Even as I type this, Sharavdorj should be at KPC’s Maryland temple as our honored guest for the Shower of Blessings tsog offering ceremony that culminates our Chökhor Duchen celebration. Sharavdorj is on some kind of U.S. Embassy-sponsored junket with the bulk of his time spent in Newport, RI. Erka said NY and DC were also on his itinerary, so many phone calls and emails have been criss-crossing the world to ensure his presence on this most auspicious day. Both for our project, and for me personally, the relationship with this family is the one I cherish the most.
On such days, I miss my home temple. There’s power and inspiration in collective prayer on holy ground. Noreen made efforts to invite the DC Mongol community (check out the recent Post article on them); I hope some made it. Not how I used to spend my Saturday nights, but it sure is now.
I had a pleasant day, with sessions on the cushion interspersed with light domestic chores – a load of laundry, assembling newly-bought bookshelves. I say “pleasant” but not “quiet,” because in addition to being Chökhor Duchen, someone in the Mongolian Labor Ministry apparently also declared it National Band Saw and Jackhammer Day, with the morning-‘til-night festivities held right in my courtyard.
I love Chökhor Duchen – The Great Time of the Turning of the Wheel – because I love thinking about the Buddha. I love imagining his enlightenment as it completely unfolded over the course of that full moon night. I love wondering at his mind as he spent the next 49 days pacing the gentle grove, marveling at his flawless understanding of all that is. And I love the Buddha’s sly set-up of Brahma Sahampati when he pretends to be disinclined to teach what he has realized. From the Ariyapariyesana Sutra:
“I considered: ‘This Dharma that I have attained is profound, hard to see and hard to understand, peaceful and sublime, unattainable by mere reasoning, subtle, to be experienced by the wise. But this generation delights in worldliness, takes delight in worldliness, rejoices in worldliness. It is hard for such a generation to see this truth, namely, specific conditionality, dependent origination. And it is hard to see this truth, namely, the stilling of all formations, the relinquishing of all acquisitions, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation, Nirvana. If I were to teach the Dharma, others would not understand me, and that would be wearying and troublesome for me.’ Thereupon there came to me spontaneously these stanzas never heard before:
‘Enough with teaching the Dharma
That even I found hard to reach;
For it will never be perceived
By those who live in lust and hate.
Those dyed in lust, wrapped in darkness
Will never discern this abstruse Dharma
Which goes against the worldly stream,
Subtle, deep, and difficult to see.’”
Brahma Sahampati, dwelling in his God Realm, clairaudiently hears these words from the Buddha and freaks: “The world will be lost, the world will perish, since the mind of the Tathagatha, accomplished and fully enlightened, inclines to inaction rather than to teach the Dharma.” He then beams himself into this world to plead with the Buddha: “Venerable sir, let the Blessed One teach the Dharma, let the Sublime One teach the Dharma. There are beings with little dust in their eyes who are wasting through not hearing the Dharma. There will be those who will understand the Dharma.” He then continues in verse:
“In Magadha there have appeared till now
Impure teachings devised by those still stained.
Open the doors to the Deathless! Le them hear
The Dharma that the Stainless One has found.
Just as one who stands on a mountain peak
Can see below the people all around,
So, O Wise One, All-seeing Sage,
Ascend the palace of the Dharma.
Let the Sorrowless One survey this human breed,
Engulfed in sorrow, overcome by birth and old age.
Arise, victorious hero, caravan leader,
Debtless one, and wander in the world.
Let the Blessed One teach the Dharma,
There will be those who will understand.”
Now, you have to understand that one quality of a fully enlightened mind is omniscience. Anything a Buddha directs his or her mind to is known utterly, without any mistake. The Buddha knew perfectly well there were people in his world who would comprehend his Dharma if taught. But he also knew that there is extraordinarily special merit in being the one to request a Buddha to teach. Even though Sahampati dwelled in the highest realm in samsara, he was still in samsara, unliberated from the cycle of death and rebirth. The Buddha created this opportunity for Sahampati, who would certainly become liberated as a result.
So the Buddha agreed to teach. But who? He first considered the two primary teachers who instructed him after he renounced his royal life, Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputra. He saw, however, that the former had died seven days previously and the latter had died just the night before. The Buddha lamented that their “loss is a great one” because if either one had heard the Dharma “he would have understood it quickly.”
The Buddha then considered his five erstwhile companions in the ascetic life and felt they might be suitable recipients. He clairvoyantly saw they were living in a park near the Ganges city of Varanasi and made his way toward them.
Now, no one believes me that the sutras are very funny, but the fact is they often are, if you imagine how some of the scenes are being played out. The five ascetics see the Buddha approaching and say, in essence, “Oh, look at this. Here comes that slacker Gautama. He left our holy life for degenerate luxuries like rice-eating and bathing once in a while. Well, let him rest here if he wants to, but don’t do anything special.”
Just as they agree to this, though, like marionettes they involuntarily jump up, prepare the Buddha a seat, take his upper robe and bowl and offer him water to wash his feet. But they don’t recognize his accomplishment and treat him as an equal. The Buddha gently admonishes them, says he’s attained the state for which they have all been striving, and will teach them so that they, too, can attain that state.
Again, they say, in essence, “Yeah right. How could a luxury-loving backslider like you have attained anything special? Rice eater. Bather.”
Three times the Buddha offers to teach, and three times – can you imagine? – they say, “Thanks, but no thanks.” A bit exasperated, the Buddha changes tack and says, “Bhikkshus, have you ever known me to speak like this before?” In suddenly respectful language, the five acknowledge they haven’t and consent to hear him out. For the first time in this world the Four Noble Truths, truths that can only be known by a mind purified of all obscuring concepts and clinging, as well as all previous karmic dispositions, is declared.
What did the Buddha teach? Shariputra, his foremost disciple in wisdom, sums up the themes for a group of monks in the Sammaditthi Sutra, on which the Buddha would expand for the next 42 years:
“When, friends, a noble disciple understands suffering, the origin of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the way leading to the cessation of suffering, in that way he is one of right view, whose view is straight, one who has perfect confidence in Dharma, and has arrived at this true Dharma.
“And what is suffering, what is the origin of suffering, what is the cessation of suffering, what is the way leading to the cessation of suffering? Birth is suffering; aging is suffering; sickness is suffering; death is suffering; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; not to obtain what one wants is suffering; in short, the five aggregates affected by clinging are suffering. This is called suffering.
“And what is the origin of suffering? It is craving, which brings renewal of being, is accompanied by delight and lust, and delights in this and that; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for being, and craving for non-being. That is called the origin of suffering.
“And what is the cessation of suffering? It is the remainderless fading away and ceasing, the giving up, relinquishing, letting go, and rejecting of that same craving. This is called the cessation of suffering.
And what is the way leading to the cessation of suffering? It is just this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. This is called the way leading to the cessation of suffering.
“When a noble disciple has thus understood suffering, the origin of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the way leading to the cessation of suffering, he entirely abandons the underlying tendency to greed, he abolishes the underlying tendency to aversion, he extirpates the underlying tendency to the view and conceit ‘I am,’ and by abandoning ignorance and arousing true knowledge he here and now makes and end of suffering. In that way too a noble disciple is one of right view, whose view is straight, one who has perfect confidence in Dharma, and has arrived at this true Dharma.”
What Shariputra does not directly address is that the Buddha declares all things to be suffering because of their impermanent nature, and he includes here our bodies and mental states. But the experience of suffering has its root in misguided clinging, not the things or thoughts themselves. The situations which arise in our lives that produce suffering – simply stated as getting what one does not want – is obviously suffering. But clinging to pleasurable, or otherwise desirable situations is a sure-fire prelude to suffering. Why? Because everything to which we cling is impermanent. It will break, fade away, get lost, degenerate, end. Guaranteed. Does this mean Buddhists avoid pleasure? No. The trick is to develop wisdom about the unreliability of one’s world, and experience everything without attachment.
In the Alagaddupama Sutra, the Buddha is pretty well fed up with a monk named Arittha who persists in misunderstanding and misrepresenting what the Buddha taught on this subject. He reprimands the monk, points out his folly in a variety of ways, and then engages his other monks in a rapid-fire Q&A summing up how the profound understanding of impermanence can free you forever:
“ ‘Bhikkshus, what do you think? Is material form permanent or impermanent?’ – ‘Impermanent, venerable sir.’ – ‘Is what is impermanent suffering or happiness?’ – ‘Suffering, venerable sir.’ – ‘Is what is impermanent, suffering, and subject to change, fit to be regarded thus: “This is mine, this I am, this is my self”?’ – ‘No, venerable sir.’
“ ‘Bhikkshus, what do you think? Is feeling…Is perception…Are formations…Is consciousness permanent or impermanent?’ – ‘Impermanent, venerable sir.’ – ‘Is what is impermanent suffering or happiness?’ – ‘Suffering, venerable sir.’ – ‘Is what is impermanent, suffering, and subject to change, fit to be regarded thus: “This is mine, this I am, this is my self”?’ – ‘No, venerable sir.’
“ ‘Therefore, bhikkshus, any kind of material form whatever, whether past, future, or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near, all material form should be seen as it actually is with proper wisdom thus: “This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.” Any kind of feeling whatever…Any kind of perception whatever…Any kind of formations whatever…Any kind of consciousness whatever, whether past, future, or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near, all material form should be seen as it actually is with proper wisdom thus: “This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.”’
“ ‘Seeing thus, bhikkshus, a well-taught noble disciple becomes disenchanted with material form, disenchanted with feeling, disenchanted with perception, disenchanted with formations, disenchanted with consciousness.
“ ‘Being disenchanted, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion [his mind] is liberated. When it is liberated there comes the knowledge: “It is liberated.” He understands: “Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more coming to any state of being.”’”