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Attention

Chapter 2 of the Dhammapada for Awakening

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Attention leads to immortality. Carelessness leads to death. Those who pay attention will not die, while the careless are as good as dead already (Dhammapada 21).

“Attention”–appamada in Pali–literally means “non-infatuation,” but is usually interpreted as the result of such freedom from infatuation. Narada Thera says it has the connotations of “ever-present mindfulness, watchfulness, or earnestness in doing good.”

If loose lips sink ships, then lax and unaware minds sink lives. This is important for us to comprehend, since we often think that spiritual life is charging ahead in some kind of inspired enthusiasm that precludes any intellectual application or plain good sense, that somehow our sincerity and aspiration will ensure success and safety. It is as silly as that terrible and criminal debacle known as the Children’s Crusade. At this time in history we are appalled and astounded that any sane human being could possibly believe that the sight of little barefoot children coming in innocence and trust would conquer the minds and hearts of murderous plunderers, who were actually no worse than those who engineered such a monstrous folly as a kind of “spiritual” trick on them. As Will Cuppy pointed out, it is useless to appeal to the higher nature of those who have none.

(If you do not know about the Children’s Crusade, see http://www.historyguide.org/ancient/children.html, online, or read about it in Steven Runciman’s A History of the Crusades, Volume III, pp. 139-144.)

Tarzans of the Light

For those of us who have wandered through the tangled jungle of world scriptures–each one usually claiming to be the sole truth–that are compounded of revelations, exhortation, cajolings, threats, mind-boggling assertions and supposed profundities that can never be either proved or disproved, the rational and practical teachings of Buddha found in the Pali scriptures come as a shock. So much so that, conditioned by prior study, we may disregard them. After all, where is the esoteric wisdom, the secrets meant for only the select few? Where are the symbols and the mysteries? Above all, where are the irrational formulas of “truth” that demonstrate how ignorant and limited we are in our inability to make any sense of them because they are above all sense? And where are the mystic techniques that will open the universe to us and reveal all mysteries and bestow all knowledge and power?

We are so used to religion being either a magic shop or a launching pad to higher worlds, that Buddha’s uncompromising good sense and insistence on freedom from all that binds us right here and now disorients us. And his assertion that we must look at all things and see their truth (or untruth) and act honestly regarding them is a real comedown for us who prefer to leap and swing from tree to tree in life’s jungle, happy carefree Tarzans of the White Light to whom “Everything Is God, So Why Worry?” “What is there to do, and where is there to go?” is our way of saying: “I won’t” in response to Buddha’s urging to real happiness and freedom from care. But eventually we begin to get the idea, and then every word of Buddha is a key to liberation.

Immortality

Attention leads to immortality. The Pali word translated “immortality” is amata, which literally means “deathlessness.” Venerable Narada Thera says that amata is a synonym for Nirvana, and comments: “As this positive term clearly indicates, Nirvana is not annihilation or a state of nothingness as some are apt to believe. It is the permanent, immortal, supramundane state which cannot be expressed by mundane terms.” It must be noted, though, that immortality is a state, not eternal embodiment, in this or some other realm, and consequently identified with “I am this, I am that.” To transcend both birth and death is immortality, is eternity.

Since it leads to immortality, attention is definitely more than simple awareness or even insight. It is “earnestness in doing good,” in pursuing the sole good: liberation. Naturally, a great deal more than attention is needed, but Buddha mentions it because without its dynamic all the other requisites are worthless, like machines without the energy to run them.

Death

Again, death is not divestment of a body, but immersion in the relative world of samsara and its bonds. It, too, is a state, even though external conditions necessarily follow and mirror its presence. “Life” in any relative condition is really death, because it shrouds the truth of our essential being. “Carelessness” is the opposite of attention, and is the way we all lead our lives, physical and psychological. If that were not so, none of us would be here. We neither see nor deal with anything in a realistic manner. Frankly, we are profoundly delusional, and our only hope is the correct pursuit of ultimate reality, which is ultimate freedom. Consequently we pray: “Lead me from death to immortality.”

Cultivation

Attention cannot be produced immediately, it requires constant and vigilant cultivation, meditation being the prime implement of such cultivation. For “those who pay attention will not die, while the careless are as good as dead already.” Keeping this perspective in mind daily, there is hope for our ascent to life and immortality.

So having clearly understood the value of attention, wise men take pleasure in it, rejoicing in what the saints have practiced (Dhammapada 22).

Unworthy aspirants

There are two kinds of unworthy aspirants in spiritual life: those that when they learn what is required of the successful seeker honestly refuse and turn away, and those who sigh, mope, carp, and whine, grudging the slightest discipline or denial, dragging their feet every step of the way. The first kind are not so bad–they go away and leave the path of dharma (and those who are traveling it) in peace. The second type, however, are much worse. They both disrupt and exasperate the sincere and worthy who take delight in meeting the requirements of dharma, and they keep hanging on like deadly parasites, doing their utmost to compromise and degrade the dharma to their level of laziness and corruption. These are enemies both to themselves and to those that come after, for if there are enough of them and they get into some position of authority, they often succeed in completely destroying the dharma for many, and sometimes for ages. Of them Saint Jude wrote: “These are spots in your feasts of charity, when they feast with you, feeding themselves without fear: clouds they are without water, carried about of winds; trees whose fruit withereth, without fruit, twice dead, plucked up by the roots; raging waves of the sea, foaming out their own shame; wandering stars, to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness for ever” (Jude 12-13) until they change direction completely. They are always getting “confused,” “worried,” “bothered,” “disturbed,” and depressed–usually over everybody else but themselves. They spread gloom and discontent. As Yogananda said, they are spiritual skunks, stinking up wherever they go, but all the time blaming it on others. “I don’t understand” and “I don’t see why” are the javelins they are forever hurling, acting the part of the injured, the neglected, the misunderstood, and the despised.

On the other hand…

By contrast, “wise men take pleasure in” the way of truth, and gladly meet the requirements. Since they really want freedom, for them no price is too high. Knowing that you really do get only what you pay for, even in the abstract realms of consciousness, they “rejoice in what the saints have practiced.” Yes, they rejoice! For they practice that which the saints, the true Aryas, have practiced, and get the same results.

The way of the wise

Those who meditate with perseverance, constantly working hard at it, are the wise who experience Nirvana, the ultimate freedom from chains (Dhammapada 23).

Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh religion, frequently used the expression “godwards” for those who were moving toward Divine Consciousness. We might coin the ungainly word “Nirvanics” for those Buddha is describing in this twenty-third verse of the Dhammapada. They are the wise. As Yogananda said, the world is divided into two types of human beings: the wise who are seeking God and the foolish who are not.

Whatever the terms we may use for “the ultimate freedom from chains,” the idea is the same: right now we are bound, but we can become unbound. How? Buddha is telling us how.

Meditation

One time a man asked me if he could speak with me about some problems and questions he had. “Why bother?” brayed an eavesdropper standing nearby, “All he will do is tell you to meditate!” Yes, it is true: meditation is the only solution. Many things are needed to support our meditation and ensure its success, but meditation is the prime means for those seeking real freedom of being. Paramhansa Yogananda, writing about Yogiraj Shyama Charan Lahiri, one of nineteenth-century India’s greatest yogis, said: “The great guru taught his disciples to avoid theoretical discussion of the scriptures. ‘He only is wise who devotes himself to realizing, not reading only, the ancient revelations,’ he said. ‘Solve all your problems through meditation. Exchange unprofitable religious speculations for actual God-contact. Clear your mind of dogmatic theological debris; let in the fresh, healing waters of direct perception. Attune yourself to the active inner Guidance; the Divine Voice has the answer to every dilemma of life. Though man’s ingenuity for getting himself into trouble appears to be endless, the Infinite Succor is no less resourceful.’”

Long before these wise words of Lahiri Mahasaya, Buddha made clear to his students again and again that meditation was the way to freedom.

Perseverance

Wonderful as it is, meditation is no magic trick. Only those gain its benefit who “meditate with perseverance, constantly working hard at it.” So two things must characterize our meditation practice: constancy and effective effort. We keep on and keep on, never stopping for a moment in the endeavor to continually direct our awareness toward Reality. And that endeavor cannot be done in a lackadaisical manner. The Path is walked, or even run, along, but not shuffled or moseyed along.

The great twentieth-century Roman Catholic philosopher, Dietrich van Hildebrand, wrote in his masterful study of spiritual evolution, Transformation in Christ, that the majority of people suffer from what he calls “discontinuity.” That is, most people simply cannot sustain either effort or thought unless driven by the base passions. In other words, they have no real freedom of mind and will, though they think they do. Addiction impels us, but wisdom does not, for freedom is both its goal and its requisite. Hence, our sustained effort at meditation must come directly from within us as a fully conscious and willful choice. Every day this is true: each step on the path is a conscious choice, clear to the end. This is not a path for the timid or the lazy or the merely curious.

Intent on meditation

Perhaps Richard’s translation: “constantly working hard at it,” is not the best, for meditation is certainly a matter of effort, but not one of stress or strain. The Venerable Thanissaro Bhikkhu renders it “firm in their effort.” We must be focussed, intent, on our practice, certainly exerting will and strength, but in a judicial and cool-headed manner. Constant and steady is the way.

The chains

We are bound by millions (if not billions) of chains, yet meditation pursued rightly will dissolve them all. In the meantime we have to make sure we are not binding more chains on us, like the washed dog that immediately runs out and rolls in the filth to counteract the cleanliness. Here, too, meditation is the answer, for the insight born of meditation enables us to see the folly of bondage and the understanding to turn away from more involvement in chaining ourselves.

Nirvana

The purpose of all this is Nirvana. Just as a child cannot comprehend adulthood, so we cannot really understand just what Nirvana is. But one thing we can know: it is the opposite of where we now find ourselves! Attempts at definition are risky. Some time back I saw a television show on which a reputed “authority” on Buddhism was asked by an interviewer to describe Nirvana. He proceeded to give a checklist of the characteristics of Nirvana, every one of which is listed by Buddha in the Pali sutras as NOT Nirvana, though many mistake them for Nirvana. It was sort of like hearing a Christian recite the opposite qualities listed by Jesus in the Beatitudes or a Jew reciting the exact opposites to the Ten Commandments.

But let us give ourselves at least an approximation, a whiff, of what Nirvana surely entails: “It is a supramundane state that can be attained in this life itself. It is also explained as extinction of passions, but not a state of nothingness. It is an eternal blissful state of relief that results from the complete eradication of the passions.” So says the Venerable Narada Thera.

And so seek all of us.

Expanding Glory

When a man is resolute and recollected, pure of deed and persevering, when he is attentive and self-controlled and lives according to the Teaching, his reputation is bound to grow (Dhammapada 24).

The last words of this verse comprise the key idea. The word which Richards renders “reputation” is yasha which in Sanskrit and Pali can mean reputation, but usually means success, fame, or glory. Most translators prefer “glory,” but we should keep the other meanings in mind as well.

Glory

Most religions, in order to impose their authority and convince people of their need for religion, put out a single main message: “You are nothing without me.” And usually compound it with: “You are evil, and without me you deserve pain and death.” Interestingly enough, with them there never seems to be much of a difference between the believers and the unbelievers, the faithful and the unfaithful, as regards their states of mind and conditions of life. But “true believers” are so busy believing, hoping and obeying that they almost never follow the sage wisdom of Dr. Bronner of peppermint soap fame and “judge only by the results.”

Even Hinduism and Buddhism, that have such an optimism for the eventual condition of their adherents, insist that at the present their adherents are ignorant, degraded, and basically crazy or idiots–so much so that in most people’s mind the Divine Atma and the Buddha Nature are so far over the horizon that for all practical purposes they suffer under the same condemnations as those of other religions, adding bad karma and the certainty of rebirth to their burdens. But if we look we shall see that Buddha does not say the virtuous and wise attain or are given glory. The implication is that each human being already has some degree of glory by his very nature, and that sadhana (spiritual practice) is intended to expand that glory or, more rightly put, to extend his awareness of his own glory to infinity, to Nirvana.

If we have no idea who or what we are, then how can we formulate any intelligent goals for ourselves or rightly estimate our ability to attain those goals? It is therefore absolutely necessary for us to understand our innate worth, for that is the foundation on which we can build our future advancement or self-discovery. Then our rallying cry can be with David: “Awake up, my glory;… I myself will awake early” (Psalms 57:8). Motivated by both hope and assurance, we can then sculpt ourselves into the image Buddha presents to us as that of one whose glory is ever-increasing.

Resolute

We have previously spoken about the problem of “discontinuity,” that so many of us suffer from a seeming incapacity to sustain a course of thought or action unless we are impelled to it by the force of addiction, desire, aversion, or fear. Making a sustained effort of will in the sphere of our personal life is a far too rare matter, indeed. Yet, we can see from Buddha’s checklist that the capacity for active resolve is the first step, not some far-off target in our development.

As said, the requisite resolve is active, not merely intellectual. “I have to quit smoking,” “Some day I must get to around to that,” and “As soon as I have the time…” are phrases we use like the ticking of a clock that counts the passing away of our very lives. Buddha, however, is not speaking of wishful thinking but of active doing. The path to rebirth is paved with good intentions; the path to Nirvana is paved with right resolve and right action–sustained right resolve and action. For only the end result counts. To go full steam down the road for a while and then fizzle out means nothing.

One time a young woman, seized with momentary spiritual aspiration, insisted on leaving home and traveling with Sri Anandamayi Ma. Her father accordingly brought her to where Ma was currently staying. After a few days he accompanied Ma to the railway station as she was leaving that place. Seeing his daughter firmly ensconced among the group of women that usually travelled with Ma, he happily remarked: “I see she has passed the test and been accepted.” “Baba,” replied Mother with emphasis, “the only test that matters is the last test.” In a few weeks the daughter was back home, having lost interest.

We, too, often congratulate ourselves on the fact that we are trying, but in time we get bored with the spiritual dressing up and play-acting, tired of looking at ourselves in the mirror of our egos, or the mirror of other people’s egos as they observe us, and we get “disillusioned” or realize we Don’t Really Need To Do All That. It is a great marvel that Buddha was able to resist and conquer Mara, but it may be an even greater marvel that he got to the point of development where Mara needed to appear.

Instead of “resolute” some other translations are: “energetic,” “with initiative,” “with great perseverance,” “has roused himself,” and “exerts himself.” The idea is clear.

Recollected

Yet, Buddha does not want us to be charging along heedlessly, mistaking sheer energy output as the desideratum. Stephen Leacock, the Canadian humorist, wrote in one of his satires about a man who “jumped on his horse and rode off wildly in all four directions.” This is not the way. As a workplace sign says: “Would you rather work harder–or smarter?” Intelligence must prevail, and that is only in a calm and balanced mind. So “recollected” is the second item of Buddha’s list. It can also be translated: “mindful,” “aware,” and “thoughtful.” “Self-possessed” is a very good Victorian term that is rarely heard nowadays and even more rarely seen.

Through meditation alone can the mind be put into shape and kept there. It is the meditational mind that is able to see how to act and how to gauge the status of the present moment in the context of the intended future. The second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita gives a very full description of exactly the state of mind needed to successfully navigate our way across the sea of samsara.

Keeping the goal in mind is no small thing. The greatest of all Christian monks, Saint Arsenius the Great, wrote in large letters on the wall of his hut in the Egyptian desert: “Arsenius, why did you come here?” Each day he considered that challenge in order to maintain the original intention and perspective which had brought him to that place. It is very easy to get so caught up in the journeying that we forget or ignore our purpose in starting out and wander into byways and even regress. “I have been on the Path for many years” is usually an admission of just such forgetfulness and wandering.

Pure of deed

We simply have to face the facts: in spiritual life as in every other endeavor there are thoughts and deeds that hinder and thoughts and deeds that help. The idea that anyone can at any time in any condition live The Life is inexcusably foolish. Those who refuse to believe that right and wrong, good and bad, exist or that those classifications apply to their personal life, should take up hobbies and forget Nirvana. Otherwise they simply make a mess of things and insult the Dharma. Those who wish may pretend that purity of intention or “heart” are sufficient, but Buddha does not think so. He does not talk about theory, but says a seeker must be pure of deed. Words and feelings are not the issue.

Right away the impure and the unqualified will demand a definition of purity so they can argue about it, knowing full well what they are and what they are not–and consequently are not going to be. So Buddha enunciated five precepts that will cover everything pretty well for those who want it covered. (Those who want a cover-up will of course supply their own in the form of misinterpretation of what one or more of the precepts really mean.) Here they are: 1) Abstinence from speaking untruth; 2) abstinence from intoxication; 3) abstinence from sexual immorality; 4) abstinence from theft; and 5) abstinence from taking life. These obviously have very wide scopes, especially since the Pali terms and their Sanskrit equivalents have broad meanings. For example, lying can take many forms, even silence. A serious student of dharma will thoughtfully consider each precept in turn and honestly figure out all their forms and applications. I will make only this observation: Although many years ago I was told by a junior high school librarian that Buddha taught “moderation,” even I could see that moderation does not come in here at all. Total abstinence is the intent. Anything less is not the dharma.

Those who follow the precepts will thereby always be pure of deed.

Persevering

Perseverance is included in “resolute.” Just why Richards uses that term here I have no idea, but four other translators understand it as meaning someone who acts with careful consideration, with due analysis before acting. In his teachings Buddha insists on the need for appropriate reflection before acting or speaking, a counsel we transgress untold times each day. But our folly increases rather than diminishes the relevance of Buddha’s admonition.

Attentive

We have just considered what is meant by “attentive,” needing only to add that heedfulness should become continuous in our thoughts and deeds, “Watch yourself” being very good advice.

Self-controlled

Many of us suffer from–and suffer because of–what I call the Pinocchio Complex. Pinocchio lived in the continual hope that one day he would wake up and find himself a real boy instead of a puppet. We think that if we just wait long enough and lounge around the vestibule of spiritual life (reading the magazines in the Dharma Waiting Room) we will one day find ourselves out on the track and on our way–and soon at the goal. We are not totally lazy, otherwise we could not even sustain our life on earth, yet effortlessness appeals to us endlessly, especially in spiritual matters. Any yogi who adopts the soap-commercial line about how quick and easy–“just like magic”–it is to meditate and attain enlightenment will sell his “product” very easily. His customers will not get anything in the long run, but maybe they did not want to, anyway.

Before we can know our true, inmost self, we must first gain control over our untrue, outer self. It is this control that is meant by “self-controlled.” And when we attain that control we restrain the false self in all its aspects. Moderation is not the purpose here, either, but eventual effacement so the true self can resurrect, ascend, and reign (the real meaning behind the same events in the life of Christ).

Living according to the Teaching

“Living the Dharma” is a better translation of dhammajivino. This indicates a life based fully on the precepts and extending to all the details that make up the Holy Life. It is much easier to believe, accept, discuss and even teach dharma, but Buddha tells us to live it. Excessive involvement in philosophy, theology, and scriptural (textual) study is an evasion of dharma in its only meaningful form: as a way of life.

Putting it all together, Buddha still says it best: “When a man is resolute and recollected, pure of deed and persevering, when he is attentive and self-controlled and lives according to the Teaching, his reputation [glory] is bound to grow.”

Each man must make an island

By resolution and attention, by discipline and self-control, a clever [wise] man may build himself an island that no flood can overthrow (Dhammapada 25).

The factors listed in this verse–resolution, attention, discipline and self-control–have been analyzed already, so the new idea here is the nature of who we are and what we are doing. Hopefully we are a medhaav, a wise man, as the Pali text indicates. So what does the wise do? He makes for himself an island that no flood, no tides or waves, can overwhelm and submerge, not even momentarily.

The sea of samsara

We are adrift in–not just upon–the sea of samsara, the cycle of repeated births and deaths, the whole process of earthly life. We flounder in its waves, rising and falling, alternately getting breath and nearly drowning. At the same time we are in the grip of fevered illusion and rarely have even a glimpse of the utter horror of our situation. It takes many lives for us to awaken to the awesome possibilities of either remaining tossed about in the waters or the rising out of them altogether and attaining peace. We must choose. The wise choose getting out of the waves, but the moment they make that choice they are confronted with the fact that they are going to have to build their own “island” of liberation, that all the talk of “the other shore” both is and is not true and that no one is going to “save” us and bring us “safely home” however appealing that nursery-tale may be.

Implications

Creating our island implies two major facts:

  1. It is a matter of complete self-effort on our part; no outside help or moving toward association or “community.” (The Sanskrit word is kaivalya, total self-sufficiency and total self-containment.) This may daunt us at first hearing, but reflection reveals that it is a remarkable statement of our capacity to do all the needful for ourself. We can do it! Another facet of this is that there is just no such thing as making our island in conjunction with other people. Yes, we may labor on our island at the same time others do, and we may even encourage one another in the project, but the doing is ours alone. Looking outward is useless and even delusive; the inward orientation alone succeeds.
  2. The idea is to get out of the water, to separate ourselves utterly from it, never again to experience even a drop of samsara. I think we all know people who complain about something or someone while clinging to them with thorough determination. This cannot be our way. Many want to be like those in the caucus race described in Alice in Wonderland. They run around in a circle on the beach and every so often waves wash over them and soak them through. The stated purpose of the race is to dry off, but it is impossible. Most people prefer that–to have their samsara and beat it, too. But it is a matter of either/or: wet or dry. Complete separation is necessary, because that is the whole idea, not just a side effect. This is not for weekenders and dabblers. Think of the scope: we aim to escape and transcend that which has kept numberless sentient beings in its thrall for numberless creation cycles, not just “ages.” We intend to move from relative being to absolute being all on our own. And we can.

The Foolish and the Wise: Vigilance

Foolish, ignorant people indulge in careless lives, whereas a clever man guards his attention as his most precious possession (Dhammapada 26).

“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” For those who seek the ultimate liberation, constant awareness is a prime necessity. On the other hand, “Foolish, ignorant people indulge in careless [heedless] lives.” Interestingly, the Venerable Thanissaro Bhikkhu renders it: “They’re addicted to heedlessness.” This is certainly so. There is a persistent urge toward self-destruction that habitually grips most people, impelling them to negligence, carelessness and outright blindness to what little reality they are able to perceive if they will to do so.

It is astounding to see how feckless most “spiritual” people really are in relation to their inner development. Over and over they endanger themselves and incur great risk, particularly psychically (mentally), either doing things that can only rebound to their detriment or failing to do that which will protect and strengthen them. They simply do not take seriously the fact that this entire world is a maelstrom calculated to whirl them around and around by continual birth and death, drowning their consciousness from life to life. They take no account of their daily lifestyle or their environment, physical or metaphysical. And the field of their personal relationships is the most chaotic and destructive of all.

There is such a thing as healthy fear, the force that sends us indoors in a hailstorm and up a tree when a dangerous animal is around. This is completely lacking in the foolish. I heard of a school board that interviewed prospective drivers of their school bus. To each one they asked a single question: If you were driving a bus full of children and came to an ice-covered bridge without any railings on the side, how close could you drive to the edge without being afraid of mishap? The estimates were various, but one man replied: “I would drive straight down the middle as far from the edges as I could get, and even then I would be terrified every second until I got across.” He was the one they hired, for they did not want any driver who could feel confident in endangering their children. We need the same grave caution regarding our own lives and aspirations to higher awareness.

The wise prize clearsightedness–and clear thought and action–above all treasures of earth and heaven, aware that not for a moment do they dare to fold their hands and sleep the sleep of inner death. Their vigilance will be their liberty. For them is the admonition of Buddha:

Do not indulge in careless behavior. Do not be the friend of sensual pleasures. He who meditates attentively attains abundant joy (Dhammapada 27).

Indulgence in careless behavior has been already covered, but the next clause brings us to a new subject.

A friend of sensual pleasure

Do not be the friend of sensual pleasures. There are many ways to be a “friend” of sensual pleasure: indulgence, thought, speech, and deliberate proximity as well as association with other “friends” of sensuality. Why go into detailed explanation of these? Anyone with good sense and right intention can figure it out for himself.

There is one form of “friendship” that should be mentioned: the friendship of pretended enmity. Many addicts to sensuality (as well as other toxicities) often express their affinities and desires through “hating,” “feeling disgust” and fulminations against what they secretly desire. A friend keeps company with his friends; he seeks them out. Many people keep company with sensuality under the guise of denunciation and opposition. They constantly think about “sin” and “sinners” and even seek them out for the titillation of confrontation and conflict. One of the dirtiest-minded men I ever met specialized in reforming (?) prostitutes. At least he said he did. Many seek out the various tentacles of sensuality and sensual expression “to know the enemy” and be up on what they have to fight against. So they say. In this as in other matters, behind a big front there is always a big back.

Joy

He who meditates attentively attains abundant joy. One of the great defects of half-informed and outward-turned religion is its incapacity to offer something better than “sin.” An abstract threat of going to hell at the end of life (which most people think will never end, anyway) is not much of a substitute for enjoyment. Nor is a future heaven of dubious assurance. Authentic religion, however, offers the seeker the means to obtain what he really wants in all his external pursuits: inner joy.

All that we pursue, thinking that happiness lies in its possession, is only valued by us because it imparts but a fraction of a fragment of that happiness which is found abundantly in our own Self (atma). In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (2.4.5), the sage Yajnavalkya says:

“It is not for the sake of the husband, that the husband is dear, but for the sake of the Self.

“It is not for the sake of the wife, that the wife is dear, but for the sake of the Self.

“It is not for the sake of the children, that the children are dear, but for the sake of the Self.

“It is not for the sake of wealth, that wealth is dear, but for the sake of the Self.

“It is not for the sake of the Brahmins, that the Brahmins are held in reverence, but for the sake of the Self.

“It is not for the sake of the Kshatriyas, that the Kshatriyas are held in honor, but for the sake of the Self.

“It is not for the sake of the higher worlds, that the higher worlds are desired, but for the sake of the Self.

“It is not for the sake of the gods, that the gods are worshiped, but for the sake of the Self.

“It is not for the sake of the creatures, that the creatures are prized, but for the sake of the Self.

“It is not for the sake of itself, that anything whatever is esteemed, but for the sake of the Self.”

The Taittiriya Upanishad (2.8.1-4) took up this theme, saying:

“Who could live, who could breathe, if that blissful Self dwelt not within the lotus of the heart? He it is that gives joy.

“Of what nature is this joy?

“Consider the lot of a young man, noble, well-read, intelligent, strong, healthy, with all the wealth of the world at his command. Assume that he is happy, and measure his joy as one unit.

“One hundred times that joy is one unit of the joy of Gandharvas: but no less joy than Gandharvas has the seer to whom the Self has been revealed, and who is without craving.

“One hundred times the joy of Gandharvas is one unit of the joy of celestial Gandharvas: but no less joy than celestial Gandharvas has the sage to whom the Self has been revealed, and who is without craving.

“One hundred times the joy of celestial Gandharvas is one unit of the joy of the Pitris in their paradise: but no less joy than the Pitris in their paradise has the sage to whom the Self has been revealed, and who is without craving.

“One hundred times the joy of the Pitris in their paradise is one unit of the joy of the Devas: but no less joy than the Devas has the sage to whom the Self has been revealed, and who is without craving.

“One hundred times the joy of the Devas is one unit of the joy of the karma Devas: but no less joy than the karma Devas has the sage to whom the Self has been revealed, and who is without craving.

“One hundred times the joy of the karma Devas is one unit of the joy of the ruling Devas: but no less joy than the ruling Devas has the sage to whom the Self has been revealed, and who is without craving.

“One hundred times the joy of the ruling Devas is one unit of the joy of Indra: but no less joy than Indra has the sage to whom the Self has been revealed, and who is without craving.

“One hundred times the joy of Indra is one unit of the joy of Brihaspati: but no less joy than Brihaspati has the sage to whom the Self has been revealed, and who is without craving.

“One hundred times the joy of Brihaspati is one unit of the joy of Prajapati: but no less joy than Prajapati has the sage to whom the Self has been revealed, and who is without craving.

“One hundred times the joy of Prajapati is one unit of the joy of Brahma: but no less joy than Brahma has the seer to whom the Self has been revealed, and who is without craving.”

Meditation

The way to abundant joy is meditation. For the one who meditates attentively: “He whose Self is unattached to external contacts, who finds happiness in the Self, whose Self is united to Brahman by yoga, reaches imperishable happiness” (Bhagavad Gita 5:21).

In Limitless Consciousness is Limitless Joy.

The View From On High

When a wise man has carefully rid himself of carelessness and climbed the High Castle of Wisdom, sorrowless he observes sorrowing people, like a clear-sighted man on a mountain top looking down on the people with limited vision on the ground below (Dhammapada 28).

When, through constant awareness or heedfulness, the wise one has dispelled heedlessness, a great thing has been accomplished. But that is far from the end of the matter. Now he must climb the high tower of wisdom (discernment). Being high, it will take both time and intense effort, for there is no elevator to the top. The Short Path and the Quick Path simply do not exist. There are, indeed, shorter and quicker paths, comparatively speaking, but frankly our distance from the goal is so long that to bother with such comparisons is laughable and a waste of time.

Once that height has been attained, sorrow is over for him. As Swami Yukteswar Giri pointed out: “Finding God will mean the funeral of all sorrows.” For Wisdom is God. Everything else is ignorance.

Once that state has been established in the consciousness, then the sorrowing state of others is clearly seen and–contradictory as it may seem for a sorrowless person–keenly felt. Although he perceives, even feels, the sorrows of the sorrowing, yet he does so from such a distance that his mind is in no way seized or agitated by that suffering. The same factor that renders him incapable of suffering enables him to objectively observe the miseries of those he would help. He can see both where they came from (what caused the suffering) and where they should be going (to remove and avoid the suffering), a perspective completely impossible to most of them. Does such a person intellectually decide to help suffering humanity? No. Having arisen to such a level, it becomes a matter of spontaneous volition on his part.

The Way To Excellence

Careful amidst the careless, amongst the sleeping wide-awake, the intelligent man leaves them all behind, like a race-horse does a mere hack (Dhammapada 29).

Now Buddha, formulator of the Four Aryan Truths and the Aryan Eightfold Path, is describing how an arya manifests and increases his upward-moving nature, how he excels as a human being. This is important, for until we realize our full human potential, how can we hope to rise to divine potential? That is why Arya Dharma (Sanatana Dharma) is also called Manava Dharma, Human Dharma.

Aware

It is incredible but true that most human beings need to be told: Be Conscious. Many years ago a brilliant physician told me in relation to maintaining health: “Always be aware.” It took me decades to figure out the meaning and value of those three words. Buddha explains to us that the intelligent human being is “aware among the unaware.” The Venerable Thanissaro Bhikkhu renders it: “Heedful among the heedless.”

A renowned French esotericist of the nineteenth century, Sar Hieronymous, observed that human beings are of two basic types: intellectual and instinctual. By “intellectual” he did not mean academic or scholarly, but centered in their intellects rather than in their senses, emotions, or physical bodies. Most people live in an instinctual, reactive manner, rarely letting their intelligence take the lead, and often only use their intelligence to fake up justifications for their irrational (instinctual) behavior.

Terrible as the picture is, humanity rushes headlong into pain, destruction, and death. And this is habitual, utterly reflexive. Once I visited a yoga center and had a satsang (informal spiritual discussion) with the members, all of them deeply sincere and quite intelligent. Yet, after about twenty minutes I realized that the answers to their questions did not need my special qualifications of having lived in India with Masters, having studied the scriptures and having gained experience in meditation. Only good, practical sense was needed. Often through the years I have marveled at the way very good people seek answers to questions that any thoughtful person could easily answer. They themselves should have been able to answer their questions, but they simply were not used to doing so. They did not even realize they could.

Use your mind

“Use your mind” (intelligence) is just about the first thing a worthy teacher will tell the student, and will usually have to keep on telling him for quite a while until the instinct habit is broken–which is not easy since instinct is closely related to intuition, which is something desirable. Instinct is to intuition what infantile babble is to adult speech. The first must progress to the second. This is no small problem for the spiritual striver. “Feeling” can be either instinctive or intuitive, and he must learn to distinguish them. This is a major lesson in his development.

Few things are more destructive than constant dependence on some external authority for making our decisions in life. Unhappily, most religions and spiritual teachers foster this dependency and prevent real inner growth in their adherents. How will they survive without dependents? How will they be teachers without students? So, like a therapist who fears to lose his livelihood if his patients recover, they hold their members or students in thrall.

A truly aryan teacher or philosophy is like my father. He held on to my bicycle and walked beside me as I learned to ride. He kept me from falling, but he did something better: he gave me the confidence to ride on my own. How vivid is my memory of hearing him say: “You have been riding without me helping for the last three minutes. I was just barely touching the bike.” I could do it! So I rode on alone, amazed and relieved. The great Master, Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh on occasion would tell a student after two or three months: “Now I have told you everything you need to know. Go and gain experience on your own and make something of yourself.” Another great yogi, Swami Rama of Hardwar (Ram Kunj) only met his teacher once, at the age of nine. He was playing in the village street when the yogi came walking through the village and said to him: “Come with me.” He followed him a little distance beyond the village and there the sage gave him instructions in meditation, blessed him, and walked on. No more was needed. He did not even know the sadhu’s name. How rare are such great teachers. Most gurus are in the slave trade (emphasis on trade).

Awake

“Amongst the sleeping wide-awake”–such is the wise man. Before Buddha stated this, Krishna had told Arjuna: “The man of restraint is awake in what is night for all beings. That in which all beings are awake is night for the sage who [truly] sees” (Bhagavad Gita 2:69). There will always be this sharp division between human beings. Most sleep and dream they are awake, and some of them are halfway between sleep and waking, sleepwalkers. Though thinking they are living and acting, from a higher and more realistic perspective they are doing nothing. This is tragic.

Few are the wise, comparatively speaking. Yet this does not bother them, for though ignorance, like misery, loves company and the assurance of being part of a group or herd, wisdom is content with walking on alone if need be. Of course the wise are never alone, for they are walking in step with the awakened of all ages. In Mahayana Buddhism they say that the moment someone decides to seek higher awareness a multitude of Buddhas and Bodhisattwas become aware of him and begin blessing and helping him along the upward path. That is why Saint Paul said: “We are compassed about with a great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). In chapter six of Autobiography of a Yogi, the Tiger Swami tells that his guru finally said to him: “Enough of tiger taming. Come with me; I will teach you to subdue the beasts of ignorance roaming in jungles of the human mind. You are used to an audience: let it be a galaxy of angels, entertained by your thrilling mastery of yoga!”

Unfortunately for us, in the beginning our inner eyes are not fully opened so we do not realize what a great force is working on our behalf. Immersed in this world of darkness and ignorance we are only aware, often painfully, of the forces that try to prevent our striving upward and becoming aryas. We are like the servant of Elisha who, seeing the city surrounded by enemies, was terrified. Elijah assured him that they had more allies than there were enemies, but the servant thought he was speaking nonsense. Then “Elisha prayed, and said, Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see. And the Lord opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha” (II Kings 6:17).

What is it to be awake? To be self-aware, centered in the consciousness that is our true nature. As Krishna indicated, the awareness of the Self is waking, in contrast to the fever-dream of absorption in sense-awareness. Of course, the sleepers will accuse us of being dreamers or unconscious, but that is to be expected. It is even a good sign.

It is said that Buddha was walking along the road when he met the first person he had seen after attaining enlightenment. Being sensitive to spiritual things, the man was astounded at the very appearance of Buddha. “Who or what are you?” he asked. “I am awake,” replied Buddha. And walked on.

Leaving them behind

Transmigration of the soul is true. We move from the simplest of forms to the increasingly complex. Lower forms of life cannot exist outside a group, they are utterly interdependent. Higher life forms become increasingly independent, even solitary. But for some odd reason, perhaps because of their vulnerability, human beings revert to the herd instinct and live submerged in one or more groups, drawing their confidence and self-image from those around them. Look at the virtually absolute power of fashion and public opinion.

All types of claims and demands are made on us, but Buddha tells us that the wise person “leaves them all behind.” This is necessary. We cannot sail in the sinking boat and expect not to drown. We cannot live amongst the diseased and suppose we shall remain healthy. We must separate ourselves and move beyond them. And that does not mean walking along parallel to them at a comfortably sociable distance. It means getting far away. To make sure we understand this, Buddha says “the intelligent man leaves them all behind, like a race-horse does a mere hack.” Distance is the keyword here. The worthy steed does not mosey along with the bumbling and incompetent. He pulls out ahead and leaves them far behind. That is how he wins the race. It is drastic. It is final. And it is certainly unequivocal.

This separation and distancing need not be done externally, though in some cases it is absolutely necessary because of the negativity prevailing in the seeker’s environment. But it always must be done mentally and spiritually. This often results in the seeker being pushed away by the ignorant and finding himself separated involuntarily. Some of the less somnolent may sense the impending departure and try to stop it, even becoming accusatory and abusive. Regarding them Jesus said: “But whereunto shall I liken this generation? It is like unto children sitting in the markets, and calling unto their fellows, and saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned unto you, and ye have not lamented” (Matthew 11:16, 17). This, too, is a good sign, though often a painful one. Such is the price that must be paid if we would be truly free, not just in abstraction and theory.

But here is the most important point in all this: There should be a vast, virtually infinite distance between us and the ignorant. How can this be accomplished and maintained? By moving forward, ever forward, never stopping until our last breath. That way we will continue on in higher worlds until we gain the Goal. Buddha was a perfect example of this. To the last day of his life he meditated for hours, even going into intense meditation retreats frequently. He begged his food like every other monk. He lived under a tree and followed the life he had taught to others. After his departure from the world many of his aspiring followers have gotten tangled up in trying to figure out exactly what level they have achieved (the technical terms are too tedious for us to bother with here). This signaled their loss of good sense, for Buddha’s example was to keep on just like a beginner, the only difference between his life and others being the skill in which he conducted it. This is the truth: the way of life of a true Master and that of a fresh beginner is absolutely the same. Only the consciousness is different. The Master may give more time to the practices of spiritual life, but he does them all, omitting none and mitigating none. The difference is only in degree, not in the elements of daily life and practice. This is so important for us to understand, for keeping this in mind we will be able to discern what spiritual leaders are genuine and which are not. No enlightened person goes beyond even the most basic practices. “Baba doesn’t need that anymore” means that Baba is deluded or an outright fake, and so are his followers. This applies to “Matajis” as well.

What the unenlightened do to attain,

The enlightened do to maintain.

Buddha demonstrated this by his perfect life.

Summing it up

In conclusion Buddha says the following that needs no comment:

Careful amidst the careless, amongst the sleeping wide-awake, the intelligent man leaves them all behind, like a race-horse does a mere hack.

It was by attention that Indra attained the highest place among the gods. People approve of attention, while carelessness is always condemned.

A bhikkhu taking pleasure in being attentive, and recognizing the danger of carelessness, makes progress like a forest fire, consuming all obstacles large or small in his way.

A bhikkhu taking pleasure in being attentive, and recognizing the danger of carelessness, is incapable of falling away. In fact he is already close to Nirvana (Dhammapada 29-32).

Next article in the Dhammapada for Awakening: The Mind

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Chapters in the Dhammapada for Awakening:

Introduction to the Dhammapada

The History of the Dhammapada

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