Sometimes it seems as though traditional Buddhism considers that the Buddha had a single decisive experience that he then set about teaching about it for 45 years. Clearly this is an over simplification. But what was it like for the Buddha? What kind of process did he go through in order to assimilate his insight? Two suttas in the Saṃyutta Nikāya give a small window into this process. I suppose them to reflect a very early period of the Buddha's career.
The two suttas (SN 45.11 and 45.12) are identical except for a minor detail - the period of seclusion. In each the Buddha tells his companions that he wishes to go into seclusion for either half a month, or for three months, and that no one should approach him except to bring him alms food. When the Buddha returns he announces to the bhkkkhus:
yena svāhaṃ, bhikkhave, vihārena paṭhamābhisambuddho viharāmi, tassa padesena vihāsiṃ
I have been dwelling in the region in which I dwelt when I had newly realised awakening.Now this is really very interesting. The Buddha is here shown to go back to dwell in the region (padesa) of his insight. Note that the metaphor is spacial - he was going back to the same 'space' as we might say. Now this phrase, as far as I can determine only occurs in these two texts, but is quoted from these texts in the Visuddhimagga (XVII,9 : p.594). Buddhaghosa uses the content of these suttas to argue against simple dependent origination and I don't plan to deal with that here. He does gloss padesa as "one part" suggesting that the Buddha dwelt in or on only some aspect of his immediate post-awakening experience.
The Buddha then attempts to convey something of what he has understood in the process. He begins: So evaṃ pajānāmi - "thus I have understood it", or "I know thus". The Sanskrit verbal root of pajānāmi is one that should be familiar to all Buddhists: jñā, which is related to our words 'know' and 'gnosis' and has much the same sense as the these English words.
In the texts the Buddha talks about the various factors that condition (paccaya) sensations (vedanā). He says that there are sensations associated with the various aspects of the Eightfold path: wrong view (micchādiṭṭhi), and right or perfect view (sammādiṭṭhi) - up to wrong concentration (micchāsamādhi) and perfect concentration (sammāsamādhi). Further there are sensations associated with desire (chanda), thinking (vitakka) and with the perceptions (saññā). Sensations are present in all the combinations of presence or absence of these three. When they are all absent something new arises that is simply described as stretching out for (āyāmaṃ) the attainment of the as-yet unattained (appattassa pattiyā), and finally there are sensations associated with this.
So what can we make of this. Firstly let me say that it is not immediately obvious. There are some inconsistencies here if this text is describing an early period in the Buddha's career. One of the things that happens with texts is that over time they start to become formulaic. Things start to be quoted as lists, and further on when there is an obvious progression the list can be, as it is here, abbreviated by the word 'pe'. Many examples of less formulaic, more spontaneous sounding suttas can be found for example in the Sutta Nipātta, which for that reason, amongst others, is considered to be an earlier strata of the canon. Now, if this was some new insight that the Buddha was bringing back from his revisiting of the immediate post-enlightenment space, I hardly think he'd skip over the details of it. So both the presence of the eight-fold path, and the fact that it is abbreviated suggest that the sutta was composed rather late in the process of the creation of the Canon. Perhaps this passage was inserted at a later time; perhaps it was edited at a later time; perhaps the conjecture that the sutta relates to the Buddha's early career is just wrong.
The linking of "desire, thinking, and perceptions" is a collocation that I am unfamiliar with. In fact it doesn't seem to form a natural list at all. And this may be a sign again, of a poor job of later editing, or of a much less systematic presentation of the Buddha's insights. Notice also that the text says that even in the absence of these three that there is vedanā - sensation.
I begin to suspect that words are being used in way with which I am unfamiliar, so let's check a few definitions. Vedanā is built on the root vid "to know" from which we get many familiar words such as veda, and vidya. The verb form vedeti actually has a two-fold meaning according to the PED: in the intellectual sphere it can mean "to know", and more generally "to experience". I am so used to seeing vedanā used in a technical sense, that it can be easy to forget that it has other connotations! I think vedanā is being used in a more general sense of experience because if we use it in the more traditional sense we find logical inconsistencies.
Vitakka is an interesting choice here. Again it is more familiar as a technical term relating to meditation and the establishment of concentration. More generally it means "reflection, thought, thinking" - the vi- prefix can mean divided or expanding, and in the latter sense is used as an intensifier, and takka means "twisting or turning", and in an applied sense "doubt, a doubtful view, hair-splitting". I think we can take vitakka here as "turning something over in the mind", we might translate this as "reflection" (from Latin: reflex-, pp. stem of reflectere, from re- "back" + flectere "to bend." Online Etymological Dictionary).
Saññā is saṃ- + jñā so means literally "complete knowing". It is used in the senses of: "sense, consciousness, perception; discernment, recognition, assimilation of sensations, awareness; conception, notion, idea; sign, gesture, token, mark". Technically it means the recognition of a vedanā, but it must be being used in a different sense here because it functions as a condition for vedanā, not the other way around! I think its being used in the sense of consciousness or awareness generally.
The Buddha is saying that in the absence of affective responses to experience; the absence of intellectual responses to experience; and the absence of being aware in it's more fundamental sense: there is still experience! Were on the home straight now. I think the Buddha is saying that there is an experience beyond normal everyday experiences, which causes one to stretch out to something as yet unattained. There are a couple of synonyms in the Sāmaññaphala Sutta (Dīgha Nikāya no. 2) where it talks about the Buddha stretching and reaching out (abhinīharati abhininnāmeti) with his mind (citta) towards knowledge of other peoples minds, his own previous existences, and of the passing away and arising of beings; and in the culmination of the Awakening experience his mind stretches out towards knowledge of the destruction of the influxes (āsavas) (D.i 79-84).
This may sound quite jejune to the contemporary Buddhist. But I go back to my original conjecture that this is likely to be an early discourse - edited perhaps but at least based on an actual early occasion. The Buddha is trying to explain something entirely new to his followers, to his new followers. And perhaps they, like us, are caught up in the magic show of sensory experience. The Buddha here is saying something quite profound - that if one looks beyond mundane everyday experiences, if one can put aside desire, intellectual twisting and turning, if one reaches beyond the normal scope of consciousness - then one finds not annihilation, but something as yet unattained. There is an air of mystery in this text. I find it a little difficult to believe that this will have been all the Buddha said on such an occasion. The Buddha usually also set out a method for his disciples to follow, but this is all that has been recorded by the tradition.
I think we may have here a somewhat fragmentary edited version of what it might have been like for the Buddha in the early days of his mission. He dwelt in states that had never been attained before, and therefore never described. He did not set out to create a new vāda or religious dogma, but tried to base his teaching in experience; and tried to devise methods for his disciples to achieve the same thing, and to motivate them to try it. This meant in part that he had to use language in new and interesting ways, and fortunately for us he had some genius in this area!