Thig V 10
The Meaning of the Buddha's
The 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.
As 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.
This 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.
When 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 into causality.
As for what the Buddha's Awakening means for us now, four points stand out.
1) 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.
2) 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.
3) 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.
4) 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.
The 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 liberating ourselves.
No-self or Not-self?
One of the first stumbling blocks that Westerners often encounter when they learn about Buddhism is the teaching on anatta, often translated as no-self. This teaching is a stumbling block for two reasons. First, the idea of there being no self doesn't fit well with other Buddhist teachings, such as the doctrine of kamma and rebirth: If there's no self, what experiences the results of kamma and takes rebirth? Second, it doesn't fit well with our own Judeo-Christian background, which assumes the existence of an eternal soul or self as a basic presupposition: If there's no self, what's the purpose of a spiritual life? Many books try to answer these questions, but if you look at the Pali Canon -- the earliest extant record of the Buddha's teachings -- you won't find them addressed at all. In fact, the one place where the Buddha was asked point-blank whether or not there was a self, he refused to answer. When later asked why, he said that to hold either that there is a self or that there is no self is to fall into extreme forms of wrong view that make the path of Buddhist practice impossible. Thus the question should be put aside. To understand what his silence on this question says about the meaning of anatta, we first have to look at his teachings on how questions should be asked and answered, and how to interpret his answers.
The Buddha divided all questions into four classes: those that deserve a categorical (straight yes or no) answer; those that deserve an analytical answer, defining and qualifying the terms of the question; those that deserve a counter-question, putting the ball back in the questioner's court; and those that deserve to be put aside. The last class of question consists of those that don't lead to the end of suffering and stress. The first duty of a teacher, when asked a question, is to figure out which class the question belongs to, and then to respond in the appropriate way. You don't, for example, say yes or no to a question that should be put aside. If you are the person asking the question and you get an answer, you should then determine how far the answer should be interpreted. The Buddha said that there are two types of people who misrepresent him: those who draw inferences from statements that shouldn't have inferences drawn from them, and those who don't draw inferences from those that should.
These are the basic ground rules for interpreting the Buddha's teachings, but if we look at the way most writers treat the anatta doctrine, we find these ground rules ignored. Some writers try to qualify the no-self interpretation by saying that the Buddha denied the existence of an eternal self or a separate self, but this is to give an analytical answer to a question that the Buddha showed should be put aside. Others try to draw inferences from the few statements in the discourse that seem to imply that there is no self, but it seems safe to assume that if one forces those statements to give an answer to a question that should be put aside, one is drawing inferences where they shouldn't be drawn.
So, instead of answering "no" to the question of whether or not there is a self -- interconnected or separate, eternal or not -- the Buddha felt that the question was misguided to begin with. Why? No matter how you define the line between "self" and "other," the notion of self involves an element of self-identification and clinging, and thus suffering and stress. This holds as much for an interconnected self, which recognizes no "other," as it does for a separate self. If one identifies with all of nature, one is pained by every felled tree. It also holds for an entirely "other" universe, in which the sense of alienation and futility would become so debilitating as to make the quest for happiness -- one's own or that of others -- impossible. For these reasons, the Buddha advised paying no attention to such questions as "Do I exist?" or "Don't I exist?" for however you answer them, they lead to suffering and stress.
To avoid the suffering implicit in questions of "self" and "other," he offered an alternative way of dividing up experience: the four Noble Truths of stress, its cause, its cessation, and the path to its cessation. Rather than viewing these truths as pertaining to self or other, he said, one should recognize them simply for what they are, in and of themselves, as they are directly experienced, and then perform the duty appropriate to each. Stress should be comprehended, its cause abandoned, its cessation realized, and the path to its cessation developed. These duties form the context in which the anatta doctrine is best understood. If you develop the path of virtue, concentration, and discernment to a state of calm well-being and use that calm state to look at experience in terms of the Noble Truths, the questions that occur to the mind are not "Is there a self? What is my self?" but rather "Am I suffering stress because I'm holding onto this particular phenomenon? Is it really me, myself, or mine? If it's stressful but not really me or mine, why hold on?" These last questions merit straightforward answers, as they then help you to comprehend stress and to chip away at the attachment and clinging -- the residual sense of self-identification -- that cause it, until ultimately all traces of self-identification are gone and all that's left is limitless freedom.
In this sense, the anatta teaching is not a doctrine of no-self, but a not-self strategy for shedding suffering by letting go of its cause, leading to the highest, undying happiness. At that point, questions of self, no-self, and not-self fall aside. Once there's the experience of such total freedom, where would there be any concern about what's experiencing it, or whether or not it's a self?
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We all know what happens when a fire goes out. The flames die down and the fire is gone for good. So when we first learn that the name for the goal of Buddhist practice, nibbana (nirvana), literally means the extinguishing of a fire, it's hard to imagine a deadlier image for a spiritual goal: utter annihilation. It turns out, though, that this reading of the concept is a mistake in translation, not so much of a word as of an image. What did an extinguished fire represent to the Indians of the Buddha's day? Anything but annihilation.
According to the ancient Brahmans, when a fire was extinguished it went into a state of latency. Rather than ceasing to exist, it became dormant and in that state -- unbound from any particular fuel -- it became diffused throughout the cosmos. When the Buddha used the image to explain nibbana to the Indian Brahmans of his day, he bypassed the question of whether an extinguished fire continues to exist or not, and focused instead on the impossibility of defining a fire that doesn't burn: thus his statement that the person who has gone totally "out" can't be described.
However, when teaching his own disciples, the Buddha used nibbana more as an image of freedom. Apparently, all Indians at the time saw burning fire as agitated, dependent, and trapped, both clinging and being stuck to its fuel as it burned. To ignite a fire, one had to "seize" it. When fire let go of its fuel, it was "freed," released from its agitation, dependence, and entrapment -- calm and unconfined. This is why Pali poetry repeatedly uses the image of extinguished fire as a metaphor for freedom. In fact, this metaphor is part of a pattern of fire imagery that involves two other related terms as well. Upadana, or clinging, also refers to the sustenance a fire takes from its fuel. Khandha means not only one of the five "heaps" (form, feeling, perception, thought processes, and consciousness) that define all conditioned experience, but also the trunk of a tree. Just as fire goes out when it stops clinging and taking sustenance from wood, so the mind is freed when it stops clinging to the khandhas.
Thus the image underlying nibbana is one of freedom. The Pali commentaries support this point by tracing the word nibbana to its verbal root, which means "unbinding." What kind of unbinding? The texts describe two levels. One is the unbinding in this lifetime, symbolized by a fire that has gone out but whose embers are still warm. This stands for the enlightened arahant, who is conscious of sights and sounds, sensitive to pleasure and pain, but freed from passion, aversion, and delusion. The second level of unbinding, symbolized by a fire so totally out that its embers have grown cold, is what the arahant experiences after this life. All input from the senses cools away and he/she is totally freed from even the subtlest stresses and limitations of existence in space and time.
The Buddha insists that this level is indescribable, even in terms of existence or nonexistence, because words work only for things that have limits. All he really says about it -- apart from images and metaphors -- is that one can have foretastes of the experience in this lifetime, and that it's the ultimate happiness, something truly worth knowing.
So the next time you watch a fire going out, see it not as a case of annihilation, but as a lesson in how freedom is to be found in letting go.