Here is a question that points to the limitations of a strictly non-dualistic metaphysics. It seems that more and more people in the West today are finding this approach appealing, but in my view it is seriously incomplete for it fails to acknowledge that the human being is two sided, and these two sides must always co-exist. There is never one without the other and together they form the whole. On the one hand, there is an uncreated aspect of pure spirit but on the other there is the created aspect or soul without which the uncreated part could not be known. These two cannot be separated and the one cannot be considered without the other. Thus there is always both unity and duality together, and in creation one never exists without the other. No created being can transcend creation though it can transcend identification with its purely created aspect. However to deny the reality of the created aspect or to regard it as irrelevant or unreal cannot be other than an act of the mind. It is not possible in reality. Even if certain mystical experiences reveal the oneness of life, oneness in the sense that God is all there is, yet still the basic truth is that sameness has no meaning without difference. The oneness of life (spirit) can only be known in the context of the duality (spirit and matter) of creation. And this is why the key to existence is not knowledge but relationship or, otherwise put, love.
Q. I have heard of something called the direct path that apparently offers a fast track route to spiritual understanding or even enlightenment. How does this compare with the spiritual path as normally practiced?
A. What you are referring to is a form of advaita Vedanta that takes Sankara’s philosophy to its logical extreme in which everything is reduced to consciousness and there is no other reality. It is a highly intellectual approach that uses rigorous logic to analyse and then deconstruct one's experience to reveal, theoretically, that mind, the body and the world itself are all fundamentally nothing but pure awareness. It is supremely rational and seemingly intellectually coherent, but it is also open to the charge of being one-sided and reductive. Perhaps most of all it lacks heart, and, I would suggest, imagination. It fails to see that the most apparently logical need not be the most spiritually correct.
This method claims that you are God and starts from that position. It assumes that the idea of progress is an illusion belonging to the ego and has no relevance for the Self that is above time and change. Thus it is using its own idea of the absolute to deny the reality in which it finds itself now.
There is also the assumption that a) human consciousness when free of the ego is the same as divine consciousness, and b) that consciousness is the bedrock of being which is an unwarranted assumption as it cannot explain itself.
Thus it reduces the divine to the human, in effect if not in theory.
The direct path acknowledges neither God nor the individual soul as true and enduring realities, but a more enlightened approach sees them as fundamentals even if ultimately made of the same stuff. All life is one and there is no separation but that does not mean that the individual soul does not exist and that God is swallowed up in an undetermined impersonal absolute without distinction. The mistake this approach makes is in thinking we are God instead of seeing that God is in us, and so it is not a case of denying ourselves as individuals but transcending identification with the separate self, and that requires sincere, humble spiritual practice, something that no amount of knowledge or insight can replace.
This form of advaita seeks to bypass God (downgraded to the personal God) but has no explanation for why the created world came about or what we are doing in it. It also ignores the reality of love even if lip service is paid to it.
But the truth is that love, as a spiritual reality, can only exist in a theistic context. There is no place for it in advaita where the only reality is an undifferentiated, static consciousness. The fact that many contemporary non-dualists do talk about love shows they are recognising, consciously or not, the deficiencies of their philosophy. They are borrowing something from dualistic religions to plug the gap in their reductionist view of the universe. This view is based on an intellectual approach (which is why knowledge is exalted above all else) rather than an intuitional one. Hence it may seem logical but suffers from a dearth of imagination which is the faculty in man that goes beyond mere logic.
There is no doubt that advaita or non-duality does have logic on its side. After all, to reduce form to formlessness and multiplicity to unity makes some kind of sense. Form and multiplicity cannot be primary obviously. But spiritual truth, though by no means illogical, is not accessible by purely logical means. Thus the reality is that duality is an integral and non-dispensable part of non-duality for simple, undifferentiated oneness is only one aspect of the Whole and cannot be taken as representing its ultimate and unique principle.
As I say, non-dualistic philosophies, including the direct path version thereof, regard knowledge as the means to liberation and the supreme path to enlightenment, but their impersonal view of the absolute has led them into certain errors. Nothing can come from nothing and the world of qualities could only come from something in which those qualities already existed even if only in an unexpressed form. If the advaita position were correct this universe could never have come about for a completely quality-less absolute, nirguna brahman, could never give rise to quality. How could it unless quality was already there implicitly in some form from the very foundation of things? So it is that the personal and impersonal God must both be present in the absolute.
This leads us to the conclusion that the personal does not derive from the impersonal in some mysterious and unknown way but is an eternally co-existing part of the One, and that, in turn, tells us that knowledge is certainly necessary but it is not sufficient. It is not an end in itself but something that must coincide with love. The fact of love is the fact of the person.
Sometimes it is asked that if this is so, if the personal God is just as deeply rooted in reality as the impersonal ground of being, then why is it not present in Buddhism? How can Buddhism get by quite happily without a personal God? I think we have to appreciate that Buddhism came at a time when prevailing attitudes were soaked in superstition, spiritualism and ritual. That is why a non-theistic and intellectual approach was needed. It's a matter of context and balance. Now we have the opposite problem which makes a Buddhist approach popular (in that it can be adapted quite easily to modern attitudes) but, for that reason, less effective as a spiritual path, especially for Westerners who do not have a religious cultural background. We live at a time of materialism, scientism and intellectual self-sufficiency so a theistic approach to the spiritual path is more necessary. And, as I never tire of repeating, the Masters who spoke to me insisted on prayer as being as important as meditation. For us moderns it may well be even more important. In their telling words, "Do you think yourself above prayer?"
I have wandered away a little from the original question but I hope maintained tangential relevance. However, addressing it more directly (no pun intended), I would say that the Direct Path can certainly bring a measure of insight but insight is not enlightenment in the sense of full spiritual awakening, and still less is it salvation which only comes when there is complete identification with the spiritual heart. Without the full development of humility and love any perceived enlightenment is only partial, and no amount of knowledge or insight will bring these about. Ultimately it is only grace that does so but the reception of this grace depends on a total self-emptying.
The Direct Path says that we are always and already divine. It is not something to aspire to or to seek. It is here now, and we only have to recognise it for what it is. This is all well and good, and even true up to a point, but for the incarnated soul it's not so straightforward and an incompletely purified individual can frequently dupe itself into thinking it is what it is not. The fact is that we are not divine until we have integrated our created aspect, the soul, with the uncreated aspect of pure spirit, and that we can only do when it is cleansed of all egotism, and even then it is entirely dependent on grace.
It seems to me that the idea of a direct path exists largely as a sort of corrective to the idea of the path as something pursued by the self-centred goal-seeking ego. Its advocates rightly see that, spiritually speaking, this is just a contradiction in terms. Ego cannot go beyond ego. So they replace this with knowledge or a kind of pure seeing, the seeing of truth. But this is not enough on its own. It is correct to point to the flaws of an approach marked by the desire of the self for heaven but the ego cannot be got rid of just through knowledge. It is only love of God that will take you to heaven. Simply seeing the emptiness of self on an intellectual level can never efface the ego. It is only through forgetting the little self out of love for something greater that we can go beyond that self, and that love must be for the Source of all and not just any created part of it or something concocted out of our own imaginings. It must be vertically directed to God, the Creator and Origin of all things, none of which can do more than reflect a fraction of his infinite truth and glory.