Q&A with Swami B.V. Tripurari.
“Buddhism leads us from negative numbers to the peace of zero, while bhakti leads to the ecstasy of positive numbers. Try to understand the gift of Sri Caitanya. Buddha is one of his avataras.”
Q. Since the Absolute is unlimited and has seen fit to provide us with numerous paths by which to realize our true natures, how is it possible to say that this way – or any way – is best or better than others?
A. One should feel that his or her path is best, at least for oneself personally. However, objectively speaking, one path may also offer more than another, even while each leads to enlightenment. For example, within Vaisnavism itself, one path leads to the plane of reverential love of God and another to intimate love of God (in which all that is involved in reverential love, and more, is experienced). While Buddhism leads us from the negative numbers of karmic implication to the peace of zero (prakrti nirvana), bhakti leads to the ecstasy of positive numbers in transcendental life (rasananda).
There may be aspects of Buddhism that are emphasized, ones that appeal to you, such as sitting, introspection, and stilling the mind, that are often not emphasized as much in the present day bhakti lineages. However, under scrutiny, one will find that such practices are also important in the culture of bhakti. Try to understand the gift of Sri Caitanya. Buddha is one of his avatars.
Q. Is the Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition anti-Buddhist?
A. Some opposition has developed over the centuries owing to the fact that traditionally Buddhism has denied the existence of God, the eternality of the soul, and the revelatory nature of the Upanisads, all of which are embraced by Gaudiya Vaisnavism. Differences have also arisen due to members of both traditions being unclear about each others doctrines, particularly in the past, when communication and information was not as readily available as it is today. Relations could improve.
Q. There is a contemporary Buddhist saying: ‘Any attempt to change is a form of aggression on the self.’ Yet, regarding spiritual life in general, I have heard you say, ‘It’s all about change.’
A. I don’t think these two statements conflict with one another as it may appear at first. Although I am not sure what the Buddhist means by the ‘self,’ Vedanta teaches that the self is changeless. As the world of seasons changes around us, we remain the same. However, in order to realize this we will have to change the way we think about life. The idea is that we are viewing the world incorrectly. It is perfect, as are we, yet we cannot see that. If we try to change the world without changing our angle of vision, we will never know perfection. I think this is what the Buddhist saying means.
Vedanta teaches that attempts to change the world that fall short of changing how we view it, enabling us to realize our changeless status, constitute acts of aggression on the self. Spiritual life is about change – changing the way we look at things. If we learn to look at the world through the eyes of the Bhagavad-gita, our lives will change radically for the better. We will know the eternal nature of the changeless self. As the Gita teaches, ‘Physician cure thyself.’
Q. Before realizing the form of Krsna, does a devotee first go through the brahmajyoti?
A. Self realization is contained within God realization. The former precedes the latter. Within the culture of loving Krsna, one attains self realization and then pure love of God. This is discussed in Caitanya Caritamrita:
upajiya bade lata ‘brahmanda’ bhedi’ yaya
‘viraja’ ‘brahma-loka’ bhedi’ ‘para-vyoma paya
tabe yaya tad-upari ‘goloka-vrndavana’
‘krsna-carana’-kalpa-vrkse kare arohana
“The creeper of devotion is born and grows to pierce the universe. It then crosses the Viraja and realizes Brahman. From there it goes to Vaikuntha. Then it grows to reach Goloka Vrindavan, at last reaching the embrace of the wish fulfilling tree of Krsna’s lotus feet.”
Bhagavad-gita also says that after attaining Brahman (brahma-bhutah), one attains bhakti proper (mad bhaktim labhate param). Only a spark of fire can enter the fire and flourish. Similarly only a liberated soul can enter the liberated lila of God.
Q. Where does love start?
A. Love starts with you. You should think like this. Start loving God and all souls in relation to God and you will realize the eternal, beginningless nature of love.
Q. How do you find your spiritual master?
A. Sincerity, proper association, and scriptural study will aid us in this, and the search is not one sided. Sri guru also searches for us. Approach those who are serving in this capacity and hear from them, asking relevant questions. When your heart is captured by a particular saint’s example and instruction, capture him by affectionately insisting that he accept you as a disciple.
Q. What is false renunciation and what is genuine renunciation?
A. The purification leading to renunciation that involves selfless action amounts to indirect spiritual culture culminating in the resolve for spiritual life. One who does not undergo this purification, yet attempts to renounce the world for a life of contemplation, is involved in false renunciation. Genuine renunciation is possible after one’s heart is sufficiently free from the influences of the ignorance that leads one to believe that sense indulgence brings happiness (tamo guna), and the passion involving the pursuit of material advancement (raja guna).
Renunciation is a status from which one can directly culture internal spiritual life. Selfless action is the subject of the third chapter of Bhagavad-gita, whereas renunciation of the action leading to purification is discussed in chapter five. In between the two one experiences the ingress of knowledge (sattva guna), which is discussed in chapter four of the Gita. All of this has its application in devotional life.
Before inner awakenment of self knowledge occurs, the devotee should either offer the fruits of his or her work to Krsna, or if possible, do only Krsna’s work (plant tulasi, deity worship, etc.). As purification develops, one can successfully engage in concentrating the mind on Krsna for long periods of time and enter a renounced life of reflection and meditation.
It is also false renunciation to renounce that which is favorable for Krsna’s service, genuine renunciation involves renouncing that which is unfavorable to the culture of devotional life. One who can renounce everything unfavorable to devotional culture has true standing in a life involving the utilization of so-called worldly things in Krsna’s service.
Q. Why is Krsna blue?
A. Krsna’s complexion is not exactly blue. It is the color ‘syama’ (bluish black), which according to Indian aesthetic theory is the color of conjugal love. Krsna is the God of love and conjugal love in particular. Thus he is the presiding deity of this color as well. According to Rupa Goswami’s Bhaktirasamrita-sindhu, each of the twelve rasas are represented by corresponding colors.
Q. Does the soul have a color?
A. Souls are colored by dint of their association, just as a crystal when placed next to red rose turns red. When we associate with great souls who love Krsna in a particular way, generally the color of their soul colors our soul. For example, a soul colored by friendly love of Krsna is reddish brown (aruna), like the sun peaking above the eastern horizon in West Bengal at dawn. Whereas the color of conjugal love is bluish black (syama), like a dark blue sapphire. Each liberated soul in Krsna lila has a particular bodily complexion, attire, service, residence, name, group leader, etc.
Q. I read where you are developing a rural community. What is that and how is it going?
A. I am pleased to report that things are going well at Audarya, our beautiful hermitage in the redwood hills of Northern California. We have completed a long marathon to finish the first phase of construction, and now have heat and electricity to all of our dwellings. We are using propane heaters in each yurt which we installed just as the season changed from summer to fall with temperatures dropping considerably at night. It is absolutely beautiful here this time of year.
This morning I woke to a Kartika harvest-moon-lit pre-dawn morning and bathed in cold well water from our shower in a cluster of redwoods on the top of the ridge. The bright moonlight was more than sufficient to see by, and dim enough to afford privacy while the other monks waited nearby for their morning ablutions. Before bathing I was able to write for two hours answering long overdue questions from the Sanga.
The season here continues to change with occasional rain. Grass is sprouting here and there without our planting any seeds. It reminds me of the sadhakas who have cultured devotion in their previous life, and in conjunction with the rain of Sri Guru’s mercy are sprouting and growing, and nothing will stop them. I also threw a lot of new grass seeds on the terraces. They are struggling to survive, praying for rain, just as most sadhakas must struggle with the mental field and pray for the rain of Sri Guru’s mercy, a drop of which makes all of their effort worth while.
We have harvested a good portion of the terraced gardens. By the end of this month it should be finished producing and we will prepare a new one with winter crops. The summer harvest was big success. We have not had to buy any vegetables for the last three months, and were able to experience the purport of Krsna’s words in Bhagavad-gita, ‘patram puspam phalam toyam yo me bhaktya prayacchati’, “If anyone offers me with devotion and purity a leaf, a flower, a fruit, or water, I accept that offering of devotion.”
We expect to proceed with the construction of the bath house next week. This is important not only for the residents, but for facilitating guests as well. Many people have written requesting to visit. I have not felt entirely comfortable hosting guests with such simple facilities. Once the bath house is finished, I would like to open the doors for weekend visits from all of our friends.
Swami B.V. Tripurari has spent over 30 years as a Hindu monastic. Awarded the sannyasa order in 1975, Swami Tripurari has studied under several spiritual masters in the Gaudiya lineage, notably AC Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and Bhakti Raksaka Sridhara Maharaja. Noted as the ‘Thomas Merton of the modern bhakti tradition,’ Swami Tripurari has authored a number of ground-breaking works.
Photograph of Tripurari Swami by Rama Kesava das.