Venerable Dhammasami, 1999
As we all know the Gautama Buddha was born a prince. He lived a princely life until he was 29. However, maybe driven by his mature instinct, he always tried to experience as many different ways of life as possible even before he renounced the world leaving his princely life. Being conscious of his spiritual quest, His father, King Suddhodana, took any possible measures to prevent his son getting fed up from worldly life.
Prince Siddhartha was so intelligent and compassionate that he felt with all his hearts for the sick when he was incidentally exposed to, according to the scriptures, a sick man for the first time. He came to fully appreciate the realities of life — decay and death even just to see them only on one occasion. His father did not want him to see these undesirable things for fear he would choose to become a recluse.
So, when we study his life we feel that he understands us whether you are a farmer, a professional, a householder, a monk, a businessman, a manual worker or even a soldier. His philosophy is embodied in His life.
Nevertheless, I would like to suggest here today that by studying the philosophy of the Buddha, we should understand His life.
Today I would like to focus upon three important things among His teachings: first — determination; second — equal opportunity; and third — self-reliance.
When we study His life, we will see so many extraordinary qualities, like patience, compassion, truthfulness and determination, to inspire us. Determination is most featured in His life as Sumedha, the ascetic, Prince Mahajanaka and Prince Siddhartha.
In Buddhism, we believe that every body has a potential to become a Buddha. It is up to individuals to choose either to become a Buddha or an Arahat. We believe there have been many Buddhas in the past and many will be there in future although there can only be one fully self-enlightened Buddha in a time.
When present Gautama Buddha in one of his previous lives as ascetic Sumedha met one of the previous Buddhas, the Dipankara Buddha, he was supposed to have already been in a position to free himself from suffering and become a Saint (Arahat). Instead of taking that opportunity of freeing himself alone from suffering he chose to take a much harder road to enlightenment so that he could help many to get out of suffering.
Although compassion obviously forms the basis of this vow, I consider that it was determination that made him choose a practice to become a Buddha. He was predicted by the Dipankara Buddha that one day he would become a Buddha after aeons. This he did not see something as impossible but was determined to achieve Buddhahood in order to guide people to the path leading to the end of suffering. If I were in his place, I might have said, "No way, too long, impossible or too hard"
In the course of perfecting himself for Buddhahood in many lives, difficulties could have put people like us off. Nevertheless, he never felt discouraged for his set goal. It is a great determination.
The Buddha was, just like Mahavira, very well known for His stands against any form of discrimination in social and religious life. He never took an advantage of being born to a royal family nor did he ever highlight the fact that he renounced the world as a crown prince. He was unconditionally against caste system. He established female monastic orders at the time women were deprived of the right to religious practices and social life. He appointed two chief female disciples. He appointed Lady Visakha as one of the members of inquiry committees whenever to investigate behaviours of the monks. He believed that all must be given equal opportunity. He, of course, was well aware that inequality existed in every sphere of life. What he did was not to legitimate the inequality but open equal opportunity to all so that any can come up economically, socially and spiritually. He absolutely accepted that change (impermanence) rules our life. Improvements are possible under the law of change that he perceived to be natural.
Self-reliance is another important feature in His philosophy. As human being, we can depend on ourselves if we develop our ability continuously. He was not a saviour in a sense of saving you from your sin. However, He was just a guide. He wanted to be seen only as a teacher, not God nor god all of whom are superstitious. He did not encourage superstition.
The subject of His philosophy is a real life we live everyday. If we turn away from human approach, it is indeed hard to understand His life and philosophy.
He pointed the way to spiritual upliftment. The people including monks and nuns have to uplift themselves by putting what He taught into practice.
He said all living beings are self-responsible for their actions. It is called 'Kamma' (Karma in Sanskrit). You can perform the action of your own choice but have to take any responsibility and consequences of it.
I have noticed you all chanting: "Buddham saranam gacchami" etc. I see Bhajan (devotional chanting), if with the right attitude, as a seed for spiritual development. Nevertheless, it is only a seed, not a plant nor a fruit. It still needs further nurturing, watering, oxygen, the sun and botanical knowledge. Do not stop at Bhajan but bring the teachings into your daily life.
This is the best way to honour a Great Being like the Buddha.
QUESTION & ANSWER
Q: What do we know about the first Buddha, which you have talked about?
A: Not the first Buddha. He was just one of the previous Buddhas. We may not be able to know who was the first Buddha as Buddhism believes that the beginning cannot be known. We know of the Dipankara Buddha through by-pass reference to the life of the Gautama Buddha. He was born a human being who became a Buddha through His own striving and taught people the way to the end of suffering. Dipankara Buddha lived longer than the Gautama Buddha whose teachings we are following.
Q: When do you become a monk? Do you ever imagine an ordinary life like us? And how do you control your mind? (Mahendran)
A: First of all, I did not choose to become a monk. As a part of tradition in Shan State, the Union of Burma, I was, like any other boys, ordained for a short period. It is to train young boys in monastic way of life and Buddhist culture. This is how Buddhist education is passed on from generation to generation over there. It was during summer. I think I was initiated for this purpose. Nobody forced me to stay or leave. It is now already more than 20 years since I was ordained, I have never left. My initial ordination took place when I was very young with 58 other boys, mostly of the same age with me. I think all of them left very soon. My grandaunt was a nun in the monastery where I was ordained. She looked after me just like my mother. I now see that she was the main unspoken factor that has helped me to remain a monk. She passed away at the time I was 23.
I used to imagine a lay life when I was about 16. I became disillusioned with the tension in the monastic institute where I was receiving a higher education as a resident novice. For some undefined reason, I happened to continue the life of the monk. I moved to another institute soon afterward. The idea has never really stroked me again.
To control our mind is the most difficult job we have to do. It is not always successful. At times, I have difficulty especially when it comes to attachment to books and aversion. But Buddhist monastic life has a very good training. There are many sorts of meditation to help you control your mind like chanting, meditation on disgusting things like your own waste and death, studying scriptures to develop your intellect and devotion.
Be open to the criticism of your colleagues. These can help you. Moderation in food and not exposing yourself very much to the attractions are some of the rules we follow. The common problem in controlling our mind is that we have to do it before we understand how our mind works. It is often frustrating to control your mind before you understand how it functions. We were too young to understand that.
Q: How do you control your anger?
A: Normally in two ways: First with teachings of the Buddha. He said anger destroys you physically and mentally. Even if injustice is done to you, He said, "You should not get angry". Anger can never be justified. Without getting angry, you should see to the question of justice and injustice. Anger harms your reputation. Such teachings are always in my mind and I try to live up to that. I must emphasise again I do not always succeed. However, if you make an effort, at least you certainly make some simple progress. If we accept that the infallibility just does not exist and the world is perfectly imperfect, you may find it easier to forgive yourself or someone else. This is philosophical way of controlling your anger.
Second way of dealing with anger is through meditative awareness. If you are aware the object, like criticism and injustice or insulting, you already restrain your anger. You have to detect it at the very stage of it happening. Then you contemplate the anger in your mind.
Q: When the Buddha was young what was his religion? Was it Hinduism?
A: He was born in a multi-religious India in the 6th century BC. In the life of the Buddha, we learn that the Brahmins were His father's advisers on many matters including religion. It is no doubt that Brahmanism (Hinduism today) was predominant. But we also see in the scriptures that soon after He was born, the ascetic Asita came to bless Him. He was also reported as the teacher of King Suddhodana, the father of Prince Siddhartha. Asita was leading a life that was quite different from the one approved in Brahmanism. This interpretation is supported by the existence of Alara Kalama and Udaka Ramaputta, the two renown religious teachers under whom the Ascetic Gautama first learnt meditation.
I am not sure which would be His religion. However, certainly liberalism was the feature of that multi-religious society into which He was born.
Venerable Dhammasami, 1999
There are many ways of celebrating Vesak especially in Theravada Buddhist countries like Thailand, Sri Lanka, Burma (Myanmar), Laos and Kampuchea. People going round the pagoda each with a candle in hand is a common scene in Thailand that differentiates her from other neighbouring Buddhist countries. Watering Bo tree would be something how Burmese Buddhists mark this important day. Erecting pandol and illustrate story of the Buddha with wonderful electronic displays is a celebration unique to Sri Lanka. In each country you can see the scene of people going to the temples and pagodas to observe Eight Precepts, to listen to a Dhamma talk delivered by usually a Bhikkhu and giving alms to the Bhikkhus, freeing fish, birds and in some cases cattle to be slaughtered. Meditation centres are unusually packed with devotees who join one-day-retreat. In many Southeast Asian countries Vesak is a national holiday — even in Indonesia, which is officially Islamic country.
In my hometown, Shan State, Burma, people actually have one day retreat on every full-moon day including Vesak. They spent the times in silent meditation and in listening to Jataka, life story of the Buddha, which is poetically composed and read by a well trained, lay preacher called Sa-lay. One story usually takes five to six hours. It is written in Shan cultural background so that people would understand the Bodhisatta (would-be-Buddha). Teachings from the Suttas (Buddha's Discourses) are often added where relevant to give a full set of moral teaching. This is unique to Shan Buddhist culture.
It is only understandable that these countries have come up with the kind of celebration to get the mass involved as much as possible. They light the candles to symbolise the wisdom we believe he obtained on this day.
In Thailand, it is called 'Wien-thien' (going in circle with candle). In Shan State, Burma when I was young I remember people burning a very big and long candle made of pine-wood. They burnt it on the ground. It usually lasted many hours. These are the materials people used to remind us of mindfulness — to be mindful of the wisdom and enlightenment of the Buddha. It has become part of their culture.
Wisdom or insight penetrating into the real nature of life is essential to overcome suffering in life. It is that kind of wisdom that we symbolise with lights and honour Him for His achievement. In the First Sermon, the Buddha compared wisdom with light.
Freeing fish etc. is to remember His great compassion, which was the main drive in His striving for enlightenment.
How we are going to celebrate Vesak here in the United Kingdom? Different ways of doing things for the same purpose are always open in Buddhism. Flexibility is the very nature of it.
Are we going to celebrate it like Christmas — making it a family meeting! In every celebration Turkey meat features British traditional way of celebrating Christmas. Do you want to do that!
Many people complain that they hate Christmas meetings although it takes place only once a year because they do not get on well with their relatives! I hate to see my sister-in-law! Mother-in-law! My brother! — such mumbling is almost common to any one. In addition, the next day most of them complain the problem of indigestion.
In all Vesak celebration, the Gautama Buddha is all we focus on. He is central to whatever perceived to be Buddhism because he was the one who discovered the Dhamma and taught it to others. Therefore, we especially focus upon Him and His life today so that we could understand Him better.
However, if my general view of the whole Tripitaka is correct, the Buddha Himself never talked about His life outside the context of the Dhamma. He might have thought of it unnecessary to dwell purely upon this subject although we just want to know more and more about His life. I am sure He (the Buddha) believed that discussing about the Dhamma is worthier Nevertheless, we have the opportunity to learn about His life only through the Dhamma as by-pass reference.
The Buddha even said that unless and until we understand the Dhamma we are not going to know Him. You may become the best historian specialising in the Buddha's life but this does not make you, judging from the Buddha's own words, an expert on His life.
Therefore, we now come to see that the Dhamma rather than the Buddha are the heart of what we know of as Buddhism today.
As we study and reflect carefully, we come to know that the Dhamma He discovered is completely impersonal. Moreover, He never tried to personalise His discovery. The Dhamma is very much individual in practice. It is under stood individually, not something we can share as a family or nation.
In the Dhamma practice, one may help the other by showing the path but can never do it on his behalf. It is so individual to that extent.
Today we are going to meditate to mark Vesak — the day Siddhartha Gautama was born, became a Buddha and passed away. It is relevant for us to be doing so today.
Taking this opportunity, I want to reflect upon one of His sayings that mirrors all His concerns for us. He said; "Mindfulness leads one to immortal where as heedlessness leads one to mortality again and again". That was also His last word.
Mindfulness is the foundation of all goodness. Not only that, it is also chief factor in our practices along the way. It establishes and maintains the qualities of head and heart. It balances other factors in the Path.
Take the most advantage of life. Reflect upon the Dhamma. Apply it to your daily life. Life means appearing and disappearing, coming and going, birth and death. Be mindful of it.
This is how we should honour the Buddha.
Venerable Dhammasami, 1999
I would like to explain why we offer the items to the Buddha such as flower, light, incense and foods, which includes also water.
Followers of many religions of the world practise Light Offering today. Each may have its own interpretation. In Buddhism, light is compared to Wisdom while ignorance is to darkness. After His enlightenment, the Lord Buddha Himself in the First Sermon declared that "In Him wisdom and light arose".
In that very sermon together with wisdom and light, He also equalised vision and knowledge with His supreme enlightenment.
The Buddha is the one who has developed His wisdom to the ever—highest point that all living beings can develop. He was able to guide people because He possessed such excellent wisdom. We are offering light to the Buddha in honour of His supreme wisdom. Every time we make such an offering, it reminds us that each and every of us has the same potential and we can achieve it. This is technically called reflection on the quality of the Buddha (Buddhanussati). It is one of various Buddhist meditation methods that can help you build up full concentration.
Light, which is wisdom uproots the cause of suffering. It leads all other factors in the Noble Eightfold Path. It indicates that without wisdom that penetrates into the reality of life, life will not realise its full potential, which is lasting peace.
Offering of flowers is another practice commonly found in many religions. To the followers of Buddhism, this means a sign of paying homage to the Buddha for his Morality. Flower has fragrance as well as beauty. Its manifold colours are wonderful. It beautifies the world. We can hardly see anyone hating flowers. The wind brings its sweet smell to various directions making people feel fresh and adding strength and new idea into their life. It makes the world a better place to live.
In the same way, a moral man can greatly contribute to world peace; His fame reaches far and wide; He presents the society with a new idea of how to live a meaningful life without damaging environments; He lives an energetic life. With his morality, he lays a good foundation to further develop insight. The morality of the Buddha is manifold and brings delight to many. For this very reason, we make an offering of flowers to the Buddha in an admiration of His highest morality. This, to put it according to Buddhist scriptures, is a meditative practice both for reflecting the moral quality of the nobles (Silanussati) and for the quality of the Buddha (Buddhanussati).
We also reflect on the decaying process of flowers and make it a point to apply it to our body, which undergoes constant change. Starting from a bud, it progresses and at last dies. It is a reflection on impermanence.
Offering incense, which admires people with its fragrance, bears similar meaning. Both also stand for purity of the Buddha.
Making an offering of foods to the statue of the Buddha is last what I would like to explain here today.
First of all, it may be interesting to some people why we offer foods to the statue instead of a living one. We believe that we will get almost the same psychological effectiveness and merits just like offering it to the living Buddha Himself provided we have the same attitude, the same veneration towards His image. It is all about developing devotion (Saddha).
Besides this, although the living Buddha was no more, His teachings are left to us to portray His real life and to continue to guide us. The Lord Buddha Himself in His dying bed, at Kushinagar, India said this. Therefore, we have to keep in our mind that we are offering foods to the living Buddha Himself.
The Buddha said, "All beings are sustained on foods". It means more than anything else food is essential and important for living beings. As a sign of showing our gratitude and as a noble practice of giving, sharing, sacrificing and trying to reduce our attachment we offer foods including water to the Buddha.
In addition, in an admiration of sharing, giving something away done by the Lord Buddha, we do this offering. This is another kind of meditative practice, which is known as reflection on the quality of sharing (Caganussati). Besides being meditative practices in their own way, actually all these offerings come under the exercise of sharing.
To summarise it, this practice is to encourage, cultivate and develop devotion, morality, concentration and wisdom. Buddha puja is not practised for superstitious belief and the stanzas we chant are not prayer.
Venerable Dhammasami, 1999
A Reflection on Paying Homage to the Buddhas in the Past
Paying homage to the 28 Buddhas — Attha-visati-buddhapuja is a very familiar event here in the Sri Saddhatissa International Buddhist Centre.
Whenever we do it, I think it is the best occasion for us to try to understand this practice.
We are today paying homage to the 28 Buddhas who enlightened and served many people in the past. They lived and taught in different times. There cannot be two Buddhas at the same time because they all are self-enlightened without any teacher guiding them. Each would-be-Buddha (Bodhisatta) claimed to be the chief of the world as soon as he was born.
It is said* that once he is released from his mother's womb every would- be-Buddha walks seven steps on his own facing north with a white umbrella on his head. He then looks at all directions and claims that He is the chief of the world, the supreme of the world and the most excellent of the world. This is the last life and there will be no more rebirths. Such an extraordinary proclamation is one of the 16 marvellous things common to all would-be-Buddhas.**
In spiritual attainment if there is someone equal to you, you cannot claim to be the chief. So there is only one self-enlightened Buddha at a time.
All the self-enlightened Buddhas bear certain important resemblance. The heart of their teachings is fundamentally the same — the Four Noble Truth. They all teach Paticcasamuppada (the Dependent Origination). They all seem to have seen four signs of life — an old man, a sick man, a dead body and a monk — before they renounce their comfortable life. The way the last birth takes place is the same. They all have two chief disciples to assist them in their mission. They all found monastic communities who essentially have a different way of life from ordinary people. They all became enlightened under a tree, which is called Bo tree.
Nevertheless except for Gautama Buddha, our knowledge about the other 27 Buddhas is very much legendary. We know of them only as much as we are told by the Gautama Buddha whose teachings we are now following. All the Buddhas have different life spans, different kinds of Bo tree. The tree under which Siddhartha Gautama reached Buddhahood is the fig tree known botanically as Religiosa (Assattha in Pali) while the one under whose shade Kassapa Buddha became enlightened is an Indian fig tree, botanically named as Ficus Indica (Nigrodha).*** They also have different ways of becoming a Buddha although as I said earlier the truth they discover is all the same. It is call 'Samukkansika Desana' — Standard Condensed Teaching i.e. Four Noble Truth.
The list of these 28 Buddhas is found in the Buddhavamsa.**** Seven of them appear in the Mahapadana Sutta, Digha Nikaya as well. But another seven Buddhas in the past whose name was mentioned in the Anguttara Nikaya***** are not among the 28 to whom we are paying homage here today. It means these 28 Buddhas are not all that the world has ever had. As life practically knows not of its beginning there must have been many whose life is untold. We can say this because Buddhahood is open to all. There have been many Buddhas more than 28 in the past and there will still be many in future. We know of one now that will be there in future — that is Arimetteyya Buddha. This is more than a matter of equal opportunity that Buddhahood is open to all. It indicates the real possibility that many people can achieve it.
Some would liken the coming of Buddhas one after another to the concept of Messiah in Abrahmic religious belief. A Buddha is not a messiah because he does not represent any creator, God. Instead, he represents the highest ability of living beings with his discovery of the truth of life through self-striving.
A Buddha should not be seen as an almighty who will give us everything we want or who will punish us when we do evil and reward us when we follow him. Instead, He should be seen as a great teacher who teaches us to overcome suffering through our own effort. A Buddha does not punish or send someone to hell nor does he reward him. We punish ourselves when we do bad things and reward ourselves when we do good.
A Buddha is the one who makes things clear to us when he distinguishes wholesome act from what is not wholesome. Before doing something, freedom of choice lies with us — each individual. We are responsible for our own free will whether we choose to exercise it in a good or bad way. Apart from personal effort, there is no other means to lasting happiness. This is the law of Kamma discovered and explained by Buddhas.
The Noble Eightfold Path is the essence of their teachings, which will enable us to perfect ourselves through self-striving. There is no principle of punishment or reward by someone in that Noble Eightfold Path teaching nor is there any gender, race or class discrimination.
A Buddha-to-be is said to be free from all kinds of disease when in the mother's womb. But being born as human being and living a human life, we see in many discourses ^* that the Gautama Buddha also felt ill. Although He worked extremely hard in teaching people, He also had to take a rest regularly every day. Judging from this we come to know that the Buddha was very human. Therefore, through a human approach alone we can understand a Buddha. All their teachings essentially focus upon human experience.
To understand a Buddha certainly means to understand important teaching like the Noble Eightfold Path and put it into practice as a way of life.
A Buddha is so important for us in that such a self—enlightened being alone can discover the truth and share it with the world for its own good. Without his teaching people are going to be trapped in a vicious circle. We would be confused about good and bad, wholesome and unwholesome. It is taught in some religions that to kill people in the name of God guarantees you a place in heaven. But to the Buddha killing can never be justified. We know anger, jealousy, gossip and attachment as our enemies because the Buddha describes them to us very clearly in that way. Therefore, no one will mislead us to commit a sin with false promise in heaven.
The Dhamma (the teaching), the message seems more important than the messenger, the Buddha himself. We know a Buddha is not merely a messenger but a great discoverer Himself. Nevertheless the fact that the Gautama Buddha Himself respected the Dhamma, the fact the Buddha Himself left the Dhamma to serve the world on His behalf and the fact that becoming a Buddha means to essentially discover the Dhamma, the Dhamma is what we most need. After all, only through understanding of the Dhamma can we show our gratitude to the Lord Buddha. A Buddha can only be really perceived through the Dhamma.
The Dhamma they discover is impersonal — true to anyone, believer or non-believer and workable for both man and woman of all nationalities and of different social status at any time. The truth that transcends times and space. It is impersonal in this way and has never been personalised or identified as personal truth.
Do good, refrain from doing evil and purify your mind — this is the principle of the teaching of all the Buddhas^** Showing tolerance and compassion, recognising each other's success, helping each other in time of difficulty, caring for each other and sharing with one another — these are what all the Buddhas taught.^*** Practicing these things is not all that easy. But failures we experience occasionally through practice can eventually make one a wise person whereas failures without even any attempt to practice are a real failure.
The teachings of all the Buddhas can be summed up in two words: compassion and wisdom. These two qualities are essentially the highest blessing in life. Without them, we will never be able to understand a Buddha. To pay homage to 28 Buddhas in the past means to remind ourselves of their good qualities, to strengthen our aspiration and devotion, and to make ourselves more serious in practice.
* Mahapadana Sutta, Digha Nikaya; The Press of the Dept. of Religious Affairs, Rangoon, 1986, p. 13
** Ibid., pp. 10-13:
- Any would-be-Buddha comes down from Tusita heavenly world.
- On taking conception the world has extraordinary light more powerful than that of sun and moon.
- Four powerful gods protect both mother and baby when in the womb.
- Once pregnant the mother becomes totally purified in Five Precepts.
- Mother has no whatever sexual desire when he is in the womb.
- Mother's life becomes more comfortable.
- Mother is always happy, healthy and strong. The baby is always upright and can never be disabled.
- Seven days after birth mother expires.
- Full ten months in the womb.
- He is born with his mother standing, never siting or lying.
- Once released from the womb, the gods receive him before human beings do so.
- Before he touches the earth, four gods brings him (the baby would-be-Buddha) to show and inform the mother that a very powerful baby was now born.
- In birth no physical uncleanness both in mother and baby.
- The appearance of hot and cold water for them.
- Extraordinary exclamation.
- The earth shakes and the extraordinary light again appears.
*** Mahapadana Sutta, Digha Nikaya, p. 3
**** See also Buddhavamsa commentary and Atthsalini
***** Anguttara Nikaya, Vol. IV, p.135, PTS. Seven Buddhas mentioned therein are Sunetta, Mugapakkha, Aranemi, Kuddala, Hatthipala, Jotipala ana Araka.
^* Cunda Bojjhanga Sutta, Mahaparinibbana Sutta etc.
^** Dhammapada Stanza No. 183
^*** Some spirit of Four Sublime Qualities (Brahmavihara)
Venerable Dhammasami, 1999
Bodhipuja is the most popular religious practice of the mass among Buddhists in Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, very few Non-Sri Lankan Buddhists know about the practice especially those who have never been to Sri Lanka.
All the temples have a Bo tree in Sri Lanka while not even every town has one in Burma and Thailand. If a temple has a Bo tree, it comes to be known as Bo temple like Wat Pho temple in Bangkok situated nearby the Emerald Buddha.
Since 18th AD there are evidences that the Sri Lankan monks whenever given the opportunity tried to bring some saplings of Bo tree to Burma and Thailand. In the chronicle called 'Sasanalankara', written in Pali in the 18th AD by the Sangharaja Nyanavamsa of Burma, it is mentioned that the forefather of the Amarapura Nikaya who went to Amarapura, the then capital city of Burmese kingdom brought seven saplings of Bo tree to be presented to the Burmese King Bo Daw Phaya.
Last year in March the most Venerable Balangoda Ananda Maitreyya brought one to Burma. The Burmese government has told him that they will plant it in a very important place in Yangon.
Despite many efforts through the centuries, Bo tree still ranks behind Chaitiya, pagoda in terms of being given a priority. The Burmese like to go and pay homage to pagodas while the Sri Lakans are keen on taking care of and paying homage to Bo tree. Many do this as daily practice.
Bodhi Tree means a tree of wisdom. It came to be so known, as the Prince Siddhartha (then the Ascetic Gautama) became enlightened under this Tree at Gaya in northern India in the 6th BC.
Actually, the word 'Buddha' and 'Bodhi' came from the same root. Buddha means the fully enlightened being while Bodhi means enlightenment.
These two words have another important word closely associated with. It is Bojjhanga which is combined with 'Bodhi' + 'Anga' meaning the factors or features of enlightenment.
Having abandoned both extreme methods then known in India as a way to enlightenment i.e. self-indulgence and self-mortification the Ascetic Gautama chose this tree that was situated in a calm and quiet environment as the place for meditation.
He was mistaken by Sujata, the daughter of the local chief to be a god of the tree and was offered milk-rice under this tree, which gave him physical strength to again struggle for enlightenment.
After this remarkable meal he washed himself in nearby river and came back to meditate under this tree.
The sun set. The dawn was about to come. The Ascetic Gautama was making progress in his meditation throughout the night. He attained enlightenment just before dawn under this tree.
He was now a Buddha. After His enlightenment the Buddha for the whole week sat under the Bo tree, which sheltered Him during His struggle, enjoying freedom and lasting peace, this is the result of perfect enlightenment.
For the whole second week He stood a few feet from the tree gazing at it as a mark of gratitude and meditating on the tree itself.
This should convince us that to become an enlightened person there are many conditions to be met. Among them one is natural environment. Ascetic Gautama (Siddhartha) attained Buddhahood under a tree. Other Buddhas in the future, just like in the past, will only attain enlightenment under a tree according to the scriptures.
Bodhi tree has become a subject of worship even during His lifetime. One day when He was away the people of Rajagaha missed Him a lot that they wanted some object to represent Him. On His return His attendant Venerable Ananda told Him of the people's wish. He granted that a branch of the original Bodhi tree be planted in the Jetavana monastery where He resided so that the people could venerate. This particular Bo tree is known as Ananda Bodhi.
Bo tree is therefore to remind us of the living Buddha. It gives rise to devotion and inspiration. From this point if we continue to walk in the Middle Path we shall come to be endowed with seven factors of enlightenment (Bojjhanga). They are the lasting qualities of an enlightened being.
As we all know the Buddha was the one who went against unnecessary ritual practices in seeking for a relief from suffering. Those days some people became obsessed with ritual practices that the Buddha later described it as dogmatic ritualist — Silabbata-paramasa-ditthi. It is unique that the Buddha himself granted such special treatment to His lay followers at the same time. It is not to go back to ritual dogmatism but on the other hand, not to go to an extreme of the opposite totally rejecting it.
Remember the word used by the Buddha 'Silabbata-paramasa'. There are two words: 'Sila' + 'Vata' (ritual practice) and 'paramasa' (being obsessed with). 'Sila' + 'Vata' is not wrong unless it is qualified with the word 'paramasa'. In another words, it means observing ritual practices is not wrong unless one becomes dogmatic in the practice and starts rejecting any other practices as false and useless.
To do that, we need to cultivate all the Eight Factors of the Path (Ariya Atthangiga Magga) at the same time. To put it in a plain language we have to have right understanding as leading factor in Bodhipuja. We should know why we are doing it.
Actually when we analyse from practical point of view, this very Bo tree symbolises the Noble Eightfold Path i.e. Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right contemplation and Right Concentration. These eight factors are the path to enlightenment. I mean Bo tree not only reminds us the enlightenment of the Buddha but is also the way leading to it.
Otherwise, we will be considering Bo tree something that can do a miracle for us. That will bring us back to Animism the Buddha rejected in the first place.* The Buddha said that due to fear and psychological insecurity people started worshipping trees and mountains.
Such worship is not the right one. We should find a true refuge, which is the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. When we do Buddhapuja we chant, "Natthi me saranam annam, Buddho (Dhammo/Sangho) me saranam varam" meaning I will go to no other refuge but only the Buddha (Dhamma/Sangha).
Today when we pay our homage to the Bo tree, let us bear in mind that this Bo tree symbolises the Buddha and His Enlightenment. This will mean that we are taking refuge in the Buddha, honouring the Buddha Himself.
* "Bahu ye saranam yanti, pabbatani vanani ca, arama-rukkha cetani, manussa bhayatajjita" meaning due to fear and pyschologically feeling insecure people worship trees, mountain etc.
Venerable Dhammasami, 1999
Today we have been engaged in a series of programme that are part of Kathina robe-offering ceremony. It is important that we understand about what we are doing — in this particular case, about Kathina ceremony; to be aware of some thing we are undertaking is Buddhist way of doing things which is technically called Right Understanding. There is more chance for Right Understanding when Right Mindfulness is present.
So today it is nothing but appropriate for us to reflect on the practice of Kathina — the Theravada traditional robe-offering ceremony.
The word 'Kathina' is Pali in origin. It means a frame used in sewing robes those days in India. However, before we talk about this Kathina let us look at some other monastic practices related to it so that we can understand Kathina ceremony in a broader perspective.
PRACTICE OF RETREAT
Kathina ceremony is necessarily a monastic one, supported by the generous devotees. It is essentially connected to the three months retreat that ends on 16th this month. (October, 1997)
We need to discuss about Buddhist Monastic Retreat as a background before we actually take on Kathina issue. Buddhist retreat came into existence as a result of complaint made by the people. Jaina monastic order was already practising this Vassana Retreat practice before the Buddha made His follower Bhikkhus do the same. The people expected monks, both Buddhist and non Buddhist, to stay in one place at least for a certain period. They complained that the monks were moving from place to place all the time without a permanent dwelling. During rainy season, the monks did damage the plants and crops. The Jaina monks and other mendicants observed a treat during rainy season staying in one place for a period. People were wondering why the disciples of the Gautama Buddha did not do so.
This prompted the Buddha to lay down a rule that Buddhist monks should observe Retreat and stay in one place for three months. People wanted them to do that during rainy season and it became known as Rainy Retreat (Vassana). But strictly speaking the three months retreat can now take place at any season — maybe in winter or summer, although almost all have been observed during rainy season according to meteoric calendar in India.
The period is the same — three months. This practice has been mostly observed during rainy season because the people wanted the monks to do so in ancient India — that is mainly, as I said earlier, for agricultural reason.* There were no high ways during the Buddha's time. One had to across farm lands to travel. Therefore, this practice has its relevance in that 6th century BC Indian society.
Nevertheless, even in India at that time the approval of the three months retreat practice was by no means limited to the agriculturists. It was seen as a means to spiritual progress as well. That was why during the time of the Buddha itself, Bimbisara, the King of Magadha sent an envoy to the monks asking them to come and observe a retreat in his kingdom. But it happened to be in summer and the monks first didn't accept it. Instead they referred it to the Buddha, who then relaxed the rule by adding that a monk could make a retreat during summer provided it is the wish of the ruler of the land. Therefore, the monks can also observe this practice of retreat in any other seasons other than rainy one if there are circumstances we have just described.
Before this rule was there, the monks including the Buddha Himself travelled around the year and they still did so for nine months after the rule was laid down. Travelling and meeting people at different places is a kind of missionary life that the Buddha envisaged. It helps the monks not to be attached to dwelling places and people. It enables them to render their service to as many as possible. It frees them from a huge burden of constructing, maintaining and developing a big temple or monastery. It helps the teachings to spread everywhere as they travel. Travelling made them encounter with different cultures. It gave them an understanding of real nature of life. Roaming around empowers them to endure hard life. When you have to move from one place to another almost all the time, you do not gather things. You start gathering things only when you have the idea to settle. Since they wander most of the time their way of thinking, their attitude towards life and their spiritual practices are very pragmatic, realistic and are based on facts.
You can see now some development was taking place in monastic life. With this Rainy Retreat (Vassana) practice coming along, the monks got a bit comfortable shelter. The devotees who approach them can enjoy the opportunity of learning the Dhamma from the monks: they have regular and appropriate receivers in performing their act of generosity. Therefore, the benefit of the three months retreat is mutual. (Samyutta Nikaya)
I think that with the introduction of this Vassana practice, Buddhist monastic life came to balance its way of life. Brahmanism has secular lay life as its core while Jaina monastic life encouraged no shelter whatsoever such as a place for three months retreat. Buddhist Vassana practice could be viewed as middle way in this context.
A monk can choose his own time to start Rainy Retreat. There are two commencing dates different from one another exactly a month. But he is entitled to receive Kathina-civara (Kathina-robe) only if he starts his retreat with an earlier date — not the later one. This is quite important condition required of a monk to be entitled to Kathina-robe. Within three months retreat he must not break the rule of retreat by spending nights somewhere else without a valid reason consented in the Vinaya (Buddhist Monastic Disciplinary Rules). If there is emergency reason to travel, he can do so even during the retreat.
To make the offering of robe especially valid as Kathina-civara these rules are much essential. Failing to comply with either of the two conditions will affect the validity of Kathina-robe. Invalid Kathina-robe, of course has more to do with the monks than the devotees. Though the devotees got the same merits whether the Kathina-robe is considered valid or not, the monks will lose the advantages associated with Kathina.
It means they will get the robe but he can not enjoy five relaxations on Vinaya that come necessarily with the validity of Kathina procedure. Once being offered a valid Kathina-robe in this way during this particular one month's time the monks can remain without following five of the 220 disciplines — known as 'Vinaya Sikkhapada' for four months starting exactly a month after the end of the retreat. This is something about Retreat which is a precondition to Kathina-robe offering.
The second important procedure that must be done before Kathina ceremony is Invitation Ceremony (Pavarana). This is again purely monastic practice.
Invitation means at the end of retreat the monks must get together and invite one another to point out at one's fault if they have seen it themselves or have heard from some one or are just in doubt. This would help them in purifying themselves. A Bhikkhu has to be open to any criticism from his colleagues regarding his behaviour. He can not say, "Is it your business?" or "This is my life".
Being open was a way of life the Lord Buddha led. The monks have to be sensitive to a complaint made by the people in order to win their respect and in order to encourage them to learn the Dhamma. They have to be sensitive towards the remarks made by their fellow monks. This, according to the Buddha, could maintain both unity and purity in the Buddhist Monastic Order. It could also help keep the Monastic Rules and Regulations (Vinaya) alive. It is a kind of check-and-balance system between individual Bhikkhus as well as between the seniors and the juniors. This is exactly the core of Monastic Discipline as much as of the Teachings.
Every fortnight there has to be a meeting between the higher ordained ones, known as Bhikkhu (monks) or Bhikkhuni (nuns) in the case of ordained female. In that kind of assembly, a learned monk recites the 220 rules to the monks. Before he recites there has to be a procedure of confession, which means every individual has to inform the Sangha of the offense he has committed. This kind of confession can clear him from 203 kinds of offenses out of 220. Confession can psychologically relieve someone who has committed a grave evil like patricide. The story of King Ajatasattu who killed his father is an example. He could not sleep until he confessed his sin to the Buddha. Confession did not put his sin away but practically relieved him from psychological burden.
In being open to others the Buddha Himself was the best example. At every fortnight meeting the Lord Buddha would start inviting anyone present there to point out His fault if any. He encouraged people to be open making Himself the subject of openness. That must be the reason why people felt so close to Him. They did respect Him for a reason. They spoke so openly their opinion to the Buddha. They knew well that the Buddha did not take their offense.
Venerable Sariputta, the most important figure apart from the Buddha would ask the monks to point out his fault too. In this way, the invitation was to be offered by any monk present. Actually, what we call Arahat means the one who has no longer secret. He is perfectly open to anyone especially regarding his behaviour.
The Buddha wanted His disciples, at least those who have been ordained, to be as close as possible in their spiritual quest helping one another along the way. The only way of doing it and maintaining it is to practice to become increasingly open to each other that we no longer have anything to hide. Public morality can be maintained in this way. Therefore, we can say that monastic life is where one has least privacy.
This Invitation Ceremony is so important ceremonially as well as spiritually. Without this there can not be a proper Kathina robe-offering — it may become only ordinary robe-offering with whatsoever no advantage on the part of the monks themselves.
The two ceremonies — the Ceremony of Invitation and that of Offering Robe — mark the termination of the Retreat.
Now let us pick up our main topic 'Kathina'. We may well imagine a situation during 6th BC where any advanced textile technology hardly known to the people. The monks had no choice but to do the sewing the robe and giving it a dye themselves. The Buddha asked them to help one another using the best technique then available. Some made a frame while some went out in search of needle and thread. Some sew pieces of clothe to make it a robe while others prepared for another process of making fire and getting a suitable colour ready. Dying a robe was extremely difficult because they had to boil the bark of the tree to get the colour they wanted. Just imagine how the monks were busy to get a robe done. It was a hard life collecting pieces of cloth from different places such as rubbish-heap, cemetery, and streets to get it sufficient for a robe. Ordinary life was at that time reasonably hard especially regarding clothes; the monks were no exception; they had to struggle for a robe.
But this became a kind of practice that trained monks to depend on themselves, to live in simple way creating no burden to the lay community and to be content with basic needs.
Though we could say that this practice would reflect the economic reality in India those days, when the Lord Buddha declared this practice it was automatically adopted as a social norm among the followers. Those monks with well-to-do family and royal family background were no exception. They all adopted the practice. As we all know the majority of the immediate disciples of the Buddha came from either royal families or families of noble background They were in comfort to ignore this practice of making a robe in such a difficult process. Instead, they took it as a way of life with a great honour. This humbleness and contentment clearly indicate high spiritual achievement.
The Buddha recommended this practice to be observed at the end of the Retreat because monks can still be found in a large number in one place at this time and they could help one another.
Once entitled to Kathina-robe, a Bhikkhu is permitted to ignore some five minor rules. The relaxation is mainly felt on travel and invitation for alms-giving. Normally a Bhikkhu, senior or junior has to inform his fellow Bhikkhu living in the same temple before he goes out. He can choose not to do it when he has received Kathina-robe. Usually he has to carry all the three pieces of robe wherever he goes. He can now leave one behind if he wishes after he has been offered Kathina-robe. He certainly has less restriction on travel. He can also accept as many robes if offered during the period of four months. Monks on the usual occasions are not supposed to accept food offered by someone using the terms of layman culture, the words normally employed by people in their social interaction. But once offered Kathina-robe(s) a Bhikkhu can receive such food given to him in that way.
This Kathina ceremony is, as far as I can see, recommended by the Lord Buddha mainly for the welfare of the Sangha (the Community of monks). The Lord Buddha did take into consideration how the Order He founded could survive. After the Mahaparinibbana (the Great Passing Away) of the Buddha Himself, the whole responsibility of both perpetuation and propagation of His Teachings would certainly fall on the Sangha. Therefore, the continuity of the Sangha means the continuity of the Dhamma itself. Moreover, after His Mahaparinibbana, we could see the Buddha Himself only once we see, understand and realise the Dhamma. This was the case even when the Buddha was still alive for He declared that one really sees Him only once one sees the Dhamma. Now we can see the logic behind the recommendation of this Kathina ceremony — how it is important for the cause of Buddhism itself.
The Buddha did not start preaching to every one before He had had the Monastic Order well established. After His Enlightenment, He made a long journey to Benares — a journey that took Him more than a week — just to convert a group of five ascetics and made them a monk. He knew very well that all the five had a very high possibility of becoming a monk and forming the Order.
He continued focusing on establishing the Order until He became confident that the Order has been well established and was capable of helping Him to propagate the Dhamma. His teachings spread far and wide after He passed away. Despite the fact that the Buddha was no longer with us, the geographical expansion still took place in a greater scale. The Buddha Himself would have definitely foreseen this great service of His disciples that He put a lot of effort to establish the Monastic Order (Sangha).
The Monastic Order was firmly established when the Buddha had ordained sixty men — all of whom came from either royal family or that of nobility. Missionary work in its true sense started only then with sixty deputies, despatching them to different directions asking two not to go in the same way.
The implication here is that the existence of the well-established monastic order is extremely essential if we are about to get the teachings of the Buddha across the people. The Arahat Mahinda simply had this in mind when he told King Devanam Piyatissa of Sri Lanka (3rd BC) that the Sasana (Buddha's Dispensation) will get rooted on Sri Lankan soil only when a Sri Lankan native monk has become well versed in Monastic Rules (Vinaya).**
There was a time in the West when European Buddhists used to consider that monkhood is nothing more than to set an exemplary life and to spread the words of the Buddha does not depend on the existence of Monastic Order.
Let us look at this attitude carefully from Buddhist History. Let us not forget to use our common sense. History always shows that the Buddhist Monastic Order was at the core of the matter — whether Buddhism was on the decline or progress. The monks have to share more responsibility — sometime for the degeneration and sometime for the growth. It is in the best interest of the whole Buddha's Sasana that Buddhist Monastic Order is properly maintained, purified and well supported. The Bhikkhus dedicate their whole life to the cause of Sasana — studying, training, meditating, preaching, and writing about the Buddha's Dhamma.
In this respect, we should be encouraged to see the Amaravati Monastery (Theravada Forest Tradition) and its branches doing very well with the sons and daughters of the United Kingdoms at the helm. In other European countries, the natives have not been very successful in furthering the Dhamma despite having produced several distinguished Buddhist scholars.
In contrast, if I understand the situation correctly, the United Kingdom has been well ahead of other European countries in both academic field and monastic life. We owe a lot to the most venerable monks of true missionary spirit from Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma and other countries that we have made our way far in this new land. I am speaking about this just to remind ourselves that the Sangha of 19th and 20th century also deserve to be called a devout and true follower of the Lord Buddha. They — like the late Venerable Narada of Vajirarama, Colombo and Venerable Dr. H. Saddhatissa — should be credited for what we are here now. Venerable U Setthila (Thittila) of Burma who arrived here in England during World War II and Venerable Ajahn Chah, Thailand's best know meditation master of our time must not be forgotten for their great service rendered to the cause of Buddha Sasana in this United Kingdom.
Together with ceaseless support on the part of the devotees, the successive Kathina ceremonies held every year in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand and other countries have enabled the monks to carry on their missionary work far and wide. The Kathina ceremony we are celebrating today will have the effect just as well like that.
* Mahavaga Pali, Vinaya Pitaka
** Mahavamsa / Samantapasadika commentary
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