Buddha’s Own Experiences from the Samsaric Life Immemorial

On the 16th of May, 2011 Buddhists around the globe are set to celebrate the 2600th Buddha Jayanti, or the birth anniversary of the historical Buddha. This memorable day is to honor and show respect for the Buddha, the world’s greatest enlightened being for his spiritual awakening and enormous contributions to society’s prosperity and well being for the past twenty six centuries. This is without a doubt a truly unforgettable and meaningful event for the devout Buddhists in the 21st century. Among many contributions he made to the world, one is the undeniable, pragmatic, and unsurpassable solution to the world’s burning problem of existence seen in every country, culture, and ethnicity of humanity on this planet. What is this problem of existence, and what is the solution? My intention of this short article is to discuss this problem and its solution by looking into some early Buddhist discourses and verses.

Imagine, for a moment, a tree fresh out of the winter cold with budding blossoms on its branches. The Buddha was like one blossomed flower on this tree, and through his noble quest for the truth, renounced his privileged life as a prince and the world to understand why life was so problematic. Having the patience and determination to discover the solution, he waited until the answer was fully realized within. In his first sermon as an enlightened being to his first five disciples, the Buddha expounds that he gained vision, insight, discernment, knowledge, and illumination with respect to the problem of suffering, which was never heard before. He continues his sermon saying that he obtained the insight, knowledge, and comprehension of this problem and that this problem must be comprehended by others. He elaborates:

“Vision, insight, discernment, knowledge, illumination arose within me with regard to things never heard before: ‘This is the noble truth of stress.’
Vision, insight, discernment, knowledge, illumination arose within me with regard to things never heard before: ‘This noble truth of stress is to be comprehended.’
Vision, insight, discernment, knowledge, illumination arose within me with regard to things never heard before: ‘This noble truth of stress has been comprehended.’

It was with this clear understanding and comprehension that the Buddha, literally meaning “Enlightened One,” “Awakened One,” “Self-Realized One,” and “Understood One,” reentered society with the insights to care for the rest of this “human” tree, thus nourishing and guiding the other buds of humanity to blossom. What were these insights? The Buddha realized the Four Noble Truths: the truth of suffering, truth of the cause of suffering, the truth of the cessation of suffering, and the truth of the way that leads to the cessation of suffering. With these Four Noble Truths realized, the Buddha’s mission was to awaken others to these truths. A careful scrutiny of the early discourses of the Buddha proves his clear-cut mission and vision statement: “Both formerly and now, monks, I declare only suffering and the cessation of suffering.” This statement is explicitly affirmed in the Alagaddupama Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya. In addition, he expounded upon the Noble truth of suffering, otherwise known in Pali as Dukkha. A more precise English translation of Dukkha would be “something which is hard or difficult to bear.” The Buddha discovered that the problem of existence was Dukkha.

It is amazing to think that one person could gain such a profound insight and proclaim this all-knowing, never heard before, information so vital to humanity’s mental success, but the Buddha did just that. In the Sela Sutta of the Sutta Nipata, the Buddha spoke to the Brahmin Sela: “If there is anything to be realized, that has been realized by me. If there is anything to be developed, that has been developed by me. If there is anything to be eliminated, that has been eliminated by me. Therefore, O Brahmin, I am Buddha.” In this explanation we see Buddha’s role as all-knowing, omnipotent, and omniscient. In other discourses we come across Buddha’s own descriptions as to how he came to this deep insight. After many years of his search for enlightenment with some well known teachers at the time and after having done many austere experiments, the Buddha began to seek his own path for enlightenment. Having abandoned others’ teachings, he began to undertake intense meditation practice and after many months of practice was able to attain deep meditative states, known as Jhanas. These Jhanas were utilized to see past experiences. In these deep meditative states, he gained three super normal powers and knowledge: super normal knowledge of recollection of past experiences, super normal knowledge of seeing the births and deaths of all sentient beings in terms of their own Karmic actions, and super normal knowledge of the destruction of the taints. It was through these supreme human powers and knowledge that he was able to proclaim that he discovered these truths and was indeed liberated from the samsaric cycle, and in essence, suffering.

Additionally, the Buddha made this bold claim that the problem of existence was suffering, because this problem had been fully realized by him from all sides and from all circumstances. As we read his discourses, we begin to recognize he did in fact realize numerous concepts with reference to the world and its people. Given his super normal powers and incredible ability to pierce the truth, when he claimed that the problem of existence was suffering, and further indicated how to eradicate that suffering, heed should be given. Furthermore in one stanza of the Dhammapada, a versified Buddhist scripture, the Buddha speaks about his understanding of the problem of existence: “Through many a birth I wandered in samsara seeking, but not finding, the builder of the house. Sorrowful is it to be born again and again. O house-builder! Thou art seen. Thou shalt build no house again. All thy rafters are broken. Thy ridge-pole is shattered. My mind has attained the unconditioned. Achieved is this end of craving.”

What’s even more remarkable, not only for Buddhists but for the whole human race, is the fact that suffering is common to us all even in this day and age. Scores of stories, and their teachings, from past generations or centuries of human civilizations have some thread of the culture and values reflected of that time. In other words, the stories are “dated” by the language and content of the story. Even today we can see how trends become outdated with fashion and T.V. episodes, sometimes even just a decade ago. However, the Buddha’s teachings, regardless of the fact that they were explained some 26 hundred years ago, still ring true today. Often times people will dismiss their own suffering until counseled in private. Upon more intimate examination of their life, their relationships, their thought processes, the outcome is the same: everyone experiences suffering. Life is problematic. Or, more precisely, our perception, our thoughts, and our lack of understanding of life are problematic. That’s where the Buddha steps in and unfolds how to get on the path to unproblematic life, otherwise known as happiness!

When the Buddha uttered the verse, “My mind has attained the unconditioned,” he hits on the main topic that is so easily missed! He additionally explains in the Twin Verses of the Dhammapada that, “Mind is the forerunner of states. Mind is chief; mind-made are they.” Why do we suffer? Firstly is it is because of our mind! Our thoughts! Harboring evil thoughts, one is not appeased. Harboring hatred, sorrow, lamentation, and other negative thoughts, we find ourselves stewing in negativity. It is like if our clear mind was a pot full of hot water. What we add into the pot will determine how the soup turns out. If you want a yummy tasting soup, put those items into the pot that you find yummy. Likewise, if you put rotten and undesirable items into the pot, the soup will turn out terrible! So first and foremost, the Buddha realized the mind is the chief here. However, the key is to know how to accurately train the chief. We wouldn’t want an untrained person in charge of the fire station or an inadequately prepared emergency room doctor. So too, the Buddha realized that suffering follows those who continue to use an unguided mind. The Buddha continues in the Dhammapada,

“We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with an impure mind
And trouble will follow you
As the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.
We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with a pure mind
And happiness will follow you
As your shadow, unshakable.
“Look how he abused me and hurt me,
How he threw me down and robbed me.”
Live with such thoughts and you live in hate.
“Look how he abused me and hurt me,
How he threw me down and robbed me.”
Abandon such thoughts, and live in love.”

The second part of “My mind has attained the unconditioned,” is the specification of the sate of unconditioned. What does that mean? Simply put, it is the mind not subject to conditions. Again, what does that mean? The Buddha realized the true nature of existence (yathabhuta-nanadassana) is itself transient, or subject to change. Everything around us and in us is in a constant state of change, including our thoughts, mental images and formations. Completely penetrating this knowledge of change, he recognized and accepted that what is subject to change is not me, not mine, and therefore cannot be grasped as permanent. As a result, he has learned the art of letting go, and in letting go, he has let go of mental conditions as a prerequisite for human identity. With regard to our mental activity, the Buddha regarded them nothing more than five aggregates mixing together in a multitude of combinations. Those five aggregates being: form, feeling, perception, consciousness, and mental formations. Suffering enters when we are unable to understand this, understand the problem of existence, and how our ideas about life and ourselves prevent us from seeing the truth.

So what is the solution to this problem of existence as described by the Buddha? As mentioned above, it is an understanding of the reality of life and of our misguided perceptions. It’s about developing those mental qualities that bring about purity, lightness, and wisdom. And, as pointed out earlier in this article, it’s about following Buddha’s path to the cessation of suffering, namely the Noble Eightfold Path. This Noble path is divided into three categories: wisdom, ethical conduct, and concentration, and they are designed to open the doorway to liberation and enlightenment. If you were standing in front of a house and someone gave you the key to the house and said, “Here is the key to this house. All you have to do is walk up to the door along this path and open it,” would you follow his or her instructions and make your best attempt to open the door, or would you stand in the street contemplating if that was the right key and if that was the right house? The Buddha is that someone and his Noble Eightfold Path is the key to your house, i.e. your mind. He holds the “key” to discharge you from the illusions of samsaric living. The only catch is, it’s up to you to take the key and liberate yourself. Like the person standing on the street, he is only there to show you the way. He has been standing there for almost 2600 years and continues to stand, giving the Dhamma to those who are open enough and ready to receive it. And this coming May, myself, along with countless other Buddhist around the world, will be happy to reflect upon his teachings and how they have intertwined themselves into our own spiritual journey. It will be a joyous occasion, spent in respect and admiration for this most revered and distinguished holy being, the Buddha.

The Dawn of Enlightenment Rejoice! A Buddha is born!

In the month of May Buddhists around the globe prepare to celebrate Vesak. It is the triple celebrations of Nativity, Enlightenment and Great Passing Away of the Buddha. Last year Buddhists celebrated the 2600th Buddha Jayanti, or the birth anniversary of Samana Gotama who attained Enlightenment becoming Buddha of the present era of this cosmic cycle or Kalpa. On Vesak day millions of Buddhists all over the world fall on their knees before the sacred images of Buddha to pay homage to Him, the Enlightened One and rejoice that twenty six centuries ago he was born to dispel the darkness of ignorance and delusion of the world in confusion as the only hope of humanity!

Historically, Gotama Buddha is world’s greatest human being that ever lived. At the end of the current reckoning when the human world as we now know passes through its ultimate dissolution in accordance with the Laws of Nature or what Buddhists call the inexorable Dhamma is no more, a different Buddha will rise in a new and different world teaching the self same Dhamma or Doctrine which is styled as “Buddhism” today.

Irrespective of whether one accepts it or not the impact of Buddha’s spiritual awakening or enlightenment and his Teaching is evidenced in our world today in every aspect of human endeavor. His Teaching contained in the Canon of Buddhist Scriptures and often reflected in popular Buddhist traditions and rituals has found its way into the moral traditions of other religions, notably Christianity. Buddha Dhamma or the Teaching of the Buddha in essence is the Path of Purification, of Perfection of Moral Rectitude to be practised by all human beings subjected to the human condition to the extent that each person can imbibe the very Buddha Nature itself if one wishes to win the goal of life; the supreme bliss or unending happiness while living – that is, during ones life itself, and not after death. This is what Buddha called Nibbana which goal Samana Gotama realized by sheer dint of self effort to become Samma Sambuddha or the Fully Enlightened One, the Most Perfect Being, the Blessed One, the “Arhant” or the Spotless One without taint or defilement, the Omniscient One, the Knower of the World, the Incomparable Trainer of the Humankind, the Supreme Teacher of gods and humans..”

The world eagerly awaited the day of his advent on earth and when it happened this planet of human habitation and denizens (beings) of other dimensions rejoiced greatly because like no other religious teacher or thinker in history, Buddha was to hold out to the world the triumphant hope; breaking the captive fetters of the conditions of birth, ageing and death attendant suffering by proclaiming his own unsurpassable Dhamma,  the Teaching of the Four Noble Truths  and Noble Eightfold Path that would dispel the dark night of ignorance and usher the dawn of Awakening Grace and Enlightenment for the cessation of all suffering. Indeed, a permanent solution to the meaning and riddle of existence! None before him or after him to this day has spoken with such clarity, credible authority and confidence as Buddha!

Yet, Buddha came into this world as a Bodhisatta – as an Aspirant to Buddha-hood in the final phase of his sojourn in the samsaric cycle of repeated births. Put aside all the trappings and embellishments traditionally attributed to the conception and birth of Prince Siddhatta of the Gotama clan in India – you’ll see that the future Buddha came into this world like any other human being, like you and me, clothed in the human condition of frailty / weakness still naturally possessed of the seed of Buddha-hood or Enlightenment within struggling to come to the fore.

Here lies the universality or equality of Buddha Dhamma that every human being comes into this world equipped with the seed of enlightenment within albeit sharing the lot of the human condition. A Buddha cast in his role as Teacher only shows the way for every human being to escape the samsaric cycle of repeated births and achieve transcending immortality or the bliss of Nibbana where re-birth is no more, hence, no decay and death; sorrow or lamentation.

Although 26 centuries have passed since, the gradual path he laid out –arduous as it is – serves as a veritable road map to happiness for the honest practitioner irrespective of ethnicity or creed without any dependence on any external power. One is tempted to ask, “How did Buddha accomplish such an incredible feat of wisdom? Like in a theorem in Geometry, Buddha had proclaimed the sublime Truth and uttered the Q.E.D. (Quod Erat Demonstrandum – That which had to be proved has been proven! ) for the world to hear! The answer must lie in retracing the steps Buddha took in his noble quest for the solution to the meaning of life.

Fully equipped and confident as he was, Buddha ventures out to deliver his historic first sermon to the five colleagues, his quondam fellow ascetics, who later became his disciples. His was not so much a theory but a skillful practice that guaranteed results! Reminiscing, the entire ambit of his past experience through repeated samsaric sojourns Buddha explains:

“Vision, insight, discernment, knowledge, illumination arose within me with regard to things never heard before: ‘This is the noble truth of dukkha / stress.’

Vision, insight, discernment, knowledge, illumination arose within me with regard to things never heard before: ‘This noble truth of dukkha / stress is to be comprehended.’

Vision, insight, discernment, knowledge, illumination arose within me with regard to things never heard before: ‘This noble truth of dukkha / stress has been comprehended.’

We see Buddha re-entering society with such clear understanding and comprehension, with deep insights to present his newly discovered scheme for freedom and happiness of the entire humanity. Like the good gardener who prepares the ground with care plants the seed, gives it the waters of nourishment and patiently watches over the seedling to grow until blossoming Buddha first took care that the dhamma or dispensation he was to deliver to the world would not fall on dry ground or hard rock. He chooses a select audience to expound his analysis of the Truth of the human condition which he said were four in number. He called it the “Four Noble Truths” he had realized with much zeal and arduous mental exertion: the truth of suffering, truth of the cause of suffering, the truth of the cessation of suffering, and the truth of the way that leads to the cessation of suffering. Next, Buddha’s mission was to awaken others to the reality of these truths.

A careful scrutiny of the early discourses of the Buddha points to a clear-cut mission and a vision statement of great significance: “Both formerly and now, monks, I declare only suffering and the cessation of suffering.”  This statement explicitly affirmed further in the Alagaddupama Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya. So did Buddha expound the Noble truth of suffering, otherwise known in Pali as Dukkha. (A more precise English translation of Dukkha would be “something which is hard or difficult to bear.”) The Buddha discovered that the problem of existence was Dukkha.

      Buddha’s identification of burning Dukkha and Dukka alone, as the problem of human existence remains unparalleled in the history of philosophical or religious thought. Investigation into its ramifications led the ascetic Gotama, while he was on the verge of being Enlightened or being Buddha immersed in the Jhanas to formulate the Doctrine of the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path leading to the cessation of Dukkha, therefore, the emancipation or ultimate bliss and happiness; it’s no wonder that Dukkha, the corollary of which is true happiness, became the most fundamental Teaching and cornerstone of Buddhism.

Buddha has thus provided for the first time a systematized formula for happiness; information so vital to humanity’s mental health and wellbeing.

In the Sela Sutta of the Sutta Nipata, Buddha speaks to the Brahmin Sela: “If there is anything to be realized, that has been realized by me. If there is anything to be developed, that has been developed by me. If there is anything to be eliminated, that has been eliminated by me. Therefore, O Brahmin, I am Buddha.”  In other discourses we come across Buddha’s own description as to how he came by this deep insight. After many years of his search for Enlightenment with some well known teachers of his time and after having accomplished many austerities as ascetic Gotama he came to a moment of total dissatisfaction about what he had accomplished so far realizing that that was definitely not the way for him. Thence Buddha began to seek his own path for enlightenment. Experienced as he was in a multitude of prescriptive forms of meditation, he began to formulate his own path of ‘calming of the senses’. After intense practice of meditation he was able to attain deep meditative states, known as Jhanas. These grueling Jhanas helped him to see his own past experience through samsaric sojourns in repeated births. These deep meditative states, meant the acquisition of supra normal powers and knowledge; the super normal knowledge of recollection of past experiences; the super normal knowledge of seeing the births and deaths of all sentient beings and how of their own Karmic actions had caused repeated birth; the super normal knowledge of the working of the human mind (mano) which becomes purified and perfect at the destruction of the taints, defilements and weakness the human condition imposes. It was through these supreme human powers and knowledge that he was able to proclaim that he, the supreme practitioner, became liberated from the Samsaric Cycle or in essence, suffering.

 

In the Dhammapada, a versified Buddhist scripture, a concise version of it and a veritable  vade-me-cum or handbook of Buddha Dhamma , Buddha displays his perfect understanding of the problem of existence: “Through many a birth I wandered (ran through) in samsara seeking, but not finding, the builder of the house. Sorrowful is it to be born again and again! O house-builder! Thou art seen! (-identified!) Thou shalt build no house again! All thy rafters are broken! Thy ridge-pole is shattered! My mind has attained the unconditioned! Achieved is this end of craving!”  

What’s remarkable is that in the story of the human race with its myriad of cultures, philosophies, teachings and histories of human civilization “dated” by language and content have never remained the same in the face of the test of time or validity; yet Buddha’s Teaching remains evergreen and refreshing, a teaching for all seasons, all times! Even today we see how ephemeral trends become created only to become obsolete and outdated giving way to what’s innovative and new in the vicissitudes of life. Life indeed is confusing and problematic. Or, more precisely, it’s our perception, our thoughts, and our lack of understanding of life that’s problematic. That’s where the Buddha steps in to show how to get on his noble Path to win the goal of happiness!

When the Buddha says, “My mind has attained the unconditioned,” he states with conviction something so important to life that’s wont to be missed. In the Dhammapada in Twin Verses he explains further: “Mind is the forerunner of states. Mind is chief; mind-made are they!”  That is, literally, that mind comes first before everything else; mind commands and mind creates; mind is the creator of all situations, all circumstances and of everything that human eye may perceive or grasp. It’s all about the positive and the negative thinking that produce the good and the bad respectively. Hatred begets hatred and love begets love! Buddha portrays his disposition in the Dhammapada:

“We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with an impure mind,
Trouble will follow you
As the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.
………Speak or act with a pure mind,
Happiness will follow you,
Like your shadow follows you!”

Buddha seems to admonish not to waste ones time in ruminating…
“Look how he abused me and hurt me,
How he threw me down and robbed me.”
Live with such thoughts and you live in hate….

………(Instead,) Abandon such thoughts, and you live in love.”

Buddha realized the true nature of existence (yathabhuta-nanadassana) is itself transient, or subject to change. Everything around us and in us is in a state of flux; in a constant state of change, including our thoughts and mental formations. Completely penetrating this knowledge of change, Buddha recognized and accepted the premise ‘That which is subject to change is not me! Not mine! And therefore, cannot be grasped as permanent!”  He had thus mastered the art of letting-go! For Buddha, letting-go of mental conditions was a prerequisite for understanding of the elusive and illusive self. Buddha regarded mental activity to be nothing more than the five aggregates mixing together in a multitude of combinations; those five aggregates being, form, feeling, perception, consciousness, and mental formations.

So what is the solution to this problem of existence as described by the Buddha?  It is the understanding the reality of life and acknowledgement of our own misguided perceptions. It’s about developing those mental qualities that bring about purity, lightness, and wisdom.  It’s about following Buddha’s path to the cessation of suffering, namely the Noble Eightfold Path. This Noble path is divided into three categories: wisdom, ethical conduct, and concentration, designed to unlock the doorway to liberation and enlightenment.

If you were standing in front of a house and someone gave you the key to the house and said, “Here is the key to this house. All you have got to do is walk up to the door along this path and open it,” would you not follow the instructions and hasten to open the door, or would you stand in the street wondering if that was the right key or if that was the right house?  Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path is the key to your house, i.e. your mind. It’s up to you to take the key and liberate yourself.  Like he did to the person standing on the street, Buddha is only there to show you the way.  He has been standing there for almost 2600 years and continues to stand with the key in hand waiting for genuine seekers who are open enough and ready to receive it!