When we talk about integrating Yoga and Buddhism, we must first be clear about what we mean. In the modern world, Yoga is often reduced to asana or its physical side. Buddhism is reduced to meditation, which many Buddhist groups emphasize. Yet Yoga has its meditation side that is its essence and main focus and Buddhism has its exercise and martial arts traditions as well. In this article, Dr. David Frawley (Pandit Vamadeva Shastri) cautions that Yoga and Buddhism are many sided-traditions, with their own internal variations, which we should avoid reducing to any simple stereotypes.
I view Buddhism and Yoga as sister traditions in that they share certain concepts and practices like karma and rebirth or mantra and meditation but, at the same time, recognize that they can have different views or goals, which are often highlighted in the traditional literature. The tendency to find commonality between these two great spiritual traditions is not limited to the West.
Swami Vivekananda, the first great figure to bring Yoga to the West, examined the Buddhist Mahayana scriptures (Sutras) and found much similarity between their key teachings and those of Vedanta. In recent years with the influx of Tibetan refugees, including the Dalai Lama, into India since the Chinese occupation of Tibet, there has been a new dialogue between the two traditions that is bringing about greater respect between them. Tibetan Buddhists often appear at Hindu religious gatherings and partake in all manner of discussions.
Nor is the attempt to connect the two traditions limited to modern times. Various synthetic Hindu-Buddhist teachings have existed through history. Buddha himself was born a Hindu, and some scholars have argued that Buddhism as a religion apart from Hinduism did not arise until long after the Buddha had passed away. A Shiva-Buddha teaching existed in Indonesia in medieval times, and for many Tantric Yogis it is difficult to tell whether they were Hindus or Buddhists. Buddha became accepted as an avatar of Vishnu during the period while Buddhism was still flourishing in India, and most Hindus still consider that we live in the age of the Buddha-avatar. Most Hindus accept Buddha, even if they do not accept all Buddhist teachings.
However, such synthetic trends did not exclude disagreements and debates between the two traditions, which were quite common historically. Nor did they ever succeed in fully uniting them. Their traditions and lineages remain separate to the present day. Generally, the Hindu Yoga tradition sought to absorb Buddhism into itself by reinterpreting Buddha in a more Hindu light. Buddhism however strove to maintain its separate identity. Most Hindu and Buddhist teachers, including those of the Yoga school of Hinduism, found it necessary to discriminate their doctrines, particularly on subtle levels of practice and insight. Hence while we can honor the connections between these two systems, we cannot overlook their differences either.
Yoga and Meditation
Today Yoga is most known for its asana tradition or yogic postures, which are the most popular, visible and outward form of the system. Buddhism is known as a tradition of meditation, as in the more popular forms of Buddhist meditation like Zen and Vipassana. This is rather strange because Yoga traditionally defines itself as meditation, or calming the disturbances of the mind, not as asana, which is taught merely as an aid to meditation. In the Yoga Sutras, the classical text on Yoga, of which there are two hundred sutras only three deal with asana, while the great majority deal with meditation, its theory and results. In the West we hear people talk of “Yoga and meditation,” Yoga meaning asana or some other outer practice like pranayama. If one states this in India, one hears “Yoga and meditation, are they two?”
Unfortunately, many people who have studied Yoga in the West have learned only the asana or posture side of the teaching, not the meditation side. Some of them may, therefore, look to Buddhist teachings, like Zen or Vipassana, for meditation practices, not realizing that there are yogic and Vedantic forms of meditation which are traditionally not only part of the yogic system, but its core teaching! The cause for this often resides with Yoga teachers who have not studied the meditation side of their own tradition. Some Yoga teachers have not been taught yogic forms of meditation and purely asana-oriented teachers have become popular, no doubt owing to their appeal to the physically oriented Western mind.
There is nothing necessarily wrong with doing Yogic asanas and Buddhist meditation; but one who is claiming to be a Yoga teacher and, yet, does not know the Yogic meditation tradition cannot claim to be a real Yoga teacher in the full sense of the term. We could compare them with someone who practices a Buddhist physical exercise system, like Buddhist martial arts, but, on top of this, does a non-Buddhist meditation system, and still claims to be a teacher of Buddhism! The real Yoga tradition has aimed at producing meditation masters, not merely beautifully flexible bodies. Most of the Yoga System of Patanjali is concerned with the science of meditation (sanyama) as concentration, meditation and Samadhi (Dharana, Dhyana, Samadhi). In fact in the beginning of the Yoga Sutras, Yoga is defined as Samadhi or spiritual absorption.
Yoga and its related Vedantic systems includes numerous types of meditation, both with form and without. These include pranayama techniques like So’ham Pranayama or the various types of Kriya Yoga (like those taught by Paramahansa Yogananda), meditation on deities of all types and various devotional approaches, every sort of mantra from simple bija mantras like “OM” to long extended mantras like Gayatri, the use of yantras and other geometrical devices, diverse concentration methods, passive meditation approaches and active approaches like the Self-inquiry taught by Sri Ramana Maharshi. It is a treasured meditation tradition of which the rich asana tradition is merely an aspect.
Choosing a Path
Some people may try to follow Gurus in both traditions (generally without the approval of the teachers). Of course, teachings which are common to both traditions like non-violence are obviously easy to correlate. Different meditation techniques, however, may not be so easy to combine. For example, it may be difficult to meditate upon the
Supreme Self of Vedanta while meditating upon the non-Self of Buddhism. The Buddhist approach requires doubting that there is any self at all. The Vedantic approach requires complete faith in the Self and merging everything into it. Above all it is hard to maintain certain theistic devotional approaches in a Buddhist context where there is no real God or Creator.
There are a number of people in the West today, and even in India, who are combining Yoga and Buddhism, as well as less related traditions. In this eclectic age, such synthetic experimentation is bound to continue and may prove fruitful in some instances, particularly when one is still searching out one’s path. Yet it frequently gets people lost or confused when they try to mix teachings together they do not really understand. Jumping back and forth between teachers and traditions may prevent us from getting anywhere with any of them. Superficial synthesis, which is largely a mental exercise, is no substitute for deep practice that requires dedicated concentration. The aim is not to combine the paths but to reach the goal, which requires taking a true path out to the end. While there may be many paths up to the top of a mountain, one will not climb far criss-crossing between paths. Above all, it is not for students on the path to try to combine paths. It is for the masters, the great lineage bearers in the traditions, to do so if this is necessary.
Today we are entering into a global age that requires the development of a global spirituality. This requires honoring all forms of the inner quest regardless of where and when they come from. The unity of truth cuts across all boundaries and breaks down all divisions between human beings. It is crucial that such meditation traditions as Yoga and Buddhism form a common front in light of the needs of the global era. All such true spiritual traditions face many common enemies in this materialistic age. Their common values of protecting the earth, non-violence, recognition of the law of karma, and the practice of meditation are perhaps the crucial voice to deliver us out of our present crisis.
But, in coming together, the diversity of teachings should be preserved. This means not only recognizing their unity but respecting their differences. This is the same issue as that of different cultures. While we should recognize the unity of humanity, we should allow various cultures to preserve their unique forms—not simply throw them all into one big melting pot, in which all their distinctions are lost. True unity is universality that fosters a creative multiplicity, not a uniformity that reduces everything to a stereotype. Truth is not only One but Infinite and cannot be reduced to any final form. Pluralism is also true as each individual is unique and we should have a broad enough view to allow others to have contrary opinions. As the Vedic Rishis stated, “That which is the One Truth the seers teach in diverse ways.” This is to accommodate all the different types and levels of souls.
Yoga and Buddhism should continue a dialogue but one that is respectful of the nature and extent of both traditions. Comparing Yogic and Buddhist concepts of meditation and consciousness is perhaps the most important area. But it is much more than just adding asana to a Buddhist meditation system. Another good area is Hindu and Buddhist Tantra, which share many similar practices of deity worship, mantra and meditation. Ayurveda is yet another area that Tibetan Buddhism and Indian Yoga systems share. Whether this results in a greater amalgamation between the systems or not, it is bound to bring a greater understanding.
About the Author:
David Frawley, Phd (Pandit Vamadeva Shastri) is Founder and Director of the American Institute of Vedic Studies and the author of thirty books, several training courses and over a hundred articles on Vedic systems of knowledge. His study of Vedantic meditation methods, particularly the practice of Self-inquiry as taught by Ramana Maharshi, is the subject of his book, Vedantic Meditation: Lighting the Flame of Awareness. He teaches extensively around the globe and is a visiting professor for the Vivekananda Yoga Kendra in Bangalore, India, a university for yogic and Vedic studies. For further information about his programs and publications, please visit his website: vedanet.com.