A talk given by Phiroz Mehta at Dilkusha, Forest Hill, London on 21st May 1972
One of the most important aspects of the living of the holy life is the release from various illusions that we hold, and in this connection it is very easy to be self-deceived as regards the extent to which we are really free of our illusions. There is a very good reason for this. Our deepest illusions and fundamental delusions are due to our very structure. The very structure of the psycho-physical organism is such that many a delusion takes deep root in the unconscious mind and it operates from there continuously without our knowing it. So we get deceived that we are free from this, that or the other illusion when in actual fact deep in the unconscious there is this force constantly functioning.
You have often heard me say that Death in reality is transformation provided that we have been intelligent enough and mindful enough in the right way to enable Death to effect a transformation, a transmutation and not a mere pushing aside of useless material, so that, instead of Death in its usual destructive aspect at work, we have Death the transformer, and this is Death the perfector. But consider our attitude to Death. We are afraid of it, every human being in the world in some degree or other, until he is truly enlightened, truly purified and perfected, suffers from the fear of Death. That is one important aspect of Death, as far as our awareness of Death is concerned, and therefore we try to hide ourselves away from Death, we play ostrich with Death, bury our heads in the sand and don’t face it and understand it.
But there are certain situations where, because of our ignorance and fear and delusions, we salute Death. The simplest example of course is in terms of memorials, in terms of ceremonies which are carried out when Death has taken place, of state occasions when, as we say, we salute the Glorious Dead. Yes, these things have their place in our life, but on the whole we tend to shut our eyes against Death as something not to be spoken about, not to be dealt with. And no one, generally speaking, would ever think or feel in terms of welcoming Death, and in one respect particularly, where we should welcome Death with open arms, we remain completely blind and completely averse from Death. That is with respect to the Death of the self-concept which is actually, with all of us, a complete misconcept. We all cling to the idea, the belief, the conviction of the immortality of an entity-self, an ego, a limited, particular, finite Ātma or spirit or consciousness or essence of mind, or whatever you like to call it. We cling to that as something which persists through time and space until it achieves or attains or though grace enters into a state of perfection, after which its immortality, again in terms of continuity through time, is assured.
This clinging to a self-centre is the very root of all ill in our lives. The immortal entity-self postulated by us out of ignorance is the parent of the devil in us, the evildoer in us. We must not understand this merely in a limited, moralistic sense. That is part of the story only. This evildoer in us, which is born of the clinging to the particular, limited immortal entity-self, compels us throughout our lives to be self-oriented. It is the root of selfness. The postulate of the immortal entity-self is about the most tragic aspect of our ignorance. Let us try and see how this delusion arises. We must approach this with a completely open mind, with a mind therefore that is capable of being sensitive to true wisdom and is utterly compassionate. If it is utterly compassionate it will never cling to self. It will be prepared to renounce limited self.
Let us understand then how this situation emerges. If we look back, far back in time, when our primordial ancestor was evolving out of the restrictions of his animal condition and nature and beginning to grow into that which has become Man, as we know him and understand him today, when that process was taking place he gradually became increasingly self-aware. That is to say, he became (very slowly of course) increasingly conscious of his own inward, intellectual and emotional processes. He began to associate the idea of an I-am-I with that inner life of his. In the earliest stages the word I meant just the living psycho-physical organism, in fact he was not aware so much in terms of psyche, he was just aware in terms of body. “This is me, the living body!” As far as that goes, as a simple objective statement within the limited context of human life, that is perfectly true and straightforward. It is of practical use in ordinary everyday empirical life and it serves all empirical purposes. When we say I or when we refer to the me, it simply means this fellow who is the living organism here. As long as that type of self-knowledge prevails, it is all right, it is only for practical everyday purposes. There is no postulate about an immortal entity hidden within this living organism, no such postulate. But as Man grew through the tens of hundreds and thousands of years and he began to be more seriously interested in the question, “Who am I?”, he also began to ask questions of this type, “Where was I before I was born?” You see what had happened. In the subconscious, unbeknown to himself, the idea of a continuous I had formed itself. It took it for granted, otherwise how could you ask the question “Where was I before I was born?” The question implies the postulate that there is something which is the I which precedes the birth of the body and by the same token is likely to continue after the death of the body. This we can understand, because it is very very hard for any animal body, and Man’s body is an animal body, to accept Death as the complete disintegration of that particular appearance, which is me. I don’t like the idea, I cling to the ego, I want to continue, I want to get a reward for my good deeds, I want to obtain a final result for all my efforts for betterment, for all the sacrifices that I make, and so forth and so forth.
So, deep in the subconscious, this clinging to some sort of entity that was before birth and will continue after death is formed. This we may call the natural factor at play. It just happens naturally that way. Then there comes in another factor very very much later in the history of Man’s development. Different people have different interests. Some people are more inclined to philosophize about themselves and about life and about the nature of life. The intellect sets to work and logically, as the person imagines, deduces that there must be some sort of immortal entity, otherwise life would not be worthwhile, the person says. It seems as if that is reasonable. But consider the implication. “Life’s worthwhileness is in terms of me. It has to be worthwhile for me, as I like it, as I want it. The world exists for my benefit. It ought to be for my benefit.” You see how terribly strong the roots of selfness, of selfishness are in us, in every one of us.
Quite a good few of the greatest of philosophers have never been able to free themselves from this ineradicable sense of a permanent ego in them. So their whole examination of life, of the world, of the nature of things, is all the time in terms of the individual separate self. They are all self-oriented. Only the relatively few, the Perfected Holy Ones, got completely beyond that. They were really liberated from the binding influence of this self-belief. When such people make their pronouncements (and they contribute in many other ways to the norms of life which are laid down for that community or society or nation or whatever it may be) what they say is treated as Gospel truth by the mass of people. The mass of people say, “We’ve got to work hard every day to earn our living and so on, let the great thinkers and teachers tell us all about ourselves and we will believe it and follow it.” So what happens to you and me then? This idea of an immortal entity is foisted upon us by people who are no wiser than ourselves. It is part of our conditioning, part of what we are pleased to miscall our spiritual heritage, the promise of immortality for a finite, limited me, which is an impossibility. If one really wants to be even just straightforwardly, logically intellectual, it won’t hold water.
How can the Infinite, which alone can be associated with the Immortal, grant Immortality to that which is finite, because the very meaning of finitude, the very meaning of entity, of separate individuality is that it has a beginning, a procedure or growth and then death? No finite entity can arrogate to itself or be characterized by Infinite Immortality. Even the intellect should be able to perceive this. But it is very curious that the greatest intellects in the world have failed in this respect. Only the truly Enlightened Ones, like the Buddha for instance, like the great teachers of the Upaniṣads, some of the great poet-seers of the Ṛg-veda, only such people have freed themselves from being dominated by this self-centre, both as a conscious belief and as an unconscious force working in the depths of their minds.
Perhaps one may feel that this is a terrible doctrine. It may feel awful, it may feel destructive, it may feel as if it makes nonsense of the effort, of the striving to live the holy life, the good life. “What is the purpose of it all?”, we ask. It may feel like that.
But now, let the mind be quiet, let it dwell upon, brood, somewhat like a hen broods over her chicks or a mother over her infant. Let the mind brood that way with loving-kindness inside itself and then see what happens in terms of your vision and understanding on this question. As long as this acceptance of a self-centre which is an immortal entity within us is functioning, as long as that is there, it is impossible to be wholly selfless. We are always selfish. Most important of all, our understanding, our awareness of the nature of existence is vitiated right at the source. We have considered this matter only a few weeks ago. How vividly conscious we are of ourselves! “I am I.” The consciousness of the I is extremely vivid, extremely strong, and it is this consciousness which strives to bend the whole of life and attempts to make life be related to oneself. How relatively weak, vague is the consciousness of you, the other person, that object! The consciousness of self, this infinitesimally little bit of manifestation in space and time quite overpowers the awareness of the rest of the Universe. Of the rest of the Universe! The disproportion just doesn’t bear thinking about! Our conceit (and what a cruel conceit it is, because it destroys our understanding of the truth about ourselves) is quite unbelievable. And it is a conceit in both senses, in the sense which is related to the idea of pride, self-conceit, that way; it is also related to the other meaning of conceit which is an old meaning, a fanciful notion. It is just a fanciful notion.
Can we invite Death with open arms and pray Death to release us from bondage to this childish, stupid but most devilishly powerful, fanciful notion, this conceit of the limited I-am, for which we crave immortality into a future as well as believe that it everlastingly existed in the past? If we can do that, and this conceit can be dissolved, completely dissolved, then this whole world sings for joy that it has come to fruition in terms of the liberated person.
You see, you have to bend all your energy in deep meditation, in discussion within your own mind, in a quiet way also letting your mind brood upon it, in order to work out all the consequences in everyday life of the holding of this conceit of the immortal entity-self. Our conscious belief in it is after all partly effective. It is in the unconscious depths of mind that it is so very very powerful, because that is the source of the poison which lasts all through our life. I try to put it entirely in ordinary English modern terms. If you can really understand this you will understand why the Buddha taught the doctrine of anattā, of the complete absence of all egoism. Understand anattā that way, the complete eradication of egoism, the I-ness, with respect to nāma and rūpa, with respect to mind and body, with respect to Thing and No-thing. If you can understand that you will understand also why Nirvana is called anattā. Impermanence, anicca, belongs to everything that is manifested, not to Nirvana. Nirvana is nitya, nicca, the permanent. To everything is ascribed dukkha, but not to Nirvana. Nirvana is not dukkha. To everything is ascribed anattā, and to Nirvana also is ascribed anattā. This is one of the great intellectual puzzles of Buddhist teaching. But understand anattā as the complete absence of egoism, of egolessness. If one sees that clearly then one sees that the temporal impermanent ego, the psycho-physical organism which one refers to as I, is there, but that perishes. Every element composing it perishes. There is no specific element involved, no particular, limited, finite element which is the permanent, or which has that creative power because of which you and I and the whole universe are, an existent reality. This is very very deep.
This is not a question of mere philosophy, a system of thought, of belief, and so forth. This touches the very root and the very heart of understanding, of true understanding, of unerring insight, paññā, the very root of wisdom. If you like the Buddha’s authority for this, consider what is said in the opening pages of the Mahāvagga. It starts off with the statement of the Enlightenment of the Buddha. After the Enlightenment, as the texts state, he sits there, “steeped (the tests say enjoying, but understand it this way and I think you will get closer to the reality) in the bliss of freedom.” He spends seven days under one tree which is called the Ajapāla or goatherd’s banyan tree, which I think is a bad translation and a wrong one (but I take responsibility for this, and I’ll tell you why in a moment). Then he spends seven days under the Mucalinda tree and seven days under the Rājāyatana tree and then goes back to the Ajapāla tree. Pāla means one who tends, aja means a goat, so he who tends a goat is a goatherd obviously. But do you think the Buddha was interested in goats? Consider, aja also means the Unborn. What does the Buddha tell his monks when he is giving that famous autobiographical Discourse, the Ariya-pariyesana Sutta? “Seeking the Unborn.” Knowing that he was subject to mortality, to decay and to death, he sought the Unborn.
If you look at that 26th Discourse in the Majjhima-Nikāya you will find some very wonderful things. “He found”, as he says, the Unborn, which is Nirvana. He himself says that. So Ajapāla could also be understood as he who tends the Unborn, the Immortal, the Stainless, the Ultimate Reality, the Truth, the Absolute, freed from the bonds of the relative, which means free from all conditioned states, from all conditionality. Look at the Paṭicca-samuppāda. It is an exposition of the nature of conditionality. The twelve factors which make up the Paṭicca-samuppāda all explain that Wheel of Saṃsāra because of which we are bound in this conditionality. But the Unborn, which necessarily therefore is the Unaging, which also necessarily therefore is the Undecaying, is also therefore the Deathless, a Deathlessness which has completely transcended all time and space limitations, which has completely gone beyond all cause-effect. It is a-causal, it is Absolute Creative Energy, pure and simple, Pure Mind as the Buddhists put it. So that meditation under the Ajapāla tree is indicative of the fact that when one is in that ultimate state of samādhi, where Nirvana is a realized fact, one is tending the Deathless, the Unborn.
Then he goes and meditates seven days under the Mucalinda tree, the Serpent-King. That is the ordinary translation of the Mucalinda, and it is represented symbolically as a snake with coils. But serpents are also spoken of in various other significances, not only in India but in Judaic tradition too. Moses and Aaron cast their rods and they become serpents and eat up the serpents which were formed when the Egyptians cast their rods. Do you think that they were just displaying a sort of circus affair for the delectation of the Pharaoh? No, this is symbolical language to express profound realities right in the deeps of the soul, in the deeps of the mind which has become free of clinging to this immortal self-centre idea.
The Mucalinda tree, the Serpent-King’s tree, then. The Serpent typifies wisdom, the Serpent is the knowing one, and the Serpent knows not only in terms of the play of duals confined to the context of duality or ambivalence, but knows with the knowing that transcends that irresolvable conflict of the duals. That is the Serpent, he is the Nāga, the knowing one. I would not like to be too positive about stating this, but it seems to me that there is a certain intellectualist emphasis here. The Serpent is the one who has gone along the path of jñāna, wisdom, he is a jñāna Yogi. Under this Serpent-King tree, the Mucalinda tree, the Buddha sits for the next seven days, and a mighty storm arises, and the Serpent-King coils himself round the Buddha’s body seven times. And remember that in the ordinary Yogic symbolism you have the seven cakras. It is very interesting, the correspondences there. And he spreads a hood over the Buddha’s head and protects him from cold, from heat, from the bite of mosquito, or gnat or horsefly or whatever it is, until the seven days are over. And the Buddha after that experience, as it is said in the Mahāvagga, having understood the matter, makes an utterance, and the last two lines of the utterance are significant for us. “He who doth crush the great I-am conceit (conceit in the sense of fanciful notion), truly this is supreme happiness.” I have not got the Pali text of the Mahāvagga with me, so I do not know the actual Pali word used which is translated as crush. It probably is the correct literal translation, but besides the denotation of a word there are various connotations. It seems to me that, if we look at it this way, we will get a more constructive understanding. The English word crush has the association of something repressed, something broken up (and you cannot repress or break up that which is of the nature of psyche or mind, you can transform it, that’s all), and therefore we say, “He who doth penetrate into and fully understand this I-am conceit, he truly knows supreme happiness.”
Then only can the real fountains of compassion flow freely, then only is it possible to have that omniscience which is ascribed to the Liberated Ones, omniscience in the sense that you are capable of seeing the Truth of things as they are, the real Truth, undeluded. Why are you undeluded, how is it that you are undeluded? There is no relating of the actual fact to a self-centre in terms of which you interpret the fact. You see what the liberation of the mind means. This is the sort of person who can see the simple Truth.
Observe how it works out in your own daily life. When any stimulus comes to us from outside, generally one of two main reactions takes place. “This is pleasant, I like it, I want it.” There is attachment, there is grasping. The other reaction is “This is unpleasant, I don’t like, I don’t want it. I’ll throw it out, I’ll destroy it, I’ll break it.” So there is aversion, hate. Attachment and aversion exist only because there is the relating of everything in our daily life to a self-centre. But don’t relate it to a self-centre, that is to say, be so wide awake, so mindful that the moment this evil reaction comes, up, either to grasp because you like, or to destroy because you don’t like, you will be aware of it and it will cease to worry you, and you will see the truth of the situation as it is. And then, whatever your action and procedure is, it will necessarily be the right one and the only possible one under the circumstance. Again, let the mind brood upon this and you will know the bliss of freedom. This is true, you will know the bliss of freedom. It is the same with fear, it is the same with anxiety, it is the same with all the darts of sorrow that we experience, the sorrow of which is born of relating anything to this self-centre. Because of pure compassion and of the purified mind, you will certainly experience indescribably intense pity which makes you suffer in sympathy with what is suffering, but it won’t be that putrid sorrow which the bulk of us go through all our lives because it is all related to a self-centre. Something happens to me which I don’t want and therefore I react against it. You see the significance of that reaction? It is the denial of Life, it is the denial of Truth. All these things happen in order to help me, to enable me to learn, to understand and to grow into the fullness of humanity. And when there is the growth into the fullness of humanity, there is no selfness, an evil core of selfness here, to obstruct the free flow of Transcendent Energy and Life into me and out of me, nothing held back. The Cup of Life is filled to the brim and it overflows for everyone’s blessing. But that which obstructs and prevents at its inmost root is this clinging to (not merely consciously but unconsciously, that’s where the difficultly comes), a postulated immortal self-entity.
Relate this to what we considered sometime last year or maybe the year before. This was in connection with right mindfulness, with perfect mindfulness. With those of us who are attracted by and strive to live the holy life as formulated in the Buddhist discipline, with others in the Hindu discipline, whatever that Hindu discipline may be, with others in the Christian discipline, and so forth, whenever we practise self-recollectedness, to use the Christian mystical phrase, or mindfulness, sati, to use the Indian word, don’t we always practise mindfulness in relationship to a self? Just watch your mind saying to you, “I am angry”, “I am feeling very generous and full of love and kindness.” I am this, that or the other. This is what vitiates the whole thing and makes it useless. Be rightly mindful, rightly conscious. “This is anger”, “This is fear”, not “I am angry”, “I am fearful”, because that postulates this mythical I who does not exist. Empirically, for everyday practical purposes the word I is a convenient word, that is all. But don’t get deluded because of the imposed conditioning from outside as well as the egoistic belief, born of fear, that there is a perpetual I. So you see how you can learn to be rightly mindful, if you are awake to this imposition of the self-concept.
Now, one last point — I think I have strained your attention quite a lot today! Is the end, then, a blank? Is this a doctrine of annihilation? Not at all. Do you therefore expect me to say the contrary and to say that everything is everlasting? That statement is equally misleading and untrue. Approach the matter this way. Leave aside the so-called positive assertion of eternal reality in a substantial way. Leave aside the assertion that the end is a complete destruction or a total annihilation. Both statements are misleading statements. Reality can never be known by the mind functioning in the context of sense perceptions and logical intellectual deduction from those sense perceptions. You can never know Transcendent Reality that way. You can know relative reality, because there is something to compare, but the moment you are in the realm of the relative and in the realm of comparison, you are in the realm of the finite and the particular, and the trouble with the finite and the particular is that, unless you can transcend its limitations, any one finite and particular can often, perhaps always, be in conflict with another. So you are in the realm of dukkha, in the realm of sorrow, suffering, misery and all the rest of it.
But now, if one sees through all this, if through right mindfulness constantly present and through the entry into real samādhi, one becomes free of the whole sense perception, discursive thought process, then Mind in its wholeness, in its unified state, in its utter purity, in its own Transcendent rights as the Creative Energy of the Universe, operates through you. What has happened is that you yourself in that state are the Reality. Remember the Buddha’s words talking about this kind of thing. “It is as if you touch Nirvana with the body.” This is touching Nirvana with the body. Let me put it in what I feel is a slightly clearer form in the English language. Nirvana is in you and through you without any obstruction by you, the living psycho-physical body. So, this Reality, this spiritual fulfilment of our existence on this planet can never be known as an object of perception but is realized, made real, by yourself becoming that Reality. In the state of having become that Reality, the discursive mind can never know it. It is only after it has happened or after each occasion on which it happens that the impress made on the organism is so powerful, so extraordinary that the brain can reconstruct the happening and give it an intellectual verbal form. If one is not free of this inner self-centre, this self-centredness, one will take hold of the words and bend one’s efforts to achieve this “desirable” goal. You will invariably and inevitably fail — fail utterly and miserably. You may succeed in deceiving yourself that you had an experience. Oh yes, yes, you had a wonderful experience, but that was not the Reality. You can’t go and capture God and take him prisoner! I can live in a house, the house can’t live inside me! The house contains me. God is like Space, like Truth, like the Absolute. I can’t capture God, and then in my conceit and pride wave a flag and say, “I’ve got God in my pocket with me, come along!” You can’t do it that way. Just be simple, let go, completely let go everything and the Eternal Reality will shine through you in utter fulfilment.
A most exciting talk! ‘our conceit’ is truly crazy! thank you for making these talks available.
Angela, 20th October 2014
I will be listening to this again and again. Thank you. What stood out for me is where he said: “It is in the unconscious depths of mind that it is so very very powerful, because that is the source of the poison which lasts all through our life.” It is refreshing to hear a teacher acknowledge the power of unconscious conditioning. This is the real work.
Gloria, 7th September 2014
Marvellous. Thank you very much.
Helena, 5th September 2014