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How the Buddha's Enlightenment changed the world's thinking

Ven Pandit Dr. Medagama Vajiragnana, 
Chief Sangha Nayaka of Great Britain,
Viharadhipati, London Buddhist Vihara in England

We celebrate Vesak which is traditionally associated with the Birth, Enlightenment and the Parinirvana of the Buddha, We, the Theravada Buddhists, consider the full moon day of the month of May as the auspicious day on which these three epoch-making events took place. Hence we celebrate those three events on that day in a very religiously righteous way and inspire ourselves to follow the path trodden by the Buddha.

The appearance of a Buddha indeed, is a very rare event. A Bodhisattva, that is a Buddha-aspirant, before taking birth in the human world in his last birth, first surveys whether the time is conducive to his appearance. What does this signify? This means Buddha-in-the-making wants to assure himself that the people of that time would be receptive to his message, which is about the predicament of human life (dukkha) and its cessation (nirodha). Surely there are times when people would not lend their ears to such profound teachings.

This is especially so at times when they are wallowing in gross sensual enjoyment, due to their ignorance of reality of things. At such times, when their eyes are covered with the dust of ignorance and their ears are plugged mainly with materialistic teachings, the admonitions of the Buddha would go unheard.

The 6th century B.C.E. (Before the Common Era), India, specially the North-East, presented a suitable environment for the appearance of the Buddha. Then it was a beehive of religious activities with many a religious teacher attempting to analyse the problem faced by man and present remedial measures. There were the traditional Vedic Seers who presented their teachings claiming it to be the divine revelation. They posited the belief in a supreme Creator-Godhead and the efficacy of sacrifice to solve all their life's problems. This was called the way of action or sacrifice (karma marga).

Then there were the Upanishadic teachers who adopted a different approach. They were metaphysicians who believed not in a Supreme-Godhead but in a universal principle - a highly metaphysical concept. This they called the Brahman, the universal soul, the matrix of everything. As a corollary to Brahman, they metaphysically conceived of an individual soul, an Atman, which is a replica of the Brahman, believed to be residing in all beings. These Upanishadic sages believed that the key to solving the human problem lies in the realisation of the undifferentiated Brahman-Atman identity, which has to be attained through the path of knowledge (gnana marga).

There were yet others. There were materialists like Ajita Kesakambalia, skeptics like Sanjaya Bellathiputta, Fatalists or Determinists like Makkhali Gosala, extreme karma-determinists like Mahavira and so on. All these religious teachers had a considerable following. In spite of the diversity in their teachings there was also a sort of unity, for these teachings accepted some kind of an entity, a substance, a soul which they referred to as Atman, Jiva and so on and which some considered as metaphysical and therefore different from the body, permanent and non-destructible and when the others considered as identical with the body and hence, material and perishing with the destruction of the body.

Basing on these fundamental philosophical principle of externalism (sassatavada) and annihilationism (ucchedavada), they developed two distinct religious practices. One was the method of self-mortification (atta-kila-mathanuyoga) through which they tried to save the eternal soul (atta) from being imprisoned in Samsaric existence. The other was excessive self-indulgence in sensual pleasures (kama-sukhallikanu-yoga) through which they tried to shower happiness and pleasure on the soul, which they believed would get annihilated with the destruction of the body.

The people of the time were not happy and content with these teachings for they were not well focused and addressed to the real problems they had to face, both with regard to secular and spiritual spheres. So, the people were yearning for a more realistic, effective and practical teaching from a teacher who would dare to transcend the traditional approaches. Hence, the Buddha's advent to this religious scenario was most welcomed.

The Buddha was well aware of the human dukkha, both in its psychological dimension and its societal dimension. He well studied the analyses of these problems and the solutions presented to these by the contemporary religious teachers. His conclusion was that neither the analyses nor the solutions were right. He found that the analysis of human problems and finding solutions to them cannot be properly done by adopting theological and theocentric approaches.

These were the traditional approaches adopted by the contemporary teachers and their teachings, therefore, were aimed at encouraging the people just to swim with the current. Thus, prayer, supplication to gods, sacrifice, resignation to fate and so on were the solutions suggested by these teachers.

The Buddha discarding theology adopted psychology, instead of being theocentric He was anthropocentric. Through this non-traditional approach He understood the problems of man, how they are caused, how they could be solved and the way leading to their solution in a way never heard of before. His analysis enlightened him with regard to the truth that dukkha is not something thrust upon in by some external force, but our own creation and therefore lying within ourselves. From this He concludes that the solution too has to sought within ourselves.

Man was declared to be his own master, responsible both for his purity and impurity. The Buddha's thus enlightened knowledge went against the accepted pattern of thinking in the world about spiritual life. The Buddha Himself said that His is a teaching that is going against the current (patisotagami).

On the day of His enlightenment He was offered a bowl of milk rice by a lady called Sujata. Having had His meal He put the bowl into the river Neranjara, thinking if He was to gain enlightenment, then may that bowl go against the current - go upstream in the river. We are told that his thought came to be accomplished. Symbolically signifies the fact that the Buddha's teaching went against all the teachings of the day.

Let us now see, in what ways His teachings changed the established ways of thinking. The Buddha immediately after His Enlightenment uttered the following paean of joy (Udana).

"Through many a birth I wandered in this endless cycle of births and deaths,
seeking, but not finding, the builder of the house.
Sorrowful is it to be born again and again.
O house-builder! you are seen. You shall build no house again
All your rafters are broken. Your ridge pole is shattered.
My mind has attained the Unconditioned. Achieved is the end of craving".

Here the Buddha explained how rebirth entails suffering. Through many lives He wandered and suffered, and searched for the architect of this body (the 'house'). In His final birth, He discovered that the creator or architect was not an external being but was man's own internal nature. This elusive architect is Craving or Attachment, a self created force latent in all.

The discovery of the builder led to the eradication of craving by attaining Arahatship which in the above paean is expressed as the end of craving. Here it is firmly established that due to not understanding (avijja) the four Noble truths for so long, He continued in the endless cycle of birth and death. Now with the demolishing of the house, the mind attained the unconditioned state which is Nirvana.

The central philosophy of Buddhism is called paticca samuppada. It rejects the view that everything happens either due to a creator, or fate or chance or karma. Everything happens due to causes and conditions and the Buddha explained these causes and conditions. This doctrine of conditionality has been put in a simple formula as follows;

When this is, that is (imasmin sati ideamhoti)
This arising that arises (imassa uppada idam uppajjati)
When this not that is not (imasmin asati idam nahoti)
This ceasing that cease (imassa nirodha idam nirujjhati)

Expounding the doctrine of Conditioned Genesis, the Buddha also put forward another revolutionary teaching.

This is that man has no Soul or Self, he has no lasting permanent entity. This went against the accepted teaching of the time. There is an entity in Indian philosophy called "Purusha" which is also known as "Prkrti". Some said that this "Purusha" or "Prkrti" is the source of the world and all in it.

This very same "Purusha" or "Prkrti" was introduced by some thinkers as "Brahman" or "Paramatman". Everything has originated from the Paramatman with a "Small Atman" in each of them. It is an entity which is eternal, unchanging, omnipresent and indestructible. Through realization of that eternal entity and individual becomes one with it. This is known as "Moksha" (freedom).

The Buddha, however, rejected the concept of both Brahman and Atman and put forward His own teaching of No Atman, or Anatta. What we call a person or an individual is combination of five aggregates; physical body, feelings, perceptions, mental activity and consciousness. But there is no self existing, ego-entity, soul or atman or any other abiding substance within this physical and mental phenomenon of existence or even outside of them.

The Buddha's teaching also had widespread effects on the structure of society encouraging people to question some of the assumptions on which that society was based, specially with regard to caste and status of women. He challenged the established system of social status what we call the caste system. According to tradition one could be born into one of four different castes - which were established in a hierarchical system with the Brahmins at the top, and the Sudras at the bottom.

People in the lowest caste were condemned to lives of misery and drudgery merely because of their birth. The Buddha vehemently opposed this assumption and said it was not one's birth but actions which determine whether one is high or low. The Buddha also did much to improve the status of women. In India at that time, women were attributed a very low position in society.

The birth of a daughter was considered a great woe and a man to whom a daughter was born would in all probability hold his wife responsible for such a calamity. The husband might re-marry to beget sons by another woman. A woman's duty was to serve man. She must be faithful and obedient and could suffer divorce summarily if she were quarrelsome or disobedient.

A woman played no real part in performing religious rituals or sacrifices, as she was regarded as spiritually inferior to man. She might be obliged to "make merit" by committing satipuja, or throwing herself onto a husband's funeral pyre.

The Buddha, however, opposed all this and spoke out in favour of giving women an equal place in society. Once the Buddha advised king of Kosala, to be free from prejudices about womenfolk which prevailed at that time and that some girls may be more worthy than boys; worthiness is depended not on sex, but on the development of good qualities.

Contrary to the belief generally held in India that women had no capacity to attain higher spiritual status, the Buddha encouraged them, accepting their ability and advocated the possibility of their spiritual advancement by establishing the Order of Bhikkhunis. Many of the Buddha's women followers, both as laity and those ordained into the Bhikkuni sangha achieved sainthood.

The above account clearly shows why Buddhism could be rightly called a teaching that motivated its followers to swim against the current, not to pray and supplicate external forces, but to engage in introspection, strive and bring a total revolution within.


Source: The Daily News, Sri Lanka, 15 May 2003, http://www.dailynews.lk

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