Esoteric Discipline

By Bas Rijken van Olst

In the present age, when attention to material things seems rampant, a growing number of people long for inner development as they discover that material prosperity does not bring lasting satisfaction. Human beings have a deeper, invisible side which strives towards a higher goal. But how can we achieve more in our spiritual life? By living less in the material? It is certainly not that simple. In fact, it is wrong to turn our backs on matter in the expectation that this will enable us to enter the spiritual plane. This plane is always available and accessible to us, and from it we can direct our thoughts and deeds on the material plane to a greater or lesser degree.

If we are imbued with the desire to dedicate our lives fully to the welfare of our fellow human beings, the longing arises to enter the spiritual path and make ourselves better fitted to carry out this desire. In many traditions we find a list of rules an aspirant must follow on the spiritual path. Learning the rules by heart has little point if the need to follow them is not understood. The literature sometimes describes exchanges between a teacher and disciple. While the teacher may have given that particular disciple precisely the instructions he needed at that moment, if the teacher were to meet the reader of the report, he might give other instructions. The illustrations used by a teacher, such as Krishna, naturally relate to a specific period and, when interpreting his rules, we often have to translate what he says into the present. However, the deeper teachings of the various teachers through- out history show great similarities. This is inevitable, since the truth -- i.e., the structure and laws of the cosmos -- does not change.

Rules work only if they strike a chord in our own minds. We have to think about them for ourselves, until they become part of us and following them poses no problem because we understand them. Knowledge and study are required to attain a deeper understanding of the meaning of rules and the purpose of practicing virtues. Practicing virtues and studying teachings form two mutually supporting aspects of one path. For both aspects, discipline is required.

The paramitas or sublime virtues, as they are called in Buddhist literature, can be found in The Voice of the Silence by H. P. Blavatsky:

Dana, the key of charity and love immortal.
Sila, the key of Harmony in word and act, the key that counterbalances the cause and the effect, and leaves no further room for Karmic action.
Kshanti, patience sweet, that nought can ruffle.
Viraga, indifference to pleasure and to pain, illusion conquered, truth alone perceived.
Virya, the dauntless energy that fights its way to the supernal TRUTH, out of the mire of lies terrestrial.
Dhyana, whose golden gate once opened leads the Narjol [Naljor (1)] toward the realm of Sat eternal and its ceaseless contemplation.
Prajna, the key to which makes of a man a god, creating him a Bodhisattva, son of the Dhyanis. -- pp. 47-8

It is said that the paramitas are interconnected and that if we were fully to master one of them, all the others would also play a role. Let us take a look at the first, dana, which literally means "giving." In Tibetan Mahayana Buddhist commentaries, (2) dana is divided into three categories:

The first category speaks for itself. The second involves giving wisdom and knowledge of the Buddhist doctrine. The third includes saving people from a fire or from drowning, for example.

We could call this summary an exoteric elaboration of the virtue dana. However, if we combine it with the concept of atma-vidya, it can lead to a vast expansion of the virtue of giving. Atma-vidya means "knowledge of atman" or the self. The Sanskrit term is equivalent to the ancient Greek injunction "Know yourself."

In the Bhagavad-Gita we find the phrase "Know the SELF by the self." We can therefore extend the practice of the virtue of giving to mean that a person gives his self or himself. His self yields to the greater self of which he is part. This greater self is that core which is the same in every human being. Giving then becomes a sacrifice of the part to the greater whole. This gives the first paramita an extra dimension. Instead of the surrender of the self, which at first sounds rather negative, this virtue points toward the goal of all initiation.

Although the giving of ourselves may be the most inspiring facet of dana, there are numerous other everyday applications of giving. For instance, if we practice patience, we give time. If we listen to someone, we give time and attention. We can give our fellow humans space by supporting their activities. It is important that we not try to impose a new idea that we have just acquired on someone else. We should rejoice at the results of a way of doing things that is not our own or cannot be our own. We can give responsibilities and trust. We can trust in the essential divinity in others. Giving and taking complement each other, and it often demands great discernment and a sense of timing to intuit what to do and what not to do.

The second virtue involved in the practice of discipline now takes on a much more immediate significance. This paramita, sila, is "the key of harmony in word and act, the key that counterbalances the cause and the effect and leaves no further room for karmic action." This brings us to the fundamental question: How can we act properly in our daily life? What is right action? By following the broader meaning of dana, harmony in word and act becomes intelligible and practical. If we give the self to the greater self, we act for the whole that embraces all human beings. If we do our best to take account of the possibilities and wishes of others and treat them with respect, the result is the growth of both inner and mutual harmony. We realize that we are the protectors of one another. The harmonious action referred to in sila can therefore be seen as a form of giving.

Another aspect of discipline is the third paramita, kshanti or patience. We shall consider this virtue, too, from the viewpoint of giving the self for the Self. Time forms a limitation that belongs to the lesser self. Patience is a virtue whereby we try to free ourselves from the limitations of our personality, the limitations of the self-created illusion of a small, separate self that can see only a small portion of time. In Buddhism patience is called a counterforce to anger. Anger arises through ignorance when we become entangled in numerous illusions. One of the greatest illusions is seeing our personality as something that is separate from and independent of other people and the cosmos.

The practice of patience means giving time. Deliberately refraining from action can signify the exercise of patience. In this regard, William Q. Judge says:

Do all those acts, physical, mental, moral, for the reason that they must be done, instantly resigning all interest in them, offering them up upon the altar. What altar? Why, the great spiritual altar, which is, if one desires it, in the heart. Yet still use earthly discrimination, prudence, and wisdom. It is not that you must rush madly or boldly out to do, to do. Do what you find to do. Desire ardently to do it, and even when you shall not have succeeded in carrying anything out but some small duties, some words of warning, your strong desire will strike like Vulcan upon other hearts in the world, and suddenly you will find that done which you had longed to be the doer of. -- Letters That Have Helped Me 1:1-2

We often see this happening around us. We long to carry out a particular task in the future, but have duties which mean that first we have to complete other work. Meanwhile, time and the world move on, and perhaps we see someone else do the work we wanted to do ourselves. We should not feel disappointed about this. On the contrary, if we recall the vision of giving the self for the Self, we realize that our wish is being fulfilled, for we are that other person.

If we can raise ourselves to the level of this Self, we are also practicing viraga, which literally means "without the act of coloring" or "without feeling" and therefore "indifferent." We are then no longer interested in the pleasure and pain of just one person, for if we identify with our own feelings and passions we are living in the smaller self.

One of the virtues often mentioned in Buddhism, but which is not included among the paramitas, is joy. Rejoicing at the success of others is one of the most sacred joys. It brings inner peace and happiness -- perhaps more than if we had carried out our plans ourselves.

By performing good deeds for humanity with the fearless energy of a vira or "hero," we practice the paramita virya. In The Key to Theosophy the question is asked: "Then you regard self-sacrifice as a duty?", to which Blavatsky replies:

We do; and explain it by showing that altruism is an integral part of self-development. . . . But it is [a person's] duty to sacrifice his own comfort, and to work for others if they are unable to work for themselves. It is his duty to give all that which is wholly his own and can benefit no one but himself if he selfishly keeps it from others. -- pp. 239-40

The last two paramitas are intended to help us obtain a clear insight into reality, so that we see through illusions. Dhyana (or meditation) and prajna (or intuitive wisdom) help us through reflection and concentration to realize that, as Blavatsky says, altruism is an integral part of self-development. Only by sacrificing the lesser self can we be absorbed into the greater Self. But if we refuse to sacrifice our lesser self, we are actually opting for matter and not for spirit, and are unable to serve either ourselves or others.

The following passage, written by Judge to Jasper Niemand, shows how interwoven our destinies are:

Do not fear nor fail because you feel dark and heavy. The very rage you feel will break the shrine that covers the mystery after a while. No one can really help you. No one can open your doors. You locked them up, and only you can open them. When you open any door, beyond it you find others standing there who had passed you long ago, but now, unable to proceed, they are there waiting; others are there waiting for you. Then you come, and, opening a door, those waiting disciples perhaps may pass on, thus on and on. What a privilege this, to reflect that we may perhaps be able to help those who seemed greater than ourselves! -- Letters That Have Helped Me 1:2

Can we help those who seem greater than ourselves? They are part of the whole of which we, too, are part. If we progress and acquire deeper understanding or an expansion of consciousness, we help the whole and therefore all the beings within it, even those who seemed greater.

Ethical rules have been given us by the teachers of humanity because they wanted to bring about an enormous broadening of our consciousness and potential. They said in fact, "Use this, try it out, come to us" -- but so far we have only begun to make use of the opportunities we have been offered. Through devotion and ceaseless efforts we can, as it were, reach out in thought and aspiration to higher spheres. The paramitas are like stepping-stones along the path and must be put into practice; only then can we expect further help. It is rather like mathematics: first we are given all kinds of formulas, and then come the problems. If we do not use the formulas, we cannot solve the problems -- and it would be pointless to receive formulas for more advanced mathematics.

Karma is a doctrine of hope, an ethical key which enables us to influence our future. For we are our own karma; we are constantly changing, and we can give direction to that process; we can redeem ourselves and create our own future. The nature of karma changes completely if the motives of our deeds are unselfish. As Judge says:

The reason you have had help is that in other lives you gave it to others. In every effort you made to lighten another mind and open it to Truth, you were helped yourself. Those pearls you found for another and gave to him, you really retained for yourself in the act of benevolence. For when one lives thus to help others, he is thereby putting in practice the rule to try and "kill out all sense of separateness," and thus gets little by little in possession of the true light. -- Letters That Have Helped Me 1:1
  • (From Sunrise magazine, August/September 1998. Copyright © 1998 by Theosophical University Press.)

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    1.A saint, an adept. (return to text)

    2. See, for example, The Bodhisattva Vow, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso (1991), pp. 81-5; or Liberation in the Palm of your Hand, Pabongka Rinpoche (1991), pp. 628-31. (return to text)