Bodhi Day

Celebrating the Buddha's Awakening

by Ryuei Michael McCormick

This is another talk which was given no later than December 8, 1999; though it might have been given up to two years before then. In any case, it was given on the occasion of the celebration of the Buddha's awakening.
Namu Myoho Renge Kyo,

Bodhi Day Sermon

Today we commemorate the awakening of Shakyamuni Buddha. Shakyamuni means the “Sage of the Shakya Clan.” Buddha is a title which means “Awakened One.” Out of all the millions and millions of people who have lived upon this earth, we believe that he, at least, awoke from the dream of life’s all too frequent sufferings and all too fragile joys and saw the Truth for himself. This Truth that he awakened to was the Truth which resolved all his previous concerns about the meaning of life and death. This Truth was the solution to the problem of suffering that he had been seeking. All of his subsequent teachings and all the efforts of the 2,500 year old community that has passed on those teachings to the present day are all for the purpose of helping us to see the Truth for ourselves as well, the very same Truth that the Buddha realized.

We should not think that this awakening is something that we must revere from afar. It is not that this Buddha is somehow set apart from us that makes him worth remembering. Instead, we should realize that the Buddha is important precisely because he was one of us, a human being who could and did wake up to a new vision of life and a new way of living in the world. What he did, we can do as well. The Flower Garland Sutra teaches that upon his awakening the Buddha thought, “I now see all sentient beings everywhere fully possess the wisdom and virtues of the enlightened ones, but because of false conceptions and attachments they do not realize it.”

It also says, “Then the Buddha observed all the beings of the cosmos with his pure unobstructed eye of wisdom and said, ‘How wonderful! How is it that these beings all have the wisdom of the enlightened ones, yet in their folly and delusions do not know or see it? I should teach them the right path to make them abandon illusion and attachment forever, so that they can perceive the vast wisdom of the enlightened ones within their own bodies and be no different from the Buddhas.’”

In the Lotus Sutra, it is taught that the Buddha’s awakened life actually precedes the temporal awakening beneath the Bodhi Tree 2,500 years ago. Yet, this Eternal Buddha expressed this timeless awakening through his activities as a seeker of awakening over uncountable lifetimes. In one of those lifetimes, according to chapter 20 of the Lotus Sutra, he was a bodhisattva, or awakening being, named Never Despise. Bodhisattva Never Despise had one simple practice, which was to bow before everyone he met saying, “I respect you deeply. I do not despise you. Why is that? It is because you will be able to practice the Way of the Bodhisattvas and become Buddhas.” Even in the face of intolerance and persecution by those who did not want to hear the teaching of universal awakening, he never ceased to practise this deep recognition and respect for the Buddha-nature, the potential for awakening, within all beings. This kind of practice over innumerable lifetimes is what culminated in the Buddha’s recognition of all beings Buddha-nature and subsequent intention to help all beings realize this for themselves as he sat beneath the Bodhi Tree on the morning of his own awakening.

This is a very marvelous but also mystifying teaching. The Budha is saying that all of the answers to life’s mysteries and all of the virtues, love and power to do good that we admire in our heroes and saints are already within us. Yet somehow we have forgotten our own secret treasury and have misplaced the key to unlock it. Without the Buddha to remind us through his teaching and example we might never recall what is already in our hearts. Though awakened from the beginningless past, the Buddha’s awakening is expressed as the seeking and discovery of awakening, so that we too can seek and discover our own beginningless awakening. The key, for the Buddha and for ourselves, is to have confidence in the Buddha-nature which is the universal potential for awakening as well as being the Truth to which all beings awaken.

With this in mind, Nichiren wrote, “The heart of the Buddha’s lifetime of teachings is the Lotus Sutra, and the heart of the practice of the Lotus Sutra is found in the “Never Desparaging” chapter. What does Bodhisattva Never Disparaging’s profound respect for people signify? The purpose of the appearance in this world of Shakyamuni Buddha, the lord of the teachings, lies in his behavior as a human being.”

This means that all of the many teachings, analogies, parables and methods of practice taught by Shakyamuni Buddha all come down to one essential point: all of us can awaken to the Truth just as Shakyamuni Buddha did 2,500 years ago. In awakening we change how we see ourselves, how we see others and how we see all of life. In awakening we are able to express Buddha-nature through every thought, word and deed in every moment of our lives. This is the direct practice of awakening, embracing all of life in every moment. It is the Wonderful Truth of the Lotus Flower Teaching which, with great confidence and joy, we bring to mind and express as Namu Myoho Renge Kyo. The forms and expressions may change, but the essential Truth is recognition of universal awakening. Referring to the 24 character greeting of Bodhisattva Never Despise, Nichiren wrote:

“He sowed the seeds of Buddhahood with the twenty-four characters, while I do so with only the five characters [of Myoho Renge Kyo]. Although the ages are different, the process of attaining Buddhahood is exactly the same.”

Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 1997-9, 2002.

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