Sunday, May 15, 2011

Buddhism turns 2,600 years old

Dharmachari Seven (Wisdom Quarterly)

"Moon of the Buddha" by Albert Falzon (English overdubbed in Spanish)

May's full moon day (May 17, 2011) will officially mark the twenty-sixth century of Buddhism.

Two-thousand six-hundred years ago, Siddhartha Gautama culminated six years of renunciation, moral-restraint, meditation, and keen investigation of mental phenomena with a startling realization:

"Everything that is of a nature to arise is of a nature to cease." Having purified and balanced his mind by successive practice of the eight meditative absorptions (jhanas), he emerged and began to contemplate Dependent Origination.

The Path to Complete Freedom
This is a formula or technique that leads to insight into the true nature of things -- revealing their radical impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and impersonal nature. A glimpse of the Truth causes the mind/heart to pull back and away from the corruptions (lust, anger, delusion) like a feather dropped in fire. The mind thus freed perceives nirvana, touches it, enters the first stage of enlightenment.

This momentous step -- after an inconceivably long course of "wandering on" through birth and death (innumerable past lives and states of becoming) -- begins the process of full liberation from suffering.

Under the Bodhi Tree
We are often swept up with the misleading story of the Buddha's heroic effort, fighting temptation and fear: Siddhartha sat down, gritted his teeth, vowed not to stand until he attained his goal of enlightenment even if his blood and skin should shrivel up and turn to dust, in spite of Mara's fearsome attacks and his own self-doubt.

This is exactly the wrong notion that prevented enlightenment. It was not Siddhartha's fierce determination that ultimately allowed his heart/mind to find the Truth. Too much "efforting" fills the heart with yearning, strains the mind, and wearies the body. The breath ("spirit") is then anything but calm, subtle, soothing, or serene.

The Middle Way
In this way, no realization is possible. The Bodhisattva (the buddha-to-be) had for years failed in his efforts exactly because of this sort of strenuous striving and fierce determination. The "Middle Path" avoids extremes of striving/laziness, austerity/luxury, rigidity/limpness, or views. It invites balance and direct-knowledge.

In our world so filled with lust, greed, and lassitude, we need to hear the message of strong determination. But in a world of annoyance, hate, and drive, we need to hear the other side of the story -- the letting go, the letting be, the mindful (or non-thinking, non-striving, non-preference, non-judgmental) attention.

The meditative absorptions allowed Siddhartha to maintain equanimity in the face of keen investigation. He was observing, not "doing." He was practicing mindfulness (bare attention), not discursive thinking.

The purity of heart/mind cleansed by deep concentration/collectedness (samadhi) allowed his insight-practices (vipassana) to succeed. Indeed, two of the most important arms of the ennobling Eightfold Path are "right concentration" and "right mindfulness." "Right" simply means balanced, optimal, effective, not strenuous, dogmatic, or driven.

That First Vesak Day
For a long time (innumerable aeons) we have wandered on this weary trail of rebirth, lusting here, lusting there, ever in search of satisfaction, meaning, and peace. We do not find them for very long. Good states and situations pass away. When the mind is brightened by absorption and brought to bear on insight-practices -- nirvana. That's it! There it is! And finding it Siddhartha, now the Buddha, is reputed to have exclaimed:

"I who wept with all my brothers' tears, laugh and am glad, for there is liberty!"

What was it? What eternal truth did he rediscover? Nirvana, nirvana, what is this "nirvana"?

  • Nirvana. nir-va, to blow out. According to ancient lore, complete freedom; according to Buddhist lore, liberation. The goal of Buddhism is the condition of [enlightened individual,] one who has achieved nirvana: a condition where there is neither earth nor water nor fire nor air; neither infinite space nor infinite consciousness; nor the sphere of void, nor the sphere of perception or non-perception. It is the end of woe. (Yoga Illustrated Dictionary, Kaye & Ward).