Transmission of the Flame

by Jean Klein


For over two decades, Jean Klein has been my guide to the teachings of the Advaita Vedanta, the teachings of the pre-Buddhist Hindus. I do not know if he has been a good teacher, or more exactly I do not know if his books are a good way to learn.

They are edited transcriptions of dialogues he has with student groups. They occur in many countries and some of the students have the time and money to follow him from one to another. Information comes at the reader from many angles as the questions hop around the room from one student’s puzzlements to the next person’s pain. Jean responds with one brilliant but arcane idea after another. Some I do not understand at all. Some I understand but could use a much broader exposition before it is likely to stick. And some stick. This is the third time I have read this book. I have read I believe all his other books. Many more than once.

Sometimes Jean’s response presumed information I do not do have. Jean says, “You must of course avoid conditions if you hope for joy.” What are “conditions?” My guess is that if you get up in the morning saying this will be a good day if this or that occurs, from sunshine to a bigger paycheck, you have now limited your likelihood of experiencing joy. And if your life is loaded with such conditions joy will have a very narrow crack through which to crawl. Wish I knew for sure what he meant, apparently the group in the room did, or maybe just the transcriber.

I remain convinced that Jean is the real thing. He lives in a place where I do not. But can he really teach me to live there.

Following the guidance of the Zen master Dogen, delivered in a vipassana setting I have learned to study the self, to know the self, to forget the self, to be delighted by the ten thousand things. I can fairly say I am more enlightened than I was. Not saying that I have passed over some remarkable divide, but saying I have been given a path that I can progress on. At the same time I have found the silent Worship Service of Quakers, my professed approach to spirituality, is aiding my deeper self understanding, and is leading to a clearer mind and a re-formed life. I find it interesting how often when I go beneath the words seemingly different positions are similar. In this case, Zen and Quakers.

Both of these are based on a process. Not a dictated step by step process, but a natural process. A little like a daily shower. Stepping in to the shower remains the same, but different dirt is washed away day by day until I am a clean man. My self-understanding deepens and defending my self-image no longer makes the universe inexplicable.

Jean teaches in the guru model. Hang around the guru attentively and some day you may pop out into the life he leads. This has sometimes, but far from always, worked when the supplicant moves in for years with the guru. Will it work through retreats? Can you catch that germ through a book? At the end of one of his retreats Jean comments that the words are not the point but that there is a tincture that is the point. Books are words. Do they convey tinctures?

How many have crossed the divide between our life and his? I see acolytes carrying his candles, but where are those who can take his place? Should that not be the outcome? The teacher of neurosurgeons expects to produce neurosurgeons does she not? Not admirers. Not even teachers of neurology.

So I admire Jean. I agree with the perspective that the non-dual provides a better explanation for life. Science is increasingly driving us this direction. But I do not feel caught by the central message. Still outside the room banging on the door.

For a book that teaches the Advaita Vedanta I recommend Journey from Many to One by Swami Bhaskarananda, Viveka Press (Seattle.) He will lead you step by step through the system, logic driving every turn in the road. I do not think you will admire him. Nor will you live what Jean Klein lives. Nor will you be a guru. But you will understand the Advaita.

I read about fifty laudatory reviews of Jean’s books. None of the writers claimed to be changed. They were not disappointed. Perhaps that was my mistake. I hoped to be changed. And I am disappointed.