The Buddha’s Awakening

In the Pali Canon we learn that shortly after the Buddha’s enlightenment , Gotama considered teaching and spreading his new-found understanding (Dhamma) to others. In this moment he concluded that human tendencies make the Dhamma too difficult to comprehend and as a result, the effort to teach others would be far too much trouble.

“Enough with teaching the Dhamma

That even I found hard to reach;

For it will never be perceived

By those who live in lust and hate.

Those dyed in lust, wrapped in darkness

Will never discern this abstruse Dhamma,

Which goes against the worldly stream,

Subtle, deep, and difficult to see.”

Brahma Shampati, a being in the Brahama world, knew the Buddha’s thoughts and pleaded with him to teach the Dhamma as “there are beings … who are perishing through not hearing the Dhamma” and that “there will be those who will understand the Dhamma” were the Buddha to proclaim it.

‘In Magadha there have appeared till now

Impure teachings devised by those still stained.

‘Open the doors to the Deathless! Let them hear

The Dhamma that the stainless one has found.

‘Just as one who stands on a mountain peak

Can see below the people all around,

So, O wise one, all-seeing sage,

Ascend the palace of the Dhamma.

Let the sorrowless one survey this human breed,

Engulfed in sorrow, overcome by birth and old age.

‘Arise, victorious hero, caravan leader,

Debtless one, and wander in the world.

Let the Blessed One teach the Dhamma,

There will be those who will understand.’

In response to Shampati’s pleading and “out of compassion for beings, [The Buddha] surveyed the world with the eye of a Buddha” and concluded there are “beings with little dust in their eyes and with much dust in their eyes, with keen faculties and with dull faculties, with good qualities and with bad qualities, easy to teach and hard to teach, and some who dwelled seeing fear and blame in the other world.” As such, the Buddha realized that in uttering his previous intent to not reach the Dhamma, “[he] did not speak the Dhamma subtle and sublime.”

“Open for them are the doors to the Deathless,

Let those with ears now show their faith.

Thinking it would be troublesome, O Brahmā,

I did not speak the Dhamma subtle and sublime.”

This short account of the Buddha’s decision to teach the Dhamma is instructive. From it, we learn several essential qualities of awakening or enlightenment.

Enlightenment — in itself — has no direct bearing on moral choices. An enlightened state of being does not transform and individual into a perfectly moral human being. The Buddha’s initial decision not to teach was a moral one. He, through extensive searching and meditation, had come to understand the Dhamma, or path to enlightenment. Yet, he didn’t want to be bothered with trying to convey his teachings to beings very unlikely to comprehend his words. The problems with the Buddha’s initial position are 1) the Buddha’s assumption about the capacity of others to understand the Dhamma and 2) the reluctance to teach because it would be troublesome or difficult. As Shampati pointed out, there were indeed those who would understand and perhaps more importantly, needed to hear the teaching in order to liberate them from the endless cycle of birth and death. The Buddha’s incorrect assumption led to his the view that teaching the Dhamma would be difficult and therefore, a frustrating and perhaps futile effort. The Buddha was right, of course, that teaching the Dhamma would be challenging but hardly a futile effort. In Shampati’s view, spreading the Dhamma was essential.

It was only when the Buddha “surveyed the world with the eye of a Buddha” that he developed compassion for those suffering under attachment and delusion. In other words, the Buddha had to assume the qualities of a Buddha in order to be the Buddha. From this we see that enlightenment does not make one a Buddha. Rather, becoming a Buddha is dependent on assuming the wisdom and compassion of a Buddha. These qualities, of course, are often borne from awakening but require awareness and personal choice to be realized.

Awakening or enlightenment, then, do not make one a Buddha. Rather, enlightenment, followed by assuming the qualities of a Buddha, puts one on the path to Buddhahood.