Buddhist Discipline: an interview with Phiroz Mehta

From an interview with Phiroz Mehta July 1988

 Photo © The Phiroz Mehta TrustQuestioner: Can you remember when you first read about the Buddha and what it was that first appealed to you about Buddhism?

Phiroz Mehta: I first read about the Buddha in any serious measure during the war years — in this country of course — and that was round about 1943 and 1944, from then onwards. I had Radhakrishnan’s two Volumes Indian Philosophy and you know he has several chapters dealing with the various aspects of Buddhism. It appealed to me very strongly — the rationality of the thing and the depth of the teaching — so that was when my interest started seriously. Prior to that of course, having spent my boyhood in Colombo, I naturally knew about Buddhism in a superficial manner. Through reading theosophical books, I came to know something about Buddhism and I came to know something about all of the other religions at the same time, apart from Islam; I am quite ignorant of Islam, although I have looked into the Koran a certain amount. But Buddhism struck me as really deep.

I don’t like the idea of comparative religion in the sense of this is better or more advanced than that. Each of these religions springs up at a certain time in a certain culture and is suitable for that time and culture.

The Buddha was very fortunate actually to have come on the scene a century or so after the golden age of the Upanishads, as there was a background of religious feeling and understanding which enabled many people to appreciate the depth of his teaching. I think conventional orthodox Buddhism would be very wise to remake the link with its origins. And the origins undoubtedly lie in the Upanishadic Vedic teachings.

The troubles with the Upanishadic teachings started, I think, when the idea of the jivatma [individual self or soul] was introduced in the general corpus of belief — ‘your particular atma’. That is hopelessly false. Even intellectually one can see that it cannot be so because the atma was recognized just as Brahman was recognized as being the total something, the something which is the all, the infinite and the eternal. If that is the case, you can’t split it up into little bits and allocate one little bit to anybody.

And they also speak of ‘my’ karma. This is quite a mistaken way of talking. Karma acts just like infinity and eternity acts universally — it is one thing. For example, here we are in this room which has about three thousand cubic feet of space in it. Can you split up the space in this room and take a little bit home with you and say this is ‘my’ space? You can’t! Space is the only thing in the universe which anybody can experience as representing infinity; it is all-containing. In the same way, if you define Brahman, or the atma, or God, or any term you use, as the infinite and the eternal, you can’t split it up and say ‘my’ immortal spirit.

Questioner: If I do something which goes against the way, though, I get a reaction.

PM: Yes, yes, true.

Questioner: In that respect I can say ‘my’ action or ‘my’ response . . .

PM: Yes, that is quite true. But it’s a limited way of looking at it because we know now, even science knows, that any one action affects the Totality and the Totality affects the individual all the time. There is this interplay between all the elements which compose the universe and we are conscious of these elements in terms of separateness. That chair is that chair, not me. Everything outside this skin is regarded as the not-self and every item composing the universe which we come to see and understand and know as an individual thing, is not separate. We are all interrelated and interactive. But to become conscious of that is another matter.

Science knows that, as a material fact, but it’s an idea with science. Your scientist is not conscious of it. I am sure the Perfected Holy Ones, all of them, with their Holistic Consciousness, were able to be conscious of this complete interrelationship and interactivity within the entire cosmos, as a unitary whole. The ‘my’ and the ‘mine’ are an illusion because it’s a physical fact of the universe that everything is interrelated and interactive. I think Sir James Jeans was one of the earliest scientists in his book The Mysterious Universe to point out that if you lift an arm, it affects the furthest star. Of course its effect becomes infinitesimal, becomes less and less, but all the same the effect is there. And the universe affects you, the particular individual. Because we humans have a consciousness which has developed only this far in sensitivity and intensity, we are separative and isolative consciously.

Questioner: So in some respects instead of karma being an individual thing, you’re saying there’s an even greater responsibility on the individual because there’s no individual karma. Are you saying that universal karma is centred on ‘me’?

PM: This question is related to the question: ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ ‘I’ am not only ‘my brother’s keeper’, ‘I’ am the keeper of the entire manifested universe — that is ‘my’ responsibility. I, being conscious in separative and isolative terms, think only of what is inside my skin; what is outside the skin is not my business. But actually it is! There is only a universe, a turned into a unity; it’s a one thing.

Consider how, when one is really well and healthy, one feels one’s body as one thing. You don’t feel it as composed of kidney, heart, knees, and whatnot. You know all about that analytically, because the laboratory has taught you, but when you’re really well and healthy, you’re one thing physically. It’s the same in every respect.

Questioner: So are ways of behaviour, like being a vegetarian, for instance, important?

PM: Well, they’re important in so far as they contribute to our particular sensitivity. How sensitive do we become thereby? And that, of course, enables our own consciousness as it functions through us to become freer and freer of its limitations. The limitations on our consciousness are finitude and temporality — finitude means ‘space’, of course, and temporality is ‘time’. When one becomes freer of those limitations, consciousness becomes consciousness in its entirety, which means that the whole of the mind is operating. What we have called in Buddhism ‘pure mind’ (cinmatra) — that functions as fully as it possibly can through the human being. That is why I say that ‘I’ attain nothing. Nobody attains anything. What a person can do is to purify him/herself that she/he becomes an instrument through which Transcendence manifests its own transcendence as that particular kind of manifestation — the perfect rose, the perfect gem, the perfect tree, the perfect human — it’s like that. But you see we haven’t got that kind of consciousness; we haven’t even begun to have that kind of outlook which can function universally.

Seated Transcendent Buddha Vairochana, Indonesia (Java) late 9th century. © The Metropolitan Museum of ArtQuestioner: That infers delusion is stronger than Transcendence because it can block it out.

PM: No, it doesn’t mean that delusion is stronger than Transcendence or any such thing. Manifestation displays the phenomenon of growth and development, so in the process of growth and development, the limitations gradually disappear. People talk of expanding consciousness. There is no such thing as expanding consciousness. What happens in consciousness is that it becomes more and more intense. We have a phrase in the language which we use more or less unknowingly: ‘I’m well aware of this.’ Then we say things like: ‘I’m absolutely certain.’ It’s the intensity of consciousness which is involved.

At our stage of development as human beings in the universe, we are so confined by limitation that it takes a good deal of time before we can become freer of these limitations. One never becomes absolutely free. Take, in general terms, the plant world, the animal world, the human world. When humanity, on this globe anyway, has advanced in some measure towards Holistic Consciousness, nature may throw up another more wonderful thing — call it ‘X’ — for whom Holistic Consciousness, as I call it, is commonplace. You take, for example, your faithful dog. He displays several human qualities, and he’s able to do that because his consciousness is developed to that degree. But can a dog tell another dog what his relationship with his master is like? He can’t. That’s his limitation. You and I can do that sort of thing; we can tell somebody else, ‘Oh, this man is a highly developed man’, or whatever it is. So there is this developmental process going on with consciousness which is perhaps the most important factor in human growth.

At the same time there is also this universal Transcendent Consciousness which is characteristic of the ORIGIN from which all manifestation comes, which influences each one of us according to how we aspire towards it. But the aspiration must be free of desire. One desires for the self, and so desire must be out. One aspires in order that the purpose, or whatever it may be, of Transcendence finds its fulfilment through this instrument, through this organism.

Unconsciously man has done many things which are quite right. For example, the founders of religions are worshipped. To worship means ‘to hold worthy’ — that is, worship to which you give yourself. In giving yourself, the limited ‘I-ness’ begins to vanish, doesn’t it? And this is where love comes in in the real sense. So, this tendency to worship the founder of a religion is a thing which has come into being naturally, and I should say, rightly, without making it a means for producing a separate cult. When you get comparison, then of course you’re on the wrong track.

Questioner: Not worship in the ceremonial sense.

PM: No, no, worship in the real sense, which is totally different. Worship in the real sense, like wisdom in the supreme sense, is transcendent love, transcendent compassion.

Questioner: As a Buddhist, it’s a natural thing to be really grateful to Gautama, truly grateful. Is that what you mean?

PM: You eliminate the separateness of self in relation to the Buddha.

There are so many ways in which man has said the right things without knowing that he has done so. Take, for example, the theistic mode of expression, ‘We are the children of God’. Well, if we are the children of God, we are one with God. A parent feels towards his child, ‘This is me.’ There is no separateness in actuality. External circumstance, or one’s own natural ignorance which is one of the most natural things for human beings, may raise barriers, but there is the fact of oneness.

You know that Beatitude in the Sermon on the Mount, ‘Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.’ What is the meaning of being meek? The original Greek in which it was written is praos. Praos is the word which is translated as ‘meek’. Now, in what connection did the Greeks use the word ‘praos’? When they had a colt or some animal, they tamed it first and trained it afterwards so that there was a harmonious relationship between the man and his horse, or whatever the animal was. To be tamed and trained is to be ‘meeked’. And it is in that sense that the Christian mystics of the Middle Ages used the term — ‘Being meeked in order that one may be one with the Lord’ — to be tamed and trained. And what is the whole of the Buddhist discipline, but a taming and a training, isn’t it? The essential thing that happens is the elimination of this separative isolative ‘I’ consciousness.

Buddhism Now February 1990

Categories: Buddhism, Encyclopedia, Foundations, Foundations of Buddhism, History

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1 reply

  1. To me..Phiroz is utterly original in his thinking. Thank you for keeping his teaching alive


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