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Between Twin Sala Trees

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 156: Between Twin Sala Trees - Edited Version

There are many Buddhist scriptures: in Pali, in Sanskrit, in Tibetan, in Chinese, and so on. There are also many Buddhist traditions: Theravada, Sarvastivada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. And there are very many Buddhist teachings: about the cosmos, about meditation, about the mind, about mental states, about the nature of reality, about different kinds of living beings, about ethics--both personal and social, teachings even about the arts. In fact, there are so many scriptures, traditions, and teachings that one can sometimes get a little bewildered. Sometimes one might think how wonderful it would be if only all those books could be reduced to just one slim pocket volume that one could carry about all the time. How wonderful it would be if one could reduce those multitudinous chapters to just one chapter, all those verses to just one verse, or even reduce all those millions of words to just one magic word upon which alone one could ponder and continually reflect, knowing that if one did so one would be certain of gaining Enlightenment! I have sometimes thought that this could be done, that perhaps all the teachings could be reduced to one teaching, in fact to just one magic, meaningful, word. That word would be `impermanence'.

In a way, the whole of the Buddha's teaching is contained in that word. If you can understand impermanence then it is almost as if you will understand everything that the Buddha ever said. It is not surprising, therefore, that we are told that the trees and birds in Sukhavati<The Buddha Amitabha's Pure Land: according to some Mahayana schools, a sort of heavenly realm> have nothing else to say, nothing else to sing, than anitya (impermanence), anatta (selflessness), and dukkha (unsatisfactoriness). One might say that anitya, impermanence, would be sufficient since the other two principles are really contained in it. If we understand this one word, impermanence, in sufficient depth, we will see that the whole of the Buddha's teaching, both practical and theoretical, is implied therein.

We very often find, especially in the earlier portions of the Pali scriptures, that this insight into impermanence is expressed in terms of the realization that whatever has a beginning has an end, that whatever is born must die. If something has a beginning--and of course everything conditioned has a beginning--it must inevitably have an end. Sometimes this is expressed even more precisely and philosophically in the sentence: `Whatever has by nature an origin, that also by nature has an end.' The end is not accidental, not grafted on: the end is inherent in something inasmuch as it has a beginning. Its beginning is its end; the fact that it is a `beginning-thing' means that it is also an `ending-thing'. If you are a `born-thing', you are a `dying-thing'.

In traditional Buddhist language, this realization is known as `the opening of the Eye of Truth', or Dhamma-Chakkhu in Pali (Sanskrit Dharma-Chakshu). The opening of the Dhamma-Eye, the realization of the truth that whatever has by nature an origin has also by nature an end, is equivalent to Stream Entry.

From this fact alone, we can appreciate the great importance of the opening of the Dhamma-Eye.

In the course of the Vinaya-Pitaka of the Pali Canon we meet Kondanna, one of the Buddha's first five disciples. It is in connection with him that we hear of the Eye of Truth for the first time. Kondanna had been one of the Buddha's companions earlier on in his career, when the Buddha was practising severe asceticism and self-mortification. When the Buddha gave up that extreme path, Kondanna, like the Buddha's other four companions at that time, left him in disgust and wandered off. The Buddha too went off by himself, and eventually gained Enlightenment.

After gaining Enlightenment, the Buddha thought first of sharing his discovery with his old teachers, but realized that they were now dead. He then thought of his old companions, and realized that they were staying at the Deer Park, at Isipatana, in Sarnarth. So he went to them and, as the story goes, although they had determined not to show him any respect, they were quite unable to stop themselves from doing so when he actually arrived. The Buddha then sat down and talked with them.

They talked for an entire rainy season, the Buddha trying to get his old companions to see the truth that he had seen. This no easy task. He argued and expostulated; they discussed things vigorously. In the end the Buddha broke through and was able to communicate what he had been trying for so long to communicate. The first to realize that truth was this same Kondanna. He was the first among those five to get a glimpse of Enlightenment. The text says that when the Buddha had finished speaking, the `pure and stainless Eye of Truth, the Dhamma-Chakkhu, arose in Kondanna,' and he realized that everything that has by nature an origin has also by nature a cessation.' In one overwhelming flash of insight, he realized the truth of impermanence.

At this point the text has a very interesting comment: `Thus was the Wheel of the Dhamma set going by the Blessed One'. In other words, it had not really been set going until there was at least one Stream Entrant in the world. Before that the Buddha had been doing his utmost to communicate the Dhamma in words, and maybe in other ways too; but he had not actually set the Wheel of the Dhamma in motion. The Buddha had not really taught until there was one Stream Entrant in the world.

When this happened, when Kondanna had this great insight and the Buddha saw that he had had this great insight--that they shared one and the same insight between them--he was overjoyed. No longer would he have to keep his discovery to himself; it was now, to some extent at least, common property. At that moment, we are told, he let forth an udana, an inspired utterance, a song of ecstasy: `Kondanna has understood! Kondanna has understood!' The Wheel of the Dhamma had been set rolling, and even he could not see where it would stop. Henceforth Kondanna was called Annata-Kondanna, `Kondanna who has understood'.

It is interesting to note that the text says nothing about any further attainment beyond the opening of the Dhamma-Eye. It simply says of Kondanna that `having attained the Dhamma, having understood the Dhamma, having immersed himself in the Dhamma, having left uncertainty behind, having escaped from doubt, having attained confidence and not dependent on others in the doctrine of the teacher, he asked for ordination.'<Vinaya Pitaka, Mahavagga I, 6, 31, trans. Nanamoli> And this the Buddha granted. We are told the same thing about all four of the remaining ascetics. In their cases the Buddha had a little more difficulty in breaking through, but he managed in the end. In their cases too the Dhamma-Eye arose; they too saw that everything that has by nature an origin has also by nature a cessation. They too asked for ordination, and they too were ordained. In all these cases it was the opening of the Dhamma-Eye that seems to have been the real turning point.

Let us therefore return to impermanence. Impermanence is all around us. Everything is impermanent; there is nothing that is not. We see the leaves fall and the flowers fade; everything is impermanent. But the most vivid and the most powerful form in which we encounter impermanence is in death, the dissolution of the physical body--especially in the death of someone near and dear to us.

Buddhism offers a number of practices which are intended to remind us of death, to remind us that, inasmuch as the physical body was `put' together, one day it is going to fall apart.

There is, for instance, the Six Element practice (or at least the first four stages of that Six Element practice). Here, we reflect that whatever there is in us of the earth element is borrowed from the earth element which exists all around us in the universe. One day we will have to give it back. Similarly with the water element, the fire element, and with the air element: one day we are going to have to give them all back. That process of giving back, willingly or unwillingly, is the process of dissolution of the physical body, or death.

Then there are the ten so-called `corpse meditations'. Here, you go along to a cremation, or charnel, ground, and see corpses in various stages of decomposition. You then reflect that as they are, so too will you be one day, because you too are subject to death.

Then again, there is the relatively straightforward practice of the simple recollection of death. Here you just remind yourself that one day you will have to die, just as every other human being will have to die.

These practices all serve to remind us that human beings are subject to death: all must one day die. Even the greatest, even the best, even great heroes, must die--their power does not save them. Great artists and poets must die--their art and poetry does not save them. Sometimes these people die premature, even unpleasant, deaths. One thinks of Keats dying of consumption at twenty-five, of Shelley, drowned at thirty, one thinks--in Wordsworth's phrase--of `mighty poets in their misery dead'. One thinks of Spinoza, a great philosopher, again dying of consumption at the age of about forty. They all die sooner or later, prematurely or in the ripeness of their years. Their political greatness, moral greatness, artistic greatness, philosophical greatness cannot save them.

Even the Buddha had to die. The Buddha was Enlightened, but he was an Enlightened human being, and every human being must die because every human being was born. Everything that has a beginning must have an end. It may seem strange that a Buddha should have to die, but inasmuch as he is human, or to the extent that he is human, he must die.

The ...

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