Realization as Dependent on View?
Do spiritual paths such as Advaita Vedanta and Madhyamika Buddhism lead to the very same truth, the same realization? After all, advocates of these paths have debated each other for centuries.
For us in the modern world, with limitless data at our fingertips, we can experience information overload and cognitive dissonance when we confront lots of different spiritual paths. It’s tempting to want to make the tension go away by saying “they’re all the same.” But if they were really the same, why would Buddhists and Hindus argue the truths of their paths from Adi Shankara’s time to the present?
We can certainly say that they share certain overall soteriological goals, such as freedom from suffering, as well as happiness, compassion, love. The heart wants to say “SAME” here. That’s understandable, and I feel that deeply too.
But beyond that, the mechanics, concepts, practices and languaging are very different, even on the surface.
A friend of mine, Michael Zaurov, once said something that makes a lot of sense, while having radical consequences:
Certain views lead to certain realizations. Other views lead to other realizations. Realization is dependent on view.
If realizations can affect views, then why can’t views can affect realizations? In this sense, the views of Advaita Vedanta and Madhyamika Buddhism come out as quite different. In fact, Madhyamika owes much of its presentation to the rejection of essential nature and absolute truth that it attributes to Advaita. The two paths could not be more different on this.
Even the “ultimate truth” in Buddhism does not map to the Absolute Truth in Advaita, though for about a century there’s been a perennialist effort (such as Swami Vivekananda’s) to combine the two into a master Vedantic meta-view. Perennialism began as long ago as the 15th century with Neoplatonism, and was appropriated by Christian exclusivism. In the last century we’ve seen Swami Vivekananda, Rene Guenon, Frithjof Schuon, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Madame Blavatsky, Aldous Huxley, and the New Age movement opt for “inherent sameness.”
The Buddhist side would not insist on either “inherently same” or “inherently different.” Buddhists tend to be like,
You do your thing, we’ll do ours. Let’s just all be kind to each other.
I even remember hearing a story about the Dalai Lama giving emptiness teachings. Someone in the audience asked him,
What about Brahman and all the Vedantins who study that? Are you saying that emptiness is true and Brahman is mistaken?
He thought for a moment and replied,
Brahman – that is their business. Emptiness – that is our business.
So I think it isn’t helpful to try to stand in a neutral place and compare the truths or the metaphysics of these teachings. We can’t do it. Where would we find a neutral place?
We can give a Mahyamika interpretation of Advaita or an Advaitin interpretation of Madhyamika. Or a comparative religion-style story about them. Or an everyday psychological assessment of both paths, if we have have had experiences in both. In all these cases, we’re coming from a particular perspective.
But to try to give a metaphysical comparison and ordering and ranking of views from a place that is supposedly “neutral” or “impartial” or “unaffected by views” can’t be done. We can’t jump out of our skins. We can’t place ourselves between our views and the world. Comparisons and ordering and ranking and assessments are never neutral, but always themselves dependent upon certain standards. And standards are dependent upon views.
I think that being aware of these kinds of contingencies helps free us from the projection and the imperialism of the “mine.”