What are Sannyasi like?

In the last article we talked about the religious people in India who try to liberate themselves from the process of death and rebirth. They try to perform “no action”. To negate Karma. They are known in India as Sannyasi. But, what does it takes to live like this?

You might find it interesting to try to visualize for yourself what somebody like this will look like. I’ve given an abstract description to you of sannyasa. What would it be like to meet a sannyasi on the street and would it be like to try to become a sannyasi for yourself?

Leopold Fischer: An Unexpected Ascetic

The story that I often use to introduce students to this ideal in Indian life is one I think is in some way a little odd. Let’s start with once upon a time, there was a man named Leopold Fischer who was born and grew up in Viena, Austria, before the second world war. He showed an unusual aptitude for Indian languages. I’m sure he must have imagined that this was the result of some previous connection with that great civilization.

Anyway, he came of age during the second world war and joined the Nazi army, the army of the third Reich and he was assigned to the Indian legion, to defend the Normandy beach against the invading ally forces. He was captured with his Indian troops and was “repatriated”. He was sent with his troops to India, even if he never actually lived there. And when he got to India he tried to imagine what to do.

The Beginning of The Path

He went to Benares and tried to find a teacher who would initiate him as a sannyasi. Initially, his attempts to do this were not very successful because people was reluctant to initiate foreigners to this institution and style of life.

But he found finally someone who would do this for him. So the guru took him down to the Ganges, to the bank of the Ganges to the cremation ground, where the bodies are burned on the shore of the river. He asked him to go through a very simple ritual, which involved a ritual death. There was a cremation fire that had been set up for him. He striped off all of his clothes and laid down on the fire and was symbolically cremated to indicate that he no longer was the person that he was.

He rose up from the fire and went to take a bath in the Ganges, came out of the river and was rubbed in a robe of a sannyasi, he was given a begging ball, a new name and was sent off to walk the roads of India as a renunciant and ascetic.

A New Person

His new name was Agehananda Bharati, that means “homeless blessed”. He went on then to have a very distinguished and interesting academic career in India and ended up as a professor of anthropology at Syracuse University.

So, it doesn’t always work as expected. But the story is extraordinarily vivid and shows you something important about the sannyasa in India: that it involves ceasing completely to be the person you were to stop the cycle of transmigration.

Negate Karma

So you could imagine, I suppose, if you wanted to speak about this intellectually, the goal of this form of religious action in India is to negate karma. Simply to stop it.

You can really diminish the number of things you are responsible for in this world and the number of things you do. If you have less possessions, there is less to protect. Less to worry about and be responsible for.

They beg food everyday. Why? Because they don’t want to have to cook. They don’t want to be responsible for that kind of sustenance in their lives. So you try in a quite serious way, to diminish the number of things that you do and that you must do in this world. But in a more fundamental way, to erase the phrase “I produce karma”. To negate the concept that I am performing an action. To negate the “I”. To take the word “I” off the phrase, so it is no longer you who performs the action. It is no longer a you there who is connected in some responsible way to the actions of this world.

That’s what Agehananda Bharati did in that symbolic action by the Ganges when he laid on the cremation fire and was symbolically burned. But that too is a crucial aspect of the Buddhist tradition as well.

Buddhists also are trying to find a way to negate the essence of self that drives the cycle of death rebirth.

This article is part of the series about The Buddha’s Religious Background.

The Solution to the Problem of Reincarnation

In the last post we talked about the ordinary norm that religious people in India follow in order to overcome the problem of Samsara, that is, to perform good actions and get a good rebirth, according to the Law of Karma.

The Extraordinary Norm: No Action

It is possible in rare instances to follow another norm. To approach the law of karma in a very different way. We need to challenge a lot of our presuppositions about the way religious life works. I call this the extraordinary norm. This is open only to a few people, or should we say, it is chosen only by a few people. It may very well be open to everybody but only a few people choose it .

According to this norm, someone will attempt to perform “no action”. Not good action, not bad action. But not action at all. Neither good or bad. And the goal of this action is not to get a better rebirth, not to kind of win on the scale of transmigration or reincarnation, but to get no rebirth at all.

Bring the cycle of transmigration completely to an end. Very distinct idea, as you can see. Just to bring the cycle of transmigration to an end.

Nirvana: The Real Solution

This state of no rebirth, the end of the cycle of Samsara is called commonly in Hindu literature moksha, this means liberation. Buddhists refer to it as Nirvana. So this is of course the goal that the Buddha was seeking in his meditative and contemplative life. To seek Nirvana, the end to the cycle of transmigration.

Once a person has achieved this state, once you get there, there is no return to the cycle of death and rebirth. That means it is permanent. It doesn’t slip away from you. So if you want a solution to the problem of Samsara, this is what you got to do, you have to find some way to bring this cycle completely to an end.

Two Ways

If you think about this, with this two norms, then, come two very distinct styles of life in Indian society. Two different ways you can live as a religious person in Indian civilization.

People who follow the ordinary norm situate themselves in a network of duties and responsibilities. They live the life of ordinary people. The mothers, fathers, teachers, students and kings are bound by all the rules that govern these social roles.

People who follow the extraordinary norm renounce all of this. And I use the word renounce here in really a technical sense. They engage in an act of renunciation. So these duties no longer apply to them and they no longer occupy any distinctive place in the established structure of Indian society. In other words they really turn their back on all the social duties that are assigned to someone in that world.

This renunciants are called by various names. Sannyasi is one that it is commonly used in the Indian tradition and could be used for Buddhists as well. Buddhist refer to Bhiksus, the word we translate as monk, originally it simply meant “to beg”. Or Bhikkhuni, a nun, a woman who is engaged in the same act of renunciation. They have very few possessions, they beg their food and they live lives that are deliberately simple in order to escape the network of karma that ties them to the cycle of Samsara.

This article is part of the series about The Buddha’s Religious Background.

The Law of Karma

We will continue our study of Indian religious thought with a fundamental problem. The problem of reincarnation. It’s fundamental. It’s burdensom. What can we do about it? What do we do to lift this burden?

Karma = Action

The answer to that question in India comes from considering something that we call the law of Karma. It is the law of retribution that governs and drives the cycle of transmigration.

The word Karma is a word that is pretty common in our world. I haven’t looked it up in the dictionary recently to see wether it made its way into the discourse of the dictionary, but certainly is in the discourse of our culture. You know what it means to say that somebody has bad karma. It means something like bad luck, that probably springs from something they have done in the past, either in this life or in a previous life.

In India, the word Karma simply means “action”. So bad karma is a bad action. Good karma a good action. So the cycle of death and rebirth, the cycle of samsara, is driven by an inexorable law: What you do now, will produce some result in a future life. You have to find some way to work with this law in order to permit some positive solution to the problem of Samsara.

The Realms of Rebirth

You may ask, as we talk about the law of karma: Where Karma can lead you? That’s a perfect legitimate question to ask about India. What are the possible realms of rebirth? There are somewhat different pictures of this in different aspects of the Indian tradition, but generally six realms are considered into which you can be born. You can be born as a god, as a demigod or a lesser category of gods sometimes referred as demons, as a human being, as a ghost, as an animal, or as a spirit in hell.

Sometimes people are surprised when they hear that hell is an important concept in Buddhism or Indian religion more generally. But it is. It is very traditional, very important in the overall structure of Indian religious life, to realize that there are places where you can go, where you can really be punished (this is quite elaborately described in some literature), so if you perform bad actions in this life there are some important ways in which you will suffer for it in some future life.

The Possible Solution to the Problem

The law of Karma allows two strategies, to possible ways to deal with the problem of Samsara. You might almost be able to think of it by yourself if you begin to work theoretically with the law of retribution that I just laid out for us.

One of this I call the ordinary norm. Just the ordinary way of doing things. It is followed by most Indian people and it’s the most obvious way of responding to the challenge we are talking about. If you are an ordinary Indian person, what you try to do is to perform good actions to get a good rebirth. What can be more simple than that? Do your duty, do the things that are specified for you as a member of Indian society.

As a member of the Brahmin cast, the princely cast, as a father or a mother, as a son or daughter. Whatever that is, there are special duties that are assigned to you in that part of the world. You should make sure you are doing them right. If you do, then good things will happen to you in a future life.

The best thing that you can get in a future life is to be reborn in heaven. That is as high as you can go. You can be up there with Indra as one of the gods in Heaven.

But as in the story of Indra and the Brahmin boy, the problem with this approach to the law of karma, is that it is impermanent, it slips away. If you go and live with the gods in heaven, you will be like the other gods. Eventually you’ll begin to loose your luster, the impact of your karma begins to wither and fade, and you begin to fall down into the cycle of transmigration all over again.

It is possible to be reborn on a high level and live a pleasurable life as the result of your past karma, but it’s impermanent, and it slips away, it is not something you can hold on to forever.

This article is part of the series about The Buddha’s Religious Background.

The Real Meaning of Reincarnation

The doctrine of reincarnation affected Indian religious thought in two important ways that are important to cosider in order to understand the emotional drive that motivates Indian religion. We, I suspect; coming from a western religious environment and a western cultural environment, are likely to think of reincarnation in a certain way. Perhaps as a possibility that would allow us to come back into this world, and experience again something that we really missed in this life. Something positive, something really to be sought.

The Fundamental Assumption of Indian Religious Life

It tended not to work out that way in India for two rather important reasons that separate the Indian view of reincarnation and the view you are likely to have encountered in contemporary religious life.

In the earliest texts, this doctrine is depicted as being a rare and secret teaching. So, at first it was not something accepted by everybody. But very quickly, by the time of the Buddha, it became the fundamental assumption of Indian religious life.

This is not a doctrine you can take and leave, it is not a doctrine that you can pick or choose, it’s simply the starting point for Indian religious reflection. This is very difficult for new students of Indian religion to fully grasp, and I must say that I have trouble myself grasping the full significance of it sometimes in my conversations with Buddhists.

I think that everyone, when they go to India for the first time, and if they are interested a little in Indian religion, try to find some moment when they can sit down with and Indian religious teacher and say: “Well, great guru, I’ve heard a little bit about this doctrine of reincarnation. There is nobody listening, we can close all the windows, we won’t record anything we are actually talking about here. Tell me, do you really believe that? Do you really believe that when you die you are reborn in another body and that this life that you have now is the result of an infinite number of lives?”.

When I first asked these questions, the particular monk I was speaking to looked down at me as if I had just stepped out of a spaceship. He said: “You mean you will question that? You mean that that is something you have a doubt?”. As the starting point in Indian religious thought, and Buddhist thought beyond India as well, it is almost unconceivable that one could question it.

So, if we try to think and feel our own way into this complex and remarkable tradition, we have to begin to think of reincarnation as the starting point for Indian religious thought.

The Burden of Samsara

There is a second feature of this doctrine that is also important for us to come to some understanding of. In the West, we sometimes think that reincarnation is an opportunity to have something we may have missed.

For a long time, I used to think of myself as a frustrated baseball player, as a short boy who didn’t have the needed physical skills or the body to go out and be a great success on the baseball field, and instead I had to settle and become somebody who make his way by crawling from the tip of one blade of grass to the next in texts of the library. And I thought, maybe if I came back in another life then I could be the great baseball player that I wanted to be. Why not? Why wouldn’t we try to manipulate our lives in this world, so that we can come back in a form that will be more attractive or more pleasurable to us?

In India, the doctrine of reincarnation didn’t work out that way. It came not to be viewed as being an opportunity, but to be viewed, instead, as a burden. Indian civilization, in the centuries that it began to lead up to the life of the Buddha, came to view reincarnation not as a single life or two or three lives strung together, but on a time scale that involved millions and millions of lifetimes.

So, whatever those challenges were that you wanted to meet in some new life began to seem very small in the large scale of cosmic history that you are involved in.

Indra and the Brahmin Boy

One of the best ways to get a sense of the emotional impact of this idea is to consider one of my favorite stories. It comes out of the body of Hindu texts where stories are elaborated about things like the doctrine of reincarnation.

It is the story about the god Indra and the Brahmin boy. The story starts like this. Indra has just won a great victory, he actually slayed a demon that held the waters of creation in its belly, and he has released the waters of creation over the world. It set the whole process of creation in motion. And in order to celebrate this, he decides to build a palace.

He gets the divine architect Viswakarma to design the most perfect throne room, guest houses, kitchens and all that sort of thing. And he builds and builds. So, the Viswakarma architect eventually becomes tired of all this. He goes to the god Brahma and asks him for help, just to cool down some of the enthusiasm that was driving Indra to make this massive building.

Brahma manifest himself as a Brahmin boy, as a child. And he goes to visit Indra in his palace. Indra is required by the custom in that culture to provide lavish entertainment and a beautiful welcome for the child. He brings food, music, entertainment and all that sort of stuff, presents it to the child and the boy begins to weep.

He is down at the floor and breaks out into tears. Indra is stunned by this, so he looks at the boy and he asks: “What’s wrong?”. And the boy points at a line of ants running across the floor, and he says Indra: “Each one of those ants was an Indra just like you in a previous life, and not only one time, but millions and millions of times, and that will happen to you. You too some day will fall down from your position as the king of the gods and you’ll be an ant crawling across the floor of someone else’s throne room.”

And Indra, of course stunned by this new vision of himself in this vast scale of time, in which even the most extraordinary achievements eventually decayed and slipped away. It is obvious about this doctrine that is important for us to consider it intellectually, but I think that is important from the very beginning to understand it emotionally. Understand the emotional impact of reincarnation when it is visualized on this massive time scale It becomes a burden to be born, a problem to be solved, rather than an opportunity to be exploited.

This article is part of the series about The Buddha’s Religious Background.

The Doctrine of Reincarnation

In the last post, we talked about the classical quest for knowledge in Hinduism. In this article I want to put one more crucial piece in place in our understanding of the Indian religious background in the time of the Buddha, so that we can begin to study the life of the Buddha and the Buddha’s teachings themselves.

The Traditional View of the Afterlife

This one final remaining crucial piece has to do with the Indian view of the afterlife and the doctrine of reincarnation. If we look back into the early Vedic literature that we talked about in other articles, the tradition particularly of the early Vedic hymns, we find that the view of the afterlife is really quite similar to the view that is found in some of the European traditions familiar to us. It is a view that probably belonged in some way to all the people who called themselves Arya and who migrated across Europe and down into India.

This view is that the people who live a virtuous life in this world, play by the rules, express themselves in some sort of heroic way, and perhaps achieve some kind of eminence, go to live to the land of the ancestors when they die. This believe persists in some aspects in Hinduism today.

When families make their pilgrimages to the sacred city of Benares on the river Ganges in North India, they make offers to feed the ancestors and to ensure their prosperity in the afterlife. This ancient ritual goes back into the early traditions of the Vedas, and it is related to this view that the ancestors moved into another realm and they need to be fed in order to ensure their prosperity.

A New Idea

Sometime during the first half of the first millennium BCE, this ancient view began to be replaced by another one. We call it the doctrine of reincarnation. By the time of the classical Upanishads, Indian sages, the sages of the Upanishads took the position that human beings didn’t live just one life, but cycled around again and again, life after life, death after death, in a process of death and rebirth.

In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, there was a sage named Yajnavalkya, one of the greatest heroes of the Upanishads, not talked of very much because his name is so hard to pronounce, but he is one of the really remarkable figures in Upanishadic literature.

He compared the succession of human lives with the movement of a caterpillar, from one blade of grass to another. Actually, it is a very nice metaphor to express this movement of the soul from one life to another. He said it like this: “As a caterpillar, when it comes to the tip of a blade of grass reaches out to a new foothold and draws itself on to itself, so the self after it has knot down this body and rendered it unconscious, reaches out to a new foothold and draws itself on to it.”

The Mechanism of Reincarnation

Nice image, the caterpillar crawling from one blade of grass to another. Later in the same text it talks more about the mechanism of the doctrine of reincarnation. It says that when human beings are cremated, the smoke rises up into the sky and there the soul can move in three different directions: out of this world into the world of Brahman, back into this world as a human being or into one of the lower realms of rebirth as into the body of a worm, an insect or a snake.

I don’t mean to bore you with this, but there are quite nice descriptions in some of this literature about what is like to be reborn as a worm and a donkey. They say that if this is the fate that is reserved for you, then the donkey will begin to smell attractive as you are making your way through the intermediate state of the afterlife.


This doctrine, this idea of reincarnation is also known in English as transmigration. To transmigrate, to move, to cross into some other world, or we speak of rebirth. In Sanskrit, the language of ancient India, this phenomenon is called by another word: “Samsara”. The word samsara means simply to wander from one life to the next. And it already begins to suggest to you what emotion is associated with this idea in classical India. Here we are not talking so much about a direct, straight line, as marching from one life to another in order to achieve a particular goal. But actually the experience of wandering, as you go from one life to the next not knowing fully how it is that you got where you are, or where it is you are really going to end up.

This article is part of the series about The Buddha’s Religious Background.

The Quest for Knowledge in Hinduism

In my last post I talked about the unity of reality. The Upanishads say that whatever that reality is that is out there outside yourself, out of which the whole world comes, whatever reality is, that is you. This is a positive assertion of the Upanishadic monism in a way as it is putting together the pieces of the world in a positive way.

There are no Distinctions

It is also possible to speak about this monistic concept in a negative way, by denying distinctions. By saying: if you see distinction in the world, you should know that is not the way to speak about the unity of Brahman.

An important expression of Upanishadic monism, equally important as the one I mentioned in the previous article, is found in the Upanishad called the Brihadaranyaka. This is one of the Upanishadic sages speaking: "About this self one can only say that it is no this, it is not that. If you identify it as being anything in particular, you’ve mistaken the unity this text is attempting to convey."

We Must Know Reality

The goal of the Upanishads is to know this reality. To know it. Not to trust it, to have faith in it, not to be emotionally connected to it, not to love it. Not to do any of those other things that sometimes are spoken as being important in religion. What you need to do in this tradition is to know that reality, and to embody it somehow in yourself, to know that connection to ultimate reality.

The Buddha inherited this traditional Indian quest for knowledge. This is what he was trying to do when he renounced his life in the palace and set out on the road in Northern India to achieve his awakening.

The Characteristics of This Quest

This quest for knowledge has three basic characteristics that are as important in Buddhism as they are in classic tradition of the Upanishads:

First: Bring Unity
The first is the desire to bring unity to all the different areas of life. The Upanishads talked about external reality, the self, and the world of ritual that mediates between these two. That quest for unity is present in Buddhism as well.

Second: Change Your Identity
Another characteristic of this quest for knowledge is that is not merely intellectual, it is not really the kind of knowledge that you convey by writing something down in a blackboard, no matter how energetic or how imaginative you are making all the connections between all these different things.

It doesn’t just change the way of pursuing things or pursuing acts, it changes the kind of person they are. It changes their very identity. As it says in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: "If a person knows I am Brahman, you know you are Brahman, in this way you can become the whole world, change the way you live in this world."

Third: Overcome Death
The last of the three characteristics is that this knowledge has to do with overcoming the power of death. That’s not obvious from the passages that I just have spoken of, but it is clear in other passages in the Upanishads that we could explore together. Particularly in the Upanishad known as the Kaṭha Upanishad, where a young scholar known by the name of Naciketas is consigned to the lord of death.

It goes to visit death, and death isn’t home. Exactly why is unclear, but he isn’t home and Naciketas has to wait three days for Yama, the lord of death, to come and greet him. Yama is embarrassed by this. This boy has been waiting, so he gives him three gifts. Three choices that Naciketas can be granted. One is to be greeted by death when he arrives at his own death. Another is to live among the gods. The third and the most difficult is to know the secret of himself. To know what he is.

Yama, at first tries to avoid having to speak this to him. Finally he tells him the nature of himself. This knowledge about the nature of the self gives Naciketas power over death. And it is this power that the Buddha himself was seeking when he renounced to his palace and went out on the roads of Northern India.

This article is part of the series about The Buddha’s Religious Background.

All Reality is One

Continuing with the study of the classical Hindu tradition, here I want to talk about a fundamental belief that influenced Indian civilization as well as Buddhism. In my last post I talked about the Upanishads and how the sages speculated about the three areas of life, and defined the three essences.

One Single Reality

Once these three essential realities had been identified, the Upanishad’s sages made an enormous imaginative leap. A leap that was profoundly significant in the history of Indian religion. They said that all three were aspects of the same thing.

When I speak to classes about this, I turn around and rush to the blackboard where I put down Atman and Sat and Brahman on the board, and I draw little equations signs between each one of these things to show that each one is identified with the others.

All of these are words that in the Upanishads name a single reality. One great reality out of which all of the world comes. This view is called Upanishadic monism. The view that all of reality is one.

Upanishadic monism can be expressed in a number of different ways. Ways that are important to know about and give you some of the flavor of this tradition.

The Story of Shvetaketu

One way is simply to assert it positively as the nature of your own self. One of the classic sources of this way of expressing Upanishadic monism is in a story of a father and a son. A Brahman priest and a student.

The father’s named Aruni, the son’s name is Shvetaketu. Aruni says to Shvetaketu,  when he reaches a certain age, that it is time for him to get going, to get to school and study the Vedic tradition: “You need to become a learned Brahman, like the other members of your family”.

Shvetaketu goes off, does its study, and is back at the age of twenty four, as the text says, full of self importance, full of a sense of confidence in his own knowledge. And the father says something like: "Okay kid, tell me what you know. Have you heard anything about the principle of substitution?" You can feel this moment of puzzlement in the text as Shvetaketu says: "Well, they actually didn’t mention that to me in school. That wasn’t part of our curriculum. " And Aruni sits Shvetaketu down and begins to instruct him about the ways he can sort together all the diverse pieces of his knowledge into a sense of unity of the cosmos.

He begins like this: "Ok, Shvetaketu, it is like this. One must perceive everything that is made of clay. The transformation is a verbal handle, a name, where the reality is just this: Everything made of clay is just clay."

That Art Thou

And then he takes this intuitive principle and he applies it to different areas of life. In one particular passage that is widely quoted in discussions of the Upanishads, it becomes a kind of philosophical poetry.

He says: "The bees, my dear son, prepare honey by gathering the nectar of the different trees and by reducing that nectar to a unity, so the nectar from each different tree is not able to differentiate. In exactly the same way, my son, when all creatures merge into reality, they are not aware we are merging into reality. Now matter what they are in this world. Wether they are a tiger, a lion, a wolf, a worm, a moth, a mosquito, they all merge into that reality. That finest essence here is the self of the whole world. That is reality. That is the self. And that art thou, Shvetaketu."

This phrase is considered one of the greatest phrases in the Upanishadic literature and is in someway one of the foundational phrases of Indian civilization.

Whatever that reality is that is out there outside yourself, out of which the whole world comes, whatever reality is, that is you.

This article is part of the series about The Buddha’s Religious Background.

The Upanishads and the Three Essences

As the Hindu tradition evolved, the original hymns of the Veda attracted a large body of commentary and explanation. The final level of commentary in the classical corpus is found in the Upanishads, a body of texts later known sometimes as the Vedanta, a word that perhaps may be familiar to many of you, a word that simply means the end of the Veda, the end of the Vedic collection.

The First Essence: Being

The Upanishads tell stories of priests who try to find unity in the fragmented world of the Vedic tradition. They focus their speculation on three areas of life. They identify first the essence of the external world, they look out beyond themselves into the forces of nature, to the wind, to the sun, to the power that make the plants grow.

They attempted to touch the essence that gave that its reality or its life. They word they used to name it, we translate sometimes as Being, sometimes as reality, the word itself is simply “sat”. It is actually the present participle of the Sanskrit word to be, that is the same as our word is. This may not seem entirely recognizable to you, but the “s” in the word sat is the same “s” as in our word “is”. So sat is “issing”. It is being, it is existence. It is reality.

The Second Essence: Atman

Then, they looked inside, in our own personalities. They tried to put the finger somehow in what it was that made themselves what they were. What was the essence of their own personality. And they spoke, as people often do in India, about the power breath. Breath is important in the practice of a lot of different forms of Indian meditation. To focus on your breath, to focus in the source of your life.

A lot of the speculation in the Upanishads spoke about breath as the source of energy and personality. But as they worked with the concept and worked with their own awareness of themselves, they came to speak of something that went even a little deeper that the mere movement of the air, of the energy in and out of the body. They spoke about their own Atman. Their own self. The essence of the personality in the classical Upanishads is called Atman or Self.

The Third Essence: Brahman

These were priests who engaged in sacrificial rituals. That was important for them. They were concerned with the essence of the prayers they spoke and the ritual gestures and actions that they performed. Again there were many possibilities. One was a particular secret syllable. The secret syllable “OM”, that often appears and often is used in Vedic ritual. But again, they focused on something that was even more fundamental. That was the word “Brahman”, a word that originally referred to the prayer itself and then came to name the power that laid behind the prayer.

So, they had worked on three separate areas. The external world, that you might call the macrocosmos, the cosmos in the largest sense. The personality or the microcosmos, our own microworld, microworld of our sense. And then this world of ritual that mediates in some way between the personality and the larger world. The world of ritual, the world of sacrifice, the world that lies in the middle between the personality and this larger, structured cosmos.

In the next article, we will talk about another important concept in the Upanishads that influenced the Buddhist tradition.

This article is part of the series about The Buddha’s Religious Background.

The Classic Vedic Question

In my last post I talked about the Vedas, their origin and meaning. Now I want to advance in
my study of their importance for Buddhist thought.

One of the last hymns of the Vedic collection poses what I like to think of as the classic Vedic question. A question that really troubled these Brahmins, as they thought it puzzled over the meaning of their sacrifice.

They tried to find ways to make it more powerful and to connect more deeply to the realities that they were trying to touch. Let me paraphrase this hymn a bit, at least some portions of it, so you can get an impression of its content and also begin to feel the force of the Vedic question:

“There was then neither non-existence nor existence. There was no sky, there were no heavens. What was it that covered everything? What was it protection? Was it a bottomless depth of waters? There was neither death nor immortality then. Neither day nor night. The One breath, though, inspired by its own potentiality. Beside it nothing existed. Who is there who knows? Who knows? Who can tell its origin? Who can tell source of this creation? The gods are on the far side of the creation. Who knows them? Where it came from and how it came into being? Where this creation came from and how it came into being. Perhaps the higher overseer in heaven knows. Or perhaps he doesn’t know”.

This is hymn number 129 from the tenth book of the Rigveda. One of the late hymns in this early Vedic corpus.

Beyond the Gods

You can see, if you read carefully the words of this hymn, that these early priests are asking questions about the origins of the world. About where we came from, where the diversity of the world arose. And the questions are taking them beyond the gods, this is rather curious for us in the Western world. Where all of this come from? Including the diversity of the gods themselves.

They wanted to know where everything came from and the emphasis on this sentence is on the word know. They want to know it. And you can feel, just like a suggestion in these words, not stated explicitly, you can feel that they are convinced that if they know the source of this creative impulse, they will somehow connect themselves as individuals back to their source and it will give them a sense of power and control over the nature of the cosmos.

This hymn is just a fragmentary expression of the Vedic imagination, but it helps us feel and to get a taste of that impulse that drove the Vedic Brahmins to wonder about the origins of the cosmos, and tried to make the origin of the cosmos in some way available to themselves as actors in this religious world.

This article is part of the series about The Buddha’s Religious Background.

Self-reliance and Devotion in Buddhism

Buddhism is commonly known for the very austere tradition of self-reliance, found in the early Buddhist monastic community. Relying simply on yourself in order to achieve the experience of Nirvana. One example of this is the monastic practice in Theravada Buddhist countries of South East Asia, particularly Sri Lanka. There, the center of Buddhist activity lies largely in the monastery, among a group of yellow-robed monks who go out in the morning with their begging balls, walking from house to house holding out their balls, taking off the lead and inviting members of the community providing them with the aids that will sustain them for that day.

Young monks in Tibet

One of the classical rules in traditional Buddhism is that monks can’t carry food from one day to the next, so, every morning those monks have to go out in their robes with their balls to beg their food. That austere simple tradition is a tradition that really grows right out of the experience of the Buddha, from the earliest stages in the growth of the Buddhist tradition.

Self-Reliance in Zen

You find the same kind of self-reliance in the Zen tradition in Japan. I was just visiting in Japan a couple of weeks ago and visited a monastery with a Zen master. I was talking to him and taking photographs. As I focused my camera on him, I told him how important it was going to be for my students to be able to show them a picture of a Zen master, who was clearly so accomplished and who clearly embodied in a powerful way that tradition. He looked me straight in the eye and said: “I want you to tell them when you speak to them about this tradition: to be courageous, to stand up straight and to rely on themselves”. Like many people in my business have a little scholar's stoop, I found myself just standing a little straighter.

Devotion in Pure Land Buddhism

There is also another important aspect of the tradition that insists that is not possible and perhaps not even desirable to achieve salvation purely on your own merit. Instead, you have to rely on the power of some deity, some figure that is infinitely greater than you.

One example of this we’ll study in more detail in other articles is the worship of the Amida Buddha by Pure Land Buddhists in Japan. Pure Land Buddhism has come to North America, like many other varieties of Buddhism, and in some of its manifestations in this country in particular it looks often a lot like Christian devotion.

I was visiting not so long ago one of the Pure Land temples in Hawaii and being the curious scholar that I am, I opened a little hymnal in the back of the temple and looked at it. It had words that seemed mysteriously familiar to me. It began: “Buddha loves me, this I know for the Sutras tell me so”.

The Devotion to Guan Yin in China

Another example of Buddhist devotion with which we’ll occupy some of our attention is Chinese Buddhist devotion to the bodhisattva or Future Buddha, not a Buddha per say, but a deity that will become a Buddha in a future life. The bodhisattva Guan Yin.

Guan Yin

Guan Yin is often pictured as a beautiful standing female figure holding a baby. In Chinese civilization, Guan Yin is viewed as being the emodiment of compassion, but of compassion particularly associated with the development of a healthy and happy family and the gift of children.

When I was visiting a Chinese Buddhist pilgrimage site in Shangai, I ran into a group of Chinese Buddhists, ethnic Chinese Buddhists who came from the Philipines and Indonesia. I asked why they had made the long and rather arduous, and rather expensive trip to pay homage to the deity Guan Yin, and they said that it was for the wealth of their family, and particularly as a way of fulfilling the hope to have children.

The Overlooked Aspect of Buddhism

Devotion is an aspect of Buddhism that for many people might seem unfamiliar, but it too is deeply rooted in the practice of the Indian tradition. We’ll also need to occupy some of our attention in Tibet. One of the most important aspects of religious devotion is focused not necessarily on these great celestial figures but on the human beings who embody their power. The Dalai Lama in particular is one of these. People think of the Dalai Lama sometimes as being a living Buddha, technically that’s not correct, he is a living manifestation of the compassion of the same bodhisattva who is manifested as Guan Yin in China. But he too has an extraordinary ability to make the power of compassion present for people. I’ll occupy some articles on the important figure of the Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama

Devotion is an important aspect of the Buddhist tradition, not just relying on yourself, but opening yourself to the power that comes from a figure that embodies an influence much greater than you.

How I got into Buddhism

You might be interested in how I became involved in the study of Buddhism. I didn’t grow up in a Buddhist enviroment. I suspect that that is true also for many of you. I came into Buddhism when I was a young man studying Christian Theology at university. And one of the biggest challenges we faced in those days was to try to find something to fill our four month summer vacation between the two years of our program, and I, being the naive guy that I was on those days, I ended doing an expedition to the desert of central Iran, to study the life of Iranian nomads. We got to the desert and we found no nomads other than ourselves.

But when we got to the end of that trip, as I was sitting near the Friday Mosque gazing up to the great work, I began to muse a little bit about the lot of things that I have seen and I decided that I wanted to do nothing more with my life than to study the civilizations of Asia. So I got back home and began to study Sanskrit, the language of India. I followed my nose and eventually I ended up studying comparative religion and one thing followed another and I found myself swimming happily through the philosophical tradition of India’s Buddhist community and also the philosophical tradition of Tibet.

Buddhism has become an endless source of fascination for me, and I’m looking forward very much to have a chance to share that fascination with you.

Brief History of Buddhism

Let me begin by talking about the origin and expansion of Buddhism. Buddhism began in Northern India around the year 500 BCE. The Buddhist tradition gets its name from a man known by his followers as the Buddha, or the awaken one. He was born in a princely family in a region of Northern India that now lies in Southern Nepal. In those days it was simply a part of the great undifferentiated geographical entity that we speak of today as the Indian subcontinent.

I suspect that many of you who are reading this text have an image on your minds already of what a Buddha looks like. The Buddha often is depicted as sitting very serenely in a state of contemplation, his feet are crossed in front of him in a position that we know as the lotus position.

The Buddha is the very picture of calm and contemplation. And is this image of a calm and contemplative human being that has drawn many people to the Buddha, for centuries in Asia, and of course, in our own environment today. This is the image that conveys more explicitly the experience of his awakening. However, the Buddha did not always sit in perfect contemplation.

Buddhism is Born

After his awakening he got up from the sit of his enlightenment and talked about his experience to others on the roads of Northern India.

The major events of his life took place in what we call the middle region of the Ganges basin, still the site of Buddhist pilgrimage today.

To understand the significance of the Buddha’s life, I will spend other articles studying the religious background that the Buddha confronted himself in India during his own lifetime. This background made it possible for the Buddha to have such a strong religious impact on Indian civilization.

The Reform Movements

In India itself there were two major reform movements than appeared within the Buddhist community not so long after the lifetime of the Buddha himself. One of this was called the Mahayana, or the great vehicle. The second was called Tantra.

That word we’ll talk about when the time comes for us to discuss that movement in more detail, but for the moment, I think it might be helpful for us simply to imagine that the word Tantra means power. So it is a tradition in the Indian Buddhist community that emphasize all the techniques that cultivate a sense of power.

This two movements will each get significant attention in separate articles.

Expansion to South East Asia and China

Before this movements had ever began to grow in India, Buddhism was carried to Sri Lanka, just off the southern tip of India. Carried by Buddhist missionaries in the third century BCE. From Sri Lanka, Buddhism was then carried on to most of south east Asia, including Indonesia. We don’t think of Indonesia now as being a particularly Buddhist country, but some of the most extraordinary monuments in the history of Buddhism are found in Indonesia.

Buddhism moved North out of India into China in the second century of the common era, carried North by monks and merchants on the trade routes that went out over the mountains of India, into Afghanistan and then on into the great trade routes called the “silk road” that moved across central Asia and into the major mercantile centers of Northern China.

Here Buddhism encountered a sophisticated and ancient civilization. China was a confident and thoroughly civilized region when these early Buddhist monks began to make contact. For Buddhism to become part of China, as it eventually did, it was important for Buddhists to make some major changes in the way they thought through and expressed basic issues.

So, one of my preoccupations in later articles will be all these subtle ways that Buddhism transformed itself in order to become thoroughly Chinese.

In the Tibet and the Far East

From China, Buddhism was eventually carried to Korea, Japan and Vietnam. You might put Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese Buddhism together as expressions of this great East Asian strand.

In the eighth century of the common era, Buddhism was carried across the Himalayas from India into Tibet. Today, the Dalai Lama, who is the leader of the Tibetan Buddhist community, is one of the most visible, and I think, one of the most active Buddhist leaders in the world.

dalai lama
The Dalai Lama
In many ways he isn’t just a living symbol of Tibetan Buddhism, but for many people, he has been a symbol of Buddhism itself.

We’ll give separate attention to all this major varieties of Buddhism in these different cultural areas. We’ll also take a brief look as how Buddhism has become part of the religious world we know in our own neighborhoods in Europe and North America and in other parts of the contemporary world.

In the Western World

Today, Buddhism has spread through much of the rest of the world including Europe, Australia and the Americas.

On a trip to Australia last year I was staying in one of the hostels that hikers, climbers and skiers use before they go off to climb the mountain, I ran into a group of Australian Buddhists. I was happy to know that Tibetan Buddhism was alive and well and functioning very actively in a quite sophisticated way in Sidney and other cities of Australia.

Buddhism has really become a part of our modern world and we rub shoulders with it in all sorts of ways.

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