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The Buddha-s Victory

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 169: the Buddha's Victory - Edited Version

For a Buddhist, the highest values of existence are incarnated in three great ideals. Firstly, there is the ideal of Enlightenment, the ideal of the perfectly developed human being. Secondly, there is the ideal of the path to Enlightenment, the sum total of all the principles, practices, and teachings that help the individual human being in the course of his or her quest for spiritual perfection. Thirdly, there is the ideal of fellowship in pursuing the way to Enlightenment. By this is meant the deriving of encouragement, help, inspiration, and stimulus, from other individuals who are also trying to perfect themselves. In traditional terms, these three great ideals are embodied in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha.

The Buddha embodies the ideal of Enlightenment. The word Buddha means `the Enlightened One', humanity perfected. The Dhamma, the truth, doctrine, or teaching of the Buddha, embodies the path. The Sangha, the spiritual community of those who follow the path and study and practise the teaching, embodies the fellowship of those treading the Way.

These three are known in traditional Buddhist terms as the Three Jewels. They are also known as the Three Refuges or the Triple Gem, or even, in the Chinese tradition, as the Three Treasures. Between them they represent the highest values and ideals of Buddhism. However widely Buddhism has spread over the centuries, however richly it has developed in various ways, everything relates to one or another of these three, or to all of them jointly. Anything that is not connected with the Buddha, the Dhamma, or the Sangha, has no real connection with Buddhism at all.

Like all spiritual traditions Buddhism has two aspects: a `popular' aspect, the aspect of ordinary, everyday practice and observance, and a `philosophical' aspect, which is concerned with the deeper understanding of the teaching. The popular aspect includes such things as festivals and celebrations. If we look at the Buddhist calendar we see that Buddhism has quite a large number of festivals and celebrations of various kinds. These vary a little from one part of the Buddhist world to another, but the most important are common to all parts of the Buddhist world. Of all these festivals the three most important are all associated with the Three Jewels.

Jewels are generally considered to be the most precious of all material things, while the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha are considered to be the most precious of all non-material things. Because they are so precious, we rejoice to have them; they give meaning and purpose to our lives, and give orientation to everything we do.

But it is not easy to rejoice all the time, or even to be aware of our good fortune all the time. Tradition has therefore set aside these three days in the year--all full moon days--on which we make a special effort to remember and rejoice in the Three Jewels. Thus on the full moon day of May we rejoice in the Buddha jewel, on the full moon day of July we rejoice in the Dhamma jewel, and on the full moon day of November we rejoice in the Sangha jewel. The fact that these festivals fall on full moon days, incidentally, is not accidental. It indicates our need to maintain a harmony between ourselves and nature. It reminds us that however far we progress along the path of the `higher evolution', we we must not lose contact with the recurrent rhythms of the `lower evolution'.

Today is the day on which we rejoice in the Buddha jewel. In particular this means that it is the day on which we rejoice in the Buddha's attainment of Enlightenment, rejoice in what it was that actually made the Buddha a Buddha.

We usually call this day Buddha Day, but it is sometimes known as Wesak. Wesak, a Sinhalese word, is actually a corruption of the Indian word Vaishaka, which is in turn short for Vaishaka purnima, which means `the full moon day of April-to-May'. In India, especially, Buddha Day is often referred to as Buddha jayanti, jayanti coming from the word jaya, meaning `victory'. Buddha jayanti therefore means the celebration of the `Buddha's victory'. But what is this victory? Victory usually implies victory over someone or something. Who or what, then, could this have been in the Buddha's case? The answer is simple: the Buddha conquered Mara, the `Evil One', and after conquering Mara, attained Enlightenment. In a sense, his conquest of Mara, his Mara-vijaya as it is called, was his attainment of Enlightenment.

It is possible that you have already encountered descriptions of the episode of the conquest of Mara.

Perhaps you have seen it depicted in Buddhist art. If so, you will have seen the Buddha-to-be sitting on a heap of kusa grass beneath the spreading branches of the ficus religiosus, or sacred fig tree--subsequently known, in honour of the Buddha, as the Bodhi tree, or `tree of Enlightenment'. He is surrounded on all sides by thousands of fearsome figures, all horribly misshapen and deformed. Some of them are whirling enormous clubs, some are spitting fire; some are in the act of hurling great rocks, even whole mountains that they have torn up by the roots; some again are discharging arrows. These are the forces of Mara. Mara himself stands to one side directing his terrible army in its onslaught on the Buddha. But the Buddha himself takes no notice. He is completely surrounded by an aura of golden light. As soon as the various missiles touch this aura they turn into flowers and fall to the ground at the Buddha's feet as though in unintentional worship. The Buddha is undisturbed and carries on meditating. He does not take any notice even when Mara summons his three daughters and orders them to dance in the most seductive manner.

So Mara retires defeated, his forces disappear, and his three daughters withdraw in confusion. The Buddha is left alone beneath the Bodhi tree on his heap of kusa grass, and carries on meditating. Sitting there in that way he attains Enlightenment.

Such is the well known episode. But like other well known episodes in the Buddha's life it is open to misunderstanding. We might of course realize that the episode is symbolic, but we may not understand that the episode of the Mara-vijaya was not the only episode of its kind to occur in the Buddha's life; may not understand that this was not the Buddha's only victory.

Far from being his only victory the Mara-vijaya represented the culmination of an entire series of victories.

This is only to be expected, because spiritual life is like that. One does not develop the fullness of wisdom all at once or the fullness of compassion all at once. One does not develop the fullness of energy and heroism necessary to defeat Mara and his forces all at once. One does not develop any spiritual quality all at once; one develops it gradually. As the Buddha himself said in the Dhammapada: `As a pot becomes full by the constant falling of drops of water, so, little by little, does a man fill himself with good.' `Little by little'. Before the Buddha's great victory there will have been many lesser victories, victories without which the great victory could hardly have taken place. We shall now consider some of those lesser victories--victories that are such only in relation to the great victory over Mara. In themselves, these lesser victories are such as we might find hard even to imagine.

The Buddha's first victory, so far as we know at least, is generally described as the `Going Forth' from home into homelessness. We may not be accustomed to considering this as a victory, but that is what it was. Just suppose that you were the son or daughter of wealthy parents, with high social position and great prestige. Suppose you were young, healthy, and good looking. Suppose too that you were happily married, perhaps with a child.... Would you have found it easy to give it all up? Would you have been able to `go forth' for the sake of you knew not what--for the sake of the `truth', for the sake of something `higher', something beyond anything you had yet experienced or imagined? This is exactly what Siddhartha, the Buddha-to-be, actually did.

There are several accounts of what happened on that occasion, some of them very colourful and romantic.

They describe, for instance, how Siddhartha drew aside a curtain in the inner apartments of his palace and took his last long, lingering look at his peacefully sleeping wife and infant son. They describe how the gods of the various heavens silently opened the gates so that he could depart unseen and unheard. And they describe how those same gods supported the hooves of his horse on the palms of their hands so that there would be no noise.... But the oldest account is actually very simple. Reminiscing in his old age, the Buddha simply said to his disciples: `Then I, monks, after a time, being young, my hair coal-black, possessed of radiant youth, in the prime of my life--although my unwilling parents wept and wailed--having cut off my hair and beard, having put on yellow robes, went forth from home into homelessness.'<Majjhima Nikaya I (Middle Length Sayings), Ariyapariyesana Sutta, trans. I.B. Horner, Pali Text Society, London, 1967, p. 207> Whether the description is elaborate or simple, what actually happened is sufficiently clear. The Buddha-to-be left home. He left his family, left the group.

But in what sense was this a victory? What was it a victory over? It was a victory over the family, or rather, over the group as represented especially by his parents. The Buddha himself once said that he went forth `against the wishes' of his weeping parents.

But this was also a victory in a deeper sense. It was a victory over his attachment to the group. It could not have been easy for Siddhartha to leave his family; his actual departure must have been preceded by a long internal ...

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