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Transcribing the oral tradition...
Eric, FBA Team
Eric, FBA Team
Vajradarshini, Valderrobres, Spain
Suriyavamsa, Glasgow, UK
Kuladharini, Glasgow, UK
Padmavajri, East Sussex
Sangharakshita, Birmingham, UK
Ratnavyuha, Auckland, NZ
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... whole course of existence? Being myself subject to birth I pursue those things which are also subject to birth. Being myself subject to old age I pursue these things which are also subject to old age. Being myself subject to sickness, decay, I pursue those things which are also subject to decay in the same way. And being myself subject to death, I pursue those things, those beings, which also are subject to death.
So this was his first line of reflection, his first line of thought: that being himself mortal, being himself conditioned, he pursued, he was interested in, he followed after, even lusted after, thirsted after, those things which also were mortal, which were conditioned. But then he goes on to relate to his interlocutor, who is a Jain ascetic, he goes on to relate how another, a different, almost a contrary train of reflection or train of thought arose. He says, `It occurs to me: suppose now I was to do otherwise. Suppose now, being myself subject to birth, I go in search of that which is not subject to birth; which has no origin, which is timeless. Suppose myself being subject to old age, I go in search of that which never changes, which is not so subject. Suppose, being myself subject to sickness, to decay, I go in search of that in whose perfection there is no diminution. Or suppose, finally, being myself subject to death, I go in search of that which is everlasting, that which is eternal, that which is not subject to death as I am.
So this was his second line of reflection, his second line of thought. And he relates how very shortly afterwards, as a result of thinking in these two ways, reflecting in these two ways, he left home. There is no story in this sutta about stealing out at night or about going off on horseback.
It simply says that although his parents - his father and his foster-mother - were weeping and bewailing, he didn't mind that. He put on the yellow robe, he shaved his head, cut off his beard and went forth from the home into the homeless life.
So this is the story, in brief, of what we may call the Buddha's conversion. `Conversion' means literally a turning round, a turning about, not externally, not just from one religion to another, but internally from the conditioned to the unconditioned. The Bodhisattva, as he then was, realised that he was a conditioned being, realised that he was spending his whole time, his whole energy, going in pursuit of conditioned things, so he therefore decided to change it all, decided to go in search instead of the Unconditioned. So it was as simple as that. Stripped of all its mythological accretions, stripped of all the rather gorgeous legends which have accumulated about it in the course of centuries, the Buddha's conversion was as simple as that.
But though it was simple, though its simplicity is almost classic, as we may say, though it was simple, it certainly wasn't easy, we can be sure of that. Here and there in other portions of the scriptures we get indications that a terrible struggle went on in the Buddha's mind before he made his final decision.
Now the first type of pursuit when the conditioned pursues the conditioned, the mortal pursues the mortal, this is called in Pali the anarya pariyesana or the ignoble quest. And the second, when the conditioned goes in search of the Unconditioned, the mortal in pursuit of the immortal, this is called the aryapariyesana, the Noble Quest. Esana is a very strong word. It means search, quest, will, desire, urge or aspiration. It's a very strong word indeed, and it is pre-Buddhistic. We find it in the Upanishads. We find it, for instance, in the Brihadaranyaka-Upanishad, which is one of the oldest of the Upanishads. Esana: urge, desire or will or search, aspiration.
So the ignoble quest, the anarya-pariyesana - the conditioned pursuing the conditioned - corresponds to the round of existence, the Wheel of Life of Tibetan Buddhism, in which we are all involved, within which we all go up and down, up and down, round and round, from one life to the next indefinitely. And the Noble Quest, in which the conditioned goes in quest of the unconditioned - this corresponds to the Path: the Eightfold Path, the Sevenfold Path, the Path of the Bodhisattva, if you like, leading from the round, from the Wheel of Life, up through the spiral, about which we have spoken before, to the goal, Enlightenment or Nirvana.
Now the essence of the spiritual life we may say is to be found here. Here we put our finger, as it were, on the spring which works the whole mechanism. And the spring is the conditioned in pursuit of the unconditioned, the mortal seeking the immortal. Not just immortality of its own self, not immortality of the ego, but immortality which transcends all self, all ego.
In this connection we can refer to a young monk called Govinda who is mentioned also in the Majjhima-Nikaya who asks a question of the Brahma Sanankumara. We are told that this young monk was very devout, very earnest. So when the rainy season came, he decided to spend the whole rainy season meditating. You probably know that in the east, especially in India, there are three main seasons of the year. You've got your hot weather, then you've got your rainy weather, and then you've got after that your so-called cold weather, which is about as cold as England's summer. This is what the seasons are like in India. Each of them lasts about 4 months. So you've got 4 months of blazing sunshine without a drop of rain, 4 months of torrential rain with a little sunshine in between but the rain doesn't let up, and then you've got 4 of beautiful mild, warm rainless weather.
So the practice was in the Buddha's time, and it's still the practice in many Buddhist countries today, that during the rainy season monks simply go into retreat. You can't wander about, you can't walk from place to place, so in the old days they just stayed in a cave or in a little shed, or in their monastery later on, and they went into retreat. And this is an institution in all the Buddhist countries nowadays - the rainy season retreat - and they have it even in those countries where there's no rainy season, like parts of China. (There they call it the summer retreat.) Here it's been suggested in this connection we have a winter retreat.
So Govinda - this all happened during the lifetime of the Buddha - Govinda decided to observe the rainy season retreat by meditating. And he spent the whole three months - three months is compulsory, four months optional - meditating on metta, that's to say love, universal love, universal friendliness. So at the end of the three months we are told, such was the success of his meditation, that he had what we would call a vision. He had a vision of the Brahma Sanankumara, the eternal youth. And the Brahma said to him, `What do you want?' So Govinda said `I have a question.' And the question is this, in Pali: Papa .... anatang Brahmaloka. `How may the mortal obtain the immortal Brahma world?' This was Govinda's question.
I'm not going to tell you what the reply was - might have that in another lecture. But the question is the essential religious question. How may the conditioned become unconditioned; how may the mortal become immortal? How may one conquer death? Now you may say at this point, it's all very well to talk of giving up the conditioned and going in search of the unconditioned, but it's all rather vague, it's all rather abstract. What exactly does one mean by the conditioned? How can we recognise the conditioned? How are we to know it? Now the answer which the Buddhist tradition gives to this question is that we recognise the conditioned by means of the three characteristics, lakshanas, which it invariably bears. These 3 characteristics, these three lakshanas, are sometimes called the three signs of being, but I don't personally consider this a very good rendition. I think it should be rather the three signs of becoming, because the condition is becoming, it's not a static being. Now the three lakshanas, the three characteristics, of all conditioned existence, inseparable from it are duhkha, anitya, and anatman. These may be rendered as the unsatisfactory, or painful; the impermanent; and the devoid of self. And all conditioned things whatsoever, in this universe, possess all these three characteristics. They're all unsatisfactory, all impermanent, all devoid of self.
Now let us consider them one by one. First of all duhkha. Duhkha's one of the best known Buddhist words, lots of people know it in the original language, Pali or Sanskrit, simply as duhkha. It's usually translated as suffering. But I personally feel that unsatisfactoriness, though a bit cumbersome perhaps, a bit clumsy, is better. One must confess that the etymology of the word - and the etymology of the word often sheds light on its meaning - the etymology of the word in this case isn't very clear. According to some authorities, some traditional authorities, the term was originally used for an ill-fitting chariot wheel. Du as a prefix means anything which is not good, bad, ill or wrong, or out of place. And the kha, the main part of the word is supposed to be connected with chakkha or chakra, which means of course wheel. So according to some of these traditional authorites, duhkha meant originally the ill-fitting wheel of the chariot.
Now in the days of the Buddha and before, as you know, chariots were the principle means of conveyance and they didn't have any springs. So if the chariot wheel didn't fit properly, then the chariot was very, very uncomfortable to ride in indeed. So the idea of the ill-fitting chariot wheel suggests something which is not fitting properly, something which is out of place, and something which therefore results in disharmony and discomfort and suffering. And according to these traditional authorities that's the origin of the word duhkha.