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Looking at the Bodhi Tree

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by Sangharakshita

192: Looking at the Bodhi Tree

Order members, mitras, and friends.

Today, in fact this whole week, as we've just been reminded, we're celebrating Wesak.

We're celebrating that is to say the Buddha's achievement, the Buddha's attainment, of Supreme Perfect Enlightenment. It's a day, it's a festival, which is being celebrated all over the Buddhist world. It's being celebrated wherever there are people who like all of us (at least most of us) Go For Refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, and of course that Wesak day, this Wesak day is being celebrated in so many different ways in accordance with local custom, tradition, belief, culture and so on.

In some parts of the Buddhist world, as I've seen myself, Wesak is celebrated with fairly elaborate processions and pujas. In fact, when I was in India, when I was in Kalimpong, I helped to organise some of these very elaborate processions. I don't think we've had any processions on this occasion, not even in the East End of London (laughter). But perhaps we will if those concerned are sufficiently enthusiastic in the future. But I can remember organising processions with dozens upon dozens of red robed lamas that I'd recruited for the occasion, with their banners of victory and their trumpets. It was usually a very very colourful occasion parading through the streets of Kalimpong. And of course there were the pujas. In many parts of the Buddhist world there are marathon readings of sutras.

Sometimes the reading of the sutras (the Buddhist scriptures) goes on for days and even weeks together.

And then of course an event, a way of celebrating which is very, very common and popular in some Buddhist countries, especially in Theravada countries, is the feeding of the monks, which sometimes occupies a very central place in the proceedings. So that even if the monks go a bit short the rest of the year on Wesak they're sure to be well and truly fed.

And then of course, striking another kind of note there are all night meditations. When I enquired up in Birmingham how they would be celebrating Wesak, the chairman informed me that part of the celebrations would be an all-night meditation at the Centre.

And then of course we have lectures, we have talks, we have addresses explaining, underlining the significance of the occasion.

But in whatsoever way we celebrate Wesak, the celebration has but one object, which is to remind us of the Buddha's attainment of Supreme Perfect Enlightenment. If the Buddha had not attained Supreme Perfect Enlightenment there would have been no Dharma, no Teaching, no Path leading to that Enlightenment for others. And if there had been no Dharma there would have been no Sangha, no body of disciples treading that path of the Dharma. And if there had been no Sangha, there would have been no Buddhism as we know it, and of course if there had been no Buddhism there would have been no Buddhists and we might go so far as to say that the course of world history would then have been quite different from what it actually did turn out to be.

Not only that, turning from world history to our own personal lives, our own lives would have been very different if the Buddha had not attained Enlightenment, had there been no Dharma and no Sangha. Speaking personally I find it very difficult to imagine what my own life would have been like without the Buddha, without the Dharma, without the Sangha had I not come across them fortunately at a very early age indeed. So I might even go so far as to say I hardly dare to think what my life would have been like, might have been like without the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha.

So it's natural that we should be celebrating Wesak today, celebrating it this whole week in the various ways about which you've already heard. It's natural that we should be reminding ourselves of the Buddha's attainment of Supreme Perfect Enlightenment.

Now usually, influenced perhaps by some of the books that we've read, influenced perhaps even by some of the Buddhist scriptures that we've read, we usually think of the Buddha's attainment of Enlightenment as taking place, as having taken place at a particular time, and in a sense it did roughly 2500 years ago. But we also tend to think of it as taking place on a particular day, even on a particular night, even at a particular hour, and some might even say at a particular minute when the Buddha at that instant as it were broke through from the Conditioned to the Unconditioned and attained Enlightenment.

But a little reflection, a little further study of the scriptures will show us it that didn't really happen quite like that. Most of you I think will be familiar with the distinction, a distinction about which I've spoken and written on a number of occasions, the distinction between what we call the Path of Vision and what we call the Path of Transformation.

Usually we make this distinction between these two paths, the Path of Vision and the Path of Transformation, in connection with the Noble Eightfold Path. And the basic point of difference is this: on the Path of Vision as it is called we have so to speak an experience of the Transcendental, or if you like we have an insight into the true nature of Reality. A profound insight, a deep insight, something that goes far beyond any merely intellectual understanding, and that experience, that insight comes gradually to pervade each and every aspect of our being. It comes gradually to transform each and every aspect of our being. It transforms our body, our speech, and our mind to use the familiar Buddhist classification. It transforms all our activities; it transforms us in fact into a very different kind of person. It makes us wiser than we were before, more compassionate than we were before and this process is known as the Path of Transformation. So we have the Path of Vision [and] the Path of Transformation, and something like this takes place in the spiritual life of each and every one of us. And especially it takes place if we are effectively, effectively Going For Refuge, though (and here one must sound a note of caution) if our Going For Refuge is only effective and not Real as we say, only effective, the whole process, positive as it is, may under certain circumstances be reversed. But if the process takes place when we are really Going For Refuge, that is to say if we've begun to enter the Stream in Buddhist language, then no such reversal can possibly take place. So the same sort of thing we see happening on a very much higher level, a very much more exalted plane in the case of the Buddha. In the Buddha's case there is, so to speak, is a Path of Vision and there is a Path of Transformation. The Buddha's Vision we may say is Absolute. It's all embracing, it has no limits, and His transformation, His transformation of body, speech and mind is therefore total. One might even say it is infinite, and Buddhist tradition therefore speaks of the Buddha as spending seven weeks, forty-nine days, in the vicinity if the Bodhi tree, that is to say in the vicinity of the tree beneath which as we say He attained Supreme Perfect Enlightenment.

Actually the texts mention in different places nine different weeks. Perhaps in the course of the transmission of the tradition a certain amount of confusion as to the exact number of weeks did arise. But the important point is that in the course of each of those weeks (whether seven or whether nine) something of importance happened. We could say that the Buddha's experience of Supreme Perfect Enlightenment started percolating through, penetrating through, transforming a certain aspect of His being so that by that by the end of the last week (whether the seventh or the ninth) the process of transformation was at last complete. Some of you may remember that in one of those weeks a great storm happened to arise, and the Buddha was sheltered from the rains, so the story goes, by the serpent king Mucalinda who spread his sevenfold hood over the head of the meditating Buddha and in that way sheltered Him. I've spoken about the significance of this particular episode more than once and many of you will be familiar with that.

In another week Brahma Sahampati the ruler of ten thousand worlds requested the Buddha to teach the Dharma for some at least of those whose eyes were covered with only a little dust and the Buddha out of compassion agreed. I've spoken about this episode too.

Today I'm going to speak about another episode which occurred quite early in the seven- week period immediately after the Buddha's attainment of Supreme Enlightenment.

According to at least one tradition or source this took place during the second week. So what happened, what happened during that second week? According to the source I've mentioned the Buddha stood at a distance to the north-east of the Bodhi tree and remained for one week gazing at the tree with unblinking eyes as a mark of gratitude for sheltering Him in the attainment of Enlightenment, that's what the text tells us (or one of the texts tells us). And centuries later a stupa was erected on that very spot, the spot where the Buddha had stood, gazing at the Bodhi tree. And it was known, this stupa was known, as `the stupa of unblinking eyes'. And Yuen-Chuang the great Chinese pilgrim saw this stupa in the seventh century of the Common Era and he has described his visit, he has described this stupa in his memoirs, memoirs that he dictated back in China to his disciples in his old age. And Yuen-Chuang says "On the left side of the road, to the north of the place where the Buddha walked is a large stone on the top of which, as it stands in a great vihara is a figure of the Buddha with His eyes raised and looking up. Herein 'foretimes the Buddha sat," (he says sat but the text from which I read a minute ago says stood), "the Buddha sat ...

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