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Buddhism and the Vedanta
Two Surfaces of the Mirror


Bruno de Jesse

Source: Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 17, No. 1 & 2 (Winter-Spring, 1985). © World Wisdom, Inc.

Buddhist doctrine and Vedantine thought are sometimes set against one another; certain persons have gone so far as to consider them separate tracks that are widely divergent. However, both of them start out from a common determination to “rediscover the forgotten road”, to restore fullness to human awareness; both are, in their beginnings, influenced by the wisdom of the forest, by the thought of the Upanishads. We shall attempt to see why it is that these two streams, the study of which is one of the greatest instruments available for our enlightenment, are separated only with difficulty.

The influence of the great Buddhist philosopher Nāgārjuna, founder of the school of the “middle way”, upon Gaudapāda and Shankara, the two most celebrated Vedantine masters, is unmistakable. Have not Gaudapāda and Shankara been described as crypto-Buddhist? More-over, Brahmanical circles in the northwest of India played an important role on several occasions in the rebirth and renewal of Buddhist philosophy. At every crucial stage of both streams, in the context of Indian philosophy, their relationship seemed close. What is more, positions adopted in the schools of Indian Buddhism never ceased to influence schools outside India.

Taking good care not, in any way, to confuse the two doctrines, we should be in some way tempted not to see any differences of principle, or rather, to put no distance, between them on the plane of their intentions. In this perspective, to cross over from one to the other helps to clarify points of view at the same time as avoiding confusion of ideas, and uncovers complementary attitudes.

It is the idea of complementarity that comes to mind in a first consideration of the two traditions; by examining it, and going into it in some depth, we can better understand the main subjects carried by the texts, and handed down by traditional lore.

Vedantine thinkers attempt to express the point of view of the absolute; from this attempt there emanates a positive doctrine of imposing intellectuality. Buddhist thought is, in its origins, methodologically negative and strives perforce to remain so as its expression develops. In any event, both of them have cut themselves off from levels of dogmatic and ritualistic expression. On this point let us take passing note of some important nuances: Vedantine masters put these levels to one side without denying their relative and instrumental value, making sure that their pupils should be detached from them when the time comes; these levels may even co-exist with more refined and sparse studies which give them fresh significance. Buddhist masters denounce them above all for the dangers they threaten of easy misuse, ensnarement and barrenness.

It was in fact misusages of reasoning and dogmatic thought and the proliferation of rites that led the Buddha to give his teaching a concrete and pedagogic shape and to avoid any metaphysical formulation. Like the authors of the Upanishads, and Gaudapāda and Shankara after him, he was particularly concerned to make the disciple free, through knowledge of the existential trammels inherent in the “first nature”. The end lies beyond dialectic thought and doctrinal formulation. The Buddhist movement appears, in its beginnings, to be not so much philosophy as method. The stress put on watchfulness, and on the need for a balance between reflective thought and contemplation, implies a psychological realism which fills out the ontological positivity emerging from the texts of the Vedanta. The doctrine of the impermanence of the “aggregates” and the doctrine of anatta are the inverse side of the doctrine of the infinity of the Self rather than its negation. Their origin lies in the empirical attitude of the Buddha who declined to confront the mind with a concept, since to do so appeared to him to be a dangerous move in respect of the therapeutic aim of the teaching. In relation to this pragmatic design which remains inherent in the course mapped out, and which actually constitutes it as method, it is important to avoid false identifications of ideas and psychic projections. Reason has to be made supple and utilized as much as possible, but never allowed to risk becoming identified with a “vision of the Real”. The Buddha knew well how quickly the mind seizes on the “least trace of anything at all”. Critical vigilance must dispel the risks of subtle restoration of the ignorance one is hoping to escape. After the Buddha, and likewise after Lao-tzu, Buddhist masters never cease to remind us that nothing that one can conceive of can possibly exist. The process is one of unremitting destruction; Buddhism is the “great destroyer” on the road to de-alienation. In the fourteenth century, Meister Eckhart will tell us “to abandon God for God”—a striking formulation which shows that the method of negation is a cathartic procedure having nothing; in common with materialistic agnosticism in the modern sense or, it), that matter, with philosophical pessimism. The negative attitude places itself at the level of the thinking mind in order to liberate it, not to close it in. It brings itself back into question in order to take on the appearance of a pure procedure and force the subject back onto himself so that, in this game, the spontaneity of intuitive understanding can be rediscovered.

Let us stop for a moment to see what this bringing back into question consists of, for it is one of the most interesting points in the doctrine of the “Middle Way” and can help us to break out of the inner limits inherent in our habitual way of putting things and thinking about them.

In the negative approach, transcendence is represented by its withdrawal. Absence is here a mode of presence, which leaves at our disposition psychological awareness. “Deus ut absens” is how Saint Thomas will put it, in a formula that shatters Scholastic formalism. Buddhism of the “Middle Way” rejects even this kind of formula, and requires the impassive mind to take a course between its own constructions and a feeling of empty nothingness that could paralyze it. In fact, by criticizing itself and making itself relative, the method of negation somehow melts away as a notion leading to nothingness. When Shankara criticizes sunyatā, the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness, does it not hypostatize itself as an idea? Does he not underestimate it as a remedy? Does it not remain subtly attached to the principle of non-contradiction the moment this principle becomes a stumbling block? Through the simultaneous negation of contradictory propositions, Nāgārjuna had removed the obstacle of non-contradiction and allowed the “door-less threshold” to be crossed. The closed negativism that Shankara purported to have found in Buddhist doctrines seems actually to be avoided quite well by Nāgārjuna’s dialectic. Do the two great Vedantine thinkers, at this level of reflection, proceed in a different manner when they postulate that Brahma is not different from Maya and is not identical with it? Buddhist thought and Vedantic thought strike us as two royal avenues to perfect awareness, “empty and marvelous”.

Through this way of thinking according to the method of the Middle Way, the mind moves forward to its new birth; it comes about in the exhaustion and vanquishing of reflective thought itself—a vanquishing that cannot supervene except by going to the very limit of the possibilities of reflective activity. It is in this way that entry is made into the state of contemplative recollectedness. The task of intellection will, in consequence, be resumed in such a way as to mediate a more subtle relationship with mental forms and to arouse a deeper mode of comprehension at the very level of intellectual intuition. It would be a mistake to give up the task of philosophical reflection and meditation upon traditional texts because they once permitted us, or still habitually do permit us, to achieve recollectedness. This would be to court the danger of relapsing into the condition of torpor or illusion. To come back to reflective activity, the texts of the Buddhist Great Vehicle recommend that one should attain to the absence of mental deliberation and to detachment from apprehended “truths” by the practice of the “drift of objectivation”. This consists in looking at the mental image—the intelligible formulation conceived of as the bearer of truth—letting it develop gradually to the exterior of the mind, which is impassive, and lose solidarity. This practice prevents the mind from identifying itself with anything, and makes it ready to grasp another intelligible form for which the foregoing has been no more than an introduction, each one being no more than a transient element whilst meanwhile the subject remains autonomous. Recollectedness in silence is always still the aim of this activity. In it the mind finds its conscious repose and the “matchless savor”.

As far as spiritual ascesis is concerned, the emphasis is upon not directing any view upon oneself. This applies throughout the entire approach to the very nature of the subject that undertakes it: it is not for oneself that one sets foot on the path of knowledge—nor is it for anything else either—. A letter written by a Buddhist master teaches us: “The study of Dharma and the practice of contemplation are a harsh task in our school. Do not set about this task as if it were a secular occupation; if it were such, you would do better to try your hand at the arts or the profane sciences. Men of the age practice these things to enrich their personalities, in an acquisitive spirit. Approach this task in a spirit of service and gift. You will, in this way, be able to see that you are giving nothing; you will thus draw closer to the spirit of loss and self-abandonment, and every particular preoccupation about yourself will fade from your mind. Relief and peace will then allow you to begin to be disciples of the supreme doctrine”.

From the outset the student is thus made to face the stumbling block of the will as an individuating projection. Meanwhile he will have to engage his will in the task, unless he is to fall back into dispersion of spirit and profane living. There is a contradiction here. This contra-diction is inherent in the task itself and cannot be dissociated from it. It is a question at every moment of acting with the determination to dissolve at every moment the personal nature this determination could take. It comes down to this: action is performed and is not taken into consideration,—an extremely concrete attitude of perpetual purification at once active and contemplative; ceaselessly the subject simultaneously stands guard and is lost from view.

Is this a different ascesis from that taught by Shankara? “The superimposition of I and mine upon non-being is abolished. What remains—this One, Śiva, the Delivered—I am.” To be sure, the Buddhist student does not take “what remains” into any kind of consideration and is unconcerned about its nature. He abandons that way of seeing things. The practice will be to “withdraw into the loneliest depths of the mind”. At the level of concrete ascesis we again find the two doorways out of oneself: one affirming and one refusing to posit anything. The Buddhist attitude shows itself more pragmatic and more mistrusting through what it suggests. It leaves the subject to steer himself in the direction where the instinct for deliverance impels him.

Let us here re-examine some of Shankara’s propositions: “Although Brahma is one, Brahma is it which has to be meditated upon as being in relation to limitations and which has to be known as being devoid of any kind of relation with limitations”. Shankara recalls moreover that “Brahma is other than that which is known and equally other than that which is unknown”. In his commentary on the Brihadāranyaka Upanishad, he explains that it is only a way of speaking of Brahma: “Have done with every kind of definition and negate and negate again”. Is not Shankara here the philosophic descendant of Nāgārjuna, and does he not see that all the intellect’s resources have to be employed before the intellect lets go? Is he not trying to pilot observant awareness between the reefs of fixed concepts? Is he not, for that purpose, using the principle of inversion, and then of inverting the inversion, and does not his distinguishing between what is “meditated” and what is “known” imply a solitary passage at whose threshold doctrine loses its significance. After impugning the Middle Way as a doctrine, it appears that Shankara borrows its method in many shifts of his teaching and that the complementary viewpoints of middle-way Buddhism and non-dual Vedanta come together with the greatest resemblance when it is a question of freeing intuitive grasp from the limitations of thought.

For Buddhism of the middle-way, the beginning of spiritual health is the intuition of the void, the only way of shifting oneself from the plane of “worldliness”. And the definition is made that this void is “empty of emptiness” and that “it is not nothingness”. Is that to deal in metaphysics? Yes it is, if we remember that metaphysics, if it is to be rigorous, must constrain the mind to leave the field of possible hypostases; and, in the opposite case, no it is not. Led, we have seen, to the edge of his own eclipse by the most subtle discrimination possible, the thinking subject finds himself introduced wholly into the state of having no point of view, which enables him to find peace and recollectedness. It is clear that these have nothing to do with everyday repose or escapist contemplation, and even less with contemplation of a narcissistic kind; these situations of false contemplation can occur when the intelligence has not been sufficiently trained. The recollectedness that now obtains is a state of unified understanding and of freedom impregnating the psyche to its very depth in a way that will never be entirely erased. It engenders certitude, a faith about which nothing particular can be said.

After the awakening of this faith in their hearts, disciples of non-dualistic Vedanta and Buddhism alike confront the same adventure of contemplative knowledge proper. Is this repose? Yes, because the subject in its new orientation, no more knows intellectual disquiet, the uncertainty of a hazardous quest, or the agonizing pressure of existence’s absurdities. The path lies open occasioning, perhaps, quiet amazement. No, because states of “empty availability”, whatever virtues they may hold, still contain the seeds of individuation, and the reconstitution of an illusory personality—ignorance at a second degree—is still possible. It is at this point, in the tradition of the Vedanta as also in that of Buddhism, that a relationship with one who knows the snares that lie on the now trackless paths becomes very necessary. The subject is in fact made to confront successive layers of the unconscious; the unconscious brings even more dangers than does the play of discursive intelligence. The “old master” of Mahayana laughs at his disciple: “Are you sure you are not dandling the image you have built up yourself, and planting trees in the clouds? The plain is empty, the flocks have left, the sun is going down over the mountain-tops; do you see a single spot to linger in?”

Never linger; it is not here, it is not there…Is it something other? There is no otherness? Ramana Maharshi declares as he is dying: “I am there; where would I go?”

Nirvana is presence, absence, right here and without limit…“I am the splendor of matchless savor” sings the Brahmin poet. The attention comes forth to silence, and the landscape is that of the very first dawn. Through a thing that leaves no trace, attention is shattered into a death-birth: “Builder, you'll build no more for me. The roof of the house has blown away and the beams are broken. Escaped from the world’s impermanence, I have attained the end of desire.” Since the deliverance of the Blessed One, the great healer, such is the Buddhist paean of victory. Sadānanda, a disciple of Shankara, proclaims: “As a cloth is burned away when its threads are burned, so are the effects of ignorance destroyed when the ignorance that causes them is destroyed.” The path of non-dual Vedanta and the Buddhist path turn about one single psychological fact which they denounce as the principal reality of existence, the source of estrangement and suffering, of inner and outward conflict: ignorance.

What is this ignorance? It is the ignorance of one who, though he be versed in all the sciences, has not perceived the nature of mind, and who has never been astonished at just being there.