The Message of the Buddha

by Raghavan Iyer @ Theosophy Trust


THE MESSAGE OF THE BUDDHA


 It is necessary to state the main message of the Buddha in a way which makes apparent the basis of its universal appeal. The teachings of the Buddha can be studied under various heads. One can study Buddhist Metaphysics, or interest oneself in the formulation of Buddhist Ethics; one can also enquire into the possible existence of a Buddhist Psychology, or concern oneself with deriving from the teachings of the Buddha a complete, coherent Social Philosophy. All these form part of one central message, and have the characteristic of an organic unity between them because they are derived from the various qualities of the life of one man – a master man; a man who was different from each of us, from the ordinary man of to-day, but only in degree and not in kind.

 We must, therefore, study the various aspects of the Buddha's message in the light of certain universal keys that can be applied by all men. It is easy but wrong to go away with the idea that the Buddha was a very special kind of preacher who came to give a unique kind of message to humanity for a purpose different from that which was behind the efforts of other Teachers who came to other people. We must regard the Buddha in the light of the eternal wisdom of mankind. It is in the light of the Perennial Philosophy, itself only a reflection of the innate wisdom of the one Divine Spirit, that the message of Gautama the Buddha can best be understood.

 Before we can understand this message, we must ask ourselves: What manner of man was the Buddha? From whom did he come? To whom did he come? What was his aim and the significance of his impact?

 The Buddha was a master man and not a god; a man who became a master man by his own spiritual strivings, carried on through a period of many lives on earth and brought to final fruition in his last recorded life – the life we imperfectly know. He attained to Bodhi-Dharma, the supreme state of wisdom, because he fully developed in himself the faculty possessed by all of us, the faculty of Buddhi. It was by the unfoldment of Buddhi – perfect intuition, spiritual discernment, universal perception that the Buddha himself became possible. Therefore, the title of "Buddha" assumed by this great soul is only possible after a long process of questioning carried on through a whole series of lives. Spiritual life, like ordinary life, is a process of progress through repetition. It takes the form of a steady spiral-like ascent, going round and round through similar phases, but all the time going higher and higher. The Buddha, the Anointed One, the Wise One, the great Master, by his sacrifice demonstrated to common human beings the possibility of developing the spiritual powers latent within themselves.

 Whence did he come? Ultimately, from nowhere else than the "place" from which all of us have come, the one great Spirit, from which, far back in the dawn of time, we derived our own individuality, and since when we have gone through various stages of manifestation in the different kingdoms of nature. In another sense he came from a glorious fraternity of perfected prophets and teachers and of illuminated seers, because in previous lives he had already entered the membership of this fraternity by dint of his own efforts. The Buddha came from a fraternity of divine men who, like him, had achieved spiritual wisdom by their own efforts through many lives in a previous period of evolution.

 He came immediately to the people of India, to the Hindus, to destroy idolatry and the power of the priests, and to fight against blind belief. He showed them that the spirit of true Hinduism had vanished because of the importance which had been given to the letter of the law and to mere mechanical ritual. But though that was his immediate historical mission, he came also to a second and small class that had always existed; he came to a class of chelas who were ready to receive that knowledge which he alone could give; souls who were waiting in the later stages on the threshold of final spiritual realisation. He came to disciples who were not only his in that life, but to whom he had taught in previous lives under different names. He came to a third class, the ordinary men and women in his time and in our own. He came to common humanity, but also to statesmen and rulers. He did not directly teach any statesmen or rulers except in the sense in which the spiritual truths he gave are observable in some of the policies of specific rulers in his own time. They took his message and gave it a special significance, so that in Asoka's work we have the complete example of a Buddhist social system. All those classes of people were the recipients of the Buddha's teaching because he, by his own life, showed certain qualities that inspired all of them.

 The aim of the Buddha was to re-state the Perennial Philosophy by showing the corruptions into which its latest forms in India had fallen, and his extraordinary influence was based upon his own life of enlightenment, compassion and sacrifice.

 The Buddha taught not that there was nothing divine or deific in the universe, but rather that there was no personal god upon whom the burdens of human sins could be thrown, or to whose arbitrary act the creation of the universe could be attributed. The whole universe is but the manifold and variegated application of a single, supreme, Life Principle. This Life Principle works through various forms under a universal law of causation. Things are related to each other in a cause-effect-cause sequence, every effect having within itself the possibility of leading to other causes, other effects, just as it is itself a result of prior causes. The Buddha not only proclaimed the existence of this One Life Principle but also pointed to the interconnectedness of its different aspects, the unity of this one Principle in itself and the unity of its various manifestations. He taught that any particular position in space and time must be viewed as a part in relation to the whole, and not in terms of the separative self. The latter is in a relative position, from which complete knowledge cannot be gained and from which all perceptions obtained contain within themselves the elements of error and illusion. He showed that error and evil are purely relative, removable by attaining to that universal consciousness gained only by going within oneself, for it is, in essence, that which unites all beings in the cosmos.

 He taught that the individuality of every one of us, though spiritual, and though permanent and real compared to the illusory and ever-changing phenomena of the present, is itself relative and unreal in terms of the one Supreme Spirit. He showed that the universal Life Principle is not exhausted in any one form or described by any definition, and it cannot be given any attributes. Therefore, whenever he was questioned about the Absolute, his only answer was utter silence. His silence should not be taken for atheism, a denial of a divine Principle in nature and in man; rather he taught that this condition of universal self-consciousness is, in itself, the highest possible form of knowledge. In order to attain spiritual knowledge, we must cast off the shackles of our identification with the personality.

 These are some of the main elements in Buddhist Metaphysics, and they are enough to enable us to go on to understand the importance of Buddhist Ethics, as derived from the Metaphysics. But one point may be made a little clearer. The laws which govern the inter-connectedness between the various parts of the phenomenal world are all different expressions of One Law, which is only the One Life in action. The Buddha stressed the law-governed aspect of the universe rather than the deific aspect for the sake of human understanding. There is only one Law – the Law of Karma, of intelligent causation, of divine rhythm. All aspects of the Law give rise to different conditions of existence. He taught that all the problems which face men and women, especially the problems of suffering and evil, may be met successfully because they merely present aspects of the one Law itself, and ordinary human beings may go from the knowledge of those aspects to an understanding of the whole, and from that to a contemplation of the one Life Principle. Then they can begin to meditate upon the Cosmic Consciousness, the Great Unknowable.

 Buddhist Ethics in its most familiar form has been stated as consisting of eight steps upon one great Path. This teaching of the Eightfold Path was called the fourth Truth, the first three being really statements of metaphysics based upon empirical evidence. Suffering exists. Suffering is inevitable. The cause of suffering is selfish and possessive desire. The cure of suffering is the removal of the false sense of attachment and possession so that each individual is no longer caught in the meshes of his own personality but goes outside and beyond it and looks heavenwards.

 The existence of the Path itself is a metaphysical truth. The Path exists because there exists the goal of the unity between the individual man and the Great Self or the Godhead. The Path ever exists. It is not something which the Buddha created; he merely made it more easily evident to common human beings by walking that Path himself. It is the famous Eightfold Path that constitutes the central ethical message of the Buddha.

 The Buddha started with Right Knowledge because he wished to show human beings the possibility of attaining a rational understanding of the spiritual universe. His method was a scientific approach to the subject-matter of religion. It was particularly important in his life to reveal the rational character of his doctrine because he came to fight blind belief. We start with Right Knowledge, which is Self-knowledge, but we wish to gain spiritual knowledge, not for the sake of the edification of the illusory personal self, but to gain knowledge of the One Self. So we must cease to want anything for the lower separative self; that gives us Right Motive or Right Thought.

 With Right Motive we seek Right Knowledge, and to do this we begin by working on the mind, which is the first organ available to us for getting knowledge. But we also begin to concern ourselves with expressing our growing spiritual knowledge in the mind through proper speech. Self-knowledge is in the mind of man, it is not gained by the mind of man; it is merely unfolded. So Right Speech arises as a condition of gaining and manifesting the Self-knowledge which we want for the highest motive, and in manifesting Self-knowledge with the Right Motive through pure speech, we automatically come to the level of action. We do not concern ourselves with ritual, with do's and don"ts, because we start from within and go outward. From Right Action we go to Right Livelihood. The man who wishes to gain spiritual Self-knowledge with the right Motive, and wishes to express that knowledge through better forms of speech will, in his life, have a duty which he must perform in a way that makes it possible for him to keep to his main spiritual pursuit uninterrupted. Perseverance in this main pursuit amidst the cares and duties of ordinary life is Right Effort or Right Mindfulness.

 The next step is Right Concentration, for with all this knowledge, motive, speech, action and livelihood, we must be able to work upon and control the lower mind involved in the desires of the personality, as well as to reveal the knowledge of the higher mind illuminated by intuition. That is why various habits and practices in the direction of mind control become important, because it is the only way of organising the lower mind so that it does not inhibit the expression of higher mental activity. That leads us to the last step of Right Meditation. It was because the Buddha wished in his own life to gain and show the possibility of true self-transcendence for the sake of the spiritual service of humanity that he took birth again and again.

 All these eight steps of the Path merely follow from Buddhist Metaphysics and must naturally lead to Buddhist Psychology. Buddhist Psychology is essentially a code of self-discipline which it is possible for any human being to adopt for himself. Even if we cannot as yet understand completely the great goal of Self-knowledge we can already show, in our lives, some self-control. That is the basis of Buddhist Psychology. The Buddha showed that we cannot deny the existence of the one Life Principle. Therefore any exaggerated emphasis or wrong use of its particular manifestations is, in fact, a denial and desecration of the one Life Principle. When a man commits any of the "vices" he defies the Law of the Life Principle itself, for each one of the "vices" arises purely from the inflated and false values we give to the various forms, powers and manifestations of the one Spirit. It is impossible to commit any of the ordinary, so-called "sins" unless we have given a wrong value or improper use to one of the natural functions and faculties of man. It is possible for the true follower of the Buddha to enjoy life and to extract from every experience the essence, but only the primordial essence, and only for any purpose relevant to the Real Self. The Buddha recommended self-discipline and self-control not for their own sake, but because he showed that without them the faculties were wasted, and suffering was inflicted upon oneself. Buddhist Psychology is one of fulfilment, balance, and peace.

 What of Buddhist Social Philosophy? It is centred mainly in the principle of conformity to and emulation of the great Wheel of Law. Law is itself the expression of a state of order and rhythm eternally established in the universe. We are taught to look upon every human being as an individual soul gaining experience, learning from the school of life, suffering for a purpose, coming back again and again to live on earth so that greater knowledge and more freedom may be attained. The Buddhist State is a Welfare State in that it provides citizens with an environment in which it is possible for all to pursue the great spiritual efforts which the Buddha proclaimed as the true needs of human life. But the State does not do the work of its citizens for them; it merely aims at easing inevitable human misery. It works with the Great Law of moral interdependence. Man, by righting his relations with the universe, can right his relations with society, but he has as yet no complete knowledge of his true relations with the universe. He can begin, however, by having right relations with his neighbours.

 Thus the entire message of the Buddha constitutes a wonderful unity, universal because it is applicable to all men and has been re-stated by different Teachers in different ways. The Buddha gave to one and all the possibility of attaining to the one and only end of spiritual endeavour, which is, as it were, escape from the lower life, and entry into the higher, the spiritual life. He taught, not the going into some eternal retreat, but the gaining of Nirvana or enlightenment in life, in the company of one's fellow men, and voluntary re-incarnation for the sake of sharing the same possibility of self-knowledge and inner peace with suffering humanity.

 The Buddha's own life was the beautiful and lustrous realisation of three great principles – the principle of regeneration, the principle of renunciation and the principle of reverence. We must regenerate ourselves as he did, we must gain more and more divine knowledge and power and then renounce all we gain; thus, by a series of steps, each greater than the last, we come to the final step, the supreme renunciation of individual bliss which he superbly demonstrated in his own life. Above all, we must take refuge in the Tathagata light of Gautama the Buddha and in the Order of Disciples which he came to re-establish upon earth. We must show reverence to the Buddhas, for without reverence nothing is possible in human life.

Caxton Hall, London
March 25, 1952

Hermes, April 1975
by Raghavan Iyer