Happy Buddha’s Enlightenment Day! April 15th is another big holy(i)day for Kadampa Buddhists, marking the anniversary of Buddha Shakyamuni demonstrating the attainment of enlightenment in 589 B.C.E. I thought I’d take advantage of the opportunity to say something short and simple about what Buddha’s enlightenment means to me.
Buddha Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha
For sure, on Buddha’s Enlightenment Day, we remember the kindness of the historical Buddha, the one everyone has heard of, the one who started his life as Prince Siddhartha and became known as Buddha Shakyamuni. Without his appearing in our world to give teachings, there would be no Buddhism or Buddhist meditation in our lives today. You can read his inspiring life story in Introduction to Buddhism.
Faith in our own potential
As a Buddhist, I have faith or confidence in the Founder of Buddhism, Buddha Shakyamuni — faith in his enlightened nature of universal compassion and omniscient wisdom, in his teachings, in his example. But effective faith in Buddha necessitates faith in our own enlightened potential. He only appeared in this world to teach us Buddhism because he knew we could all be just like him, that we already had within us the seeds of enlightenment. In fact, Buddha Shakyamuni is just one of countless Buddhas – those who have perfected their qualities until they cannot be perfected further, out of a compassion that yearns for the capacity to free every single living being from suffering.
The imperative to become enlightened
As I sit here with my dying cat Nelson, (whom I’ve had to join in the yard to write this as he wants to go outside in accordance with his feral upbringing,) there is an imperative to become enlightened for his sake. If every cat is as adorable as he is, which they are, if that is possible, which it is, then samsaric suffering is truly brutal, pervasive and heart-breaking. Nelson is only a year and a half old, but already has a tumor that is taking up half his small body. He hasn’t eaten in days, and each day drinks less, trundles around less, suffers more. Right now he is just lying here under the table, bravely and uncomplainingly accepting his fate, as animals seem to do so much better than us. He is still managing a faint purr when I reach down to stroke him.
What did Nelson do to deserve this? As a person, nothing. He is naturally pure, like all of us. His ignorance, his real enemy, drove him to engage in deluded actions that have led to this. He needs, like all of us, to purify his mind of suffering and all its causes (ignorance, delusions, and karma) so that he never has to take another samsaric rebirth again. How am I going to help him do that if I am just an ordinary person who cannot even speak the language of cats, or read his mind, or follow him from life to life? I love him and I want to protect him. I can perhaps give him some temporary love and protection for the days or weeks he remains with me here, but that is nowhere near enough. I cannot settle for that. I want to give him peace by blessing his mind all the time, and as soon as he is in a human body I want to show him how to end mistaken appearances and suffering once and for all. I want to set the example that Buddha Shakyamuni and many other great Buddhas and Bodhisattvas have set for me.
That is a lot for me to accomplish even for one small cat, so what about my other cat, also joining us here at the table for a spell, not in pain but still in a cat’s body? And what about the feral cat colony I discovered last month, one of whose members is the spitting image of Nelson and no doubt a relative, that live a mile down the road? And what about everybody else?!
Sadness won’t do it, although it can be an impetus. I need to attain enlightenment.
My teacher says in Modern Buddhism page 26:
Enlightenment is the inner light of wisdom that is permanently free from all mistaken appearance, and its function is to bestow mental peace on each and every living being every day.
That is what we need. And we need it fast.
That wish alone dissolves away my sadness and helplessness and leaves me blissful and energized. Compassion is bliss, according to Buddha’s Tantric teachings. One minute sad for Nelson, the next blissed out, that’s how it works. Nelson is purring in agreement. (I like to think of his purrs as him tuning into Buddha’s omniscient wisdom, enlightened mind, blessings.*) He would tell me, if he could, that he would far rather I be blissful than sad because I’m far better at helping him feel peaceful if I am feeling that way myself. Our mental states are catching. Blessings are contagious.
Is bodhichitta pie in the sky?
Someone commented on this article, How would you save this bear?, about a month ago:
“As much as I know intellectually that bodhichitta is more beneficial, I don’t really feel it in my heart. For me the idea of becoming a Buddha to benefit others seems very abstract, compared to directly helping beings now. Have any of you got any advice on how to increase my faith that developing bodhichitta is the best way to help others?”
“For one thing, it is not an either/or, in the sense that if we are not trying to help any individuals now as well, it is hard to say we are working to help everyone!
The way I see it is that we already want to help others and we already want to improve ourselves (largely so we can be of more use to others.) If we increase both those wishes — wanting to help more and more people until we want to help everybody, and wanting to improve ourselves more and more until there is no further room for improvement – we have bodhichitta. So the seed is there, we just have to keep watering it.”
A couple of days later, I had Nelson in his usual spot on my/his meditation cushion, and decided to respond to this comment further:
“Hello again, your comment came into my mind this morning when I was meditating with my small cat Nelson purring next to me. He looks to me for protection, love and food, which I try my best to provide him, but I’d like to scoop him out of samsara altogether. To do that — and to help all my current nearest and dearest — I need to generate bodhichitta because I need to become a Buddha with the necessary power. To develop bodhichitta, I need love and compassion for all living beings at least equal to what I have for Nelson. He is an example showing me what I need. So even to help our nearest and dearest, we need bodhichitta, let alone to help everyone else.”
With our thoughts, we create our world
We can choose how we think. We may think our thoughts rule us, but that is only if we are not exerting control over our own mind. We can learn to think big, enlightened thoughts instead of small, selfish ones. We can ignore the inappropriate attention that leads to all our baseless, disturbing delusions, and choose to think realistic things that will liberate and enlighten us. With our thoughts, we create our world, to summarize what Buddha taught us. We are what we think. There is no Nelson outside my experience of Nelson. There is no world outside my experience of the world. So I am in the process of creating a better me, a better world, and a better Nelson, for his and everyone’s sake.
Buddha’s Enlightenment Day is a good time to remember all this and renew our intention to follow in kind Buddha Shakyamuni’s footsteps by developing compassion and wisdom.
*A short video of Nelson tuning into Buddha’s blessings on my/his meditation cushion:
Update: Nelson died at 5:30am on Saturday April 14th, 2012, in my arms in front of my shrine, after spending the night lying on my chest. So many kind people have been praying for him, including Geshe Kelsang, for which I am very grateful, and I’m sure Nelson is too. May he and all animal beings, human beings, and others quickly be released permanently from suffering and mistaken appearances, and find enlightened bliss.