After nirvana, for some time, the Buddha remained silent. Seven weeks later, he made his way to the Deer Park at Sarnath, near Banaras, where he met his five former ascetic companions. To them, for the first time, he spoke about his realisation. It was the beginning of a lifelong commitment to teaching the truth to as many who desired to know it.
Even as he took on a teacher’s role, his emphasis remained on self-effort. He certainly did not wish to spoonfeed students his teachings. The Majjhima Nikaya quotes him as saying, ‘Vibhajjavado aham, naham ekamsavado,’ that is, ‘I am an analyst, not a doctrinaire.’ He clearly positioned himself not as a propounder, but a questioner, of doctrines. In this sense, he would have seen his path and teachings more as a ‘theory of existence’, a science of the mind, not to be followed as such, but lived and experienced.
Somewhat like a latter-day scientist, the Buddha is said to have urged his followers not to take anything for granted, not even what he said. They were to verify each statement and doctrine for themselves, by living it and questioning it. Clarifying the importance of individual striving, and also his relationship with his followers, the Buddha is quoted in the Dhammapada as having said, ‘You yourself should make the exertion. The Tathagatas (Buddhas) are only teachers.’
In fact, this was also the very last thing the Buddha told his followers. As he lay dying, his foremost disciple, Ananda, asked him for a final teaching. ‘Be lamps unto yourselves,’ said the Buddha, as he fell silent to embrace his approaching death. This, like so many others, appears to be a jewel of understanding gleaned from his own experience. He had followed teachers and learned from them, but true realisation came when he sat under the bodhi tree and became a lamp unto himself.
Of course, the teacher is present to point out the way. But that is what he is – the finger that points to the moon, which should not be confused with the moon of truth. In his very first sermon, the Buddha presented a clear vision of the path. It consisted of the ‘four noble truths’ – pithy statements that contain the distilled essence of the Buddha’s understanding of the human condition, as well as the Noble Eightfold Path, following which one could live a balanced, meaningful life. It included developing the right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.
The Eightfold Path emanates from the very heart of the attitude that has come to be known as Buddhism’s ‘middle way’ approach to spiritual seeking, and indeed, to life.
Published as a column in the Asian Age newspaper on January 31, 2012.