The illumination or awakening of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, the prince of the clan of the Shakia, is one of the great stories of humanity and as such is shrouded in myth, poetry, magic and legend. If anything is clear from the teachings of the Buddha —both in the sutras of the Pali Canon and in the mahayana sutras— is that the doctrine, the dharma, have a function essentially practical, linked to the pursuit of liberation from suffering, and every teaching is adjusted to the specificity of the moment and the capabilities of the disciples. Take things literally, and cling dogmatically to a historical accuracy absolute is to fail to understand what the buddhadharma (which is seen only as a raft used to cross to the other shore and then leaves). So then, the same life of the Buddha and the sutras, biographies and legends that evoke, are teachings on different levels, an abundant flow of skillful means that arise in relation to the needs of beings and the evolution of the different buddhist schools to inspire the practice and subjugate the “demons” or negative habits of the mind. The different manifestations of the miraculous and the different siddhis, or attainments of the Buddha (from the omniscience to touch the Sun with a finger), however, can be explained doctrinally from the fundamental notion that appears in many sutras that the mind precedes all things, that all things are contained in the mind. As well as by the fact that all things are relative and interdependent, do not have inherent existence, they are like appearances in magical. As indicated in the Heart Sutra: “form is emptiness, and emptiness is form”. And the Diamond Sutra: «all conditioned phenomena are like a dream, an illusion, a bubble, a shadow…». The reality is that there is no way to reconcile a historical view rigorous —as we understand it today in the West since the scientific materialism— with the buddhist tradition, especially as it evolves in the mahayana (where everything takes a proportion of cosmic). But this is also what makes it so fertile and radically transforming to buddhism: it tells us that the real world is an illusion, that the mind is infinite and that there is in us a potential for almost unimaginable that transcends time and its conditions —and gives us the tools and the method to test these hypotheses by ourselves, without taking them as dogma. As it says in the translator of buddhist texts Gerardo Abboud:
Amazed that he could find a man half-naked, sitting under an old fig tree, only with the power of the mind. Among other things, that there is no time, no space and no matter as we perceive it; that they’re all just concepts. Interestingly, the same conclusions reached by quantum physics.
In this article, which we offer as part of the celebration of Vesak, the day that many asian countries celebrate the birth, awakening and death, or parinirvana of the Buddha (events all condensed in the full moon of Vesak), we will try to capture and share the richness of the multi-great episode of the enlightenment of Siddhartha Gautama, the time at which it reaches the state that makes itself a Buddha (one who is awake). This episode seminal of the Buddha, under the Bodhi tree (the archetypal tree, the axis mundi), where tradition has it that the buddhas previous buddhas, the future will awake also, is without a doubt one of the most beautiful and significant in the history of mankind, comparable with any other, and deserves the most detailed study of any one interested in spirituality and the universal values that transcend culture or time. To develop this narrative, we have combined a variety of sources, including some sutras of the Pali Canon, the count of the “myth” of the Buddha that makes Ananda Coomaraswamy in his book Hinduism and buddhism and especially the biography non-sectarian poet of the first century of our era, ashvaghosha’s, titled Buddhacarita, a classic text.
Prince Siddharta Gautama was born some 2,600 years (there are disputes, academic about the exact date) in what is now Nepal. His birth accompanied by miraculous signs: his mother, Maya is visited in a dream by a white elephant, which descends from heaven and penetrates her womb; the prince is born “on his right side” (something that has been interpreted as a sign of a virgin birth or, in the case of the most sceptical, of a c-section). Siddhartha, who until that moment was a bodhisattva who was waiting in the heaven Tushita, is born consciously, knowing that this will be their last incarnation. The gods Indra and Brahma serve as a kind of midwives, and placed a cloth on the prince, who the first thing he does is give seven steps, and a sign of the constellation of the seven seers or rishis (the sages who saw the Vedas). Prince Siddhartha, of the warrior caste of the Shakia, grows protected in a world of luxury and happiness, untouched by the decay of the external world. Although he lives in a park of pleasure, where all semblance of suffering has been vanished, four days after taking his car through the woods and encounters an old man, a sick man, a corpse and a monk in austerity. The prince then got a glimpse of what will be your doctrine, noting that there is suffering, but it may be possible to overcome it (see “the serenity of a man who has risen beyond the vicissitudes of its existence”, says Coomaraswamy). It is from this sequence of episodes that the Bodhisattva decides to become a renouncer. At the age of 29, the prince announces to his father that will leave the world of his palace, including his wife and son, in search of a solution to the problem of existence. In this it prefigures the notion of a vehicle of universal salvation, the path of the Bodhisattva: in the countless lives of samsara, all have been our mother and father; it is not necessary to prefer some lives over others; the hero promises to lead to release every one of them. Even so, after his enlightenment, the Buddha will take special care to go to the heaven of Indra expressly to teach dharma to his mother to free her from cyclic existence.
Shortly after leaving the palace of her father, Mara (death, the devil) offers him the empire of the world, but the Bodhisattva rejects it. Is subjected for 6 years mortifications and austerities, and studying meditation —combines the tapas and samadhi. Having left their masters, considering that neither had the dharma to be able to release complete, sets out on a lonely road. In extreme austerity, when your body is extremely weakened, he finds the girl Nandabala, which gives rice to ambrosia that the gods have prepared (here is a prefiguration of a middle path, the rejection of the extremes). This food will revitalize and give him the strength to hold his meditation and reaching enlightenment. It is then when the Bodhisattva decides not to get up from the Bodhi tree (ficus religious) to not obtain the knowledge of the cause and the cure of mortality and the cycle of suffering. “It is there, in the navel of the world, and at the foot of the tree of life, that all former buddhas have awakened». Makes a vote, with the earth as a witness, and says to himself that he will not change of position (the flagship position, sitting on the floor with legs crossed) to not achieve their objective.
The whole world echoes the resolution to become a Buddha, the nature and the gods rejoice in such an event. But there is one who does not rejoice, is Mara, the demon who is opposed to freedom, the great bouncer of the samsara, the all-consuming. The Bodhisattva is assaulted by Mara and his army of passions (which will be known as the poisons of the mind). But the Bodhisattva is imposed to the illusions of Mara, having settled in a invulnerable state of concentration and wisdom. The dissolve to Marah, the full moon radiant smiles (one of the symbols of enlightenment for buddhism), and a rain of flowers descended from the sky.
The enlightenment of the Buddha it is said in one night divided into four watches, in which it passes through the different levels of meditative absorption (dhyanas) and get a recap and remember all their previous lives, completely removing all traces of karma and understand dependent origination (which is roughly the architecture of samsara, or how to build a world of suffering out of ignorance).
In the first watch the Bodhisattva remembers all his previous lives: «In such a place, I was such a person and she had such a name and there transmigré to this other,” writes ashvaghosha’s. So thousands of births, experiencing each other’s time. And having remembered everything, birth and death, he experienced compassion for all living beings. “Time and again they must leave their loved ones, and should from place to another, without ever resting. Without a doubt, the world is hopeless, and like a wheel turns and rotates”, he said to himself the Bodhisattva. And to do this he came to the conclusion that samsara is as unsubstantial as the pith of a banana.
In the second watch, opens the divine eye (divyaṁ cakṣuḥ), experience of the previous lives of all beings “Then with such a perfect divine eye saw the world as a polished mirror”, says ashvaghosha’s. He contemplated the ways cyclical of all beings. He saw to the unfortunate, to the exalted and the humble following their various paths (gods, titans, men, animals, hungry ghosts, hell beings, all subject to the karma). He noted how the beings took existence in relation to the virtue of their acts.
It is interesting the comment that makes the teacher Bob Thurman, who suggests that the Buddha was capable of tremendous feat of collection in so much that he also discovered the relativity of his own existence, the absence of a self that is fixed (which is referred to as anatman). And that is another way, says Thurman, the pain of reliving all of these experiences, the suffering of the ocean of sere sensitive of samsara, it would be unmanageable to empathize with them. Is to discover relativity and of what the mahayana then will be called emptiness (shunyata), that the Bodhisattva opened his divine eye, which allows him to perceive the all simultaneously, without the constriction of a self that individuates and separates, free of fear or hope. We can compare this time with the description that makes Borges’s Aleph, the luminous point in which you find all the things and all the events of the universe without overlapping. In the case of Borges the Aleph was an object of mysterious and unique, in the case of the Buddha is ubiquitous, the perception of the whole, without overlapping, in all the richness of the difference, will always be available, it will be your very nature. It is said that a Buddha experiences the entire universe as his body, this is also the root of most immediate of his compassion.
In the third watch is where the Bodhisattva goes beyond the samadhi conventional and the meditative techniques that were established in his time in India and incorporates the penetrating insight of vipashyana, and discerning the essential nature of things. Contemplating dependent origination, pratityasamutpada and the 12 links or nidanas of the conditional existence (such as ignorance or avidya generates impressions or mental samskaras that generate consciousness or vijnana which generate the name and form or nama-rupa and so on). This is the string that gives fuel to the wheel of samsara and whose extinction will be the nirvana (a term that refers to extinguish or put out a fire).
The Bodhisattva quickly through the eight dhyanas or trances, meditative, recalling that in his youth spontaneously had entered one of them. These dhyanas mark the boundaries or planes highest of the samsara, up to the space where live the gods without form:
From the top of the world could not detect I any (self, atman). As the fire, when the fuel has run out, came the calm. He had arrived at perfection and said to yourself, ‘This is the path to authentic that have gone through other great sages who have discovered the superior and the inferior, and have reached the ultimate truth’.
In the fourth watch of the Bodhisattva awakens to the full realization of buddhahood, the state of omniscience and complete eradication of avidya. In that time, says the poet ashvaghosha’s, “the earth shook like a woman drunken with wine”, the siddhas appeared on all sides, flowers and heavenly fruits fell, the drums rang out and winds, glorious, full of perfumes, blew, gods, protectors, and great enlightened sages of the ages appeared in, the dharma increased, and the light overcame the darkness. The whole world paid tribute and celebrated such an event.
For the tradition of mayahana, in the fourth vigil, the lighting of the Buddha sealed with its vision of non-dual of Venus, the star of the dawn. This is the perfect symbolism of the enlightenment, which found its mirror in the emissary of the morning, in the one who brings the light. But more than this symbolism, the mahayana, and tantric buddhism vajrayana, we say that this moment is the true annihilation of ignorance, since the Buddha sees the star as not as something separated, within the construct of the dual subject-object, but that access to a gnosis non-dual light, which dissolves all separation: “in and out spontaneously unified”. Buddha is a way of seeing, the pure vision. If there is no duality, there is a subject that is attracted or repelled by objects, and therefore there is no suffering. In his book The Flatbed Sutrazen master Louie Wing describes poetically this time:
Shakyamuni buddha sees the morning star. The morning star see the morning star. Shakyamuni buddha sees Buddha Shakyamuni. See see see.
There is No one left, just is the pure act of perception, the autocognición of the light.
This mode of cognition primary will be identified as the natural state of the mind, called in different ways in each tradition. Terms such as bodhicitta (the spirit or mind of awakening), tatagatagarbha (the embryo buddha), rigpa (gnosis primordial), mahamudra (the great seal), or the one Mind, all allude in some way to this knowingness essential that lies beyond all conceptualization and is compared with the sky or with a mirror. The interpretation of the theravada buddhism of the four noble truths that the Buddha taught will be focused on that suffering is caused by desire, which in itself denotes ignorance, because you want things or phenomena that are invariably impermanent (anicca), which obviously produces dissatisfaction (duhkha). As the mahayana introduces the notion of buddha-nature inherent (tatagatagarbha), the essential cause of suffering is changed. Suffering occurs primarily by not recognizing this own essential nature which is enlightenment. Not to recognize this basic nature is ignorance paramount (avidya), which occurs when the mind perceives the world in a subject-object dichotomy. The awful feeling of separation that we have, the illusory, the consolidation of an ego or individual self, and in fact all the endless wheel of samsara are the results of this basic point in which the mind is confused and perceives things as if they had inherent existence independent of itself. As tell Padmasambhava in the Bardo Thodol (tibetan Book of the dead): «ignorance is not recognizing that the light that you see is the unfoldment of your own being.»
After his enlightenment, there are various stories about the words that came to the mind of the Buddha. In the theravada tradition it is said that the Buddha exclaimed:
Having searched for the builder of the house,
I have erred in the vortex of samsara for countless lives,
without the power to escape death; the suffering is always repeating,
in this re-and re-birth.
Oh house builder, you have been discovered!
You’ll never build this house for me.
All of the beams have been broken, and has collapsed the roof.
The aggregates have been undone.
My mind has reached the destruction of the attachments….
It is said that the Buddha remained in his supreme samadhi for seven days (and in some cases there is talk of seven weeks). Having said:
Deep and quiet, simple, light and without form.
I have found a dharma which is like nectar.
Who is to explain it, no one will understand.
For this reason I will remain, silent, in the jungle.
But, obviously the story doesn’t end there, and that it was then when the gods Indra and Brahma persuaded the Buddha to teach the precious dharma and become the teacher of men and gods. So then the Buddha went on her way by turning the wheel of dharma, teaching the four noble truths and the noble eightfold path, first before the famous five-mendicant (to the mahayana, there will be two turnings of the wheel of dharma and a quarter, or a tantric teaching, according to the vajrayana).
In the zen tradition it is said that the enlightened, the Buddha exclaimed: “Ah, what a wonder, I now see that the Earth, all sentient beings and I myself have been enlightened from the beginning”. The story changes a little here in the sense that for the mahayana, the enlightenment is not a single event but rather is the innate potential of all beings, the essential purity of the mind, which must gradually reach. In the tantric buddhism of vajrayana, it will go farther and will be deemed to enlightenment as something that can be precipitated in this same life, because this is something that does not occur, or be achieved, but is something that essentially recognizes or discovers (as a take off a bandage), it is the underlying reality of all things. The vajrayana, then it will assume the fruit (the enlightenment) as the basis or actuality of the path and perform a series of procedures for rooting or stabilize the understanding of one’s own buddha-nature. Zen, unlike mayahana traditional, he will defend the possibility of the sudden or suddenly (as happens also with the dzogchen, the vehicle or path of the most high of the vajrayana). The reasoning that predominates here is that if buddhahood is not a state that has end, it is timeless and omniscient, there could not be something that occurs, something that has a cause, something born, a work of time, as all things are produced, that have cause, who have been born are impermanent and will come to its end. Here then buddhahood must be something non-nato and free from any production, cause and condition: the same reality, without elaboration, that only does not experience the ignorance or habits of mind that meet its pristine nature. It is for this reason that buddhism is essentially a religion of the mind, of the correct understanding of reality, of the wisdom; the wisdom of the original nature, to know who we are (even if that who is a nobody, a nothing radiant) is buddhahood, the state that the early buddhism called nirvana, and which will later be called with other names, trying to avoid the duality refers to the nirvana and its contrast to samsara. The recognition of the nature of mind in itself leads to the destruction of samsara, but also of nirvana, of all difference, separation and concept, including the Buddha himself.
Twitter of the author: @alepholo