Shankara and Buddhism
Govinda Chandra Pandey
The relationship of Shankara to Buddhism has been the subject of considerable debate since ancient times. He has been hailed as the arch critic of Buddhism and the principal architect of its downfall in India. At the same time, he has been described as a Buddhist in disguise. Both these opinions have been expressed by ancient as well as modern authors – scholars, philosophers, historians and sectaries. Shankara’s writings clearly show his acquaintance with at least three schools of Buddhist philosophy, the sarvAstivAdins, the vijnAnavAdins and the mAdhyamikas. Of individual Buddhist authors, he clearly shows acquaintance with dharmakIrti. He criticizes Buddhist doctrines and speaks disparagingly of the Buddha himself. These facts tend to lend evidence to the legendary accounts in his biographies which show him disputing with Buddhists.
Although shankara’s criticism of Buddhist philosophy occurs in several of his works, it is taken up most systematically in sUtra bhAShya. Following the sUtras he takes up for criticism the common Buddhist ideas of momentariness, non-selfhood and causality as dependent origination, as also some specific doctrines of the three Buddhist schools mentioned before. Now the Buddhist principle of momentariness implies that all things are subject to change, that change takes place every moment, and that all change implies total destruction without any room for survival or persistence (niranvayavinAsha). In its fully developed form at the hands of Buddhist logicians this principle was grounded on the analysis of the concept of existence itself and formulated as a svabhAvAnumAna. Existence was conceived as instantaneous causal function (artha-kriyAkAritva), causation as ordered succession of movements (nityaprAgbhAvitva), things as process or flow (santAna, pravAha). The principle had, however, originated in existential concern and passed through several phases. It was the perception of human mortality and the evanescence of experience which led to the disparagement of the attachment to personal existence. The denial of the individual soul as a permanent spiritual substance was developed as its metaphysical support and corollary. Individual existence, thus, came to be conceived as an aggregate, a stream of transient factors. In this earlier phase, the doctrine of momentariness was essentially a doctrine of the transience of psychic states without any permanent substratum. It did not mean in this early phase the unqualified denial of all substantive entities. Later when the Buddhist schools ramified, the concept of momentariness was formulated at least as early as the age of ashoka. It was elaborated in abhidharma and mahAvibhAsa and the abhidharmakosha record detailed debates on the nature of Time. In mahAyAnic texts the momentariness of things became the momentariness of the states of mind or experience. Logicians like ratnakIrti gave the doctrine its finished logical form.
The sarvAstivAdins to whom shankara alludes do admit a large number of dharms which function momentarily but subsist through time. This is what give them their very name. it is true that substance, quality and mode are rolled into one in the dharmas but they do have persistent natures or characters i.e. svabhAva or lakShaNa.
Now shankara’s major critique of momentariness occurs in the context of sarvAstivAda, apparently in its sautrAntic version. Shankara thus questions the doctrine of momentariness as inadequate to explain the facts of identity, especially personal identity, and the fact of causation itself. ‘Those who maintain that everything has a momentary existence only admit that when the thing existing in the second moment enters into being the thing existing in the first moment ceases to be. On this admission it is impossible to establish between the two things the relation of cause and effect, since the former momentary existence which ceases or has ceased to be, and so has entered into the state of non-existence, cannot be the cause of the later momentary existence’. Nor could it be assumed that the former momentary existence when its process has reached a mature conclusion and it is still in a positive state, is the cause of the later moment. This would imply that the finished positive product becomes active once again and gets connected with the next moment. Nor would it help to assume that the mere existence of the antecedent moment constitutes its causal efficiency because it still remains unconnected with the succeeding moment. If the nature of the cause does not influence the nature of the effect, the two cannot be called cause and effect. If the nature of the cause persists in the effect, as that of clay in the pot, the principle of momentariness would be given up. If, on the other hand, the nature of the cause were to be assumed not to color the nature of the effect at all, one would be able to affirm the causal relation arbitrarily. Again, the production, and destruction of a thing being held to be simultaneous, how are they to be connected with its own nature or being? The three could not be identical, else the three terms would become synonymous. Nor could the three be distinguished as different states of the same thing because then one moment will in effect be trifurcated. Nor could the production and destruction of a thing be different from its being because in that case its being would be untouched by them and become perpetual. Nor finally could the production or destruction of a thing be merely their perception or non-perception which being subjective will leave the object untouched and make it eternal once again. Indeed, since the antecedent moment ceases before the rise of the subsequent one, the effect would appear to arise without a cause which would contradict the Buddhist belief in causality. If the antecedent moment is held to last till the subsequent moment arises, cause and effect would become simultaneous, and the principle of momentariness too would be falsified. In the brhadAraNyaka bhAShya too shankara attacks the concepts of production out of nothing and momentariness on several grounds. Recognition or the perception of similarity would both be impossible if everything is momentary.
Shankara’s critique of the Buddhist principle of momentariness here appears to be based on a dynamic conception of causality of which the paradigm may be said to be the case of intelligent will transforming some material according to a design. Such is God’s creation of the world (IkShApUrvaka srShTi) as also of the potter’s making of pots. Shankara essentially identifies cause and effect, regarding causation as nothing but transformation. The Buddhist view in contrast resolves causality into the invariance of succession where the cause is devoid of any motion or influence. The Buddhist model of causation is not the production of commonsense objects like pots, but the infinitesimal process of becoming, as illustrated in the stream of consciousness.
As for shankara’s difficulties about the reconciliation of the three aspects of becoming in a single moment, this difficulty was raised and considered at length in the abhidharma. The sautrAntika answer was that the samskrta lakShaNas belong to the sequence or pravAha. Static commonsense objects need to be replaced by continuous processes or flux. The identity of an object is defined by its characteristic function which must express itself instantaneously and cease. As a new function emerges a new object must be held to have been produced. However, the indiscernibility of similar successive moments and functions leads to a sense of persistent identity in sequence. While Buddhist momentariness reduces identity into an illusory construct, shankara views change as illusory modes or appearances of the changeless ground. For the Buddhist, ‘to be’ is ‘to change’; for shankara, ‘to change’ is the sign of being unreal. Shankara ridicules the Buddhists as vainAshikas or Nihilists, the Buddhists disparage vedAnta as shAsvatavAda or Eternalism. Thus Buddhism and Shankara appear to be mutually opposed as asadvAda and sadvAda.
This, however, does not represent the true position. The Buddha had expressly ruled out both Eternalism (shAshvatavAda) and Nihilism (ucChedavAda). Hence to accuse his doctrine of Nihilism could only be based on misunderstanding. The sarvAstivAdins accept the enduring reality of the dharma-svabhAvas, the vijnAnavAdins regard vijnaptimAtratA as the foundational or noumenal reality underlying the phenomena, the mAdhyamikas clearly distinguish shUnyatA from non-existence or unreality. No Buddhist school except the sautrAntikas considers nirvana negative. The fact is that the Buddhist doctrine of momentariness is intended to attack the commonsense belief in the stability or reality of the empirical world including the empirical self. It considers the true nature of things (dharmatA, dharmadhAtu, dharmasvabhAva), or nirvana as timelessly real and quiescent. Buddhist philosophy, thus, formulates a dual criterion of reality. It finds empirical reality of characterized by instantaneous action but posits a timeless and infinite reality as the ultimate object of human endeavor. This duality of conception goes back to Buddha himself. What shankara attacks is the Buddhist analysis of empirical reality by pointing out that change in the empirical world is unintelligible without endurance. When he attacks nirvana, it is only in its sautrAntika version.
On the other hand, in characterizing the real as Eternal, shankara condemns the empirical world of time and change as unreal. For him, cause and effect, substance and mode are real only within the bonds of empirical reality, that is to say, they are unreal transcendentally. He defends satkAryavAda against asatkAryavAda of different kinds but the real import of his satkAryavAda can only be understood in terms of what later on came to be called vivartavAda as distinguished from pariNAmavAda. Shankara, like the Buddhists, disparages the empirical world as transient and evil and like them, posits the infinite and eternal as the goal of human aspiration. Both distinguish paramArtha and vyavahAra and agree that the former is timeless, the latter fundamentally impermanent and insubstantial. They differ in their analysis of empirical things and causality.
The fact is that in the Buddhist proposition ‘All things are momentary’, the term ‘all things’ (sarvam, sarve dharmAH) needs clarification. It has been explained as meaning ‘all composite things or synergies’ (samskrta dharmas, samskAras) or as ‘the twelve spheres or Ayatanas. Clearly, the asamskrta dharmas are excluded. Again, the separate dharmas imbued with distinctive essences are clearly not exhausted as subsistent potencies and so a reasonable distinction was made between dharma-svabhAva and dharma-lakShaNa. In other words, although the composite objects of common sense are momentary in the sense that they become different every moment, and although their ultimate constituents or dharmas appear and disappear every moment, it has still to be admitted that these dharmas have or rather are distinct timeless characters which are exhibited by entitatively different phenomena. sarvAstivAda, thus clearly posits a system of timeless, intelligible essences underlying the momentary phenomena of the empirical realm. Nor is substance itself denied by sarvAstivAda in every sense since the dharmas themselves are called dravyasat. To be substantively, is to have an essence, which may be contrasted with momentary phenomenal appearance in which case being is doing and dying. Thus, Buddhist ontology as reflected in sarvAstivAda does imply a distinction between timeless and momentary being. Shankara’s criticism does not take note of this distinction. Indeed there is a striking similarity between sarvAstivAda and sAmkhya especially as expounded by vyAsa in his commentary on the yoga-sUtras
So far, we have seen that shankara’s critique of the Buddhist principle of momentariness relates to the Buddhist analysis of empirical reality, not to its formulation of transcendental reality. His critique of Buddhist nairAtmyavAda, however, has been represented as a counterblast to the Buddhist critique of AtmavAda, and the two, AtmavAda and nairAtmyavAda, have been represented as forming two fundamentally different streams of though within the Indian tradition. For shankara, the Buddhist denial of the Atman means that the person is to be understood as merely an aggregate (samudAya, samghAta) of psycho-physical elements and the individuality of the person as no more than the distinctiveness of a stream of consciousness. The self is not to be constructed as a permanent or simple spiritual substance which is the subject of knowledge and action. For the Buddhists, material atoms are aggregated into the physical body and that along with the other four skandhas into one person. Shankara argues that the Buddhists are unable to explain how the aggregates are brought about. Material aggregates are said to be formed from constituents which lack intelligence (achetana) and the kindling of intelligence (chittAbhijvalana) presupposes an aggregate such as the body. The Buddhists do not admit any other permanent intelligent being, such as either the experiencing individual soul or the ruling Lord who could bring about the aggregation of atoms. Nor can the atoms and skandha be assumed to enter on activity on their own account, for that would imply their never ceasing to be active. In short, the self-conscious unity of personality cannot be understood as the result of a fortuitous concourse of atoms and elements. It is the unity of self-consciousness which holds together the elements of a personality. Some Buddhists had perceived this and formulated the concept of Alaya vijnAna to explain the unity and continuity of the stream of consciousness. Shankara argues that the Alaya can neither be identified with nor distinguished from the particular cognition. Besides, if it is also momentary it will fail to serve as a unifying centre. If not, it would be the self under another name. It is interesting to note that shankara here uses the same kind of arguments as were used by most of the Buddhists against the concept of pudgala held by the vAtsIputrIyas and sAmmitIyas.
Shankara then attacks the notion of pratItya-samutpAda as explaining the origin and regulation of the santAna without the intervention of any conscious agent. The Buddhist formula ‘does not intimate an efficient cause for the formation of the aggregates’. The various causal factors beginning with avidyA presuppose the stream of consciousness for their operation. In its absence, they cannot operate to create it since that requires an intelligent being who can perceive and coordinate ends and means. The various elements of the causal series have only a limited causal force with respect to their immediate effects. They need the appropriate collocation of circumstances (hetupratyaya-sAmagrI) before they could effect the meaningful aggregation of factors on which the stream of consciousness depends. Momentary atoms cannot, by their separate movements, produce the purposeful self-conscious unity of the psycho-physical aggregate. If the stream of aggregates s held to be beginningless, it would either mean the regular continuity of similar aggregates or else an erratic and chaotic change from one kind of aggregate to another without any determinate law. Neither possibility accords with the regular change of the aggregates in accordance with moral law in the course of samsAra. Further, not only is it impossible to derive personality aggregates from unguided atomic particulars, the hypothesis of such aggregates will fail in its purpose in the absence of an abiding Self. If the stream of personal life consists of nothing but particular moments of consciousness, pain and pleasure would be self-experiencing and not the objects desired or sought to be avoided by any self. The same would be the case with bondage and release. Indeed, the notion of emancipation is hard to reconcile with that of the self as a mere stream of consciousness. The Buddhists conceive of emancipation as an attainment of cessation through knowledge. Since each moment of the stream exists by producing an effect, the stream could never cease by itself. If the destruction is only a moment in the stream, that would be nothing more than its normal fate. Again, if cessation is attained through knowledge, it would cease to be uncaused, which would violate the Buddhist principle of spontaneous destruction. The Buddhists further describe the cessation not only as non-entity but also as eternal. This is contradictory.
A fundamental difficulty raised by shankara and other Brahminical thinkers to the Buddhist denial of the self as a permanent substance is the impossibility of satisfactorily explaining the facts of memory and recognition in that case. Memory implies the continuity of the subject between past experience and present remembrance. Recognition implies also the continuity of the object between past experience and its present perception. The Buddhists seek to explain these phenomenon on the basis of the inheritance of past impressions (vAsanA) by subsequent moments in the stream of consciousness and also by postulating that the non-discernment of similars leads to the illusion of identity and recognition. Against the first, Shankara relies on the self-evident identity of the self in memory and against the second, he points out that the recognition of identity is distinct from the perception of similarity. In any case, to perceive the similarity of the past and the present, the Self must persist in time.
Shankara however does not examine the reasons which the Buddhists advanced in support of their position and without which the significance of their position can hardly be grasped. Instead, shankara adopts the expedient of pointing out how some of the implications of the Buddhist position are at variance with ‘facts and logic’. The principles and facts he relies are basically two. Purposive wholes cannot be formed without reference to some intelligent being as subject, creator and disposer. Secondly, we recognize persistent identities among objects as well as in ourselves. The first principle which attributes the formation of purposive wholes to the working of some intelligent agency is widely used by shankara in his criticism of sAmkhya and vaisheShika as well. It is really a matter of philosophical faith which the Buddhists are supposed not to have shared. In fact, the Buddhists have been credited with the rejection of the animistic outlook towards the bio-psychic organism in favor of a naturalistic one. The classic Buddhist argument against a transcendent soul is strikingly Human. When we introspect, we only perceive certain mental states and no soul apart from them. Towards the mind itself, the Buddhists adopted an analytical outlook (vibhajyavAda, abidharma) and treated it as a causally determined objective phenomenon. So far, the Buddhist view of the human person may be justly described as simply naturalistic and empiricist. Some interpreters have indeed gone so far as to describe Buddhist philosophy as a species of positivism. However, the fact is that Buddhism is no more positivistic than Shankara. For Shankara too, the mind is not the Self and no more than an object. It is, moreover, constituted out of matter. For both Shankara and Buddhism, the mind is not the Self and the empirical self-consciousness viz., the ego-consciousness ‘owning’ the mind and body, an illusive phenomenon arising out of transcendental Ignorance or Error. Both Shankara and Buddhism describe the ego as a reflection or pratibimba. For both, the instinctive belief in the Selfhood of the body and the mind is a primal error. Although illusive, the empirical self or ego is, for both, morally responsible and continues from birth to birth with changing endowments and circumstances. Buddhism admits samsAric continuity of the empirical self as an individual and unbroken stream of consciousness (vijnAna-santAna). For Shankara, it is the buddhi that carries the reflection of the self in the ego-consciousness and wanders from birth to birth as the linga with vAsanA. It is true that the emphasis in the conception of the empirical self is different in the two systems. Buddhism emphasizes the falsehood of the ego-consciousness which maintains the illusion of permanence and selfhood in a stream of changing factors none of which can be the self because they are impermanent and involved in suffering. Shankara emphasizes the falsehood of the ego-consciousness because it arises from the mutual superimposition of the self and the non-self. For Shankara, thus, ego-consciousness is implicitly not wholly unreal. Searching the true nature of the self obscured by ego-consciousness, one may thus hope to discard the unreal non-self and reach the real self. The discarding of the non-self is advocated by the Buddhists also. The question is, do the Buddhists advocate simple annihilation?
To this, one can return a positive answer which is totally different from what Shankara would have us believe. Buddha declared his position to be different from both Eternalism and Annihilationism. He declared the non-selfhood of samskAras without categorically denying or affirming the self. But he did affirm a reality which is infinite, eternal, and beyond thought and speech. It is this reality the attainment of which constitutes the summun bonum of of life and the end of samsAra. Nirvana is revealed by intuitive wisdom and this knowledge puts an end to the illusion of the ego and the separateness of being.
Of all the Buddhistic schools, it is only the sautrAntikas who conceive nirvana negatively and unfortunately it is their description which Shankara regards as representative of the Buddhists. If such a one-sided view were deemed adequate, why not regard the pudgalavAdins who clearly affirmed the soul as representatives of Buddhism? In fact, they have a stranger claim because as the account of Hsuan Chwang shows, it is the sAmmitIyas who were the most numerous among Buddhists in the seventh century A.D.
For both Shankara and Buddhism the emancipating vision of infinite reality is obscured by egoistic attachment. The Buddhists do not call this reality the Self because they look upon the self as the egoistic principle. Shankara calls it the Self but divests it of all individuality and limitation. For both, end of the journey is liberation from individuality and absorption in eternity through knowledge. The Buddhists emphasize the need for the transcendence of the ego, Shankara for self-realization, but both affirm the end of individual existence. This is a far-reaching agreement which differentiates Shankara from systems such as sAmkhya-yoga, nyAya-vaisheShika, mImAmsA and dualistic vedAnta. All the systems agree in seeking detachment from egoistic life but it is only Shankara and Buddhism who regard the very individuality of the empirical self as ultimately unreal. The relationship of Shankara’s AtmavAda with the Buddhist anAtmavAda, thus, can hardly be regarded as one of total opposition.
If we now turn to Shankara’s criticism of mahAyAna schools, a new dimension of similarity can be glimpsed beneath the clash of dialectical arms for now to the illusoriness of the empirical individual is added the illusoriness of the world itself. In criticizing the vijnAnavAda at length, Shankara follows a procedure different from the one he followed when criticizing sarvAstivAda. He concentrates on the vijnAnavAda denial of the external world but begins by a careful exposition of the principle arguments used by it. Apparently, he has in mind principally the version of vijnAnavAda as found in vasubandhu, dignAga and dharmakIrti.
The roots of vijnAnavAda go back to the most ancient Buddhist canonical writings where vijnAna is described as infinite, wholly luminous, invisible or formless. It is by climbing the mansion of prajnA that Buddha became enlightened and viewed common humanity with compassion. It is true that vijnAna was also used in the sense of empirical cognition mostly and it is recorded that Buddha condemned those who sought to cling to these transient flashes of consciousness as a permanent soul. Nevertheless, the idea of an infinite and transcendent knowledge was clearly expressed by him. The idea is definitely reminiscent of some upaniShadic utterances. Some of the early hinayAnic sects continued this notion of the mind as pure and effulgent. In the mahAyAna sUtras, especially the lankAvatAra, vijnAnavAda may be seen in its full-fledged form. Already the aShTasAhasrikA prajnA pAramitA had vijnAna by speaking of the condition ‘where the mind becomes non-mind’ (yatra chittamachittaM bhavati). The development of the concept of the three bodies tended in the same direction, bridging the gap between transcendent reality, mental radiance and physical appearance. Buddha had declared the mind to be sovereign and primary. The mahAyAna took it up as its key formula. vijnAnavAda and shUnyavAda were at first merely two aspects of the same mahAyAnic philosophy. The upaniShads had already shown the parallelism of dream consciousness and waking consciousness. mahAyAna sUtras held the dream consciousness to be paradigmatic of the waking because it enabled one to realize clearly the subjectivity and transience of experience. The external objects of waking consciousness have the same kind of reality or unreality as dream objects. Their basic character is the same viz., being objects presented to consciousness. This is the basic ground for asserting their falsehood because being immediately presented to they could not be anything apart from it, but since they do appear apart, they could be no more than appearances as in a dream. Another argument which vasubandhu mentions in favor of vijnAnavAda is a reductio ad absurdum of external reals and rests on a critique of atomism.
A further argument was apparently developed out of the sauntrAntika critique of vaibhAShika realism. Owing to momentariness and the successiveness of cause and effect the immediate object of cognition could not be the real external object itself. The acceptance of the representative theory of knowledge (sAkAra-vijnAnavAda) also suggested that the assumption of an external object apart from the form represented in knowledge would be logically superfluous. To the argument from sArUpya was added the famous argument from shopalambha niyama which is found in dharmakIrti.
To explain the diversity of experiences in the absence of external objects, the concept of vAsanA was invoked quiet early. The Buddha himself had proclaimed desire to be the architect of empirical existence of which the impressions in turn strengthened the force of desire, and this forms a beginningless series. Just as in a dream the impressions of desire and memory invent a world of experience, so also is the waking state of samsAra.