None have exerted so profound an influence on the destiny of the human race as have the Illumined Ones — those who, on reaching omniscience, the bliss of nirvana, turn back from the heights to live in the foothills with their younger brothers still struggling in ignorance and confusion. Exemplars of the love they have generated over the aeons for all living beings, they belong to the sacred hierarchy of light and their sacrifice remains a beacon in the darkness of our lives.
Compassion speaks and saith: "Can there be bliss when all that lives must suffer? Shalt thou be saved and hear the whole world cry?"
The PATH is one, Disciple, yet in the end, twofold. Marked are its stages by four and seven Portals. At one end — bliss immediate, and at the other — bliss deferred. Both are of merit the reward: the choice is thine. — The Voice of the Silence, pp. 71, 41
In these fragments selected from the "Book of the Golden Precepts," HPB transmitted for the "daily use" of modern students the age-old teaching that from the first step to the last we are making choices and thereby shaping our character and the karma leading to this supreme choice. She devotes her Voice of the Silence to the choice between the two paths of spiritual discipline facing the "candidate for wisdom": the one of liberation, enlightenment for oneself, ending in nirvana with no further return to earth; the other, that of renunciation, a slower and more challenging path chosen by those who would follow the way of compassion exemplified by Buddhas and Christs. They, on attaining the light and peace of nirvanic wisdom, remember their fellow humans and return to inspire those who will heed to wake up and pursue the sacred quest.
This twofold path of spiritual endeavor is portrayed graphically in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. The one path, pratyeka-yana, "for oneself path," has for its aim nirvana, release from all that is nonspiritual and earthly. This is the course followed by those disciples, monks, and aspirants who seek enlightenment for self alone, private salvation and liberation from the endless cycle of birth and rebirth. Early Orientalists usually refer to the pratyeka as "private buddhas" because they pursue the goal singly and are not "teaching" buddhas. It is a "for-one" or private striving for nirvana, that demands consistency in focusing one's aspiration and effort toward self-mastery through purification of motive and control of body, speech, and mind. Still, by virtue of its self-centeredness, it is a path that is self-ish, for one's self. As stated in the Voice (pp. 43, 86), the pratyeka buddha "makes his obeisance but to his Self. . . . Caring nothing for the woes of mankind or to help it," he enters into the glory and the wisdom and the light of nirvana.
In the Pali scripture The Questions of King Milinda "seven classes of minds" are delineated, the sixth being that of the pratyeka buddha, who seeks no teacher and lives alone "like the solitary horn of the rhinoceros." (Cf. IV, l, secs 20-27, T. W. Rhys Davids trans., Sacred Books of the East 35:155-62) His wisdom is only such as can be contained within "a shallow brook on his own property," whereas the wisdom of a perfect or complete buddha is like that of "the mighty ocean."
Another scripture calls the knowledge of a pratyeka buddha "limited," even though he is said to know everything about his previous births and deaths. In contrast, the complete or perfect buddhas or buddhas of compassion are omniscient, because when required they have command over the total resources of knowledge and can focus directly on "any point which they choose to remember, throughout many times ten million world-cycles," and thus discern instantaneously the exact truth of any situation, person, or event. (Visuddhi Magga (Way of Purity) by Buddhaghosa; cited in World of the Buddha: A Reader, ed. Lucien Stryk, p. 159 et seq.)
Tsong-kha-pa of 14th-century Tibet was a transmitter of Buddha-wisdom. He spoke of pratyeka buddhas as Solitary Realizers of "middling" capacity: even though they persevere in their purpose, their merit and wisdom are limited because their efforts are "for their own sake alone" in contradistinction to the bodhisattva-become-buddha who bears "the altruistic mind of enlightenment at the very beginning." (Cf. Compassion in Tibetan Buddhism by Tsong-ka-pa, ed. and trans. Jeffrey Hopkins, pp. 102-9)
The amrita-yana, "deathless path," although slower and more arduous, is infinitely more wondrous, for it is distinguished by the noble ideal of the Tathagatas, the succession of compassionate ones who have "thus gone and thus come." Such was Bodhisattva-Gautama, who refused the nirvana of complete and perfect wisdom in order to live and work among the people and thus give another turn to the Wheel of the Law (Dharma). "What reason should I have to continually manifest myself?" — unless with the intent to awaken responsive souls to active participation in the ancient quest. The Buddha continues:
When men become unbelieving, unwise, ignorant, careless, fond of sensual pleasures, and from thoughtlessness run into misfortune,
Then I, who know the course of the world, declare: I am so and so [Tathagata], (and consider): How can I incline them to enlightenment? how can they become partakers of the Buddha-laws (buddhadharmana)? — Saddharma-pundarika (The Lotus of the True Law), xv, secs 22-3, trans. H. Kern, Sacred Books of the East 21:310
Buddhist texts tell of a series of Buddhas, the seventh of which was Gautama, whose ministry of 45 years was the culmination of choices made consistently over many lives for the "weal of gods and men," animals, and of all living beings. In his latest incarnation as Prince Siddhartha his father, the king, had shielded him from everything that was ugly and painful. But at age 29 the call to seek the truth of things on his own account could not be suppressed. According to one legend, Gautama in disguise left the palace with his charioteer and on three successive nights was exposed to three "awakening sights": an old man, a leper, and a corpse; and finally, a recluse, one who had renounced the world. He was profoundly shaken. A deep compassion filled his being; he would seek out the cause and cure of human sorrow. He left home, a beautiful wife and infant son, and all material comforts for begging bowl and monk's robe. For six years he experimented unwisely, undergoing the most stringent austerities until, near death from weakness and starvation, his inner voice told him that this was not the pathway to truth, that maltreating the body would avail nothing. Henceforth he would follow a middle course between extremes.
At length, after many tests of his resolve, on a full moon night of May he vowed not to move until he had attained bodhi, "wisdom, enlightenment." Sitting under a tree — since called the Bo or Bodhi tree — he withdrew into the inmost essence of his being. Mara, personification of destruction, tried repeatedly to deflect him, but Gautama was resolute and repelled every attack. When the moment of supreme illumination would be his, Mara summoned his minions for a tremendous final onslaught, but Gautama remained unmoved. Triumphant, he was buddha, "enlightened."
For 49 days he enjoyed the fullness of emancipation: omniscience and utter bliss were his for the taking. But instead of entering nirvana, his heart looked back upon sorrowing humankind and, perceiving with clarity the cause of man's confusion and the way to dispel it, he knew he must return. He would teach the Four Noble Truths and the Exalted Eightfold Path. Then a fleeting doubt entered his soul. Why give these priceless truths, so hard won, to a humanity that will pay scant heed? What purpose would be served?
The story runs that Brahma, Lord and Creator of the universe, shot a thought into Gautama's brain: The world will be altogether lost if Bodhisattva-Tathagata decides not to impart the dharma to man. Be compassionate to those who struggle; have mercy on those in the net of sorrow. If only a few will listen, the sacrifice will not be in vain. Then did Gautama after his lonely vigil mingle among the people and begin his ministry. And what was his message? When death was near, he summed up his life's purpose:
O Ananda, be ye lamps unto yourselves.* Be ye a refuge to yourselves. Betake yourselves to no external refuge. Hold fast to the truth as a lamp. Hold fast as a refuge to the truth. Look not for refuge to any one besides yourselves. — Maha-Parinibbana-Sutta, ii, sec 33, trans. T. W. Rhys Davids; Sacred Books of the East 11:38
* The Pali text is terse attadipa attasarana — atta (Sanskrit atman) meaning "self," dipa, "lantern," "light"; sarana (Skt: sarana), "refuge."
Buddha's life and teaching, as recorded in legend and fact, are a sublime witness to the compassionate path. His plea — to love all beings and have a care for the well-being of animals as well as for our fellow humans, be diligent and eager to learn, mindful of thought and word — is as relevant in our time as it was 2,500 years ago when he discoursed on these themes with the brethren as they walked from village to village.
Many today are seriously striving to live by these precepts, while many others are asking: can knowledge of a Buddha's renunciation or a Christ's sacrifice really transform human nature and effectively change a world situation which grows more parlous with every decade? We believe it can, though not immediately. Where will energizes the heart's intent, nothing is impossible. The very process of deep reflection on what the coming to earth of a Christ or a Buddha can mean to an aspiring soul, indeed to all humanity, exerts a refining and purifying influence on all facets of one's nature.
What is more, we can identify with Gautama because enlightenment was not conferred upon him; he earned his buddha-stature step by step over many lives. Yet even in this latest incarnation, after he had determined to penetrate the hidden causes of suffering and death, it took him several years of trial and error before he learned, almost at the cost of life, that the "middle way" is best; that nature has provided us with a marvelously tuned physical instrument which, if cared for and respected, may serve as the means of doing great good.
In a profound sense the path of compassion, of renunciation, is a path of sorrow because it means living in and for the world when one has long ago finished with the trials of earth life. Still a bodhisattva returns, impelled partly by karma and partly out of a deep love for his fellow humans. To each of us the choice is given, whether to advance for ourself and at last slip into the ocean of infinite bliss, forgetful of the world, or whether, when illumination comes, to resolve: "I cannot keep this wisdom to myself; I must return and help my brothers who need what light I have. They are sorrow-filled, confused, crying in the wilderness with aching hearts, yearning for truth." All the great teachers have chosen this pathway. They have come back to teach, to remind us of our divine lineage and to reawaken memory of our inborn knowledge, so that we may meet our destiny with courage and hope. This "deathless" path appeals to the altruism in us, in contrast to the path "for oneself." To choose between spirit and matter is an ongoing necessity if we are to evolve; to choose between truth for oneself and truth for others is by far the greater challenge. The resolve to follow the bodhisattva lead is not made casually or for this one life only, but for all futurity: the consummation of divine awakening is ages in the making. All during the long and uphill wayfaring the soul's intent deepens and matures — to touch, if fleetingly, every life-particle within the ambience of its love.