Details of Discipline
Theosophical Quarterly, July, 1926
We have considered some of the rules which the Buddha laid down for his followers. We may here remind ourselves that the Buddha’s purpose must have been, not the founding of a religion to include all men and women, but the establishment of an Order of disciples concentrating every energy on the great task of Liberation; or, as we should say, the organization of a body of students of practical Occultism. It is quite clear that a celibate Order, whose members kept aloof from all worldly occupations and were dependent on food freely offered, could not be, and was never intended to be universal.
The rules which we have considered, and which the Buddha declared that he himself obeyed, are these: Abstaining from taking life, from taking what is not given, from unchastity, from malicious and harsh speech, from idle words. They are the elements of righteousness for all human beings; they are essential to the disciple, but, standing alone, they do not constitute discipleship, though they may prepare the way for discipleship.
These injunctions are followed by a series of rules, analyzed, numbered and grouped with that perfect sense of method and order which runs through all the Buddha’s teaching, showing that the Buddha, had he so desired, might have been a master of mathematics. It may be noted, in passing, that a highly developed mathematical sense runs through all the Buddhist Scriptures; for example, in several of these, including The Lotus of the Good Law, a numeral occurs which is represented by a unit followed by seventy-seven ciphers. In comparison with numbers such as this, our modern millions of light-years and incredible velocities within the atom are not so overwhelming.
Following this admirable method of analysis and counting, the Buddha drew up lists of the things from which the members of his Order were bidden to abstain. They form an extraordinary collection, including many things that are seemingly innocent, together with much that is manifestly wrong. Incidentally, these forbidden occupations give us an unexpectedly vivid and detailed picture of life in the valley of the Ganges twenty-five hundred years ago; and the recital is touched with the sense of humour, often inclining to fine irony, that is so characteristic of the Buddha; it plays about these small and often trivial details, lighting them with a sparkle of mirth, in addition to their high value for edification.
We are told first that the ascetic Gotama and his disciples refrained from causing injury to seeds and plants. This would seem to have a double purpose; first, to impress on members of his Order the spiritual oneness of all living things, each of which in its place and rank is following the infinite path toward perfection. A new light is even now being shed on this unity of life by the marvelous experiments carried out in India, by one of the Buddha’s fellow-countrymen, who is revealing the almost human sensitiveness and consciousness of plants. But beneath the surface meaning of the injunction there is, in all likelihood, a deeper application, the lesson of mercy that is contained in the words: “A bruised reed shall he not break.”
The second rule is that the member of the Order shall be content with one meal a day, not eating after the fixed time, not eating in the evening. While this rule may not be applicable in its strict form to our conditions, it is not difficult to surmise the reason: that the physical mind may be clear and lucid, sensitive to receive and record whatever illumination may be brought back in the morning from the other side of sleep.
Once more, the member of the Order is forbidden to be a spectator at worldly spectacles, dancing, singing and music. Here again, there is the immediate meaning: the disciple who would use the inner eye and ear must make his aura limpid and keep it pure, not cluttered with garish images and strident resonances; but there is the deeper meaning: for the disciple, life and the world must be more than a spectacle of music and singing and dancing. Garlands, scents, rich unguents and luxurious couches are then forbidden, for they extend the appeal to the outer senses and the pampering of the bodily vesture.
Then follows a list of gifts which the Buddha refused to accept, and which members of his Order were also debarred from receiving. These forbidden gifts begin with gold and silver, slaves, elephants, cattle and horses. It is worth noting that this list is almost identical with the sacramental formula of the great Upanishads. Thus the Lord of Death bids Nachiketas “choose sons and grandsons of a hundred years and much cattle and elephants and gold and horses”; the formula which symbolizes the trials and temptations through which the candidate must pass before Initiation. It is also clear that these things, together with gifts of land and uncooked grain, likewise forbidden, represent “the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches” which would distract the mind of the disciple from his inner, spiritual task.
An injunction against obvious evil follows: false scales, giving brass for gold, all crookedness and fraud, every form of violence, and murder.
Then the refrain changes, with a certain ironic touch; in forbidding divers practices the Buddha prefaces his injunction by saying that, whereas some ascetics and Brahmans, who feast on food provided by the faithful, follow after certain practices and occupations, he and his disciples leave them severely alone. This part of the Sutta is called the Middle Treatise on Conduct, and it picks up again and expands what has already been given in the Short Treatise on Conduct, from which we have been quoting. Thus we have again non-injury to seedlings and growing plants, and a sumptuary edict forbidding stores of foods, drinks, clothing, carriages, bedding, perfumes, relishes. Then comes what is almost a sporting page for the sixth century before our era. Some ascetics and Brahmans were, it appears, addicted to visiting shows, that is to say, exhibitions of dancers, the singing of songs, instrumental music, spectacles, recitations, cymbal music, bardic chanting, music produced with hollow jars, fairy pantomimes, the feats of acrobats, combats of elephants, horses, buffaloes, bulls, rams, cocks, and quails, bouts at quarter-staff, boxing, wrestling, sham-fights, roll-calls, manoeuvres, reviews; but the ascetic Gotama and his disciples refrained from visiting such shows.
Then again, some ascetics and Brahmans, who lived on food provided by the faithful, were addicted to games and recreations, that is to say, games on boards with eight, or with ten, rows of squares; the same games played by forming images of such boards in the mind; hopping over diagrams drawn on the ground, so that one steps only where one ought to step; removing the pieces of men from a heap with one’s nail, or putting them into a heap, in each case without shaking it, so that he who shakes the heap loses the game; throwing dice; hitting a short stick with a long one; dipping the hand in red dye, striking the wet hand on the ground or on a wall, calling out, “What shall it be?” and showing the form asked for, such as an elephant or a horse; ball-games; blowing through a toy pipe made of a leaf; ploughing with toy ploughs; turning somersaults, or turning on the trapeze; playing with toy windmills made of palm leaves; playing with toy measures made of palm leaves, or with toy carts or toy bows; guessing at letters traced in the air, or on the player’s back; mimicry of another’s defects; but the ascetic Gotama and his disciples refrained from these things.
Or, again, some ascetics and Brahmans, who lived on food provided by the faithful, were addicted to luxurious sofas, divans with carved legs, fleecy coverlets, patchwork quilts, soft blankets, embroidered coverlets, quilts padded with cotton, coverlets embroidered with animals, rugs with fur on both sides, rugs with fur on one side, coverlets embroidered with gems, silken coverlets, large carpets, elephant, horse and chariot rugs, rugs of antelope skin, carpets under awnings, sofas with red pillows at either end; but the ascetic Gotama and his disciples refrained from these things.
Then follow the ways in which some ascetics and Brahmans, while living on food provided by the faithful, used certain means of adorning and beautifying themselves, that is to say, scented powders rubbed on the body, while bathing and shampooing, massaging the muscles as wrestlers are wont, using mirrors, collyrium for the eye-lashes, garlands, red colouring for the lips, unguents for the lips, armlets, necklaces, staves, drug-cases, swords, parasols, embroidered slippers, diadems, jewels, yak-tail fans, white robes with long fringes; but the ascetic Gotama and his disciples refrained also from these.
Then comes a list that has already been translated. For we are told that some Brahmans and ascetics, living on food provided by the faithful, were addicted to unprofitable talk, that is to say, talk of kings, robbers, ministers of state, talk of armies, talk of terror, talk of war, talk of food and drink, of garments and couches, talk of garlands and perfumes, talk of kinships and cars, of villages and towns and cities and countries, talk of women and men and heroes, talk of the street and of the village well, talk of the dead, all kinds of stories, traditions of the forming of lands and oceans, discussions of being and non-being; but the ascetic Gotama and his disciples refrained from such unprofitable talk.
It further appears that, besides wasting their time in unfruitful gossip, some Brahmans and ascetics were given to using contentious phrases, that is to say, phrases such as these:
Thou knowest not this law and discipline, but I know this law and discipline.
How shouldst thou understand this law and discipline? Thou followest after lying views, while I follow true views. Authority is on my side; there is no authority on thy side.
What should be said first, thou hast said last; what should be said last, thou hast said first.
What thou hast so long pondered has been completely upset.
Endeavour to state thy case clearly. Untwist thyself if thou canst.
But the ascetic Gotama and his disciples refrained from such contentious phrases.
Yet other Brahmans and ascetics were wont to serve as messengers and ambassadors, that is to say, messengers for kings, for kings’ ministers, for Kshatriyas, Brahmans, lords, princes, who bade them “Come hither! Go thither! Take this! Bring that hither!” But the ascetic Gotama and his disciples refrained from such carrying of messages.
And there were Brahmans and ascetics, living on food provided by the faithful, who were addicted to crooked arts, reciters of incantations, fortune-tellers, exorcists, with covetous hearts seeking gain; but the ascetic Gotama and his disciples refrained from such crooked dealings.
So far, the Middle Treatise on Conduct. It is immediately followed by the Long Treatise on Conduct, which is largely devoted to a detailed description of the crooked arts by which some ascetics and Brahmans established and maintained their power over ignorant and superstitious people. Into these details of the occult arts we need not at present enter. What has already been recorded will suffice to make clear, first, that the general occupations of mankind have not greatly changed in two and a half millenniums, and, secondly, that the grounds on which disciples should refrain from these things are exactly the same to-day as they were when the Buddha taught in the king’s rest-house at Ambalattika, where there was a young mango tree in the gateway. The inspiring principle in accordance with which they refrain is summed up in the words: “But they which shall be accounted worthy to obtain that world, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry, nor are given in marriage: neither can they die any more: for they are equal unto the angels; and are the children of God, being the children of the resurrection.” Those who are on that journey may not loiter on the way.
We may turn, therefore, to another side of the problem, to the passages in which the Buddha warns his disciples against faults and errors of another kind into which some ascetics and Brahmans, men of spirituality and devotion, were prone to fall: faults of the intellect, rather than of the will.
There are, said the Buddha to his disciples, some ascetics and Brahmans, who devote themselves to working out theories regarding the ultimate beginnings of things, working out speculative views regarding the ultimate beginnings of things, and who then declare views of diverse kinds, on the basis of eighteen different arguments.
We shall not at present follow the Buddha into all the immensely interesting and, as he illumines them with humour, exceedingly entertaining developments of these eighteen systems of reasoning. They cover the whole range of philosophical speculation, as it was before his day, and in all its developments up to our own day, from extreme idealism to the most concrete materialism and absolute nihilism. But we may take a few of these systems, and translate or summarize what the Buddha has to say of them.
There is first the school of thinkers who declare that the world and the soul are not only everlasting, but that they are eternally unchangeable, a solid world, and a defined, limited personality, destined to endure for ever and ever.
There were some Brahmans and ascetics who, practicing fervent aspiration, practicing strong effort, practicing constant application, practicing vigilant diligence, practicing unswerving attention, attained to concentration of consciousness of such a nature that, with concentrated mind and will, they attained to memory of their former dwelling-places, their former births; that is to say, one birth, two births, three births, four births, five births, ten births, twenty births, thirty births, forty births, fifty births, a hundred births, and so on, up to a hundred thousand births, and were able to say: “In that place I had that name, was of such a family, of such a class, of such a livelihood, experienced such and such pains and pleasures, lived such a span of years. Then, leaving that life, I was born in such a place.”
It will be noted that the Buddha neither questions the spiritual method by which this knowledge of former births is to be attained, nor the reality of the knowledge thus gained. On the contrary, he claims this knowledge for himself, and promises it to his disciples. That memory will be as complete, that knowledge will be as clear, as though a man were to go from his own village to another village, and were then to go from that village to another village, and then went back again to his own village. Then he would know: “I went from my own village to that village, stood in such a place, sat thus, spoke thus, was silent thus; thence I went to the second village, stood in such a place, sat thus, spoke thus, was silent thus; thence I came back again to my own village.”
It was neither the method nor the reality of the knowledge gained, that the Buddha questioned, but the conclusion which these ascetics and Brahmans, thus remembering their past births, drew from that knowledge: the firm conviction that the world and the reincarnating personality remain unchanged from everlasting to everlasting, a limited and static self, circling round an inert and changeless world.
Whether it be possible to know so much and yet know no more, we are not quite in a position to say; but it is certain that, in the Western world, with which we are more familiar, many ascetics and students of spiritual things, men of the highest sanctity and devotion, have during centuries held, and perhaps still hold, the complementary doctrine: that a defined and limited self win· persist throughout all eternity, in conditions whether of pleasure or of pain, in a world which shall be unchanging for all eternity.
In direct contradiction of these stationary views, the Buddha was an uncompromising evolutionist, always teaching the evolution of the worlds, teaching the evolution of the soul from glory to glory; but the essential point is, he did not teach his disciples to study evolution; he taught them to evolve.
So there were these philosophers who, because of the experience that has been described, made this declaration: “For ever unchanging is the self, for ever unchanging is the world, sterile, barren, fixed as a rock, stolid as a stone pillar, and these beings continue the circle of reincarnation, they die, they are born again, unchanging for ever.”
The next two sections simply carry the matter further along the same line. But they are interesting to us, because they add the concept of world-periods, of the alternating evolution and involution of the manifested world, through an endless succession of appearances and disappearances. Yet, in the view of those whom the Buddha is criticizing, even these vast periods, up to forty world-periods, contain no hope of change, of widening life, proceeding ever toward infinite liberation; for, as before, they say: “For ever unchanging is the self, for ever unchanging is the world, sterile, barren, fixed as a rock, stolid as a stone pillar, and these beings continue the circle of reincaration, they die, they are born again, unchanging for ever.”
Besides these two hopelessly hide-bound concepts, of the fixed, unchanging self and the fixed, unchanging world, there is a third, equally fixed and limited, to which the Buddha now comes. Those who hold this conviction of the stereotyped, eternally limited self, are prone to affix the seal of that narrowly circumscribed personality on the eternal and infinite majesty of the Logos. An angry and passionate people will make the image of an angry and passionate tribal God; they are not less idolaters, merely because this image is in their minds, while they abstain from molten and graven images. Or a warlike and pleasure-loving people, sensitive and self-indulgent, will mould in thought one God or many, warlike, sensitive, self-indulgent.
The Buddha meets this constricted view of the Eternal in a way that is as humorous as it is original. He does not say “man never knows how anthropomorphic he is”; he does not say “man makes God in his own image”; his approach is finer and more subtle.
There are, he tells his disciples, some Brahmans and ascetics who hold that the universe is in part unchanging, in part subject to change, that the self and the world are in part unchanging, in part subject to change. On what basis, for what reason do these Brahmans and ascetics hold that the universe is in part unchanging, in part subject to change, that the self and the world are in part unchanging, in part subject to change?
There comes a time when, through the operation of certain causes, at the expiration of a vast period, this manifested world, through the process of involution, returns to the unmanifested state. When the world is thus subject to involution, beings for the most part are indrawn into the realm of the Radiant. There they are of the substance of mind, they taste delight, they are self-luminous, they traverse the ethereal spaces, they dwell in beauty; thus for a vast period they abide.
Then there comes a time when, through the operation of certain causes, at the expiration of a vast period, this world once more becomes manifested. When this world is once more evolved, the pagoda of Brahma appears, but it is empty. Then one or another of these beings, whether because he has completed his life-span in the Radiant realm, or because the energy of his spiritual merit has been exhausted, falls from the realm of the Radiant, and is born in the empty pagoda of Brahma. There he is of the substance of mind, he tastes delight, he is self-luminous, he traverses the ethereal spaces, he dwells in beauty; thus for a vast period of time he abides.
When he has dwelt there for an immeasurable period in loneliness, dissatisfaction, with fear and trembling, he comes to say: “Alas! would that other beings might come hither!” And so other beings, whether because they have completed their life-span in the realm of the Radiant, or because the energy of their spiritual merit has been exhausted, fall from the realm of the Radiant, and are born in the pagoda of Brahma, bringing companionship to that first being. There they also are of the substance of mind, they taste delight, they are self-luminous, they traverse the ethereal spaces, they dwell in beauty; thus for a vast period of time they abide.
Then in the mind of that being who was first to be born there, this thought arises: “I am Brahma, mighty Brahma, surpassing, unsurpassed, all-seeing, all-ruling, creator, maker of all, most excellent, ordainer, holy, Father of what has been and what shall be. By me these beings have been created. Wherefore? Because in my mind this thought first arose: ‘Alas! would that other beings might come hither!’ This was my will, my resolve, and these beings arrived.”
In the minds also of those beings who were born there later, this thought arises: “This is Lord Brahma, mighty Brahma, surpassing, unsurpassed, all-seeing, all-ruling, creator, maker of all, most excellent, ordainer, holy, Father of what has been and what shall be. By this Lord Brahma have we been created. Wherefore? Because, as we see, He was here in the beginning, and we were born afterwards.”
So it would befall that that being who was first born there would be longer-lived, more glorious and more potent than the others. And the beings who were born there later would be shorter-lived, less beautiful, less potent than He. Then it might happen that one or another of those later beings, falling from that place, should be born in this world. And, having been born in this world, he might go forth from the household life to the houseless life of an ascetic. Having gone forth from the household life to the houseless life, and practicing fervent aspiration, practicing strong effort, practicing constant application, practicing vigilant diligence, practicing unswerving attention, he might attain to concentration of consciousness of such a nature that, with concentrated mind and will, he should call to mind that immediately preceding state of being, but should call to mind no other before it. Then in his mind this thought would arise: “That Lord Brahma, mighty Brahma, surpassing, unsurpassed, all-seeing, all-ruling, creator, maker of all, ordainer, holy, Father of what has been and what shall be, Lord Brahma by whom we were created, He, indeed, is everlasting, steadfast, unchanging, without shadow of turning, and so will He be throughout the ages. But we, who have been created by that Lord Brahma, are not eternal, not steadfast, short-lived, perishable; thus have we come to this world.”
As regards the whole series of injunctions, we should do well to make a practice of looking always beneath the surface meaning for a deeper meaning, and, even more, of looking through the far-away Oriental circumstance to the point at our own lives where exactly the same forces are at work in slightly differing guise. Thus, it is exceedingly diverting to contemplate, as the Buddha bids us, the spectacle of stately Brahmans clad in long white robes with trailing fringes, playing hop-scotch or tipcat, disporting themselves with tiny cars or little windmills made of palm leaves. Let us smile, and then let us ask ourselves in what ways we are given to playing with toy windmills. When an Eastern Master wrote, not so many years ago, to a Western student of ripe years, “Why should we play with Jack-in-the-box?” he had not in mind the literal toy.
Equally entertaining is the way in which the Buddha describes yet another mental attitude to his disciples. There are, he says, some Brahmans and ascetics who do not discern clearly what is right and what is wrong. In their minds this thought arises: “I, of a truth, do not clearly know what is right; I do not clearly know what is wrong. But thus not clearly knowing what is right, not clearly knowing what is wrong, I might declare one thing to be right, and another thing to be wrong; but there are Brahmans and ascetics, learned, skilful, who in words have attained such address as those archers who, shooting an arrow, can split a hair, and thus in controversy split asunder the views of others; these men might interrogate me, might closely question me, might join issue with me. And, should they thus closely question me, interrogate me, join issue with me, I might not be able to meet the issue. And, if I could not meet the issue, this would be to me a cause of sorrow. And this sorrow might be a barrier to me.” Thus, through fear of being questioned, through desire to avoid being questioned, they will not declare one thing to be right and another thing to be wrong; and so, when a question is asked of them, they resort to wriggling speech, like the wriggling of slippery fishes, saying: “I do not uphold this view. I do not uphold that view. I do not hold the contrary view. I do not say that it is not so. Nor do I say that it is not not so!” Thus, verily, do some Brahmans and ascetics wriggle like little fish.
The conclusion of the whole matter is, that, while some Brahmans and ascetics exhaust their moral energy in foolish or wicked occupations, and yet other Brahmans and ascetics exhaust their intellectual energy in hammering out hard and fast views regarding things infinite and ultimate, the disciples of the Buddha are bidden to pass these things by; to apply all the energies of heart and mind to the spirit and the details of that discipline whereby a lower state of consciousness may be made to cease, while a higher state of consciousness may be made to take its place; so that, step by step, they may ascend in consciousness to the fair summits of wisdom, where they shall have a truer prospect of ultimate things. Discipline, not speculation, is the way.