A look at the traditions of Mahayana, Pure Land, Tibetan, Theravada and Zen Buddhism in comparison with the Vaishnava traditions of Hindusim and the culture of Krishna and the Bhagavad-gita which points to an ancient connection and irrefutable evidence of pervading theistic practices and traditions within all forms of Buddhism.
Buddhism and Hinduism: The Ancient Connection
By Sakshi Zion (12/10/13)
Thesis: While most people in the West think of Buddhism as an atheistic religion. I intend to show that the traditions of theistic Buddhism as well as non-theistic Buddhism may have closer connections to Hinduism and Buddha’s original teachings than one may recognize at first glance.
I. Intro: is Buddhism really atheistic?
III. Connections to Hinduism
V. Mahayana and Pure Land Buddhism
VI. Theravada and Zen Buddhism
VII. Vaishnavism and Shivaism (Hindusim)
VIII. Tibetan and Nepalese Buddhism
IX. Buddha’s 8-Fold Path & Krishna’s Bhagavad-gita
X. Historic Mathura and Gandara (Vaishnava-Buddhist Cultural Centers)
It is common to think of Buddhism as an atheistic religion. Atheism is the absence of belief in gods, so it is true that many Buddhists are, indeed, atheists. But when comparing the various traditions of Buddhism and its path towards enlightenment with the yogic paths in the Bhagavad Gita, we see something very interesting.
The Buddha of history taught that believing in gods was not necessary for those seeking to realize enlightenment. So, for this reason, Buddhism can be more accurately called non-theistic rather than atheistic. But Buddhism did originate in Hinduism in the land of India, so there were Hindu groups which did associate Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu and some traditions such as Mahayana and Pure Land Buddhism which later developed in Japan and China that continued this theistic belief in God, and yet most people in the West think of Buddhism as an atheistic religion. I intend to show that the traditions of theistic Buddhism as well as non-theistic Buddhism may have closer connections to Hinduism and Buddha’s original teachings than one may recognize at first glance.
The Buddha said that he was not a god, but has “awakened.” Yet throughout Asia it is common to find people praying to the Buddha or to the many mythical figures that populate Buddhist iconography. Pilgrims flock to Stupas that are said to hold relics of the Buddha. Some schools of Buddhism are strongly devotional. Even in the non-devotional schools, such as Theravada or Zen, there are rituals which include bowing, offering food, flowers and incense to a Buddha figure on an altar. There are a lot of obvious similar signs such as this, yet also some deeper historical and theological evidences which can also support this claim.
The Bhagavad Gita is considered the holiest book of Hindusim in most circles and is believed to be uttered by the incarnation of God Himself, Sri Krishna. Krishna illuminates his friend Arjuna with the Supreme Knowledge of Yoga. Many of these philosophical ideas that Krishna shares within become very important in Hindu thought, tradition and rituals, and in turn many of the same concepts and traditions are found to exist within Buddhism too. All of the most essential principles of Bhagavad Gita can be found in some form with the various traditions of Buddhism that later developed. One will see that the idea of enlightenment is very similar to most Buddhist schools of thought, if not the exact same.
Mahayana Buddhism teaches the existence of infinite Buddhas, or incarnations of Lokesvara or the Adi Buddha, who preach the Dharma according to time and circumstance. The Buddha of Theravadin Buddhism is not the same as the Buddha of Mahayana Buddhism. The Buddha of the Theravadin Buddhists has been considered by them to be an ‘awakened’ man, the only Buddha, unique in world history to his time. This Buddha of the Theravadins definitely taught not only atheism, but voidism. However, the Buddha of the Mahayana Buddhists was originally considered to be the latest of infinite incarnations of Lokesvara Buddha, who can be compared to and often worshipped as the same Vishnu of Hindusim. Not only did He teach a transcendental theism, but He was considered to be an incarnation of the ADI BUDDHA Himself, meaning the original Buddha. These Buddhists (Sakyamuni worshipers) were indistinguishable from Hindu sects such as Vaishnavism and Shivaism throughout India, and only became perceived as belonging to a separate religion (Buddhism) as their traditions spread outside of India.
Buddhism is a ultimately a path of “waking up,” or being enlightened, to a reality that is not consciously perceived by most people. In many schools of Buddhism it is understood that Nirvana or enlightenment cannot be conceptualized or explained with words. It must be experienced to be understood. Simply “believing in” enlightenment and nirvana is pointless. For this reason, the Buddha taught his disciples to cultivate devotional and reverential habits of the mind. Thus, devotion is an expression of the virtuous and compassionate principles within Buddhism. Of course, devotion requires an object. In the Bhagavad-Gita Krishna refers to himself as the object of worship and the original Godhead.
“I am the source of all spiritual and material worlds. Everything emanates from Me. The wise who perfectly know this engage in My devotional service and worship Me with all their hearts.”(Bhagavad-Gita 10.8) (Prabhupada, 1984)
Within Mahayana and Pure Land Buddhist tradition there is the theological belief in Buddha as a Deity who gives grace or mercy to his devotees. According to Mahayana Tradition, when the Lord descended as Sakyamuni Buddha, he preached to the humble faithful and to the proud atheists both. They believe in the Adi-Buddha or original Buddha and the ultimate goal of enlightenment is to attain the Pure Land where one can be Buddha-like and live, laugh, dance, eat, play and enjoy with Adi-Buddha, the Godhead Himself.
We know that Buddhism went to Asia and South East Asia to places like China, Japan, Vietnam, Bali, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Tibet. Although Buddhism is considered to have arrived rather late in Tibet, it certainly existed at an early time in Nepal. Tibetan Buddhism is practically identical to Nepalese Buddhism. The Tibetan Buddhists fleeing the Chinese helped easily integrate them into the Mahayana worship communities of Nepal. Despite the ‘mother tongue’ language differences, the Tibetan and Nepalese priests shared the same doctrines, icons, symbols, rites, and Sanskrit as an ancient liturgical language. In fact, Tibetan and Nepalese Buddhism are so similar to, and compatible with Vaishnavism, Shaivism and Shaktism in Nepal, that one can frequently see the same devotees worshiping at Vishnu, Shiva, Devi and Buddhist temples and/or shrines, sometimes all in the same day. Many devotees also clearly grasped that these were versions of the same tradition. If one was to go to a vender or business owner in Nepal looking for specific statues of Vishnu, they would likely hand you the corresponding statue of the Buddhist Lokesvara and explain that ‘everyone knows there is no difference…we only make one form of these murtis, and they are used by both the Buddhists and the Hindus. We do not have separate forms of Vishnu to sell to you’. This is very common in Nepal. Clearly one can see how in the places so close to India, where Buddhism was born, the similarities and long-standing traditions of Hinduism pervades most all of Buddhist practices, beliefs and rituals.
For those Theravada and Zen Buddhists who believe Buddha was not a god, why then do they still bow to Buddha-figures? From the influence of tradition and cultural customs one might bow just to show gratitude for the Buddha’s life and practice. But the Buddha figure also represents enlightenment itself and so it can mean many things for different Buddhists. In spite of Sri Lanka’s status as a kind of capital of Theravada Buddhism, there is astounding ancient evidence there of Mahayana Buddhism. For instance, on Wesak, the holy day of Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and ‘nirvana’, in the public places and temples all the pilgrims chant Mahayana Buddhist births stories, as well as his enlightenment and death stories. And many of the rituals and practices are filled with Mahayana songs and traditions. You can hardly find a single ‘Theravadin’ temple where the lay Buddhists are not worshiping Buddha according to Mahayana traditions. The point being, that so many of the customs and traditions are remnants or related to the essential truths and teachings of Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita.
The many mystical creatures and beings of the Mahayana Buddhism art and literature are often called “gods” or “deities.” But, again, just believing in them is not the point. In the Zen monastery the monks liked to point to the Buddha on the altar and say, “That’s you up there. When you bow, you are bowing to yourself.” The iconographic devas and bodhisattvas are also seen as archetypes of the individual and a Buddhist might evoke the Bodhisattva of Compassion in order to become more compassionate. This idea of compassion and this sense of duty to be so is an aspect of what Krishna calls Dharma. Essentially, we all have our special mission in life and we’re not all the same, so Dharma is different for everyone, but the practice of compassion is one we all share, and of universal importance. This concept certainly derives from the principles laid out by Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita.
Krishna says in BG 12:13: That devotee of mine who is non-envious possessing benevolence towards all living entities, compassionate with no sense of proprietorship. (Prabhupada, 1984)
The original Sanskrit word for compassion in this verse is Karunah, which means to be sympathetic towards the sufferings of others, friend and foe alike. You find this principle very strongly in all Buddhist schools of thought, the practice of compassion and good will towards all living entities.
The Buddha has given the 8-fold path, which are the main principles of the Buddhist life and virtues. When one compares the principles of righteousness in the Bhagavad-Gita and the 8-fold path you will see the same essential principles of devotional life. Devotion to the Adi-Buddha/Sri Krishna or devotion to the path of compassion and ultimate enlightenment, it is still Yoga, and it is still a devotion towards the highest aspirations of the living being. The 8-fold path:
Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration
Bhakti Ananda Goswamis is a scholar, sanyasi and practitioner of both Krishna-Vasishnavism and Pure Land Buddhism. In his research he points out that during the 3rd Century BCE during the time of the great Buddhist King of India, Ashoka, that the area of Krishna’s birth Mathura and nearby Gandhara were centers of contemporary Vaishnava and Mahayana Buddhist universities and traditions living and worshipping together.
“In fact, in both of the university-like intellectual ‘Buddhist’ centers of Mathura and Gandhara, the Vaishnavas and Buddhists were completely compatible as members of various lineages or orders of the same religion. This fact cannot be contested. No honest scholar can deny that Gandhara and Mathura, the two greatest early Mahayana centers of Buddhist intellectual and artistic activity and diffusion, were also Vaishnava centers of the same. This was not a sequential phenomenon either. The Vaishnava and Buddhist presence in these centers of Bhakti Yoga was contemporaneous. In fact, there was a Western Bhakti Asyla Temple Federation representation in the visitors and residents of these two great Vaishnava and Buddhist ‘university’ centers of Gandhara and Mathura too. Greeks, Romans and other western Eli-Yahu / Heli-os / Heri-Asu worshipers visited and lived in these two centers.” (Sherman, 2001)
While many scholars claim that Ashoka patronized the atheistic Theravada Buddhism during his reign, Bhakti Ananda Goswami contests that considering the evidence, it is highly more likely that he patronized Mahayana Buddhism instead.
“When it is known that Mathura was the North Indian regional center of Krishna Bhakti, how is it possible that the very antithesis of Krishna-Vaishnavism and closely related Pure Land Buddhist Bhakti, namely atheistic Theravada Buddhism, could have been the Buddhism that Ashoka patronized there? When it is clear from evidence all over the region (and beyond) that Ashoka equally protected and supported Vaishnavism and Mahayana (Pure Land) Buddhism and that at the time these two great Bhakti traditions were considered part of the same religion, how is it conceivable that the ‘Buddhism’ that he patronized in Sri Lanka was Theravada, the historical and doctrinal antithesis of both Vaishnavism and Pure Land Buddhism?” (Sherman, 2001)
The evidence suggests that the traditions of Buddhism and the 8-fold path are directly related to the principles and teaching of Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad-gita. Hinduism and Buddhism are very much connected as they always have been, and even if the individual Buddhist does not recognize Buddha as the Godhead, the evidence suggests that the Mahayana traditions which are intimately related to the Vaishnava and theistic traditions of Hindusim pervade practically all of Buddhist life and ritual. The virtues of compassion and devotion towards the path of enlightenment and the Supreme Being within the individual are most prominent in all the traditions and the goal is the same: Nirvana, Bliss, Oneness, Pure Consciousness, the Pure Land, Buddha-hood and Devotion to Adi-Buddha /Sri Krishna or other such sacred form and names of the Godhead.
Prabhupada, A.C.B.S. (1984). Bhagavad-gita As It Is. Australia: McPherson’s Group.