The course of Buddha's prolonged vigil is often portrayed as a progressive ascent through a series of luminous states of being, rather like the gradual lifting of shrouds of darkness and the rapturous unveiling of the roseate dawn. Tradition testifies that in the first watch of the night he witnessed all his former incarnations and comprehended the poignant pilgrimage of humanity and the strenuous path of full emancipation. During the second watch, his spiritual insight, unbounded by space and untrammelled by time, expanded, opening the Divine Eye (divya chakshu), which sees the inevitable dissolution of form and the involuntary rebirth of beings, yielding direct apprehension of the most difficult of themes, the intricate workings of the Law of Karma. During the third watch of the night, Buddha directed his attention to the invisible and visible worlds and grasped the immense implications of the Four Noble Truths, chattari ariya sachchani (Skt. chatvari arya satyani), the central core of all his subsequent teaching. Thus Buddha attained complete Enlightenment on the full moon night of Vesakha at the place which came to be known as Bodh Gaya.
If shunyata is initially apprehended as the "voidness of the seeming full", the radical negation of ignorance (avidya), shunyata is then positively experienced as a boundless plenum, the "fullness of the seeming void". Nirvana is supreme bliss, parama sukha, utterly unconditioned, free from sickness (aroga), free from fear (abhaya), free from taint (anashrava). It is pure joy (shiva), deep peace (shanta) and calm assurance (kshema), unsullied by ageing (ajara), and untouched by death (amata). The Voice of the Silence provides a memorable portrait of one who has attained perfect insight:
Buddha chose to set aside the joyous outcome of his complete Enlightenment. He deliberately postponed his entry into Parinirvana, the primordial source of all derivative states of consciousness on lesser planes of being – and so, from one point of view, severance from the variegated field of maya. He had initially vowed to find a solution to the problem of universal involvement in inexorable suffering. This meant that he had resolved from the first to translate the wisdom he gained, even if it be equivalent to the ultimate gnosis, into an accessible means which any honest seeker could employ in the quest for self-emancipation. So Buddha continued to contemplate under the Bodhi Tree for several weeks, crystallizing his insights into a compact, yet compelling, message that he could transmit to others. And he deeply pondered whether or not it was truly possible to convey his profound insights with sufficient clarity and urgency to inspire many to pursue the solitary path he had trod. It is said that, before his birth and after his Enlightenment, he reflected upon the lotus and likened its phases of growth to the human odyssey. Many lotuses under water are so entangled in the mire at the bottom of the pond that they cannot rise to the surface; analogously, many human beings are so submerged in ignorance that they would remain deaf to all alternatives. A few lotuses are already close to the light of the sun; such individuals need no counsel. But alas, there are those in the middle, desperately needing the assurance of sunlight and the hope of approaching its radiant warmth. For the sake of reaching as many of these as possible, Buddha rose from his meditation and returned to a world he had renounced, attempting the formidable task of communicating the possibility and promise of universal emancipation.
Buddha recalled with affection his original mentors, Arada Kalama and Udraka Ramaputra, but both had died since he left them to take up his austere life in the forest. He then proceeded to proclaim his message to the five ascetics who had once shared his severe asceticism and then been repelled by his sudden repudiation of their mode of life. He saw them at Isipatana (now called Sarnath) near Varanasi, but when they beheld him at a distance, they agreed amongst themselves to avoid him and to ignore his presence. As he calmly approached them, however, the serene beauty of his noble countenance, the lustrous aura of inner peace which shone around him and his transparent assurance compelled their attention. Declaring that he had discovered the means to Enlightenment and was now fully awakened (samma sambuddha), he proclaimed the Four Noble Truths. His first sermon has come down through the centuries, appropriately called the Dhammachakka Pavattana Sutta (Setting in Motion the Wheel of Dharma).
The First Noble Truth is that all existence is enmeshed in suffering, duhkha. Whatsoever exists comes into being and must eventually pass away. Constant change is inescapable and entails much pain. Birth initiates suffering, growth means suffering, sickness and old age cause pain, and death brings sorrow. Psychologically, the past, present and future entail suffering, for recollection breeds remorse and anticipation engenders anxiety. Human consciousness is caught in a contest between inexplicable fear and ineradicable hope. Its imaginative capacity to visualize a better condition induces further pain, owing to the glaring gap between "what is" and "what might be". Suffering is indeed the concomitant of human existence and the piteous plight of all sentient creatures.
The Second Noble Truth is that all suffering has a basic cause (samudaya). If this were not so, there could be no means of release from the bondage of sensate existence. The entire assemblage of proximate causes of misery may be traced through a long chain of causation to a single source: tanha or trishna, "thirst". This continual thirst or deep-seated craving for embodied existence is not simply the pure, objectless desire to be, which is Nirvana, for no impure desire can summon or penetrate that unqualified and unquantified state of peace. As all craving is for sentient life in manifest form – mental, physical, even spiritual – and form necessitates limitation, coming to be and passing away, so this craving is unceasing. The Third Noble Truth is that this ubiquitous cause, which initiates the entire chain of causation, can be countered, transcended and negated (nirodha).
The Fourth Noble Truth affirms that the well-tested means by which all misery is ended is the Noble Eightfold Path (atthangikamagga, Skt. ashtangikamarga). It is the majjhima patipada, the Middle Way between self-indulgence and self-mortification, neither of which is edifying. The eightfold series of interrelated stages of spiritual awakening leads to the fullness of freedom. It begins with right perception and understanding, a clear and firm grasp of the Four Noble Truths, combining mental discipline and open-textured conceptualization. Right thought is the deliberate resolve, the confident release of the volition, to follow the Eightfold Path to its farthest end. Right speech infuses non-violence, benevolence and harmony into the individual's most potent means of interaction with others, and also fosters tranquillity of thought and feeling. "Never a harsh truth", Buddha said, "and never a falsehood, however pleasing." Right action exemplifies conservation of energy, timeliness and economy, calming and cleansing the emotions. Although many Buddhists have drawn up diverse lists of prohibitions over the centuries, the basic principle of right action is that appropriation and expropriation are improper. Right action is facilitated in daily life by right livelihood. If action should not injure others, one's means of livelihood should not exploit anyone, and one's work in this world should contribute, however modestly, to universal well-being and welfare. Right effort would be marked by continuity of endeavour and thus conduce to the maintenance of right mindfulness, vigilant attention in regard to one's thoughts, feelings and acts, and their interaction with the intentions of others as well as the psycho-physical environment. Right meditation requires concentrated one-pointedness at all times and regular periods of intense absorption in exalted states of consciousness.
The Four Noble Truths are starkly simple, yet far-reaching and profound. They subsume observable facts under broader laws of noetic psychology, fusing an acute awareness of the human condition with the testable promise of self-redemption and effective service of others. The Eightfold Path is formulated as a series of steps, but these are intertwined and recurrent stages of growth at greater levels of apprehension. Wisdom, prajna, commences and completes the journey, whilst righteous conduct, shila, becomes the stimulus as well as the outcome of deep meditation, samadhi, which in turn refines compassion, strengthens morality and ripens wisdom into a wholeness that makes one's breathing benevolent. Thus, one ascends a spiral stairway of being, returning to the same point at a greater elevation, but moving at an assured pace towards an ever-widening horizon. Eventually one is stripped of all one's fetters and effortlessly merges with the empyrean. "The dewdrop slips into the shining sea." This ideal of Buddhahood can be mirrored in mental states that precede complete Enlightenment.
The five ascetics who were fortunate to hear Buddha's first sermon readily accepted his message without reservation, for it gave coherence to their own experiments and endeavours. They became the earliest members of the Sangha, and thus honoured the Triple Gem (triratna) of Buddhist tradition. A few days after his first sermon Buddha delivered the Anatta Lakkhana Sutta, propounding the Doctrine of No-Self. What the ignorant individual mistakes as the self, the enduring and unchanging unity of a being or object, is a persisting illusion. A person, seemingly constituted of mind and body, is actually a mutable composite of skandhas, heaps or aggregates, which come together and coalesce, only to separate after a time. When they come together, the person or object comes into being as a seeming entity, and when they radically separate, death is said to have intervened. These volatile aggregates can be broadly categorized into five classes: rupa or form, vedana, feeling or sensation, sanjna or perception, sanskara or mental impulses, tendencies and predilections, and vijnana or sensory consciousness. Owing to the fact that these skandhas come together in a certain order, proportion and combination, one not only comes to believe that an impartite self is there, but also that this self is wholly unique and separate from all others. Eventual decay and death should show the living that such thoughts are delusive, but the illusion of a self is continually reinforced and consolidated by tanha, the craving for embodied existence and sensory indulgence, so that one may vainly imagine that this ever-changing self somehow survives the dissolution of the aggregates in some disembodied, ghostly reflection of the composite collection of skandhas.
If the Four Noble Truths are relatively easy to grasp at a preliminary level, however rich and recondite their fuller implications, Buddha's Doctrine of Anatta, No-self, is daunting and elusive even at higher levels of apprehension. This is partly because the apprehending mind which seeks to seize upon the doctrine and make sense of it is itself a constituent of the composite skandhas. A contrived illusion cannot construe itself as illusory any more than a dream can negate itself. Most modern scholars and, unfortunately, some nihilistic Buddhists have insisted that Buddha held that anatta implies the non-existence of any self whatsoever.1 It is instead the explicit denial of the reality of any self conceived in terms of the mutable skandhas. Whatever can be qualified, quantified, formalized or described cannot be the noumenal self. But if Nirvana is possible, that in oneself which can become Buddha is beyond quality and number, unformulatable and indescribable. It is what remains when everything is stripped away. It is that which experiences Nirvana because it is not essentially different from Nirvana.2 And it can never be understood in terms of what comes into being, is composite and subject to measure, alteration and particularization. The five ascetics understood Buddha's meaning, for upon hearing it they became arhants, faithfully following him and disseminating his Teaching.
Buddha also taught the Doctrine of Dependent Origination, patichchasamuppada (Skt. pratityasamutpada), which displaces ordinary notions of causality as an explanation of the operative principle in the cycles of Samsara. Long before Hume, Buddha recognized that thinking of causation in terms of necessary connections between sequential events involved extraneous assumptions unwarranted by strict observation. He also saw that reducing macrocosmic causation to isolated generalizations derived from sensory or time-bound experience obscured the all-pervasive Law of Karma, or universal determination. He dispensed altogether with the idea of temporal causation and synthesized his profound insights in the powerful conception of Dependent Origination, wherein one condition or set of conditions is seen as arising out of some other condition or set, forming a chain which can account for the uninterrupted flow of phenomenal and transient existence. Such a bold leap recognizes and preserves the insight expressed in the doctrine of skandhas, whilst avoiding the problem of the self which deeply vexed Hume, Bellamy and others.
Every condition can be traced to some anticipatory condition, and for the sake of radical understanding Buddha started with the common condition of fundamental ignorance, avijja (avidya). Ignorance or nescience gives rise to aggregates or compounds, including mental qualities, sankharas (sanskaras), which in turn foster differentiated consciousness, vinnana (vijnana). This consciousness induces name and form, namarupa, from which arise the senses and mind, chalayatana (shadayatana), inducing contact, phassa (sparsha). Contact induces responses to sense-objects, vedana, and these mental and emotional reactions generate craving or thirst for sensory experience, tanha (trishna). This is persisting attachment, upadana, which directly produces coming into existence, bhava, which involves birth, jati, and consequently, jaramarana, ageing and death. Hence, suffering is a fact of embodied existence and not an adventitious or malign feature of life, for it is bound up with the ceaseless change of dependent origination which makes embodied existence possible.
During his stay in Varanasi, a wealthy youth joined the Sangha and his parents became Buddha's first lay followers who took refuge in the Triple Gem – Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Soon enough, the basic codes for ordained monks and lay disciples were set down so that the prime requirements of cooperative effort were met and maintained. Although Buddha's many discourses provided extensive elaboration and suggested varied applications, the vital core of his message was conveyed in the first two sermons. When Buddha decided to go to Uruvela, he did not take all his monks with him. Rather, those who had become proficient were sent forth in every direction – "Let not two of you go by the same road", he said – to spread the gospel of hope. Encountering a group of ascetics on the road to Uruvela, he delivered the Aditta Pariyaya Sutta, the Fire Sermon, in which he likened the world and everything in it to a burning house. Since these ascetics already grasped a great deal about the nature of Samsara, they needed only to identify clearly the root cause of suffering. By showing how tanha or craving smoulders in all sentient existence, Buddha freed them from its spell and they gladly entered the Sangha.
Buddha then fulfilled his promise to King Bimbisara by journeying to Rajagriha, and the king gave his own park, Veluvana, to the Sangha as a monastic retreat. It was there that the two remarkable ascetics Shariputra and Maudgalyayana, who later became Buddha's outstanding disciples, first met their Teacher. Shariputra had come to Rajagriha to find Buddha because he had first heard of the Four Noble Truths from Ashvajit, one of the original disciples who had followed the injunction to take a different road and promulgate the Dharma. When King Shuddhodana, Buddha's earthly father, heard amazing stories about his visit to Rajagriha, he promptly sent a message entreating Buddha to return to Kapilavastu. As soon as Buddha and his disciples arrived in the capital city he had renounced, King Shuddhodana was shocked to see his son joining the other monks in the daily round of alms-seeking. Buddha expounded his teachings before the king and his court, and soon his father, Shuddhodana, his aunt, Mahaprajapati, who had raised Siddhartha as a child, his beloved former wife, Yashodhara, his half-brother, Nanda, and a few days later, his son, Rahula, became his followers. Ananda, a cousin who became Buddha's constant attendant and cheerful companion, interceded on behalf of women followers, and Buddha blest the formation of the bhikkhuni Sangha, the Order of nuns. Mahaprajapati and her friends became the first nuns of the Sangha.
After spending some time at Kapilavastu, Buddha received an invitation from Anathapindika, a rich banker of Shravasti, the capital city of Koshala. He had met Buddha at Rajagriha and became such a devoted follower that he donated the famous Jetavana Grove to the Sangha. Buddha moved to Jetavana, and it became the chief centre of his work for almost half a century. During that time monastic centres were established in most of the flourishing cities in the Gangetic plain – Varanasi, Rajagriha, Pataliputra, Vaishali, Kushinagara, Pava – as well as in numerous hamlets and villages, but most of Buddha's great discourses were delivered in the Jetavana Grove. Since no caste (jati) or social distinctions were recognized or tolerated in the Sangha, Buddha admitted male and female disciples from every sector of society. Although his initial converts were from affluent and cultured and even aristocratic families, all classes of seekers were welcomed into the Sangha without any predilection or prejudice. As several discourses in the Dhammapada show, Buddha was not primarily concerned with the external reform of the prevailing social order, for any social order can become corrupt in the absence of a vital spiritual and ethical foundation. His revolution was fundamental, and it included the radical redefinition of the very basis of social esteem, stressing the exemplary virtues and graces which were originally extolled in the Vedas, the epics and the forest hermitages of antiquity.
There were, of course, militant groups of orthodox individuals who were hostile to Buddha's message and monastic Order, and various desultory attempts were made to vilify him. The main focus of opposition was Devadatta, a jealous cousin who had grown up with Buddha. An ambitious and impetuous individual, Devadatta had found his own accomplishments eclipsed by Prince Siddhartha's rare gifts and excellences, and Devadatta had sadly succumbed to a competitive spirit in which he lost every encounter to a magnanimous man who knew nothing of rivalry in his own generous nature, though he was well aware of every human weakness that hinders the spiritual will. When Buddha returned to teach in Kapilavastu, Devadatta joined the Sangha but could not assimilate its redemptive spirit of unconditional, universal benevolence. After Buddha had already taught for three decades, Devadatta rashly sought to assume the leadership of the Order, invoking a principle of personal ascendancy which would have been repugnant to highly respected elders like Shariputra and Maudgalyayana. Just as the Teachings (dharma) had been orally transmitted by Buddha, so too the monastic code (vinaya) had been evolved under his guidance, and he entrusted the ethical continuity of the Sangha to the entire fellowship of older and younger monks.
When Devadatta's sudden offer to "relieve" Buddha of the onerous task of guiding the Sangha and to tighten the rules was rejected, tradition suggests that he made three crafty attempts to assassinate his spiritual benefactor. The mad and drunken elephant he unleashed upon Buddha fell before the feet of the Master. The avalanche he diverted towards Buddha receded before his presence. And the hired assassin he dispatched into Buddha's vicinity was converted and entered the Sangha. Having repeatedly failed, Devadatta then fomented a schism in the Sangha by withdrawing with some disciples he had flattered, but Shariputra and Maudgalyayana went to each of them and won them back into the fold. Having exhausted every means of eliminating or undermining Buddha, Devadatta was eventually overcome by the accumulated karma of his lifelong animosity, fell gravely ill and died. One tradition declares that even whilst dying he sought out Buddha in order to beg his forgiveness, but that he perished before he could reach his Master. Nonetheless, this account suggests that Buddha knew of his belated remorse and announced his death to the monks around him, stating that a reconciliation had indeed occurred on the mental plane. Another account suggests that Devadatta lived after Buddha and died in a penitential state.
It would be impossible to reconstruct the details of Buddha's journeys back and forth across the Gangetic plain during the nearly fifty years that he taught. He freely taught in many places, and though each sermon was fresh and adapted skilfully to the mental faculties and predilections of his listeners, his main message was always the same: the Four Noble Truths provide the basis of proper understanding, the Noble Eightfold Path is the assured means to freedom, and the common conception of a separative self, "the great dire heresy of separateness", is a costly delusion. When he was about eighty years old, he set out on his last journey, travelling north from Rajagriha. Reaching Vaishali, he accepted a park donated to him by the courtesan Ambapali, but he spent the rainy season in a nearby village called Beluvagama. He fell ill and came close to death, but willed his own recovery in order to prepare his disciples for his imminent departure. Announcing to the assembled monks that he would die in three months, he left and continued on his journey. When he reached Pava he took up residence in the park of Chunda, a blacksmith who was a lay devotee.
Chunda invited Buddha and his monks to a meal at his house, and he prepared many delicacies for them. Amongst the dishes he set before the gathering was one called sukaramaddava. There are different interpretations of the nature of this dish, but it was most probably a sweetened concoction of local mushrooms called "pigs" feet", owing to their appearance. When Buddha was served the dish, he requested that it be given to him alone and that the uneaten portion be buried, since none but a Tathagata could assimilate it. Unknown to Chunda, the dish was poisonous, and Buddha saw it as the karmic indication for his departure from the world of men, upon which he had already deliberated. After this last meal, Buddha became ill and suffered acute pains. He at once set out for Kushinagara and, after resting twice on the way, he settled on a low couch between two sala trees which stood in Upavattana Park, belonging to the clan of Mallas. He asked Ananda to reassure Chunda that he need feel no remorse for the meal he offered Buddha and his companions. "There are two offerings of food", he explained, "which are of equal fruition, of equal outcome, exceeding in grandeur the fruition and result of any other offerings in food. Which two? The one partaken of by the Tathagata on becoming fully enlightened, in supreme, unsurpassed Enlightenment; and the one partaken of by the Tathagata on coming to pass into the state of Nirvana wherein the elements of clinging do not arise. By his deed has the venerable Chunda accumulated that which makes for long life, beauty, well-being, glory, heavenly rebirth and sovereignty."
The scene under the sala trees was one of intense sadness, but Buddha calmed the weeping Ananda by reminding him that separation must inevitably occur in transient existence. "Of that which is born, come to being, put together, and so is subject to dissolution, how can it be said that it must not depart?" The Mallas paid homage to Buddha, and a wandering ascetic named Subhadra listened to his instruction. Subhadra was the last direct disciple of Buddha to enter the Sangha. Buddha called upon his disciples to take the Dharma as their Master, for Buddha himself is ever present in it. They were to be guided by the monastic code (vinaya), even though they could modify its minor precepts to suit changing conditions. Together, the Dharma and the discipline (vinaya) would meet all their needs. Calling on them to be lamps unto themselves, he enjoined them to seek the goal with diligence. Thus on the full moon day of Vesakha – the day of his birth and his Enlightenment – Buddha entered Parinirvana. His body was cremated and the ashes were divided into eight portions by a revered brahmana named Dona and taken to the centres where Buddha had taught, so that stupas could be erected to enshrine them. Recent excavations at a site identified by some archaeologists as Kapilavastu have revealed an ancient stupa which contains a casket of ashes on which is an inscription suggesting that they are a portion of the original division of relics. Despite their grief, monks and lay disciples joined together in holding great feasts to honour Buddha and the Teaching of universal peace, moral concord and full Enlightenment that he bequeathed to suffering humanity.
Hermes, June 1986
1 Quite apart from consequent philosophical difficulties in regard to the Law of Karma, moral retribution and moral striving, the Maha Parinirvana Sutra in the Chinese Tripitaka (ten times longer than any of its Hinayana counterparts) portrays Buddha as asserting that the Great Self, equated with Nirvana, is identical with the Tathagata and the Buddha-nature inherent in all beings. "Self" means the Tathagatagarbha.