Discuss the Practices and Beliefs that Linked the Meditation Systems of the Brahmanical and Buddhist Traditions


Early Buddhism and the śramana movement are commonly depicted as conflicting forces to Brahmanism in the first millennium BCE, India (Omvedt, 2003, p.51). Although Buddhism and Brahmanism constituted two very different traditions advancing distinct goals and methods, there are meditative practices that link the two. When one starts to examine these practices, which include the four formless meditations, element meditations, brahmaviharas and the kasinayaya-s, it becomes clear that not only do these practices bridge the often opposing traditions but they also reveal hidden depths of shared cosmological belief systems.  Rather than this resulting in the view of one appropriating from another, these findings highlight their shared cultural heritage, a pool of ideas that circulated between these ancient meditative communities and the fact that Buddhist identity and boundaries were not strictly resistant to Brahmanism and were in fact more fluid than is often depicted in our attempts to compartmentalise and classify.


Buddhism has generally been portrayed as the antithesis of Brahmanism. This is supported by Gail Omvelt, Lal Joshi and Anthony Warder, who have elucidated the widespread anti-Brahmanical feeling and ideological struggle prevalent in Indian society during the first millennium BCE (Omvedt, 2003, p.51; Joshi, 1970, p.13; Warder, 1956, p.57). Joshi writes that in repudiating the sanctity of the Vedas, the Buddha discarded all that constituted pre-Buddhist Vedic culture (Joshi, 1970, p.13). However, although Buddhism opposed many Brahmanic principles and practices, these arguments fail to depict the complexity, interconnectivity and even inter-dependence between the contemplative traditions of ancient India. As Richard Gombrich writes, the Buddha’s teachings developed ‘in dialogue’ with contemporary religious teachers, especially Brahmins. (Gombrich, 2006, p.27) David Ruegg corroborates this by arguing that there was clearly neither a sharp nor radical distinction, nor ‘unbridgeable gulf’ between Buddhism and many of the religions of India, and it has been a mistake to treat them as separate and opposed entities. (Ruegg, 2008, p.1) Rupert Gethin tentatively writes that on one hand we can see the Brahmanical and ascetic views of society as opposed to each other and on the other hand as complementary (Gethin, 1998, p.13). It is important to appreciate that Buddhism grew out of a cultural context shared with the śramana groups and Brahmanical tradition, and although the Buddha repudiated many of the precepts underpinning the contemporary practices, there are in fact significant tenets which exist between these supposedly opposing forces. 


The greatest hindrance to determining the relationship between Brahmanism and Buddhism, highlighted by Johannes Bronkhorst and Alexander Wynne, is the fact that no one knows, with any certainty, what the Buddha actually taught (Bronkhorst, 1946, p.70; Wynne, 1974, p.1). Bronkhorst further argues that not only does this lead to many contradictions within the Buddhist canon, but it also ‘opened the door to foreign elements’, thus allowing outside influences to touch the very heart of the Buddha’s teachings (Bronkhorst, 1946, p.70). Consequently, when determining the links between Brahminic and Buddhist meditation, Bronkhorst views any potentially contradictory practices or beliefs as foreign and misplaced elements, subsequently undermining the purity and authenticity of Buddhist teachings (Bronkhorst, 1946, p.73). Although this is of course possible, to base ones whole argument on this is extreme. When dealing with such mysterious and profound questions as the Buddha did, it is highly likely and reasonable for contrasting practices to be taught so concepts could be understood from different perspectives and on different levels. Despite Buddhism reacting against the Vedic tradition with its monopoly of knowledge and extravagant sacrifices, it is far from implausible that the Buddha found practices from contemporary religious or contemplative circles useful for his own goals. Therefore practices which link the two systems together, and may contradict Buddhist methods in other places, should perhaps not be seen as necessarily misplaced but intentionally included.


Notwithstanding the connections between Buddhist and Brahmanical meditative practices, generally speaking, there are two distinct methods and objectives. Buddhist meditation encompasses forms of self-interpretation and self-development aimed at changing the nature of cognitive and affective mental activity, culminating in enlightened wisdom or insight (Collins, 1987, p.373). Bronkhorst contends that the practice of the four jhānas, rather than resulting from outside influence, constitutes ‘authentic Buddhist meditation’, although the explicit description of what liberating insight actually entailed, the Four Noble Truths, were not original to Buddhism and were added under the influence of ‘mainstream meditation’ (Bronkhorst, 1946, p.74). Jhāna meditation was exceptional in that it was a means to an end, a preparation of the mind for liberating insight (Cousins, 1973, p.117). In contrast, mainstream meditation presents us with mental and physical practices aimed at minimising bodily movements and functions so consciousness may be transformed to a point of stasis beyond all mental activity whatsoever (Collins, 1987, p.373). This tradition was often taken to its extreme by the Jains, becoming a form of asceticism and self-mortification. The cessation of all activities had the aim of avoiding any karma whatsoever and often ended with death due to the cessation of breath or consumption of food. (Wynne, 1974, p.50). A crucial difference between these two traditions is that Vedic liberation, in contrast to Buddhist liberation, could only be attained after death, although it could be anticipated through meditative trances in which the subject/object division is dissolved, the non-dual source of creation experienced, and the un-manifested state of Brahman realised (Wynne, 1974, p.94). 


Bronkhorst describes Brahmanic and Jain meditation as the ‘mainstream tradition,’ initiated by the desire to avoid karma through psychophysical inaction (Bronkhorst, 2011, p.5). Wynne contends however that according to Brahmanic texts emaciation and other painful ascetic practices were in fact marginal (Wynne, 1974, p.49). Despite their practical differences, the concept of karma links the two traditions despite it being interpreted differently. For Buddhists, karma was avoided, not by ‘aiming at the non-functioning of the senses’ but by remaining ‘equanimous in the face of the experiences they offer’ (Bronkhorst, 1946, p.26). Steven Collins writes that these two traditions are ideal types and the majority of contemplative practices in fact incorporate components of both (Collins, 1987, p.373). Bronkhorst contends that any point within the Buddhist canon which recommends a meditative practice which is in other areas criticized or which fits into the ‘mainstream’ tradition of meditation should be seen as ‘later borrowings from outside’ (Bronkhorst, 1946, p.). Collins however highlights that this argument has been based purely on textual interpretations and rightly states that ‘to make such a concrete and institutionalised distinction, between one "ism" and others, seems to me quite unnecessary’ (Collins, 1987, p.374). Bronkhorst is correct to state that there were two different types of meditation that differed both in practice and in their soteriological aims. However, this did not result in entrenched divisions between the two, and the apparent osmosis between the Buddhist and Brahminical literature does not need to be explained away by arguments of later appropriation. It is both plausible and acceptable to view these similarities as result of certain notions being axiomatic to the conceptual framework of the time.


In an important and early passage of the Moksadharma (Mbh. XII.188) we find Brahminic meditators borrowing the Buddhist practice of the four Jhānas (Wynne, 1974, p.26). Bhīmsa declares to Yudhisthira that he will teach him the ‘fourfold discipline of meditation’ through which great sages achieve Nirvana (Wynne, 1974, p.26). Intriguingly only the first jhāna is explained and the other three are not developed. This undermines the usefulness of the practice from the Buddhist perspective for it is in the second, third and fourth stages that the main contemplative achievements and soteriological advancements occur. However, it does prove a degree of openness to alternative methods and a crossover of techniques regardless of the traditional aims they heralded. The jhānas are a set of four altered states of consciousness hierarchically organised (Griffiths, 1983, p.59). The first jhāna is essentially a condition of detachment involving a physical, mental and ethical severance with the world, thus creating mental space for careful analysis of one’s self (Swearer, 1973, p.445). Any ability for intense sensual desire or emotion such as hatred or anger is relinquished. It involves the two cognitive factors of vitakka and vicara; the former denoting the directing of the mind to a certain object and the latter indicating the discipline which maintains that focus (Cousins, 1973, p.122). The implanting of this Buddhist technique within a Brahmanic context shows that these practices were equally relevant to both disciplines in that they were effective in calming the mind and withdrawing the senses. The difference lies in that for Buddhists this was to lead to liberating insight where as for Brahmans this was to lead to union with God. 


The four Jhānas are repeated throughout the Pāli canon yet within different contexts. Despite Bronkshorst’s statement that they are the authentic teachings of the Buddha, they are often used purely as preparatory techniques for practices that seem to have flowed from non-Buddhist circles. Paul Griffiths illuminates that in one such context the jhānas are seen as a preliminary practice to the four formless meditations that aim at the complete cessation of all consciousness whatsoever: a goal similar to Brahmanic meditation (Griffiths, 1983, p.63). These formless meditations include: the sphere of the infinity of space, Ākāsānañcāyatana; the sphere of the infinity of consciousness Viññānañcāyatana; the sphere of nothingness, Ākiñcaññāyatana; and the sphere of neither perception nor non-perception, Nevasaññānāsaññāyatana (Bronkhorst, 1946, p.2). Wynne argues that these altered states of consciousness are linked to element meditation and are in fact just an abbreviation of the complete list of elements, as the first two formless spheres (infinity of space and infinity of consciousness) are connected to the list of elements which end in ‘space’ and ‘consciousness’ (Wynne, 1974, p.45). The Samādhi Sūtta writes (Wynne, 1974, p. 46):

Ānanda, it might be that there is the attainment of a concentration for a bhikkhu of such a kind that with regard to earth he does not perceive the earth; with regard to water, he does not perceive water, with regard to fire, he does not perceive fire, with regard to wind, he does not perceive wind; with regard to the sphere of infinity of space, he does not perceive the infinity of space; with regard to the sphere of the infinity of consciousness, he does not perceive the sphere of infinity of consciousness; with regard to the sphere of nothingness, he does not perceive the sphere of nothingness; with regard to the sphere of neither perception nor non-perception, he does not perceive the sphere of neither perception nor non-perception; with regard to this world [or] the other world he does not perceive this world [or] the other world; and yet he is still conscious

Wynne posits that these meditative practices are based on early Brahmanical cosmogonies, whereby element meditation was considered to constitute a meditative ‘map’ to liberation (Wynne, 1974, p.34). This liberation could be attained on the principle that the yogin can attain union with Brahman by stimulating the procedure of world dissolution during his meditative practice (Wynne, 1974, p.34). These schemes of element meditation are found in Brahmanical and Buddhist sources and often include the formless spheres. Cosmological speculation was intrinsic to early Brahmanic meditation, and element meditation was just one facet of this tradition (Wynne, 1974, p.35). Due to evidence found in the Moksadharma, which Wynne argues has its roots in the Nāsadīyasūkta, he posits that a speculative tradition existed in the late Vedic period and therefore element and formless meditations originate in pre-Buddhist, Brahmanical traditions (Wynne, 1974, p.45). In addition to the textual evidence of these practices in Vedic literature and philosophy, is the lack of a philosophical basis in Buddhist thought for the notion of meditating on macrocosmic elements, therefore, it is likely (although impossible to prove) that element meditation was absorbed from early Brahmanic meditative circles (Wynne, 1974, p.58).


The close conceptual links between early Brahmanic cosmology and Buddhist meditation are also found in the list of the kasīnāyantana-s. This list contains the ten spheres of totality: elements of earth, water, fire and wind, the colours dark blue, yellow, red and white and finally space and consciousness (Wynne, 1974, p.31). It is not clear why the list of colours is included in Buddhist practice. Wynne has argued that in the similar fashion of the formless spheres, the kasīnāyantana-s also stem from Brahmanic cosmological speculation as they represent a ‘transition from the gross to the subtle’ (Wynne, 1974, p.31). This practice reflects macrocosmic meditative objects as the practitioner perceives ‘the earth-kasina above, below, across, without a second immeasurable’ (Wynne, 1974, p. 28). As stated above, macrocosmic meditations have little reason for being in the Buddhist canon, yet play an important role in Bramanical theology. Therefore, not only are these meditation systems linked, but it is likely that they stem from cosmological understandings shared with Brahmanism.   


Another example of meditative practices seemingly imported from contemplative traditions outside of Buddhism was the brahmavihārās. Again these practices seem to add nothing to early Buddhist soteriology, yet they constitute another context in which the four jhānas appear as a preparatory practice rather than the means to liberating insight and nirvana (Gethin, 2008, p.6). The four brahmavihārā can be translated as ‘the ways of living like the Brahma’ or as the ‘divine abidings’ (Griffiths, 1983, 64). These four sublime states of mind are identified by love, sympathy with sorrow, sympathy with joy and equanimity (Charkraborti, 1973, p.250). Unlike the jhānas these meditative states are aimed at rebirth in a higher (Brahma) world: “Having cultivated the four sublime ways of living, at the breaking up of the body after death he was born in the Brahma world” (D II 196, trans. Gethin, 2008, p.114) Bronkhorst cites a passage from the Sauytta Nikaya containing a story of Buddhist monks embarrassed by heretical wanderers after the heretics proclaim that the Buddha’s teaching did not differ from their own, as both teach the four Brahmic States (Bronkhorst, 1946, p.68). The passage does not identify to which tradition these heretics belonged, but Bronkhorst, supporting his argument that Brahmanism had little influence on authentic Buddhist meditation, claims that due to their emphasis on infinity they must be linked to Jaina practices (Bronkhorst, 1946, p.68). However, regardless of the origin of this practice, what is important is that distinct groups shared contemplative practices and the boundaries delineating one tradition from another had not yet crystalized in the days of early Buddhism, allowing for beliefs and practices to be shared and traditions to be linked. 


One reason for why Brahmanical and Buddhist meditation practices and beliefs were linked was a consequence of Buddha’s teachers, Ālāra Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta. Wynne contends that these teachers had a Brahmanical background, evidenced by their teachings of the sphere of nothingness and the sphere of neither-perception-nor-non-perception, respectively (Wynne, 1974, p.34). Wynne posits that the formless spheres correlate to element meditations, which clearly have cosmological underpinnings in the Rg Veda and parallels in the Upanisads (Wynne, 1974, p.44). The Ariyapariyesanā recounts that after renouncing the world the Buddha joined Ālāra Kālāma’s hermitage and shortly afterwards attained the sphere of nothingness (Anālayo, 2011, p.76). However, this was not the ultimate goal which the Buddha was searching for, hence he proclaims that ‘the teaching did not conduce to disenchantment, nor dispassion, nor cessation, nor peace, nor direct knowledge, nor awakening, nor nibbana, but only rebirth in the sphere of nothingness. Finding no satisfaction in that teaching, I lost my enthusiasm for it, and left.” (MII

165, trans. Gethin, 2008, p.177) The teachings of Uddaka Rāmaputta ignited a similar reaction from the Buddha (M II 166). Scholars such as Bronkhorst and Tilmann Vetter have argued that the story of the Buddha’s training under these two men is a fabrication and in fact, Bronkhorst argues, it constituted purely a polemic against “heretical” teachings (Tilmann, 1988, P.89; Wynne, 1974, p.44).


Wynne however contends that the story recited in the Ariyapariyesanā sutta and other places, amounts to not only the earliest, but also the most authentic bibliographical account in Buddhist literature (Wynne, 1974, p.2). Furthermore, if it was purely a polemic device the Buddha would not have spoken about these two teachers with the great esteem he did. When deciding who he would first teach his newly discovered Truth, the Buddha exclaimed Ālāra Kālāma, ‘he was wise, clever, learned… He would quickly understand this Truth’ (MI 170, trans. Gethin, 2008, p.118). The salient point here is that although the Buddha left these two teachers because their practices were not leading him to the goal he sought, ‘of the ultimate state of sublime peace’, he did recognise inherent values within them and so rather than rejecting them completely, he retained them in his teachings but directed them to a different goal  (MI 163, trans. Gethin, 2008, p. 176). Hence these two traditions are linked by this practice.


The tendency of much Buddhist scholarship to separate meditation from its ritual-devotional and cosmological context not only represents a “protestantising” of the tradition, but also obscures the clear links between Brahmanic and Buddhist beliefs that underpinned their shared meditative practices (Swearer, 1995, p.208). The most fundamental presupposition in early Brahmanic thinking is the ‘correspondence between man and cosmos’ (Wynne, 1974, p.37). According to Upanisadic philosophy, the Brahman in the form of the cosmic man is omnipresent, permeating the whole cosmos and eternal within us (Dikshit, 1988, p.10) From this perspective, altered states of consciousness reached through meditation were conceived of as being homogeneous with the subtle strata of the cosmos (Wynne, 1974, p.37). Gethin’s study of Buddhist meditation and cosmology has highlighted that in a similar way to how element meditation comprised a map through which yogins could reverse creation through the dissolution of the world, Buddhist cosmology must be understood as both ‘a map of all realms of existence and an account of all possible experiences’ (Gethin, 1997, p.195). Gethin focuses on Buddhist cosmological ideas of the expansion and contraction of the universe and the way this affects the significance and nature of the fourth jhāna (Gethin, 1997, p.195). Buddhist cosmology posits that there are varying realms of existence which are hierarchically organised; beings are reborn into different realms according to their actions, these realms expand and contract and it is through meditation that one experiences these dimensions (Gethin, 1997, p.187) This may explain why the Buddha stated that through meditation he had, ‘fully understood and directly experienced this world with its devas, its Mara and Brahma’ [my italics] (Gethin, 1997, p.187).


Gethin elucidates that this hierarchy is one of certain states of mentality and related to different realms of existence, most explicitly seen in the case of the various jhānas and Brahma realms (Gethin, 1997, p.189).  In a similar way to the relationship between cosmology and meditation in Brahmanic traditions, these concepts demonstrate a relationship between Buddhist psychology, meditation and cosmology. This is made especially clear in the Kevaddha-sutta when the Buddha relates a story of a bhikkhu who desired to understand where the four great elements ceased without remainder (Gethin, 1997, p.192). The Buddha replied that ‘the four elements cease not “out there” in some remote outpost of the universe, but in “consciousness”’ (Gethin, 1997, p.191). This account clearly states that particular psychological states in meditation provide entry into particular cosmological realms (Gethin, 1997, p.192). Therefore, whilst at one time journeying through various realms of the cosmos, the Bhikkhu is also travelling an inner, spiritual journey through the mind. When we appreciate these cosmological and mystical aspects of Buddhism, so often ignored, the shared cosmological speculations of Brahmanism and Buddhism make far greater sense. Rather than seeing them as a later appropriation, as Bronkhorst does, they become enmeshed in Buddhist authenticity and inherent to its philosophy.


As one uncovers the depths and complexity of Buddhist meditation, one increasingly encounters parallels between Upanisadic and Buddhist ideology. Peter Masefield has argued in his study, ‘Mind/Cosmos Maps in the Pali Nikayās,’ that we should comprehend the Buddhist references to cosmic hierarchies of beings and psychological hierarchies of mental states (jhānas) as being equivalent to the Upanisadic concept of the ability to observe reality through the standpoint of an exterior world (brahman) or from an interior world (ātman) (Masfield, 1983, p. 71). Masefield has identified a paradigm of thought that runs deeply in Indian philosophical traditions, whilst it is acknowledged in the Vedas it is poorly recognised in the early Buddhist context (Griffiths, 1984, p.220). This paradigm posits that the macrocosmic is contained within the microcosmic, and for consciousness to experience unknown worlds exterior to the self, is for consciousness to travel into the depths of the individual. The tendency in Buddhist study to divorce the doctrinal formulations from its traditional mystical context culminates in serious distortions, resulting in Buddhism appearing not only one-dimensional, but also completely at odds with Brahmanism.


Another interesting link between Brahmanical and Buddhist meditative beliefs and practices is the final destination of the bhikkhu or yogins consciousness in meditative practice. Wynne explains that through the formless spheres and kasināyatana-s the meditator progresses through infinite space and then consciousness, ‘reversing the creation of the cosmos though its successive stages until this primordial state of consciousness is realized in a meditative trance’ (Wynne, 1974, p.49). Similarly, Gethin expresses that from the viewpoint of the expansion and contraction of cosmological realms and ‘the periodic return of beings to the Brahma realms in stilling the mind to the level of the fourth jhana, the bhikkhu is returning to a state experienced long ago’ (Gethin, 1997, p.203) The fact that each tradition posits that the journey towards liberation is in fact a journey back to a state of consciousness previously experienced is a fundamental parallel between the two belief systems. From a cosmological perspective Buddhism and Brahmanism share many beliefs which underpin their meditative practices.


The existence of links between the supposedly antithetical traditions of Buddhism and Brahmanism is largely down to their shared cultural milieu. Due to the chronological obscurity that surrounds Buddhist and Brahmanical literature it is not possible to decipher which tradition was the source and which the borrower, yet this does not matter. What is important is recognising the likelihood of a shared pool of ideas circulating in ancient meditative communities. Furthermore, as Gombrich has highlighted, the Buddhist dharma arose out of debate, resulting in both consistency and opposition to Brahmanism (Gombrich, 2006, p.14). Moreover, as Buddhism itself was taking shape Brahmanism was by no means a monolithic entity (Olivelle, 1993, p.13). Although it was much older than Buddhism it was faced with both internal and external challenges during the first millennium BCE that were remoulding the orthodox religion and culminated in the philosophy of the Upanisads, which contradicts the ancient Vedas in many respects. Bronkhorst has rightly argued against the belief that Buddhism has been dependent on and in some ways secondary to Brahmanism (Bronkhorst, 2011, p.167). One must appreciate that the boundaries of both traditions were not fixed and that permeation between the two was not the result of Brahmanism being more dominant, but because they shared a cultural heritage.


To conclude, the practices of the formless spheres, element meditation, kasinayaya-s and jhānas linked the meditation systems of the Brahmanical and Buddhist traditions due to certain similarities in their cosmological understanding of the world. Wynne has convincingly shown that the meditative techniques taught by Ālāra Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta have Brahmanical origins due to the identification of man and cosmos. Yet, as Ruegg has incisively expounded viewing links between these two traditions through a ‘borrowing paradigm’ circumvents the recognition of the complex matrix of divine levels in Buddhism (Ruegg, 2008, p.22). Seeing cosmological speculations as ‘foreign’, ‘extraneous’ or ‘imported’ undermines the function of these deities or realms of existence as systematically determined in Buddhism (Ruegg, 2008, p.22). As Marasinghe has explained, ‘there was a rich floating mass of cosmological ideas in the Gangetic regions from which most religious teachers drew quite freely’ (Gethin, 1997, p.187). Therefore the cosmological beliefs linking meditational practices of Brahmanism and Buddhism occurred because of a shared common ground, even if they may be evidenced first in Brahmanism, they hold intrinsic importance within Buddhist soteriology.




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