This article was published in 2008. At the time, a website listed 90 Advaita teachers or more offering evening satsang in numerous cities in Europe. Within a few years, interest in the evening satsang began to fade in Europe. This website closed down nine years ago.
Satsang means “Sat = Truth, Sang = Community” – with an Enlightened Master, who offers teachings to a community concerned with Truth.
Dedicated seekers told me they appreciated satsang but the rejection of meditation and practices left them feeling frustrated. The teachers’ rejection of any duality, such as path and goal, development and fulfillment, practice and depth, left many with the same condition of mind as upon arrival at satsang. Dedicated meditators benefitted the most from attending satsang. Similarities and differences remain between the two traditions.
In the past decade, there has been a minor explosion of Satsang teachings in many major cities in the West, especially in Europe. In their public meetings, Satsang teachers speak of ‘instant enlightenment.’ Many give their teachings in city venues or in the homes of spiritual seekers.
Satsang teachers, who once criticised meditation, now offer residential meditation courses, along with talks and dialogue. A growing number of Satsang teachers are adopting various Buddhist practices to meet the needs of their followers.
There are six major differences between Buddhist teachers, who are interpreting the Buddha’s teachings from the Pali Canon, and Satsang teachers who are often connected with the ancient Indian tradition of Advaita (Non-Duality) inspired by the Sankara, the 8th century India sage.
Six Differences between Dharma and Advaita Teachers
1). Buddhist teachers do not posit a fixed Absolute or Absolute Truth as an existing ‘entity.’ They teach that the five aggregates of body, feelings, perceptions, thoughts and consciousness are not “I”, nor “mine”, nor any “self”.
Dharma teachings make clear that nothing (conditioned or the unconditioned) is truly a self. In this sense the self is neither ultimately or essentially existent, nor permanent. It is not to be found inside the five aggregates or outside of them.
The Buddha points to the middle way between Absolute Existence and non-existence. He teaches liberation through fully understanding and giving up clinging to standpoints, metaphysical positions and a belief in a true, substantial or permanent self.
Buddhist teachers point out the “not-self”(Pali anattâ), e.g., “all things are the not-self” (sabbe dhammâ anattâ). Whatever arises does so because of causes and conditions. Every phenomenon is a bare process, including human life itself. Buddhist teachers refer to this nature of things as ‘dependent arising.’
The notion of ‘I’, ‘me’ or ‘mine’ itself arises due to causes and conditions. Not-self is realized by seeing the constant flux of all phenomena (anicca) or their ultimate uncontrollability, insubstantiality and inability to offer true support and satisfaction. There is nothing in the entire field of subject – object, which is consciousness or its content, worth viewing as self or belonging to a self.
The tradition of Advaita (Non-Duality) is based on the highest teachings of Vedânta (fulfilment of the Vedas). Central to Advaita is the belief in realizing one’s “True Self” (Âtman) and its identity with Brahman or God or Truth or Enlightenment.
Satsang teachers claim that Consciousness is the True Self while the Buddha states that nothing whatsoever is a self or worth being identified with, and that includes Consciousness. Advaita considers realising Consciousness as the Self is the ultimate goal of the spiritual path.
Advaita advocates that all live in (mâyâ) compared to this ultimate goal. Satsang teachers will often emphasise that there are two poles – of Absolute Reality and mâyâ on the other hand.
Unlike Buddhist teachers, Satsang teachers give little or no emphasis to mettâ and karunâ (loving kindness for all sentient beings and acts of compassion) as a spiritual practice. Satsang teachers concentrate on answering the question “Who am I?”
2) The Buddha declines to adopt the fashionable synthesizing attitude that all spirituality is one, that all paths lead to the Goal. He differentiates between “conducive views”, leading to liberation, and “unconducive views”, leading to entrapment.
He was critical of various spiritual teachings that advocated a True Self, Soul or permanent essence. He used “skilful means” for communicating the conducive views for a liberating wisdom about the nature of things and often engaged in debate with other spiritual teachers.
In correspondence to Advaita’s view of Absolute Oneness, many contemporary Satsang-teachers also “synthesize” all spiritual traditions. The contemporary movement of Satsang is often anti-critical, in the sense that it always starts from the idea that the different spiritual teachings have a common essence. This view is also prevalent among a number of contemporary Western Buddhist teachers.
3) The Buddha said that the teacher has the position of a ‘spiritual friend’ (kalyâna-mitta). Buddhist teachers point out as a key to liberation listening, reflection on the teachings and meditation. The Buddha also recognised the “individually awakened” who has awakened solely by relying on his or her own individual search, practice and insight.
Buddhist teachers have often spent some years under the direct guidance of their teacher(s) before teaching themselves. Some Satsang teachers have not had sustained direct personal contact over years with their Guru although they may feel a strong personal link with him or her.
Advaita considers the Master or Guru as the absolute key to one’s inner awakening. Here devotion to the Guru is extremely important. It is believed that with such devotion, the Guru can act as the agent who liberates the disciple.
This conviction is another reason for the “anti-critical” stance in Satsang. There is a danger of dependency on the Guru, and there is also the possibility that certain teachers will exploit spiritual seekers to their own advantage.
4) Buddhist teachers tend not to make claims about personal enlightenment. They believe that their realisations should only show through example and the quality of their teachings. Monastic rules forbid Buddhist monks from making any claims of enlightenment.
A reason for this is that “conceit” (mâna) is considered one of the deepest expressions of the ego that can still be active, even for those with deep realisations. The notion ‘I am’ is the basic conceit.
One could say that such Buddhist teachers are not awakened, and therefore don’t claim to be awakened. One could answer that such reasoning just indicates where the (unenlightened) conceit lies and were not.
Teachers of Advaita or Satsang generally consider themselves as enlightened. They often make this claim quite explicitly. Statements of personal enlightenment often attract new listeners or disciples.
There are many public statements as well – e.g., in leaflets, posters, book introductions or in their autobiographies of a crucial moment or situation where their enlightenment is described. In their actual teachings this claim is also often made, at least indirectly, but often directly.
5) Inspired by the Buddha and the Dharma, many Buddhist teachers feel strictly obliged to offer the teachings without asking for a fee. The teachings are regarded as priceless. Such teachings support the Buddha’s emphasis on ‘dâna’ – meaning gifts, donations, and acts of generosity.
In this way the teachers rely on the voluntary and mostly anonymous support from dharma students.
For example, the fees for Insight Meditation retreats at Buddhist centres, to which teachers are invited, generally cover merely the expenses (for food, lodging and the travelling costs of the teacher), but don’t include a payment for the actual teachings. Some Buddhist teachers offer the entire residential retreat totally on a donation basis.
Teachers in the Satsang tradition will often charge money to offer their teachings, whether a door charge for an evening Satsang, several hundred Euros for a short retreat or a minimum fee if invited by a centre.
Some Satsang teachers list their personal needs in terms of class of air travel and hotel accommodation for themselves and their personal attendants before agreeing to accept an invitation.
Satsang teachers and Dharma teachers rarely question lifestyle and pursuit of personal prosperity, although renunciation is a key teaching in both traditions. A few Satsang teachers follow the sacred tradition of ‘dâna.’
6) Buddhist teachers emphasise talks, questions and answers, one to one meetings, formal meditation practice, wise use of postures, and reflection into every feature of the Noble Eightfold to wake up to the nature of things.
Some Buddhist teachers rely upon a long term, gradual approach of developing morality, meditation and wisdom, and rarely give direct teachings on immediate enlightenment. In this way they can also leave students identified with the path or making constant effort.
The Buddha certainly taught that inner awakening could happen instantaneously. But he also taught the value of inner preparation and gradual application of the teachings and practices.
The suggestion that awakening is possible without preparation through serious practice and wholesome change of intention can appear very attractive, especially today in the West, where many people come to Eastern spirituality expecting instant solutions. Satsang teachers can dismiss any kind of practice since they believe it shows that the follower is caught up in the desire to get somewhere rather than being here and now.
Satsang teachers remind followers that awakening can happen instantaneously, especially in the course of a dialogue with them. They teach that awakening depends on whether we can give up all concepts, give up the mind. There is an immediacy to this approach. But such experiences can easily fade and old patterns come back. Realisations in Satsang or in a Buddhist retreat can act as a turning point in the life of the individual.
We have to see through our experiences, in order to understand what wakes us up and what reveals this awakening amidst our daily lives.