A Buddhist garland for The Jagadguru

Marco Pallis

It was with not a little surprise, couples with a strong sense of occasion, that I read the letter inviting me to the contribute to the Souvenir collection marking the 76th birthday of His Holiness of Kanchi, an auspicious occasion indeed! The contribution is made with all the greater willingness since its author is a Buddhist by traditional participation and intends to speak from that angle.

But is this proper, some may ask, for, how can a professing Buddhist presume to write in honour of one who bears Sri Sankaracharya's august title, associated as this has been in the past with the turning back of the Buddhism in India? Is not such a person disqualified from doing so, or alternatively, is he not in a sense betraying the tradition of the Lord Buddha to which he himself is dharmically attached? In either case such an action is blameworthy, so these critics will argue.

To which I will answer that not only is it proper for a Buddhist to act in this manner now, but also that there a particular value in his doing so, both for his own sake and also for the sake of others as much as he will be enabled thereby to bring out certain aspects of truth too often over looked.

First of all, it is important to point out, quoting one whose name is well known among the friends of Kanchi Kamakoti, namely, Frithjof Schuon, that the inhibitive part played by the Adi Sankaracharya versus the Buddhist of his time is no wise implies an inability on his part to grasp the essence of Buddha's teaching at its own level. The Master of Advaita Vedanta quite obviously was capable of situating any knowledge regardless of the formal limits attaching to its dialectical expression. It was indeed no accident that certain Hindus belonging to other schools accused him of uttering a doctrine that was but a disguised form of Buddhism; however outrageous such a statement may appear at first sight, it does nevertheless harbour a truth pertaining to a more those who offered the above criticism. This interior view of the matter, discoverable "beyond forms", does not affect the nature of Sri Sankaracharya's specific function of appointed restorer and illuminator of the Hindu Dharma. In discharging this function, as Frithjof Schuon has also pointed out, the great Vedantic sage had no particular call to spare another traditional form which, though essentially true, did not fit in with the characteristic exigencies of Hinduism. Had Buddhism done so, it would have become yet another Hindu darsana, but such in fact was not its dharmic destiny.

All this is perfectly intelligible to a Buddhist viewing the matter in a spirit of non-attachment, just as, on the other hand, a Hindu similarly motivated is able to see that the Lord Buddha did not set out to "reform" Hinduism and that his teaching represented spontaneous manifestation of the Spirit at that "cyclic moment" which rendered it opportune. There could be no question here of human contrivance.

Judging after the event, it is also evident that the Buddhist revelation was, among other things, a means of rendering the Indian wisdom accessible to non-Indian races to whose mentality this presentation was perfectly suited. The marvelous flowering of the Mahayana in China, Japan and Tibet is a living proof that such was the case; for this result to become possible, however, a certain departure from the specifically Hindu norms was necessary. All this goes to show that such a conflict does not only have a negative function, it also has a providential, therefore positive, function in regard to those sections of humanity respectively concerned in it.

There is no occasion now to recapitulate the arguments formerly put forward by the sages and saints who acted as spokesmen of the two traditions in the course of their debates with one another. Some of the arguments bore fruit in ways that much exceeded their temporary purpose, as when Sri Sankaracharya used his controversy with the Buddhists as a means of giving point to his masterly exposition of the doctrine of Atma, by which Jnanically-minded men are still illuminated today just as they were in his own time. We can all thank God that this same light still shines in Kanchi Kamakoti and that the voice of Dharma has never been silenced in that hallowed place.

By way of special tribute on this joyful occasion of the 76th birthday of His Holiness of Kanchi the present writer wishes to draw attention to a formula belonging to the Semitic wisdom, as illustrating in a most remarkable way the metaphysical reciprocity between the Vedantic teaching about the Self and the Buddhist theory of anatma which many people have regarded as marking irreconcilable positions. This formula is the Shahadah or `Testimony' of Islam in which the Advaitic doctrine is summed up with miraculous conciseness. A moment's glance will show that the Arabic words La ilaha' illa lah; "There is no divinity (or reality, or self) outside the divinity (or Reality, or Self)" enshrines at one and the same time the truth of the Buddhist anatma and the Vedantic Atma; like Buddhism it "annihilates" any belief in the reality of the world and its contents in order to make way for the only intrinsic Reality, the Divine Suchness of Self. Need anything be added to prove that Vedanta and Buddhism have a common link between them? To look in the mirror of a tradition other than one's own tradition with all the greater certainty!

On the auspicious day of Vaisaka Anuraadha this garland is laid, in deepest reverence, at the lotus feet of His Holiness the Jagadguru of Kanchi Kamakoti Pitha by the hand of Munishastra Dhara.