13 May 2006


The full-moon this month marks the 2550th anniversary of the most crucial moment in the biography of the Buddha - his Awakening to the true nature of things. For some Buddhists the Wesak festival marks not only this, but also his birth and death. All over the world under the full-moon there will be solemn ceremonies, lively pujas, silent meditation, a huge variety of celebrations.

While every aspect of the Buddha's biography has some significance, his Awakening is the reason that we remember him at all. Buddha is often translated as "Enlightened" but this English word, with all it's baggage from the intellectual movement of 18th century Europe, is not at all related to the original word. Buddha, and the related word bodhi, come from a root which means awake. So a Buddha is one who has awakened, and bodhi is to be awake.

'Awakened' is a metaphor which hints at the nature of the Buddha's experience on the full-moon day in may 2550 years ago. It suggests that before this experience he was asleep. The experience of going from sleep to awakening, in the ordinary sense, is significant. In sleep we are not conscious of the world around us, the world of the senses. We alternate between deep sleep in which we are barely conscious at all, and dream sleep in which we experience a different level of reality. In dreams the usual rules of our world, rules of physics or chemistry etc do not apply. In dreams we can meet the past or the future. When we awaken there is a definite sense of crossing a threshold. The transition from sleep to waking can leave us disoriented for a time. Then when we are awake we are aware of the data of our senses, and we experience the world as being more or less sequential and ordered. We, generally speaking, do not meet the past or the future, and the laws of physics hold true. The details are moot, of course, but the experience of going from sleep to waking is one that is common to everyone, and one that is marked and distinct.

So waking is a metaphor for what happened to the Buddha. One of the ways the Buddhist tradition speaks of this difference is the three marks or lakkhanas. When we are asleep we see the world as substantial, permanent, and a source of pleasure. However when we wake up we see that things are impermanent, insubstantial, and are a source of suffering.

We do tend to see things as permanent. We can catch the view that things are permanent in, for instance, our shock at the death of a friend or relative. We have always known that they would die, and yet we are shocked and surprised when they die. This sense of surprise is a result of having an unconscious expectation that they would not die. We resist change, and this again exposes the view that things ought not to change. Change is the fundamental condition of the universe. And because everything whatsoever changes, there can be no unchanging thing - no essence which transcends form and function. This is particularly important in the case of people. We are often said to have an eternal soul or essence which transcends our physical life and death, even our repeated life and death. But if there was one thing in the universe which did not change then the whole universe would freeze solid. This is because everything in the universe is dependent on the other things to create the conditions for existence. This means that if one thing is changing, then everything is forced to change. And if one thing did not change the whole universe would freeze solid because it would inhibit the changing of other things.

It is not that phenomena are inherently or fundamentally a source of suffering. They are a source of suffering because of the false expectations that we have of them. If we expect phenomena to be permanent, transcending form and a source of pleasure, then we are constantly disappointed. If however if we align our expectations with the true nature of things - impermanent and insubstantial - then phenomena may still cause us pain (if we stub our tow on them for instance), but it's not inevitable.

So this is one way of talking about the way in which the Buddha woke up under the full-moon in May 2550 years ago. Happy Wesak.

Sabbe satta sukhi hontu
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