Meaning of the Buddha's Awakening
© 1997 Thanissaro Bhikkhu
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 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 can count as an Awakening in the Buddhist sense.
True Awakening necessarily involves both ethics and insight
for what the Buddha's Awakening means for us now, four points
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.
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,
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