Reflection on the Upanishads: Katha, Brihadaranyaka, and Chandogya

I started this process as a means of deepening my understanding of the fundamental concepts on which Buddhism is based. Going to source documents and ideas, I hoped, would help enrich and expand my understanding of the tenets of Buddhist thought, and, in particular, my understanding of Vajrayana Buddhism. What I found is this: that the foundations of Buddhist thought are deeply connected to the ideas in these Hindu texts and that they do, in fact, open my understanding of Buddhism and my Buddhist practice.

The feeling I had, going into reading the Upanishads, was one of loss and sadness. I dug deep into commentary on the Heart Sutra, an essential Buddhist text, and came away with a sense of emptiness (NOT the emptiness that leads to wisdom, but one that leads to nothingness). My practice wasn’t going anywhere, and I found my mind trapped in a dark place, formed by my own thinking mind. I needed some way through this place and that led me to reread the Upanishads and, in particular, to focus on the Katha Upanishad. That text, I hoped, would bring me out of the fog that surrounded and infused my mind.

The Katha Upanishad is an absolutely wonderful document for someone who enjoys the back and forth, give and take of academic conversation. The student Nachiketa and his teacher Yama, the King of Death, go back and forth in a conversation about the nature of death. Nachiketa is offered a variety of temptations to distract him from the path to knowledge and understanding. Take 1000 cows, gold, or music, Yama says, instead of learning about Death. Staying true to the path, Nachiketa denies the pleasures of life that he knows are fleeting, and demands and answer to his questions about Death.

Yama relents and finally explains to Nachiketa that self-realization is the key. Understanding that the Self is the non-dual understanding of all things. We are, Yama says, one with all things. Awakening to the Self is awakening to the understanding that there is no “us” and “them”; we are all timeless and one in this universe. Yama says,

“The all-knowing Self was never born

Nor will it die. Beyond cause and effect

This Self, eternal and immutable.” (78)

As I finished the text and the teaching, my mind’s fog began to relent, and I started to see through this strange mist I created for myself. Through various thoughts and emotions, I had taken myself into a place of depression and sadness. My reading of the Upanishads helped me slowly come out of this feeling and sensation, finding a place in which I can breathe again. With this renewed sense of spirit and interest, I moved into the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad to broaden my perspective.

Reading the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (B.U.) has been a revelation for me. The text repeats, over and over, the process of renunciation. To not seek for external attainment and, instead, for focus on the “Self.” As I’ve written before, I’m thinking that this eternal Self is more akin to the Buddhist concept of Rigpa or “true nature” than with an identifiable Self. The Self is part and parcel of a unified, non-dualistic concept. The Self we have in us is the same as the Self in every one else. I was particularly struck by this statement,

“He who is dying merges in consciousness,

and thus consciousness accompanies him when he departs,

along with the impressions of all that he has done,

experienced, and known.” (113 – 114)

Now, in Buddhist thought the consciousness does not tag along into the next life as a kind of eternal, individual self. However, in later passages in the Upanishads, I get the sense that this “Self” is merely and expression of the Brahman, the unified whole that the Upanishads speak of. Buddhist thought, it seems, is an expression of that idea: the idea of a non-dualistic whole. Interestingly, most of the Buddhist thought I’ve read doesn’t dig too deeply into the source of that Rigpa or true nature. In future writing, I’ll explore that idea, Rigpa, as it relates to the whole idea of Brahman.

As I finished the B.U., I decided to follow this path into the Changdogya Upanishad (C.U.) and the origins of Self, the Universe, and the essence of all things. This text really helped illuminate the ideas I’d read in the previous Upanishad and drew me in with this wonderful story,

“Place salt in water and bring it here Tomorrow morning.” The boy did.

“Where is that salt?” his father asked.

“I do not see it.”

“Sip here. How does it taste?”

“Salty, Father.”

“And here? And there?”

“I taste salt everywhere.”

It is everywhere, though we see it not.

Just so, dear one, the Self is everywhere.

Within all things.

This story (136 – 137) from the passages entitled The Story of Shvetaketu is a glimpse into the idea of the non-dual Self. Here, the Self is a much broader concept than the one we often imagine in our lives. Here, it is beyond the boundaries of the body and mind, expanding beyond the nature of our daily existence.

This story in the C.U. reminds me of a similar story/phrase from my own practice. In Tibetan and English it goes like this,

“chu ma nyok na dang,

sem ma chö na de”

“Water, if you don’t stir it, will become clear;

the mind, left unaltered, will find its own natural peace”

The unaltered mind is representative of the Self, in some ways, as the C.U. says. The connection, while a rough one, helps me understand the origins of these ideas from Hindu thought into Buddhist texts. The differences are present and reading them both has helped me get through my own complex mind, the one that spins ideas out if control until I’m in a difficult place. These readings in the Upanishads have really helped open my mind, centering my practice and allowing for a welcome shift in the ways I see the world.

May you be happy, may you be well.

Ending the Cycle: A Quest to Stop Fear-Thinking

Sometimes, my mind rolls, following waves of emotion and thought into dark places of self-loathing. Analyzing and reanalyzing choices I’ve made and paths I’ve taken has been a source of pain and anguish in my life. At times, I can sit with these feelings and allow them to settle. At other times, I am pushed around by these waves of struggle, wondering if I will ever be free from my guilt over choices I’ve made. As these moments come and go, I’m careful to note these personal dramas as I record what I’m thinking and feeling in a journal. These testimonies to myself do, in some small way, help me recognize the patterns of my mind’s cloth; the warp and weft of this strange tapestry, made from cloth I wove into the complexity of my experience.

As I mentioned in a previous post, these cycles or ebbs and flows are part of my non-linear existence. The recurrence of ideas, thoughts, and feelings shape my decisions as I desperately imagine a place and time in which I won’t struggle. At the same time, I understand that the spiraling nature of this existence, this samsara, is part and parcel of what it means to be human. It’s a fascinating and terrifying experience.

Ending the cycle of this mind stream or unweaving the tapestry I’ve made, at the core, is about challenging the fear-thinking that has become a part of me. I have noticed, over the past year especially, that my reactions are a result of fear. It usually starts with this idea: what happens if I?….what will happen to my children if I?….what if she…what if they? While many folks have described these thoughts as “worry” or “concern” from my perspective these thoughts are rooted in fear and attachment.

Attachment, as teachers I’ve studied have said, is based on the premise that I hold on to actions, thoughts, and emotions, prolonging my own suffering. Whether happy or sad, angry or joyful, I often attach to an idea and follow it down a tortured trail to some fantastical imagining. Have you ever followed a thought, a daydream, to some absurd conclusion? I remember reading an article about someone who left their job and started making wine. They built a winery and appeared to have an amazing life. The article included scenes of a vineyard with a house in the distance, a bucolic existence captured in this one image. I imagined doing the same thing, following this path, making wine, becoming known for the varieties I cast, being interviewed for the bold choices I made. I created this entire story in a matter of seconds as images and stories immediately came to mind. I WAS that person. I felt so good!

In a moment that story was replaced by some other thought that pulled me back from this imagined life and I moved on with my day.

Some stories I tell myself, day after day, moment after moment, can bring some limited joy. More often, however, they prolong pain and anguish. I remember being questioned by a supervisor at work as she demanded to know my plans for a final exam. She had heard that I was planning to cancel the final. Nothing could have been further from the truth and I invited her to the final, that Thursday morning, to witness students taking the test. As it turned out, another faculty member had reported that I was cancelling my finals. I do not know her motives and to this day wonder at why someone would create that kind of a problem for me. However, when the incident happened I was filled with rage, angry that I had been questioned by this person. My mind raced to terrible places, even going so far as to think that this confrontation was the first step to my dismissal from the school. I was lost in an ocean of fear, anger, and resentment. It lasted for a couple of days. Even now I think about that moment, a conversation of no more than five minutes.

These various mental formations or thoughts happen over and over again in my daily existence. Sometimes, I get caught up in those stories. However, things are changing in my mind. I can feel it and recognize a shift in the way I think and the way I react. My reactions are less and less volatile. I attach to the stories, thoughts, emotions for shorter and shorter periods of time. So what happened? What changed to encourage that shift in thinking, feeling, grasping?

I came to recognize fear-thinking for what it is: a construction of my mind. It seems to me I built a kind of odd house that was framed from fear. Fear of failure, death, lack of acceptance, or a powerful driver for me, a lack of care and affection. Much of what I have thought as fear was formed when I was quite young, and those experiences were the structure of the fear I made. What happens if I lose my job? What happens if I don’t feel love from another person? What happens when I fail? What happens on the last day of my life? Will I be present for the transition or lost in some drug-induced fog? All of these questions and even more kept me trapped. Trapped in thoughts that were (are) recursive and reinforced my fears.

Yet fear is not real. It is an illusion just like most everything else we experience. Dzongar Khyentse Rinpoche said,

When you begin to notice the damage that emotions can do, awareness develops. When you have awareness — for example, if you know that you are on the edge of a cliff — you understand the dangers before you. You can still go ahead and do as you were doing; walking on a cliff with awareness is not so frightening anymore, in fact it is thrilling. The real source of fear is not knowing. Awareness doesn’t prevent you from living, it makes living that much fuller.

The awareness Rinpoche refers to is the process of ending fear-thinking. That awareness is, simply put, the recognition that the fear we hold onto is empty. It has no tangible hold on us. We can feel it, think it, know it, but when it comes down to it, fear does not really exist in any material way. It’s like a mist or fog that clouds our awareness and understanding.

Albert Brooks’s movie, Defending Your Life, has an hilarious take on fear and fear-thinking. In this scene the character Daniel is told that he has to confront his many fears. Fear, as the movie maintains, is the thing that prevents us from living the kind of life we desperately want.

Changing the cycle of fear-thinking is one aspect of the path we are on. I wonder if we can, at some point, find a way past these thoughts and emotions to find something much more lovely and wonderful?

May you be happy, may you be well.

The Non-Linear Aspects of Life

As I break through this year of COVID isolation, and fractured teaching and learning, I’ve come to understand a basic truth in my life. I always kind of assumed that life followed a roughly narrow linear path between two points: birth and death. That as we age, mature, think, and experience, our lives would slowly build into a final denouement, an end that one could look back into the past, and see the choices and decisions that led to those final moments.

Now, it’s pretty clear that life does not follow a straight line at all. It has twists and turns, and more often than not loops back on itself, reliving and experiencing challenges previously faced at some earlier point in the process. These thoughts remind me of a professor at the University of Georgia who taught medieval philosophy. He believed that we do not, in any way, learn from our mistakes and that we simply relive or revisit moments in our lives over and over again. His parents were Holocaust survivors and he had come to embrace the idea that those kinds of human horrors are repeated, over and over again. At the time, in the mid-80s, I didn’t want to believe that he was right: that human suffering was repeated. As I know understand it, suffering is the norm in our world and we face suffering repeatedly in Historical patterns that unfold in a myriad of terrible ways.

While I have never experienced a pandemic like this one, as a historian I’m very familiar with pandemics in History and have read about both ancient and modern diseases that ravaged societies. While my own silly experience with this event is laughable in comparison to others who have suffered greatly, I’m seeing more clearly the repetition of events in both human history and in my own life.

On some days, I think about ways to recapture some of the feelings I had years ago, wondering if I can find that place in my mind in which joy was a natural expression of my experiences. Those moments of joy feel far from my daily experiences and it’s clear that something has limited my understanding and ability to sit in an experience and find the kind of joy that used to come easily.

Sitting in this moment

I’ve read a few philosophers talk about this idea, the idea that we cannot reclaim those moments in life. Thomas Wolfe, in his short life, wrote You Can’t Go Home Again, which addresses the proposed truth that we cannot find those moments we enjoyed in our past. In a nutshell, the past stays in the past and we cannot revisit it. Simply put, I’ve come to realize that Wolfe and the writer Ella Winter did not capture a basic fallacy in that idea. It’s that we always go home again, over and over, repeatedly reshaping our understanding of those moments in our past. If we’re being honest, those moments at home shape us over and over again.

There is not better example of this spiraling nature of experience than in meditation. I’ve been completely in the moment, in meditation, as my mind opens to the kind of clarity and vision of the infinite. The very next day, my mind is dull, warped and wrapped in obsession and pain. A year later, I’m back to that awakened moment. We relive, day in and day out, our previous experiences and lives. It could be that we imagine we are making some kind of progress toward a better self or identity or enlightenment or whatever. Instead, I wonder if we’re not just reliving previous experiences in new settings?

It’s been a year since the start of COVID and the various masks and quarantines we have experienced. I’ve seen us open businesses and close them, open schools and close them, repeating patterns of behavior on a societal level. Yes, we are slowly emerging from the worst of the COVID spread and we inevitably we face such challenges again. Will we learn something, this time, or simply repeat the patterns? I’m wondering if, in fact, it doesn’t really matter. Maybe what we are experiencing is this kind of circular or spiraling effect in our lives on a grand scale. We need ourselves, again and again. Our experiences simply recreated in those fumbling moments of choices and actions. We wonder if there is a way out or through of this common, repetitive existence. Can we break the cycle in our lives? Can we find freedom from samsara?

May you be happy, may you be well, fellow humans.