BUDDHISM AND VEDANTA—THE PARALLELS
One of the principles that prepares us for enlightenment is our recognition that great wisdom is to be found in the teachings of all true religions, and each merits our respect. In every scripture you will find statements—they may be plentiful or few—that remind us of the enlightened understanding revealed in the teachings of the higher Yoga. All higher paths of true spiritual practice and aspiration lead to the same goal.
This concurrence of the spiritual Yoga with other teachings may be appreciated when we consider the great contribution of Buddhism to the upliftment of humanity. We know little for certain about the life of the Buddha, but it is generally accepted that five or six centuries before Christ, a spiritual teacher emerged in northern India, who had realized the goal of life—enlightenment, and who then dedicated his long life to teaching both renunciates and lay people, rich and poor, men and women the path to this goal—a path based on meditation, self-purification and harmlessness in thought, word and deed. He regarded his path as independent of the priestly Vedic religion of the time, with its rituals, gods, sacrifices and strict adherence to caste. His noble eightfold path was open to everyone.
Outwardly there was a severance from the Vedic establishment. But inwardly there was no fundamental divergence from the highest teachings that were being transmitted by the illumined sages of the time. Indeed, many of these sages had themselves turned away from Vedic rituals and worship of gods. In the Isha and Mundaka Upanishads, for example, we find several verses which condemn the old practices as being based on error and darkness. ‘He who worships a deity thinking “he is one, I am another” does not know.’ (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad)
There is in fact much in common between the way of the Buddha and that of the higher Yoga. Both paths involve looking inwards for fulfilment and illumination, and therefore have recourse to meditation and other practices for stilling the mind. Both paths tell of the need to subdue one’s earthly desires; both teach the transcendence of the individualized ego and view it as unreal. For both paths, it is the mental activity that veils the deeper reality of our being, and this ‘buddha nature’ or ‘true Self’ needs to be uncovered, not created or acquired from some outer source. For both paths, the goal—the liberated understanding—cannot be expressed in words, only experienced for oneself. Clinging to words is a subtle barrier to the great realization, for words reduce—in one’s mind—the infinite to finitude, and imbue that which is free from qualities with unreal qualities.
On the deepest spiritual matters, such as the nature of the self, the nature of illumination, the Buddha was silent and discouraged philosophising and speculation. The Vedanta tradition, as we said, is unambiguous about the ultimate reality transcending the range of speech and thought. Yet it retains the use of words—carefully chosen, as aids to realization. In particular, it retains the word ‘self’ in such a way that it signifies—not the ego—but that which underlies the ego and is not bounded by anything.
Even so, the word ‘self’, used in this higher sense, can be misunderstood and imply a continued duality. For ‘self’ implies something else of which it is the self, and this throws us back into multiplicity and thought—a position rejected by the Buddha. But the Vedanta philosopher, Shankara, was well aware of this difficulty. For him, too, the word ‘self’ has no place in the highest experience—only in the reflections and affirmations that lead to it. As he points out in his commentary on the Chandogya Upanishad, [7:2:3] the word ‘self’ is a key aid to our inner enquiry as helping us to identify with the innermost principle of existence—but that enlightenment is inexpressible even by the word ‘atman’, for in it ‘there is no duality whatsoever’.
Paradoxically, with the development of Zen Buddhism a thousand years or so after the historical Buddha, the word ‘self’ comes back in quite naturally when indicating the supreme knowledge. For example Mumon’s commentary to the 23rd koan ends with the lines: ‘Your own self has nowhere to hide. When the worlds are destroyed, it is not destroyed.’ This only goes to show how much these great traditions have in common.