Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion: The Significance of Religious Myth, Symbolism, and Ritual Within Life and Culture

Book Review: The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion: The Significance of Religious Myth, Symbolism, and Ritual Within Life and Culture – by Mircea Eliade, translated from the French by Williard R. Trask (Harcort Brace & Company 1957, 1959)

Another fascinating book. Eliade was among the best of the ‘mythographers.’ Here he covers the structure of myth and religion. He also covers sacred space, sacred time, theophanies, the ideas of chaos and cosmos, cosmogony, myth as paradigmatic model, symbolism, patterns in religion, heirophany, rites of passage, initiation, and anthropo-cosmic homology.

The sacred always manifests as “other,” he says, or as different from the natural. That is why we tend to both fear and be fascinated by the sacred. The idea of the sacred is first explored simply as the opposite of the profane. When humans experience something beyond the profane, they may consider it to be a manifestation of the sacred or the sacred showing itself. This is what he terms a heirophany. Heirophany may be paradoxical, as in the example that a certain stone or tree comes to be considered sacred. It is paradoxical in the sense that the object is both profane and sacred. In archaic societies, he says, the sacred is considered both more powerful and more real than the profane. He also explores in the book the ‘desacralized’ nonreligious humans of the modern world in comparison to the human of archaic societies and religious groups. He refers to the sacred and the profane as two modes of being in the world. He also notes that differences in economy, culture, and social organization, and the history of a people influence the religious experiences of a people. 

Religious humans consecrate space, which means they declare certain places to be sacred according to myth and belief. Consecration of space often involves defining a center, a representative center of the world as a fixed point. Defining such a center is a hierophany and also a re-enactment of the creation of the world. The difference between profane and sacred space can be exemplified by a church, where the threshold marks the change from profane to sacred space. As such many cultures have rituals to acknowledge such thresholds. Sometimes, when a sacred space is sought there is a sign from nature, either found or evoked, that accompanies such designation and represents divine intervention. Cultures often define their own tribal space as sacred and that of others as profane. Their consecrated space represents cosmos while everything outside of it represents chaos. The Vedic consecration of a new territory by building a fire altar with specific dimensions and symbolic features is an example. Ritual consecration of space is fairly similar among hunter-gathering societies, agricultural societies, and historical religions – it is repetition of a cosmogony, the act of creation (of the world). The cosmic pillar or world tree is representative of the fixed point at the center of the world, whether the skambha of Indians or the Irminsul of the Saxons. The pillar of a temple or house is the same. The Milky Way is often the stellar model of the cosmic pillar. The cosmic pillar, is the axis mundi, the center of the world. It is the connection and point of access between heaven and earth and of all the ‘worlds’ or cosmic regions.

Another form of the sacred center is the ‘cosmic mountain.’ He gives the examples of Mt. Meru in India, Mt. Haraberezaiti in Iran, the mythical ‘Mount of the Lands’ in Mesopotamia, and Mt. Gerizim in Palestine. Most of the modern religions also have remnants of cosmic mountain/axis mundi beliefs. The ka’aba of Islam is an example. The top of a mountain is closest to the celestial realms. The Babylonian ziggurat was literally a cosmic mountain, with each step referred to a planet of the celestial heavens.  Holy places are often called the navel of the earth, the center of the world. Construction of houses, temples, fire temples, yurts, etc. and even fabrication involves what Eliade calls cosmogony as paradigmatic model. Thus every creation connects back to the creation of the world. The creation and the created thing are microcosm as the creation of the world and the world are macrocosm. It is what he called an anthropic homology, in this case a human-created correspondence to original creation. Settling a territory is also akin to creating a world and the cities of ancient times were designed as models of the cosmos. The city, house, or created world represent order and cosmos while areas beyond come to represent chaos. Dragons and serpents tend to represent chaos in Near Eastern myths and were often treated as enemies of the king or demons to be conquered. Beyond the city was where enemies came from. In several myths the dragon is slain and cut into pieces to form the cosmos. The slaying of the primal water dragoness Tiamat by Marduk was re-enacted at every New Year by the Babylonians. The Hebrews had similar stories. Order is invoked as an enclave protected from chaos as in city walls or ritual consecration by casting a protective circle to keep out demons, death, and disease. Even non-religious modern people still practice demonization of things they fear or do not understand. Eliade notes that recreating the cosmogony of slaying the monster of chaos for a structure might involve bloody sacrifice. The structures mimic the cosmos. The yurt is supported by a central pillar and the smoke hole of yurt or teepee is the shaman’s path to other worlds. In Vedic India during construction a snake was slain in imitation of Indra slaying the demon Vritra. Its head was staked and fixed to the point of the center of the structure/world. This is one form of the so-called ‘building sacrifice.’ They are kind of universal being part of the slaying of chaos to initiate order, being a component of Near Eastern, Chinese, Indo-European, and other mythos. Structures, particularly temples, were also modeled on the celestial realm of stars and planets. Mesopotamia was exemplary in this regard. In summary, all creation imitates creation of the world and involves the consecration of space. All beyond the order created by the gods and recreated by humans in imitation is considered chaotic, evil, feared and dangerous. Thus, in a sense the creation of the cosmos and its imitation serves also to define the good and evil.

Next he delves into ‘sacred time.’ Since I have dwelled on this in previous reviews of Eliade’s works I will be brief here. Cosmogony re-enactment invokes sacred or mythical time, the time of original creation. Thus humans can ‘partake’ in the creation dramas of their gods. Mythical time is non-linear and non-historical. Judaism was the first major delving into historical time. The New Year as the beginning of the Wheel of the Year is the renewal of the original cosmogony. Time began at the original cosmogony. The New Year renewal offers hope in that the failures of the past can be cast off. Before it occurs there is often a purging through chaos which represents the time before creation. This reenactment of chaos before time is often wild and orgiastic. Thus we have things like ‘carnival.’ In modern secular society we can also see examples of the urge toward regeneration – perhaps in political candidates where “change” is often a successful rallying call. Obama embraced change and won. Trump shouted for a sort of renewal in the slogan “Make America Great Again” and won. Recitations of origin myths accompany many rituals of archaic peoples. They invoke the sacred ‘time of origins,’ a time that is considered indestructible. The mythical event is thus eternally present. Thus the people can become periodically contemporary with the gods. Myths are paradigmatic models, says Eliade. Remembering the myths is a sacred act of connecting with mythical time and space and forgetting them is considered sinful. There is forgetting when cosmic religions become historical religions, he says, which can result in less conviction in the power of traditions. While there is some reenactment of sacred acts in modern historical religions there is much lost. He calls the reenactment of creation myth the ‘myth of the eternal return.’ He gives the Indian yugas and comparable Greek time cycles as examples. In India the dogmas say that the world is periodically destroyed and re-created. Nothing happens once, all is recreation:
“Cosmic duration is repetition and anakuklosis [Greek], eternal return.”

According to Eliade the Hebrews first tied their cosmic tribal myths to historical events and historical time. Thus certain historical events became celebrated and remembered as theophanies. The historical reenactment of the life of Christ follows the new pattern of historical theophany. Thus when Rome became Christianized so too did the calendar become referenced to the time of the life and death of Christ.

Next he considers the sacredness of nature. First he mentions the “Uranian Gods” associated with the sky and the celestial realm of stars. The infinite nature of the sky and the fact that it is far away and “high” account for its “otherness.” The sky represents transcendence, he says. He notes that supreme gods of peoples are often sky gods. He gives examples: Mongolian Tengri, Chinese Ti’en, Indian Dyeus, Geek Zeus, Roman Jupiter, Celtic Taranis, and Slavic Perun. He also notes that supreme sky gods may end up becoming remote gods, only called in times of supreme danger. This has been noted in many cultures but particularly in Africa. After creating the world and man the supreme god retreats back into the far heavens and has less day-to-day relevance and becomes a last resort. He suggests that the discovery of agriculture may have something to do with increased focus on fertility and fertility gods and less on the transcendent supreme sky deities. He notes that the Hebrews often returned to Baal and Astarte during times of peace and prosperity and only returned to Yahweh in times of distress, when the fertility deities were not seen as adequate. 

Next he mentions aquatic symbolism. The waters or watery abyss often represent the primordial chaos preceding creation. They are the “spring and origin.” Acts of immersion and baptism are repetitions of manifestation. Water dissolves form into the formless and washes away sins. The cosmic flood is also a baptism of sorts. Life arose from the waters, in myth and now in our scientific view. All form is above the primal waters. Ritual immersion in water as baptism is a form of ritual regeneration and rebirth. Even in Christianity there is the idea that immersion involves confronting and overcoming the water dragon or monster of the abyss, as in other Near Eastern myths. Thus in several ways Christian baptismal symbolism is a continuation of previous aquatic symbolism. He notes that in Asiatic and Oceanic myths water is often seen as the waters of death. 

Many symbols are universal, he notes. One is of the Earth as mother and as both origin and destiny, Terra Mater (Mother Earth). In many cultures one ‘belongs’ to a place and we all return to the Earth at death. The human woman as mother is often a microcosm of the Earth Mother. Giving birth on the ground was practiced in many cultures worldwide. The practice of laying an infant on the ground is another example. Symbolic burial in the ground, partially or wholly (with breathing apparatus) is a form of baptism in the earth for some cultures. Subsequent emergence is emergence from the womb. In some cosmic religions creation comes about by the hierogamy or sacred marriage between the Sky Father and the Earth Mother. He notes the presence of this mythos especially in Oceania but also in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Human marriage is thus often seen as a microcosm of this cosmic marriage. Human sexuality can be treated similarly. Fertility of the fields was/is often insured by orgiastic behavior, sometimes actually in the plowed fields. Again the orgiastic behavior represents a regression to the chaos before creation, in this case before creation of the crops. 

Religion has come up with the idea of absolute reality, typically not the reality of life on earth, but something beyond – maybe that which precedes life and follows death or something spiritual practitioners can discover. Absolute reality is symbolized, says Eliade, by the sacred tree of life.

Next he explores the relatively modern ‘discovery’ of the desacralization of nature. Science, as the new world view, especially its mechanistic aspect (and probably less so a more holistic, systems approach to science) leads the way. However, he notes that we can hardly overcome the charms of nature. One example he gives is China, where Taoism has preserved the veneration of nature as sacred in aesthetics and art. 

He gives quick explanations of solar and lunar symbolism. The birth, growth, decay, death, and rebirth of the moon in its cycle taught humans all over about cycles and rhythms of change. He thinks it is the rebirth of the moon that suggested to early humans that death is not the end. The sun does not change shape like the moon although it is always in motion. Heroes are often solar, being seen and depicted as indestructible, powerful, and steady. The sun fights darkness and descends into the underworld at dusk, into the realm of darkness and death, and re-emerges at dawn unchanged. While in lunar symbolism darkness may be seen as origin and a necessary part of the cycle in solar symbolism it is often seen as adversary. The sun is seen as illumination and intelligence and darkness as ignorance. 

Next, in considering ‘human existence and the sanctified life,’ he notes that the European peasantry did not simply adopt historical Christianity but incorporated pre-Christian folk beliefs into their forms of the religion. He refers to this as ahistorical Christianity, or cosmic Christianity. The life of man becomes homologized to the cosmic life, or follows a paradigmatic model. This is perhaps particularly so with the European cultivators, peasant farming communities. For religious man, homo religiosus, the cosmos is alive and speaks. It is the paradigmatic image of human existence. The earth-woman homology in agricultural societies is one example where women are seen symbolically as fields to be cultivated. The later Vedas and the Sumerian accounts provide numerous examples. Eliade describes the view of homo religiosus as being “open to the world” which enables one to know oneself through knowing the world. Being open to the world means that one can come into contact with the gods.

The sacred and the profane are two separate spheres of existence and yet there is direct correspondence between them in mythic contexts. These homologies often constitute whole “systems of micro-macrocosmic correspondences.” The primary anthropo-cosmic homology is human-universe. The human is the world in miniature. The homology of man as heaven or sky and woman as earth informs many religious structures and rites. The woman as the altar of Vedic sacrifice is one example. In India the female represent prakriti, or the material world, while the male represents the transcendental spirit. In Indian Tantra all of the human organs and systems are seen as their cosmic counterparts in the inner subtle body architecture of chakras, winds, channels, and drops. 

The homology of body-house-cosmos is quite prevalent. The Indian example reveals that the body utilizes the spinal column as the cosmic pillar, the breaths become the winds, the navel or heart the center of the world, etc. The human body is also depicted in the yoga tradition as “a house with a pillar and nine doors.” The doors, of course, refer to the body orifices. The house or temple may also be seen as a body. Often at the top there is the “eye of the dome” which corresponds to the smoke hole of the yurt and teepee and thus to the doorway to celestial worlds. In India there is similarly the brahmarandhra, the opening at the top of the skull from where the soul escapes at death. Holes in dwellings and temples have the very same name. Thus in some traditions when death is desired due to prolonged agony, boards are removed from the roof in a kind of sympathetic magic to bring about death and presumed release from agony. The skulls of dead yogins were sometimes broken to free their souls. In Tibetan Buddhism and other tantric and yogic traditions there are rites and practices where the consciousness is directed through the brahmarandhra. One is called Phowa and is a preparation for death. Another is the Chod rite which can be seen as a kind of mock death or shamanic death, although in Buddhist context it is a ritual of generosity. The symbolism of breaking the roof/skull to attain flight or liberation is thus cognate between shamanism and Hinduism and Buddhism. The notion of “passing through the narrow gate” is part of the same body-house-cosmos homology. The symbolism of passing through the narrow hole can also be seen as a kind of rebirth through a womb and most often as a passage point from one realm to another – for shamans to travel in the realms and for soul travel at death. Passage from one state to another is also the main theme of initiation and of so-called ‘rites of passage.’ The narrow gate and the perilous bridge represent a dangerous passage. In Tibet the death bardo is referred to as a ‘dangerous pathway.’ In Iranian mythology it is the dangerous Cinvat Bridge which is crossed after death. The river Styx is perhaps another and in Slavic myths there is a dangerous climb up a high cliff face. The vision of Paul mentions a dangerous bridge the width of a hair and I believe in Islam there is a bridge to paradise said to be made of seven strands of hair. In several of these examples the sinners don’t make it, only the virtuous.

Rites of passage include puberty rites, marriage rites, and funerary rites. Each implies a change in ontological and social status. While these are most important for the religious, secular humans also are partly bound to such beliefs since they too pass through these changes, particularly with changes in social status. Eliade makes a distinction between puberty rites that all adolescents are required to undergo and initiations into secret societies where only some are chosen to undergo. Such initiations serve to bring about changes in ontological status. Initiated humans become more “complete” in the mythic-religious scenarios of the tribe than the non-initiated. Initiation is a path to “otherness” and since these initiations are considered to have been begun by the gods, then it is a sacred otherness. Thus the human can approach the mythical ideal and become the paradigmatic hero or archetype.
“Initiation usually comprises a threefold revelation: revelation of the sacred, of death, and of sexuality.”

The initiate is the newborn, the one who has gained new knowledge, and the one who has passed through the ordeals. Sometimes there is an initiatory hut that represents the womb from which the initiate emerges after symbolic death. Sometimes it is the skin of a recently sacrificed animal that serves as the womb. Regression to the fetal state represents regression to the primordial chaos of formless pre-existence. Dire and painful ordeals may accompany tribal initiations: circumcision, scarring, mutilation, tattooing, whipping, isolation, fasting, etc. Novices may take up the manner of ghosts, the attributes of the dead, the ancestors. One way they do this is to eat with their mouths, avoiding using their hands, as ghosts are sometimes believed to do. While women’s and men’s initiations may differ in symbolism they all involve a deepened ‘access to the sacred.’ First menstruation rituals for women are quite common and may involve isolation, special diets, shunning, avoidance of daylight, and required discomforts. He notes that girls’ first menstruation rites are often individual while boys’ puberty rites are often in groups. Entering the belly of a monster, into cosmic darkness, is another motif in the death part of initiation. The “initiatory sickness” of shamans is a very similar form of initiatory death. The totality of crisis sets the tone for re-emergence into the new birth and the new knowledge and powers. 

“Above all, we understand this: the man of the primitive societies has sought to conquer death by transforming it into a rite of passage.”

Humans thus die to the profane life and are born into the sacred life. Death then comes to be seen as the ‘supreme initiation.’ Rebirth and regeneration requires death. 

He mentions Socrates, who was called a midwife, and notes that why he was called such is that his work with the dialectic and philosophical observation allowed him to bring forth the ‘new man.’ It is similar in India and in Buddhism where the teachers bring forth the students as transformed humans. Noble students are sometimes called sons and daughters of the Buddha. Buddha notes in the Majjhima-Nikaya the formation of a new body through practice:

“Moreover, I have shown my disciples the way whereby they call into being out of this body (composed of the four elements) another body of the mind’s creation (rupim manomayam), complete in all its limbs and members and with transcendental faculties (abhinindriyam).”

Even in Christianity Paul spoke of ‘spiritual sons’ born of knowledge and adoption of “faith” in the doctrine. Thus in the so-called organized religions the doctrine, gospel, or dharma becomes the means of initiation from a state of ignorance to a state of knowledge. Thus it is similar to archaic initiations where one comes from the profane to the sacred. Eliade does think Christianity is different since faith is emphasized over knowledge, although that may not have been true for the Gnostic sects and this victory of faith over gnosis in Christianity is one of contrived orthodoxy overcoming a more varied heterodoxy, with social and political implications. 

“Modern nonreligious man assumes a new existentialist situation: he regards himself solely as the subject and agent of history, and he refuses all appeal to transcendence. In other words, he accepts no model for humanity outside the human condition as it can be seen in the various historical situations.”

Eliade seems to think that modern nonreligious humans rely on de-sacralization to become complete, just the opposite of religious man. I am not sure if it is that simple especially in light of the fact that we are all confronted with the mysteries of life and the sufferings of the human condition. He does concede that nonreligious man descends from religious man and carries much of that baggage whether he realizes or admits it or not. His formation thus involves opposing his predecessor and yet it is difficult or maybe even impossible to eradicate religious thinking entirely. Even the nonreligious tend to maintain various superstitions and taboos. Eliade refers to “camouflaged myths and degenerated rituals.” He notes the rather obvious mythic motifs in cinema with their well-recognized heroes and antagonists. Both cinema and reading allow us to ‘escape from time’ and its demands at least for a while. The reader or watcher escapes from history and enters worlds with different histories, though likely fictional. 

He suggests that even political and social movements can take up mythic forms. He gives the example of communism and Marx resurrecting the “Asiatico-Mediterranean” myth of “the redeeming role of the Just (the “chosen,” the anointed,” the “innocent,” the “messenger”; in our day, the proletariat), whose sufferings are destined to change the ontological status of the world.” He sees Marxism as a “Golden Age” myth where a Golden Age is placed either at the beginning or end of history – in this case at the end where good overcomes evil, not unlike Judeo-Christian messianic myth. Modern utopian mythos, whether secular or religious, like “back to Eden” or “back-to-nature” and nudism, he says, also often follow mythic formats. He also mentions that military initiations, even necessary ones like combat, are sometimes seen as having more cosmic implications. Another example is psychanalysis where we confront our hidden subconscious life and all of its ordeals and monsters. We can emerge transformed in the process much like a reborn initiate. We all endure various ordeals and overcome obstacles and adversaries as a part of life. Human existence can be seen as one long initiation. Thus we can hardly escape the symbolism that pervades archaic thought and our own subconscious. We can hardly be purely rational no matter how hard we try. Pychoanalysis has revealed that unconscious lives are filled with symbols and their symbolic operations. 

“ … the mode of being of the myth is precisely that it reveals itself as myth, that is, it announces that something has been manifested in a paradigmatic manner. “

Existential crises can hardly be separated from mythic or religious thinking perhaps due to our evolutionary wiring. All religions, he notes are ontological and are concerned with how we came to “be.” They are concerned also with how we will come to end and since we know we will die it is difficult to separate life and death thinking from ontology. In religious thinking ‘being” and the sacred are identical. 

“… religion is the paradigmatic solution for every existential crisis.” 

In the psychoanalytic sense we all have our own personal mythologies. We have our history of trials and tribulations, successes and failures. However, he notes, the level of our experience of our psyche and its personal myths does not rise to the level of religion and open us fully to the sacred. While both the unconscious and religion may utilize symbols, only in religion do we have the development of prescribed behaviors. We may have psychic reactions based on our religious upbringing and such but the examination of our dreams, unconscious thoughts and wishes, and imaginary lives are still only partial compared to our conscious development of a purely “metaphysical comprehension of the world.” In other words, while integration of the conscious and unconscious, in Jung’s terms, can offer useful psychological healing utilizing symbols, it is not the same as belief in particular religious scenarios which may utilize the same symbols. It’s perhaps kind of like utilizing a “fake” personal religion for psychological healing without having to actually believe in it. 

The final chapter of the book is a chronological survey of the history of religion as a branch of knowledge. He begins in the nineteenth century with Max Muller and others and notes schools and institutes developed to study religion and myth and lists books and authors. He then goes back and gives a quick survey of what ancient Greek and Hellene writers said about the nature of religion. He notes the personification of natural forces mentioned by the Milesian pre-Socratic philosophers. He mentions that Epicurus provided radical criticism of popular religion, noting that the gods may well exist but are distant and not interested in humans. The Stoics developed the method of allegorical interpretation of myths as philosophical or ethical. This gained wide acceptance and made analysis of myths popular. He also mentions Euhemerus who considered that mythical beings were once real humans that time and legend developed into gods, something we know has happened as known historical persons were deified. Among the Romans Cicero and Varro are notable. Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods was, he says, an accurate description of the state of rites and beliefs in the last century B.C.E. He notes that Neo-Pythagoreanism and Neo-Platonism sought to revalorize the spiritual interpretation of myths and rites. Some like Plutarch and Seneca and the Stoics emphasized that the multiplicity of gods was really one god. However, as Christianity came to power their one god was set up in juxtaposition to the multiplicity of pagan gods and was often used to point out the superiority of monotheism and the inferiority of idolatry, a position the later Muslims would duplicate. They sought to distinguish Christianity from Paganism even though by all evidence there was great similarity of Christianity to Mystery religions and other pagan cults. Thus as orthodoxy developed in Christianity it was often in forms directly juxtaposed to Paganism in order to say that the two were mutually exclusive and later Paganism was stamped out as evil. One reaction to Christianity among Pagans he notes were textual demonstrations that Paganism was not merely fertility orgy and excess as the Church Fathers would say but that Pagans could also be tolerant and pious. The Life of Apollonius of Tyana by the sophist Philostratus (c. 175-c. 249) and the works of the Neo-Platonists Porphyry and Iamblichus also argued against Christianity and taught both tolerance and the value of syncretism. The Christian reaction to these thoughtful arguments actually served to preserve some of their ideas and those of the time that would be otherwise unknown, lost to the centuries of the de-Paganization of the Western world by Christianity. He also mentions later s by Muslims – Al-Biruni’s (973-1048) remarkable description of Indian religions and philosophies, Sharastani’s (d. 1153) description of Islamic schools, Ibn Hazam’s (994-1064) accounts of Mazdean and Manichaean dualism, and especially Averroes (ibn Rushd, 1126-1198) who utilized the allegorical method to study religion. Among Jewish scholars he mentions Saadia (892-942) who expounded views of Brahmins, Christians, and Muslims, and Maimonides (1135-1204) who attempted a non-syncretic comparison of religions. He goes on through the Renaissance which included Platonic and paganistic revivals of sorts. He mentions some other works of the 17th and 18th centuries that compared religions up to the birth of comparative mythology. Max Muller wrote Essay of Comparative Mythology in 1856. He noted parallels of myth and natural phenomena and noted “solar epiphanies.” In the early 20th century came Frazer’s Golden Bough, a classic of comparative myth in which he developed his ideas of “contagion” and “sympathetic magic.” Another pioneer was Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) who developed the idea of “totem” to describe Native American notions of animals as clan ancestors. He notes that Frazer showed that Durkheim’s totemism is not universally disseminated and may not be the earliest form of religion as others suggested. Other ethnologists sought to explain early religion in terms of “pre-logical” beliefs of primitives but these attempts had no lasting impact, he notes. Others like William James and Freud searched for a psychological origin of religion. Currently (1950’s) he notes that two approaches now dominate – the search for the essence of religion and the study of the history of religion. I might add that since then some are beginning to approach religion from a more biological standpoint. Edward Wilson, Carl Sagan, and Jesse Bering are examples. The chronological survey that Eliade gives is very informative overall.

All in all, another great Eliade book. One downside is that it can be quite repetitive, saying similar things over and over in slightly different ways. This seems to be true with his more general overview books like this one but not so with his more detailed works.  


Saturday, February 11, 2017

On the Four Noble Truths

Book Review: On the Four Noble Truths – by Lama Yeshe Gyamtso (KTD Publications, 2013)

Here is Lama Yeshe’s teachings on: the four noble truths and the related four seals of the view, the four mindfulnesses, the four views (or four schools of Buddhist philosophy), and the four reliances. In the intro he notes that these teachings serve to introduce students to the Buddhist outlook.

He states that his exposition of the four noble truths is based on Khenpo Ugyen Tendzin’s excellent presentation on the same subject. The four noble truths is considered the Buddha’s first teaching, taught to the five ascetics with whom he had previously practiced. This teaching is also called the first turning of the dharma wheel (dharmachakra). These are the four noble truths realized by the noble ones, or aryas. The four noble truths are said to be the realization of those who attain the ‘path of seeing,’ the third stage along the five stages of the path to becoming enlightened, to becoming Buddha.

Lama Yeshe notes that “the four noble truths give you the best single outline that covers all Buddhist teachings.” The Buddha repeated the four noble truths three times. The first time he said the first noble truth is the truth of suffering, the second the cause of suffering, the third the cessation of suffering, and the fourth the path that leads to the cessation of suffering. That was the first repetition. In the second repetition he said that “suffering is to be known; its cause abandoned; cessation is to be attained or achieved; the path is to be relied upon.” The third repetition is less well known: “Other than suffering, there is nothing to be known. Other than its cause, there is nothing to be abandoned. Other than cessation, there is nothing to be achieved. Other than the path there is nothing to be relied upon.”

The first truth is that of suffering and suffering is to be known. Normally we want to ignore or be rid of suffering rather than ‘know’ it. Thus it seems as if the Buddha was saying that we should examine suffering and pay attention to it. In saying that ‘other than suffering there is nothing to be known’ he seems to double down on the importance of knowing suffering. Knowledge of suffering seems to be a prerequisite to discovering its cause and ending the suffering. He mentions that Buddhism is extremely thorough in categorizing suffering: the four major and eight secondary types of human suffering, the suffering of the six realms, and the three types of generic suffering, to name a few. 

Knowing suffering leads to discovering its cause. A common characteristic of all suffering is attachment. All Buddhist teachings are different encouragements and means to let go of attachment. He notes at one point that attachment is the desire not to suffer – so one might say that in order to get rid of attachment we have to get rid of the desire not to suffer. In order to get rid of the desire not to suffer we need to know and understand suffering. Thus, the Buddha taught the truth of suffering before the truth of its cause – when normally one proceeds from cause to effect.

Attachment is the cause of suffering. While some ignorance is the cause of suffering, here Lama Yeshe notes that at the fundamental level attachment and ignorance are the same. He explains this from teachings by Thrangu Rinpoche that say that the confusion of ignorance is accompanied by being stunned and panicked, of being overwhelmed by the direct unlimited lucidity of cognition. Karma and kleshas are causes of suffering too, but they arise from attachment. He asks the question, “What are we attached to?” He answers:

“We are attached to the imputed self of persons and the imputed self of phenomena. We are attached to perceived characteristics.”

He elaborates that we are attached to ‘things as they were, or we think they were’ and this is problematic because things are always changing and do not stay as they were. We are living in the past and attached to an existing static sense of self that is not real in that sense. He also notes that abandoning attachment is the fundamental theme of all the vehicles of Buddhadharma, even though attitudes toward attachment are different in some vehicles. Also important are transcending anger, pride, and jealousy, all symptoms of attachment. Dharma is simply the process of gaining freedom from attachment. 

He notes that in one litany of confession there is the odd confession that we have not realized our mind to be Buddha – we confess something we seem to have no control over, which makes it odd. However, our failure to realize our true awakened nature is in itself a form of attachment.

The first two noble truths are the result and cause of samsara and the last two are the result and cause of nirvana. The third noble truth, cessation of suffering, is the only thing to be achieved. It is the sole goal. Cessation of suffering depends on cessation of its cause, attachment. 

The fourth noble truth. The truth of the path that leads to the cessation of suffering answers the question: How? The path is the techniques, which vary according to the different vehicles.
It is said that each vehicle is valid, is a valid way of attaining cessation of suffering. The common vehicle, or Hinayana, is always valid, even in the contexts of the Mahayana and Vajrayana. The view of the Hinayana, he says, is ‘letting go because you have no choice.’ The Mahayana is concerned with becoming enlightened in order to bring others to that state. It requires a compassionate motivation and realization of emptiness. 

“Through recognizing your own suffering you start to empathize with the suffering of others. Motivated by the desire to free others from suffering, you seek the realization of emptiness.”

He quotes Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche to delineate the difference between Mahayana and Vajrayana:

“the mahayana of the sutras takes inferential reasoning as the path, and the vajrayana takes direct experience as the path.”

Lama Yeshe explains the Vajrayana as using indirect methods like veneration of deities in deity yoga to attain direct cognition of the nature of mind. Veneration and worship of the guru and of deities is used to come to the experience of “purity” which is required for that direct cognition. Imagination alone won’t lead to the experience of purity but along with devotion it can. The guru is the example, the embodiment of Buddha Nature. He suggests for new practitioners to Vajrayana an initial period of healthy skepticism followed by development of strong devotion.

The main goal of the common vehicle, the Hinayana, is escape from samsara. Attachment to our misconception of self is what keeps us in samsara. However, says the Mahayana, that is not all. Attachment to the ‘self-existence’ of phenomena keeps us from omniscient awakening even if we escape from samsara. The Hinayana view of cessation is that it is the end of experience (as we know it). Thus the experience of cessation of experience by arhats is said to be incomplete. In the Mahayana and Vajrayana shared view there is no end of experience. Hinayana is mainly concerned with the Three Trainings: morality, concentration, and wisdom. Morality subdues karma and aids compassion. Concentration leads to the knowledge of selflessness in Hinayana, and of emptiness in Mahayana. Mahayana sees ignorance as the cause of suffering and cessation as the cessation of ignorance rather than the cessation of cognitive experience. However, if such cessation of ignorance is not complete, not omniscient awakening, it is only temporary. In Mahayana the three trainings are taken up with the motivation of bodhicitta, the wish to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. There are two aspects of such a motivation: the wish to become enlightened and the wish to benefit beings. Concentration, or Samadhi, in the Mahayana differs from the common vehicle in that it is the integration of compassion and the realization of emptiness. Wisdom in Mahayana is the realization of emptiness. So the two trainings of concentration and wisdom are integrated. The Vajrayana view is similar to the Mahayana view. As a path of direct experience it is dependent on the guru. He quotes a saying:

“In the beginning you imagine your guru to be a buddha. In the middle you understand that your guru is a buddha. In the end you realize that your mind is buddha.” 

In a section with questions he notes that forgetting or losing touch with one’s own experience of suffering can impede our ability to be empathetic to the suffering of others. Suffering bothers us, he says, because of our attachment. Letting go of it is the method. Dharma is the tools to let go.

The Four Seals of the View is the next subject. The four seals are now considered beliefs that define one as a Buddhist, although for Buddha they derive from what he called the three marks of existence and describe the actual situation of things. Although the four seals correspond to the four noble truths, they most closely respond to the truth of suffering, the author notes. Anyone who accepts the four seals is by definition a follower of Buddha’s teachings, it is said. The four seals are impermanence, suffering, selflessness, and nirvana.

“All composites are impermanent” describes the first seal. Composites are anything made of more than one thing, or anything that is produced by causes and conditions. He describes coarse and subtle impermanence. Coarse impermanence is destruction and subtle impermanence is change. It is change that eventually leads to destruction. An example is that we begin to die when we are born, changes begin that eventually lead to death. According to Buddha’s teaching there is no stasis, all is changing. When we impute qualities and characteristics to things it is not entirely accurate as they are changing and subject to further change. Clinging to the illusion of permanence is the basis for habits, or rather the “immediate condition for the maintenance of habits.” Habits are considered unnatural because they involve clinging to illusion rather than acceptance of our true nature, also called Buddha Nature. Thus, it is said that habits like anger and addiction are unnatural. Habits are a persistent illusion. Understanding impermanence is the key to understanding suffering. 

“All that is defiled brings suffering” describes the second seal. The defilements are the kleshas. The four sufferings of sentient beings are birth, old age, sickness, and death. We cannot avoid them in our journey through life. Aging also brings the thought of impending death. Death is both inevitable and its details are unknown. We know we are going to die but we don’t know when or how. Another way of categorizing suffering is ‘the three sufferings.’ First is the ‘suffering of suffering’ which refers to the experiencing of any kind of physical or mental pain. Second is the ‘suffering of change’ which refers to the changing of pleasant circumstances into unpleasant ones. Pleasure does not last so it is said there is suffering embedded within it. The pleasure is not the sole cause of the suffering but our feeling of contrast adds to it. Third is the ‘pervasive suffering’ that is embedded in our realm as beings on earth. While it is most often unnoticed it is always happening due to composite things unravelling.

“All dharmas are selfless and empty” describes the third seal, selflessness. Selfless means unselfish, he notes. Selfless also means ‘without true existence.’ He notes that the aim of Buddhist practice is not to get rid of the self as there is no self to get rid of. The aim is rather to get rid of, or more precisely, to let go of our habit/belief in a ‘permanent, unitary, and independent’ self. Independent means unchanging. We cannot be separated from our experience. We are not independent from it. Sometimes we think we are our bodies, sometimes we think we are our minds, and sometimes we think we are both. Even our sense of continuity of our experience does not have the characteristics we impute to it. The instinct of self-preservation proves that we impute such characteristics to it, at least on that instinctual level.

The second aspect of selflessness is the selflessness of things in general. “Things” here includes appearances, or what we experience through our senses, and thoughts, or what we experience with our minds. Do things exist independently of an observer, a subject? Dharma says they do not, that subject-object duality is an illusion.

“Only nirvana is peace” describes the fourth seal. Nirvana means “transcendence of misery.” Two types of nirvana are the nirvana of an arhat and the non-dwelling nirvana of a Buddha. Arhats have incomplete realization and are said to dwell for long periods of time in states of basically void of experience. Having eradicated the kleshas, arhats do not take rebirth. It is said that eventually they are aroused from their state by a Buddha. Non-dwelling nirvana is the state of Buddhahood. It is an inconceivable state so it is hard to say whether there is experience or not. It is outside the realm of what we know, outside the realm of ordinary experience. In summary he notes that:

“Impermanence is a condition for suffering; defilement is the cause of suffering; neither the person who suffers nor the suffering they undergo possess a self; and, until you achieve nirvana, there will always be suffering.”

A question is asked about what it is that continues after death and into rebirth, if not a self. He answers that that is tricky to answer but that “the appearance of a self is causality mistaken to be identity.” What we are may not have a true identity but we have a causal history that gives a sense of continuity. 

Next topic is the Four Mindfulnesses.  The practice of the four mindfulnesses is a practice of the lesser or early path of accumulation. It is a practice for we beginners. The practice of the four mindfulnesses is the first of the thirty-seven factors of awakening.  Mindfulness involves recollection and is the intentional use of recollection. 

Mindfulness of the body is the first recollection. The practice is simply to observe your body with awareness. One can do this by observing parts in succession or the whole body. One purpose, he notes, is to recall the ‘impurity’ of the body, the fact that it is full of flesh, blood, and pungent fluids. We see that the sugar and spice we project, display, and think about our body is kind of an illusion. The common idea is to let go of attachment to the body by being in the body, confronting it, and experiencing it. In the Mahayana context the body is examined and broken down so that one can see its emptiness and that our previous conception was mere labeling. In the Vajrayana context one visualizes one’s body as the deity as part of generation stage deity yoga. In all three contexts the goal is the same: to realize the true nature of the body.

Mindfulness of sensations is simply awareness of physical sensations as they arise. Focusing on the breath as a meditation support, as many of us were taught, is mindfulness of sensations and indeed encompasses all four mindfulnesses. The purpose of mindfulness of sensations in the common vehicle is the knowledge of suffering.

“If practiced persistently, it is said to lead to the discovery that many of your sensations are unpleasant; that the pleasant ones constitute the suffering of change; and that the neutral ones are an aspect of pervasive suffering”
The goal is to dispel the illusion that sensations are inherently pleasant. In the Mahayana the goal is to recognize the emptiness of sensations. The practice is to look directly at sensations and examine their nature. The Vajrayana version involves cultivating “great bliss” (mahasukha) through the completion stage with attributes (of deity yoga).
Observing what arises in the mind is a technique of mindfulness of the mind. Through this we discover the impermanence and the selflessness of what arises in the mind. We identify strongly with our minds, he says. The purpose of the technique is to look at the mind with the mind. It is impossible in one sense (as the Zen tradition often has it) but through a feat of self-awareness our mind can experience itself, he says. Just by observing and knowing our thoughts we do it. The goal is to direct the mind’s lucidity toward itself rather than away from itself as we normally do. If we allow our mind to look at itself we discover selflessness, emptiness – but this emptiness is both cognitive and lucid.
Mindfulness of dharmas means mindfulness of the objects of mental consciousness, which are both appearances and thoughts. Looking at appearances involves experiencing sense perceptions. One technique of doing this is to use visual appearance by looking at something until the distinction between subject and object disappears. This takes time and commitment, he notes. Normally, we maintain the separateness of objective and subjective realities. Looking directly at thoughts as they arise, abide, and disappear is another technique.
In the Hinayana the four mindfulnesses serve to reveal impurity, suffering, selflessness, and impermanance. In sutra Mahayana the goal is to reveal emptiness. In Vajrayana they are the generation and completion stages and the practice of mahamudra.
Next subject is the Four Views. They refer to four philosophical systems of Buddhism: the vaibhashika, the sautantrika, the chittamatra or mind-only, and the madhyamaka or middle way. They view relative and absolute truth differently. Relative truth is that truth held by those of us who are cognitively deluded, those of us who are not on the path, on the path of accumulation or the path of juncture, or those without realization of the path of seeing.
The Vaibhashika system is associated with the common vehicle. The criterion is that anything that can be broken down physically or analytically is a relative truth. Anything that cannot is an absolute truth. Physically, an absolute truth would be a part-less particle. Mentally, an absolute truth would be an indivisible moment of cognition. Such an indivisible cognitive instant, in this system, lasts for about one sixtieth of a finger snap.
The Sautantrika system is also associated with the Hinayana. The word means “sutra followers.” While the Vaibhashikas favor explanations from the Abhidharma of the common vehicle the Sautantrikas favor explanations from the sutras of the common vehicle. The difference is that while sautantrikas see the part-less particles as real they see thoughts as not real. Both systems are concerned with breaking down reality in order to reveal the selflessness of persons. Their goal is limited to attaining liberation from samsara and the state of an arhat, so according to the Mahayana they are incomplete.
The final two of the four views are associated with the Mahayana.
“The mind-only school asserts that a cognition that is empty of the duality of subject and object is absolute truth and that all other phenomena are relative truths. The appearance of subject and object is dependent on karmic imprints and obscurations; the supposed existence of subject and object entirely imaginary.”
Thus, indivisible particles and moments of cognition in the mind-only school are seen as dependent appearances of an imaginary reality.
According to one of the several branches of the middle-way system “only the nature of relative truth is absolute truth.” The nature of relative truth is also called ‘nature beyond embellishment’ which also means that it cannot be grasped conceptually. Some middle-way branches say that everything other than Buddha Nature, the dharmadhatu, is empty of itself, while the Buddha Nature is empty of everything other than itself, but retains its own attributes.
In answering a question he notes that the mahamudra system of the Karma Kagyu emphasizes ‘direct valid cognition’ over the sutra method of analyzing external objects to arrive at ‘inferential valid cognition’ which may require tremendous accumulation of merit and vast amounts of time. Thus the direct experience of mahamudra is a shorter path to realization. However, before arriving at the path of seeing we can only utilize inferential valid cognition, except in one circumstance – the observation of the mind with the mind, which can lead to direct experience.
The final subject is the Four Reliances. In the truth of the path it was noted that it is the path, the methods, that should be relied upon. The four reliances, he says, can be viewed as choices we encounter when relying on the path. The reliances are statements.
The first is: “Rely on Dharma, not on Persons.” This means evaluate the teacher based on his or her ability to transmit the teachings and to positively affect you the student by weakening your kleshas.
The second is: “Rely on the Meaning, not on the Words.” The words are simply a way to convey the meaning. Thus memorization of the words, while helpful, is not the goal, but understanding their meaning is the goal.
The third is: “Rely on the Definitive Meaning, not the Indicative Meaning.” Indicative meanings are not to be taken literally while definitive meanings are to be taken literally. Indicative meanings often have the pattern that one simple act will easily cure something or lead to instant realization. Indicative meanings require interpretation and further elaboration to explain.
The fourth reliance is: “Rely on Wisdom, not on Consciousness.” Thus we need to go beyond intellect and concepts to understand directly, since wisdom is non-conceptual. This is why, he says, that compassion and devotion are so important:
“Compassion is the most effective way to cut through the obsessive selfishness that keeps us so miserable. Devotion is the most effective way to become familiar with buddha nature, our true nature.
This small book is very useful. Lama Yeshe Gyamtso is very good at explaining the dharma. His mind is sharp and his knowledge is extensive. He has studied and taught much and translated extensively for several great Karma Kagyu teachers including the Karmapa. He has done many years of isolated retreat. I have had the opportunity to hear him teach, translate, and chat with him many times over the years. This book is very concise yet very potent.