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The Living Buddha

[From the book The Living Buddha, by Daisaku Ikeda]

Shakyamuni's Enlightenment

Thus, after many years of practicing austerities and after struggling with and overcoming Mara and his armies, Shakyamuni attained enlightenment. He was either thirty or thirty-five at the time he attained enlightenment, depending upon which account one accepts regarding the age at which he entered the religious life and the number of years he pursued it. Scriptures refer to his enlightenment by the Sanskrit term anuttara-samyak-sambodhi, which means "supreme perfect enlightenment," the kind that can perceive the true nature of all the manifold phenomena of existence. But what exactly was this unsurpassed wisdom? What was the essential nature of the world that Shakyamuni perceived that night under the bodhi tree in Buddha-gaya?

The scriptures give various accounts of the content of Shakyamuni's enlightenment, but as we study each of these in turn, we are left in some confusion as to its exact nature. According to the Agama sutras, that enlightenment unfolded in three stages corresponding to the three watches of the night, and reached the stage of supreme perfect enlightenment during the third watch.

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The Law of Causation

Having seen how living beings are destined to be constantly reborn in the worlds of the past, present, and future, Shakyamuni entered the final stage of his enlightenment in the third watch of the night. He apprehended the ultimate truth about life and the world, and thereby completed the process of becoming a Buddha. But what exactly was this final truth? The scriptures are in general agreement in their accounts concerning the first and second watches, but they differ considerably as to what Shakyamuni realized during the third watch. One scripture says that it was the twelve-linked chain of causation, while other sources identify it as the four noble truths or simply declare that he "attained sublime serenity and peace beyond old age, disease, death, anxiety, and defilements." Thus there is disagreement even among scholars concerning the nature of this last stage of enlightenment, though the general opinion seems to be that it concerned the law of causation.

The concept of causation, known in Sanskrit as pratitya-samutpada, or dependent origination," explains the fundamental process whereby all phenomena in the universe (including sentient beings) come into being as a result of causes. All things in the universe are subject to this law of cause and effect, and consequently nothing can exist independently of other things or arise of its own accord. For this reason, the theory of causation is often explained as either dependent origination or conditioned co-arising. This web of causation that binds all things is temporal as well as spatial, so that not only are all things in existence at the present moment dependent upon one another but all things existing in the past and future as well.

Scriptural accounts of the enlightenment of Shakyamuni contain the twelve-linked chain of causation, and followers of Theravada Buddhism seem to accept this formula as descriptive of Shakyamuni's insight concerning the law of causation. This may, however, be an oversimplification. Shakyamuni had set out upon the religious life in an effort to find a solution to the problems posed by birth, old age, sickness, and death. The concept of dependent origination that came to him at the moment of his enlightenment represents a universal law capable of solving those problems, but it is a law that is extremely profound in content and subtle in structure, and hence very difficult to explain in simple language. To provide something that would be easier for ordinary people to comprehend, he devised the formula known as the twelve-linked chain of causation.

The formula begins with the question, Why is man afflicted with old age and death? The twelve links in the chain, presented here in reverse order, proceed as follows: (12) Aging and dying are caused by birth, for without birth there would be no death. Then follows the question, How does birth arise? (11) Birth is caused by existence; (10) existence in turn is caused by attachment; (9) attachment is caused by desire; (8) desire is caused by sensation; (7) sensation is caused by contact; (6) contact is caused by the six sense organs; (5) the six sense organs are caused by name and form; (4) name and form are caused by consciousness; (3) consciousness is caused by karma; (2) and karma is caused by ignorance. (1) Ignorance is thus the ultimate link in the chain, the source from which all pain and suffering arise. If only ignorance can be wiped out, the links in the chain of causation will be broken one by one until aging and dying cease to exist. This is what Shakyamuni is saying.

I am inclined to take this formula as not much more than an expedient for preaching the truth that ignorance hinders man from achieving happiness. As a matter of fact, I do not believe that this doctrine, at least as it is expressed in this formula, represents the essence of the ultimate truth that Shakyamuni realized at the foot of the bodhi tree. That ultimate reality grasped by Shakyamuni can be better described, in my opinion, as the Law of Life, the world as it exists in a state of constant change.

When we look dispassionately at the great universe around us, we find that what at first glance appears to be a vast stillness is in fact constantly throbbing with creation and change. The same is true of human beings: they age, die, are reborn, and die again. Nothing, either in the world of nature or that of human society, knows a moment of stagnation or rest. All things in the universe are in flux, arising and ceasing, appearing and disappearing, caught in an unending cycle of change that is conditioned by the law of causation at work both temporally and spatially. Such is the nature of ultimate reality. My conviction is that Shakyamuni's enlightenment was a cry of wonder at the mysterious entity called life, whose myriad manifestations are joined to and dependent upon one another through the links of cause and effect . . .

Having attained enlightenment, he himself was free of the ignorance that blinded other men and could live in accordance with the true Law of Life. What joy he must have felt!

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