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Home » philosophy

What Would the Buddha Say?

Submitted by on August 19, 2009 – 12:19 am28 Comments

bodhitreeBy Swami Tripurari

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?

28 Comments »

  • Worminstool

    Buddhism is lame. It cannot stand the test of being interrogated by the Vaishnava. The Vaishnava asks Buddhism questions that Buddhism cannot supply any rational and logical answer to. As such, all of Buddhism pales in comparison to the lofty intellect of Vaishnavism which in fact is the ornament of the Vedas.
    Yes, Maharaja, the soul in fact lives for love, beauty and harmony, not for the aim of spiritual suicide and the destruction of individual existence as a living entity.

    When the Vaishnava reflects upon his good fortune, he in fact accepts all material suffering as a temporary inconvenience that will soon be eradicated. The Vaishnava knows that suffering for the right cause in fact is a great source of happiness. So, even though he does not pray for suffering, he humbly accepts it as an opportunity to go deeper into himself until that treasure of love is uncovered.

    Sacrifice in service to the will of the absolute is the only thing that will ultimately bring perfect happiness to the soul.

    The nature of the soul is to love beauty.
    We don’t love that what is ugly.
    We love beauty.
    So, the most beautiful person Sri Krishna is the highest object of love inasmuch as he is the most beautiful object of love.

    So, do we really live for love or for beauty?
    What do you say Maharaja?

    • Well when you put it that way I’d say we live for beauty and the price of such a life is love. Then again, prema is said to be the prayojana and that’s beautiful. Prema is more beautiful that Krishna.

      • Worminstool

        Swami says:
        Prema is more beautiful that Krishna.

        It appears that way from a certain subjective position, but since Krishna is the cause and the creator of Prema, can it really be said to be more beautiful than it’s cause and creator?
        Prema is contained within Krishna and yet sustained in Krishna.
        Is love more beautiful than the beloved?
        Well, certainly in the mind of the beloved it is.
        Without the beloved, there could be no love.
        So, since the beloved is the cause of Prema, nothing can be more beautiful.
        If we think that Radha is more beautiful than Krishna, we can’t forget that Radha exists within Krishna, so her beauty cannot be considered as separate from Krishna’s beauty.
        They are ONE soul – Sri Krishna Chaitanya.

        The supreme mystic Krishna expands his power of internal pleasure in the form of Radharani. Only Krishna can manifest his own perfect soul mate in the form of Srimati Radharani.

        So, Radha-Krishna is the Absolute’s ultimate expression of how love and beauty are the highest pleasure of the soul.

        We are ants in a great universal drama thinking that we have it all figured out when in FACT we are CLUELESS!

        • One thing that can be said in favor of sakti tattva as opposed to saktiman is that Sri Krishna relishes svarupananda, but manifesting as Radha he tastes svarupa-saktiananda, and the latter is said to be more relishable. It is true that Krishna’s svarupa sakti is within him, but when it manifests as if separate from him the ananda experienced by this manifestation of sakti tattva is greater.

          But what you say is true. If we look at it from abheda all emphasis goes to Krishna. But if we look at it from bheda it goes to Radha. Yet the Gaudiya emphasis is that without bheda what is the meaning of beauty unto itself? What is the meaning of sugar’s sweetness if there is no one to taste it? Of course Krishna can taste himself, but the idea is that he cannot do so alone as well as he can through the love of “Another.”

  • Kula-pavana

    You have to be very depressed to want to trade your existence for non-existence. Very few (if any) criminals in jail would trade life sentence without parole for a death penalty. Is non-existence really a buddhist goal, or is it just a straw-man argument invented by those who oppose buddhism to make that path look bad? Some preachers did a similar thing with the brahmavada philosophy, comparing it’s goal to ‘soul-killing’. Are such arguments or comparisons really justified?

    • I think the idea of Buddhism is to arrive at a zero that is full in comparison to negative numbers (karma/exploitation). But there are no positive numbers in nirvana, which means to extinguish. “Not being” and “being alone” characterize Buddhism and Advaita respectively. To be or not to be? Fortunately this is not the only question and more than one person is asking the questions. The real question is “How to serve?” and not for any reason other than serving better. As far as dissolving the ego, bhakti takes a proactive approach.

      • Kula-pavana

        I have never seen any Buddhist literature describe nirvana in that way. Buddha in the Dhammapada says that nirvana is “the highest happiness”. This happiness is supposed to be an enduring, transcendental happiness integral to the calmness attained through enlightenment or bodhi, rather than the happiness derived from impermanent things. “‘The liberated mind (citta) that no longer clings’ means Nibbāna” (Majjhima Nikaya 2-Att. 4.68). I do not see anything there that looks like a zero.

        I have very little interest in Buddhism but I often get the impression that devotees rarely present it with intellectual honesty.

        Even the idea of service to others as part of charity and proper behavior is very much a part of Buddhism. High lamas reincarnate to teach others even as they have already attained nirvana. How is that a zero? Besides, most buddhists have rather pragmatic goals in life, such as right behavior, charity to others, and attainment of knowledge – that is a noble life by their standard. It is hard to argue with that.

        I think that the way to compete with Buddhism in the modern context is to show the beauty and strength of the Vaishnava path.

        What would Buddha say if he was told that his goal is zero?

        • I think that it has become popular to attempt to put a positive spin on Buddhism and make it out to be more positive than it is. But that does not meant that it is negative without such a spin. Zero is full in comparison to negative numbers. To give up all exploitation is no small thing. But in Buddhism the highest happiness is freedom from suffering. What else is there for the Buddha? Even the concept of reincarnating to liberate others from suffering is in pursuit of noting more than ending suffering. And in Buddhism there is no eternal entity, soul or God.

  • Gaura-Vijaya

    Buddha was silent on the issue of soul. The term anatama is not attributed to the Buddha himself. He just speaks about the procedure to get rid of desire and says that the resulting experience cannot be described.

    According to my small “experience”, chasing for high spiritual experience itself makes you frustrated. Many spiritual teachers etc teach that chasing after the experience is also a problem in itself and I concur with them.
    More we strive to get that experience, more it eludes us. We just have to serve with a philosophical foundation selflessly and the experience comes as a byproduct. Being attached to the experience can be a source of frustration for many spiritual practitioners, and they disappear as soon as their experience disappears even for a month.
    In Vaisnavism, you are meant to be a cog in the wheel and facilitate the lila of Krsna. You just have to try to function like that without getting too attached to getting the experience. I know it is hard, but everyone has to do that at sometime.

    In the beginning it is good to talk about gradation of experiences in different spiritual paths, but the end is not the experience itself. It is identifying with your philosophical ideal and fixing your mind relentlessly on it, whether you have a bad day or a good day. Deep experience will keep on coming.
    Or else you can get experience through LSD as well.

  • Worminstool

    But, when it comes to the issue of love and beauty, nobody can say it quite as beautifully as Srila Sridhar Maharaja:

    What is Krishna consciousness? Krishna consciousness
    means real love and beauty. Real love and beauty must
    predominate; not selfishness, or exploitation. Generally,
    whenever we see beauty, we think that beauty is to be
    exploited, but actually, beauty is the exploiter, beauty is
    the master, and beauty is the controlling principle.
    And what is love? Love means sacrifice for others.
    We should not think that sacrifice is to be exploited by
    us. Who is to be the recipient of sacrifice? Is it our
    party? No. We are in the group of those who sacrifice
    themselves: the predominated negative party,
    Mahabhava’s party. The underlying principle of love is
    sacrifice, but sacrifice for whom? And who is the beneficiary? Love is the beneficiary. Everyone should con-
    tribute to the center, but no one should draw energy
    from there. “Die to live.” With this spirit we should
    combine and work for real love and beauty. And beauty will be victorious in the world.

    Quintessential Sridhar Maharaja.

    • No argument here :) “Buddhafull!”. What else could the Buddha say?

      “When Buddha Falls in Love?” (all levity aside)

      • Worminstool

        It’s all good Swami Maharaja. After all, Radha-Krishna is just the allegorical representation of how one should love one’s own self.
        Krishna is the self and Radha is the love of one’s own self as the perfect allegorical symbol of self love.
        You too can become like Krishna and love yourself like Radha loves Krishna.
        Nobody loves you like you love yourself.
        Nobody loves Krishna as much as Krishna loves himself in the form of Srimati Radharani.
        Buddha ki-jayo!!
        All levity aside!!

        • Gaura-Vijaya

          One person with Buddhist inclination. asked me the question. If Krsna himself expands into Radha to taste himself, why does he need to come as Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. He is already tasting himself as Radharani.

          • Krishna wants to taste her experience but remain himself. This is his dilemma. The closest he comes to resolving it is in the form of Sri Caitanya, wherein he ends up celebrating her position. In one sense this is the purpose of the advent of Sri Caitanya: to make clear the position of Radha. Jaya Radhe!

  • When Pope John Paul II addressed Buddhism once, he was using a term ‘negative religion’. Many started to squawk, complain about it, completely misunderstanding Pope’s words and intention.

    Philosophically, Pope was correct — Buddhism is a negative religion because it is not a religion — there’s no concept of God in any form there, or a mention of our re-connection with that higher principle. There’s nothing to “re-ligiere” in Buddhism.

    Buddhism puts so much focus of suffering in this world, as many other older belief systems born in times when average human life measured few decades at best, where elders were treated as treasure, where poverty, scarceness of food, zero human rights, constant warfare and different forms of despotism ruled the Earth. It’s not much different from early Abrahamic and Vedantic belief forms.

    The true tragedy is that it has never changed or challenged its own ancient premises, although time and circumstances change constantly. Today people can experience suffering, but also compassion and pleasures people of old would think are heavenly or beyond imagination. Buddhism has never changed its approach, although the Buddha’s own saying goes that only constant in this world is change.

    No wonder so many ideas are paradoxical there, but paradoxical philosophical oeuvre coupled with ‘this life is suffering, a burning forest, so let’s get out of here’ tenets are not limited to Buddhism, though. Paradoxically, such world views help create a hostile environment people still experience today, making the broader society a victim of its own ancient beliefs and this planet not worthy place to live.

    • Audarya-lila dasa

      Can you give an example of how believing that the world is a place of suffering due to attachment creates a hostile environment? My experience is quite the opposite. I have generally found that people who see life for what it is – a place where attachment leads to suffering and who practice a life of detachment and compassion create a friendly environment around them. On the other hand my general experience is that those who are unabashedly attached and trying to ‘squeeze the juice out of life’ create problems and conflict due to their self centeredness and the obvious conflict pleasure seeking creates due to competition.

      • Good point Audarya-lila.

        I think Zvonimir has mischaracterized Buddhism by saying that it is about change. The doctrine more accurately described as impermanence. There is a big difference. The core teaching of Buddhism has not changed for good reasons, and its appeal is the reasoning of impermanence that speaks of how attachment to that which does not endure leads inevitably to suffering. Indeed, it is suffering in progress.

        It’s not that the Buddha’s doctrine concerning suffering arising from attachment applies only or even more to times gone by when people suffered more. It is the enduring nature of this truth that accounts for its appeal. To say that in today’s world there is more pleasure to be had is to say that there is more suffering in the world in the eyes of the Buddha because such pleasure is derived from attachment to that which is impermanent.

        • I think Zvonimir has mischaracterized Buddhism by saying that it is about change. The doctrine more accurately described as impermanence.

          Actually, I was asking myself why Buddhism doesn’t observe its core teaching from new perspectives in an ever changing environment. To believe everything our ancestors said is ultimately true forever is absurd, considering that lots of conclusions are direct results of the urges caused by time-space-environment ancestors lived in. Same we can ask here: why we need Harmonist today when everything is already said in the Gaudiya Vaishnava opus? But you believe some fresh insights are needed, for modern times and circumstances. In other words, scripture is written even today.

          Many old beliefs we take as spiritual facts for the eternity, but they’re only results of the conditions of the environment and the collective psyche they sprang from. Harsh environment and despotism cause everyone to reflect on suffering and bad sides of impermanence, starting from Biblical prophets to Buddha and Vedanta’s commentators.

          A nice (in fact sad) examples of the almost opposite world views, where the impermanence was observed differently, we find in many local belief systems in the Pacific, where notions of sin, suffering, penance, etc. were unknown. The land was fertile, climate divine, lots of quality food in abundance, people walking freely around almost nude. Missionaries, who were part of exploration trips, tried to ‘convert’ the ‘God-less primitives’ but brought only misery, disease and death.

          • Of course revelation is ongoing but this largely in relation to the changing world. I think Buddhism does look at its core beliefs and think of them in relation to today’s world. That is exactly what the beat generation and and many thereafter have done, and that is why Buddhism is of interest today all over the world. But when you write that the doctrine of impermanence and attachment to that which is such is relative only to times of suffering in the ancient past when pleasures of today where not available, you throw the Buddha’s baby out with its bath water. Many old beliefs may indeed not be spiritual facts at all, but some of them are. As for impermanence, many affluent people today are seeing through the sham of material comfort you seem to hold up as reason for not looking at the world and attachment to it as something to let go of. Buddhism is popular among well off, educated Westerners because of its core beliefs, while much of its superstition and cultural baggage has been left aside.

      • madan gopal das

        I think another way to look at detachment is from the point of view of ego. If one practices only partial detachment and renounces the world from a selfish point of view, that creates a hostile environment. Me against the world of suffering/maya.

        On the other hand, if one incorporates and includes the false ego into detachment, the environment becomes friendly, as you have observed.

        In the context of this article, mayavada can be a harsh/selfish type of detachment. Personalist detachment results in selflessness and ultimately self-forgetfulness. I think the Buddhist type of detachment, because of the impossibilty of extinguishing the self, could go either way.

      • You cannot separate the world from its observer. The thing you’re expecting to see will likely to be there.

        The results in quantum physics prove this simple equation that escapes our everyday attention because we believe we’re separated from the world. We cannot separate the world from the consciousness, of those who are observing it. When we observe something as “a burning forest or a place not worth to live in”, generation after generation, we’re experiencing it “here” (inside our consciousness), but also “out there”, because we already expect it to see out there.

        However, we’re not “here” and world is not “out there”: that’s one and the same system.

        The possible positive thoughts and attitudes resulting from decades of individual spiritual practice may help heal the system, but at best they may produce neutral ground, because the very notion that “this place is bad” and “we need to get out of here” that caused the ‘spiritual’ process to ignite, keep this system in constant battle and ‘spiritual’ practitioners struggling in place, or swimming against the current.

        For example, that same Buddha who left “this world” for “enlightenment”, left his wife, child. What about their enlightenment? Multiply this by millions, and with constant notions that this place is bad and only bad things you’ll see.

        However, I’d like to see someone, someday, to reverse religion into a positive approach, of more life-affirming. This is a great place to live, and lets’ love and help others, and the environment, have pleasurable existence.

        • Yours is a very wishful thinking interpretation of quantum theory. As for religion being life affirming, much of it is and so too with renunciation. Detachment is about getting closer to people, not getting away from them. But to get close to them one has to se them for what they are, and this is what detachment is about.

          • As for religion being life affirming, much of it is and so too with renunciation.

            This is very interesting subject to talk about. Quantum theory is breaking the barriers of traditional science and let us reconsider what we actually observe. Duality between the observer and the effect transforms into something else.

            Similarly, detachment and renunciation we can consider as the old school approach, which needs dualism as the reason for its existence, and in turn it creates a quantum havoc, as I’ve tried to explain above. We can compare it to the deterministic, traditional scientific look that has separated world from the observer. Almost all world religions work the same way and that’s why they’re so unsuccessful (including our own).

            Siddharta could have reached his enlightenment together with his wife Yashodari, never leaving her, and taking much better care of his people. Perhaps his enlightenment could’ve been one of a different kind following such a path, and he could become a different kind of intelligent (buddha) one.

  • Audarya-lila dasa

    Zvonimir,

    You comments are missing the mark because your categorization of spiritual traditions misses the mark. Quantam theory has not changed the fact that people have false egos which cause them to misidentify themselves with that which is temoporary, while they are in fact permanent. It also doesn’t do away with the results of that mis-identification.

    Both Budhhism and Gaudiya Vaishnavism support and encourage monastics and lay practiciioners and certainly acknowledge that either case can lead to perfection. Enlightenment in both traditions involves dismantling the fasle ego. Bhaktivinoda Thakur sang about this with the famous lines – live at home or in the forest but always chant the names of Hari. This is the positive spirituality that exists within the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition – it doesn’t need to be invented – focus your attention (consciousness) on Hari and the world of duality dissolves.

  • armjoint1

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  • Mystic

    There is no concept of rigorous human potential development in Gaudiya Vaishnavism-Without True Brahman Gynan you will not be serving effectively.All the talk of serving when you are weak jiva will make you an emotional ball of cotton.

    So,there has to place for individual sadhana as per Mayavada then only any kind of selfless serving will be effective.A beggar cannot lead a beggar only a king can lead a beggar.

    • 1.Human potential and Brahma jnana are not necessarily the same thing and they may even be opposed one another. It depends how you define the terms.

      2.Gaudiya Vaisnavism has produced many well-developed human beings with direct experience of Brahman. Your own statements are emotionally charged and not well reasoned.

      3.Divine service is the antithesis of the amahkara, which is an exploiter. The best defense is a good offence. Crushing the material ego has nothing to do with mental emotional life. Bhava is a spiritual emotion that forms the basis of wise love.

      4.Gaudiya Vaisnavas have a rigorous program of sadhana, but their approach to that is different from the sadhana of Advaitins. And that is because their understanding of Brahman is different.

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