The Path — Self-determined Evolution

By Armin Zebrowski

Many people we meet are searching. Few know exactly what they are searching for, yet still they follow, consciously or unconsciously, an inner yearning. The motives behind this urge lie deep within us, for we do not mean the pursuit of worldly things but the journey of the human pilgrim. We are referring to questions many of us ask: Is what we experience in everyday life all there is? Is it worthy of life to live it as we do? Is the injustice and suffering that we and others constantly experience really necessary? What is the meaning of life, and of this particular life? All traditions and religions strive to answer these questions, and we will find clues to answers no matter which culture we examine.

After his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, Buddha Shakyamuni showed humanity a path to overcoming suffering which begins right where most of us are at the moment: "It is difficult to shoot an arrow from a great distance through a keyhole. It is even more difficult to use the tip of a split hair to penetrate another split hair. The most difficult thing of all is to see that everything is suffering." In his first sermon, known as "setting in motion of the wheel of the Law," he taught the four noble truths:

1. There is suffering.
2. Suffering has certain causes.
3. The causes of suffering can be overcome.
4. There are precise ways of doing this.

In describing these ways Buddha clearly defined a path that each individual can undertake, saying:

Verily, monks, this is the noble wisdom about suffering: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering, being together with those whom we dislike is suffering, and being separate from those whom we love is suffering. And failing to achieve that which you desire, in short, the five aspects of our experience of life which cause us to cling to life, are themselves suffering.
This, verily, is the truth about the cause of suffering. It is this craving for life which leads to our rebirth, this craving — coupled with joy and desire — which delights in life, the thirst for desires, the craving for becoming and the craving for letting go.
Verily, monks, this is the noble wisdom of the overcoming of suffering which comes about by giving up desire completely; by renouncing and forsaking worldly things; by rejecting and freeing yourself of craving. This indeed, monks, is the noble truth about the path which leads to the destruction of suffering. It is the Eightfold Path which teaches us Right Understanding, Right Attitude, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Recollection, and Right Meditation.

Buddhists endeavor to follow this path in order to create no further personal karma and thus overcome the need for reincarnation. However, this exoteric interpretation of the teaching strives towards a merely personal salvation. Gautama Buddha also presented an esoteric side of his teachings which appeals to our innermost ethical feeling that humanity is one entity. As Edwin Arnold says in The Light of Asia:

Ranging beyond this sphere to spheres unnamed,
And in the middle Watch
Our Lord attained Abhidjna — insight vast
Ranging beyond this sphere to spheres unnamed,
System on system, countless worlds and suns
Moving in splendid measures, band by band
Linked in division, one yet separate, . . . — Book 6

And Arjuna, seeing Krishna with his spiritual eye in a moment of enlightenment, says in the Bhagavad-Gita:

Thou art the unchanging, the Supreme Object of knowledge;
I see the gods, O God, in Thy body,
And all kinds of beings assembled;
. . .
I see Thee everywhere, infinite in form;
Not the end, nor the middle, nor yet the beginning of Thee
I see, O Lord of All, Whose Form is the Universe.
. . .
Thou art the unchanging, the Supreme Object of knowledge;
Thou art the ultimate resting place of all;
Thou art the imperishable defender of the eternal law;
Thou art the primeval spirit, I believe.
. . .
This space between heaven and earth,
Is pervaded by Thee alone in all directions. — 11:15, 16, 18, 20

The Christian Bible is full of indications of the path to God if we are prepared to look beyond ecclesiastic, dogmatic interpretations. Statements such as "I am the way, the truth, and the life," or "I am the door; anyone who comes into the fold through me shall be safe" (John 14:6, 10:9) refer not to Jesus the man, but to our own spiritual self, the inner Christos, which leads us from the world of suffering to the world of heavenly joy. The Gospel according to Matthew shows us how and why we can reach heaven — not a theological heaven, but liberation from the torments of earthly life. Chapter 13 speaks of parables, differentiating between the mass of the people and disciples who are told the inner or secret wisdom:

The disciples went up to [Jesus] and asked: "Why do you speak to them in parables?" He replied: "It has been granted to you to know the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven; but to those others it has not been granted. For the man who has will be given more, till he has enough and to spare; and the man who has not will forfeit even what he has. That is why I speak to them in parables; for they look without seeing and listen without hearing or understanding. . . . For this people has grown gross at heart; their ears are dull and their eyes are closed. Otherwise, their eyes might see, their ears hear and their hearts understand, and then they might turn again, and I would heal them. . . . But happy are your eyes because they see and your ears because they hear. For I tell you, many prophets and many saints desired to see what you now see, yet never saw it; to hear what you hear, yet never heard it." — 13:10-17

How do the disciples differ from others? They have shown their worthiness by devoting their lives to their inner god and have thus progressed along the path. For this reason alone do they have eyes which see and ears which hear the secret wisdom.

Taoism, the ancient Chinese philosophy, approaches the subject from a different angle. It refers us to the source, the unfathomable beginning which defies all speculation:

the name that can be given is not the absolute name.
The Tao or Way that can be described is not the absolute Way;
the name that can be given is not the absolute name.
Nameless it is the source of heaven and earth;
named it is the mother of all things. — Tao Te Ching, 1

This Tao is the origin of all being and at the same time the point to which the "ten thousand things" return at the end of each period of manifestation. Clearly all beings have a common origin. The mystical verses of Lao-tzu provide much practical advice on how to bring us closer to this original state and thus avoid creating new suffering:

the name that can be given is not the absolute name.
Heaven is eternal, and the earth is very old.
They can be eternal and long lasting
because they do not exist for themselves,
and for this reason can long endure.
Therefore the wise put themselves last,
but find themselves foremost.
They are indifferent to themselves,
and yet they always remain.
Is it not because they do not live for themselves
that they find themselves fulfilled? — 7
The five colors blind the eyes;
the five musical tones deafen the ears;
the five flavors dull the taste.
Racing and hunting madden the mind.
Precious goods keep their owners on guard.
Therefore the wise satisfy the inner self
rather than external senses.
They accept the one and reject the other. — 12

At the same time Taoism never ceases to remind us that we are our own salvation.

the name that can be given is not the absolute name.
Those who know others are wise.
Those who know themselves are enlightened.
Those who overcome others require force.
Those who overcome themselves need strength. — 33

Such references from world thought could be continued endlessly. No matter whether we look to ancient or modern cultures, all can show us how to find the way to the source, to God, to the Supreme Being. The teachings refer, on the one hand, to a slow, instinctive evolution that goes on without self-aware choice throughout nature. On the other hand, they point to a secret mystical path of self-determined evolution which at some point opens up before us and which we can choose to tread to the very heart of the universe. As in Matthew, those who have not consciously begun their search cannot see or hear it, while those who have begun to act on their yearning to find answers, more knowledge and wisdom, will become like disciples: their eyes and ears will be opened.

But what is the heart of the universe, and why should we want to reach it? One of the most uplifting tenets of occultism is that at our core everything is one. As a host of human consciousness-points or monads, we are not merely related to each other in our inmost essence, but each monad has its very origin in the Supreme Being; it lives, moves, and exists in the all-transcending One. You and I are manifold and different in our manifested forms, but one in our essence. All the things we yearn for — knowledge and joy, pure consciousness and perfect understanding — are to be found in this inner divinity. Not only do the noble feelings of our hearts reach down to us from this source, masked and obscured by our imperfect personalities and egos, our longing for our divine home also stems from this source.

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And yet, how to find this secret path? The Brihad-aranyaka Upanishad has this to say:

The old and narrow path that leads far away was touched by me, was found by me.
Along this path the Wise Ones travel, those who know Brahma, upwards, and away to the heavenly world, liberated. — 4.4.8

This mystic, hidden path starts precisely where we least expect it to. With its origin in the eternal, it reaches down and touches our everyday life, and its destination is eternity itself. We should not strive for some far-off, future initiation; no, the path begins here, in the present, today, at this precise second, whenever we are ready to look for it and tread it. We can take the first steps by faithfully fulfilling our duties during the course of the day. Whenever we are prepared to think, feel, and act selflessly and for the good of humanity we take our first steps on what seems, at first sight, an almost imperceptible track, and we gain ground every time we successfully overcome our lower self. The teachings of northern Buddhism and those of the Hindu Vedanta tell us that this universe is an immense living organism, and that we live and die in it for the purpose of sharpening our inner senses, improving our ethical feelings, and overcoming our limited self. It is only by doing so that our consciousness can gradually become more noble and, in some distant future, become one with universal consciousness or omniscience. Thus ego-centered self-awareness will be elevated to a universal level in "I am" awareness; in alchemical terms, lead becomes gold, and it is the Philosophers' Stone that makes this possible.

Knowing this, we can better understand the ancient Greek maxim "know thyself" and implement it in our daily lives as a guide in our search for answers to the questions life poses. What are we, then, if not a part or expression, a reflection or manifestation, of the inner light of universal consciousness, of the bliss which we may call the heart of the universe?

In accepting this idea we recognize our great responsibility towards all beings and things. We also realize how important it is to develop for ourselves unshakable ethical conceptions and to put them to the test. We realize that ultimately we are children of this universe, that it is our ancestral home, and that it is up to each of us to find our way back to this immense house of light, to our family. Treading this path means acting selflessly; it means a continual growth of our awareness and an endless expanding of our understanding and compassion. With this in mind Buddhists speak of Tathagatas, those who have "thus come and thus gone." They have reached and completed the final stage of human development, following the still, narrow path to its end to become part of the universal self. As The Voice of the Silence expresses it:

A Pilgrim hath returned back "from the other shore."
The way to final freedom is within thy SELF.
That way begins and ends outside of Self.
. . .
Joy unto ye, O men of Myalba.
A Pilgrim hath returned back "from the other shore."
A new Arhan [Savior of mankind] is born. . . .
Peace to all beings. — pp. 39, 72

While reading these inspiring words let us not forget that these Arhans also trod, step by step by step, that very long, steep, and difficult path that we see with our spiritual vision. They took each of these steps in their daily lives. These Arhans are our guides, the lamps lighting the way for us. Each one of us is our own path, the path that we can take in our self-determined evolution to the heart of the universe.

(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 2005; copyright © 2005 Theosophical University Press)


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Those who move mountains begin by carrying away small stones. — Chinese Proverb