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Buddhadharma : Spring 2016
46 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly spring 2016 We get introduced to that nature of mind with different methods, such as the practice of loving- kindness and compassion or the practices of meditation on the nature of mind, and once we get a glimpse of it, we have a sense of awakening that becomes an actual part of our mind. It’s no longer just a theory; it becomes a reality, an experience. Yet it is just a glimpse that still needs to be sustained continuously through meditation prac- tice and through the practice of loving-kindness, compassion, and mindfulness. Of course we would like to think that enlightenment happens on the spot and we never return to samsara. But it happens in stages through which we can perfect it. When Shakyamuni Buddha awakened under the bodhi tree, there was a young man passing by who saw this beautiful enlightened being but he didn’t know who he was, so he asked the Buddha, “Are you a god?” The Buddha said, “No.” Then he asked, “Are you a spirit?” Again the Buddha said no. The young man was very puzzled and he asked, “Who are you, then?” And the Buddha simply answered, “I am awake.” Awakening can happen in our ordinary life. It’s not something mysterious or magical. The vajrayana teachings say that because it is so ordinary, we don’t believe in it; because it is so close to us, we don’t usually see it. So there is a sud- den awakening, and it also takes time to perfect it. BuDDhADhARMA: Theravada teachers such as the late Mahasi Sayadaw tend to speak not about enlighten- ment but about nirvana, or nibbana. Does this put a slightly different spin on how we’re to understand enlightenment? AyyA TAThAALOKA: Yes, thank you for mentioning nibbana. We use the term to describe an experience of absence: absence of obsession, confusion, fear, any kinds of confusions and distortions, mental afflictions. It’s interesting—not so long ago, in the ordination ceremony for Thai monks in the Theravada tradi- tion, the phrase nibbana sacchikaranatthaya—for the sake of the realization, or direct experience for oneself, of nibbana”—was actually removed from the proceedings by royal initiative because there were those who believed that the vision and expe- rience of nibbana, even for Buddhist monastics, wasn’t possible in this Dhamma-ending age. But in this generation, thanks to the Most venerable Mahasi Sayadaw and other excellent teachers, that’s changed; the line was restored to the ceremony. There is the belief among many in our monastic tradition that it is possible, both gradually and sud- denly, to realize stages of the path of awakening, to have a vision of nibbana, and to realize it for oneself both in this life and at the time of death. BuDDhADhARMA: According to the Theravada view, is one already fundamentally awake, or is one always working toward this awakening? AyyA TAThAALOKA: In the Theravada tradition, we don’t use terminology like “buddhanature” or “essential enlightenment,” and yet, in this story of the Buddha’s awakening that Rinpoche mentioned, we believe that the Buddha showed clearly that human beings do have the capacity for awaken- ing, or at least a latent potential that can be acti- vated through this teaching and practice. While we wouldn’t say we’re essentially awakened, we would say that we have the ability as human beings to awaken and that it can happen suddenly based upon past conditions that have become ripe. BuDDhADhARMA: From the perspective of Zen, if we’re not working toward enlightenment because we are already enlightened, what are we doing exactly? GAELyN GODWIN: First I want to say that I hope people avoid the common false dichotomy that Theravada is very different from Mahayana or Zen. Zen practices, even though they’re not understood as aiming toward enlightenment per se, are a rec- ognition that for most people the awakened nature is obscured. When Zen first came to the West, there was an emphasis on realizing one’s awakened nature by dropping everything and putting all one’s Human beings are always bound by karma. But even though our defiled selves remain as they are, our hearts and minds already reside in the Pure Land. —Rev. David Matsumoto