(nibbana) = (Nirguna Brahman) ?

Vidyasankar Sundaresan vidya at CCO.CALTECH.EDU
Fri Sep 19 00:16:02 CDT 1997

On Thu, 18 Sep 1997 un824 at freenet.victoria.bc.ca wrote:


> Did you read my quote to the effect that " a number of modern
> and Indian writers assert that in saying  many things are not-Self,
> early Buddhist sources implicitly, or even explicitly,asserted the
> ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
> existence of such a Self, beyond the realm of empirical personality."?
> ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

Yes, and with all due respect to the modern writers/translators, I beg to
differ with this assessment. It does not explain why for two millennia,
there has been such a wide divergence between vedAntic thinkers and
buddhist thinkers. Their philosophical differences were not always due to
simple prejudice. The rejection of caste and the preaching of non-violence
are not the only reasons why the early interpreters of vedic scripture
disagreed with the Buddhists.

> Your statment "All variants of theravAda schools refuse to substitute
> the (individual) self with the (universal) Self" implies that you know
> better than "Mrs. C.A.F. Rhys Davids, Ananda Coomaraswamy, George
> Grimm, K.Bhattacharya, J.Perez-Remon, and even two of the most illustrious
> translators of Buddhist texts, Miss I.B.Horner, late president of the Pali
> Text Society, and Edward Conze, renowned for his work on Mahayana
> Perfection of Wisdom texts, and author of many fine books on Buddhism."
> Of course these authors *may* not express the majority view in
> Buddhist studies, but the case is far from the "slam dunk" you might
> lead the unsuspecting Advaita-L reader to believe.

No, I'm not claiming to know the Buddhist texts much better than these
scholars. I am not an erudite Pali scholar. Previously, I used to accept
translations, if the translator was well-known for his/her scholarship.
Nowadays, whenever I read a translation, I'm always on the lookout for the
possibility that there is a reinterpretation going on - a reinterpretation
colored by the translator's own views - perhaps quite unconsciously.
Besides, in my experience, no two translators ever give the same
translation/meaning for the original. Fortunately, there are an increasing
number of books being written in English by those who know the Buddhist
traditions from inside, e.g. the Dalai Lama, and I prefer to give greater
weight to their views. I'll give a quotation from him in a later posting,
which bears upon this issue.

> >.............. the vishNu purANa takes care to say that although
> >nothing can really be said of vishNu/brahman, the one thing that can be
> >said is that "It Exists." The Buddhist's refusal/hesitance in affirming
> >such an Existence (with a capital E) marks him apart from the "orthodox"
> >Brahmin.
> >
> If you substitute vishNu/brahman with "nibbana", the very same statement
> holds in Buddhism (nothing can be said about it apart from "Verily, there
> *is* an unborn, etc."). IMO, having said this, the Buddhists are then just a
> lot more scrupulous about keeing quiet about the ineffable. Because

This overlooks the hundreds of texts written by Buddhist authors, and
their almost legendary acumen in verbal debates. They disagree amongst
themselves, as much as they disagree with the non-Buddhists, and quite
vocally too. They were not any more silent than the advaitins, although
both emphasize that the ultimate is unspeakable. One upanishadic teacher
explicitly says, "I teach, and you do not understand. Silence is the

> perhaps, as Wittgenstein points out, we *must* remain silent about the
> unspeakable. Even though there are no capital letters in Pali,the existence

There are no capital letters in Sanskrit either.

> of the "unborn, unoriginated, uncreated, unformed", is the reason why the
> Buddhist path can exist! They neither refuse nor are hesitant about affirming
> the existence of "nibbana" and the Buddha clearly equated "nibbana" with
> "truth". If you really know that much about Buddhism, perhaps you can tell
> me what the Buddha *did* mean by nibbana if he was not talking about "such
> a Self, beyond the realm of empirical personality"?

I am quite aware of this passage from the udAna, but interestingly enough,
none of the Buddhist writers have drawn attention to it, as an answer to
the criticism raised against them by the vedAntins. After all, advaitins
have acknowledged that the only real problem they have with the Buddhists
is that the latter do not affirm a Self. The advaitins also know that the
Buddhists talk of nibbana as being beyond empirical determination.
However, none of the Buddhist writers, except for the modern translators,
point to this udAna passage as a response to the advaitin.

Thus, the Buddhists have never equated nibbaNa to a Self, although nibbaNa
is described as beyond the realm of empirical personality, as unborn,
uncreated, etc. In contrast, the advaitins always describe the brahman,
again beyond empirical personality, the unborn, the uncreated etc., as
the Self of all beings.

To understand this slightly better, we have to use the Sanskrit/Pali words
used for self, not-self and lack-of-self. English misleads us, because it
allows us the use of capital letters to distinguish between two meanings
of the same word. So, in the following three paragraphs, I'll forget about
transliteration of Indian words, and use small letters throughout, and
I'll use the word bauddha to mean Buddhist. As a guide to pronunciation,
here is a list. A capital letter for a vowel represents a long vowel, and
a capital letter for a consonant (except for S) indicates a retroflex

atman = Atman
anatta = anattA (not the same as the vedAntic anAtman, which refers to
                that which is not Atman. Rather, anattA refers to the lack
                of an Atman. It does not imply Atman and anAtman as two
                different, opposite entities.)
nairatmya = nairAtmya (same meaning as anattA)
nibbana = nibbaNa
nirvana = nirvANa
sunya = SUnya (The S is pronounced as in sure.)
sunyata = SUnyatA
vedanta, vedantin = vedAnta, vedAntin
nagarjuna = nAgArjuna
mahayana = mahAyAna
vijnana = vijnAna
vada = vAda
svabhava = svabhAva
parabhava = parabhAva
sutta = sUtta (same as Skt. sUtra)
abhidharmakosa = abhidharmakoSa
mula-madhyamaka-karika = mUla-madhyamaka-kArikA

The vedantins always assert an atman, which is provisionally seen as an
individual, but ultimately known to be the same as brahman, which is
eternal and beyond empirical individuality. The early bauddhas, on the
other hand, assert anatta (this pali word was later sanskritized into
nairatmya, in mahayana texts), when they say that the provisionally known
individual does not last. Thus, they emphasize that no thing has an
abiding atman. Realizing that this is so, is equivalent with nibbana, and
this is what nagarjuna also means when he says that nirvana is sunya
(empty) in its content. He is not interested in asserting nirvana/sunyata
as a separate, higher entity. Clearly, after asserting anatta/nairatmya,
the bauddha is not overly eager to reinstate the concept of the atman, by
describing nibbana/nirvana as the Self. All things (objects) are said to
be the same, in that no thing has an atman, so that every thing is sunya.
In contrast, the vedantic notion has always been to realize one's own self
as the one brahman. Here, all things (objects) are said to be the same, in
that truly, every thing is known to be the same as brahman, which is also
one's own self. Closely tied in with this comparison is that the vedantins
always say that every thing has an own nature (svabhava), whereas the
bauddhas never say such a thing. The word nih-svabhava can be found in
bauddha works like the abhidharmakosa and many suttas, and entire sections
of nagarjuna's mula-madhyamaka-karikas play wonderfully with the concepts
of svabhava and parabhava (other nature, opposite of svabhava).

This distinction is clearly seen in one upanishadic description of
discarding the outer layers of perception that shroud the inner self. When
the disciple tells his teacher (in dismay), that after discarding
everything he sees no thing, the teacher turns back and says that he who
says he sees no thing is the brahman/atman. Clearly, for the Buddhist, he
who says he sees no thing is still the empirically determined being,
although seeing that there is no thing is nibbana. That is what is meant
by the saying, "nibbana is, but not he who enters it." Contrast this with
the vedantic insistence on "he who knows brahman is (becomes) brahman."
Ultimately however, both the bauddha and the vedantin see that there is no
thing, but they describe it quite differently. The bauddha simply says
that there is no thing, while the vedantin (advaita vedantin, to be exact)
says that there is no thing other than the self. And of course, the
bauddha relates his own experience, while the advaita vedantin grounds his
experience on his scriptures, and quotes them in support.

This is my understanding of the issue. I hope I have made the
philosophical distinctions clear. Modern translators might say otherwise,
but I believe that a true bauddha would turn to them and say that they
are not correctly interpreting the buddhavacana. In fact, one quite famous
internal criticism of the vijnanavada school of buddhism is that its
description of vijnana entails an absolutist notion of an eternal self.
Given all this, I sincerely doubt if the buddha himself ever implicitly or
explicitly asserted that nibbana is the Self. To say that nibbana is,
is not the same as saying that nibbana is the Self. And this is not just a
verbal thing. The centuries-old bauddha vs. advaitin debate is not a mere
quibble over syntax/semantics, with neither side realizing that they are
saying the same thing, until English speaking translators came along in
the 19th century.


ps. I intentionally use "no thing" and "every thing," so as not to have
them confused with nothing and everything. Again, the English language
with its visual cues in writing, misleads us. We must remember that the
Indian traditions (which both advaita vedAnta and most buddhist schools
are) have been predominantly aural/oral. Perhaps, the best course is to
keep silent (equivalently, not write) after all!

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