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Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Advaita and Zen Buddhism (1)

                 One of our regular followers asked me about the similarities and differences between Advaita and Zen Buddhism. Here is a summary of my understanding. Please feel free to correct my errors or wrong understanding. Thank you.

From the beginning of my journey into spirituality, I thought that it is better to read the original sacred texts of various traditions, if you can, or an authentic translation, and try to understand them rather than depend on or get confused by the explanations and discussions by later scholars. With that in mind, I have read several originals or primary translations of sacred texts from the Vedic schools and Buddhist schools. I have also read scholarly articles and books on the similarities between Advaita philosophy of Adi Sankara and Zen Buddhism. Here is what I know at present.

Zen Buddhism is an offshoot of Mahayana branch of Buddhism which originated in Japan in the early part of the 11th century. The word Zen is a variation of the Sanskrit word dhyan which became Chan in China, Zen in Japan, Sŏn in Korean, and Thien in Vietnam. Also known as Zazen, in which Za means “sitting”, Zen is meditation or sitting meditation.

Bodhidharma (probably from the southern part of India), who took Mahayana Buddhism to China in the 5th century, emphasized the importance of seeing and experiencing the “true nature” of things through meditation, not relying on words and concepts. His teachings are in accordance with the Upanishadic teachings which emphasize gnana marga (intellectual approach) with emphasis on meditation.

Buddha’s teachings were focused on how to reduce human suffering and live a life of peace and harmony in this world. In the process, he looked both inwards looking at how human mind works and also outwards into the true nature of things. But it was not easily taken up by the masses. As Adi Sankara pointed out almost 1,000 years later, Buddhism was not appealing to the masses because of its perceived nihilism, and its emphasis on asceticism and intellectual approach. Most wanted to keep on to some of the symbols and rituals of the Hinduism prevalent in those days. This resulted in early divisions within Buddhism. For example, the Tibetan type of Buddhism is indeed full of images of Bodhisattvas and rituals. Mahayana Buddhism and Zen Buddhism went back to the meditative aspects of Buddhism.  Both were considered heterodox and atheistic since Buddhism rejected many of the basic teachings and rituals of the Vedas.

Venerable Thich Naht Hanh (popularly known as ““Thay””) was from the Zen school (Thien, Vietnamese school)  of Mahayana Buddhism. This school emphasizes the practice of meditation as the way to awaken our inner nature and grow towards compassion and wisdom. “Thay” popularized the idea of “mindfulness” as a path to meditative practice. He also practiced what he called “engaged Buddhism” to help people live in this complex world and to promote compassion and non-violence

Zen teaches that all of us are already enlightened beings, and we just have to realize it by meditative practice. Enlightenment is attained when one goes beyond all names, forms and dualities and experiences the “oneness” at the base. Enlightenment cannot be explained in words or reached through logic. “It can only be experienced” says Zen.

This is exactly what Adi Sankara also said in his Advaita teachings. In Vivekachudamani, he says that the Absoute Truth, (sat chit Ananda) cannot be reached through logic, discussion, and actions but only through experience.

Both Adi Sankara and Buddha were critical of excess emphasis on rituals and emphasized asceticism. Both leaned towards the Upanishadic intellectual approach to gnana marga. Both  wanted people to think on their own. Both said that it is possible to reach the blissful state in this life by touching the “suchness” of things through meditation. This blissful state of sat-chit-ananda (Absolute Truth, Absolute Knowledge, Absolute Bliss) is Brahman in Advaita and thathata and nirvana in Buddhism. (to be continued)

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