Saguna and Nirguna Brahman
By Jagannatha Prakasa (John of AllFaith) © August 22, 2007
This is: Part Three
And the Path to Liberation
In my opinion the quest for Truth is the highest calling. And it is wise to begin where we are. What is the nature of our material existence. This has been an important spiritual and material question since the beginning of time.
A case in point:
Around 560 BCE there was born in ancient India a man named Siddhartha Gautama who wanted to know the truth about the Good One. The story of how he came to this desire is truly fascinating and inspirational, but it falls outside the topic of this present study. Nonetheless, based on his sojourn this seeker of truth came to be known as Sammāsambuddha, the Supreme Buddha.
As Siddhartha looked at the answers offered by his birth religion, Hinduism, he was not convinced. He therefore determined that individuals must discover the answers for themselves through personal study, meditation. To this end he is quoted as saying:
"Believe nothing, o monks,
He therefore began a fascinating and fruitful quest for truth that has brought millions of people to enlightenment and deeper knowledge. After contemplation he determined that all life in the material world shared a common trait. Everywhere there was suffering (dukkha). This suffering keeps us bound to the material worlds. If one could understand the nature, power and means of liberation from suffering one would be able to attain nirvana. To this end he developed his Four Noble Truths:
merely because you have been told it ...
or because it is traditional,
or because you yourselves have imagined it.
Do not believe what your teacher tells you
merely out of respect for the teacher.
But whatsoever, after due examination and analysis,
you find to be conducive to the good,
the benefit, the welfare of all beings -
that doctrine believe and cling to,
and take it as your guide."
- Material existence is based on suffering (dukkha): prenatal existence, birth, life, illness, old age, death and rebirth all include great suffering. Saguna is therefore the realm of suffering. This noble truth therefore is to contemplate the existence of suffering.
- This suffering is caused by desire (samudaya): It is lust, greed and desire for ever more than causes our suffering. In this world it is never enough. There is always more to desire. This desire causes ever more desire and a vicious cycle of suffering results. This noble truth is to contemplate the origin and unwanted results of desire.
- Material suffering can be terminated (nirodha): Liberation from dukkha requires us to cut off the root of desire. Having contemplated the reality and nature of suffering, this noble truth calls on us to reflect on how this liberation can be achieved and includes the determination to do what is required to awaken from all suffering.
- The method of liberation from Dukkha (magga): This fourth Noble Truth is the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path It demands we develop and practice:
From the Vedas or his own contemplations (depending on who you ask) Siddhartha realized that existence manifests in two forms: Saguna and Nirguna Brahman. He therefore sought to understand these modes of nature and so should we.
Gunas are "qualities." The gunas are categorized into three basic categories roughly defined as:
- Right beliefs
- Right intention
- Right speech
- Right action
- Right livelihood
- Right effort
- Right mindfulness
- Right concentration
These qualities all exist within Saguna: sa=with and guna=qualities. Material existence therefore consists of these gunas. These three fundamental qualities can of course be subdivided into numerous categories.
The entire material manifestation, all the planets and the heavens above and below us, everything we normally consider to be "real" exists in terms of Saguna Brahman because everything has "qualities."
Within Saguna Brahman Siddhartha experienced life and death, wealth and poverty, wellness and illness, heat and cold, good and bad, high and low and so on, and so he recognized the dual nature of life in Saguna.
Once, while engaged in extreme spiritual practice a boat passed by on a river. In the boat a master musician was teaching a student the vina.: 'And so,' the master explained, 'If the strings are too tight they will snap, if too loose they will not properly sound.' Based on this Siddhartha develop the Middle Way. One who would find freedom from suffering would do well to avoid all extremes and to seek balance. The Middle Way became a vital Buddhist teaching. Still however, even practicing the Four Nobel Truths, the Eightfold Path and the Middle Way, one in the material world was still subject to suffering. These methods lead the Bodhisattva (ie one who is on the path towards enlightenment) gradually to Nirvana. There perspective of the original Sanskrit sources, Nirvana is union with Nirguna Brahman. Due to their vows of compassion for all living beings most Buddhists (the Mahayana) vow to forgo complete enlightenment until all being achieve it.
Saguna Brahman therefore is the material modes of nature, those "with qualities." Siddhartha sought to escape the influences of Saguna and attain Nirguna Brahman, ie nir=without guna=qualities. According to Siddhartha Gautama's understandings, in the sphere/realm/dimension of Nirguna there are no qualities of any kind.
The Buddha (ie "awakened one") therefore contemplated what such a state of being would be like:
He reasoned that without qualities (nir-guna) there could be no individual existence because qualities make up who we are as individuals: I am Caucasian, an American of Welsh decent, male, I have blue eyes etc. Without such qualities who and what am I? How could I describe myself or even contemplate my own existence without qualities? Even if I say, "I think therefore I am" we will be at a loss because "I" am but an attribute of That which say "I am."
And so Siddhartha continued his contemplation until he reduced everything down as much as possible and concluded that all existence is like, not a candle, but the single flame of a universal candle... BUT even that flame puts off heat and light and has a name and those too are qualities! He needed to go deeper still!
His answer was "nirvana." Again, nir=without and vana=breath or existence. Therefore he concluded that on in Nirvana does one cease "blowing the breath of life" or be-ing.
He determined that Nirvana is not a place like Heaven, Goloka Vrndavana, Jenna, or even the Pure Land of certain later Buddhist schools. Rather it is a state of complete non-be-ing. One who has achieved this utterly transcendental state of consciousness has ceased to even 'flicker' as an individual or universal flame. This is similar to properly utilizing the Pranava. As one passes from Vaishvanara to Taijasa, into Prajna and finally into Turiya the Omkara becomes not so much silent as transcendent. Nirvana likewise exists within this transcendental silence. This silence is the Point when Yin and Yang unite in Tao, it is the state of being wherein one realizes the Netti Netti ("Not this Not That") or En Soph ("No-Thing"). It is conceived in innumerable ways but only rarely achieved.
The Buddhist conception of Nirvana therefore is not actually the cessation of existence but the cessation of individual existence.
The Abhidharma-mahavibhāsa-sāstra and other Buddhist texts offer lots of insight into the word nirvana that clarifies it meaning further:
- Sattva guna: goodness
- Raja guna: passion
- Tama guna: ignorance
This is: Part Three
- Vāna is the path of rebirth and nir means "without" hence, Nirvana references freedom from the cycle of rebirth.
- Vāna also means a stench and so nir, meaning without or freedom from speaks to the freedom one attains from stench of material existence and its dukkha (sufferings).
- Vāna also references a "dense forests" and so Nirvana is the escape from the dense forest of saguna, material self-existence.