The Mar Ngok Summer Teachings 2021
2 September 2021
The Gyalwang Karmapa opened by revising a comment he had made on Day Six that the Upanishads present views on the ultimate nature of the world and karmic cause and effect. Upon further reflection, His Holiness said, it was more accurate to say the Upanishads address the ultimate aim of practice.
Karmapa then addressed how samsara and karma are presented in the Upanishads, explaining that while the words are the same ones that we use in Buddhism, the concepts are not. In the Upanishads, samsara and karma are presented in a simpler manner; they gained complexity and nuance as they were developed in Buddhist thought. “From the Buddhist perspective, we call (the Upanishads) non-Buddhist extremist texts,” Karmapa said.
The View of Samsara
According to the Upanishads, life has two different outcomes – samsara or liberation. Samsara is distinguished by ignorance, where we take mere appearances as real. Liberation is achieved when we realize how things really are and rest in dharmata, which is the ātman or self. “In the Upanishads, either samsara or liberation awaits us,” Karmapa said. “We are going to go to one or the other.”
When the Brāhmanas appeared, the idea of samsara began to spread widely in India. By the time of the Upanishads, the view of samsara had become stable, and later generations believed in it strongly. The philosophy of karma – the basis of the philosophy of samsara – was also established in the Upanishads.
The idea that people are reborn in samsara because of desire comes from the Upanishads. Consciousness gives rise to motivations, which give rise to actions of body and speech, which lead to the accumulation and ripening of karma. Whether it is good or bad karma depends on the actions that were taken. One’s current lifetime is the result of actions taken in previous lifetimes; and the karma accumulated in this lifetime is the cause of future lifetimes. “One life follows upon the other with no gaps in between as people continually cycle in samsara,” Karmapa said. This cycling from one life to another is the origin of the word samsara (saṃsāra = saṃ + sṛ), which means to return.
The Upanishads also developed the idea of revulsion for samsara because samsara is inexhaustible suffering, an ocean of suffering from which we need to be liberated. There are many Upanishads: the Brhadararyaka Upaniṣhad recommended cultivating revulsion for samsara by asserting that the ātman or self alone is immortal. Everything else is arising and perishing, which is suffering.
The Maitrayaniya Upanishad asserted that all of this world and our body are suffering by nature. This is similar to the Buddhist view, according to Karmapa. Samsara is not real and must be abandoned. “If someone wants to cross over the ocean of suffering, there is one method, and what is that?” Karmapa asked. “To rest in equipoise and meditation on the ultimate nature.” This is the cause of gaining the ultimate happiness or liberation. There is no other method.
The View of Liberation
The ultimate aim of the Upanishads was to show people how to liberate themselves from the darkness of delusion and to rest within their own nature. However, the proper methods for achieving liberation were subject to debate and investigation.
The vidyā or ‘awareness’ discussed in the Upanishads is not the same thing as awareness in daily life. Rather, it is the inconceivable and ineffable ātma-vidyā (awareness of self) or brahma-vidyā (awareness of Brahma).
Virtuous acts are not sufficient to free us from samsara; nonetheless, people must perform the usual offerings and sacrifices and behave in an upstanding manner. Some Upanishads teach the five behaviors of yoga: austerity (tapas), generosity (dana), sincerity (arjava), nonviolence (ahimsa) and speaking truthfully. Later, the Upanishads added the ritual of nyāsa, the divination of the body, so that one’s afflictions and obscurations would naturally be pacified.
The Upanishads recommend the practices of dhyana (meditative concentration) and yoga to unite the strength of body and mind, distance oneself from distractions, and support the practice of meditation. To practice, one would go to unpopulated forests, riverbanks, or caves, sit up straight, focus on the inhalation and exhalation of the breath, and meditate on the symbol of Brahma, oṃ. This would bring you closer to Brahma, reduce your afflictions and stains, and open the door to vidyā (awareness). The actions (karma) accumulated in previous lives would gradually be purified, and all the results that would ripen in future lives would be extinguished. In the end, ignorance would be completely eradicated, and you would achieve the state of liberation.
Brief Comparison of the Vedas, Brahmanas, and Upanishads.
The Vedas originated in Punjab in the northwest of India, though among them, the Atharvaveda originated in Varanasi, to the east of Punjab. The Upanishads are from the north and south of India. The Ramayana originated in central India and it is likely the Mahābhārata did also.
There are differing views on the gods in the literature of the Vedas, Brāhmanas, and Upanishads. In the Vedas, humans make offerings to external gods and there are only ideas about what the actual, internal gods might be. In the Brāhmanas, humans make use of the external gods and the actual, internal gods become recipients of offerings. In the Upanishads, external gods are disregarded and offerings are made directly to the actual, internal gods. But these three types of literature are not completely different: The Brāhmanas propagated the philosophy of the rituals in the Vedas, and the Upanishads investigate philosophy taught in the Brahmanas in accordance with intellectual logic.
Thus it is difficult to arrange the Vedas, Brāhmanas, and Upanishads in a chronological order because there is overlap in the different eras. If we look at which was leading in its era, there were the Vedas, the Brāhmanas, the Upanishads, and finally the philosophical schools.
The Two Great Epics: The Mahābhārata and The Ramayana
The two great epics, the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyana, are considered the most important literary works in Indian history, jewels of the world, and indispensable texts in terms of history. The Mahābhārata consists of 74,000 stanzas and is the third longest epic in world literature. If one person recited it without any breaks, it would take two weeks to recite the entire text! This epic is estimated to have been recorded in writing between the 3rd century BCE and 5th century CE – 800 years – so there are multiple authors. When the Mahābhārata first appeared, it was only recited orally and preserved in an oral transmission; only later was it recording in writing The Bhagavad Gītā, an extremely significant text in Indian literature is found in the Mahābhārata.
It is said that the first author of the Mahābhārata was the Sage Vyāsa. He recited it orally and Ganesha was the scribe who wrote it down. The epic is so long and Ganesha wrote so quickly that he wore out his pen, pulled out his right tusk and wrote it with that! This is why Ganesha does not have a right tusk.
The Mahābhārata has not been translated into Tibetan, but there are some works that were part of the text. The most well-known is the Story of Pandu’s Five Sons written by Dzasak Lhamon Yeshe Tsultrim in the 20th century, during the time of the 9th Panchen Lama. That story was extracted from the Mahābhārata and tells how Pandu’s five sons won a war. Governing the kingdom, the eldest son, Yudhiṣṭhira, grew despondent over his past misdeeds, gave up his kingdom and went to the Himalayas, probably Mt. Kailash in Tibet. “In some Tibetan histories, it is said that the first Tibetan king Nyatri Tsenpo was Yudhiṣṭhira.”
The other great epic is the Rāmāyana – the story of the king Rama. It is 24,000 stanzas long (a quarter of the length of the Mahabhrata) and was written down over two centuries starting around 300 BCE. The character of the monkey Sun Wukong in the well-known Chinese tale Tales of Travels to the West is said to show the influence of Hanuman. His name means noble monkey; in Tibetan it would be known as the monkey who realized emptiness
To compare the two epics, the Mahābhārata tells of a violent war in the 13th century BCE. It primarily talks about the kings of the Moon Dynasty in areas near present-day Delhi in the western part of central India. The Rāmāyana describes events around the 11th century BCE and the great kingdom of the Sun Dynasty in the land of Ayodhya in the eastern part of central India.
There is a 9th century translation of the Rāmāyana into Tibetan found in the Dunhuang caves. Likewise, in the 15th century, Shangshung Chöwang Drakpa wrote a famous poem related to the story of the Rāmāyana. Later Gendun Choephel translated a summary of the Rāmāyana, but it was incomplete and completed by his student Rakra Tretong. There is no complete translation of the Rāmāyana into Tibetan.
The two great epics mention the two great dynasties of Sauryakulam (Sun Clan) and Somavaṃśha (Moon Clan). The Purāṇas, which are histories of ancient events, took the oral traditions about these ancient kings and their clans and put them in writing
In the Mahābhārata, King Bhārata had two sons, Dhritarashta and Pandu; their descendants are called the Somavaṃśha (Moon Clan). They are said to have come from the moon to the earth, so they are to be descendants of the clan of the moon. Their descendants had a dispute and had a war.
Manu (whom we mentioned the other day) was in the line of kings of Kosala, and he was asserted to be in the Sauryakulam (Sun Clan), King Ikṣvāku was said to be his grandson. Some also say he was his son.
In the Purāṇas histories, when the Bharatas and Pañcalas fought their war, there are 93 members in the line of the Saurya or Sun kings, and 45 in the line of the Soma or Moon kings.
“The reason I need to speak about this is because in Buddhist texts, Buddha Shakyamuni is said to be in the lineage of the kings of the Sun Clan,” Karmapa said. In a commentary on the Prajnaparamita Sutra in Chinese called the Dàzhì dù lùn, Mahāprajñāpāramitā-śāstr, the Buddha is said to be “Friend of the Sun” or “Clan of the Sun.” In the Rigveda, Surya is the name of the Sun God and descendants such as Buddha who were born into this clan. The topic of the Buddha being born in the Sun Clan is also described briefly in Buddhist scriptures the Sutta-nipāta in Pali and the Sutra on Going Forth Pabbajjāsutta.
Gautama goes forth and on the way from Kapilavastu to Shravasti, meets King Bimbisara of Magadha and says: “My ancestry is the sun and my clan is the Shakya. O King, I do not have desire for desires and have gone forth from that home.”
The name the Buddha’s familial clan was the Shakyas, but his ancestry is included in the Sun Clan. Since he was part of the Sun Clan, he was a descendent of King Ikṣvāku. The names of most of the kings in the Sun Clan are related to agriculture and fields, which shows that the Shakya clan comes from a lineage of farmers. It was a minor kingdom of goddess-worshippers, and worshippers of the sun. In the Mahayana and Secret Mantra, Buddha Shakyamuni is seen as Vairochana, who is synonymous with the sun. If we look at the castes of ancient India, the Buddha is in the Kshatriya or warrior caste.
The Solidification of the Caste System
Karmapa said it is important to look at castes in more detail because it was the basic framework of Indian society at that time. “Whatever job you were going to have went on the basis of caste,” Karmapa said. “If we understand the topic of caste, then we can understand why the Buddha’s teachings spread so widely.”
As background to the Indo-Aryan invasion, Karmapa said that India had very little contact with other countries for more than 1,000 years as it was surrounded on three sides by oceans and the Himalayas to the north. “Such a situation is extremely rare in world history, and it had both advantages and disadvantages,” Karmapa said. On the positive side, the lack of enemies helped give rise to a vibrant Indian civilization with many different views and practices. The weather was good, the land was fertile and the people lived in relative peace. “If you don’t have food and peace, forget about philosophy,” Karmapa commented.
On the negative side, as Indian society developed during that time, it suppressed the rights and freedoms of people. Some scholars have suggested that when the lighter-skinned Indo-Aryan peoples conquered the darker-skinned indigenous people of India, they distinguished people based on their skin color or varṇa, the Sanskrit word for caste. “To put it very simply, caste was first a way to distinguish the Indo-Aryan and non-Indo-Aryan peoples,” Karmapa said.
The Indo-Aryan people came from Central Asia in stages over several hundred years as separate tribes and clans, not a single ethnic group. “It is like how we Tibetans say ‘foreigners’ or ‘westerners’ for people from Europe, America, Africa,” said Karmapa. “The Indo-Aryans were not a single ethnic group and the distinctions between Brahmans, Kshatriya, and so forth were not made based on ethnicity.”
During the Vedic period, the Indo-Aryan peoples divided themselves into the three castes of Brahman (priests), Kshatriya (soldiers and kings) and Vaishya (traders and laborers). Non-Aryan peoples were called Shudras and regarded as inferior. “Gradually, this situation became fixed and there was no way to get out of it,” Karmapa said. “As the Vedic period came to a close, the distinctions in caste grew sharper.”
The highest caste is the Brahmans, who at first were priests and who passed their work down from father to son. At the end of the Vedic period, powerful kingdoms arose and it became necessary to continually perform extremely elaborate rituals. No one other than the priests know how to perform the complicated rituals, so their status grew.
They were considered to be completely superior to the masses of ordinary people. “Rituals are a way to make a connection between humans and gods. Not everyone had the phone – it was in the Brahmans’ hands and no one else could use it. They became like living gods. The word Brahman first originated as the name of one of the four types of priests to perform rituals. Later as Brahmans became more important, Brahman was explained as meaning “a son of Brahma,” the god.
The Brahmans had religious authority and people recognized that they were the only avenue for making a connection between the gods and humans. In the Brahmana called the Śhathapatha Brahmana, it is said there are two types of gods: the gods who are recipients of offerings are the gods, and the gods who are givers of the offerings are human gods. “The Manusmṛiti says ‘whether they are educated or not, the Brahmans are great gods.’ You can’t criticize them for not being educated!”
However, it was not easy to become an actual Brahman who would be invited to perform sacrifices or rituals. One had to have such qualities as a good voice so they could recite the texts, “like our chant masters,” said Karmapa. They were also expected to have a good complexion, thin figure, education, to be stable in behavior, virtuous and not too young. They had to follow many rules, and had a lot of responsibilities. Even in the middle of the Vedic period, the Brahmans were allowed to marry outside their own caste.
Kshatriya caste (royal/military caste)
The second is the Kshatriya caste, including kings and ministers.
In the early Vedic period, there was no particular Kshatriya caste. The king was the leader or protector of a tribe or clan. Later the Indo-Aryans moved southward and their population and area grew much larger, so the chieftans’ powers also increased greatly. This was the beginning of the Kshatriya caste.
The word Kṣhatriya is derived from the word kṣatra which means power, so it means someone with power. Thus the Kshatriya caste are the soldiers and kings, principally the kings. They are the ones with political power and those who engaged in military activities, so that was their profession. Instead of studying the Vedas and performing sacrifices, they primarily had the responsibility for protecting the kingdom and populace. They had the right to study the Vedas.
The Vaishya were the common people – farmers, craftspeople, tradesmen and merchants, members of the productive trades. This word comes from the root viś which means people/subjects, the same as what we mean by “common people.”
Their responsibility was to be the servants to the once-born [the other three castes], because they had no right to practice religion. They had a human birth and served the other three castes.
How the caste distinctions arose
Simply put, caste distinctions arose from the division of labor. However, the origins of the caste system later were explained by various legends and myths. According to the text called the Vāyupurana, at first there was no distinction in class, but later the god Brahma divided people up in order to distribute work. Similarly, in the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa there is a myth explaining how the four castes arose from the parts of Brahma’s body.
In the Early Vedic Period there were continual conflicts between Brahmans and Kshatriyas. It was a power struggle, and there were many disputes.
A Summary of the Brahmanic Period
In this period there were cities with protective walls, royal palaces and houses with beautiful decorations. People had good feelings toward their kings. Agriculture improved and farmers had to give a portion of their crops to the king as tax. There were judges and police, and everyone respected the laws.
However, the way justice was dispensed was barbaric. For example, whether a person was guilty or not depended upon whether they could be burnt or not. If their hand was put on top of a hot iron and did not get burnt, they were innocent, but if it they did get burnt, they were considered guilty. Murder, robbery, rape, and drunkenness were considered major crimes.
Royal palaces were hubs for education, like schools. All the learned people would gather there and hold discussions, and the royal priests with knowledge and good conduct whom people regarded with faith would conduct sacrifices in the palace and do what they could to increase people’s education. Sometimes kings would hold large conferences, inviting many scholars to discuss sacrificial rituals, the improvement of consciousness (How does it go to the next lifetime?), the nature of the gods, the nature of the world, and so forth.
The priests also had their own individual schools, and there were among them learned ones who would give advice. Likewise there were scholars who, when they got old, would go to live in solitude in the forests. Such scholars were always surrounded by students, so they would with great confidence tell all of their experiences in investigating philosophy and their students would write these down in notes, so later people are able to understand the experiences and views of that period.
Thus, in comparison with the earlier period, the Brahmanic period was much more civilized. In terms of households and society, in this period it was clearly determined what one’s responsibilities were. From such evidence, we can see that the civilization had reached a high level.
The young, whether Brahman, Kshatriya, or Vaishya, were all allowed to receive an education, and there was not such a great difference between them. Women’s position was good: they could inherit wealth, participate in rituals, go to meetings and speak in gatherings. “We also see many images of women among teachers, politicians, and government workers. They did not have the same level of freedom as in current Western society, but they did have some freedom and rights; it was not so conservative and repressive.” In later times, however, when different philosophies appeared, “women’s position worsened.”