Vestures of Consciousness
Theosophical Quarterly, January, 1926
It will be remembered that the crowd of pilgrims who, with Pilgrim Potthapada, were in residence in The Hall set about with Tinduka trees in Queen Mallika’s park, had been discussing with animated din a wide range of topics, when the Buddha approached, coming from the residence of the Order at Jeta Vana. With a roaring, with a shrill and mighty noise, they had been relating many kinds of common tales, such, for example, as talk of kings, ta1k 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.
But when the Buddha entered The Hall, the disputants were hushed. While Pilgrim Potthapada questioned and the Buddha answered, the pilgrims remained silent; and it is a part of the art of the unnamed author of the Sutta that, without describing or commenting on it, he thus indicates the personal ascendancy, the majesty of the Buddha, the reverence which his presence inspired.
Yet this impressive personal power is not represented as something miraculous and inevitable, the unnatural attribute of a divine personage predestined to victory. On the contrary, Gotama’s humanity always shines through; there are passages which show him suffering not only from discord among his own followers, but from open hostility and attack, and even the bodily violence inflicted by inveterate enemies. Each of these episodes has a profound interest, not only because it is a part of that great Master’s history, but also because the underlying motives and impulses are deeply rooted in human nature. And they are related with something of that mellow humour that pervades all these scriptures like sprinkled gold dust.
It was from the dwelling of the Order at Jeta Vana that the Buddha came to The Hall and there met Pilgrim Potthapada. It was while he was in residence at Jeta Vana at a later period that a notable quarrel broke out among some of his disciples. Not far from Jeta Vana, there was another dwelling of the Order, under the superintendence of two advanced disciples; each of them had many less progressed disciples in his care, all of whom had been admitted to the Order.
Of the two, one had deeply studied the theory, the intellectual side of the Buddha’s teaching, and instructed his pupils in that, while the other had fixed his thought and efforts on the details of the Buddha’s discipline, the ordered way of life he had laid down, the acts enjoined and the acts forbidden, whereby character and will were to be trained. These two instructors perfectly supplemented each other, and should have co-operated in amity and mutual understanding.
Then came an incident, quite trivial in itself, which was magnified from molehill to mountain by the very human proneness to contention, the nearly universal desire to prove oneself in the right. One of the two more advanced disciples, he who was mainly occupied with the more abstract and intellectual side of his Master’s teaching, had washed his hands, and, perhaps because his mind was preoccupied with an analysis of the Five Virtues or the Five Precepts, had left the water in the vessel, contrary, it would seem, to the rules of personal order which the Buddha had laid down for his disciples.
His colleague, full of the importance of these details of deportment, and not quite free from the vice of superiority, noted the omission and censured it not only in thought but in word:
“Brother, was it you who left the water?”
“But do you not know that it is a sin to do so?”
“Indeed I do not.”
“But, brother, it is a sin.”
“Well, then, I will make satisfaction for it.”
“Of course, brother, if you did it unintentionally, through inadvertence, it is no sin.”
Nevertheless, the instructor of discipline said to the disciples in his charge:
“This instructor of the law, though he has committed a sin, does not realize it.”
They straightway went to the pupils of the instructor of the law, saying:
“Your preceptor, though he has committed a sin, does not realize it.”
And these in their turn carried the word to him. Highly incensed, he retorted:
“He said at first it was no sin. Now he says it is a sin. He is a liar.”
His pupils immediately went to the others and said:
“Your teacher is a liar.”
So the quarrel was fomented between them, and even the lay disciples, those who supplied the bodily wants of the pupils, took sides and formed themselves into factions. It is recorded that the women of the Order, and even those who were outside, immediately joined one faction or the other. The spirit of discord reigned.
Tidings of the matter were brought to the Buddha at Jeta Vana. Twice he sent word: “Let them be reconciled!” Twice the reply came back: “Master, they refuse to be reconciled!” The third time, he exclaimed: “The body of the disciples is being rent asunder!” and going thither, he made clear to them the folly and wickedness of dissension.
When they refused to hear him, he departed and went alone to a distant forest, finding for himself a resting place in the heart of the forest under a beautiful tree. There, says the tradition, he was dutifully and reverently waited on by an elderly elephant, who had himself sought refuge in the forest depths from the noise and vexation of the herd. Before withdrawing to that seclusion, he had ruminated thus:
“Here I live, in the midst of the herd, crowded by elephants young and old; they eat the green branches I break down; when I would drink, they roil the water; when I would bathe, they bump against me. It were better to retire and live alone.”
So the two recluses met in the forest depths, and the elephant, benign and serviceable, waited on the Buddha. Breaking a leaf-covered branch, he swept the ground before the Buddha’s refuge; taking the Master’s water-pot, he brought him clean water to drink; by heating stones and rolling them into a rock pool, he prepared warm water for the Master’s ablutions, testing it with his delicate trunk; from forest trees he brought fruit for the Buddha to eat; he fanned him with a palm leaf, swaying it to and fro; he guarded the Master as a sentry, pacing to and fro through the night until sunrise.
Now it is also related that a monkey, watching the elephant from the tree tops, said to himself: “I also will undertake somewhat!” So, finding honeycomb in a tree, he laid it on a banana leaf and brought it to the Buddha. Greatly delighted when the Master accepted the gift, and dancing in ecstasy along the tree tops, he stepped on a rotten branch, fell and broke his neck, and, because he had served the Buddha, was reborn in a celestial mansion.
This is not the only monkey in the scriptures. It is recorded that a youthful disciple, taking offense at a slight rebuke, set fire to his hut of branches and ran away. When he learned it, the Buddha commented:
“This is not the first time he has destroyed a dwelling because of resentment. He did it also in a former birth.
“In the olden days, when Brahmadatta reigned at Benares, a crested bird had built a nest in the Himalaya country. One day, while it was raining, a monkey came there, shivering with cold. The crested bird, seeing him, said:
“’Monkey, your head and your hands and your feet are like a man’s; how comes it that you have no house?’
“The monkey said:
“’Crested bird, my head and my hands and my feet are indeed like a man’s; what they say is man’s highest gift, intelligence, that I lack.’
“The crested bird said:
“’He that is unstable, light-minded, disloyal, he who keeps not the precept, will never attain to happiness. Monkey, exert yourself to the utmost, abandon your past habits, build yourself a hut to shelter you from wind and cold!’
“But the monkey was incensed and destroyed the bird’s nest, and the bird slipped out and flew away. That monkey was reborn as the youthful disciple who destroyed the hut of branches.”
To return to the quarrelling disciples. It is related that the people of the neighbouring villages, reverent hearers of the Buddha, but not members of the Order, coming to the residence of the Order to seek the Buddha, were told not only that he had departed, but the reason of his going.
These pious lay folk were indignant, so that they gave no more offerings of food to the quarrelsome disciples, who were thus in danger of starvation. Hunger brought wisdom. They confessed their sins to each other, and, going to the forest, begged the Buddha to forgive them.
The Master made clear to them the enormity of their offense, because, though accepted as disciples by a Buddha, they had resisted his efforts to reconcile them and had disobeyed his commands. When they realized their sin, he forgave them.
But there were graver obstacles than the quarrelling of the disciples. On a certain occasion, an evil-minded woman bribed the citizens of a town near Jeta Vana, and said to them:
“When the ascetic Gotama comes to the town, do you revile and abuse him, and drive him out.”
So,when the Buddha entered the city, they followed after him shouting: “You are a robber, you are a fool, you are a camel, you are an ass, you are a denizen of hell!”
The venerable Ananda said to the Buddha: “Master, they are reviling us; let us go elsewhere.”
“Where shall we go, Ananda?”
“Master, let us go to another city.”
“What if they should revile us there?”
“Master, we shall go to yet another city.”
“Ananda, we shall not so act. Where a tumult arises, there we shall remain until the tumult ceases. Ananda, I am like an elephant that has entered the battle. Such an elephant should withstand the arrows that come from every side. So it is my duty to endure with patience the words of wicked men.”
Not only reviling but violence met the Buddha as he carried out his work. Once, when he was among the mountains, his inveterate enemy Devadatta hurled a rock down toward him; a fragment, breaking off as the rock rolled downward, struck the Buddha on the foot, causing the blood to flow. He suffered intense pain, say the records, and the disciples carried him to Jivaka’s mango grove, where Jivaka himself ministered to him, applying an astringent to the wound and bandaging it.
These things are recorded, not by enemies seeking to belittle him, but by those who revered and loved him. They show the Buddha not as a miraculous being, immune from human woe, but as a man, yet a man of heroic virtue, wisdom, power, compassion; a Master, not a god. The majesty of his presence, not some supernatural compulsion, hushed the noisy pilgrims in The Hall, as the Buddha answered Pilgrim Potthapada. We may pick up the colloquy again with the Master’s words:
“Thus, Potthapada, the disciple, beginning from the point at which he possesses a state of consciousness of his own attaining, goes forward from one state of consciousness to another, until he attains the summit of consciousness.”
“Does the Master teach one summit of consciousness, or several summits of consciousness?”
“I teach one summit of consciousness, Potthapada, and also several summits of consciousness.”
“But how does the Master teach this?”
“At whatever point he reaches a station, a resting-place, I speak of that as a summit of consciousness. Thus, Potthapada, I teach one summit of consciousness, and also several summits of consciousness.”
“Does the state of consciousness arise first, Master, and afterwards understanding; or does understanding arise first, and afterwards the state of consciousness; or do the state of consciousness and the understanding arise together, neither being earlier or later?”
“The state of consciousness arises first, Potthapada, and afterwards the understanding; the arising of the understanding comes through the arising of the state of consciousness. Thus a man recognizes that through a definite cause understanding has arisen in him. For this reason it can be known that the state of consciousness arises first, and the understanding afterwards; that the arising of the understanding comes through the arising of the state of consciousness.”
“Is the state of consciousness the man’s self, Master, or is the state of consciousness one thing and the self another?”
“To what self do you refer, Potthapada?”
“I have in mind a gross self, Master, having a form, made of the four gross elements, sustained by eating food.”
“If there were a gross self, Potthapada, having a form, made of the four gross elements, sustained by eating food, even so, Potthapada, the state of consciousness will be one thing, and the self another. Even while this gross self, having form, made of the four gross elements, sustained by eating food, remains, one state of consciousness arises in the man, and another state of consciousness ceases. For this reason, Potthapada, it can be known that the state of consciousness is one thing, and the self another.”
“Then I have in mind, Master, a self formed of mental substance, having the shape of the body in all its parts, possessing all the powers of perception and action.”
“If there were a self formed of mental substance, having the shape of the body in all its parts, possessing all the powers of perception and action, even so, Potthapada, the state of consciousness will be one thing, and the self another. Even while this self formed of mental substance, having the shape of the body in all its parts, possessing all the powers of perception and action, remains, one state of consciousness arises in the man, and another state of consciousness ceases. For this reason, Potthapada, it can be known that the state of consciousness is one thing, and the self another.
“Then I have in mind, Master, a formless self, consisting of consciousness.”
“If there were a formless self, consisting of consciousness, even so, Potthapada, the state of consciousness will be one thing, and the self another. Even while this self, formless, consisting of consciousness, remains, one state of consciousness arises in the man, and another state of consciousness ceases. For this reason, Potthapada, it can be known that the state of consciousness is one thing, and the self another.”
There is a touch of humour in this. Pilgrim Potthapada has the air of putting a purely hypothetical case before the Buddha, of making up his argument as he goes along. He is not really doing this. He is in substance quoting two of the great Upanishads and blending their teaching. From the Mandukya Upanishad, he is taking the classification of the three vestures, other than the Supreme Self; the vestures which have been called the body of the man, the body of the disciple, the body of the Master. And from the Taittiriya Upanishad he is taking names for two of these vestures, that formed of the substance of mind, and that formed of consciousness; and it is worth noting that, in the Upanishad, these vestures are called “selves,” just as they are in our Sutta.
But this is not the only element of quotation in our dialogue. In his discourse with King Ajatashatru, concerning the Fruits of Discipleship, the Buddha himself has covered much the same ground:
“So the disciple, with heart and imagination concentrated, altogether pure, altogether luminous, without stain, rid of all evil, made pliant, prepared for action, firm, imperturbable, concentrates heart and imagination on the building up of a body formed of mental substance. From this physical body, he builds up creatively another body, possessing form, of mental substance, having the shape of the body in all its parts, possessing all the powers of perception and action.
“It is, O King, just as though a man were to draw forth a reed from its sheath. He would see clearly, ‘This is the sheath, this is the reed; the sheath is one thing, the reed is another; from the sheath the reed has been drawn forth.’ Or it is, O King, just as though a man were to draw a sword from the scabbard. He would see clearly, ‘This is the sword, this is the scabbard; the sword is one thing, the scabbard is another; from the scabbard the sword has been drawn forth.’ Or it is, O King, as though a man were to draw a snake forth from its slough. He would see clearly, ‘This is the snake, this is the slough; the snake is one thing, the slough is another; from the slough the snake has been drawn forth.’” The simile of the reed drawn from the sheath is taken from the Katha Upanishad, while the slough of the snake comes from the Chhandogya Upanishad. So that, in these two passages, we have a direct return to four of the great Upanishads, conclusive evidence that the teaching of the Buddha regarding the inner bodies as stages in the path of liberation is in the direct line of the great spiritual tradition of ancient India.
In the Buddha’s presentation of this teaching of the inner bodies, the vestures, successively more spiritual, above the physical vesture, it is noteworthy that the Master lays the dominant stress not on the vestures themselves, but on the consciousness which they contain and sustain. It is further noteworthy that, in each case, he regards that consciousness as evolving, developing; a higher state of consciousness arising, a lower state of consciousness ceasing; and, finally, this steadily ascending development of consciousness takes place through the effort of the disciple himself, through aspiration, discipline, purification. In the steady ascent toward perfect wisdom and holiness, final immortality and liberation, each vesture, as it is attained, marks a stage, a station on the journey, a temporary resting place until the lessons of that stage are fully learned. It is, therefore, for that stage of the uphill journey, a summit of consciousness, to use the Buddha’s phrase; and by analogy we may conceive that, for each vesture, for each stage, there are minor stages, each in its turn a summit of consciousness to be attained by undaunted effort.
We may say, perhaps, without irreverence, that the teaching of the Buddha is eminently sound Theosophical doctrine; that Pilgrim Potthapada had set forth before him, in response to his earnest aspiration, an outline of practical Occultism, as clearly as it could be put into words. Logically, there was nothing for him to do but to set to work forthwith.
It is one of the virtues of these scriptures, comparable in value to their sunny humour, that they are so universal; they illustrate at each point the tendencies that run through all human nature. Thus, the list of unedifying themes that were being debated in The Hall might serve, almost without alteration, for the summary of the news in our daily papers: “stories of kings, robbers, ministers; of kin ships and cars . . .”—with exactly the same blending of the ridiculous and the sublime: “talk of the village well, traditions of the forming of lands and oceans, discussions of being and non-being.”
So with Pilgrim Potthapada. He had heard, just as we hear, the call to instant spiritual effort and action. But Pilgrim Potthapada, again like ourselves, was not quite ready. He had an argumentative mind, and he almost inevitably continued to argue:
“Master, is the world everlasting? Is this the truth, and the opposite of it vanity?”
“I have made no declaration, Potthapada, as to whether the world is everlasting; whether this is the truth, and the opposite of it vanity.”
“Well, then, Master, is the world not everlasting? Is this the truth, and the opposite of it vanity?”
“I have made no declaration, Potthapada, as to whether the world is not everlasting; whether this is the truth, and the opposite of it vanity.”
“Well, then, Master, is the world finite? Is this the truth, and the opposite of it vanity?”
“I have made no declaration, Potthapada, as to whether the world is finite; whether this is the truth, and the opposite of it vanity.”
“Well, then, Master, is the world infinite? Is this the truth, and the opposite of it vanity?”
“I have made no declaration, Potthapada, as to whether the world is infinite; whether this is the truth, and the opposite of it vanity.”
“Well, then, Master, is the life the body? Is this the truth, and the opposite of it vanity?”
“I have made no declaration, Potthapada, as to whether the life is the body; whether this is the truth, and the opposite of it vanity.”
“Well, then, Master, is the life one thing and the body another thing? Is this the truth, and the opposite of it vanity?”
“I have made no declaration, Potthapada. as to whether the life is one thing and the body another thing; whether this is the truth, and the opposite of it vanity.”
“Well, then, Master, does the Tathagata exist beyond death? Is this the truth, and the opposite of it vanity?”
“I have made no declaration, Potthapada, as to whether the Tathagata exists beyond death; whether this is the truth, and the opposite of it vanity.”
“Well, then, Master, does the Tathagata not exist beyond death? Is this the truth, and the opposite of it vanity?”
“I have made no declaration, Potthapada, as to whether the Tathagata does not exist beyond death; whether this is the truth, and the opposite of it vanity.”
“Well, then, Master, does the Tathagata both exist and not exist beyond death? Is this the truth, and the opposite of it vanity?”
“I have made no declaration, Potthapada, as to whether the Tathagata both exists and does not exist beyond death; whether this is the truth, and the opposite of it vanity.”
“Well, then, Master, does the Tathagata neither exist nor not exist after death? Is this the truth, and the opposite of it vanity?”
“I have made no declaration, Potthapada, as to whether the Tathagata neither exists nor exists not beyond death; whether this is the truth, and the opposite of it vanity.”
“Why, Sir, does the Master not make these declarations?”
“Such declaration, Potthapada, does not make for spiritual wealth, does not make for the Law of righteousness, does not make for the principles of discipleship, nor for detachment, nor for purification from lust, nor for quietude of heart, nor for peace, nor for wisdom, nor for illumination, nor for liberation. Therefore I have not made these declarations.”
“Well, then, what has the Master declared?”
“I have declared that this is misery, Potthapada; I have declared that this is the arising of misery; I have declared that this is the cessation of misery; I have declared that this is the conduct which leads to the cessation of misery.”
“Why, Sir, has the Master declared this?”
“Because this makes for spiritual wealth, Potthapada, this makes for the Law of Righteousness, for the principles of discipleship, for detachment, for purification, for quietude of heart, for peace, for wisdom, for illumination, for liberation. Therefore I have declared this.”
“This is so, Master! This is so, Blessed One! And now let the Master do as seems to him good.”
So the Master, rising from his seat, departed.
Meanwhile, the pilgrims in the Hall had kept silence. It even appears that they had listened attentively with their contentious minds. But the explosion came immediately, for, as the chronicler tells us, no sooner had the Buddha departed, than these pilgrims bore down upon Pilgrim Potthapada from all sides with a torrent of biting words:
“So it seems that, whatever the ascetic Gotama says, this Potthapada immediately assents, saying, ‘This is so, Master! This is so, Blessed One!’ But we do not see that the ascetic Gotama has given a clear answer to any one of the ten questions: whether the world is everlasting, or not everlasting, finite, or infinite, whether the life is the body, or not the body, whether the Tathagata exists, or exists not, or both, or neither, beyond death.”
Pilgrim Potthapada made answer: “Neither do I see that the ascetic Gotama has given a clear answer to any one of the ten questions. But the ascetic Gotama makes known a rule of conduct, real, true, fitting, founded on righteousness, guiding to righteousness. How could I fail to approve a rule of conduct, real, true, fitting, founded on righteousness, guiding to righteousness?” So, after two or three days, spent, no doubt, in meditating on what he had heard, Pilgrim Potthapada betook him to where the Buddha was, determined to learn and follow in his steps. With him, says the chronicler, went Chitta, son of the trainer of elephants.
Chitta, son of the trainer of elephants, was no new comer. It is related of him, indeed, that he had seven times sought and obtained admission to the Order, and, being invincibly addicted to argument and the splitting of hairs, that he had seven times departed, each time because of some verbal difference. So, when Potthapada sought out the Buddha, his friend Chitta, son of the trainer of elephants, went with him, smuggled in, as it were, under Pilgrim Potthapada’s wing. He bowed low to the Buddha, and took a seat in silence.
Then the final touch of humour. Chitta could keep silent only for a certain time. When question and answer between the Buddha and Potthapada had gone a certain length, Chitta, son of the trainer of elephants, was driven by inner compulsion to break into the discussion, and to ask one of his keenly intellectual questions. The Buddha answered him with persuasive graciousness, and forgave him, and Chitta, son of the trainer of elephants, was for the eighth time admitted to the Order, of which he became a humble and worthy member.