Expanding Horizons — James A. Long

The Royal Road of Service

Question — Since we discussed the Paramitas, I have been delving further into Buddhist thought. Most of it I like very much, but I don't understand all this talk about nirvana. It seems that the whole purport of Buddhist teaching is to get away from what they call the "Wheel of Life," the succession of lives on earth, in order to attain the bliss of nirvana. When I first heard of reincarnation, I thought it was a wonderful idea, and I still do, because it answers so many of my problems. So why should we want to escape the wheel of rebirth? Why this emphasis on bliss?

Comment — I quite agree with you that too much emphasis is placed on the idea of attaining nirvana, or whatever term you want to use. Let us not forget when we look into some of these Eastern scriptures that there is as much crystallized thinking in the Orient as there is in the Occident. What the Buddha taught is one thing, but what his followers through the centuries have formalized as his teachings is often quite something else. In many respects the teachings of Buddhism are highly spiritual; nevertheless a number of gross misinterpretations have become commonly accepted as truth, both in the southern and Mahayana schools.

Question — Don't they say that if you live a good life on earth, you will reincarnate in a higher animal, and perhaps a human; but if you have lived an evil life, then you will return as a jackal or a snake or leopard?

Comment — That's a perfect example of what I am trying to bring out. Gautama Buddha — one of the loftiest spiritual lights the world has ever seen — did not teach that the human soul would reincarnate in an animal form; for that would be directly contrary to the facts of nature. But because the ancients often used figures of speech or allegorical language to depict certain truths, later generations took the form of the teachings literally, and so misinterpretations became firmly fixed in the minds of the populace.

What the Buddha did teach was that a man must guard with care his every thought and feeling, because these would leave their mark not only upon his character, but upon every life-atom of his constitution. And as "like attracts like," those life-atoms of gross quality after death might easily be attracted, temporarily at least, to the bodies of animals. So too, when the Upanishads, and Plato also on occasion, said that a man may be reborn as an animal, they really meant that if the soul is stamped with certain animal propensities these, if not handled, would tend to hold it down in succeeding lives.

One thing is sure: the human soul is intrinsically so much further evolved than the animal, both in quality and experience, that it could not incarnate in a lower form. The ancient idea, once universally understood, is that as human beings we return to earth periodically after a term of rehabilitation and spiritual refreshment in order to continue our quest for self-conscious union with our divine source.

Question — Why the hurry to get rid of the Wheel of Existence? What is the point of trying to attain nirvana now?

Comment — There is not only no point in such endeavor, but it is absolutely a mistaken concept. This overemphasis on attaining nirvana has been for centuries one of the greatest drawbacks in Oriental thinking. And now in the West, for those who are coming in contact with Buddhist and Vedantist thought, it is likewise becoming a stumbling block in the path of progress. We hear much these days about "Self-Realization," the Western term for the Vedantist concept of moksha or "release" from the bondage of earthly care. The very name Self-Realization gives the clue: a path of endeavor motivated by desire for personal salvation. Whether we call it nirvana, bliss, or moksha, the inordinate desire to attain bliss points to a self-centered spirituality as contrasted with that sublime path taught by the Buddha and the Christ — to live wholly in the service of all.

Question — Are there then two paths in spiritual things? I had always thought just the material way of life was contrasted with the spiritual. But now you seem to have divided this spiritual path into two.

Comment — There are indeed two paths in spiritual endeavor. The one is called the "path for oneself," and the other, the "deathless path" or the "path of compassion." The "path for oneself" is that followed by all who seek salvation for themselves — whose most ardent devotees usually yearn to enter some type of life whereby they may leave the turmoil and distraction of earthly existence and attain nirvana quickly. The other is the ancient path of compassion, steep and thorny, which is trod by those who would follow in the footsteps of the Christ and the Buddha: the path of altruistic endeavor which seeks wisdom solely that truth and light might be shared with all.

The path of matter tends downward; though we are involved in its atmosphere, there are very few indeed who follow the pull downward to the exclusion of all else. The path of spirit is up and forward always, toward the divinity within. The choice between matter and spirit therefore is clear, regardless of how often we fail to realize our aspirations for the permanent values. However, in spiritual things there will likewise come a forking of the way: either to follow the path for ourselves, or for others.

This concept is well known in the Orient, particularly in those countries where Buddhism has been firmly established for centuries; and that is the reason the populace, by tradition, hold the bodhisattvas in far greater reverence than they do the buddhas. To them, the bodhisattva is one who has reached the point where he could step across the chasm of darkness into nirvana, omniscience, peace or wisdom, however you care to describe it, but he refuses so that he might stay behind until the last of his brothers can cross over with him. A Buddha, however, is one who, having reached the portal, sees the light ahead and enters nirvana, achieving his well-earned bliss.

Question — When my husband and I were in Japan recently, we took a little time out to visit some of the temples. We saw bodhisattvas carved in all sizes, some of them very artistic. Would you care to say anything about this?

Comment — Not only in Japan, but in China and those parts of India where Buddhism has taken root, you will find numerous carvings of bodhisattvas. The ideal of compassion is perpetuated in a few of these statues by the right hand of Bodhisattva reaching toward the wisdom and light and beauty of nirvana; while the left hand leans downward toward mankind, in a compassionate gesture of benevolence.

Question — I would like to go back to this word bliss. I confess it is a little disturbing to me. When we think of bliss, I guess we all have a different concept. For a child, it would probably be having all the ice cream he could eat forever and ever; for someone else it might be reaching, after much struggle, the top of a mountain. Perhaps I'm too much of this earth, but it has always seemed cowardly to want to escape to some quiet forest and become a hermit. What is so grand in the attainment of bliss after all, even if you decide later on to renounce it for the world?

Comment — There's nothing grand per se in the achievement of Nirvanic bliss. The terms in the original Sanskrit point to the basic distinction: the one is the Pratyeka path, or the path of spiritual aspiration "for oneself" — a purely selfish type of spirituality; the other is the Amrita path, or the path that proves "deathless" because it is the path of sacrifice, of compassion, of service.

Let me try to put the matter very simply. Suppose you had an intuition which led you to make some scientific discovery, and which you believed could greatly affect the world for good. You could do one of two things: you could keep it all to yourself so that when you completed it you could put it on the market and make a lot of money. Or you could turn it over to the top scientists that it might be worked on and perfected perhaps even by others, and then made available for the use of mankind. Now you would have every right to keep that invention or discovery to yourself, to patent it and make as much profit on it as you could. You could argue that in the end the world would benefit because you had made the product available. In so doing you would experience a certain personal "bliss" or satisfaction in having achieved your aims. On the other hand, if you gave freely of your discovery that it might be put into the cauldron of scientific testing, would you not be doing the world a far greater service? What then would you experience in the way of inner returns?

Question — If you turn your back on bliss, you actually double your bliss, is that it?

Comment — Only if the motive is as selfless as the deed. That is where the joker in the pack always hides. The by-products of joy in selflessly having contributed the fruits of your intuition for the good of all will far transcend any personal satisfaction you might otherwise have; and in a measure you would touch the fringes of bliss, to use the somewhat hackneyed term. But the moment any one of us does a "deed of mercy" in order to have the proud feeling of being a benefactor, that very moment does the so-called beneficent act turn to ashes.

Question — I'd like to ask a question here. Some time ago when we discussed the practice of the Paramitas, you said that it is all a matter of relativity; that as we gained a higher set of values we would not be content with our former ones. Would the state of bliss or contentment be relative also? What I mean is, there might be a physical or even a mental bliss. But isn't spiritual bliss something quite apart? Do we as human beings ever attain the state that is comparable to the bliss of nirvana?

Comment — There are as many nirvanas as there are individuals to experience it; just as there are as many states of consciousness right on this earth as there are people living. Those who strive for nirvana, for wisdom and light and peace, for themselves alone — remember the term pratyeka means just that, "for oneself" — think they will attain perfect bliss. But the Buddhas of Compassion and true bodhisattvas know that they could not possibly attain the full condition of omniscience. Everything is relative. Spiritual omniscience or nirvanic bliss is an experience so far beyond our power to conceive that it is impossible to describe. Just because we cannot comprehend what this state of omniscient wisdom is, let us never forget that the power to achieve oneness with the Divine lies in the heart of every one.

There are many grades above our present state of humanhood, and there are advanced men who have attained to union with the Father, whether momentarily or for a longer period. They experience a touch of Nirvanic bliss; yet, moved by the compassionate urge to serve mankind, they allow their consciousness to return to the field of human endeavor that they might work among and with humanity.

Question — It is a wonderful picture. I must say there are times when all the distractions and turmoil really impinge too heavily, and we have to get away for a while, climb a mountain, rest by the seaside, or travel a bit, anything to recharge the old batteries. But I've found that after a few weeks I long to get back into the thick of things. Once my nerves get relaxed, up comes that urge to get back in harness. I can't say it's because I've wanted to follow a path of compassion; it's simply that somehow the struggle in life seems more interesting than just lolling around. What would I be headed for — the path that is selfish, or the other one?

Comment — Far be it from me to decide who is on the pratyeka or selfish path, and who is striving to follow the compassionate path. No one can judge another. Remember it is the motive, the real inner motive that is often concealed, and not the outer, that colors one's field of action. Day by day we are making innumerable little choices that will in time, one way or the other, tip the scales of that supreme choice.

We are all human, and if we want to get back into the struggle of existence just to outsmart the other fellow, to get ahead as fast as we can in order to obtain power and influence, then we are heading downward; if we don't check ourselves, but continue in this direction life after life, we will be following the path of matter which leads ultimately to spiritual death. But if after our vacations we return to our jobs because of an inherent desire to do our part in the grand over-all scheme of existence, participating in the joys and sorrows of life as part of our share in lifting the world's burden, then our motive is of selfless origin. Gradually it will become more and more refined, and the ideal of the path of compassion will take firm root in our hearts.

Question — But how do we become spiritual?

Comment — We shouldn't try to become spiritual or holy or advanced, for that very overemphasis of interest in one's own development is the greatest bar to progress. Spiritual attainment is never the result of trying to become spiritual, strange as that may sound. Yet we are enjoined again and again to "raise the lower by the higher self," to transmute the base metal of selfish desire into the gold of selfless endeavor. All of which means that we should ever and always aspire toward the ideal of altruism, of selflessness, and all the other Virtues we have discussed, but not concentrate on our own evolution. Even if we knew the doctrines of Buddhism, Christianity, or Platonic thought from A to Z, this in itself would not make us spiritual.

Question — Well, these pratyekas that you speak of — aren't they spiritual beings? If not, how else could they become buddhas? I don't understand this combination of selfishness and spirituality. Can there really be selfishness in spiritual achievement, because wouldn't you have to serve as you grew?

Comment — Let us not get the erroneous impression that a pratyeka, one who works for spiritual things for himself, is evil. He isn't. He is a highly developed spiritual individual; nor is it correct to say that he would never do anything for his fellowmen. They all do — there is no question of that, for the simple reason they can't help themselves. Again we return to motive. I can go out tomorrow and be a so-called "angel of mercy" and perform all manner of good works; or if I have plenty of money I can give to charity, to this or that benevolent cause. But what effect will such "acts of mercy" have on my character, on my karma, or on my real Self?

It is not what we do that will decide; but how we think and act. In the final judgment one thing only will count: motive. If I get a certain satisfaction out of being a benefactor, I will undoubtedly do a lot of good, make many people's lives better, relieve much distress. Still, if I am doing these "good works" that I may be the doer of good deeds, that I may reach my goal of spirituality more quickly — is there not more than a touch of selfishness in my motive? On the other hand, if in the smallest acts of daily life I try never to intrude my personal will into the equation of human relationships, but strive always that the channel of service be open solely for the benefit of others, then surely the motive will be selfless. And the results — infinitely more enduring because they will be felt, not in the personal natures of those helped, but in the higher portions of their souls where the benefits will continue through life after life.

Thus you have the two lines of spiritual endeavor: the one, for the purpose of getting bliss for oneself — the seemingly quicker pathway because the sorrows and trials of others do not delay one; and the other, for the purpose of making lighter the sorrow of man.

The pratyeka path in the end becomes the slower path, for once the aspirant reaches the point where he is sufficiently enlightened to have stepped into nirvana, he says good-bye to further spiritual growth, remaining static until the next great cycle — which may be a very long period. Ultimately each one of us will have to make the supreme choice, whether to step across the threshold, or to glimpse the glory of utter wisdom and peace yet return to the vale of tears to help mankind. That is the choice of the Great Ones of the race. Theirs is a thankless task. They seek no reward, no credit, nothing but the opportunity to share of their own hard-won wisdom.

That is why the pure tradition is born of and passed on by the line of Compassionate Ones, who take no thought for their own advancement because they have at heart the interest of their fellowmen.

To offer all action on the altar of one's own progress is pratyeka — selfish in the final testing; to offer all thought, action and feeling on the altar of humanity's progress — that is Compassion in its highest expression.

Theosophical University Press Online Edition