According to tradition, Buddhism began with the Buddha’s enlightenment. This was the spiritual awakening of one man, Siddhartha Gautama, somewhere between 528 and 445 BCE, who afterwards was called the “Buddha,” or “awakened one.” He then taught others what he realized, along with the methods he used to achieve that realization, and those teachings have been passed down to the present day. What exactly did Siddhartha comprehend in his enlightenment?
Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
How Do We Know What the Buddha Realized? [1:50]
Setting the Stage: Siddhartha’s Spiritual Quest [5:13]
Siddhartha’s Insights into Past Lives and Karma [8:17]
The Insight into the Nature of Suffering and How to End It [12:11]
How Much You Suffer Depends on Your Mind [15:12]
Noticing Suffering, How It Arises, and What You Can Do About It [17:56]
Understanding What the Cessation of Suffering Means (and Doesn’t Mean) [22:11]
The Cessation of Suffering in Practice [27:55]
How Do We Know What the Buddha Realized?
To begin, I want to say something about the sources of information we have about Siddhartha Gautama, and their historical accuracy. We have no archeological evidence that Siddhartha existed, but there is evidence from a couple hundred years after his death that a particular site in India had been continually revered as his birthplace. In addition, there are many stories of his life recorded in texts.
The historical accuracy of Buddhist texts regarding the life and enlightenment of Siddhartha is questionable, especially because many such texts have obviously been embellished with supernatural stories and mythological imagery. Fortunately, the historical details of Siddhartha’s life don’t actually matter all that much. In fact, to some extent Buddhism doesn’t depend on the historical existence of a particular man named Siddhartha who, according to the texts, experienced a massive enlightenment experience over the course of one night. What’s important is what he is reported to have realized and taught, and the fact that the teachings we ascribe to him continue to be effective spiritual medicine for real people.
So, in the course of this episode I will go ahead and use the oldest Buddhist texts as the basis for my story about Siddhartha Gautama’s enlightenment and what he realized. These texts are from what’s called the “Pali Canon,” a large collection of teachings and stories which, according to tradition, were established as the doctrinal basis of Buddhism shortly after the Buddha’s death. (According to Ajahn Thanissaro in Wings to Awakening, although the Pali canon itself includes several different accounts of Siddhartha’s life and awakening, “These descriptions are among the earliest extended autobiographical accounts in human history.”) In particular, for this episode my primary source will be the Majjhima Nikaya number 36, also called the Maha-Saccaka Sutta: The Longer Discourse to Saccaka, as translated by Ajahn Thanissaro. You can access this text – and many other Pali canon writings – online at accesstoinsight.org.
Note: You may have noticed that I sometimes use the name “Siddhartha Gautama” and sometimes I say “the Buddha” or “Shakyamuni Buddha.” Before his enlightenment, we refer to Siddhartha Gautama by his given name, while after his enlightenment he’s typically referred to using honorifics. “Buddha” means “awakened one,” and “Shakyamuni” means “sage of the Shakya clan.”
Setting the Stage: Siddhartha’s Spiritual Quest
First, Siddhartha’s enlightenment needs a little context. According to tradition, the future Buddha was raised in conditions of comfort and pleasure, but he nonetheless became dissatisfied with ordinary life. Having inevitably observed that all people were subject to old age, illness, loss, and death, he explains in the Pali Canon that he left the household life to seek “the aging-less, illness-less, deathless, sorrow-less, undefiled, unexcelled rest [from] the yoke: [that is,] Unbinding.” (Majjhima Nikaya 26, translated by Ajahn Thanissaro)
Siddhartha’s quest took place at a particularly interesting time in India, which I described in detail in episode 5: The Arising of Buddhism Part 1: Historical and Religious Context in India. To summarize, over the course of 2-300 years, the doctrine of transmigration had arisen and spread widely. According to this doctrine, beings are reborn into this world after they die, and this cycle birth, death, and rebirth has been occurring, and will continue to occur, for an incomprehensibly long period of time. It may sound like this is a positive proposition, but at this time in India it actually took on a pretty pessimistic tone. It made the fortunes of life seem transitory: No matter how good you might have it in this life, you may end up in misery in your next one, and you’ll have to experience all the miseries of old age, illness, loss, and death over and over.
People became fascinated by transmigration and what you could do to affect the circumstances of your rebirth. The process by which you affected your future circumstances was called karma, which was essentially the law of moral cause and effect. Some spiritual seekers also conceived of ways to escape from the whole depressing process of transmigration entirely – seeking some state of being that was more permanent, reliable, and transcendent.
So, when Siddhartha was contemplating the inevitability of old age, illness, loss, and death, he wasn’t just thinking about his one lifetime – he was struggling with a bigger question of what human life meant and where it was going. Were we just doomed to experience cycles of birth and death, gain and loss, fortune and misfortune, over and over, more or less forever? When he describes his search for the “undefiled, unexcelled rest [from] the yoke: [that is,] Unbinding,” he is referring to liberation from the cycle of transmigration.
Siddhartha’s Insights into Past Lives and Karma
Siddhartha trained within several teachers of alternative religious sects. All of these teachers emphasized the potential for an individual to directly perceive deep universal truths and achieve liberation through meditative discipline. After many years of striving, Siddhartha mastered a number of different meditative techniques, but still hadn’t found the answer to his burning spiritual question. Finally – and fatefully – Siddhartha recalled a profound meditative state he had spontaneously entered into as a child, and decided to employ that method. He seated himself in meditation, determined not to arise again until he achieved complete understanding and liberation.
According the Majjhima Nikaya Sutta number 36, the Buddha’s enlightenment occurred in three phases. In the first, he had a vision of his previous lives:
“…When the mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady, & attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of recollecting my past lives. I recollected my manifold past lives, i.e., one birth, two…five, ten…fifty, a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand, many eons of cosmic contraction, many eons of cosmic expansion, many eons of cosmic contraction & expansion: ‘There I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure & pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose there. There too I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure & pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose here.’ Thus I remembered my manifold past lives in their modes & details.”
Because of his remarkable ability to perceive past lives, Siddhartha was then able to move on to the second phase of his enlightenment. He turned his attention to the transmigration of all beings, not just himself, and was able to perceive the workings of karma, or the law of moral cause and effect. Note: The Pali word for “karma” is “kamma.” The Buddha explains:
“I discerned how [beings] are inferior & superior, beautiful & ugly, fortunate & unfortunate in accordance with their kamma: ‘These beings — who were endowed with bad conduct of body, speech, & mind, who reviled the noble ones, held wrong views and undertook actions under the influence of wrong views — with the break-up of the body, after death, have re-appeared in the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, in hell. But these beings — who were endowed with good conduct of body, speech & mind, who did not revile the noble ones, who held right views and undertook actions under the influence of right views — with the break-up of the body, after death, have re-appeared in the good destinations, in the heavenly world.’”
The Insight into the Nature of Suffering and How to End It
Deep in meditation, Siddhartha then carefully examined the workings of karma. He was intrigued by his observation that right and wrong views were intimately related to the behavior of beings, and to the repercussions of their actions. According to Ajahn Thanissaro, this led Siddhartha to consider the possibility that “kamma was primarily a mental process, rather than a physical one.” Therefore, Siddhartha used his own mind as a laboratory and studied the mental phenomena that led to negative karma. In the meditative traditions of his time, things that were seen to lead to negative karma, and therefore unfortunate rebirths, were called asavas, which can be translated as “fermentations,” or “defilements.” Here is how the Buddha describes the third phase of his enlightenment (note: in this passage, Thanissaro use the word “stress” to translate the Pali word dukkha, which is often translated as “suffering;” I’ll explain why in a bit, but just know that the Buddha is talking about the origin and cessation of suffering as we’ve discussed it so far):
“When the mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady, & attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of the ending of the mental fermentations. I discerned, as it was actually present, that ‘This is stress… This is the origination of stress… This is the cessation of stress… This is the way leading to the cessation of stress… These are fermentations… This is the origination of fermentations… This is the cessation of fermentations… This is the way leading to the cessation of fermentations.’ My heart, thus knowing, thus seeing, was released from the fermentation of sensuality, released from the fermentation of becoming, released from the fermentation of ignorance. With release, there was the knowledge, ‘Released.’ I discerned that ‘Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done…’”
So, Siddhartha resolved his spiritual question and achieved his goal, this becoming an “awakened one,” or buddha. He was liberated from the cycle of transmigration, and would not be reborn.
How Much You Suffer Depends on Your Mind
I will unpack the insights Siddhartha experienced in the third phase of his enlightenment shortly, but first I want to say something about the nature of his enlightenment: It was not an intellectual matter. It wasn’t that he sat in meditation and merely perceived abstract principles about the way the universe worked. As we all know, intellectual understanding doesn’t necessarily make you feel any better. Instead, Siddhartha’s realizations were about the nature of the human experience, and how you could radically alter your experience from the inside. He simultaneously applied what he learned to his own mind, and proved his insights were true by achieving his own peace and liberation. He was then able to communicate his insights and approaches to others, and they were able to successfully repeat his experiment.
One of the best ways I’ve heard the essence of Buddhism described is with this metaphor (attributed to Shantideva): rather than covering the whole world in leather in order to avoid the painful experience of stepping on sharp objects, you can simply cover your feet. In other words, while there’s no escaping old age, illness, loss, death, and other forms of human suffering, there are practical things we can do to make the whole experience less painful.
Central to this approach is the recognition of the mental aspects of karma, as mentioned earlier. As very simplified explanation of this process goes like this: Because of your attachment to sensuality, or your desire to experience pleasure and avoid pain, you perform a particular action. Chances are good that this action has some negative results, which you eventually feel. In reaction to painful feelings, your desire to experience pleasure and avoid pain increases, and you inevitably form more ill-informed (ignorant) views. You can break this cycle by giving up your attachment to sensuality, deconstructing your ignorant views, and transcending self-interest – all things the Buddha actually found ways to do.
Noticing Suffering, How It Arises, and What You Can Do About It
To explain further: The Buddha says he “discerned, as it was actually present, that ‘This is stress… This is the origination of stress… This is the cessation of stress… This is the way leading to the cessation of stress…” In the first teaching the Buddha gave to others, he taught these four insights as the “Four Noble Truths.”
As I mentioned earlier, the word “stress” in this passage is a translation of the term dukkha, which defies translation into a single English word. It is often translated as “suffering,” but also as “dissatisfactoriness,” or “unease.” I will definitely end up discussing dukkha in more detail in this podcast, but for now suffice it to say that it refers to our sense that there’s something about life that isn’t quite right. Depending on our circumstances, you might experience dukkha as extreme suffering, but at the other end of the spectrum you might experience it as existential angst or boredom. Even when you’re happy there can be a subtle sense of dukkha present simply because you know things are inevitably going to change.
In the course of his awakening, the Buddha noticed dukkha within his own mind (recall that he says he “discerned” it “as it was actually present”). He then investigated further, asking what caused that stress or dissatisfaction. Instead of being satisfied with answers about external conditions (for example, “You feel dukkha because the world is this way or that way,” or “You feel stress because death is inevitable”), he carefully observed what it was in his own mind that caused dukkha to arise. He saw that when he held certain views – in particular, views based on self-interest, or the view that we should be able to find something permanent and unchanging to hold on to – dukkha arose. When he didn’t hold those views, dukkha went away!
“This is stress,” then, means to recognize the presence of dukkha in your mind and to examine it closely. “This is the origination of stress” is to observe which of your views are associated with dukkha. “This is the cessation of stress” is to drop the views that cause dukkha, and thereby become free from stress and suffering even when you encounter the normal difficulties of human life. “This is the way leading to the cessation of stress” is the rest of the Buddhist path, including meditation, teachings, and all the other practices passed down through the generations to help you with the first three Noble Truths.
Fortunately, Buddhists don’t have to experience the first two of the Buddha’s insights on the night of his enlightenment – namely, insight into past lives and the intricate workings of karma throughout space and time. In fact, we don’t even have to believe in transmigration. Although transmigration was the background worldview of the Buddha’s time, his teachings don’t actually depend on it. (Even if there’s no such thing as rebirth, practicing the Four Noble Truths are effective for relieving dukkha in this life.) The only one of the Buddha’s three insights we need to experience for ourselves is the third one, about the cessation of suffering.
Understanding What the Cessation of Suffering Means (and Doesn’t Mean)
It’s common for people new to Buddhism to misunderstand the Buddha’s teachings about suffering and release from suffering. It can sound like the Buddha was suggesting we should try to work ourselves into a state of mind where we aren’t bothered by, or don’t feel, the pain of old age, illness, loss, death, and other human difficulties. It can sound like Buddhist practice is about numbing out. Admittedly, even the metaphor I mentioned earlier, about covering your feet with leather instead of covering the earth with it, encourages this idea, as if we’re aiming to insulate ourselves from discomfort.
Fortunately, the Buddha did not recommend numbing out or insulating ourselves from the world. After all, that’s only going to work so long, anyway, because sooner or later we’re going to meet with old age, illness, loss, and death, and chances are we’re going to be a little upset about it. The point the Buddha was trying to make was this: life is tough sometimes, but we can make it infinitely worse depending on what we do or don’t do within our own minds. In another Buddhist text, the Sallatha Sutta, he explains how encountering a painful feeling is like being shot with an arrow. In other words, it hurts! However, “the uninstructed, run of the mill” person – who doesn’t understand and practice the Four Noble Truths – ends up being shot with a second arrow because:
“As he is touched by that painful feeling [caused by the first arrow], he is resistant. Any resistance-obsession with regard to that painful feeling obsesses him. Touched by that painful feeling, he delights in sensual pleasure. Why is that? Because the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person does not discern any escape from painful feeling aside from sensual pleasure. As he is delighting in sensual pleasure, any passion-obsession with regard to that feeling of pleasure obsesses him.”
In other words, the uninstructed, run of the mill person makes her experience much worse by reacting with resistance, fear, and an obsession with getting rid of the painful feelings and obtaining pleasurable ones instead. We all know what this looks like in real life: we torment ourselves with regret and fear, we grieve our previous happiness, and rage against things as they are. The milk is spilt, the arrow has pierced, but we can’t get over the injustice of it or let go of fevered grasping for pleasure and happiness.
A well-instructed disciple, on the other hand, does the following:
“Now, the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones, when touched with a feeling of pain, does not sorrow, grieve, or lament, does not beat his breast or become distraught. So he feels one pain: physical, but not mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, did not shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pain of only one arrow…
“As he is touched by that painful feeling, he is not resistant. No resistance-obsession with regard to that painful feeling obsesses him. Touched by that painful feeling, he does not delight in sensual pleasure. Why is that? Because the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones discerns an escape from painful feeling aside from sensual pleasure. As he is not delighting in sensual pleasure, no passion-obsession with regard to that feeling of pleasure obsesses him…”
Note that although this passage refers to the first arrow as physical pain, and second arrow as mental pain, the same principle applies to the emotional pain we inevitably experience in life. Loss of our health, well-being, or a loved one will feel like an arrow piercing us, at least as long as we remain open-hearted and engaged in our lives. However, we can refrain from stabbing ourselves with a second arrow as long as we don’t sorrow, grieve, lament, or become distraught over the very fact that we have been pierced by the first arrow.
What does “refraining from piercing yourself with a second arrow” have to do with “letting go of views associated with dukkha,” as we discussed earlier? Every motivation to pierce ourselves with a second arrow – to resist, sorrow, grieve, or lament about the reality we find ourselves in – is based on a view. We believe things shouldn’t be this way. We hold the view that this isn’t fair, or I’m a failure, or she’s cruel, or I’ll never feel any better than this. The views that cause dukkha and harmful action are many, and a large proportion of Buddhist teachings focus on helping us identify and let go of such views. It’s a tough practice! We think our views are reality, but with practice we discover they are just a filter we lay over reality that prevents us from perceiving things clearly.
The Cessation of Suffering in Practice
Another common misunderstanding of these original Buddhist teachings is this: If you respond to pain or difficulty by dropping your views and giving up resistance (and thereby avoiding the arising of dukkha), it means you stop taking care of your life, resisting injustice, or trying to improve things. I admit that this is what the teachings seem to imply at first glance, at least if you try to grasp them intellectually.
Fortunately, in actual practice you don’t have to retreat into passivity or inaction in order to be free from dukkha. It’s entirely possible to drop a view that’s causing you trouble, but still respond to the world intelligently and compassionately. At such a time, the troublesome view ends up seeming irrelevant and extra. For example, my friend may do something that’s inconsiderate. When I notice I’m all stressed out because of the view, “She shouldn’t treat me like that, she’s my friend!” I can drop that view even as I ask my friend if she wouldn’t mind behaving differently in the future. It’s also entirely possible to give up resistance in your mind while still making an effort to change things. For example, I can go to the doctor and take medication in order to get over an illness, even as I give up resisting the reality that I’m sick.
One last thing: one of the things the Buddha realized upon his enlightenment is that simply seeing the truth of things inspires us to act in ways to minimize dukkha. If we’re willing to meditate and consider the teachings, we eventually notice the ways we’re causing suffering for ourselves and others. Sometimes it takes us a while to let go of a habit, or we may cling to a view or a reaction because we’re not ready to let it go, but if we can see things clearly enough we’ll naturally pull our hand off the hot stove. One last reading from the Pali Canon to illustrate (note: here, sensuality means obsession with material pleasures; this is from the “Dvedhavitakka Sutta: Two Sorts of Thinking” (MN 19), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.):
“And as I remained thus heedful, ardent, & resolute, thinking imbued with sensuality arose. I discerned that ‘Thinking imbued with sensuality has arisen in me; and that leads to my own affliction or to the affliction of others or to the affliction of both. It obstructs discernment, promotes vexation, & does not lead to Unbinding.’
“As I noticed that it leads to my own affliction, it subsided. As I noticed that it leads to the affliction of others… to the affliction of both… it obstructs discernment, promotes vexation, & does not lead to Unbinding, it subsided.”
This passage continues with similar verses for “thinking imbued with” ill will and harmfulness, and the Buddha explains how such thinking naturally subsided when he saw clearly how it led to affliction.
In closing, I’ll just say that describing the path to enlightenment and liberation as a few simple steps – recognizing dukkha and what causes it, and then letting those causes go – may make the Buddhist way sound easy, but it’s not. Before his enlightenment, Siddhartha spent six years in the wilderness undergoing extremely rigorous discipline and meditating all the time, and he’s revered as a remarkable spiritual adept! Although he laid out the entire Buddhist path in one paragraph, this is not meant to imply the way to enlightenment is easy or simple. In fact, the Buddha spent the next 45 years of his life teaching constantly, expounding on these first basic teachings and all of their implications.
Thanissaro, Bhikku. The Wings to Awakening: An Anthology of the Pali Canon. Barre, Massachusetts: Dhamma Dana Publications, 1996. (Also available online: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/wings/index.html.)
“Dvedhavitakka Sutta: Two Sorts of Thinking” (MN 19), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.019.than.html.
“Maha-Saccaka Sutta: The Longer Discourse to Saccaka” (MN 36), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.036.than.html
“Sallatha Sutta: The Arrow” (SN 36.6), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn36/sn36.006.than.html.