Thought for the Day - Vishvapani

2,600 years ago today a man named Gautama sat down under a spreading fig tree in a forest grove in northern India and closed his eyes. He sat stock-still all night long and in the silence something happened. Buddhists believe he attained a state called Enlightenment or Awakening and henceforth he was known as ‘The Buddha’, which means ‘The One Who has Awakened’. Around the world Buddhists are marking this event today in the Festival of Wesak, the most important date in the Buddhist calendar. We make offerings and reflect on the Buddha’s qualities; but all of us find it hard to say clearly what Awakening really is.

Buddhists use terms like ‘wisdom’, ‘compassion’ and ‘seeing things as they really are’ or turn to images and metaphors. But these seem to evoke the qualities of something that stays just out of sight. Buddhism can seem a puzzle. Is it a feel-good psychology that lets you believe anything and do what you want? Is it a religion, like its western counterparts? A philosophy? Or perhaps a system of mental training? And was the Buddha a transcendent being or an exemplary human?

A clue is in the term ‘Awakening’, which is a better translation of the Buddha’s state than the more familiar ‘Enlightenment’. It implies that the normal human condition is akin to being asleep without knowing it. The Buddha told people that to understand him they needed start by looking at their own minds and noticing the instincts and emotions that kick in to protect us from threats. These emotions may be rationalised as belief systems or worldviews, but they lead us to suffer because they distort the truth. The Buddha also taught a path of practice that brings emotional maturity and a kind of self-awareness that allows us to see seeing reality directly for ourselves.

The insights the Buddha was getting at occur on every level. There are moments of self-knowledge, glimpses of natural beauty or the experience when someone dies and you realise that you haven’t really absorbed the fact that everyone is mortal. These moments open a window onto a truer sense of life and bring an opportunity to change. Perhaps we can think of the Buddha’s Awakening as such a moment writ large, bringing an irreversible change that was as different from ordinary experience as waking is from sleeping.

That’s an image, not a definition, but that may be the best we can do to grasp something that is said to lie beyond our ordinary experience. It evokes the ways in which Buddhism is a religion, a philosophy, a system of mental training and something more as well.

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