Recently at The Magical Messiah the conceptual differences between the notions of salvation among Eastern religious traditions and Western religious traditions are identified. Though the post’s author sees a divergent conceptual outlook operating between the East and West, he nevertheless holds that the East and West arrives at or achieves the same religious goal. You can view the original post here. I would just like to give a few comments concerning this post below. In my post, I will limit my discussion primarily to issues I find troubling in relation to Buddhism.
At the outset, the author identifies the conceptual outlook of the Eastern traditions toward salvation as one's “attaining to correct knowledge of the true Self and that Self’s relationship to Reality”, whereas the conceptual outlook of the Western traditions towards salvation is articulated as “the realignment of the lower self, psyche, or soul with the higher Self or spirit.” In this, I think the author’s presentation of the conceptual outlook of the traditions is, in very general terms, an adequate model for exploring the contrasting viewpoints among the Eastern and Western traditions. However, caution is needed when lumping the various traditions together to form either of the two broad categories of “Eastern “ or “Western” traditions and their corresponding conceptual outlooks regarding salvation . Hinduism and Buddhism, at least from an orthodox point of view, offer very different presentations of the individual and salvation/liberation. Even within each of the traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism themselves quite disparate views on important issues related to the nature of reality, the individual, "no-self" (anatman) and salvation/liberation are entertained. For instance, are we to accept the Vedic religion to be a part of the Hindu tradition? If so, how are we to rectify its conception of salvation as the correct performance of ritual with the view presented above, namely – that salvation is the attainment of correct knowledge? What are we to make of the many practicing Buddhists for whom salvation through correct knowledge means little to nothing, but instead are concerned with ethical action and “salvation” through better rebirths?
While the above issues are important, they are of minor concern to me in relation to the actual presentation of the conceptual outlook of the Eastern traditions. My difficulties may only be semantic in nature. The author’s use of the terms “Self” and “true self” are troubling since Buddhism denies the existence of “self” (atman). A definition of “Self” or “true self” from the author’s perspective would be illuminating (I will have more to say about what I think the author intends by these words below).
The author continues to demonstrate the conceptual disparity between the Eastern and Western traditions by stating that the Eastern traditions deny “the reality of both the physical body and the psyche, while the Western schools affirm the existence of both of the same elements but sees flaws in them….” This is simply erroneous, at least with respect to Buddhism. In Buddhism the mind and body are not seen as unreal or illusory. What is illusory or unreal is a mistaken conception about them. Indeed, one of the earliest means to salvation/liberation was the technique of analyzing the constituent elements of existence in regard to the individual (skandha) and external phenomena (dharma). It was hoped that by doing so, the mediator would perceive that which is not among those things that do in fact exist, namely- “self” or atman. The early Abhidarma texts preserve a plethora of approaches for analyzing such phenomena. Furthermore, there is a cornucopia of Buddhist texts dealing with both psychological and epistemological models of the mind. In these texts the mental/psychic components are not seen as unreal or illusory. Instead, these components are contemplated in order to show the mediator exactly where illusion or ignorance originates in the mind, how it continues to reside in the mind and how it may be eradicated.
After detailing what he sees as the apparent conceptual disparities between East and West, the author presents what appears to be his major thesis, namely- that despite all conceptual differences or distinctions the Eastern and Western traditions achieve the same religious goal. They all end up at the same place. Now, what exactly is this religious goal that the author sees as being shared among the Eastern and Western traditions? According to the author, it is the identification with the Absolute. It is the identification with something (i.e., the Self) that is the antithesis of the transitory constituents of mind and body. Exactly what this something/Self is remains unclear. However, the author indicates that it is “beyond time, space and death.” It is in fact a “Changeless Reality.” This view of reality smells of monism and is functionally equivalent to the teachings of the Advaita Vedanta, an influential sub-school of the Vedānta school of Hindu philosophy at the time of the Buddha. According to Advaita Vedanta, the only reality is the Absolute, which is Brahman. Typically, this Brahman is designated by the term atman or “self” when it remains undiscovered among the illusory or transitory components of mind and body. Now it is just this “self” that is vehemently denied within early Buddhism by the anatman (“no-self”) doctrine (of course, the anatman doctrine was supplanted later on among certain Mahayana schools by the doctrine of sunyata or “emptiness” in order to deny the reality of other non-existents as well). Indeed, among the early Buddhists no-thing is found outside of the transitory components of body/matter and mind. Here salvation is the recognition of the nature of the transitory components of existence (dharma) alone. No-thing exists outside these transitory components.
Now, in all fairness to the author of Two Salvations, certain Buddhist schools have been interpreted by Western scholars to be monistic . The Yogacara school, certain Madhyamaka teachings, and certain forms of the Buddha-nature doctrine have been especially susceptible to such interpretations. Many contemporary scholars who are working with the primary texts, however, find fault with these interpretations. What is more, certain Buddhist schools have accused other Buddhists of being monists. Despite these facts, no Buddhist school will accept the idea that it adheres to a monistic philosophy.