‘Tis the morning of Saga Dawa (Sunday the 7th), perhaps the holiest day on the Buddhist calendar, and a day on which it is said that the force of our actions, positive or negative, is increased ten million times. Now, if you need a little up-to-the-minute inspiration today on the positive side, you couldn’t do better than to marvel at this Washington Post account of my temple buddy Sam’s compassionate encounter with a poisonous snake! But on this day we actually honor Sam’s inspiration, Shakyamuni Buddha, recalling the astounding impact of his enlightenment and mahaparinirvana.
Regarding the former, I would contend that the one single event of the Buddha’s enlightenment has had a greater positive impact on more people than any other in human history. Even, astonishingly enough, on this neurotic misfit from New Jersey (hmm, as opposed to what, well-adjusted misfit?). But a Buddha’s awakening is actually little understood in popular awareness and, in the West, often grossly trivialized. This would be the perfect day to read the Buddha’s own words about the experience, which he so eloquently relates in the Greater Discourse to Saccaka. In this scripture, the Buddha describes in detail his spiritual journey leading to that famous night under the bodhi tree, as well as the “three true knowledges” that arose in a “concentrated mind...thus purified, bright, unblemished, rid of imperfection, malleable, wieldy, steady, and attained to imperturbability,” concluding at the end:
“When I knew and saw thus, my mind was liberated from the taint of sensual desire, from the taint of being, and from the taint of ignorance. When it was liberated there came the knowledge: ‘It is liberated.’ I directly knew: ‘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.’
“This was the third true knowledge attained by me in the third watch of the night. Ignorance was banished and true knowledge arose, darkness was banished and light arose, as happens in one who abides diligent, ardent, and resolute. But such pleasant feeling that arose in me did not invade my mind and remain.”
Now this brings us to a good question posed by Ashin Sopaka in the comments a few posts back. I spoke there of the mahaparinirvana of HH Penor Rinpoche. This literally means the great complete enlightenment, that is, nirvana free from physical form, sometimes called “nirvana without remainder,” a specific way to accurately refer to an enlightened being’s passage from this world. Since one who is enlightened has dispelled all ignorance in perfect, unchanging wisdom, and has also purified all karmic residue from previous lifetimes, and therefore “there is no more coming to any state of being,” Ashin Sopaka wonders why we then make prayers for the swift rebirth of beings like Penor Rinpoche who we consider to have attained such a state.
Here’s my take: enlightened beings are simply not subject to involuntary rebirth based on ignorance and karma. However, since as the Heart Sutra says, “Form is emptiness; emptiness also is form,” there is no reason why enlightened beings could not appear in a totally unimpeded way in any form they wish. In fact, such appearance is the natural expression of wisdom, pure compassionate manifestation for the sake of liberating those of us still caught in the round of suffering within samsara. Our temporarily deluded minds might perceive such beings as appearing in gross element, karmically conditioned bodies, but from the ultimate point of view, all appearance, including that of our own body and mind, is nothing like that at all. All phenomena, my teachers repeat again and again, are fundamentally pure, unborn, and free from conceptual contrivance.
You can read the wonderful account of the Buddha’s mahaparinirvana here.
Finally, just for a bit of fun, I want to share with you a couple of images from my own ‘bodhi tree,’ as I’ve come to call it. Actually I thought it was called a Chinese Tulip Tree but as I scan for a link, it’s definitely not – maybe one of you knows and can identify it in the comments? In any case, a friend loaned me this lovely plant to brighten up my apartment. It stayed dormant all fall and winter, but I suppose sensing the lengthening light is now beginning to burst into bloom. The cool thing is that it has stretched out two branches, one in front of my Dharma books, which has already bloomed...
...and one about to bloom in front of the statue of Shakyamuni Buddha, given to me by Penor Rinpoche, in the posture he was said to have assumed just at the moment of his enlightenment.
In my silly mind, I imagine the plant making an offering of its great beauty to both, but what better day to have such thoughts?
Please keep those cards and letters coming about a possible US foster home for Moojie and Nita – it’s not quite sorted yet, though many are kindly assisting in the search.