In Asoka’s Footsteps

by Nina Van Gorkom | 1999 | 27,079 words

Ashoka (or Aśoka, asoka) was an Indian emporeor reigning the Maurya dynasty from 268 to 232 BCE. In Asoka’s Footsteps; Dhamma in India; October 1999; by Nina Van Gorkom...

Chapter 7 - Paying Respect

When we visit the holy places and pay respect by chanting and going around the Bodhi-tree and the stupas, we can be reminded of the Buddha’s excellent qualities: his wisdom, his purity and his compassion. Out of compassion he taught us the Dhamma he had realized himself when he attained enlightenment under the Bodhi-tree. He is our teacher in the highest sense, he excels all other teachers in wisdom, purity and compassion. Khun Santi writes in his lexicon about the Buddha as the pre-eminent teacher (parama sattha):

“‘Pre-eminent Teacher’ refers to the Exalted One, the Buddha who accumulated the perfections during four incalculable periods and a hundred thousand aeons in order to become an omniscient Buddha, the teacher of devas and men. He taught others so that they could also know the truth which can be verified by panna , understanding of what appears through each of the six doorways. In this way the wrong view can be eliminated which takes realities for beings, people and ‘self”, and the truth of realities can be fully penetrated as the different stages of enlightenment are attained.”

We should listen to the Dhamma over and over again with the aim to have more understanding and to verify the truth of the teachings ourselves. If we do not listen, study and consider the Dhamma, we may believe what the Buddha taught but we shall not be able to directly experience the truth of the Dhamma.

The Buddha attained enlightenment, but we cannot understand what enlightenment means so long as we are only ordinary people who have not attained enlightenment themselves. We cannot fathom the Buddha’s preeminent qualities, but we can begin to have at least some understanding of them by the development of satipatthana, which is his teaching. There are realities appearing through the six doorways now, and sati can gradually begin to be aware of one reality at a time.

In the scriptures we often find the epithet of the Buddha “Tathagata”, which is full of meaning. The Buddha used this epithet frequently in reference to himself. In the Commentary to the “Middle Length Sayings” (no. 1, the Discourse on the Synopsis of Fundamentals), the ”Papancasudani”, Buddhaghosa elicited the multiple implications of this title (I used the translation by Ven. Bodhi in his translation of “The All-Embracing Net of Views”, the Brahmajala Sutta, B.P.S. Kandy, 1978.). When we read (The Pali term para can mean: further, beyond.) about the derivations of this term and the word associations, we should remember that Buddhaghosa did not give a linguistic exposition, but that he wanted to explain the Buddha’s pre-eminent qualities. We should not cling to conventional terms but try to understand what they express. The subcommentary to this commentary states that “the word ‘Tathagata’ contains the entire practice of the Dhamma as well as all the qualities of a Buddha.”

We read that the Buddha is called “Tathagata” because he has “thus come” (in Pali: tatha means “thus”, and agato means “come”). He has come in the same way as the previous Buddhas, through the same aspiration and the fulfilling of all the “perfections”. He relinquished limbs, eyes, wealth, kingdom, children and wife. He developed the factors leading to enlightenment, including the four satipatthanas and the eightfold Path, just as previous Buddhas.

The perfections (paramis) (The dependently arisen factors which cause the cycle of birth and death, beginning with ignorance.) lead across the sea of “samsara“ (the cycle of birth and death) to the other shore, to nibbana. The perfections are: generosity (dana), sila, detachment (nekkhamma), energy (viriya), panna, patience (khanti), truthfulness (sacca), determination (aditthana), metta and equanimity (upekkha). All ten paramis are needed, but panna is needed above all; the other nine paramis cannot develop without panna, they are the “attendants” of panna. In the “Commentary to the “Cariyapitaka” (Basket of Conduct), the “Paramatthadipani” (Clarifier of Sweet Meaning), wisdom is called the chief cause for the practice of the other paramis, the cause for the purification of all the paramis. When satipatthana is developed and there is awareness of kusala, panna can know it as non-self. The perfection of truthfulness or sincerity has many aspects. Because of truthfulness one develops kusala not for one’s own gain or advantage, but only with the aim to have less defilements. Without truthfulness defilements cannot be eradicated.

The perfection of detachment, nekkhamma, does not only mean detachment from the household life, but detachment from the clinging to self and the abandoning of all defilements. In this sense we can understand the words of the Commentary to the “Sangiti sutta” (The Recital, Dialogues of the Buddha III, no. 33), the “Sumangala Vilasini”, that all kusala dhammas are the “element of detachment”, nekkhamma dhatu. However, if we try to have kusala with the idea of self, there is no detachment. Khun Sujin reminded us that we think mostly of ourselves, of our own gain. The clinging to the self is bound to arise time and again, and therefore the development of satipatthana is essential, it should be developed together with the perfections. Khun Sujin stressed that we should not cling to the conventional terms of the paramis, we do not have to think that we shall develop dana, sila or any of the other
paramis. Then there would again be an idea of self who tries to do something. If we keep in mind that the goal is detachment, we can perform any kind of kusala for which there is an opportunity, depending on conditions. We develop the parami of panna when we listen to the Dhamma, not in order to get something for ourselves, but in order to have more understanding of the reality appearing at this moment. But the clinging to self is bound to arise, even while we are considering and investigating what we heard. Khun Sujin stressed that it is not self who considers the Dhamma. It is of no use to wait for the arising of sati, or to try to do different things first to cause its arising, then we forget again that sati is anatta. We read in the Commentary to the Cariya Pitika that “the destruction of self-love and the development of love for others are the means for the accomplishments of the paramis.” When we remember the goal and perform any kind of kusala, be it dana, sila or study of the Dhamma, it is the way to accumulate the perfections.

We read further on in the “Papancasudani” that the Buddha is called “Tathagata” because he has “thus gone” (in Pali: tatha gato. Gato means “gone”) As soon as he was born he went the same way as the previous Buddhas: his feet were planted evenly on the ground, and, facing north, taking seven steps, he surveyed all the directions, saying, “I am the foremost in the world. I am pre-eminent in the world. I am supreme in the world. This is my last birth. There is now no renewal of existence.” The Commentary states that his going foretold his numerous achievements of spiritual distinction. When he surveyed all the directions it foretold his unobstructed omniscience, and when he uttered the words, “I am foremost in the world...”, it was the foretoken of “his setting in motion the supreme, irreversible Wheel of the Dhamma”. The term “gone” should be seen in the sense of bodily movement and in the sense of movement of knowledge. The Commentary explains further on that he, just as previous Buddhas, subdued the defilements which are the hindrances by the stages of jhana, that, by the eighteen principal insights (maha-vipassana nana) he abandoned the deluded perceptions of permanence, pleasure, self, and the other defilements. He attained the four stages of enlightenment and eradicated subsequently all defilements until he reached arahatship.

He is called the Tathagata because he has come to the real characteristic (of dhammas) (tathalakkhanam agato. Lakkhana means “characteristic”). He has come to the real characteritics of all dhammas, such as the elements, the khandhas, the jhanafactors, all the factors leading to enlightenment and the factors of the “Dependent Origination” He realized true dhamma. Whatever is real appears through the six doors and its true nature can be known. Realities appear at this moment and through awareness and right understanding we can verify the truth.

Further on we read that he is called the Tathagata because he has awakened to real dhammas in accordance with actuality, because he is a seer of the real, because he is a speaker of the real, because he practises what he teaches and that he is called the Tathagata in the sense of surpassing. He surpasses all beings with regard to virtue and wisdom, he is unequalled. He is a speaker of what is real, because the whole contents of the Dhamma he taught, contained in the scriptures, is perfect in all its modes, irreproachable in meaning and in phrasing. He practises what he taught. Our actions should be in conformity with the Dhamma, we should apply the Dhamma in our daily life.

We read in the “Maha Parinibbana Sutta” (Digha Nikaya, no. 16) that the Buddha came to his last resting place, the Sala Grove of the Mallas and lay down between the twin Sal trees which dropped their blossoms in worship of the Buddha. Celestial coral-flowers and sandalwood powder rained down on his body and heavenly music could be heard, out of reverence for the Buddha.

We read that the Buddha said to Ananda (I am using the translation of B.P.S. Kandy, Wheel Publication no. 67- 69.):

Yet not thus, Ananda, is the Tathagata respected, venerated, esteemed, worshipped and honoured in the highest degree. But Ananda, whatsoever bhikkhu or bhikkhuni, layman or laywoman abides by the Dhamma, lives uprightly in the Dhamma, walks in the way of the Dhamma, it is by him that the Tathagata is respected, venerated, esteemed, worshipped and honoured in the highest degree. Therefore, Ananda, “Abide by the Dhamma, live uprightly in the Dhamma, walk in the way of the Dhamma!”- thus should you train yourselves.

During our journey we received many helpful reminders for the application of the Dhamma, from Khun Sujin and also by the example of our friends. One of them who practised generosity by offering tea to others at a small shop near the road, said that during this trip he gained more confidence in the Dhamma, and this happened to all of us. By listening to the discussions and considering what we heard understanding develops, and this is beneficial, even if there is just a little more understanding. I asked one of our friends after an exhausting day how he found the trip. He answered: “I receive something every day.” He found every day beneficial. Someone else was helping continuously, she never stopped. In the diningroom she peeled apples for others and did not mind that her own food became cold. Her example of truly non-stop helping in many ways impressed me. Thus, there were many opportunities for appreciation of other people’s kusala, which is a form of dana, anumodana dana. Khun Sujin explained the Dhamma with the greatest patience and metta, both to beginners and to those who had studied more.

She gave us practical advice for the application of the Dhamma, as she always does. I appreciate it especially that she stressed time and again that what we learn from the teachings is not theory, that it concerns realities. For each subject of the Dhamma we have to return to paramattha dhammas, we have to know precisely whether something is citta, cetasika or rupa. She repeated many times that we listen to the Dhamma in order to understand the reality appearing at this very moment.

She gave us the advice to “follow the stream”. She said, “Just follow the stream in your life, whatever comes.” We have to follow whatever occurs because of conditions, then we shall understand the meaning of anatta. This can condition awareness of nama and rupa. Like each journey in India, we had to suffer hardship: the road was bad at times, we were in the bus for a great length of time, we had some days of rain, and there were other discomforts like a fever or a cold. No matter what we see, hear or experience through the bodysense, there are only nama and rupa. We may say to ourselves, “there are only nama and rupa”, but their different characteristics should be known when they appear one at a time. Nama is different from rupa, and only when there is mindfulness of them, understanding of the difference between their characteristics can develop. We should not try to control realities which are conditioned already, but just follow them. This is a test for our understanding. We may think of the need for the perfections of energy and patience, but there may be clinging to a self who wants to have them. Khun Sujin said that they arise already because of conditions, and that there is no need to remind ourselves of them. We never know what will happen. One of our friends was so ill that she could not continue the bus trip and had to take a plane. It was unavoidable that this meant a delay for all of us. But if we “follow the stream” in difficult situations or in the company of people who cause us trouble, it will help us to see anatta.

Khun Sujin reminded us that we may say, “everything is anatta”, but that this does not mean that we understand anatta. We should consider what exactly is anatta: the nama or rupa appearing at this moment. Sound which appears does not belong to anyone, it arises because of its own conditions and it is beyond control. When hearing arises it is beyond control, we cannot help hearing when there are conditions for hearing. Only through mindfulness of nama and rupa the truth of anatta can be penetrated. The Buddha’s teaching of anatta is not theory, it relates to this very moment.

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: