Consciousness according to Zen Buddhism and how it relates to Advaita Vedanta

In the diagram shown, there are two models of consciousness/being. In fact, on one hand (Left hand side), is a Zen Buddhist model of consciousness, as illustrated in Roshi Philip Kapleau’s book titled “Zen: Dawn in the West”.

This is the part that is shown in the form of a sine-wave. The right hand side of the diagram is the model proposed by Vedanta, in which the concept of “bodies” (sharīra) is used. It is also fully known that Advaita Vedanta considers these bodies to be nothing but modifications of awareness itself, the “primary stuff” of existence.  As I was reading the book on Zen, the moment I saw the diagram (which I recreated for this blog), it immediately struck me as to what a great degree of overlap there exists between the two models. Therefore, I decided to put the two models side-by-side to demonstrate just that.

In the buddhist model, the first 6 levels of consciousness map very neatly into the vedantic (and actually samkhya) model of the five tanmatras (associated with the sense functions) and part of the mental apparatuses that identifies with the body (ego). The mind, intellect aspect of the antahkarana seem to correlate with the level 7 (termed manas in the buddhist model) while the chitta aspect (storehouse of impressions) seems to correlate with the 8th level or “relative Alaya consciousness”. This also seems to correlate with the causal body (kārana sharira) which is said to contain the karmic seeds (samsakaras) from which spring forth actions and consequences in a cyclical manner.  At level 9, is absolute Alaya consciousness, which he labels “Formless Self or True-Nature”. This maps very nicely as Atman (Vedantic model).

For those who don’t know what ālaya vijñāna (ālaya consciousness) is, here’s a short primer. Buddhists consider that instead of considering an individual entity (who lives and dies), whose mind is a flux of objects (thoughts) arising and dissipating in his/her unique consciousness (thus giving the personality a seemingly continuous identity), there is essentially a “mind-stream”, in which objects (thoughts) arise as discrete instances, dependently co-rising (pratityasamutpāda), and unrelated, but somehow a sense of continuity arises out of this.

What is interesting to me, is that this ālaya vijñāna is considered to be the “seat” of the Tathāgata garbha (Buddhist ultimate/true nature). In his book, it seems the Zen Roshi indicates a sort of “ocean-wave” relationship between the “individual entity” and the ultimate formless consciousness (refer to the diagram).

I have always held that at the highest level, Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta, or for that matter Daoism, or Kashmir Shaivism, are more compatible,  and have more agreements rather than disagreements.

It seems the Buddha always refused to answer the question “Is there a True Self”. However, on his dying day, he seemed to have put to rest the discussion. Here’s a quote from an article written by Dr. Subhash Kak that discusses this very topic. To quote the relevant section here —

“The Self (ātman) is reality (tattva), the Self is permanent (nitya), the Self is virtue (guṇa), the Self is eternal (śāśvatā), the Self is stable (dhruva), and the Self is auspiciousness (śiva).”

While I have had many discussions with Theravadins who stubbornly deny this, and will claim that the Mahayana sutras have been defiled by “brahmanical ideas” over the millennia, there are many who consider the “Tathāgata garbha” to be akin to Atman/Brahman of Vedanta.


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