Kanzeon Bodhisattva


Buddhism: Yoga and Nirvana

Mircea Eliade

During his period of study and asceticism, Sakyamuni had learned the Samkhya doctrines as well as the yogic practices. In Valsali, Arada Kalama taught a kind of preclassic Samkhya and Udraka Ramaputra explained the fundamentals and the aims of yoga.

If Buddha refused the teachings of these two masters, it was because he had gone beyond them.

But, as Émile Sénart wrote as early as 1900, Buddha did not repudiate the Indian ascetic and contemplative traditions as a whole; he enhanced them: It was on the soil of yoga that Buddha was brought up; whatever new elements he might have been able to infuse into it, it was the world of yoga in which his thinking was shaped" (Sénart, Bouddhisme et Yoga, p. 348).

At first sight, Buddha rejected Brahman orthodoxy and the speculative tradition of the Upanishads as well as the innumerable mystic-ascetic “heresies” evolved on the fringe of Indian society. And yet the central problem of Buddhism, suffering and the release from suffering, is the traditional problem of Indian philosophy.

This apparently paradoxical situation becomes more understandable if one reflects that Buddha proposed to go beyond all the philosophical formulas and mystic prescriptions in vogue in his time in order to deliver man from their control and open the “way” for him to the Absolute.

If he appropriated the merciless analysis to which preclassic Samkhya and yoga subjected the idea of “person” and psychomental life, it was because the “Self” had nothing to do with that illusory entity, the human “soul.” But Buddha went even farther than Samkhya, yoga, and the Upanishads, for he refused to postulate the existence of a purusha or an atman.

In fact, he denied the possibility of having even an approximate experience of the true Self as long as a man remained “unawakened.” Buddha also rejected the conclusions of the speculation of the Upanishads: the postulate of a Brahma, pure Spirit, Absolute, Immortal, Eternal, identical with the atman; but he did so because this dogma threatened to satisfy the intelligence and consequently prevented man from awakening.

On closer examination of the matter, one becomes aware that Buddha rejected all contemporary philosophies and asceticisms because he regarded them as idola mentis that erected a screen between man and absolute reality, the one true unconditioned essence.

A number of canonical texts prove that Buddha in no way envisaged the negation of an ultimate, unconditioned reality beyond the flux of cosmic and psychomental phenomena; these texts show that he refrained from dwelling at too great length on the subject.

Nirvana is the height of the absolute, asamskrta—in other words, what is neither born nor made, what is irreducible, transcendent, beyond all human experience.

It would be futile to contend that nirvana does not exist because it is not an object of knowledge. Undoubtedly nirvana is not known directly in the way in which color, sensation, etc., are known; it is not known indirectly through its activity in the way in which the sensory organs are known. Its nature, however, and its activity . . . are objects of knowledge. . . . The yogi enters into contemplation . . . [and] takes cognizance of nirvana, of its nature, of its activity. When he emerges from contemplation, he cries: “0 Nirvana! destruction, calm, excellence, release!” The blind, since they do not see blue and yellow, have no right to say that the sighted do not see colors and that colors do not exist.

[Samghabhadra, quoted by L. de La Vallée-Poussin in Nirvana, Paris, 1925, pp. 73-74; cf. Visuddhimagga, p. 507: “One cannot say that a thing does not exist because fools do not perceive it.”]

Nirvana can be “seen” only with “the eyes of the saints”—that is, with a transcendent “organ” that is no longer part of the perishable world.

The problem for Buddhism, as for any other initiation, was to show the way and to create the means of obtaining this transcendent “organ” that could reveal the unconditioned.

Let us remember that Buddha’s message was addressed to the man who suffers, the man caught in the nets of transmigration. For Buddha, as for all forms of yoga, salvation was to be gained only at the end of a personal effort, a concrete assimilation of truth.

This was neither a theory nor an escape into a random ascetic effort. Truth must be understood and at the same time experienced. Now both ways entailed risks: “understanding” might remain a mere speculation and “experimentation” might lead to ecstasy.

To Buddha one could find salvation only by attaining to nirvana-that is, by transcending the level of profane human experience and rejoining the level of the unconditional. But Buddha hesitated to speak of this unconditioned in order not to do it injustice.

If he attacked the Brahmans and the paribbajakas, it was precisely because they descanted too much on the inexpressible and professed to be able to define the Self (atman). To Buddha, “the argument that the atman exists really and permanently is a false view; the argument that it does not exist is a false view” (Vasubandhu).

But, if we read what he said of the delivered man, the man who had attained nirvana, we shall see that in every respect this man resembles “the man delivered in life,” the non-Buddhist jivanmukta. “Even in this life” he is “withdrawn, given nirvana, feeling happiness in himself, and he spends his time with his soul identified with Brahma” (Anguttara Nikaya, 11, 206). L. de La Vallée-Poussin, who quoted this passage, cited the Bhagavad-Gita, V, 24: “He who finds happiness, joy, light only within, the yogi identified with Brahma, attains to nirvana, which is Brahma (brahmanirvanam).”

Thus we see the direction in which Buddha extended the Indian mystic-ascetic tradition: He believed in a “deliverance in life,” but he refused to define it. “If Buddha refused to explain himself on the subject of the Man Delivered, it was not because even the living saint did not really exist but because one can say nothing precise about the Man Delivered” (de La Vallée-Poussin, op. cit., p. 112).

All that can be said of the jivanmukta (or, in Buddhist terminology, the “nirvana-ed”) is that he is not of this world. “The Tathagata can no longer be described as being matter, sensations, ideas, desires, knowledge: he is delivered from these designations; he is profound, immeasurable, unplumbable as the great ocean.

One cannot say: ‘he is,’ ‘he is not,’ ‘he is and is not,’ ‘he neither is nor is not’ ” (Samyutta Nikaya, IV, 374). This is precisely the speech of negative mysticism and theology, it is the famous Neti! Neti! of the Upanishads.


Mircea Eliade
Patanjali and Yoga
Translated by Charles Lam Markmann
New York: Schocken Books
Second Printing, 1976
Pp. 157 - 160
Original French Edition:
Patanjali et le Yoga
Editions du Seuil
, 1962

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