DEATH AND IMMORTALITY
In the Bhagavad Gita Lord Krishna tells Arjuna that he must meditate upon birth, death, sickness, decay and error. This particular strand in the Bhagavad Gita is central to Buddhist thought. It is not easy for us to put ourselves in the position of a Tibetan Buddhist, to whom meditation on death is not a morbid activity, reserved for a special period in one's life, a time of deep depression owing to the fear of imminent death. It is rather part of a process of meditation which is ceaseless. To meditate on death is to meditate on life. To ask any question that is significant about the fleeting experiences that come to the ego, bringing pain as well as what appears to be happiness, to understand any of these fleeting experiences, is impossible except in the context of the total continuum. It is indeed difficult for us to understand what it means to put death in its proper place and to consider it in a wider context.
Throughout the history of European thought and of conventional Christianity, we have come to accept certain distinctions that are precious to us, a distinction between God outside the universe and the universe, between man and nature, and ultimately between God and man. Therefore any consideration, within the context of these Western and Christian concepts of death or immortality, could only have meaning to us in terms of a relationship to be rediscovered, a lost relationship to be regained between man and God. Thus, the thought of the reabsorption of the human being into the elements of nature sounds indecent, unnatural, something that needs special explanation. We have become so identified with our own image of ourselves as detached autonomous beings – autonomous in a Cartesian sense in relation to the whole of knowledge, autonomous in a Kantian sense in relation to our moral life – that it is very difficult for us to imagine that our total standpoint is delusive, is wrong.
There is another current that has always existed as a golden stream in European thought, which is Pythagorean and Neo-Platonic and has concentrated upon a doctrine of emanations rather than a doctrine of creation. Under this scheme of things, man is intimately bound up with the universe. Man is the universe writ small. The universe is man magnified a million times. And therefore a human being only begins to be human when he understands his own relationship to nature and the cosmos. He only begins to understand, let alone to master, the powers of nature, when he has understood and begun to master the elements in his own nature. There is a continuous connection between man and the universe, and any conception of the divine must enter integrally into the picture that men have of the universe, and therefore it must integrally enter into one's image of oneself.
It is impossible in this view to look at nature in a mechanistic fashion, to see it in a seventeenth-century manner. It is impossible because we are so bound up with nature that we cannot but anthropomorphize or humanize everything in nature. We must get rid of the great error of egoity, identification with the personal, fleeting, physical self, and begin to see that in our body, that in our personality, are material, natural elements which are the same in all beings, and in all human beings especially. We thus gain a sense of the wonder and the mystery, the glory, the grandeur, the romance, the colour, of the cosmic panorama, while at the same time we need the capacity to detach ourselves from the elements of our nature and to become therapeutic in our whole approach to that nature.
This stream of thought is connected with the idea that man emanates energies, that the universe itself is a continuous stream of emanations from an unknown origin and an absolute reality, that in every emanation something is retained of the primordial origin of the emanation and something is transmitted as well, and that there is a total, ceaseless, continuous process of transformation. This idea, stressed in Pythagorean thought, is central to the Tibetan Buddhist.
If we look at the pre-Buddhist religion of the Bonpas, we find that it seems to us to be strange, primitive, terrifying in some ways, an obsession with gods and demons. But in the light of what we have just seen, it should be possible to discern that the individual belonging to the Bonpa tradition was really seeking his own way of gaining his citizenship in an apparently hostile universe. The same idea becomes richer and constructive, imbued with purpose and meaning for the Buddhist. If we remember this central assumption, so important to understanding death and immortality in Tibetan thought, then we would readily recognize that something has gone wrong in the image of Tibet that popularly prevails in the West and in the westernized East.
A great deal has been written about the visions of the dead. There are frescoes in many Tibetan temples depicting them, sometimes in the form of bright and varied colours, which cannot have any symbolic significance to the outsider, sometimes in the form of terrifying deities stamping upon a demon and yet with a tremendous power of beneficence and redemption. When we read about these visions of the dead and about the Day of Judgment in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, we conjure up a picture of a people with extraordinary imagination, to whom the whole universe had a reality which we do not see or seize. Thus we miss the universal import of the teaching of death which was put in so many forms, vulgarly understood by some monks and laymen in Tibet but intuitively grasped by those who knew the purpose of this vast web of symbolism.
There is no easy way for us to meditate upon birth and death, decay, sickness and error in relation to Tibetan teaching simply by looking at a particular painting of the visions of the dead or even by reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead. These are no doubt useful, but what is really necessary is to get back to that central posture which Krishna enjoined upon Arjuna, to meditate upon all of these and to see them together. If it is possible to see birth and death as connected forms or phases of a single stream of consciousness, then we have to grasp the idea of a universe alive, ever changing, conscious in a sense we cannot directly comprehend. Our consciousness is a reflected consciousness, distorted many times, distorted by particular tendencies and complexes or samskaras, by particular likes and dislikes, preconceptions, weaknesses of the will, by particular forms of illusion, so that it is very difficult for us to grasp directly this pure and total consciousness behind the ever- changing forms and phases assumed by a single substratum.
In Buddhist thought we are helped to begin to make the distinction by seeing that this entire universe is both samsara and nirvana. Samsara and nirvana spring from the same ultimate essence, the Adi Buddha, the ultimate Buddha nature; but samsara is the world of flux, the world of change, the world of illusion. Arising out of the sensations that we have of the very flux of samsara, we have avidya, congenital ignorance. It is more than ignorance as we normally understand it. It is not just lack of knowledge. It is a peculiar perversity of the modified consciousness available to us which prevents us from rising to the level of total universal consciousness and seeing all human and cosmic experiences as continuous events in a single stream. Nirvana, on the other hand, we describe by negation. Nirvana to us is some kind of total emptiness, nothingness; this has been the consistent interpretation of people unsympathetic to Buddhist teachings. It is very easy, of course, to conjure up a world of illusion which was manufactured by certain people because they were not able to come to terms with it, and then to suggest that they sought an escape in some imaginary and totally empty state, opposed to what we would normally call "living," "becoming involved" in this world of matter. But samsara and nirvana actually refer to the two tendencies of the involvement of consciousness in form and the evolution of form to the height of consciousness, form and consciousness being differentiated only by a difference of degree and not of kind. To understand this is to see that samsara is ultimately the veil that is cast upon the nirvanic condition of illuminated and enlightened beings.
Even the Nirvanee as seen by us, the moment we personify him, the moment we separate him out from the rest of humankind as a single individual who attained to a particular state in a particular manner, immediately becomes a samsaric illusion. We then conjure up our own idealized and delusive images of enlightened immortal individuals. So it is really important to see that if life is a continuous and total process, and if it undergoes a great variety of modes in relation to the actual forms of matter, then this consciousness in the universe must always require some form of embodiment, and therefore even the enlightened man cannot be imagined in a totally disembodied state.
There are those like the Capuchin Della Penna, who in their distorted picture of Tibetan Buddhists, give the impression of a Tibetan belief in some imaginary world of Lha, disembodied spirits, bodiless gods, an airy, fairy world of abstract entities, with no relationship to the universe as we know it. In 1882 The Theosophist published an important contribution by the Chohan Lama who was the chief of the Archive-registrars of the libraries containing manuscripts on esoteric doctrines belonging to the Dalai and Panchen Lamas of Tibet. He pointed to the distortions of the pure Tibetan teaching, and explained the basic propositions which are necessary to know before we can understand the Lha and so-called disembodied entities. This is why we have to grasp the statement in the Prajnaparamita that form and void are ultimately only aspects of each other. The moment we become aware or conscious, immediately our consciousness becomes embodied in thoughts or feelings, in images which are formal or material in relation to our actual state of awareness. In this sense, pure awareness is something that we cannot possibly visualize. All our awareness is relative to the particular plane of perception on which we function. It involves the use of organs of perception that are appropriate to this plane of perception. Now if we could see this, then we could begin to consider that the human being lives not merely in a visible, physical world but in several worlds intertwined. He is in fact constantly living in six worlds, according to the Buddhist Canon. But more important than the number, whether it be six or seven or some other, it is essential to grasp the idea that the outside world, in the context of which we become aware, is entirely relative to our organ of perception.
We are all somewhat aware of this. Phenomenalists since Berkeley have recognized how very much the existence of objects is dependent upon our perceptions of them. The same idea has been elaborated by Wittgenstein in another way – that we have no grasp of reality apart from the clusters of concepts that are bound up with our habitual usage and our language-games. Anybody who reflects for a moment could see this. We have no direct, privileged access to reality. The moment we begin to think about space or time or nature, the moment we begin to speculate about the universe, the moment we begin to theorize about it, even when we try just to gain what appears to us to be direct awareness of a particular set of objects, we have immediately allowed to come between those apparently neutral and independent objects, in a mechanistic Cartesian universe, and ourselves as privileged spectators, the veil of concepts, the concepts which we need to produce a commonsensical map or a metaphysical map. Without these we cannot attempt to isolate particulars, let alone to apprehend them, to distinguish them, to classify them.
We need to see that each human being is continually inhabiting several universes and has available to him the various organs of awareness or perception which are appropriate to these different universes. Therefore, one could come to discern that what is life to one man on one plane of perception is death to another. In the Gita we have Krishna's statement that what is day to the enlightened man is night to the ordinary man, and what is night to the ordinary man is day to the sage. What is day to the ordinary man is night – the night of ignorance. To generalize the idea, what to some people are significant realities are ephemeral illusions in the eyes of others. And we are all involved in this psychological relativity. No one has a privileged position. If there were perfected men, the moment they come into a physical universe and are involved in communication with physical beings, – even they cannot totally free themselves from the imprisonment that we all undergo in a physical universe. Every universe binds us.
Is it then possible, simply by grasping this idea, to conceive of the possibility of moving from one universe to another, so to speak, all within the mind, all within ourselves? Is it possible for us to study the various elements in our nature, in terms of different colours of the rainbow, in terms of different gods in nature? Is it possible for us to see all these various facets of nature as seemingly independent but essentially interdependent aspects of a single substratum, of a single universe? For if we can do this, then we would see that death need not be viewed as something unnatural. It is life that seems to be unnatural. The poet Kalidasa raised this question with the help of an analogy. Why do we feel that death is unnatural and life is natural, when life is like a few drops of water in a pot. There ought to be something unnatural about this. It is this which needs explaining. And if the water is thrown back into the ocean, there is nothing unnatural about that. So death, in this view, does not require special explanation. It is life that requires explanation. Therefore we do not begin by asking why do we die. We ask why we were born.
If we wish to understand what is the kind of consciousness that we are going to preserve on the eve of death, or what perhaps may be the consciousness that we will experience soon after death, we must go back to the beginning. What do we remember about our consciousness as far back as possible, near the moment of birth? What conceivably could we have felt before we were born? Now these are questions that many people would find impossible to entertain, and yet the true philosopher, the man of meditation, the man who really wishes to see life as a whole, cannot shirk them.
Buddhist philosophy explains that life in a body can be explained by the tremendous desire for bodily life that belongs to us. This we can recognize in ourselves. We can distinguish people in terms of the desire for sensation. We can distinguish the same person at different points in his life, according to the degree of his hold on life. Everything in this world of samsara is a conspiracy to encourage this hold on life, this hold on possessions, this hold onto the image that men form of the body, their identification with their own name and form, their nama rupa. In this lies the seed of separateness – ahankara, the seed of violence – himsa, the seed of falsehood– asatya. Falsehood, violence, separateness are all rooted in the fierce craving for life, for personal existence. And when we begin to reflect upon this, we can see its significance. We can think of people who desperately wish to project their own personal existence on the stage, literal or metaphorical. We know for ourselves how very often the desire for survival or the hatred of survival is nothing but our own attitude to a continuation of our personal life. That is why, whether in the Christian or in the Buddhist tradition, all the pictures given to us of post-natal states become for us personal visions with personal prospects, awful or glorious, with immense significance for us as personalities. Whereas we are really asked by spiritual teachers to get back to the basic origin of avidya, or ignorance, which is tanha, the will to live.
This ancient Buddhist idea is not just a phrase. It is so important an aspect of this universe that Gandhi, who tried to resuscitate the teaching of Buddha, actually formulated a law. He declared that the willingness to kill is exactly in inverse proportion to the willingness to die. Some might think that there is truth in this statement, though formulated as a law it seems extravagant and pseudo-scientific. But not at all, when we grasp the idea of tanha, the desire for life. The greater the desire for life, the greater the craving for personal existence, the total identification of our consciousness with that which is fleeting and transitory and perishable and personal, the more intense our awareness of ourselves as separate from others, the greater is the impulse to survive, the Hobbesian fear of death which seems so crucial to all life and to all existence in society. The greater then becomes the violence, the willingness to kill, on the plane of thought or feeling as well as on the physical plane.
On the other hand, the person who does not feel so strongly, who has deliberately come to discern that this binding force which brought him into life is itself worthy of meditation and worthy of transcendence, such a man begins to loosen up this hold of his consciousness over his body and his material instruments. He then begins to see himself as others see him, as he sees a photograph of himself ten years ago, as in fact an illusory entity, a thing of no consequence or of no more consequence than any other thing. It is not necessary that he has to go from attachment to aversion. Aversion is itself a form of attachment. The man who denies loudly that he has any desire for life is deeply attached. It is not easy to master the process of getting beyond attachment and aversion, and seeing in its proper perspective the force of cohesion inherent in matter and in the forms of consciousness we consolidate. This force draws us into separative existence and engenders an ever-growing fear of death.
Death then serves simply as an opportunity to get away, temporarily, from the craving for personal existence. This force, although it seems so intense while it lasts, is still transitory. It is an interference with the pure vision of consciousness and therefore must come to an end. A great opportunity comes to each human being at the time of death. Either he sees the significance of what is happening and begins to take the first steps toward conscious immortality, or even after he has discarded the physical vesture – there are many universes and there are many vestures – he begins once again in a new form to live out his old attachments, to sublimate them, to refine and purify them. All his old loves may now become purer. They may become idealizations. But nonetheless he gets involved again in his continual craving for personal existence. And then of course his return to physical life becomes a natural thing, something involuntary to him, inevitable in nature.
Therefore we are told that if we want to understand what happens after death, we must first grasp "death consciousness." What is the state of consciousness that we possess just before we die? What is the mood in which we are prepared to receive this new experience, to enter this new world? The more we have a thirst for life, the more we assume that life is natural and death unnatural, the more we are terrified of the great world of the unknown, and the more we then put up a resistance to the natural opportunities for the freeing of consciousness that are available with the discarding of the mask of the physical body.
But on the other hand, the person who has the knowledge of the bardo knows that he is now about to enter an intermediate state between birth and death, a period of gestation, a period in which there can be no Karma. The law of causality can operate fully only on the plane of the physical universe. A person cannot reap the results of actions generated by him in a physical body except in a physical body on the physical plane. But he is involved in a condition in which, because he has got out of the physical body or because the physical vesture has fallen away, he now has the opportunity to consider his available vestures and the other universes consubstantial with them.
These vestures have been expounded in terms of the Trikaya doctrine, the doctrine of the three bodies – the Dharmakaya, the Sambhogakaya, and the Nirmanakaya. The Dharmakaya is the body made up of Dharma Dhatu, that in the universe which constitutes the undifferentiated and ultimate Buddha nature. The Sambhogakaya represents the manifested, the perfected, embodiment of all that exists in nature. It is the origin of the idea of a personal god, worshipped by Hindus as Vishnu, the god who pervades all things, and which in other traditions has been the subject of numerous graphic visions, vivid pictures of the perfections of Deity. The Nirmanakaya is that body or vesture which represents the incarnation of this ultimate substance or substratum which underlies Dharmakaya, and which is exhibited in its glorious universal perfection in Sambhogakaya. The Nirmanakaya vesture enables an enlightened being to project itself on a material plane. In Mahayana teaching it is suggested that we, who in physical life are bound down by it and are terrified by death, can take comfort from the fact that there is a vesture perfected by beings who are not merely able to maintain their condition of pure awareness or total enlightenment in some subtle immaterial body but are also able to materialize it, and to differentiate their embodied nature into all the beings around them, consciously and deliberately. So the mere fact of having a material body is not the obstacle, but rather attachment and identification with it.
It is possible for us to introduce into this scheme of things a dualism such as we have in orthodox Christianity, which contrasts life that is transitory with the life eternal. We could contrast physical life with pain and original sin, with "the body of resurrection," and then of course we get a simple dualistic scheme. Life becomes an episode not a state, unrelated to the future except through a particular mechanism such as the Day of Judgment. We are then launched into an eternity of a condition where, if we choose and we have chosen aright and repented at the right time, we shall get this body of resurrection. But in Tibet we do not have such a dualistic picture connected with the total dogmatism people bring to the idea that there is only one life, of which they have no proof – and the onus of proof is on them because the majority of humanity has thought in terms of rebirth. But even for people who think in this way it is not easy to make the leap in imagination to a conception of innumerable universes, an endless chain of manifestation, and a continual transformation of consciousness which goes through life and beyond life, beyond what we call death, and back into incarnated life again.
Soon after the actual withdrawal from the physical body, the "soul," – a term derived from the Greeks, the Kwan Yin in every man in Tibetan tradition, the Voice of the Spirit or Conscience, the Great Word, the Great Sound of the Adi Buddha – this "soul," as we call it, this self-consciousness in us, becomes capable when physical life is discarded of perceiving, though only for a very short time, the pure body of Dharmakaya. Simply because of the first separation of consciousness from physical embodiment, the soul begins to have a glimmer of total undifferentiated consciousness, in the form of a vision of pure, clear, colourless light. But this is a tremendous thing for us to contemplate. We are not prepared for it before we die, and therefore it may not mean anything to us unless we begin to meditate upon it now. But if it happens, and we cannot make anything of it, and we fall into some kind of swoon or stupor before this ineffable light, then we are no better off for having had a foretaste or a vision of this great experience which is perfected by the enlightened ones who remain immortal.
We then enter the next state of the bardo where we begin to see this same total voidness or tathata, the sunyata state, the Dharmakaya body of the universe. But we see it through a mist, through a beautiful rainbow mist, and of course then we see many colours. We begin to dream and to experience ideal consciousness. Having failed to come to terms with total undifferentiated consciousness in its abstract, absolute manner, we now fall into a plane of consciousness where we begin to reflect upon idealized types, the archetypes of Plato. But these archetypes are connected with a personal life that is gone, so that we begin to look back without a clear awareness that we have left the physical body. Then, gradually, awareness of this grows, though one still continues to be conscious of one's personal self. Therefore all one's loves and all one's desires are in terms of the life that went before. One is in a dreamy condition, which may sound blissful by comparison with the burdens of earthly life, but is still delusive. Here is another opportunity for the person to see what has really happened, to see the unreality of it, and see once again the reality of total undifferentiated consciousness. But in fact most people cannot seize this opportunity because they are not prepared for it.
What instead happens is that they are confronted with all that they are in their personal nature. They are confronted with their natures with which they had identified themselves, and which are now exteriorized out of themselves because they imagine that they are not all the bad things that they once thought they were. Suddenly we are confronted with all the elements in our nature in the form of visions, a whole array of terrifying deities holding up to ourselves all the things which are in us. It is only if there is within us a certain weakness that we are afraid of something external. It is only when we are identified with some particular attribute which is personal and separative that we then have a certain fear of what is outside. It is a common observation that an ambitious man is the first to hold out against the ambition of another man, a proud man against the pride of another, and so on. We also know about people filled with lust who love to hold forth against lust. This is exactly what happens in the bardo state, only here the individual is confronted with a whole array of embodied beings, symbolized in visions for the sake of understanding. We should not anthropomorphize this condition as the literalists have done. But we are confronted with innumerable formulations of elements in our nature with which we have not come to terms, which we have not seen for what they really are in their true colours.
This great opportunity is afforded to us all. It might be called consulting the Book of Judgment, the Book of Memory. Whether we quail before this great and frightening revelation of all our personal samskaras, our peculiar personal and divisive tendencies, whether we are re-attracted to them and are rapidly drawn back to earthly life, or whether we are able to grasp the nirvanic (as opposed to the samsaric) stream of consciousness which enables us to see the inwardness of this great panorama – that is the choice open to us. But it cannot be made then. It has to be made during life. Herein lies the importance of considering all these teachings about death. It is only now that we have the opportunity to prepare ourselves for the appropriate state of mind before departing from the physical body, or before discarding it, which would enable us fruitfully to avail ourselves of both post-natal and post-mortem consciousness and the various phases of this intermediate state of bardo.
Most human beings are unable to attain the seed idea of enlightenment which is fructified in the form of an imperishable vesture by those who have fully prepared before death to enter into the state of immortality. For most people, even the seed idea of immortality cannot be grasped, and therefore they are quickly drawn to all the various samskaras or attributes which come back to them. There is a persisting matrix made up of all these attributes, revivified by one's own newly-formed desire or attachment. Then one begins to make one's first entry into physical life through having formed a line of attachment with particular parents. Such people dream about mating couples and get so involved with the purely physical side of life that they are very soon caught in the illusory process of birth. They cannot expect to know what birth means because they did not know what death meant.
So, this whole teaching is highly significant if we can see its practical implications and various facets. By reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead, or by looking at Tibetan pictures of the visions of the dead, one could accumulate a vast amount of detail about the symbolic Forty-Nine days of the bardo with all its day-to-day visions. But merely accumulating a great deal of fantastic knowledge does not add anything to our meditation on death. The moment we start with ourselves and ask not why we are afraid of death but why we hold on to life, the moment we begin to see significant connections, it will be possible for us to discern that at all times we have available to us either the standpoint of nirvana or the standpoint of samsara. If we are ready to see this, we can come to understand those who have gained or can gain immortality in this scheme of things.
Ordinarily, according to Tibetan teachings, people will not incarnate immediately. When someone has died, that person will not linger or be drawn back to earth-life except in three cases. First are those Bodhisattvas, those enlightened sages who deliberately linger, having renounced nirvana, to assist and help other human beings to gain the knowledge that they have of the meaning of all these states. Secondly, there are those people who die with a total obsession with one line of thinking, not necessarily bad or sinful beings, but those with an idéee fixe. These people will also linger. They will prolong the entry into the bardo state, and the more they prolong it, the more difficult it will be for them to pass from the swoon into the state of awakening, into a new consciousness, and benefit from it. The third class of beings who are drawn back and hover around earth- life are those who had so intense a love – like a mother's love for children – a sense of unfulfilled or uncompleted love, or a love which, however much fulfilled, is still so powerful and so personal that it binds people and draws them back to earthly life. But even these will not appear as bhuts or ghosts unless they are galvanized into activity by adepts in the art of necromancy, a practice strongly condemned in pure Buddhist teaching.
Such nefarious practices do go on in the name of Buddhist tradition among several Red Cap sects, especially in places like Bhutan. They have actually been put forward as Tibetan Buddhist, in the name of scholarship, by people who have quoted supposed authorities who have never even visited Lhasa, let alone had the privilege of some kind of initiation into the pure teachings of the Panchen Lama and the Dalai Lama. It is not therefore a question of considering all the various forms which possession could take that would constitute a true understanding of the Tibetan teaching of death, let alone of immortality. That there must be such demonic usurpers is not difficult to conceive. But they are unnatural. Tibetan teachings do refer to the victims of suicides and murders, people who are in the state of swoon and could be used by other beings who function freely on subtle planes of consciousness, using subtle vestures for their own foul purpose. But this is not something that need concern us.
The crucial insight that we gain from Tibetan teaching is that immortality is not something to be achieved or won, not a prize to be awarded to a favoured few. Immortality is nothing but another aspect of mortality. Even now we either live immortally or live mortally. We either die every moment or we live and thirst, depending on whether we are focussed upon the nirvanic or upon the samsaric aspect of embodied consciousness. If we are constantly able to sift the meaning of experiences and to see our formal vestures for what they are and pass from one plane of perception to another, then indeed it may be possible, when blessed with the vision of clear, pure light – the great vision of sunyata – to enter straightaway into that vesture which enables us to remain free from the compulsion of return to earthly life. But this cannot happen unless it flows naturally out of the line of life's meditation. It cannot happen all of a sudden. It is not some kind of special dispensation. It is itself a product of the working of Karma.
Beings who have undergone this condition of final illumination have either chosen to remain immortal but in the Dharmakaya vesture, unrelated to manifested beings and humanity, or they have chosen the Nirmanakaya vesture and deliberately chosen to enter into relationships with human beings. These Nirmanakayas ceaselessly point to the basic truths concerning the meaning of death and the perpetual possibility of immortality. They teach men that within themselves they are Buddhas without knowing it. Now, the Prajnaparamita states that the Buddhas are themselves only personifications and therefore they could become illusions for us. What is it that we are going to meditate upon when we consider the immortals? Are we going to think of them as glorified physical personalities, archangels in radiant raiment, somehow idealized and more beautiful but related to our own physical conception of physical life? Or are we going to think of them as minds, a great gathering of extraordinary and powerful minds who collectively constitute the great mind of the universe? Or are we going to look upon them simply as beings who have become aware of their true Buddha nature and have therefore become instruments for the working of consciousness, instruments that will be helpful and unifying, because that is the nature of consciousness, whereas the nature of form is divisive.
Thus the whole doctrine, even of the Lha, those gods seemingly tucked away in a limbo, refers to beings who not merely work in relation to the world but also by their ceaseless collective ideation maintain in the world the force of the Buddha nature. The Buddha nature is not some abstract principle. It is actually embodied in the collective consciousness of such beings perpetually in the universe. We come to see that the various phases in the process of the concretization of the universe from an absolute realm, through archetypes, through individualized forms of thought, and ultimately to material forms, that this whole process is re-enacted in the bardo state, between death and rebirth. A great re-enactment has taken place. Who knows what re- enactment takes place within the embryo especially during the first seven months in the mother's womb? Science and medicine know almost nothing about what happens then or why. These are the great mysteries connected with the primal facts of birth and death. If we can consider that there is available in Buddhist teaching the knowledge that there is regular re-enactment of a continuous cosmic process before the eye of the soul, then we can see that enlightenment is not the great terminus to a laborious and boring process of striving, but a ceaseless opportunity which inheres in this very world of woe and delusion, which we call samsara, and to which we cling like blind men, knowing only life but knowing not Life and afraid of death.
Hermes, December 1975