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The New Man Speaks

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by Sangharakshita

... over all, Omniscient am I Among all things undefiled, Leaving all, through death of craving freed, By knowing myself, whom should I point to? `For me there is no teacher, One like me does not exist, In the world with its devas No one equals me.

For I am perfected in the world, A teacher supreme am I, I alone am all-awakened, Become cool am I, Nibbana-attained.

To turn the dhamma-wheel I go to Kasi's city, Beating the drum of deathlessness In a world that's blind become.'<Majjhima Nikaya I (Middle Length Sayings), Ariyapariyesana Sutta, trans. I.B. Horner, Pali Text Society, London, 1967, p. 214-5> What we cannot fail to notice here, once we've recovered from the shock, is the Buddha's complete self-confidence--a self-confidence that was to last for the rest of his life. There is no false humility, and no false pride either. He makes a simple statement of fact because he knows exactly what has happened, who he is, and what he is going to do. He knows that he has gained Enlightenment; he knows that he is free; he knows that he is a New Man--in that there is as yet no one else like him anywhere in the world; and he knows that he is going to teach.

As if to check that he has heard correctly, Upaka points out that he seems to be claiming to be a Jina, a conqueror, a Buddha. The Buddha confirms this in another resounding verse: `Like me, they are victors indeed Who have won destruction of the cankers [asavas]; Vanquished by me are evil things, Therefore am I, Upaka, a victor.'<Majjhima Nikaya I (Middle Length Sayings), Ariyapariyesana Sutta, trans. I.B. Horner, Pali Text Society, London, 1967, p. 215> Upaka thinks for a moment, and simply says `Maybe'. Shaking his head, he goes off, we are told, by a by-path.

This incident is very significant. We ourselves are rather like Upaka. We too are confronted, as it were, by the figure of the Buddha, and by his teaching. We too take a look at the Buddha, and listen to the Dhamma for a while. Then, just like Upaka, we say, `Maybe there is something in it.' But then we shake our heads and go off on some little by-path of our own. In this way we miss a great opportunity, perhaps forever.

The Buddha then proceeded to Benares, to the Deer Park at Isipatana, arriving on a full moon day. This was a beautiful coincidence. He had been walking for a week, and now, on the full moon day exactly two lunar months after his Enlightenment, he arrived at the Deer Park at Isipatana. The five ascetics were there; apparently they had been living there for some time. When they saw the Buddha coming they started to speak among themselves: `Look, there is that fellow Gautama, the one who gave up, the one who started living luxuriously and taking solid food. He has had the nerve to come back! All right, let him come! If he wants, he even can sit with us for a while, but let's not show him any respect at all.' As the Buddha came nearer, the five ascetics tried to take no notice. But when he drew close they simply could not help themselves. They rose like humble pupils and moved forward. One politely took his bowl while another took the spare robe he was carrying; another prepared a seat while another brought some water for the Buddha to wash his feet. However, even though they could not help showing respect, they still addressed him by his personal name, Gautama, and addressed him also as avuso, which is a familiar mode of address among monks, meaning `friend'. In response, the Buddha simply said, `Do not address me in this way, this is not proper, not appropriate. I am no longer just your friend. I have gained Enlightenment. I teach the Dhamma. If you practise according to my teaching you too will gain Enlightenment.' The five ascetics did not believe him. They could not take him seriously. `Look here,' they said, `For all those years you practised self-mortification. You went beyond what anybody else has done in this life. But you did not gain Enlightenment. Now you've gone back to a comfortable, easy, way of living. How do you think you can gain Enlightenment by that means?' Again the Buddha insisted: `No. I am the Enlightened One. If you follow my teaching you too will become Enlightened.' They still could not accept what the Buddha was saying. Three times the Buddha therefore made his declaration, and three times they refused to accept his claim. Then he said: `Look, in all the time that you knew me before, did I ever speak in this way? Have I ever been so certain, so emphatic? Have I ever claimed before that I have gained Enlightenment?' They conceded that he had not. `All right. Now let me teach you.' In this way he began to convince them, and they became at least open-minded about what he was saying.

The sutta describes what happened next very beautifully. Apparently, the Buddha started teaching the ascetics in turns. While two of them remained listening to the Buddha in the Deer Park, the other three would go out for alms, collecting food from house to house. What the three of them collected, all six would eat. Then the Buddha would teach those three, while the two others went out for alms. So far as we can tell, the six of them lived in this way throughout the rainy season, for twelve or more weeks, taking it in turns to collect food and to receive instruction from the Buddha. At the end of that period, we are told, all five gained Enlightenment. They too became `New Men'. There were now six New Men in the world.

There is a very important point to be noted here. So far I have been following the oldest account--from the Majjhima Nikaya. While this account tells us the way in which the Buddha taught the five ascetics, and tells us that the five ascetics became Enlightened, the sutta does not actually tell us what the Buddha taught them. We simply do not know what teaching he gave. That remains a mystery.

Later accounts, even in the Pali Canon, try to fill in the blank, especially with a text known as the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta--the sutta, or discourse, on the `setting in motion of the Wheel of the Doctrine'. This is a useful--if rather stereotyped--summary of the Buddha's teaching which deals with the doctrines of the Middle Way, the Four Noble Truths, and the Noble Eightfold Path. It is quite possible that it represents the substance of a talk actually given by the Buddha on some occasion. But it is important to remember that the earliest account of the `conversion' of those five ascetics makes no mention of any particular teaching at all.

Although some will find this lack of detailed information very unsatisfactory, I personally find it very suggestive. It changes the nature of the whole episode. The Buddha taught the five ascetics; but he teaches anyone. He taught then, but he teaches now. This means that the teaching cannot ever be reduced to a specific formula or set of doctrines. You can never say that you have all of the Buddha's teaching under your thumb, all written down: `If I learn this and study that, I will have Buddhism, have the Buddha's teaching.' The teaching is not any specific doctrine. The teaching, as the Buddha himself was to say on another occasion, is whatever conduces to Enlightenment, whatever helps you to grow, whatever helps you to develop.

This is brought out very clearly in a later, Mahayana sutra, the Diamond Sutra. Here, the monk Subhuti, speaking under the Buddha's inspiration, says: `The Tathagata [the Buddha] has no formulated teaching to enunciate. Wherefore? Because the Tathagata has said that Truth is uncontainable and inexpressible. It neither is nor is it not.-- Thus it is that this unformulated Principle is the foundation of the different systems of all the sages.'<Diamond Sutra trans. A.F. Price, Buddhist Society, London 1947, p.32> This is only a step away from saying that the Buddha does not actually speak at all, that the New Man remains silent. Another great Mahayana sutra, the Lankavatara Sutra, actually takes this step. The Buddha says here, `From the night of the Enlightenment to the night of the Tathagata's Parinirvana [passing away], he has not uttered, nor ever will he utter, one word.'<D. Goddard (ed.), A Buddhist Bible, Beacon Press, Boston, 1970, p.348> In other words, the Buddha has not said anything which can be identified as the teaching.

For this reason we can never pin the Buddha's teaching down to any simple formula, to the `three of this' or the `four of that', or to any such set of principles. Really, the teaching is nothing verbal, nothing conceptual, at all. The teaching is a realization and an influence. It is a communication between the Enlightened and the unenlightened. Certainly, it sometimes makes use of words, doctrines, and so on, but it can never be reduced to them.

All this rather alters our picture of what happened in the Deer Park at Isipatana. We may tend to imagine the Buddha arriving at the Deer Park, taking out his notes, and giving a lecture to the five ascetics--at the end of which they become Enlightened--then going off to give his lecture somewhere else. Traditional Buddhist art reinforces this view. In traditional works the Buddha is usually depicted sitting cross-legged on a magnificent, ornately decorated, throne, the five ascetics kneeling submissively at his feet while he preaches. But, as we have seen, the Buddha had great difficulty in getting the five ascetics even to listen to him. He certainly did not deliver a formal address, much less still a lecture. He thrashed things out with them, in personal discussion, over a period of weeks and months.

So on the occasion of Dhamma Day we do not celebrate the Dhamma in the sense of any particular rigid formulation of the Truth, any particular text or scripture--however useful, however ancient, or however inspiring. What we celebrate is the first impact of the Enlightened Man on the unenlightened, the first impact of the New Man on the old ...

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