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Buddhahood: The Tathāgata is the Giver of the Deathless

A talk given by Phiroz Mehta at High Leigh Conference Centre, Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire on 1st September 1976


We are to consider tonight that which is free of all measure, of change, of limitation. But how shall we talk of the non-descript? Or formulate the non-finite? Or present the signless and unconditioned?

It seems an impossible task. But that is the very reason why it is natural and proper to let the task be done, for the non-possible is the source of all possibles. At the end of our temporal play with the possibles, the truth of Buddhahood will still remain hidden, but we may have caught a glimpse of the timeless, ineffable smile of the Buddha. If our eyes be clear and our hearts be at peace that glimpse could be the vision of Buddhahood itself.

Look very attentively. Just look, without a thought, without a care. A sheaf of light flashes for an instant in the dark. Once again, the silent dark. Our life here of thought and speech and action is that momentary flash which we can know. The dark is the Unknown; unspeakable and ungraspable; never born, never dying; the Mystery, self-revealing. We see the flash. The dark holds us. When the dark quivers and flashes out you and me, you see me as the other one. When at last you are fully awakened, you do not see otherness. Then you know the full dark by being the dark. You, a self, see a flash. You, cleansed of all self-ness, are the dark. You and the dark are not-two.

Our usual life of sense and speech and thought obstructs the functioning of the transcendent dimension of Mind, the dark. So we are fragmented and scattered about, and we cannot be. With senses pacified and speech and thought vibrantly still, we can be, and also un-be. Then Mind in its fullness wholly subsumes sense and speech and thought, which thereupon unlock the gates of the impossible.

Now one morning the brahman Jāṇussoṇi asked the brahman youth Subha, “Has the recluse Gotama lucidity of wisdom?” To which the brahman youth replied, “But who am I, sir, that I should know whether the recluse Gotama has lucidity of wisdom? Surely only one like him could know whether the recluse Gotama has lucidity of wisdom.” Your speaker tonight treasures this pearl of wisdom. He speaks with humility.

Let us hear what the Buddha says of himself. Answering the ascetic Upaka, he declares he is victorious over all evil, free of craving, all awakened, a supreme teacher, perfected, one who has realized nibbāna. Addressing the group of five bhikkhus in the deer-park at Isipatana, he speaks of himself as the Tathāgata, i.e. he who has gone thus. He announces that the Deathless is found, that he teaches the dhamma, and that if they lived in accord with it they would realize the supreme goal of the Brahma-faring, of the holy life, namely the Deathless, nibbāna, and unshakable freedom of mind. He assures Ganaka Moggallāna: “Nibbāna exists, the way leading to nibbāna exists, and I exist as adviser… A Shower of the Way is the Tathāgata.”

It is significant that in several discourses the Buddha refers to himself as still being a Bodhisattva before the the realization of supreme enlightenment, sammā sambodhi: but after the perfect enlightenment he refers to himself as Arahant: arahaṁbhikkhave Tathāgato sammāsambuddho. What does he mean by Arahant? He tells Cunda that the Arahant is incapable of intentionally taking life, of taking what is not given so that it constitutes theft, of sexual impurity, of deliberately telling lies, of laying up treasure for enjoying worldly pleasure, of taking a wrong course through partiality or hate or stupidity or fear. To his bhikkhus the Buddha expounds in full detail the morality which he observes, a threefold morality of act and speech and thought, and he calls it quite simply, right conduct or moral habit. He himself is the perfect saint in everyday life, and this saintship is the indispensable foundation of the holy life, the brahmacariya.

He who truly cares to live religiously must note this point carefully. For without purity, the mind is ill-conditioned. It is in the state of dukkha, evil, and cannot see truth. Do remember, that whenever we say that we perceive something, we are in fact perceiving our own mind-shape; we are conscious of our own mental construct brought into being by the stimulus with which that external or internal something provided us. Therefore, whilst we are impure, we perceive imperfectly. We do not see truth and we are not enlightened.

Hui Neng says: “Those who wish to hear the teaching should first purify their own mind, and after hearing it they should each clear up their own doubts in the same way as the Sages did in the past.” Again: “When one is free from defilements, wisdom reveals itself and will not be separated from the Essence of Mind”, and again: “The slow-witted fail to enlighten themselves when the dharma is made known to them, because they are thickly veiled by erroneous views and deeply-rooted defilements.” Hui Neng then proceeds to perfection: “Erroneous views keep us in defilement, while right views remove us from it. But when we are in a position to discard both of them, then we are absolutely pure.” So too did Gotama, twelve centuries earlier, teach his bhikkhus by his Parable of the Raft that they should use the dhamma for crossing the turbulent sea of saṁsāra, but when they had reached the other shore, nibbāna, they should discard the Raft, they should “rid themselves of (virtues and) exalted meditative states, and all the more of (vices and) wrong states of mind.” How beautifully this accords with the teachings of those Upaniṣads which preceded the birth of the Gotama, and of many a mystic through the centuries after the Buddha.

Let there be no illusions regarding this teaching of going beyond good and evil, or beyond virtue and vice. The release out of the prison of the virtue-vice duality means that you have first freed yourself of vice and grown into transcendent virtue. You are then Virtue embodied: śīla is you. And then the river of compassion, mahā-karuṇā, everlastingly streams forth from you. An Enlightened One is never guilty of unvirtuous conduct in act or speech or thought on any account.

In his book, The Opening of the Wisdom Eye, His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama says (p.87): “The person who wants to practise the way of tantric instruction should first be endowed with detachment and renunciation which is the common basis for all the ways of practice in Buddhadharma… Having received the consecration, he should observe well all the precepts for it is only on the basis of virtuous conduct, śīla, that one can advance along the path.”

The seal of confirmation of all this comes from the Buddha himself when he says to the dying Vakkali, “He who sees the dhamma sees me; he who sees me sees the dhamma.” Thus in his own person as Sakyamuni, the Nirmānakāya, he is the embodied Transcendence. The unobstructed Transcendence named Tathāgata functioning freely through Siddhatta Gotama is declared to be “deep, unfathomable, trackless.” For Tathāgata, there is no arising, no proceeding, no subsiding. Continuity and space and time do not apply here, nor do differentiation and containment as an entity within a space-time continuum. So there are no signs of being, no marks, no characteristics. Measureless, dhamma-become, brahma-become, is the Tathāgata: the voidness, Śūnyata, the suchness, tathatā, which is Pure Mind. So when Huang Po was asked, “What is the Buddha?”, he answered, “Mind is the Buddha, while the cessation of conceptual thought is the way.”

This cessation of conceptual thought is presented in Theravāda in many a discourse by the Buddha in terms of the jhānas and the samāpattis. Let us repeat here that, truly to see the emptiness of conceptual thought, and to realize its cessation as an accomplished fact, not by suppressing thought by mental tricks or by anaesthetizing the mind, but by letting it become utterly pacified through perfect mindfulness, the indispensable basis of moral habit, of virtue, has to be actively present. Virtue is the healthy, resilient backbone of the living Buddha. If trashy trinkets fill that jewel-casket, your own existential being, where could you put the pearl beyond price bestowed upon you?

What now did the folk say of the Buddha? They said: “The Lord is perfected, wholly awakened, endowed with right knowledge and conduct, well-farer, knower of the worlds, incomparable charioteer of men to be tamed, teacher of devas and men, the Awakened One, the Lord.” And what did “one like Gotama”, namely Kaccāna the Great, say of him? He said: “The Lord knows what should be known, sees what should be seen; he has become vision, become knowledge, become dhamma, become Brahma; he is the propounder, the expounder, the bringer to the goal ( attha), the giver of the Deathless, dhamma-Lord, Tathāgata.”

Let us try to understand these statements. First consider some remarks in the Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā, that is, The Perfection of Wisdom which cuts like a thunderbolt, or, as it is usually called, The Diamond Sūtra. The Lord said (chapter 4): “Subhuti, when a Bodhisattva gives gifts he should not be supported by sight-objects, nor by sounds, smells, tastes, touchables, or by mind-objects. For, Subhuti, the Bodhisattva should give gifts in such a way that he is not supported by the notion of a sign.” Sign, nimitta, is a technical term for an object of sense. Ordinarily, we take the data of everyday existence as signs of realities. But in truth, sense-objects are empty; signs of defilements. The Absolute is signless. It is not perceivable, still less is it recognizable, when it takes us up into itself. It takes us up into itself when we are devoid of our obstructive perceptions, our notions of signs. Such notions are but misperceptions — defilements of the mind. We are emptied of our misperceptions when, passing beyond the samāpatti spoken of in Theravada as the abiding in the plane or condition of neither perception nor non-perception, there is the cessation of all perception and feeling. All conceptual thought has ended — not only the flow of conceptual thought, but also the latent seeds which sprout as concepts, as seminal concepts at first — the creative Word or Logos spoken of in various scriptures — and afterwards as the concepts which are the basic material and structuring agents, of the flow of discursive thought of everyday experience.

In this cessation, it is not we as self-conscious individuals who abide in it. It is the Absolute, the Transcendence, the Buddha, that now abides in us, finite mortals. It is Buddhahood, Pure Mind, realizing its ineffable Reality through us, mere Signs, but Signs whose purity and perfection offer no resistance to that Suchness, that Voidness. When that happens, you the Bodhisattva can produce a true perception, and the “thirty-two marks of the Buddha” — which are no marks! — are yours.

Thus it is, when the Lord asks (chapter 5), “Can the Tathāgata be seen by the possession of his marks?” Subhuti replies, “No indeed, Lord, because what has been taught by the Tathāgata as the possession of marks is truly a no-possession of no-marks.” Thereupon the Lord said, “Wherever there is possession of marks, there is fraud; wherever there is no-possession of no-marks, there is no fraud. Hence the Tathāgata is to be seen from no-marks as marks.” The word “fraud” is used in this sense: all conditioned things are deceptive — although we imagine one or other of them to be ultimate reality — whereas in truth The Reality is śunyatāor tathatā or nirvana, which alone is not deceptive, not fraudulent.

Subhuti asks (chapter 6): “Will there be any beings in the last five hundred years, at the time of the collapse of the good doctrine who, when these words of the Sūtra are being taught, will understand their truth?” And the Lord answers; “There will be Bodhisattvas, gifted with good conduct, with virtuous qualities, with wisdom, who, when these words of the Sūtra are being taught, will understand their truth.”

But note the conditions: good conduct, virtuous qualities, wisdom. Only such a being “will understand their truth”, or, quite literally, “will produce a true perception.” This may appear paradoxical, for it was said earlier that we perceive only our own mental constructs, our mind-shapes, and not the truth in itself. Whilst functioning in our organic physical or natural state, the mind is a conditioned mind. All perceptions are thus distorted. The conditioned mind is an image-maker. When it perceives, as we commonly say, it holds the object of perception at a distance, separate from itself. Thereby, the mind itself is fragmented, and like a mirror cracked in several places it produces distorted images. Thus the conditioned mind is not a Reality-perceiver. But when “gifted” with good conduct, virtuous qualities and wisdom, it itself is unfragmented, not separate from Pure Mind, the One Universal Mind. Its perceiving therefore entails no holding at a distance. It is what it “perceives”. Hence this “perception”, a true perception, is no other than being at one with Totality, or Transcendence, or Truth — call it what you will.

How can one let this come about? Gotama the Buddha put it thus: Cease from all grasping. In the practice of perfect mindfulness — a 24-hour discipline — observe intently the entire becoming-process, remaining free of self-association with it in terms of either attachment or aversion. Be clearly aware that every rūpa, vedana, saññā, saṁkhara and viññāna is anicca, impermanent, relative, an ephemeral spatio-temporal existential only: nothing to be attached to, not a cause for giving rise to aversion. Observe dispassionately and let the stream of the becoming-process flow on without grasping at any element whatsoever in it, bearing well in mind that attachment and aversion are both forms of grasping and of being grasped by. In the absence of attachment and aversion, there is the absence of the separate self. Then can be no grasping. The Lord tells Ananda: “A bhikkhu who has grasping does not attain final nibbāna… (but) a bhikkhu who is without grasping, O Ananda, does attain final nibbāna… (and again) This is deathlessness, that is to say the deliverance of thought without grasping.”

In the greater discourse to Saccaka, a Jain who is addressed by his clan name, Aggivessana, the Buddha says: “Now I, Aggivessana, am aware that when I am teaching dhamma to companies consisting of many hundreds, each person thinks thus about me: ‘The recluse Gotama is teaching dhamma especially for me’. But this, Aggivessana, should not be understood thus. For when a Tathāgata is teaching dhamma to others it is for the sake of general instruction. And I, Aggivessana, at the close of such a talk, steady, calm, make one-pointed and concentrate my mind subjectively in that first characteristic of concentration ( samādhi) in which I ever constantly abide.”

This first characteristic of concentration in which the Tathāgata ever constantly abides, as the commentary explains, is the śuññataphalasamādhi, that is the concentration, or silent collectedness, on the fruit of voidness. Buddhahood is thus marked by a constant abiding in Transcendence. When the living Buddha converses or walks or eats or sleeps, this abiding in Transcendence expresses itself extravertedly: and in this connection it is most interesting and significant that the Enlightened One’s behaviour and manners in any and every situation, as may be gathered from all the discourses, are faultless. When he teaches, or enters into meditation, the abiding in Transcendence expresses itself in an inward activity, a non-activity in the worldly sense, which is a well-spring of benediction and healing, for such meditation or teaching is an inspiration and a quickening energy functioning from a transcendent depth.

Consonant with the above is his affirmation that he is without attachment or aversion or confusion. Even in sleep he is perfectly mindful and comes not to bewilderment. Thus Buddhahood means that an Enlightened One is free of dreams in his sleep, of fantasies during the day and of any trace of disorder in mind. He is free of all the āsavā, the overflows of consciousness, or, as they are usually called, the cankers of pleasure-lust, of becoming such and such or egoistic self-aggrandisement, of indulgence in vain speculations, and of ignorance.

Hence the Buddha is one who is not liable to delusion, and he legitimately claims in many a discourse that he possesses the deva-vision and the deva-hearing which enables him to see and hear far more sensitively and intimately than what is seen and heard ordinarily. What is far more important is that he knows by his own mind the mind and nature of others, which means that when he meets you, he can see and know the whole of you exactly as you are. In the words of Kaccāna the Great, he knows what should be known about you and sees what should be seen in you. So he knows just what is right and useful to you at your stage and gives you the teaching which will tame and train you. The organism is tamed, the mind is trained. Thus the Lord is the incomparable charioteer of men to be tamed, he is the bringer to the goal, attha, that is, to the meaning or significance of the matter in hand.

Kaccāna the Great also said that the Lord is the giver of the Deathless. How does the Lord give the Deathless? By showing the Way. And in the showing of the Way, prime place is given to non-grasping and to putting aside with right wisdom all that is anicca or relative, anattā or not ultimate reality, dukkha or far from the Absolute, from the self-existent unoriginated nirvana. In other words, to put aside all that is finite, substanceless, mortal. And this teaching causes perplexity, for how can we and how do we put aside the entire manifested universe?

Consider carefully, calmly. Wherein does finitude or mortality subsist? Is separate multitudinousness the fact, or is One Total Reality the fact? Now, are not words like finitude or mortality indicators of the mode in which we are conscious of Reality, the mode of viññāṇa, discriminative consciousness? And does not this viññāṇa function as an isolative self-consciousness and as a separative object-consciousness, thus splitting up the unitary wholeness, the Holiness, of the Absolute into innumerable fragments? Does not this splitting up make us see the ageless, Immortal Life of the One Total Reality as countless separate objects and as many births and deaths, and feel it as pain and sorrow? And because we are blind to the complete inter-relatedness of the infinite variety within the single whole — the mysterious paradox that the One is the Many and the Many integrally constitute the One — are we not imprisoned by ignorance, avidyā, fast-fettered by greed and hate and delusion, by fear and violence?

If we can understand the above, we shall see that liberation or nirvana consists in the transmutation of our present mortal mode of discriminative consciousness into the immortal mode of whole awareness. Viññāṇa changes into what the Buddha called viññāṇaṁ anidassanaṁ anantaṁ sabbato pabhaṁ, that is, viññāṇa which is no longer merely discriminative but which is uncharacterised or infinite, endless or deathless, shining in every respect. Such is Tathāgata; such is the meaning of “Gone thus”.

What now is the meaning of “putting aside with right wisdom”? What is the instrument (if we may use such a word) for putting aside? This instrument is Death: a constant, conscious dying by non-grasping, by letting go of everything that uprises in the becoming-process, saṁsāra, in every passing moment of time whilst you are alive bodily. Thus you live free in the eternal now and not constricted in time’s dolour. Death is the spiritual means by which the realization by Totality of its own eternity and Transcendence through an unobstructing you, the temporal being, takes place. It is not you the finite mortal who becomes Tathāgata. It is Tathāgata-ness, Buddhahood, which is fruitively active in and through you, a vajrasattva, a diamond soul. This fruitive action is the pulse of creation, made manifest in the world as production-transformation through your non-grasping and your freedom from attachment and aversion, and your mastery of Death. The transformative aspect is the meaning of Death as the instrument, the spiritual means for putting aside with right wisdom. This use of Death is the full, profound meaning of nirodha, commonly translated as extinction or fading away. When you die thus in every momentary creative pulse, your mastery of Death releases the Deathless. And so it is that Tathāgata is the giver of the Deathless.


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