Buddhism and Yoga are correlated customs that evolved in the same spiritual background of the ancient India. The two traditions have many similar terms, follow the same principles and also share the same practices. This maybe explains why there is such confusion in differentiating the two as most people see yoga and Buddhism as alike. The differences between the two traditions are less common to the people from the west than their resemblances. People who study these traditions tend to think that one is borrowing some practices and terms or principles from the other.
However, not only the people from the west are confused by these two spiritual traditions, the person who introduced yoga to the west examined the Buddhist Mahayana scripture and found out that the two teachings were in harmony. The Buddhist Mahayana scripture called Sutras and the yoga Vedanta have similar teachings.
Currently, yoga is well known for its yogic postures and its asana traditions. This is the most popular and visible outward signs and symbols of the system1. On the other hand, Buddhism is known to be a tradition of meditation whose popular meditations are vipassana and Zen. However, this is a little bit complicating since traditionally, yoga defined itself as meditation and not as asana which is actually taught as a mere aid to meditation. Yoga and meditation are exchangeable used in India. However, different people have learnt different aspects regarding yoga and Buddhism depending on where they grew from or where they learnt. For instance, those who studied yoga in the west learnt so much of the asana part of the teaching and very little of meditation. Most of them may therefore not realize that contemplation is not only a crucial part of the yogic system but also its core teaching. For one to be a prosperous yoga educator, they must have a good knowledge of the yogic reflection tradition.
The two spiritual cultures have had their differences, including debates and disagreements. They have never been united and their lineages are still separate to the present. The Hindu yoga tried to absorb Buddhism by interpreting Buddha using the Vedantic light. Buddhism was however able to maintain its identity as an independent religion. There have been various forms of discernments between the two traditions over the years as each try to outdo the other.
The two traditions are meditation traditions formulated to help us transcend karma, renaissance and realize the truth of consciousness. They recognize dharma as the law of the universe that we should all understand. They emphasize the inner illumination to be realized through meditation. Despite there being philosophical differences, they share right values such as peacefulness, honesty and non-participation in stealing activities.
The yoga scriptures define the absolute as a philosophical belief as being Braham in which there is ideal tranquility and freedom. On the other hand, Buddhism does identify an outright being which is solitary and ahead of all delivery and demise. Generally, Buddhism does not allow definition of any kind and regard Brahman as invalid.
With its appreciation of God, Yoga emphasizes dedication and capitulation to God as one of the major spiritual paths. Through Bhakti Yoga, hearts are opened and surrendered to the celestial will. Consecration and surrender to God does not appear as a Buddhist path since, in the first place, they do not recognize the fact that God exists. Buddhism is to the idea that humans are independent and their true self always prevails and the sages in them are merged in him to help all beings. Yoga values kindness as a moral principle. It propagates the idea that one can only understand their true self on condition that they perceive themselves to be discrete creatures.
Both Yoga and Buddhism respect nirvana. Nevertheless, in Theravadin, in Buddhist tradition, nirvana is described undesirably as termination. There are no optimistic designations that are associated with the term. The Vedic tradition describes nirvana in a way that is very positive. It is described as realization of the infinite self (Brahma Nirvana) and mergence into Brahman. Apparently, both structures concur that the truth of nirvana outdoes all notions. Whereas Vedanta describes nirvana as liberation, this term does not occur anywhere in Buddhism since Buddhists do not consent that there is some soul that actually exists and can be set free.
In addition, Buddhist religion refers the state of reality in form of mind set and in most cases, they refer to the truth of the nature of the mind as original and non-corrupted. In Yoga, the set of mind is referred to an instrument that governs the inner integrity. The mind of a Yoga targets on the aspect of creation but not on the ultimate norm of a Buddhist. In the two traditions in discussion, mind and self, it appears that the two ideas rhyme and to some extend they appear almost similar and the same religion. In Yoga, it criticizes the attachment to the mind and in turn individuality is affected3. The Yoga refers the self as unborn and uncrates the reality of life similar to the Buddhist who refers it as an aspect of mind that happens each and every time while developing. The enlightened aspect of the mind that lives within the conscience of the Buddhists take after the supreme self of an individual which also lives within the inner self of the individual. However, the methodologies and formulations of the systems in discussion are different and unique from each other.
The Buddhist tradition does not recognize the originator of the universe. Therefore, they completely reject the idea of a living creator that controls our fate. They further explain that living things arise through the Karma and nothing else. The recent observation made by the Dalai Lama clearly defines that the omniscience characteristic of God is similar to that of the Buddha. However, the Dalai Lama rejects the fact that Buddha is a creator of the universe. In the recent days, modern Buddhists traditions apply the name God in their teachings and to some great extent; they refer to Him as the Buddha and poses all the characteristics of the Buddha. In the sense of a scriptural person, the Buddha appears as the Supreme Being (God).
The respect for and fully devotion to the Supreme Being is recognized by the Yoga community. The tradition recognizes the Supreme Being (Ishvara-Pranidhana) as the controller of the universe and thus has power over its existence. The tradition further describes the need to devote and surrender of the souls of all human beings to God. The process of surrendering the souls to the Supreme Being is one of their methods to self-recognition. There are some various categories of theism that exists freely in the Yoga tradition. However in their Advatic systems of adulation, the Absolute Being is inferior to self-realization which surpasses the originator of the world.
In both systems of worship, they refer to Karma as the master mind behind the rebirth in this world. Buddhist view Karma as a principle that is ruled upon by self-existence. The Yoga claims that the world was created by the Supreme Being (God) who is the creative phase of consciousness. Moreover, they support the evident that Karma does not have the power to explain the existence of the world. They further explain that Karma can only explain the attachment of human beings to it. According to Yoga tradition, they regard Karma as a strong external force released by the Supreme Being. This external force cannot survive by its own. In addition, the Yoga tradition believes in the existence of one soul which is reborn in the community.
Connecting the two spiritual traditions is not restricted to the modern times; there is existence of various Hindu-Buddhist teachings in history. Buddha, the pioneer of Buddhism was born a Hindu and it is believed that Buddhism as a religion arose long after Buddha’s death. In Indonesia, there existed Shavi-Buddha teachings in the medieval times and most of the yogis in the country did not know whether they Hindus or Buddhists. This is the time that Buddha was accepted although some see Buddha as a great teacher and do not accept all Buddhist teachings.
Buddhism discards the self of Yoga Vedanta and accentuates on non-self as it perceives the idea of self to be a delusion of the cognizance5. It states that self cannot exist in anything external and therefore we cannot point out anything because it is the self that points out things. What we say as self, Buddhists state it as hollow thought or feeling but no such homogeneous entity. Yoga Vedanta differentiates between self (Atman), our true nature and the personality also called Ahamkara, the fabricated identity of our real nature. The enlightened awareness that surpasses time and space is not the self-image but is the atman Vedanta.
All Buddhist traditions started in the days of Buddha. It stresses on studying the historical life of Buddha. Contrary, the Vedic tradition identifies many teachers with no one exact teacher that one must copy. There is no single figure that controls the practice. Hinduism accepts Buddha as a great educator and has incorporated him among his streams of gurus, teachers and avatars. In Hindu literature, Buddhism is referred as Saugata Dharma or Bauddha dharma. In Buddhism Buddha cannot be made an vatar since there is no particular God that can be manifested by Buddha although Hindu makes Buddha into an avatar. One can therefore argue that in Buddhism, if Buddha is an avatar it is not of the creator but of the enlightened mind.
In conclusion, Yoga and Buddhism are two systems that are closely related. Despite the few differences between the two, it can arguably be said that Yoga and Buddhism have the same foundation. Their main difference lies on the point whether God exists or not and how to perceive Him.
BuddhaNet - Worldwide Buddhist Information and Education Network. "The Buddhist Schools: Theravada and Mahayana." Accessed November 13, 2013. http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/buddhistworld/schools1.htm.
Frank Jude. Mindfulness Yoga: The Awakened Union of Breath, Body and Mind. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2004.
Michael. Awake in the World: Teachings from Yoga & Buddhism for Living an Engaged Life.2011.
Michael. Freeing the Body, Freeing the Mind: Writings on the Connections between Yoga and Buddhism.2010.