Mahayana claims that the realisation of Nirvana in Theravada is dual while Mahayana is non dual.

I have read that Advaita (the universal consciousness theory) is the same as Mahayana.

  • Does that mean that Mahayana claims that the universe is unreal, and that Everything is consciousness -- which means that the universe (and the time and space existing in it) is illusory, and exists only from the Point of view of the separate self but not in reality?

  • Or are they not as extreme as Advaita, but instead only claims that time do not exist (except) in our minds -- but Everything is consciousness -- or is there difference between Mahayana and Advaita Vedanta?

I want to learn both paths and then use both for my benefit. From what I have read the realisations are not the same and I would really like to understand the both realisations.

Thank you for your patience and your energy


4 Answers 4


Mahayana claims that the realisation of Nirvana in Theravada is dual while Mahayana is non dual.

In Theravada, Nirvana is defined as the ending of greed, hatred & delusion or the destruction of craving. In Theravada, in Nirvana, all phenomena, internal & external, including Nirvana itself, are viewed as without an inherent "self". In Theravada, in Nirvana, everything, including Nirvana itself, is viewed as mere "elements" ("dhatu"). In follows notions of "dual" & "non-dual" are not relevant to Theravada Nirvana. Theravada Nirvana acknowledges there are "internal" ("ajjhattika") and "external" ("bāhirā") phenomena (refer MN 148, for example). MN 1, for example, clearly says "oneness" ("ekatta") is not Nibbana.

I have read that Advaita (the universal consciousness theory) is the same as Mahayana.

"Mahayana" is the "Great Vehicle"; formulating teachings for the largest audience of people of different dispositions. Mahayana took many Hindu notions, such as "advaita" & various deities, and transformed them into so-called "Buddhist" & "Vajrayana" doctrines of "non-duality" & "Bodhisattvas" (such as Tara, Yellow Jambala, Medicine Buddha, Avalokiteśvara, etc) to appeal to a wider audience of people.

In Hinduism, the word "advaita" means "non-secondness" and has its roots in "idealist monism" (refer to link). Mahayana, including influenced by Chinese Taosim, adapted "advaita" to be "non-duality" or "oneness", such as in Hsin Hsin Ming sutra.

Does that mean that Mahayana claims that the universe is unreal, and that Everything is consciousness --

This might definitely be the case in the Yogachara school. Apart from that; best to ask the Mahayana gurus such as Andrei Volkov. As an adherent of Pali Buddhism, I do not waste my time with Mahayana, such as with Narjaguna & The Heart Sutra, which I regard as having wrong views.


Mahayana claims that the realisation of Nirvana in Theravada is dual while Mahayana is non dual.

Then it logically follows that one can only find out the answer after s/he's truly realized Nibbana for themselves. Any claim from anyone short of that attainment would be speculation at best. Now, the road toward Nibbana is pretty similar regardless of Mahayana or Theravada, since most Buddhist schools do share most of the important tenets: 4NT, 8FNP, 12DO, the precepts, etc. One can pick one that's better suitable for one's orientation and helps with the cultivation of their Sila/Samadhi/Panna.


Not all Buddhists agree about this. For me advaita, Mahayana, Philosophical Taoism, Sufism and in general the 'Perennial' philosophy is non-dual. This is not monism, which is why it is called advaita. Rather, it is a doctrine of Unity for which all that exists (or seems to) is created and only dependently-existent.

As Dhammadhatu notes Therevada rejects this view. On this site, which seems to be mostly Therevadan in its leanings, one needs to be a little careful about what is said about Mahayana. The answer by santa100 usefully points out that all the methods head in the same direction, so perhaps it's only when we are quite well advanced that the differences are likely to be important to the practitioner. To the analytical philosopher, however, the difference are crucial right from the start.

When it comes to metaphysics the differences between Buddhist schools matter. Non-dualism works in metaphysics, being consistent with logic and reason and explaining the results of analysis. This is shown by Nagarjuna but also by almost every philosopher of note. We all find that metaphysical problems are undecidable and this is because all positive theories are logically indefensible. Nondualism is the only global doctrine offering us an explanation for this. All others fail in metaphysics, which is to say when they are subjected to logical analysis.

What Nagarjuna proves is that all theories that endorse extreme views are logically incoherent. The only neutral theory is non-dualism and this is the only one his analysis leaves standing. He proposes that this is the correct interpretation of the Buddha's teachings, and this would be my conclusion. In this case Buddhist teachings would line up with those of advaita.

Regardless of opinion and belief, if we want to reconcile Buddhism with the rest of mysticism and make sense of metaphysics then we must assume that Nagarjuna's explanation of the results of metaphysics is correct. If we do not, then we have no explanation. We would have to assume that Buddhism is unique in its understanding of the world and all other traditions have got it wrong. I don't feel this is a plausible idea even for a moment.

What is plausible is that Mahayana, advaita, Taoism, Sufism and other doctrines of Unity share the same metaphysical foundation, as they would if they are true and verifiable as such.

I do not know why Theravada rejects this metaphysical view. It seems to be something to do with tradition and a judgements as to the relative authority of different texts rather than anything to do with philosophical analysis or reported experience, but I'm still unclear on this question.

What it means is that some Buddhists think that advaita is the same teaching and some don't. Those who don't must find grounds for rejecting Nagarjuna's logical analysis. It is commonly thought that he wrote his proof to address doctrinal differences that were arising between different schools and bring them together under one roof, but it seems he failed.

  • The Buddha discouraged indulgence in philosophical speculation and intellectual gymnastics, because it does not contribute towards the goal of ending suffering. There are many suttas to support this - the Parable of the Poisoned Arrow (Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta), the Parable of the Simsapa Leaves (Simsapa Sutta), the Discourse on The All (Sabba Sutta), and the Discourse on the Unconjecturables (Acintita Sutta).
    – ruben2020
    Commented May 29, 2019 at 16:41
  • 1
    In the Acintita Sutta, the Buddha taught: ""Conjecture about [the origin, etc., of] the world is an unconjecturable that is not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about it."
    – ruben2020
    Commented May 29, 2019 at 16:42
  • @ruben2020 - Very true. But if we are unsure whether Buddhist doctrine makes sense, as most people are, then metaphysics is invaluable. It is a way of verifying the unity of religion, a unity that is not obvious in the higher level teachings. Nagarjuna considered it a way to bring unanimity to the sangha, and so do I. Differences of opinion tend to flourish where metaphysics is ignored, and I suspect they are sometimes preserved by a deliberate avoidance of it. . .
    – user14119
    Commented May 30, 2019 at 9:05

Both Mahayana and Theravada accept sankhara - that all things (except Nirvana) are conditioned and compounded. A tree doesn't exist by itself - it needs the sun and water and support from animals etc. Nothing lasts forever. Everything depends on something else - that's conditioned.

Advaita says Brahman is eternal, and everything else is an illusion. Hindus think Buddhism says the same thing as Advaita, that Brahman is same as Nirvana (as the only thing that is eternal) or Brahman is the same as shunyata (as the unity of everything), while illusion (maya) in Advaita is same as Madhyamaka's everything is empty of inherent substance or essence, and emptiness itself is empty of inherent substance of essence.

These sound superficially the same, but they are not the same.

This is supported by Banaras Hindu University Professor T. R. V. Murti's statement (quoted below) in this book chapter:

It has been the fashion to consider that the differences between the Madhyamika śūnyatā and Brahman are rather superficial and even verbal, and that the two systems of philosophy are almost identical. At least Professor Radhakrishnan thinks so, and Stcherbatsky's and Dasgupta's views are not very different. I hold a contrary view altogether: that in spite of superficial similarities in form and terminology, the differences between them are deep and pervasive.

When you compare Shankara's Advaita with Nagarjuna's Madhyamaka:

  • Shankara said Brahman is eternal and absolute (see Vivekachudamani 225-231). Meanwhile, Nagarjuna said nothing is eternal and absolute.
  • Shankara's Brahman (clay analogy - see Vivekachudamani 225-231) implies that it is the only thing that has a true inherent substance (what Nagarjuna called svabhāva). Meanwhile, Nagarjuna says nothing has inherent substance.
  • Shankara's Brahman is the material cause (again, clay analogy) of the universe (see Vivekachudamani 225-231). Meanwhile, Nagarjuna's emptiness nor Nirvana is not a material cause for anything including itself.
  • Shankara said that the universe depends on Brahman as its substratum (what Nagarjuna called para-bhāva) (see Vivekachudamani 235, 289). Meanwhile, Nagarjuna said there is no other inherent substance (para-bhāva) i.e. no substratum for anything else.
  • Shankara's Brahman is the Ultimate Reality that is the Transcendental Absolute Reality. Meanwhile, Nagarjuna's Ultimate Reality is an "emptiness of emptiness" that is devoid of transcendental or absolute reality.

Advaita and Mahayana couldn't be more dissimilar.

Vivekachudamani 216 and Bhagavad Gita 2.20 talk about the individual soul (atman) being eternal. This is refuted by all Buddhist schools.

German indologist Professor Helmuth von Glasenapp wrote in his essay "Vedanta and Buddhism: A Comparative Study":

In the light of these researches, all attempts to give to the Atman a place in the Buddhist doctrine, appear to be quite antiquated. We know now that all Hinayana (sic) and Mahayana schools are based on the anatma-dharma theory. ... Nirvana being a dharma, is likewise anatta, just as the transitory, conditioned dharmas ... Nirvana is no individual entity which could act independently. For it is the basic idea of the entire system that all dharmas are devoid of Atman, and without cogent reasons we cannot assume that the Buddha himself has thought something different from that which since more than 2000 years, his followers have considered to be the quintessence of their doctrine.


Nothing shows better the great distance that separates the Vedanta and the teachings of the Buddha, than the fact that the two principal concepts of Upanishadic wisdom, Atman and Brahman, do not appear anywhere in the Buddhist texts, with the clear and distinct meaning of a "primordial ground of the world, core of existence, ens realissimum (true substance)," or similarly.

Madhyamaka says that everything is empty of inherent substance and even this emptiness is empty of inherent substance.

But what is this inherent substance?

After digging deep into this, I found that it is simply the essence or substance given to things by mental reification. It doesn't mean that a chair doesn't exist or that a chair is an illusion or the chair simply exists in my mind. It simply means that it doesn't exist the way my mind has mentally objectified and classified it. My mental idea of a chair has no inherent substance. This is perfectly supported by Theravada and the Pali suttas.

Without the thought of "I am the thinker", the mind would not be able to objectify and classify things relative to the self (observer). In this way, Theravada and Mahayana are completely united.

Advaita's eternal Brahman, which is the substratum of all reality and the material cause of reality, cannot be found in Buddhism.

Nagarjuna's greatest genius is proving that when you make use of the Buddha's teachings as metaphysics and philosophy, you turn it into mental reification that has no inherent substance. You talk about Nirvana, but that's only your mental idea of Nirvana, not how it really is.

Mahayana makes use of a lot of grandiose literary language. For e.g. the Eternal Buddha sounds a lot like Eternal Brahman.

But if you dig deeper into it, you find, that the Eternal Buddha in Mahayana refers to his Dharma Body.

The Dharma Body comes from the Vakkali Sutta (from the Theravada Pali Canon):

"For a long time, Lord, I have wanted to come and set eyes on the Blessed One, but I had not the strength in this body to come and see the Blessed One."

"Enough, Vakkali! What is there to see in this vile body? He who sees Dhamma, Vakkali, sees me; he who sees me sees Dhamma. Truly seeing Dhamma, one sees me; seeing me one sees Dhamma."

Vakkali wanted to see the Buddha's form, thinking he is special. But the Buddha used rhetorical speech to say that if you want to know what is special about the Buddha, understand the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha). Mahayana took this to an extreme end and came out with Eternal Buddha.

Those who do not understand this, think Eternal Buddha is some God-person of some kind.

Similarly, Mahayana and Theravada are the same, if you look deeply enough, beyond the fancy language.

If you don't look deeply enough beyond the fancy language, Advaita and Mahayana appear to be the same, when it actual fact, they are only superficially the same.

Advaita is non-dual.

Non-dualism in Advaita is summarized by "Brahman (God) is real, the universe is an illusion. The jiva (individual soul) is Brahman itself and not different." (Brahmajnanavalimala 20)

In Advaita, Brahman (God) is the eternal, permanent and unchanging reality. But through ignorance, it appears as the changing universe and the individual soul. Remove ignorance, and Brahman is all that there is.

Both Mahayana and Theravada, are very much the same, and are non-dual too. But Buddhism is non-dual in a different way from Advaita.

In Buddhism, there is the duality of the self and the non-self. This is me, and this is my car and that is not my car. Everything perceived through the six senses (include the intellect and its sense objects - thoughts) is objectified and classified, relative to its relationship to the self.

As I wrote in another answer, a plate of cooked meat looks like delicious food to a meat eater, but it instead looks repulsive to a vegan. To a honey bee, it looks like dirt, because that is not its food. In this way, that plate of cooked meat is objectified and classified differently, relative to its relationship to the self.

The non-duality of Buddhism is that ultimately there is no self in all phenomena, and ultimately there is no inherent essence in all phenomena, as given to it by mental objectification and classification (relative to the self). Remove ignorance, and the duality of self and non-self falls apart.

In my opinion, Mahayana and Theravada are pretty much the same, just that Mahayana is more philosophical in its analysis and literary in its presentation, while Theravada is more pragmatic in its analysis and straightforward in its presentation.

Advaita on the other hand, is totally different, and is focused on the non-duality of God and non-God.

  • When I remove the objectification that I am creating in my mind how should I see people,my self and objects? is it to see them like processes instead of entities? Commented May 28, 2019 at 18:12
  • Thank you for your posts you are helping me alot. Isn't Mahayana Buddhism claiming that there is a unity to Everything just like advaita vedanta does wtih Brahman? that is what makes me confused or I may be wrong Commented May 28, 2019 at 18:15
  • 1
    Apologies, really, but I feel the need to downvote to indicate that there is much here to argue about. The idea that Mahayana is 'much the same' as Therevade and both are apposed to advaita is odd and I doubt many Therevadans, Mahayanists of Advaitans would agree. I feel that @StudyingBuddhism is right to think that advaita and Mahayana teach a doctrine of Unity.and are thus distinct from Therevada. I would also question whether in Buddhism there is a duality between self and not-self, and would disagree strongly that Theravada is non-dual.teaching. , . . . . .
    – user14119
    Commented May 29, 2019 at 10:58
  • @StudyingBuddhism The Buddha says to see everything as it is, without self-identification, craving, clinging, greed/ lust, aversion and delusion.
    – ruben2020
    Commented May 29, 2019 at 15:06
  • I have updated my answer to support my position.
    – ruben2020
    Commented May 29, 2019 at 15:53

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