In the Buddha's system, self-control is the central theme. He also emphasized self-expression, but nowadays that word is used in a very different sense. Without self-control there can be no true self-expression. That which is to be controlled is the lower self, called the army of skandhas, or attributes. The deposits of matter, forms of matter, bearing certain impressions of the self, are to be controlled and then only can the Real Self express itself. Without control of sense-self there cannot come into expression soul-self. Among Orientalists who study the Buddhist canon only from the philological standpoint, there prevails the idea that the Buddha never taught the existence of Soul or God. Certainly he did not teach their existence as Christians and Westerners understand Soul and God; but he did teach the Soul persisting and gaining immortality, and he did speak of the permanence of Nirvana, its light and its peace.
To begin with, note verse 165 of the Dhammapada:
To destroy one's own evil self is to live—live as a purified entity. Man is dual. In his inner nature he is homogeneous; in his outer, he is composed of numerous factors and forces. There are two poles in man: one is an indivisible unit, the other is made up of divisible components and is therefore manifold. The first is Spirit; the second, Matter. Spirit is pure and it may be designated Innocence in human language. Just as at the start of life the newborn babe is spoken of as innocent, so may we speak of Spirit. But that innocence is accompanied by ignorance, as in the case of the infant.
The other pole is matter. Its power consists in self-multiplication; matter divides and subdivides itself. It presents to the Spirit innumerable objects, and these myriads of objects are used to compare and to contrast them with Spirit. Pure Spirit cannot know itself and its own powers without the aid of objects of matter. To understand this, the universe of matter may be compared to a gigantic mirror, which the Spirit uses to look at itself. Just as a man or a woman to dress well and come out in fine fettle uses a mirror to see how he or she looks, so also Spirit reflects itself in the mirror of matter to see how It looks. The seer, the observer, is the higher unit—the Nirvanee of Buddhist terminology.
The mirror of matter which each Spirit-unit uses is its own constitution—a compound unit made up of many constituents. This bundle contains all kinds of stuff—mind-stuff, feeling-stuff, sense-stuff. Matter of many types has combined to produce that mirror. This is our lower animal-nature. This bundle of different substances is named skandhas in Buddhist psychology. The doctrine of skandhas or attributes or deposits is difficult to grasp; but it may be regarded as a living mirror, a mirror of living, vital matter, into which the Spirit looks. In doing so, the Spirit casts its own reflection in the mirror. Just as the person observing himself in a mirror sees his own reflection, so also the Spirit looking at itself in the mirror of living matter casts a reflection. So there is: (1) Spirit, (2) reflection of Spirit, (3) living matter acting as the mirror.
Because the mirror is composed of vital, living matter with qualities and characteristics of its own, it affects the reflection of Spirit. This reflection affected by matter, and in its turn affecting matter, brings about in itself a new phenomenon. The reflection of the Spirit-unit and the mirror of matter affect each other, and through their mutual interplay springs into existence the false "I." Regard the highest pole in man, the Spirit-unit, as the Individuality; regard the lowest or material pole as a compound, offering itself as a mirror to the Individuality.
The reflection of the Individuality and the mirror of matter produce an entity which looks like Spirit but is not. It is not the Individuality; its name is—personality. When the Buddha said that soul is an illusion, he referred to the personality, this false "I." To regard this personality as immortal is the heresy of soul-belief named Attavada. The Buddha never denied that there was the Individuality, the Nirvanee, immortal and deathless.
The Buddha taught that the interplay between the personality and the matter-mirror is the result of a certain power in matter which attracts the personal "I," impresses it, and causes it to forget its own spiritual pedigree and parenthood. This power or force inherent in matter is not evil in itself, but, attracting the personality, it arouses in the latter the feeling of like and dislike—the force of desire to which the Buddha gave the name of Tanha. Human desires and passions enveloping the reflection of the Individuality create a kind of new entity and make it believe that its source is not Spirit but senses and matter. This is the personality. The Buddha said that Tanha is the enemy of Man; the cause of all sorrows and sufferings is desire. Tanha is thirst for sense-life, for life in forms with its hundred chords which bind and imprison the soul. The Buddha compares the results of Tanha to a gigantic forest. He says:
Desires and passions—these are the dust of illusion settling on the mind which is the human power and principle par excellence. Mind is dual—one part or aspect belongs to the mirror of matter, and the other to the reflection of the Spirit-Unit, the Individuality. The mirror of the mind, of which The Voice of the Silence speaks, is part and parcel of this other mirror—the mirror of matter. Says the Buddha: "Cut down the whole forest of desire." If you aspire to lead the higher life, you are called upon to deal a death-blow to every passion, to every longing of the senses, every yearning of the flesh. Therefore are we told:
It is the same idea, more practically expressed; self-control is the beginning; self-control is the first step. The wise man tames his own personality. He who has tamed himself is a true wise man.
So we need an exercise, a practice, to tame the mind. But let us beware of practising what anyone tells us. There are many people today who teach meditation, etc., who themselves have not practised it. Says the Buddha.
Immortal Wisdom teaches us how to discipline the mind. The first steps are in The Voice of the Silence, the Dhammapada, the Gita; but we need to study the books before we begin to practise. What is the first lesson to learn?
"Rust" corrupts the mind. The passion-nature, and its corrupting influence which makes the mind rusty, is known as Mara, the Devil, and so it is said:
Here is the prescription—all that anyone in the world, aspiring to live the soul-life, needs: a clean mind, noble and unselfish deeds. When we are engaged in doing good, evil flies away. But those unselfish deeds must not be done casually, in a perfunctory manner. They must be done intelligently, for it is the mind that is to be freed. Kind deeds, thoughtlessly performed, injure others as well as ourselves. Also, whenever an unselfish deed is to be done, we must do it with thoroughness and exactitude. In finding ways and means of doing an action thoroughly and efficiently, we free the mind. Thoughtfulness reveals to us our motive—selfish or unselfish. Then correct and thorough execution develops the faculty of the mind and the power of the heart. Knowledge and unselfish motive is everything.
Bodhi-Dharma, Wisdom Religion, which all the Buddhas taught and which Theosophy advocates, lays down the first principle—study. Without study there is no understanding, and to practise anything without understanding is hazardous. But when study is undertaken, we become ready for practice or application. When we have applied, we need to test ourselves, whether that application is deep or superficial, and the way to test our own application is—promulgation. When we try to impart to others what we have learnt, try to help and to serve our fellow-men, then only do we find out if we have really learnt. Service of others is no easy task; it is not just a matter of feeling. Great harm is done by thoughtless and emotional service. The method of right service needs to be learnt.
Soul-service is a science, and it has its own technique. Wisdom-Religion, lived in terms of its tenets, i.e., according to true knowledge, not only evolves our own faculties and unfolds our own soul, it gives us the insight into the entire process of the cosmic life, and we are able to break all fetters as the Buddha himself broke them. Having broken them, he served the Race.