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.

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