God in Christianity, Dharmakāya in Buddism, Brahman in Hinduism, Beneath Abstraction in Taoism and Flying Spaghetti Monster in Pastafarianism are all plays as a ultimate, eternal and absolute being. However, if asked a Christian or a Buddhist or a Hindu or a Taoist whether these concepts are identical, we would rarely receive an affirmative answer.

So is there any distinction between them? If so, what is it?

In addition, it seems difficult to compare them by their definition for they seem do not have precise definitions... Besides, they are often thought cannot be defined exactly by our secular languages...

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    You and I are human beings. But if you said I was you, or I said you was I - we'd both disagree. Mar 18, 2013 at 9:41
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    Comparing such highly complex and meaning-laden concepts across widely disparate traditions is a very challenging proposition, not likely to be even fruitfully summarizable in a venue such as this. For example, "The One" is more a Neo-Platonic than Christian notion (though you point to the "God" entry in Wikipedia), and Buddha-nature is strictly part of Mahayana Buddhism, not early (or Theravada) Buddhism. So you have historical issues from the get-go and really can't even get to first base in comparing them; in fact, you can't even get to the plate! Mar 19, 2013 at 5:51
  • Okay, I have made my post edited.
    – Popopo
    Mar 20, 2013 at 2:37
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    "The [insert Flying Spaghetti Monster] that can be spoken is not the eternal [insert Flying Spaghetti Monster]"? :)
    – Drux
    Mar 22, 2013 at 10:22
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    @Drux Okay...I have added it to the list...
    – Popopo
    Mar 22, 2013 at 14:20

9 Answers 9


I can't speak to all of the others, but Buddha-nature in Buddhism is markedly different than the others, at least in its standard conception, as it is purely a potential, not an actuality. In other words: there is no eternal oneness in Buddhism (a few very late Mahayana Sutras influenced by Advaita excepted.) The word for Buddha-nature: tathagatagarbha actually means "the embryo of Buddha-hood", and it is viewed as a an embryonic capacity each sentient being has for achieving full and complete awakening. I don't see how this can be easily compared to Brahman (for example.)

  • Well, it indeed has meaning as a potential, but the Mahaparinirvana Sutra seems to present the Buddha as the ultimately real, eternal, unchanging, blissful, pure Self who, as the Dharmakaya, knows of no beginning or end. (ref.Eternal Buddha) The Dharmakaya looks like the One or Brahman.
    – Popopo
    Mar 18, 2013 at 14:12
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    Yes: that's why I said "a few very late Mahāyāna Sūtras influenced by Advaita excepted." Mar 19, 2013 at 8:45
  • @MichaelDorfman Michael, I suspect you are aware that to suggest these sutras were influenced by vendanta is a pretty controversial suggestion and probably impossible to substantiate. I suggest if you take a position, you at least acknowledge when other opinions exist, even if you think they are wrong.
    – adrianos
    Mar 21, 2013 at 17:37
  • In my reading of the academic literature, it is not at all a controversial suggestion, and is in fact the mainstream opinion (although this may be viewed as controversial by practitioners, of course). I don't think it is necessary to explicitly acknowledge that other opinions exist, as they always do. In fact, that's why StackExchange permits more than one person to answer each question. Mar 22, 2013 at 9:10
  • Wikipedia gives many references that the influence was actually the reverse of what you say. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – adrianos
    Mar 22, 2013 at 15:12

Brahman of the Hindus is identical to Nirvana or Buddhahood of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, but not the Teravedic tradition. The sameness of the Advaita and Mahayana traditions has been told to me directly by senior Hindu Sannyasins (monks) and senior Tibetan Buddhist monks. A good referential text is Professor David Loy's book "Non-Duality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy". On page 190 he states: "Of these three [Advaita Vedanta, Buddhism, and Sankhya-Yoga], only Advaita Vedanta is obviously an attempt to describe the experience of subject-object nonduality. With Buddhism one must be more careful qbout such a generalization: it seems true for Mahayana, but not for Pali [Teravedic] Buddhism, at least not explicitly (an issue we return to)."

As afar as the Christian tradition, the Christian mystics (for example, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, Thomas A Kempis) were very circumvent in describing their spiritual raptures of "oneness" - not wanting to run amuck of official church teachings. Please see Professor Elaine Pagels book "Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas" and if you haven't read it, her book "The Gnostic Gospels" For a more nondualistic spin to Christian history.

Haven't read any Taoism in years, but what I vaguely remember was it also was akin to the Advaitic non-duality. Please see page 123 of David Loy's book for his take on The Tao and Advaitic Vednata. I would only caution that I think Loy has slightly mis-interpreted the Vedantic concept of Maya on this page, and I would proffer that it is more akin to what he says is the Tao interpretation of this world.


From my reading of the Tao, I get the impression that the Dao is not static, it continually evades ones grasp, it is more akin to process rather than being. To name it as the One is to misread it (the Dao that can be named is not the Dao). Ethically it seems more suggestive of egalitarianism or anarchism (as a political movement not chaos) rather than the authoritiveness of confucianism. In the arts - spontaneity rather than gravitas.

  • Yes, Dao is not static. However, 25 chapter in Lao Tze said:"For I am abstracted from the world, The world from nature, Nature from the Way, And the Way from what is beneath abstraction." I think the Way is Dao, but the beneath abstraction, where Dao comes from, is more like to the one?
    – Popopo
    Mar 18, 2013 at 13:54
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    The Way is the usual western transcription for the Dao. I don't know. I was simply re-iterating what the Dao itself is saying, to name it is to limit it. I'm not even sure which western tradition/philosopher uses the One, apart from islam where al-Lah simply means the-One. Heidegger was interested in Daoism. You may want to give Buriks The End of Philosophy a look. Mar 18, 2013 at 14:31

As I can compare Tao and Christianity, Tao could be considered as more deep, Chrisitanity as more spiritual, but they have similar aspects. lets comapre what says St. paul in Romans 1,20 http://www.bibleserver.com/text/ESV/Romans1

and Tao Te Ching in 21 http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Tao_Te_Ching

Both are speaking about the origin (The One) in the same manner.

Therefore all fundamental (obscure) viewpoints of the different (than mine) religions are WRONG. Each so called religion was inspired by eternal God in specific time and cultural circumstances to bring people closer to Him (however we call it).

  • As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their waters in the sea, so, O Lord, the different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee. - Mahimnah Stotra Mar 21, 2013 at 15:13

You don't talk, pray, ask or give thanks to the Dao, since it's not conscious. At least there's nothing in Dao De Jing that makes Dao anthropomorphic. On the contrary, chapter 5 says explicitly "Nature is not benevolent, treats every being as straw dogs" (straw dogs were to be destroyed after the ritual). And it seems the Dao is a synonym for Nature.


If one had to compare religions -- not their Gods -- with a single, positive word each, those could be "love" for Christianity (and other "Western" religions) and "contentment" for Buddhissm (and other "Eastern" religions). At least that's my current understanding after lots of reading, etc. Hope this helps.


Each system of belief or thought points at some reality that it claims to be ultimate or supreme. They all have different names for it -- God, Dao, Buddha nature, FSM, etc. -- and different ideas about it. However, since by definition there can be only one ultimate reality, all these concepts have to be pointing at the same thing. Each system may have different ideas about it from the others, but there can only be one ultimate or supreme reality. So the distinctions are in the things people say about it, not in the thing pointed at.

An adherent of Buddhism may think Christian doctrine is mistaken or wrong, but from the Christian's point of view, what is meant by God is just as ultimate and supreme as what the Buddhist means by Dharmakaya or Buddha nature, or what the Daoist means by the Dao.

Furthermore, my impression is that most thoughtful adherents of most systems will acknowledge that their understanding of that ultimate reality, however they conceptualize it, is imperfect. Unless I claim to have complete and perfect understanding of "What Is", it doesn't seem very sensible to say someone else is wrong. How would I know? The very claim of complete and perfect understanding is an indication of incomplete and imperfect understanding.


I believe there are significant differences between the Hindu notion of Brhman and Dharmakaya based on reading the responses of Buddhists from tibet and east asia, as well as direct questioning of tibetan monk and a Sri Lankan buddhist who studied Mahayana buddhsim. I also think many of these differences can be seen in the fourth chapter of the complete translation of the tibetan work known to the west as the tibetan book of the dead. This chapter discusses the ultimate nature of mind and is an intoduction to the teachings on how the intermediate states between death and the taking on of a new birth can potentially be used the acheive enlightenment. It is a good read if you have a good translation. In it you will see the ultimate nature of mind being desribed in ways that Brahman is never described. For example, the Hindu Vedanta School describes Brahman "one without a second." In the fourth chapter of the translation of the book of the dead describes the ultimate nature of mind as free from the extremes of unity and multiplicity.
Other important differnces include the fact that some tibetans atleast do not accept the dharmakaya as a subtratum which is the ontological reality upon which the illusion of the world rests. That is how Vedanta understands the relationship between Brahman and the world we experience. In contrast, the buddhist view is that the world illusion is a creation of the unelightened mind which imputes a solid reality to things which are infact empty. This is true for mind-only viewpoints as well as madhymaka traditions. In Hinduism there is an ontological reality outside of our mind which we, in out ignorance, misread as a collection of discrete, finite, objects. In buddhsim, the idea is there is no truely existent extra mental ontological reality upon which we project the appearance of a universe of finite objects. Instead, we either impute an ultimate reality onto a complex network of causes and conditions which are constantly in flux, or in the mind-only traditions we are exerienceing creations of our own mind which are "internally" generated. Again, in contrast the Hindu notion is one of misreading the true nature of extramental, infinite and truely existent reality. Another difference between the two notions is that Hindu view is almost fanatical about there being only one unigue Brahman/Atman. Thus, the constant emphasis in Vendanta that Brahman/Atman is one without a second. This is not the case in Tibetan circles. I asked a mind-only tibetan monk who spoke at Harvard University Divinity School about this. I asked if the historic Buddha's Dharmakaya was the same as mine. He said it was not. He then cautioned me that it would also be incorect to say that there was a dharmakaya that belonged to Shakyamuni buddha. I interpreted this to be a caution against the worldly temptation to grasp onto a ultimately existent self known as the "historic buddha." Other tibetans have contrasted dharmakaya and Brahman/atman by saying dharmakaya is not a subtratum underlying the world illusion and dharmakaya is not a "unique" reality as is Brahamn. It is true, there is a common notion out there that all buddhas share the dharmakaya. The dalai lama denied this in a book I read. I think the book was called "The Buddhanature." So at the very least dharmakaya differs from Brahman in the sense that at least many buddhist do not accept it as a single extramental substance. Apparently many well informed buddhists reject this idea of a single dharmakaya shared by all buddhas . On the other hand, it is important not to be too gungho in our attempts to grasp a view about the ultimate nature of mind since if we truely understood this, we would already be a buddha which I certainly am not.
Other differences were pointed out by D.T. Suzuki. He pointed out that Vedanta understands Brahman in a way that sees its perfection precludes any activity. Brahman/ATman is an ocean of bliss. It is perfect in itself. Thus, the final truth about Brahamn is that it can't be viewed as acting at all. It is perfect in itself. What else does it need to do. Similiarly, Brahman is also perfect knowledge itself. It can't cognize anything else other than itself. If it did, it would be experiencing imperfect knowledge, that is some type of illusion. Any thing we experience that looks like Brahman acting or being aware of something outside of its own perfection is in fact an illusion. We as unenlightened jivas "see" saguna Brahman creating the world, or giving the "grace" of jnana to jivamuktas who escape the world illusion. However, in truth Brahman did none of those things. D.T. Suzuki contrasts this with Dharmakaya. His understsnding of dharmakaya, like that of many far eastern buddhists, does seem to accept it as a single reality. In that sense it may be similiar to Brahman. However, he points out that Dharmakaya is the Buddha who is quite aware of the suffereings of sentient beings and all other aspects of the universe in which they live. As the dharmakaya is in fact the body of the buddha who teaches sentient beings how to end their suffereing, the dharmakaya is also constantly taking action on our behalf. These are essential qualities of Suzuki's notion of the dharmakaya (as far as I can see). It is meaningless to imagine a dharmakaya that is not the union of wisdom and compassion in its "essence." (I know techically "essence" is never the best term to use when talking buddhism. Forgive me.) After all, the "essential" characteristic of the Buddha is that the Buddha turns the wheel of the dharma out of compassion for our suffering. Thus, in its "essence" dharmakaya is aware of quite a few discrete realities and is constantly acting on the behalf of those realities which are sentient and suffering.

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    First off, welcome to philosophy.se. Second, this answer is very long and seems kind of stream-of-consciousness. Can you edit it to make it clearer? There are several helpful formatting tools available.
    – virmaior
    May 6, 2015 at 2:37

According to the Perennial Philosophy you are basically right, all these things are a given culture's way of expressing the ineffable Absolute.

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