Lama Anagarika Govinda (1898-1985), the founder of the Arya Maitreya Mandala, was a scholar, mystic, writer, painter and poet. As Robert Thurman remarks, Lama Govinda is “undoubtedly one of the West’s greatest minds of the twentieth century, among the Pantheon that includes with Einstein, Heisenberg, Wittgenstein, Solzhenitsyn, Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama.” (Introduction to The Way of the White Clouds).
At the age of 16 he started a comparative study of philosophy as well as the major religions and encountered Buddhism. He became a Buddhist at the age of 18. While enrolled in the German army during World War I, he caught tuberculosis and recovered at a sanatorium. He studied philosophy, psychology and archaeology at Freiburg University.
In 1928 Govinda moved to Ceylon and stayed with Nyanatiloka, a teacher and scholar in the Theravada tradition of Buddhism. Govinda founded the Variyagoda Hermitage in the mountains near Gampola, where he studied Pali language and the philosophy of Abhidhamma. He became the founder-secretary of the International Buddhist Union, which aimed to promote Buddhism worldwide.
He then moved to Sri Lanka and became a Buddhist monk of the Theravada tradition. He was quite critical of Tibetan Buddhism, which he considered invaded by demons. In 1931 he went to a conference in Darjeeling to convert Tibetans to a more pure form of Buddhism. In nearby Sikkim he met the Tibetan teacher Tomo Geshe Rimpoche (1866–1936), who completely turned around Govinda’s opinions. From then on he embraced the Tibetan form of Buddhism. After founding his order in 1933, for three decades he lived a secluded life at ‘Crank’s Ridge’, outside Almora in northern India. From here he undertook travels through the remotest areas of Tibet, making large numbers of paintings, drawings and photographs. These travels he described in his book The Way of the White Clouds. In 1947 he married a Persian speaking photographer Li Gotami.
In the 1960s he began travelling around the world to lecture on Buddhism, and settled in the San Francisco Bay area in his twilight years, where he was hosted for a time by Alan Watts. He died in Mill Valley, California.
The Problem of Past and Future
Lama Anagarika Govinda
Both Time and Space are the outcomes of movement, the characteristic of life, from its highest spiritual manifestations down to the simplest physical phenomena. By intellectually separating time from space, and both of them from the experiencing subject, we arrive at an abstract concept which has neither vitality nor reality. In order to imbue it with a semblance of movement, we divide it into past, present and future, out of which neither the past nor the future seem to possess actual reality. The present, however, according to this division, is, merely the dividing line between the past that is no more and a future which is not yet: it is a point without extension, without dimension, and therefore without the possibility of movement. Yet we feel the present as the most real aspect of time, the only point in which movement is possible.
Consequently some modern thinkers try to cut through the Gordian knot by declaring that there is no time and that the only solution to the riddle of life consists in living exclusively in the present, treating the past and the future as non-existent and illusory. In this way they arrive at their concept of spontaneity as the only true principle of life, forgetting that spontaneity is built on practice; in other words, that it is a product of long repeated actions in the past, actions that have been carried out consciously and deliberately over a long period, and which have become so ingrained in one’s nature that they need no further decision or effort of will.
The wonderful instincts of animals (which by far outdo our cleverest logical operations) are based on this accumulation of past experience, and the same holds good of the human genius, the man of unerring “spiritual instinct” (which we call “Intuition”), or the virtuoso, whose technical perfection is the fruit of years of intensive practice, and whose accomplishments have become part of his subconscious or unconscious nature. In spite of popular belief, a genius does not fall from heaven- except from the heaven of his own making. Even the Buddha, according to Buddhist tradition, had aeons of practice on the Bodhisattva Path behind him, before he became a Buddha, a Fully Enlightened One.
Mozart composed minutes at the age of four, while Beethoven had composed three sonatas even before he had reached this age. To explain this through the hereditary factors and combinations of chromosomes is as unconvincing as explaining the human mind as a product of the brain. The brain is as much a product of the mind as the chromosomes are a product of forces about whose nature we know as little as we do of what we call gravitation, light or consciousness. The more we try to reduce the world into a play of cause and effect instead of seeing the infinite inter-relationship of all phenomena, and each individual as a unique expression and focalisation of universal forces, the further we get from reality.
However, even if we admit that all the powers and faculties of the universe are within us, unless we have activated them through practice or made them accessible through training they will never become realities that influence our life. They will neither appear nor materialise effectively if we merely rely on the potentialities of our “unconscious mind,” as the mediocre products of modern worshippers of the “unconscious” amply demonstrate in all fields of art and thought.
Just because the depth-consciousness (which I think is a better term than the “unconscious”) contains an unlimited wealth of forces, qualities, and experiences, it requires a well-ordered, purposeful and trained mind to make use of this wealth in a meaningful way, i.e. to call up only those forces, contents of consciousness or their respective archetypal symbols which are beneficial to the particular situation and spiritual level of the individual and give meaning to his life. “A more perfect understanding of the dynamic potentialities of the unconscious would entail the demand of a stricter discipline and a more clearly conscious direction,” as Lewis Mumford said in his review of C.G. Jung’s Remembrances.
As a reaction against the overintellectualisation of modern life, the chaotic excesses of certain modern artists and writers may be understandable, but as little as we can live by the intellect alone, can we live by the “unconscious” alone. Nothing of cultural or spiritual value has ever been produced in this way.
Those who think that any conscious effort or aspiration is a volition of our spontaneous genius, and who look down upon any technique or method of meditation or the fruits of traditional experience as below their dignity, only deceive themselves and others! We can be spontaneous and yet fully conscious of the forms and forces of tradition. In fact, all culture consists in a deep awareness of the past. Such awareness, however, should not be confused with a clinging to the past of with an arbitrary limitation of its forms of expression: on the contrary, full awareness and perfect understanding free us from the fetters of the past, without thereby losing the fruits of our former experiences. We do not free ourselves from our past by trying to forget or to ignore it, but only through mastering it in the light of higher, i.e. unprejudiced knowledge.
If we allow the past undissolved and undigested to sink into the subconscious, the past becomes the germ of the uncontrollable- because unconscious- drives and impulses. Only those things which we have perfectly understood and consciously penetrated can be mastered and can have no more power over us. The methods of healing employed by modern psychotherapy as well as by the most ancient meditation-practices are based on this principle. Even the Buddha attained his Enlightenment only after having become conscious of his complete past. This past, however, included the past of the whole universe. By becoming conscious of it, he freed himself from the power of hidden causes.
Ignorance is bondage, knowledge is liberation. So long as we are ignorant of the causes of the past, we are governed by them, and in so far they determine . The course of life is “predestined” only to the extent of our ignorance.
“Fate is a very real aspect of our lives as long as we remain in ignorance, as real as the other aspect of freedom. What we call fate is the pulling and moulding of our lives from sources of which we are unconscious. Where there is the Light of consciousness all is freedom; wherever to us that Light does not penetrate is Fate. To the adept Siddha whose conscious enfolds the whole range of manifested being there is no fate at all.” (Sri Krishna Prem, The Yoga of the Kathopanishad, 1955)
Genuine meditation is an act of opening ourselves to that Light; it is the art of invoking inspiration at will, by putting ourselves into a state of intuitive receptiveness, in which the gates of the past and the present are open to the mind’s eye. But unless the mind’s eye is cleared of the dust of prejudice and selfishness, it will not be able to grasp the meaning of its visions, to assess their value or importance and to make use of them. Two people may hear the same symphony: to the musically untrained or uncultured mind it will be a mere noise, to the cultured or musically receptive it will be a revelation, an experience. Even the grandest and most sublime vision conveys nothing to the ignorant, or something that may be thoroughly misleading. (Herein lies the danger for those who use trance-inducing or consciousness-transforming “psychedelic” drugs such as Mescaline, LSD, or the like, without having the knowledge or the critical faculty to judge or to evaluate the resulting phenomena and experiences.)
When I spoke about the gates of the past and the present, which are opened in introspective meditation, I did not mention the future. Neither did the Buddha when describing the experiences of his Enlightenment. Why was that so? Because the future is essentially contained in the past and focalised in the present.
Jean Gebser, one of the most creative and stimulating thinkers of modern Europe- whose philosophy is the gigantic attempt to integrate the most advanced knowledge of our time with the spiritual sources of the past- defines evolution as the unfoldment in time and space of something that is already potentially existent in its essential features, though indeterminable in its individual realization. The manner in which we accomplish this individual realisation is the task of our life and the essence of our freedom, which latter consists in our choice either to cooperate with the laws of our universal origin and to be free, or to ignore and oppose them, and thus to become the slaves of our own ignorance. The more we recognise this our origin, the more we are able to cooperate with it and thus with the universal law (dharma) of our inherent nature. And likewise: he who perceives the outlines of the past can recognize or foresee the structure of the future.