My spiritual journey started when I was 12 years old. It went from taking a deep dive into Christianity, emerging from it when I was 19, then a 2 year spell of interest in Womens Lib and socialist ideas before, at the age of 24, turning to Eastern teaching. Twenty-two years later I turned to Western Advaita, which actually revealed to me what I had set out to realize. It was only 5 years from then that I seriously started to study Advaita Vedanta.
This brought about a big change, not so much in what I realized to be true, but in the way my intellect was challenged. For more than thirty years it kept learning that it could not possibly contribute anything worthwhile to my life, at least not in any spiritual respect. And as my life did almost entirely consist in what I considered to be spiritual at that time, the intellect became almost redundant in the course of those years between 24 and 54.
The invitation to inquire into Vedanta was handed out to me through Dennis Waite’s book “Back to the Truth – 5000 years of Advaita”. This book in itself demanded all my - at that time quite underused - abilities to concentrate, memorize and process data. Luckily, my intuitive expertise was fairly evolved and I had been in India long enough to intuit that Advaita Vedanta was THE key for the Western seeker. Of course it is a key for all seekers, East, West, North and South alike but at that time I was on the look-out for something that would really make a difference for the many Western seekers I had come to know, travel and work with during all those years.
With the help of the online classes of Swami Paramarthananda and the books of Swami Dayananda and Swami Chinmayananda, as well as reading the posts from the Advaitin list every day and sometimes participating actively in the discussions, I slowly made my way into the teaching. Unfortunately in Germany there was/is no possibility of taking part in classes or exchange with like-minded people. But luckily I seem to be a born autodidact so I delved into it anyway and continue delving deeper and deeper every day.
The background of my personal story may explain why I am so very interested in bridging the gap between Western and traditional Advaitins. I know the value of both and experience how valuable many of the keys of Advaita Vedanta are to sort out the confused minds of Western people I work with. As I am not a Vedanta teacher the little I have learned so far is all I can offer to people but even that does work wonders.
It is unfortunate that up until now very few Western teachers have explored Advaita Vedanta. Without the backing of a proper teaching methodology the clues that Western Advaita hands out can only work for already advanced seekers. Those who are not advanced are likely to remain mystified about who they are in Truth. Still they come back again and again because what they hear rings deeply true to them: that every one’s true nature is existence-consciousness-limitlessness.
For anyone with a background of traditional Advaita Vedanta, however, listening to Western Advaita teachers proves to be unsatisfactory because their message often seems confused (and confusing).
As pointed out in other blogs, use of language differs in East and West. For someone with a traditional viewpoint it is often as difficult to discern the Truth of a statement in Western language as it is for a Westerner to filter out Truth from a Sanskrit scriptural statement (even if correctly translated). What would need to happen to overcome these difficulties?
Westerners would need to study Advaita Vedanta for some years (or more) to get to a proper understanding of such texts. This being quite an arduous undertaking, so far only few have engaged in it.
Traditional Advaitins would not have to invest that much time and effort; but they would need to change their way of listening (when listening to a Western teacher). Usually they are not prepared to go step by step into a Western style exploration with a teacher. More often than not they are convinced that this cannot be worth their while because they miss the authority of the scriptures, they miss the possibility of systematic study and they miss God. By looking out for a certain way of expression and certain essential components they find the statements to be shallow.
What they need to take into account is that even a Western teacher who IS a knower of Truth usually does not have the terminology to convey it. Thus Western teaching can seem to make unfounded claims, contradictory and illogical statements and use many vague terms without providing any definition.
By contrast Advaita Vedanta delivers precise definitions and terminology; it calls for strictly logical thinking - based on the teachings of the Upanishads but even those have to be understood (not believed in). Though the definitions are precise they nevertheless have to be interpreted in context. A teacher cannot just make a vague statement and hope that things will be apprehended somehow. An argument for or against something has to be consistently carried out, no questions should remain unaddressed and it has to be followed through. Moreover in a teaching every statement needs to be verifiable by the scriptures.
As opposed to some Traditionalists I do not think that enlightenment is possible only for those who walk the path designed by Sampradaya teaching. Although I consider it to be the peak of Advaita teaching, I hold that there are Jnanis who discovered the Truth a different way – in India as well as in other parts of the world. All of them will use their own words and many of their expressions will fall short compared to the superb terminology of Advaita Vedanta; but this does not mean that they do not know the Truth.
Admittedly this stance makes it more difficult to judge the quality of a teacher even within one’s own culture, let alone another one. It is much easier to look out for the math someone is associated with and trust that such a teacher is a good one. From the traditional perspective the quality of a teacher is not determined alone by him being a knower of truth. He also needs to have extensively studied the scriptures and should be able to apply the proven teaching methodology of Advaita Vedanta handed down through centuries by the maths of Shankaracharya.
Enlightened Western Advaita teachers can talk only from their own authority and use their own communication skills, psychological expertise and intuitive faculties to help people. Still, some of them are searched out by thousands of seekers so one may suspect that they have something useful to deliver. At least, to my mind, this should be reason enough to investigate into their secret(s).
Western Advaita teaching provides clues on an individualized basis – as far as I can see this is it’s strength and this is it’s weakness; it is this individualized approach (plus the fact that no onerous study of foreign scriptures and language is involved) that makes it so attractive in the Western world. If the teacher is very good she/he may be able to offer exactly the clue that someone needs at a given moment to make him realize his/her true nature.
But this kind of realization is all too likely to remain a mere experience.
Why? The reason (that it is likely) is twofold:
Time-wise - There is no further guidance except for the visit of another Satsang of that teacher in a few weeks or months. As there is no study and often no practice of any kind, for most people this is far too long a gap; they are likely to loose whatever they have gained long before the next pointer to truth may come their way.
Method-wise - Because there is no methodology, even if there is some guidance it is more or less random.
The consistent teaching of Advaita Vedanta by a competent enlightened teacher using the teaching methodology of the tradition, however, provides a reliable framework for beginners as well as advanced students.
Now, unless a Western seeker is utterly frustrated he is unlikely to abandon his favorite teacher to start his search from scratch within a traditional framework. My vision for Western teaching would be that the teachers are more open to appreciating the value of the traditional methodology and the study of the scriptures more. Thus from getting a deeper understanding of Advaita Vedanta themselves they would be able to prevent a lot of confusions that their not so advanced listeners fall victim to.
My vision for Traditional teaching would be that advanced seekers and/or teachers would open up their minds to different ways of expression and – just as an experiment - let themselves explore their own understanding with a teacher in the individualized way that many Western teachers offer.
 There is no difference between Western teaching and Vedanta in that respect, except for some teachers who lean more towards Buddhism calling one’s true nature “emptiness” and some others who say that fullness and emptiness are essentially the same.
 The only exception known to me is Dolanos „Intensive Satsang“.
 Again Dolano is a kind of exception, as she does apply a methodology, even though it does not compare to the traditional methodology of Advaita Vedanta