What Is Spiritual Enlightenment?

(I am republishing an answer that I wrote in Quora)

The word ‘Enlightenment’ can be defined in many different ways. We have so many words in different traditions which are synonymous with the word ‘enlightenment’.

The list of words are endless and the definitions are endless too. Some people exaggerate it, some people understate it, some people say that there is no such thing called enlightenment while the majority of the world’s population haven’t even heard of it.

First, let me describe enlightenment in terms of what disappears. Deep down in people’s minds, there is an underlying dissatisfaction with the way things are. People want many things to be different from the way they actually are. There is a craving for becoming something that one is not and there is a resistance to the way things are. Everyone is moving towards a goal, a destination that is in the future. The hopes of arriving at that destination seem to give some solace and if those hopes and dreams are threatened, we tend to suffer. This burning uneasiness and dissatisfaction can be likened to a fire that is burning. The extinction of this fire is enlightenment. The word ‘Nirvana’ means extinction.

There are also two other words ‘moksha’ and ‘mukthi’, which literally mean ‘liberation’. These words refer to how enlightenment feels like.

A typical human being is bound by various things. He is bound by his own past intentions. He is bound by his beliefs. He is bound by the opinions of other people.

But deep inside the heart of every human being, there is a longing to become boundless and expansive. We try to accomplish this by accumulation; we accumulate knowledge, possession, and experiences hoping that these accumulations will make us boundless.

But these very accumulations cause further bondage. Now you have to protect them because losing them will essentially mean losing yourself; because you derive a sense of identity from these accumulations. A typical human being is actually in a self-made prison. But the saddest part is that majority of the population don’t realize that they are in such a prison.

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I have heard a quote by some anonymous person which goes like this:

“One of the greatest mental freedoms is truly not caring what anyone else thinks of you”..

Imagine the kind of freedom you will get when you no longer worry about what other people think about you. And, also imagine the kind of freedom you will get when you are no longer afraid of losing anything. Imagine the kind of freedom you will get when you no longer worry about future and past! What is usually called as enlightenment is the greatest freedom ever. It is not only a combination of all kinds of freedoms that I just talked about but it is also a freedom from the sense of a separate self. It is a permanent freedom from the story you have about you. Once a person is enlightened, he feels like a huge load has been taken off of his shoulders. There is a sense of an immense freedom which is priceless. It literally feels like escaping from a prison.

Once J. Krishnamurti asked his audience if they wanted to know what his secret was. Then he revealed his secret in just one sentence. He said, “I don’t care what happens”…

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Simply put, this is enlightenment. Nothing ultimately matters and the whole life becomes a play or a game.

When we play a game with our friends, we play it without any seriousness. Even though we make sure that the rules of the games are followed and that we do what we are supposed to do in the game, we don’t lose our sleep over it (unless we are playing in a tournament). Playing your role in life as if you are just playing a game is the greatest sense of freedom. Enlightenment naturally makes you to not to care about the end result of whatever you are doing. At the end of the day, nothing ever matters. That doesn’t mean you will be irresponsible. You will just enjoy what you are doing rather than being focused on results. Your actions will be driven by intrinsic motivation.

Whatever I have said so far, sounds quite logical. But I haven’t touched the core yet. The core and the essence of enlightenment is realizing that you as a separate person or entity is an illusion. You create a solid sense of self inside your mind and you define the boundaries of that self physically by your body and mentally by your story.

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But science and spirituality tell us that there is no such solid, consistent self. This doesn’t mean that your body and your mind doesn’t exist. But a sense of self that you derive from your body and mind is just a deep-rooted belief. Since you have this belief for such a long time, you don’t even recognize that it is a belief. This may even sound absurd or unacceptable to you simply because you have lived with this belief so long. We have built layer upon layer on this belief which makes us very difficult to see through this belief.

Someone asked a question in Quora before. The question was “Can an atheist believe in spiritual enlightenment? “. The word ‘believe’ here is a bit odd.But this question comes from an assumption that spiritual enlightenment is somehow related or tied to religious beliefs. But in reality, an enlightened person is an upgraded atheist.

Let me elaborate. The only thing that an atheist doesn’t believe in is the existence of a personal deity, a creator God who answers your prayers. But an atheist may still believe that his next door neighbor is a jerk and his boss is an a**h**e.

An enlightened person, on the other hand, doesn’t believe in anything. He doesn’t even believe that he is separate from the existence. Once the sense of a separate-self dissolves, you realize that you are existence itself. All the boundaries between you and the world simply disappear. You cease to exist as a person but you continue to exist as the existence.Realizing that you are not an entity separate from existence is enlightenment. It is not just realizing this as a fact but realizing it in your actual moment to moment experience.

This is not to say that enlightenment is a special experience or an altered state of consciousness. When you are living a life as a liberated person, you simply experience the reality without any duality. The reality is felt in its purity without any distortions. Your life then becomes free-flowing, conflict-less, guilt-free, fearless, peaceful and fulfilled. Nothing is lacking anymore at the absolute level. There is a sense of innocence and genuineness in your moment to moment experience. It is quite ordinary then how enlightenment is described or thought of.

So, what causes this illusion of separate self or duality? Left-brain interpreter is the culprit.

The left brain interpreter refers to the construction of explanations by the left brain in order to make sense of the world by reconciling new information with what was known before. The left brain interpreter attempts to rationalize, reason and generalize new information it receives in order to relate the past to the present. The concept was first introduced by Michael Gazzaniga while he performed research on split-brain patients during the early 1970s with Roger Sperry at the California Institute of Technology.] Sperry eventually received the 1981 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his contributions to split-brain research

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If you just look at the above picture, one thing is clear. You left brain engages in things which require categorization. Your right brain specializes in helping you to see everything as a whole.

Dr. Chris Niebauer, a neuroscientist writes in his book ‘The Neurotic’s Guide to Avoiding Enlightenment: How the Left-brain Plays Unending Games of Self-improvement’ about the left brain interpreter.

Let me quote a few lines from his book:

“The left-brain interpreter is categorical, it creates division outwardly and inwardly, so let it do its job, let it do its thing. “

“Again, there is the interpreter created category of “me as I am” vs. “me as I want to be” which are both just thoughts bouncing around in the skull. So, ironically, if you are trying to improve yourself, you can’t. The notion that your self needs improving is an interpretation and we are going around interpretations. There is an irony in most bookstores called the “self help” section. I might suggest renaming this as “Books that reinforce the illusion that the left-brain interpreter can be what it isn’t free of itself.”

“The interpreter also creates and sustains our collection of categorical thoughts called our beliefs.”

It is this left brain interpreter which also creates the duality. It categories your body and your story as a ‘me’ that is separate from the existence.

You can read more about it here: Shanmugam P’s answer to Is spiritual awakening a myth?

Spiritual enlightenment is going beyond all the dualities. It leads one to resolve all the internal conflicts and to feel one with everything. It removes the idea that there is a separate entity inside which has to enhance itself for fulfillment. The left brain may still continue to categorize things, but they are not solidified in our consciousness and we are not urged to protect those solidified entities.

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The Difference between Buddhist Enlightenment and Advaita Enlightenment

(I am republishing an answer that I wrote in Quora for the question ‘What is the difference between Buddhist enlightenment and Advaita enlightenment?’)

If you are in a prison and want to escape from the prison, you can do it in many ways:

1)You can break the walls and escape.

2) You can climb the wall and escape from it.

3) You can attack a guard in the prison, put on his dress, deceive others and somehow try to escape from the prison.

Once you have come out of the prison, you feel liberated. Is there any difference in the feeling of liberation based on how you escaped from the prison?

If you fall in love with someone, you would say to that person, ‘I love you’. A Frenchman would say ‘je t’aime’; A German would say ‘ich liebe dich’. A Spanish guy would say ‘te amo’. Is there any difference in the love based on the way it is said?

What they call as Nirvana in Buddhism and what they call as Moksha in Vedanta are one and the same. The methodology, the approach and the terminology used may be different. But the liberation is the same.

Enlightenment is nothing but liberating yourself from the prison of clinging to the mind and the body and deriving your identity from it. As long as you are just body and mind, you are limited. Once that identification is completely destroyed, you are boundless. Then you are beyond all dualities.

I have written two blog posts explaining why Buddhism and Vedanta are one and the same:

Buddhism and Vedanta are the Same – A Detailed Comparison

Which Philosophy Personally Appeals More to You, Buddhism or Advaita Vedanta?

I recently wrote a book titled ‘The Truth About Spiritual Enlightenment: Bridging Science, Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta’ in which I have put together the essence of the ancient teachings, how they evolved historically and what psychology says about certain principles that are exactly the same as what these traditions say.

Enlightenment is the destruction of the distinction between the observer and the observed. But the first step lies in clearly understanding the distinction between the two. In the process of understanding it, you would intentionally, clearly and correctly discriminate between the observer and the observed. The final step is the merger of the two. When the observer, the observed and the act of observing all become one, the duality disappears. This is enlightenment. And, this is the same regardless of where the guidance comes from and how you are guided.

Which Philosophy Personally Appeals More to You, Buddhism or Advaita Vedanta?

(This is a repost of the answer that I wrote in Quora for the same question)

Both point to the same truth!

I have noticed that many people don’t agree when it is said both are the same, because they are only looking at both of them in philosophical level. When it comes to ultimate reality, no matter what words we use, they can be always misleading.

I am talking from my own experience. Oneness with the rest of the existence is a living reality for me. But I will back up my statements by quoting both Vedantic and Buddhist scriptures.

The main source of suffering in our lives is caused by identification. We get identified with our mind, our body, our thoughts, our emotions etc. This identification of mistaking something that is not Self as Self is termed as Avidya or ignorance. Ignorance causes us to think that there is a separate individual self which needs to be protected and enhanced.

In other words, we feel experientially that we are separate from the rest of the world. This separation causes us to crave for fulfillment. That is why Buddha said craving is the root cause of suffering. It is Avidya, the ignorance which causes craving. Buddha is talking about the immediate cause and Vedanta is talking about the original cause.

Some people will object to this by saying that Buddhism doesn’t say that there is something eternal. First of all, when you realize that time itself is an illusion, you will also realize that eternity is only an idea. Buddha was more specific and straight forward, while Vedanta is little compassionate and gives you something that your mind can grasp.

When anyone asked Buddha any metaphysical questions such as ‘Is there anything eternal’, Buddha was silent. It is called Noble Silence .He talked about the impermanence of aggregates, but what we call in Vedanta as absolute reality is not one of the aggregates. It is not anything that is objective. It cannot be put into words. But both Vedanta and Buddhism has actually hinted about this absolute reality with striking similarity.

See the below examples:

Vedanta:

“It is this Akshara (the Imperishable), O Gargi, so the knowers of Brahman say. It is neither gross nor subtle, neither short nor long, not red, not viscid, not shadowy, not dark, not the air, not the ether, not adhesive, tasteless, odourless, without the sense of sight, without the sense of hearing, without the vital principle, mouthless, without measure, neither interior nor exterior,. It eats nothing, nobody eats it.”

– Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 3-8-8.

Buddhism:

“There is that dimension, monks, where there is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor wind; neither dimension of the infinitude of space, nor dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, nor dimension of nothingness, nor dimension of neither perception nor non-perception; neither this world, nor the next world, nor sun, nor moon. And there, I say, there is neither coming, nor going, nor staying; neither passing away nor arising: unestablished, unevolving, without support [mental object]. This, just this, is the end of stress.”

– Buddha (in Nibbāna Sutta: Unbinding (1))

Buddha directly talks about something that is eternal too, but he uses the word ‘unborn’:

There is, monks, an unborn— unbecome — unmade — unfabricated. If there were not that unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, there would not be the case that escape from the born — become — made — fabricated would be discerned. But precisely because there is an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, escape from the born — become — made — fabricated is discerned

– Buddha (in Nibbāna Sutta: Unbinding (3))

So, why did Buddha reject Vedas when Vedanta says that Vedas are the only authority?

We need to take Buddha’s time into account. Buddha lived sometime around 800 BC- 600 BC. It was during those times when many rishis were able to realize that there is something beyond the benefits that was got from mere rituals..Vedic rituals only focused on materialistic benefits that people could enjoy in three worlds. They were never about ultimate reality. That is when two great upanishads, Brihadaranyaka upanishad and Chandgoya upanishads were compiled. It must have taken a century or two; Buddha started talking to people at the same time period. So, we can safely conclude that when Buddha was alive, upanishads were not a part of Vedas.

This will raise many objections. Because, many people believe that Vedas are eternal and infallible. Even Shankara believed so. But, consider the following verses from Brihadaranyaka upanishad and the commentary from Shankara:

From chapter 6, section 4:

Verse 6: If man sees his reflection in water, he
should recite the following Mantra : ‘ (May the
gods grant) me lustre, manhood, reputation,
wealth and merits.’ She (his wife) is indeed the
goddess of beauty among women. Therefore he
should approach this handsome woman and
speak to her.

Shankara’s commentary:

If perchance he sees his reflection in water, he
should recite the following Mantra : ‘(May the gods
grant) me lustre,’ etc. She is indeed the goddess of
beauty among women. Therefore he should approach
this handsome woman and speak to her, when she has
taken a bath after three ‘nights.

Verse 7 : If she is not willing, he should buy her
over; and if she is still unyielding, he should
strike her with a stick or with the hand and
proceed, uttering the following Mantra, ‘I take
away your reputation,’ etc. She is then actually
discredited.

Shankara’s commentary:

If she is not willing, he should buy her over,
press his wishes through ornaments etc.; and if she is
still unyielding, he should strike her with a stick or
with the hand
, and announcing that he was going to
curse her and make her unfortunate, he should ·proceed,
uttering the following Mantra : ‘I take away your
reputation: etc. As a result of that curse, she comes
to be known as barren and unfortunate, and is then
actually discredited.

The above verses show how totally male dominative the society was those days.. Even though this doesn’t have anything to do with enlightenment, this example shows how one should not take everything just because it comes from a scripture or a person who is regarded as an authority.

And I don’t think that such infallible and eternal upanishads can advice someone to beat his wife if she doesn’t agree for sex.

You may say that these were later interpolations. But if that is the case, how could we trust Vedas in the first place?

But I know that Vedic verses such as Nasadiya Suktha and almost all upanishads have immense wisdom. We have to see them as collection of various poems composed by different people, instead of seeing them as infallible and eternal scriptures. I know that it is very difficult for many Indians to accept, because we are deeply blinded by pride and confirmation bias.

So, Why did Vedanta say that Vedas are only pramana (means of knowledge)?

Let us talk about three different methods of acquiring knowledge in general. (Vedanta uses six, but let us talk about three important ones here)

  1. Direct experience
  2. Inference
  3. Testimony from an authority.

In our daily life, we can get to know about many things through direct experience and inference. But we would never know the path to end the suffering unless someone tells us, simple!

So our ancient Indians selected the Upanishads as the only reliable authority to teach us the path towards liberation. It is just a standardization made by humans to avoid any conflict. And according to the social structure that prevailed those days, instead of relying any random person’s words as authority, it was reasonable to accept Upanishads as authority.

But we live in 21st century now. We are aware of things like confirmation bias and we are more keen towards human rights. While we do appreciate and show immense reverence to our ancient scriptures, it is nothing wrong in changing certain things to suit our modern society.

Also, Vedanta uses a certain teaching method called Adyaropa Apavada while Buddhism teaches directly and precisely. Vedanta is poetic where as Buddhism is empirical. Buddhism gives you the raw truth but Vedanta offers to you with added sweets and flavors. The only problem in Vedanta is that people may get stuck with the words and concepts.

You can find more details in my post here where I have included some additional points: Buddhism and Vedanta are the Same – A Detailed Comparison

If you are looking for a great spiritual authority to confirm the validity of Buddha’s message, then I will quote some of the words from Bhagwan Ramana Maharishi:

Disciple: Research on God has been going on from time immemorial. Has the final word been said?

Maharshi: (Keeps silence for some time.)

Disciple: (Puzzled) Should I consider Sri Bhagavan’s silence as the reply to my question?

Maharshi: Yes. Mouna is Isvara-svarupa.Hence the text: “The Truth of Supreme Brahman proclaimed through Silent Eloquence.”

Disciple: Buddha is said to have ignored such inquiries about God.

Maharshi: And for this reason was called a sunyavadin (nihilist). In fact Buddha concerned himself more with directing the seeker to realize Bliss here and now that with academic discussion about God, etc.

Buddhism and Vedanta are the Same – A Detailed Comparison

Buddhism and Vedanta are two big schools which have dominated the spiritual world till date.  Among many schools which have existed in the past, only these two have made a great influence all over the world and still continue to exist. But they seem to be contradictory to each other in many ways.

But based on my own experience and based on what I have read, these two schools only seem to differ because they use different conceptual languages. They also have different teaching methods. But the essence is the same.

When it comes to Vedanta, Prasthanathrayi, consisting of main Upanishads, Brahmasutras and Bhagwad gita is  the authority. In Buddhism, Tripitaka, consisting of Vinaya Pitaka, Sutra Pitaka and Abidharama Pitaka, is the source of all conceptual details. When you go through the scriptures with an open mind and with the support of your own spiritual realization, you will see that both are essentially the same.

Both schools talk about the cessation of suffering. The process of the cessation of suffering is called Moksha in Vedanta and Nirvana in Buddhism. Now let us see how these two schools define the nature of this liberation and the ultimate truth:

Vedanta

“It is this Akshara (the Imperishable), O Gargi, so the knowers of Brahman say. It is neither gross nor subtle, neither short nor long, not red, not viscid, not shadowy, not dark, not the air, not the ether, not adhesive, tasteless, odourless, without the sense of sight, without the sense of hearing, without the vital principle, mouthless, without measure, neither interior nor exterior,. It eats nothing, nobody eats it.”

– Brihadaranyaka Upanishad  3-8-8.

Buddhism

“There is that dimension, monks, where there is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor wind; neither dimension of the infinitude of space, nor dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, nor dimension of nothingness, nor dimension of neither perception nor non-perception; neither this world, nor the next world, nor sun, nor moon. And there, I say, there is neither coming, nor going, nor staying; neither passing away nor arising: unestablished, unevolving, without support [mental object]. This, just this, is the end of stress.”

– Buddha (in Nibbāna Sutta: Unbinding (1))
Do they sound similar? Yes, Because they talk about the same thing.

Now consider the following quotes:

There is, monks, an unborn— unbecome — unmade — unfabricated. If there were not that unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, there would not be the case that escape from the born — become — made — fabricated would be discerned. But precisely because there is an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, escape from the born — become — made — fabricated is discerned

– Buddha (in Nibbāna Sutta: Unbinding (3))

………………………………………………..

Verily, that great unborn soul, undecaying, undying, immortal, fearless is Brahman

–        Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.25

 

This Sunyata or the ultimate truth doesn’t have any attributes. It is the conscious space in which everything takes place. It is the substratum of everything that is in the reality, like a movie screen that acts as a substratum to show the moving pictures on it.

This substratum itself is empty of anything that we can call as a ‘thing’, including abstract things. A ‘thought’ is a thing; a feeling is a thing’ a sense perception is a thing; and an experience is a thing too. All these are witnessed as the existing things or stuff that occupy the space of consciousness itself. This underlying consciousness is called shakshin ( witness), satchitananda (truth -consciousness -bliss), nurguna brahman, sunyata and so on.

 

Buddhism and Vedanta
Buddhism and Vedanta are the same!

Adyaropa Apavada – The Teaching method of Vedanta

 

So, when Buddhism calls it as sunyata, why does Vedanta defines the reality in positive terminology?  Because, Vedantins  use a different teaching method called ‘Adhyaropa apavada’. The teaching method intentionally superimposes some attributes to the ultimate reality first to distinguish it from everything that it is not. So, even though no concept can define something that lacks any kind of thing that is conceived by a concept, these intentional attributes are made in order to help the mind to grasp it  as a concept at the initial stage.

Then Vedantins negate everything that it is not. They reject the body as not it because body can be witnessed as a thing. They reject the mind as not it because mind can be witnessed as a thing too. You first understand that you are Brahman and then you negate everything that is not ‘You’ by closely monitoring the mental processes every moment, with the detached witness attitude.

Finally, even the intentional attributes are also rejected. This helps to drop the initial concepts that were formed to understand Brahman. Once you let go of all the concepts of reality and narrow down to the bare reality of yourself, people say that you have realized the truth.

Let us see some excerpts from Vedantic scriptures which support this:

“Who so knows the Self, thus described, as the fearless Absolute (brahman), himself becomes the Absolute, beyond fear. This is a brief statement of the meaning of the entire Upanishad.  And in order to convey this meaning rightly, the fanciful alternatives of production, maintenance and withdrawal, and the false notion of action, its factors and results, are deliberately attributed to the Self as a first step. And then later the final metaphysical truth is inculcated by negating these characteristics through a comprehensive denial of all particular superimpositions on the Absolute, expressed in the phrase ‘neither this nor that’. Just as a man, wishing to explain numbers from one to a hundred thousand billion (points to figures that he has drawn and) says, ‘This figure is one, this figure is ten, this figure is a hundred, this figure is a thousand’ , and all the time his only purpose is to explain numbers, and not to affirm that the figures are numbers; or just as one wishing to explain the sounds of speech as repre sented by the written letters of the alphabet resorts to a device in the form of a palm-leaf on which he makes incisions which he later fills with ink to form letters, and all the while, (even though he point to a letter and say “This is the sound “so and so”‘) his only purpose is to explain the nature of the sounds referred to by each letter, and not to affirm that the leaf, incisions and ink are sounds; in just the same way, the one real metaphysical principle, the Absolute, is taught by resort to many devices, such as attributing to it production (of the world) and other powers. And then after wards the nature of the Absolute is restated, through the concluding formula ‘neither this nor that’, so as to purify it of all particular notions accruing to it from the various devices used to explain its nature in the first place’.

– Brhadaranyaka  Bhasya IV.iv.25  – by Shankara

……………………………………………………………………………………….

“Nor can the Absolute be properly referred to by any such terms as Being or non-being. For all words are used to convey a meaning, and when heard by their hearers convey the meaning the speaker had in mind. But communicable meaning is restricted without exception to universal, action, attribute and relation….

The Absolute, however, does not belong to any universal (genus), so it cannot be expressed by a noun such as ‘Being’ or ‘non-being’. Being without attributes, it cannot be described by any adjective denoting an attribute. And being actionless, it cannot be expressed by any verb denoting activity.

For the Upanishad speaks of it as ‘Without parts, without activity, at rest’ (Svet .VI.19) . Nor has it any relation with anything. For it is ‘One’, ‘without a second’, ‘not an object’ and ‘the Self. Hence it cannot be expressed by any word. And the upanishadic texts themselves confirm this when they say ‘That from which words fall back’ (Taitt .ll.9) , and in other passages.”

– (Bhagwad Gita Bhasya XIII.12) – Shankara

……………………………………………………………………………………

And because the Absolute has no particular characteristics, the Veda indicates its nature by denying of it the forms of all other things, as is shown, for instance, in the following pa sages: ‘And so, therefore, the teaching is “neither this nor that”‘ (Brhad.II.iii.6) , ‘It is other than what is known, and above the unknown’ (Kena I.U), ‘That from which words fall back without obtaining access, together with the mind’ (Taitt .II.9)

And the Vedic texts also relate how when Badhva was questioned by Baskalin he gave his answer merely by not speaking. ‘Sir, teach me in words’, Ba§kalin said. But the Teacher remained silent. Finally, at the second or third time of asking, Badhva replied, ‘I am telling you, but you do not understand. This Self is utter silence’

– (Bramasutra Bhasya III.ii.17) – Shankara

………………………………………………..

(a) In order to disclose the nature of the self as Brahman in itself Srutis like the following negate all specific features superimposed on it by the unenlightened common mind :-

“It is this Akshara (the Imperishable), 0 Gargi, so the knowers of    Brahman say. It is neither gross nor subtle, neither short nor long, not     red, not viscid, not shadowy, not dark, not the air, not the ether, not    adhesive, tasteless, odourless, without the sense of sight, without the    sense of hearing, without the vital principle, mouthless, without measure,   neither interior nor exterior,. It eats nothing, nobody eats it.”    – Br.3-8-8.

(b) Lest, by this strict denial of all properties it may be taken to be absolute nothing (s’unya), it is taught by means of illusory attributes seemingly pertaining to it owing to Upadhis (apparently conditioning factors).

(c) At the close of the teaching the rescission of even the imputed attributes used as a device for purposes of teaching, lest it should be regarded as actually belonging to it.
Hence that Brahman cannot be denoted by the epithet ‘jnanam’ (knowledge) either. Nevertheless, it is indicated though not expressed, by the word ”jnanam’  denoting the semblance of consciousness which is really a modification of the mind. It is not directly denoted by that term because Brahman is devoid of genus and other specific features which alone are the occasion for the application of words to a thing. So is it with regard to the term ‘Satyam’ (truth). For Brahman is by its very nature devoid of all specific features. The term Satyam really refers to the genus ‘being’ inhering in external objects, and when Brahman is described as ‘Sat yam’ (Real), it is only indicated by that term. But Brahman is not actually expressed by the term ‘Satyam’.

Tai. Bh. 2-1, p. 285 – Shankara

 

Atman and Anatman – The difference

 

Whatever you  observe in our conscious field is not You.. Therefore they are not the Self (or Bhrahman).. That is what the word ‘Anatta’ (Anatman) means..  Atman is Self. Anatman is that which is not Self.

This Atman or Brahman or Self cannot be put into words. Any name that is given to it is actually misleading to some extent. Thats why Buddha only talked about Anatta- that which is not the Atman.

Read this excerpt, it will make sense:

“Objection : “Is not even Atman denoted by the word ‘Atman’ ?

Reply: No. for there are Srutis like ‘From which words fall back’, ‘That in which one sees nothing else’.

Question: How then do texts like ‘Atman alone is below … .’ and ‘It is Atman’ reveal Atman ?

Reply:  This is no fault. For, the word (Atman), primarily used in the world of differences to denote individual soul as distinct from the body it possesses, is extended to indicate the entity which remains after the rejection of body and other not-selfs as not deserving that appellation, and is used to reveal what is really inexpressible by words”.

– Shankara – Ch. Bh. 7-1-3, p. 542.

Neti -Neti in Buddhism

 

Now, let us read Atmashatkam, a vedantic short poetry attributed to Shankara and Anattalakhana sutta, a Buddhist Sutta that discusses the Buddhist teachings on Anatta – no self.  Once you read it carefully, you will realize that both say exactly the same.

AtmaShatkam

1) I am not mind, nor intellect, nor ego, nor the reflections of inner self (citta). I am not the five senses. I am beyond that. I am not the ether, nor the earth, nor the fire, nor the wind (the five elements). I am indeed, That eternal knowing and bliss, the auspicious (Śivam), love and pure consciousness.

2) Neither can I be termed as energy (prāṇa), nor five types of breath (vāyus), nor the seven material essences, nor the five sheaths(pañca-kośa). Neither am I the organ of Speech, nor the organs for Holding ( Hand ), Movement ( Feet ) or Excretion. I am indeed, That eternal knowing and bliss, the auspicious (Śivam), love and pure consciousness.

3) I have no hatred or dislike, nor affiliation or liking, nor greed, nor delusion, nor pride or haughtiness, nor feelings of envy or jealousy. I have no duty (dharma), nor any money, nor any desire (kāma), nor even liberation (mokṣa). I am indeed, That eternal knowing and bliss, the auspicious (Śivam), love and pure consciousness.

4) I have neither merit (virtue), nor demerit (vice). I do not commit sins or good deeds, nor have happiness or sorrow, pain or pleasure. I do not need mantras, holy places, scriptures (Vedas), rituals or sacrifices (yajñas). I am none of the triad of the observer or one who experiences, the process of observing or experiencing, or any object being observed or experienced. I am indeed, That eternal knowing and bliss, the auspicious (Śivam), love and pure consciousness.

5)  I do not have fear of death, as I do not have death. I have no separation from my true self, no doubt about my existence, nor have I discrimination on the basis of birth. I have no father or mother, nor did I have a birth. I am not the relative, nor the friend, nor the guru, nor the disciple. I am indeed, That eternal knowing and bliss, the auspicious (Śivam), love and pure consciousness.

6) I am all pervasive. I am without any attributes, and without any form. I have neither attachment to the world, nor to liberation (mukti). I have no wishes for anything because I am everything, everywhere, every time, always in equilibrium. I am indeed, That eternal knowing and bliss, the auspicious (Śivam), love and pure consciousness.

Anatta-lakkhana Sutta

“So, bhikkhus any kind of form whatever, whether past, future or presently arisen, whether gross or subtle, whether in oneself or external, whether inferior or superior, whether far or near, must with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not myself.’

“Any kind of feeling whatever…

“Any kind of perception whatever…

“Any kind of determination whatever…

“Any kind of consciousness whatever, whether past, future or presently arisen, whether gross or subtle, whether in oneself or external, whether inferior or superior, whether far or near must, with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not my self.'”

……………………………………………………………………………..

It is obvious.. Both say the samething. This is called Neti Neti method in Vedanta – rejecting whatever that is observed as not-self. Here, it is important to see the thoughts, emotions and feelings etc are different from you, as they arise and pass away. As you witness these thoughts, you see yourself as a witness instead of identifying with thoughts and mental processes.

 

Nididhyasana  and Mindfulness  are the same

 

I understood that  Nididhyasana which is prescribed in Vedanta and Mindfulness that is prescribed in Buddhism are exactly the same, when I read Swami Satchidanandendra Saraswati’s interpretation of Nididhyasana.

 

You can read the book ‘Adyatma Yoga’ of Swami Satchidanandendra Saraswati to know how he explains it. He was a Sanskrit scholar and vedantic monk. He dedicated his whole life in bringing out the kind of teaching method that was actually adopted by Shankara. He lived up to the age 94 and has written over 200 books. He has worked hard enough to bring out the true teachings of Shankara.

 

Conclusion

 

We can compare Buddhism and Vedanta to two languages that evolved from a parent prolanguage. They split into two when Buddha refused to accept the authority of Vedas.

As centuries passed and different things evolved in each school, they became like two mutually unintelligible languages which belong to the same parent.

 

The Evolution of Vedanta, Yoga and Buddhism – A Truth Revealed

The aim of this article is to show that  Vedanta as we know today and Yoga which is practiced today are incomplete when taught independently. They have lost a lot of essential teachings of ancient rishis by evolving into two separate schools.  It also  aims to show that these modern schools have deviated much from the teachings of Ancient India.

Vedanta and Yoga were never seperare during the time of Upanishads. There were not two different schools. Instead, the teachings of Ancient India mainly included the following two aspects:

  • Insight

This constitutes getting insight into the nature of reality and seeing that the separate self is illusory in the moment to moment experience. Practices like self-inquiry and  Buddhist mindfulness are essentially the same and are mainly insight practices. The Advaita Vedanta that we know now focuses mainly on insight.

  • Concentration

This is often neglected in traditional Advaita but it was once advocated as a necessary skill to develop along with insight. Concentration and insight complement each other. There are some seekers who can do well by focusing on concentration and developing the insight later. But there are also seekers who are comfortable in doing insight practices first and achieve one pointed concentration later. Upasana in Vedanta (which is not taught in the modern days), Yogic samadhi and Buddhist Shamatha are practices that develop concentration.

It is definitely possible to bypass concentration practices altogether and practice insight alone. Concentration will automatically develop as a by product. But this is not true for all people. Some people are more comfortable and capable of starting with Yogic practices.Also, practicing both of them together can be very helpful towards liberation.

Because of this, yogic concentration practices and insight practices were both taught in Upanishads. In fact, there are certain upanishads which are dedicated to Yogic practices alone. They were never considered as separate schools of thought. Even Adi Shankara has elaborated on yogic and tantric practices on his text Soundarya Lahari.

The theory part of both Advaita and Yoga were adopted from Samkhya karika written by an ancient rishi called Kapila. In Bhagwad Gita, Samkhya is mentioned as another term for Gnana yoga, which is nothing but self-inquiry practices  and Nidhidhyasana of Vedanta that we know today. The terminology of Samkhya appears to be dualistic but in essence, it was not; It was actually a path for non-dual wisdom. Otherwise it would not have been mentioned in Bhagwad Gita, which is actually considered to be an authoritative text of Vedanta, along with Brahma Sutras and Upanishads. Samkhya mainly focused on discrimination between Purusha and Prakriti (satya and mithya in Vedanta) and offered insight into the reality which actually resulted in  seeing Purusha and Prakrita as one non-dual reality, even though it was not explicitely stated in Samkya sutras.

So in essence,  Vedanta, Yoga and Samkya were not really separate schools of thoughts.  These were words used to represent the aspects of the same essential teaching.  But after the period of Upanishads, people started giving more importance to Vedic rituals rather than focusing on the core teachings that help individuals towards their liberation.

Wisdom by Buddha

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The first rebellion against this growing importance of pointless rituals was done by Buddha. He established the core ancient teachings of insight and concentration but just used different terminology. He categorized the teachings into two main paths, which are complimentary to each other.

1)Vipassana (Insight)

This is essentially the same as Vedanta. Buddhist mindfulness is a practice to examine each thought and experience that arise each moment and look into the nature of their absence of a separate self, impermanence and suffering. This is exactly what self-inquiry does when you inquire the nature and origin of each thought. What was called as Nirguna Brahman (absolute reality that is empty of attributes) in ancient India was named as ‘Sunyata’ (emptiness) by Buddha. Since Buddha took a psychological approach, he intentionally used negative terminology so that people don’t form mental concepts about the absolute reality.

2)Shamatha (Concentration)

Buddha didn’t ignore the yogic practices of concentration. He introduced Jhana meditations which are essentially the same as Dhyana, Dharana and Samadhi. But he also explained how practicing either insight or concentration can automatically improve the other.

Buddha took an empirical approach in understanding the nature of mind. The deep psychological insights found in Apidhamma in Pali Canon, is very unique to Buddhism which is completely absent in the traditional schools of Advaita and Yoga which developed later as separate schools.The psychological wisdom found in Buddhism is compared to modern Psychology because of so many similarities between the two.

Traditional Vedanta, Samkhya and Yoga talk about three gunas which are sattva (balance), rajas (restlessness , too much activity in the mind), Tamas (inertia or mental dulness) to show how rajas and tamas are hindrances to insight and concentration. Buddha went futher and added three more to the two hindrances (panca nivaranani): Restlessness, Dulness and sloth, sensory desire, ill will and doubt.

Finally, Buddha went one step above in handling the mere curious people who wanted to accumulate factual  and theoretical information. He very well understood that such an accumulation of unnecessary knowledge may reinforce the idea of a separate self. So, contrary to the ancient teachings which taught different theories of creation (Ajativada, drishti-shristi vada, shristi-drishti vada), Buddha asked people to ignore such questions and theories and told them that these questions do not lead people to true knowledge. These questions have been termed as ‘Avyakata’ (unfathomable)  by Buddha. Sometimes, he was silent when people asked such questions which is popularly known as ‘Noble silence’in Buddhism.

 

Wisdom by Shankara

Any form of teachings get clouded and polluted overtime by people when they add new interpretations, ideas and speculations. This is mainly done by curious scholars who were not enlightened and had no interest in liberation.

When it comes to Buddhism, it faced two major problems:

  • There was a strong political pressure in Indian kingdoms to eliminate Buddhism since Buddhists didn’t practice Vedic rituals. But people were clinging so much to Vedas that they were not able to accept or understand the revolutionary teachings of Buddha. Because of this pressure Buddhism was widely eliminated from India but became very popular in China, Japan and South Asian countries.
  • Due to lack of teachers and proper guidance, many Buddhists in India became deluded and began to misunderstand the core teachings of Buddha.

Adi Shankra was not against Buddha’s core teachings or Yoga. But he reestablished the core teachings of ancient India by writing commentaries and texts on both insight and concentration practices, debating with ritual oriented Mimamsa scholars and deluded Buddhist scholars.

Realizing that vedic rituals and worshipping personal deities could not be easily removed from Indian tradition, Shankara had no choice but to compromise on certain things. He accepted the worship of personal God but popularised the concept of Ishwara and taught people that they can revere their favourite personal deity as Ishwara. He divided the sects of such deity worships to six categories (shanmata), based on the six popular deities, but insisted that any personal God is the representation of Absolute reality.

But since he was pretty much aware of what was  happening to the core teachings of Buddha, he had to debate with the remaining deluded Buddhist scholars to make them accept his newly formulated teachings. But he never excluded Yogic practices that were meant to achieve one-pointed concentration and Samadhi. In fact, he praised Yoga Vashista, the text which contain both vedantic and yogic teachings and regarded Vashista, the author of Yoga Vashista as the first teacher of Vedanta. But apart from the terminology and certain culturally oriented concepts, his teachings were essentially the same as Buddha’s teachings.

Distortion of the Original teachings

Again, needless to say, Shankara’s orginal teachings were distorted. Scholars conveniently ignored the concentration oriented practices and maintained the school of Advaita based on the rest of Shankara’s teachings. Overtime, vedantins became mere intellectuals who kept repeating that all is maya. This led to 5 other subschools of vedanta which criticized vedantins as mayavadis.

At the same time, Yoga started evolving as a separate school which ignored a lot of insight present in  Vedanta. They became more focused on physical postures and chasing various experiences.

 

Apidhamma – An Overview of Buddhist Psychology

Buddha was one of the earliest psychologists of human history. Modern Psychologists are impressed by the vast psychological knowledge present in the Buddhist doctrine. When investigating the mind to find the cause and cessation of suffering, Buddha took an approach that is similar to the scientific method employed in modern scientific research.

The collection of canonical texts revered as exclusively authoritative in Theravada Buddhism is known as Tripitaka, which means ‘Three baskets’.

Here is a short description of those three baskets:

(1) The basket of expected discipline from monks (Vinaya Piṭaka)

It consists of rules and regulations of monastic life including dress code, dietary rules and prohibitions of certain personal conducts.

2) The basket of discourse (Sūtra Piṭaka, Nikayas)

This is the collection of discourses given by Buddha,

(3) The basket of special doctrine (Abhidharma Piṭaka)

This includes technical, analytical and systematic content with deep insights into the psychology human mind. It was taught by Buddha to his most eminent disciples.

buddhist psychology

Apidhamma talks about two truths: Ultimate truth (Sammuti Sacca)and Conventional truth (Paramattha Sacca):

Conventional truth: The world we perceive which appears to have individuals interacting with each other is the conventional truth. We use our conventional language to express different things in the conventional truth. The idea that there is an individual self which is the essence of a human being is an apparent reality but ultimately, there is no individual self or essence.

This concept of a relative truth also exists in Vedanta, which is called Vyāvahārika (vyavahara), or samvriti-saya.

Ultimate truth: When we look at the truth in ultimate level, there is no self or an entity in reality. All that exist are aggregates or skandhas. The five aggregates or heaps are: form (or matter or body) (rupa), sensations (or feelings, received from form) (vedana), perceptions (samjna), mental activity or formations (sankhara), and consciousness (vijnana). These five aggregates completely explain a sentient being’s physical and mental existence.

So, anything you think as individual is actually made up of these five aggregates each of which are “not I, and not myself”. According to Buddha, clinging to these aggregates as if they are real is what causes suffering.

When we negate all these aggregates as not self, that which remains is ‘sunyata’ translated as ‘emptiness’ in English. But Buddha chose to express everything in negative terminology and hence Sunyata just explains what it is not. According to that definition, the reality, the ultimate truth which exists is free of any essence, anything that can be conceived by mind or senses.

But this ‘Sunyata’ in Buddhism and the ‘Brahman’ described in Vedanta is actually the same. The problem with the word Brahman is that it lets one to imagine Brahman as something, an entity or an essence. But even the Vedantic texts say that Brahman cannot be described in words because it is not possible to objectify it in anyway. It is not possible to mentally conceive an image or description about Brahman but it can be realized and seen as the truth of everything we perceive, by direct experiential knowledge. There is a term called ‘Anubhava’ which has the aspects of both experience and knowledge of the absolute truth. In Vedanta, this absolute or ultimate reality is called as Vyāvahārika satya (vyavahara), or samvriti-saya.

Buddhism goes even deeper than Vedanta in explaining psychological aspects of human thought.

Dhammas

The reality can also be described in terms of Dhammas.Dhammas are the ultimate entities or momentary events which make up the fabric of our experience of reality. The conventional reality of substantial objects and persons is just a conceptual construct created by the mind on a constant flow of dhammas which appear and disappear.

There are four categories of dhammas:

Citta – It is one’s mindset, or state of mind but cannot be classified as an aggregate because it is neither an entity nor a process.

Cetasika (mental factors, mental events, associated mentality)- the mental factors are categorized as formations (samskaras) concurrent with Citta. There are 52 types of Cetasika.

Rūpa — (physical occurrences, material form), 28 types

Nibbāna — (Extinction, cessation). This dharma is unconditioned it neither arises nor ceases due to causal interaction.

Many other concepts such as svabhava and causality exist in Buddhist psychology. In Buddhism, a deep insight into a person’s mind stream to see the impermanence, suffering and anatta (non-self) in everything perceived in a person’s citta is stressed for the cessation of suffering.

The core practice of Buddhist path to liberation is mindfulness. Being mindful of one’s moment to moment experience including thoughts, sensations, volition, states of mind etc with non-judgemental attitude, openness and acceptance gives insights into workings of the mind and ultimately leads to cessation of suffering and Nirvana.

A simple outline of this spiritual path excluding all its complex theoretical structure is explained in my post ‘Awakening through Mindfulness’.

I have explained my own journey in the following articles:

1.The Journey of a Seeker

2.Spiritual enlightenment – Is it a Myth or Real