Shanti Sadan and Self-Knowledge name
Vol.68 No.3 Summer 2017

Offered at a meeting by the Warden of Shanti Sadan

At this time of year, people around the world are remembering and celebrating what is widely known as Vesak or Buddha Day. We recognise the non-dual teaching at the heart of all the world’s wisdom traditions, and so we too will focus a little on the parallels between the non-dual teachings and those of the Buddha as they have come down to us.

We may sometimes think of Buddhism as synonymous with the practice of meditation. It is not that the Buddha introduced or developed the practice, but he made it the core of his teaching. If we were to search for an image of serious meditation, what springs to our mind—or to our search screen—would probably be one of those serene, seated figures that are among the glories of Asian art.

But actually the Buddha, in focusing on meditation, was making use of a much older mental and spiritual discipline, or way of working with the mind. Contemporary with, and even earlier than his own lifetime, were the great teachings of the oldest Upanishads. In these teachings, the whole trend is to seek for reality, meaning, purpose and illumination in one’s own being. This is called the heaven in one’s own heart, the ancient way, the space—so to say—within one’s own heart—a space so subtle and unbounded that the whole of experience is contained within it. A verse from the Chandogya Upanishad declares:

If one is asked what is within that space within one’s own heart, the answer is that it is greater than heaven, greater than earth, greater than all these worlds.

This upanishadic teaching speaks of this inner region as the Self, the true Self, something impersonal and much deeper than the individualised ego we feel identified with as we go through life. The Upanishads declare that it is the Self alone, in its uncluttered simplicity, that is to be detected within us, not as an object, but as the unchanging consciousness that reveals and witnesses our thoughts. This is that undeniable principle of continuous awareness to which our thoughts appear, but is not itself a thought. It is the ultimate source of identity, our I. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad says: ‘Self alone is to be heard about, meditated on, identified with... In this way all that is knowable will be realised.’

It seems that the Buddha himself did not favour the use of the word ‘self’ in the context of this inner quest. This may be because he felt it was too easily confused with the limited self or ego. But in the higher yoga, the concept of self is retained, purified and expanded, and transcends ultimately all limitations of individuality, separateness and human isolation. It is a great unifying vision.

He who sees all beings in the very Self, and the Self in all beings, is liberated from sorrow and delusion. Isha Upanishad

Returning to the popular association of the Buddha with meditation practice, it is easy to overlook the seriousness of the quest undertaken by this great sage. He was totally one-pointed in the urge to solve the problem of suffering, to root it out, so to say, from human experience. He found the ultimate cause of suffering was nothing external at all. It was the habitual desiring activity that permeates all human minds. If we can free ourselves from this ‘thirst’, trishna, if we can ‘desire to be desireless’, so to say, our mental burdens will fall away. We will be blessed with the experience of total inner freedom.

In early Buddhist thought, to follow such a way of life one had to renounce the world, become a bhikshu—wandering monk. Many teachings are concerned with the rules and regulations followed in such a mendicant way of life. But Buddhism would never have become one of the world’s great religions if its path had remained purely monastic. The teaching widened to include guidance and development for people living in the world, engaged in ‘right livelihood’. The values it cherishes are noble and unifying, dominated by prajna and karuna, wisdom and compassion, the transcendence of self-interest, and nurturing feelings for the good of all. These values are associated with meditation, because meditation is the most effective way of going beyond the superficial consciousness, and uncovering the great treasury of our own being. In the higher yoga this is called our true Self, and in Buddhism the Buddha nature.

The message of these great traditions is that this higher nature is awaiting discovery in us all, and that, ultimately, it is only by pursuing the highest goal of life that we ourselves will be enabled to go beyond sorrow and suffering. For when we practise meditation, we have a means to lead our thoughts and state of mind beyond the superficial consciousness that is ruffled by desires and worries, and to withdraw into the calm depths of our own nature. We can all learn to mitigate and minimise disturbing influences and psychological currents, and enter a region of peace. This realm of tranquillity is not far from us at all, for it is the light of our inner experience when it is discerned in its simplicity and purity.