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January     2007                  2550                      Number 78
The Forest Sangha is a world-wide Buddhist community
in the Thai Forest tradition of Ajahn Chah


Under the Bodhi Tree

Ajahn Thaniya


Night of Awakening
The mural at Aruna Ratanagiri Monastery painted by Pang Chinasai. It depicts the story of the Buddha’s 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.

"It’s the Buddha’s birthday" someone said this morning, and I found myself surprised – I guess because Wesak is, so much to me, the day I recollect the Buddha’s 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 Buddha’s 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 can’t 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, that’s what it feels like, doesn’t it? This is the reality within which the Buddha awakened. It’s an encouraging image because through it we can realize the turmoil we experience is not an obstacle, it’s 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 releasing it.

That whole classical image of the night of the Buddha’s 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 Mara’s 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. It’s not about changing anything, it’s about actually knowing directly the way things are. That gesture represents the Buddha’s response to Mara’s 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. It’s 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, renunciation…. 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? They’re present, but we may not be using them to gain strength from. We can lose touch with these qualities, we don’t actually taste them; we don’t nourish ourselves, get strength from our own goodness and use that as the thing that helps wash away Mara’s forces. For most of us the tendency is to fixate on what’s going wrong. This seems to be deeply conditioned, and it’s 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 it’s 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 "it’s 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. There’s 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 it’s 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 it’s 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, that’s 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. It’s 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, isn’t 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 shouldn’t 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 Mara’s 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. It’s likely to have the quality to it of all kinds of things going on, some of them frightening, some of them uplifting – it’s this mixed experience that we have to awaken to.

Ominous men

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 didn’t look protective; but no-one would have come near me.

So wherever we are, as we sit in this place of awakening it’s 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 aren’t true and often aren’t 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: "Ah…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 don’t 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 they’re 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? I’m 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 doesn’t have to find a comfortable position. Doesn’t 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 aren’t wrong!" – but that’s 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 and…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, I’ll recollect and chant the epithets the Buddha gave for nibbana: asokam, virajam, khemam: sorrowless, dustless, secure – on and on they go. I’ll notice what it’s 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" isn’t quite right: there is that which knows these, which isn’t bound by them. This awakening aspect of the mind. We can begin to let the mind resonate with it’s deepest nature, so that it can be with the arrows and confusion that Mara is presenting us, and not believe them: they’ll have nowhere to land.


thaniya“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






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