I. Renunciation and Enlightenment

From sky to earth he looked, from earth to sky,
As if his spirit sought in lonely flight
Some far-off vision, linking this and that,
Lost, past, but searchable, but seen, but known.

             The Light of Asia
             SIR EDWIN ARNOLD

  The Dhammapada is the laser-like quintessence of Buddha's luminous message to all humanity. Bridging eternity and time, the unmanifest and the manifest, thought and action, theoria and praxis, it is a highly potent therapeia, a catalytic agent of self-transformation, rooted in the realization of that essential unity which enshrines the meaning of events and relations in an ever-changing cosmos. Although the Pali, the Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist canons contain thousands of treatises which reveal myriad facets of Buddha's "Diamond Soul", the Dhammapada is a preamble to all of them. It is a direct mode of transmission, succinct in style and fundamental in its content. Transparent and shimmering like the calm surface of the shining sea in contrast to the variegated contours of the diverse lands whose shores it touches, it has awesome oceanic depths, sheltering vast kingdoms of obscure species, in which every form of life finds its place, rhythm and balance, in which everything is inexplicably interconnected in a complex whole that teases and taunts the untapped potentials of human cognition. Its immense cleansing and restorative power conceals a hidden alchemy.

 It teaches receptive seekers to free themselves without external props, without vicarious atonement or adventitious aids, through a self-chosen mode of purification which eludes the categories of behavioural psychology, utilitarian ethics and salvationist theology. It points to a radical rebirth, a programme of progressive self-initiation, becoming more than human, yet being in accord with all humanity, even in the most basic acts of daily life – rising in the dawn, rejoicing in bathing the body, in simple food, in sitting, thinking, meditating, speaking and working, and in preparing for sleep and death. The Dhammapada stands in relation to Gautama Buddha as the Gospels of John and Thomas stand in relation to Jesus Christ, for Ananda is like the beloved apostle John as well as the intuitive Thomas. Ananda walked with Buddha for twenty-five years and could recall the Master's words after his passing.

  Although Buddha told his disciples that they should not blindly follow him or assume that they understood him, he so lived his life that it could serve as the paradigm and proof of the Path to Enlightenment. His life and his teaching were a seamless whole, the pristine expression of Sanatana Dharma, the Eternal Doctrine, the Ancient Way of the Noble Predecessors, the Tathagatas who have gone before. Whilst modern scholarship1 has focussed on the details of Buddha's life, viewing recorded history as an accurate chronicle and providing a firm chronology of events, Buddhists have been sceptical of modern claims to explain the true significance of events by reference to their temporal order rather than to the mature thoughts and feelings of those who meaningfully participated in them. They have been even more concerned with Buddha's life as what the Tibetans call a namtar, the story of an exemplary Sage, which can help the intuitive to pursue the timeless track to illumination and emancipation. These traditional accounts, fusing fact with myth, do not reduce fidelity to truth to emasculated literalism.

  Born early in the sixth century B.C., Siddhartha Gautama (Gotama) was the handsome and gifted son of King Shuddhodana, who ruled Kapilavastu, the small, prosperous kingdom of the Shakyas in northern India. According to tradition, Siddhartha's birth was heralded in a strange dream which came to his mother, Queen Maya. In it a snowy white elephant with six tusks approached the mother and pressed a lovely lotus to her side. The lotus entered her womb and became the embryo of the Buddha to be. When the time for birth drew near, Queen Maya followed the custom of her ancestors and set out on the short journey to her father's home. The pains of labour came upon her while she rested in an exquisite grove midway between her husband's and her father's abodes, and she delivered Siddhartha beneath a great sala tree. Though the baby was born easily and in good health, Queen Maya died seven days later. Her sister, Mahaprajapati, brought up the baby.

  Since maya means "illusion", the essential characteristic of the seven prakritis or planes of manifest existence, it is held to be hardly surprising that Queen Maya died seven days after Siddhartha's birth. The lotus symbolizes the architectonic paradigm of the cosmos, and the six tusks are its six primary powers or shaktis. The elephant itself is an emblem both of divine wisdom and its timely application in this world. Siddhartha was born between two homes, in the homeless state which is the mental perspective, and often the physical condition, of ordained monks or bhikkhus. Born away from his father's house and losing his mother shortly after birth, Buddha was indeed anupadaka, parentless. Thus his entire life as a homeless wanderer was prefigured in his birth. There is no reason to doubt the broad outlines of the traditional story, even if some of its symbolic elements were embellishments after the event. The legendary lives of Great Teachers are inimitably rich with allegorical significance that is readily enshrined in myth and sacred symbolism. About two centuries after Buddha's Parinirvana, the emperor Ashoka raised an inscribed stone pillar to mark Buddha's actual birthplace and the striking pillar stands even today.

  The court astrologers found Prince Siddhartha's horoscope enigmatic. Some thought it indicated that he would become a Chakravartin, an emperor who justly rules over many lands, but others, including Kaundinya, saw in it the cryptic lineaments of a consecrated life of renunciation and spiritual teaching. The Sutta Nipata tells of the Rishi Asita, who divined Buddha's birth and hastened to the palace to see him. Upon seeing the baby he wept, because he would not live long enough to hear Buddha's teaching. Siddhartha's father, King Shuddhodana, took due note of these discordant responses and sought to guide his son gently towards statesmanship. He initiated a plan of systematic study and royal training that provided Siddhartha with all the arts and sciences appropriate to a Kshatriya ruler, whilst screening him from those tragic experiences in life which turn the mind to profound and radical thoughts. So Prince Siddhartha grew up, blest in myriad ways, shielded from the unsettling facts of human misery which plunge so many into a state of utter helplessness. The prince's education was by no means easy, for he was subjected to a demanding intellectual discipline, mastering arts and letters, astronomy and mathematics; he was schooled in the kingly arts of diplomacy and warfare, learning to drive chariots, to handle deftly the spear and the bow, and gaining that combination of courage, stamina and magnanimity essential to statecraft; and he learnt the intricate etiquette which enables a man of high authority to set others at ease, to treat all with courtesy and correctness and to wield his gifts with grace and propriety.

 While still rather young, Prince Siddhartha married his beautiful cousin Yashodhara, who gave him a son, Rahula. Established in a lavish court appropriate to a compliant Crown prince within the royal compound, Siddhartha took up the cloistered life of a future monarch. Traditional accounts of Buddha's life depict this formative period as a time of enjoyment, and even dalliance, perhaps to contrast it sharply with the rigorous and austere life to follow. Nonetheless, the allegorical Jataka stories seek to show that Buddha did not attain his astounding insight in a single life. He had spent many lifetimes learning to render the highest wisdom accessible to the awakened soul into skilful, compassionate action that could aid others without violating the subtle, interconnected balances of karma. Queen Maya's dream of the white elephant suggests that Buddha, like Krishna Avatar, chose to take up incarnate existence at a specific time for a specific purpose. The persisting discontent that hampered his princely life culminated in four critical events. Tradition testifies that Prince Siddhartha insisted upon investigating the world beyond the palace grounds and asked his faithful charioteer, Channa, to drive him through the city and into the countryside. On successive occasions he saw decrepitude, sickness, death and, finally, a homeless ascetic. Several chronicles show Siddhartha as wholly unprepared for these disturbing sights, for he had none of the defensive indifference that preserves the average person from collapsing under their cumulative impact.

 Allegorically, they point to the receptive nature of a noble soul who combines prajna and karuna, insight and compassion, for whom the inexplicable, immense suffering of others became more urgent than his own concerns. He felt that the very core of cyclic existence is duhkha – suffering, pain and dissatisfaction – for all that lives must decay and die. Even if one could hide the inevitable end of each incarnate existence under a glittering veil of hedonistic distractions, ceaseless and chaotic change marks the filigree of the intricate veil itself and so reveals starkly that all things fade and vanish every moment. Since life and death are necessarily interrelated terms in a complex series of events, the prime fact of suffering is a powerful stimulus for altering and even transforming radically one's own consciousness. Siddhartha sensed that the only solution to omnipresent duhkha lay in that timeless realm beyond the vicissitudes of change, a realm so far beyond the familiar plane of the senses that only a fundamental metamorphosis of fragmented consciousness could experience it, a realm in which there could be no "I" and "you", "mine" and "thine". If any such solution were at all possible, it must apply to all sentient beings and not to oneself alone.

 Prince Siddhartha's Great Renunciation is poignantly depicted in his stealthily leaving his palace, exchanging his embroidered robes for the rags of a mendicant, turning his back with pained resolve on his regal destiny, family and wealth, friends and enjoyments. Yet his renunciation was deeper and more drastic than this, for he had dared to challenge the very basis of temporal existence, of all that the mortal mind craves in its desperate search for satisfaction, of all the heart's longings for lasting fulfilment. He was ready to face death in life, to confront the root cause of human misery and its permanent cure and emerge victorious in his uncharted quest, or lose everything in forsaking those closest to him. Tradition vindicates his sudden departure into a new life as motivated by a magnanimous resolve, an uncompromising sacrifice of everything for one single goal – the assured deliverance of humanity from the agonizing thraldom of a hypnotic spell which entices, enslaves, mocks and mutilates all human existence. Not once did he imagine he alone could save all others, but if he could chart the way, even as a trail-blazer marks a jungle track, some others might choose to pursue it courageously to its ultimate end. In pointing out the way by treading it, he would at least provide fresh choices for humanity, and thus testify to the possibility of redemption from bondage to worldly delusion.

 Having renounced his life of luxury and even his princely name, Gautama crossed the Anoma River and made his way as a wandering ascetic to Rajagriha (now Rajgir), the capital of Magadha. His poise and charm attracted the attention of King Bimbisara, who was so captivated by his nobility of demeanour that, when he discovered his regal descent, he offered to share his kingdom with him. Gautama declined to take up the very trappings he had renounced, saying that he had no use for them in his quest for truth. He readily assented, however, to Bimbisara's wish that, should he be successful, he would return to Rajagriha and freely share his findings. He then journeyed across Magadha in search of any teachers who might guide him in his self-study. Though the generous responses of each one he met fell short of the goal he sought, he never reviled or ridiculed them, but rather gratefully accepted what they could give and then moved on. After his hard-won Enlightenment, he spoke of two of these teachers in discourses to his disciples. Arada Kalama, an esteemed thinker, had accepted him and freely taught him all he could. Gautama had not only mastered Arada Kalama's recondite philosophy, but also attained the high states of meditation fathomed by his teacher. The highest of these states was akincannayatana, the sphere of nothingness, which is called the third arupa dhyana, the stage in which consciousness is lifted beyond the realm of physical and mental forms. Despite the deep mystic state such a meditation induces, Gautama had pressed on. While staying with Udraka Ramaputra, he had entered the fourth arupa dhyana, called nevasanna nasannayatana, the sphere of neither perception nor non-perception.

 Although Gautama had tasted the joys of exalted states of consciousness, he discerned a subtle temptation. To reach that level of meditative absorption, wherein even perception and its negation were swallowed up in pure consciousness, was still not to get to the root of noumenal reality. Whilst such sublime states can neither be articulated in ordinary language nor apprehended by ordinary consciousness, they are somewhat analogous to mistaking the manifest First Cause for the Ultimate Ground of All, or to mistaking the prime number I which initiates the number series for the primordial 0 presupposed by the entire system. Gautama, having gone as far in his fearless search for truth as he could with the willing assistance of others, now set out wholly on his own. Near the peaceful village of Senanigama, not far from Uruvela, Gautama joined five ascetics, including Kaundinya, one of those present at his birth who had seen in him a future Sage and Teacher. Together they attempted stringent forms of asceticism, as if one could so dominate and deny the body that it would be forced to yield up the hidden truth. One day, towards the end of the sixth year of these severe austerities, Gautama collapsed and came close to death. When he regained consciousness, he saw clearly that pitiless self-torment could no more release spiritual insight than thoughtless self-indulgence. A well-bred peasant girl, Sujata, noticed his emaciated condition and brought him a bowl of rice with milk. He ate with relish, restored his health and began to elucidate the Middle Way. Mistaking his fresh confidence for furtive abdication, the five ascetics who had hitherto followed his lead in asceticism were now shocked and hastily withdrew from his presence, leaving him alone to pursue his path.

 Even though Buddha gave scattered hints about his solitary vigil in his subsequent discourses, it would be difficult to discern what actually transpired, for he had begun the steep ascent to summits of contemplation wherein the familiar contours and contents of consciousness are so radically altered that our conventional categories of thought and speech cannot possibly convey the ineffable experiences of inward Enlightenment. He had sat below an Ashwattha tree, now called a bodhi tree or ficus religiosa, and was totally resolved not to move until he had found the object of his single-minded quest. Apart from his unwavering resolve, his whole-hearted determination sprang from an inmost conviction that he had, at last, found the Way. As he persisted in his deepest meditation, Mara, the personification of severe impediments on the narrow pathway to truth, sought to distract him with his vast hordes of demonic tempters, ranging from hideous emblems of terror and torment to ethereal purveyors of ecstasy and enchanting reminiscence. Buddha calmly confronted and renounced all alike, calling upon bhumi, the earth, as his sole witness. According to the Padhana Sutta, Buddha once depicted Mara's array of distractions thus:

 Lust is your first army, and dislike for the higher life the second; the third is hunger and thirst, and the fourth craving; the fifth army consists of torpor and sloth, and the sixth is fear; the seventh is doubt, the eighth hypocrisy and obduracy; the ninth includes gain, praise, honour and glory; and the tenth is looking down on others whilst exalting self. Such are your armies, Mara, and none who are weak can resist them. Yet only by conquering them is bliss attained.

 Buddha held that human suffering is so deeply rooted in spiritual ignorance that the two concepts are essentially psychological correlates. His graphic account of Mara's hosts suggests that duhkha and avidya may be seen as delusions on the mental plane, false expectations at the psychic level, physically painful and ethically pernicious. Summoning the six and ten paramitas or virtues as invaluable aids on the Path, Buddha's approach to Enlightenment instantiated the immense truth of the ancient axioms that clarity is therapeutic, cupidity is ignorance and virtue is knowledge.

 In his climactic meditation Buddha cut through the myriad veils of mental rationalization to release the pristine light of universal, unconditional awareness beyond form, colour and limitation. This supreme transformation of consciousness, which shatters worlds, is sometimes conveyed through the recurrent temptations of Mara, vividly portrayed as magnetic personifications of the ten chief fetters which bind the unwary victim to the inexorable wheel of involuntary cyclic existence, the spell of Samsara. The first is attavada, which The Voice of the Silence calls "the great dire heresy of separateness" and which Sir Edwin Arnold depicted in The light of Asia as

The Sin of Self, who in the Universe
As in a mirror sees her fond face shown,
And, crying "I", would have the world say "I",
And all things perish so if she endure.

 The familiar egocentricity which deludes the personal self into seeing itself as the fixed centre around which the whole world revolves, and dramatizes reality in inverse proportion to the seeming distance from that imagined centre, can become on the spiritual Path the subterfuge that one is so much more perceptive than all others that one is no longer compatible with any of them. Even the goal of spiritual emancipation can be invoked on behalf of an expanded egoity which absorbs all around itself and thereby distorts everything in its sphere of awareness.

 The second fetter is doubt, vichikichcha, which can become so deeply embedded in the psyche that one not merely mocks the very possibility of attaining Enlightenment but even the point of doing so, for if all is delusion, might not even the quest for freedom be delusive? In such a state of chronic doubt, the conception of partial knowledge can itself be subsumed under the category of abject ignorance by a sleight of hand which conceals the fact that ignorance and knowledge are relative terms, and even absolute knowledge is construed by the unenlightened chiefly through analogy. Silabbataparamasa, the third fetter, commonly assumes the cloak of faith in conventional religion, which restricts the sacred to a specific set of rituals based upon dogmatic beliefs. Even one's loftiest conceptions can hinder growth by excluding the hazards of progressive self-exploration. Furthermore, even when renouncing the lesser anchor for a plunge into the greater abyss, one may encounter new forms of kamaraga, sensory attraction which, together with buried memories, may suddenly pull against the upward path by stirring up forgotten fears and unsuspected longings. Even if one could set these aside, the force of craving can invert itself and focus upon the highest goal, becoming obsessional, ruthless, vampirical and strangely amoral.

 If one managed to elude the deadly coils of kamaraga, the fetter of hostility and hate, patigha, may be harder to remove. Though one may seem to have moved beyond the polarity of attraction and repulsion which ensnares the unenlightened, one may experience intense disgust at the depravities of others and thus succumb to the familiar opposition that one had seemingly transcended. Then there is ruparaga, the craving for form, the longing for embodied life, sometimes assuming the unrealizable wish for physical immortality, and more often seeking its analogue in an imaginary paradise of endless enjoyment. A subtler temptation is aruparaga, the desire for formless goods, such as fame and glory or other alluring states of mind focussed upon immaterial ends. When the aspirant has freed himself from all these, then conceit (mana) and restlessness (uddhachcha) will manifest their most insidious aspects – the one turning inward to extol secondary accomplishments which hinder Enlightenment, and the other turning outward in shallow judgementalism towards other seekers. Thus the ten fetters comprise a tenacious chain which reinforces the common source, avidya, root ignorance. Only when all its aspects are dispelled is ignorance itself confronted in its naked hollowness, "the voidness of the seeming full", and when the entire chain is calmly analysed and stripped of its deceptive allure, it collapses utterly and pure awareness alone remains.

Hermes, May 1986
by Raghavan Iyer


1 A rare exception is A. Foucher's perceptive life of Buddha. "My task has been to sketch as close a likeness of Buddha as possible, but I have been careful not to neglect reflections from the Doctrine that have highlighted the face of its Founder."