Sunday, March 31, 2013

How does early Buddhism differ from Upanishadic Thought?


There are many important areas in which Buddhism and the Upanishads differ.

Firstly, in terms of cosmology, the Upanishads viewed the world and its origin as nothing other than Brahma, the universal or cosmic soul. To achieve liberation meant realising the truth of the world - that Atman (the individual soul as discovered through introspection) and Brahma are the same. For the Buddha, the concern is with man and liberation, which is internally driven rather than granted by an external God requiring prayer. This is why He was not concerned with the cosmos and it’s beginning, neither of which is relevant to reaching nibbana.

Secondly, concerning metaphysics, the Upanishads profess Monism. This philosophy can be summarised as “I am Brahman” (our own “Self” is the true Divinity), “The Self is Brahman” (all beings are identified with the Absolute Truth), “That art thou”(whatever we see or think about, we are That), “Knowledge is Brahman” (supreme intelligence is present inherently within us; our understanding of the truth is the Truth itself), “The whole universe is Brahman”, and “Here am I” (this identifies the Divinity in our Self in natural happenings, like breathing). In this philosophy, worldly appearances are illusory, since the apparent diversity is but one. Again, Buddhism is not concerned with metaphysical discussions of space, time and causality. Although Buddhism teaches such dhammas as samsara, kamma and nibbana, instead, these teachings are different from those in the Upanishads. On a number of occasions when asked some metaphysical questions concerning the world, the soul and the Tathāgata, the Buddha refocussed his questioners by reminding them of the need to delve more deeply into the realities of samsara (birth, illness, old age, death, etc).

In a third aspect, epistemology, or how we gain new knowledge, Upanishad philosophy states that knowledge comes when we realise that we and the Brahma are one so that the individual and cosmic souls merge. We cannot trust our senses and stimuli for knowledge, as they hide the Atman. Instead, since thinking is the basis for truth, so we must train our intellect and other mental faculties to interpret the world correctly. In Buddhism such debatable theories are considered not true. We are to develop our wisdom (pañña) so that we perceive the reality of the world, namely that all conditioned things are impermanent, unsatisfactory and without self.

Fourthly, from the ethical perspective, the writers of the Upanishads affirm that human life is a preparation for realising Brahma. To reach such spiritual perfection necessitates restraint of the senses, self-sacrifice and love for creation as the moral prerequisites.  In addition, study, honesty and even asceticism will permit the seeker of truth to attain bliss. The worldly perceptions of smell, taste, touch, hearing and sight which make one separate from the True Self must also be transcended. Buddhism also stresses living a virtuous life, but through a “middle way” avoiding extremes like asceticism. The method proposed is the Noble Eightfold Path which may be summarised as “not to do any evil, to cultivate good, to purify one’s mind”. 

To conclude, for the benefit of all mankind, unlike the Upanishads, Buddhist teachings are for everyone and offer practical, empirical guidance to the important questions of our liberation. 

(Written by Gregory Quinlivan for a course entitled 'Early Buddhism Basic Doctrines' in 2009 through the International Buddhist College, Thailand.)