“Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God,” said Jesus. Purity of heart and mind is an essential condition for those who are on the path of Truth. We all believe that there can be only one God or one Source. We all come from that one Source and we all return to that one Source. All the great sages or masters drink from the same Source and bring water from the same Source. They all speak from that same Foundation. Different religions give different names to it and each describes it in a unique way. Each great sage has a unique understanding of that Source and a unique expression of that Source. It might seem that they are not only different from each other but irreconcilable in their differences. So far religions have regularly lived apart, each one enclosed in its own boundary and often trying to expand into other boundaries, thereby becoming a source of conflict and violence. Today, thanks to God, we are in a world of interreligious dialogue where serious efforts are being made to reconcile religions. Though these efforts have not yet produced many concrete results, it is an admirable call.
Today it is common to divide religious traditions into two main categories: the Wisdom Tradition and the Prophetic Tradition. Religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Daoism belong to the Wisdom Tradition and religions like Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Islam, and Baha’i belong to the Prophetic Tradition. Each tradition has its unique approach to the Truth. This division helps us to understand the uniqueness of each spiritual tradition and also the differences between them. The future of humanity depends on the marriage of these two traditions.
In this article I am attempting to show the common spiritual journey in three of these religions: Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity. I want to show that (1) the starting conditions of each of these spiritual traditions are different, (2) each of these spiritual traditions had a unique experience of that Source, and (3) at the Source of each of these three spiritual traditions there is an essential unity. I am not trying to present an elaborate scientific explanation but rather an intuitive, synthetic presentation that will allow us to see common elements in the three religions.
The Upanishad Sages and Hinduism
I will first take the teaching of the Mandukya Upanishad and the Chandogya Upanishad of Hinduism in order to discern a common thread in the above-mentioned three religions. (Each Upanishad has a unique approach to the Truth even though the essential Truth of all Upanishads is the same: the identity of Atman with Brahman). These two Upanishads present the nature of truth or reality according to four levels of consciousness. The first level is called “waking consciousness,” the second level is called “dreaming consciousness,” the third is “deep-sleep consciousness,” and the fourth “awakened consciousness.” The first three levels have both physical and spiritual aspects.
1. Waking consciousness, physically speaking, means to be in a state of physical wakefulness. It is the state of consciousness from the time we get up in the morning to the time we go to sleep. Here our senses are awake. As a way of living, waking consciousness means a state of life in which we identify with our physical body and live to satisfy only our physical desires and ambitions. Everything that we do is intended to satisfy the needs of our body and the senses. We can say that in waking consciousness our senses are awake and indulge in their satisfaction. Here our identity is with the body: I am my body. We can describe this level as “individual mind” or “individual consciousness.” Here truth is individualistic. A person says: I (body, the individual) am the way, the truth and the life. It is a very materialistic view.
2. Dreaming consciousness, understood physically, means the time when we enter into a state of dreaming while physically asleep; it lasts up to the time when the dreams come to an end. Understood spiritually, it means living our life according to dreams or ideals. In this consciousness we have ideals to follow and ideal persons to imitate. In general these ideals and ideal persons are taken from the past. We are inspired by the great personalities and their ideals and wish to imitate them. We place our body and senses under the guidance of these ideals and ideal persons. Here the past enters into the present and goes to the future. The present is just a vehicle for the past to go to the future. The present does not have its own life but allows the past to live in and through it. Here the present is at the service of the past even though some changes can be made now and then by way of reformation. The present is not free. The present receives its identity from the past. All religious ideals belong to dreaming consciousness. Here our identity leads each of us to affirm: “I am a Hindu,” or “I am a Buddhist,” or “I am a Jew,” or “I am a Christian,” etc. We can call this consciousness “collective mind” or “collective consciousness.” This collective consciousness unites us with some persons and divides us from others. This consciousness has a boundary to protect and also a possible mission to expand. Here a person’s life is guided by the moral code of a particular religion.Here truth is an ideal, a belief structure. A person will say: religion or an ideal is the way, the truth and the life.
3. Deep-sleep consciousness, physically speaking, means a dreamless sleep state. It is a state from the time when dreams stop to the time when they begin again. Spiritually, it means a state in which the dreams come to an end—dreams in the sense of ideals and ideal persons. It means the past comes to an end. When the past comes to an end the future also comes to an end, for the future is nothing but the continuity of the past. In this freedom from the past and the future, the present becomes original and creative. It connects itself to the eternal Reality (God) and manifests eternity in the present. Here one’s identity is not with the body or with one’s ideals but with eternity. A person will say: “I am” (though not in the sense of the divine I AM). We can call this level “universal mind” or “universal consciousness.” Here a person identifies with all and lives for all. In this consciousness there are no ideological boundaries. This “I am” transcends all the boundaries. It has no boundary to protect and so no mission to expand. It invites people to transcend collective consciousness and enter into universal consciousness. It is an all-embracing consciousness. In this consciousness a person is not guided by an external moral code but by inner realization. Here truth is universal. A person will say: I am the way, the truth and the life. Whatever this person does to others he or she does to himself or herself.
4. Awakened Consciousness is a consciousness where a person realizes being one with Brahman or Atman or God. A person declares, “I am Brahman” (aham brahma asmi). We can call this level “unitary consciousness” or “non-dual consciousness” Advaita). Here one’s identity is “I AM” (the I AM WHO I AM of the Bible). Here truth is God. A person will say: Brahman or God is the way, the truth and the life. This I AM is Real and eternal, while the other three levels of consciousness are described as unreal or non-eternal. Real is that which has no beginning and end and Unreal is that which has beginning and end. Since Brahman, the awakened consciousness has no beginning and end it is called Real (Sat, eternal) and the other three levels have beginning and end they are called unreal. Our spiritual journey is to go from the unreal to the Real. We have the famous prayer in the Upanishads that says:
Lead me from the unreal to the Real,
From darkness to Light,
From death to Eternal Life.
According to the Mandukya and Chandogya Upanishads, a person begins his/her understanding with the first level of consciousness and then slowly moves into the fourth level of consciousness. It is a long journey. In the Chandogya Upanishad, Prajapathi, the spiritual teacher or guru, guides his disciple Indra to realize this truth. For Indra it takes total of 101 years. The first stage lasts 32 years, the second stage 32 years, the third stage 32 years, and the fourth 5 years. These are symbolic numbers to show that the journey is long and hard. One needs to have strong determination, dedication, self-enquiry, and devotion to the master and to the truth. One should not settle down on the way like the disciple Virochana, who was satisfied with the first stage, nor should one be content simply with the sacred scriptures, which belong to the second level, for a person who moves into universal consciousness is greater than the scriptures. The Mundaka Upanishad speaks of two types of wisdom: Para vidhya (higher wisdom or non-dualistic experience, advaita) and Apara vidhya (lower wisdom or dualistic experience). Para vidhya is the direct experience of Truth and Aparavidhya is indirect understanding of it. Even the four Vedas (revealed truth) belong to the lower wisdom. We begin with aparavidhya and move into para vidhya. The Upanishad sages were universal spirits and so cannot be put into any category like Hinduism. Hinduism is a system of beliefs, whereas the sages were beyond beliefs.
The Buddha and Buddhism
I will now take the four levels of consciousness of the Upanishads and use them to interpret the spiritual journey of the Buddha and the different bodies of the Buddha in Buddhism. Hinduism and Buddhism are like sister religions. There are some concepts—like Karma, Reincarnation, Dharma, and Sannyasa—which are common to both. The Buddha rejected the over-intellectualism of the Upanishads, the violent animal sacrifices of Vedic rituals, and the social caste system which gave a dominant place to the Brahmin caste. He opened the possibility of spiritual life to everyone, including women. He rejected the authority of the Vedas and rejected the division of life into four stages of brahmacharya (spiritual student life), grhasta (family life), vanaprasta (eremitical life), and Sannyasa (wandering life). We can say that he rejected varnasramadharma which is the foundation of Hinduism. He advocated immediate renunciation to everyone who is ready to renounce the world at any time. But there are also many similarities between Buddhism and Hinduism, some of which become clear if we look at four important stages in the life of the Buddha.
1. Siddhartha, the man: The Buddha began his life as Siddhartha, the son of a local king near the border of present-day India and Nepal. Siddhartha was the individual consciousness of the Buddha, his waking consciousness. He tried to find fulfillment in his physical desires and ambitions, but he was not satisfied. He felt something was missing, so he left his wife, his son, his parents, and his kingdom and went off in search of freedom.
2. Siddhartha, the seeker: After leaving his wife, child, and home, Siddhartha became a seeker. He tried to follow different types of the spiritual path that existed at that time in order to find what he was looking for: inner freedom and peace. We can say that he was living in dreaming consciousness, pursuing ideals and ideal persons. He was not yet original but was simply imitating others. But he was not satisfied with the teachings that he received and he set out on his own spiritual practices. He became disillusioned with these practices, which brought him even to the point of physical death.
3. Siddhartha becomes the Buddha, the Awakened One: Disappointed with his practices, Siddhartha sat under the Bodhi tree in deep meditation, which opened him to the universal mind or consciousness. He moved beyond the past and the future into eternity and tasted timeless reality. From that eternity he saw the passing moments of time, which are the product of desire. He became awakened, the Buddha, and achieved freedom, nirvana. This universal consciousness was before Siddhartha. Buddhism teaches that Siddhartha was not the first one to realize this truth. Before him there were many others who realized it, so Siddhartha is only one of the Buddhas and not the only ne. At this level he entered into deep-sleep consciousness and became an original person who proposed his own original way to the Truth instead of repeating someone else’s discovery or truth. He became an original teacher and spoke from his own inner authority.
4. Siddhartha established in Wisdom, Buddha: Siddhartha was not only awakened (the Buddha) but was also established permanently in that awakened consciousness. He was ever wakeful, in a permanent state of unity. This experience of the Buddha we can call “unitary consciousness,” “non-dual consciousness,” or advaita.
In sum, we have Siddhartha the man (individual consciousness), Siddhartha the ideal pursuer (collective consciousness), Siddhartha the Buddha (awakened, deep-sleep consciousness), and Siddhartha the Buddha permanently established in wisdom (unitary consciousness).
These four stages could also be expressed using terms that are explicitly Buddhist. That tradition regularly speaks of three bodies (Kayas) of the Buddha: the Nirmana Kaya (physical), the Samboghya Kaya (universal), and the Dhamma Kaya or Dharma Kaya (the Ground), but we could add one more body, the body of his teachings, and call it dhamma kaya (with a lower-case ‘d’). Hence the Buddha can be said to have four bodies or four levels of consciousness.
1.Nirmana Kaya is the physical body of the Buddha, Siddhartha. But after his enlightenment his body extends also to the whole physical universe, for the whole universe or manifested is the physical body of the Buddha.
2. Dhamma Kaya is the teachings of Buddha. These are the spoken words of the Buddha as recorded the history. They became a source of authority for Buddhism.
3. Samboghya Kaya is the universal body of the Buddha, beyond time and space. It is the universal consciousness of the Buddha, the bridge between Dhamma Kaya on the one hand and dhamma Kaya and Nirmana Kaya on the other. Samboghya Kaya is not limited by the teachings of dhamma Kaya. Rather, it is the Word from which all the words or teachings come. This Word cannot be put into words. The Word is like infinite space, whereas the words (teachings) are like the space between four wall.
4. Dhamma Kaya is the eternal aspect of Buddha. It is greater than Samboghya Kaya and is like the hub of a wheel. It is the foundation of all the bodies, holding all the other bodies and transcending them. We can call this “unitary consciousness” or “non-dualistic consciousness.”
If we take the symbol of a tree, the leaves would represent Nirmana Kaya, the branches would represent dhamma Kaya, the trunk Samboghya Kaya, and the roots Dhamma Kaya. There is only one tree, but it manifests on four levels.
From this perspective, dhamma Kaya (the branches) is greater than Nirmana Kaya (Siddhartha, the leaf) in that it lives longer than physical Siddhartha. Samboghya Kaya (the trunk) is greater than dhamma Kaya as it supports the teachings (branches) but is not conditioned by them; Samboghya Kaya can modify the expressions of dhamma Kaya. Dhamma Kaya (the roots) is greater than Samboghya Kaya as Samboghya Kaya is manifested body and Dhamma Kaya is un-manifested body. Dhamma Kaya stands by itself. It is like Brahman of Vedas. It is eternal. Hence the Buddha cannot be limited to his physical body and to his teachings. He is not confined to his teachings but is greater than them and even has power to change them. The primary mission of the Buddha was to invite people to grow into Dhamma Kaya and not just to establish dhamma Kaya (a body of teachings). The body of his teachings is like a raft that one uses to cross the river of samsara into nirvana. It is the bridge between samsara and nirvana. Samsara is the state of ignorance in which person is driven by his /her desires and Nirvana is freedom from desires. A person lives from inner freedom.
Christ and Christianity
Retaining our emphasis on the number four, we can also see four important stages in the spiritual journey of Jesus:
1. Jesus, the Man: The first stage of Jesus was his physical birth and physical identity. He was a man. As a physical body, he had an individual consciousness of his own. This was his waking consciousness.
2. Jesus, the Jew: After his circumcision Jesus became part of Jewish collective consciousness. He was not only a man physically but also a Jew. As a Jew he was united with all other Jews but separated from the non-Jews, the so-called Gentiles. As a Jew he had the Law, the Torah, as his ideal and great personalities of his tradition like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses as models whom he might imitate. The Jewish belief structure was his dreaming consciousness. At this stage Jesus was not original, for he still belonged to his spiritual tradition and gave continuity to it, being guided by its moral code. As a Jew he might have said: Judaism is my way, my truth and my life. But he began to realize the limitations of his religion; he was not satisfied. This brought him to the third important moment of his life: his baptism.
3. Jesus the Christ, the Son of God: At the moment of his baptism Jesus moved away from the collective consciousness of Judaism and entered into the “universal mind” or “universal consciousness.” He realized himself as the Son of God and experienced the New Covenant, the Law within or Truth within. Here his identity was just “I am,” which was freedom from the past and the future. He went beyond the Torah and could say: “It is written in your Law, but I say unto you”. He became free and original. He proposed his own way to the Truth, becoming an authority based on his own experience. We can say that at the moment of his baptism Jesus came out of his dreaming consciousness (Judaism) and entered into “deep-sleep consciousness. ‘ Here he could say: I am the way, the truth and the life’. As the Son of God, he is the bridge between God and the people. He is like a trunk.
4. Jesus Christ identical with God: Jesus moved one step higher and realized himself as being identical with God:‘the Father and I are one’, he declared. He established himself in that eternal identity with God. This was his fourth level of consciousness.Here God is the way, the truth and the life. Jesus said: ‘the works which I do are not my own but the Father who dwells in me does his works’.
In this sense we can also say that Jesus has four bodies. The first one is Jesus of Nazareth, the physical body (Nirmana Kaya or waking consciousness). It appeared two thousand years ago and ended after the thirty-three years of his earthly life. The second body is his teachings (dhamma Kaya or dreaming consciousness), which are two thousand years old and continue to guide a large section of humanity today, while the third is his universal body (Samboghya Kaya, the Universal or cosmic Christ), which is not confined to time and space but is present everywhere. This universal body was before his physical body and teachings. The final body, the fourth, is his unity with the Father, God (Brahman and Dhamma Kaya). As Saint John says: “In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God and the Word was God. . . .The Word became flesh and dwelt among the people.” God manifested everything in and through that Word. Jesus’ teachings are higher than his physical body as they last longer than his physical body. His universal body (Word) is higher than his teachings, for we cannot reduce the Word into his words or his teachings.
The Son of God or universal body is not identical with his teachings. He can even change his teachings according to the situation in which he gives his teachings. His divine identity is higher than his universal body because the universal body still belongs to the level of manifestation. The Word was God. His divine identity is the foundation of the other three levels just like the hub from which the spokes of a wheel radiate. Jesus came from God and returned to God. In Christianity we say that Jesus is one hundred percent divine and one hundred percent human. He is a hundred percent human on the lower three levels and is a hundred percent divine on the fourth level. This could also be said of the Upanishad sages and the Buddha. The Upanishad sages were a hundred percent divine on the fourth level of consciousness, from which they were able to say, aham brahma asmi (“I am Brahman”). But they were also a hundred percent human on the lower three levels so that they could pray to be led from the unreal to the real. The same applies to the Buddha. He was a hundred percent divine in his Dhamma Kaya and a hundred percent human in the lower three bodies.
Individual Sages and Universal Mind
We need to distinguish between the individual sages of the Upanishads and the universal mind. The individual sages, as physical bodies, are not identical with universal consciousness, for the latter was there before the individual sages. It manifests through them but it does not exhaust itself in them. It is for this reason that the same truth is communicated through each sage in a unique way. Each Upanishad explains the same truth in its unique way. No sage has the last word on it. Interestingly the Hindu tradition does not give much importance to the physical bodies of these sages; there is not much worship and veneration of them. The emphasis is on their teachings and on the eternal Brahman and Atman.
Siddhartha and the Buddha
We also need to make a distinction between Siddhartha and the Buddha, for they are not identical. Buddha consciousness is before Siddhartha. The Buddha manifested in Siddhartha but is not exhausted in Siddhartha. Siddhartha entered into the consciousness of the Buddha, but the Buddha is greater than Siddhartha. There were many persons who were awakened to Buddha consciousness before Siddhartha was. Siddhartha was not the only Buddha but one of many. Even though in Buddhism the emphasis is on finding Nirvana, there is also much veneration of the physical form of the Buddha, Siddhartha.
Jesus and the Christ
The same principle applies to Jesus also. We need to make a subtle distinction between Jesus and the Christ. Jesus, as a physical body, is not identical with the Christ, the universal consciousness. Christ Consciousness was there before Jesus. Christ Consciousness manifested in Jesus but it does not exhaust itself in Jesus. Jesus, as a physical body, had a beginning and an end, but the Christ, as the universal consciousness, has no beginning or end. Jesus, as a body, is one leaf on the tree, whereas the Christ is the trunk. The consciousness of leaf has entered into the consciousness of the trunk but is not identical with it. There are also many other leaves on the trunk. But it seems that in Judaism this experience has no precedent. No one in that tradition had this experience before Jesus. He was the first one to claim this experience and for that reason came into conflict with the spiritual authorities of his tradition. He was accused of blasphemy and met a violent death.
Diversity, Uniqueness and Unity
On the first level of consciousness, which is the physical level, the Upanishad Sages, Siddhartha, and Jesus are different. They are born in different times and different socio-political and spiritual conditions. It seems that the search of the Upanishad sages began during the period when belief in the efficacy of Vedic rituals was declining and there was enough economic prosperity for people to have the time and leisure to ask fundamental questions of life. They focused on the eternal, the Real. The answer they found was Atman and Brahman. They kept their discovery as a secret and communicated it only to those who they thought were worthy of it. They were not missionaries.
We know that Siddhartha was born into a royal family about 500 years before Jesus. He had his own personal questions. He was not happy with the Vedic sacrifices and was dissatisfied with the extreme intellectualism of the Vedic sages. He was also perturbed by the caste system and the division of life into different stages. He renounced his wife, his son, and his kingdom and went in search of freedom. After his enlightenment he became an itinerant missionary who dedicated his life to help sentient beings to find freedom from samsara. He died at an advanced age.
Jesus was born in Palestine at a time when it was under Roman occupation and his people were looking for a messiah who would liberate them from Roman oppression. The society was divided into righteous and the unrighteous. The scribes and the Pharisees considered themselves as righteous and the tax-collectors, prostitutes and the sinners, those who did not keep the Law, were considered as unrighteous. There was also the division of rich and the poor. After his enlightenment he began to preach his message of the kingdom of God. His teaching became controversial. He was accused of blasphemy and met a violent death in the prime of his life. Before his death he entrusted his mission to his disciples, who propagated his message.
On the first level of consciousness the Upanishad sages, Siddhartha, and Jesus were different. They were born in different times and different social structures and political conditions. On the second level of consciousness also they were different. Their questions were different and their problems were different. Their philosophical and theological traditions were different. The Upanishad sages were preoccupied with the Eternal: “What is that by finding which we find everything, and what is that by knowing which we know everything?” was their question. The answer they found was Brahman and Atman. “What is the source of suffering and how to be free from suffering?” was the question of Buddha. The answer he found was freedom from Desire. “How can one establish a just society where there will be love, freedom, and equality?” might have been the question of Jesus. The answer he found was the kingdom of God, the radical love of God and the radical love of neighbour. On the third level of consciousness, which is universal consciousness, the Upanishad sages, the Buddha, and the Christ had the unique experience of the eternal reality. The way they experienced it, described itand manifested it was unique. The way we encounter universal consciousness depends on the questions with which we make our journey. The Upanishad sages, the Buddha and Jesus Christ were unique because their questions were unique. The answer we find depends on the questions with which we begin our journey. If our questions change the answer also will change.
On the fourth level of consciousness they were all one. There is perfect unity. On the fourth level of consciousness, which is that of unitary consciousness, the Upanishad Sages, the Buddha, and the Christ are all essentially one. There is no essential difference. The unity at the fourth level is not based on concepts, which are artificial and which will be gone once a person changes his concepts. There the unity is essential.They began differently, they experienced uniquely but they realized the unity.
In interreligious dialogue our focus is on the teaching body of the Upanishad sages, Buddha, and Christ. This belongs to the second level of consciousness. It is not possible to arrive at a consensus at that level. We tend to imprison the sages, Buddha, and Christ in their teachings. We are looking at the trunk and the roots with the eyes of a leaf and a branch. We need to have a radical change in our perspective. We need to move away from their teaching body into their universal body and unitary body. We need to look at the leaf, at the branch, and at the trunk from the roots, for only then will we see the uniqueness of each branch and leaf and also their limitations. This perspective helps us find creative answers to the questions that people are asking today. It means we need to liberate the Upanishad sages from their teachings, we need to liberate the Buddha from his teachings, and we need to liberate Christ from his teachings. The Upanishad sages are not identical with Hinduism, the Buddha is not identical with Buddhism, and Christ is not identical with Christianity. The Universal Consciousness is one. It has manifested itself in a unique way in the Upanishad sages, it has manifested itself in a unique way in Siddhartha, and it has manifested itself in a unique way in Jesus but it does not exhaust in them. This consciousness was there before them and it will continue to be so in the future. It will manifest itself in a unique way for our times, provided that we make our journey with our own specific, uniqueor original questions. Our original and creative questions bring original and creative answers from God. If we begin our search with someone’s questions, the answers we get will be the same. It would be a mechanical process. We need to ask original questions according to the situations we find ourselves in.That is what the Upanishad sages, Siddhartha, and Jesus did. For this we need to have a pure mind and a pure heart that are willing to free themselves from their conditionings and become a virgin so that they can give birth to the original and creative truth. “Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God [Truth]”.
Sat(Real) is that which exists by itself, asat( unreal) is that whose existence depends on the other.