Here in this article we will explore the Buddhist teachings and contrast them to Vedanta or ‘Hindu-style’ teachings. We will look at notions of self and no-self, nirvana and self-realisation, and look at the earliest complete Buddhist teachings ie. as recorded in the Pali Suttas (Sutta is a Pali word meaning ‘thread’ and refers to a ‘string of verses’, ie. a text; Sutra is the equivalent word in Sanskrit)
Some people think that the teachings of the Buddha point in some fundamental way to something different to teachings of ‘Hinduism’ (Sanatana Dharma) and Vedanta. Most of these people are either only approaching the teachings in an intellectual way or are attached to a particular conceptual view; or perhaps they have not made a deep study of the teachings, or perhaps they have not developed a deeper insight into the teachings for themselves.
Let us see why this is the case, as if one reads the early recorded teachings of the Buddha for oneself, clarity on this issue arises:
The Unborn, the Unmanifest, the Uncreated, the Unconditioned
A closer reading of the Buddhist texts reveals that the Buddha did actually acknowledge in many places the existence of what in Vedanta would be called ‘The Self’ (Sanskrit: Atman) and what others may even call God. Here is just one example from the Nibbana Sutta verse 3 (Udana 8.3), which is from the Pali Canon:
There is, bhikkhus [monks], that which is unborn, that which is unmanifest [or has not come into being], that which is not fabricated/created, that which is unconditioned.
If there were not, bhikhus, that which is unborn, that which is unmanifest, that which is not fabricated/created, that which is unconditioned, there would not be escape from that which is born, from that which is manifest, from that which is fabricated/created, from that which is conditioned – that therefore would not have been clearly known/experienced/seen.
But because, bhikhus, there is indeed that which is unborn, that which is unmanifest, that which is not fabricated/created, that which is unconditioned, therefore escape from that which is born, from that which is manifest, from that which is fabricated, from that which is conditioned, is [or can be] clearly known/experienced/seen.
We can clearly see that the Buddha is categorically stating that there is something that is beyond birth and creation, beyond manifestation and that which is conditioned (ie. all objects).
He then goes on to sate that only because there is such a thing as this Unborn is it possible for liberation to occur. The Buddha even states that without the existence of ‘that which is unborn’ liberation would not be possible.
Negating vs affirming language
Note that the Buddha characteristically uses negating language – ie. NOT born, NOT manifest, NOT created, etc, rather than the combination of both negating and affirming language often used in the vedic literature.
I hope you will see that this is clearly analogous to descriptions of the Self in Vedic literature which is described as being that which is Unborn, Unmanifest, Unconditioned, etc.
Please note that the above verse and following verses are taken from the Pali canon which represents the earliest complete recorded teachings of the Buddha (rather that the writings of later schools).
Please also note that the word Nibbana is the Pali equivalent of the Sanskrit word Nirvana (sometimes spelt Nirbana), which is a word that is also used in pre-Buddhist Vedic texts such as the Bhagavad Gita as a synonym for liberation. This means that the Buddha chose to use the same word for liberation that the Vedic texts also used.
‘No Self’ means no ego or no Jiva, NOT no Brahman/Unborn principle
So what does the word ‘Nirvana’ mean? It literally means extinguishment or annihilation or ‘blown out’ (like extinguishing or blowing out a flame).
Why is this word used in both ‘Hinduism’ and Buddhism (and Jainism too) as a synonym for liberation? It is because in all these traditions, it is accepted that liberation is simply destruction or extinguishment of the ego-self, which is illusory or unreal. So when ‘no-self’ is proclaimed in Buddhism, it is only the denial of the Jiva (apparently separate self) or ego-illusion.
In Vedanta this is also known as manonasa or destruction (extinguishment) of mind (manas = mind; nasa = destruction or anihiliation). We will see later that the Buddha also conceived of liberation in the same way – ie. destruction of the thinking and desiring mind.
Anatman (Anatta in pali) vs Atman
The Sanskrit word atman means self, and anatman means not-self or no-self. The Pali equivalent of anatman is anatta.
The Buddha points to various phenomenal arisings and points out that in none of these can a self be found and that all of these phenomenal arisings are anatman or ‘not-self’. An example of this is the Buddhist teaching of the five skandas, which is clearly analogous to the Vedic teaching of the five koshas. In both these teachings it is pointed out that these five skandas or five koshas are not-self, meaning no self can be found in them.
It should be clear that he Buddha is not saying there is no Unborn Principle (quite the opposite as we can see from the Nibbana Sutta verse 3 above), but that the phenomenal appearance of a separate self (Jiva in Sanskrit) or ego is illusory and that only by coming into the Unborn we can attain liberation – see the next section for more on this as well as how to do this for oneself.
The Deathless – how to attain Nirvana & Sri Ramana Maharshi’s teachings
Earlier we saw how the Buddha referred to what called the Unborn, the Unmanifest, the Unfabricated. Elsewhere he referred to the same Unborn as ‘the Deathless’. See here for an example of this – in this post I also go more into the actual methodology of liberation as proposed by the Buddha and show how it is essentially the same method taught by Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi.
The Unmanifest or Nirguna Brahman
In Vedanta teachings, two forms of Ultimate Reality or Brahman are spoken of: the manifest or saguna Brahman and the unmanifest or nirguna Brahman (sa = with; nir = without; guna = qualities).
According to Vedanta, in truth there is only one form of Brahman – the unmanifest or Nirguna Brahman, but is spoken of as being two purely for purposes of teaching. This Nirguna Brahman, which has no qualities that can be described in words and has no qualities that can be perceived by the senses, this nirguna Brahman is the only True Reality, and realisation of this Truth is tantamount to liberation.
The manifest or Saguna Brahman refers to the apparent world of phenomenal appearances and according to Vedanta these do not actually exist and are illusory. The Vedanta teachings encourage us to turn away from objective phenomena towards the Subject-Self which is then revealed to be Nirguna Brahman.
Unsurprisingly we see exactly the same teaching in the Buddhist Pali Suttas time and time again.
Extinguishing the Fire of Egotism
For example in the Fire Sermon, which was said to be the third sermon the Buddha gave, the Buddha explains that everything that we can perceive and imagine is just egotism which he likens to a flame or fire. It then makes sense that Nirvana is extinguishment of this flame or fire of egotism. He encourages us to ‘become disgusted’ with the various phenomenal arisings and turn away from them, and it is in this way liberation or nirvana, which is the end of egotism and suffering, occurs.
In Nirvana there is the cessation of all phenomenal appearances
How does the Buddha describe Nibbana? Where better to look than the Nibbana Sutta that was quoted above? Here is verse 1 (Udana 8.1):
There is, bhikkhus, that Base where there is no earth, no water, no fire, no air…neither this world nor another world nor both; neither sun nor moon. Here, bhikkhus, I say there is no coming, no going, no staying, no deceasing, no uprising. Not fixed, not movable, it has no support. Just this is the end of suffering.
We can see from the last phrase ‘just this is the end of suffering’ that the Buddha is describing Nirvana (which he defines as the end of suffering, and which is generally defined as the end of suffering) or what is Vedanta would be called The Self (Atman).
In his description the Buddha is also explaining that in Nirvana ‘there is no earth, no water, no fire, no air…‘, ie. by negating the appearance of the four classical elements he is stating that in nirvana there are no phenomenal arisings whatsoever. He continues this theme by stating ‘there is neither this world, not another world…neither sun nor moon… no coming, no going…‘
The ‘Unmoving’, that which requires ‘no support’, the ‘Unaffected’
The Buddha then goes on to describe what in Vedanta would be called the Self – the Buddha states it is ‘…not moveable, it has no support‘. In Vedanta it would be said to be immovable or unchanging (that which moves can change, that which doesn’t move does not change) and self-shining, meaning it supports itself. In Vedanta, the word ‘ananda’ which means happiness or bliss means the cessation of suffering. Hopefully it is fairly clear that the teachings are pointing to the same basic thing!
In verse two of the same Nibbana Sutta (Udana 8.2) The Buddha speaks of ‘the Unaffected‘, which is clearly another name for the Vedic notion of Self, by which craving and all phenomenal appearance (Maya in vedanta) is ended. Every phenomenal appearance is within the realm of ‘the affected’, so what is this ‘unaffected’ but the True Self?:
It’s hard to see the Unaffected,
for the Truth isn’t easily seen.
Craving is pierced
in one who knows;
For one who sees,
there is nothing.
In liberation there are no thoughts or desires
As we have already quoted from verse 3 at the top of the post, let us proceed to verse 4. In verse 4 of the Nibbana Sutta the Buddha explains that one who has not found the ‘Unaffected’ (ie. the True Self) remains dependent (on phenomenal objects) and so ‘wavers’. This wavering refers to the movements of the mind, ie. what we would call thoughts and desires. Here is verse 4 (Udana 8.4):
One who is dependent has wavering. One who is independent has no wavering. There being no wavering, there is calm. There being calm, there is no desire. There being no desire, there is no coming or going. There being no coming or going, there is no passing away or arising. There being no passing away or arising, there is neither a here nor a there nor a between-the-two. This, just this, is the end of suffering.
See how Sri Ramana Maharshi explains this here.
Cessation of time and space in Liberation
In the above verse 4 the reference to ‘there being no passing away or arising’ not only indicates no arising phenomena in liberation, but also the cessation of time itself. Similarly the reference to ‘there is neither a here nor a there nor a between-the-two’ refers to the cessation of perception of space.
We can see that the teachings are referring to what in Vedanta is known as ‘non-duality’, or advaita, Oneness beyond the illusions of ego, separation, time and space
See this described here in Vedanta teachings.
The ‘Stainless’, the ‘Sorrowless’, the ‘Blissful’
In verse 5, the final verse of this Nibbana Sutta, the Buddha states the following, continuing the theme of the need to efface all desires, wants and cravings. Note how he refers to ‘stainless’ and ‘sorrowless’ and ‘blissful’ – could be be referring to what in Vedanta would be called the Self? I think so!:
The sorrows, lamentations,
the many kinds of suffering in the world,
exist dependent on something dear.
They don’t exist
when there’s nothing dear.
And thus blissful & sorrowless
are those for whom nothing
in the world is dear anywhere.
So one who aspires
to be stainless & sorrowless
shouldn’t make anything
in the world dear
See how Sri Ramana Maharshi similarly describes the way to liberation here.
Some concluding remarks
I have only touched upon one Sutta here in any detail. If you read the Pali canon for yourself you will find countless references like these, eg. to the Unborn and the Deathless, again and again. You will also see references to the need to turn away from objective phenomena towards that which is unborn. You will also see references to the cessation of all arising phenomena. Again and again these references are made.
Surely the Buddha and Vedanta teachings are pointing to the same thing in their own way?
I hope you found this post of use. I have written it rather hastily in one quick sitting so apologies for any spelling or grammatical or other errors.
Namaste and best wishes!