Mahayana Buddhism and the Gunas

Mahayana (“The Great Vehicle”) Buddhism is one of the principal branches of Buddhism. Two major traditions derive from the Mahayana branch: the Tantrayana of Tibet, and the Chan tradition, more widely known as Zen.

Unlike orthodox Theravada (“The Way of the Elders”) Buddhism, which is Buddhism’s other main branch, Mahayana Buddhism emphasizes the path of the bodhisattva. Practitioners vow not to attain personal enlightenment until all sentient beings are enlightened. To facilitate this goal, aspirants cultivate an attitude of bodhichitta, which is a loving, motherly, patient, compassionate, sympathetic attitude toward all. The XIV Dalai Lama mentions that he generates this attitude every morning when he awakes. To paraphrase him: “I look on everyone as my friend.”

I believe him! This is the Mahayana Buddhist equivalent to Jesus’ injunction for us to “love one another” (Jn. 13:34). This world provides enough daily examples of people hating one another, so it is refreshing to see the opposite.

We’ll now take a thumbnail overview of the Hindu concept of the gunas, which is prominently featured in the Vedic philosophical school known as Sankhya. Gunas are the qualities or states in which a given thing – from foods to the state of the cosmos – can be classified. There are three gunastamas (inertia), rajas (activity), and sattva (equilibrium).

For example, in humans, in the context of spiritual evolution, a tamasic person might be a secular humanist or even a rigid religious dogmatist. In any event, they are stuck at the lower rungs of spiritual evolution as they are not motivated to make spiritual progress in this life. A rajasic adherent, on the other hand, engages in sadhana (spiritual disciplines), and thereby consciously attempts to accelerate their own spiritual evolution. A sattvic aspirant, having engaged in practice for years or even decades, is able to “taste” a degree of liberation by virtue of their own personal experience.

The same holds true of practices undertaken by different aspirants when the guna classification is applied. Tamasic adherents may practice the grosser forms of worship – animal (or human!) sacrifice, for example. Rajasic aspirants turn beads, participate in rituals and ceremonies, and so forth. Sattvic aspirants may meditate or undertake devotional practices, which are more interior. Circling back to our Mahayana Buddhist discussion, one such sattvic practice is generating bodhichitta – universal love for all.

However, there is a state that transcends the gunas. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna enjoins his bewildered student Arjuna to go beyond the gunas (2:45). This is the same as the related concept of trigunatita – transcending the influence of the gunas. This state occurs in the higher stages of spiritual development. At first, the aspirant has glimpses of this elevated state, but with repeated practice it becomes integrated more and more into their being.

With this background, I can now introduce my point. Is the Mahayana ideal of maintaining an attitude of bodhichitta preferable to the Vedic concept of transcending the gunas? In other words, should an aspirant continually maintain the sattvic attitude of love and compassion, or go beyond to the ultimate experience of enlightenment, which is devoid of all qualities?

Oh, but were this a dilemma faced by us all! First, are we even in a sattvic state? Do we feel a continuous flow of loving thoughts toward all? Have we really attained a state of equipoise wherein we don’t react when others harm us? Do we “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt. 5:44)? What if we encounter those whose lifestyles or politics we disapprove of? What about convicted murderers or terrorists or abusers or torturers? The crimes they commit are heinous, but can we love the perpetrators’ inner spiritual essence unconditionally while neutrally, unemotionally condemning their actions? This is where the rubber hits the road. Our hearts must be purged of all last remnants of malice and ill-will, unconditionally, without exception.

So again, once we attain this state of universal love toward all – which is no mere glib talk or abstract theory – is it better to maintain this state continuously or transcend it? By holding onto the thought of love, one is creating a groove in one’s mind – a samskara. Because of this, the mind cannot be fully transcended; all such grooves must be left behind in order to attain full-blown liberation.

What do the great teachers say? Krishna counsels, “always remain in the quality of sattva” (Gita 2:45) while simultaneously transcending the gunas. The Dalai Lama advocates that we maintain an ongoing attitude of bodhichitta, combined with the practice of emptiness. If you take Jesus’ beatitude, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Mt. 5:8), along with his advice for us to love everyone unconditionally, there you have it. These different teachers all agree that we should focus our efforts on attaining a continuous loving attitude – a sattvic state – and experiencing the nondual realization (“they shall see God”) that one achieves once the gunas are transcended. At that heightened stage in our development, paradoxical as it may sound, we walk the precipice and take the final plunge into the abyss at the same time.

P.S. Here is the answer from our last posting re: whose quotation we cited. No, it was not Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., although it could have been, but President John F. Kennedy.

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