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Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta -- Are they really that different? Print E-mail
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Written by Dwai Lahiri   
Saturday, 02 May 2009 00:00
I sometimes visit a website dedicated to my other passion, Taoism and Tai Chi, called "Tao Bums --".

One day, I came across a discussion thread asking for suggestions for possible reading material on the matter of Non-Duality on the forum. With the best intentions in mind, I recommended reading Swami Vivekananda's "Vedanta -- The Voice of Freedom" and an excellent primer and introduction to Jnana Yoga by our on Dr. Ramakrishna Puligandla, suggesting that Advaita Vedanta is a really old school of Non-Dualism and the seeker would benefit from studying it/about it.What ensued was really interesting to me.

Now, for the benefit of the Medhavis who are not familiar with Taobums, I must describe the site. The site was created for practitioners of Taoism and Taoist Arts, but also encompasses practitioners of Yoga and meditation ranging from our our Ashtanga to Buddhist (Tibetan and Zen) schools as well (throw on some practitioners of Ancient Egyptian systems and other New-agey traditions as well).There are some very interesting and enlightening discussions that usually are underway there, so what happened after my post really was a surprise.Here's the link to the discussion --

 The bone of contention was that some commentators on this thread seemed to think that Advaita Vedanta relies on a ground of Phenomenon to express and culminate the feeling of Non-Dualism. And Buddhism does not, since it considers the phenomenon to be Illusory.

Further more, when I mentioned "Tat Tvam Asi" and "Aham Brahmasmi", it was indicated to be that these two statements are the root of ignorance in the "true" Non-Dualism, since they stop at the phenomenological level (or so I understood).

Tat Tvam Asi -- YOu are That
Aham Brahmasmi -- I am Brahman

yes indeed, and those pronouncements are the cause for the Advaitan wrong view. the identification of subject with totality.


Where is this ground of phenomenon? Buddhists call this ground something else, that's all. Taoists call it Tao, Advaitins (and all Vedantins in general) call it Brahman. There is no ground...but everything is the ground. There is no phenomenon, but everything is the phenomenon.

Buddhists don't call this ground anything because ground is an illusion. Emptiness is not a ground, but a pointing towards the true nature of reality free of conceptual limitation

• Emptiness is not a substance
• Emptiness is not a substratum or background
• Emptiness is not light
• Emptiness is not consciousness or awareness
• Emptiness is not the Absolute
• Emptiness does not exist on its own
• Objects do not consist of emptiness
• Objects do not arise from emptiness
• Emptiness of the "I" does not negate the "I"
• Emptiness is not the feeling that results when no objects are appearing to the mind
• Meditating on emptiness does not consist of quieting the mind

Shankara'n Advaita and Mahayana Buddhism have much in common, as they both influenced each other, they use similiar terms, but the definitions are different, and so is the fruit of the realization. its a deeper and more subtle realization. there is no Atman in Buddhism, this presence is negated with Anatta, and there is no Brahman in Buddhism, this background is negated through Shunyata. This negation is important. it is the antidote to having a wrong view and having a limited interpretation of non-dual experience, like having some fog on your viewing lens.

The middle way is the razors edge between Eternalism and Nihilism

this is a Thesis that discusses the differences between Shankara and Buddhism:
i'll quote the important parts that relate here


page 45

Nagarjuna refutes any view of eternalism or absolutism in his philosophy. Eternalism and absolutism has no place in Nagarjuna’s philosophy of Sunyavada. He advocates the ‘Middle Way’ between externalism and nihilism. According to Nagarjuna, says Harvey, “The nature of dharma (phenomenon) lies between absolute, non-existence, and substantial existence. This is what Nagarjuna means by the Middle Way” (98). Nagarjuna perceives that all dharma (phenomenon) lack the quality of inherent existence. Anything that appears to exist inherently or independently, according to Nagarjuna, is imputed by one’s ignorance. In reality, all are empty of any inherent existence, including emptiness as well. Thus, all share the same nature, ‘emptiness’. The Heart Sutra says,
Body is nothing more than emptiness; emptiness is nothing more than body. The body is exactly empty, and emptiness is exactly body.

The other four aspects of human existence - feeling, thought, will, and consciousness - are likewise nothing more than emptiness, and emptiness nothing more than they.
Nagarjuna equates this emptiness with the principle of “dependent arising.” He says that things exist only in a relative way and not in an absolute way. For instance, if one posits something as being absolutely long or short, it would have to be long or short by its own nature. Obviously, this is not the case because the description “short” is relative to “long” and vice versa. These are relational statements; each depends on the other for its existence. Nagarjuna argues that all phenomena are devoid of independent, inherent, or ultimate existence. Their existence in relationship to and in reliance upon other phenomena is never refuted. Since all phenomena, in Nagarjuna’s perspective, are empty, some wonder if he is suggesting that emptiness is eternal and independent. Nagarjuna’s response is that even the ultimate reality, emptiness, exists in dependence on other phenomena and not as an ultimate basis for other phenomena to arise. Hence, Harvey says, “Emptiness is not some ultimate basis and substance of the world, like the Brahman of the Upanishads” (99). In other words, reference to emptiness is always made in relation to object’s ultimate nature, devoid of any inherent existence

By contrast, Shankara sees Brahman as a separate entity with essence. According to Shankara, the manifold world is an illusory world. It is superimposed upon Brahman by the power of maya and avidya (ignorance). Thus Shankara says, “This universe is an effect of Brahman. Apart from Brahman, it does not exist. But this universe which is superimposed upon Brahman is nothing but a name” (70). Jay Garfield (1994) compares this view with the notion of emptiness and says that if emptiness is perceived in that fashion, the notion of deep unity between the conventional and ultimate truth is not understood. He says that to see emptiness in this way “is to see the conventional as illusory and emptiness as the reality standing behind it” (2). Moreover, he says, “To adopt this view of emptiness is indeed to deny the reality of the entire phenomenal, conventional world” (9). Therefore, Garfield refutes emptiness as a self-existent entity, “existence that stands behind the veil of illusion represented by conventional reality” (2). Last but not least, there are other fundamental concepts that separate Mahayana’s notion of sunyata and Shankara’s notion of Brahman. For example, in Mahayana Buddhism sunyata is not an end, but is a means to achieve the Buddhahood, the perfect enlightenment. Mahayana believes that the comprehension of sunyata, emptiness, directs one’s compassionate action appropriately and effectively, thus leading one to the attainment of Buddhahood. Harvey says, “Wisdom itself aids compassion in a number of ways. Ultimately, it leads to becoming an omniscient Buddha, who can teach and aid beings in countless ways” (121). On the other hand, Shankara asserts that Brahman is not a means, but is an end in itself. According to Shankara, realizing Brahman is man’s ultimate goal, the final liberation. He says, “Realize Brahman, and there will be no more returning to this world–the home of all sorrows” (69). 
 Further more --

Shankara borrowed a lot from Nagarjuna [ I know this will ruffle some feathers, so please read this thesis ] but what he didn't is what sets Buddhist enlightenment apart from Advaita, its a deeper and more subtle realization. there is no Atman in Buddhism, this presence is negated with Anatta, and there is no Brahman in Buddhism, this background is negated through Shunyata. This negation is important. it is the antidote to having a wrong view and having a limited interpretation of non-dual experience, like having some fog on your viewing lens.
 At this point I introduced Gangp's excellent essay as a reference:

Here's an excellent essay (not written by one of those superstars everyone seems to not see beyond) that discusses the dynamics between Buddha (Siddhartha) and the Upanishads (Vedantic literature).
To which the response came --

the differences are very subtle, and very difficult to grasp for someone stuck in eternalist views


And so we went back and forth. It was confusing for me, because it seemed like this commentator wasn't really aware of the concepts of Nirguna and Saguna Brahman and their inter-relation to different levels of union (of the practitioner).

I wanted to bring this lively discussion in front of the Medhavis, so you all can help me better understand the differences and formulate arguments for and against this claim --"Advaita Vedanta is inferior to Buddhist non-dualism because Advaita Vedanta relies on a phenomenological ground for Non-dualism, where as Buddhism calls this ground illusory".



Comments (27)Add Comment
 1 2
Thank you
written by partha, 2009-05-05 21:19:50
Thank you, Rajendra, for providing a link to Kencho Tenzin's 'master'ly
There is great poise and balance in his views on advaita and mahayana, helped no doubt by his background, which I looked up.
A former monk who worked close enough to Dalai Lama, and a devoted researcher in comparative religious studies, now a Professor. The contribution to his thinking from his Hindu wife and father in law could be significant too. Thanks, once again.
Regards. Partha
written by rmraju, 2009-05-05 08:28:47
Hi All,

In Buddhism truth is based on will power hence freedom of absolute is associated with dynamic form of non-dualism– an endless flow of momentary events where truth is emptiness.

In Advaita Vedanta truth is obtained by going beyond mind- thought, feeling and will power. Hence the concept of Sat-Chida-Ananda-Brahman as propounded by Sankara in his Advaita (nondual) Vedanta is considered static. This static concept has been reframed by Sri Aurobindo as a dynamic process which he terms the "involution-evolution" of Existence- Consciousness Force-Bliss of Absolute Brahman.

It is for these reasons Nirvana in Buddhism is a realization that there is no Self where as Advaita Vedanta moksha liberation, is the realization that individual self is same as universal Self. In Buddhism emptiness is like a series of sea-waves where as non-dual Brahman is like a tranquil ocean. I guess everything depends on one’s context and perspective. Both are valid it is up to individual what to select.

One must exists even before asking what exists. It is for this reason in my view Brahman is logical choice.

Rajendra Rajput

Note: Following thesis concludes that “…Shankara is best characterized not as a Hindu thinker or a “crypto-Buddhist” but as an Upanishadic Indian philosopher.”


No fears
written by partha, 2009-05-05 04:38:22
Dear friends,

There is no ambiguity in the definition of the nature and functions of Atma in Sri Bhagavadgita, and the thoughts of the Gita, in some form, must definitely have predated Sakya Muni.

Adi Sankara specifically talks about human ego in his Vivekachoodamani.
Slokas 103 to 105 have been translated by Sri Chinmayananda thus:

The inner equipment (antahkaranam) has its seat of expression in the sense organs such as the eye etc. Identifying with them, it exists, clothed in just the reflection of the Atman.....103.

'Know that it is the ego which, identifying with the body, becomes the doer or the experiencer, and in union with the Gunas, such as Sattva, the ego assumes the three different states of waking, dreaming and deep sleep'...104

When the sense objects are conducive, the situation (of the ego) is happy.
When they are not conducive, it is miserable. Happiness and misery are, therefore the dharmas of the ego and do not belong to the Atman,which is ever blissful.

Adi Sankara conveys only time honoured Vedantic thoughts in Viveka choodamani, of course in his own words.

Identification of Atman with ego is definitely not a Vedantic idea.
Regards. Partha
Something strange hanges over Buddhist debate!
written by gangp, 2009-05-04 12:22:16
Dear Dwai,

All Buddhists claim that the Atman is ego and criticize Vedanta on that basis. I have pointed out to them that Atman is not the ego but it does not seem to affect their position! Is it possible that during Buddha's time some Hindus felt that the Atman is ego and this has led to this confusion?


The rise and fall of a straw man?
written by dlahiri, 2009-05-04 11:43:16
Dear Jim, thanks for your comment. I obviously will assume that this was directed towards the commentator who posted the criticism of Advaita?

Dear Pradipda,

It seems to me (and it did while partaking in the debate) that the critics of Advaita Vedanta was actually building up and then demolishing a straw man. Your post seems to corroborate my suspicion.

Could it be that the criticism has been written by people who haven't really done purva paksha?
Linguistic gymnastics!
written by gangp, 2009-05-04 08:32:16
Dear Dwai,

There is an issue of language here. According to Buddhists, Atman is the ego. Thus both the Atman and Brahman are the level of phenomena. Anatta is the non-ego.

Of course, according to Advaita Vedanta, Atman is the same as Brahman and is not the ego but the Ultimate Reality. So nether the Atman nor the Brahman are at the level of phenomena.

The buddhist accusation of eternalism implies that Advaita Vedanta is saying the Brahman as a phenomenon is eternal. That is of course what Advaita Vedanta is NOT saying! Brahman is eternal but is not a phenomenon.

There is also something contradictory about Buddhist description of Shunyata. Buddhists say that Shunyata 'is not a ground, but a pointing towards the true nature of reality free of conceptual limitation'. Then again Mahayana believes that the comprehension of sunyata, emptiness, directs one’s compassionate action appropriately and effectively, thus leading one to the attainment of Buddhahood. If Shunyata is free of conceptual limitation, then how can one say that 'the comprehension of sunyata, emptiness, directs one’s compassionate action appropriately and effectively, thus leading one to the attainment of Buddhahood.'? Can one comprehend something that is free of all conceptual limitations?

Brahman like Shunyata can not be expressed in words. Sri Ramakrishna says,
'What Brahman is cannot be described. All things in the world - the Vedas, the
Puranas, the Tantras, the six systems of philosophy - have been defiled, like
food that has been touched by the tongue. Only one thing has not been defiled
in this way, and that is Brahman. No one has ever been able to say what
Brahman is.'

Brahman is silence, according to Samkara.
"'Sir,' said a student to his master, 'teach me the nature of Brahman.' The
master did not reply. When he was asked a second and a third time, he replied:
"I teach you, but you do not listen. His name is silence.'"

All this suggests that whatever Buddhists may say, Shunyata is the Ultimate Reality realizing which one becomes a Buddha. Shunyata itself can not be described. Similarly Brahman is silence and can not be described. However, Brahman can be realized.

Neither Shunyata nor Brahman can be conceptualized. All the talk of Brahman being the ground is to help the beginner. Shankara himself admits that Brahman is SILENCE.


Pradip da
written by Devagura, 2009-05-02 17:01:12
this article is a guide to the spiritual light.. the writings of a true brahmajyoti
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Last Updated on Wednesday, 20 May 2009 20:27