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Discerning the Buddha

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 167: Discerning the Buddha

Dharmacharis and Dharmacharinis, Mitras and Friends.

Today, tonight, we've come together for a celebration. And in accordance with the Buddha's well-known injunction, we've come together on this occasion in large numbers, that is to say in comparatively large numbers. If I happened to be speaking in India on the occasion of Wesak and there were only four or five hundred people present, I should be very surprised indeed. But this is of course not India, this is Britain, this is London, so we have not quite so many people as we might have in India. But relatively speaking, yes, we've come together in large numbers, and I'm very glad, I'm very happy, to see that on an occasion like this we can come together in large numbers. And of course we've come together on this occasion to celebrate what is traditionally known as the Vaishaka Purnima, that is to say, the full moon day of the month, the Indian month, of Vaishaka, corresponding to our occidental April and May. And this particular day, this particular festival, of Vaishaka Purnima, is known very often simply as Wesak, Wesak, Wesak being the Sinhalese corruption or abbreviation of Vaishaka. I remember some forty years ago I first heard of Vaishaka Purnima simply as Wesak. As Wesak it's tended to stick in my mind ever since.

But whether we come together in relatively large numbers or relatively small numbers, it's very important to understand why we have come together and what it is that we're celebrating. You may be thinking it's rather late in the day, quite literally, for me to be talking in this sort of way.

But the fact is that there is, it seems, a certain amount of confusion as to what Vaishaka Purnima, or what Wesak, actually is, and therefore perhaps it's not altogether clear what we're celebrating, even though we're celebrating it, and have been celebrating it, so enthusiastically. Wesak, for instance, is sometimes called the thrice sacred festival. I remember in India whenever you were invited to take part in a Wesak celebration, whether as a speaker or in any other capacity, they always invited you to take part, or participate, or honour with your presence, or grace with your presence - those were the Indian expressions - the 'thrice sacred day' or the 'thrice sacred festival'.

So why is Wesak sometimes described, or in some quarters described, as the thrice sacred festival? Is it possible to be thrice sacred? - surely once is enough! But there is a reason. The reason is that, according to some sources, Wesak, or the Vaishaka Purnima, is the anniversary of the Buddha's birth, the birth of the historical Buddha at Lumbini, the anniversary of his attainment of his Enlightenment, sambodhi, at Buddha Gaya, and also the anniversay of his attainment of what is called Maha parinirvana at Kusinara. And according, as I've said, to some sources, all of these events - the birth, the attainment of Enlightenment and the final passing away, the Maha parinirvana - all took place on the Vaishaka Purnima Day - not, of course, in the same year, but in different years. And this is of course in a way quite a coincidence.

But one must observe that this tradition of a thrice sacred Wesak, a thrice sacred Vaishaka Purnima, rests on a very late tradition. The tradition seems to have originated in Ceylon, and from Ceylon - that is to say Sri Lanka - it seems to have spread to the other Theravada countries of the Buddhist world. The rest of the Buddhist world, that is to say the northern Buddhist countries, the Mahayana Buddhist countries, do not think in terms of, do not speak in terms of, a thrice sacred Vaishaka Purnima. The rest of the Buddhist world celebrates only the Buddha's attainment of Enlightenment on the Vaishaka Purnima day, or on Wesak. The rest of the Buddhist world, that is to say the non-Theravada Buddhist world, celebrates the birth and the attainment of the parinirvana on the part of the Buddha, on other days of the year, and this in fact does seem to have been the original, the ancient Indian Buddhist tradition. One might of course think that that is more reasonable, that the Buddha should have been born and attained Enlightenment and attained Parinirvana on different days, in fact different Purnima or full moon days.

So it's this tradition that we follow in the FWBO, in the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order.

We follow the tradition of the greater part of the Buddhist world, the eastern Buddhist world, and therefore today we are celebrating the Buddha's attainment of Enlightenment, which is to say that we're celebrating the Buddha's transformation from an unenlightened to an Enlightened, a fully Enlightened, a supremely Enlightened, being. We're celebrating his realization of, we may say, the ultimate truth and reality of things. We're celebrating his becoming the object of refuge for all living beings. We are thus today celebrating something which is of very great importance and very great significance not only to the Buddha some two thousand five hundred years ago, but also here and now to ourselves. Because if the Buddha had not attained Enlightenment on that Vaishaka Purnima night, if he hadn't gone through all those stages of the spiral as so beautifully described this afternoon by Padmavajra in his talk, there would have been no Buddhism. For Buddhism we may say, or the Dharma as it is more traditionally called, represents the Buddha's attempt to communicate to the unenlightened his own experience of Enlightenment, his own realization of the ultimate truth of things.

And if there had been no Buddhism, if there'd been no Dharma, if there'd been no such communication from the Enlightened to the unenlightened mind, there would have been no Buddhists, and we should not be here today. Where we should have been, where we might have been, is perhaps impossible to speculate. I certainly, personally speaking, could not say where I would have been today, if I'd been still in this world at all, if there hadn't been the attainment of Enlightenment by the Buddha, if there hadn't been such a thing as Buddhism, such a thing as the Dharma, such a thing as a Vaishaka Purnima to celebrate. I can certainly not say where I would have been. I might have been doing almost anything, and probably that applies to the vast majority of you.

Had it not been for the Buddha's attainment of Enlightenment, had it not been for the Buddha's communication of the content of that Enlightenment, to the extent that he was able to communicate it, today we wouldn't have the noble eightfold path to follow, we wouldn't have the six paramitas to practise. It's very unlikely that we should have been able to find out, to discover, these things for ourselves, even though we might be able to understand them, even practise them when they were pointed out to us by another. So we really do have a very great deal to celebrate today, on this occasion. We really do have a very great deal indeed to rejoice over, and I hope that in the course of the day people have been really heartily rejoicing.

I can't help thinking, in fact, of an ancient Indian sculpture, a picture which I saw in a book on Indian art quite a few years ago, but which remained in my mind. This particular sculpture showed to begin with one of the symbols of the Buddha's presence. You may know that in the very early days of Buddhism the Buddha was not actually represented in a naturalistic sort of way. There was no figure of the Buddha. There was certainly no Buddha image. But there were various symbols representing the presence of the Buddha. For instance there were various sculptures of the life of the Buddha, representing different episodes in the life of the Buddha, and the presence of the Buddha was indicated by an appropriate symbol.

If the artist wanted to depict the Enlightenment, say, he wouldn't depict the Buddha sitting under the Bodhi tree as we have in our applique thangka on this occasion. The artist would represent simply a Bodhi tree, simply represent the tree under which the Buddha gained Enlightenment.

And then perhaps other creatures, other beings, ranged around. You might even see Mara lifting his club against the Buddha, but you wouldn't see the Buddha - you'd just see the Bodhi tree.

That stood for the presence of the Buddha. And in the same way, when the artist depicted or represented the episode of the Buddha's first teaching, the first communication of truth to the first five disciples, there would be no figure of the teaching Buddha. There would be a wheel, a Dharmachakra - because in Buddhist idiom on that occasion the Buddha set rolling the wheel of the Dharma, so you'd see the wheel of the Dharma, and you'd see round about the five disciples, the first five disciples, apparently listening to the wheel, because the wheel represented the Buddha. And in the same way you'd have a pair of footprints. I had something to say about footprints this afternoon.

So this particular sculpture of which I speak, a picture of which I remember seeing, represented the Buddha, so to speak, being worshipped. But there was no Buddha. There was no figure of the Buddha. I forget which particular symbol was placed in the centre of the sculpture - it may have been the wheel or it may have been the footprints, I forget which - but whatever the symbol was, whichever it happened to be, it was placed on a sort of throne. It was enthroned. And the throne was surrounded by bands of devotees. There were monks, there were nuns, there were laymen, there were laywomen, and they all had their hands joined together above their heads, and they were all making offerings - offerings of flowers, offerings of garlands, offerings of fruits, or offerings of scarves, all sorts ...

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