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Advaita vedAnta and Buddhism by Dhanya
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Q. My fear is twofold:
- I will be 'brainwashed' into accepting a belief system like advaita. This is not a criticism of advaita, rather my brain, which is capable of buying into things that impress/attract it and, in so doing, losing its critical faculty; the fact that advaita study calls for the eventual lack of any doubt about the veracity of the vedAnta adds to my fear, because the notion of abandoning all doubt about ANY belief system is alien and frightening to me. Doubt is how I learn.
- advaita vedAnta is not the 'best' path to realization. If one reads Buddhist (the other Eastern tradition Im very drawn to) critiques of advaita, it's easy to feel discouraged about devoting oneself to advaita. From the articles Ive read, Buddhists tend to think of advaita as a system that relies on the belief of the existence of SOMETHING (brahman) rather than NOTHING, and that this belief causes advaita not to go 'deep enough' into the nature of reality. (Note that I am just reporting what I have read; I am not agreeing or disagreeing with it.) These are my current stumbling blocks. Any suggestions?
Dhanya: A couple of things. First of all, although I love the teachings of vedAnta, and my teacher, and my teacher's teacher, svAmi Dayananda Saraswati, and feel that encountering them was the culmination of my life's search, I cannot expect that everyone else would feel the same the way. Something else to consider is that one isn't encouraged to 'proselytize' the teachings of vedAnta. Although when I first encountered them, I felt the impulse to go out and tell all my friends and encourage them to join me in my studies, I realized over time that vedAnta wasn't for everyone.
And I also learned to relax in the understanding that there is a very big picture going on here. I'm not in charge of it, and things are unfolding in certain ways as they should. So although I would encourage you to study vedAnta if you are inclined to do so, I don't think it is a good idea to try and 'push' anyone into undertaking its study.
That being said, you could look at Arshavidya's teachers section and see if there are any teachers in your area, if you felt you wanted to go to a class and see how you liked it. I feel that the teachers in this lineage are impeccable and totally trustworthy, and none of them would try and 'brainwash' you.
To address your concern about 'doubt,' you say that 'doubt' is how you learn. Well, we say that in vedAnta too. The study of vedAnta is often broken into three parts which are: (1) listening to the teachings; (2) asking questions in order to clear doubts; and (3) directly reflecting upon what has been recognized as a result of the teaching.
You say above, advaita study calls for the eventual lack of doubt about [its] veracity. Well, let's look at that statement and see if it is true. In Western religions (particularly Christianity with which I am the most familiar), faith, as in blind belief, or complete acceptance of the teachings, is the hallmark or cornerstone of that religion. One is encouraged not to question things, but rather to blindly accept the doctrine, even if such doctrine is completely illogical. I am a Westerner by birth, and I was raised within a Christian faith, but I have to say that even as a child, what I was being told never added up. I generally just kept quiet when my questions were not answered to my satisfaction. But very little of what I was told ever made any sense to me, and when I asked questions, I found I could not just blindly accept or have faith in replies that made no sense at all.
Now in the teachings of vedAnta, we have the word 'shraddhA', which can be loosely translated as 'faith, or belief in the teacher and the teaching', but that translation really is neither accurate, nor adequate. A better and more thorough translation of the word shraddhA is 'faith pending understanding'. If you think about it, most activities of your life are based upon shraddhA. You get in your car with the faith that it is going to get you from one place to another. If you cross the road, you have shraddhA that you will get to the other side. If you pour hot water over a tea bag in a cup, you have faith that the result will be a cup of tea. If you study science or math, you have shraddhA or faith that the teacher knows the subject and can teach, and you might also have faith in your ability to learn.
All of these could be called 'faith, or acceptance, pending results'. Of course, you check up along the way, to see if the shraddhA you have is appropriate to the situation. So, too in vedAnta we have shraddhA, or faith that the teacher and teaching are true, but we also check up, and if they don't seem true, we leave. There is no coercion going on. If one feels coerced in any situation, my advice would be to leave. Having the shraddhA, the acceptance pending understanding, that the teacher and teaching are true, enables one to trust them enough to learn from them. Whatever 'doubts' the student may have need to eventually be cleared up to the point of complete satisfaction. So questioning by the student to the point of satisfaction, or resolution of the doubts, is encouraged in the teaching tradition of advaita/vedAnta because it is one important way we learn.
To address your statement again that, advaita study calls for the eventual lack of doubt about [its] veracity, I would not say that is true. What one eventually 'sees' or recognizes, without a shadow of a doubt, is that what the teachings are saying is true. An analogy to this which is often used is if someone holds up a flower in front of your face, and your eyes are open, and your mind is backing them, do you see the flower or not? You do. The truth of the teaching, the veracity, is as obvious as the above example when one recognizes it.
Thus vedAnta is not encouraging one to 'believe' in something which is not directly verifiable by one's own experience. In fact, it is quite opposite to that. However, since one does not at first recognize what the teacher is pointing out, then provisionally accepting that the teacher knows what he or she is talking about is important, because otherwise one will not be clearing doubts by asking questions, but rather arguing with the teacher, which is different, and which isn't helpful. So if, as you say, doubt is how you learn, that's good, because it is through the clearing of doubts that the teachings of vedAnta are assimilated.
To address your point (2) above, I don't know what you've read that supports your statements, so I'm not sure if I can address them. I don't know which Buddhists you are referring to, or to which understanding of 'advaita' they are referring. If you like the idea of 'nothing' being true, and if you think that is what Buddhist teachings are pointing out is true, then my advice would be to follow those teachings. brahman isn't some 'thing,' as in some unverifiable truth, nor is brahman some object in whose existence you are encouraged to blindly believe. If you want to say that brahman is no thing, or not a thing, you could very easily and correctly say that. But then, you have to understand what that means. brahman is no thing, not a thing, which can be objectified, and yet the truth of your existence is brahman. So how can that be?
It is true because you yourself are not a 'thing' which can be objectified, and yet you exist to be known, but not as an object. Strange words, no? And seemingly entirely contradictory. But it is the truth of this seeming contradiction which the teaching of vedAnta seeks to unravel. The goal is to directly apprehend without a shadow of a doubt what those words mean, and for that a teacher is necessary, because we cannot understand such words on our own, since all of our apparently available means of recognition have to do with the recognition of objects. If you want to say that Buddhists are pointing to non-existence, to total non-existence, like the horn of a rabbit, or the son of a barren women, then I think you would need to find a good Buddhist teacher, and ask that person if that is what is meant by the word 'nothing'.
I have sometimes heard Buddhists use the phrase 'ground of being'. One could use the phrase 'ground of being', as a synonym for the word 'brahman', in my opinion. I think the reason why I personally do not try and resolve Buddhist teachings with vedAnta probably has to do with my own personal experience. And I now see in light of that, I may not have been the best person to answer your original question. Because I myself, in my long search, was exposed to so many different teachings none of which bore fruit, and then finally having found vedAnta, which for me does bear fruit, then I suppose I find it practical, easier and more correct for me to stick with 'one'. Or perhaps more aptly I could say that like a drowning person who clutched at straws and finally found a secure rope, I'm not letting go.
This one teaching is more than enough for me. However, for other people, perhaps trying at some point to synthesize various teachings might be more appropriate. But my hesitation in recommending that for others would be something a wise person once told me: If you dig a well, here a few feet and there a few feet, and over there a few feet, you will never find water. That wise person was S.N.Goenkaji, a very good Buddhist Vipassana meditation instructor. So for me having found the one teaching that seems to work, I've kept at it, and am profoundly grateful that I was able to do that. I don't know if any of the above has addressed your concerns, but I hope that it was helpful.