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Friday, May 27, 2022

Advaita and Zen Buddhism (3)

 Adi Sankara invoked the concept of maya to explain that unity in diversity, Brahman in Atman. But maya is not illusion, real or unreal. It is relative truth, ignorance – also called avidya. It is relative unreal – unreal in relation to absolute reality. But Buddhist texts deny the concept of atman.

Both the Buddhist word sunyata and Advaitic word maya (which also means ignorance) are, to my simple non-philosophical mind, used to indicate something beyond the phenomenal world, an undefinable, root cause of everything, something from which everything manifest.

To my mind, Buddha and Adi Sankara started with the Vedic teachings and the religious practices current in their time and reached similar conclusions. But they gave different explanations and took different paths.

 Buddha rejected the old methods and rituals and hierarchy, although he was driven by basic texts of the Vedas, particularly the Upanishads. He went on his own way, became a heterodox and established the “middle way” – not too ascetic, not too ensnared in samsara. A whole new religion started.

Adi Sankara also criticized the methods then existent in his time, particularly the Meemsa tradition with emphasis on Vedic Karma. But, instead of rejecting them, he interpreted them differently and incorporated them into the mainstream. He was a synthesizer and harmonizer. He started a new point of view (darshana, a philosophical school) and not a new religion. He re-established Hinduism as it is practiced today.

It is also important to note that they lived at different historic times. Buddha started with asceticism and difficult practices of Vedic times and left them.  Adi Sankara came almost 1,000 years late. The caste system was well-established, temple worship had started, Buddhism and Jainism were ascendent and even within the Vedic tradition there were many sects worshipping in many ways. In addition, the Tantric system had taken firm holding on the practices of both Hinduism and Buddhism.  Adi Sankara was a synthesizer. He accepted several other methods such as karma marga and bhakti marga, but only as steppingstones to gnana marga. However, he left no doubt in his writings about the superiority of  gnana marga to reach a state of bliss during this life.

It is also interesting to note that Buddha was included as one of the Avatars in Agni Purana, Bhagavata Purana, and Matsya Purana. Since they mention Buddha, they must have been written after Buddha’s time. But the authors write as if Buddha’s birth was predicted by the gods.

Even more interesting is that in Padma Purana (said to have been written only in the 1200’s), which has been quoted and discussed in many essays and books, Adi Sankara is referred to as “crypto-Buddhist”. In this Purana, there is an episode where Lord Shiva is talking to Parvati and says that he has decided to send a Brahmin boy to dispute “mayavada”. According to some scholars, “mayavada” is Buddha’s atheistic teachings. Some scholars assert that Lord Shiva was referring to Adi Sankara as the Brahmin who was come to “conquer” these Buddhist teachings.

Unfortunately, this is how mythology gets converted into history.   (Concluded)

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