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Is it plausible or possible in Buddhist thought for a being to experience nirvana, enlightenment, without adhering to Buddhist thoughts or viewpoints? It it possible for people to receive true dharma from a not-Buddhist framework?

From my standpoint, there are many people in the world from various traditions who practice deep meditation and live virtuous lives. It seems reasonable to me that in their practices they, too, come into the presence of the deepest grounds of being, and achieve profound realizations and transformations. Yet, if they are not Buddhist, they may not report back things like emptiness of self and all phenomenon, or reincarnation. They might instead discuss the soul, the self, God, for example. Hence my questions.

In some Mahamudra texts, I have read things like “one must recognize the emptiness of the mind” in order to get to the most advanced levels. Is that really so? What happens if we get to the deepest levels in meditation, and we decide that there is not emptiness of the mind?

I would imagine the answers are different for different schools of Buddhism. I am interested in specific schools’ thoughts, and general Buddhist perspective as a whole.

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  • can you be a buddhist without knowing you are?
    – user23322
    Mar 29 at 3:50
  • i believe the answer is meant to be "yes" at least if there is no buddha in the world.
    – user23322
    Mar 29 at 3:51

6 Answers 6

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As stated clearly in Dhammapada 254 - 255, noble (ariya) contemplatives cannot be found outside what was taught by the Buddhas. In other words, you can only find noble contemplatives where there are the four noble truths, the noble eightfold path, the three marks of existence and dependent origination. Only these lead to the permanent end of suffering.

In the sky there is no track; outside the Buddha's Teaching there is no ariya bhikkhu (samana). All beings take delight in fetters (i.e., craving, pride and wrong view) that prolong samsara; all the Buddhas are free from these fetters.

In the sky there is no track; outside the Buddha's Teaching there is no ariya bhikkhu (samana). There is no conditioned thing that is permanent; all the Buddhas are unperturbed (by craving, pride and wrong view).
Dhammapada 254 - 255

Also the following sutta says that the Noble Eightfold Path is mandatory for liberation.

And the Blessed One spoke, saying: "In whatsoever Dhamma and Discipline, Subhadda, there is not found the Noble Eightfold Path, neither is there found a true ascetic of the first, second, third, or fourth degree of saintliness. But in whatsoever Dhamma and Discipline there is found the Noble Eightfold Path, there is found a true ascetic of the first, second, third, and fourth degrees of saintliness. Now in this Dhamma and Discipline, Subhadda, is found the Noble Eightfold Path; and in it alone are also found true ascetics of the first, second, third, and fourth degrees of saintliness. Devoid of true ascetics are the systems of other teachers. But if, Subhadda, the bhikkhus live righteously, the world will not be destitute of arahats.
DN 16

In fact, the specific person of Gautama Buddha is not more important than his teachings, which was discovered and rediscovered again by multiple Buddhas (SN 6.2) in history, as a natural law.

Past Buddhas,
future Buddhas,
& he who is the Buddha now,
removing the sorrow of many —

all have dwelt,
will dwell, he dwells,
revering the true Dhamma.
This, for Buddhas, is a natural law.

Therefore one who desires his own good,
aspiring for greatness, should respect the true Dhamma,
recollecting the Buddhas' Teaching.
SN 6.2

Even if Buddhas never arose, the three marks of existence is in any case a natural law independent of the person discovering and teaching it (AN 3.136).

“Mendicants, whether Realized Ones arise or not, this law of nature persists, this regularity of natural principles, this invariance of natural principles: all conditions are impermanent. A Realized One understands this and comprehends it, then he explains, teaches, asserts, establishes, clarifies, analyzes, and reveals it: ‘All conditions are impermanent.’

Whether Realized Ones arise or not, this law of nature persists, this regularity of natural principles, this invariance of natural principles: all conditions are suffering. A Realized One understands this and comprehends it, then he explains, teaches, asserts, establishes, clarifies, analyzes, and reveals it: ‘All conditions are suffering.’

Whether Realized Ones arise or not, this law of nature persists, this regularity of natural principles, this invariance of natural principles: all things are not-self. A Realized One understands this and comprehends it, then he explains, teaches, asserts, establishes, clarifies, analyzes, and reveals it: ‘All things are not-self.’”
AN 3.136

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  • The question arises whether people outside Buddhism follow the Noble Eightfold Path. I would say, perhaps except for Right View, they do. What is Right View then? In addition, it may be so that there is no samana outside the Buddha’s teaching. Then one could ask whether groups/ individuals normally characterized as “outside the Budddha’s teaching,” actually, on further inspection are inside his teachings. I am worried we are too hung up on doctrine in the form of labels and words and requirements. Did not the Buddha also say that his teachings were but a finger pointing to the moon?
    – Eoin
    Mar 29 at 13:40
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What happens if we get to the deepest levels in meditation, and we decide that there is not emptiness of the mind?

Then, by definition, you have not arrived at the the deepest levels of meditation. But we are running into an obstacle here...one that I don't think you're fully aware of. Buddhist liberation has nothing to do with meditation or meditative states. Buddhist liberation is a product of insight gleaned by leveraging those states. What we encounter on the cushion isn't of very much importance. Plenty of yogis have had deep meditative experiences. The Buddha's own teachers had even reached rarified states that are only available to very few and very advanced practitioners under a very specific sets of circumstances. But their encounters ended with the experience itself. They did not apply their purified minds back to the world of form. The Buddha's great discovery was how to generate liberating insight from the interplay between form and emptiness. Only when we are removed from form following deep meditation can we see form for its limitations, obstacles, and pathologies.

You don't necessarily have to be a Buddhist to use this methodology, but I'd argue that if you do, you are almost a Buddhist by definition. If you continue to follow this line of inquiry, you will invariably arrive at the same insights the Buddha had - ultimately becoming a Buddha yourself.

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We welcome everyone to meditate the meditation at any level they satisfy/comfort to keep doing.

However, if you understand how big scope the enlightenment focusing on, you will understand that the Buddhism is completely different from any other knowledge even science or philosophy. And that's how the completely perfect enlightenment are only happens in the perfect people.

How is the scope big?

Every suffering, even sad or happiness, even past or now or future, even entire life or many other lives or a moment of trillion moments per second.

Everything is the scope to meditate, that's really hard to manage.

However, it is the most invaluable, so try it at any level you can do, at least you have try.

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Is it necessary to be Buddhist to reach enlightenment?

"Buddhism" and "Buddhist" are just words and not really much else. They could be called anything for that matter.

What's important is that a teaching must have The Noble Eightfold Path in it (DN 16). If it has that then Enlightenment is possible. If not, then it's not possible.

It's not really about deciding whether there's emptiness or anything else for that matter. Enlightenment is not something you do - it's something that happens as a result of correct and persistent practice.

Wherever, Subhadda, the Noble Eightfold Path is found in a Teaching and Discipline there a true ascetic is found, there a second true ascetic is found, there a third true ascetic is found, there a fourth true ascetic is found. (DN 16

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Can you be fully enlightened without encountering the - Buddhist - path? No, I don't think so. Even sudden enlightenment has gradations to it.

Furthermore, "right view" also has gradations. The right view of a neophyte has subtle differences to that of a saint. Dunno how to conceptualise it, but belief in Buddhism is not the same thing as realising its truth, even if all that means is a shift in belief.

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  • What did you mean by "sudden enlightenment has gradations"?
    – Sampath
    Mar 29 at 12:54
  • that's potentially a very long answer, but "it depends" @Sampath
    – user23322
    Mar 29 at 16:51
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Is it plausible or possible in Buddhist thought for a being to experience nirvana, enlightenment, without adhering to Buddhist thoughts or viewpoints? It it possible for people to receive true dharma from a not-Buddhist framework?

Buddhism is the only doctrine with the total eradiction or refutation of 'self-view'. Enlightenment & nirvana cannot be reached without the complete destruction of every type of internal, external, cosmic or theistic 'self-view'.

What happens if we get to the deepest levels in meditation, and we decide that there is not emptiness of the mind?

The above is delusion or impurity of insight.

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