Friday, December 7, 2012

Bodhi (Enlightenment) Day 2012

Dhr. Seven, Ashley Wells, David Nguyen, Wisdom Quarterly (Shaka Jodo-e, Dec. 8, 2012)
"The Legend of Buddha," an animated film by Pentamedia Graphics Ltd., qualified for contention at the 2005 Oscar Awards in the Best Animation Film category.

The Buddha, according to the oldest records, reached supreme enlightenment on the full moon day in May (roughly corresponding to the Indian month of Vesakha), which coincidentally was the day he was born and also the day he exited the world into final nirvana.

But these sources are not relied on by all traditions. The much larger and often more devotional Mahayana school, which encompasses Chinese Pureland, Japanese Zen, Nicheren, Tendai, and Shingon, Tibetan Vajrayana, or what used to be referred to generally as "Northern" Buddhism (as the Dharma traveled out of India into China, Japan, Korea, and parts of Vietnam).

This Buddhist school or vehicle -- as distinguished from the older Theravada (Teaching of the Elders or Theras and Theris) and the now defunct "Hinayana" (derogatory "Lesser Vehicle") schools like the Sarvastivada -- commemorates Siddhartha's knowledge-and-vision of nirvana. More than that it is the celebration that Siddhartha did not  merely become an arhat, or "fully enlightened person," but a Supremely Enlightened Teacher (samma sam buddha).

He might have remained silent (pacceka buddha) without having developed the ancillary qualities and abilities needed to effectively establish the Dharma, teaching it directly to others, and leaving a stable monastic and supportive lay-Buddhist legacy that continues long after a buddha's attainment of the goal.

Mahayana Buddhists observe the occasion not as a thrice-blessed day as it is celebrated by Vesak-observing countries (Burma, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and elsewhere). Instead, Bodhi Day allows celebrants to focus on the essence of the Buddha's achievement -- bodhi, "enlightenment," "awakening," transcending ignorance and all of the other causes of suffering.

This is best done by meditating, studying the Teachings on the path to enlightenment, chanting and/or memorizing sutras, and other acts of merit such as countering the Three Poisons of the heart/mind with the antidotes of letting go/unselfishness, friendliness/compassion, and mindfulness/cultivating right view. 

For all that, it is still a celebration, which means special foods, offerings to monastics and intensive practitioners, and readings.

How did he do it, and how might I?
Austere days of struggle (
What might be important is reflecting on what finally made Siddhartha's spiritual efforts fruitful. He had tried devotion to teachers, the yogis Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputra (not a Jain as Wikipedia currently states but simply a shraman of which there were at least six prominent schools).
With them Yogi Siddhartha gained valuable skill in samadhi (intense concentration) but not enlightenment and liberation from samsara. He had tried extreme pleasure as a prince in the palace. He now tried severe asceticism -- starvation (anorexia mirabilis), holding his breath, not lying down, rarely eating, not caring for the body, exposure to the elements, and seclusion. Both were counterproductive.
He discovered the Path by setting off alone, taking food and rest sufficient to support his spiritual (metaphysical) endeavors, and utilizing the purity/intensity of heart-mind brought about by samadhi to support mindful insight-practices, which includes contemplation.

Crucially, he recalled that as a child of seven, he had spontaneously entered meditative absorption (jhana, zen, dhyana, seon, ch'an) under a tree during a planting festival. He had been running from that sort of bliss or joy (piti) for six years of practice since leaving the palace. Although his two teachers had taught samadhi as the goal by way of the eight jhanas, they did not encourage or allow him to develop these absorptions deeply.

It was enough to attain each and move quickly to the next absorption until reaching what they in their respective schools or dharmas (doctrine-disciplines) were regarding as the utmost attainment, as liberation (moksha), as freedom from rebirth (samsara), as nirvikalpa samadhi as if rarefied states of consciousness were nirvana.

But Siddhartha, due to so many exertions in past lives as a yogi, a Himalaya-dwelling hermit, realized, intuited, or felt that this attainment was not the ultimate, not real liberation from samsara, not the unexcellable goal of nirvana.

Reclining Buddha entering nirvana with arhats, Nanzoin Temple (Jepster/flickr)
Foolishly today many of us, following in the footsteps of ancient Brahminical and "Hindu" (a recent all-encompassing tradition systematized by Adi Shankara from very ancient texts and Vedic/Brahminical traditions existing at least from the time of the Indus River Valley Civilization up to and including lip service to the Buddha and Mahavira, the founders of the two most popular shramanic traditions that rejected the Vedas, Buddhism and Jainism), mistake the goal of the shramanic Buddha and that of Vedic Brahmins.

This is significant because Mahayana Buddhism, so thoroughly influenced by Brahmanism (precursor of modern "Hinduism"), hold up what Brahmins held up as the ultimate attainment as if it were nirvana.

But the Buddha corrected the teachers of his day, rejecting what the Brahmins taught and what his two wandering yogi teachers had taught him, in favor of what he found by his own efforts as a bodhisattva striving to become a samma sam buddha, a Supremely Enlightened Teacher.

Rohatsu, Jōdō-e (Danny Fisher)
Nirvikalpa samadhi is Hinduism's Advaita, "non-duality." It's what we joke about in the punchline "Make me One with everything." That oneness or non-duality is NOT enlightenment, not nirvana, not liberation from samsara.
Is it any wonder, therefore, that Mahayana exalts itself successfully opposing a strawman tradition it set up as Hinayana -- teaching, like the Brahmins, that "Nirvana is Samsara" when it is almost by definition the opposite? (Almost since nirvana cannot be known or defined by concepts, but only known by experience).

And rather than focusing on the historical Buddha, the Brahmins created Mahayana Buddhism in India within 200 years of the Buddha's passing -- created a tradition wherein all the many gods of the previous pantheon became Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Then of these Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva, who went on to become Kwan Yin, soon assumed the position of greatest prominence, subordinating insight-wisdom in favor of promoting emotional-compassion.
That may not have been what the world really needed (to gain freedom), but it is certainly what it wanted. Sexism in the Judeo-Christian world met with a similar backlash, leading to the rise of the Virgin Mary as the supreme figure of day-to-day veneration. The Buddha was not sexist, nor was Jesus, but the worlds they taught certainly were, and the temple priests (Brahmin/Hindu and Philistine/Jewish) they corrected were.
Bodhi is enlightenment. Nirvana is supreme and ultimate liberation from samsara and all the suffering/disappointment inherent in conditioned existence

That is the real Bodhi Day reflection so that we may all one day be free.

Feast of the Immaculate Conception
Sr. Kathleen Deignan, CND ( 
I have always thought it an interesting coincidence that the feast of the Immaculate Conception and the feast of the Buddha’s enlightenment, Bodhi Day, both share this date, December 8. Koans: engaging riddles, provocative questions that if lived awaken insight and a fuller understanding of life...
Bodhi Day 2012 (David Victor Vector)
Happy Bodhi Day! (Danny Fisher)

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