Happy Buddha’s Enlightenment Day everyone! April 15th of every year we celebrate and remember Buddha’s enlightenment. It is one of the most special days on the Kadampa calendar and provides us an excellent opportunity to deepen our understanding of what enlightenment is, recall Buddha’s kindness in attaining it, and make a clear determination to attain enlightenment ourselves.
Understanding How Holy Days Work
There are certain days of the year which are karmically more powerful than others, and the karmic effect of our actions on these days is multiplied by a factor of ten million! These are called “ten million multiplying days.” In practice, what this means is every action we engage in on these special days is karmically equivalent to us engaging in that same action ten million times. This is true for both our virtuous and non-virtuous actions, so not only is it a particularly incredible opportunity for creating vast merit, but it is also an extremely dangerous time for engaging in negative actions. There are four of these days every year: Buddha’s Englightenment Day (April 15), Turning the Wheel of Dharma Day (June 4), Buddha’s Return from Heaven Day (September 22), and Je Tsongkhapa Day (October 25). Heruka and Vajrayogini Month (January 3-31), NKT Day (1st Saturday of April), and International Temple’s Day (first Saturday of November) are the other major Days that complete the Kadampa calendar.
A question may arise, why are the karmic effect of our actions greater on certain days than others? We can think of these days as a spiritual pulsar that at periodic intervals sends out an incredibly powerful burst of spiritual energy, or wind. On such days, if we lift the sails of our practice, these gushes of spiritual winds push us a great spiritual distance. Why are these specific days so powerful? Because in the past on these days particularly spiritually significant events occurred which altered the fundamental trajectory of the karma of the people of this world. Just as calling out in a valley reverberates back to us, so too these days are like the karmic echoes of those past events. Another way of understanding this is by considering the different types of ocean tides. Normally, high and low tide on any given day occurs due to the gravity of the moon pulling water towards it as the earth rotates. But a “Spring tide” occurs when the earth, moon, and Sun are all in alignment, pulling the water not just towards the moon as normal, but also towards the much more massive sun. Our holy days are like spiritual Spring tides.
What is Enlightenment?
Fundamentally, the entire Buddhist path is about attaining enlightenment. This is a word that is used in many different contexts, even in modern society, but sometimes we lack a clear understanding of what exactly it means. Geshe-la provides several different definitions or explanations to help us understand.
According to Sutra, Geshe-la explains in Joyful Path, “any being who has become completely free from the two obstructions, which are the roots of all faults, has attained enlightenment.” The two obstructions are the delusion obstructions and the obstructions to omniscience. Delusion obstructions are the presence of delusions in our mind. The root delusion is self-grasping ignorance, which thinks we are the body and mind that we normally see. From this comes self-cherishing, which thinks this self is supremely important and is willing to neglect or sacrifice others for its sake. From these two, which are sometimes referred to collectively as our self-centered mind, come attachment and aversion. Attachment mistakenly thinks some external objects are a cause of our happiness and aversion thinks other external objects are a cause of our suffering. These four delusions together are the root of all of our other delusions, such as anger, pride, jealousy, deluded doubt, and so forth. The obstructions to omniscience are the karmic imprints from our previous delusions and their corresponding actions. Every time we engage in an action, it creates karma that gets planted on our very subtle mind. Actions motivated by delusion create contaminated karma – karma that ripens in the form of samsaric experience. These contaminated karmic imprints on our very subtle mind prevent the omniscient mind of a Buddha from arising. When we remove the two obstructions from our mind, our pure potential, or Buddha nature, becomes completely unobstructed and we become a Buddha. From this perspective, we are all Buddhas in waiting, we merely need to remove all that obstructs such a state from arising. When we permanently overcome our delusion obstructions, we attain liberation; and when we permanently overcome our obstructions to omniscience, we attain full enlightenment.
According to Tantra, a Buddha is someone who has completely overcome ordinary appearances and ordinary conceptions. Ordinary appearances are all of the things we normally see – our bodies, minds, enjoyments, others, worlds, etc. These are the samsaric appearances that arise from our past contaminated actions. Samsara is nothing more than a contaminated karmic dream. When we purify our ordinary appearances so that they never arise again, samsara simply ceases to appear. It dis-appears because, in fact, it never was. Ordinary conceptions occur when we grasp at ordinary appearances as being true. All ordinary appearances appear to exist from their own side, as being completely real and existing independently of our mind. Things exist “out there” waiting to be experienced or observed, and it appears to us as if our mind has absolutely nothing to do with bringing these objects into existence. Ordinary conceptions think things actually exist in the way that they appear – they really do exist out there, independently of our mind. When we overcome our ordinary conceptions, we attain liberation; and when we overcome our ordinary appearances, we attain full enlightenment. For somebody who has overcome their ordinary conceptions but not yet overcome their ordinary appearances, things will still appear to their mind in the way that they normally do, but the very appearance of these things will remind the person that such inherently existent things do not exist at all. For example, if we look at a picture of the New York City skyline before 9/11, the very appearance of the World Trade Center will remind us that it no longer exists.
In the Oral Instructions of Mahamudra, Geshe-la provides a functional definition of enlightenment when he says, “Enlightenment is the inner light of wisdom that is permanently free from all mistaken appearance, and whose function is to bestow mental peace upon each and every living being every day.” This definition not only explains what enlightenment is but also provides us with the definitive reason why we should attain it. Since Mahamudra is a Tantric instruction, it too says enlightenment is permanent freedom from all mistaken appearance. But this definition also describes what unique abilities we gain when we attain enlightenment, namely the ability to use our blessings to bestow mental peace upon each and every living being every day. Happiness is a state of mind, therefore its cause must come from within the mind. We can observe from our own experience that when our mind is peaceful, we are happy even if our external circumstance is terrible; whereas if our mind is not peaceful, we are unhappy even if our external circumstance is terrific. Therefore, inner peace is the cause of happiness. Buddhas are sometimes referred to as “inner beings,” or beings who live within the mind. As inner beings, they have the power to directly touch the minds of other living beings (since despite all appearances our minds are not actually separate from each other) in such a way that their minds become more peaceful. And they are able to do this directly to each and every living being every day forever. Just as the sun shines equally upon all things, Buddha’s blessings shine forth into the minds of all living beings directly and simultaneously. We attain enlightenment to gain that ability.
Buddha is So Kind Because He Teaches the Truth of Suffering
One of the hardest things for people to come to accept is that happiness cannot be found in samsara. We are convinced that it can be, and we resist thinking that it can’t be. There are two main causes of this resistance. First, our attachment has been duping us since time without beginning that external objects are a cause of our happiness. There are all sorts of pleasant things like a beautiful sunset, a delicious pizza, or great sex. We have seen countless TV shows or movies, and almost without exception, they all have happy endings; so we think samsara must be the same. When we hear that samsara is the nature of suffering and happiness and freedom are impossible to find in it, we think, “that’s just not true.” The second reason we resist this is it seems to be an incredibly depressing thought. It seems so pessimistic and negative to always talk about suffering and how terrible everything is – how about a little optimism here so we can retain some hope? Things may be bad, but better to not think about it too much, otherwise, we will become overwhelmed by sadness and despair.
When people first hear the teachings on suffering they think, “how can this possibly be a ‘Joyful Path,’ and how can thinking about so much suffering ever lead to happiness?” We might think Buddhists are all “Debby Downers,” and Buddha’s teachings are actually preventing us from enjoying even the very modest happiness we are able to find in life by pointing out how such pleasures are not real happiness. So we are left with nothing. Buddha does not seem kind, he seems like the ultimate ‘buzz kill.’
How can we happily understand the teachings on the truth of suffering? First, we have to be clear on their meaning. Buddha is not saying there is no happiness, he is simply pointing out that we can’t find it in external things. Ultimately, happiness comes from within the mind, namely through inner peace. He further explains what destroys inner peace (delusions and negativity) and what causes inner peace (wisdom and virtue). So he does not deprive us of happiness, he simply points out what works and what doesn’t – very useful knowledge! Second, these teachings save us from wasting our time looking for happiness where we will never find it. If we lost our keys, we might spend hours and hours looking all over our house to find them. But if our daughter sent us a text message saying she accidentally walked off with them, we would not waste our time looking for them because we would know she has them. We have been looking for the keys of happiness in samsara since beginningless time – searching, searching, but never finding. Buddha comes along and tells us, “you’ll never find them in samsara, but you can find them by getting them from me,” we are incredibly relieved. Third, he is not saying we can’t enjoy the sunset, pizza, or sex, he is saying from their own side they have no power to bring us happiness, but if we relate to them in a pure way, we can come to enjoy a far greater pleasure than we ever could have through ordinary means alone.
But for me, his greatest kindness is he has provided us with a permanent solution to aging, sickness, death, and uncontrolled rebirth. In the life story of Buddha Shakyamuni, Prince Siddhartha is given everything he could possibly want – riches, enjoyments, loving parents, a beautiful family, and adoration from all of his subjects. Yet he realized that none of these things can provide him (or any of us) from the seemingly inescapable sufferings of birth, aging, sickness, and death. Seeking a solution, he wanted to leave the palace and go attain enlightenment. His father tried to stop him, and the Prince said, “if you can provide me with a solution to these problems, I will remain in the palace,” but his father had to admit, he could not. The Prince then said he would leave the palace and return with a solution so that he could help his parents, his subjects, and indeed all living beings with a permanent method to escape such sufferings forever. He then began his spiritual journey, and eventually attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. He conquered the cycle of death itself. Instead of being reborn in samsara, he discovered methods to permanently wake up from it into the pure lands of the Buddhas. The practices we have today are those that he taught, and if we sincerely put them into practice, we too can attain the same state.
Deciding to Become a Buddha Ourselves
Compassion is said to be the mother of all Buddhas since all enlightened beings are born from it. Buddha attained enlightenment out of compassion for us – he wanted to help us also permanently escape the sufferings of samsara, the two obstructions, and ordinary appearances and conceptions. Without his compassion for us, he would not have been able to purify his own mind to attain enlightenment and he never would have begun turning the Wheel of Dharma for us.
But our ability to attain enlightenment depends upon ourselves generating compassion for others, just as Buddha did. How do we generate compassion? We first generate love for others, then we consider how they suffer. It is said if we do this, compassion will naturally arise, but this is not entirely correct. If we lack faith in a solution, then when we consider the suffering of those we love we will become overwhelmed with grief and sadness. But if we realize there is a solution, then when we consider the suffering of those we love we will find their suffering difficult to bear because we will realize none of it need be. They could be completely free.
To transform this powerful mind of compassion into the personal determination to attain enlightenment ourselves, we need to add three things. First, a feeling of personal responsibility for leading others to everlasting freedom ourselves. We generate this mind by thinking, “if I don’t do it, who will?” We might think, “well, Buddha will.” But Buddha attained enlightenment so that we could do the same so that we could help these people who are karmically close to us.
Second, we need to add confidence that we ourselves can attain enlightenment just like Buddha did. Sometimes we think attaining enlightenment is just too difficult and we are too incapable to ever even contemplate beginning such an undertaking. But as explained above, we all have a Buddha nature, we simply need to remove the two obstructions or ordinary appearances and conceptions from our mind, and our enlightened state will naturally be unveiled. We each have enlightenment within us, we just need to remove all that obstructs it. Further, we all have experience of being able to remove our faults somewhat and replace them with similitudes of inner qualities. If we can do this a little bit, there is no reason why we cannot do so completely. The methods we have are the exact same ones Buddha taught and have been practiced by millions of practitioners since. Geshe-la calls them “scientific methods,” meaning everybody who investigates for themselves by sincerely putting the instructions into practice will likewise enjoy the exact same results – he guarantees it! There is nothing we can’t do without persistent effort. Our delusions are just bad habits of mind, but with effort, we can change our habits and thereby change our karma.
Finally, we need to add an understanding of the special abilities of a Buddha to help others so that we see our becoming one is the only way we can rescue all living beings from their suffering. Buddhas are fearless in helping others. We tend to hold ourselves back for fear of what others might think or lack of confidence in our abilities, but Buddhas have overcome all delusions and all fear. He fearlessly teaches the truth of suffering and worries not what others might think. Buddha is also a deathless being. In our present state, we can at best help a limited number of people in this one life, but a Buddha has transcended death, and so is able to continue to help living beings in life after life, gradually guiding each and every one of them to the enlightened state. Buddha possesses omniscient wisdom. We are quite ignorant and often have no idea how to help others. We don’t understand karma, delusions, nor the causes of happiness or suffering. But Buddhas see all three times directly and simultaneously, so they know exactly why people are experiencing the suffering they are and they know exactly what others need to do to make their way to the city of enlightenment. Buddhas also have perfected their skillful means of helping others. It is not enough to simply know everything if we are not able to actually skillfully help people come to realize the same things. Buddhas know how to present the Dharma to others in a way that they can easily understand and practically put into practice, thus opening the door to liberation for them. They know how to gradually guide people to enter, progress along, and ultimately complete the path to enlightenment. If we become a Buddha ourselves, we too will develop the fearlessness, deathlessness, omniscient wisdom, and skillful means necessary to gradually lead everyone we love to the same state.
When we combine our compassion which cannot bear the suffering of others with a feeling of personal responsibility, the confidence we can do it, and a firm understanding of the many qualities of a Buddha, we will naturally develop a strong determination to attain enlightenment ourselves for their sake. This mind is called “bodhichitta,” or the mind of enlightenment. It is the most virtuous mind a living being can generate. In Joyful Path, Geshe-la says:
“Bodhichitta is the best method for bestowing happiness, the best method for eliminating suffering, and the best method for dispelling confusion. There is no virtue equal to it, no better friend, no greater merit. Bodhichitta is the very essence of all eighty-four thousand instructions of Buddha. In Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life Shantideva says: It is the quintessential butter that arises when the milk of Dharma is churned. Just as by stirring milk, butter emerges as its essence, so by stirring the entire collection of Buddha’s scriptures, bodhichitta emerges as its essence. For aeons Buddhas have been investigating what is the most beneficial thing for us. They have seen that it is bodhichitta because bodhichitta brings every living being to the supreme bliss of full enlightenment.”
Today is Buddha’s Enlightenment Day, which means if we strongly develop this supreme mind of Bodhichitta today – making the firm decision to work for as long as it takes to attain enlightenment ourselves – it will be the same as doing so ten million times. Such a pure mind has the potential to permanently redirect the trajectory of our mental continuum and powerfully propel us towards the City of Enlightenment. From there, we will be able to help everyone attain permanent freedom from all of their suffering for all of their lives. What could be more meaningful than this?