Saturday, August 8, 2009

History of Mysticism: The Buddha

     A writer on mysticism whose books have influenced me greatly is the modern day Vedanta master Swami Abhayananda.  His books "The Supreme Self" and "The Wisdom of Vedanta" are two of the clearest expositions on the philosophy of Vedanta that you will ever read.  A book of his that I read recently was "History of Mysticism."  It is exactly what its title implies: A history of mysticism down through the ages (with an always Vedantic slant, of course.)

     Whether you agree (or not) with the conclusion that the Buddha was a Vedantic revisionist—as Abhayananda concludes—his brief summary of the Buddha's life and teachings is well worth the read.  The following is the section on "The Buddha" from the book  "History of Mysticism."  (If you want to read more from this yogic sage, visit his website at

The Buddha

In the 6th century B.C.E. the main center of Indian civilization

was in the Ganges plain, or the ‘middle country,’ from what is now

Delhi eastward to Bhagalpur. From June to September, during the

monsoon season, a river that is only a couple hundred feet wide in the

preceding hot season becomes two miles wide. The Ganges, having its

source in the melting snows and glaciers of the Himalayas, never

dwindles away; for that reason, the surrounding plain is always fertile.

And during the cooler winter months, from October to January, the

Spring-harvested crops of wheat, barley, and linseed and mustard, for

their oil, are grown in abundance.

During that time long ago, the land was far more fertile and the

forests far more extensive than today. Surrounding the villages were the

cultivated fields; further outward were the pastures, and beyond them

were the forests, deep and lush. Accounts of the time speak of the

forests as places of easy retreat, where mango, banana, date, jackfruit,

and coconut trees were in bloom, and the banyan, palmyra, acacia and

ebony trees housed the wild and colorful birds and monkeys.

The town of Kapilavastu (named for Kapila), in the kingdom of

Koshala, lay just due north of Benares, and just west of the great capital

city of Shravasti, containing 57,000 families. It was positioned along a

major trade route from Shravasti to Rajagriha, the capital city of the

neighboring Magadhan kingdom. It was therefore a center of business

and trade, and also a place of much activity, culture, and entertainment.

Then, as now, cities were distinguished from the country villages by

their sophistication and diversity of lifestyles. It was here, in

Kapilavastu, that Siddhartha of the Gautama clan, who was to become

known as “the Buddha,” was born to Suddhodana and his wife, Maya,

around 586 B.C.E.

Suddhodana was the elected ruling citizen of the small republic

of Shakya of which Kapilavastu was the capital. He was a wealthy

aristocrat, and lived in a sumptuous and elegant home, where he raised

his son, Siddhartha, amid the splendor and wealth, which his position

provided. When Siddhartha was but sixteen, he was married to the

princess, Yashodara; and by her he had a son, named Rahula. But this

life of comfort, wealth and pleasure was not to last. At the age of

twenty-nine, Siddhartha, who was of a philosophic turn of mind,

having studied many doctrines and having reflected on the perplexities

of life and death, resolved to quit the home of his father and the

company of his wife and child, to enter into a life of solitude in the

forests, where he might resolve his questions in the supreme inner

knowledge of which the sages of old had spoken.

From that time, he became a homeless wanderer, one among

many of the monks, ascetics and solitary hermits who frequented the

forests and riversides. He met, during his wandering, many brothermonks,

sannyasins, and would-be teachers; and he experimented with

many different practices, including austere penances and discursive

reasonings; but he felt as empty, as unfulfilled, as before.

After six years of study and wandering, Siddhartha had become

intensely focused on the attainment of his goal of knowing the ultimate

Truth. And so, one day, he took his seat beneath a peepul (Bo) tree on

the banks of the Nairanjana river, near Uruvela, the present city of Bodh-

Gaya, and resolved to meditate there, and not to leave his place until he

had attained what he had come to the forest to attain.

Then, one morning, just before dawn, like a flash, enlightenment

came. According to the Dhammapada, which was written much

later, Siddhartha exclaimed at that time:

Looking for the Maker of this temple (referring to his

body), I have run through a course of many births, not finding

Him; and painful is birth again and again. But now, Maker of

this temple, Thou hast been seen; Thou shalt not construct

this temple again. All Thy rafters are broken, Thy ridgepole

is sundered; the mind, approaching the Eternal, has attained

nirvana [the extinction of the ego illusion]. 1

In that transcendent experience of Unity, which the Buddha

refers to as nirvana, he knew himself to be the one Consciousness who is

manifesting as the entire universe. All forms, though transient, he knew

as his own, with no division anywhere. Yet, when his mind returned to

its normal state, once again he was associated with a particular form

within the transformative world, called samsara, “the ocean of

phenomenal appearance.” As he sat beneath the Bo tree, Siddhartha

reflected on what he had seen in that revelation, and perhaps mused

within himself thusly:

From this state of limited consciousness, I appear once again

to be a separate form within samsara; but from the state of

expanded awareness, all of samsara is a manifestation of

myself. I am a single, undifferentiated Mind, yet I shine forth,

like the radiant beams of the Sun, as a universe of countless

living beings, all made of my light. All beings are united in

me, for I am their consciousness, their form, their very being.

Never are there any separate selves; that is only an illusion

produced by the limiting of consciousness. All are but players

in the outflowing radiance of the one Being. These transient

forms live but for a moment, but I, the One, live forever.

Though I appear as many, I am forever One, forever serene.”

‘Yet, who would believe such a story?’ he wondered. ‘It is so

implausible, so utterly fantastic and radical a revelation, so completely

opposite to what men believe, that no one, unless they too had seen it,

would be able to give any credence to it at all.’ Siddhartha realized that

this transcendent knowledge could never be adequately communicated

by words, but was attainable only through such diligent effort as he

himself had put forth. According to a later Buddhist text, called the

Agama Sutras, he deliberated within himself at this time, questioning the

wisdom of attempting to teach such knowledge:

My original vows are fulfilled; the Truth I have attained

is too deep for the understanding [of men]. A Buddha

alone is able to understand what is in the mind of another

Buddha. In this age of the five-fold ignorance, all beings are

enveloped in greed, anger, folly, falsehood, arrogance, and

flattery; they have few virtues and have not the understanding

to comprehend the Truth I have attained. Even if I revolve the

wheel of Truth [by teaching it], they would surely be confused

and incapable of accepting it. they might, on the contrary,

misinterpret it, and thereby fall into evil paths, and suffer

therefore much pain. It is best for me to remain quiet and

enter [once again] into nirvana. 2

In the same vein, another Buddhist text has Siddhartha reflecting

at this time:

Why should I attempt to make known to those who

are consumed with lust and hate This which I’ve won through

so much effort! This Truth is not a truth that can be grasped;

it goes against the grain of what people think; it is deep,

subtle, difficult, delicate. It will be cloaked in the murky

ignorance of those slaves of passion who have not seen It. 3

All those who have experienced this amazing revelation of the

true nature of Reality have recognized the impossibility of expressing to

others what they had come to know, and have held serious doubts as to

the wisdom of speaking of it at all. Chuang Tze, the Chinese sage of the

3rd century B.C.E., for example, debated with himself on this same

quandary, and wrote:

Great truths do not take hold of the hearts of the

masses. And now, as all the world is in error, how shall I,

though I know the true path, how shall I guide? If I, while

knowing I cannot succeed, still attempt to force success, this

would be but another source of error. Better, then, to desist

and strive no more. Yet, if I do not strive, who will? 4

Siddhartha, pondering on these questions in his forest retreat,

apparently reached the same conclusion, and, armed with a firm decision

to serve as a guide to suffering mankind, set out on his illustrious

teaching career. To many hundreds of generations thereafter he would

be known as the Buddha, “the enlightened”; the Tathagata, “the attainer

of Truth”; the Shakyamuni, “sage of the Shakyas.”

The Buddha, having grown up in an environment where the

Vedantic mystical tradition had been subverted by the priestly class,

saw around him only a ritualistic religion presided over by an

unenlightened Brahmin priesthood. He had seen how the talk of “God”

by the unenlightened led men to a false understanding of the Divine

Reality, and fostered a philosophical Dualism between man and God;

and he determined, therefore, to explain the knowledge of Unity in a

way radically different from his Vedic predecessors. He would eschew

the old traditional terms for the One, such as “Brahman,” “Shiva,”

“Purusha,” etc.; for when one spoke of “the knowledge of God,” a

duality was implied between the knower and the object of knowledge,

which was not in fact the case. The very nature of language is such that

it relies for meaning upon the normal subject/object relationships. But,

in the experience of Unity, there is no such separation. Thus, simply by

naming It, that Unity is misrepresented.

In the eyes of the Buddha, it was just such objectifications of the

Reality in terms such as “Shiva,” “Vishnu,” etc., which fostered a

mistaken notion of the Truth, and perpetuated the present degenerative

state of religion. For this reason, he refused to apply any name at all to

the transcendent Reality; he preferred to refer to the experience of the

eternal Unity, rather than apply to It an objective noun. The experience

of Unity he named nirvana, a word which signifies “extinction,” or

“non-being.” What was extinguished in this experience was the false

sense of a separative ego, and hence the subject/object relationship.

Though misinterpretation was unavoidable in any case, the Buddha felt

that the term, nirvana, was less likely to misrepresent his meaning than

those many objectified nouns, which had been for so long used to signify

the one Reality.

He was keenly aware of the inability of language either to

express the Truth or to effect Its realization. He had seen how little true

knowledge was obtained by those proud Brahmin scholars who

continually discussed and debated every fine point of metaphysical

doctrine. As for himself, the Buddha would refuse to engage in any

metaphysical discussions at all, insisting that all such harangues were

worthless to effect enlightenment, and that if one sincerely wished to

know and understand the nature of Reality, it was necessary to engage

oneself seriously in the practice of meditation and inner reflection.

When asked by the idly curious such questions as, “Is the

universe eternal or non-eternal? Is it finite or infinite? Is the soul real or

unreal?” the Buddha would reply:

Such questions are not calculated to profit, and are

not concerned with the attainment of Truth; they do not lead to

the practice of right conduct, nor to detachment, nor to

purification from lusts, nor to quietude, nor to tranquilization

of the heart, nor to real knowledge, nor to insight into the

higher stages of the path, nor to nirvana. This is why I

express no opinion on them. 5

It is, perhaps, this reluctance on the part of the Buddha to

describe the Reality in objective terms, or to engage in metaphysical

discussions, which has led many to view the Buddhist and Vedantic

perspectives as irreconcilably antagonistic, when, in fact, they are

identical. We are accustomed by unenlightened scholars and partisan

religionists to think of Vedanta, Taoism, Buddhism, and the other

“isms,” as separate and distinct religious philosophies; but they are, in

fact, but different names for the one perennial philosophy of the mystics.

Having originated independently in different lands and different times by

different seers, each of these “isms” possesses its own idiosyncratic

language, its own literary heritage; yet the message of the mystics

remains undeviatingly the same. All true mystics have accentuated the

need for that personal enlightenment or realization by which the true

nature of Reality becomes self-evident. And all have stressed that this

enlightenment is attainable, not through much learning, alms-giving, or

through following the precepts of ritualized religion, but only through

devotion to and contemplation of one’s own essential Being.

Shortly after his enlightenment, and his subsequent decision to

share his wisdom with other sincere seekers of Truth, the Buddha

journeyed to a large deer park near Benares, where many of his fellow

monks congregated. And there he addressed his brothers, explaining to

them that excessive asceticism, scriptural recitations, sacramental

offerings, and other such practices were as futile to the attainment of

freedom from suffering as were the opposite extremes of revelry, and the

wanton gratification of the senses. He spoke to them of a ‘Middle Path’

by which one could approach true knowledge and a harmonious life.

Like Kapila before him, he offered no religious platitudes, no fanciful

gods, but spoke to his hearers of “what pain is, and the method by which

one may reach the cessation of pain.”

And when he spoke to them, the gathered monks recognized his

attainment of enlightenment, and herded around him to listen to his

teaching, his Sermon. The Buddha’s Sermon at Benares was the first of

many to follow; and it contains for his followers the same profound

meaning that the Sermon on the Mount holds for followers of Jesus. It

contains in brief form the entirety of the Buddha’s message, the

authentic version of which we may only assume has been passed down

to us, as the Buddha wrote nothing himself. What we possess of his

teachings were handed down orally until they were committed to writing

in the 2nd century B.C.E., nearly 300 years after his death.

Sitting before the gathering of monks, the Buddha began his

Sermon by saying:

Whatever is originated will be dissolved again. All

worry about the self is vain; the ego is like a mirage, and all

the tribulations that touch it will pass away. They will vanish

as a nightmare vanishes when a sleeper awakes. 6

This first statement of the Buddha’s that “whatever is originated

will be dissolved again,” is particularly obvious to anyone in the 20th or

21st century who is familiar with the findings of modern physics

regarding the nature of matter. All matter, we know, is constituted of

one undifferentiated Energy, which ‘condenses’ or integrates into

different congregate forms which then disintegrate once again, only to

take on new forms. This statement of the Buddha’s is true on all levels

of reality, from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic, but here it is

intended to refer to the ephemeral nature of the individual body and


Bodies originate, and must one day be dissolved; therefore, “all

worry about the self is vain,” says the Buddha. He had seen the Truth,

and knew that the sense of an individual self, or ego, was an illusion, a

mirage, and that all the troubles and worries that afflict one during the

course of a life vanish when that false sense of ego vanishes.

One whose mind awakes to the realization that it is the one

Mind, and is not in any way affected by the manifestation or demanifestation

of forms within this world of samsara, sees this world as a

kind of dream. And just as one no longer fears the evil monsters of a

dream once he awakes and realizes that he is the dreamer, the awakened

Buddha can never again be drawn to identify himself with the body or

mental images that exist only in the world of samsara.

He who has awakened is freed from fear; he has

become a Buddha; he knows the vanity of all his cares, his

ambitions, and also of his pains. 7

From the time we are infants and discover this body and mind

that manipulates us and in turn is manipulated by us, we feel certain that

this body and mind is ourself, is who we are. That identification

becomes so strongly rooted in us, that never once do we doubt that we

are this particular mind and body limited in space and time, and any

suggestion to the contrary strikes us as bizarre and absurd. But, say the

seers, the Buddhas, it is merely a case of mistaken identity; that which is

born, thrives for awhile, and then decays, is not who you are. You are

the one Mind of the universe, which merely witnesses all this world of

changing forms, but is never affected by it. You are the Eternal, but you

see this transient world of forms and think, “This is me!” It is like a man

who, dreaming that he is being roasted alive, suffers the pain from the

heat of the imagined flames; or like a man who is frightened by a snake

which, on closer inspection, turns out only to have been a piece of rope.

It sometimes happens that a man, when bathing in

the river, steps upon a wet rope and imagines that it is a

snake. Terror will overcome him, and he will shake with fear,

anticipating in his mind all the agonies caused by the serpent’s

venomous bite.

What a relief does this man experience when he sees

that the rope is no snake. The cause of his fear lies in his

error, his ignorance, his illusion. If the true nature of the rope

is recognized, his tranquility of mind will come back to him;

he will feel relieved; he will be joyful and happy. This is the

state of mind of one who has recognized that there is no selfhood

(ego), and that the cause of all his troubles, cares, and

vanities is a mirage, a shadow, a dream. 8

Here, in his first Sermon, the Buddha gives the essence of his

teaching, and the teaching of all the seers. It should be apparent, of

course, that the “selfhood” to which the Buddha here refers is not the

Self (Atman) of the Upanishads, which is synonymous with the Eternal,

but is the false sense of self, the ego. When the Truth is realized, the

false idea of an individual self is dissolved, like the idea of the snake

which is really a rope. Then it is seen that, in reality, no separate self

exists or ever existed; it is a mirage, a mistaken interpretation of one’s

own awareness, which is really the immortal and eternal Self, the

Absolute. Only that One is real; It is the Self of the universe, the

universal Being which manifests as all beings, all things. It is the

knowledge of this Self, which is the source of the joy and happiness of

the enlightened.

Happy is he who has overcome his ego; happy is he

who has attained peace; happy is he who has found the Truth.9

Some, when they hear of the Truth from one who has seen It,

immediately recognize it as the truth, and are overjoyed to learn of It.

But some others who hear of It, say, “How unconvincing, how

unappetizing!” To them, the Buddha says:

Have confidence in the [eternal] Truth, although you

may not be able to comprehend It, although you may suppose

Its sweetness to be bitter, although you may shrink from It at

first. Trust in the Truth. ... Have faith in the Truth and live

[in accordance with] It. 10

Sooner or later, we must acknowledge that what keeps us from

the enjoyment of peace, of happiness, of freedom, is the sense of

selfhood, the false ego, by which all pain, all suffering, comes to us. It is

the mistaken identification with the transient that must eventually cause

us much sorrow.

[The illusion of] self is a fever; self is a transient

illusion, a dream; but Truth is sublime, Truth is everlasting.

There is no immortality except in [the eternal] Truth. For

Truth alone abides forever. 11

The Buddha explained his message as the way to the cessation

of suffering. He did not promise heavenly rewards, or a place at the

right hand of the Lord, nor did he claim that he was sent from God; he

claimed only that his was the way to the cessation of suffering:

He who recognizes the existence of suffering, its

cause, its remedy, and its cessation, has fathomed the four

noble truths. He will walk in the right path. 12

Here, the Buddha introduces his formula of the “four noble


1. There is suffering; i.e., humans suffer.

2. There is a cause of suffering; namely ignorance.

3. There is a remedy to suffering; namely enlightenment.

4. The cessation of suffering results from the destruction

of ignorance.

If we pay close attention to the words of the Buddha’s Sermon in

the above passage, his message is clear and unequivocal: the cause of all

suffering is the ignorance by which we believe we are an individual self,

limited to a particular body and mind. This ignorance is inherent in

existence, and has no cause or beginning. Yet it can be dispelled, and

thus ended, by the realization of Truth. In this sense, it is both real and

unreal; while it exists, it is experienced as real, and when it is dispelled,

it is recognized to be unreal, non-existent—like the snake in the rope.

Release from suffering, then, is attained by the direct realization of our

eternal Being. To understand this is to possess the right understanding:

Right understanding will be the torch to light the way

of one who seeks to realize the Truth. Right aims will be his

guide. Right speech will be his dwelling-place on the road.

His path will be straight, for it is right behavior. His refreshments

will be the right way of earning his livelihood. Right

efforts will be his steps; right thinking his breath; and peace

will follow in his footsteps. 13

In this metaphor of the Buddha’s, in which he likens the moving

of a man’s awareness toward enlightenment to a man walking toward his

destination, he outlines the right means by which a man reaches to the

realization of Truth. “Right” simply means that which is conducive to

success. This “eight-fold path” of the Buddha reiterates, in its own way,

the yogas of the Bhagavad Gita: jnan, bhakti, karma, and raja. As a

man is a thinking, speaking, acting and contemplating being, all facets of

his nature must be coordinated toward the attainment of his goal.

Following naturally from right knowledge, is the second means,

right aims, which is to say, the aspiration to know the Truth, to renounce

all other pursuits, which might detract from the single-minded pursuit of

one’s goal. Without such unflagging determination, and utter disregard

for all the trouble, opposition, and deprivation encountered, a man

cannot hope to attain to it. The Buddha’s “right aspiration” is really not

different from the Gita’s “devotion to Truth.” Devotion to the Truth, or

God, is devotion to the Eternal in oneself; aspiration toward the

attainment of nirvana is also devotion to the Eternal in oneself. The

mental restraint, renunciation of self (ego), and inward attentiveness

required by the one is the same as that required by the other. They are, in

aspiration, practice, and result, identical. Only the words are different.

The third means, right speech, is merely an extension of right

thinking; it is that speech which is truthful, sincere, and cognizant of the

oneness of all beings. Untruthful speech betrays an untruthful mind, and

is entirely incompatible with the mind’s attainment of the ultimate Truth.

Never, in a million years, will untruthfulness lead to the Truth. “Truth,”

says the Mundaka Upanishad, “is the way that leads to the region of

Truth. Sages travel therein free from desires and reach the supreme

abode of Truth.”

The fourth means, right action, is also simply an extension of

right thought. That action which is inspired by and leads to the

awareness of Truth, is the right action. It is action that stems from peace

of mind, and whose result is peace of mind. Whatever defiles and

disturbs the quiet awareness of Truth cannot be right action. This “right

action” of the Buddha may be compared to the karma yoga of the Gita .

It is action whose sole aim is the awareness and promotion of Truth. It

is action that stems not from egoistic desire, but from the awareness that

all this world of samsara and all beings in it are identical in the one

Mind. Such actions flow forth naturally as expressions of service to the

One in all.

The fifth means, right livelihood, may be viewed in the same

way that Krishna, in the Bhagavad Gita, viewed the necessity of

following one’s own svadharma. Men of differing stations in life are

obliged by their differing aspirations to differing livelihoods. The

livelihood of the householder is in accordance with his aspirations; the

livelihood of the student is in accordance with his aspirations, and the

livelihood of the realized sage is in accordance with his aspiration. For

one, the “right” is not the same as the “right” for another. What

conduces harmoniously to one’s aspirations is the right livelihood. For

the spiritual seeker, that work, which is conducive to the meditative life,

is the “right” livelihood; and for the sage who has no aspiration but to

share his knowledge to relieve the suffering of the world, the need for

livelihood is not so great; he accepts what comes to him in the course of

his mission.

Right effort is the sixth means, and it follows from right aspiration.

If right aspiration is determination to attain enlightenment,

right effort is the application of that determination. The conquest of the

sense of selfhood requires great effort. It is the most difficult of all

battles. According to the Dhammapada, “If one man conquers in battle a

thousand men, and if another conquers himself, the second is the greatest

of conquerors.”14 Lao Tze, the great Chinese sage, said this as well:

“He who conquers others may be strong, but he who conquers himself is

stronger.”15 To conquer oneself is, in effect, to reduce oneself to

nothing. For, as the Buddha tells us, that self is not only an illusion, but

an obstacle to the realization of Truth. Only when it is reduced to

nothing, shall we find that greater Self which is the one all-pervading

Reality, the Buddha-Mind, the Truth.

The seventh means, right mindfulness, or recollection, is the

mental aspect of right effort. It means the continual watchfulness of the

mind over itself. The pure mind is itself nirvana; the illusions that

continually becloud its surface serve only to obscure the Truth. Right

mindfulness is therefore the retention of the pure mind. It might just as

well be spoken of as surrender of the separative will, for it is just that

will which obscures the awareness of Unity. Jesus of Nazareth taught

the surrender of the will to God; the Buddha taught the surrender of the

will to Truth. Who can find any difference between them? That to

which the will is surrendered is the one pure Mind. Right mindfulness is

simply the retention of the pure Mind.

Right concentration is the eighth and final means; it is an

extension or intensification of right mindfulness, which can only be

achieved during times of silent meditation. It is the final step toward the

threshold of nirvana. What is the object of the mind’s concentration?

Itself. Let it become still and concentrated, and it reverts to its original,

pure Mind, state. In this state is all knowledge, all peace, all

satisfaction. It is this utter one-pointedness of mind which lifts it to its

ultimate state, that state in which it knows itself as the one Mind of the


The Buddha’s message is so clear and straightforward that, to

the wise, it needs no further clarification or elucidation. But there has

been, over the years, no dearth of clarification; for it is the delight of all

who have attained the knowledge of Truth to speak of It. Many brilliant

followers of the Buddha, who lived much later, have offered their own

insights into the Truth and Its attainment. Among these, was an

enlightened sage of the 2nd century of the Current Era, called

Ashvagosha, whose poetic work, Buddha-Karita, tells, in a picturesque

fashion, the life of the Buddha. Ashvagosha also wrote a Mahayana

treatise called, “The Awakening Of Faith,” in which he offered his

insights into the nature of Reality. Like Kapila, the author of the

Bhagavad Gita, and so many others, Ashvagosha attempted to explain

the two, absolute and relative, aspects of the one universal Soul, or Self:

In the one Soul we may distinguish two aspects. The

one [aspect] is the Soul-as-Absolute (Tathata); the other is the

Soul-as-relative-world (samsara). Each in itself constitutes all

things, and both are so closely related that one cannot be

separated from the other.

What is meant by “the Soul-as-Absolute” is the oneness

of the totality of things, the great all-inclusive Whole.

... This essential nature of the Soul is uncreate and eternal.

Therefore all things in their fundamental nature are not nameable

or explicable. They cannot be adequately explained in

any form of language. ... They possess absolute sameness.

They are subject neither to transformation nor to

destruction. They are nothing but the one Soul, for which

“Absolute” is simply another designation.

The Soul-as-the-relative-world comes forth from the

Womb of the Absolute; but the immortal Absolute and the

mortal relative world coincide with one another. Though they

are not identical, they are not two. 16

It should be evident that, in this explanation by Ashvagosha,

these two, Tathata and samsara, are precisely those same two aspects of

Reality described in earlier chapters as Brahman & Maya, Purusha &

Prakrti, Shiva & Shakti, Tao & Teh, etc. They “coincide,” as

Ashvagosha says, in the experience of nirvana.

Another great sage of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition was

Nagarjuna, who lived in the late 2nd century C.E. He too placed great

emphasis on the understanding of these two aspects of Reality, insisting,

in his “Discourse On The Middle Way,” that:

The Buddha’s teaching rests on the discrimination

between two aspects of Reality: the Absolute and the relative.

Those who do not have any adequate knowledge of them

are unable to grasp the subtle and profound meaning of Buddhism.


Yet, in the same Discourse, he acknowledged the fact that,

”samsara is an activity of nirvana (in this sense, the Absolute) itself; not

the slightest distinction exists between them.”

It is only from the viewpoint of the enlightened that samsara and

nirvana (or Tathata) no longer appear as two. One who has seen the

Truth sees only oneness everywhere. He knows himself to be that One

who exists eternally, beyond all manifestation of samsara; yet he knows

also that samsara is his own appearance, a play of changing forms on the

one ocean of Existence. When a man awakes to nirvana, behold!

Suddenly he knows himself as the Absolute, the one eternally pure,

unblemished Consciousness. And there, also, shining forth from him is

the world of samsara, with all its creatures and objects. Like a movie

shown on a screen, or like a fantasy-image on one’s own mind, the two

exist at once. It is ONE, but It has these two aspects.

Those who have seen It realize better than anyone the impossibility

of explaining this duality-in-unity to those who have not

experienced It, yet they realize, too, that nothing can be said about

enlightenment without referring to It. Here, on this same subject, is the

master, Padma-Shambhava, who took his Buddhism to Tibet in 747 C.E.,

and wrote a book entitled, “The Yoga Of Knowing The Mind, And

Seeing The Reality, Which Is Called Self-Realization.” In it, he wrote:

Although the wisdom of nirvana and the ignorance of

samsara illusorily appear to be two things, they cannot truly

be differentiated. It is an error to conceive them as other than

one. 18

Those, like the Buddha, who have realized the Truth, tell of It to

others and outline a path to that realization as a way of explaining what

happened to themselves and describing the pattern of their progress to it.

They are practical scientists who say, in effect, ‘This is what happened

to me, and these are the mental refinements that lead to it. You too, by

doing likewise, will reach the same inner realization.’ When we

examine the testimonies of those many who have described their

experience of Unity and their progress to it, we have to be struck by the

remarkable agreement evidenced in all their testimonies. Their lives,

their methods, their enlightenment, reveal so undeviating a sameness, so

compelling a unanimity, that we must be convinced of the universality of

their experience, and the universality of the path to it. We must come to

the conclusion that the Truth is one, that the way is clear, and that the

choice is our own.

The Buddha continued to live and teach his disciples for fortyfive

years, moving about from place to place, proclaiming his wisdom to

the people around Benares, Oudh, and Bihar. He established a monastic

Order, and accepted as gifts from his householder devotees many groves

and monasteries where his liberating knowledge could be taught. He

died at the age of eighty in 486 B.C.E. at Kusinagara, the present city of

Kasia, in northern Gorakhpur. His last words to the disciples who

gathered around him were: “All constituted forms pass away. Diligently

work out your own salvation.”

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