What Would the Buddha Say?
The Buddha taught that empirical observation of experience with the ultimate goal of seeing and realizing the truths of impermanence (anicca), no self (anatta), and suffering (dukkha) inherent in experience, leads logically to the relinquishment of clinging to experience. While Buddha’s rejection of a self seems counterintuitive, his rejection of any sense of an eternal self is perhaps less so: he did not experience an eternal atman; it was not empirically observable to him; he reasoned that hoping for such was rooted in suffering.
Vedanta, on the other hand, differs with the Buddha on one of these truths. Vedantists acknowledge that clinging to one’s restricted notion of self derived from sensual and mental impressions fosters suffering. Based on revelation they posit an atman, or spiritual self that is eternal and free from all suffering. Again, for Buddha this is wishful thinking leading to suffering.
Now, although the Buddha has no experience of an atman and thinks that this notion of an eternal self generates suffering, if he had compared notes with a good number of Vedantins, in terms of how much they suffered in their mortal frame, it would have been interesting to speak with him afterwards. Was Sankara, the great realizer, suffering by way of clinging to false hopes? Was his atman imaginary? It would be difficult to convince an objective observer that the extent of his freedom from suffering was any less than that of the Buddha’s.
It is perhaps along this line of reasoning that many in contemporary spirituality have unceremoniously merged nirvana and Brahman, Buddhists included. While this may blur important distinctions, the Padma Purana does point to just such a blurring when it describes the form of nondual Vedanta termed mayavada espoused by Sankara as “veiled Buddhism.” We need look no further than Zen’s Dogen for confirmation from the Buddha’s side; Zen with a “spirit” is not far from the finality of Sankara’s nonduality.
Yet both offer little more than ending suffering. The Buddha is clear on this being his end, while Advaitin mayavada speaks of ananda—bliss—as its end. But is there anything more to mayavada than ending suffering? Not much if you can quantify ananda. That ‘imaginary’ atma as it appears to the Buddha, is real to Sankara. It is sat. It is also cit, or cognizant. This is clear, but is it ananda? Well, yes and no according to Sri Caitanya. Sanatana Goswami has described the bliss of Brahman as little more than freedom from material suffering. Some bliss must be there, for Rupa Goswami has described the bliss of a particle of prema to be surpass that of Brahman’s bliss a trillionfold.
In prema we find longing, and thus in prema we find suffering as well. However, unlike the Buddha or Sankara, Sri Caitanya was not concerned with ending suffering, but rather with serving—a labor of love. And if we are to love, we have to exist and be aware of our existence with all the suffering that love includes. But what, the Buddha might ask, does any of this have to do with our experience? Well, does anyone have experience of not existing? Do we not exist for joy’s sake, for love?