Over the years I have heard some people say things such as ‘the Buddha was enlightened, but he was not self-realised’ or ‘the Buddha only had an insight into no-self, but he never discovered the Self’. Both of these imply somehow that the Self-Realisation of the Upanishads is somehow of higher status and fundamentally different to the Nirvana of the Buddha, and that the Buddha was not truly enlightened.
I have noticed that usually this view is put forwards either by academics who have analysed various texts but not fully embraced the traditions, or by religious teachers who teach that their way is the best or only way and tend to be attached to their methodology over and above others.
I remember that when I first came across this view I was quite shocked, as it always seemed obvious to me that both Buddhist and Vedic traditions were pointing at the same things in different ways. In fact all the great self-realised masters I had come across also said the same. Impurities naturally, and perhaps inevitably, creep into traditions as without a genuine realisation, the ego co-opts the teachings and slowly slowly dogma and beliefs form. Therefore teachings naturally reinvent themselves in each culture and age, and we can clearly see this if we study the history of the development of both Vedanta and Buddhism. In fact, there has been so much cross-fertilisation between these two traditions, with each tradition borrowing from the others at some point, it is sometimes difficult to tell them apart!
The key thing for me is to realise that there exist various different methods by which the Supreme is approached. And, of course, some say there are no methods (you could say this is the method of directly pointing out what is already fully here). When the method has served its purpose, then why cling to the method? The main issue is for ignorance to be removed, and the various teachings serve various ways of doing this:
There is nothing to realise. There is nothing new to gain…On the other hand a man must lose his ignorance. That is all.
Ramana Maharshi, Talks 104
By the way, in the above quote, I assume that by ‘man’, he means any human. Here is what Ramana said about the Buddha and Self-Realisation:
568. Guru [Ramana] has said that the state of nirvana that was taught by Buddha to be the state in which samsara and suffering are ended is the same as remaining in the supreme state, having discarded all the sheaths.
He reaffirms this in the following verses:
345. The sage Buddha taught this truth; also the great teacher Sankara taught the same; our own Guru [Ramana] also tells us the same; and this is also the essence of the Vedanta.
284. The Buddhas call that the state of right awareness. In it there is neither knowledge nor ignorance. That is the highest state, in which there is nothing, whether sentient or insentient, other than the Self.
So, there you have it: according to Ramana Maharshi, Nirvana = Self-Realization. Here is another quote of Ramana on Buddha taken from the book Maharshi’s Gospel:
Question: Buddha is said to have ignored questions about God.
Ramana Maharshi: Yes, and because of this he has been called an agnostic or nihilist. In fact Buddha was concerned with guiding the seeker to realise Bliss here and now, rather than with academic discussions about God and so forth.
So that’s Ramana’s view. What do you think?