States of Consciousness
Theosophical Quarterly, October, 1925
One of the Buddhist Suttas is known as the Potthapada Sutta, so called in honour of the Brahman to whom the Buddha addressed the teaching it contains, and who was so moved by the wise eloquence of the Master, that he sought and received permission to become a member of the Order.
Potthapada is the softened Pali form of the Sanskrit, Poshtrapada, the name of one of the lunar mansions, the spaces through which the moon moves, day by day, from west to east, across the background of the stars. From this lunar mansion the Brahman took his name.
The Potthapada Sutta shares with other Suttas in the same collection certain characteristics. Its spirit is at once reverent and humorous; it reveals an admirable gift for drawing character against a background of Aryan life; it goes forward in the same leisurely way, repeating dissertations and descriptions word for word as they have been given before. Whoever has told children some story that they love, has, no doubt, discovered. that they remember accurately every detail, every phrase, and that they will in no wise tolerate any departure from the authorized version of the story. In exactly the same way, the recorders of these Suttas, and those to whom they were rehearsed, love to have the very same words repeated time after time. For them, iteration, far from being a blemish or a shortcoming, is a charming quality in which they consciously delight. These early followers of the Buddha had the minds of sages and the hearts of children.
Thus resembling the other discourses of the same group, the Potthapada surpasses them all, perhaps, in lucidity and earnestness. We get very close to the heart of the Buddha’s message, as he desired it to be received and put into practice. For his purpose was altogether practical. Beyond the measure of the other Suttas, this one gives us the living image of the Buddha, wise, pure of heart, earnest, eager to lead men into the path of life, ready to guide them to final victory. His thought and speech are more direct, less qualified and veiled by the need of accommodating them to the mental habit and limitation of those whom he addressed. So we owe a debt of gratitude to the Brahman Potthapada for the clear and honest mind, which made it possible for the great Aryan Master to speak to him so openly, so directly.
For students of Theosophy, the setting of the story is peculiarly attractive. Among the wealthy lay disciples of the Buddha was one Sudatta, to whom had been given the title Anathapindaka, “He who gives food to those who have no wealth.” This lay disciple had purchased and presented to the Buddha, for the use of the Order, a tract of land called Jeta Vana, and on this land, dwellings for the Master and his disciples were built. It is worth noting that among the Bharhut sculptures, carved twenty-three centuries ago, there is a bas-relief representing the purchase of Jeta Vana and its presentation to the Buddha, with an inscription identifying the occasion. It appears that, a short distance from the residence of the Order, was a park belonging to Queen Mallika, and, further, that this royal and enlightened lady had caused to be built there a wide hall, set about with Tinduka trees, of which we know only that they bore fruit, and that they are mentioned in the epic poems. This hall, which became so celebrated that it came to be known simply as The Hall, was intended by its queenly founder to be “a place for the discussion of religious views and teachings,” without distinction, it would appear, of caste or creed. For this purpose it was in fact habitually used. Here, when our story begins, we find Potthapada and his followers in residence. Tradition says he had been a wealthy Brahman, but he is here given the title of Pilgrim. With him were many of his adherents, to wit, three hundred pilgrims.
The Master Gotama, we are told, had risen early in the morning, and, wrapping his robe about him and taking his bowl, had set forth toward the neighbouring town of Savatthi to receive an offering of rice. But bethinking him that it was yet very early for the good folk of Savatthi, he determined to go instead to Queen Mallika’s park, where was The Hall, set about with Tinduka trees, and destined for the discussion of religious views and teachings. This he therefore did.
Then we get a touch of the reverent humour of the Suttas, and, at the same time, by indirection, a little lesson in the good manners and deportment of the Buddha’s Order. For at that very time it happened that Pilgrim Potthapada was seated in The Hall, with many of his adherents, to wit, with three hundred pilgrims. It would seem, however, that they were swerving somewhat from good Queen Mallika’s purpose. They were not discussing religious views and teachings. What they were doing the recorder of the Sutta tells us in detail:
“With a roaring, with a shrill and mighty noise, they were relating many kinds of common tales, such, for example, as talk of kings, talk of robbers, talk of ministers, talk of armies, talk of terror, talk of war, talk of food and drink and 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.” The narrator knows, and his auditors knew, that this is precisely the list of unprofitable themes from which the Pilgrim Gotama and his disciples refrained, as detailed by Gotama himself.
While this animated but unedifying din continued, Pilgrim Potthapada saw the Master Gotama at a distance approaching, and, seeing him, he checked his company:
“Let the gentlemen be less noisy! Let the gentlemen not make noise! Here comes the Pilgrim Gotama. That venerable one is a lover of quietude, one who speaks in praise of quietude. Should he see our company full of quietude, perhaps he would bethink him to join us!”
So the pilgrims became silent. So the Master came to where Pilgrim Potthapada was. And Pilgrim Potthapada thus addressed the Master:
“May the venerable Master come hither! The venerable Master is welcome. It is a long time since the venerable Master has taken the turn coming hither. Let the venerable Master be seated. Here is a seat made ready.”
So the Master took the seat prepared for him. And Pilgrim Potthapada brought a low seat, and seated himself beside him. Then the Master said: “What was the subject that you were discussing, Potthapada, seated here together? What was the theme that was interrupted?”
“Let the matter rest, venerable Sir, that we were discussing, seated here together. It will be no hard thing for the Master to hear it later. But more than once, in past days, when Pilgrims and Brahmans of differing views had met together and were seated in this hall of discussion, the talk turned to the cessation of consciousness: ‘How comes the cessation of consciousness?’ And some said: ‘Without cause or motive a man’s consciousness arises and ceases. At what time it arises, at that time he is conscious; at what time it ceases, at that time he is unconscious.’ Thus some set forth the cessation of consciousness. Then another said: ‘Not so, Sir, will it be. For consciousness is the man’s self, and that comes and goes. At what time it comes, at that time he is conscious, and at what time it goes, at that time he is unconscious.’ Thus some set forth the cessation of consciousness. Then another said: ‘Not so, Sir, will it be. There are Pilgrims and Brahmans of great power, of great might. They draw in the man’s consciousness and draw it out. At what time they draw it in, at that time he is conscious, and at what time they draw it out, at that time he is unconscious.’ Thus some set forth the cessation of consciousness. Then another said: ‘Not so, Sir, will it be. There are Bright Beings of great power, of great might. They draw in the man’s consciousness and draw it out. At what time they draw it in, at that time he is conscious, and at what time they draw it out, at that time he is unconscious.’ Thus some set forth the cessation of consciousness.
“Then, Sir, the memory of the Master came to me, and I thought: ‘Would that the Master were here! Would that the Blessed One were here, who is so skilled in these principles.’ The Master thoroughly knows the cessation of consciousness. How, Sir, is the cessation of consciousness?”
“As to that, Potthapada, the Pilgrims and Brahmans who say: ‘Without cause or motive a man’s consciousness arises and ceases,’ are wrong at the very beginning. Why? Because a man’s state of consciousness has a cause and a motive. Through discipline one state of consciousness arises, through discipline another state of consciousness ceases.”
Through discipline one state of consciousness arises, through discipline another state of consciousness ceases: a significant sentence. It would be hard to find a weightier, or one that more perfectly reveals and sums up the Buddha’s purpose and message. The Brahmans and seekers after spiritual truth had for ages been considering and discussing the higher states of consciousness, the consciousness of adepts, of Masters, of the Bright Powers in the celestial hierarchy. Through the long course of centuries, these states of consciousness had come to be objective themes of speculation, everyone holding and argumentatively defending a different opinion. The whole matter had become obscure and remote, with the unreality that comes from much discussion. The Buddha lit up the whole dark field of controversy with a single luminous sentence: All states of spiritual consciousness, even those of the Bright Powers and the Masters, can be known because they can be attained; they can all be attained through discipline.
The sentence is as vital now as when Potthapada heard it. It is the answer to all the perplexities of philosophy and religion, the reconciliation in all controversies between religion and science, between materialism and idealism. It is the essence of Theosophy: All states of spiritual consciousness may be attained through discipline. It is the exact equivalent of the Western Master’s saying: Live the life and you will know the doctrine.
So we come back to our Sutta. It is, perhaps, a mark of the Buddha’s eagerness, his ardent desire to press home this saving truth, that he did not wait for Potthapada to ask the inevitable question, but immediately proceeded to formulate it himself:
“Through discipline one state of consciousness arises, through discipline another state of consciousness ceases. And what is discipline? It is this, Potthapada!”
Here we have one of the iterations already spoken of; for it is precisely the ordered teaching that follows, that forms the heart in this group of Suttas, and is repeated, in exactly the same words and in the same order, in each one of the thirteen Suttas that form the group. They are so many settings, picturesque, dramatic, vivid, for the same central doctrine. Any one of the thirteen thus gives the essence, the vital part, meant to be put into practice, of the whole teaching. They are equally valid,—separate or united; each one suffices for the practical needs of the disciple.
A part of this teaching we have already given in an earlier study, from which we may here quote one or two paragraphs, leaving the more complete analysis and study of each section for a future occasion:
“What is discipline? It is this, Potthapada! A Tathagata is born in the world, an Arhat, fully awakened, endowed with wisdom and righteousness, benign, knowing the worlds, unsurpassed as a guide of men, a teacher of bright beings and of mortals, a Buddha, a Master. He of himself thoroughly knows and sees face to face the universe, the world of bright powers, the world of dark powers, the world of the formative divinities, the world of ascetics and Brahmans, peoples of the earth, the bright powers and mankind, and declares his knowledge to others. He proclaims the Law, lovely in its beginning, lovely in its progress, lovely in its consummation, in the spirit and in the letter, he reveals the spiritual life in its fulness, in its purity. This Law a householder hears, or a householder’s son, or one born in any other class. Hearing the Law, he gains faith in the Tathagata. . . . In no long time leaving his portion of wealth be it small or great, and his circle of relatives, be they few or many, he departs from his dwelling and enters the way of renunciation. . . .
“He who has gone forth dwells obedient to the rules of the Order, rejoicing in righteousness, seeing danger in the least transgression, accepting and training himself in the precepts, righteous in word and deed, innocent in his livelihood, righteous in conduct, keeping the door of the senses, recollected in consciousness, happy.
“How is he righteous in conduct? He perseveres in kindness, honesty, chastity, truthfulness, abstinence, courtesy, quietude, reticence; he is simple in heart, in word, in speech. As a crowned king, victorious, sees no danger, so is the disciple poised and confident. Through this noble discipline, he attains perfect peace. . . . He rids his heart of the three poisons: anger, greed, delusion; he conquers the five obscurities: envy, passion, sloth, vacillation, unbelief. . . . “
Righteousness and wisdom must go together; they cannot be separated without grave injury to both. The adherents of religion may think that they can follow righteousness and ignore wisdom. The devotees of science may imagine that they can reach wisdom while ignoring righteousness. Both miss the mark. The goal is spiritual consciousness, in ascending degrees, in deepening richness and plenitude. To gain spiritual consciousness, we need both; wisdom and righteousness are the two wings of the soul. So we come back to our Sutta:
“When the disciple perceives within himself that the five obscurities are banished, happiness is born within him, when he has gained happiness joy is born within him, when he becomes joyful in mind, his body becomes quiet, when his body is quiet he attains serenity, when he attains serenity, his heart enters into spiritual contemplation. He, rid of evil desires, rid of evil tendencies, enters the first stage of spiritual meditation, marked by the marshaling of thoughts and the forming of judgments, full of joy and serenity, and in that state he abides. His former state, consciousness of evil desires, ceases. While he possesses a state of consciousness born of discernment and the rejection of evil, full of joy and serenity, subtile, real, he is conscious in discernment, joy, serenity, subtile, real. Thus by discipline one state of consciousness arises, by discipline another state of consciousness ceases. This is discipline.
“Then, again, Potthapada, transcending the marshaling of thoughts and the forming of judgments, the disciple enters the second stage of spiritual consciousness, marked by the stillness of the inner self, the unification of the intelligence, without the marshaling of thoughts and the forming of judgments, a state born of spiritual contemplation, joyful, serene, and in that state he abides. His former state, a consciousness born of discernment and rejection, joyful, serene, subtile, real, ceases. While he possesses a state of consciousness born of spiritual contemplation, joyful, serene, subtile, real, he is conscious in spiritual contemplation, joy, serenity, subtile, real. Thus by discipline one state of consciousness arises, by discipline another state of consciousness ceases. This is discipline.
“Then again, Potthapada, the disciple, who has passed beyond the longing for happiness and the conquest of passion, dwells recollected and spiritually conscious, throughout his whole nature he experiences that serenity which the noble Arhats declare, saying: ‘Poised, recollected, he dwells serene,’ thus attaining the third stage of spiritual consciousness, he abides in it. The preceding state of consciousness, born of spiritual contemplation, joyful, serene, subtile, real, ceases. While he possesses a state of consciousness poised, serene, subtile, real, he is conscious in poise, serenity, subtile, real. Thus by discipline one state of consciousness arises, by discipline another state of consciousness ceases. This is discipline.
“Then again, Potthapada, the disciple, by transcending pleasure and by transcending pain, both elation and dejection having ceased like the sun at its setting, enters into the fourth stage of spiritual consciousness, other than sorrow, other than joy, a condition poised, recollected, pure, and there abides. The preceding state of consciousness, poised, serene, subtile, real, ceases. While he possesses a state of consciousness other than sorrow, other than joy, subtile, real, he is conscious beyond sorrow, beyond joy, subtile, real. Thus by discipline one state of consciousness arises, by discipline another state of consciousness ceases. This is discipline.
“Then again, Potthapada, the disciple, by passing beyond all consciousness of form, by the cessation of the consciousness of resistance, by transcending the perception of diversity, with the thought, ‘Infinite is the shining ether,’ enters the infinity of the shining ether and there abides. The preceding state of consciousness of form ceases. While he possesses a state of consciousness resting in the infinity of the shining ether, serene, subtile, real, he is conscious as resting in the infinity of the shining ether, serene, subtile, real. Thus by discipline one state of consciousness arises, by discipline another state of consciousness ceases. This is discipline.
“Then again, Potthapada, the disciple, passing altogether beyond the state of abiding in the infinity of the shining ether, with the thought, ‘Infinite is intelligence,’ enters into the abode of the infinity of intelligence and there abides. The preceding state of consciousness of the infinity of the shining ether ceases. While he possesses a state of consciousness resting in the infinity of intelligence, subtile, real, he is conscious as abiding in the infinity of intelligence, subtile, real. Thus by discipline one state of consciousness arises, by discipline another state of consciousness ceases. This is discipline.
“Then again, Potthapada, the disciple, passing altogether beyond the state of abiding in the infinity of intelligence, with the thought, ‘Nothing whatsoever exists in manifestation,’ enters into the state in which nothing whatsoever exists in manifestation and there abides. The preceding state of the consciousness of the infinity of intelligence, subtile, real, ceases. While he possesses a state of consciousness in which nothing whatsoever exists in manifestation, subtile, real, he is conscious as in a state in which nothing whatsoever exists in manifestation, subtile, real. Thus by discipline one state of consciousness arises, by discipline another state of consciousness ceases. This is discipline.
“Thus, Potthapada, the disciple, beginning from the point at which he possesses a state of consciousness of his own attaining, goes forward progressively from one to the other, from one to the other, until he attains the summit of consciousness. . . .”
So far, this marvelously luminous and complete description of the seven stages of spiritual consciousness. It will be noted, first, that the Buddha says, of each one of the seven, that it is “subtile, real”; they are not delusive, fanciful conditions, but genuine spiritual realities. Next, it will be noted that, of the seven, the first four are numbered, as the first, second, third and fourth stages of spiritual consciousness, together forming the “four dhyanas”; the three remaining are not numbered. We have thus a lower quaternary and a higher triad.
Considering the first four, we find that they may be grouped into two intellectual stages and two moral stages. First is the intellectual stage characterized by “the marshaling of thoughts and the forming of judgments,” the activity of Manas illumined by Buddhi; Manas marshals the thoughts, while the light of Buddhi forms the judgments. To put it in another way, Manas makes a quantitative analysis; Buddhi makes a qualitative analysis, determining real values.
In the second stage, there is less Manas and more Buddhi. It is a state of spiritual contemplation, as distinguished from the preceding state of intellectual discernment or discrimination; a consciousness of spiritual reality, profound, joyful, serene, real.
Between the third and the fourth stages there is a similar line of distinction, but it is now moral rather than intellectual. Through the earlier stages of discipline the disciple has conquered all the causes of misery, the three poisons and the five obscurities. Through this conquest, he attains to the joy of victory. On this joy of victory the third of the four numbered stages of spiritual consciousness is based. It is still a consciousness which admits of the idea of duality; in this case, the contrast between the misery left behind and the joy attained.
But in the deeper sense both misery and joy are essential elements of our human life, exactly as being born and dying are equally essential elements in the progressive series of births and rebirths. Misery is, for the great masses, the essential stimulus to evolution; the effort to escape misery is the effort to attain joy. Misery drives, joy draws. They are the two sides of one spiritual power. So, ascending from stage to stage of spiritual consciousness, the disciple comes to the stage at which he enters into that one spiritual power and cognizes it from within, by identifying himself with its essence. He learns that joy and sorrow, misery and happiness, are in essence one. Supreme suffering is supreme happiness. The martyr dies in torment, rejoicing. The pain of the disciple is his joy. So he attains the fourth stage, “other than sorrow, other than joy, a condition poised, recollected, pure.”
So we come to the three unnumbered stages of spiritual consciousness, the higher triad of our septenary. We may gain at least some preliminary understanding of them by the use of analogy. It need hardly be said that this is a very different thing from actually entering and experiencing them. Preliminary understanding may be possible for the disciple; direct experience belongs to the Master, or to the disciple during Initiation, when his consciousness is blended with the consciousness of the Master.
Within the limits of preliminary understanding, we can form some idea of what these higher stages of spiritual consciousness mean. The word translated “shining ether” is in Pali, Akasa, in Sanskrit, Akasha, the literal meaning of which is “the shining forth.” In one aspect it is the spiritual principle of Space, which “shines forth” from the unmanifest Eternal. In another aspect, it is the Light of the Logos. With the Light of the Logos, the disciple who has reached this state of spiritual consciousness is blended in a united life, experiencing the universal extension, the radiance, of that Light.
In like manner, the “Infinite Intelligence” of the succeeding stage would seem to be the Logos in its own essential being. Into that being, the consciousness of the disciple enters. He lives as the Logos. He is conscious as the Logos.
Finally, there is the complete merging of the consciousness in the Eternal, in that Nirvana which is Parabrahm.
What has gone before should make it clear that, while these seven states of spiritual consciousness are states of spiritual intelligence, they are not intellectual states. They are not to be gained, or even understood in outline, through any activity of intellect alone. No gymnastic exercise of Manas will disclose their real nature. The Buddha explicitly declares, and this is the whole message and burden of the Sutta, that they are to be gained only through spiritual discipline, through the exercise and mastery of those high virtues and qualities which he has enumerated. In plain truth, that spiritual state which is “other than sorrow, other than joy” requires for its attainment not intellectual acumen but heroism. Without the heroic power to bear the utmost of sorrow, the joy which dwells in the heart of sorrow cannot be won in the victory which reveals sorrow and joy as the two sides of the same experience.
As a great disciple of the Buddha has said: “These subjects are only partly for the understanding. A high faculty belonging to the higher life, must see; and it is truly impossible to force it upon one’s understanding, merely in words. One must see with his spiritual eye, hear with his Dharmakayic ear, feel with the sensations of his spiritual ‘I,’ before he can comprehend this doctrine fully.”
From the same high authority, we may quote a passage which sheds a flood of light on the form of cognition above the marshaling of thoughts and the forming of judgments, and also on the consciousness which is attained through union with the Light of the Logos:
“There comes a moment in the life of an adept, when the hardships he has passed through are a thousandfold rewarded. In order to acquire further knowledge, he has no more to go through a minute and slow process of investigation and comparison of various objects, but is accorded an instantaneous, implicit insight into every first truth. . . . The adept sees and feels and lives in the very essence of all fundamental truths, the Universal Spiritual Essence of Nature.”