Shankara’s Response to Buddhist Philosophers

The Buddha came, about 500 BC, to formulate a simple path, the Noble Eightfold Path, to effect that final release from suffering that had also been taught by the seers of the Upanishads. In both traditions such release comes through transcendence—transcendence of the ignorance which binds us to the suffering inherent in bodily existence. The Upanishadic teaching is rooted in the soil of the old Vedic ritualism, but rises up high above it into the sunlight of the eternal wisdom. The Buddha saw the Vedic ritualism as a mere encumbrance and turned away from all of it, including the Upanishads, which, as far as we know, he never quotes. He taught in the language of the people a direct path of ethical living, leading to transcendence of the finite personality through meditation.

The Buddha discouraged metaphysical speculation as a waste of valuable time. When struck by a poisoned arrow, you do not try to measure the length of it: you try to pull it out. But down the centuries his followers had occasion to enter into philosophical debate with those who remained faithful to the old Vedic traditions. For a time, indeed, in the early centuries AD, the teachers of the Mahayana Buddhist schools rose to great heights of mysticism, as they meditated on the Buddha as a divine being. But by Shankara’s day there had arisen among Buddhist philosophers a range of rationalist systems of a predominantly sceptical slant. There are parallels with the thought of eighteenth-century Europe, which in part might be regarded as a rationalist elaboration of Protestant Christianity. We can see in Shankara’s handling of these texts the kind of response he might have made if he had been required to defend the Upanishadic wisdom against the criticisms of Berkeley, Hume and Kant.

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This article is from the Spring 2021 issue of Self-Knowledge Journal.