their time. The traditional student expects to be taught but he will not get any teaching. The Western student expects to be guided individually, instead he will have to listen to lectures in a teacher-centered setting where he is not even allowed to interrupt when he feels he is losing track.
Even presenting personal questions, traditional students expect different answers than Westerners. Whereas the traditional student will want to know from the teacher what is proper behavior and attitude according to Hindu dharma, the Western student does not. He wants to find out who he is and does not recognize a relation between this quest and moral questions. Also he grew up with quite a loose and highly individualized value system, which only in parts conforms to traditional Hindu dharma.
So the traditional student may feel frustrated when to his personal questions the teacher responds by trying to go beyond practical matters and point him to paramarthika perspective; accordingly the Western student will feel frustrated when the teacher does not guide him in such a way but tells him what to do or not do as per Hindu dharma.
The stories, images, analogies used as illustrations in traditional teaching are taken from the scriptures themselves. This means they can be difficult to relate to by contemporary Westerners (pot – clay, burnt cloth) or they are culturally colored (rope-snake, lotus-leaf-water, arundhati, monkey child). They speak to Indians in a much more direct way than to Westerners. It would be helpful to transform them into more modern images.
As I place high value in both, Western as well as Traditional Advaita teachings, I am deeply convinced that there is gain when both stop disregarding each other. Still, there are quite some obstacles, as I have tried to demonstrate above.
There are three groups of people to take into account
1. For those who are happy with their chosen path, traditional or Western, enquiry into the other is unnecessary, except if the student is quite advanced and whishes to broaden his perspective.
2. Seekers who feel stuck with their chosen path may very well be motivated enough to overcome their preconceptions and start experimenting with a different approach.
3. For teachers, both traditional and Western, I think it would be immensely valuable to take the time and dive into the teaching/guiding style of the other.
A traditional teacher teaching in India may not have any need to look into the Western approach, but before long even he may need to find ways to speak to the Indian youth. Our world is so interconnected and Western influence is strong everywhere. Western Advaita teaching is one of its best traits - so why not open to it? There is no need to adopt it. Just fully understanding how it is meant to work, what are its advantages and disadvantages and what it is that makes it so attractive in the West, would suffice. Needless to say that traditional teachers in the West would probably be able to attract many more Westerners than they usually do if they are more informed about Western style Advaita teaching.
Most Western teachers have looked into the teachings of the East and found valuable tools and keys to incorporate into their Western teaching. Same as traditional teachers they will not want to adopt the whole package; there is a reason why Western seekers flock around them – they offer something that speaks to Westerners in a language they understand. But Western teaching can be improved, improved hugely as I would say, by understanding traditional Advaita Vedanta and its teaching methodology more deeply.