The noun ‘Buddha’ was known and used even before the revered Shakyamuni appeared in India. This term means “enlightened one,” and the practitioners of that time often discussed the questions: What constitutes a Buddha? Who attains enlightenment? Once, there was an old Brahmin practitioner named Brahmayu who heard about the recluse Gautama, believed to be a Buddha, traveling to his town. Intrigued by this news, he decided to visit him (Middle Length Discourses 91).
When the Brahmin practitioner Brahmayu arrived to meet the Buddha, he found him preaching to the local residents. Upon seeing Brahmayu approaching from a distance, the assembly respectfully made way for him due to his fame and reputation as a venerable Brahmin with many disciples. Recognizing him as a respected figure, the Buddha invited him to sit beside him before the gathering.
Then Brahmayu spoke, saying, “Dear Gautama, I have a few doubts that I would like to ask you.” The Buddha invited him to express the doubts in his mind, and the practitioner posed his questions through a four-line verse, essentially asking: How can one be called a Buddha, an Enlightened One? The Buddha responded to these inquiries with a four-line verse:
“What needs to be understood, I have understood.
What needs to be abandoned, I have abandoned.
What needs to be cultivated, I have cultivated.
Therefore, O Brahmin, I am a Buddha.”
This concise answer reveals three characteristics of an Enlightened One. These are not only the attributes of a Buddha but also the three goals we must strive for when practicing the teachings of the Buddha to attain enlightenment.
If someone asks, “Why do you take refuge the Triple Gem? Why do you observe the precepts? Why do you practice meditation?” and so on, our response should encompass these three points: “Understand what needs to be understood, abandon what needs to be abandoned, and cultivate what needs to be cultivated.” These are the objectives of the Buddha’s path, and accomplishing these three goals marks the attainment of the supreme realization of enlightenment.
If we are familiar with the first sermon that Buddha preached, the Turning the Wheel of the Dharma (Dharmacakrapravartana Sūtra), we will immediately recognize that these three tasks relate to three of Four Noble Truths.
- The first truth is about suffering, Dukkha. What should we do with this truth? We need to know suffering, clearly and deeply, and understand it fully.
- In regards to the second truth, the cause of suffering, Samudaya, it is due to desire, and this desire must be relinquished or completely eradicated.
- The fourth truth, Magga, is about the Eightfold Path, which needs to be practiced. There is one truth that is not mentioned in the above verses, which is the truth of the cessation of suffering, Nirodha.
In the Dharmacakrapravartana Sūtra, we know that this truth needs to be “realized”. However, when the other three tasks – understanding, abandoning, and cultivating – are completed, the realization of the truth of the cessation of suffering will naturally follow. And in this article, LotusBuddhas will provide you with 3 ways that you can practice to achieve enlightenment.
1. Understand clearly what needs to be understood clearly
What does this mean? What we need to know clearly and fully understand are the things closest to us, what we usually call the self, the ego. We often refer to this complex body and mind as the ego.
Most of us, from birth to death, our minds tend to look outward, constantly seeking sensual pleasures, to reinforce the self, to affirm the concept of the existence of the ego. Very few people sit down and reflect to answer the question: What really is this “I”? What is the “I” behind what is usually referred to?
If we pause and contemplate for a moment, we will see this is the most important question that needs to be raised. If, from the day you were born until the day you breathe your last, whenever someone asks: Who are you? What is your background? and you only show them your driver’s license or ID, which has your name and date of birth, but don’t really know who or what you are, then truly, that’s a regrettable thing for your journey from birth to death.
Practicing the Buddha’s teachings involves investigating what we usually think of as “I”, “self”, and “mine.” We often equate these words with something distinct, existent, a subject with specific verification. But the Buddha taught that all those ideas are illusory. When we look clearly and investigate the reference of the words “I”, “self”, and “mine”, we see they are just elements of body and mind, or name and form.
To help us understand better, the Buddha divided these into a group, a Buddhist term called the Five Aggregates. The scriptures call it the “five elements of clinging”, because these are what we usually cling to, with the idea of “this is me”, “this is my self”, “this is mine”. Thus, we can realize that what we call “I” and “self” are just the Five Aggregates: form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness.
For each of us, these are what we call ‘the self’. Our job in following the Buddha’s teachings is to know and understand the true nature of these five aggregates. From there, we can understand what really makes up our identity. From birth, growth, old age and death, this whole process of life is just a continuum of the five aggregates, interconnected through correlational conditions and phenomena arising from causes and conditions.
The form aggregate, or this physical body, is the foundation, and based on it, psychological factors arise and cease. Through meditation practice, we deeply investigate, with subtle mindfulness, the nature of these aggregates as they manifest from one moment to another. We see them arise, remain, and then cease, and this gives us a clear understanding of impermanence. From the understanding of impermanence arises the insight into suffering, the unsatisfactory nature of the five aggregates. From there, we realize that these ever-changing aggregates are unstable, unsafe, unreliable, and therefore, cannot be considered a solid, enduring ‘self’: they are empty, or they are non-self.
2. Abandon what needs to be abandoned
What needs to be abandoned here are the kilesas. The Buddha uses the term “kilesas” (defilements) as a general noun to refer to all mental states that cause suffering, unhappiness in our lives. The Buddha’s teachings provide us with a detailed path to help us examine and understand the operation of the mind.
However, this examination is not merely to be carried out as modern psychology is used to describe the operation of the mind. Buddhist psychology clearly and fluently defines the types of values. Moral values are clearly presented and analyzed between good and evil, without hesitation or ambiguity, because such clear distinction of moral values is essential to achieve our desire for happiness and to avoid all suffering.
According to the Buddha’s teachings, immoral actions and impure mental states can never lead to true and long-lasting happiness. Conversely, immoral actions and impure mental states are sure seeds for suffering, unhappiness. In fact, impure mental states, especially selfishness and greed, often come with pleasure, delight. If not so, surely this world would have been full of enlightened ones.
However, the pleasure associated with affection and greed is just the outer shell of a bad seed. When that seed sprouts and bears fruit, it will bring along pain and suffering right in this life, and if not, it will bear fruit in the next lives. Conversely, good mental states may sometimes come with some pain because to develop them, we have to swim upstream, contrary to the usual tendency of secular mind. But when good mental states bear fruit, they are sure to bring happiness, peace, and inner well-being. This is a part of the same law, the law of moral causation.
These unwholesome mental states are called “kilesas”. This word can also be translated as “disaster, calamity” because they bring suffering. It can also be translated as “pollution” because they dirty and rot our minds. The Buddha has analyzed the nature of pollution and very cleverly explained the origins of these pollutions, leading to the three roots of mental pollution: greed, hatred, and delusion.
Our job when practicing according to the Buddha’s teachings, that is, practicing Dharma, is to overcome, eliminate, abandon the pollutants of greed and hatred because they give rise to many other branches of pollution. But greed and hatred stem from delusion or ignorance. So, to destroy all pollution, we must destroy ignorance.
Ignorance covers the five aggregates, what we refer to as me, mine, self. Therefore, the way to destroy ignorance is to complete the first task, “know clearly what needs to be known clearly”. When we know clearly what needs to be known clearly, ignorance will fall off; greed, hatred and other impurities will also disappear. But just wishing cannot complete that task. We cannot simply think: “I want to know clearly what needs to be known clearly” and immediately we understand thoroughly. That is why the entire practice of Buddhism is a process to walk on the path of cultivation. The great gift that the Buddha gave to the world is not just a profound philosophy, not just a profound psychology, but a practical, systematic, step-by-step path for us to practice in all situations of life.
3. Cultivate what needs to be cultivated
This is the third task that the Buddha mentioned in his four-line verse: “What needs to be cultivated, I have cultivated.” We follow the path to “abandon what needs to be abandoned”, that is, to renounce kilesas (mental defilements). Moreover, we follow the path to “understand clearly what needs to be understood clearly,” which is to understand the nature of the five aggregates that create the illusion of a ‘self’.
What does it mean to practice this path? Know that the path of practice is arranged for us to progress step by step, not abruptly, not unexpectedly, gradually one step at a time, helping us climb each step to reach the peak of enlightenment. We have to start by controlling gross defilements, by observing and obeying the precepts, the five precepts or eight precepts of the layperson. These precepts help control the manifestation of defilements, the kilesas that can flare up in the forms of unwholesome actions.
Maintaining precepts is not just about avoiding negative actions. We must also nurture moral, good deeds. These good deeds help our minds grow strong with pure, clean qualities. We have to practice compassion and kindness to everyone, be good-natured when communicating with others, honest in communication, responsible for family and society, have a legitimate job, be diligent, respect others, be patient, humble and upright. All these virtues will gradually purify our thoughts, make the mind clean, wisdom and bright.
Practicing what needs to be practiced is not just simply nurturing morality. It is necessary to go further through meditation practice. As we strive to gather and concentrate our minds, we start to understand how our minds operate. We have insight to understand the operation of our mind. Through that understanding, gradually, we shape our mind. First, we start to weaken the impure qualities that pollute the mind. We are brushing away the soil in which the roots of impurity have deeply embedded. Remember that these roots of impurity have been deeply ingrained in the mind for many lifetimes, many lives. This purification process is not quick and not easy. It requires continuous, persevering, and long-term effort.
When we persistently practice like this, eventually our mind will settle, firmly concentrated. It acquires the necessary skills to continuously adhere to an object, unshaken, and thereby, creates opportunities for wisdom to arise. Wisdom is the third quality that needs to be developed. Wisdom arises through investigation, experience.
Of course, wisdom is not only initiated through meditation practice. Even in daily life, when learning the teachings of the Buddha, especially important sutras about developing wisdom, such as the ones about the five aggregates, dependent origination, the Four Noble Truths, we experience the Dharma and thereby create conditions for wisdom to arise. We develop wisdom at the conceptual level, to dig into the root of ignorance. Thus, through learning and reflecting on the Dharma, we start to shake the deep root of ignorance.
But the ultimate wisdom must be experienced. With a settled consciousness, we use it to examine the five aggregates. When observing our own experiences, we look directly into the true nature of these aggregates, into “the true characteristics of all phenomena”. Usually, first, we clearly see the arising and ceasing of the five aggregates.
That is, clearly see the impermanent nature. We see that because they are impermanent, they are suffering. There is nothing worth clinging to them. Because they are impermanent and suffering, we cannot affirm that one of these aggregates is a ‘self’ truly existing. This is the emptiness or no-self nature of the five aggregates. This marks the birth of true wisdom.
With wisdom, we dig deeper into the root of ignorance until we fully understand the nature of the five aggregates. When we can do that, we can say that we have “understood clearly what needs to be understood clearly”. When we fully understand what needs to be understood clearly, the pollutants in the mind are “what needs to be abandoned” are abandoned, and the path is “what needs to be cultivated” is cultivated. Then, we truly realize what needs to be realized, which is the extinction of all suffering here and now – we will become enlightened beings like the Buddha. And, as the Buddha has preached through the above four-line verse, that is why He is revered as the Enlightened One.
Reference: Bhikkhu Bodhi