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Previous The Birth of the Buddha

The Birth of the Buddha

6. Enlightenment

But despite his grueling penance he again felt he had not found what he was searching for. Then he recalled an experience from his youth. One day seated quietly beneath the shade of a rose-apple tree his mind had settled into a state of deep calm and peace. Buddhist tradition calls this state the first meditation or "dhyana." As he reflected, it came to the Bodhisattva that it was by letting the mind settle in to this state of peace that he might discover what he was looking for. This required that he nourish his body and regain his strength. His five companions thought he had turned away from the quest and left him to his own devices. At this moment a young woman named Sujata offers milk-rice to the Bodhisattva. Now nourished, he seated himself beneath a pipal tree, henceforth to be known as "the tree of awakening" or Bodhi Tree. It was once more the night of the full moon and he made a final resolve: "Let only skin, sinew and bone remain, let the flesh and blood dry in my body, but I will not give up this seat without attaining complete awakening."

The oldest accounts describe the Awakening in sober technical terms, most often by reference to the successive practice of the four dhyanas culminating in the knowledge of suffering, its cause, its cessation, and the way leading to its cessation-what come to be known as the "Four Noble Truths." However, perhaps because they do not exactly make for a good story, the later legend of the Buddha recounts the Awakening through the description of the Bodhisattva's encounter with demon Mara. This is a story rather more vivid and immediately accessible than the abstract concepts of Buddhist meditation theory.

Mara is a being who in certain respects is like the Satan of Christianity. His name means "bringer of death" and his most common epithet is "the Bad One." Mara is not so much a personification of evil as of the power of all kinds of experience to seduce and ensnare the unwary mind. So as the Bodhisattva sat beneath the tree firm in his resolve, Mara approached, mounted on his great elephant and accompanied by his dreadful armies. His one purpose was to assault the Bodhisattva and frustrate his efforts of finding the way to immortality.

As Figure 9 colorfully shows, Mara's armies were incredibly horrible, being composed of most repulsive monsters with hanging tongues, bared fangs, eyes of burning coals, deformed bodies, some devils with the heads of ferocious beasts, heavily armed soldiers shooting arrows, and a fierce demon flaming out at the Bodhisattva. The king of death tried to spur his troops on, but even the arrows of his monsters lost their sharp points and spontaneously were covered with flowers. Enclosed by a zone of complete protection around him, the Bodhisattva laughed at his aggressors while not a single hair on his body was disturbed. Mara then sent his beautiful daughters before the Bodhisattva to test his commitment to his purpose by offering themselves to him. (See ftp://ftp.buddhanet.net/artbud/enlight.gif for another image of this scene.) When this too failed Mara approached to claim the Bodhisattva's seat directly. He asked him by what right he sat there beneath the tree. The Bodhisattva replied that it was by right of having practiced the Perfections over countless aeons. Mara replied that he had done likewise and, what was more, he had witnesses to prove it: all his armies would vouch for him, but who would vouch for the Bodhisattva? The Bodhisattva then lifted his right hand and touched the ground calling on the very earth as his witness. This is the "earth-touching gesture" depicted in so many statues of the Buddha through the ages. It signals the defeat of Mara and the Buddha's complete awakening. As the Buddha touched the earth Mara tumbled from his elephant and his armies fled in disarray.
Burmese image of "earth-touching gesture" from Bob Hudson's web site.

12th Century Nepalese example at Patan Museum.

The Buddha had achieved his purpose. In Buddhist terms, he had a direct experience of "the unconditioned," "the transcendent," "the deathless," Nirvana. It is said that at that point his mind inclined not to teach:

This Dharma that I have found is profound, hard to see, hard to understand; it is peaceful, sublime, beyond the sphere of mere reasoning, subtle, to be experienced by the wise. But this generation takes delight in attachment, is delighted by attachment, rejoices in attachment and as such it is hard for them to see this truth, namely.nirvana.

According to the oldest tradition it is this moment when the great god, the Brahma called Sahampati, or "mighty lord," came and requested him to teach, saying: "There are beings here with but little dust in their eyes. Pray teach Dharma out of compassion for them."
In a deer park outside Benares the Buddha thus approached the five who had been his companions when he practiced austerities and gave them instruction in the path to the cessation of suffering that he had discovered. In this way he set in motion the Wheel of Dharma, and soon, we are told, there were six awakened ones in the world. For the Buddha this was the beginning of a life of teaching that lasted some forty-five years. Many stories and legends are recounted of the Buddha's teaching career, but we must pass over many of them and choose just a few which come with iconographic depictions.