The Significance of Bodhi Day

By Rev. Peter Hata

Good morning, everyone. Welcome to our Bodhi Day Service, the annual observance of the day the Buddha attained enlightenment or awakening. The word “bodhi” means “awakening,” and I’d like to discuss the Buddha’s awakening today. But first, a helpful historical context of his awakening is provided by the key dates of his life. There’s no consensus amongst scholars, but the traditional common dates are:

563 BCE: birth at Lumbini
534 BCE: Siddhartha’s Four Gates experience at the age of 29
528 BCE: the Buddha attains enlightenment at Buddha Gaya (Bodhgaya today) at 35
528 BCE: begins teaching the Dharma 49 days later at Deer Park (Sarnath)
483 BCE: Buddha dies at Kusinara (now Kushinagar)

Actually, there are any number of dates for all these events, but if, in 2013 we use the traditional date of 528 BCE we are observing the 2,541st anniversary of the Buddha’s enlightenment, of his attainment of Bodhi! That was a long time ago, but as I hope you will see, his awakening is still very significant today. First, let’s discuss what are probably the two most significant events in the Buddha’s life. The first significant event is the story of the Four Gates.

Regarding the Four Gates story, I think most of you know that Siddhartha—the Buddha’s name before his enlightenment—grew up as a Prince in Northern India. In an effort to ensure Siddhartha would grow into a strong, worldly king, his father had been shielding him from the experience of any kind of difficulty. However, anxious to see the world outside the palace—and probably, as an intelligent young man, he must have known something was different outside the palace and wanted to see it—Siddhartha took four trips beyond the palace at the age of 29.  But despite the fact that the King had his castle workers remove sick, aged and suffering people from view, in his trips outside the palace, Siddhartha was said to have seen an old man, a sick man, and a corpse. He was deeply depressed by these sights, by the realization that the suffering of old age, sickness and death were inevitable. For the previously sheltered Siddhartha, this was an extremely shocking realization.

Then, after this encounter with impermanence, it is said that through the 4th gate he saw a sramana with a begging bowl. Sramanas were not “buddhas” necessarily, but a “new” kind of seeker or renunciant in ancient India who had dropped out of the Brahmin-dominant religious culture of the time and were searching for their own way to the truth. Seeing this sramana, Siddhartha made the decision to leave the palace, become a renunciant himself, and seek the solution to the suffering of aging, illness, and death. So, this meeting with impermanence and then seeing the example of the sramana was a crucial step on his path to becoming the Buddha because his desire to seek the ultimate truth was kindled. This signaled the arising of his aspiration for buddhahood. This arising of aspiration is crucial to becoming a buddha. Jodo Shinshu calls this “hongan,” and not coincidentally, our organization is Higashi Honganji, or the “east temple of hongan.”

His Four Gates experience had deeply troubled him; the encounter with old age, illness, and death was like a disturbing wakeup call. He realized he had been “asleep” for 29 years, and that he needed to renounce the palace life. To “renounce” something means to abandon it, reject it, and not abide by it anymore.

After leaving the palace, Siddhartha spent 6 years learning and mastering the teachings and practices of the forest sramanas. His last practice involved trying to find enlightenment through extreme asceticism, through self-mortification (it is said he would eat only a leaf or a nut each day). However, he realized he’d been practicing asceticism for 6 years and still hadn’t found the ultimate answer, and that if he continued without nourishment he’d just die without accomplishing anything. In other words, he realized his extreme practices were just another form of self-attachment, and so he renounced them as well. Siddhartha realized that neither the self-gratification of the palace life nor the self-mortification of asceticism were constructive. Thus, it is said he discovered the Middle Way, not enlightenment per se, but a critical aspect of the path to enlightenment that avoids extremes and is therefore conducive to reaching it.

The second significant event is of course, the Buddha’s attainment of enlightenment at Bodhgaya. This experience, the culmination of his period of deep meditation, provided him with the insight into the true nature of reality, which is the teaching we call Buddhism.

Historically speaking, we know that Siddhartha attained awakening at the age of 35 and became the Buddha, which means “the awakened one.” What did he awaken to? What was the content of his awakening? Of course, no one knows for sure what the Buddha exactly experienced during his awakening experience. However, in the film, Little Buddha (the respected Tibetan lama Khyentse Rinpoche was the consultant to filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci for the details of the Buddha's life), the most important scene is arguably the one that imaginatively illustrates the actual moment of the Buddha’s awakening. After beginning his meditation under the Bodhi Tree, the film shows a series of battles the Buddha has with Mara, the “demon” of the ego within. In the final scene, he comes face-to-face with Mara and there is this dialogue:

-Mara: “You who go where no one else will dare, will you be my god?”
-Buddha: “Architect, finally I have met you. You will not rebuild your house again.”
-Mara: “But I am your house and you live in me.”
-Buddha: “Oh lord of my own ego, you are pure illusion. You do not exist. The Earth is my witness.”

What did the Buddha awaken to? In essence, the Buddha awakened to his own ignorance. He saw his ego, symbolized by Mara, for what it really was: an illusion. It is this insight into the true nature of the self—that our ego-self within is the problem—that is the radical and unique teaching of Buddhism.

At the same time, what was real was the Earth. In his face-to-face encounter with Mara, when Mara, the ego-self, arrogantly says, “But I am your house and you live in me,” the Buddha counters with, “Oh lord of my own ego, you are pure illusion. You do not exist. The Earth is my witness.” Therefore, since the Earth represents all of life, we can also say that what the Buddha awakened to was everything beyond the ego-self, or in other words, the reality of all life. This reality of life is infinitely dynamic and constantly moving, and is symbolized by the bright aura that surrounds him after his awakening. In Buddhism, this is the ultimate truth identified as impermanence [Sanskrit anitya]. This is the reality that everything is constantly changing, constantly flowing, and in a constant state of flux. It is the reality that the ego-self cannot see.

However, you might ask, “But hadn’t the Buddha already encounter the truth of impermanence in his Four Gates experience?” Yes, but he became “The Buddha,” the awakened one, when he realized that this impermanence also applied to his own mind—this is why he says to Mara, “you are an illusion”; impermanence not only results in the aging, illness, and death of the human body, there was also nothing permanent in the mind, no permanent self. This is also a key teaching of Buddhism and is known as no-self [Sanskrit anatman].

Another way of stating this is to say that the Buddha did not just understand impermanence objectively—by seeing human aging, illness, and death outside the castle walls—in his awakening he experienced it subjectively or existentially; he became one with the truth of impermanence, one with reality. As Nobuo Haneda has said, “Even young children can understand impermanence (i.e., they’ve experienced the death of a grandparent, pet, or relative), but how many of us discover this truth in ourselves, within our own mind?”

I’d like to conclude my talk by relating this discussion of the content of the Buddha’s awakening to the teaching of Shinran Shonin, the founder of the Jodo Shinshu tradition. As you know, Shinran used different terms than the Buddha in discussing Buddhism, but I think it’s extremely important that, even though we are observing Bodhi Day—and that on Bodhi Day we traditionally focus on the teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha—as Jodo Shinshu Buddhists, as followers of Shinran, we need to understand we are automatically also followers of the Buddha. To follow Shinran is to follow Shakyamuni. Of course, Shinran, in many of his writings, such as his Kyogyoshinsho, clarified that of all the many teachings of the Buddha, the most important was the teaching of the Nembutsu, Namu Amida Butsu. However, do you find it hard to see the correlation between the Nembutsu teaching and the content of Buddha’s awakening that we’ve been discussing?

I think the key is to understand that, as we saw earlier, in his awakening, the Buddha essentially awakened to his own ignorance. Earlier in his life, in the story of the Four Gates, Siddhartha’s shock and dismay in his encounter with impermanence was in fact due to his being unawake, to his being ignorant. He found encountering impermanence difficult and he resisted it. Because of his attachment to his youth, to his ego-self, he resisted the truth of impermanence. In the awakening scene from Little Buddha, Mara is like an evil and arrogant enemy that Siddhartha is battling with, right? But in their final encounter, he comes face-to-face with Mara. And what is the astounding thing the Buddha says? “Architect, finally I have met you…” and later, “Oh lord of my own ego…” So what he has been battling with all along, what has caused his difficulty all along, what has troubled him, turns out to be his own self, his own ego. This self-caused suffering is known as duhkha in Sanskrit. In other words, the Buddha’s seeing Mara—the ignorant and arrogant ego-self—as a psychological element within himself was his awakening.

And, in Shinran’s life, his ego-self experienced the same kind of friction with impermanence, the same duhkha, after 20 years of trying but failing to attain enlightenment on Mt. Hiei. But fortunately, he found Honen Shonin, who shared the teaching of Namu Amida Butsu.

Now, what does “namu” mean? It refers to Shakyamuni’s key insight into the nature of the self—“namu” is the self that sees the true self. It is the humble self that is awakened to its own arrogance and ignorance. When this humbling insight is attained, the infinite light and life, Amida Butsu, that was heretofore invisible to us suddenly comes into view. This is the meaning of the aura that forms around Shakyamuni in the final moment of the awakening scene. Only a Buddha, an awakened being, as someone acutely aware of their human limitations, is simultaneously also aware of the unlimited life beyond the self.

This is the significance of Bodhi Day for us today. To find the ultimate joy and meaning in life, we must, like Shakyamuni and Shinran, awaken to our own ignorance.

Thank you for listening.

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