October 28, 1997
by George Gilmore, Ph.D.
The present series of remarks are intended to dramatize the inner coherence of Hinduism and Buddhism as major belief systems which in the modem world are facing, as all the world's religions must, the challenges of science and the modem world. Both Hinduism and Buddhism in their American embodiments, have religious communities, religious festivals, American converts, in short, very similar congregational structures, celebrations and savior images similar to the more familiar Western religions.
It is my hope that a discussion of the rationale of such religions will allow many Americans unfamiliar with them, to see how they too, like the Western religions, can face the modem world as partially rational systems of self- transformation, salvation as Westerners might describe it. Finally, we should also and separately remember that, in their claim for respect by outsiders they, like the Western traditions, appeal to experiences of the non-empirical, divine revelation, sacred scriptures, and privileged experiences by great, privileged and visionary leaders.
Probably the most practical way to begin a down to earth introduction to Hinduism is to start with what we might call "The Hindu View of what it means to be Human." We will see that in a great deal of their experience, it is also our own Western mirror into which we are looking.
Like the Western concept of humanity, both spiritual and that of empirical science, a human being can be seen by looking at several levels of three different but interrelated aspects of human life. The three different aspects are human levels of desire, human levels of existence, and human levels of knowledge.
In the different levels of human desire we see ourselves looking into the Hindu mirror of our old saying, you are what you _____, and you fill in the blank: you are what you eat! You are what you read! And perhaps even more intimidating, you are what you wear! And this latter is even more unsettling, if what you often wear, is also what you eat!
At any rate, the Hindu insight is that human beings betray far more than they realize in the manifestations of their desires. Let us see where that will lead us.
Initially, as infants, and also for some long time thereafter, we are creatures of physical desires, and this tells us who and what we are: We are human beings of this earth, who need to breathe, to eat, to sleep, to relieve ourselves in a variety of ways. We are creatures of the earth, and our needs and desires clearly manifest us as such. In the Hindu understanding, there is nothing reprehensible in this. It is an honest starting point which tells us initially who and what we are.
Secondly, once our physical needs are satisfied, and this is demonstrated by human life day to day, and by human history, humankind needs something worthwhile to do with life, or as we might focus it in its modem dress, people need a career. Obviously, this is not only to supply us with the means to satisfy the physical needs of level one, but it is subsequently a value in itself. In fact, it is obvious to the Hindus as it is to Western experience, that people frequently sacrifice the physical fulfillment of what we are calling level one, in order to satisfy the more individually unique, and more personally challenging and satisfying calls of level two. An Olympic athlete is a good example. Women and men sacrifice sleep and many physical gratifications, indeed they seem to seek out programs of what in past times were called the "mortification of the flesh" in order to succeed in their higher goal. In short, women and men need to be challenged and fulfilled at levels higher than mere physical gratification. There is more to being human than physical satisfaction.
Thirdly, Hinduism observes that the careers, in the ancient world and now. can be narrowly competitive, restrictively selfish, constantly unsatisfying, ever demanding. As such, they can never satisfy. This is especially noteworthy in men and women who have triumphed in level two. and long ago transcended (but did not ignore or deny) level one, There is often the need for successful men and women to rise to idealistic heights, to serve humankind throughout the country or the world. Men and women demonstrate a level of desire that transcends their physical and career needs, especially when those levels have been satisfied. People long to make a difference, to contribute to the quality of the earth. And this further says something about human beings. There is more to them than physical and career needs.
Beyond physical, career and even idealistic needs of humankind, Hinduism notes that in its experience, men and women yearn to be able to continue life, to continue happiness, and to continue in the pilgrimage of knowledge. We yearn to voyage whither we, individually at any rate, and perhaps communally, have never gone before. To the Hindu, this desire, too, is revelatory. The longings of the human heart are not seen as pipe dreams, epiphenomena from over-evolved consciousnesses. There is more to human existence than the finite course of human history. The Hindu synthesis is sat-chit-ananda: existence-knowledge- happiness. Unity with the infinite.
These levels of observed human desire suggest a parallel ordering of human existence. We are indeed physical, and a great deal can be discerned about each of us on the physical plane. As the information networks perhaps frighteningly seem able to know, exhaustive information-gathering can be done on all of us. And this really is a dimension of us. We are physical beings, to a degree externally knowable. Perhaps in our worry that such information is progressively more and more available, we too easily forget that such knowledge is truly the tip of the iceberg, as the recently modem theories of psychology have made abundantly clear to all of us.
Yes. we are physical, but a moment's reflection (!) and that is the point! Who has access to our moment's reflection? We are not only physical beings, but we are conscious, interior presences, capable of sharing or withholding our consciousness, our presence, our interiority, from another person, perhaps choosing autistic self-possession in the face of external threat. We exist as interior beings.
Our mythology of the Frankenstein experience may dramatize this for us. Our contemporary myth is that our conscious personalities are possibly transferable, by the massively complex but surely possible means of a brain transplant. The conscious "me" seems transferable, leaving behind the former body, and all of its attendant paraphernalia. Many of us in this auditorium may have seen several Steve Martin films on the same theme, such as "All Of Me," and "The Man with Two Brains," in one of which we observed Steve Martin sharing his body with no less than the prim Lily Tomlin. We are more than accustomed to recognizing that an essential reality of our humanity is far more than our external packaging. We are our internal selves. Much, if not all of the external reality can and does change with the years, while the interior remains the true reality.
Thirdly, we can recognize that there is substantially more than the conscious interior. Depth psychology supports ancient Hindu insight that there are depths to the human condition far below the conscious. There is a realm of unconscious desire, source of dreams, impetuous urge. Is this depth shared, in telepathic intercommunication? At any rate, the reality descends below consciousness, as the benthic depths of the ocean descend beneath the currents of the surface. As we consciously look into the mirror, who and what looks back? Perhaps many of us have taken those aptitude tests which hope to show us what we are really interested in, what a student really should major in during college, what kind of job we really should be pursuing, what kind of person we really are. And there again, we have it, the great Hindu affirmation, "That thou Art." Tat tvam asi. There is more to us than meets the eye, even the interior eye of conscious self- knowledge.
And in level four, one finds the anticipated, and for the Hindu, the actual, presence of the infinite. We are not only finite physique, finite consciousness, finite unconsciousness, but we are inchoately and also actually infinite.
As apparently opaque a word as "nirvana" may help us here. Nirvana very simply means not extinction, but rather "extinguishing." The metaphor is helpful. Recognize that each of us is a small flame, like a birthday candle. Infinite energy as even our physicists tell us, is metaphorically flame. In the ancient Hindu visualization, when you kindle a fire, you do not initiate combustion, but you simply access visible fire from the great aura of invisible fire which surrounds and pervades all of reality. Does this sound like a formula for the universe built on energy, E = mc2? When you die, beyond any need for reincarnation, your inmost being, the flame of your apparently finite self, is freed to return to infinite fire. Your "extinguishing" is not extinction, but a rejoining with infinite fire. That thou art, even now one with infinite fire. Like the Greek word atmos, breath, from which we get such English words as atmosphere, the Indo-European form in sanskrt is atman, small-a atman, the breath of my individual fire, capital-A Atman, the infinite fire of all of reality. We are both already, finite and infinite reality.
And this reflection bears then directly on the Hindu experience of levels of desire. If women and men indeed are realities of level four, how can they ever be satisfied by the comparatively lesser satisfactions of levels one through three?
These four levels of desire and existence receive a parallel ordering in the Hindu experience of knowledge which is, like the levels of existence, noticeably similar to the levels of knowledge in Plato's metaphor of the cave in The Republic. One knows on a "first level," in realms of immediacy, like William James' buzzing immediate experience, in such hallucinatory situations as the bent stick in the water, or the illusion that matter is truly solid. A second level, of theoretical clarification, allows humankind to know more exactly, that matter is not truly solid, as X-Rays and the whole system of theoretical science proves on a daily basis. Thirdly, beyond such daily levels of knowledge, lie the realms of deeper self-knowledge, possibly including telepathy and what C.G. Jung called the collective unconscious. And fourthly, there is the world-wide phenomenon of mystical knowledge, the experience of the presence of the infinite, samadhi. One experiences, knows, what one, what all reality, truly is.
So humankind, in its daily and in its specialized, privileged moments, experiences and knows a reality filled with the potential for finite and infinite human fulfillment.
When we noted that people can choose to be fixated by the desire for lesser levels of fulfillment, and thereby actually forestall the progress to what we might now continue to call "level four," we imply the whole Hindu experience of karma.
Karma initially has three clear meanings, which help us to get beyond any obscurantist smoke about how difficult or inaccessible Hindu thought is. Karma means #1: action, pure and simple. It then means: #2 the causes and effects of action. It then means the moral, and ultimately physical effects of action. What I do matters. It has an effect. Subjectivist hopes or illusions notwithstanding, actions have their effects, and personal intention may or may not haved any further effect. If I choose to fixate at a lesser level of my existence, impelled by the desires of that stage. I fixate myself, I suffer the effects of my actions, and will be more prone to suffering, less open to moksha "release" into nirvana. And so I will be born again, and born again, until I get it right. All karma is ultimately my responsibility. Thus my karma is the freight, the inertia or the impetus, of my past lives, past actions, which lay down tracks, as it were, of personal habit. I become what I choose.
We have initiated a discussion of the divine in Hinduism by mentioning "level four" in the human levels of existence. While atman/ATMAN does indeed mean breath, the breath of an individual person, and the BREATH of the universe, its more usual divine reality is called Brahman. which is the infinite ultimate divine. It is the totally inclusive energy source for all spiritual and physical realities. Like a power source, it is the impersonal foundation for the perhaps notorious "330 million" Hindu "gods," who more properly should be called Hindu angelic presences, Hindu spirits, perhaps principalities and powers. Like many Christians, I found this number an astonishing distraction, until the parallel occurred to me of the number of Christian angels and saints. In my childhood, everybody had a Guardian Angel, so that's about five billion right there, and we haven't even gotten to the archangels, not to mention the seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominations, virtues, and yes, principalities and powers. 330 million indeed! Far too few!
It may help to give a concrete example here of what is meant by the "330 million gods" of Hinduism. I do not know how long it had been in my teaching of the present course on the major world religions, when it occurred to me that Ganesha neatly paralleled the Christian St. Christopher. I hope no one is offended by the parallel, especially since the Catholic church in its demythologizing wisdom has seen, some years back, to remove St Christopher from its community of recognized historical saints. Perhaps some of your here present may remember the story of St. Christopher, so I beg pardon if I further offend in repetition.
Once upon a time, long ago, there was a mighty human being, sort of a cross between Arnold Schwarzenegger and a sumo wrestler. He vowed that he would serve the mightiest man in the world, someone of whom everyone else was terrified. He worked his way through a succession of incredibly brutal robber chiefs and evil kings, until he arrived at his final most powerful and most wicked master. When he heard that even this terror was petrified of the Devil, he resolved to give his life in service to the Devil. And so he did.
His regular stock in trade seems to have been drowning people, and then stealing their possessions. So he lived by the bank of a deep river as a sort of ferryman, but he pretended to carry people across the river instead of using a ferry boat, and so he carried people to the middle and drowned them.
Well, it was a dark and rainy night, and our evil friend was fast asleep, when there was a light knock on the door. He pretended to ignore it, because the knock didn't seem to indicate a person of substance worth robbing and murdering. So he stayed in his bed. Well, the knocking continued until he was really annoyed, so he got up and opened the door and looked out. Since he was very tall and looked straight out, and since it was a child knocking on the door, he didn't see anybody. Eventually he did, however, and the child said, please sir, take me across the river. Well, we can't let this become a shaggy dog story, so, after endless door slammings, and re-knockings, the big, bad man decided to carry the child across the river, without drowning him, because he wasn't carrying anything, and didn't seem worth robbing. As the mighty giant was carrying the child across the river, he sank under the incredible weight. Never had he carried such weight! Staggering, he finally reached the farther shore, and who should he run into but, of all people, and yet logically because it was the dead of night, it was his Master, the Devil! Can you imagine his amazement when the Devil fell back in horror at the sight of the young child! And so it was revealed to him that he had been carrying Jesus weighted with the sins of the world. Of course seeing the terror of the Devil, the mighty man resolved to follow Christ, and so he did forever after. And that is the story of St. Christopher, whose name in Greek means Christ-Bearer.
Well, was that ever a tangent? Actually, not, because, and again I hope I do not offend, such is the identity of Ganesha, the "Elephant God" who is the embodiment of the dimension of Hindu divinity which carries the believer through the difficulties of life. Just as St. Christopher carries humankind, in the power of God, through the dangers of travel, so also Ganesha. He is the Hindu patron saint of new beginnings, of new businesses, of travel.
And if, brothers and sisters, you yourselves are traveling through an Indian jungle, filled with pythons, and king cobras, and lions and tigers and bears (O my!), on what type of animal would you like to be traveling? Surely an elephant, the embodiment of Ganesha! Such a "god" and such a story should dramatize for us how practical and unspectacular are the experienced rationales for the lesser mediators who mediate between humankind and the ultimate divine reality. And the idea of "ultimate divine reality" returns us to the Hindu ultimate, Brahman.
To tidy up the word Brahman, we should note that it is spelled B R A H M A N, and is not Brahma, with no "n," who is one of the "Big Three" of the Hindu pantheon, along with Vishnu and Shiva. As major dimensions of the divine, Brahman creates, Vishnu sustains, and Shiva brings to completion, and all are at work in our bodies now, as various parts of ourselves come into existence, are maintained, and reach completion. While Hindu society is surely as patriarchal as the West, still the Hindu divine presencing of power is differently experienced. Rather like male and female power relationships among lions, the female consorts of the male divinities are the true exercisers of divine power. Some of you are perhaps familiar with Kali, the consort of Shiva, frequently visualized as the goddess of death, with her necklace of human skulls. She seems to have reappeared recently in a seated position on the tee-shirts dramatizing the music happening called Lollapalooza.
These divine beings populate invisible planes and involve themselves in various ways with the human world. Some, such as Krishna, who is an embodiment of Vishnu, are fully developed savior figures in Hindu culture.
They all, however, like the humans, exist in relation to the infinite. To the average, somewhat less-informed American (like your present speaker a few years back), Hinduism has seemed reducible to pantheism, that everything is the divine, like some great Pacific Ocean of being, be it Fire or Breath or Brahman. It is a surprise for many Westerners to find out that Hinduism has great systematic thinkers like Shankara, Ramanuja and Madhva, who, like Augustine and Aquinas in the West, wrote great Summas of philosophical theology. Such thinkers developed whole systems explaining the Hindu understanding of how the divine is related to the rest of reality, whether in absolute pantheist unity, relational unity, or in a deist dualism somewhat similar to American Deism.
All these systems did, however, find all of reality united under the influence of Dharma, which is the effective Truth of Brahman, the operative Power of both physical and moral reality, according to which everything both is true and is effective. In a way, like the Tao, the Dharma which can be spoken is not the Dharma, while the Dharma which can never be spoken is the true Dharma.
Hinduism gives us a thorough introduction to religious immanence. The word is not imminence, spelled I M M I N E N C E, which is from the Latin word minor, to threaten. as in "The landfall of a hurricane is imminent," but I M M A N E N C E, from the Latin word maneo, which means remain within. Christians may be familiar with the word's impact from the concept of divine indwelling, or the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, as well as sacramental presence. All these meanings, however, are light years away from the habitual American impression of divine transcendence, which means above and beyond, apart from. Simplistically, but accurately for many Westerners, and probably by now for many in the Westernized Far East. the divine is pretty remote, not here, inaccessible. The crucial American source and metaphor is the Northwest European, Northeast colonial American Deist for whom God is necessarily separate, as church and state are necessarily separate. Human freedom seems to demand distance. Consequently, many Americans are frank dualists. We are here, perhaps commissioned by God to act in such a way as to earn eventual union with God some distance from the here and now. While there is a certain amount of dualism in the Hindu experience, the overwhelming tradition is immanentist and even pantheist.
My remarks will attempt to introduce Buddhism in general here. Perhaps in the question period we may wish to open up discussion of different areas of Buddhism, such as Theravada, Mahayana and Zen. I have taught courses in Zen with zazen practice, and they are a wonder to teach!
A notable embodiment of the iimmanentist and pantheist tradition in India is the Hindu reformer, Siddhartha Gautama, known as the Enlightened One, the Buddha. Like Jesus, who, as the terrestrial Jesus of Nazareth, probably only knew of himself as a reformist Jew, so Siddhartha makes complete sense as an idealistic Hindu, attempting to reach what we have been calling level four. His experience, not dissimilarly from the Christian Protestant reformers, was that his deepest integrity could not find justification within the existing cultural and religious heritage. His own transformist experience launched a major world religion.
We may be able to see his distance from Hinduism if we reflect for a minute on some general categories applicable to religion. The modem scholar of world religions Ninian Smart, list six dimensions or categories according to which we can structure many of the world's religions.
Those dimensions are:
a. the ritual, those actions, outer occurrences, which demonstrate the inner realities of a person's religious life, such as postures in prayer, christenings, and funerals;
b. the mythological, which means not so much the unbelievable or purely fanciful, but rather the visualizable, the visionary, the images and stories which dramatize what cannot be articulated, and so need connotative (multi- meaning) modes of expression, such as physical representations of the divine;
c. the doctrinal, on the other hand, attempts to specify, to clarify, to systematize and structure denotative (single-meaning) modes of expression, such as a creed or a theological system;
d. the ethical is the inner, pre-rational moral sense of what ought to happen, or not happen. It is not a rationalized code of ethics, which may be doctrinal, but pre-rational taboo, a recoiling from what is perceived as wrong; incest is usually considered a relevant examples for most cultures;
e. the social dimension constitutes the patterns of community self- configuration, such as the caste system or patriarchal and matriarchal religious roles;
f. finally, the experiential includes the immediate, dynamic, existential personal contact of individual people with the divine. Obviously the five preceding areas all can, and ideally should, be personally experiential, so the sixth dimension often exists as a personal happening of one of the other dimensions. Indeed, in the complexity of human life, there is much overlap of the several areas.
I have mentioned these areas because the Buddha is notable in his rejection of four of the six dimensions. As a devout and wealthy Hindu, he had the wherewithal to search extensively for fulfillment according to traditional Hindu practice. His experience found that the rituals could not help him attain level four, nor could 330 million gods, nor could, goodness knows!, doctrinal theology or philosophy be of any help, nor could the caste system and the rest of the Hindu culture help much. He was left with two dimensions, the ethical and the experiential. His experience was ethical transformation.
His search had been initiated by four passing sights, old age, death, sickness and withdrawal from the world. Extreme pleasure and extreme asceticism had not helped. He found that he had to simply shut down his convulsively distractive mind, and be open to the infinite. The stories portray him as locked in combat with the deceptive powers within him and without, but at a given instant, he simply woke up to level four, the great Hindu affirmation: "That thou art, Tat tvam asi." In properly Buddhist terms, he woke up to his Buddha-nature, he reached Buddha-realization, Buddha-actualization.
I try to dramatize this occurrence by setting up the contrasting Buddhist experiences of "suffering, nirvana and compassion:" Simply put, because of the experience of suffering, seek nirvana by means of the Noble Eightfold Path, which affords one the experience of Compassion. I think if one has an idea of what is meant by compassion, one has a good starting point in experiencing Buddhism. Let us begin, however, with their experience of suffering.
Suffering does not mean being unhappy. It means the habitual human experience that life in all of its manifestations is never enough. One always lives with a measure of "unsatisfactoriness." It is the dramatization of the Hindu levels of desire again, that the lesser levels of human existence cannot truly satisfy. Nothing truly lasts, and humankind is burdened with an ongoing restlessness. I hope I do not offend by quoting that great icon of Western pleasure-seeking, Mick Jagger, who tells us, "I can't get no satisfaction, though I try, and I try, and I try."
The drive of unsatisfactoriness is focused by Buddhist tradition in the Four Noble Truths: 1. Life is suffering-unsatisfactoriness. 2. Suffering -- unsatisfactoriness is caused by desire --grasping. (Whatever we grasp for at the lesser levels, and even if we grasp selfishly for level four, cannot satisfy us. 3. Desire (and therefore suffering) can be overcome. 4. It is overcome by the Noble Eightfold Path, which might be defined as a manual of psychological and spiritual direction.
The suffering leads humankind to awareness of ultimate escape from suffering, union with the infinite, departure now psychologically, and in the future physically, from the world of change. One has to let go, be disciplined to let go by the Noble Eightfold Path, and have in this life, some taste of nirvana, limitlessness. The words "emptiness" and "nothingness" may strike the average American as undesirable states, but they need to be seen in the light of our experience of compassion.
Compassion should be seen in three deepening or ascending levels. We are all familiar with the basic sense of emotional compassion, and let me introduce a metaphor which is both visual and psychological, and eventually existential: to be emotionally compassionate, we have to be "open enough" to have the time and emotional availability to sense another's joy or sorrow. The origin of the word is from the Greek word sympathein, to experience with. Is there enough of us to go around, or are we too preoccupied with grasping at whatever, to have any time to share another's experience? Short of pathological situations, most Americans are familiar with and capable of this level of compassion, and experience it regularly.
A second level could be called, oddly enough the intellectual level. This may indeed be odd, because we may tend to understand the intellectual level as emotionally distant. Also, the academic student's experience of knowledge may be distracting. Perhaps like a Freudian image of grasping, we often identify knowledge with sucking something into our heads. We have to cram for exams, get as much of the material as possible sucked inside our heads, and then in some gross metaphor, bring it all back up and lay it on the test. I beg pardon if my academic metaphor is grossly distracting! At any rate, frequently for the Western thinker, knowledge is acquisitive, grasped.
Oddly, Aristotle gives us an unusually Eastern way of talking about knowledge. He says that in knowing, we have to, as it were, become the other. The image seems deeply relevant to our ways of authentically knowing another person. If we are truly to know other people, truly known in their otherness, we have to get out of ourselves, get beyond the perhaps pathological, dysfunctional, co-dependent self-referencing and grasping of our restless selves, and truly be open enough, available enough, truly to go out of ourselves, and know the other as a true other, and not just a projection of our own agendas. This seems truly to be a revelation of authentic adulthood, authentic love, authentic compassion. But we have to be open, available, beyond the grasping of selfish karma. Neat trick. Who has done it well?
A third level asks us not only to be emotionally and intellectually open, but existentially, utterly available. While not grasping, not straining, we recognize, that as we are level four, we are one with the infinite, we are the infinite. And this is where the desirability of emptiness and nothingness enters in. The words are not intended to be a put-down, or to be an indication of worthlessness, or escape. The words are an affirmation of inclusiveness. It's a very odd way of redefining God, if one does not mind a reference to a Western experience of the infinite. Instead of seeing God, as is so offensive to many of the major Western atheists, as the all-inclusive Rock of Gibraltar, the all- initiating, all-powerful, utter Dominance, destroyer of human freedom, and if truly infinite, even destructive of human existence, the divine is seen as total availability. Absolute nothingness, as one book on Buddhism is entitled, means infinite availability. Not a bad description of infinite love, as we have discussed compassion above.
At any rate, the Buddhist understanding is that the experience of utter availability brings one beyond grasping, beyond unsatisfactoriness to the reality of Buddha-realization, the actualization of one's Buddha nature. One really is one with all of reality, and this is a metaphysical unity which precedes any subsequent, and obvious, moral response.
Such is an overview of the basic interior rationales of Hinduism and Buddhism. Obviously, in their devotional lives, they embody the dramatic working out of such an experience of self-transformation. In deeply human celebrations, Hindus rejoice in the many festivals of the divine manifestations of Brahman.
Buddhism, as southern Theravada, northern Mahayana, Zen, Tibetan Vajrayana, all share with Hinduism a concern for nirvana attained beyond the restrictions of bad karma. Perhaps reacting against the demythologizing experience of Siddhartha himself, northern Buddhism recognizes the existence of heavenly bodhisattvas, savior figures who can help bring humanity to fulfillment in nirvana.
Like the Western religions, Hinduism and Buddhism face a modem world which affirms the central dignity of rationality in human self-respect and in humanity's approach to non-empirical value questions and non-empirical experiences of the divine.
I have emphasized the rational in this conversation, because it seems to establish a common bond between Hinduism and Buddhism and the modem world, and particularly in any ongoing dialogue with psychology, history and literary criticism.
But I do them and all the major world religions a disservice if I do not also emphasize that they understand their own greatest gifts to transcend finite rationality. Brahman in Hinduism, and Buddha-nature, are the infinite.
Dr. George Gilmore is professor of religion at Spring Hill College.