‘You Talk — I Listen’
An essay written in 1964 by Phiroz Mehta for The Middle Way, extracted from Buddhahood
A babel of discordant voices murders peace:
‘I am an immortal soul…’ ‘I am a spark of God…’ ‘The body dies but my real Self goes on…’ ‘I am just this body and death means the end of all of me …’ ‘I am born over and over again until I reach salvation and finally rest in Nirvana…’ ‘I have only one life to live in this world and salvation can be won only through the grace of God’ — and so on and on.
But he who will sit at ease by the still waters and listen to the voice of the silence may meet the Beloved and realize the Deathless. There is no one here insensible to the cry of suffering. The very pursuit of happiness, of love and of success — and how wild that pursuit is! — proclaims the emptiness of the heart. Look with a compassionate eye and see the distress of the mind battling with the why and the wherefore of existence, with the problems of evil and of death. And who can fail to see the grim lordship of death? And what after death? An infinite dreary repetition of births that end only in death? Or is there a ray of light to feed hope?
But first taste more suffering, and still more, till there be no more suffering upon which to feed. Life cannot be bypassed by means of the treachery of consolatory fantasies posing as truth. Therefore listen in uttermost quiet and hear the soul of Mother Earth crying to Father Heaven that she can no longer bear the pain of man’s iniquity. Hear her crying for the fearless, invincible hero who will deliver her. Listen we must and with reverence, for we are the issue from earth’s side through heaven’s alchemy. And the assuaging of earth’s pain also spells our own healing. Listen again and hear the cry of the Son of Man, self-exiled from his home of splendour, the eternal light, suffering existence here in this realm of mortality, dominated by the Lord of Death.
And yet it was the will of the Supreme that sowed man into the cosmos: a seed of unimaginable promise, predestined to blossom into divine fulfilment. Speaking to his disciple, his son Tat, Hermes Trismegistus says that this seed is the true good and that the matter and the womb out of which man is born is the wisdom that listens in silence. The will of the Supreme then sowed man into the cosmos. This action is karma. Not understanding karma, unaligned with perfect action, man performs actions which produce suffering. But the divine action is the great sacrifice, the prototype of the ritual worship.
When Arjuna asks Śrī Kṛṣṇa, ‘What is karma?’ the incarnate Lord of the Universe answers, ‘That emanation of Brāhman which causes the creation of beings is action.’ Uddālaka Aruni, who uttered the great teaching tat twam asi (‘That Thou Art’), tells Yājñavalkya that once when he was studying the sacrifice he came to know Brāhman the Supreme.
This sacrifice, this action, this karma, goes on perpetually, or else the world would fall into ruin, as Śrī Kṛṣṇa declared. Even as the Upaniṣadic teachers spoke of Brāhman the Supreme, Thrice Greatest Hermes spoke of God. In the Hermetic teachings, the Supreme declares to the initiate after granting him a vision, ‘That Light am I, thy God, Mind. The Logos, the emanation of Mind, is the son of God. The vision of Me which thou seest in thy mind is thy archetypal form whose being is before beginning and without end.’ And he goes on to teach, ‘And God the Mind, being male and female, both as light and life subsisting, brought forth another mind, and this other mind formed seven rulers who enclose the Cosmos that the senses perceive. But All-Father mind being light and life did bring forth man, co-equal to himself, with whom he fell in love, as being his own child, for he was beautiful beyond compare, the image of his sire. In very truth God fell in love with his own form and on him did bestow all his own formations. After man-the-image-of-God-the-mind had learned the essence and become a sharer of the nature of the seven rulers, he desired to break through the boundary of the cosmos, the ring-pass-not, and subdue the might of that which pressed upon the fire here below, a creative energy of the material world. So when he presented himself, the divine form of perfect beauty, nature, smiling with love, wound herself completely round him, and he, beholding the form like unto himself reflected in the water of nature, loved it, willed to live in it and thus vivified the material form devoid of reason. Hence above all creatures on earth man is two-fold. Mortal because of the body, immortal because of the essential man.’
The Buddha also speaks of the essential man, sato sattassa, and declares emphatically that he has not taught the destruction of this essential man. The Hermetic teachings say further: ‘Though deathless and possessed of sway over all, yet does he suffer as a mortal doth, subject to fate.’ This ‘suffering as a mortal doth’ is karma in the sphere of mortality. This is the lesser karma, karma as equilibration, karma as the continuous emergence of the new situation, somewhat inadequately described as cause-and-effect. But when the mortal man here links himself with his divine prototype through fervent aspiration or the height of self surrendering devotion, through the light of wisdom which has penetrated into the beyond, or by a religious rite in which he actually reaches into the great sacrifice, or by the deliberate entry into the supreme ecstatic states in that profound contemplation which is perfect communion, then mortal man here performs the transcendent karma which wipes out a myriad sins and presses himself and all creation closer to the heart of the divine. This is the high office of the priest initiate, of the perfect holy one, of the true teacher.
A mortal’s capacity to do this is very limited. How has man here fallen from his God-like estate? How has man, the image of his Father God, Mind, changed from immortal life to mortal soul, from eternal light to temporal confused mind? In beautiful forms have Plato and Pythagoras, those great philosopher-initiates of ancient times, handed down the secret tradition. Through the star-encircled solitudes which form the boundary of the cosmos, the ring-pass-not, where the zodiac meets our galaxy, the immortal man, unitary and unconditioned, descends earthwards. In his descent, he, a monad, becomes a dyad. Pythagoras says, symbolically, ‘The sphere becomes elongated, like unto an egg or a pine cone.’ In his Timaeus, Plato teaches that the world-soul and the individual soul are indivisible regarded from the standpoint of the simplicity of their divine nature. When the soul is drawn towards the body it experiences a disturbance because of matter flowing into it. In his Phaedo, Plato says that the soul is drawn to the body, staggering with recent intoxication. And a symbol of this mystic secret is that starry cup of Bacchus, the constellation Krater, placed in the expanse between the constellations Leo and Cancer. The intoxication first caused here by the influx of matter causes the loss of memory of our divine origin. Some souls lose their memory more than others; they are more intoxicated. When true memory becomes clouded, fantastic opinions arise and their clash is the cacophony of Babel.
Perhaps we can now discern the sweep of karma. Transcendentally, the divine action, the great sacrifice, is the realm of the immortal, of endless light. There is no good and evil here. In the sphere of mortality, however, the battleground of good and evil, karma in the lesser sense operates. Here, we are the victims of karma and also the ordainers of our own karma. When we have the good sense to alter our sights and steer our course back to our true home, we become the masters of karma, till at last, in the beatitude of ever-present enlightenment, the lesser karma stands still for ever.
The mechanism of the operation of karma is rebirth. Like karma, rebirth has its lesser and greater aspects. Transcendentally, life is everlasting; mind knows no break, no oscillation between seemingly unrelated opposites. In the spheres of mortality, life is in disequilibrium, for here our minds experience a break, the memory of our transcendent origin is lost and we wander aimlessly for a long time. But tread the path to liberation and the disequilibrium becomes transformed into the equanimity of harmonious integration. Our mind, attuned to the All Mind, now experiences no break but is fully awake to the continuous emergence of the whole situation through the succession of births and deaths. Bondage to the round of mortality is no more. The lesser rebirth has given place to the greater rebirth, the resurrection and ascension into the transcendent reality. One other greater rebirth there is — the appearance of great teachers who are recognised as divine incarnations (avatars).
Love is the motive power of all. If love is merely desire for the things of matter, if it is taṇhā, the thirst for sentient existence, then man stays in darkness, whirling in the painful round of saṃsāra. But if this love is the will to enlightenment, if it is the true love of God, the irresistible urge for liberation, then man becomes the knower of himself, of himself as he is here, the mortal, and of himself the essential man, the immortal. The thirst for sentient existence is one root cause of saṃsāra. The other root cause is the ignorance of the way of home returning, and especially the ignorance of that supreme promise, pregnant in the unequivocal affirmation by the Buddha, that suffering can be extinguished.
What now is saṃsāra? Rebirth is most difficult to understand but, if it can be well understood, we hold in our hands a power of knowledge to help us cross over to the blest isle of the deathless. First, some of the names by which saṃsāra’s cycle goes — rebirth, reincarnation, transmigration, metensomatosis, palingenesis, metempsychosis, and so on. Rebirth will be sufficient for our purposes. Next let us look at some of the obstructions to the understanding of rebirth. These are neatly summed up in the terse perplexity of the statement, ‘but I can’t remember my past lives’: a statement which embodies the two basic problems of memory and personality. With regard to memory, is it not asking too much to remember past lives, when our near past and especially our infancy are too dim to be reliable? And if we cultivate our memory by means of trustworthy disciplines, or if we have memories released by scientific means which take us back as far as our birth or even back into the womb, we come to a full stop with our conception, because we say, ‘I began when my mother conceived me.’
But how accurate is this statement? Our pronouns, he, she, and so on, are convenient words for use in a rough and ready sense only. If it be conceded that the heart in this body be part of me and not of you, then my mother, when the foetus was in her womb, could claim that it was part of her. So too, my father’s claim that the fertilizing sperm was part of him would have to be conceded. And if we pursue this line further and further backwards, where would ‘I’ be then? Where indeed would my father and mother and all my forbears be? Ah, but you are a separate, distinct individual after parturition. Am I? When I suckle my mother’s breasts, when I drink of a flowing stream, or eat a peach off a tree, or breathe the air here present, is a ‘not me’ becoming ‘me’? Is my son ‘me’, is his son ‘me’? Surely it is clear our pronouns are but convenient linguistic tools. They do not, any more than terms, ‘body’, ‘feeling’, ‘mind’, etc., represent any permanent changeless entity. All the elements composing the human creature, the existential man, are impermanent and in ceaseless flux. Nothing in the empirical context will outlast sufficiently far-reaching analysis. Every single thing dissolves into no-thing, into voidness.
Conversely, out of that very void, out of the no-thing, emerges the thing, the temporary phenomenon. The void is indeed the plenitude. You and I are temporary, mortal, emergences out of the not-temporal, undifferentiated, no-thing. You and I have no absolute beginning or birth, no absolute end or death. There is no absolute I or you which has a series of lives, each life being regarded as a separate, distinct entity.
And yet this continuous stream of myriads of lives of appearances. Behold the mystery of Māyā, the universal play of the void-plenitude pretending to be Reality! And in this play, which goes round and round, each manifestation refers to itself as ‘I’ and to others as ‘they’ — unavoidable and useful in the empirical context. And each ‘I’ in some form or other is ineradicably convinced of its deathlessness, of its indissoluble unity with the transcendent, a conviction indispensable for the dissolution of the ego or the ‘I’, and its final triumphant at-onement with its immortal source.
Our ordinary feeling of personality, as also of our self-conception, arises from our conditioning from infancy. Ignorance plays the dominant role here. Freedom from the egoistic misperception of our true being and from the egocentricity of daily living begins when religious discipline enables us to see ourself and all other selves personally, impersonally and trans-personally. Thereby our minds function not only in terms of ‘thing’ consciousness, which is separative, but also in terms of ‘no-thing’ consciousness, which correctly relates ‘thing’ to its original undifferentiation. In the harmony of ‘thing’ consciousness and ‘no-thing’ consciousness, we realize the unity of the whole. For then we see the infinite variety of particulars in perfect relationship to each other.
Thus out of the ‘no-thing’ there emerges the body, out of the void comes the mind. Back to the void go the body and the mind. So we can understand the succession of births and deaths as the patterning and dissipating of material and mental forces in accord with karmic law. The law is quite simple. All the forces at play, material and mental, tend towards a resultant. But to see this patterning and dissipating in its endless variation of detail is too difficult for mortal vision to follow. The pattern is so vast and complicated, human ability so limited.
Let us recall two or three of the statements which have been made in the past regarding what happens after death. A careful consideration of them will indicate why it took me over thirty years to begin to understand rebirth.
Hermes says, ‘If the soul persists in vice, it tastes neither the deathless nor the good but speeding back again it turns into the path that leads to creeping things.’ He also adds that the soul’s vice is ignorance. Its virtue is gnosis, for the good and pious one who knows is already divine while still living in the world. How close all this is to the Indian teachings. For the Upaniṣads also speak of those of evil conduct being reborn as dogs, swine, outcasts and so on. They also speak of the liberated ones while still in the body on earth. In Plato’s Timaeus, Er the Pamphylian describes his vision where he saw the soul of Telamonian Ajax choose the body of a lion, Agamemnon of an eagle, Atlanta of an athlete, Thersites of an ape. These probably would have to be interpreted symbolically, not literally.
How far the Greeks accepted transmigration and so on we are not quite certain.
But how can we, possessed of the faculties which we have at present, verify such statements for ourselves? For most of us, whirling around in the maelstrom of mortality, rebirth may be intellectually acceptable only as a reasonable theory or it may be implicitly believed in pure faith.
And yet, there is a succession of births and deaths which every one of us experiences here. Throughout our life, from the moment our body is born until the hour of our death, there is a series of states of mind, actions and events, which begin, proceed and pass away. Each has its birth, its little life and its death. We are conscious of this series as a succession of births and deaths. The Maitri Upaniṣad states that, ‘Saṃsāra is just one’s own thought … By making mind motionless, from sloth and distraction free, when unto mindlessness one comes, then that is the supreme estate’ (6. 34); and the Śāṇḍilya Upaniṣad also states that, ‘When the fluctuations of the mind cease, the cycle of births and deaths comes to an end’ (1. 42). This succession is quite easy to see, for there is the linking factor of self-consciousness, ‘I am I,’ as we say, persisting through the whole series.
But now, what happens to this organic memory, what happens to self-consciousness when the organism dies? It is taught in some of the great religions that the death of the organism spells the obliteration of visual consciousness, tactile consciousness and so on. Organic memory disappears. All that is rooted in the physical senses vanishes. The ‘I am I’ self-consciousness is utterly wiped out. But it is taught that the overriding mental consciousness, which contains within itself the extracted essence of the total past, persists and carries over into rebirth, although the strands of connection between the death of A and the subsequent birth of B are not visible to us. Can we develop faculties which would enable us to see these threads of connection? Or is there an unusual type of memory which can be awakened, not developed in the way that memory as a faculty of the psycho-physical organism is developed?
The answer to this question takes us into the realm of the greater rebirth. The discipline of the holy life purifies the mind and the body of the initiate. It develops his power of concentrated attentiveness, undreamed of by any non-practisant of the discipline. It enables him to enter profound modes of consciousness, not open to investigation by the non-practisant, however learned or clever he may be. In these deep modes the yogi or mystic is aware in non-analytical terms. He understands and sees supra-sensually without the use of discursive thought or words. He enters the deep state beyond speech and mind, as the Upaniṣads taught, beyond all feeling and perception, as the Buddha taught, in fully awake, concentrated attentiveness.
This transcendent mode of awareness is the true Superconsciousness in which he whose mortal body is known by a human name has consciously at-oned himself with that essential man, the emanation of mind mentioned earlier. This essential man has been the silent watcher through the ages. The Sāṃkhya teaching of India postulated the puruṣa, this being that is beyond all that can be predicated here. It postulated also prakṛiti, primordial nature. Puruṣa stimulates prakṛiti simply by being the transcendent presence. Then primordial nature stirs and her stirring becomes the awesome and wondrous activity of universal process, whether it be the ring dance of atoms or the outstreaming of stupendous galaxies, the eruption of Erebus or the flowering of a rose, the devilish blackening of a soul or the triumphant ascent into the light of Nirvana. All of it emerges out of primordial nature. When the final disjunction with matter has been realized, the puruṣa is once more itself like the pure essence of mind of Buddhist teaching. This being is the same silent watcher sung also in the Ṛgveda, and taught in the Kaṭha, the Muṇḍaka and Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣads. Two birds with fair wings have found a refuge in the same sheltering tree. One of them eats the sweet fig tree’s fruit; the other, eating not, looks on. From such holy communion the perfected saint returns to the human plane bringing with him the light and powers of the Supreme, in so far as such powers may function here.
Since the purification of heart and mind is perfect, and concentrated attentiveness in perfect equanimity reaches the depth of freedom from all form, either material or mental, one of those powers is the power to summon before his mind the total past. This is not organic memory where the time factor operates. It is whole awareness by unified mind. We can do little more through words than ring a bell in someone who has already had some genuine experience of this as a result of right discipline or by gift of grace. This memory of all the lives is the vision of the total mortal body of appearances with which the transcendent has associated itself. A person’s power to do this while living in the body means also the power to relinquish bodily manifestation for ever at will. It also means the power to go through the portals of death in full consciousness. His organic form-dependent memory vanishes but his transcendental recognition of his divine origin comes fully alight. He is indeed the enlightened one. He has refound his pristine divinity. He has at last seen his Original Face.
That concentrated attentiveness, which began as a dim glow enclosed in the mortal vesture of mind and body, now moves out of the last incarnation, out of the boundary, the ring-pass-not, into the splendour and plenitude of boundless light. This greater rebirth which is the ascent into the immortal real is the ultimate fruit of all the suffering in saṃsāra.
And he who is reborn into his divine state listening to the cry of the soul of the earth, listening to the cry of suffering humanity, can re-appear in the world to redeem it in the ripeness of the divine circumstance.