We are accustomed in the West to think of spiritual matters as having to do with placing ourselves in relationship with something greater than ourselves, something “other,” and something “out there.” At best it is something beautiful, wise, and willing to love us dearly. At worst it is powerful, fearful, and capable of judging us harshly. Some come to know of it through texts of revelation, the teaching of prophets, or the edifices of tradition built upon these foundations. Others intuit it in nature, perceive it in states of non-ordinary experience, or learn of it from wise and trusted elders. In its numerous diverse shapes and forms, this model of the “sacred other” forms the dominant religious paradigm for the Western world.
In ancient India, along the Indus and Ganges river systems, a very different approach to spirituality was discovered and practiced. It had to do with turning inward rather than outward, with understanding and purifying oneself rather than cultivating a relationship with another, and with meditation and asceticism rather than with prayer and ritual. Remnants of this alternative, more organic, approach to spirituality can still be found in the Yogic, Jain, Buddhist and Hindu traditions, but they lie for the most part hidden under layers of both ancient and modern Western influence.
Long before the invasion of Alexander, Aryan migration over the Khyber Pass and settlement of the river valleys displaced the indigenous culture and imposed upon the region a Western brand of religion involving hereditary priests, sacred revealed truth, and costly ritual communication with masculine sky gods. The introspective tradition went underground and to the fringes of the Vedic world, from where it erupted into the mainstream culture from time to time over the ensuing centuries. One such infiltration was when the Upanishads, steeped in the yogic influence of its forest practitioners, was admitted into the Hindu fold as an acceptable innovation of Vedic tradition.
A more significant incursion occurred when the Buddha proclaimed his Dharma. From the depths of his personal understanding, gained by arduous ascetic meditation in the wilderness and the radical purification of his mind, the Buddha’s teaching burst onto the scene and challenged the orthodoxy to the core. By the time of King Ashoka it looked capable of supplanting the Brahmanical tradition entirely, but with the collapse of his empire and the turmoil of recurring waves of invasion, Hinduism was gradually able to regain its dominant position on the Indian spiritual landscape. Buddhism was not only marginalized, but was slowly recast more in line with the conventional religious paradigm and absorbed into the mainstream. Buddha is today seen in India as the tenth incarnation of Vishnu, sent to earth to teach good Hindus to cease animal sacrifice and to become vegetarians. Even Buddhism today is commonly expressed in the Brahmanical language of primordial perfection, non-dual awareness, and inherently awakened inner nature.
What are the key features of this more ancient, more organic spirituality taught by the Buddha in his lifetime? To begin with, it is radically experiential. What do you see and feel and touch and know, for yourself, when you attend to the immediacy of the present moment with steady and focused awareness? The outward direction is fraught with illusion, projected from the mysterious depths of the psyche. According to the sages of the river valleys, only by exploring the inner landscape, the nuances and subtle textures of lived experience, can useful and authentic wisdom be discovered.
Fearless and honest introspection will soon reveal the core defects of the human condition; this is the noble truth of suffering. The mind and body are riddled with stumbling blocks, choke points, nodes of tension, knots of pain, and a veritable fountainhead of selfish, hurtful and deluded psychological stuff. The mind’s capacity for awareness, the “knowing” that arises and passes away, drop by drop in the stream of consciousness, is constantly hindered, fettered, intoxicated and polluted by such internal defilements. The enterprise of organic spirituality is to untangle these tangles, to untie these knots, to unbind the mind—moment by moment, breath by breath—from the imprisoning net of unwholesome and unhealthy manifestations. The reward for a life of careful inner cultivation is the liberation of the mind through wisdom—a remarkable transformation of the mind that awakens it to its full potential of awareness without obstruction or limitation.
Volumes could be written about the details of this science of liberation, about its discoveries of impermanence, selflessness and suffering, its analysis of the psycho-physical organism into sense spheres, aggregates, and elements, the profound workings of interdependent origination and cessation, or about the extraordinary territory mapped out by the exploration of inner states. But the pivotal discovery of this ancient spirituality is that the world of human experience is a virtual world, constructed each moment by every individual mind and body to patterns of human invention and instinct. Mind and body are natural expressions of a natural world. Their suffering is natural; their liberation from suffering is natural. The “sacred other” is as much a construction as are notions of “permanence,” “selfhood,” and “beauty.” It’s not that such things “don’t exist” or cannot be the source of considerable meaningfulness. It’s just that they are not “out there” in the ways the Indo-European religious reflex takes for granted. Rather, they are projected by the same inner mechanism that orders all other human constructions: the workings of desire.
It’s not surprising that this radical alternative to the dominant paradigm was misunderstood by the Buddha’s Brahmanical contemporaries, misrepresented for centuries by their ancestors, and continues to be overlooked by modern heirs of the Indo-European spiritual tradition. Yet it continues to beckon, quietly offering its compelling perspective on the human condition to those willing to look inward rather than outward and upward.