One source, two streams: the point where Buddhist and Hindu philosophies meet and differ

Belief and Beyond
Adventures in Consciousness from the Upanishads to Modern Times
Book Excerpt 

With the exception of Tantra Yoga which remains rather esoteric and sequestered to this day, we could, broadly speaking, say that there are principally two streams of spiritualities, namely, Buddhist and Hindu. All other Indian spiritualities (we are not considering here spiritualities inspired by Judaism, Christianity and Islam, since they don’t come under the scope of this narrative), which are many and varied, speak in the idiom of one of the two, but some may use both in varied and complex ways. For instance, the Shiva saranas (devotees) of the twelfth-century Karnataka spoke of bayalu (‘empty space’ or ‘field’ in Kannada) or sunya, a Buddhist concept for emptiness, and Shiva (which may not necessarily refer to the Puranic Shiva or Shankara, but to the notion of the Absolute Infinite Principle or Transcendent Creative Force) in their vachanas, prose poems, and the term nirvana too was used interchangeably as a term for liberation.

The fact that Hinduism and Buddhism have shared the same culture and a common language (Sanskrit) for the last 2,600 years, has led many to think that Buddhist and Hindu doctrines are essentially the same. This is not entirely true, although there may be an appreciable overlap of theories and practices. Sometimes both traditions may even speak the same language or use the same concepts but with different meanings and consequences.

For instance, both Advaita Vedanta and Buddhism see ignorance or avidya as the root cause of sorrow. However, Advaita Vedanta defines avidya as the ignorance of the knowledge of the unity of Atman and Brahman, and identifies that as the cause of duality and suffering; while Buddhism defines avidya as conditioned knowledge (conceptual construction) itself and states the search for permanence is the cause of attachment and suffering.

Both Advaita Vedanta and Buddhism may assert that the Truth, the Real or the Absolute is indescribable, inexpressible, and no category of thought applies to it. And they both may concur that it is avidya that invests the Absolute with nama roopa, name and form, conceptualizes what cannot be expressed, what is paramartha satya or beyond phenomena. However, although Brahman is not considered as an object of knowledge in Advaita Vedanta, there is this stubborn insistence that it is knowable, realizable, for It or the Real is svamprakasha, and self-evident, svasamvedya, self-revealed.

The Madhyamikas maintain that there simply is no two or advaya. There is nothing outside of the conditioned physical and mental elements that constitute our being. There is no Higher or Ultimate Reality, it is only a view which can neither be affirmed nor denied, neither true nor false, it is just that these concepts are not to be found. There is no two or advaya, but to say there is one would imply there is two or more. Therefore, to avoid such an ambiguity or epistemological traps, the Madhyamikas declare that Reality, like nirvana, is empty, sunya, void, which is not the opposite of something else. That is to say, the Real or tatva is neither one nor many, neither permanent nor momentary, neither subject nor object; rather, It (tatva) is the indeterminate, the mystery, the unknown and the unknowable. Any attempt to conceptualize It as ‘this’ or ‘not this’ is a case of vikalpa, imagination, it is unproductive, a futile exercise, a viparyasa, a cognitive distortion or futility.

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Asanga, Vasubandhu, Nagarjuna, Chandrakirti, Shantideva and Atisha are some of the most distinguished and widely read Buddhist masters in history. Among them, Nagarjuna stands out as a great mystic philosopher, who has had a tremendous impact on not only Buddhist philosophy but also on Hindu thought over centuries, and now, on modern Western thinkers. During his time and even later, however, many devout Buddhists considered him to be the second Buddha who, in the words of K. Satchidananda Murty:

once again set in motion the wheel of Dhamma. There was a fresh flowering of Buddhism: certain old and basic ideas were reaffirmed, others reinterpreted, clarified and amplified, and some new concepts evolved ... and in course of time disseminated all over India and deep into Central Asia, China, Korea, Japan and Tibet. (Satchidananda Murty 1971)

We know very little of Nagarjuna’s actual life. The Chinese and Tibetan biographies, composed many centuries after his death, are the only records but they tend to be hagiographical, suffused with myth and metaphor. According to some Tibetan accounts, Nagarjuna was born in 482 CE, Chinese tradition believed it was in 212 CE, and Mahayana texts simply state that he was born 1,200 years after the Buddha’s death. These sources are not unanimous as to where Nagarjuna was born, either. The ancient kingdoms of Vidarbha and Videha, and areas in the modern Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and even Karnataka have been identified as where his birthplace might have possibly been. However, from legends, combined with the texts reasonably attributed to him, we may yet gain a fairly balanced portrait of Nagarjuna’s incredible life and his remarkable contribution to the philosophical traditions.

Nagarjuna was born a ‘Hindu’, probably into a Brahmin family in an area that is now part of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. At birth it was predicted that he would die an early death, so his parents are said to have admitted the sickly boy to a Buddhist order. As fate would have it, his health improved and he went on to live a long and great life.

By the time Nagarjuna grew to be a sharp, intelligent young man, many competing schools of thought and exciting philosophical debates had spread throughout north India, especially between Hindu and Buddhist thinkers. Buddhism was probably a dominant and influential philosophy by then, alongside competing schools of thought such as Sankhya, Yoga, Vaisesika and Nyaya. Nagarjuna deeply engaged with not only these different schools of thought, but also with sects within the Buddhist stream.

Going by the available records we could safely state that he was the author of many philosophical works. His seminal work Mulamadhyamakakarika (Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way) was followed by Sunyatasaptati (Seventy Verses on Emptiness), Yuktisastika (Sixty Verses on Reasoning), Vyavaharasiddhi (Proof of Convention) and a few more works addressing and challenging many a philosophical issue of his time. More importantly, his work carried forward the Buddha’s revolutionary insights into the human condition.

We cannot, however, say with any certainty from which aspect of the Buddha’s teaching Nagarjuna would have drawn inspiration for his sunyavada. Could it be from the Buddha’s dialogue with Ananda about ‘emptiness’? To the question, ‘It is said that the world is empty, the world is empty, lord. In what respect is it said that the world is empty?’ the Buddha responds thus: ‘The eye, ear, nose, tongue, the body (all sense experiences) and ideas, or intellect consciousness are empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self. Thus it is said that the world is empty.’ (Samyutta Nikaya 35–85; Sunna Satta, Bhikku, Olendzki and Buddharakkhita [Trans.])

In effect, the Buddha was trying to underline the fact that all experiences are sense experiences, an interpretation of the world. Formations. With no formations taking place the ‘mind’ is empty, not in the sense that there is no world, but in the sense there is no thinker, no interpreter, therefore no formations, no experience at all.

But then, it is quite likely that Nagarjuna’s notion of ‘emptiness’ and his contestation of all theories Brahminical and contemporary Buddhist thought was inspired and informed by his own inward understanding—that is, the understanding of the binary nature of the mind and the fragmentary nature of all experiences, which enabled him to have the perception of ‘emptiness’ and thereby develop his ‘four-corner’ negation of all the metaphysical schools of philosophy that were at the time flourishing around him.

It’s important to note here that Nagarjuna’s philosophy—rather, his anti-philosophy, armed with notions of sunyata or emptiness—worked like a double-edged sword to deconstruct all systems of thought and helped construct the vocabulary and character of many philosophies and spiritualities that came after him in India.

Nagarjuna also offered two views of reality as a sort of corollary to his sunyavada. He distinguished between propositions that have the truth of ultimate meaning (paramarthasatta), and those that are employed for a practical purpose, namely, conventional truth (samvritisatta).

Paramarthasatta, or supreme truth, is the truth of the void or emptiness, the truth that all our views, our very perception or experience of reality, are shaped by the knowledge we have acquired, that they are mere constructs without any basis. Understanding this truth would enable us to free ourselves from attachments and let go all views. Samvritisatta, conventional truth, is the truth we use to transact in our social interactions. We need to accept the conventions of the logocentric world view to live in the world but with the awareness that they don’t have a permanent basis.

[Excerpted from the chapter 'One Source, Two Streams']

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