There are many varieties of Buddhism, many threads of that teaching, which emerged after the appearance of the historical figure that is known in these times as “the Buddha.” This series is not about any of those schools, movements, or religions popularly recognized as “Buddhist.” Instead, this series is about the source from which Buddhism actually emerged.
Buddhism—like many other “-isms” in the world—first appeared to humanity in the form of advice from a highly developed human being, advice intended as practical instruction for those who want to likewise become highly developed. The man who gave this advice was a human being like any other, yet with a critical difference: he awakened his consciousness.
The awakening of the consciousness is the very purpose of life. It is for this cause that every prophet, avatar, angel, buddha, or master ever appeared to humankind. From their lips emerged all of the world’s religions, and all with the purpose of indicating to those who sleep (such as you and me) that we need to awaken.
Reality is elusive, incomprehensible, and imperceptible to those who remain at the stage of the embryo. How can the seed understand the sun, moon and stars, if it remains enclosed in its shell, dreaming the dreams of a seed?
To awaken is not a matter of heritage, race, inheritence or belief. Any seed can break free from the shell and become that which it was made to become - but to break free requires specific steps, exact science, and an unswerving will.
Thus, to address the variety of needs of humankind (the embryos of real human beings), a series of compassionate caretakers—who awakened their consciousness and became real, fully developed human beings—appear from time to time to remind us of the purpose of life. The man called “the Buddha” was one, as was Jesus, Moses, Abraham, Krishna, Quetzalcoatl, and many, many others.
From this perspective, we can begin to grasp that the similarities among religions indicate their common source, which is accessible relative to to the degree we have awakened consciousness. (To understand their many differences, we only need to look to the greed, ignorance, and foolishness in our own minds, and recall that it is men who have corrupted their religions, turning them into vehicles of profit and power.)
Every religion contains great beauty and power. Yet, at this time none are perfect. Buddhism - in all its forms - represents a teaching of tremendous insight and transformative potential. Yet, it is not complete. What we know as “Buddhism” is but a small stream that emerged from a vast ocean.
Those who are scholars of Buddhism or who are well versed in one school of Buddhism or another will discover much in this series of lectures that will be unfamiliar to them. It is important to remember one of the central facets of the Buddha’s original teaching, which is that the student should always keep his bowl turned upright and empty. In other words, the mind should remain receptive, empty, with the ability to receive new information and new understanding. Those who have their bowl - their mind - full of information are like those who suffer from constipation. And those who have their bowl upside down - with the mind closed - are starving themselves to death. Therefore, it is for our own benefit to empty our mind of preconceived notions, and remain in the present moment, ready to gratefully receive that which is new. There is much that Buddhists can teach to the world - and there is also much that Buddhists can learn from other traditions.
The great Gnostic teacher Samael Aun Weor made a statement that is central for us to deeply understand. In a lecture entitled The Esoteric Path, he said this:
Unquestionably, the two greatest leaders of all time are Buddha Shakyamuni and Jesus Christ.
These two men founded two of the world’s greatest religions: Buddhism and Christianity, respectively.
It is important to recognize that both of these phrases—“Jesus Christ” and “Buddha Shakyamuni”—are titles: they are not personal names. These are not names given at birth; these are titles that are earned. These titles reflect degrees of conscious development: degrees that correspond to aspects of our own inner psychology.
Regarding the symbolic nature of these titles and the teachings that correspond to them, Samael Aun Weor said the following (from the same lecture The Esoteric Path):
On a certain occasion, I had to present myself in a Buddhist monastery in Japan; I had the occasion of speaking on behalf of Christ. Since it was a Buddhist and not a Christian temple, and due to my approach, a certain scandal arose amongst the Buddhist brethren, and therefore a complaint was presented to the Master, who approached me and interrogated me as follows:
Q. “Why did you speak on behalf of Christ, knowing that this is a Buddhist monastery?”
A. “With the most profound respect to this sacred institution, I have to emphatically affirm that Buddha and Christ complement each other.”
I was expecting a response from the Master’s point of view, yet with great amazement, I witnessed his agreement; he said:
“Indeed, Buddha and Christ complement each other; this is how it is…”
Then, he asked for a thread or cord, and when they brought it to him, he told me:
“Show me your right hand.”
When I showed him my right hand, he tied the thread on my thumb. Thereafter, he tied the same thread on the thumb on my left hand, and ended by saying in a Zen way: “Buddha and Christ complement each other…”
Then, I left that monastery, having perfectly understood the Koan. In the name of the truth, we have to recognize that this is a very wise Koan: Buddha and Christ are joined within us, because the right thumb represents the Christ and the left represents the Buddha: the two of them are two factors within us.
Clearly, this is a kind of Koan, a kind of esoteric riddle. The meaning is that we have many parts, we have many aspects, each of which has its function and its place, and when united they harmonize and form a whole. And in that sense, Buddha and Christ are two parts of one perfected thing, and which is our own consciousness.
The abbot of that temple understood. He understood that the true Dharma, the true religion, is universal. He understood that at the base every religion is really one religion. When we find sectarianism, where we find doctrinal dispute, we find misunderstandings of the teaching itself, because in truth, religion is one. Buddha and Christ, in their base, are complements of one another. And yet, they are distinct.
Buddhism and Christianity are both streams of wisdom that emerged from the same ocean of knowledge. We call this ocean Gnosis. Gnosis is a Greek word that means “knowledge.” Gnosis is the root wisdom of all the world’s religions. Gnosis is objective, pure, universal, absolute, conscious wisdom. Gnosis is beyond time and space, beyond culture, beyond history.
Once the Buddha was walking with some monks in the Simsapa forest. The Buddha took up a few simsapa leaves in his hand and asked the monks, “Which is more: the few leaves in my hand or those in the forest?”
The bhikkhus replied, “The leaves in your hand are few, but those in the forest are more and numerous.”
Then the Buddha said, “So too, monks, the things I have directly known but have not taught you are numerous, while the things I have taught you are few, like these leaves in my hand.”
Gnosis encompasses all the leaves of the forest.
What is a Buddha?
The term “Buddha” is a title. It is a Sanskrit or Pali term, an ancient term, which means “Awakened One.” Now, we typically in these times talk about “the Buddha,” which in the exoteric point of view, the common point of view, refers to one particular person, who is also known as Buddha Shakyamuni, or Gautama. But in truth, the name Buddha is a title, in the same way that Christ is a title. Christ is that universal energy at the base of all things, the force that gives life to all existence. A Christ is also a title for any person, any being, who incarnates that energy, who merges and becomes one with that energy, who expresses it. So, a Buddha is someone who has incarnated his own Inner Buddha, in other words, his own Inner Spirit, who is awake. In the Kabbalah, this refers to Chesed, our own Spirit.
In reality, there are many different kinds of Buddhas, because again, the term Buddha means “Awakened One.” We awaken according to specific levels. The consciousness awakens by degrees, according to our work. So, when someone is given the title Buddha, it doesn’t mean that they enter into a level in which all Buddhas are the same. The first acquisition of that title, when it is given to the Inner Spirit, the Innermost, is just the first level. And of course, if you have studied Gnosis, you know that this is related to Netzach, the Mental Body. When an initiate has completed the initiation of Netzach [the Fourth Initiation of Major Mysteries], his Innermost is called Buddha; his Innermost, his inner Spirit, becomes a Buddha: but a Buddha of that level. And from there, that initiate has to continue to work, to comprehend the mind more deeply and thereby ascend through different levels of Buddhahood, to acquire greater and greater understanding. So, from this point of view, we can grasp and understand that there are actually millions of Buddhas. Really, every star is the expression of a Buddha, every star in the sky.
There are two primary forms or types of Buddhas. First is a Contemplation Buddha, which is really what we are talking about when we say Buddha itself, an Awakened One, or the Spirit. And this refers to what in classical Hinduism would be called Atman, or Chesed. This is the seventh Sephira on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life; this is our Inner Spirit. Our Inner Spirit becomes a Contemplation Buddha when the acquisition of that initiation occurs.
Second, there is the Manifestation Buddha. This is the vehicle through which the Contemplation Buddha will express himself. In Mahayana Buddhism, this would be called a Bodhisattva. So, the Manifestation Buddha is the awakened expression of the Contemplation Buddha.
When we discuss the historical Buddha, the Buddha Shakyamuni, we have to bear this distinction in mind. This is because the historical Buddha, the physical entity, the physical person, was a Manifestation Buddha. He was an entity, a creature, a being, who acquired a great deal of insight, who taught the Dharma, the teaching, but he did that as an expression of his own inner Contemplation Buddha. His inner Being, the source of that light that expressed itself through Gautama, through Shakyamuni, is called Amitabha. If you have studied any Buddhism you know that Amitabha Buddha (Amida) is widely worshipped, respected, prayed to, especially in Japanese culture. Amitabha Buddha is seen as a Buddha of serenity and compassion, and is one who has promised to liberate souls who call upon him. So, he expressed himself physically into the physical world, through his vehicle, through his human soul, through his Manifestation Buddha who was Gautama Shakyamuni.
We can relate this to the Bible, when we look at what Paul wrote about our inner constitution. The Contemplation Buddha would be the spiritual body or Heavenly Man (Soma Pneumatikon), which Paul mentions, and the Manifestation Buddha would be his the earthy body or Human Soul (Soma Psuchikon), the Bodhisattva, the terrestrial man.
Paul states in Corinthians 15:44-49:
It is sown a natural body (Soma Psuchikon - Psychic body – Soul-Image Body); it is raised a spiritual body (Soma Pneumatikon –Spirit-Image Body). There is a Soul-Image Body, and there is a Spirit-Image Body. And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit. Howbeit that was not first which is Spiritual, but that which is Psychic; and afterward that which is spiritual. The first man is of the earth, earthy: the second man is the Lord from heaven. As is the earthy, such are they also that are earthy: and as is the heavenly, such are they also that are heavenly (the Pneuma). And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly.
Now, even with this distinction of Contemplation and Manifestation, there are other important aspects to understand about this term “Buddha.” To acquire Buddha-hood is a matter of personal, in depth work. But there are stages of that work, there are levels, just like in life, when we achieve something. We may achieve something on a temporary basis or on a permanent basis. This becomes a particularly tricky thing to grasp when you understand something about the Buddhist teaching. In other words, we could say that there are those who are permanently or firmly established in the state of Buddhahood, and there are those who achieve it in a transitory way, in a temporary way.
The Buddha Nature
The Dalai Lama repeatedly points out a very important aspect of the historical Buddha: at one time, the Buddha Shakyamuni was just like us. Buddha Shakyamuni is not seen as a God, or as a deity, who has always existed up in Heaven. In other words, the historical Buddha was a person, a human being, but because of his observation of the truth of life, the facts of life, he delved deeper and deeper into comprehending that truth. And because of that, he developed a great deal of wisdom, and in process of that effort became an Awakened One. In other words, he completely awakened his consciousness and was able to perceive directly the Truth. So, he became a Buddha. But this is not something given by divine right, nor is it something that he acquired by belief, or by heritage, or patrimony, or some kind of gift, or a boon from the Gods; he acquired the state of Buddhahood through work. And that is really the fundamental basis of his teaching: any person can become a Buddha. Anyone. And the cause, the reason, the source of that, is within you. It is what is often called Buddha-nature.
Buddha-nature in Sanskrit is Tathagatagarbha, or “the embryo of the Buddha,” the seed of the Buddha. In Zen and other Mahayana schools, they call it the Buddhata or Buddhadatu, which means “essence of the Buddha.” In Gnosis, we call it the “Essence.” By whatever name, it is the little seed of free consciousness that we have. As a seed, it is small, and it needs to be developed. It is not developed with beliefs, it is not developed with gifts, or “just because,” or by any natural law, like evolution. The Buddha-nature only grows and emerges with work, because of Karma: cause and effect.
Any Buddha is a child of his own deeds. Any Buddha has grown that Buddha-nature into a tree, into wisdom. And this is done through a process of self-inspection, self-reflection, self-analysis. Not in an intellectual way, but by utilizing the Buddha-nature itself. So, obviously, the first thing that an aspirant towards Buddhahood has to know is what the Buddha-nature is and how one uses it.
If you remain in the dark about your own Buddha-nature, how to taste it, to experience it, to utilize it, then you are not on the path. It is very simple. In order to enter into the path towards becoming an awakened being, a Buddha, you have to work with that Buddha-nature, thus you have to know what it is. In order to awaken, you have to know what to awaken, and how to do it.
Buddha Shakyamuni summed up his entire teaching in one sentence. He said, “I teach about suffering and the way to end it.” And in its essence, this is the method of working with the Buddha-nature. The method is to comprehend our own suffering and to end it.
The Buddha’s Teaching
Among the many traditions that sprang up in the wake of Buddha Shakyamuni, there are a lot of varieties, there are many variations. For some 2500 years, these schools have been in conflict with one another over exactly what he taught. It is difficult to pinpoint his precise date of birth, or the precise literal aspects of his life story. And part of the reason is that nothing of his teachings was written down during his lifetime - and nothing would be written for five hundred years. Five hundred years is a long time. For five hundred years after his birth and subsequent death, none of his tradition was written, none of it was preserved, except through the oral tradition. And that tradition was very dispersed: it branched out all over India, spread all over Asia, and had many variations - because you know how an oral tradition can be. If you tell something to your friend, your friend will tell it to someone else in a little bit different way. And even among disciples of a person like the Buddha, disciples who are working with the consciousness, each will have their own idiosyncrasy, their own level, so will explain that teaching in a different way, according to their own level of understanding and their own interests. Gradually, over the period of five hundred years, the history, the story, and the teaching changed dramatically. In fact, Samael Aun Weor stated:
“Gautama the Buddha very wisely taught his doctrine, but his doctrine was very much adulterated by his followers.”
In fact, the Buddha himself predicted it. In the written sutras, which began to be written down five hundred years after his death, it is recorded that the Buddha stated that within five hundred years of his death, his teaching would be unrecognizable, it would be so adulterated. So keep that in mind as you recall what you have been taught about Buddhism previously.
The life story of Buddha Shakyamuni is just a symbol; it is just the shadow of what really happened. Just like the other great teachers, such as Jesus, Krishna, or Moses, we have a form of a life story, but it is a symbolic story, an initiatic story, which has been passed down in order to inform disciples, to teach disciples about the path. So, the story of the life of Buddha is not a literal story. It may have elements of his literal life, in the same way that the Gospels relate elements of the physical life of Jesus, but they don’t tell his actual physical life: they tell an initiatic representation of that life, and are a teaching story.
Nonetheless, historically, it is understood that the historical Buddha was born, more or less, five hundred years before Jesus (500 to 600 BC), about twenty five hundred years ago. He was born in what is now known as Nepal. His name, Gautama, is his family name and the term “shakya”, from Shakyamuni, is the name of his tribe, his clan. It is an ethnic group who still exist in Nepal. Shakya means “lion.” The name Gautama has a certain relationship to “cowherd.”
The many traditions of Buddhism relate his life story in different ways. Buddhism does not present itself in the same fashion as many of the western religions. Where the western religions have somewhat established scripture that they consider to be authoritative, in Buddhism, there is more diversity. For example, Christianity relies upon the Bible (the old testament and the new testament): all the books that are gathered into that collection were agreed upon as essential and authoritative by scholars and leaders in the preceding centuries. They picked the ones that they did based on dogmatic and political causes. But in Buddhism, there is a huge variety of schools spread all over Asia, and every one of these schools has their own approach to the scriptures, and has their own scriptures that they believe are more authoritative. And, of course, amongst these schools, the scriptures all disagree with each other, because they are all derived from the oral tradition. There is very little in terms of written documentation from the very early years. It was only later, gradually, over time, that more and more was written down. So, in this book the story of the Buddha Shakyamuni is derived primarily from a Tibetan version. Yet, even among the Tibetan versions, there are what you might call disparities or contradictions. But again, I would emphasize for you to remember: these are not literal stories. These stories are told in order to explain the teaching.
This is a distinct difference between the typical eastern and western mentalities. There is something in the western mind that seeks literal, authoritative, or definitive answers, where in the Asian mind there is a different point of view, a different focus. In Asian cultures it has not been perceived, at least until recently, that it is so important to have a scriptural authority in the sense of a written word. And this is why, for example in Tibetan history, they did not write their history down until very recently. And when they did, the writings were very metaphorical; they were not written as a literal, factual history. And this is because Asian cultures have traditionally not placed so much importance on the literal aspects, but rather on the meaning. The western mind seems to be the opposite. Westerners are usually more concerned with facts first, rather than the meaning.
In Tibetan culture, of course, the Buddha Shakyamuni is the key figure, and really is the base figure upon which their entire culture is strongly based. His life story is traditionally taught and represented in a series of twelve steps. And this is called different things, but you could say it is the “twelve great deeds” or the “twelve great works” of the Buddha. So, you might see Tibetan paintings or thangkas that represent the stages of the life of Buddha, with twelve primary points of focus.
The number 12 is a very significant number in all religions and mythologies. To fully elaborate the importance and meaning of this number would fill volumes of books; but if our purpose is to demonstrate the universal source of all religions, we can compare the twelve stages of the Buddhas life with the first twelve arcana of the Tarot.
The origins of the Tarot are unknown to the populace. Mistaken as game cards or entertainment, the Tarot is actually a series of laws encoded in a visual form, whose meaning and importance can be discovered by anyone who meditates profoundly upon their symbols.
The Tarot is a visual, symbolic depiction of the science of numbers. Everything is mathematic and exact. In regards to the full development of the human consciousness, there is nothing vague or left to chance: everything is the outcome of precise action. The initiate who aspires to become fully awakened must comprehend with exactitude the path he intends to take. This path is encoded in the Tarot. Heretofore, the laws represented by each image of the Tarot have remained veiled from the eyes of the flesh, in the same way that the beams of a house are hidden. Yet, if you want to build your own house, you cannot do so merely by imitating the external appearance of a house: you need to know how to build the foundation and the internal architecture. This is equally true of the consciousness.
The Tarot symbolizes the inner architecture of existence. By analyzing the Tarot alongside the story of the Buddha Shakyamuni, we can see the inner architecture of every religion, and the very basis of the development of the consciousness. By analyzing the story of the Buddha deeply, we will see the universal symbols mirrored within it.A full explanation of the sacred Tarot can be found in the writings of Samael Aun Weor, especially Tarot and Kabbalah, and The Esoteric Course of Alchemical Kabbalah.
The life story of the Buddha told here is complied from various sources. An interesting version includes: “The Great Kagyu Masters: The Golden Lineage Treasury” by Dorje Dze Od.