CHAPTER 1: INTRODUCTION TO COSMIC QUEST
Readers are invited to share, if they so desire and find beneficial, some of the most profound wisdom found in Buddhism, and experience possibly the most noble and meaningful attainment man can ever achieve, namely spiritual fulfilment irrespective of the religion, or lack of it, they profess.
Cosmic Reality in Science and Religion
Since time memorial man has wondered where he came from and where he will go to. Questions touching on man's origin and destination have been keenly investigated not only in philosophy, metaphysics and religion, but also in the latest sciences. Listen to what one of the greatest scientists, Albert Einstein, has to say about Cosmic Reality:
A human being is part of the whole, called by us "Universe", a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion, of his consciousness. The delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires, and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures, and the whole of nature in its beauty.
The concepts of modern physics often show surprising parallels to the ideas expressed in the religious philosophies of the Far East.
The Tao that can be named, is not the real Tao. The name that can be so named, is not the real name. The nameless is the source of heaven and earth. The named is the mother of all phenomena. Hence, those who have no attachment, can see the mystery of reality. Those with attachment can only see its illusion.
So a Taoist master may describe what Tao is, or give names to any phenomena in the Cosmos, but unless his students have direct experience of Tao or of these phenomena, the subsequent concepts they form of Tao or of the phenomena, are different from what they actually are. This nameless Reality, which is called Tao for convenience, is the source of everything there is; it is omnipresent and omniscient. When we give a name to this nameless Reality, differentiation begins, with the result that we see countless phenomena as separate entities, to which we provide a name each. These phenomena, although they appear real to us because of our sensory and other limitations, are an imitation of reality, not reality itself. If we eliminate our attachment, such as purifying ourselves from selfish desires, we can remove the many layers of distortions to arrive at the mystery of reality. But if we are shrouded by layers of attachment, we can only see an illusion of reality.
Nevertheless, for those who are not yet adequately advanced in mysticism or spirituality to experience the Supreme Reality directly, or those who may lack the faith to practise unwaveringly the techniques taught by the great masters, an intellectual understanding of this Reality as well as the methods to experience it, will be exceedingly helpful, even though such an explanation provides only an imitation of reality, not the reality itself. Asvaghosha's "Awakening of Faith in Mahayana", of which this book is a translation, interpretation and commentary, achieves this and other related aims excellently. Although it is a fundamental Mahayana Buddhist text, it can be applied to any religion. Indeed, Rev. Timothy Richard, who has written one of the only four available English translations of this great work, goes to the extent of saying:
If it be, as it is more and more believed, that the Mahayana Faith, is not Buddhist, properly so called, but an Asiatic form of the same Gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, in Buddhist nomenclature, differing from the old Buddhism just as the New Testament differs from the Old, then it commands a world-wide interest, for in it we find an adaptation of Christianity to ancient thought in Asia, and the deepest bond of union between the different races of the East and the West, viz., the bond of a common religion. ... The almost universal reception of the doctrines contained in this book by both the east and the west constitutes to my mind its highest claim to our attention.
"Awakening of Faith in Mahayana" provides invaluable knowledge not only to disciplines like religion, metaphysics and philosophy, but also to various branches of modern science like physics, psychology and cosmology. Modern scientists will be astonished to find advanced concepts concerning relativity, united energy field, different levels of consciousness, and the limitless expanse of the cosmos in this fascinating work written twenty centuries ago!
The Universality of Religions
How is "Awakening of Faith in Mahayana" applicable to other religions when it is a basic Buddhist text? Although the world's great religions appear to be vastly different in their beliefs and ceremonies, if we study deeply their fundamental philosophies as taught by their greatest teachers, we will find that they are basically similar. This perhaps has to be so, if there is only one Reality or Truth, even if it can be interpreted in and approached from different levels and perspectives. The following simple experiment can make this clear. Below are five descriptions of the basic philosophies of the world's great religions, but with their specific, telling terms replaced by the general term "Supreme Reality". Can you tell which description applies to which religion?
- The Supreme Reality is all. From the Supreme Reality comes appearances, sensations, desires, deeds. But all these are merely name and form.
- There is one Supreme Reality and Source of all mankind, who is Lord of all, works through all, and is in all.
- The special purpose of our existence is to endeavor to work our way back to the Supreme Reality. Our objective in life is to regain union with the Supreme Reality.
- The Supreme Reality permeates everything. Our aim is to be united with the Supreme Reality.
- Avoid doing all forms of evil, practise all forms of goodness; ultimately let your heart return to the Supreme Reality.
Not only is the fundamental philosophy of the world's great religions similar, the spiritual ecstasy of their greatest masters during their direct experience with the Supreme Reality, as well as their methods to attain this ecstasy are similar too. Try to tell the religious affiliation of the masters who use the following methods to attain spiritual fulfilment.
- External contemplation means the turning away of the five emotional senses from the world and all its creatures; and disengaging from them both in society, and from vainglorious and meaningless thoughts when alone.... And internal contemplation is nothing but the guarding of the heart. It is preventing the heart from thinking of anything whatsoever, keeping it free from all vain thoughts.
- Once he is in meditation, he unites his mind with his breath, and eliminates all emotions and all cares, and just focuses on the void.
- Not until the monk has so become cleansed and healed can he begin the proper practice of contemplation. Contemplation itself entails recollection and introversion. Recollection is concentrating the mind, banishing all images, thoughts, and sense perceptions. Having emptied the mind of all distractions, introversion can begin. Introversion concentrates the mind on its own deepest part in what is seen as the final step before the soul finds Reality.
- In all time and at all places meditation is the only means to the attainment of final deliverance, the eternal happiness taught by the Teacher as spiritual fulfilment.
- When the spiritual aspirant has achieved the highest degree of concentration upon a single object, he is ready to attempt the supreme feat -- concentration upon consciousness itself. This is the state of perfect union, in which one passes beyond mind and matter, beyond all object knowledge, into union with Reality -- the undifferentiated universal consciousness.
Below are five descriptions of the masters' ecstatic experience of Reality. Can you tell their religious background?
- Reality establishes himself in the interior of this soul in such a way, that when she returns to herself, it is wholly impossible for her to doubt that she has been in Reality and Reality in her.
- The universe and I have always existed together; every phenomenon and I are one.
- There is no real difference between the Essence and its attributes, or, in other words, between Reality and the universe created by Reality.
- One night during the rest from meditation, I opened my eyes and suddenly there was a great radiance like broad daylight. I could see through everything, inside and out. ... In my whole life I had never felt such joy. It was like waking from a dream.
- Soul and mind instantly lost their physical bondage and streamed out like a fluid piercing light from my every pore. The flesh was as though dead, yet in my intense awareness I knew that never before had I been fully alive. My sense of identity was no longer narrowly confirmed to a body but embraced the circumambient atoms. People on distant streets seemed to be moving gently over my remote periphery. The roots of plants and trees appeared through a dim transparency of the soil. I discerned the inward flow of their sap.
The first example is a record of Saint Theresa's spiritual experience. "Reality" in this quotation should be replaced by "God". The second example is from Chuang Tzu (Zhuang Zi), a Taoist master. The experience of Muhyyuddin Mohammed Ibn al-Arabi, a Muslim master, is described in the third example. The first "Reality" is to be replaced by "God", and the second by "Him". The fourth example is from Hsu Yin, a Buddhist master. Paramahansa Yogananda, a Hindu master, describes his experience in Cosmic Consciousness in the fifth example.
It is significant to note that all these examples are quoted from indisputable authoritative scriptures or masters whose teachings are unequivocally accepted as typical of their respective religions. If we replace characteristic terms like "Brahman", "Tao" or "God" with a neutral term like "Supreme Reality", any one of the quotations can easily be substitute for another, illustrating that the artificial difference between them is not fundamental nor ontological, but due to linguistic and cultural variance.
The experiences of these masters are timeless. Paramahansa Yogananda, for instance, is a present-day yogi, whereas Muhyyuddin Mohammed Ibn al-Arabi lived in the 12th century, while Chuang Tzu lived more than 22 centuries before us.
These experiences also provide us with great inspiration in our own endeavour, for they clearly show that spiritual realization can, and should, be attained while we are still living in this world. As Swami Vivekananda emphasizes, "realization is real religion, all the rest is only preparation." Swami Prabhavananda adds that "Religion is, in fact, a severely practical and empirical kind of research. You take nothing on trust. You accept nothing but your own experience."
This philosophy is in line with Buddhist teaching. Hence, while the material provided in this book represents some of the greatest product of mankind's finest minds, readers are requested not to accept anything based on faith alone, nor even on the reputation of established masters. Readers are invited to share, if they so desire and find beneficial, some of the most profound wisdom found in Buddhism, and experience possibly the most noble and meaningful attainment man can ever achieve, namely spiritual fulfilment irrespective of the religion, or lack of it, they profess. Because of different cultural background, there may be ideas or opinions that some readers may find incredible or may even indignantly oppose, and as Buddhists truly appreciate the right to different opinions, readers are requested to discard such objectionable material as rubbish if they wish. But it should be noted that the great men who presented the information as reported in this book, sincerely believed it to be true, for it is against a principal tenet of Buddhism to tell lies.
Noble Truths and Noble Path
It was no historical co-incidence that many great Buddhist teachers were kings and princes who voluntarily renounced their luxurious ways of living to spread Buddhism. They were not forced to do so, nor were they deranged in mind. In fact most of them made their sacrifice of power and wealth for religion at the prime of their life. Why did they do so? It was because, although as Buddhist monks their worldly possessions were only their begging bowls and a few clothes, they led more rewarding and meaningful lives in Buddhism than even in their palaces, and they wanted to help other people to live rewarding, meaningful lives.
Besides Siddhartha Guatama Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha, some of the great royal personages in Buddhist history include An Shi Kao, a Parthian prince who declined the throne to spread Buddhism to China; Kumarajiva, son of a Kuchean princess and a great translator of Buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit to Chinese; Bodhidharma, a north Indian prince who founded Chan (or Zen) Buddhism in China; the prince and the princess of Asoka the Great, Mahinda and Sanghamitta, who brought Theravada Buddhism to Sri Lanka; Padmasambhava, the scholar-warrior prince of Udyana who declined the throne and spread Vajrayana Buddhism to Tibet; and Subhakarasinha, king of Orissa who was instrumental for the development of Vajrayana Buddhism. Even for this reason alone -- to find out what is so compelling and beautiful in the Buddhist teaching that princes sacrificed the throne for it -- it is worthwhile to learn more about Buddhism.
The gem of the Buddhist teaching is contained in the Buddha's own words:
Avoid doing evil,
And purify the mind.
Due to insufficient understanding, some people mistakenly conclude that Buddhism is pessimistic, mainly because of the first Noble Truth. To say that there is suffering in life does not necessarily mean life is without joy. In fact the whole aim of Buddhism is to seek everlasting joy, not in indulgence of worldly pleasures, but in transcendental bliss of spiritual fulfilment.
There can be very few people in the whole history of humanity who can ever have a more carefree and happy life than the Buddha. Forewarned by a prophecy that his only son would one day leave the palace to be a monk, Siddhartha's father, King Suddhodana, went to the extent of forbidding anyone to breathe a sorrowful word or demonstrate the slightest grief in the presence of the lucky prince. There were hardly any physical needs that the prince found wanting. But Siddhartha later discovered that there was suffering which humanity could not avoid, such as the pain of birth, old age, sickness and death. Yet, such suffering was nothing when compared to the suffering of humanity in the endless cycle of birth and rebirth.
To help humanity overcome suffering and achieve everlasting joy, the Buddha taught the Noble Eight-fold Path, which comprises the following eight precepts: right speech, right action, right livelihood, right understanding, right intention, right effort, right concentration, and right mindfulness. The eight percepts are of three parts: right speech, action and livelihood as moral purity; right understanding and intention as wisdom; and right effort, concentration and mindfulness as meditation.
These three parts should be practised simultaneously. In a condensed description, the Buddhist training prescribes that Buddhists must attain high morality in their words, thoughts and deeds; acquire the wisdom to differentiate between reality and illusion; and persist in purifying the mind in meditation to attain Enlightenment.
One should not be misled by the above very brief summary on the philosophy and practice of Buddhism to believe that Buddhism is simplistic. In fact the hugh collection of Buddhist literature, generally known as Tripitaka, which is more than seven hundred times the size of the Bible, is the most extensive collection of religious works in the world. These works are mainly found in Sanskrit, Pali, Chinese, Japanese and Tibetan. For some reasons, current Western knowledge of Buddhism is principally made through translation of Pali Buddhist literature, which mainly describes Theravada Buddhism. It is a pity that little translation is made from the Chinese, which provides an exceedingly rich and gigantic volume on Mahayana Buddhism.
Amazing Wisdom in Buddhist Philosophy
If you happen to think that the bulk of Buddhist literature is persuading people to be religious, you will be in for a big surprise. Much of Buddhist literature, including some of its most sacred scriptures, provides information that many scientists and philosophers will be amazed at but like to read. Indeed it is difficult to find another field of study that investigates reality more deeply and thoroughly than Buddhism does. For example, more than twenty centuries ago, Buddhist masters accurately described elements, atoms and sub-atomic particles. Their approximation of the atom's size, which works out to be about 10 to the minus tenth power cm, is close to what modern scientists estimate.
Buddhist knowledge of the infinite ocean of stars is equally astounding. Long before Galileo was imprisoned for telling us that our earth is not the centre of the universe, Buddhist masters taught about countless worlds separated by immeasurable distances in countless galaxies. And while our modern scientists debate if life exists anywhere else besides on our minute earth, Buddhist literature explains that life exists everywhere in the universe, and in more forms and at more planes that ordinary minds could imagine or ordinary eyes could see.
Centuries before Einstein's theory helps us to view our universe as a cosmic thought rather than a gigantic machine, Buddhist masters explained that time and space are unreal, but inter-relate to give as an illusion of phenomena. You will find in this book Asvaghosha's explanation on how illusory phenomena arise, and how we can overcome illusion to actualize Cosmic Reality.
Buddhist knowledge on mind is even more fascinating than on matter. Daniel Goleman was so impressed with the Visuddhimagga ("Path of Purification"), a summarized portion of the Abhidharma ("Treatise on Higher Wisdom"), which is only one of literally hundreds of important texts on Buddhist philosophy, that he modestly exclaimed, "Finally, I, a Western psychologist, was truly humbled intellectually. For I saw what psyche logos was really about." The Tibetan master, Chogyam Trungpa, commented that Buddhism came to America as a psychology.
The breadth as well as depth of Buddhist wisdom on consciousness is simply astounding. For example, the Abhidhammattha Sangaha (Compendium of Higher Wisdom) mentions four classes of consciousness, namely, consciousness pertaining to the realm of senses (Kamavacaram Cittani, in Pali), to the realm of form (Rupavacaram Cittani) to the realm of non-form, (Arupavacaram Cittani) and to the supra-mundane (Lokuttara Cittani). The sense-consciousness class is further divided into fifty four types, the form-consciousness into fifteen types, the non-form consciousness into twelve types, and the supramundane consciousness into eight types, making eighty nine types.
Some of such amazing wisdom will be introduced in the next chapter as well as relevant parts in the commentary. Hence, although this book is meant to help people, irrespective of their cultural and religious background, in their quest for Cosmic Reality, others interested in the mysteries of man and the universe will also find this book useful.