The Writings of Alfred Percy Sinnett
A COMPLETE assimilation of
esoteric teaching up to the point we have now reached will enable us to
approach the consideration of the subject which exoteric writers on Buddhism
have generally treated as the doctrinal starting-point of that religion.
Hitherto, for want of any better method of seeking out the true meaning of Nirvana, Buddhist scholars have generally picked the world to pieces, and examined its roots and fragments. One might as hopefully seek to ascertain the smell of a flower by dissecting the paper on which its picture was painted. It is difficult for minds schooled in the intellectual processes of physical research - as all our Western nineteenth-century minds are, directly or indirectly - to comprehend the first spiritual state above this life, that of Devachan. Such conditions of existence are but partly for the understanding, a higher faculty must be employed to realize them, and all the more is it possible to force their meaning upon another mind by words. It is by first awakening that higher faculty in his pupil, and then putting the pupil in a position to observe for himself, that the regular occult teacher proceeds in such a matter.
Now there are the usual seven
states of Devachan, suited to the different degrees of spiritual enlightenment
which the various candidates for that condition may obtain; there are rûpa and arûpa locas in Devachan - that is to say, states which take
(subjective) consciousness of form and states which transcend these again. And
yet the highest Devachanic state in arûpa loca is not to be compared to that wonderful condition of
pure spirituality which is spoken of as Nirvana.
In the ordinary course of Nature during a round, when the spiritual monad has accomplished the tremendous journey from the first planet to the seventh, and has finished for the time being its existence there - finished all its multifarious existences there, with their respective periods of Devachan between each - the Ego passes into a spiritual condition, different from the Devachanic state, in which, for periods of inconceivable duration, it rests before resuming its circuit of the worlds. That condition may be regarded as the Devachan of its Devachanic states - a sort of review thereof - a superior state to those reviewed, just as the Devachanic state belonging to any one existence on earth is a superior state to that of the half-developed spiritual aspirations or impulses of affection of the earth-life. That period - that intercyclic period of extraordinary exaltation, as compared to any that have gone before, as compared even with the subjective conditions of the planets in the ascending arc, so greatly superior to our own as these are - is spoken of in esoteric science as a state of partial Nirvana. Carrying on imagination through immeasurable vistas of the future, we must next conceive ourselves approaching the period which would correspond to the intercyclic period of the seventh round of humanity, in which men have become as gods. The very last, most elevated, and glorious of the objective lives having been completed, the perfected spiritual being reaches a condition in which a complete recollection of all lives lived at any time in the past returns to him. He can look back over the curious masquerade of objective existences, as it will seem to him then, over the minutest details of any of these earth-lives among the number through which he has passed, and can cognizance of them and of all things with which they were in any way associated, for in regard to this planetary chain he has reached omniscience. This supreme development of individuality is the great reward which Nature reserves not only for those who secure it prematurely, so to speak, by the relatively brief, but desperate and terrible struggles which lead to adeptship, but also for all who, by the distinct preponderance of good over evil in the character of the whole series of their incarnations, have passed through the valley of the shadow of death in the middle of the fifth round, and have worked their way up to it in the sixth and seventh rounds.
This sublimely blessed state is spoken of in esoteric science as the threshold of Nirvana.
Is it worth while to go any further in speculation as to what follows? One may be told that no state of individual consciousness, even though but a phase of feeling already identified in a large measure with the general consciousness on that level of existence, can be equal in spiritual elevation to absolute consciousness in which all sense of individuality is merged in the whole. We may use such phrases as intellectual counters, but for no ordinary mind - dominated by its physical brain and brain-born intellect - can they have a living signification.
All that words can convey is that Nirvana is a sublime state of conscious rest in omniscience. It would be ludicrous, after all that has gone before, to turn to the various discussions which have been carried on by students of exoteric Buddhism as to whether Nirvana does or does not mean annihilation. Worldly similes fall short of indicating the feeling with which the graduates of esoteric science regard such a question. Does the last penalty of the law mean the highest honour of the peerage? Is a wooden spoon the emblem of the most illustrious pre-eminence in learning? Such questions as these but faintly symbolize the extravagance of the question whether Nirvana is held by Buddhism to be equivalent to annihilation. And in some, to us inconceivable, way the state of para-Nirvana is spoken of as immeasurably higher than that of Nirvana. I do not pretend myself to attach any meaning to the statement, but it may serve to show what a very transcendental realm of thought the subject belongs.
A great deal of confusion of mind respecting Nirvana has arisen from statements made concerning Buddha. He is said to have attained Nirvana while on earth; he is also said to have foregone Nirvana, in order to submit to renewed incarnations for the good of humanity. The two statements are quite reconcilable. As a great adept, Buddha naturally attained to that which is the great achievement of adeptship on earth, - the passing of his own Ego-spirit into the ineffable condition of Nirvana. Let it not be supposed that for any adept such a passage is one that can be lightly undertaken. Only stray hints about the nature of this great mystery have reached me, but, putting these together, I believe I am right in saying that the achievement in question is one which only some of the high initiates are qualified to attempt, which exacts a total suspension of animation in the body for periods of time compared to which the longest cataleptic trances known to ordinary science are insignificant, the protection of the physical frame from natural decay during this period by means which the resources of occult science are strained to accomplish; and withal it is a process involving a double risk to the continued earthly life of the person who undertakes it. One of these risks is the doubt whether, when once Nirvana is attained, the Ego will be willing to return. That the return will be a terrible effort and sacrifice is certain, and will only be prompted by the most devoted attachment, on the part of the spiritual traveler, to the idea of duty in its purest abstraction. The second great risk is that allowing the sense of duty to predominate over the temptation to stay, a temptation, be it remembered, that is not weakened by the notion that any conceivable penalty can attach to it - even then it is always doubtful whether the traveler will be able to return. In spite of all this, however, there have been many other adepts besides Buddha who have made the great passage, and for whom those about them at such times have said the return to their prison of ignoble flesh, - though so noble ex hypothesi compared to most such tenements, - has left them paralyzed with depression for weeks. To begin the weary round of physical life again, to stoop to earth after having been in Nirvana, is too dreadful a collapse.
Buddha’s renunciation was in some inexplicable manner greater again, because he not merely returned from Nirvana for duty’s sake, to finish the earth-life in which he was engaged as Gautama Buddha, but when all the claims of duty had been fully satisfied, and his right of passage into Nirvana for incalculable æons entirely earned under the most enlarged view of his earthly mission, he gave up that reward, or rather postponed it for an indefinite period, to undertake a supererogatory series of incarnations for the sake of humanity at large. How is humanity being benefited by this renunciation? it may be asked. But the question can only be suggested in reality by that deep-seated habit, we have most of us acquired, of estimating benefit by a physical standard, and even in regard to this standard of taking very short views of human affairs. No one will have followed me through the foregoing chapter on the Progress of Humanity without perceiving what kind of benefit it would be that Buddha would wish to confer on men. That which is necessarily for him the great question in regard to humanity, is how to help as many people as possible across the great critical period of the fifth round.
Until that time everything is a mere preparation for the supreme struggle, in the estimation of an adept, all the more of a Buddha. The material welfare of the existing generation is not even as dust in the balance of such a calculation; the only thing of importance at present is, to cultivate those tendencies in mankind which may launch as many Egos as possible upon such a Karmic path that the growth of their spirituality in future births will be promoted. Certainly it is the fixed conviction of esoteric teachers - of the adept co-workers with Buddha - that the very process of cultivating such spirituality will immensely reduce the sum of even transitory human sorrow. And the happiness of mankind, even in any one generation only, is by no means a matter on which esoteric science looks with indifference. So the esoteric policy is not to be considered as something so hopelessly up in the air that it will never concern any of us who are living now. But there are seasons of good and bad harvest for wheat and barley, and so also for the desired growth of spirituality amongst men; and in Europe, at all events, going by the experience of former great races, at periods of development corresponding to that of our own now, the great present uprush of intelligence in the direction of physical and material progress is not likely to bring on a season of good harvests for progress of the other kind. For the moment the best chance of doing good in countries where the uprush referred to is most marked, is held to lie in the possibility that the importance of spirituality may come to be perceived by intellect, even in advance of being felt, if the attention of that keen though unsympathetic tribunal can but be secured. Any success in that direction to which these explanations may conduce, will justify the views of those - but a minority - among the esoteric guardians of humanity who have conceived that it is worth while to have them made.
So Nirvana is truly the key-note of esoteric Buddhism, as of the hitherto rather misdirected studies of external scholars. The great end of the whole stupendous evolution of humanity is to cultivate human souls so that they shall be ultimately fit for that as yet inconceivable condition. The great triumph of the present race of planetary spirits who have reached that condition themselves, will be to draw thither as many more Egos as possible. We are far as yet from the era at which we may be in serious danger of disqualifying ourselves definitively for such progress, but it is not too soon even now to begin the great process of qualification, all the more as the Karma which will propagate itself through successive lives in that direction will carry its own reward with it, so that an enlightened pursuit of our highest interests, in the very remote future, will coincide with the pursuit of our immediate welfare in the next Devachanic period, and the next rebirth.
Will it be argued that if the cultivation of spirituality is the great purpose to be followed, it matters little whether men pursue it along one religious pathway or another? This is a mistake which, as explained in a former chapter, Buddha, as Sankaracharya, set himself especially to combat - viz the early Hindu belief that moksha can be attained by bhakti irrespective of gnyanam - that is, that salvation is obtainable by devout practices irrespective of knowledge of eternal truth. The sort of salvation we are talking about now is not escape from a penalty, to be achieved by cajoling a celestial potentate - it is a positive and not a negative achievement - the ascent into regions of spiritual elevation so exalted that the candidate aiming at them is claiming that which we ordinarily describe as omniscience. Surely it is plain, from the way Nature habitually works, that under no circumstances will a time ever come when a person, merely by reason of having been good, will suddenly become wise. The supreme goodness and wisdom of the sixth-round man, who, once becoming that, will assimilate by degrees the attributes of divinity itself, can only be grown by degrees themselves, and goodness alone, associated, as we so often find it, with the most grotesque religious beliefs, cannot conduct a man to more than Devachanic periods of devout but unintelligent rapture, and in the end, if similar conditions are reproduced through many existences, to some painless extinction of individuality at the great crisis.
It is by a steady pursuit of, and desire for, real spiritual truth, not by an idle, however well-meaning acquiescence in the fashionable dogmas of the nearest church, that men launch their souls into the subjective state, prepared to imbibe real knowledge from the latent omniscience of their own sixth principles, and to re-incarnate in due time with impulses in the same direction. Nothing can produce more disastrous effects on human progress, as regards the destiny of individuals, than the very prevalent notion that one religion followed out in a pious spirit, is as good as another, and that if such and such doctrines are perhaps absurd when you look into them, the great majority of good people will never think of their absurdity, but will recite them in a blamelessly devoted attitude of mind. One religion is by no means as good as another, even if all were productive of equally blameless lives. But I prefer to avoid all criticism of specific faiths, leaving this volume a simple and inoffensive statement of the real inner doctrines of the one great religion of the world which -presenting as it does in its external aspects a bloodless and innocent record - has thus been really productive of blameless lives throughout its whole existence. Moreover, it would not be by a servile acceptance even if its doctrines that the development of true spirituality is to be cultivated. It is by the disposition to seek truth, to test and examine all which presents itself as claiming belief, that the great result is to be brought about. In the East, such a resolution in the highest degree leads to chelaship, to the pursuit of truth, knowledge, by the development of inner faculties by means of which it may be cognized with certainty. In the west, the realm of intellect, as the world is mapped out at present, truth unfortunately can only be pursued and hunted out with the help of many words and much wrangling and disputation. But at all events it may be hunted, and, if it is not finally captured, the chase on the part of the hunters will have engendered instincts that will propagate themselves and lead to results hereafter.
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