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.