Fundamental View: Talk 2

Presented at the Buddha Center, Second Life, on June 22 and 25, 2013

He Who Went This Way

Om Ah Hung Benza Guru Pema Siddhi Hung.


Impermanence and suffering indicate the reality of permanence and happiness. Therefore, non-enlightenment proves the fact of enlightenment. Because sangsara is illusory, enlightenment is real. Sangsara is merely its deluded reflection. The Mahayana doctrine of the Buddha potential (tathāgatagarbha) appears in the Pali Canon as the “pure bright mind” (pabhassara chitta). Since sangsara is essentially unsatisfactory, eventually someone will see this. It is only a small step from realizing the essential unsatisfactoriness of sangsara to formulating the intention to escape, since all beings desire happiness. Thus, sangsara generates the aspiration to attain enlightenment and finally, enlightenment itself.

The Lineage of Bodhisattvas

That some achieve enlightenment is the universal tradition of humanity. In the Buddhist tradition, it refers to the 27 Buddhas. These Buddhas preceded the historical Buddha. The Buddha lineage begins with a Buddha called Tanhankara.[1]

These are not the only Buddhas who existed in the past. According to the Pali Canon, innumerable Buddhas have flourished in previous kappas, vast cycles or ages of time. In the Buddhist tradition, the duration of a kappa ranges from 16 million to 1.28 trillion years.  In Hinduism, it is 4.32 billion years. The Pali Canon also refers to a 29th Buddha, Metteyya. Metteyya will be born long after the dhamma of the historical Buddha has been forgotten.

Whether we accept these traditions as literally true is beside the point. What is important is the underlying idea. Ideas can be expressed in historical, metaphorical, or symbolic terms without affecting the underlying meaning. In this way, we can extract meaning from non-historic texts without “confusing the planes.”

The word bodhisatta comes from Pali bodhi-, awakened + satta, living. The bodhisatta has “woken up”; he has formulated right view and acquired perfect insight. A bodhisatta vows to achieve enlightenment to become a perfected being, to free all sentient beings from the delusion of sangsara. In the Eightfold Path, this refers to a being who has “heard the word” (the sawaka). Thus, formulating right view because of this realization, he undertakes the second step of initiation, viz., Right Intention. The bodhisatta is an ariya. The vow of an arahant is not “other” than the vow of a bodhisatta, but its essence. In the same way, Mahayana is not other than Hinayana and Hinayana is not other than Mahayana. The realization of the unity of Hinayana and Mahayana culminates in the doctrine of the ekayana, the “single vehicle.”

The Bodhisatta inhabits the Tusita world, “the delightful plane.” Tusita is a higher vibration or dimension of reality in the Buddhist system of vertical and horizontal extension that constitutes sangsara (the 31 planes of existence). Tusita is the third highest dimension in the Six Dewa planes and the Seven Happy Sensuous planes. The human plane is the lowest of seven. In the Eleven Planes of the Sensuous Realm, only ghosts, animals, and demons rank lower than human beings. Human beings are special, however, in that they are able to reify the Buddha potential. Those below us are too involved in suffering. Those above us are too intoxicated with living.

Human birth is rare. It presents an opportunity for realization that should be valued by seeking to live by a code of ethics that will create the merit needed to be reborn as a human being. The Buddhist code of ethics is not unique. The Buddha did not consider ethics to be very important. He refers to ethical practices as “inferior matters of mere morality” in the first sutta of the Pali Canon. This contrasts to the emphasis on formal credentials, established curricula, courses of training, and rules that dominates ecclesiastical sectarianism, as though dhamma can be put in a box.

The historical Buddha was born in this life as a Bodhisatta. Bodhisattas exist in many degrees of realization. All are subject to the afflictions of an erroneous mind. However, this was Gotama’s final birth as a Bodhisatta before he would attain complete realization. For 29 years, Gotama lived the life of Riley, including sensual pleasures. He partied and achieved prowess in military sports, but he was also a pampered child. He married young, apparently happily, but had a son he named Rahula. Rahula means “fetter” or, in some interpretations, “eclipse.” Gotama was completely human and even subject to despair and doubt. Sometimes, in our fascination with symbols, we forget the Buddha was a fully human being. At the age of 29, Gotama experienced a call. His Bodhisatta aspiration re-asserted itself. Then he began the final six-year adventure that led him to complete transcendent realization.

The Tathagata

“Tathagata” is the word the Buddha used all through the Pali Canon to refer to himself. Of uncertain derivation, there are at least eight traditional interpretations, none of which is certain. It refers to an arahant, and appears to have been commonly understood, though no references to it in non-Buddhist literature have been found. Literally, it means something like “thus gone,” with the emphasis on “thus,” from Pali tatha-, thus, in this way + gatha, gone, gone away. “He who went this way.” The Buddha’s realization is so abstract, so post-linguistic, and so transcendent it could be expressed in no other way. The word itself is numinous, like the Hebrew “unpronounceable name of God,” Yahweh.

Although bodhisattas are “thrown up” by the churning of sangsara, they are rarer than human beings; human beings are, of course, already a rare rebirth. Bodhisattas constitute a human elect. As such, they may be born in favourable circumstances. It is a widespread tradition bodhisattas also have close communication with the dewa realms. Dewas are not “gods.” They are sentient beings whose bodies are made of pure mind and form, extremely intelligent, long-lived, beautiful, mostly happy, and powerful. Like all beings, they are also limited and subject to delusion and death. They include all the deities and angels (so-called) of antiquity.

The Buddha asserted part of the sacred knowledge he had realized came from the dewa worlds. Dewas inhabit parallel dimensions of experience that intersect our own. The Buddha’s mind was not limited by physical constraints. He was able to experience (access) that totality. This is the technical meaning of “omniscience.” Psychedelic research clearly shows these experiences are neither symbolic nor subjective. Rather, they are experiential aspects of yogic practice.

The bodhisatta is “in between.” He is in sangsara, but no longer of it. He is awakened, but not realized. He aspires to a Buddhahood he both is and is not. The Buddha nature is both real and potential. You can have intimations of Buddha potential and still be deluded. Even advanced realizers can still suffer from delusion. The full realization of Buddha potential is synonymous with nibbana. Nibbana is negative only from the perspective of sangsara. From the perspective of the absolute, it is positive. The Buddha called nibbana “the unaging, unailing, deathless, sorrowless, and undefiled supreme sanctuary from bondage, Nibbana.”

The renunciation of the Buddha in the version Bhikkhu Bodhi includes in his anthology is probably the more authentic version. It says, when Gotama left home, his parents wished otherwise and they wept. This account differs from the story the Bodhisatta left the palace when everyone was sleeping and Rahula was an infant. Since Gotama was married at 16 and left home at 29, it makes more sense Rahula would have been about 12 years old.[2] The later description reads like a reaction to the statement the Buddha’s parents opposed his leaving home. I envision some redactor imagining this obscured the inherent dignity of the Buddha’s renunciation, and so smoothed over the more dramatic story. However, the following story is just as dramatic.

Gotama fell in with a gnostic yogi who claimed to have experienced “nothingness.” Gotama emulated his example and through a process of initiatory transmission experienced “nothingness.” The Buddha’s first teacher’s name was Alara Kalama. Gotama was not satisfied with this attainment, so he went to another teacher, who taught him to experience “neither-perception-nor-non-perception.” The Buddha’s second teacher’s name was Uddaka Ramaputta, “son of Rama.”

The planes of “nothingness” and “neither perception nor non-perception” are the top two dimensions of the formless realm of the 31 planes of existence. These dimensions are the highest plane or dimension of sangsara. These planes are simultaneously ontological and mental states. Mind itself is the primary ontology.

When the Bodhisatta left home at the age of 29, five ascetics followed him. Their chief was Kondannya. Kondannya was a Brahman scholar in the Kapilawastu court of King Suddodhana, the Buddha’s father. He alone had predicted Gotama would become a World Teacher at the infant’s naming ceremony. Kondannya’s prediction was probably based on divination by physiognomy, at which he excelled. Physiognomy is the art of determining character or personal characteristics from the form or features of the body and face. It is not clear whether the group of five followed Gotama when he was associated with Alara Kallama and Uttar Ramaputta. Together with Bhaddiya, Vappa, Mahanama, and Assaji, Gotama engaged in all the traditional practices of proto-Shaivite self-mortification until he was on the verge of dying.

Shaivism originated in the 4th and 5th centuries BCE from the same samana counterculture as the Buddha himself. Buddhism and Shaivism share significant cultural characteristics. These include the cross-legged posture, yoga practice, acceptance of women, renunciation of household life and child-bearing, a northern Indian provenance, anti-Brahmanism, the rejection of caste and consequent association with untouchables, and a cemetery cult, including the ritual use of human bones.

Gotama experimented with yoga. He experimented with mind meditation (raja yoga), breath meditation (pranayama), and breathless meditation. Because of these exercises, he experienced what we would call kundalini awakening. Kundalini awakening results in a kind of illumination, accompanied by severe physical pain and burning sensations. Gotama bore down even harder on himself. He continued the breathless meditation and deprived himself of food. Gotama took this to the point of dying. Then he abandoned it, realizing these practices are essentially self-destructive.[3]

Finally, he recalled a childhood experience he had while sitting under a rose apple tree. He had entered into a simple meditative state (the first jhana). He resolved to enter this state consciously. However, he could not do so in his extremely emaciated state. At this point, he took a little rice pudding from a passing village girl called Sujata. Sujata offered it to him, mistaking him for the spirit of the tree under which he sat.  Gotama had broken his vow of abstinence. This caused his companions to abandon him. They believed he had reverted to the luxurious life of his youth.  Gotama went into seclusion in a pleasant clearing by a river where he could seek alms each morning.

Alone, Gotama became absorbed in a series of progressive mental meditations. The Bodhisatta’s meditation consisted of progressively refined states of concentration, detachment, and bliss. These are called the four jhanas. They culminated in the memory of past lives and he realized his essential identity with the totality of the world and all beings.

According to Buddhist tradition, this occurred during the first of three watches of the night. In the following two watches, he is said to have understood the mechanics of the law of kamma and the Four Truths. Thus, he attained nibbana and finally cut the bond of attachment to rebirth.

The Chain of Cause and Effect

The Buddha realized the significance of the law of paticchasamuppada even before his enlightenment. Paticchasamuppada is quite the word to unravel. The PED[4] has “arising on the grounds of a preceding cause.” The law of kamma was already a well-established concept in Indian tradition. The Buddha realized the law of kamma leads inevitably to the realization everything is infinitely interconnected. Therefore, everything is mutually dependent. Ananda told the Buddha he thought he understood this concept. The Buddha rebuked Ananda. He likened the doctrine to a hairball and proclaimed its profundity. Nibbana arises out of the realization of the doctrine of universal interconnectedness as the cessation of delusion and the key to enlightenment. In the language of quantum physics, he discovered the “wave-form” nature of reality.

The Buddha realized the essence of the law of kamma is not action, but intention. This realization distinguishes the Buddha’s realization from the dominant Indian tradition culminating in Jainism. The mind generates kamma. Thus, one prepares oneself for the realization of enlightenment, not found or bound by rules or actions. The primary causal factor lies in volition itself. Volition is intimately involved with ignorance. Volition is necessarily innocent of both ignorance and enlightenment. Thus, the Buddha decisively separated himself from the notion of salvation by action or non-action, including ethics, rules, and rituals.

The foregoing is the general meaning of paticchasamuppada. The Buddha also applied the general principle to the conditioned arising of suffering. He also applied it to a less well-known analysis of the conditioned arising of property. The latter relates to the Buddha’s views on politics and government. Here I will simply summarize the Buddha’s view of the conditioned arising of suffering. This is referred to as the twelvefold chain (nidana). This chain has six, nine, or ten links in different versions, but the complete version has 12.

When the Buddha was a Bodhisatta, he was already reflecting on the causes of suffering. He proceeded to analyze each cause systematically, beginning with what we know – aging, death, and the whole mass of suffering. The immediate cause of all this is birth or rebirth, which is the meaning of the Pali word jati. However, the law of kamma states every phenomenon must have a cause. Therefore, the Buddha resolves jati into a more fundamental concept. In Pali, this is called bhawa, translated as “becoming,” i.e., impermanence or change. Bhawa is practically a synonym for sangsara. It refers to things changing through time. Bhawa is then resolved into five fundamental aspects of what we conventionally call mind or perhaps “the psyche,” called upadana, tanha, vedana, phassa, and salayatana. From Pali, these words may be translated as attachment; longing, desire, or craving; feeling; contact; and the six sense modalities, i.e., seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching, and thinking. If we reverse the order we can see how the six sense modalities or processes lead to the unity of object, subject, and sensation called contact; leading to feeling, especially the feelings of pleasure and pain; leading to craving; and finally hardening into attachment.

More fundamental even than the six senses is namarupa. Namarupa is a fascinating term derived from nama, name, + rupa, form. Namarupa is glossed by the PED as individuality, the individual being (paradoxically, because nama and rupa are opposites). Nama refers specifically to the immaterial, cognitive aspect of the person, especially the linguistic faculty of speech. Rupa refers to the body-form-appearance. More fundamental than namarupa is vinnyana, which is commonly translated consciousness. “Consciousness” is not quite right, however, because by consciousness here is meant something more akin to vitality, according to the PED.[5] The Buddha says namarupa causes consciousness, and consciousness causes namarupa. Bodhi describes this relationship as a “vortex,” a word also used by Padmasambhava.

The cause of vinnyana is sankhāra. This term is very interesting, from san, together + kr, to do or make, the same root as kamma. The sankharas are the karmic complex or intervolved system of causes and effects that together constitute the innate tendencies that work themselves out continuously through consciousness, name and form, etc. Finally, the Buddha identifies the root cause of this whole chain of causes and effects as awijja, literally “not knowing” or ignorance.

The twelvefold chain of cause and effect has a number of interesting aspects. First, the Buddha identified it, at least in essence, prior to his enlightenment. It became an essential element of his post-enlightenment teachings, along with the childhood memory of meditating under the rose apple tree. This fact gives us a fascinating glimpse into the mind of the Bodhisatta prior to his enlightenment. It causes us to realize the enlightenment was not, or not just, a qualitative transformation of state in which, one moment he is ignorant,  and the next moment he is enlightened. Rather, it shows the dhamma as a progressive process in which the Buddha was engaged even prior to his enlightenment.

Second, it shows how the Buddha’s philosophical method was not to begin with ontological absolutes. This was the custom of Indian philosophy before him. Rather, it shows how the Buddha began with the immediacies of human experience. From these he extrapolated to larger generalizations about the nature of reality. The Buddha anticipated the development of what we in the West would like to think of as “modern” philosophy, especially phenomenology, process philosophy, and existentialism, by not merely centuries, but millennia.

Third, it shows the Buddha applying the principle of kamma, cause and effect, to everything.

Fourth, it shows the Buddha did not make a hard distinction between psychology and ontology or subjective and objective reality. Rather, in common with the universal wisdom tradition, which includes virtually all mystical understandings of the world, macrocosm and microcosm, the universal and the individual are perceived as different sides of the same coin and ultimately identical. This also appears in the 31 planes of existence. The 31 planes of existence are simultaneously 31 levels of consciousness or yogic/psychological accomplishments.

Fifth, it leads to the paradoxical conclusion that the absolute, reality itself, is fundamentally ignorant. The ignorance of the absolute is a fundamental point of the great Korean sutra, the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment (圆觉经, Yuánjué jīng). Otherwise, the appearance of sangsara would be inexplicable. This in turn leads to the realization that the absolute is trans-dual.

I am reminded of C.G. Jung’s comparison of the universe to the unconscious, literally the “not-conscious.” The unconscious universe posits phenomenality as the “skilful means” (upaya), to use a Buddhist term, by which the unconscious progressively achieves consciousness and, thus, in Jung’s language, individuation. This is why, when I translate the term tathāgatagarbha, commonly translated as “Buddha nature,” I prefer the term “Buddha potential.” Otherwise, we posit an insoluble contradiction, i.e., a perfectly enlightened being who is nevertheless somehow also ignorant. Christian theology suffers from a similar problem when it posits God. God is by definition perfectly good, yet it is the ultimate source of evil. Here we are directly contemplating the mystery of the one becoming two.

Finally, sixth, we see in the twelvefold chain references to two fundamentals of the Buddhist path, viz., desire and ignorance. Most of the links in this chain are not things we can easily change. Birth, becoming, mind, kamma – these are not things one can simply “turn off.” They are ontologically given and thus outside our volitional control. However, we know from the Four Truths that desire is the cause of suffering. As a karmically generated phenomenon, desire is transitory. Thus, it can cease and, by its cessation, we can achieve nibbana. The Four Truths are the basis of the Hinayana path of renunciation. However, even in the Pali Canon, desire is not primary. Desire itself has a cause, and that cause is radical ignorance. In the Prajnaparamitas we read,

Having given but a little gift, having guarded but a little morality, having developed but a little patience, having exerted but a little vigour, having entered trance but a little, having developed wisdom but a little, a Bodhisattva, a great being, who wants by skilful conversion to make this small amount for all beings on account of the knowledge of all modes into an immeasurable and incalculable one, should train in perfect wisdom.

Perfect Wisdom

Perfect Wisdom or Right View is the first step of the Eightfold Path. The significance of this is recognized by Buddhist scholar Peter Masefield in his extraordinary analysis of the Pali Canon, Divine Revelation in the Pali Canon (1986). The Buddha refers to “the breakthrough by wisdom” (dhammābhisamaya). The cultivation of wisdom is the basis of the Mahayana path.

Wisdom is especially important in the Dharma Transmission to the West. Many Westerners misconstrue wisdom, either as the goal of the Path or as an irrelevant affectation, conflating wisdom with mere book learning or academic scholarship. This intellectual antipathy is widespread, even amongst purportedly “advanced” practitioners.

The Buddha makes it clear, however, that wisdom is not attainable by mere reasoning. There are numerous examples in the Pali Canon of disciples who achieve awakening quickly, with little or no meditative practice, simply by hearing the dhamma from the Buddha. Sometimes this is called “dhamma in brief.” Thus, the twelvefold chain works in both directions, not merely as the cause of suffering but also, by a process of reversal, the “cause” of enlightenment as well. Strictly speaking, as a non-causal dhamma, enlightenment cannot be caused. Enlightenment, rather, is the transcendence of causation. The Buddha rediscovered this path. He did not invent the path. Rather, it is the primordial path known to the ancients also. The Buddha calls this the Eightfold Path. He likens it to an old path found in the forest, leading to an abandoned and forgotten city.

The Mission of the Buddha

At first, the Buddha hesitated to teach. He considered following the path of a pacchekabuddha, a solitary Buddha. He was persuaded to teach by Sahampati, the chief of the Brahma world, the third lowest dimension of the Sixteen Planes of the Fine Material Brahma Realm, next above the Eleven Planes of the Sensuous Realm. The Buddha wanted to teach his original two teachers, Alara Kallama and Uddaka Ramaputta. When he discovered they had recently died, the Buddha resolved to visit Kondannya’s group to beat the drum of the Deathless. On the road, the first person to whom the Buddha offered his realization doubted not only the Buddha’s realization. He doubted the Buddha himself. This was Uppaka.[6] Uppaka rejected the Buddha because he was self-realized, i.e., without a teacher. He left the Buddha on the road, scratching his head.

Following his enlightenment, after deciding to teach, the Buddha taught the dhamma to the group of five in the Deer Park, Sarnath, 13 kilometres northeast of present-day Benares. The ascetics had already rejected the Buddha due to the accusation of luxurious living, perhaps recollecting the indulgences of his youth. They were hard to convince, but he taught the dhamma to them, beginning with the middle way, through which nibbana may be realized. Kondannya became the first person to experience the truth of the teachings for himself, thereby becoming a stream winner and, five days later, an arahant.  He died alone after 12 years living at Mandakini Lake, Chaddanta Forest, in the Himalayas, some time prior to the Buddha’s death. He left his retreat once only, on the day before his death, to bid the Buddha farewell, kissing and caressing his feet with his hands.

The middle way is the difference between extremes. It may be interpreted within yogic, ethical, and epistemological frameworks. Yogically, the middle way is the state of perfect physical and mental equilibrium. Ethically, it is the balance of compassion and reason. Epistemologically, the middle way connotes direct experience, neither physical nor metaphysical. It refers to the transcendence of duality, positing the reality of the trans-dual. The trans-dual is one necessary implication of “middleness.”

The Buddha identifies the Middle Way with the Eightfold Path. It is important to remember a wheel turns. The “coming forth” of the dhamma is kinetic. It is never a copy, but an ever-present, dynamic, self-propagating energy-information-reality pattern or system. In this way, the Buddha, by the power of truth, set the dhamma in motion in Sarnath. It continues to “turn” to this day. The ascetics, plus the Buddha himself, formed the nucleus of the first Buddhist community, consisting of six members. Kondannya himself became the first monk and the first arahant.

Later, the Buddha asks Ananda in the presence of the community to tell him what he is like: “Ananda, explain more fully the Tathagata’s wonderful and marvellous qualities.” This story is suggestive of a saying in the Gospel of Thomas.[7] Ananda compares the Buddha to a whole litany of wonderful things, starting with a miraculous birth. The Buddha replies, “Remember this too as a wonderful and marvellous quality of the Tathagata. Feelings, perceptions, thoughts – these are known as they arise, as they are present, as they disappear.” That is to say, the art of meditation is greater even than a miracle. A method of meditation is implied.

What the Buddha realized about the yogic path is torturing the body is not required or even beneficial. Instead, the yogi can simply withdraw his attention from attachment to physicality through concentrated intention and mindfulness. In the three similes “never heard before,” the Buddha describes two wet sappy pieces of wood lying in water and dry land and a dry sapless piece of wood lying on dry land. The dry sapless piece of wood is the arahant. The deeper meaning refers to the symbolism of fire and ignition in relation to enlightenment and solar symbolism generally. Fire is the “psychic heat,” the tumo or kundalini – the fire of enlightenment itself. Thus, the power of detachment generates or activates an energetic state or potential that can in turn “ignite” the state of illumination or enlightenment. The Buddha is also called the kinsman of the Sun (ādicchabandhu), himself a descendent of the Shakya or solar race. The Sun is the door to the deathless. The path of transcendence is referred to as the solar path; the path of the householder is the lunar path. The Buddha realized asceticism is still attachment to physicality. He formulated the intention of achieving a state of happiness not bound to physicality. This state is neither self-indulgent nor ascetic. It is rooted in the detachment, intention, and mindfulness that leads to awakening.

[1] The fourth Buddha, Dipangkara, is said to have predicted the future enlightenment of Sumedha, a rich Brahman turned hermit, who numerous kappas later was born as Gotama. Our age is blessed that it will have known five Buddhas: Kakusandha, Konagamana, Kassapa, Gotama, and Metteyya. Metteyya will appear in the distant future.

[2] There is some evidence in the Pali Canon for a Northern Buddhist tradition Gotama renounced the world at the age of 19, and attained enlightenment at 30, but the mainstream tradition says 29 and 35. In fact, he was probably 28 and 34 respectively in Western reckoning, since Asian chronology considers an infant to be one year old at birth.

[3] In the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha compares the practices of self-mortification with the physical, verbal, and mental impurities of the Brahmans, and declares neither will attain enlightenment because of their exclusive emphasis on the physical.

[4] Pali-English Dictionary (see bibliography).

[5] Thus, Vinnyana is similar to the Cabalistic concept of the nephesch.

[6] Uppaka was an Ajiwaka, one of the five major samana philosophies. The Ajiwakas believed in cosmic determinism. The other schools were the hedonistic Lokayata (or Charwaka), the ascetic Jain (or Nirgrantha), the agnostic Ajnana, and Buddhism itself.

[7] The Gnostic Society Library, The Gospel of Thomas Collection,  Logion 13,