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The Tathāgata

By | 12/31/2022
The following essay is from a lecture given at the Faculty of Arts & Philosophy University of Ghent December 7, 2007

The famous American Nineteenth Century writer, Henry David Thoreau, said: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Thoreau described an exemplary alternative, by filling his moments and days with a sense of purpose. For several years he lived by himself in a small, hand-built cabin in the woods on the shore of Walden Pond, where he contemplated nature, read classic texts, and communed with local poets, writers, and woodsmen, and in general tried to elevate his thoughts, expand his feelings, and live the philosopher’s life.

It was a revolution for me when I discovered that my American hero was actually inspired by ancient India. On the one hand he was living a life that was available only to Americans. There are few countries in the world where somebody can just go to the woods, find a tamed yet open wilderness, and live in dignified poverty. So, it was a very American experiment, and Thoreau is an American icon. But actually, Thoreau said that his inspiration came from the great books of India. He wanted space to think and feel. He wanted to live deliberately, so that every day or every minute would be filled with the highest quality of human life, so that every moment would have the brightness of dawn. His favorite adjective was “auroral,” meaning, like the goddess of dawn. A light should be steadily ascending in our minds the way dawn comes up in the morning. But his example was not easy to follow. Most people do not want to run away to the woods, or live mostly alone. Thoreau was also an exceptional literary genius, with rare inspiration, concentration, and knowledge. I wondered, is there some other way an ordinary contemporary person can overcome a life of quiet desperation?

Another avenue to a life with an apparently higher purpose is to create a belief or a fantasy that there is someone else in the sky. This someone else has created the universe, and although the universe is several billion years old, and contains a hundred billion galaxies each containing one hundred billion stars, somehow all along he had you and your life in mind. He was creating a cosmos all for you. That scenario is satisfactory to many people, and it makes them feel important and valuable, but to me it was hard to extend credence to the idea that there was some other personality living above me in the sky who took a few hundred million years to create humans through slow evolution by way of slimy things, but who is now very interested in me and in giving my life meaning in Amherst, Massachusetts. It seemed that that must be my own job, the discovery of realistic, intrinsic value and purpose in the context of a vast universe.

At various historical moments, different cultures seem to specialize in creating a new potential or a new kind of knowledge. It is quite amazing for an American to come to Europe, to a city like Ghent or Freiberg or Vienna, where I have been on this journey to facilitate the spread of Vipassana, and to see Gothic cathedrals. We have no authentic Gothic cathedrals in the rough new nation around Walden Pond, though of course there are modern imitations. Here in Europe, gradually over centuries, cultural knowledge evolved the ability to create a cathedral wall which is not structurally required to hold up the building, and therefore can be made of glass. The building is held aloft by but- tresses, and the wall becomes an art gallery, a space to decorate with beauty. In all other forms of art, light hits the object from one or another angle, but in stained glass, light is the object of art which the artist has filtered, strained, and shaped as it transits through the glass. An entire wall of stained glass turns sunlight into stories, faces, colors, and floods of feeling. As you stand under the high Gothic vault, and bend your neck back to look up, the prismatic illuminations possess uplifting and celestial quality, a “heavenly light.” This artistic discovery, based upon science and architecture, was an invention unique to Medieval Europe.

While I was studying in college, I found out that there had been a time and a place where a culture had specialized in think- ing about how to escape from a life of quiet desperation. That time and place was India, two to three thousand years ago. Of course every culture has had buildings and every culture has tried to decorate their buildings, but only medieval Europe had the patience, inventiveness, and inspiration to transform a huge wall into ruby and golden shafts of photons. Similarly, every culture asked the questions: what is life about, how should we live, how can we live a good life? But only India specialized in answering this question from every conceivable angle.

Historians have tried to figure out why this particular time and place developed this specialty. Successful agriculture freed people from survival oriented tasks; a benign climate reduced the necessities of life; a poetic and speculative tradition ex- tended back beyond our ability to trace its origins; but still, it is remarkable that about two-thousand-five-hundred years ago there was, already well embedded in Indian culture, a group of people who spent their whole lives focusing on the questions: what is the best way to live, how do human beings achieve happiness, of what does wisdom really consist, what is the meaning of life? They not only spent their lives on this topic, but society supported them economically, and respected them for their efforts. They focused on this question free from pre-existing religion. They were not prisoners to threats or promises from an entrenched, economically driven, theocratic power structure. In India two thousand five hundred years ago, there were no organized religions. There were plenty of religious rites and rituals, there were a plethora of religious beliefs, but there was nothing that we could call today organized religion. By organized religion I mean an agreed upon, sanctioned, formatted, codified and enforced pattern of thought and ritual, something where people agree which text is a scripture, which person speaks on behalf of the system, which building we worship in, and what beliefs are beyond doubt. No one in ancient India was being burned at the stake or sent to a dungeon for what they did or did not believe. Instead there was the opposite; a fertile and chaotic melange, a woven dialogue of people thinking about, discussing, wondering about, and practicing different paths, different ways of being.

In particular, there were large groups of people who were called “wanderers.” These wanderers were supported by alms and lived in a university without walls. (In America there is a trend to call adult education “university without walls”. Back in India it was a literal truth that there were universities without walls). Someone who felt he had something to teach would sit under a tree in a park at the outskirts of a city. People could approach him and ask: “What do you teach? What is your philosophy? What is your practice? If I follow your teaching, what will I get out of it?”

One of those wanderers left a large body of teaching, both verbal and behavioral, still available to us today, which describes existential breakthroughs, in the way that the Gothic cathedral was a breakthrough in luminous art. Like the cathedrals of Ghent, his spiritual edifice continues to attract people today. He was known by many appellatives, but the commonest name by which he referred to himself was “Tathāgata,” a title that has no meaning for us today. The syllables mean, literally, “Thus come; thus gone,” not very evocative. But Tathāgata was his chosen tag. It has an intensely compressed signification. We could start by saying it means: someone who just came into the world and passed out of it again. He just came and went. Don’t we all do that? But Tathāgata adds two things. He is someone who has understood the nature of reality, who can express reality, un- contaminated by his personality. Reality passed clearly through him. He passed clearly through it. He is just and only awake and clear to the facts. He understands “thus”, without any “spin”. When he speaks, the meaning of truth is revealed. He is not embellishing, adding or denying anything. He has no point of view. He experiences accurately. Second, he leaves the world without any attachment, without any complaint, without any problem. He leaves as unencumbered as he entered. He isn’t trying to bend anything by his entry or his departure. He has no vested interests, nothing to prove, no wishes or fears. The truth about life emerges from him and can be more clearly apprehended for his having passed through, and he himself is not in tension with the way things are. He enters “thus”: he speaks “thus”, and he departs as he came and as he spoke, “thus”. He manifests and speaks for reality as it is. That’s a very long explanation for a few syllables, Tathāgata: thus come, and thus gone, emerging from the universe without any torque and disappearing back into it without pollution, a spokesperson for all of those galaxies and electrons, as natural an occurrence as one of them.


An American folk singer, Woody Guthrie, wrote:

We come like the dust

And we’re gone like the wind.


And what was it that the Tathāgata found, that enabled his momentous claim that he spoke for reality, for the universe? Well, most of the wanderers believed and practiced similar things to the common beliefs of today, or of all times. Some lived what we call the “carpe diem” lifestyle, which is the main philosophy of modern America: we should enjoy life by generating as much sensual pleasure as we can: eat, drink and be merry. Another group of wanderers were serious people who focused on life’s difficulties and problems: we face so many things; disease, war, and the petty daily obstructions and deceptions in society around us. Life is suffering and we should detach ourselves from it. The more austere, the more aloof, the more we can control ourselves and not give in to pleasure, the better off we will be. We suffer less if we are tougher. A kind of “tough-guy” attitude towards life was very common amongst the ancient wanderers. Historically, utilizing the bridge of peoples and cultures created by the conquests of Alexander the Great, these attitudes reached the Mediterranean and eventually were written up as the Stoic philosophy of Rome. Some of the wanderers had more spiritual or religious practices: If you have faith in certain things, you can then be happy. They would attest to what happens after death, where your soul goes and whether you do or do not have a soul, or whether it floats in the sky. Many of the wanderers were ritualists. They said that if you practiced a certain ritual, if you burnt a fire and put butter in the fire, or sacrificed an animal like a horse, the gods would be pleased and like you and give you in return a lot of sons and money and you would be happy.

But a few of the wanderers were meditators. Meditation as we think of it today was discovered in ancient India among this group of wanderers. Meditators believed that if you sit still, close your eyes, and concentrate on some internal mental object, you can obtain peace and harmony. Anybody who tries that even for a second will see that to some extent, within the very first second, it works. When life’s worries press down upon you, you close your eyes and you start turning your attention to your chosen internal object. When I was a child and we were worried, we used to say: “Count sheep. Pretend you see sheep jumping over a fence.” For a second or two seconds or three seconds your worries will go away. There were many foci of meditation designed in ancient India—sounds, words, mantras, thoughts, pictorial daydreams—that were all ways of focusing your attention away from your problems onto some other object. And when you do that, you feel relative peace and harmony, and the more intensely you do that, the more intensely you are removed from the world of problems. Meditation meant jhānas: intense concentration on altered states of mind. It was and still is used as an exit door from the overwhelming distress that we all have experienced from time to time.

Though a few people practiced this mental internal concentration with success, there were problems with it. Most people cannot practice it with any benefit at all. If your life is bent on gaining increased concentration in meditation, how can you live? How do you earn a living? How do you have children or family? So, people specializing in this kind of concentrative meditation had to live in remote isolation, in order to concentrate internally, and to diminish distractions from external situations and problems.

You can gain concentration for ten seconds, a minute, an hour. If you are living alone in the jungle, maybe you can concentrate for hours at a time, but eventually some of your problems will break through. And you will have more problems than you had before. You are sitting there obsessing about one thought, one idea, one image, and you are solving no real problems in life. And when you open your eyes, you have more prob- lems than you had when you started this internal concentration. You haven’t been active, you haven’t adapted to the realities around you. So meditation was practiced, but it was practiced by a few very tough people. It can be seen as systematic avoidance coupled to determination and isolation. Some twentieth century Western psychologists have criticized this way of life as being based upon so much fear of suffering, that one simply refuses to live.

The person who would become the Tathāgata left home to become a wanderer and to practice those concentrative jhāna meditations. He was attracted to meditation and was convinced that it was the path to the end of suffering. He studied under the best teachers in very serious schools where people didn’t eat much, meditated all the time, stopped caring about the rest of life and only meditated, so they wouldn’t feel any suffering or pain. He followed this kind of schedule for years. At the end of many years he concluded: “It doesn’t really help!” He had reached the terminus of the best teaching that the open universities of ancient India had offered, and he hadn’t gotten what he was looking for. He became determined to find the truth on his own. But he began his autonomous inquiry from a slightly different angle than anybody had taken before, and this was the start of his breakthrough.

His angle was this: Here is this universe into which we are born. We don’t know how it got created. There are many myths, many creation stories, religious stories, but nobody has a clue. All those stories were made up. I don’t know how I got here and I don’t know how the universe got here. But it seems to me that there must be a way that human beings can understand this universe, fit into the universe, and use the universe itself to teach us how we can get along within it. How can we be happy in this universe? We have to ask the universe what is the right way to live within it. What is the best way to do that? The best way is to just focus upon reality. The reality of this universe will tell us how to live with the reality of the universe, if our questioning is done with authenticity and integrity. But the difficulty is that the universe doesn’t speak. Not only that, it’s very big. What do you do? You look at the stars; they are beautiful, but they don’t tell you what to do. You look at trees or nature or animals or even human beings as part of the universe, but they don’t really tell you what to do. His first insight was: to live happily in this world, let’s get facts about the world, and from the actual, we will deduce the practical.

His second insight was: we can’t interview the whole huge, ancient, aphasic world about how to solve our existential dismay, but my own body emerges “thus” from the universe. My own body is crystallization. If you take sugar and put it in water and you add enough sugar and you put a string in the water, crystals of sugar will congeal around that string. Those crystals of sugar follow the laws of nature. They take their shape based upon the laws of crystallization, basic physics of molecular array, structure, and charge. Our body, the body of every man and woman, the Tathāgata’s body, came from the laws of the universe, and crystallized out of the background solution onto a particular string, which gives it shape. In modern language we would say our bodies are based on the laws of physics, chemistry, biology.

The “string” that imparts our unique personal conformation is the molecular code in our DNA. Our body is following universal law. We emerge “thus” from the universe, and inside us, drawing us this way and that way, is the one ancient and eternal truth, the laws that govern things. Two thousand five hundred years later, Albert Einstein echoed the Tathāgata by saying: “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” The mystery of life is not its weirdness, but its lawfulness. Order is stranger than fiction.

So the second insight of the Tathāgata was: to sit at the feet of the real, I use my own body as my laboratory. The only thing I can know directly and thoroughly is my own body. The answers to my questions lie within. In his teaching, the word, loka means both the “universe”, and also our own “fathom-long body.” We say, in Western thought, the microcosm and the macrocosm contain the same principles. If we learn truth within ourselves, that truth is applicable to everything. The same laws apply. The American writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, later echoed this by saying that to know what is true for you today is true for all people and for all time, that is genius.

His third insight, which was an extension of the first, was to proceed via observational neutrality, an empirical take on things. He had a sort of pre-scientific confidence in naturalistic observation, honest receptivity. In order to understand, we need to allow the world to unfold without (as we say in American English) messing with it. Just observe. At this moment in history, meditation took on a new meaning, and became something quite different from merely obliterative concentration. Meditation became the quest for liberating insight. Instead of escaping from our life by concentrating away, meditation became an exploratory inquiry into ultimate truth and its practical implications.

And so he started a meditation practice within his own body, observing it without preconception, as a representation of the entire loka, the entire world. The three insights, taken together, upon which this practice was based, can be called the premise of the Tathāgata.

The three insights were: from the actual, deduce the practical; to observe reality, one’s own loka is the best laboratory; neutral, honest, receptivity will reveal nature’s insights. From this point, his observations began.

His first observation was that inside the body are many sensations for which there are no words. There were no words in his language and there are no words in our languages today to describe the plenitude of interoceptive vitality, manifesting in the play of sensations that is constantly occurring throughout the human body. We feel a lot of things we can name. We say: “I feel hungry. I have pain in my lower back. My arm itches where I got a mosquito bite.” But most of what is going on in our body, we can’t name, because language has developed in isolation from the observation of this subjective/objective proprioceptive solar system of the flesh. Our attention is normally turned outward, and we have not developed designations for our perceptions of our inner world. The Dark Continent is us.

The Tathāgata began to meditate on the sensations inside his body that took him beyond language, beyond things and nouns. Emerson said, “Every idea is a prison also.” Ideas help us orient to the world, but they also confine us by their implicit or even explicit conclusiveness, which then prevents us from open minded, fresh apprehension. Meditation opens out beyond conceptual arrangements, and because it penetrates beyond words, he began to observe new realities in new ways. This led to another observation and another insight. Every time his thought pattern changed, his body changed. Every time his body changed, his thought pattern changed.

With the popularization of psychopharmacology, the so- called Prozac revolution, it has become common knowledge that thoughts require a chemical matrix. If you change your thoughts, the chemical nature of your mind changes. And if you change the chemical nature of your mind, your thoughts change. When people are depressed, if we change the brain chemistry a bit they may feel less depressed. But even more subtly, for ex- ample, as I am talking to you, each thought requires a movement of chemical molecules across the synapses between neurons. We have neurons, brain cells, located very near but not quite touching each other. There is a little space between the neurons, called synapses, and when the chemical messenger moves across that space, a thought or feeling can occur. Thinking is physics, chemistry, biology. As I talk with you, you are listening to a chemistry set’s slow flow. If you are really listening, your chem- istry is being stimulated and altered. Two thousand five hundred years ago, the Tathāgata observed: every time I think, there is a change in the flow of sensations of my body. Every time there is a change in the sensations in my body, there is a change in my thought pattern. He got that far by observing his body, just by meditating on it with the pure volition to only observe his somatic sensations and not change anything. He saw mind and body change together. Then he saw, every second, every microsecond, every millisecond, in a time unit smaller than we have language for, everything changes and changes again. Of course, logically we all know that. We live and we change, we grow, our shape changes, our size, our intellect changes, we keep changing until pretty soon we have a whole bunch of grey hair, and start giving lectures on Vipassana. We keep changing, and pretty soon we don’t exist anymore.

Things don’t change in staggered sequence second by second. The world smoothly remodels itself with unbroken continuity. There is no pause button in the sequence of events causing their subsequence. There is no moment where change is not occurring inside this body of the world.

So, then he realized the whole universe consists of change. Everything is changing all the time. The stars are changing all the time. Every plant is taking oxygen out of the air, photosynthesizing, making green leaves, constant incessant change.

Unlike concentrative escape from reality through meditation that avoids or reconstructs reality according to imposed sounds or images or daydreams, the Tathāgata described a meditation the essence of which is realistic apperception of, and adaptation to, the world from which we thus emerged. Meditation upon reality, closely and systematically observed, revealed nature in new depth.

However, change is not random. There are rules, there are laws. He started with the idea, if I want to understand the laws of the universe, I have to understand myself. I am a representation of the universe. My microcosm represents the universe’s macrocosm. It’s true that I’ve gone from being a little baby to having a whole bunch of grey hair. But I didn’t change into an elephant. I didn’t change into a Belgian. There is lawful change. I am changing according to the laws of human nature. I am changing according to the laws of my own particular nature. So, this great meditator who called himself the Tathāgata, observed: “Why do I change? How do I change? How can I find happiness in a self and in a world that are constantly changing? I can’t hold on to this body. It is going to change, whether I want it to change or not. I can’t hold on to the world. Some day I will disappear from this world; most people don’t want that to happen. How can I find peace with the change in my mind and body?”

Later on in his life, he gave another, new definition of the word Tathāgata. He said a Tathāgata is someone who sees lawfulness everywhere. When I was studying psychology at the University of Chicago, I was taught that Freud invented the idea that the mind is lawful, as propounded in The Interpretation of Dreams, and in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Of course I had to go to India to find out what a Eurocentric concept that was. Two thousand five hundred years before Freud, someone said: everything in the mind is lawful. Everything in the body is lawful. Every thought we have is caused. Every change in our body is caused. A Tathāgata sees cause everywhere.

And what causes the thoughts in our mind? Our volitions. Things we want. And what is the pattern of thoughts in the mind? Generally the pattern of thought that you can observe as you are meditating on the sensations of your body, which contains your mind, are two things: “I want something, I’m hungry, I’m cold, I’m tired, I want to go for a walk, I want to talk to my friend, I want to listen to my iPod”—craving for something you don’t have that you want. We are adaptive mammals. We shape the world around us by saying: I want this, I don’t want this. Give me that, get rid of this. And then along with craving we have aversion. We say, “I don’t like it if it’s too cold, I’m too hungry, I’m too tired. Change these people; I don’t like people of that kind, I want people of this kind.” And we are constantly shaping the world to get rid of something we don’t want. Craving and aversion occupy most of the mind. And most of the mind is shaping the sensations of flow inside our body. So, the mind and body are very heavily a product of craving and aversion. We live wanting what we don’t have, not wanting what we have. The English poet, Alexander Pope, called this, “Light and darkness in our chaos joined . . .”

Even when we’re happy, it’s simply because some of our craving has been temporarily satisfied. We say it was a beautiful day; it was sunny on the beach. I was with my friends. And there is nothing wrong with that, that’s lovely. We have gotten some of our cravings satisfied, but it’s destined to disappear. It’s not a permanent solution. So, how to be happy when it’s not just a lucky day.

The Tathāgata came to his next conclusion: If I can observe my body sensations without craving and aversion, then my mind will also be free of craving and aversion. Craving and aversion come from my mind’s reactions to my body. But if you learn to just observe your body without craving anything, being satisfied with what you observe, contented with what arises there, in that moment your mind becomes peaceful. And it’s a peacefulness that does not require the good luck of a sunny day. Nor does it involve ignoring life by counting sheep or by concentrating on repetitive sounds or prayers. Instead, within your mind, you can sit still, observe your body, and by becoming harmonious and peaceful with your body, you feel focused, alert, in touch with life, and well.

The American poet, Walt Whitman, wrote in “Song of Myself,” about wonderful states of mind, of “peace that transcends all understanding.” The Vipassana meditation that the Tathāgata taught brings peace of mind that is observational, a-conceptual, based on experiential insight rather than mere understanding. The more that you practice this exercise of meditation on the sensations on your body, neutrally observing them without craving and aversion, the better you get at it. It is a learnable, practicable, reproducible educational meditation for the cultivation of peaceful states of mind.

Now we can see yet one more meaning of the word Tathāgata: someone who has arisen in full consciousness as a manifestation of the laws of the universe, who speaks for the universe in impersonally uncontaminated authenticity, who sees the universe as lawful sequences of cause and effect, which therefore can be understood . . . and finally, someone who is free of suffering due to his liberating experiential insight. He is not free of suffering because he has blotted out his mind, or elaborated a benighted delusion, but he has learned the laws of the universe as they apply to human happiness, which is to free yourself from craving and aversion by observing the body in detail with equanimity, and then by living peacefully and harmoniously with yourself and between yourself and others.

The Tathāgata started teaching Vipassana meditation initially to wanderers, to people who had left home and were in the free open university. Later on, people who were living in their houses, working at various jobs, came up to him and said: “Please teach us, too.” And so his teaching, which started only with holy wanderers, spread to kings, merchants, even to out- casts—people who were considered by others as outcasts; he didn’t consider anybody outcast. Ancient India, as most ancient cultures, was patriarchal. In spite of that, he taught women as well. Teaching men, women, rich, poor, young, and very old people on the doorway of death, it is said he “turned the wheel.” He set in motion the Wheel of Law. The law of insight, of under- standing how the universe is set up to be understood and to be compatible with human happiness.

The Tathāgata became more widely known in the West as the Buddha, which means “the awakened person”—a person who is fully awake. Of course, that sounds like he is being contrasted with sleep. “Awake” means he has fully understood, he has fully used his mind and personality to penetrate into the meaning of human life and human happiness.

Although he was sometimes referred to as “a recluse,” in the sense that he had abandoned programmed life and become a student, and then a teacher, in the university without walls, he was not at all a recluse in the sense of hiding out alone, avoiding other people or social responsibilities. He was the opposite, a renowned public figure throughout Northern India, a popular star. Autographs were not in vogue then—writing was limited to commercial use—but like any important public figure he was peppered with questions and every attempt was made to have him take up the role of a religious prophet or an advice columnist:

“Hey, you found the meaning of life. You seem pretty smart. Are there Gods? Are there no Gods? Do we float in the sky after death? What happens to our soul? Which rituals will give me prosperity? Who are the chosen people and who are the outcasts?”

He said: “I have no idea. That’s not what I studied.” People then and today yearn for an organized religion called “Buddhism,” which will tell them what to think about politics, what to believe about religion and philosophy. Then and now people try to tease a systematic religion out of the Tathāgata’s words. Asking the Buddha questions like: is God in the sky or do we live for eternity, or if we meditate do we live for eternity?” it’s like asking the Buddha: “Shall we buy ourselves a PC or an Apple computer?” He didn’t specialize in that field. He claimed no tech competence. He specialized in the field of: “How can I live a happy, peaceful, harmonious life compatible with the laws of nature that will free me from suffering”. He has been misrepresented as a religious teacher, when he was speaking as an educational psychologist. He taught a way of life that leads to harmony and peace.

Because the teaching of the Tathāgata takes no position about mundane things, it endures in a transcultural, timeless zone. It does not grow yellow or crumble with age. It is not on the side for or against the various political issues of any age. It is not owned by a priesthood. The Roman Stoic, Seneca, who had only a veiled glimpse of the Buddha’s teaching, grasped its universal essence:

“We can build a partnership with every age.”

It is not surprising that the method he taught is still alive in the world. Here in Belgium there is a meditation center for Vipassana, as there are in many other parts of Europe and around the world. In the twentieth century Vipassana was given a great boost by a very excellent teacher, Mr. Goenka, who has taught so clearly and so convincingly that hundreds of thousands of people have begun to take Vipassana courses in the standardized format that he perfected.

In ancient India, meditation was taught under trees. People would wander up to the Tathāgata and say: “How do you meditate? Give me a meditation lesson.” Then they would wander off under a tree to sit, with bugs and heat as companions. Today we have a structured ten-day teaching, sheltered in buildings, with step by step clarity every day and from day to day.

A ten-day Vipassana course begins with the taking of moral vows because it’s impossible to reduce craving and aversion if all the time you are thinking, “I really would like to murder that son-of-a-gun.” Or if you are thinking, “You know, as soon as this Vipassana course is over, I’d really like to get stoned.” The whole point of a meditator’s life is to be a little freer of craving; it’s counterproductive if the whole time you are sitting there thinking, “Everybody must get stoned.” The essence of morality is not obedience to imposed vows.

Morality has two profound roots without which the rest of Vipassana is meaningless. The first root helps you be peaceful by your attempt not to be a slave to impulse and whim. Moral positions are tools to calm the mind, to let go of dominance, to “lay down the rod.” But moral vows are also ethical. This is the second root. They are rooted in compassion and empathy, pro-social rather than narcissistic values.

There are some books which claim that the Buddha said, “Life is suffering.” This is really a misrepresentation of his teaching. The Buddha said: “The world is dukkha,” and the word dukkha, a word from an ancient Indian language means: Nothing is ultimately satisfactory. Because everything is always changing, you can’t hold on to anything. So there is always a problem. There is always dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction—not that the world is always miserable and that we are unhappy all the time. That’s not true. If we were always miserable, we wouldn’t have attachment to the happiness, which we have in fact experienced. So, it’s true there are pleasures in life, but typically our pleasures are based on craving and its fulfillment. You want something and you are skillful and you get it. You want a lovely vacation and you are skillful, you earn the money, you go to a beautiful place, you have a nice vacation and that’s wonderful. No one is saying there is anything wrong with that. But that vacation passes away. Furthermore you had to work a long time to get that money.

So, even on vacations, you have craving and aversion. When you are meditating, that may well be the first time in your life you feel peace and harmony that is independent from the cycle of craving and fulfillment. You are just sitting there, and initially it’s craving and aversion. You begin to work with breathing, just observing, that’s all; and suddenly, there is a moment where you are just observing the breath coming in and out. You don’t want anything. You don’t need anything. You have no problems. You are a totally free human being. That’s why the Tathāgata was called awakened. Free of suffering; complete; neither needing nor fearing; life, whole and entire as it is—in that second any average person can momentarily glimpse the Tathāgata. You are free of suffering. This may last a second or ten seconds and then you start wanting something like: “I want more of this experience,” and as soon as you want more of it, you ruin it. Well, there is a big habit pattern of craving.

People ask, “If a person becomes really equanimous like this, doesn’t he become a useless zombie? You are happy. This is very dangerous. You don’t want anything, how can you participate in a consumer society? The entire American economy rests upon consumer spending.” The answer is twofold: Very few people can say they are the Tathāgata. All of us continue to have some craving and aversion, and it is unrealistic to imagine that if you take a ten-day meditation course you transcend it entirely. After the course, when you get hungry, you eat; when you get tired, you go to sleep; when you are cold, you put on more clothes; and when you are hot, you wear light summer clothes. We continue to have some craving and aversion, but we are less driven by it, and in particular, the kind of cravings and aversions that are most destructive to human beings are the ones that meditation helps you reduce.

Being cold and putting on a jacket is not a very terrible thing to do, but being angry with people all the time thinking, “I hate this guy; my co-workers are jerks,” is destructive. Or thinking, “I have a pretty nice apartment, pretty nice house, but I’m dissatisfied with my life. I should have more recognition. I should have a better car. People shouldn’t talk to me in that way, I should have more respect,” that kind of craving and aversion eats away at us. These cravings and aversions, which in psychiatry we call psychosocial—the human being in context with other human beings—that’s where our most important cravings and aversions are. In meditation you realize everything I want is a fantasy inside of this body. If I were peaceful and happy in my body, if I could sit still and just meditate, without craving and aversion, why would I want all these extras in life? Why would I be so angry? Sometimes people face horrible things, warfare or violence towards their family, but most of the time we are not dealing with that. Most of the time we are living and complaining in our mind, that we don’t have what we want, when in fact we have everything we need.

The second answer to that fear of becoming a passive zombie is that when meditation reduces your negative social interactions, you begin to think of ways of helping other people. When we are not filled with craving and aversion, we do not become vegetables. When we are looking at the laws of our animal nature we find that it is intrinsically caring and social. The Tathāgata said, “People ask all the time: ‘Isn’t meditation selfish?’” That was asked back in his days, just as it is asked today. He gave the simile of the birth of a calf. (If you go to India, you can see this happening in the middle of the city. Here in Belgium you have to go to the countryside.)

Cows give birth standing up, sometimes they lay down, sometimes they are standing up and the calf just emerges. The calf kind of plops on the ground and it’s covered with the placenta and the birth sack and the cow eats that to get protein back. The calf lies there a short period of time and suddenly it starts to kick, and it stands up. The cow now has two problems. One problem is she is very depleted, particularly of protein and fluids. Cows get a lot of their fluid from eating grass; they get back protein from actually eating the placenta of a calf and also from eating the grass. So, the cow has to start eating right away. Her life is at risk; it’s in a weakened state. The Tathāgata said we should be selfish like a cow whose life is at risk. We need to eat every day. We need to take care of ourselves. He did not a teach a path of self-harm or self-sacrifice. When you become free of craving and aversion, it doesn’t mean you should stop eating or taking care of yourself. On the contrary, like a cow you should take good care of yourself.

However, the cow has this little calf. This little thing can’t eat grass. It needs its mother right away. She has to start nursing it and taking care of it. This cow is responsible for other living beings. The Tathāgata said that the proper life of a meditator is like the life of a cow. You take good care of yourself. Human beings are born out of human bodies; that’s just our body. But our psyches, our minds, are products of culture. So, we need to start giving right away. As soon as we learn meditation, the first thing that comes up when the craving and aversion lessen is moments of pure freedom—free of craving and aversion, and then we get moments of generosity. How can I do my work better? What work is really important? What can I do to use myself and my psychological freedom to make a better life for other beings? This happens as a spontaneous occurrence as craving and aversion reduce.

There is a final dimension to Vipassana meditation. After the Tathāgata had completed his path he thought to himself: “Human life is incomplete unless we have a feeling of reverence and devotion.” Most people have a feeling of reverence and devotion for some imaginary man in the sky, but we don’t know whether he is in residence. The Tathāgata said he felt reverence and devotion for the laws of nature themselves. When understood they bring peace and harmony. The universe is compatible with human beings to be happy and peaceful if they live according to the laws of nature. We should not hold in awe men or gods, but the laws of nature themselves.

Einstein said, many people asked him: “Look, you are a scientist, you are doing all this math, to you the universe must be cold and dead. Einstein, you don’t seem to believe in God. You think, the world is just a bunch of rocks following e = mc2. It must be quite boring and you must not have any deep feeling.” Einstein replied that the more that he followed the path of truth, the more he found himself “reduced and humbled” at the “grandeur of reason that is incarnate in existence.” So, it seems that Einstein and the Buddha had a very similar feeling.

Vipassana is a deeply emotional practice. This law of the universe, which the Tathāgata called the Dhamma, this Dhamma exists in a way that’s good for me. This world of dukkha also contains laws whose analogues dwell in me. The deepest inklings of my heart reflect the laws of life. At least some degree of freedom, wisdom, love and joy are built into me, are waiting for me to actualize them out of my own nature. Out of realization of Dhamma springs a reverence for this beneficent and liberating force. An understanding of the way the world works teaches us how to live. The world of dukkha is also a world of Dhamma.

A Tathāgata emerges as a person, but transcends personality. Losing all personal preferences, all self-referential craving and aversion, the Tathāgata speaks from the universal, about realizations that are not limited to any time or place. A Tathāgata is a type, a recurring phenomenon, that appeared many times and places in the past, and that will reappear. A Tathāgata is a manifestation of Dhamma who can speak it, who can teach it.

The meaning of the word Tathāgata is: A person who speaks for Vipassana, which makes us integral with the freedom and opportunity that are also properties of the way things are. How good a day it will be when we too are humbled into awe and reverence by the world just as it is!


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