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Zen and Vedanta

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  • Zen and Vedanta

    While Zen has become quite popular in the West, the tradition of Advaita Vedanta is generally not very well-known. Because the two traditions of spiritual cultivation are so similar I thought I'd compare and contrast them here, just for fun.

    I won’t be detailing historical facts. This will primarily look at aspects of the actual practices themselves, with some minor background information for context.

    What is Advaita Vedanta?

    Advaita (non-dual) Vedanta (What comes at the end of the Vedas), often referred to as just Vedanta, is a branch of Hinduism that focuses on non-dualism. Per Vedanta philosophy, the physical world (maya) is an illusion created by the mind and is a result of considering oneself to be separate from the Divine. Once the mind is transcended and the true self is realized (or remembered), an individual returns to Sat-Chit-Ananda (Being-Consciousness-Bliss). When that happens, duality ceases, thus the focus on attaining non-duality.

    Mind-Only Approach

    The most important aspect of each tradition is the application of the "Mind-Only" approach. Both traditions get straight to the crux of all spiritual endeavor and don’t put much focus on outer rituals or activities. The gist of both practices is, “Investigate the mind and it will disappear”. Since the entire physical universe is a creation of the mind, and the limited mind is what continues our ignorance that keeps us from knowing our true Self (God), one should go straight to transcending the mind.

    “Just as the spider emits the thread (of the web) out of itself and again withdraws it into itself, likewise the mind projects the world out of itself and again resolves it into itself. When the mind comes out of the Self, the world appears. Therefore, when the world appears (to be real), the Self does not appear; and when the Self appears (shines) the world does not appear. When one persistently inquires into the nature of the mind, the mind will end leaving the Self (as the residue). What is referred to as the Self is the Atman. The mind always exists only in dependence on something gross; it cannot stay alone. It is the mind that is called the subtle body or the soul (jiva).

    Bodhidharma also expounded the Mind-Only approach. Legend says that when Bodhidharma made Huike his successor, he gave him his copy of the Lankāvatāra Sutra and told him everything he needed to know was in the text. The Lankāvatāra Sutra focuses heavily on the Mind-Only teaching.

    I wrote a little bit about the similarity in language of Vedanta texts and the Lankāvatāra Sutra here:


    How to Investigate the Mind

    What initially drew my attention to the similarity between Zen and Vedanta is the importance placed on Self-Inquiry. In Vedanta, "ātma-vichār" is the practice of investigating the mind. This is most commonly done through the question “Who am I?” It’s not a mantra or something to be repeated mechanically, but forms the basis for the actual investigative practice.

    The thought ‘who am I?’ will destroy all other thoughts, and like the stick used for stirring the burning pyre, it will itself in the end get destroyed. Then, there will arise Self-realization.

    In Zen, there is a practice called “Hua Tou”, which focuses on employing questioning like “Who am I?”, “Who is repeating the Buddha’s name?” and “What was my Original Face before my father and mother were born?” The late Master Hsuan Hua refers to the practice of investigating the mind as “Investigating Chan”.

    The goal of investigating Chan is to understand the mind and see the true nature. That is, to remove all the defilements in our minds and to actually see the image of our self-nature. Defilements refer to false thoughts and attachments, while the self-nature refers to our inherent wisdom and virtue, which is identical to that of all Buddhas. The Thus Come Ones’ wisdom and virtue is embodied within all Buddhas and sentient beings and is not dual or different.

    The point is the same: when you turn the mind in on itself, it disappears and your True Nature shines. It should be noted that the questioning eventually falls away and only silence remains. At the highest level, the questioning isn’t needed anymore since the illusion of the mind is gone.

    I should point out that Self-Inquiry is an advanced type of meditation and should at the very least be approached prudently.

    Jñāna Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga

    Hinduism has three overall paths for attaining Self-realization: Jñāna Yoga (Path of Knowledge), Bhakti Yoga (Path of Devotion) and Karma Yoga (Path of Action).

    Jñāna Yoga is done primarily through the practice of self-inquiry.

    Bhakti Yoga focuses on devotional practices with the aim of one’s devotion becoming so deep that the subject forgets any separation between themself and the object - the Divine. The focus of the devotion is on whatever form most appeals to the individual, such as Krishna, Shiva and Kāli Mā. In Buddhism, the devotion is usually towards a Buddha or Bodhisattva, such as Śakyamuni Buddha, Amitābha Budda or Avalokiteśvāra Bodhisattva. Bhakti Yoga is generally the focus of most religions.

    Karma Yoga focuses on serving the Divine through actions that serve humanity, since serving humanity is serving God. The focus is to give up all thought that one is the “doer” of the actions and see oneself as a vehicle of service for the will of the Divine. Performing actions this way is a means of purifying oneself and gradually eliminating the egoic self. This can be compared to the ideal of the Bodhisattva - one who sacrifices themself to serve others. A Bodhisattva is often seen is a highly advanced spiritual being that puts off final enlightenment in order to aid sentient beings, but a Bodhisattva can also be any being who gives themself up to the service others.
    Last edited by Andrew R; 5th January 2020, 09:45 PM.
    Love, and do what you will.

    - St. Augustine

  • #2
    Dear Andrew,

    thank you very much for this info and comparison between Zen and Vedanta, also the overview of the Yogic paths.

    Well, the 'translation issue' is the same here, and one has to get aware of this walking along any path. Like the Buddhist and Sanskrit Buddhist texts use three words that get translated as 'mind', where none really means what a Westerner nowadays associates with 'mind'. It's like a three-tier-traffic light in the original with red, yellow and green; and then they translate everything as orange. So, when one said, 'I've stepped on the brake at yellow in order to stop on the red traffic light, and started driving again at the green light'. They'd translate 'I've stepped on the brake at orange in order to stop at the orange traffic light, and started driving again at the orange light.' And then it's gotten a habit, custom and fixed idea to speak about the 'mind'. And in 'Hindu' use it's even more then three, guess.

    Even so some say otherwise (but do they really 'know'?) that one can and has to 'reach' something like a substantial change, a change in essence; my understanding is that one reaches only an awareness of it, it is already so, everybody is already one with the divine, the brahman is the atman, nirvana is samsara, everybody is already buddha etc. Well, and just in case, what's the problem with being reborn or reincarnated on this planet? Personally, I always feel that's just a Buddhist version of the 'original sin concept', where one shall not feel okay with what is, and this for no reason at all. It just creates a struggle. Like, what if I like it here on this planet? I'm just studying Buddhism etc., in order to figure out, how to not get out of the wheel of rebirth, I'd like to know how to get reincarnated again and again and again on this planet earth. Maybe until I manage to stay for hundreds of years like Zhang San Feng was said to. What's the problem with this 'reincarnation business'? I had started saying 'when in spiritual circles', that 'you can all go if you don't like it here on this precious planet'.

    Next common mistake, so my impression, that many think that oneness with 'the all', 'the divine', 'the cosmos' etc. would 'extinguish' individual consciousness. Where so my feeling oneness or 'holonomy' is one way of looking at the same thing as identity or individuality (and both something else as 'ego' or a false notion of self); Holonomy and individuality/originality do not exclude each other, it's not either/or; it's as well as. It has been pointed out before, that there are even practices in eastern 'spirituality' that only focus on 'extinguishing the ego a n d individuality', this creates just a sick personality structure where there is only 'superego' and the person a done in the mass, probably just some form of 'social engineering' already back then; so one has to check what one is doing.

    Then my experience is, that those who talk in these standard terms of 'mind', 'ego' etc. all did just create their own limits. They don't see that their spiritual journey is just their ego trip. And that when they repeat that 'one has to really get against that ego' etc. - usually with a bit of a mix of a brash, macho and slightly desperate vibe - they just repeat a 'conditioned state'. I've known somebody with a real uncommon perception, eyes open and eyes closed, like also a visionary, and a metaphysical author and lecturer also, but he never got over these terms. He fluctuated, he couldn't make complete sense out of his perceptions, and when he wanted to communicate something, he had nothing but his 'mind' (more like the intellect, but unreflected use) that he disliked and hadn't developed further. Others likewise. They just play the same game all over.

    Like a 'paradigm shift' according to Kuhn is, when the existing words change their meaning, not when new words are coming on top. So, what I observed, many that start out 'in spirituality' learn new words on top, they learn to speak in a new slang, a spiritual or esoteric jargon. So, this way they can quack with the quacks. And they adapt a lot of nonsense ideas this way. But a paradigm shift, transcending something is, when the words change their meaning. Like, 'mind' is recognized as not being 'a thing in ones head', that this is just a false notion of self identifying with thoughts, next, that 'mind' or 'soul' is the same as or is one with the universal mind or soul or energy. Like energy is universal energy, even when you 'generate an energy flow', your energy is the same as the universal energy. So, ones 'mind' or 'soul' is not separate from the universe. Like, this way the meaning changes. And in the end, it's not about the words, one needs to get a feeling for it, some experience. Then there's nothing really to say, the words could just point the moon.

    Alright, thank you again,

    WIth Kung Fu Salute,

    Last edited by MichaelS; 6th January 2020, 10:36 AM. Reason: additions


    • #3
      Dear Andrew,

      just a small addition. Read a bit and I may be more on the side of Tantra in Indian terms, than on the side of Vedanta. In the Zen mind thread I had quoted Ramana Maharsi via Paul Brunton, but I'm not more familiar with him. Did read a bit in the link you provided and in the Wikipedia entry for him. I'm not sure, even though there are similarities, that Advaita Vedanta and Zen have the same point. Because the point - in my maybe too limited understanding - is the notion of emptiness, that you can't describe it with words. Where Ramana Maharsi seems to describe things, for expl. that the Self would not be personal, or that 'God' is one thing inside the Self. What sort of God? And he said, that the Self is where the thought of I does not appear, where there is silence, But I'm not sure whether this is the same silence. My main point: where Paul Brunton writes of Happiness as the true nature of self according to Maharsi, there for me this is a feeling, and one that is not impersonal, it has an individual touch for my taste. And when one is silent, as he talks about silence, then in order to be able to feel. To focus just on the absence of thoughts does not make sense to me. Individuality or Personality is something one can feel, esp. when there is silence. But thank you again, I just found out this way, that it's not Vedanta and Maharsi what feels good to me. And Shiva and sat-chit-ananda feels a bit different on the tantric side of things.

      Thank you very much,

      With Kung Fu Salute,



      • #4
        Hi Michael,

        The comparison was just for fun as I'm naturally drawn to both Zen and Vedanta traditions. Still, I would say the gist of each path is "the mind keeps you ignorant of your true Self, so investigate the mind in order to transcend it and return to your natural state." Actually transcending the mind is the point of all spiritual paths, but some are more straight to this point.

        In the end, any legitimate method of cultivation will deliver the intended result.

        Sri Ramakrishna, another well-known Vedanta Master (with a personality essentially the opposite of Ramana Maharshi), demonstrated this by following the practices of various major religions and discovered God through each one.

        In my experience, the result of self-inquiry is incredible. Though bhakti yoga and karma yoga are also very nice.

        Best Wishes,
        Love, and do what you will.

        - St. Augustine


        • #5
          From which is an all round excellent book.

          Once it happened…Shankaran Pillai went to a Vedanta class. Vedanta is the school of Indian metaphysics that speaks of the non-duality of the self and the divine. The teacher, a learned philosopher, was in full swing: “You are not just this or that; you are everywhere. There is nothing like ‘yours’ and ‘mine’; everything is you, everything is yours. In essence, everything is one. What you see, hear, smell, taste, touch is not reality; it is all maya, all illusion.”

          This unbeatable Vedanta rhetoric was buzzing in Shankaran Pillai’s head. He went home and slept on it. He woke in the morning, totally fired up. Usually he loved to sleep, but because of this Vedanta, he sprang out of bed. The first thoughts in his mind were, “There is nothing which is not mine. Everything is mine; everything is me. All that is in this world is me, and everything is maya.”

          You know, whatever the philosophy may be, hunger happens at regular intervals. So Shankaran Pillai went to his favorite restaurant, ordered a big breakfast, and devoured it, saying to himself, “The food is me; the one who serves is also me; the one who eats is also me.” Vedanta!

          He finished his breakfast. When he was in such a high state of Vedanta, mundane issues like paying the bill did not occur to him. He rose and started walking out. When everything is yours, how can there be a bill?

          As he passed the cash counter, the owner happened to turn away to attend to some other chore. Shankaran Pillai saw a huge heap of currency in the till. Immediately, Vedanta told him, “Everything is yours; you cannot differentiate between this and that.” So because his pockets were quite empty, he put his hand into the box, took some cash, stuffed it in his pocket, and sauntered out of the restaurant. He was not out to rob anybody; he was just practicing Vedanta.

          Suddenly a few people from the restaurant ran up and caught him. Shankaran Pillai said, “Who are you trying to catch? You are the catcher and the caught; what you catch is you; the one that catches is also you. When there is no such thing as you and me, who can I pay?”

          The owner was bewildered! Only one thing was clear to him: “My cash is in your pocket.” But here was Shankaran Pillai saying, “The one who catches is also me, the one who is caught is also me.” The owner didn’t know how to deal with this kind of customer. At his wits’ end, he took Shankaran Pillai to court.

          There, Shankaran Pillai continued his Vedanta. The judge tried in many ways to make him understand that he had committed a theft, but to no avail. Then the judge gave up and said, “Okay, ten lashes on the backside.”
          First lash…Shankaran Pillai screamed.
          The judge said, “Don’t worry. It’s all maya anyway. There is no such thing as pain and pleasure. Everything is maya.”
          Second lash…Shankaran Pillai shouted, “Enough!”
          The judge said, “The one who lashes is you, the one who is lashed is also you.”
          Third lash…Shankaran Pillai hollered, “Stop stop!”
          “There is no such thing as starting and stopping. It is all maya.”
          It was like this all the way to ten lashes. But before the ten were done, Vedanta had been cleaned right out of Shankaran Pillai.

          An intellectual understanding that is not backed by experiential knowledge can lead to mind games and deceptive states. But if oneness becomes an experiential reality, it will not produce an immature action. It will produce a tremendous experience of life that will leave you transformed forever.
          George / Юра
          Shaolin Wahnam England

          gate gate pāragate pārasaṁgate bodhi svāhā


          • #6
            Originally posted by George View Post
            Once it happened…Shankaran Pillai went to a Vedanta class. Vedanta is the school of Indian metaphysics that speaks of the non-duality of the self and the divine. The teacher, a learned philosopher, was in full swing: “You are not just this or that; you are everywhere. There is nothing like ‘yours’ and ‘mine’; everything is you, everything is yours. In essence, everything is one. What you see, hear, smell, taste, touch is not reality; it is all maya, all illusion.”

            Lovely story dear siheng. Thanks for sharing.

            With Shaolin Salute,


            • #7
              Thanks for that excerpt, George.

              It reminds me of a Q&A video with Mooji where a person says, "I've just realized I don't exist" and he and Mooji start laughing uncontrollably, and then Mooji says, "Just don't tell your boss, or he'll tell you your wages don't exist!" and the laughter continued.
              Love, and do what you will.

              - St. Augustine


              • #8
                ...Shankaran Pillai...
                It's sad that I knew who told this story from the use of this one name. Sadhguru's favorite person to make stuff up about.


                • #9
                  Thank you Andrew for the post and George for the wonderful story. One additional aspect of alignment between Vedanta and Zen would be in the process of getting to self-realization. Both require focus on one to then achieve the silence of the mind. It is how Sifu teaches Zen in his courses. Even though it is not explicitly stated in the Vedanta scriptures, but implicitly applied through any of the three paths Andrew mentions above.