The Middle Path to Freedom | Daily News

The Middle Path to Freedom

Vesak is one of the most significant festivals to Buddhists around the world. In Sri Lanka this is not just a religious festival but also a cultural festival which is celebrated even by the non-Buddhists. In the month of May this blissful event takes place reminding all of us about certain values, which I have learnt to respect. Vesak also known as Buddha Jayanti and Buddha Purnima, is a holiday traditionally observed by Buddhists in South Asia and Southeast Asia.

The festival commemorates the Birth, Enlightenment (Abhisambodi), and Great Demise (Parinirvana) of Gautama Buddha. The name Vesak is derived from the Pali term vesakha or Sanskrit vaisakha for the lunar month of Vaisakha, which is considered the month of Buddha's birth. In Mahayana Buddhist traditions, the holiday is known by its Sanskrit name (Vaisakha).

This event has a long history. Long years back a prince was born to a queen named Mahamaya and a king named Suddhodana. This prince was named “Prince Siddhartha” and at the time of the birth a prudent sage had prophesied that the prince will one day become either a great king or a noble monk. In order to prevent him being a monk the king planned to keep him away from the reality of human life and suffering. The king did not let the prince go out of the safety and luxury of the palace. He did not realize the reality of life until he witnessed the four great sights Satara Peranimiti (an old man, a sick man, a dead person and finally a monk). By the time he came to realize the reality of life he had already been married to a beautiful princess named Yashodhara and they had a son named Rahula. On the day when the baby Rahula was born, Prince Siddhartha decided to leave the palace in order to find an answer to the problem of suffering.

Way to overcome the suffering

Finding a way to overcome the suffering was not that easy. He tried so many methods. He kept himself in a state of hunger for a long duration. During that time he did not eat well. His ribs were visible through the skin. He followed an extreme path in order to find the solution to the problem. He later indulged in the Middle Path, the understanding of practical life, avoiding the extremes of self denial and self indulgence and finally reached the level of wisdom that he was earnestly pursuing. Siddhartha Gautama attained the liberating status of Enlightenment and rightly became “The Noble Buddha”.

After His enlightenment the noble Buddha started travelling with the intention of teaching others how to overcome suffering. Regardless of the castes and the status of the followers he taught the core concepts of his findings and kept teaching it for nearly four decades. The birth, enlightenment and the passing away which is also known as Parinibbana all took place on Vesak day and that is why Vesak is such an important event to all the Buddhists in the world.

The Buddha was clear on his metaphysical views. He declared there are three facts of existence, known as “the three marks of existence: 1) Impermanence or anicca 2) Suffering or dukkha and 3) Non-Self or anattaa”. All Buddhists accept these as facts of existence. Joseph Goldstein (2010), a prominent Buddhist scholar and mindfulness practitioner, posits that all of the Buddha’s teachings are “summed up succinctly in one sentence taught by the Buddha: ‘Nothing whatsoever is to be clung to as ‘I’ or ‘mine’. This is the doctrine of Non-Self.

Grasping or clinging, is an “attitude” which either “takes the form of ‘attaching to’ the object of the moment’s experience or of ‘resisting’ the object of experience”. In other words, grasping is something we desire to have or avoid. In short, we can grasp any experience, including the experience of a self. Thus, the Buddhist doctrine of Non-Self is simply to not grasp anything, “most importantly not to grasp our own identities”.

Impermanence is the idea that all things are not permanent, they are always changing; that they are always in a constant state of flux. Because everything—literally everything—is impermanent or in a continual state of transience. On a human level, large scale examples of impermanence can be the evolution and extinction of animal and plant species, “the rise and fall of empires, civilizations, and cultures. In the realm of quantum physics, existence is in a “perpetual storm of change”.

The Buddha’s teachings

Interestingly, as is said in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, immediately after the Buddha’s first sermon, one of the disciples, Kondanna got an insight, which he expressed as, “Whatever has the nature of arising, has the nature of cessation”. An important contextual framework in which the Buddha presented his doctrine of impermanence is the framework of causes and conditions. The same framework also becomes a part of a larger framework of the doctrine of dependent arising. According to this framework, things arise as a part of a causal process. A thing/phenomenon arises from its causes and conditions and it ceases when they cease. Cessation of anything is eternal in a peculiar sense.

On a personal level, we witness the birth and eventual death of those we love, friends, family, and acquaintances. As time goes on, our relationships with others morph and change based on a host of transient factors, such as employment, school, marriage, and social-economic status. On a micro scale, impermanence governs all the interactions in the microscopic domain. Cells in our bodies reproduce and die at an astonishing rate; particles of all kinds come in and out of existence in fractions of a second—any one moment in time is a flurry of transition and change. Each cell in our body undergoes a hundred thousand chemical reactions in one second.

What is Non-Self and Dukkha rooted in? The answer is impermanence. For instance, why is Dukkha a truth of existence? In the simplest terms we are dissatisfied because the objects of our desires are things that are not permanent; because they are subject to constant transience. Impermanence is the most fundamental reason Dukkha exists. Nibbana in Buddhism is regarded as the cessation of cravings and subsequently the cessation of suffering.

One of my favourite lyricists is Senaka Batagoda. He has composed and sung a song titled Ananthayata Yanawamai (translates Reaching to Infinity) where this wise musician brilliantly succeeds in capturing the topic of impermanence. The Buddhist doctrine of impermanence is not only an empirical and factual doctrine, but it has practical relevance for the issue of suffering and emancipation. This Vesak may we focus our minds gaze beyond the lanterns, and illuminate our inner thinking to become humans who are void of attachment. May we strive to be humans who can love and care for others, without judgement or expectation. We must cultivate respect and tolerance for all religions, languages and cultural beliefs. May we love our Motherland, Sri Lanka.

(The writer wishes to thank the Bhikkhus of the Buddhist Cultural Centre, Nedimala)


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