Mahakasyapa, Ananda and Enlightenment

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

There is a seeming paradox that centers around the attaining of Nirvana. There is a view that it is a gradual process, while another view is of sudden attainment (satori). In truth it is a Middle Way that accepts that there can’t be the sudden without the gradual. Gradual and sudden attainment can be experienced in the story of Ananda’s quest for enlightenment

Ananda was one of the earliest disciples of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Guatama. Some scholars say he was Siddhartha’s cousin. It is known for certain that he was the Awakened One’s right hand man up until Parinirvanna, the moment of the Buddha’s death. Ananda’s story didn’t end there though. What occurred offers insight into meditation practice from a Ch’an perspective.

One of the original disciples of the Buddha, Ananda had a intellectual mind endowed with what today we might term a ‘photographic memory’ that included remembering word-for-word what he heard. With all of his gifts, skills and effort he was unable to reach enlightenment during the Buddha’s lifetime. Ananda thought that the Awakened One would reward him with enlightenment as a result of his intelligence, actions and devotion. Ananda stood by the Buddha as he passed into Nirvana and possibly wondered if his chance for enlightenment had also passed.

Ananda then turned to the man who had stepped into the Buddha’s sandals, asking Mahakasyapa to help him achieve the goal of enlightenment. After the Buddha’s death, Mahakasyapa, set out to gather together 500 enlightened disciples to continue to offer the dharma, and legend says he could only find 499. Many of the gathered said, “Go to Ananda.” Mahakasyapa’s reply was that Ananda was unqualified because he wasn’t an arhat. He went further to state that he’d sooner disband the entire assembly then allow Ananda entrance.

Ananda returned to Mahakasyapa three more times only to be turned away. He beseeched him, “The Buddha entered Nirvana and now only you can help me to reach enlightenment!” Mahakasyapa replied, “I am too busy and cannot help you. You are on your own.” Only then did Ananda become mindful of an enlightened moment, he realized then that only through his own efforts would he attain his goal.

It is said that Ananda went to a quiet, secluded place. He prepared himself to sit in meditation and as he was about to sit, he attained enlightenment. At that moment he ceased to rely on others, letting go of his attachments and dispositions through his own efforts.

The two main characters in this tale reveal two aspects of meditation and enlightenment in Ch’an philosophy and practice, the gradual arising of sudden enlightenment. Mayakasyapa seems to have achieved sudden enlightenment; Ananda’s was a gradual achievement. Seeing the interconnection and interdependence of sudden and gradual requires a seeming duality in viewing meditation practice, and how it can become an integral part of a lay-persons’ practice in contrast to that of a monastic practice. For one committed to a traditional monastic practice it is meditation with the goal of reaching enlightenment and the ceasing of the cycle of rebirth; for the traditional lay-person a meditation practice is engaged in order to come to terms with dispositions and habits, gain control over negative emotional states, and to prepare themselves for an advanced rebirth. The seeming duality falls away when the realization arises that both a monastic and lay practice begins with personal development and matures into a socially engaged practice; the practices just develop at different levels and have different effects on the individual practitioner’s worldview. The paths are not the same but the intent surely is.

In the Pragmatic Buddhist tradition, the core of Engaged Dharma Insight Group, as monastics we live and practice with the ideal that “life is our monastery”. A deeply focused meditation practice is engaged on the cushion, but equally important is that we extend that meditative state to all aspects of how we interact within the causal Universe. It is the experiences and situations encountered throughout each day, and each moment that practice matures and becomes more useful and productive. For a contemporary lay-person the focus for meditation practice is similar to the traditional in that rigorous self-honesty is applied to dispositions and habits, and negative emotional states so that Buddha-nature can be recognized. Rebirth is set-aside and practice is directed toward HOW one is between birth and death. The recognition of not-self leads directly to the realization of the value of being a social engaged person, Buddhist or not.

From this arises what is critical in either worldview, sudden or gradual . . . be a better human being. A regular, focused meditation practice is a powerful tool for becoming that better human being you imagine you can be.

Back to the two characters:

Traditionally it is said that Mahakasyapa achieved enlightenment by viewing a white lotus flower held aloft by the Buddha. In the Silent Sermon given on Vulture Peak, the Buddha held up a white flower, its roots dripping with water and mire. He slowly turned so that all the assembled disciples could view it. Only one, Kasyapa, “got it”. At that moment it is said he attained enlightenment and stood ready to lead the Buddha’s disciples after the Awakened One’s parinirvana. Ch’an Buddhism’s foundation in mysticism is said to arise from this event, Mahakasyapa’s “sudden enlightenment” (Jp., satori).

Ananda spent his adult life as the Awakened One’s main attendant. He traveled across India with the Buddha, learned from him through word and example, performed daily duties that enabled the Buddha to teach, and with all that, engaged his own practice with the goal of reaching enlightment. Then, with the death of the Buddha he finds himself on a plateau of practice and learning. No teacher, no direction, but still with his goal not reached he beseeches Mahakasyapa to help him. His enlightenment, in contrast to Mahakasyapa is an example of “gradual enlightenment”.

In accord with the Buddha’s teaching in the Uposatha Sutta, gradual learning occurs in all situations, even when phenomena seems sudden.

Just as the ocean has a gradual shelf, a gradual slope, a gradual inclination, with a sudden drop-off only after a long stretch; in the same way this Dhamma & Vinaya has a gradual training, a gradual performance, a gradual practice, with a penetration to gnosis (knowledge and wisdom) only after a long stretch.

Neither Mayaskayapa or Ananda experienced “sudden” or “gradual” enlightenment. In Ch’an the acceptance of ‘sudden enlightenment preceding gradual cultivation’ comes with understanding. One gradually cultivates a spiritual/religious life after sudden realization of need, gradually developing wisdom refined through practice and experience.

Both Mahakasyapa and Ananda spent many hours with the Awakened One, hearing the teachings and practicing the ideals of the dharma before one experienced a flower, the other experienced death. In any instance, for any person enlightenment will seem sudden when it happens because one moment it is not there, the next it is. No matter how sudden an experience seems there is always a gradual chain of causal factors that contribute to any experience. This is the Middle Way of understanding. There can be no sudden enlightenment without gradual training in the dharma.


by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Siddhartha experienced suffering for the first time when Chana, his charioteer rode him through the streets of Kapilavatthu. He saw the sick, the aged, and the dead; views of the world outside his home that had been hidden from him since his birth. This experience was the catalyst for his journey both into his own bodymind, and out into the world of human beings. Six years later he sat under neath a bodhi-tree with a bodymind determined to fully understand the human condition. He awakened to four truths, the first being the reality that all human beings suffer in some moments in their lives. The Awakened One offered that suffering (P., dukkha) arises in three ways. A fourth view of dukkha is revealed with a deep view of contemporary living. There are physical phenomena that arise as the result from injury or disease, psycho-emotional phenomena that arise from unrealistic views, and conscious phenomena that arise as a result of a fundamental misunderstanding of the causal Universe. There is also suffering that arises from social and economic factors. The Four Ennobling Truths offer the realities of suffering and the Eightfold Path as the way to alleviate suffering; it is up to each of us to learn to recognize the unique situations that bring about the arising of suffering and the skillful methods needed to alleviate it.

Pain is dukkha. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has injured themselves. Pain is a type of suffering whether it arises when a child falls from a tree or the arthritis that debilitates the aged. Suffering caused by physical pain is dukkha-dukkha.

Some people enjoy growing roses. They invest time, effort and skill in order to reap the reward of beauty. Invariably during planting or pruning, even when harvesting beautiful flowers to put in a vase in the house they’ll get pricked by thorns or nick their finger with pruning shears. This is suffering caused by physical pain (dukkha-dukkha).

Craving for permanence or achievement is Viparinama-dukkha. All phenomena whether mental or physical will undergo change; that is the reality of impermanence. Attachment to, or craving for permanence is a path to suffering. Viparinama-dukkha also arises when a phenomena is craved for and never achieved.

There is enjoyment in the process of nurturing bare roots and canes through the first warm days of spring. Time and energy is invested in planting, fertilizing, pruning, taking care of plants through disease and infestation to finally seeing blossoms unfurl and smelling their perfumes. It is a labor of love and caring. All is done in anticipation of fragrant blossoms in vibrant colors. Some rose bushes die from known and unknown factors, some rose bushes don’t bloom every season, and pests can infest the rose bushes. This can cause psycho-emotional suffering that arises from attachment (vapriana-dukkha) and craving.

The type of suffering most difficult to recognize, and to alleviate arises as reactions to the delusions that can so easily become habits and dispositions is sankhara-dukkha. This suffering occurs frequently in reaction to the skandhas (aggregates) that can be wrongly perceived as “self” – form, sensations, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. Sankhara-dukkha also arises due to pleasurable constructs that cause psycho-emotional pain even while they are being experienced; habits and dispositions that one continually acts on even as they are knowingly causing suffering. This type of dukkha is described as being as difficult to perceive as an eyelash laying in your palm, but it is a painful as that same eyelash stuck in your eye.

Some people grow roses because it helps them create an image of themselves. The thought of the work needed bothers them, the actions of kneeling in the soil and dealing with bugs and black mold sickens them, but they pursue the delusion of being a gardener of roses. The pleasure they find is in being able to say “I raise roses”, in becoming part of a tribe that values such activity. All during the process the subtle suffering is denied through the strength of the delusion (sankhara-dukkha).

The Four Ennobling Truths identify the source, the symptoms, the cure and the treatment for suffering. Starting with the practice of meditation the path to the alleviation of suffering is through the bodymind. Change the way one thinks, changes the way one acts – changing the way one acts, changes the way one thinks. What can be confusing is just what mode of thinking is critical to alter. In the Discourse on the All (Sabba Sutta) the Buddha teaches that one must “abandon the all”, that one must let go of their attachment to phenemona. What ever is seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched and thought (the skandhas) whether pleasurable, painful or neutral must be abandoned. Knowing directly, through experience that all things, objects, feelings, emotions and formations are subject to arising and falling away that one can alleviate all three forms of suffering is an empowering realization.

These aspects of suffering – dukkha-dukkha, viparinama-dukkha and sankhara-dukkha – describe the types of discontentment and anguish we may struggle with internally and through discernment and the process of coming to terms with them one can begin to alleviate their impact. They are aspects of suffering that we can take control of because we have the knowledge and resources to do so. We can take deep and open look at contemporary life and realize there is another pervasive and encompassing suffering going on in the world. It is suffering that can only be addressed through social engagement.
Let’s name it mahajanika-dukkha, mahajanika is the Pali word for social so it is social-suffering. View this type of discontentment and anguish as arising from social and economic factors beyond the immediate control of those experiencing it. Think of peoples all over the world who don’t have the opportunities or resources to deal with issues such as poverty, famine, lack of clean water and violence. The peoples whose governments neglect or abuse them, whose religious and secular institutions control them without bringing benefit to their lives. They are experiencing mahajanika-dukkha. It isn’t that the people suffering don’t want a better life, it is that their present circumstances deny them the opportunity and resources to achieve it. It is the responsibility of those who have the resources and knowledge to engage these issues alongside the people and become a factor in combatting suffering.

The Buddha said, “This is that all which, by knowing it directly, by fully understanding it, by developing dispassion toward it, and by forsaking it, one will be able to destroy suffering.” We first have to accept and understand the reality of discontentment, suffering and anguish that we encounter. Compassion is the path to recognizing the need, dispassion (altruism) the path to realizing a solution. In each instance that there is lessening or reversing of the causes of suffering then those who live with discontentment and anguish can forsake it for an opportunity to participate in human flourishing.

Appropriate Speech: Right for All Worlds

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Appropriate speech, along with action and livelihood, is the path of moral discipline (sila) one walks on the Eightfold Path. Together they make up the visible components of a practice committed to the promotion of human flourishing (happiness, health and harmony). Ethical voice arises in speech driven by wholesome intent, in speech grounded in the realities of karma and causal conditioning. There are four aspects speech that arise in all Buddhist precept traditions: abstain from slanderous speech, from harsh speech, from false speech, and from meaningless speech. The adage that many schoolchildren are taught, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”, they quickly learn is far from true. Words spoken or written can hurt, words can destroy, or words can heal, words can cause the arising of emotions from hatred to compassion. Along with words there is the “speech” of body language and facial expressions, and even of how we dress. Lips do not have to move for others to recognize fear, joy, acceptance or tension that is loudly announced by how we physically present our dispositions. We must always be mindful because what we do matters.

Aphorisms are phrases that distill a wise idea into few words and sometimes vivid imagery. They come in handy tools as for memorization and for teaching ethical ideals and moral behaviors. Sayings such as “love thy neighbor” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” . . . have value when engaging socially with others, though a Buddhist might practice them a little differently with different intent . . . “loving-kindness to all living beings” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto others”. Some aphorisms are clear in their intent, others are not. A well-known Buddhist aphorism is “If you meet the Buddha on the road . . . kill him” and it’s meaning can cofound Westerners. ” In the 9th century the Zen Master Lin Chi was making a valuable point about spiritual materialism. Gathering the trappings of Buddhism . . . statues, paintings and shelves of books, speaking the language . . . bowing, saying namaste, and worrying about karma in relation to rebirth are the ‘materials’ of Buddhism . . . they are not the practice of its intent. The essence of the Buddha’s teachings can be overshadowed when one “collects” the Buddha rather than practice the dharma.

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