Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Lessons from Buddha's Enlightenment

According to legend, Buddha was married and had a child before renouncing the household life because of what might be described nowadays as an existential crisis. He had the permission of his wife no doubt, and this permission of wife and parents is required for Buddhist monks today. What brought about the crisis? The story goes that on four separate occasions riding into the forest he witnessed old age, sickness, death, and finally a man sitting under a tree meditating. He interpreted his experiences as deeply symbolic, of the chain of suffering, and the potential for an antidote, a way out of suffering. And so, on leaving his family, he began by studying the meditative absorptions, which can be found in the spiritual traditions of all major religions. But the bliss of the ecstasies was not permanent, so he turned then to the practices of starving all bodily appetite. This only brought him more suffering because the body was not the problem and his life was saved thanks to a rice cookie given to him by a lady on her way to make an offering who saw his need was greater, and fortunately he accepted it. His eventual awakening sitting under the bodhi tree came very quickly, inspired by the remembrance of being a child, sitting and watching the world with open-mouthed amazement. For Buddha, the key to open the door of enlightenment was curiosity!

It is this brightness of awareness that we must bring to our meditation, along with calmness, concentration and finally equanimity, the pinnacle of the four illimitables that develop love, compassion and joy in ourselves and extend it outwards for others — we are but finite, through others we reach the infinite! This process of awakening can be compared to that experienced by a baby in the first four months of its life as two dimensions become three and it realises the idea of an other, usually first its mother, and of itself. But the I that Buddha awakened to is that of no-self. The best way to explain this is through an understanding of what we are not. When we drive a car to our friend’s place, we don’t identify ourselves with the car and tell them that their doorway is too small to get in. We know we are not our car. So too, we are not our body. Yet if we jam our hand in the door, then in that moment we identify ourselves completely with the hand, or overwhelmed with an emotion we become that emotion. But really, we are the observer of the hand, body, thoughts and emotions, and ultimately perhaps we are not even that, but just the phenomenal experience in the merging of observer and observed.

So how does this insight help us end suffering? It teaches us to not let our desires get stuck! We can all recognise forms of desire which have a quality of addiction, such as sitting and eating while reading, or listening to the radio, or watching tv. These are desires of habit. After Buddha was enlightened, Mara sent his three daughters as a final challenge, tempting him with sensual desire, sexual desire and the mental excitement that feeds on our ever-lurking boredom, so rampant for example in our use of technology. Perhaps Buddha’s long training was helpful after all, because the antidote to these three is renunciation. So long as we look outwards for happiness, we’ll never find it. The answers lie within. So how can we know if our desires are getting stuck in our minds on things “out there”? How to distinguish the wholesome from the unwholesome? Only through meditation, and the whole eight-fold path, but the idea is to feel it with the whole body, and if necessary to suffer and transmute it. So, for example, if we feel lonely, we might ring a friend, but much better is to transform this feeling into one of solitude, which lacks any quality of neediness.

And this brings me on to love, the antidote to the fearful clinging of our ego, the kind of love that is like an aura without any sense of need, not the kind of love that wants to control the object of our love or grieves when it is gone. The latter is a selfish love, and it has its place, for example in the child’s love for its mother in expectation of the reciprocity of her care. But when selfish love fails to be reciprocated, it leaves the lover full of frustration, bitterness or remorse, and these are all signs of love stemming from ego. If you feel greater joy in giving than in receiving, then you know you are making progress. Notice the difference though between this and the do-gooder who does the good that makes one feel happy, not the good that would make the other happy. Love is not born out of our desire. It is a calm effulgence. It is the true source of wisdom. May you be enlightened before the curtain falls on this life.

Source: Anonymous. This is merely written up by me.

This was published originally at Buddhist Travellers in 2011.

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