The Self: Thinking about the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, The “Great Forest of Wisdom”

Pretty quickly after starting my hike to Taktsang, the Tiger’s Nest, I headed off on the “short cut” a steep climb up to the tea house that overlooks the Temple complex. The trail climbs up and in places the dirt is slippery, my shoes not biting into the soil. I slip, a little, and continue my ascent. Around me are fellow pilgrims, pushing up the trail. I met a man from Darjeeling, a couple from Singapore, two Indian soldiers off for the weekend, and a grandmother from Taiwan. Here we were, all together, taking this challenging path to the Temple, grateful for the cloudy skies and slight chill in the air.

The heavily forested slopes of the mountain on which Taktsang perches is a great place to get lost. Trails wind all over the side of the mountain, and it’s hard to even get a glimpse of the Temple. The only thing you can see, literally, are the pines in front of you as you make your way up the hill. You cannot see the Temple for the trees. It could be that the Temple is, in fact, not even there!

Taktsang Monastery, Summer 2018

This forest was the perfect metaphor for the moment. I was seeking wisdom through these trees, imaging that some moment of awareness might strike me as I made my way toward this illusory goal. This trek was my fifth trip up the mountain and my first on the short cut trail. At some point on the climb, I wondered if I was even headed in the right direction!

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is one of the texts that suggests that we are in a great forest of wisdom and we don’t have the skill or wisdom to recognize the very thing that will set up free. The teaching, like many in Eastern philosophy, is a dialogue between two people, in this case Yajnavalka and Janaka, Yajnavalka is the teacher, Janaka is the student. In a series of questions and responses, the two edge toward the lesson, that the “Self” is pure awareness. Once that awareness is recognized, freedom from the cycle of birth and death is attained.

While the forest of the hillside below Taktsang includes a maze of trails headed to some distant point, our lives are similarly covered in “trees” each of which might obscure the path to understanding and awareness. While I’m pretty sure that this metaphor is NOT the one that was constructed for this teaching, it does fit my current state of existence nicely. As the Brihadaranyaka text states, we cannot see the Self as it is; it is surrounded by various aspects of our daily existence from senses, thoughts, emotions, and etc. In Buddhism this forest is the five skandhas. The things that keep us from seeing what we really need to see.

The obscured “Self” in the Brihadaranyaka text is always present, never sleeping, never changing. It is, as Eknath Easwaran translates, “…the light within the heart…” the constant pure awareness that exists within us all. (109) For me, walking up that forested hill, the truth is obscured as I breath heavily in the thick, monsoonal air, filled with rain, just about ready to burst. I make my way to Taktsang, almost mindless in my quest to achieve some level of understanding.

However, on this trek to Taktsang my body and mind lead me astray. I wonder at my physical health, just a few months from a terrible health scare. My mind is racing, wondering which trail to take next. My injured right knee is explaining to me, in a kind of tortured voice, that it’s in some pain. My mind is disheveled, wondering about the students and adults being led by Namgay, our tour guide. Is everyone ok as they take on the well-worm path to the tea house? I think about my family, my parents, money, food, EVERYTHING that can possibly come to mind on this hike, does.

My experience of the hike is exactly what the Brihadaranyaka is all about. We are consciously trapped in a world of our own making. We built the forest we now travel through and the forest keeps us from seeing the truth of it all. Masking the very nature of our being, we are struggling through life in various forms.

And. And. There is a way out. The answer is one of the reasons I was drawn to Hindu and Buddhism philosophy in the first place. There is always a way out and through. The Brihadaranyaka says it like this:

“When all desires that surge in the heart

Are renounced, the mortal becomes immortal.

When all the knots that strangle the heart

Are loosened, the mortal becomes immortal,

Here in this very life.”

Eknath Easwaran, translator. The Upanishads. Nilgiri Press: Tomales, CA. 2007. 115

Once I reach the Temple and drop off my backpack in the security area, I walk up the steps to the various shrine rooms, listening to Namgay explain the place, hearing the chatter of other pilgrims, watching two women ask for a blessing from a resident monk, others placing money and food as offerings. Slowly, my mind comes to rest after the climb, the steps to the temple, and unencumbered by a backpack filled with gear. Shoeless and plodding, I feel lighter, aware of my surroundings. I prostrate to Padmasambhava in one of the secluded rooms, and sit, for a few moments, meditating on the moment. I wonder, what did I hope to attain? Is that desire to make it to the temple the one thing that was blocking me from recognizing awareness?

I hike back down the mountain. It takes me about forty-five minutes to get down, less than half of the time it took for me to climb. I ponder all that I had experienced and try to release all of the tension I felt. The return trek is, in fact, much more mindful than anything I had done going up to the Temple grounds. I started to see beyond the trees. I also learned, on that day, that being able to see past the trees, the skandhas, the senses, emotions, thoughts, and body is the stuff of meditation. Maybe one day, I’ll be able to lay it all down and experience that thing that the Brihadaranyaka is all about.

May you be happy, May you be well.

From the Upanishads to the Heart Sutra: A Side Trip into Nihilism

As I’ve delved into the various teachings that are informing my world right now, I finished going through the Katha Upanishad and am deep into the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Both works are taking me into the origins of Buddhist philosophy and as such as giving me so much to think about and work with.

As part of this study, I reread the Heart Sutra. At first it was just a way to refresh my thoughts about the ways in which the Katha Upanishad and the Heart Sutra are connected. What my study became, however, was a much deeper struggle and very challenging meditations on the meaning of the Heart Sutra. Beware, fellow human, meditation can lead one into very dark places. As I have heard Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse say many times, meditation and mindfulness are not for the faint of heart and, more importantly, that it often can upend one’s life in a moment. His words are so accurate when it comes to my own struggles.

I started my reading of the Heart Sutra with Mindrolling Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche. Her words and laughter made the Sutra less intimidating and allowed me a commentary to latch onto much as I had done with Eknath Easwaran’s words at the beginning of the Katha Upanishad. Her commentary is complex and effusive, offering not just insights into the Heart Sutra but also into our own nature. She constantly reminds the reader that we can get in our own way while medidating and studying these Buddhist texts. The texts can become, she says, the trappings of a superficial dharma. We use the dharma to suit our needs rather than aspiring to the principles of serving all sentient beings.

As those words rattled in my brain, I wondered at my own choice of dharma study. What was I really trying to do here? Why look into these various religious texts and seek to uncover some new found truth for myself. Was this practice just another in my own self-centered way to soothe my ego mind and try to understand my world and its problems? Was this just a shallow, self-referential treatment of these deep philosophical notions?

At first, of course, I thought not. My approach is for all sentient beings and that my aim was true, to quote Elvis Costello. I soon found, however, that this altruistic approach was just another way for my ego to reframe my study to make me feel better about what I was doing. I did not discover this problem until I was deep into the meditation on the Heart Sutra.

Sitting down and beginning a practice is always a challenge, and being present for the moments to come is one of those ways in which our mind surveils our practice. We think “be in the present moment.” Of course we can be, AND at the same time, our ego mind is lurking in our mind, just waiting to strike. At least that’s what I think I experienced. Let me explain: as I sat to meditate on these lines, I opened a path into a deep, dark place. The lines were,

“So, in emptiness, there is no body, no feeling, no thought, no will, no consciousness. There are no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind.”

I logically, rationally understand that emptiness is shunyata/sunyata and that it means no substantiality, no permanence, the interdependence of all things, and the constant flux of our existence. At the same time, emotionally, these ideas struck at the heart of who I was. As I went into stillness, I felt a sensation of falling into darkness. Fear rose and I felt a sense of dread and foreboding. This sensation caught me off guard and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had dug into the wrong hole at the wrong time. Nihilism emerged, and I felt meaningless and literally empty; a kind of void, blank.

The phrase “lean in” has been used and overused recently and in this moment my attempt at leaning in took me deeper into that oblivion. Rather than emerging into a sense of wholeness and connectedness that I had experienced before, now I was stuck in the worst kind of place. Darkness overtook me and here I was, floating in this void. It was awful.

I ended my meditation, dedicated the merit, and sat there. I found myself crying, big tears flowing down my face. I shook, helpless in the moment, overcome with this terrible feeling. I immediately thought about Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse and his words on meditation practice, “It is such a mistake to assume that practicing dharma will help us calm down and lead an untroubled life; nothing could be further from the truth. Dharma is not a therapy.

Dharma is not therapy. There it is. As clear as can be. I had entered the practice on the Heart Sutra as a kind of therapy during COVID. In fact, I started down this intellectual path reading the Upanishads and the Heart Sutra as a way to open my mind, change my perspective, understand something in the context of COVID. What I ended up doing is making every possible mistake on the path of releasing my own grief and frustration at my life and the life of my family during this pandemic. I pursued the Heart Sutra as a strange kind of balm, not realizing that what it really did was shatter my ego mind, thus leading to that sense of nothingness. The nothingness, it seems, was my terrified ego screaming into the darkness. “You’re destroying me!”

Destroying ego, in fact, is one goal of meditation. Crushing the self-clinging ego mind and the ambitious path we set ourselves on is one aspect of who we claim to be. Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche had told me this story. I read her words over again, after the meditation, and I think I finally started to get it. I was using the Dharma as that balm, a salve for the pain I was feeling. It’s not therapy and not for the faint of heart. It’s rough, it’s challenging in every way, and it’s the path I have chosen.

May you be happy, may you be well.