stillpoint yoga

yoga meditation and philosophy with Lynn Fraser
in the Himalayan Tradition of H.H. Sri Swami Rama


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Himalayan Tradition

Swami Rama

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An Introduction to Buddhism

by Swami Veda Bharati 

When Gotama the Buddha was born a little over 2600 years ago, certain truths realized by the sages of the Upanishads had already become ancient. The sages of the Upanishads taught that the phenomena of the universe were all transient, non-eternal, and that there was no pleasure in the sensual experience of them. The Ultimate Reality could be defined as Neti, Neti, neither this nor that. Sankhya philosophy also had already established the sorrowfulness of sense experiences and that the total and permanent eradication  of sorrow (atyanta-vimoksha)was to be the goal of a spiritual seeker. The Buddha was born in the city of Kapila-vastu, at the site of the ancient ashram of Sage Kapila, one of the founders of the Sankhya philosophy. During his wanderings in search of enlightenment he also studied Sankhya in depth under a teacher named Adara Kalama.

 Upon enlightenment, the Buddha’s own truths were not all fundamentally different from those of his predecessors. His fourfold noble truth on sorrow, the cause of sorrow, eradication of sorrow and the means for the eradication of sorrow is identical to the philosophy of Patajali as propounded in the 2nd chapter of the Yoga-sutras. His other major doctrine, pratitya-samupada, the twelvefold chain, is also identical to the Yoga-sutras, in that ignorance is the cause of sorrow. The difference lay in his doctrine of anatta, non-self. Even though Neti was fully understood by the ancient rishis, both their Vedanta and the Sankhya philosophies believed in a higher permanent reality. The Buddha refused to say whether there a God or not; whether the Buddhas continued to exist after Nirvana or not. He declared such questions not worthy of consideration. A highly practical teacher, he wanted his disciples to practice the eightfold right path of action that would lead them to Bodhi. He addressed the people not in classical Sanskrit but in the popular language, Pali.

 Immediately after the Buddha’s Nirvana, in the very first council (sangiti) of the elders differences of doctrinal interpretation arose. These were never resolved. Various groups of the monks each followed their own way. The historical details of these schisms can be read in the works of erudite scholars of Buddhism. The major schools finally coalesced into two paths: the Theravada, the doctrine of the elders, and Mahayana, the Great Vehicle. The followers of the latter referred to the former as Hina-yana or the lesser vehicle. While Buddhism as a formal school all but disappeared in India, Theravada established itself in the southern countries — more accurately the Southeast Asia — comprising Burma, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and parts of Vietnam. Mahayana spread to the northern countries of Tibet, China, Mongolia, Siberia, Central Asia (later Muslim, now Soviet), Korea and Japan, a branch reaching down also into Vietnam.

 On the major historical and doctrinal differences between the two paths great volumes have been written. We can only state them briefly.

 The Theravadins considered the Buddha’s teaching completely separate from the rest of the Indian, philosophical development. They continued to use Pali alone and did not accept the more refined Sanskrit as their medium. This spared them the influence of Sanskrit philosophical texts and tradition. The Pali canon as taught in Southeast Asia still remains as the authentic record of the original sayings of the Buddha. Not a great deal of philosophical speculation developed in Pali. The Buddha remains the enlightened teacher. Although great temples with beautiful statues were built to honor him where still the traditional Hindu style puja is offered to him, the doctrine itself does not accept him as a savior. Each person finds his own light, is then enlightened, and finally reaches anatta or non-self.

 The Mahayana monks and scholars:

 (1) Debated with Sankhya, Nyaya and Vedanta philosophers and had to develop the sophistication of Sanskrit language. Initially they began to compose texts in a hybrid and later in a beautiful form of Sanskrit.

 (2) They adopted much of the dialectics of the original Vedanta and the Upanishads. For example, the Shunya of the greatest Mahayana philosopher, Nagarjuna, is undistinguishable from Brahman of the Upanishads. Both Shunya and Brahman are above categories, nihil is included in Shunya. The storehouse of consciousness (alaya-vijnana) of the Vijnana-vadin school is a cosmic consciousness or idea from which we derive, like the Bishop Berkley’s epistemology, our experiences of the external phenomena.

 (3) Hindus had begun to accept the Buddha as the 9th Incarnation of God. The Buddhists were at a loss to fulfill the spiritual call and the human need for devotion to a higher Being. So there developed the thought of a Higher Reality that incarnates. Here the Buddha has 3 bodies or levels of existence:

 Dharma-kaya — the Absolute Being (like Shukla Brahman of the Upanishads)

 Samboga-kaya — the universe as the Emanation (like the Shabala Brahman of the Upanishads)

Nirmana-kaya — the historical body of the Buddha, and Avatara, Incarnation.

 The Lord is supremely compassionate (parama-karunika) and incarnates to lead the lesser beings. An individual seeking Buddhahood follows the ideal of Bodhisattva who, unlike the Theravada Arhat engaged in his own enlightenment, must continue to incarnate to teach and guide others until every living blade of grass has risen to Buddhahood.  

Along with this doctrine of the compassionate saviour there developed elaborate liturgy, much of it borrowed from the Hindu temples and Tantra rituals and some from the traditions of the countries of Buddhist adaptation. Some examples of this are the Bon-Po elements in Tibet, Tao and Confucian customs in China and Shinto in Japan.

 The meditational teaching of the two paths differs somewhat but not radically. There is nothing in the monasteries of Thailand, Tibet or Japan that is not known to the yogis of the Himalayas. The Northern schools have more, the Southern has less of the

 (1) kundalini and chakra teachings

(2) visualizations of symbolic figures

(3) elaborate ritualistic preparations

(4) faith and surrender to a higher compassionate Being 

The Buddha’s own path was the majjhima patipada, the middle way.

 As the loss of Buddhism has occurred in Siberia, the Soviet Central Asia, Mongolia, China, Tibet and more recently in Vietnam and Cambodia, and as the pressures from Western civilization have built up, there is a movement to bring together the essentials of the Buddha’s teaching. Especially since the 6th Council held in Burma in 1956, the monks and laymen alike are finding ways of interpreting the Buddhist teaching, to incorporate it into modern life. The examples are some of the Buddhist values included in Japanese industrial management; E. F.Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, a Buddhist approach to economics; various writings on the understanding of mind, psychoanalysis and counseling; teaching of meditation in a modern context; and a personal life based on the ethical teachings of the Buddha. The Buddha’s teaching was addressed primarily to the monk, but like all other spiritual teachings, today’s Buddhism is for those living in the world. This nava-yana, the new path, will be stripped of much of the theological dialectic as well as the liturgical elements. Sila (good conduct), samadhi (meditation), panna (wisdom), samatha (peacefulness), vipassana (insight), sati (mindfulness of body, breath and emotion) – these are the main pillars of a complete life. Whatever are the bodhi-pakkhiya dhammas (factors leading to enlightenment), everyone must follow so that avijja (ignorance) that leads to tanha (craving) must be eliminated, because only upon the elimination of avijja and tanha, all sorrow can be eradicated.