The Meaning of the Buddha's Awakening
two crucial aspects of the Buddha's Awakening are the what and the how: what he
awakened to and how he did it. His awakening is special in that the two aspects
come together. He awakened to the fact that there is an undying happiness, and
that it can be attained through human effort. The human effort involved in this
process ultimately focuses on the question of understanding the nature of human
effort itself -- in terms of skillful kamma and dependent co-arising -- what its
powers and limitations are, and what kind of right effort (i.e., the Noble Path)
can take one beyond its limitations and bring one to the threshold of the Deathless.
the Buddha described the Awakening experience in one of his discourses, first
there is the knowledge of the regularity of the Dhamma -- which in this context
means dependent co-arising -- then there is the knowledge of nibbána. In
other passages, he describes the three stages that led to insight into dependent
co-arising: knowledge of his own previous lifetimes, knowledge of the passing
away and rebirth of all living beings, and finally insight into the four Noble
Truths. The first two forms of knowledge were not new with the Buddha. They have
been reported by other seers throughout history, although the Buddha's insight
into the second knowledge had a special twist: He saw that beings are reborn according
to the ethical quality of their thoughts, words, and deeds, and that this quality
is essentially a factor of the mind. The quality of one's views and intentions
determines the experienced result of one's actions.
This insight had a double
impact on his mind. On the one hand, it made him realize the futility of the round
of rebirth -- that even the best efforts aimed at winning pleasure and fulfillment
within the round could have only temporary effects. On the other hand, his realization
of the importance of the mind in determining the round is what led him to focus
directly on his own mind in the present to see how the processes in the mind that
kept the round going could be disbanded. This was how he gained insight into the
four noble truths and dependent co-arising -- seeing how the aggregates that made
up his "person" were also the impelling factors in the round of experience
and the world at large, and how the whole show could be brought to cessation.
With its cessation, there remained the experience of the unconditioned, which
he also termed nibbána (Unbinding), consciousness without surface or feature,
When we address the question of how other "enlightenment"
experiences recorded in world history relate to the Buddha's, we have to keep
in mind the Buddha's own dictum: First there is the knowledge of dependent co-arising,
then there is the knowledge of nibbána. Without the first -- which includes
not only an understanding of kamma, but also of how kamma leads to the understanding
itself -- any realization, no matter how calm or boundless, that does not result
from these sorts of understanding cannot count as an Awakening in the Buddhist
sense. True Awakening necessarily involves both ethics and insight into causality.
for what the Buddha's Awakening means for us now, four points stand out.
The role that kamma plays in the Awakening is empowering. It means that what each
of us does, says, and thinks does matter -- this, in opposition to the sense of
futility that can come from reading, say, world history, geology, or astronomy
and realizing the fleeting nature of the entire human enterprise. The Awakening
lets us see that the choices we make in each moment of our lives have consequences.
We are not strangers in a strange land. We have formed and are continuing to form
the world we experience. The fact that we are empowered also means that we are
responsible for our experiences. This helps us to face the events we encounter
in life with greater equanimity, for we know that we had a hand in creating them,
and yet at the same time we can avoid any debilitating sense of guilt because
with each new choice we can always make a fresh start.
2) The Awakening also
tells us that good and bad are not mere social conventions, but are built into
the mechanics of how the world is constructed. We may be free to design our lives,
but we are not free to change the underlying rules that determine what good and
bad actions are, and how the process of kamma works itself out. Thus cultural
relativism -- even though it may have paved the way for many of us to leave our
earlier religious orientations and enter the Buddhist fold -- has no place once
we are within that fold. There are certain ways of acting that are inherently
unskillful, and we are fools if we insist on our right to behave in those ways.
As the Buddha says at one point in describing his Awakening, "Ignorance was
destroyed; knowledge arose; darkness was destroyed; light arose -- as happens
in one who is heedful, ardent, and resolute." In other words, he gained liberating
knowledge through qualities that we can all develop: heedfulness, ardency, resolution.
If we are willing to face the implications of this fact, we realize that the Buddha's
Awakening is a challenge to our entire set of values. The fact that the Unconditioned
can be attained forces us to re-evaluate any other goals we may set for ourselves,
whatever worlds we want to create, in our lives. On an obvious level, it points
out the spiritual poverty of a life devoted to wealth, status, or sensual pursuits;
but it also forces us to take a hard look at other more "worthwhile"
goals that our culture and its sub-cultures tend to exalt, such as social acceptance,
meaningful relationships, stewardship of the planet, etc. These, too, will inevitably
lead to suffering. The interdependence of all things cannot be, for any truly
sensitive mind, a source of security or comfort. If the Unconditioned is available,
and it is the only trustworthy happiness around, it only makes sense that we invest
our efforts and whatever mental and spiritual resources we have in its direction.
Even for those who are not ready to make that kind of investment, the Awakening
assures us that happiness comes from developing qualities within ourselves that
we can be proud of, such as kindness, sensitivity, equanimity, mindfulness, conviction,
determination, and discernment. Again, this is a very different message from the
one we pick up from the world telling us that in order to gain happiness we have
to develop qualities we can't take any genuine pride in: aggressiveness, self-aggrandizement,
dishonesty, etc. Just this much can give an entirely new orientation to our lives
and our ideas of what is worthwhile investment of our time and efforts.
news of the Buddha's Awakening sets the standards for judging the culture we were
brought up in, and not the other way around. This is not a question of choosing
Asian culture over American. The Buddha's Awakening challenged many of the presuppositions
of Indian culture in his day; and even in so-called Buddhist countries, the true
practice of the Buddha's teachings is always counter-cultural. It's a question
of evaluating our normal concerns -- conditioned by time, space, and the limitations
of aging, illness, and death -- against the possibility of a timeless, space-less,
limitless happiness. All cultures are tied up in the limited, conditioned side
of things, while the Buddha's Awakening points beyond all cultures. It offers
the challenge of the Deathless that his contemporaries found liberating and that
we, if we are willing to accept the challenge, may find liberating ourselves.
© 1997 Thanissaro Bhikkhu. The author gives permission to re-format and redistribute
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