Reflections on the Dichotomised View on Buddhism in India
Along with the demise of Buddhism in India, its birthplace, the insight into its deeper meaning also vanished from here without a trace. Even so, there still remains in this land the inspiring memories of the Awakened One, the Buddha, as the epitome of loving-kindness and compassion, fearlessness and purity, non-violence and equanimity. This man remains unparalleled in the history of humanity in being praised by all alike. The qualities that we know him for stand even today as the supreme model for secular and universal ethics.
After coming across the great discoveries of the Buddha, I was perplexed to see a dichotomy in the Indian view on the Buddha. So I felt it is important to resolve the barriers for an Indian to understand the Buddha.
The philosophers and poets of modern India extol the Buddha’s qualities time and again. They acknowledge the inspiration they derive from the Buddha. Yet, when it comes to the words and meaning of his teaching, the very essence that made him the Buddha, most of them seem reluctant even to go near it. They sing the glory of him as the greatest son of mother India, yet they think of his teachings as foreign! They feel it is outside of ‘our tradition’. When the entire Asia lives in this ‘light of Asia’, and when that light spreads around the world setting alight the hearts of billions, we in the motherland of Buddha seem to favour the darkness by hiding into the shells of customs, traditions and religious thinking.
Most of us miss to see that it is his path-breaking discoveries about the nature of happiness and suffering, the nature of our minds and experiences etc, that made him the Buddha, the very epitome of all qualities that we praise and venerate. We remain imprisoned and suffer in a shell of philosophical concepts and religiosity. We seem to love being imprisoned, and hold that fast as our tradition. The Buddha broke beyond that shell, breathing freedom and letting that freshness reach us through his teachings and qualities. And, because he broke beyond to freedom, we take him to be an outsider in his insight!
An Unfinished Revolution
Let alone the ordinary folks, most of the great thinkers of modern India who spearheaded a revolution to break beyond the rotten customs, social structures and the general depression of the 18-19 Century India, by rediscovering the gems of ancient Indian thought, found it hard to rediscover the meaning of the Buddha’s teachings because it meant breaking even the tiniest remnants of the philosophical shell. However, they are not to be faulted for this since they had no access to the genuine meaning of the Buddha’s teaching in India at that time. Though the meaning of the Buddha’s teaching is simple and straightforward, while approaching it from the prevalent notions of self and philosophical speculations, it remained difficult to understand.
We can see this even in the viewpoint of one of the most celebrated figures of India’s spiritual resurgence, Swami Vivekananda. He rekindled the interest in ancient Indian thought through his famous expositions on Vedanta by reinterpreting it as a vehicle for self-empowerment and social commitment. However, when he speaks of the Buddha, he had to stop at greatly admiring the qualities of the Buddha as the greatest man who walked on this earth. To go beyond and to understand what made Siddhartha the Buddha, the Awakened One, there was hardly any source for his teachings in India at that time. Let alone the Mahayana teachings of the Buddha where the highest level of social commitment and self-empowerment are the very foundation of one’s path, even the basic teachings of Buddhism were not accessible in India at that time. So, he just wondered how such a great man could have such a philosophy (he mistook that the Buddhist philosophy meant inaction, nihilism and denial of cause and effect continuity). Vivekananda was the most frank of the critics of Buddhism in modern India as he simply admitted that he did not ‘understand’ the doctrine of the Buddha. The following is from one of his discourses in the west [Delivered at the Shakespeare Club, Pasadena, California, on February 2, 1900].
“Well, I do not understand his doctrine. But I can understand the motive behind that. Oh, the gigantic motive! The Master says that selfishness is the great curse of the world; that we are selfish and that therein is the curse. There should be no motive for selfishness. You are like a river passing on — a continuous phenomenon. Have no God; have no soul; stand on your feet and do good for good’s sake — neither for fear of punishment nor for the sake of going anywhere. Stand sane and motiveless. The motive is: I want to do good, it is good to do good. Tremendous! Tremendous! I do not sympathize with his metaphysics at all; but my mind is jealous when I think of the moral force. Just ask your minds which one of you can stand for one hour, able and daring like that man. I cannot for five minutes. I would become a coward and want a support. I am weak — a coward. And I warm to think of this tremendous giant. We cannot approach that strength. The world never saw anything compared to that strength. And I have not yet seen any other strength like that.”
This is indeed the barrier that most Indians still face. They are perplexed to hear the Buddha’s message on selflessness. Language has changed from the Buddha’s time. In the context of today’s colloquial usage of the terms such as atma, self and soul, most people confuse that the Buddha denies the very vibrancy (cetana) and life of our being. That is indeed not the meaning. As we shall see it is a simple and direct wisdom one can gain without any philosophical speculations and is the very root of his fearlessness and strength.
Breaking the Barriers
Prince Siddhartha left his life of luxury and set out on a momentous journey, to discover a solution for the suffering of the world. After meeting with many teachers, trying out many methods and going through many experiences he realised the futility of it all and finally sitting under the Bodhi tree, it dawned on him that the end of suffering is not to be found in any kind of identity within or without, but in realising the interdependent nature of the world and directly facing it with wisdom. Buddha advocated taking wisdom as the path to deal with the world through clear and open awareness and unbounded investigation, without being slave to any scripture or religion. His way is to face the reality here and now with insightful awareness.
Self-clinging in Normal Life
This knowledge that we don’t hold a Self-identity that is rigidly cast is very liberating. We can remain open and flexible always thinking freshly for the benefit of oneself and others…No need to be prisoners of our past, habits and tradition.
What an ordinary person takes as the Self is his own ego identity. “I am so and so”, “I belong to this religion, this caste, this community”, “I like ice cream”, “I have the habit of becoming angry fast, I am like that only”, “I don’t like such and such people” and so on. Usually we presume these to be inherent aspects of our identity and don’t even give a thought that we can be different. We take our thoughts and emotions for granted as if coming from the ‘me’. In reality our entire identity including body and mind are changing momentarily. Various physical conditions arise, various emotions arise and we undergo moments of happiness and suffering. What I perceive as ‘me’ is just a stream of form, feelings, thoughts, emotions etc. arising out of various conditions. Even the incidents we had with someone yesterday or the food we ate this morning mould what we are now. Look into and investigate deeply. We cannot find anything as a permanent identity in this stream to call as the Self. Yet it is not just arbitrary, what we do today moulds what we are tomorrow. Conventionally we still take certain orientation as an identity and we might even refer to it as myself while dealing with the world in a constructive manner. At the same time, this knowledge that we don’t hold a Self-identity that is rigidly cast is very liberating. We can remain open and flexible always thinking freshly for the benefit of oneself and others. There is nothing that we need to hold on to from the past. No need to be prisoners of our past, habits and tradition.
The Self and the God of the Mystics
When spiritual experiences arise, we usually grasp on to them immediately. We hold them as our real identity and the original truth of the world…We crave for them, hold on to them, rejecting everything else as if in a trance. And, when these experiences vanish we remain in despair.
Then what about the out-of-ordinary experiences of the mystics? Mystics of all sects and religions have experiences of bliss, no-thought, heavenly visions and so forth. Buddha did not negate such experiences. These are usual occurrences in the Buddhist meditation too as the mind settles. However the Buddha showed us that these experiences are also transient like all other experiences. They arise based on many causes and conditions. When such spiritual experiences arise, we usually grasp on to them immediately. We hold them as our real identity and the original truth of the world. Instead of openly seeing these experiences in all its modes of arising and vanishing, and being utterly free even in that space, we ascribe various metaphysical meanings to them. We crave for them, hold on to them, rejecting everything else as if in a trance. And, when these experiences vanish we remain in despair. How is this any different from an ordinary person who is clinging to his blind view of Self as “I am like this only, anger is in my nature”? All that we arrived at is just another point that we refuse to penetrate and just label it as Self and remain contented for a while.
When you thoroughly know God and Self, there should be nothing left as a God or Self, because you see how they arise and vanish. This is wisdom!
Some even categorise these experiences as Ishvara(God) and Atma(Self) and postulate many metaphysical theories on that basis. We even go on to longwinded philosophical speculations and arguments about whose God and Self are correct. After all, aren’t these just labels? But then we hang on to these labels, a Self inside and a God outside as permanent realities, and all that is transient and functional as happening between them. And, these two ends, the God and the Self, we reify and turn into something that we can know no more. To know about the functioning of anything we have to know in detail about its causes, conditions, inner workings etc. and not just treat it as something impenetrable. Just postulating Self and God will not solve our problems, as we do not get to its inner workings. Thus, we end up creating a blind spot. These metaphysical concepts become mere stumbling blocks and can just become barriers in our open investigation of truth. When you thoroughly know God and Self, there should be nothing left as a God or Self, because you see how they arise and vanish. This is wisdom!
The Metaphysical Self of the Philosophers
Now let us look into the metaphysical Self of the philosophers, a pure being, a cosmic Self, which is eternal, changeless and inherently existing. They postulate that we are that pure cosmic Self and not all these transient arisings of our ordinary experience. But if that pure Self is never undergoing suffering in reality, who is suffering now? If I have to undergo change from suffering being to happy being, I have to understand the process of that change. Instead if I think of Self as some unchanging and eternal being how will that knowledge solve my current problems? If I am feeling hungry now, do I convince myself that I am the cosmic Self that does not need food or should I look for ways to appease my hunger? Since I still feel hungry, there must be a hungry me that is different from the cosmic Self. Obviously, the problems we are facing in any of our endeavours, spiritual or worldly are not that of a cosmic Self, but of the conventional me, the stream of arising experiences. In fact, a concept of changeless cosmic Self that is unknowable by individuals has nothing to do with our real problems – because problems are always related to change. The pragmatic way is to work with the immediacy of these experiences and directly realise the interdependent arising of these.
The strong sense of me, myself, and all the clinging and grasping that arise from those are like a dam which is interrupting the natural flow of our stream of experiences and holding the pend up emotions and habits of the past. This gives rise to strain and suffering.
This entire world is interdependently arising including myself. I have no separate essence aside from all those conditions. I become me through the food I eat, through my parents, the society that conditioned me, etc. Everything is dependently arising. In this interdependent flow of nature, if I just cling to my own happiness, if I just nourish this island called me, how is it going to generate happiness ? If we think that there is a ‘happy I’ coming from somewhere else that is independent of all these, that would only isolate us further into that island of Self. The strong sense of me, myself, and all the clinging and grasping that arise from those are like a dam which is interrupting the natural flow of our stream of experiences and holding the pend up emotions and habits of the past. This gives rise to strain and suffering. Instead, leaving aside the ego identity and making our very existence for the sake of others through compassion and loving kindness is the basis for peace and bliss.
Essenceless Pure Nature
At the same time through selflessness Buddha does not negate the purity of our nature. The very fact that every being can rise up as a fully awakened Buddha shows that the perfection and purity of Buddhahood is not foreign to us. However, the way to rise up is to go beyond all kinds of clinging. Even the clinging to the subtlest notion of a pure Self is still a clinging. Any clinging is a level of darkness. Only when we break free from all such conceptual barriers and work with the immediacy of our direct experience, can we wake up to that purity.
The Source of Fearlessness
Does Buddha’s findings of selflessness means that we are with no support? Of course not. Since everything is interdependently arising we are supported by these interconnections with the rest of the world. But if we are looking for that ‘one support’ which can give us solace forever in this ever changing flux, there is no such one because everything is changing. Sometimes we can take the support of a stick to walk, but being careful that it might breakdown one day. Only when we know the boundless nature of our own awareness, live directly facing reality with wisdom, and having no need to take support in a cocoon of concepts, can we attain real freedom and true fearlessness.
The Source of Compassion
What then is the source of compassion? If we believe that each of us have a separate individual Self that stays as our unique and permanent identity, how can that be a source of compassion? In that case, if someone is not good, it is since they have such a ‘not good’ identity. Nothing can be done about it. If someone is suffering, they have a ‘suffering’ identity. Nothing can be done about it. But the truth is that these are not rigid identities and that is why there is scope for compassion. If we believe in pure Self, then we assume that we are not suffering beings and then what is the scope for compassion? Compassion arises only when we understand that our experiences and actions arise based on so many factors like habits and outer conditions. Though everyone of us wants happiness and does not want suffering, our ignorance and confusions combine with these conditions and propel us towards further suffering. When we understand this plight of sentient beings, we see that all of us are in the same boat and can only feel compassion to the biggest troublemaker too.
Only when we know the boundless nature of our own awareness, live directly facing reality with wisdom, and having no need to take support in a cocoon of concepts, can we attain real freedom and true fearlessness.
I have no identity or essence other than what comes through the interdependence of so many factors. Every grain of food that makes my body contains the effort of those farmers who cultivated, the labourers who transported, the traders who sold and so on. Every aspect of my character is formed by those who nurtured and pampered me and even by those who hate me. When we truly realise that we have no pure identity coming from somewhere else other than all that is dependently arising, how can there be anything but compassion to these beings.
When we perfect the realisation of selflessness and the boundaries of self melt away, any suffering perceived in our sphere of experience becomes equally worthy to be attended to. Then the only way of relating to the world is with spontaneous love, compassion, joy and equanimity. For the one who has transcended the clinging to an elusive self-identity, these are not mere ethical adherences or social norms, but an outpouring of immeasurable love and compassion as the other side of wisdom. There is no way the Buddha cannot be compassionate. It is this very compassion that made the Buddha.
As Buddha said:
Reaching sentient beings, I pleased the Buddhas and performed virtues.
Firmly abiding only in the benefit of beings, I also reached perfections (pāramitā).
With the mind that arouse for beings, even the might of Maras was conquered.
Traversing for sentient beings, thus, thus, I became the Buddha! –
Awakening to the Way of Bodhi
The rest of the world is awakening to the profundity of the teachings of the Buddha. Still in India, the very land where these teachings originated, its subtleties and implications are not widely appreciated. We largely remain repelled by the mistaken notions about this teaching. Thus we remain in darkness with our cultural hangovers of leaving aside the greatest contribution of India to the world — the path to peace, compassion and fearlessness that the simple, fearless man who walked on this land discovered!
As Ravindranath Tagore aptly sang on the Buddha,
Bring to this country once again the blessed name
Which made the land of thy birth sacred to all distant lands!
Let thy great awakening under the Bodhi-tree be fulfilled.
Sweeping away the veil of unreason and let, at the end of an oblivious night,
Freshly blossom out in India thy remembrance!