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Highlights #170

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Astavakra Samhita, translated by Thomas Byrom

Chapter 1 - The Self

1 O Master,
Tell me how to find
Detachment, wisdom and freedom!

2 Child,
If you wish to be free,
Shun the poison of the senses.

Seek the nectar of truth,
Of love and forgiveness,
Simplicity and happiness.

3 Earth, fire and water,
The wind and the sky--
You are none of these.

If you wish to be free,
Know you are the Self,
The witness of all these,
The heart of awareness.

4 Set your body aside.
Sit in your own awareness.

You will at once be happy,
Forever still,
Forever free.

5 You have no caste.
No duties bind you.

Formless and free,
Beyond the reach of the senses,
The witness of all things.

So be happy!

6 Right or wrong,
Joy and sorrow,
These are of the mind only.
They are not yours.

It is not really you
Who acts or enjoys.

You are everywhere,
Forever free.

7 Forever ande truly free,
The single witness of all things.

But if you see yourself as separate,
Then you are bound.

8 "I do this. I do that."
The big black snake of selfishness
Has bitten you!

"I do nothing."
This is the nectar of faith,
So drink and be happy!

9 Know you are one,
Pure awareness.`
With the fire of this conviction,
Burn down the forest of ignorance.

Free yourself from sorrow,
And be happy.

10 Be happy!
For you are joy, unbounded joy.

You are awareness itself.

Just as a coil of rope
Is mistaken for a snake,
So you are mistaken for the world.

11 If you think you are free,
You are free.

If you think you are bound,
You are bound.

For the saying is true:
You are what you think.

12 The Self looks like the world.
But this is just an illusion.

The Self is everywhere.


The witness of all things,
Without action, clinging or desire.

13 Meditate on the Self.
One without two,
Exalted awareness.

Give up the illusion
Of the separate self.

Give up the feeling,
Within or without,
That you are this or that.

14 My Child,
Because you think you are the body,
For a long time you have been bound.

Know you are pure awareness.

With this knowledge as your sword
Cut through your chains.

And be happy!

15 For you are already free,
Without action or flaw,
Luminous and bright.

You are bound
Only by the habit of meditation.

16 Your nature is pure awareness.

You are flowing in all things,
And all things are flowing in you.

But beware
The narrowness of the mind!

17 You are always the same,
Unfathomable awareness,
Limitless and free,
Serene and unperturbed.

Desire only your own awareness.

18 Whatever takes form is false.
Only the formless endures.

When you understand
The truth of this teaching,
You will not be born again.

19 For God is infinite,
Within the body and without,
Like a mirror,
And the image in a mirror.

20 As the air is everywhere,
Flowing around a pot
And filling it,
So God is everywhere,
Filling all things
And flowing through them forever.

Chapter 2 - Awareness

1 Yesterday
I lived bewildered,
In illusion.

But now I am awake,
Flawless and serene,
Beyond the world.

2 From my light
The body and the world arise.

So all things are mine,
Or nothing is.

3 Now I have given up
The body and the world,
I have a special gift.

I see the infinite Self.

4 As a wave,
Seething and foaming,
Is only water

So all creation
Streaming out of the Self,
Is only the Self.

5 Consider a piece of cloth.
It is only threads!

So all creation,
When you look closely,
Is only the Self.

6 Like the sugar
in the juice of the sugarcane,
I am the sweetness
In everything I have made.

7 When the Self is unknown
The world arises,
Not when it is known.

But you mistake
The rope for the snake.

When you see the rope,
The snake vanishes.

8 My nature is light,
Nothing but light.

When the world arises
I alone am shining.

9 When the world arises in me,
It is just an illusion:
Water shimmering in the sun,
A vein of silver in mother-of-pearl,
A serpent in a strand of rope.

10 From me the world streams out
And in me it dissolves,
As a bracelet melts into gold,
A pot crumbles into clay,
A wave subsides into water.

11 I adore myself.
How wonderful I am!

I can never die.

The whole world may perish,
From Brahma to a blade of grass,
But I am still here.

12 Indeed how wonderful!
I adore myself.

For I have taken form
But I am still one.

Neither coming nor going,
Yet I am still everywhere.

13 How wonderful,
And how great my powers!

For I am without form,
yet till the end of time
I uphold the universe.

14 Wonderful!

For nothing is mine,
Yet it is all mine,
Whatever is thought or spoken.

15 I am not the knower,
Nor the known,
Nor the knowing.

These three are not real.
They only seem to be
When I am not known.

For I am flawless.

16 Two from one!
This is the root of suffering.

Only perceive
That I am one without two,
Pure awareness, pure joy,
And all the world is false.

There is no other remedy!

17 Through ignorance
I once imagined I was bound.

But I am pure awareness.

I live beyond all distinctions,
In unbroken meditation.

18 Indeed,
I am neither bound nor free.

An end to illusion!
It is all groundless.

For the whole of creation,
Though it rests in me,
Is without foundation.

19 The body is nothing.
The world is nothing.

When you understand this fully,
How can they be invented?

For the Self is pure awareness,
Nothing less.

20 The body is false,
And so are its fears,
Heaven and hell, freedom and bondage.

It is all invention.

What can they matter to me?

I am awareness itself.

21 I see only one.

Many men,
One wilderness.

Then to what may I cling?

22 I am not the body.
Nor is the body mine.

I am not separate.

I am awareness itself,
Bound only by my thirst for life.

23 I am the infinite ocean.

When thoughts spring up,
The wind freshens, and like waves
A thousand worlds arise.

24 But when the wind falls,
The trader sinks with his ship.

On the boundless ocean of my being
He founders,
And all the worlds with him.

25 But O how wonderful!

I am the unbounded deep
In whom all living things
Naturally arise,
Rush against each other playfully,
And then subside.



Greg: It is extremely clear, and does a magnificent job of
avoiding two common errors in interpreting Madhyamika:
essentialism and nihilism. Many interpreters of Nagarjuna
mistake his verses about existence to mean that there is a
transcendent Reality behind samsara. Other interpreters
mistake the verses about non-existence to mean that nothing
exists in any way whatsoever.

Dan: Thanks for summing up the key teaching of Nagarjuna
and the Buddha in a couple of sentences. This is exactly
what makes the Middle Way so difficult to grasp. It's not a
Way that can be followed, it's not a something that can be
understood. Essentialism and nihilism aren't simply
philosophical positions that occur over and over in various
ways, they are emotional tendencies that effect everyone's
lives. For me, the important thing is to notice these
emotional tendencies that might be termed "search" and
"escape" or "desire" and "fear".

Greg: Yes, good point about the emotions. The two extremes
of essentialism (inherent existence of things) and nihilism
(inherent non-existence) very well might be linked to
extreme differences in temperament (maybe in the same person
at different times), and tend to show up in other areas of
life as well. On one side there is an urgent grasping,
clinging to something positive that will save us, grasping
out of fear. On the other side there is rejection,
depression, bitterness, perhaps out of anger. And whichever
way the emotions manifest themselves in a particular person,
both extremes are linked to the belief that for things to
exist, they must exist inherently. They do appear to exist
this way.

Dan: Greg, yes. I'm enjoying the way you are resonating on
this point.
For me, looking at the emotions involved is a way to relate
it to psychological and therapeutic work.

Essentialism may seem like an abstract philosophical
position or a belief.
At heart it is the desire to "have" something(s) and to "be"
Emotionally, it could be considered a reaction to
uncertainty, and perhaps nihilism (with the emotions you
mentioned), might be a reaction to perceived threat,
particularly if it includes a threat "within oneself".
Whereas nihilism may be associated often with negative
emotions, it may have some positive emotions at times (I got
rid of something really bad, I gained control by eliminating
what doesn't belong); essentialism, although associated with
the anxieties of clinging and seeking, may often have
positive connotations (I am somebody, I have a path to
follow, I have someone to love, I've accomplished something

Western science has accomplished a lot by looking for
underlying structures and defining basic elements - all part
of essentialism. Is our science motivated, not by desire
for "pure knowledge" but by desire to have and control? Is
this what "drives" our science and our supposed knowledge of
reality? Some Buddhist texts also speak of avoiding
extremes of "eternalism" and "nihilism". This is
interesting because Western religion has oriented toward
"eternalism" and this seems connected with our

Beyond the philosophy of this, there are the ordinary day to
day desires to be someone, have things, continue in some
way. Such desires certainly are observable in the "East" as
well as in the "West", I think, as are classism, gender role
sterotyping, ideological confrontations, nationalism, etc.,
although with somewhat different style in the East than in
the West.

Does this not demonstrate that the emotional roots of
"essentialism" are not easily ended, regardless of whether
there are teachings available about this very issue? We in
the West sometimes idealize other cultures because they're
exotic - and I certainly do value the insights of Asian
- yet when we look closely, these cultures, like ours,
evidence the "pull"
to want to maintain forms of "existence", to maintain static
roles, to identify with forms, and so on. The Middle Way
seems, then, to point to an investigation of the "heart" of
being human, particularly the emotional dynamics (clinging
and avoiding) seen in any culture, indeed seen in the basic
dynamics of human relationship. The answer "don't cling,
don't avoid", when made into an "answer" ends up negating
its own injunction (by itself becoming "something" that will
be "brought into" a situation). The Eight-Fold path, then,
isn't "the answer" to the problem of suffering - more of a
statement of the applicability of the Middle Way - not truly
an "answer" that one can "have" or "practice."

Deep-seated emotions drive the human race -- "going on
retreat", meditation, and investment in philosophical and
intellectual endeavors may not truly "resolve" the
essentialism/nihilism issue; they may even provide a means
for temporary avoidance and reassurance (regarding the
emotions mentioned above). My conclusion is that looking
into the "pull" of essentialism and nihilism is quite useful
and fruitful, that "resolving" or "answering" is not the
point, that any "ism" or "approach" can only go so far with

I can only say I look at this because I look at this. There
is nothing else to look at. The sense of mystery and
clarity that arises is more or less a by-product of the
looking, and not a goal or reason for looking.

Then the Middle Way Buddhist teaching comes in to show that
things don't exist in the way they appear. (The way they
are said to exist in Middle Way teachings is conventionally,
where each thing depends on a network of everything else,
like Indra's Net of Jewels.) This includes "I" and "other."

Dan: Yes, this is how they are described philosophically
and metaphorically.
So, the description is one thing, the "experience" or
"reality" is whatever images like Indra's Net, or the theory
of dependent origination, point to.

Dan: An additional challenge of Buddhism is its assertion of
How can "compassion" (or love in Christianity) be asserted
if there is no "essentialism"?

Greg: This certainly is a challenge. Nagarjuna's teaching
is that compassion would be impossible *with* essentialism.
Suffering can only be eradicated if it is *not* inherently
existent. Same with relief from suffering. To not be
inherently existent means that suffering and relief from
suffering are dependent on conditions. The Buddhist
teachings are there to be part of the conditioned network
for the relief of suffering. The compassionate desire to
help other beings need not be based on the belief that there
are really inherently existent beings out there, or that
there's a real "I"
helping them. In Madhyamika, everything is seen as empty of
inherent existence, including beings, suffering, the 4 Noble
Truths, samsara, nirvana, even emptiness.

Dan: Yes, you've summed this up well. For me, there's
still a quality of essentialism to the concept of universal
compassion or love. Because it does imply that someone is
helping someone. I understand that point about emptiness of
things being what allows compassion to function. However,
there still is a comparison of states going on (from
suffering to no-suffering) and there still is an implied
being moving from one state to another. Without this, how
can we speak of compassion? In other words, compassion
itself becomes "empty" of any intrinsic nature and can't be
defined as compassion anymore. Then, you no longer have the
basis for a religion, yet you aren't anti-religion either,
as that would be nihilism.

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