The Mar Ngok Summer Teachings 2021
11 September 2021
Then the Buddha continued, “You must be your own light to dispel the darkness. You must be your own protector. To do so, grasp at the dharma like a lamp. Hold the dharma as a protector and guardian. The dharma is the beacon that shows you the way”.
The Karmapa continued the life story of the Buddha. Prince Siddhartha had spent six years practicing austerities but no matter how many ascetic practices he underwent, he had not achieved a state that transcended the world. He had endured inconceivable hardships. The turning point came when he remembered a tree he had sat under as a youth, in effortless meditation achieving the first dhyana and feeling the pleasure of body and mind. It occurred to him this could be the way to discover the truth of how things are. He stopped the austerities and began to eat coarse foods as a way to build up his body strength.
The five ascetics who had been practicing with Prince Siddhartha were disappointed. They thought he had lapsed into attachment to princely luxuries and now was no longer on the path. They left for Varanasi.
The next of Prince Siddhartha’s deeds then unfolded. He went to bathe in the Nairanjana River to cleanse the accumulated dirt from his body he had neglected for so long, but he nearly fainted with exhaustion. Sujata, the daughter of a cowherd, saw him and began to care for him, offering a very nutritious milk porridge. His body revived.
The Karmapa reminded us that the meditator in the mountains and the sponsors who support them are interdependent in awakening to Buddhahood.
The Great Awakening
Siddhartha went to a nearby forest and made a seat below an aśvattha or pippala tree, a type of fig later called the Bodhi tree. Up to this point, he had been practicing non-Buddhist methods of shamatha. After his body revived, he began to experience insight and developed discriminating wisdom or prajna. He realized that the atma does not exist by nature and then, through prajna realizing selflessness, he entered the dhyana that transcends the world. He was able to eliminate all afflictions and reach Buddhahood. It was a very ordinary situation, the Karmapa commented. There was no big ceremony.
The Karmapa posed the major question that scholars have been deliberating in the scriptures: What was the truth the Buddha realized when he became enlightened? What did he know? Some say the Buddha saw the meaning of the Four Noble Truths, some say he realized the meaning of the 12 links of interdependence, some say by going through the four dhyanas and three kinds of awareness he realized the meaning of things. ‘I do not need to speak much about that now since I’m talking about history’, he concluded.
The place where the Buddha reached enlightenment was later called Buddhagayā or the “essence of enlightenment”. A great stupa was built and became the most important Buddhist pilgrimage site. The Buddhist scriptures give different accounts of the time of the awakening. According to the Southern and Tibetan traditions, the Buddha achieved awakening in the Vaisakha month.
Turning the Wheel of Dharma
After the Buddha reached enlightenment, he sat for seven days in samadhi experiencing perfect peace. Then he sat under other trees feeling the inconceivable joy of liberation, and did not get up for five weeks. He thought that the dharma he had realized was so deep, even if he explained it to others, it would be difficult to understand. His first thought was, “I do not want to teach.”
He had accomplished the great deed for himself, but when he arose from that profound feeling, he had another thought: to benefit others, and he decided to turn the ‘wheel of dharma’, setting in motion a wheel which keeps on spinning.
Who would be best to teach the dharma to? He had to choose the right people, not just anyone. If he taught someone who couldn’t understand it, there would be no benefit. He decided to teach his five companion ascetics first, as they would be able to understand the profound meaning. They were at Deer Park in Sarnath, near Varanasi. And so he set out to find them.
Sarnath is the place where the Buddha, dharma and sangha originally came together. The ruins on this site have an Ashokan pillar with a lion capital which became the symbol of India at independence.
He taught the middle way, not too far left or right, no extremes, right down the middle; and the Four Truths. They all attained realization of the true nature and become Arhats.
His first lay followers or Upāsakas were Yasa, a householder, and his parents, wife, and children. Yasa became an Arhat, although externally he was a householder, but internally he was considered a bhiksu, or monk because he realized the nature. Fifty of his friends went forth and later all achieved Arhatship. Thus the sangha grew naturally.
Spreading the Dharma
The Buddha then urged his students to spread the dharma, sending them in all directions. From the beginning, the Karmapa noted, the Buddha’s intention was to spread the dharma; He wasn’t looking to impress people by his superior knowledge. Only after he found the right people did he teach. This is another crucial point, he concluded.
After he left Varanasi he returned to the kingdom of Magadha, one of the most powerful kingdoms of India. Here, a well- known religious figure in the Brahman tradition, by the name of Uruvela-Kassapa, and his two brothers became his students; and so the Buddha’s fame spread throughout Magadha. In Rajgir, the capital of Magadha, King Bimbisara took refuge, becoming one of the Buddha’s significant lay students. Bimbisara became a patron of the sangha and offered the Bamboo Grove as a place for the Buddha and sangha to stay. The Bamboo Grove became the first residence for the sangha—a hub of Buddhism where all social classes thronged to take refuge. The Buddha’s three principal students, Shariputra who had the greatest prajna, Maudgalyayana, who had the greatest powers and Maha Kashyapa, who became regent of the teachings, accompanied him from that time. Maha Kashyapa in particular would later influence the compilation of the teachings.
In Kosali, the Buddha met up with a wealthy merchant called Athapindada, whose name itself indicates his deeds. It means “giving food to the defenceless”, including orphans. Anathapindada had met the Buddha at the Bamboo Grove in Rajgir and took refuge, requesting the Buddha to come to Sravasti. The Buddha accepted his invitation.
In Sravasti they met at the Jetavana Grove belonging to Prince Jeta. Anathapindada asked the Prince to sell the Jetavana Grove to the sangha. The Prince refused emphatically, but after bargaining for some time, he said, jokingly, “Only if you cover it with gold”. In the end Anathapindada covered the ground with gold and within three months had built a very simple wooden monastery. It was here that the Buddha stayed for the longest time and taught dharma. Later, King Prasenajit of Shravasti took refuge at the encouragement of his queen Mallikā.
Returning to Kapilavastu
King Shuddodhana, hearing of the Buddha’s deeds, longed to meet his son once again. The Buddha honored his request and went back home to Kapilavastu. There he was reunited with his wife and young son Rahula, to whom he gave novice vows. Yashodhara also went forth and became a student of the Buddha, as did Rahula in later years.
Many of the Shakya youths, including Devadatta the Buddha’s cousin, Ānanda, and his younger half-brother Nanda, wanted to become monks. The Shakyas were Kshatriya caste, but there was also a low caste barber Upāli who, according to the existing caste system, had no right to practice the dharma. Nor were the Sudras allowed to recite Vedic texts. If they did, their tongues would be cut out.
We need to take great note of this, said the Karmapa, because the Buddha had equal loving-kindness and compassion for all.
Upali was the barber for the Shakya youths to shave their heads as they went forth into monasticism. As he was shaving Prince Bhadrika’s head, he began to cry. He was sad that he wouldn’t see Prince Bhadrika again. The Prince said, “Don’t worry, we will give you our jewels and ornaments. We’ll make sure you have a good life.” But it didn’t work out according to plan because Upali was worried that if King Shudodhana heard of this, he might punish him. Upali also wished to go forth, so he left the jewels by a tree and collapsed in tears once again knowing he had no right to go forth.
Shariputra saw him and asked why he was crying. Upali told him the whole story and finally asked him to ask the Buddha, “Is someone like me from the Sudra caste allowed to go forth?” Immediately Shariputra replied, “In the Buddhist dharma there is no distinction of caste or clan. Whoever you are, you can go forth. So come with me.” Upali was delighted and went to the Buddha to take refuge. Later he became the one who knew the Vinaya the best so when the words of the Buddha were compiled he was very helpful.
The Karmapa commented that the Buddha turned the caste system upside down. He gave everyone the right to practice the dharma. There was no distinction between castes. This shows the Buddha’s equal loving-kindness and compassion for all.
The Position of Women
Prajapati,who had raised the Buddha after his mother had passed away in childbirth, also wanted to go forth and went with many Shakya women to see the Buddha. The Buddha did not give permission for a very long time, although she made multiple requests. Only through the influence of Ananda was she finally allowed to enter as a bhiksuni. This was the origin of female monastics. The Buddha made the nuns accept the “Eight Weighty Dharmas” a set of strict rules in order to forgo any problems in the relations between the monks and nuns.
Many nuns were among his best students. For example, Kshema and Dhammadinna had great intelligence or prajna; Uppalavaṇṇā was a siddha posessing miraculous powers; Kisāgotamī was supreme in her realization of the nature of mind.
These sources are from the Southern Buddhist tradition, said His Holiness.
Among lay people, Citta had the greatest understanding of the meaning of the dharma. Ugga from Vaishali and Mahanaman from the Shakya tribe were well-known as the greatest patrons.
No one was turned away because of caste, karmic misdeeds or disabilities. A few examples of the Buddha’s famous students include the greatest of evil-doers, Angulimala, a notorious mass murderer who had killed 999 people, and made a necklace of their fingers. He became an Arhat. No matter how low or vile the person was, he or she could become a superior person. Among the 16 Arhats was Cullapanthaka, who was unable to memorize even a single line of verse yet realized the profound nature through the Buddha’s teaching and guidance.
Even people from the furthest parts of India came to see the Buddha. In the Suttanipāta Sutra there is a chapter called Pārāyanavagga, the Transcendent Vehicle. It explains how a Brahman called Bāvarin in the Deccan regions of South India brought 66 of his students to receive teachings. Among the 66 students were two Brahman boys, Ajita and Tissa-Metteyya, whom some scholars say is the Maitreya of the Mahayana.
By the time the Buddha passed into nirvana he was like the sun at noon. No one could stop the spread of Buddhism. Neither Brahmans, gods or demons.
Schisms in the Sangha
But where gods flourish demons enter. The most important event in the latter half of the Buddha’s life was the schism in the sangha caused by Devadatta.
This is how it happened. Ajatashatru, the son of King Bimbisara, killed his father and became King of Magadha. He then took refuge in Devadatta, the Buddha’s cousin, making Devadatta famous. Devadatta’s intention was to seize control of the Buddha’s sangha. First he asked the Buddha to allow him to take over. The Buddha had no intention of allowing this to happen. Devadatta then flew into a rage and set a crazed drunken elephant in rut on a trajectory to kill the Buddha. It didn’t work, so he resorted to casting rocks down from a mountain top. It almost killed the Buddha, but in the end, it only wounded the Buddha’s foot. He made up his own five precepts or rules to rival the Buddha’s, deceiving some young monastics by making his rules more attractive. Among them was not eating meat. His five precepts divided the sangha into two separate groups. However, through the efforts of Shariputra and Maudgalyayana, all Devadatta’s monks returned to the Buddha, and Devadatta’s community fell apart.
Another unfortunate event was the slaughter of the Shakyas by Virudhaka, the evil son of the Kosalan King, Prasenaji, who was forced into exile by his son so he could become king. The exiled King died from eating a poisoned radish. Since the Shakyas had ridiculed Virudhaka in the past and beat him up in a dispute, as soon as Virudhaka became king he sought revenge and killed them all.
Passing Into Nirvana
The Buddha went from Rajgir, crossing the Ganges, to Vaishali. On the way, he passed through many villages and came to the town of Gandarhva Nagara, where a blacksmith named Chunda offered him poisoned food. He vomited blood and had diarrhoea. Some say it was pork, and some say it was mushrooms. A Japanese scholar has said it was an ulcer in his stomach. In spite of this illness, he continued to Kushinagara.
It was the place he chose to die, knowing the people there were strong and independent. Regardless of his condition, he continued to help beings until his last breath. He cleared Chunda of all blame for serving him poisonous food. He was innocent, said the Buddha, and predicted he would become rich.
The night before he passed into Nirvana, a man named Subhadra came to ask him some difficult questions. Ananda thought it wouldn’t be right to send him in to see the Buddha in his last moments. But the Buddha overheard the conversation and allowed Subhadra an audience. Subhadra’s question was important. ”Everyone says their religion is right. So how do I know who is a great being?” The Buddha replied “Whoever practices the factors of a good path is a noble being. Who does not is not a noble being.”
The Karmapa added, “This is a profound answer. If you want to know who is good look at what they practice. Look at what is moving their mind? That’s the sum total of it!”
Subhadra became the Buddha’s last student.
According to the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Buddha taught dharma the night before he passed away. He gave many directions concerning what the sangha should do. He asked them, “Is there anything else you hope for from me? I have taught the dharma clearly on the outside and clearly on the inside. I’ve taught everything I’ve known without concealing anything. Among the Tathagata’s dharma, there is no dharma that I have concealed from my students. In the future, the leader of the sangha is the sangha itself. Even I, the Teacher, the Buddha, am not the leader of the Sangha’’, he said. Therefore, the sangha as a whole must govern itself.
He did not allow a particular leader to be appointed. Although there was a succession of elders, this is primarily in terms of who upheld the lineage of the true dharma. It does not mean they were the leaders of the sangha.
Then the Buddha continued, “You must be your own light to dispel the darkness. You must be your own protector. To do so, grasp at the dharma like a lamp. Hold the dharma as a protector and guardian. The dharma is the beacon that shows you the way.”
He told his students they did not need to worry about what to do with the relics of his body. He emphasized that the monastics should strive at the true purpose. He said, “You do not need to worry that you will not have a teacher after I have passed away. The dharma and Vinaya I have taught will be the teacher who shows the path.”
The Karmapa added an example from the life of Gampopa who predicted that after he passed into nirvana people would think, “If only I could have met Gampopa.” Gampopa advised that “reading the Jewel Ornament of Liberation is like meeting me. Even if you met me in person there’s nothing better”.
This is really important to remember, commented the Karmapa. We stack the texts like bricks and rocks, never even opening them. It’s like putting them in prison. This is a wall of dharma, we say. It’s been there for 300 or 500 years gathering dust. We need to open them, not leave them to gather dust.
At the very end the Buddha said three times to everyone gathered, “Do you have any more questions? Any doubts? Tell me.’’ But everyone remained silent and so sad that not a word could come from their mouths. ‘’These are the last words of the Buddha’’, he said. “All composites are impermanent. Be careful and mindful. Practice one-pointedly.” He immediately entered samadhi passing into nirvana beneath a great Śāla tree.
At this point His Holiness the Karmapa became silent for about 60 seconds. He was so moved by these words that he wept openly.
The Buddha passed away at the age of 80. The people who took care of his remains were the Mallās of Kushinagara. They offered flowers and scent and eventually cremated his remains. The relics were apportioned to eight different tribes: the Bulis of Allakappa; the Koliyas of Ramagrama; the Brahmins of Vethadipa; the Mallas of Pava; the Mallas of Kushinagar; Ajatasattu, king of Magadha; the Sakyas of Kapilavastu; and the Licchavis of Vaishali. Those who received a vase of relics built a stupa in their own lands, as did those who received the last ashes.
In 1898, archeologists excavating the ruins of the Shakyas in Piprāhawa found a vase containing bones. In it was an inscription by the Emperor Ashoka and an even earlier one saying “These are the remains of Shakyamuni for the Shakyas to make offerings to.” Thus it is definite they were the Buddha’s relics.
The relics were later given to the King of Thailand and the Kakuōzan Nittai-ji temple in Japan. The vase the relics had been in was given to a museum in Calcutta. Thus the story of the relics divided into eight tribes must have been an actual historical event because they found the vase given to the Shakyas. It was the relics placed in stupas that made them sacred. The tradition of offerings to the stupas arose from that.
Karmapa added: “We have to take the lives of the masters as great examples and practice like them. We have to strive to do such deeds ourselves. Only then is there a point to the life stories. We have to consider the intention. We have to understand that the original intention of the Buddha was to teach others, to spread the dharma out of compassion not to show his attainment. He only did that after thinking very deeply. If we mix it up with other traditions and customs, then we are fooling ourselves. This is another important point to keep in mind.
“In our tradition there’s very few of us who really know about the life of the Buddha. It becomes a bit embarrassing to say we’re followers of the Buddha.”