Among the discourses of the Buddha there is one named the Lakkhana Suttanta. The first part of the Pali name corresponds to the Sanskrit Lakshana, a characteristic, a distinguishing mark; and the discourse is concerned with the marks which distinguish the body of the Maha-Purusha, the Great, or Divine Man, such as grace of form, beauty of colour, and so on. The words of the Buddha suggest that the list of characteristic signs was old in his day, and the stories of his own birth represent the magicians and astrologers as identifying these signs on the body of the new-born divine infant. One may safely come to the conclusion that the tradition of these signs, thirty-two in number, is very old, far older than the period, two and a half millenniums ago, when the Buddha taught in the valley of the Ganges.
The name, Maha-Purusha, in Pali, Maha-Purisa, suggested to Mr. T. W. Rhys Davids, a series of reflections, which he did not carry to their legitimate conclusion, but which, when fully developed, are deeply significant. Let us try to see what their fuller meaning is.
The learned Pali scholar points out two things: that the term Maha-Purisa is rarely used in Pali; it is not a standard Pali term, as is, for example, Arhat; and he indicates, but does not develop, certain relations between the Buddhist use of the term Purisa, or Purusha, and its earlier use in the Vedas, especially in the celebrated hymn in the tenth book of the Rig Veda, which is called “Purusha Sukta”, the Hymn of Purusha. This great hymn contains two elements: first, the teaching of the Divine Man, the Logos in a sense personified; and, second, the even more mystical doctrine of the Sacrifice of the Divine Man. Both teachings are present in that great river of spiritual illumination which has its source in ancient Egypt; both may be recognized in the story of Osiris and in the Gospel of St. John. Finding them present in Vedic India and in prehistoric Egypt, we may safely reach the conclusion that they are an integral part of the primordial Wisdom Religion, the doctrine of the Greater Mysteries.
Following the translation of John Muir, the Purusha Sukta may be rendered as follows:
1. Purusha (the Divine Man) has a thousand heads, a thousand eyes, a thousand feet. On every side enveloping the earth, he overpassed it by a space of ten fingers.
2. Purusha himself, the Divine Man, is this whole universe, whatsoever has been and whatsoever shall be. He is also the Lord of immortality, since (or, when) by food he expands.
3. Such is his greatness, and Purusha is superior to this. All existences are a quarter of him; and three-fourths of, him are that which is immortal in the heavens.
4. With three quarters Purusha mounted upwards. A quarter of him was again produced here. He was then diffused everywhere over things which eat and things which do not eat.
5. From him was born Viraj, and from Viraj, Purusha. When born he extended beyond the earth, both behind and before . . .
So far, the first part of this great hymn, which is concerned with the Logos as the foundation of Being, the basis of manifestation: “All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life. . . .”
The symbolism of the thousand heads, the thousand eyes, the thousand feet, is universal. It has its echo in the Book of Proverbs: “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good.” Much of the essence of this hymn is found also in the Bhagavad Gita, that treasury of wisdom. Thus Krishna, speaking as the Logos, declares that He contains the world; the world does not contain Him; one-fourth of His being is the manifested world; three-fourths are eternal in the heavens.
The Vedic hymn says that from Purusha was born Viraj, and from Viraj, Purusha. Viraj is twofold: positive and negative, masculine and feminine, subjective and objective. Viraj thus marks the field of primordial differentiation or cleavage between Perceiver and Perceived; the cleavage which is the fundamental activity of Maya, of Cosmic Illusion, since there is in reality no cleavage, though without the semblance of cleavage there would be no manifestation. The semblance of cleavage is a vitally important activity; it is not an eternal state of Being. The hymn goes on to say that from Viraj was born Purusha, that is, the Logos as the manifested universe; the Third Logos of The Secret Doctrine.
We come now to the second movement of the Purusha Sukta, which introduces the Sacrifice of the Divine Man:
6. When the gods (Radiant Powers) performed a sacrifice with Purusha as the oblation, the Spring was its butter, the Summer its fuel, and the Autumn its (accompanying) offering.
7. This victim, Purusha, born in the beginning, they immolated on the sacrificial grass. With him the gods, the Sadhyas (Spirits of Light) and the rishis sacrificed.
8. From that universal sacrifice were provided curds and butter. It formed those (aerial) creatures, both wild and tame. . . .
At the beginning of the creative period, the Manvantara, the Logos contains all the powers and elements that are to be manifested: all forms and degrees of consciousness, all activities of force, all degrees of substance. But our Vedic hymn does not contemplate what may be called a purely automatic and spontaneous emanation of world-systems, worlds and their inhabitants. It contemplates rather a disposal and direction of these qualities of consciousness, of force, of substance, by divine beings, who are named in three degrees: gods, Sadhyas and rishis; that is, to use the terms of The Secret Doctrine, Dhyan Chohans of higher and lower degree, acting with Masters of Wisdom (rishis) who have attained supreme wisdom, power and holiness in an earlier Manvantara. Both elements of manifestation are present: the inherent tendencies of the Logos; and the directive energies of conscious Creative Powers. Fundamentalist and Modernist may find their reconciliation here.
The sixth verse symbolizes the sacrifice of Purusha as the three seasons (since there was no winter in the Land of the Seven Rivers, that part of Northern India where this hymn may have taken form), in the circle of the year: that is, an equilateral triangle inscribed in a circle, the symbol of Triune Spirit in the Eternal. The curds and butter find their counterpart in the Third Stanza of The Secret Doctrine: “The Luminous Egg, which in itself is Three, curdles and spreads in milk-white Curds throughout the Depths of Mother . . .” namely, that stage of manifestation which is described in astronomy as the first formation of the great nebulae in space. In our Vedic hymn, the denizens of these shadowy worlds, the various degrees of elemental consciousness, are poetically described as “aerial creatures, both wild and tame”,—those which are beginning their period of development, and those which have made some progress in an earlier world period.
The seven remaining verses of the hymn describe the manner in which the Radiant Powers bound Purusha as the sacrificial victim, and, dismembering him, formed of the fragments the races of mankind, the animals, the regions of space, the powers of perception. The meaning is clear: the powers of the manifested universe are the powers of the Logos; the substance of all beings is the substance of the Logos; there is in the manifested universe neither power, nor substance, nor consciousness, which is not of the Logos: “Without him was not any thing made that was made.”
So far the Purusha, the Divine Man, of the Vedic hymn. Our Pali scholar describes, rather than explains, this majestic hymn, and then proceeds to link it with the discourse of the Buddha. The link, as he describes it, is somewhat slender; it hardly goes beyond the identity of the words Purusha in Sanskrit, and Purisa in Pali. Yet there is a deeply significant connection between the two doctrines, as we shall try to show.
Rhys Davids begins by bringing out the fact that the term Maha-Purisa is not one of the generally accepted phrases of Pali Buddhist scriptures. He has, indeed, found it in only three passages, one of these being the Lakkhana Suttanta, which we shall presently consider. Of the two remaining passages, the first is found in the Sanyutta Nikaya, one of the five divisions of the Pali scriptures. The Buddha declares, in this discourse, that the distinguishing mark of the Maha-Purisa, the “divine man”, is liberation: liberation with regard to his body, his emotions, his mind, his thoughts: “ardent, self-possessed, recollected, he overcomes the world . . . His mind is purified, liberated, free from mental intoxication.”
In the Anguttara Nikaya, another of the five divisions of the Pali sacred books, the term Maha-Purisa occurs again. The Master says:
“Him I call a Maha-Purisa, a divine man, who possesses four qualities: first, he seeks the welfare of all mankind, establishing them in the beauty of holiness, as set forth in the Noble Path; next, he perfectly controls his mind and thought, thinking only what he wishes to think; third, he can enter the four degrees of meditation and contemplation which are above the discursive mind, whenever he desires, even in this present life; fourth, he has put away the intoxication which arises from lust, the confusion which arises from ignorance. Thus does he attain and abide in that liberation of heart and mind which is gained even in this present life.”
The Dhammapada adds that “The Arhat is the supreme Maha-Purisa,” but does not explain or comment upon this declaration. Still more must it be true that the Buddha, the Arhat among Arhats, is a Maha-Purisa.
So far, the Pali texts bearing on this teaching, with the exception of the Suttanta presently to be introduced. It is evident at a glance that Rhys Davids has established no strong bridge of connection between the Vedic Purusha and and the Buddhist Maha-Purisa; there is little to relate the two teachings except the name, so far as his explanation goes. His great merit is, that he has suggested a connection, even though he stops there, and sheds no light whatever upon its nature or the principles which underlie it. Perhaps he felt instinctively that, once this connection established, it would be impossible any longer to try to conceal the profound esoteric character of the Buddha’s teaching, even if we limit that teaching to the written records of the Pali scriptures. For the basis of relation is deeply mystical and esoteric; it is, in fact, the very foundation of mystical esotericism.
That the Buddha had studied the Vedic Upanishads is proved by his quoting passages which are unmistakable, and which, further, bear the hall-mark of esotericism. It might fairly be assumed that he was equally familiar with this famous Vedic hymn, even if we had not the tradition of his studying with Vedic teachers, during the earlier stages of his spiritual conflict. He would thus have had clearly in mind the real connection between his own teaching of the Maha-Purisa, the “divine man” who attained Arhatship and Buddhahood, and the Vedic teaching of the Purusha, the “divine man” eternal in the heavens, who was offered as a sacrifice by the gods, that sacrifice being the basis and cause of the manifested worlds. The connection is as simple as it is profound: The Maha-Purisa so becomes by assimilating, incarnating and manifesting the essence, the powers, the qualities of the heavenly Purusha; the Master becomes a Master by incarnating, or awaking, within himself the essential being, the consciousness, the powers of the Logos. Here is the entire essence of philosophical and practical esotericism. The wonder is, not that the distinguished Pali scholar did not draw this inevitable conclusion, which would have illuminated for him and for his followers the whole teaching of the Buddha; the wonder is that he should have come so close to it, even arranging in their true order the links of the chain.
So we come to the remaining Pali scripture which speaks of the Maha-Purisa, the “divine man”, namely, the Lakkhana Suttanta, the Discourse of Characteristic Marks. It has already been said that this teaching of the characteristic marks of supreme genius is not of the Buddha’s making, but is evidently one of those older traditions which he adopted and to which he gave a new meaning; for his own purposes. Into the original teaching went various elements: a certain mystical basis, namely, the thought that seers are able to distinguish, by direct perception, the incarnating soul possessed of elements of supreme greatness; there is also something of physiognomy, of palmistry, such as is practised to this day among some of the Lamas of Tibet, as well as fragments of folk-lore. Thus even today, among the Western nations, one may find the idea that blue eyes are a mark of spiritual candour, that curly hair is in some way indicative of innocence and truth. In passing, one may note that the inclusion of blue eyes as one of the thirty-two mystical characteristics makes it not improbable that the Buddha himself had blue eyes; for one can hardly think of his followers accepting as an authentic sign of sainthood a characteristic that their beloved Master did not possess. The Lakkhana Suttanta begins:
Once upon a time, the Master was dwelling at Savitri, in the Wood of Victory, in the park of Anathapindaka, the generous giver. The Master thus addressed his disciples, saying, Disciples! The disciples responded to the Master, saying, Yes, Sire! The Master said:
Thirty-two, disciples, are these characteristic marks of the Maha-Purisa, the divine man, which the divine man possesses, and for the divine man possessing them, there are two ways, and no other: Should he live the life of a householder, he becomes a King, a universal monarch, turning the wheel of sovereignty, righteous, a lord of righteousness, who has extended his conquests in the four directions of space, whose dominions are well protected, who possesses the seven treasures: namely, the treasure of the wheel of sovereignty, the treasure of elephant-herds, the treasure of troops of horses, the treasure of rich jewels, the treasure of fair women, the treasure of a great household, the treasure of wise counsellors, as his seventh treasure. More than a thousand sons will be his, heroes, vigorous of form, vanquishers of the enemy. He, when he has conquered the world to the margin of the ocean, reigns not by the mace, not by weapons, but by righteousness. But if he should go forth from the life of the householder to the homeless life of the disciple, he becomes a Buddha supreme, who draws back the veil that darkens the world.
But what, disciples, are these thirty-two characteristic marks of the Maha-Purisa, the divine man, through possessing which, these two ways, and no other, are open before the Maha-Purisa? . . .
It has already been suggested that elements of folk-lore, of chiromancy, of physiognomy, enter into the list of characteristic marks. It is possible that they have genuine spiritual correspondences; it is fairly certain that the more significant of them have these correspondences. But they are not worked out in the Pali scriptures, nor would much be gained by industriously trying to find these correspondences, since that is not the point or purpose of the Buddha’s discourse. He takes it for granted that these bodily characteristics are the outward and visible sign of so many inward and spiritual graces, which he has enumerated again and again in his sermons; and, accepting these marks as genuinely representing spiritual possessions, he goes on to show in what manner these spiritual graces are gained, and have in fact been gained by those who, like himself, have attained to supreme liberation.
The first characteristic mark, “The Maha-purisa stands firm upon his feet,” has so evidently a spiritual meaning, that it has passed into all languages as indicating moral and spiritual firmness. The second characteristic mark, “The Maha-purisa has, on the soles of his feet, the mark of the wheel, the chakra, with a thousand spokes, with nave and tire complete,” suggests not so much universal metaphor, as palmistry, with its tradition of significant marks upon the palms of the hand; lines of life, of fortune, of fate, and so on. Even if we invoke palmistry, it is not easy to interpret the third characteristic mark, “The Maha-purisa has long heels,” unless the meaning be once more that the divine man stands firm. Then come characteristic marks that have been generally recognized as signs of aristocratic birth, such as finely shaped hands with long fingers, soft and tender skin, as contrasted with the hard integument of the labourer, “ankles like rounded shells . . . legs as graceful as an antelope’s, a complexion of the hue of gold, skin so delicately smooth that no dust will cleave to his body”: then there are more virile characteristics, such as a form divinely straight, a leonine jaw, a body rounded like the sacred fig tree, and so forth. Since there appears to be no consistent symbolism underlying the list of divine signs we need not recount them all, nor enlarge upon their meaning.
Their significance is not the point which the Buddha wishes to make in his discourse. His purpose is in reality quite different. He seeks to show that each of these thirty-two miraculous signs is not come by fortuitously, nor is it the gift of fortune or of some supernatural being. On the contrary, each one of these outward and visible signs which mark the body of the Maha-Purisa, the divine man (and which, if we are to believe the tradition of his disciples, marked the body of the Buddha himself), is acquired by working for and developing the inward and spiritual grace of which it is the hall-mark. The Discourse puts the matter thus:
These are the thirty-two signs in virtue of which the Maha-Purisa born possessing them has open before him two ways and no other: he will either become a universal monarch, righteous, a lord of righteousness, or, should he give up the life of a householder and enter the homeless life, he will become a supreme Buddha. The Rishis who are without (the Buddhist Order) possess a knowledge of these thirty-two signs, but they do not know through the doing of what work, through what Karma, each of these signs is acquired.
In whatever former birth, former condition, former abode, the Tathagata, being a man, set himself to fulfill all righteousness in deed, in word, in thought, in giving gifts to the needy, in gaining virtues, in keeping holy days, in honouring father and mother, in keeping a right attitude toward ascetics and Brahmans (seekers of the Eternal), in due respect for elders, and other kindred graces,—the Tathagata, by accomplishing such works, by acquiring such Karma, when he was separated from his body, was reborn after death in a heavenly world. There he was endowed with graces surpassing those of other Radiant Beings, in ten treasures, namely, in length of divine span of being, in divine beauty, in divine joy, in divine glory, in divine dominion, in perception of divine forms, sounds, perfumes, tastes, contacts.
Descending from that paradise and once more entering the world of men, he is endowed with this characteristic mark of the Maha-Purisa, the divine man: he sets his feet firmly and evenly upon the earth, placing each foot evenly upon the earth, evenly raising it again, setting the entire surface of his foot upon the earth.
If, possessing this characteristic mark, he should follow the life of a householder, he will become a universal monarch. But if he should enter the homeless life, he will become a supreme Buddha. Should he become a monarch, what reward does he gain? He becomes irresistible by any force of man, disaffected or hostile. Or, entering the homeless life, and becoming a Buddha, what reward does he gain? He becomes irresistible by any power without or within, disaffected or hostile, by lust or fault or delusion, by ascetic or Brahman, by god, demon, or great Brahma himself, by any power whatever in the universe. As a Buddha this reward he gains.
In whatever former birth, former condition, former abode, the Tathagata, being a man, lived for the happiness of the many, dispelling perturbation and terror and fear, providing righteous guardianship and protection, a bestower of gifts upon his followers,—the Tathagata, by accomplishing such works, by acquiring such Karma, when he was separated from his body, was reborn after death in a heavenly world. There he was endowed with graces surpassing those of other Radiant Beings, in the ten treasures.
Descending from that paradise and once more entering the world of men, he is endowed with this characteristic mark of the Maha-Purisa, the divine man: on the soles of his feet are the circles, the chakras, with a thousand spokes, with nave and tire complete, in every respect complete and well delineated. If, possessing this characteristic mark, he should follow the life of a householder, he will become a universal monarch. But if he should enter the homeless life, he will become a supreme Buddha. Should he become a monarch, he will have many followers, Brahmans, householders, merchants, country folk, treasurers, ministers, warriors, warders, councillors, feudatories, kings, noble princes. As monarch, this is the reward that he gains. But should he follow the homeless life and become a supreme Buddha, he will have many followers, disciples, both men and women, lay disciples, both men and women, gods, men, demons, dragons and seraphs. As a Buddha, this is the reward that he gains. . . .
Following this well-marked course, the sermon takes its leisurely way, with many pleasing iterations, and at the same time with a defined progression, recounting power after power, virtue after virtue, of which the characteristic marks are the outward signs.
Of that calmly flowing stream, we have followed the course long enough to draw certain conclusions. The first is the general correspondence between the kingly and the saintly virtues and attainments. The monarch, by spiritual striving and aspiration in one life, gains, in the next, the power to overcome the resistance of his enemies, within his kingdom and without. By the attainment of exactly the same virtues the saint gains the power to overcome his ghostly enemies, both those which are within and those which are without. There is an exact equivalence, on the two planes of effort. The saint is not a saint through negative qualities. He has all the kingly attributes, valour, nobility, justice,—and something more. He is not less than the king, but greater. So the kingly virtues lead on to the divine virtues.
The next general conclusion is that all virtues and spiritual qualities, whatever their nature or rank may be, are to be earned, to be worked for, striven for, sacrificed for; they do not drop like too ripe fruit into the hands of those who merely sit at the foot of the tree of life. Perfection is marvellous and beyond price, both the perfection of the just and valorous king and the perfection of the saint, of the Arhat, of the supreme Buddha. But every element, every detail of these perfections is to be earned, and we are here, in this world of men, to earn them. For the persevering, for the valorous, all is possible.
Through what divine dispensations are these marvellous attainments within the reach of every valorous man and woman, disciples and lay disciples of either sex? Here, if our understanding be justly based, is the essence of the whole matter. These graces and spiritual treasures are within our reach because they are the qualities and powers, the very being, of the heavenly Purusha, the Divine Man, the Logos; they are within our reach, because the Heavenly Man, who might have dwelt apart in celestial solitude, submitted instead to sacrifice, offering his life and being, giving that life as the sustenance of many. If this view be just, then the Logos doctrine, with its inevitable corollary, the divine sacrifice, is the very heart of the Buddha’s teaching.