Meaning of the Buddha's Awakening
© 1997 Thanissaro Bhikkhu
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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.
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 nibbana. 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.
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 nibbana (Unbinding),
consciousness without surface or feature, the Deathless.
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 nibbana. 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.
what the Buddha's Awakening means for us now, four points
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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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, spaceless, 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.