Buddhism: Path to Nirvana
By K. N. Upadhyaya
Publisher: Radha Soami Satsang Beas, Beas, India. 2010.
In Buddhism: Path to Nirvana, K. N. Upadhyaya brings to the study of Buddhism his knowledge of Eastern philosophy and the ancient languages of Sanskrit and Pali, as well as the teachings of modern adepts in Surat Shabd Yoga. Positing a universal need in humans to “unravel the mystery of the world and realize the objective of human life,” the author writes: “To do so, it is very helpful to know what the great sages, saints and Enlightened Ones, whether of the East or West, have said regarding these matters, especially regarding the ultimate Truth and the way to realize it.”
A former professor and chair of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Hawaii and a specialist in the philosophies of India, Upadhyaya explains the spiritual precepts of Buddhism with frequent reference to the most ancient texts of Buddhism, including both the Sanskrit and Pali Canons. He also provides numerous quotations from Buddhist spiritual teachers from medieval to modern times.
He begins with the Buddha’s life story, because this story “encapsulates the whole of Buddhist understanding.”
While what is fact and what is legend in the story of the Buddha’s life will never be known, the Buddhist path does not depend on the historical accuracy of the story. The truths found in the story may not be historical, but they serve as metaphors, and through the account of the Buddha’s life and experiences, fundamental truths are illustrated.
The Buddha’s early life, one of privilege, was fundamentally changed when he encountered sickness, old age and death. He left his home and set out to attain enlightenment. After practicing rigorous austerities and penances for six years, he turned from these extreme practices to what later would be called “the middle path.”
Buddha’s pragmatic approach to teaching was characterized by his refusal to respond to metaphysical questions and his focus on teaching according to his followers’ spiritual capacities.
The Buddha’s teachings were transmitted orally for five centuries before the earliest Buddhist scriptures were written in the first century CE. Today there are three main traditions of Buddhism: Theravada, practiced primarily in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia; Mahayana, followed widely in Tibet and East Asia; and Vajrayana, thriving most actively in Tibet and Japan.
The Buddha himself clearly stated that the path he was teaching was not something new, or something he had invented. Rather, it was “an ancient path, an ancient way travelled by Enlightened Ones of former times.” With utmost simplicity, the Buddha expressed the most fundamental principles underlying the spiritual path as “four noble truths”: 1) life in the world is full of suffering; 2) there is a cause of this suffering; 3) it is possible to bring an end to suffering; and 4) there is a path that leads to the cessation of suffering.
The chapter entitled “Human Life” examines the Buddhist teaching that a human life is difficult to obtain and a precious opportunity, since “all is within the human body.” The chapter entitled “A World of Impermanence” stresses the perishable nature of the world and everything in it. As the Buddha warned his disciples, “What is impermanent is not worth delighting in, not worth approval and not worth clinging to.”
When it comes to subtle Buddhist teachings which many readers might find hard to grasp, the author gives clear explanations. For example, he spells out various implications of the doctrine of the “triple body” of the Buddha, the doctrine that all Buddhas (perfectly enlightened beings) have three bodies: the physical body (Nirmanakaya); the blissful or glorious body that exists in heavenly realms (Sambhogakaya); and the Dharma-body or truth body that is one with absolute reality (Dharmakaya). The author writes:
Since all the Buddhas who come to this world are emanations from the Dharmakāya, the real spiritual body or truth body that is eternally one and the same, it is only the physical forms of the Buddhas that are subject to birth and death, while, in essence, they are undying and immortal.
In the Buddha’s words, “He who sees the Dhamma [ultimate reality] sees me.” The Buddhas and the truth they teach come from the same source. Upadhyaya states, “The truth they embody is one and eternal, and their teachings are eternal, and for all.”
Discussing the Buddhist concept of the non-self, he says, “According to Buddhism, what generally is considered the self is actually a conglomeration of constantly changing physical and mental constituents (skandhas).” Similarly, all phenomena are non-self.
Many people interpret the Buddha’s teachings to mean that there is no soul and no God. The author offers a different perspective on this question. His close analysis of Buddha’s words in the Sanskrit and Pali canons, as well as of the writings of various Buddhist spiritual teachers, is set in the context of what was meant in Buddha’s time by the words now translated as self, soul and God. Here, as throughout the book, the author stresses that confusion over the words used to describe spiritual experience can only be resolved by having those spiritual experiences oneself. He ends with the assertion, “The Buddha therefore placed strong emphasis on direct personal experiment and the inner verification of what is truly real.”
The chapter on “The Enlightened One” brings in quotes from many Buddhist sources on the necessity of having a living spiritual teacher. Both the teacher’s responsibility and the disciple’s attitude and duty are discussed. Taking refuge in the living teacher is like taking refuge in the Buddha himself, for, as Patrul Rimpoche says:
The spiritual teacher is like the Buddha Himself. He brings us the transmission of the Buddhas of the past, embodies for us the Buddhas of the present and, through his teaching, is the source of the Buddhas of the future.
The chapter on “The Eternal Path” offers insights on the practice of the path, including the work of controlling the mind, the importance of reverence for life, vegetarianism, detachment, and the practice of meditation, including dying while living. As Marpa, an eleventh century Tibetan lama, said, “I might die an ordinary death, but I need not worry; familiarity has given me perfect confidence.”
The chapter on “Inner Experience of Sound and Light” presents Buddhist teachings on the reality that is experienced through meditation practice. The Buddha himself described his experience of a “splendorous light” and “resonant sound”:
All the universes were illuminated by a splendorous light.… They became resonant, greatly resonant and resonant all around, and a divine sound resounded, resounded majestically and resounded all around.
Zen master Soyen Shaku writes:
There is but one reality and we can call it by any name.… You may call it God or reason or life or suchness or love … but Buddhism has called it ‘Sound’ … and declares that all things are of one Sound in which every discordant note is eternally synthesized.
The practitioner must undergo training to know this reality. Junjiro Takakusu says, “We can say without hesitation that [Zen] requires training to hear a voice in silence.” How difficult is it to achieve? In the reassuring words of Soyen Shaku, “Do not think that this is too hidden and esoteric: only train yourself in meditation … and you come to realize the truth of my statement.”
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