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Seventheenth-century birch bark manuscript from Kashmir
Katha Upanishad
(translated by Thomas Meyer)


They say, because he wanted the good that comes from holy acts, Vajasravasa gave away everything he owned. He had a son whose name was Naciketas.

The gifts were taken off. Although young, the boy was moved and wondered:

Their water drunk, their grass eaten, and milk milked away, the life in them is almost gone, what kind of worn out place will the man go who makes a gift of cows like these?

He said to his father, Sir, who takes me as your offering? Again he asked. And again. Finally his father said, go to Hell.

I am not the first to do this nor the last. What will happen as a result?

Those who were here before us, those who were after, we all come and go, and come back again like grass or wheat.

When an honest and educated man makes a visit he is shown respect.

And if such a man receives no welcome everything worth having is lost.

Here you've been, in my house, three days, without food, without drink. I will make this up to you. Any three things you want are yours, I'll see to that. When the time comes, so do answers.

First, my father, Death: I don't want him to be angry, nor worry about me, and when I get home, make him happy to see me.

Your father sleeps soundly, he isn't angry, and when you get home things will be the way they were.

There is some place, Death, where you are not feared, where we let go of age, hunger, thirst, and unhappiness, and are glad to be there.

And there is some way to have this experience, and be sure of having it again, and again, and this involves fire. The second thing I ask you, Death, is tell me how.

Yes I know how to keep this fire in an open place which upholds the world from deep inside you. Listen.

Death said how a fire could be made, and made to remind us of everything he said and Naciketas repeated, pleasing him, who then said:

Naciketas, this fire takes your name, and what it gives has many different uses.

Light this fire once, twice, three times, pay attention to what it represents, make that part of life; remember, it is where everything comes from, and let go of worry.

And when you do this, each time, think of it as simply as possible.

It is yours, Naciketas. This fire, the good it brings. The second thing you asked me has your name now. And what third thing do you want?

I ask this third question: When a man leaves this world some say he still exists and others say he doesn't. What can you tell me, Death?

Even those you might call gods haven't found a way to talk about this complicated matter, so ask me something else, Naciketas. Let this question go.

If this is such a complicated issue, how could I find anyone better than you, Death, to teach me. There can't be anything more profound to learn.

Take sons and grandsons, instead. Cattle, elephants, gold, horses. Ask me for acres of land; to live as many years as you want.

Ask anything else you want, Naciketas, and wealth, a long life, power; I will make sure you enjoy these as well.

Whatever impossible wishes you have, make them. Women, cars, music. Things few men or women ever get. I will give you all these, just don't ask me about what happens beyond this life.

These, Death, do not last; they wear away the senses of men and women. We live a short time. You endure.

How can we be happy with all this when we've seen you? Do we endure as long as you rule? Tell me.

No one who knows about immortal Death follows the normal life on earth; nor can anyone who touches beauty and love be rushed or waylayed by need, or want.

Tell me, Death, about the next step, the one beyond dying, the one so many doubt exists. Your answer opens this up for me, I ask.

There is a difference between feeling good and feeling right. Both, to separate ends, bind us. To feel right about things is best. Merely feeling good about them misses the mark.

The good and the comfortable offer themselves. Someone alert thinks about them both carefully. And if he must select between them, realizes that the comfortable is the easiest but not always the best choice.

Naciketas, you have decided not upon the easy or pleasant or most advantageous. You've not made the choice most would.

Eventually these two come to ends far apart. Finding out something, or not -- Naciketas, undistracted.

They live in the dark, award themselves diplomas, consider themselves custodians of the mind, they walk a narrow, twisted path, they are blind and follow the voice of someone who has lost his sight.

What comes beyond life never shines for the inattentive, careless, those fooled by the allure of success. They assume this world is all there is, and fall into my hands over and over.

Someone who's never been heard of, and even when found out about, remains almost unknown is an amazing pupil, a precious discovery, a blessing beyond all leaning.

If this is taught at all, it is well taught. If this is understood, it is fully understood.

The mind cannot work it out alone, it comes through the company of another; in your certainty, you have found it Naciketas, and may I find more like you who seek it.

Things don't last. Having them doesn't foster life. The fire named after Naciketas teaches me that, nonetheless what endures comes from them.

Having everything you want, a firm foundation, intended results, the fearless other side, reward and reknown, widespread support, Naciketas, you deliberately let them go.

Recognizing yourself that silent unseen voice, imbedded, hidden deep inside, you are free of what makes you unhappy, and no longer need to seek your happiness.

Hearing this, and thinking about it, working out what can be known of it, a good house opens its door to you, Naciketas.

Death, tell me what you see beyond what is done and not done, what seems right or is wrong, what has happened or is yet to.

The word all knowing speaks, that all care pronounces, that people devote their lives to, that word, I can tell you briefly, is aum.

This syllable is indestructable, it is the final goal, this syllable brings whoever knows it what they want.

The strength of this is best of all. This strength comes from strength itself. Taking part in it brings complete awareness.

This identity does not pass into life and from it again. Nothing is made out of it and it is made out of nothing. It isn't yet, and endless, always there, but just begun. It doesn't die when we do.

If you think you can kill , or you think you are killed, you've misunderstood. This integrity can neither take nor be taken.

As small as it gets, as big, this is the heart of everything. Under no stress, it appears, without unhappiness. The silent mind and quiet attention locate it.

Sitting down, you cover miles, lying down you travel everywhere. Who but me is better suited to say who pays attention to this, or ignores it?

Aware of this thing that hasn't got a shape, yet moves through the shape of things, steadied by constant shiftings, huge and everywhere, you remain untroubled.

This can't be taught, nor worked out, nor listened into existence. It comes to those it chooses, and shows itself to them.

The open path to this is blocked by destructive thoughts, restlessness, a lack of concentration, an unsettled mind.

There is no knowing where this is, which swallows presidents and priests alike, seasoned with death.

Two things work away deep inside, some call them black and white, those at home, taking care of the five religious fires, or the three named after Naciketas.

The bridge taking them from here to there, unafraid, that fire, is us crossing.

This thing we're talking about, imagine it owns a car, and the body is that car, the mind its driver, using thought to steer it.

Our attention is the energy that draws the car, and what we pay attention to provides our roads. The body, attention, the mind provide enjoyment.

Whoever pays no close attention to things, whose thoughts run wild is like a driver spinning his wheels.

But someone who pay careful attention, whose thinking is steady, whose attention is focused is like a driver arriving on time.

The bad driver never gets anywhere.

The good driver always makes progress.

And the good driver cares for his vehicle, knows how to handle it, and gets there.

After attention come the objects of that attention, after the objects come the direction of those objects, after the directions come the patterns of those directions, and after the patterns come the possibilities those patterns show us.

After the possibilities comes an apparent emptyiness. After that apparent emptiness comes a simple, happy confidence. Nothing comes after that.
That is where this ends.

This confidence moves in everything, and though it may not appear so, there are certain people to whom it is clearly shown.

Thought lets go of talk, and the mind lets go of thought , then there is an openess that lets go of the mind -- that is, if these things were coming neatly one after another, here would now be a steadiness when the openess is released.

Stand up. I've answered your questions. But that doesn't mean they mean what they mean easily.

You can't hear it, touch it, feel its shape, it doesn't seen to spoil, yet remains tasteless, but it is definitely there, you can't smell it, it doesn't really begin, won't end, still it stays put to provide relief.

This story Deaths tells about Naciketas is good to hear.

Just listening to it does a person good.


Attention does not uncover what we are looking for inside. The holes of our attention are punched out toward the world, so all looking is looking outside ourselves. But then someone turns their eyes around staring into themselves.

Some go for what feels good here in the world. They are trapped in dead ends. Others don't look for the steady in this flood of stuff around us.

How we feel the shapes of things, taste and smell them, hear or are touched affectionately by them: there is that but something else.

When we dream what we dream, then about to wake, a happiness comes.

Someone who has experienced what we're talking about, you do not avoid. That is so.

Someone who long ago came from simple things, from water, and enters the tiny space in the chest, and sees into and out of things. So is that.

From life itself, the center of the created world, who stands up, and goes into the secret spot in the heart. That is that.

Hiding in the wood pile, like an egg in a mother, this should be made much of every day by the careful and attentive. That is so.

The sun comes up, the sun goes down. Everything is right there. There is nothing else. So is that.

What is there, is here. What is here, is there. But any thinking of many results in living several lives.

One can only imagine this. Any difference you notice here means death all over again.

Deep at the center of the body lives someone no bigger than a thumb. Coming to terms with this person, you never again fear or avoid him or her.

That thumb-size person in the center of the body is like a smokeless flame. He or she is the source of the past and the future, nonetheless no different today than yesterday, than tomorrow.

When it rains, and the water streams down windows and hills this way and that, that is how most people see the flow of things.

When water is poured into water, they are then one thing, the same way someone who believes this is the same as all he or she believes in.

The unformed but ready mind lives inside a city with eleven gates. When it takes care of things, there is no unhappiness, there is freedom.

A swan in the clouds, the stuff of space itself, one who sacrifices, someone at home moves in all people, all dieties, in good acts, in the sky. This comes from water, earth, goodness, mountains. Certain, impressive.

Breathing out, it goes up. Breathing in, it goes in. The gods love the small person inside the heart who does this.

When thought slips away from the body, what is left?

The breathing in and out does not make life, something else works under them.

Let me explain the difficult part of creation, the everlasting, how we enter that when we die.

Some people enter their mothers to be born, others enter things, all because of what they've done and thought.

Whatever it is that wakes in sleeping, making one desire after another, it is simple, abunant, unending. It contains everything, nothing goes outside it.

Fire comes into this world as a single thing, but then is whatever it burns. In the same way, the thing we're talking about appears here from a single source but then seems to come from whatever it enters.

Air comes into this world as a single thing, but then is whatever it moves. In the same way, the thing we're talking about appears here from a single source but then seems to come from whatever it enters.

The sun is never hurt by what it shines upon. In that same way, the depth of our hearts is not spoiled by what our eyes see.

All of this is one thing, inside ourselves, and knowing this make us happy.

Knowing that what lasts, and is aware, and unique, that it exists inside us makes us quiet.

Yes, but how came we know this. Can we see it, or does it see us?

The sun, the moon, the stars have no light of their own, it comes from this other, larger light which shows us the world.

Roots in the air, branches underground, that is how this old fig tree grows. Endlessly and simply, everything comes home to it, nothing goes outside it.

Everything comes from and moves in life itself. Like a thunderclap, knowing this, sudden, and loud.

Waiting for this noise fire burns, the sun grows hot, the gods, death, the fifth thing, and wind all hurry.

If this happens before the body dies, the grip of the world is let go.

Inside us this is like looking into a mirror to see; in the world of care and good deeds, this looking is like a dream; where there is much beginning and ending, this is something seen under water; and ultimately it is only the shadows playing upon empty air.

Our attention comes from somewhere else, awakened or dulled by something other than this. A happy thought.

After our attention there is thought; after thought there is the mind; after the mind there is the wide open; after what is wide open there is emptiness.

After that emptiness, there is someone impossible to iden tify, yet knowing of them, we are free and unendning.

Not someone seen with the eyes. Thinking, feeling, imagining bring this indestructable sight.

When the attentions stand still and thinking lets go: that, they say, is where to be.

That they call yoga. Attentions held. The mind opens.

Talking, thinking, seeing cannot bring this. How can it be except by simply assuming it is.

First it is, and then how comes after.

When everything is let go of, then closed up is opened out.

When all the strings the heart atttaches are cut, the limited becomes unlimited. That is something to be learned.

The heart has one hundred and one arteries. One leads directly to the top of the head. Moving up along that artery, we are freed. The other arteries go in every different directions.

Something the size of a thumb, inside, lives in everyone's heart. It should be coaxed out of the body steadily, the gentle breath you use playing a whistle. That which comes out is simple and undying.

So Naciketas learned all this, and found a clear and free life that was endless. Any of us can do this if we try.