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a world-wide Buddhist community
in the Thai Forest tradition of Ajahn
the Bodhi Tree
Night of Awakening The mural at Aruna Ratanagiri Monastery painted by Pang Chinasai.
It depicts the story of the Buddhas Awakening in traditional
iconographic style: Resolved not to leave his place under the Bodhi
Tree until either he realizes nibbana or dies, the Bodhisatta is
challenged by Mara, personification of evil and temptation, whose
armies launch an attack. Underneath the Buddha-to-be is the traditional
Thai representation of Mother Earth (Mae Toranee), shown wringing
her hair of his accumulated virtue which in a flood washes the armies
away. Their arrows are shown transformed into flowers in the air.
"Its the Buddhas birthday" someone
said this morning, and I found myself surprised I guess because
Wesak is, so much to me, the day I recollect the Buddhas awakening,
the historical Buddha and that which he realized, nibbana [liberation; the end of suffering]. But Wesak is also the day we
recollect his birth, as well as his Parinibbana [the Buddhas
final passing away]. There is something very powerful in the image
of these three together, the birth, the awakening and the Parinibbana,
in the way they relate the conventional reality and the transcendent.
The sense that a being was born, having been born, dies; which is
the predicament that we all share. And we have within that the transcendent
aspect; that the Buddha was born but within his own life-span he
realized that which is not born and does not die, the super-mundane
or transcendent. So today we recollect both the mundane or conventional
the fact that here we are in all of this as well as
the fact that there is awakening. Rather than separate them we keep
those things together.
The tendency is to make ideals about it all. The Buddha image in
this hall is wonderful in those terms: shiny and golden and so peaceful,
and around it you cant see all the arrows of Mara [the
personification of delusion and desire]. Sitting here tonight I
recalled the painting that is up at Aruna Ratanagiri Monastery
many of you will have seen it on the back wall of the Dhamma
Hall there. I appreciate that image because the Buddha is sitting
there on the night of his awakening and all around him are the forces
of chaos, big elephants and various relatives of Mara riding all
kinds of beasts and demons attacking the Buddha and, as I said,
there are all those arrows. Yes, thats what it feels like,
doesnt it? This is the reality within which the Buddha awakened.
Its an encouraging image because through it we can realize
the turmoil we experience is not an obstacle, its not something
going wrong. It is actually the ground of awakening. Here is where
we can both taste what is binding us and have the opportunity of
That whole classical image of the night of the Buddhas awakening
is very important in its symbology. On the beautiful painting at
Aruna Ratanagiri you have all these forces of chaos and negativity,
confusion, ignorance, greed, hatred all Maras forces
coming in on the Buddha. And in response, he touches the Earth.
This is the Earth-touching mudra [symbolic hand gesture],
the mudra of awakening. And awakening involves knowing the way things
are. Its not about changing anything, its about actually
knowing directly the way things are. That gesture represents the
Buddhas response to Maras challenge, he calls the Earth
as his witness. What the Earth is asked to be a witness to is his
accumulated merit, his accumulated goodness. In touching the Earth,
the Buddha touches into this recollection of his own virtue, his
goodness and aspiration, and this gives the power that allows the
mind to release itself. Its not happening in a vacuum. The
Earth responds by wringing water from her hair, the accumulated
virtue of the Buddha, and the forces of Mara are washed away.
The Buddha had resources that enabled the awakening. He contacted,
was nourished and gained strength from the accumulated paramis,
or perfections of his life. As we know, the Buddha took
myriad births, accumulating spiritual strengths, emotional strengths;
strengths of patience, morality, generosity, loving kindness, equanimity,
. Then in the timeless night of the Awakening,
this is the stuff he called upon.
Something is going wrong
How much are we actually contacting these qualities in ourselves?
Theyre present, but we may not be using them to gain
strength from. We can lose touch with these qualities, we dont
actually taste them; we dont nourish ourselves, get strength
from our own goodness and use that as the thing that helps wash
away Maras forces. For most of us the tendency is to fixate
on whats going wrong. This seems to be deeply conditioned,
and its something we need to turn around because carrying
this sense of wrongness erodes the strength of the heart.
This tendency is something I have worked with a lot over the years,
just feeling what it is like when the whole body has this sense, something is going wrong. It feels kind of shaky inside,
it may not take those particular words but its that kind of
uneasy feeling. Then, just watch what happens. I notice that some
of us get agitated or angry, feeling "Oh, something is going
wrong!" The tendency with some people is to say "its
out there", "somebody out there has done something wrong".
And many of us have the tendency to feel "I must have
done something wrong". We can start making up things that we
did wrong, but they are not necessarily true. It can be a deeply
conditioned habit, this way of experiencing the world. Things impact
the heart and rather than being just with the impact itself, the
disturbance is perceived in a negative way. We take responsibility
for it, blaming ourselves, blaming others. Theres no freedom
in that. So the night of awakening involves abandoning
this whole paradigm, and really contacting that which is
good, that which nourishes, that which has the strength to awaken.
In the painting its dramatically portrayed but in life we
can find the forces of Mara can take the form of this vague sense
of wrongness, and this is what we need to awaken to.
We wake up to whatever is happening.
Looking for myself, what helps me be with whatever is happening?
Over the years, I find more and more that a sense of uprightness is very important, that I feel that my heart and mind are upright.
The sense of living in a way that has integrity, has a sense of
morality. When there is a sense of integrity it is much easier to
contact and contain whatever confusion is arising. Because its
usually arising around things that are not so seriously unskilful,
we have more of a chance of containing the disturbances, understanding
them and liberating them. This is sila. Everybody here will be living
with good sila, thats why we gather here, but how much
do we actually appreciate it? So the Buddha would recommend that
in the evening we recollect our own sila, recollect our own goodness,
our own activities of generosity. Its a deliberate conscious
thing, where we begin to nourish our hearts through our own cultivation.
I was talking not so long ago with someone who is very active politically,
going to dangerous places trying to help alleviate some of the distress
in the world. They were saying how dull they feel, how eroded their
heart feels. In talking it became obvious they were more in touch
with what they felt they were doing wrong than touching into the
dominant quality of their life, the skilful intentions and wholesome
sacrifices. It is a challenge, isnt it? Yet the real strength
comes from drinking in our own goodness and being supported by the
goodness of those we associate with. Then we have the possibility
of waking up here and now to whatever is going on, whether we like
it or not.
Recently I was reminded of something that had happened to me in
India years ago on the night of Wesak when I was in Bodh Gaya sitting
under the Bodhi tree. Being there at the place where the Buddha
had once awakened on that same full moon night, it was fascinating
to observe what was going on in my mind. We might expect the mind
to be completely quiet or blissful in such a sacred place, but I
was hungry because I had been fasting, I was hot because it was
hot, I was cold when it got cold, I was bothered by all the hot
season flies. I was feeling all that stuff passing through and thinking,
"It shouldnt be like this here I am under the
Bodhi Tree." But then remembering: reality is here where the
body gets hot, where the body gets cold, with thousands of flies
walking on it just feeling that. In this way of reflecting,
we are all under the Bodhi Tree wherever we meet Maras forces
with awareness, waking up to the truth of what is actually present.
What is it like right now, as you are sitting under the Bodhi Tree?
Each moment can be like this: we are sitting right here and now
within this possibility of awakening. Its likely to have the
quality to it of all kinds of things going on, some of them frightening,
some of them uplifting its this mixed experience that
we have to awaken to.
That Wesak in Bodh Gaya I had asked for permission to stay overnight
in the temple grounds. The head monk had been very reluctant
to let me as earlier that week an Englishwoman had been raped and
murdered in those grounds. That area of India is very violent, so
he didn't think I was safe. I reiterated "I would like to sit
under the Bodhi Tree," so he finally gave me permission. Then
that night as I was sitting in meditation, there were four Indian
men nearby with sticks: big, ten-foot long sticks. Whenever I got
up to circumambulate the temple they would follow and their
sticks would go "clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk", all four
of them. And I would feel waves of fear. Then I would sit down again
and they would all sit down, watching me. It seemed that wherever
I went they would follow and watch me. I spent the whole night having
to work with the sense of the ominous presence of these men.
Then about five or six years later I was thinking about it and suddenly
a light went off in my head and I thought: "Oh! The head monk
probably asked them to make sure I was all right and to protect
me." Now, that makes sense because if I would go to the toilet
they would follow me to the toilet wherever I went these
men seemed to go. The meaning I had given to them was threatening.
The reality was they were probably protective. They didnt
look protective; but no-one would have come near me.
So wherever we are, as we sit in this place of awakening its
important to notice what meaning we are giving to this stuff,
all that which comes and impacts us. We can give it meanings which
in most cases arent true and often arent helpful. How
different it would have felt if I had sat under the Bodhi Tree on
that beautiful moonlit night at the centre of the universe and thought:
four men are here protecting me." What story
are we making up and how helpful is it? Keep questioning: how are
we framing reality (or non-reality, really)? What kind of game-show
are we making up? What helps us come into touch with what is actually
going on, so observing in terms of body, feeling, mind states and
the patterns of mind? Keeping it very simple, coming into the present
moment. This is really what the Buddha is exemplifying on this Night
of Awakening: someone in a mortal, limited form having the possibility
to stop, be present, come into reality, stop creating boundaries
of self and taste the freedom of that. We have all tasted moments
of it, when we stop struggling, when things dont have to be
any other way than they are what that feels like. The Buddha
shows that this is the human possibility. We can awaken.
We can awaken here and now. We can just stop creating.
Then, of course, it is a matter of what supports us in that. To
nourish the mind and guard it in terms of what it contacts, guard
it in terms of what it thinks and what meaning it gives to things.
Myriad things are happening everywhere; what meaning am I giving?
The person talking about the political work theyre doing and
the things they witness, very terrible things in terms of the kinds
of violence that is happening in the world. Yet it becomes a case
of what meaning do they give to it. It could be one that
makes for a greater feeling of disempowerment and agitation
or one that brings forth compassion and wisdom. We guard the mind
in how we contact things, realizing that to awaken to something
we do have to contact it. These human forms are an encouragement
to come into contact, understand and release what we experience.
To know what a body feels like. Know what it feels like to have
feeling, to be in relationship, to be so inter-dependent.
None of it will ever feel truly comfortable: do we know that? Im
sure each one of us knows the feeling that life is not happening
in a way that suits me. So we can start to try even
just internally to manipulate it, trying to find a comfortable
position in something that is uncomfortable. Where the real freedom
is in being present with what it feels like, in the body, in the
heart and opening. Coming into the present moment with that
Buddha quality, that quality that touches the Earth, knows the way
things are, has a sense of confidence in its own goodness and integrity
and can just be with whatever is happening. It doesnt have
to find a comfortable position. Doesnt have to be holding
things in terms of right and wrong.
"Are the clouds wrong?"
We were talking today about something Maechee Phatumwan, a Thai
nun, said to me years back. She left me with this koan, asking:
"Are the clouds wrong?" For the last decade or so I have
been contemplating that. Are the clouds wrong? It was a pertinent
thing to be reminded of on this cloudy day. In response, rather
than not wanting them we can think "Oh, no, the clouds arent
wrong!" but thats not true either. We have to
come out of that whole paradigm of right and wrong, into the suchness.
Things are what they are.
How do I open and receive them, what gives me the capacity to fully
awaken. Even with something like that little koan "Are
the clouds wrong?" we can taste how it is we frame the world
in a way that increases our own suffering. This awakening of the
Buddha is really an awakening out of suffering, out of the suffering
of not knowing the way things are. Of wanting things to be other
than they are: wanting what is not here, not wanting what is here
on and on. We know that the Buddha pointed out this quality
of dukkha, this quality of struggle and stress as where we
need to be investigating. The Buddha on the night of his awakening,
with all the forces of chaos and turmoil surrounding him, awakened.
He awakened to them, within them. There was nowhere for the arrows
to land. He showed this imminent possibility for us all to truly
come in to reality. It feels like this.
So once again, what supports me in having that kind of strength?
What supports me in waking up, in coming into this simple quality
of Buddho awake. That is something
we have to know for ourselves of course, but the teachings lay out
the qualities of dana, sila, samadhi, metta, karuna, mudita,
upekkha, and so on. These are what we are cultivating. Yet it
seems to be a case of more than cultivating; a case both of cultivating
tasting. Eating the fruit of our practice, and with that
nourishment we have the possibility to wake up.
Also, I find it helpful to recollect the qualities of awakening,
of nibbana,. Particularly if things have got a bit rough, Ill
recollect and chant the epithets the Buddha gave for nibbana: asokam,
virajam, khemam: sorrowless, dustless, secure on and
on they go. Ill notice what its like to contact these
with the mind. There is the sorrowless, there is the dustless, there
is the secure. It seems to help contain the experience of the insecure,
the dusty, the sorrowful: yes there are these, and there is that
which is not these. "Not these" isnt quite right:
there is that which knows these, which isnt bound by them.
This awakening aspect of the mind. We can begin to let the mind
resonate with its deepest nature, so that it can be with the
arrows and confusion that Mara is presenting us, and not believe
them: theyll have nowhere to land.
“Ajahn Thaniya is a senior nun who guides the nuns' community at Cittaviveka, Chithurst Buddhist Monastery.
Under the Bodhi Tree" has been adapted from a Dhamma talk she offered there on May 10, 2005.
The recorded talk is available at www.dhammatalks.org.uk
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