Photographer Madhur Dhingra is the Edge of Humanity Magazine contributor of this photo essay.  From the project ‘Suññatā – The Great Void’To see Madhur’s body of work, click on any image.


The centenarians of Shangri-La (शम्भाला)


A sandstorm blows in as a भिक्षु (monk) takes his གཡག་ (yak) home after grazing.
Rangdum, Zanskar




My interest in the Indian saint Shakyamuni or Gautama Siddartha (563 or 566 B.C.E) was generated during my sailing days. Born a prince but profoundly troubled by human suffering. Longing for answers he became a wandering yogi, seeking the truth for the sake of all sentient beings. He became a disciple of two hermits, Arada Kalama and Rudraka Ramaputra. He was a fast learner but was still unable to extract answers that had always been troubling his restless mind vis-à-vis the cause of human suffering. Disappointed he left them and started walking the path alone.

He wandered in the forest for 6 years living a harsh ascetic life, soon to realize that this again was not the right way. Feeble and wary he sat down on determined meditation to find his answers. Varied thoughts entered his mind, carefully and patiently he examined them one by one and rejected them all. Then one day as the morning star appeared in the eastern sky, his struggle was finally over, his mind became clear and he could foresee the causes and the path to eradication of human suffering. This was December the 8th, when the Prince became Buddha.

Personally my curiosity lay more in the chain of events that had finally lead to his enlightenment and the sources which tell us more about those events. I start digging in for more information but found no accurate archeological evidence about the existence of Siddhartha, apart from the fact that a couple hundred years after his death, a particular site in India had been continually revered as his birthplace.  The historical accuracy of Buddhist texts regarding his life and enlightenment were questionable too, especially because many such texts have obviously been embellished with super natural stories and mythological imagery.

Digging further I found that one of the more reliable and ancient source of information came from the texts called the Pali Canon which were established as the doctrinal basis of Buddhism shortly after Buddha’s death.

Buddha however had taught the potential of an individual to directly perceive the deep universal truths and achieve liberation through meditative discipline.


निर्वाण (Nirvana)


Majjhima Nikaya Sutta 36 states that Buddha’s enlightenment occurred mainly in three phases.

His First Visions Of Previous Lives: “…When the mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unsullied, devoid of impurity, compliant, adaptable, steadfast, & composed, I directed it to the knowledge of remembering my past lives. I recollected many past lives, i.e., one birth, two…five, ten…fifty, a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand, many eons of cosmic contraction, many eons of cosmic expansion, many eons of cosmic contraction & expansion: ‘There I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure & pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose again. There too I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure & pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose here.’ Thus I remembered my manifold past lives in their modes & details.”

Second Phase of his Enlightenment: Transmigration (Rebirth) of all beings and their causes…

“I discerned how beings are inferior & superior, beautiful & ugly, fortunate & unfortunate in accordance with their Karma. ‘These beings who were endowed with bad conduct of body, speech, & mind, who malign noble ones, held wrong views and under took  actions under the influence of wrong views, with the disintegration of the body after death have re-appeared in the planes of deprivation and lower realms. But beings who were endowed with good conduct of body, speech and mind, who did not revile the noble ones, who held right views and undertook actions under the influence of right views with the break-up of the body after death have re-appeared in the good destinations, in the heavenly world.”

Third Phase of his Enlightenment: Karma: …“When the mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady, & attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of the ending of the mental ebullition. I discerned it as it was actually present, that ‘This is pain… This is the origination of pain… This is the cessation of pain… This is the way leading to the annihilation of mental turmoil… These are the fermentations… This is the origination of fermentations… This is the cessation of fermentations… This is the way leading to the cessation of fermentations.’ My heart, thus knowing, thus seeing, was released from the fermentation of sensuality, released from the fermentation of becoming, released from the fermentation of ignorance. With release, there was the knowledge, ‘Released.’ I discerned that ‘Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done…’”


Inside Lamayuru Monastery.
Lamas drink Cha (salted tea with yak butter ) as they recite the sutras .


Thus Shakyamuni had finally resolved his spiritual quest and achieved his goal, becoming an awakened one “The Buddha” . He was liberated from the never ending cycle of birth and rebirth never to be born again.

Buddha observed that the whole of Creation is continuously in a state of flux. Everything around us is changing. Once upon a time dinosaurs roamed this earth. Eventually they all died out, but their passing away did not mark the end of life itself. Other forms of smaller mammals, birds and reptiles made their presence felt, eventually paving the way for humans to appear on this planet.

We then changed from primitive homo-sapiens to the modern intelligent man.  Our ideas also keep changing continuously. People once believed that the earth was flat, but now we know that it is round. Earth was once supposed to be the center of the universe whereas we now know it as a mere speck in this immeasurable cosmos. We once believed that we were a lonely planet in an extremely lonely universe and our existence was just a matter of chance. Now we know that there could be billions of earth like planets spread all over the cosmos with innumerable more advanced civilizations other than us humans. Our mind too, is also in a continuous state of flux, with one thought preceding another. Thus, there is continuous change both inside and outside and this is the underlying principle governing our existence. There is no rest. Rest will only come when we realize the true nature of the Mind and break away from this vicious cycle of births and deaths




Moksh vs Nirvan 

Shankara’s Advaita (non-dual) Vedanta is generally regarded as having best developed and systematized the main strand of  Upanishadic thought, which stresses the on relationship between  Atman and Brahman. Brahman is an infinite, self-aware consciousness that transcends the subject-object duality. Unqualified and all-inclusive, perhaps its most significant feature is that it is “One without a second,” as there is ‘nothing’ outside Brahman. Hence Atman what each of us really is – is also one with this Brahman. To realize this Non Dualism is to attain Moksha.

Tat tvam asi: “That thou art.”. There is nothing else but Brahman. “To realize the whole universe as Brahman is the means of getting rid of bondage.”  This is Moksh.

Now according to Buddhist thought, one of the most distinctive is the doctrine of “anatta”. This teaches that there is no atma at all, nor is there any aspect of anything that could be called “you” or “I”. Any concept of a distinct, personal identity is an illusion, and it is this illusion that leads to all the suffering and pain in the world. All existence and phenomena in this world do not ultimately have any substantial reality.

Nirvan is the realization that you do not exist. There is no distinct person that is “you” at any given moment, and nothing exists from one moment to the next. Even thoughts, reflections, and states of consciousness are just phenomena that appear and disappear, leaving others in their place. There are no persons, no selves.Emptiness (  Suññatā )- The Great Void –   is foundation to Buddhist Enlightenment.

One says there is no self and the other says everything is the self; there is apparently no consciousness in nirvana, but everything is consciousness in moksha. The fact that these systems are so diametrically opposed here, that one is the mirror image of the other, is suggestive. They are both extreme positions, trying to resolve the relation between the self and the non-self by conflating the one into the other. The not-self of Buddhism swallows the self; the self of Advaita swallows the not-self. But do they amount to the same thing?

I visited Ladakh, also known as Mini Tibet two times, once in 1998 and then in 2018. Visiting the 2000 year old monasteries acted as a balm for my troubled mind. I would sit inside these monasteries for hours at a stretch, hearing the prayer gong echo through the main hall, breaking the pin drop silence.  The filtering light from the windows and doors play hide and seek with the dark monastic interiors. The Wheel Of Time has somehow slowed down in these age old monasteries. There is no hurry to reach anywhere, no  targets to meet and nothing to prove. Life here goes on in its own natural flow…….


Locals chat near མཆོད་རྟེན་དཀར་པོ། (chortens ) Its late evening and a heavy sandstorm sets in. .
Rangdum, Zanskar


The Antediluvians 1


The Bardo – Tibetians gather to watch Cham Dance at Karma Dupgyud Choeling Monastry – The acts and the form of the masked dancers serves to familiarize devotees with the kind of deities they are to encounter during the 49 day བར་དོ་ ‘Bardo’, the transition period between death and rebirth in one of the six forms of existence, depending upon one’s karmic projections: The ‘Bardo Thodol’ manuscript (Tibetan: བར་དོ་ཐོས་གྲོལ, Wylie: bar do thos grol, “Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State”) is a text from a larger corpus of teachings, the Profound Dharma of Self-Liberation through the Intention of the Peaceful and Wrathful Ones, revealed by Karma Lingpa (1326–1386).


All images & text  © Madhur Dhingra



See also:

Kali | The Goddess Returns

By Madhur Dhingra



Madhur’s  Previous Contributions To Edge Of Humanity Magazine

The Durga Puja Festival Frenzy