For nearly a millennium and a half, Buddhism and the Hindu tradition of Advaita Vedanta have shared terminology and ideas, argued about philosophical fine points, and pointed to nondual experience. In recent decades, Advaita has had a powerful influence on many Western Buddhist teachers and practitioners as well.
Jack Kornfield, one of the first Western teachers of Buddhist Vipassana meditation, spent time in the late seventies with Nisargadatta Maharaj, an Indian sage who was a member of a Hindu tantric lineage but whose teachings were pure Advaita. “He was a very meaningful and inspiring teacher of what liberation was really like when you were no longer identified with the body and mind,” recalls Kornfield. “The amount of joy and freedom he expressed touched me deeply.”
Anna Douglas, a founding teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, in Woodacre, California, was similarly impressed by her encounter with H. W. L. Poonja (affectionately known as Papaji), a popular Advaita teacher in the lineage of Ramana Maharshi. “With Poonjaji, I experienced a profound realization of emptiness, which I had heard about in the Buddhist world but hadn’t realized until I met him,” says Douglas. “I told him, 'I had to come to you to realize the heart of Buddhism,’ and we laughed.”
Both Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta are rooted in the Hindu tradition. (Although Buddha challenged Hinduism’s concept of a divine atman with the teaching of “anatman,” or “no self,” he was raised a Hindu, studied with Hindu teachers, and to this day is revered by Hinduism as one of its greatest sages.) And, while often arguing over philosophical fine points, the two traditions have always had a great deal in common, most notably, the view that the separate self doesn’t exist. Many traditional Buddhist teachers would object to the view that the individual self is identical with an absolute, abiding reality, arguing that the historical Buddha explicitly rejected such a view. Yet the Mahayana Buddhist notion of emptiness (shunyata) did evolve in certain traditions into an abiding substrate, an unchanging, underlying reality, where both “emptiness” and “Buddha-nature” pointed (and continue to point, in the Zen tradition) to some deeper mystery unfathomable by the mind. Likewise in some Tibetan Buddhist schools, “emptiness” became a term pointing to the abiding, underlying nature of reality, even though the doctrine of no-self was never explicitly abandoned.
The most important point at the experiential level is that Advaita, Mahayana schools like Zen, and Tibetan Dzogchen are all direct approaches to truth; that is, they point directly to the core realization that reality, though apparently composed of innumerable elements and phenomena, is actually one and indivisible, and that this one, indivisible reality—whether it’s labeled emptiness, Brahman, or the nature of Mind—is what you and I are, essentially. In the words of the Upanishads, “You are That.” Awakening to this truth is the liberating spiritual moment in these traditions, a moment that transforms the seeker’s life irrevocably.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given their philosophical similarities, the cross-fertilization between Buddhism and Advaita dates back to the first half of the first millennium C.E., when they were two of the most prominent and influential religious schools in India. Indeed, according to the Buddhist scholar Richard King, author of the book Early Advaita Vedanta and Buddhism, religious historians now agree that the early development of Advaita as a separate philosophical school was profoundly influenced by Mahayana Buddhism. Though Shankara, the founder of Advaita, strongly criticized Buddhism and purportedly defeated its representatives in dharma combat, his own teacher and his teacher’s teacher borrowed freely from Buddhist terminology and ideas and showed an interest in Buddhist-Vedantic relations. In particular, says King, the notion that the world is an illusion (maya) and the teaching that there are two levels of truth, relative and absolute, originated with the Mahayana and then found their way into Advaita.
No wonder, then, given their similarities, that so many contemporary Buddhists have been influenced by Advaita Vedanta. But why have these practitioners felt the need to step outside their own milieu to study with teachers from another tradition? “Different people have different temperaments,” explains Douglas. “In the Buddhist world many people have profound experiences in the context of a particular Buddhist practice and form. But some, like me, seem to really get the teachings when they come in a more formless manner, through teachers who are outside the form.”