The Mar Ngok Summer Teachings 2021
31 August 2021
It is because of the profound and vast philosophies that had already developed in India that when the Buddha gave his teachings, people were ready for it.
His Holiness began by setting out the three parts of the late Vedic period: the four Vedas, the Brahmanical period, and the Age of Philosophy. This is not in chronological order, he clarified, but in terms of the types of Brahmanical literature.
After all the four Vedas had been written down, it enabled the Brahmanical civilization to spread throughout India, based on the mother Vedas, especially the Rigveda. In the Brahmanical period the texts can be divided into the Brāhmana, the Araṇyaka,- the texts of the Forest Dwellers – the Upanishads, and the Kavya or great epics.
The Background and Content of the Brāhmanas
During this period, there was such enthusiasm for the performance of offering rituals that the number of priests increased greatly, and so did their powers. To add extra impact and meaning they elaborated the rituals and increased their complexity.
Whereas in the period of the Rigveda, faith or belief in the gods was paramount, in the period of the Brāhmanas the primary emphasis was on the external appearance, the elaborate display. They even attributed all of the motion in the world to sacrificial rituals so that the performance of sacrificial offerings became the very meaning of life. The notes that were compiled on how to perform these rituals are called the Brāhmanas. In Buddhist terminology, the four Vedas are like the words of the Buddha and the Brāhmanas are the commentaries.
How the Gods Are Viewed in the Brāhmanas
At the end of the Rigveda it is said that all phenomena are as one in essence. The gods from the early Vedas, who had arisen from nature – the sun, the moon, the sky, the earth- gradually became more of an abstraction. These gods of the Early Vedic Period were so high and mighty that people lost connection with them. They wanted someone related to their daily lives, someone more beneficial to turn to. The gods became more like humans, with great flaws in their character; and many new gods appeared.
Similarly, ordinary people think the Three Jewels are too great and too vast, the Karmapa added.
Rudra, who had been a storm god in the Rigveda, became a form of Īśvara or Maheshvara. In the later period of the Brahmanas he became an object of people’s faith, one of the great gods. Mahādeva or “Great God”, who was identified in a Brahmanical text as the most important god, also appeared in this era. Later Mahadeva became Ishvara.
It’s hard to distinguish between what was true and what was made up. In two Brāhmana texts there’s a legend of Vishnu exiling a demigod beneath the earth so that he gained control of half the earth. There’s another legend of Indra beheading Vishnu.
Nonetheless, there are many amazing and inspiring legends. One of the most famous of these tales is a myth about Manu similar to the story of Noah’s Ark in the Old Testament. The Vedic literature describes Manu as the ancestor of humankind. Manu itself means man.
One day when Manu was washing his hands, a fish swam over and said, “Please take care of me. One day I will be of great help to you.” So Manu started raising this fish and it grew very large. Suddenly one day, the fish said: “There will be a huge flood in the next few years. You have to do what I say and prepare a boat.” Manu made the boat and got ready. After a few years, there was a great flood. Manu immediately got on the boat he had prepared in advance. The fish swam over, pulled the boat across the North Mountain, and finally moored it under a tree. When the flood subsided, Manu got off the boat and saw that all the living creatures were drowned, and only he survived. Manu then felt responsible to recreate the human race. One day, a woman named Ila appeared out of the ocean. Ila told Manu: If you sacrifice me, you will be able to have offspring, descendants and livestock. I will be happy too. So Manu did what she said, and here we all are, Manu’s descendants! Therefore, human beings are called the sons of Manu.
It seems that there are similar myths all over the world. This story seems also to be very similar to the Great Yu’s control of water in China. As to why this happens, is still unclear. It’s possible that a great flood actually happened. (In the photo that His Holiness showed, we can see seven Rishis in a boat with a massive fish swimming beside it.)
Philosophies that developed from the Brāhmanas
The philosophies that arose from the Brāhmanas are not strictly speaking even philosophies. They were primarily based on sacrificial offerings and their meaning.
There are many kinds of thought in the Brāhmanas, some explained at a high philosophical level, some more ordinary. There are many topics, words, citations, and logic. But their manner of thinking and style of logic are all basically the same. Thus the German scholar Deussen appraised it as, “There were many but only a few.”
‘He has a point’, the Karmapa agreed. ‘The philosophies they developed were many but they have only a few points to make’.
The Āraṇyakas, meaning the forest dwellers in Sanskrit, was another important branch of Vedic literature. It derives from the texts written by Brahmans or Kshatriyas who went into seclusion. In forests, one cannot do many of the Brahmanic offering rituals, so they became more like contemplatives pondering philosophy. This became a tradition which substituted for rituals.
The Brahmanas describe how to perform rituals at home. The Āraṇyakas describe what to recite when doing rituals in isolated places. In brief, the Āraṇyakas are the latest or the newest collection of Brahmanic literature. However, they make up only a small percentage of Vedic literature and do not bring up anything particular in philosophical terms.
The development of the view of samsara
Even before the Upanishads, there was an important point people had begun to think about. In Buddhism we call it korwa or cyclic existence, and we speak about samsara and nirvana. These are some of the most important terms. When the term first appeared in the Vedic period, it was merely as a seed. During the time of the Rigveda people did not think about future lives and if they did, they thought they would be reborn with their ancestors in the land of the gods, living eternally, and enjoying all the pleasures. There was no thought of different types of rebirth in an unending series of lifetimes.
By the time of the Upanishads, a complete view of samsara had developed and was widespread. The endless cycle of birth and death was accepted by all philosophies and religions and its meaning was investigated. Scholars have no single answer to the historical timing of this change. Probably at the time of the Brahmanas the foundations of the view began and later at the time of the Upanishads the entire framework developed from which many views and schools emerged.
Samsara is a vast and profound idea, the Karmapa added. In Buddhism it’s something we investigate very seriously.
The development of the Upanishads ca. 1000 BCE to 1000 CE.
When the responsibility for rituals was given to the priests, eventually the ritual became paramount. The inner meaning of religion lost its life force as if rotting from within. Some wise people in the Kshatriya caste looked at the Brahmans doing elaborate and meaningless rituals and they began to doubt whether these were beneficial. These wise men began to wonder what is the meaning of life. What is the essence of life? How did the world appear? Who am I? How did I appear? What will happen in the future? This is the beginning of a philosophical view. Even some of the Brahmans began to think in this new way and went to the Kshatriyas to study philosophy. In order to have philosophy we have to have doubts and suspicions. These are the seeds. We say ‘me’ but who am I?
In brief, while the foundations of the idea of samsara are from the period of the Brahmanas, it was during the time of the Upanishads that the framework of the philosophy appeared, like a fresh shoot pushing through the earth and arising in the later Vedic Period.
To speak in terms of content and composition, the Upanishads are like the heart of ancient Indian philosophy. But it’s not a single autonomous text; they are collections of fragments about philosophy, so their topics are scattered; it is not clear what is the main and what is subsidiary. Different scholars of the time wrote their opinions and compiled them into one. Here we speak primarily about the early Upanishads and what are accepted as the 13 or 7 ancient Upanishads.
The people who understood the actual meaning of the Vedas were Kshatriyas, not the Brahmins, and it was this royal caste who spread the Upanishads, like the King Vidya Gyanaka who influenced its spread. It is worth noting that both founders of Buddhism and Jainism were Kshatriyas.
The meaning of the word Upanishad
There are there parts to the word: upa + ni + ṣhad. The meaning is sitting close or in front of. European scholars say that the syllable ṣhad (sitting) is the root, and although some Indian scholars do not agree, linguistically the European scholars’ view is the best. The meaning of sitting close comes from the meaning of the words pariṣad and samsad. It means the teacher and the student sit face to face. The aim is to be able to give spiritual instructions or pith instructions without anyone else learning the profound meaning.
The Upaniṣhads were taught secretly. There were also conditions: both teacher and student had to live in the same place; it was given only to the eldest son, and only if he kept the vows purely, and was peaceful and subdued. Among the Upanishads, the words ‘rahasya’ (secret), ‘guhya adesaḥ’ (secret pith instructions) and ‘paramam guhya’ (supreme secret) are used frequently. The Upanishad was only for superior students.
The philosophy of the Upanishads
The main topic of the Upanishads is the ultimate nature as discovered by the wise men of that time. It is divided into two topics: 1. Universal spiritual law, the philosophy of the nature or essence of the world and 2. the philosophy of the final result.
1.The philosophy of the nature of the world
All the Upanishads have a particular philosophy: that all phenomena relate to Brahma, not a god or individual. Brahma is the ultimate nature, and all that arises radiates from and dissolves into Brahma. Everything of the sensual world – what we see, hear, smell, touch, taste- all arise from and dissolve into Brahma. How does it arise? It has to come from a single source and that is what was called Brahma. From being a god, Brahma became the nature of everything. For example, the Big Bang theory as the beginning of the universe is the contemporary view, but the view in the Upanishads is deeper and more profound than that. It accounts for the time even before matter appeared. Brahma is cognition or awareness.
The meaning of saying everything is Brahma or arises from Brahma is that the world we see arises from the expanse of Brahma and in the end will dissolve back into Brahma.
“All should understand that the essence of Brahma is cognition or awareness, and his form is light. The nature of Brahma is empty. Emptiness pervades the world, is unobstructive, and indescribable. This is beyond our conception. Who is the Self? Who is me? What am I? Brahma is my inner self, smaller than a grain of rice; he is greater than the earth, vaster than the sky. He is vaster and greater than this universe. My inner self is Brahma”.
‘I am about to become a Hindu if I’m not careful!’, His Holiness remarked at this point.
The view of how things are
The Japanese scholar Takakusu Junjirō in the 18th or 19th century classified this philosophy into how things are and how they appear. The search for the nature of all things must begin with the ātman. It begins by looking inwards, not outwards. There is no end to looking outside at things. The essence of the Upanishads is rather ‘Who am I’? What is the me or the self? The philosophy is very complicated, but fundamentally, it is similar to Buddhism. By searching for the entity or essence that is the self, in the end it leads to the nature of all phenomena.
Thus meaning of self or ātman is a crucial point to understand, His Holiness emphasized. Buddhists call it ‘the view of the self’ and leave it at that. But how do they look at the self? What is the self they find? What do they say about that? If we just say that the non-Buddhists believe in a self and leave it at that it’s not true.
2. The view of how things appear
There are 3 explanations in the Upanishads for the world of external appearances that arises in the sphere of our faculties.
- a. Saying they are mind. Brahma – not the god – but a universal or cosmic mind, from which all phenomena are asserted to arise. This is similar to explanations in the Avatamsaka Sutra and Mind Only in the Buddhist texts. Mind is the basic luminous nature that pervades all phenomena.
- b. The all-pervasive god. That means Brahma is divided into two aspects, one is the actual nature and the other is mere external appearance. This is similar to the Buddhist view of Shentong and Rangtong. The relation between how things appear and how they are, is like water and waves: the same in essence but looking separate. This is the view that everything is Brahma.
- c. All phenomena are emanations of Brahma or arise from him, and Brahma is the creator. However, each phenomenon has its own characteristic mode of existence. First Brahma made all phenomena, and then a difference appeared between Brahma and phenomena. This is like a tradition that asserts that subjects and objects or the perceiver and perceived are separate in nature.
The Upanishad called the Svetasvatara asserts that all phenomena arose because of ignorance (avidya) of Brahma from beginningless time. Brahma has two parts, the knowing and the ignorant. When moved by ignorance the appearances of this world arise. This is similar to explanations of adventitious stains in teachings on Buddha Nature.
The Karmapa concluded with an overview of Indian culture and philosophy.
Even during ancient times in India there was such a great increase in the intelligence of the people that they were able to come to a high level of philosophy similar to the Buddhists. That is why the Buddhist teachings were able to flourish. The Buddha was incredibly intelligent and he was born in India. He was able to introduce the realization he had attained within his own mind because people had achieved a high level of thinking. If the people had not come to such a high level, then he would have been in danger. They could have beaten him up. It is because of the profound and vast philosophies that had already developed in India that when the Buddha gave his teachings, people were ready for it.
When we talk about the non-Buddhists in fact they were all extremely learned people. The Rishis, the Sankyas – their philosophies are all extremely profound. Maybe they were bodhisattvas, the Karmapa speculated. They were not extremists. We have to study and appreciate their philosophy. Only then can we appreciate the way Buddhism developed. It came on a vast and very great foundation. It was based on thousands of years of advanced philosophy. Only when we understand that can we understand how and why the Buddha appeared.
The Buddha started from nothing and had to speak. It’s not easy. There were no followers. Because he was so superior in intelligence and conduct, even the people at a high level recognized him as a great being, a great master. He could speak movingly to all the different castes, and all economic levels. What he said is the way things actually are.