Vedànta vis-à-vis Shentong The Vidyadhara Acharya Mahayogi Sridhar Rana Rinpoche

Vedànta is based on the Upanishads, some of which are as old as the Buddha and others are four to eight hundred years older than the Buddha himself. Shankaràcàrya (also known as Sankara), who was from the 8th century, is the most famous commentator of the Upanishads, and today, the majority of the Hindus follow his commentaries. In the Bodhàyana commentary, according to him, the hermeneutic of the Upanishads existed even before his time.

Although he was from around the 8th century, he became popular among the Hindus only after the 10th century when one of his lineage holders, Vàcaspati Misra, wrote a sub-commentary (Tib. ’grel-wa) on his commentary. Today, Shankaràcàrya is considered among the greatest Hindu philosophers and even educated Hindus in India subscribe to him. However, since he became well known only after the 10th century, no Buddhist scholars like Sàntideva, Śāntarakṣita, Ratnàkarasànti, Jñànagarbha, etc., seem to mention him or refute him in their work.

Śāntarakṣita has however refuted the Upanishadic non-dualism in the Tattva Sangraha’ chapter 7, section 5. In his refutation of the Upanishadic view he has referred to the followers of the Upanishad as those who postulate that the âtmà is eternal, one and of the nature of knowledge/conciousness/ Jñànasvaråpa. Kamalaśīla has also commented on this view describing it as,

“That is the âtmà is of the nature of one eternal consciousness / knowledge.”

Indeed both Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla are refuting almost the same view that Sankaràcàrya postulates although neither Śāntarakṣita nor Kamalaśīla mentions his name or his work. It is important to understand that according to Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla, the Upanishadic view (which is older than the Buddha and the most common and popular view held by Hindus today) is that there is a non-dual consciousness or a non-dual knowledge which is eternal and this is the âtmà or this is called the âtmà. It is important to understand that Śāntarakṣita himself has refuted 6 different interpretations of the âtmà as accepted in Hinduism in his time. This non-dual cognition / consciousness / knowledge which is eternal (nitya / rtag-pa) is one of the âtmà-s refuted by Śāntarakṣita in his ‘Tattva Sangraha’. This âtmà is not dualistic; therefore it is not Vijñàna (Tib. rnam-shes). It is non-dual and it is eternal. It is called Gyana (ye-shes) by Śāntarakṣita, who used the very word the Upanishad and Sankaràcàrya uses.

This is how Śāntarakṣita refuted this view:

“The error in the view of these philosophies is a slight one – due only to the assertion of eternality of cognition.”

There is, however, a slight difference between this Upanishadic view refuted here by Śāntarakṣita and Sankaràcàrya’s Upanishadic view. Sankara’s view is called Maya-Vivartavàd – i.e. the illusionist. The view refuted by Śāntarakṣita is called parinàmavàda - modificationist. The difference is that this view considers the 5 elements, etc., and the world as illusory modifications of this non-dual eternal cognition / consciousness, while Sankara interprets the world and its 5 elements, etc., as illusory and therefore non-existent and this non-dual eternal cognition as separate from the illusion. What Khunkhyen Dolpopa states in his ‘bka sdus bshi pa’ of the Shentong Ultimate Reality is exactly this âtmà view.

I have not seen, to date, any Shentong Tibetan Master refute this âtmà view. Is it because the only difference between the view of Sankara and the Shentong is the use of the word ‘âtmà’, which Buddhists do not like to use?

Although Sankaràcàrya refuted the Vaibhàbika, Sautàntrika, Cittamàtra, and Màdhyamika, he never mentioned anything that is even similar to the Shentong view. If a view similar to Shentong had existed in India and if that had been the view of Asanga, he would have certainly mentioned it. Hindus from ancient time until today have always wanted to prove that Buddhism is just a branch of Hinduism and what the Buddha taught is just another way of teaching the same teachings as already found in Hinduism. If anything similar to the Shentong view had already existed in India by 600 AD, Sankaràcàrya would have certainly used it to prove that Buddhism is just a type of Hinduism. Since Asanga was at least 200 years older than Sankaràcàrya, why has Sankaràcàrya mentioned Vaibhàbika, Sautàntrika, Cittamàtra, and Màdhyamika only and refuted them only?

Sankaràcàrya even mentions the exact opposite view of what Śāntarakṣita mentioned above and refutes him. In exact opposite of what Śāntarakṣita says, “The error in the view of these philosophers is a slight one – due only to the assertion of eternality of cognition.” Sankara says about the Chittamatra “The error in the view of these philosophies is only slight - they believe the non-dual mind as changing moment to moment; we believe it as unchanging eternal.”

If the meaning of the Uttara Tantra is what the Shentongpas make it out to be, it would have existed in the Indian sources too. Sankara would certainly have written that the view of these Buddhist philosophers as what the Vedas had always taught and that Buddhism is just a branch of Hinduism. Even today, if any Indian Hindu philosopher comes across the Shentong view, they would be most happy to embrace it as the correct view and take it as a solid proof that Buddhism is just a branch of Hinduism and the Buddha did not teach anything new. This of course blatantly contradicts what the Buddha himself said in Mahayana, Theravada, and Sarvàstivàda Sutras and Sàstra-s. The Buddha said that he taught something that had been lost for a long time. But the Vedas and the Vedic Bràhmins of the Buddha’s time, whom the Buddha met, had been and are still teaching the existence of true âtmà, and ‘eternal non-dual cognition’ as the Ultimate Reality.

If we glance through the Jain literature, we again find that no Jain scholar mentions that the Buddhists believed in an eternal / permanent non-dual cognition as the ultimate reality. At least, those Jain scholars after Asanga should have done so, if that was how the Uttara Tantra had been interpreted in India.

If we analyze both the Hindu Sankaràcàrya’s and the Buddhist Śāntarakṣita’s, we find that both agree that the view of the Hindu Advaita Vedànta is that the ultimate reality (âtmà) is an unchanging, eternal non-dual cognition. The Buddhists as a whole do not agree that the ultimate reality is an eternal, unchanging non-dual cognition, but rather a changing eternal non-dual cognition. These statements found in the 6th century Hindu text and the refutations of the Hindu view found in the 9th century Buddhist texts (both of which were after the Uttara Tantra and Asanga), show that the Hindu view of the ultimate reality as an unchanging, eternal non-dual cognition is non-existent amongst the Buddhists of India. Not only was such a view non-existent amongst Buddhists of India, but it was also refuted as a wrong view by scholars like Śāntarakṣita. He even writes that if and when Buddhists use the word ‘eternal’ (nitya), it means ‘parinàmi nitya’, i.e., changing eternal, and not the Hindu kind of eternal, which always remains unchanged.

The Hindu âtmà is not only non-dual cognition but is also unchanging, eternal, and truly existing. Sankaràcàrya defines existence (sat) in his Tattvaboda as that which remains the same in all the 3 times (past, present, future). In the commentary by Gaudapàda (who was Sankaràcàrya’s Guru’s Guru), of the Màndukya Upanishada, in verse number 96, he calls the eternally really existing non-dual cognition is non-relational, i.e., free from reference points. In the 37th verse of the same work it is said that this non-dual, eternal, really existing cognition is free from all sense organs, i.e., free from the dualistic mind (namshe). So the Upanishadic view is that the really existing, eternal / permanent, non-dual, non-referential cognition is the âtmà, and this is not dualistic mind. This Upanishadic view existed even before the Buddha, and this was what Sankaràcàrya expounded very clearly and most powerfully around the 6th century. This view, similar to this Sankara view, was refuted by Śāntarakṣita as a wrong view.

The Vedàntic Sutras and Sàstra-s are full of statements like:
  1. This âtmà is truly existent beyond existence and non-existence.
  2. This is truly non-dual beyond dual and non-dual.
  3. This âtmà is the Great Thing (mahàvastu), which is permanent beyond permanent and impermanent, etc., etc.
  4. It is empty of all qualities (nirguna), which means empty of foreign qualities, but not empty (of itself), i.e., not empty of being a truly existing permanent entity (sat); not empty of being non-dual coginition (cit), and not empty of bliss (ànanda). Sat-cit-ànanda is the nature of this âtmà (or non-dual cognition).
If you have understood what I have written above, it is easy to understand why when Ringo Tulku presented the Shentong view in an Indian symposium, all the Hindu Indian scholars happily agreed with it and told him happily, “This is the same view as our Vedanta!.” Also, a few centuries ago, Jonangpa Kunga Drol Chog, a throne holder of the Jonangpa, had visited Muktinàth, where he presented his views to the Hindu yogis present there. These Hindu yogis also called him a genuine Hindu yogi after they heard his Shentong view.

Now I have some questions that I would really like to ask the Shentong Buddhists:
  1. What is the difference between the Shentong view and the most popular Hindu view of the Vedanta / Upanishad of Sankaràcàrya?
  2. If the views are the same, i.e., there cannot be found any differences, then what was the new view that the Buddha taught?
  3. If this Upanishadic view is the highest view of Buddhism, why do we not find it in any Buddhist, Hindu, or Jain texts of India? Taking into consideration that the Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains debated with each other and refuted each other’s views right from the Buddha’s time until Buddhism vanished from India, isn’t it a bit strange that none have mentioned a Buddhist view similar to the Upanishad’s non-dual Atma? All the Hindu and Jain refutations of Buddhism can still easily be found in their original Sanskrit. Why do we not find mention of such a view (Shentong) in any of these texts even after Asanga? This lacunae itself seems to speak quite clearly.
  4. If this Atma has been refuted by many Buddhist scholars like Shantarakshita, yanagarbha, etc., how is it possible for the Shentong view to be free from the same refutation? After all, both are calling the non-dual cognition, which is permanent, non-referential, and really existing as the Ultimate Truth and Ultimate Reality.
  5. If the Ultimate View of Buddhism is Shentong, why did thousands of Brahmins from the time of the Buddha until the 12th – 13thcenturies, become Buddhists and refute the Hindu view as wrong? Many of them were brilliant Hindu / Vedic scholars before they became Buddhists. How could all of these scholars uphold the Shentong view while refuting the view of the Upanishads, if they were saying the same thing?
  6. Shenphen Hookham says, “They have their own view and we have our own, so what’s wrong if they are the same?” This implies that the views are the same. Do all the Shentongpas agree to her reply? If they do agree with her then were all the scholars like Candarakãrti, Jñànagarbha, Śāntarakṣita, Kamalaśīla, Ratnakarashànti, Bhavaviveka, Buddhapàlita, Sàntideva, Prajñàkaramati, and thousands of others just fools to refute the Hindu âtmà view of the Upanishads and become Buddhists?
  7. Also, there seem to be many types of Shentong and these need to be differentiated, otherwise there can be quite a lot of confusion. Just as there are Niràkàra Cittamàtra, Sàkara Cittamàtra, or Yogàcàra Sautàntrika Màdhyamika, Pràsàngika Màdhyamika, Màdhyamika – Shentong should also be differentiated in various forms, instead of calling all of them just ‘Shentong’. For example, some Shentongpas call the state of Nirvàna permanent. This is not a problem and fits in neatly with the rest of Buddhism. This is not really contradictory to Rangtong. As Rangtong does not say the state also is impermanent. It only says that Nirvàna (or such states) is also Nisvabhàva. In such case a Shentong could be called Avasthiti Shentong. This includes those who say the qualities Svatantrika(guna-s) and Kàya-s are permanent. But since the Rangtong does not deny this, it seems redundant to call it Shentong. The qualities and Kàya-s are also Nisvabhàva. If they were not so, they would not be of any use as they could not function.

    But the ‘bka sdus bshi pa’ of Khunkhyen Dolpopa seems to say that the Ultimate Reality is a Super-Thing (Mahàvastu of Vedànta), which is beyond thing and non-thing (beyond Vastu and Avastu), and this is permanent. This Shentong should be called Mahàvastu Shentong. This Shentong is the problem and is not only 100% Vedanta, which predates even Asanga by more than a thousand years, but is contradictory to both the Sràvakayàna and Pàramitàyàna. This was not taught by the Siddha-s to the Rishi-s, as these Rishi-s were older than any of the Mahàsiddha-s.
  8. Most of the logic used by Shentong to show that the Rangtong is inferior to its view has a remarkable resemblance to the logic used by Hindus to refute Buddhism as a whole. These logical refutations of the Buddhist view by the Hindus from even before Buddhism entered Tibet are now being echoed by Shentonpas when they refute Rantong.
    1. One must meditate on a truly existing permanent thing to be liberated. How can anyone be liberated by meditating on the emptiness of an illusory world or on an emptiness or Anàtmà?
    2. This âtmà is non-conceptual and therefore beyond the refutation of the lower logicians.
    3. This âtmà is permanent and truly existing, and beyond being empty and non-empty, beyond permanent and impermanent, beyond existing and non-existing.
    4. The refutation of the logicians cuts only the real existence of the ego and not the real existence of this âtmà.
  9. There is a small legend that says that the Shentong view was kept secret in India from the time of Asanga until it entered Tibet. This story seems cooked up to justify the Shentong lacunae in the records of all Indian systems.

    First of all, Asanga’s teachings are Sutra-s and the Shentong view is a Sutra view. It is bit far-fetched to think that Sutra teachings are secret like Tantra.

    Second, this implies that all the ârya-s like Nàgàrjuna, Aryadeva, etc., before Asanga had the wrong view and therefore cannot be ârya-s.

    Thirdly, why was it necessary to keep Sutra teachings secret unless it blatantly contradicted the prevalent Buddhist views coming down through the unbroken lineages and which were well known to not only all Buddhists, but also all Hindu and Jain scholars?

    Fourthly, The Sràvaka systems like the Theravàda have an equally interesting lore which fits well, like a piece of jigsaw with this ‘Secret Shentong in India’ lore. This lore / legend say that in later years, many Hindu Bharamins entered Buddhism and became monks with the secret purpose of subverting the correct Buddhist view to destroy Buddhism. These Bharamins secretly implanted Hindu (Tib. rmu-rteg-pa) views of the Veda-s and passed it on as the highest Buddhist view. But this was kept secret for many centuries. This legend from the Theravàda tradition and the ‘Secret Shentong’ in India seems to be uncannily similar to each other. It seems weird that a Sutra teaching, which is regarded as the ‘real highest view’ of Buddhism, was really taught only after Asanga in the Uttara Tantra, and that too was kept a secret until it entered Tibet – at least according to some Shentongpa legends.
  10. These questions are not satires but very genuine for me. Like some of the ancient scholars and practitioners, I belong to an orthodox Hindu family and studied and practiced Hindu theory and practice thoroughly before I became a Buddhist. One of the major reasons why I became a Buddhist is because of Màdhyamika (and all the other Buddhist systems), very clearly proved to me that the Upanishadic âtmà view (of a permanent non-dual cognition that really exists) is flawed. Now, if the Shentong view is the real inner secret and highest view of Buddhism, my raison d’être for becoming a Buddhist has been pulled like a carpet from under my feet.
Can any Shentongpa please show me how the Shentong view is different from the Hindu Upanishadic view as explicated above?

If you have any comments or queries please contact to the following address:
Acharya Mahayogi Sridhar Rana Rinpoche
( Choekye Dorjee/ Dharma Vajra)
Byoma Kusuma Buddha Dharma Sangha
Bishalnagar, Kathmandu, Nepal
Tel no: 4416352
Email: [email protected]