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The Way to Enlightenment

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by Sangharakshita

The Venerable Sangharakshita

Lecture 112: The Way to Enlightenment Friends, Today, as in other years, we are gathered together to celebrate what Buddhists all over the world - mostly in the East of course, but even here in the West - regard as being the greatest event in the whole course of human history; and it isn't, of course, a material event; it's not the sort of thing that people perhaps usually celebrate on a national scale, it's not a battle or a conquest, or even a scientific discovery. What we're celebrating, what is being celebrated in so many other parts of the world at this moment, is a purely spiritual - one might even say transcendental - event. The event of the attainment of what has come to be called, in the Buddhist tradition, Perfect Enlightenment, samyak sambodhi, by Siddhartha Gautama. And this even occurred in North Eastern India, some twenty five centuries ago. Scholars aren't altogether agreed as to the exact year in which the Buddha was born, in which he gained Enlightenment, in which he passed away, but the general consensus of scholarly opinion nowadays is that the Buddha gained Enlightenment at the age of thirty five in five hundred and twenty eight BC (528 BC), and according to a very early Buddhist tradition, he gained Enlightenment, he awoke to the Supreme Truth, he became a Buddha, on the full moon day, or rather night, of the Indian month Vaisaka, which corresponds to our April to May, which is why we very often refer to this particular celebration as Vaisaka Purnima, the festival of the full moon day of the month Vaisaka. And Vaisaka in Pali is Vissaka and in Sinhalese it's Wesak, and in this way we arrive at the festival of Wesak, the full moon day of the month of April to May, commemorating the Buddha's Enlightenment. In other words, this is the occasion when we commemorate the day when, for the first time in history, in recorded history at least, an unenlightened being, an unenlightened man, became an Enlightened being, and Enlightened man. The day when he finally freed himself from all human conditionings, all human limitations, became, as it were, one with Reality, one with Truth, and became even we may say, a living embodiment of the Truth. So that after this great attainment of his, the Truth was manifested through him, in every word that he spoke, in every action, and even - perhaps above all - in his silences, as silently he communicated with his friends and his followers.

So today, not only today but also yesterday and tomorrow, all over the East, all over the Buddhist world, people are coming together in various ways, in small groups, in large groups, in very large groups, even as we have come together here this evening. And in all these different places, all these different countries, they are remembering the Buddha's great achievement and paying homage to his memory, and this they are doing in different ways according to their respective national, cultural, traditions. In some countries, as in Ceylon and Burma, you'll find people lighting candles and offering them to the Buddha. In Tibet you'll find them lighting butter lamps, especially one hundred and eight butter lamps, or one thousand and eight butter lamps, and offering them to the Buddha, offering them before the image of the Buddha.

And in other parts of the Buddhist world, in other Buddhist countries you'll find people chanting, sometimes for hours on end, sometimes even all day and all night, chanting verses expressive of the praises of the Buddha, commemorating his great spiritual achievement. And of course in other places, on a more as it were social level, you'll find lots of people feeding the monks. In some Buddhist countries on all occasions of this kind this is a very popular - I was almost going to say pastime, feeding the monks.

They gather together as many monks as possible, and monks by tradition are supposed to have very healthy appetites, and they line them up in rows, sitting on the floor, and they feed them; and the tradition is, at least in some Buddhist quarters, that the more the monk eats, the greater the merit that you gain [Laughter] so the more he eats, well, the more pleased you are, so hospitality obviously in these circumstances is not stinted, it's certainly not refused.

But elsewhere, in other places, more serious minded people perhaps will be listening to lectures, just as you are listening, perhaps listening to discussions, expositions, bearing on the Buddha's life and his teachings; and some people even, here and there, on this particular day will be meditating.

But in the midst of all these celebrations, in the midst of all the lighting of candles and offering of flowers and feeding of monks and listening to lectures, and even meditating, in the midst of all these activities of this particular day, there's a question which inevitably arises, arises at least in the minds of some people, and that is this - that we speak of the Buddha, we speak of the Buddha as having attained, on this Vaisaka Full Moon day, Enlightenment, Perfect Enlightenment, Supreme Enlightenment; we speak of him as having awoken to the Truth, of as it were having rent the veil of illusion, seeing Truth face to face in all its fullness, in all its perfection. But the question that still arises is this: how did Siddhartha Gautama attain Perfect Enlightenment, how did he become the Buddha? Surely this is a question that must arise in every thinking mind as we celebrate Enlightenment Day, Vaisaka Purina day today - how did the Buddha become Buddha? And this is the question with which we shall be concerned this evening, the question of how Siddhartha, Gautama, became the Buddha, the question of the Way to Enlightenment, the way leading to that great experience, that great event in his life on account of which we remember him and commemorate him today. And this question, the question of how Enlightenment was gained, the question of the way to Enlightenment, what one must do, what path one must follow to be Enlightened, as the Buddha was Enlightened, this is not just a theoretical question. Of course people can approach it theoretically if they wish, as they can approach any question, even spiritual questions, theoretically if they wish, but essentially, basically, it is not a theoretical question at all. This is a question which is of, we may say, the greatest practical importance; because, as has already been suggested, the Buddha was not born Enlightened. He attained Enlightenment, Perfect Enlightenment, only after many years. Many years of struggle, many years of effort, even after making mistakes.

So the Buddha was, we may say the forerunner. He found the way. He was the pioneer, or we may say he blazed the trail, because not only did he gain Enlightenment himself, but he showed to others, he showed even to all men how they can follow the way, how they too can gain Enlightenment if only they make the effort. So when we speak of the way to Enlightenment we're not just speaking of the path which was followed two thousand five hundred years ago by the Buddha, but we're speaking of a path which we too can follow, here and now; follow that is if we do want to evolve, if we do want to develop, if we do want to make actual our full human potential, which is we may say, a more than human potential - a spiritual, even a transcendental potential.

So this is the way, this is the path, with which we're concerned. Not just the Buddha's path, not just the path that the Buddha followed, but the path that we too must follow if we wish to evolve, to develop even as he evolved and developed into a Buddha. So this is why we are concerned with this great question, with this great subject this evening. In other words, what we're really doing, and what we should be doing, is not just celebrating the Buddha's Enlightenment, as it were celebrating it as a thing of the past - we're reminding ourselves, as it were, on this occasion, that it's time that we started thinking about our own Enlightenment, if in fact we've not already started thinking.

Now there are two ways of approaching this subject. There are two ways of approaching the way to Enlightenment. We can approach it in the first place in terms of stages of progress. We can think of the way to Enlightenment as being like a sort of, if you like, road. Along the road you find so many milestones, marking the distance along which you've traveled. So in much the same way we can think of, we can speak of, the way to Enlightenment as consisting of so many different stages, and there are many accounts of this sort in Buddhist literature, Buddhist tradition. We speak, for instance, of the three great stages of the path to Enlightenment, that is to say the stage of Ethics, the stage of Concentration and Meditation, the stage of Wisdom - of knowledge an insight. And then again we speak in terms of the seven stages of purification. And in this way there are so many ways of sub-dividing, so many ways of classifying, so many ways of looking at, the successive stages of the path.

And secondly, we can approach the way to Enlightenment in terms of the actual events of the Buddha's life. In other words in terms of the events which culminated, when he was thirty five, in his attaining Enlightenment. So it's the second approach that is going to be adopted this evening. The second approach - that is to say approaching the way to Enlightenment through the actual concrete events of the Buddha's life - is much less usual, much less common, that approaching the way to Enlightenment through a sort of survey of the stages of the path. But it is, I feel, more appropriate to the present occasion.

So, first of all I shall be giving a resume of the traditional account of the Buddha's life - not the whole life, not the whole life of eighty years - but the events of the first thirty ...

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