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The question of the Vedanta is – "Who am I?" For the Buddhists it is – "What is I?"

Buddha’s is a psychological analysis. The self that Buddha speaks of, is the empirical self available to every man, perceptible in/to thoughts. In this sense Buddha is very modern. This is perhaps the reason for his appeal to the modern intellect. Buddha rather speaks of Dukha i.e., suffering, its cause and way to its ultimate annihilation. So instead of philosophical ground he chooses an urgent, experiential and utilitarian ground of ultimate annihilation of suffering while steadfastly avoiding metaphysical contours- nothing about ultimate reality, Atman, Brahman etc. His refusal to enter into metaphysical speculation is famous and well documented. In fact like his contemporary Sanjay Belattiputta, he declined to answer some very popular philosophical questions of his time like those pertaining to the atman, creation, rebirth etc.

He gave the famous illustration of a man suffering from headache. He said that no amount of discussing as regards headache is of any use to the suffering. A remedy is required, so is true with Dukha. The remedy is Arya Ashtanga Marga.(3) This is a yogic-ethical way for the annihilation of the suffering. Since the self that he speaks about is nothing but a stream of becoming, the remedy is also external (from Vedantic standpoint of Atman).

Buddha criticized the Atman as a priori concept and likened it to the belief of a man who tries to climb a ladder to the sky to reach a place he knows nothing about, or is like the attempts of a man who falls in love with a beautiful damsel whom no one has seen.

Like any other philosophical system, both the schools attempt truth from their respective stand point. The question of the school is – Who am I? For the Buddhist school it is – ‘What is ‘I’?

Thus the problem of Samsara and bondage is dealt with in two marked manners by these two schools. Vedanta a synthetic philosophy rooted in the Vedas, starts with the true self, atman or Brahman (a priori concept) and therefore for an aspirant as such the Vedantic truths were said first and then realized. Naturally an authority for the preceptor and or Vedas is invoked. A grand synthesis was required as many a concept of the Veda’s which lack a coherent philosophy (more so not like that of Vedanta) needed various things in proper place and perspective and in proper classification of hierarchies. The famous classifications of achieved it exactly.

The Vedantic concern is the real, substratum reality by positing that self which we find unchanging. Vijnataram Arey Kna Vijaniyat, the knower of the known cannot be known (i.e., by those senses by which we know the external world). Thus the Vedantic sadhana is more aimed at removing the false notion.

The Buddha’s prescription for the annihilation of suffering is clear and simple, the five precepts and the noble eight-fold path. His is a comprehensive yet simple ethical-spiritual philosophy and the ethics and more at individualistic concerns, social considerations are more incidental. Buddha consistently refuses the existence of a permanent individual self. He said, sab-be Dhamma an-atta, all things in nature are without permanent self. Thus for him the law of Karma i.e., the chain of sequences is collective concept. His last words that individuals are transient, labour therefore strenuously is in the same strain. His doctrine is concerned with the existential suffering.

In an important conversation with Ananda, Buddha deals with the concept of the self and sensation. He says that in three ways the theorist regard the self. Some regard the self as sensation for some others the self and sensation are different and independent and for still others sensation is nature of the self though the sensation is not the self. Buddha says that this (the first theorist’s school) is not correct, as the sensation (pleasant, painful and neither pleasant and painful) as Annica (transient), Samkahata (made-up) and Pratiya Samutpanna (originated by dependence); by nature is decaying and subject to cessation… . Those who see the self and sensation as different are also incorrect as how can one be aware of one’s asmiti (existence) in absence of sensation? And those who regards the sensation as nature of the self, is it possible for them to associate with such self, in absence of the sensation as, Ayam aham asmiti, this I am?

Therefore the logical faculty used in the Vedanta philosophy to deconstruct the external reality is used in Bauddha darshana to deconstruct the ‘conception of self’. But as we shall see later the ‘Nirvana’ of this school and the ‘Jnana’ of the Vedanta are categories which are quite similar in their conception and result. The liberation of mind from conception of self and sensation and their association for Buddha is ‘Nirvana’.
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