Fwd: Advaita and Buddhism
miinalochanii at YAHOO.COM
Mon Jun 21 18:43:56 CDT 1999
Here is a message from Nanda.
The influence of Buddhism on Advaitam has been a hotly debated topic right
from the time of the VedAntin BhAskara who accused Advaitam of being
"prachanna bauddham" or Buddhism in disguise. And on this list too the
topic has surfaced from time to time resulting in heated debates. As can be
seen by arguments of those who endorse such influence and those who don't,
the issue is pretty complex with no clear solution arising. So in this
article I endeavour to compare the two streams of thought, present the
similarities and the differences and my conclusion to the members.
First a brief exposition of Buddhism itself :
The life of the Sakyamuni is common knowledge. He renounced his advantages
as a prince, wandered as an ascetic and found enlightenment. And what did he
The Sakyamuni taught only the four noble truths : 1. That life is suffering.
2. The cause of suffering is desire. 3. To escape suffering one must
renounce desire. 4. This can be done by the eight fold path which would
result in nirvAna.
The first seven steps of the eight fold path is only ethics stressing the
urgency of the moral task. The eight step is meditation.
Though the Sakyamuni taught the path, he was silent about the nature of the
result - the ultimate reality - nirvAna. In one rare passage in the UdhAna,
he says that it's unborn, uncreated and eternal. But beyond that he would
not speculate about it.
Besides that, in his teachings we find that the Sakyamuni didn't stick to
any particular theory : he taught the atomic theory, the soul theory, the no
soul theory, the consciousness theory etc
The is a famous incident when a wandering ascetic, Vacchagotta by name, asks
the Sakyamuni, whether there is a Soul? He receives no answer. He then asks
whether there's no soul. Again silence. After he's departed, the disciple
Ananda asks the muni why he was silent? The muni replies that if he had
affirmed that there was a Soul, he would have endorsed the stand of the
eternalists who believe that Soul is eternal. If he had affirmed there is no
soul he would have endorsed the stand of the nihilsts. Then he says that
both views represent extreme positions and that the truth is in the middle -
between Soul and no Soul! He also adds that if he had told this to Vaccha,
the poor man would've been totally confused!
The history of Indian philosophy reveals this process - first we've a seer
who has realized the truth. He teaches it to his followers using various
analogies. And it takes quite a period of time for the followers to refine
the teachings and get at the truth. In Buddhism also we see this.
One of the earliest texts after the Sakyamuni is the Milindapanha which is a
debate between the Greek king Menander and the bauddha bhikshu Nagasena. The
monk works out a philosophy using a combination of the atomic and the no
soul theory. He denies the soul this way - as a chariot is made up of parts
so is man (the parts are the skandhas - form, feeling, mind, predispositions
and consciousness). Apart from the parts there's no substantial identity.
The Soul is just a series of mental states and nothing more. After nirvAna
there's only the underlying elements of existence - the dharmas (as can be
observed dharma has a different meaning in Buddhism).
By this time Buddhism was heading for a split. The brAhmanas who were
converted to Buddhism, fused the Upanishadic teachings into the Sakyamuni's
teachings. Quite in the line of the Upanishads, they felt that reality had
to be an inborn quality in man which just had to be brought out and not
something new to be achieved. They were the MahAsangikas who later became
the MahAyAnists (the great vehicle). Those who clung to the original
teachings were termed by them as the HinayAnists (the lesser vehicle).
The HinayAnists themselves had two more speculative schools of pluralistic
realism (SaravAstivAda) - the VaibhAsikas and the SautrAntikas. Both the
schools denied the Soul. The VaibhAsikas slightly modify Nagasenas theory.
They think that there's a permenant consciousness in man during his
lifetime. But nirvAna is again only the elements of existence - a material
state - which is the underlying eternal truth in man and the world. The
SautrAntikas don't approve of either the permenant consciousness or the
eternal dharmas - for them everything is momentary.
Ashvaghosa is one of the earliest exponents of the MahAyAna. History reveals
that he was originally a brAhmana VedAntin poet who was defeated in a debate
and thus converted to Buddhism. In his ShradothpAdashastram, we find a heavy
fusion of the VedAnta with Buddhism. The materialistic nirvAna of the
HinayAnists is discarded in favor of a spiritual nirvAna - which is pure
being. So what's the relation between samsAra and nirvAna? Ashvaghosa thinks
that samsara and nirvAna are but two sides of the same coin. Samsara being a
mirage with nirvAna being the underlying changeless reality. The cause of
this mirage being avidhya, which Ashvaghosa identifies with consciousness
which rises from the depths of pure being.
Ashvaghosa with his one changeless Soul theory is definitely a black sheep
amongst the bauddhas who have all traditionally denied the soul.
We've seen how the Buddha's teaching of the Soul, no Soul, the atomic theory
were all brought out by the different schools with the passage of time. The
last theory left is the consciousness theory. And this is where the
vijnAnavAdins come in.
The vijnAnavAdins are also called yogAcAras since they advocate that
liberation is possible only by those who practice yoga. So here we find the
fusion of yoga with the Sakyamuni's teachings. Yoga as an astika school is
more psychological than metaphysical. The yogacarins take it one step
further - they totally deny the world! They assert only the existence of
consciousness - which in its various forms represent the intellect, the
mind, the ego etc The external world is only an imagination. With the
purification of consciousness, there's the absolute changeless nirvAna.
Thus all theories of the Sakyamuni's teachings were exhausted, with each
school claiming to be the true exponent of his doctrines.
And along comes NAgArjuna, a telanga brAhmana convert, who is one of the
greatest thinkers Bharath has produced. He sees all these theories and goes
for the jugular. His argument is that there's a flaw in reason itself and
thus knowledge is an impossibility. Proving that, he renders as
inconsequential (shUnyA) all theories of rival schools.
So is NAgArjuna merely a sophist who disproves all theories without
forwarding a theory of his own? He is a bauddha and there can be no Buddhism
without a nirvAna. And what is his nirvAna?
For NAgArjuna, nirvAna or the paramArtha is the changeless absolute, beyond
all empirical knowledge. It's to be realized only by intuition, when all
dogmatic theories with standpoints are abandoned.
So what about all the teachings of the Sakyamuni? NAgArjuna answers that the
teachings are of relative value only - samvritti. But it's only through the
relative that the absolute can be achieved.
And the relation between the relative and absolute? NAgArjuna says that both
are actually the same. It's basically how one views it. With standpoints
we've the relative and without standpoints - the absolute. Thus he declares,
the true teaching of the Sakyamuni is the relinquishment of all views -
theories - standpoints. NAgArjuna's schools is the MAdhyamaka or the Middle
Now that we've an idea of what Buddhism is, let's now try to determine the
influence of brAhmanism on the two : Sakyamuni and Buddhism.
The Sakyamuni's teachings show both direct and indirect influence.
Being a kshatriya, he was exposed to Vedic learning. This is affirmed by the
LalitavistAra. When he became a renunciate, his first gurus were Alara
Kalama and Uddhaka Ramaputta, two brAhmana samnyasins who were SAmkhya/Yoga
exponents. Here he would've been exposed to the SAmkhyan "changeless eternal
soul" theory and yogic psychology. The nikhAyas also show that he learnt the
lokAyata doctrines. His teachings also show a familiarity with Vaishesika
atomic theories. All these reflect the influence of the existing
philosophical conceptions in his teachings.
Now let's analyze the similarity between his teachings and ths Upanishads.
Both he and the Upanishads are clearly against ritualism and seek salvation
from suffering, which is to be achieved by ethical perfection and knowledge.
Both consider that the apparent world is not all and there's an underlying
reality. Though the Upanishads uses the term, "Self", it indicates that the
true Self is actually selflessness - without individuality. The same is
brought out by the Buddha using the negative teaching of 'anatta' or non
Self. They both arrive at the same thing, but from different standpoints.
And it's to be noted that nowhere in his teachings does he deny the
existence of the Upanishadic brahman. That the Sakhyamuni's teachings is
derived from the Upanishads is a view of, as orthodox a thinker as KumArilla
Thus the common claim that the Sakyamuni's doctrines are totally original is
untenable. Even he admits that his teaching is but the PurAna Arya dharma.
With regard to the external influence on Buddhism itself, it's a
historically recorded fact that some of the greatest acharyas of the
bauddhas came from brahmana ranks - Ashvaghosa, NAgArjuna, Buddhaghosa,
VAsubandhu, DignAga, Dharmakirti etc And we've also observed how they
contributed to the progress of bauddha thought, which evolved from a
materialistic realism to a spiritual absolutism.
Finally let's analyze the similarities and differences between Buddhism and
1. Ethics wise, both advocate the same thing - selflessness, control,
charity, compassion etc
2. Both stress on the need for renunciation for salvation.
3. Both are against ritualism as the method for liberation.
Philosophically Advaitam cannot be identified with the materialistic realism
of either NAgasena or the SaravAstivAdins. That leaves the Mahayana.
The Vijnanavadins seem pretty close to Advaitam, since both identify Reality
with consciousness. But this is only a superficial similarity and closer
analysis reveals a lot of differences :
1. Sarvam buddhimayam jagat - for the VijnAnavAdins the empirical world
doesn't exist and is only a product of the mind. Logically Advaitam doesn't
approve of this. Only in the absolute sense is the world of duality false,
but that doesn't mean that the world doesn't exist. The duality is what is
false - sarvam dvaitam manas.
2. The yogacarins advocate a subjective reality to the exclusion of the
world. Advaitam advocates the submerging of the individual subject itself
into the reality of brahman which includes the world.
3. The Yogacarins refute the Soul and insist only on consciousness. For
Advaitam the Soul is pure consciousness.
4. The yogacarins believe in the purification of vijnAna for nirvana. For
advaitam the atman is already liberated. All purification is only in the
level of vyavahAra.
Actually the MAdhyamaka is much closer to Advaitam :
1. Both refute the ultimate validity of the sources of knowledge - pramAnas.
2. Both believe in the two levels of reality - samvritti or vyavahAra and
3. Both believe that it's only due to avidhya (mAyA in the metaphysical
sense) that nirvAna is viewed as samsAra.
But again there are differences :
While the MAdhyamakas refuse to bridge the relative to the absolute,
Shankara does it in his adhyAsa bhashyam and identifies reality with pure
While the MAdhyamakas refuse to make any statement on the absolute, Advaitam
clearly identifies it as being.
While the MAdhyamakas advocate prAjna (awareness of the untenability of both
Soul and no Soul theories), Advaitam clearly takes the stand with the Soul.
And to cap it Advaitam swears by the shruti, the authority of which has
traditionally been repudiated by the bauddhas.
Though to the casual observer the differences may not seem too sharp, in
actuality, the philosophical implications of such differences give shape to
clearly distinct results.
Finally the million dollar question : Is Advaitam "prachanna bauddham"?
As we've seen, the Sakyamuni himself borrwed considerably from brahmanism.
We've also seen that how the early HinayAnists remained only material
realists. Then with Ashvaghosa comes the influence from VedAnta which gives
a spiritual turn to Buddhist philosophy, which is taken to its extremes by
the vijnAnavAdins, only to be tempered again by NAgArjuna. With the
available evidence, to his credit NAgArjuna must be given the honour of
creating first an absolutistic philosophy with two levels of reality, though
the germs of such thought are already present in both the Upanishads and
It must also be noted that the concept of the two levels of reality is
directly related to the denial of the ultimate validity of the pramAnas.
Again this might not have been a totally original Bauddha discovery, as even
the absolute nihilistic school of the LokAyatas, of which JayarAsi Bhatta is
an exponent, assert the invalidity of all pramAnas (but of course, they use
that to deny any reality to the world). And many scholars trace this
discovery of the ultimate invalidity of the pramAnas to the rigorous
analysis of logic, which was part of traditional brAhmanic learning.
Also it's foolish to think, that the Astika schools were sitting and
watching idly while the nAstikas matured. They too grew with the nAstikas
and each learnt from the other. So it cannot be clearly asserted as to who
really borrowed from whom. And comparitively it's a much smaller step from
the identity with difference vedAnta of BAdarAyana (even if it wasn't
advaitam) to absolutistic advaitam, than from materialistic saravAstivAda to
the absolutistic mAdhyamaka.
Another main reason that Advaitam is linked with Buddhism is that the last
chapter of the Mandukya KArikA of GaudapAda, the first formal exposition of
Advaitam, shows distinct MahAyAna leanings. So it's declared that GaudapAda
was actually a Buddhist who interpreted the shruti from the bauddha view.
OK, if the last chapter shows MahAyAna leanings, what about the first three
chapters? The first three chapters are clearly Vedic and VedAntic, which
uses terminologies related to Astika schools. And the central tenets of
Advaitam - the non dual identify of Atman and Brahman, AjativAda, mAyA - are
clearly explained in these chapters itself. If the AchArya had closed the
text with these chapters, it would have still served as a complete guide on
Advaitam. So why the fourth chapter?
The last chapter is called the AlAtasAnti PrAkarna or the quenching of the
fire brand. Here the AchArya opens up the chapter saluting the Buddha (or
Narayana as the traditionalists interpret it. Doesn't make a big difference
as even Astika tradition identifies Buddha as an avatar of Lord Narayana).
Then using VijnAnavAda and Madhyamaka techniques he engages in dialectic.
First he points out that even for the bauddha concept of momentariness of
work, you need a substratum - brahman. Then he takes up the Madhyamaka
fourfold negation of reality as - neither being, nor non being, neither nor
both - and states that even to form this equation one needs a being to start
with. Thus Being is reality - brahman.
The title quenching of the firebrand is loaded with meaning. The timeless
strength of the Vedic religion is the ability to assimilate even radical
views into its folds. Since over a period of time, both the Astika and the
nAstika streams had moved pretty close to each other in terms of philosophy
and religion, it's the AchArya's subtle way of telling the bauddhas to
quench the firebrand of Buddhism into the very source it arose from - the
Vedic religion. And that's the sole intent of the last chapter. (It must be
noted that the four fold negation used cleverly by the AchArya doesn't
reflect the true position of the MAdhyamaka, for they have no postion. But
still the AchArya's attempt to assimilate is laudable and his reasoning is
significant since it reveals the implied inadequecy of any position without
the concept of being to start with.)
To conclude, I think with the current evidence available, one cannot really
assert as to who influenced whom and the extent of any such influence. But
to call Advaitam "prachanna bauddham" clearly betrays a lack of
understanding of both Advaitam and Buddhism.
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