The life of the Buddha has been described extensively and with a great deal of devotion in the suttas.
Siddhartha’s odyssey comes down to this: he was born in the 5th century B.C. in Lumbini, an unsightly village in the Terai plain of Nepal, at the foot of the Himalayas.
He spent the first 29 years of his life in Kapilavatthu, the capital of a small, independent oligarchic republic, in northern India. It is here that the worldly conditioning did not stick to him. In Kapilavatthu, he left the house that was not his. The house others had built for him. The life others had in mind for him. His conditioned habitat.
It is the place where the seed germinated from which his self-realization sprouted. The great turnaround that every yogi encounters on his or her personal path.
Kapilavatthu is the place where he saw suffering. Where he met an old man, a sick man and a corpse. Dukkha (suffering). But also a samana (ascetic), a bhikkhu (monk). Sukha (hapiness). Where he experienced that reality as he thought it was (and as he had been taught), was not the real reality but merely an intoxicating glamour. A grotesque illusion (maya). A mirage.
Siddhartha ‘left his house’ and went into homelessness to seek an answer and free himself from the gnawing sense of discontent that every human being spends his whole life with.
He went to Rajagaha, where he practiced meditation under the guidance of Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta —two outstanding spiritual teachers in the Ganges Valley at that time. Neither meditation technique led Siddhartha to liberation. In consistence with himself he left both gurus. He then moved on to the cave complex in the Dungeshwari Mountains.
There he joined a group of five companions (pañca vaggiya), with which he practiced a rigorous asceticism in the cave of Mahakala. But even these ascetic practices did not bring a breakthrough to liberation and inner peace.
Siddhartha left the five ascetics and continued his way to Uruvela where he came to self-realization at the age of 35 and became a Buddha — an Enlightened One, Awakened.
He then headed west to Sarnath, north of the city of Varanasi, where he gave his first teaching in the Deer Park to his former five companions. It is here that he set the wheel of the Dhamma in motion (dhammacakkappavattana).
Then, for 45 years, the Buddha crossed the Middle Land to explain and clarify his doctrine.
Finally, in Kusinara, his formal story ended and he reached Parinibbāna (the complete liberation after the extinguishing of the body).
So much for the exposé of an Awakened Life.
The stories and metaphors in these suttas are closely related to the world of forms. Perception is abundant. But also the current pilgrimage sites Lumbini, Kapilavatthu, Bodhgaya, Sarnath and Kusinara are not much more than carefully created perception. This perception creates an experience that evokes an expectation of peace and of harmony — an atmosphere of calm, universality and purity. But, however well-intentioned and how fine it feels, perception remains perception.
Let’s look honestly into the mirror: this is not the core of the Dhamma. This is not what the Buddha left us. The discrepancy between perception and reality, between illusion (maya) and reality (yathabhuta), is immense.
The teachings of the Buddha are about liberation and inner peace. Liberation of dukkha. And the attainment of inner peace through extinction. Self-realization. Nibbāna. In this life.
The Pali canon mentions in detail the insights that Siddhartha progressively acquired during his meditation, the so-called ‘triple knowledge’. This is metaphorically described in the form of the Three Watched of the Night.
During the First Watch he gained insight into his countless past lives. In detail, he saw the eternal process of creation and decay — this endless cycle of birth and death, this “process” that extends across all ages.
Here the Buddha ‘sees’ and ‘knows’ (janami passami) that the whole universe is one continuous manifestation of energy. He saw — 2,400 years earlier than Charles Darwin — how everything is connected to everyone and everything. From the Big Bang and further. That everything flows together.
He observed his body ‘from the top of his head to the tips of his toes and from the tips of his toes to the top of his head’.
Siddhartha ‘saw’ that everything changed throughout his body at every moment; that at no time, anything remained the same. The same was true of his feelings and sensations. Here, too, he found that no feeling and no sensation remained unchanged even for a single moment.
He saw that everything arises just to perish again. Immediately. That everything is changing and impermanent (anicca). Because this ‘process’ of origin and decay has no beginning and no end, the concepts of birth and death lost their meaning for him. The Buddha ‘saw’ that birth and death are only direct consequences of ignorance, of the confusion (avijjā) that there is an ‘I’ – a permanent ‘self’ (a ‘soul’) isolated from the rest.
Siddhartha realized that the transience he observed in his own body, in his own feelings and in his own sensations, applied to all phenomena. Anicca as a characteristic for all phenomena.
If the yogi wants to become a stream-enterer (sotāpanna) then he must see the current. Without seeing, he’ll never enter the stream. To become sotāpanna, he must understand existence as a continuous, cyclical evolution, where everything is in constant change. As a process. A flow. A stream of energy. A flux. A fact that is diametrically opposed to the conditioned illusion of a stable separate ‘I’.
In this way, the yogi experiences an unlimited and infinite unity of all-with-everything. A unit where there is no longer a separate ‘I’. A unit that carries a deep compassion (karunā) and a great respect for all living beings. This is the Thich Nhat Hanh’s ‘Interbeing’. ‘Interbeing’ not as a concept, but as an intuitive, experiential knowing. Where every living thing, including the grass and the trees, is naturally perfect and awakened. Complete and perfect. Despite the surrounding dukkha. Despite the continuous horror of birth, disease, old age and death. Despite the withering of the green grass in the summer. Despite the fall of the leaves in autumn. Despite Hiroshima. Despite Auschwitz. Everything connected by countless causes (hetu) and conditions (paccaya).
During the Second Watch he ‘saw’ the law of (karma (kamma): how wholesome action leads to joy and unwholesome actions to sorrow. He saw how the beings themselves create the causes of their actions and how they themselves experience their results: what we are today is a consequence of our past actions. What we become will be the result of our current actions. He also saw that all beings are subject to this karmic law.
During the Third Watch he gained insight into the chain of dependent origination (paṭiccasamuppādapaticca). It is this chain with its 12 links that show the conditions (paccaya) through which a being is reborn again and again (from moment-to-moment).
He acknowledged rightly:
“This is suffering; this is the cause of suffering; this is the end of suffering; this is the way to end suffering.”
He understood that one can reduce or even completely eliminate this suffering if one can transcend the ignorance of one’s own nature by seeing reality as it is.
Yathā-bhūta-ñāṇa-dassana stands for ‘seeing’ and ‘knowing’ reality as it is: transient (anicca), unsatisfactory (dukkha) and selfless (anattā).
Through these three insights — the ‘process’; the law of kamma and the law of dependent origination — Siddhartha experiences a complete transformation:
“Knowledge arose (paññā), darkness (avijjā) was destroyed and light arose, as happens in someone who is constantly mindful (sati), dedicated (atapi) and determined (adhiṭṭhāna).”
Siddhartha transformed into a Buddha. Coming to full understanding, he became an Enlightened one, a Fully Awakened One (sammā sambuddha).
The First Discourses
After his awakening, He headed west to Varanasi. In the Deer Park in Sarnath, the Buddha gave his two most important discourses to the fivecCompanions over a five-day period: the Dhammacakkappavattana-sutta, with which he set the wheel of the Dhamma in motion and the Anattalakkhana-sutta with which he illustrated the selflessness of the phenomena.
In the Dhammacakkappavattana-sutta, He gets to the heart of the matter. This is the teaching. Nothing more, nothing less! If there had been anything more or anything else, he would have said it here, in this place!
But mutatis mutandis: what is not said here is not the essence of Dhamma.
In the Dhammacakkapavattana-Sutta, the Buddha discusses 5 topics. I quote the most important passages.
The Two Extremes and the Middle Way
“Monks, these two extremes should not be followed by one who has gone forth into homelessness. What two? The pursuit of sensual happiness in sensual pleasures, which is low, vulgar, the way of worldlings, ignoble, unbeneficial; and the pursuit of self-mortification, which is painful, ignoble, unbeneficial. Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathagata has awakened to the middle way, which gives rise to vision, which gives rise to knowledge, which leads to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna.”
“And what, monks, is that middle way awakened to by the Tathagata, which gives rise to vision … which leads to Nibbāna? It is this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. This, monks, is that middle way awakened to by the Tathagata, which gives rise to vision, which gives rise to knowledge, which leads to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna.”
The Four Noble Truths — Cattāri Ariya Saccani
Sacca stands for “truth.” This is not an esoteric truth; no dogmatic truth. It is what is ‘true’; what is considered a law of nature, something that is relevant in the past, in the present and will be in the future.
“Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of suffering (dukkha sacca): birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.”
“Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering (samudāya sacca): it is this craving which leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures (kāma taṇhā), craving for existence (bhava taṇhā), craving for extermination (vibhava taṇhā).”
“Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering (nirodha sacca): it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, nonreliance on it.”
“Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering (magga sacca): it is this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view … right concentration.”
These Four Noble Truths are the essence of the teachings of the Buddha. The Buddha teaches only one thing: dukkha; the cause of dukkha, the end of dukkha, and the path leading to the end of dukkha. That’s it. That is all that Buddha’s doctrine is all about: dukkha and its cessation, the elimination of dukkha, the extinguishing of dukkha. The only thing that is important for the yogi and must be realized is that he/she extinguishes dukkha, that he/she ends dukkha.
When we agree that dukkha and the end of dukkha are at the heart of the teaching we need not worry further about the trivialities of rebirth. That is not fundamental.
Three Rotations and Twelve Aspects
Here the Buddha says that every one of the Four Noble Truths:
- must be known/understood (pariyatti),
- practiced (paṭipatti) and
- must be realized (paṭivedha).
- suffering must be understood, practiced and realized.
- the cause of suffering must be let go, practiced and realized.
- the end of suffering must be accomplished, practiced and realised.
- the path leading to the end of suffering must be cultivated, practiced and realized.
Personal Knowledge of the Buddha
In this paragraph, the Buddha proclaims that he has achieved the Highest Awakening by ‘seeing’ the Four Noble Truths and by ‘knowing’ in the manner of pariyatti, paṭipatti, paṭivedha. In this way, he has come to self-realization:
“The knowledge and vision arose in me: ‘Unshakable is the liberation of my mind. This is my last birth. Now there is no more renewed existence.’”
Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion
This is what the Blessed One said. Elated, the monks of the group of five delighted in the Blessed One’s statement. And while this discourse was being spoken, there arose in the Venerable Kondañña the dust-free, stainless vision of the Dhamma: “Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation.”
in these last 10 words the Dhamma is summarized.
Then the Blessed One uttered this inspired utterance: “Koṇḍañña has indeed understood! Koṇḍañña has indeed understood!” In this way the Venerable Koṇḍañña acquired the name “Añña Koṇḍañña—Koṇḍañña Who Has Understood.”
This is entering the stream (sotāpatti).
It happens suddenly, It is manifest and explicit.
This is the key! This has to be realized by the yogi!
This sutta was given five days after the Buddha had set the wheel of the Dhamma in motion. Once again, the five companions were his attentive listeners.
I limit myself to the essence.
In this sutta, the Buddha points out to the five companions that the khandhas (aggregates of existence) are without ‘self’, that they are ’empty’, i.e. that they do not carry any stability. That they change from moment-to-moment:
- “Monks, form (rūpa) is without self.”
- “Monks, feelings (vedanā) are without self.”
- “Monks, perceptions (saññā) are without self.”
- “Monks, mental formations (saňkhňāra) are without self.”
- “Monks, consciousness (viññāṇa) is without self.”
In summary: The khandhas are changeable, unsatisfactory and selfless (these are the three characteristics of existence, ti-lakkhaṇa). Anything that is changeable and unsatisfactory should be considered as “this is not mine, this is not me, this is not my self.”
The result of right view (sammā diṭṭhi) is therefore that:
“Seeing thus, bhikkhus, the instructed noble disciple experiences revulsion towards form, revulsion towards feeling, revulsion towards perception, revulsion towards volitional formations, revulsion towards consciousness. Experiencing revulsion, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion his mind is liberated. When it is liberated there comes the knowledge: ‘It’s liberated.’”
The Buddha taught anattā as the way to end dukkha, as the way to extinguish dukkha.
This is “Awakening” summarized in four Pali words: nibbidā – virāga – upasama – Nibbāna.
Schematically, the progression goes as follows: nibbidā (disenchantment) → virāga (dispassion) → upasama (calmness, freeing oneself of ‘becoming’, of the taints (kilesas)→ Nibbāna (internal peace, i.e. seeing things as they are (yatha bhuta) + accepting this (upekkhā).
These four words form the raft to cross the stream. So the yogi comes to the following realization:
“He understands: ‘Destroyed is birth, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more for this state of being.’”
Then, for 45 years, the Buddha travels across the Middle Land to explain and clarify his doctrine. This period has been a time of explanation, explication and interpretation.
Finally, in Kusinara, his formal story comes to an end and he reaches Parinibbāna. This is described in detail in the Mahaparinibbana-Sutta — one of the most impressive readings in the entire Pali canon.
In his last words, the Buddha again points to the core of his doctrine:
“Indeed, bhikkhus, I declare this to you: It is in the nature of all formations to dissolve. Attain perfection through diligence!”
In practice, the Buddha transparently says to anyone who wants to hear his message: if you want to free yourself from dukkha, you must follow my example. He says come and see how I did it (ehipassiko). But don’t limit yourself to ‘hearing’ alone (suta-mayā paññā). Do not limit yourself to the intellectual understanding of what I have done and said (suta-mayā paññā), but realize within yourself how my Doctrine leads to liberation and inner peace.
Know it through experience (paccanubhoti). Knowing through experience is your highest authority. What you see yourself and experience yourself leads to insight, to wisdom (bhāvanā-maya paññā); everything else is appearance, prejudice and opinion.
“Each of you should make himself his island, himself and no other his refuge; each of you should make the Dhamma his island, the Dhamma and no other his refuge.”
And the Buddha proclaims with forensic accuracy where the truth can be found:
“In this body, with all its sensory impressions, thoughts and ideas, the world can be found; the origin of the world; the end of the world; and the path leading to the end of the world.”
In this body and in this mind, liberation and inner peace are realized. In the openness of the moment. In the openness of this very moment. And not in the conditioned dream world of the forms. Not in your self-created stories and dramas. Not in the ‘likes & dislikes’ of Facebook. Not in the “I.” Not in rituals. Not in doubt. Not in perception. Not in pilgrimages.
In this body/mind complex, the transience of all compound phenomena (saṅkhāra) is experienced. Their origins and their decay. And the cause of their origin and decay: the ‘becoming’. Any desire leads to ‘being’ (bhava). So does any revulsion.
But in this nāma/rūpa complex (the complex of matter and mental phenomena) the Unborn is also experienced (ajata). And the Deadless (amata). The Unborn and the Deadless are synonyms for self-realization, for Nibbāna — the ‘extinguishing’ — the ‘seeing and knowing’ (janami passami) that there is no more ‘becoming’.
Therefore, calm your body and mind by living ethically. Settle down in quiet seclusion (viveka) and concentrate (samādhi). Observe and then understand the world as it really is (yatha bhuta) in all its impermanence (anicca) and see your suffering (dukkha sacca); see the cause of your suffering (samudāya sacca), that you too can end your suffering (nirodha sacca), and cultivate the path through which your suffering is eventually ended (magga sacca).
These are the cattāri ariya saccani. The Four Noble Truths. This is Dhamma. In this way you free yourself from your inherent conditioning by desire, revulsion and ignorance. That’s how you come to inner peace. To extinction. To nibbāna.
And don’t tire yourself by looking for a god. Nor with profound reflections on the afterlife or rebirth. Heaven and hell are not post-mortem stories, but ingredients of this life.
Vimutti (freedom) and santi (peace) are located here. Near. In this body. In this moment. Don’t miss this opportunity. This is what the Buddha preached. Everything else is just decorum and perception.