Liberation

Somewhere around five hundred years before the birth of Christ, Prince Siddhartha Gautama left the abundant luxuries of his father's palace. At his birth, it had been foretold that he would either become a great king or a great sage. His father wanted to insure the former, so he banished any examples of suffering - age, sickness, death - or spiritual teachings from the palace. Even so, over the years the young prince caught sight of four things that gave him pause: a weak old man, a sick man, a corpse and a serene renunciate. In this way he began to realize the true nature of the world. He became determined to seek out the cause and the solution to the fundamental problem of existence and so began his quest to end the cycles of suffering.

This notion of release from misery was not a new idea, even then. From time immemorial, women and men have had an inkling of hope that there might be a way to end the turbulence of daily life. We cannot possibly know for how many thousands of years we humans have appealed to imagined higher beings that we hope have some sway over our world, our lives, our destinies, and to whom we might petition for our salvation

The Indian tradition is the oldest recorded religious tradition. Its core texts are The Vedas, four collections of hymns and rituals describing a religion of sacrifice to the Devas, manifestations of natural forces and idealized principles. The sacrifices they describe demand rigorous adherence to ritual form. The slightest mistake in posture, in breath, even in intention, might affect the disposition and response of the Devas, bringing misery and despair.

Many of the priestly caste, the brahmins, who jealously guarded their ritual knowledge, would venture out into the forests to ponder the deeper meaning of these rituals, recording their thoughts in the portion of the Vedas called the Upanishads. They began to speculate that it might be possible to somehow take the exacting rituals and internalize them. What if the aspirant could perform certain practices of contemplation and concentration that would have the same effect of appeasement of the Devas?

The level of critical reasoning practiced by the Vedic and Upanishadic philosophers was extremely subtle. They saw the rituals of sacrifice as a rarefied state of existence in which the veil between the material world of ever-changing phenomena and the divinely-sourced eternal and unchanging state, or brahman, was lifted. Perhaps by practicing these internal sacrifices the aspirant could manifest brahman permanently and walk the earth no longer touched by turbulent impermanence. No longer would they need salvation from without. They could find liberation from within. This was the earliest meaning of the term "yoga."

Since then there have been many visionaries who have achieved some form of that liberation and who have gone on to transmit their message to others. The devotional Bhagavad Gita, the teachings of Buddha and the Yoga Sutra of Patañali are but three of the most prominent liberation traditions.

Inquiry: Liberation versus Salvation


When embarking on any new journey, it is important to take stock and account for who you are to better understand the filter of your beliefs.

We've already considered the fundamental notion that there might be a solution to the problem of suffering. If there were a solution, a permanent solution that did not involve drastic measures - drugs or brain surgery, or some other method that would diminish your capacities in any way - would you see that as desirable? This may seem like an obvious and rather stupid question, but please take the time to consider it seriously.

When you were considering the notion of suffering in our first inquiry, did you find ways in which your suffering defined your character, your personality, your present self? Be very honest with yourself now. This does not have to involve some large melodramatic sweep to your life. It could be a tiny example. It could be nothing more than a reflex, an instinct, an aversion. If you could flip the "no suffering" switch, that aspect of you would go away. And upon how many of those tiny aspects have you built your sense of self? All of these things would go away. Would you still be you without these tiny emotional scars? Those for whom the answer is no might find flipping the "no suffering" switch a terrifying proposition.

Say you do not fall into this category. What about the joys? That same switch would extinguish all the joys as well. All those building blocks of identity that have come from moments of pleasure and of happiness, they would go away as well. That can even be more terrifying.

Luckily, no such switch exists, but contemplating it might give you an idea how you view yourself. It might give you an idea of the filter through which you view and respond to the world.

The internalized sacrifice that the Upanishadic thinkers imagined involves much effort. Even Buddha, who achieved freedom from suffering according to his own intuitions and methods, took many, many years of devoted practice to attain the goal. He accepted no authority but his own. He had many teachers, certainly, both implicit and metaphorical, but the final effort came from his own efforts, rather than from without. He achieved his own liberation rather than salvation from a divine source.

Look inside yourself for a moment and consider this. Do you think it possible to attain liberation for yourself? Or do you feel it can only come from some source outside yourself, or some source greater than yourself? The question is not whether you see yourself as some great visionary or prophet, or some great spiritual athlete. You will have plenty of guides along the way. You will have much training and practice with many tests and trials. This really is a question of perspective. Do you feel that freedom can come from your own efforts, or must it come as a result of grace from a higher power? There are many traditions of both flavors and understanding where you fall on the issue now, at this moment, will help you understand where you might prefer to get your teachings from. And do not be surprised if, over the course of your study and practice, you find yourself drifting from one camp to the other and back again. That questioning and investigation is the entire point of the endeavor.