3. A Few Fundamental Concepts

In the last post, we discussed Buddha’s journey to enlightenment, stopping when the previous prince became enlightened and was given the honorific title Buddha. In this post, we discuss a few key concepts, such as Buddha, enlightenment, and Buddhism, which are all important in understanding the core teachings of Buddha.  

1) Buddha, according to The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, is “in Sanskrit and Pali;” awakened one” or “enlightened one; “… meaning to “awaken” or to “open up” (as does a flower,) and thus traditionally etymologized as one who has awakened from the deep sleep of (non-luminosity) and opened his consciousness to encompass all objects of knowledge.”

The first essential thing to understand about a Buddha is that his ability to “encompass all objects of knowledge” originated from the awakening from “the deep sleep of (non-luminosity) and opened his consciousness to encompass all objects of knowledge.”  In other words, Buddha’s knowledge of the world came not from attending school, learning mathematics, or gaining advanced degrees. Rather, it is from “opening his consciousness.” 

It is a significant epistemological deviation from the traditional human approach to gaining knowledge, and it sets Buddhism apart from all the other “isms” in the world. Buddha’s unique epistemology must be comprehended before one can truly understand why Buddha is the only teacher who teaches the verifiable Ultimate Reality of the cosmos. This crucial topic will be discussed extensively in future posts. 

2) Bodhi, according to The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, is “in Sanskrit and Pali; “awakening,’ “enlightenment.” These two termsawakened and enlightened, are often used synonymously. 

The thing to understand about Buddhist enlightenment is that it is a well-defined mental state by Buddha, and anyone desiring enlightenment must achieve it. Indeed, those who deem “What exactly constituted the Buddha’s awakening is unknown” simply lack understanding of Buddhism. 

According to the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, in Astasahasrika-Prajnaparamita-Sutra (Chinese=道行般若波羅蜜經), Buddha gives enlightenment his definition as the “thought of enlightenment is no thought, since in its essential original nature thought is transparently luminous.”  

Obviously, “no thought” does not mean that enlightenment can only be realized when the electroencephalogram shows a straight line upon a person’s death. Rather, “no thought” refers to when the mind is quiescent, i.e., not actively thinking. 

Samadhi is a term used in Buddhism to indicate the role that quiescent mentality plays in enlightenment. 

Samadhi (Chinese=三昧), according to The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, is “a non-dualistic state of consciousness in which the consciousness of the experiencing “subject” becomes one with the experienced “object” – thus is only experiential content. This state of consciousness is often referred to as “one-pointedness of mind;” this expression, however, is misleading because it calls up the image of “concentration” on one point on which the mind is “directed.” However, Samadhi is neither a straining concentration on one point, nor is the mind directed from here (subject) to there (object), which would be a dualistic mode of experience.”

So, enlightenment refers to the union of the “no-thought” consciousnesses of the subject and the object to form a non-dualistic state of consciousness. 

So, what is the object and subject?  

  1. Object refers to the “no thought” quiescent mentality of the Ultimate Reality that permeates the universe. Because of its inactivity, the mentality of the Ultimate Reality qualifies as “no thought” and is enlightened by Buddha’s definition. Future posts will discuss the Ultimate Reality in detail. For now, this discussion serves as just an introduction to explain the role cosmic mentality plays in enlightenment.  
  2. Subject refers to the “no thought” quiescent mental state that a seeker of enlightenment must achieve to be one with the cosmic mentality.

Enlightenment happens when the seeker’s mind is so calm that it stops thinking. When that happens, his mentality can become one with the enlightened cosmic mentality to form a non-dualistic state of consciousness. The seeker is then considered enlightened, according to Buddha’s definition. 

This is the meaning of “opening one’s consciousness,” which allows one to “encompass all objects of knowledge.” 

So, what are “objects of knowledge?” 

“Objects of knowledge” is the same as the “experiential content” mentioned in the definition of Samadhi. They represent the empirical facts, i.e., the information embedded in the mental constructs of nature that can be realized or directly perceived without going through the medium of thought. In other words, the empirical facts inform the enlightened about how things stand in themselves in nature.

3) Buddhism, according to The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, is the “closest equivalent” to the Sanskrit word Buddhadharma, meaning “the teachings of Buddha.”

Indeed, Buddhism is education from our historical Shakyamuni Buddha. 

Shakyamuni Buddha is a Buddha who realized “all objects of knowledge” by “opening his consciousness” to become enlightened at the highest level of enlightenment, known as a Tathagata. Therefore, the content of his teachings, Buddhism, is about how things stand in themselves in nature, i.e., nature as-is.

In his descriptions of nature, Buddha never offers personal philosophical opinions. Instead, Buddha is like an honest reporter reporting back what he witnessed. 

Diamond Sutra “is a Mahāyāna (Buddhist) sutra from the genre of Prajñāpāramitā sutras. Translated into a variety of languages over a broad geographic range, the Diamond Sūtra is one of the most influential Mahayana sutras in East Asia, and it is particularly prominent within the Chan (or Zen) tradition, along with the Heart Sutra.”

In Diamond Sutra, Buddha promised that, like all tathagatas of the past, he is “a speaker of the truth, a speaker of veracity, a speaker of thusness, a non-deceptive speaker, and an uncontradictory speaker.”

As with any other educational system having grades, Buddhism has levels of enlightenment.   

In Mahayana Buddhism, there are three significant levels of enlightenment: Arhat, Bodhisattva, and Tathagata Buddha. 

1) Arhats are those who are enlightened and realize the “Emptiness” of everything in the universe. 

It is a major celebratory milestone in Buddhism because arhats have removed their afflictive obstacles, such as greed, hatred, and foolishness, resulting from misunderstanding reality. By removing their afflictive obstacles, arhats are free from sufferings caused by repeated cycles of determinative birth-and-death.  

However, Arhats still suffer from cognitive obstructions, hindrances that result from a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of reality. In other words, while arhats understand the Emptiness of the universe, they do not know why it is Empty. Only when they understand the root cause of the misunderstanding of reality can they eliminate their cognitive obstructions and be completely liberated from suffering. 

2) Bodhisattvas are those who have bodhicitta. 

According to the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, bodhicitta is “in Sanskrit, “thought of enlightenment,” or “aspiration to enlightenment:” the intention to reach the complete, perfect enlightenment of the buddhas, in order to liberate all sentient beings from suffering.” A bodhisattva longs to become a Tathagata, like Shakyamuni Buddha, by achieving the highest level of enlightenment, known as anuttara-samyak-sambodhi.

Anuttara-samyak-sambodhi, according to The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, is “in Sanskrit, “unsurpassed (anuttara), complete (samyak) and perfect enlightenment (sambodhi).”

3) Tathagata, according to the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, is “in Sanskrit and Pali, lit. “one who has thus come/gone.” Furthermore, “the secondary denotation of the term is to “understand,” things “as they are” (tatha.).” 

Lotus Sūtra “is one of the most influential and venerated Buddhist Mahāyāna sūtras. It is the main scripture on which the Tiantai, Tendai, Cheontae, and Nichiren schools of Buddhism were established. It is also influential for other East Asian Buddhist schools, such as Zen.”

In the Lotus Sutra, Buddha clearly states his soteriological aspirational goal, 

“I initially vowed.

 To make all sentient beings my equal without a difference.

 Now that I have fulfilled this vow

 That I made in the past.

 I can transform them.

 So they all enter the path of Buddhahood.”

While Buddha desires all sentient beings to be like him and be a Tathagata, he can only teach them how to achieve this. The journey to Buddhahood, however, is necessarily a personal one.

Furthermore, since the natural event that causes misunderstanding of reality does not change, where the journey in Buddhism ends is always the same. Consequently, Buddha teaches that there is only one dharma vessel to accomplish that goal, a vessel being a metaphor carrying one yonder. 

In the Lotus Sutra, Buddha says:

“In Buddha-lands of ten directions,

There is only one dharma vessel, 

No two or three,

Except for Buddha speaking expediently.” 

In other words, bifurcating Buddhism, such as into Theravada from Mahayana, should only be done for expediency’s sake. Arhathood certainly is not the end of the journey to be liberated from suffering absolutely. While one can choose not to continue the journey for personal reasons, the goalpost of nature will not shift. 

Furthermore, Buddha adds that “all exalted ones of the past, speak one dharma vessel.” According to the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, Exalted One is “one of the standard epithets of a Buddha.”

All Buddhas of the past have transmitted the same message because, as indicated before, nature does not change.