Vedanta, Buddhism, Criticism

THE QUESTION

M: I’m studying Vedanta and I’m also a practicing Buddhist.  I feel like the Buddhist teaching of compassion really helps me.  Is this a problem?  The reason I ask is because Vedantins are usually very critical of Buddhism.  It seems to me that the Buddhist teaching is the same as Vedanta.

THE ANSWER

M:  I’m studying Vedanta and I’m also a practicing Buddhist.  I feel like the Buddhist teaching of compassion really helps me.  Is this a problem?

V:  The shortest answer is: it’s only a problem if it’s a problem.  If it helps you to practice Buddhism along with your Vedantic studies, then go for it.  If, over time, you feel like the two start to conflict then re-examine the situation.  If not, then don’t worry about it.  As my friend Paul says (incessantly), “It’s about peace of mind”.  In other words, if there’s no problem, there’s no need to create one.

You can honestly leave it at that.  I’m going to add some further remarks just because it’s a topic that interests me.

M: The reason I ask is because Vedantins are usually very critical of Buddhism.  

V:  Yeah, that’s true.  There’s a strong current of criticism directed at Buddhism by the teachers and commentators of Vedanta.  This is evident in the writings of Shankara, Vedanta’s most revered teacher.  Maybe that’s why (some) modern teachers of Vedanta do the same thing.  Monkey see, monkey do, as the saying goes.

In fairness, in Shankara’s time and well beyond, it was the norm for different Indian religious and philosophical traditions to be critical of each other.  The antagonism between Vedanta and Buddhism was actually mutual, with teachers from both sides writing criticisms and counter-criticisms against each other for centuries.  So criticism isn’t limited to Vedanta alone.

Criticism in and of itself isn’t necessarily wrong if it’s done with the genuine intention of helping a student.  Say there’s a spiritual seeker looking for answers.  She hears one thing from Teacher A and another thing from Teacher B that contradict each other.  A doubt arises.  To resolve the doubt both viewpoints need to be evaluated. On the one hand, the teachers can offer positive support for their own viewpoint.  On the other, they may also need to point out the flaws of the opposing viewpoint.  In this case criticism can be a helpful teaching tool.

But I suspect that a lot of the time, criticism aimed at other viewpoints is simply done for the very base reason of establishing the superiority of one’s own viewpoint, school, tradition or position.  In that case it’s worthless and petty.  If a teacher offers a criticism of an opposing viewpoint in order to help a student, then good.  If a teacher goes out of their way to attack an opposing viewpoint for any other reason, not so good.

M:  It seems to me that the Buddhist teaching is the same as Vedanta. 

V:  The only way someone could verify that statement is if they studied both Vedanta and Buddhism deeply, practiced them both diligently for a very long time and then realized the respective truths of each teaching for themselves.  Only in that case could it be determined if Vedanta and Buddhism are the same. To my knowledge, no one has ever done that.

This exposes the inherent problem of criticism.  How can someone accurately criticize a teaching if they don’t truly understand it?  At best they’re merely criticizing their own understanding of that teaching.  If their understanding of that teaching is limited, or outright incorrect, then their criticism with have the same defects.  I can attest to that fact by saying that many of the criticisms aimed at Vedanta are invalid simply because they are based on the critic’s inaccurate understanding of Vedanta.  In other words, most critics are criticizing what they think Vedanta says rather than what it actually says.  If I’m being objective, then I have to admit that this can go the other way too.  Perhaps Vedanta’s criticisms of Buddhism are based on what Vedantins think Buddhism says, rather than what it actually says.

Chandradhar Sharma, in his book “Indian Philosophy:  A Critical Survey” points this out beautifully.  Sharma, whose personal viewpoint is obviously a Vedantic one, remains sympathetic to Buddhism.  He makes a very good case for the fact that Shankara didn’t fully understand Buddhism or that he misunderstood parts of it entirely.  Therefore, because Shankara’s understanding was incomplete or inaccurate, by extension some of his criticisms were incomplete or inaccurate.  I have a lot of respect for Shankara and it’s obvious in the book that Sharma does too.  But I find Sharma’s viewpoint to be completely reasonable and feasible.

Where does that leave us on the topic of criticism?  As I said, I think criticism has value in the case of removing a student’s doubt because in that situation the doubt is the student’s own subjective understanding.  It doesn’t necessarily correspond to an objective teaching outside of the student, so the doubt can be legitimately criticized.  The teaching that the doubt supposedly comes from can be left aside and the student’s problem can be dealt with directly, using whatever reasoning or logic a particular teacher employs.  Anything beyond that is useless because in the end it doesn’t matter if Vedanta is right and Buddhism is wrong or vice versa.  It isn’t anyone’s job to establish the superiority of one over the other.  The point is to remove suffering and gain peace of mind.  If a particular teaching does that for you, then how could anyone criticize that?  Why would anyone criticize that?  Unless of course it’s their business to rob people of peace of mind.

To put it in the vernacular, “Just do you, forget about the haters.”

P.S. – Full disclosure, when I was younger this was not my viewpoint.  Growing up Christian, I thought that Christianity was right and everything else was wrong.  I later carried that attitude forward into Vedanta.  But pain is a great teacher and even someone like me can eventually mature and learn.  I finally saw that my attitude was causing conflict and this conflict hurt me and others as well.  It robbed me and them of peace of mind which was completely counter to the purpose of Vedanta.  So I gave that immature, unhelpful attitude up.  Or at least I’m trying reeeealllly hard to 🙂

P.P.S – Be wary when someone starts a criticism of other viewpoints with this very common statement:  “Well, I’m no expert on (fill in the blank).  But this is what (fill in the blank) is saying and why it’s wrong.”  If someone isn’t an expert on a particular subject—and in the case of spirituality, a longtime practitioner—then they have no business criticizing it.

P.P.P.S. – If the “Vedanta Police” come knocking, looking to pick a fight about my slightly unorthodox view, know that I will not answer the door.  Don’t waste your breath.  This is my opinion, take it or leave it.

-Vishnudeva

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