The Theosophical Forum – June 1936

GAUTAMA, THE LORD BUDDHA, AND HIS TEACHINGS — Irene R. Ponsonby

[Note: page numbers cited for The Esoteric Tradition are to the 2-vol. Second Edition and do not correspond to the 1-vol. 3rd & Revised Edition.]

"Buddhism teaches an evolution or development of this x-factor of consciousness and will [the Karman, the Dhyani-Buddha, or the Reincarnating Ego or Monad of Theosophy] slowly followed through many rebirths, through repeated imbodiments, bringing about constantly increasing faculty and power, until finally the entity whose evolving destiny is thus traced, becomes a man; and after becoming a man finally becomes a Bodhisattva — one filled with the spirit of the inner Buddha, or rather of the Buddhic principle, the Bodhi, the principle and fountain-head of utter wisdom. Furthermore, that taking the Buddha-Gautama as an example or illustration of such an evolving entity, in his last incarnation on earth he was born the human Bodhisattva-Siddhartha, later called Sakyamuni, in the year 643 b. c, and that when he was eighty years of age, after having passed through manifold experiences and trials, and after he had gathered together and taught his disciples and had sent them abroad in order to proclaim the Good Law, he then entered the Nirvana, with an entering which left naught behind save his Dharma — the Law, i. e., the Truth that he taught." — The Esoteric Tradition, p. 120

Gautama the Lord Buddha was born into the royal family of the Clan of Sakya, in a town at the foot of the Himalayas, a fact which explains his title of Sakyamuni, or Sage of the Sakyas. His father's name, Suddhodana, means 'pure flow,' and Maya or Mayadevi, his mother's name, 'illusion.' They called this noble boy Siddhartha, 'one who has achieved his objective,' and he later took as wife, Yasodhara, 'holder of glory' or 'splendor.' What a mystic background the symbology of these names gives to the design of the last earth-life of the Buddha! Yet there is no reason to suppose that these were not the actual names of the parents and wife of Siddhartha, or that any part of the story of his life is entirely symbolic.

Many were the wondrous circumstances and conditions which surrounded the advent of this child. He came, as do all the Great Teachers, at that point in the cycle of progress when spiritual perception ebbs and material attractions find response in the bewildered hearts and minds of men, and when the spiritual nostalgia of all Nature surged forth in welcome at his coming. Rare and exquisite blossoms strewed the earth with their petals, and scented the air with their fragrance; countless birds, befeathered in the hues of the rainbow, hovered in benediction; and men's minds were hushed, and filled with reverent aspiration and devotion. The child, Siddhartha, so lavishly welcomed, bore upon him all the signs of a highly evolved being, one worthy to bear his heritage of compassion and service. Those chosen to instruct him found themselves instructed; and it was predicted that he would either become a Buddha and move the hearts of men with his teachings, or rule as a Chakravartin, a 'great World-King.' The years of his childhood and early manhood were passed in the secluded, if somewhat enforced, protection of his father's palaces and gardens, where he was surrounded by chosen companions and all the delights of the high culture of his day. All that might sadden or disturb the even tenor of his life, was kept from him, but 'the holy germ that sprouts and grows unseen in the disciple's soul' waxed ever stronger with the rising tide of his destiny, until one day, the legend tells us, he came upon the 'three awakening sights'; an old, bent man, a beggar, diseased and suffering, and a corpse being borne to the funeral pyre. His peace was rent asunder; thereafter there could be neither rest nor solace for the soul of Siddhartha. Leaving his wife and baby son, he set out to seek the panacea for human misery and woe.

He sought wisdom of the Brahmanas, the wisest of his time, but sought in vain. The hermit-life of an ascetic with its rigors of self-discipline and self-chastisement he proved to be useless for his mission of compassion, until with the speeding years, the hour of his enlightenment approached, and one day, at the time of the Spring Equinox, he seated himself under the Bodhi-tree, vowing never to rise until he had found the cure for the ills which beset mankind. What took place under those spreading branches is tenderly left to the intuitive imagination of the true student — but it is said that the leaves of the Bodhi-tree have never since ceased to quiver with the ecstasy which pervaded life when that flawless Spirit of Compassion entered into Samadhi, when the Tathagata attained Buddhahood. Thereafter the Buddha gave his entire life to teaching. He lived solely to impart his message of self-regeneration to all beings, in a world which, despite its great dissimilarity, yet has important lessons to teach us.

The Theosophist, in his study of the teachings of the Buddha-Gautama, goes to the records of India, for it was the children of Brahmanical India for and to whom they were first interpreted and given. These, in the light of Theosophy, prove that into a thought-atmosphere of great subtilty of reasoning and conception, the Buddha implanted a religious system as wide in its sympathy as it is profound and comprehensive in philosophic scope; a system, moreover, whose values are neither crippled by pessimism nor falsified by baseless optimism, but founded on the purest Wisdom — a foundation which has held the devotion and active allegiance of numberless adherents, and one, which, perhaps because of its subtilty, bears the fewest signs of degeneration. These facts, when properly understood, will explain why Buddhism has been so greatly misunderstood and misinterpreted by the West and lead us on to a discussion of some of the key-ideas which have given to it such marked vitality and strength.

Professor Daisetz Suzuki writes to the effect that the Dharma (the Law of Buddhism) is ever maturing because it is mysteriously creative, and the Theosophist finds this perfectly just statement explained in the fact that to the Buddhist mind, faith and the inquiring spirit are complementary and mutually conditioning, yet in no wise antagonistic. It is this inquiring spirit — 'the wings that bear one on to the goal' — which, more than any other, perhaps, has preserved to Buddhism its pristine vitality, has kept it a constantly evolving stream of spiritual life, based as this spirit of inquiry is on the sound philosophic doctrines taught by the Lord Buddha.

Another universal postulate inheres in the Buddhist conception of 'Being.' This term would seem to be synonymous with Be-ness as it is frequently used in standard Theosophical literature, and the Buddhist argues that that which is cannot change; that since all things are composite, and all composites transient, things become or exist, but are not. What then is? THAT. Wisdom and ignorance are then seen to be opposite states or conditions of evolving consciousnesses or beings; wisdom is not the acquisition of knowledge, or culture, but the recognition of the inherent unity of all and the unreality of the transient, the outer manifestation — in other words, the state of being perfectly at home in the Universe — while ignorance is the condition of one, who, separating himself from his unifying center, is a wanderer, an exile from home. And it is through enlightenment that he returns home, attains Wisdom. Thus man is not 'born in sin,' but is a prodigal son, who, since he of his own choice set out from his spiritual home, has taken upon himself his own regeneration, and through tribulation wends his way homewards.

What is this 'home,' this 'other shore,' the goal of all Buddhist endeavor: Nirvana? Has there ever been a doctrine more completely misunderstood? The doctrine of Nirvana describes the state which the consciousness of a highly evolved entity — a Bodhisattva — enjoys when all limitations of imperfection in individuality and personality have been transmuted, when the lost has found itself, in the deathless, unifying, and ineffable essence of humanhood; hence, the use of a word whose definition is simply 'extinguished,' 'blown out.' Nirvana is a condition of pure monadic consciousness, a state which may be entered during life, and which, when attained by a Buddha of Compassion, is renounced so that he may remain in the world of men and serve human need. This state is not, relatively speaking, everlasting even when entered by the Pratyeka-Buddha, for he too must emerge eventually and take up his evolutionary course once more. Nirvana, therefore, means Being, not annihilation.

It has been truly said that the life and spirit of Buddhism has its source in the inner life and spirit of the Buddha, and Dr. de Purucker writes in The Esoteric Tradition:

that what the Buddha aimed at more than anything else was the bringing to"men of a greater light, a larger hope, and a wider spiritual vision. . . . The objective of the great Teacher's Wisdom was the improving, or better still unfolding, of human intellectual faculty and spiritual power, as demonstrated by his insistence, emphatic, reiterated and unceasing, on what one may term the Doctrine of Becoming. In the eyes of the Buddha-Gautama, man is a Pilgrim, Child of the Universe, who at times is blinded by Mahamaya or the Great Illusion of cosmic existence, and at such times therefore needs to be shown the Way or Law, called the Dharma, pointing to a realization of the fact that only by becoming rather than by mere being could man become the Greater Man which he is in his essential constitution. — p. 111

In this Doctrine of Becoming, the only true Yoga as taught albeit secretly by the Buddha, is to be found the law of all being. It teaches that man is a compound entity composed of one SELF and a host of minor children-selves, each of which is in evolution through its own sphere of consciousness. Through the SELF a Buddhic principle manifests in a trinity comprising a Dhyani-Buddha or Buddha of Meditation, a Dhyani-Bodhisattva, the offspring of the former, and a Manushya-Buddha, or Human Buddha. This is the core of the essential man, the Buddha which is and KNOWS.

'Man gets precisely and exactly what he himself desires!' From the Buddha within, the sun of his being, man receives all that is sublime in his development, and towards union with it every center of his being, because in itself a spark of the central fire, yearns in aspiration; but man must desire and claim his own. The man himself — his karman — is, because he becomes such, that particular focussing point in his composite nature which he yearns towards. In other words, a man's karman or 'consequence' is himself, because he is precisely and exactly that which he has previously desired, willed and become. Furthermore, it is this manifested consciousness which, as an entitative force, endures and reimbodies itself throughout the ages, collecting and uniting to itself its composite vehicles of past and present evolving. It is when the human entity — a prodigal son of the Buddhic principle for the period of material manifestation — raises its consciousness until the entire being is of the nature of Wisdom, and then passes beyond, that the man becomes a Buddha, 'an awakened one.'

The Tathagata, 'he who had already arrived safely at the other shore,' taught that the way to regeneration is the way or law of compassion, of universal love; for love to the Buddhist is compassion, a compassion which encompasses all sentient beings, and which moves its possessor to live for others, even if it be at the loss of his own evolution and yearned-for Nirvana.

The Dharma has been summarized for practical purposes in the Four Noble Truths. They are: the recognition that sorrow and pain exist; that there is a cause for sorrow and pain; that the cause of sorrow and pain may be annulled; and finally, the way to annul the cause of sorrow and pain; and in the Noble Eightfold Path: the Path of right conviction, right resolution, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right endeavor, right alertness of mind, and right absorption.

The seven or ten Paramitas of the Mahayana School are what may be called a more metaphysical paraphrasing of this Noble Eightfold Path. The word Paramita. means 'to reach or to attain to the other shore.' They are hereunder given: first, the Sanskrit term, followed by its general definition, and then by a descriptive clause, several of which clauses are those given by H. P. Blavatsky in The Voice of the Silence.

Dana — Charity, the key of charity and love immortal.
Sila — Moral conduct, harmony in word and act.
Kshanti — Forbearance, patience sweet that naught can ruffle.
Viraga — Endurance, indifference to pleasure and pain.
Virya — Zeal, the energy that fights its way to Truth.
Dhyana — Meditation, the gate that leads to Truth.
Prajna — Intuitive perception, that which makes of man a god.
Adhisthana — Courage, an inflexible attitude towards life.
Upeksha. — Discrimination, wisdom in applying the rules to life.
Prabodha or Sambuddhi — union with Buddhi, the awakenment of inner consciousness.

It should be clearly understood that these Paramitas are no mere lip-service or ceremonial procedure, but are the formulated standard of daily living recognised by every earnest student of the archaic Wisdom-Religion from which the Buddha drew his teachings, and are practised more or less faithfully by some four hundred million aspiring human beings.

Buddhahood, godhood, is therefore attained as a result of many lives of individual yearning and willing and doing, these states of consciousness bringing about changes in the aggregated man himself, for

by his progress from stage to stage in evolutionary changes which are continuous and uninterrupted a man among other beings, may raise himself as high as the highest gods, or may debase himself through his willing and doing to the low and dread levels of the beings in the so called hells of which so much is found in Buddhistic literature.

In this teaching of Becoming, just as the same is found in esoteric Theosophy, in the Esoteric Tradition, we find both the reason and the rationale of the many statements both in Buddhism and indeed elsewhere that every man has it within his power, by appropriate spiritual, intellectual, psychical, and ethical willing and doing, himself in the course of ages to become a Buddha — The Esoteric Tradition, pp 112-3

The Buddha-Gautama entered Nirvana when he was eighty years old, but the esoteric records seem to indicate that his actual physical death did not take place until some twenty years later, that during the interim he taught his disciples in seclusion, and that at his passing he entered the inner realms as a Nirmanakaya. Furthermore, the student of penetration will find a marked similarity between the teachings of the Adwaita-Vedanta as given by Sankaracharya, the authentic teachings of Jesus, and those of the Lord Buddha, and in a specially mystical sense which rests on an understanding of the Doctrine of the Avatara, it would probably not be incorrect to state that the entire period from, let us say 623 b.c. to about 200 a.d. fell under the sway of the sublime and majestic influence of the World-Teacher known as the Lord Gautama Buddha.


The Theosophical Forum

THEOSOPHICAL UNIVERSITY PRESS ONLINE