Friday, August 1, 2014

The Center of the Buddhist World: Bodh Gaya

Dhr. Seven, Crystal Quintero, Seth Auberon, Amber Larson, Wisdom Quarterly; Asian Art Museum, Pasadena (; (photo);
Great Enlightenment Temple (Maha Bodhi Cetiya), Bodhgaya, India (

BODH GAYA, India - The wandering ascetic Siddhartha searched for a suitable tree to strive under. He chose one but was so weak from self-starvation and severe austerities that were it not for a maiden who mistook him for a dryad, a tree spirit manifesting in human form, he would have failed.

The maid ran to tell the mistress who daily made offerings at the tree. They prepared a rich meal of rice, milk, creme de la creme, and sweet treacle (coconut tree syrup).

Go back, be rich, prince! - Mara, I see you.
They approached the emaciated ascetic offered it. He was so weak they had to revive him, which disgusted the Five Ascetics, Siddhartha's fellow mendicants who abandoned him for accepting anything from a woman's hand. After all their help restoring him to health, Siddhartha realized the body was necessary for the quest. It was not the obstacle to be overcome, but rather it was the heart/mind. He left in search of a suitable place to strive, bathing in the river Neranjara, convinced that success was near.

Under Bodhi tree ("Enlightenment Tree") at the platform seat (Glenn Losack M.D./flickr)
Mara makes obstacles, kills, distracts.
He came to an awe inspiring grove and chose a tree that legend says was born the same day he was, which would have made it 34-years-old. Under its delightful shade he made a seat and determined not to give up until he realized the answer to, Why do we suffer?

But rather than striving with vigor, he realized that that had been fruitless and brought him to the verge of death.

Instead, he wondered why he had been avoiding the happy meditative absorptions (that go from supersensual bliss, joy, rapture all the way to very subtle unbiased equanimity) available to him. He realized, he would later say, that immersed in and obsessed by his austerities, he feared pleasure -- but why fear pleasure not tangled up with sensuality?

How to gain enlightenment

Siddhartha the ascetic wondered if this might be the way to enlightenment -- these pleasant absorptions -- and a certainty came upon him.
(In many past lives as a wandering ascetic he had developed, enjoyed, and benefited from the absorptions, which lead to spiritual bliss, supernormal powers, and enhanced consciousness, so at some level of subtle awareness he felt certain that they could help him now).
Relax, you've got plenty of time.
But many ascetics develop the meditative absorptions -- the zens, dhyanas, jhanas, chans -- and find that they are not enough. They can serve as an excellent basis for practicing successful insight meditation, contemplative practices in the temporary purity of mind/heart provided by immersing oneself in the absorptions, emerging, and immediately practicing for insight (vipassana).
Entering the first four jhanas successively and emerging, Siddhartha then asked himself the all-important question: What is this suffering due to? He realized that this was conditioned by that, but that was conditioned by something else. And he went back and back through 12 causal links (called Dependent Origination) to realize how things arise, how this present suffering arises, how it is he had come to be through an unfathomable past.

Moreover, he realized that there was a weak link in this chain, a point in the cyclical process which he could do something about: craving. Part of the chain depended on desiring, craving, and clinging to sensuality, to views, to continued becoming in superior states of existence.

Inside the main shrine of the Maha Bodhi ("Great Enlightenment") Temple in Bodh Gaya ("Enlightenment Grove"), Bihar (vihara) state, India (bharat), there is a golden statue under glass (Simon Maddison/maddison_simon/flickr)
Sensual craving, clinging to views
While he could not will himself not to desire, not to crave, there was a way to bring about the cessation of craving: One could look at things just as they really are. For example, whatever one lusts, why does one lust after it?

WARNING: Don't look!
Partly, it is because it is pleasing, appealing, beautiful, and alluring -- until we keep looking and start to notice that it is flawed, falling away, aging, based on things completely unlike it. Say we find a body appealing, its beautiful skin and proportionality, its alluring fragrance and softness. If we look and keep looking, it will not be but a few hours before we notice impurities, offensive odors, "soil" coming out of all its openings -- mucus, ear wax, spittle, feces, urine, sweat, fat, gas.
Walking corpses (
The realization is so shocking, so real, that the mind/heart shrinks back. One becomes dispassionate, disillusioned, and there is a moment of freedom, seeing things as they really are.
We are quickly re-illusioned; we run to it as our only safety and comfort in a harsh world, and we die still firmly in the grip of delusion, craving, and aversion (to all that is repugnant).
The heart/mind will not stand for the painful and disappointing truth. But, Siddhartha wondered, we were to stay with it? It allows an opening for systematic insight exercises, and one can break through to a realization that this has gone on not only in this life, this existence, but in countless past lives, past existences, past states of consciousness, past homes, past births, past states of becoming. And something more shocking is true: It is not only the gross impurities that are repulsive, there is a very subtle illusion going on:

That thing, that thing
Sid broke through (Songkhram_Ahuwari)
That thing, that composite-heap, is not one thing but countless parts, each of which is constantly falling away and being replaced. That thing -- all things -- that seems so stable, so likely to provide pleasure and satisfaction, actually provides a constant illusion and inevitable disappointment.

We never realize this; we cling to it instead as if maybe next time it will satisfy us, fulfill us, grant us lasting happiness and contentment. It fails, and fails, and fails, and yet we keep doing it seeing no other choice than to chase after illusory things. And it is not only sensual pleasures, but intellectual views (speculations, theories, philosophies, opinions, sides, real delusions about ourselves, about the world we think we see, feel, and taste out there).

Stop seeking. Live and die again.
Siddhartha's mind/heart let go, shrank back, pulled away, turned from, abandoned its clinging, its craving for this deception, and he saw things as they really are, profoundly realizing that "all things that come to be are subject to falling away; how could it be otherwise."

In other words, once one sees that things are not what they seem but are instead a painful trap, an mesmerizing illusion, a wheel we have been treading, a process the ancient mystics long ago named samsara -- this endless "continued wandering on." See, death would not be the end, death had never been the end, but just then Death got angry.
Samsara, the Wheel of Existence, the process of rebirth and redeath, the "continued wandering on" is like my hamster's wheel, a source of endless distraction with no origination point and no end. It does not unravel by itself but will keep going and going endlessly. However, there is a way to get off this useless and painful pursuit. More fun

Mara (Cupid) is beautiful
Mara, the personification of death, would not stand idly by as someone came so close to the answer awakening from this fitful dream, where Death imagines itself the supreme ruler. Mara Namuci the "demon" with an army of ogres (male and female yakkhas) came to unseat the Bodhisat (bodhisattva, bodhisatta, the "buddha-to-be," the being-intent-on-enlightenment).
Siddhartha persevered and remembering countless past lives, past conditions, past times when these same things had been true, these lines pursued, never seeing this Dependent Origination of things.

Attack before he realizes the Truth!
He broke through and became the Buddha ("supremely awakened teacher"), a title signifying his perfectly awakened state. One should not cling to this title because the Sage of the Shakyas (his family clan name) has gone by many titles, Mahavira ("Great Hero"), Tathagata (the "Wayfarer or Welcome One and Well Gone One"), Bhagava ("Blessed One"), and so on.

We say the historical Buddha because the former Prince Siddhartha Gautama (Gotama) realized that there had been other Awakened Ones in the distant past and in the future, a precious few who taught, many more who could not, and those striving to accomplish this level of realization and teaching ability.
Tibetan monks use wooden planks to do 100,000 prostrations to the Bodhi tree (not shown)

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