Thursday, 8 December 2016

The Buddha's enlightenment

I'd like to tell you a story. Are you sitting comfortably?

Axial age


It's around 500 B.C.E.. The Persian king Cyrus was preparing to invade Babylon. Pythagoras was alive and Greece’s experiment with democracy was flourishing. The great philosopher Confucius (Kong Qui) was beginning to teach in China and Lao-tzu was laying the foundations for Taoism. Zoroaster founded Zoroastrianism, the dominant religion in Iran up until the coming of Islam. It was a time of revolutionary change the world over – some historians call it the "axial age".

In India, the dominant religion was the Vedic faith, which had been around for a good 1000 years at this point. The Vedas are texts that lay out descriptions of particular rituals (and their associated poems, hymns, etc) for things like fertility, rain, bringing good luck in battle, etc. Over these 1000 years, the highest caste Brahmin priests had assumed more and more power since they were the only ones allowed to perform these rituals and communicate with the Gods. As you can imagine not everybody was happy with this situation...

At around this time a kind of protest movement, or peaceful revolt, to this Brahmin domination started. People from the lower castes, typically the warrior/ruler Kshatriya caste, started renouncing the Brahmin-controlled system and going out into the forest-wilderness to search for another way.

Siddhartha Guatama


At this same time, a boy was born on the very edges of the Vedic/Brahman culture, in Lumbini on what is now the border between India and Nepal – in the foothills of the Himalayas. The little boy, who was called Siddhartha Guatama, was born to the Shakya family clan, and his father happened to be the tribal leader of this small kingdom.

When the baby was born he was taken to the fortune teller (as is the custom in India to this day) and they gave two possible destinies: (1) he was going to be a great, wise and wonderful ruler, or (2) he was going to be a great, wise and wonderful spiritual leader. His father, being a ruler himself, didn’t really like the sound of the second option, so the boy was brought up to be a ruler. He was also brought up in complete luxury with his family not wanting to expose him to any kind of suffering at all. He had a palace for each season, only good-looking, courteous people to wait on him, and as he got older, no end of dancing girls!

One day in his 20s, as he was preparing to take over the rulership of the kingdom, he went out with his chariot driver, Channa, for a drive to have a look around. As they were heading down the road they encountered a sick person hobbling by. The young Siddhartha had never actually seen anybody who was ill before – the old texts says he didn’t even recognise the person as human. “What’s that?” he says, and the chariot driver explained to him. A little further on he saw an old person, slumped over, and again he came to the realisation, through the gentle guidance of Channa, that everybody (including himself) was going to get old. Further down the line still they saw a dead person carried along in a funeral procession. Again the prince was dumbfounded and realised that not only will he get ill and get old, but he will also die.

Siddhartha out with his charioteer having his mind blown!

As you can imagine, he was in shock! Further down the road still he and his chariot driver saw a wandering holy man (a sadhu), and the chariot driver explained that this person was seeking for that which was beyond old age, sickness and death. This very much intrigued Siddhartha.

So the young man had a chat with his wife (who'd just recently given birth) and he somehow convinced her that he wanted to go off to search for himself for "that which was beyond old age, sickness and death". He slipped out of the palace with Channa, his charioteer, in the middle of the night and disappeared into the forest. He was about 29 at this point.

His search


I can't imagine what those first few nights must have been like. He'd grown up in this sheltered life of luxury – what a contrast! However, bearing in mind the age he was living in, there was a whole movement of people in the forests of northern India searching for new ways outside the established Vedic/Brahmin tradition. Over the coming months or years he found a number of different teachers (possibly yogis) to study with, and became very skilled at what they had to offer, but none of them could show him that which was beyond old age, sickness, and death.

After about 6 years of wandering and studying, he got really into fasting and reached a stage of eating just one grain of rice a day... He was on the verge of starvation and saw that, far from seeing clearly, his mind was getting duller by the day. It just so happened that one day a maid named Sujata was wandering by, and, looking at his emaciated body, offered him a bowl of milk rice sweetened with lumps of honey. He accepted it.

A very early statue of an emaciated Buddha-to-be
He started eating properly again an getting his strength back. One day he was sitting by the river Neranjara in northern India and sees a boat going past. Perhaps it was a vision or perhaps real life. On the boat there was somebody playing a veena (a type of Indian guitar). This veena had three strings, one of which is so loose and flappy that he can’t get any sound out of it, and one of which is so tight that the instant he touches it, it just breaks. The middle that’s tuned just right where he can get some music out of it. Seeing this, Siddhartha saw that humans are the same: they don’t work well if you over-tighten things (like doing ascetic practices), and too much slackness doesn’t work either (his life of luxury in the palace). He became convinced that the middle path was the way to go.

So with this in mind, Siddhartha went and sat beneath an enormous fig tree (of the type that has a big root structure with little niches to sit between) and began to meditate. He made a commitment: "Let my skin and sinews and bones dry up, together with all the flesh and blood of my body! I welcome it! But I will not move from this spot until I have attained the supreme and final wisdom." He was at a place called Bodh Gaya, in the modern Indian state of Bihar, and was in his mid-30s at this point.

A Bodhi tree with a big root structure ideal for meditating inside.

Awakening


According to some traditions he sat for just one night. Others say three days and three nights; while others say 45 days. Between his periods of sitting, he apparently mindfully paced up and down a path about 17 steps in length in walking meditation.

After one particularly eventful night of meditation, so it is said, Siddhartha looked up and saw the morning star (Venus) in the golden light of daybreak. At this he had a great awakening and exclaimed "I am enlightened, together with the whole of the great earth and all its sentient beings." He saw in his mind all the life of the world and the planets; of all the past and all the future. He understood the meaning of existence, of why we are here on this earth and what has created us. At long last he found the truth – that which is beyond old age, sickness, and death. The name Buddha means “the awakened one.”

But what is this truth? If you want to know that for yourself, come along to one of our Zen meditation sessions!

Different schools of Buddhism remember the Buddha's awakening at different times during the year. In the Zen school it’s always on December 8th and they call it the Rohatsu retreat – it’s akin to a sort of Zen Christmas! So last night (7th Dec) we sat all through the night (9pm through to 7am) to remember this journey the Buddha took, and to share in his commitment to "not move from this spot until I have attained the supreme and final wisdom".



I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Skinner Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

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