Life’s Ideal

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For all the Indian schools of thought, except the Caarvaakas and the early Mimaamsa, the ideal of life is to obtain salvation. Salvation lies in transcending the world of becoming, which is the world of action (dharma). But becoming is a combination of being and non-being for the Buddhists.

Therefore, they say that salvation lies in a realm that is beyond being and non-being. As that realm cannot be described in terms of being and non-being, it is the void. As the state of salvation does not belong to the world of becoming, it is absolute non-disturbance (nirvana), absolute peace. One can have some experience of nirvana in perfect meditation, which is the culmination of the eight-fold Aryan Way taught by the Buddha.
The Buddha himself underwent a great deal of self-mortification and ascetic practices. He realized that the ascetic practices, by themselves, do not lead to nirvana, which could be obtained only by enlightenment. Enlightenment lies in understanding and realizing the true nature of the man and the world, that is, in grasping the significance of the four Aryan Truths.

The Buddha, therefore, taught what is called the Middle Way (Path), which consists neither in extreme self-mortification nor in extreme self-indulgence, for proper enlightenment. The emphasis is on enlightenment, which cuts away the original ignorance (avidya). It is, therefore, based on knowledge (jnaana). The whole Buddhist philosophy may be regarded as preaching the way of knowledge (jnaanamaarga). In fact, Asanga, the Vijnaanavaadin, speaks explicitly of the way of knowledge.
Although Buddhism laid emphasis on the way of knowledge from the beginning, the idea that the destination also is knowledge (jnaana, prajnaa) entered a few schools of the Hinayana like the Prajnaaptivaadins, and later the Mahayana. Although the Prajnaapaaramitaas speak of the highest form of knowledge, wisdom or consciousness, it is only the Vijnaanavaadins that speak of consciousness (vijnaana) as the ultimate reality and the goal of man.

When the destination also becomes conscious, then there is very little difference between Buddhism and the Upanisadic theory of the Atman. In fact, Asanga uses the word atman in several places of his work, when he refers to the highest consciousness (vijnaana). This highest consciousness is not eternal, but a timeless moment, for some of the Vijnaanavaadins. The difference between the two expressions, eternal and timeless, is not substantial, and only scholastic.

The Hinayana, on the whole, considers nirvana as individualistic. ‘Every man strives for his own salvation and obtains it for himself' is the essence of its teaching. The individualistic ideal is called the arhat ideal.

The Mahayana introduces altruism into its spiritual ideal, and formulates its bodhisattva ideal. Literally, bodhisattva means one whose being (sattva) is enlightenment (bodhi). The bodhisattva, although enlightened, does not enter the state of nirvana, and is ready to take as many births as necessary for helping the rest of the world in obtaining the same enlightenment.

He is perfect in the practice of the six virtues (paaramitaas). They are charity, character, endurance, zeal, meditation and knowledge or wisdom. He may be a monk or a householder. Incidentally the Mahayana allows its monks to marry and become householders. He is all compassion (karuna) for the ignorant, sinful and miserable human beings. He is ready to exchange his merits for their demerits, and suffer for them. The ideal of vicarious suffering thus replaces the original individualistic Hinayana ideal.

With the evolution of the Mahayana, particularly of the Bhutatathataa and Vijnaanavaada schools, the religious thought of Buddhism underwent a dramatic transformation. The ideal of life, which appeared in the beginning as negative or at least empty because of the idea of the voidness of nirvana, became gradually positive.

First, the state of nirvana, which was a mere void, became the enlightened consciousness (bodhi). Second, this enlightened consciousness became the self-conscious truth or reality beyond Ignorance (Avidyaa). Third, it was equated to the essential conscious being of Buddha, to the supra-mundane body. Fourth, since the ultimate Reality, the source of the world, and what Buddha became when he entered Nirvana were considered one and the same, it was thought that what anyone would become when he entered Nirvana would also be the ultimate reality. Fifth, it was, therefore, announced that everyone could become Buddha, since the essential nature, source, and destiny of everyone was the same reality. Sixth, as Nirvana is the same as ultimate Reality, the latter is the essence not only of man but also of everything else.

In Buddhist terminology, everything in the world is dharma. Dharma generally means nature, law, quality, etc. According to Buddhism, everything is itself (svalaksana, svaruupa). It is, therefore, its own nature, law and form. It follows that it is its own dharma; it is a dharma. But the ultimate nature of everything is the ultimate Reality, which is the Dharma of all dharmas. It is the Dharmakaaya, Dharmadhaatu, the way, the nature, the truth of all things. It is everything; it is the reality beyond ignorance (avidya). All the formative forces (samskaaras) are embedded in it. This ultimate Dharma is beyond all description.

According to the Mimaamsa, dharma is the ethical force that creates the world of forms out of certain eternal elements, and that the world of forms is the field of action and enjoyment for man. Buddhism, in its Mahayana forms, retains this dharma as part of the formative forces (samskaaras), but goes beyond the Mimaamsa.

For the Mimaamsa, there are eternal elements on which the ethical force works. But for the Mahayana, the objects and their constituents also are products of the formative forces. If at all, we can seek objectivity in the formative forces, but not in the objects we perceive.
Some of the formative forces are the ethical potencies engendered by past actions; but the others are universal. It is the others that are objective and work through every man, not merely through a particular individual. In their universality, they can find a place for one's ethical potencies also that relate to one.

Thus all the forces, both the universal and the individual, have a unity that has cosmic significance. All are dharmas. Together they constitute a unitary Dharma. They are rooted in ignorance (avidya), which also is a dharma. But the highest Reality is beyond ignorance and is the Dharma of which everything else is, somehow, a part. Thus the Mimaamsa concept of dharma becomes in Buddhism a concept of ultimate reality with dynamic, but indescribable, power or force. The aim of man's life is to realize that he is essentially one with such ultimate reality.

The Buddhist conception of Reality and life's ideal is too sublime, abstract and remote for the common man to understand. Buddhism, therefore, introduces more positive, concrete and picturesque forms of the ideal in its important works, and devotional forms of worship like that of the god or goddess of mercy. It has even allowed itself to degenerate into some of the vulgar forms of tantrism. But the Buddha is never mentioned by the orthodox Hindus and philosophers as having taught any tantric doctrines. It may be that a few consider him to have misled people into atheism, but most Hindus say that he was an incarnation of the Supreme Being embodying infinite compassion (karuna).

It may be worthwhile to remember that there is a Hindu tradition according to which each of the ten incarnations of God Visnu embodies one great emotion such as compassion, anger, love, heroism, wonder, etc. The life of an incarnation is working out of the emotion and its final subsidence in the Supreme Being. The incarnation of the Buddha, according to this tradition, relates to the emotion of compassion.

K. R. Paramahamsa is an author of book Buddhism In Scripture and Practice


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