Article

The Awakening

– Rajen Vakil

Buddha Purnima is the night of the full moon, when Gautama Siddhartha attained enlightenment. He became the Buddha then and began to preach his sermons, which included details of the four noble truths. This is the beautiful story of his enlightenment.

Six years earlier, Gautama had left his home in the middle of the night. He travelled the length and breadth of the land, working with many masters to seek enlightenment and an end to suffering. Despite his search, however, he did not attain what he had set out to do. Driven into a state of desperation, Gautama retreated deep into the forest to perform rigorous practices. He fasted for days and sat for hours in meditation. He tried observing his fear objectively so that he could reach a state of ‘no fear,’ or Abhaypada. Finally, he reached a state where he felt that enlightenment, or what he later called Nirvana, could be reached—but only if one experienced death.

Dedicated to reaching enlightenment, Gautama decided to jump into the flowing waters of the Niranjana River. The river was in flood because of the recent rains, and  Gautama was very weak from his months of intermittent fasting. With barely enough strength to walk from his seat in the forest to the banks of the river, he somehow reached the water’s edge. Wishing to encounter death face-to-face, he took the plunge into the overflowing waters. . As expected, the waves of the flooded river overtook Gautama, and he slowly began to sink, the life-force ebbing from what was left of his frail body.

It seemed like the end for Gautama, but at that very moment, a thick vine from a creeper came into his hand. Holding this lifeline and with a rush of force from an inner reserve, Gautama managed to pull himself to the other shore. There he lay in a state of semi-consciousness.

Later, in the evening twilight, a young girl, who was the daughter of the village chieftain, was walking by with a bowl of kheer (sweetened milk and rice) to offer to the deity in the temple. She saw Gautama’s lean figure, barely conscious, on the banks of the river. Seeing Gautama’s face, she said to herself, “Why not offer this kheer to him instead of the stone god in the temple?” So she generously fed him, giving Gautama the strength to stand up and walk to a pipal tree. A young boy who was grazing his cows nearby made a seat out of Kusa Grass for Gautama. The boy and the girl left him there as the night crept in.

Having been saved from drowning, Gautama was now in a state of total disillusionment, with no hope of enlightenment. For six years, he had been practicing all kinds of yoga, meditation, and spiritual techniques to achieve this inner freedom. As he sat there, his thoughts went back to the beautiful wife he had left in the middle of the night, to the young son who was still in the cradle and whom he hardly knew. Gautama asked himself–Had it been worth it?

It happened to be the full moon night of the month of Vaisakha. As the moon started its journey across the skies, Gautama’s body began to experience a deep relaxation. His mind started reliving those last six years, and all the things he had done and every place he had travelled. A deep inner process began, which in yoga is called pratiprasava–that is, to take birth again, or to go back to the point of birth and be reborn anew. In his mind, Gautama began moving through his experiential memories in reverse order, dropping the personal attachment to them. Gautama, who was forty years old at the time, relived all the incidents of his life in reverse time. They had been lived mechanically and in darkness, but now he filled each of those moments with the light of consciousness.

This deep inner process lasted through the entire night, and as the morning twilight filled the skies, Gautama’s mind was totally calm and his body was in a state of deep surrender. It was as if he was back in his mother’s womb. He had dropped all attachments, and his thoughts had slowed to a bare minimum.

The story goes that Gautama then opened his eyes for the first time since sitting beneath that tree, and on the horizon, he saw the morning star Venus. At that moment, the sun began to rise, and as the rays of the sun filled the sky, the morning star disappeared and, together with its disappearance, the last thought in his mind disappeared too. Gautama disappeared and the Buddha, the Awakened One, was born. He was totally empty, deeply relaxed, and in total surrender, merged with the rhythm of life. At last – the enlightenment, the nirvana had been attained.

It is said that the whole of existence rose up to celebrate this great event. Flowers automatically started showering upon him from the skies. The wind flowing through the trees played an enchanting tune. The gods themselves, the celestial beings, came down from the heavens to watch this most unique of events.

The tree under which Gautama had this transformational experience and became the Buddha was now called the Bodhi Tree. Plants have a very deep sensitivity, and this tree had been the one and only witness to this great event of the death of Gautama and the birth of the Buddha. By merging into its sensitivity, a seeker can have a taste, a glimpse of what the Buddha had experienced.

On that night, the full moon was in the constellation of Vishakha, which means having many branches. This is very significant because it symbolizes how the teachings of the Buddha would spread through the world. This constellation is also called Radha, the Gift, which suggests that despite all our efforts, the awakening that happens is a gift of the divine intelligence. We only work to make ourselves worthy of it.

About two hundred and fifty years after the Buddha left, the great Mauryan king Asoka embraced Buddhism and was responsible for its spread throughout the world. When Asoka’s daughter was to get married to the king of Sri Lanka, Asoka sent a sapling of the Bodhi Tree as dowry. But then in India, the Bodhi Tree withered and died. Post-Independence, the Government of India asked the Sri Lankan government for a cutting of the Bodhi Tree in Sri Lanka. The tree in Bodh Gaya today has grown from that cutting.