IN MARCH, 1998, I sat beneath the tree that for thousands of years people have called ‘the Bodhi-Tree’ in the Holy-of-holies of Buddhism in India, a place known as Budh-Gaya (it is not the original tree, but a descendent of it). Constantly, people circumambulate the main shrine, drawn here from all over the world, their various garbs identifying them as Japanese, Thai, Burmese, Chinese, Tibetan, Sri Lankan, Vietnamese, and so on; not a few Westerners can be seen, too. Many tongues— some recognizable to me, others not— are heard here.

Since my first visit in 1974, I have been here many times, and the scene, while always new, of course, is always one of devotion. People have been coming here as pilgrims since the time that Siddhartha Gotama, otherwise known as Sakyamuni, discovered what he did here over 2,500 years ago and became thereafter known as ‘The Buddha’: ‘The Awakened One.’

There have been many changes at Budh-Gaya since my first visit, and not all of them for the better. It has become more accessible these days, and consequently commercialized, as more people visit now, with more money than they used to have; there are more temples, and many hotels and shops where before there were only few, and, needless to say, the number of beggars has increased; because of incidents of banditry and armed-robbery in the area, it is unsafe to travel some of the roads at night (even temples have been robbed at gun-point and people shot). But, while the creature-comforts of visitors is quite well-provided for, it is rather surprising to find not a single vegetarian restaurant in this holy-of-holy places of Buddhism! This region is populated by Hindus and Muslims; there are no Buddhists; even so, years ago, there were no butcher-shops here, and if people wanted meat, they had to go to neighboring towns to buy it, but now that has changed, too. Demand has obviously created the supply, and quality has given way to quantity. I have no desire to go there again, preferring to visit lesser-known Buddhist places, of which there is no shortage in India— places where one can be quiet and undisturbed.

The devotion of pilgrims has taken many forms and varied in intensity; donations have been lavished on the place in hope of ‘making merit’ and, as always happens, with so much money coming in, some people have been drawn to the place for other than spiritual reasons.

Years ago, simple lodging in the various temples could be had without a set fee, but most people would donate at least what they would pay for a cheap hotel, and some much more. Now, however, most temples tell you: "This room costs that much; that one costs this much." Well, we know that temples need money; they can’t be run on nothing, but to make a business of it is rather off-putting, to say the least. And last year, when I sought accommodation in one of the large Japanese temples where I had stayed before, I was informed: "Sorry, it’s for Japanese people only." "But what about the sign over your gate that says ‘International Buddhist Brotherhood’?" said I. "Oh, that is just a name," I was told. Too right; it was just a name, confirming what I always say about the hollowness of names and how we must look deeper, to find what, if anything, lies behind. Racism dies hard.

Near the opulent Thai Buddhist temple in Budh-Gaya are the foundations of an Indian Buddhist temple; they have been there for many years, but never got any further, because, my informant said, no sooner was money raised to continue the construction, than one of the monks absconded with the funds. Indian monks have such a reputation, that none of the temples there will allow them to stay. And this is India, the land where it all began! But I have seen it myself; it’s not just hearsay. At Kusinara, the place where the Buddha breathed his last, I observed a gang— for want of a better word— of Indian monks hanging around the main shrine, waiting for busloads of foreign visitors. As soon as any come, these ‘monks’ hurry into the shrine and sit cross-legged to create the impression they are meditating, with the hope that when the visitors enter and see them, they will give them money; obviously, their ruse works often enough, as I was told they’d been there for quite a while.

Unlike in former times, it is not hard to get to the Buddhist places, but still entails some discomfort and requires patience; India’s infrastructure is aeons behind the West’s, and it usually takes visitors a few days to adjust to the different conditions. Most visitors realize they cannot expect to live there as they do in their own lands, but it’s not for long, so they gladly compromise. They come in comfort from afar, by plane, then switch to travel by train, bus or car, not as pilgrims did in former times, on foot or by horse (not to mention how some Tibetans— be-fore Tibet was brutally occupied— made the entire journey, both ways, by taking three steps then making a full-length prostration on the road, over snow-covered mountain-passes, down to the sweltering plains of India until they reached their treasured destination: the Diamond Throne of the Buddha’s Enlightenment.

It is a word of great importance in Buddhism— indeed, we may say that it is what Buddhism is all about: Enlightenment. But what is it? Do we, like people of other religions with their word ‘God,’ have only the word— which, in itself, is useless and maybe worse— or have we, by our own experience, something of what the word represents or symbolizes?

We speak freely of ‘the Buddha’s Enlightenment beneath the Bodhi-Tree,’ as if doing so implies an automatic understanding of what took place in the mind of Siddhartha Gotama at that time. But it is not enough to merely repeat, like parrots, what we have heard or read, or recite ancient formulas. We must know.

Let us examine the word, ‘enlightenment.’ It has to do with light, obviously. But what kind of light? Not sunlight, of course, or lamplight. It refers to the ‘light’ of understanding as opposed to the ‘darkness’ of ignorance, and hence is something of the mind. We may use the analogy of turning on the light at night to convey an idea of what happens: upon turning on the light, we perceive things clearly, whereas before, in the darkness, we could not. Things were there, in the darkness, but because of lack of light, we couldn’t see them. Enlightenment, like this, means seeing— or understanding— clearly what is here.

But what does ‘understanding things clearly’ mean? It means, not taking things at face-value, as they appear, but ‘seeing’ their insubstantial nature, how they came into being from various causes, how, likewise, they change and cease to be, and how, each and everything is like a facet of a diamond, not existing on its own, but ‘real’ only as part of the whole. This is very complex, of course, and cannot be observed intellectually or academically, but must be realized on a much deeper level, intuitively and feelingly, with no space or distinction between the observer and the observed. The observer is considered as not different from the observed, for they are both of the same nature and subject to change, arising and passing away. We may observe a flower, for example, and all the processes therein, while a flower has not the capacity to observe us, but we can see that what governs a flower’s existence— how it comes into being, not by accident, but from many cooperating factors— also governs us; we recognize cause-and-effect at work in both the observer and the observed, and realize that there is really no barrier or separation between them except in the mind.

Without being enlightened ourselves, we merely speak of the Buddha’s Enlightenment, and, in this, how are we different from people of other religions who speak of God, Heaven, Hell, etc.? It is all a matter of hearsay, and makes no sense at all. How do we know of ‘the Buddha’s Enlightenment’ in the first place? This event, if it happened, took place over 2,500 years ago; moreover, there was no-one around to observe or record it, and even if there had been, how could he have observed, measured and understood what was going on in Gotama’s mind? Not to say it didn’t happen, or that Gotama was putting us on, but we have only his word for what happened; it’s not something that we ourselves have experienced and verified, is it? Did he really say what the books— which were not written until 500 years later— report him as saying? Who did he tell, and how did he tell it? And how did that person or persons retell it? We cannot be sure, can we? There is room for doubt or uncertainty here, rather than unquestioning acceptance or belief of what the books say. Followers and believers have a tendency to exaggerate things in order to glorify their teachers; it was no different then than it is now.

It is said, in the Buddhist scriptures, that Gotama achieved Sambodhi, (translated as Full Enlightenment) and became omniscient (all-knowing). And because it is so written, many Buddhists implicitly believe it and state it in speech and writing as if it is therefore indisputably true. But really, to claim that the Buddha knew everything (or that God knows everything)— as many people do— has no meaning, and is just empty, because to make such a claim requires that the person making it knows everything himself, and since no-one knows everything, it can-not be said that the Buddha (or ‘God’ or anyone else) knows everything. We would have to ask: "How do you know the Buddha was omniscient and knew everything?" We dare not, as Buddhists, say: "Because the scriptures say so," as it would make us appear silly. We are merely going upon assumption, and this is not very wise, and doesn’t accord with the Buddha’s exhortations not to believe him, but to test his teachings as a goldsmith would test gold, and find out for ourselves.

People who have been to Nepal will know that the capital, Kathmandu, nestles in a valley in the foothills of the Himalayas. At certain seasons, in the early morning, before the clouds rise to obscure them, the peaks of the Himalayas can be glimpsed in the distance. To view the sun rising over the Himalayas, many people go to Nagarkot, an 11,000-foot hill on the rim of Kathmandu valley, and there, far away, they can see Mount Everest. It rises 29,028 feet above sea level, and as such, is the highest mountain on earth, but from Nagarkot, it doesn’t seem so; in fact, other peaks appear higher.

If we know of nothing higher than what we’ve experienced, we would regard that as the highest. But progress or civilization is a matter of pushing back barriers and horizons. Europeans of the Middle Ages lived in a very small world, created and bounded by ignorance; they thought that what they knew was all there was to be known; such is the nature of ignorance. Columbus is credited with discovered America, but although he deserves credit for boldly doing what he did, it is not for discovering America; rather, it is for discovering or exposing European ignorance of America; there were millions of people in America already; it had been inhabited for thousands of years; Columbus pushed back the barriers and enlarged European knowledge of the world.

Everest has been scaled and measured, and there are people who know that it’s the highest mountain in the world; moreover, it can be demonstrated; the rest of us just have to take their word for it; it’s not necessary for everyone to climb it. To most people, the 11,000 foot hill of Nagarkot would be high. Everest is not something of their experience, so they can talk only of hills and not of mountains. Set out on a trek towards Everest— a trek that would take several weeks— and higher and higher mountains would come into view, each one appearing the highest. Skirting them, however, one might be confronted with a still-higher mountain. And so it goes on.

Likewise, there are mountains of the mind to encounter and scale, and each one, as we come to it, may appear the highest. Looking back on those we’ve climbed, and forward to those we face, however, we realize that there are always higher mountains ahead. Is there any end to it, any point where we might say, "This is it; this is Full or Complete Enlightenment? May there not be more ahead?

In the Aero-Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C., there is a display-case containing millions of transistors, like those used in earlier transistor-radios. Such a case-full of transistors was required to run a computer in the 1950’s, but that work can now be done by a single micro-chip, and has made computers so widely available that even I have one. We’ve come a long way.

We may speak of ‘enlightenment,’ as we can see there are various degrees of enlightenment or understanding, like the degrees on a thermometer, and we can safely say that we are all somewhat enlightened, but we are not qualified to speak of Full Enlightenment, cannot quantify it. Enlightenment, at our stage, is relative, a matter of more-or-less. Certainly, as most people would agree, we may become more enlightened, and that should be our concern; we have the potential for it, and may even call it our ‘birthright,’ because the potential for it has been created by all the generations before us, gradually evolving from what people were like early on to what we have become; we are here now like this because they were there then like that, not as a result of our own efforts; we have a responsibility to use what they bequeathed us, to use it wisely, develop it, and pass it on with interest to those who come after. This is good enough reason— if we require a reason— for following the Way, and becoming more enlightened; we shouldn’t waste or squander what is ours only on trust. Looking at it like this opens things out; the mind expands to take in much more than just this tiny fragment of life that we call ‘I.’ It is not just for ourselves that we live.

Reading the life-story of the Buddha (a Sanskrit word that was part of the Indian vocabulary long before the birth of Siddhartha, just as the Hebrew word ‘Messiah’ was known before the birth of Jesus), we see how Prince Siddhartha had many enlightenment-experiences before his Enlightenment of Buddhahood, and I will here recount two of them in order to show that Enlightenment can spring from observation of things quite common in the world around us.

When the Prince was still a boy, around six or seven years old, he was taken to observe the Spring Ploughing Festival, a ceremonial ploughing of the earth to mark the beginning of a new agri-year. Being basically an agrarian society, the people had close contact with the earth and deemed such a ceremony of great importance. No doubt offerings of various kinds were made to the gods and numerous nature-spirits that the people felt were all around them, needing to be propitiated and beseeched for help and blessings.

While the King went off to lead the ceremony with the Royal Plough, the young Prince was left in the care of some attendants at one side of the field. As the ceremony got underway with music and song, however, the attendants felt the desire to observe things a little closer, so left the Prince alone, thinking he would be alright for a short time by himself.

Somewhat removed from the sounds of gaiety, the Prince felt calm and peaceful; he saw around him the signs of prosperity,

"But, looking deep, he saw
The thorns which grow upon this rose of life:
How the swart peasant sweated for his wage,
Toiling for leave to live; and how he urged
The great-eyed oxen through the flaming hours,
Goading their velvet flanks; then marked he, too,
How lizard fed on ant, and snake on him,
And kite on both; and how the fish-hawk robbed
The fish-tiger of that which it had seized;
………….till everywhere
Each slew a slayer and in turn was slain,
Life living upon death. So the fair show
Veiled one vast, savage, grim conspiracy
Of mutual murder, from the worm to man,
Who himself kills his fellow."

Deeply impressed by these things, the Prince sat beneath a tree
" …………….and first began
To meditate this deep disease of life,
What its far source, and whence its remedy.
So vast a pity filled him, such wide love
For living things, such passion to heal pain,
That by their stress his princely spirit passed
To ecstasy, and, purged from mortal taint
Of sense and self, the boy attained thereat
Dhyana, first step of the Path."

More than twenty years after this Ploughing Festival, while still living in the palace, the Prince felt a strong desire to view the city and the people therein. The books say that, until then, he had been confined within the palace-walls like a prisoner, on the orders of his father, so as to shield his pensive son from the painful realities of life, such as sickness, old age and death; he was provided with every conceivable luxury and pleasure in the palace in the hope that the destiny that had been foretold for him just after his birth— that he would leave the palace and go off in search of truth and become a Buddha— would not come to fruition, and that the alternative prediction— that he would become a great emperor— would take place. Finally, the King agreed to his request, but only after giving strict instructions that the town was to be specially prepared, that the people should dress in their best clothes and appear happy, and that all signs of sickness, old age and death should be kept out of sight until the Prince had passed by.

When all was ready, the Prince was allowed to go out in his chariot. He was pleased with what he first saw, as his people looked prosperous and genuinely happy to see their handsome Prince. But then the unexpected happened: Suddenly, in front of the chariot, a bent and wasted figure staggered, supported by a staff. Shocked at this sight which was so out of place among the signs of happiness and well-being, the Prince told his charioteer to stop and asked him what this apparition was. The charioteer, Channa, replied that it was an old man, but the Prince could not understand, and asked: "Are there others like this, or is this the only one?" (We would consider this a very naïve question, but it is quite in keeping with the story, which says the Prince had never been allowed to see such things before, so his question was valid). Channa replied: "This is not uncommon, my Prince; if people live long enough, they all reach the condition of old age."

Bewildered, the Prince ordered Channa to drive on, but they hadn't gone far when the Prince saw another startling sight: a sick person lying at the roadside, writhing and moaning in pain. Immediately, he told Channa to halt and asked him about this. "Oh, he's sick," said Channa, "it's nothing unusual." "Nothing unusual?" echoed the Prince; "but I've never seen anything like it before! Could I become like that? And my wife, too?" "Yes," said Channa, "both you, your wife, and everyone else can become like that, if health fails."

More confused, and still not comprehending the commonality of such conditions, the Prince told Channa to go on again. Passing the happy, smiling people, the Prince's inner turmoil was not assuaged thereby, and it was as if he didn't see them. Then, around a bend, they were confronted by a third strange sight: a funeral-procession crossing their path, with a corpse borne on a bier followed by mourning people. Again, he told Channa to stop and asked him to explain. Channa told him they were carrying a body— a relative or friend, perhaps— to be cremated at the burning-ghats. The Prince then asked if this was something to be faced by a few only, or if we all come to this, and Channa told him that all people— no, all things that are born— must die, sooner or later; some die when they are young, he said, some in the prime of life, and some when they are old; but all die. Siddhartha asked himself: "Then what is the use of our living, of all our efforts, if we must come to this? Is this really all there is to life, or is there something more?"

"I've seen enough, Channa; go back now," he said. Channa turned the chariot, but before they reached the palace, the Prince saw a fourth momentous sight: a yogi, or ascetic, sitting cross-legged in meditation beneath a tree near the road. "A moment, Channa," he said, "Who might that be, and what is he doing? His clothes are poor and simple, but never have I seen such a peaceful expression on anyone's face before!" "That is a sadhu, Lord," said Channa, "an ascetic or holy-man— some-one who has left his home and family to devote himself to the search for spiritual truth; he lives a life of simplicity and solitude as a way of attaining his goal."

When Siddhartha heard this, he immediately knew that this is what he himself must do at the first opportunity: must leave his palace in order to go off to search for Truth; the palace-life, he saw, was not conducive to the finding of peace and Truth, filled as it was with distracting pleasures and shallow things of the senses, things which tend to bind the spirit, hold it down and prevent it rising to greater heights.

Accordingly, this is what happened. At the first opportunity — the legend says it was the very same night after he had seen the Four Sights— when everyone was sleeping, he silently left the palace, mounted his horse, Kanthaka, and accompanied by the loyal Channa, rode swiftly to the borders of the kingdom. There, he crossed the Anoma River, removed his jewels, cut off his long hair and beard and gave these things to Channa, together with the horse, telling him to take them back to the King and say that he would not return until he had found the cause of all the suffering in the world. Broken-hearted to be separated from his beloved Prince, Channa reluctantly obeyed, and Siddhartha set off alone into the forest as a homeless wanderer in search of Truth. He had not gone far when he met a beggar and exchanged his fine clothes for his dirty rags.

It is told that, after subjecting himself to various forms of mortification— even to the point of death— six long years later he finally became Enlightened and Liberated, and was thereafter known as 'The Buddha.’ His search lasted for more than just six years, however; in fact, it cannot be said where it began, but throughout his life, from earliest years, we can observe what was happening and how all events were part of his preparation for Enlightenment; it didn't happen all at once, but as the result of many lifetimes of effort that bore fruit beneath the Bodhi-tree in Gaya more than 500 years before the birth of Jesus (the exact date cannot be ascertained, any more than can the birth of Jesus).

Personally, I am somewhat skeptical about the account of Prince Siddhartha being so cut off from the unpleasant side of life that when he saw the Four Sights, it was for the first time in his 29 years. I think it more probable that, like you and I, he had seen such things before, but on this particular occasion, his mind was so finely-tuned and sensitive, that he saw them as he had never seen them before, as if for the very first time, shocking him to the core of his being.

We have grown up with sickness, old-age and death all around us, and have accepted them without too many questions, so have become inured to them and are no longer shocked thereby, if we ever were. This doesn't mean that we understand it all, or have gone beyond the condition of old-age, sickness and death; they are still grim and painful realities that we are all subject to. But, although we grow old (if we are lucky and our lives don't come to an early end), get sick and die, all is not bleak and negative, for through it all Enlightenment may be found, by understanding deeply these very things; we have ample material to work with.

Seize the Moment!

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