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The Lost Teachings of Lama Govinda
Living Wisdom from a Modern Tibetian Master
By Richard Power
Theosophical Publishing HouseCopyright © 2007 Richard Power
All rights reserved.
From Theravada to Zen
To understand the sacred scriptures of Buddhism, we must be familiar to some extent with the living stream of tradition, as it has come down to us in unbroken continuity from the days of the Buddha. In spite of many differences in conception and formulation, even the comparatively later texts of the Mahayana are built upon the teachings of the earliest known tradition, which were already subdivided into eighteen different schools, each having its own canonical scriptures. However, only one of these canons has survived intact up to the present day, that of the Theravadins, the teachings of the Elders. The reason for their survival was their insular seclusion in Ceylon, due to which they remained untouched by the spiritual and political revolutions on the mainland of India and the rest of Asia.
Until now the West has been mainly familiarized with the texts of this school, so that many people have formed the conviction that Theravada is the only authentic form of Buddhism, as taught by the Buddha. We must remember, however, that not less than four centuries had passed before the Pali canon was put down in writing. Even if we want to trust the Indian capacity to pass on faithfully the words of the great religious leaders orally from Guru to Chela for centuries on end, we must not forget that words are not lifeless objects, but that they possess many meanings and associations of a spiritual and emotional nature, so that people of different temperaments, different backgrounds, and different mentalities—to say nothing of people belonging to different centuries—will associate different meanings, or only a certain aspect of the original meaning, with the same words.
This divergence is made evident in the fact that by the time the Theravada canon had been fixed, eighteen different Buddhist schools had already come into existence. No conscientious and unprejudiced scholar can overlook this fact, and therefore we must give to each of the different traditions as much credence as we are willing to give to the Theravadins. Each has an equal claim of representing a true aspect of the teachings of the Buddha and a sincere effort to preserve as much as possible of the original words and thoughts of the Enlightened One. Only in this way can we obtain a complete and genuine picture of Buddhist thought and experience that reveals the whole wealth of Buddhist culture and its application in life, a picture that not only enriches our knowledge, but also deepens the meaning and the importance of every single phase or school of Buddhism. Such knowledge is equally essential for understanding the Pali scriptures of the Theravadins, as it is for understanding the other contemporary Hinayana schools and the Mahayana, which finally took over the mainstream of Buddhist traditions and carried it all over Southeast Asia, into the Far East, and into Central Asia.
Only a detailed study of the Dharma theory in the scriptures of the Sarvastivadins and of the Mahayana made it possible to see the teachings of the Theravadins in their true perspective and to arrive at a deeper understanding of their philosophical and metaphysical foundations. The one-sided opinion of earlier scholars was that Buddhism is a system without any metaphysical background, floating in a kind of spiritual vacuum. This view represented the teachings of the Buddha as a cold intellectual doctrine that fitted more into the European Age of Reason (which coincided with the beginnings of Buddhist research) than with the religion that inspired one third of humanity with hope and faith.
Helmuth von Glasenapp, well known for his impartial works on the history of Buddhist thought, says, "The fact that formerly nothing was known about the Dharma theory, is the cause that many scholars missed a metaphysical foundation in the canonical discourse, and therefore declared the Buddha—according to their respective temperament—as an agnostic or a mere teacher of ethics, or they deduced from his silence about God, soul, and other concepts which contradict the Dharma theory, a mystic secret doctrine about Atman, etc." Glasenapp is even more outspoken in another article, in which he explains the Buddhist concept of dhammas (the Pali version of the Sanskrit dharmas) whose cooperation, according to their inherent law, brings about what we conceive of as "personality" and the "world" experienced by it.
This is a concept whose fundamental importance for the Buddhist view of the world and its doctrine of salvation has been revealed only in the course of the last thirty years. Since the word "dhamma" (literally, the supporting element) has already in Pali several meanings (universal law, righteousness, duty, property, object), one did not realize that besides these many meanings, it is used in the Pali Canon also as a terminus technicus for the ultimate, irreducible factors out of which everything is composed that we believe to perceive within and without ourselves. Since this fundamental concept of Buddhist philosophy had not been understood in its true significance, one could only appreciate the Buddha's ethical principles and his doctrine of liberation; however, one could not realize that the practical side has a theoretical foundation, a "philosophy of becoming," which is unique in the spiritual history of humanity, in so far as it explains everything that exists through the co-operation of only momentary existing forces arising and disappearing in functional dependence on each other. Due to this, Buddhism can renounce the concept of eternal substances (matter, soul, God) which in all other teachings form the supporting basis.
Here we come to the core of the problem. What distinguished the Buddha from his contemporaries, and what raised him above the general spiritual attitude of his country, was his perception of the dynamic nature of reality. The Four Noble Truths (the truth of suffering, its origin, its annihilation, and the way leading to its annihilation) as well as the Eightfold Path toward liberation form the general Indian frame of his teachings, but not what gives Buddhism its specific character. But when the Buddha put the anatman idea into the center of his teaching, he took the decisive step from a static to a dynamic view of the world, from an emphasis on "being" to an emphasis on "becoming," from the concept of an unchangeable permanent "I" (ego) to the realization of the interdependence of all forms and aspects of life and the capacity of individuals to grow beyond themselves and their self-created limitations. Thus the insurmountable contrast between "I" and world, mind and matter, substance and appearance, the eternal and the impermanent, etc., was eliminated.
The doctrine of the Buddha is the antithesis of the concept of "substance" that has governed human thought for millennia. Just as Einstein's theory of relativity influenced and changed the entire body of modern thinking, in a similar way the anatman idea of the Buddha caused a revolution in Indian thought. This revolution did not imply a negation of the religious principles of the past or a skeptical attitude toward metaphysical values; it was more in the nature of a revaluation of these ideas in the light of experience and of a new spiritual perspective. The Buddha never doubted the continuity of life beyond death, nor the existence and attainability of higher states of existence and their influence on human life. He did not doubt the existence of a moral law, nor that of a universe governed by equally strict and unalterable laws, and the world in which he lived was for him not merely a material phenomenon, but a manifestation of living and conscious forces. It was a world thoroughly alive with psychic forces in a way unimaginable to people of our times, as becomes all too apparent in the soulless and equally uninspiring interpretation of Buddhism by modern Buddhists, who confound the anatman idea with "soullessness," a term conveying a totally wrong impression. How can we speak about Buddhist psychology without presupposing a psyche? The Buddha rejected the idea of an eternal, unchangeable soul substance, existing as a separate entity or monad, but he never denied the existence of consciously directed spiritual and psychic forces, which in spite of their constant flow and change of form and appearance retained their continuity and organic unity. The human being is not a mere mechanism of elements that have been thrown together by blind chance, but a conscious organism following its own inherent rules in which individual tendencies and universal laws are in constant cooperation.
The Buddha freed the world of its "thingishness" as well as of its mere "illusionness" by opposing a dogmatically hardened and misunderstood atmavada—which originally was born from an experience of inner reality, the living breath of the universe within us, but which in the course of time had frozen into the concept of an unchangeable individual self. The Buddha replaced the idea of an immutable, eternal soul monad incapable of growth and development with the conception of a spiritual consciousness yearning for freedom and highest enlightenment, and capable of attaining this supreme goal in the course of a continuous process of becoming and dissolving.
In this process of transformation, we find not only the source of transience and suffering, but also the source of all spiritual life and growth. When the Buddha spoke about this suffering, it was not an outcome of pessimism or world-weariness, but due to the realization that unless we recognize the nature and cause of our suffering, we cannot make use of the tremendous potentialities of our mind and attain a state of perfect enlightenment, which will reveal the universality of our innermost being. In this context, "suffering" is only another word for our imperfection and our wrong attitude. This realization was not founded on logical conclusions, but on the Buddha's own experience in attaining illumination, in which he transcended the limitations of individuality by overcoming the illusion of egohood. Overcoming this illusion does not mean that his individuality was annihilated, but only that he no longer mistook it as the essence of his being, seeing it instead as only a vehicle, a necessary means to become conscious of his universality, the universality of the all-embracing mind.
Looking back from this experience of highest reality and self-realization, the Enlightened One saw the world in a reversed perspective (reversed from the point of view of the ordinary person), namely in the perspective of the anatman idea; and lo, this apparently inescapable, solid and substantial world, dissolved into a whirling nebulous mass of insubstantial, eternally rotating elements of continually arising and disintegrating forms. The momentariness of these elements of existence (dharmas), which make up the river of life and of all phenomena, makes it impossible to apply concepts like "being" and "nonbeing" to them.
The world, O Kaccana, is given to dualism, to the "it is" and the "it is not." He, however, O Kaccana, who has realized with perfect wisdom how things arise in this world, for him, there is no "it is not" in this world. And he, O Kaccana, who realizes with perfect wisdom how things disappear in this world, for him, there is no "it is" in the world.
Being and non-being can only be applied to things or substances existing "in themselves," that is, to absolute units, as represented by our abstract concepts; they can never be applied to anything real or actual, because no thing and no being can exist in itself or for itself, but only in relationship to other things or beings, to conscious or unconscious forces in the universe. Concepts like "identity" and "non-identity" therefore lose their meaning. For this reason, the Sage Nagasena answered King Milinda's question about whether the doer is identical with the reaper of the fruit of the action (whether in this or in a following life), "Na ca so, na ca añño." "He is neither the same, nor a different one."
The Buddha, therefore, replaces the concepts of identity and non-identity (which both represent extremes of abstract thought) by the formula of dependent origination (pratitya-samutpada). This was much more than the proclamation of a scientific law of causation, as superficial observers maintained in order to prove the similarity to their own soulless and mechanistic worldview. Their causality presupposes a purely time-conditioned, unalterable sequence of events, that is, a necessary and predictable course of action.
The pratitya-samutpada, however, is not confined to a sequence in time, but can also be interpreted as a simultaneous cooperation of all its links, insofar as each of them represents the sum total of all the others, seen under a particular aspect. In other words, from the point of view of time and of the course of individual existence, that is, from the mundane point of view, the formula of dependent origination can be interpreted causally, but not, however, from the standpoint of the highest truth (paramartha).
To a certain extent, the causal interpretation is a concession toward a more popular understanding, one that requires a concrete example related to actual life and not a strictly logical, scientific formula. Therefore, we find even in the Pali texts no uniformity in the presentation of this formula, in which sometimes several links are left out and even the reversibility of the sequence of certain links has been pointed out. This is not due to lack of logical thinking as some critics assumed, but shows that the originators of these different formulations wanted to demonstrate that they were not concerned with a strictly time-conditioned sequence of phenomena in which one would follow another with mechanical necessity. What they wanted to point out was the non-substantiality and relativity of all individual phenomena, none of which exists in its own nature, independent of all other factors of life. Therefore, they are described as sunyam: empty of self-nature, non-absolute.
Since no first beginning of any individual or of any inner or outer phenomena can be found, each has the totality of the universe as its base. Or, to express this concept from the standpoint of time, we could say that each of these phenomena, and especially every individual, has an infinite past and is therefore based on an infinity of relations, which do not and cannot exclude anything that ever existed or is liable to come into existence. Therefore, all individuals (or rather all who have an individual existence) have the whole universe as their common ground, and this universality becomes conscious in the experience of enlightenment, in which the individual awakens to its true, all-embracing nature.
To become conscious of this all-embracing nature, we have to empty ourselves of all conceptual thought and discriminating perception. This emptiness (sunyata) is not a negative property, but a state of freedom from impediments and limitations, a state of spontaneous receptivity in which we open up to the all-inclusive reality of a higher dimension. Here we realize the sunyata that forms the central concept of the Prajnaparamita Sutra. Far from being the expression of a nihilistic philosophy, which denies all reality, it is the logical consequence of the anatman doctrine of nonsubstantiality. Sunyata is the emptiness of all conceptual designations and at the same time the recognition of a higher, incommensurable, and indefinable reality, which can be experienced only in the state of perfect enlightenment.
While we are able to come to an understanding of relativity through reasoning, the experience of universality and completeness can be attained only when all conceptual thought (kalpana), all word-thinking has come to rest. Realization of the teachings of the Prajnaparamita Sutra can only come about on the path of meditative practice (yogacara), through a transformation of our consciousness. Meditation in this sense is therefore not a search after intellectual solutions or an analysis of worldly phenomena with worldly means—which would merely be a moving around in circles—but a breaking out from this circle, an abandoning of our thought habits in order "to reach the other shore" (as has been said not only in the Prajnaparamita-hridaya, but already in the ancient Sutta-Nipata). A complete reversal or spiritual transformation is required, a "turning about in the deepest seat of our consciousness," as expressed in the Lankavatara Sutra. This reversal brings about a new spiritual outlook, similar to what the Buddha experienced when returning from the Tree of Enlightenment. A new dimension of consciousness is being opened by this experience. This dimension transcends the limits of mundane thought.
Excerpted from The Lost Teachings of Lama Govinda by Richard Power. Copyright © 2007 Richard Power. Excerpted by permission of Theosophical Publishing House.
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