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The Way to Nirvana

The auspicious festival of Buddha Poornima is celebrated this year on May 5th. Whenever there is decline in the practice of Dharma (righteousness), the Lord incarnates to reestablish Dharma and teach people to practice it. When Lord Buddha incarnated in 600 BC, people were caught up in ritualism, forgetting the spirit of the scriptures. They followed various dogmas and indulged in ‘animal’ sacrifices. Buddha came to teach man love, compassion, and nonviolence. He declared that Ahimsa (nonviolence) is the highest Dharma. Let us express our love and gratitude to Lord Buddha by studying His life and message that includes important concepts of Buddhism.

His Life

Buddha Purnima is a thrice-blessed day because:

  • It is the day when Lord Buddha was born in Lumbini, in present-day Nepal.
  • It is the day when Prince Siddhartha became the ‘Enlightened One’–Buddha, under a Bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa) at Bodh Gaya, India.
  • It is the day when Buddha took Parinirvana–leaving His mortal coil at a place called Kushinagar, near a renowned holy pilgrimage place in India, Varanasi.

Born a Hindu prince, Siddhartha, with all the comforts and luxuries of royal life, also had a beautiful family and was blessed with a beautiful wife and son. One day, when he left the protected confines of the royal palace, he saw four sights that changed his life. First, he saw an old man, bent over and holding a stick for support. Second, he came across a man suffering from a debilitating illness. Third, he saw a dead body being carried to the cremation ground. He realized that life was temporary, subject to old age, sickness, and death. Then, he came across the fourth and final sight–a young renunciate with no possessions, yet exuding joy and peace. He understood that he needed to search for the ultimate truth for his own redemption (and, in turn, for the redemption of humanity).

He developed two qualities essential for a spiritual seeker:

  1. Viveka (Discrimination)–To distinguish between the unreal and the real.
  2. Vairagya (Dispassion)–Detachment from worldly entanglements.

He left the royal palace with all its comforts and his loving family in search of the truth. He practiced penance and severe austerities (tapas). He went to the forest, stopped eating, and did penance under the guidance of great spiritual masters and sages. As a result of his severe fasting, he became weak and emaciated but still could not attain his goal.

The Middle Path

He then realized that neither self-mortification nor self-indulgence would lead to the goal. He realized that this was not the path and that he should adopt the ‘middle path.’ One needs moderation in food, sleep, and recreation to be happy.

In Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 6, Slokas 16 and 17, Lord Krishna says that Yoga (union with God) is not possible for those that eat too much or abstain from eating anything and for those that sleep too much or are always awake. But Yoga is attained by the one who is moderate in eating, recreation, activities, sleep, and wakefulness. Swami also emphasized that life is a ‘limited company.’ He elaborated, saying that both high blood pressure or low blood pressure, high temperature or low temperature, and excess weight or underweight are all detrimental to one’s physical and mental well-being. He said that for spiritual progress, we should practice moderation in everything.

Siddhartha practiced this middle path and Self-inquiry to know, “Who am I?” He finally realized, “I am I,” and became the Enlightened One. Thus, under the Bodhi tree, Prince Siddhartha became Lord Buddha and proceeded to teach His sermon at Sarnath, India.

The Four Noble Truths

Lord Buddha taught four noble truths:

  • Everything is sorrow and everything is transient (Sarvam Dukham; Sarvam Kshanikam). Lord Krishna also says that life is Dukhalayam (home of sorrows) and Ashashwatam (impermanent).
  • The cause of all suffering is desire (Tanha). Swami says, ‘Man minus Desire is God.’
  • The cessation of suffering is through Nirodha. Nirodha is renouncing craving and desire.
  • The path to the cessation of suffering is the eightfold path.

The Eightfold Path

Lord Buddha declared that following the Eightfold path is the way to end suffering. He emphasized that one should practice:

  1. Right vision
  2. Right thinking
  3. Right speech
  4. Right action
  5. Right living
  6. Right effort
  7. Right mindfulness
  8. Right concentration

This will lead to the state of Nirvana (attainment of bliss and liberation from bondage and grief).

Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba summarizes that spiritual journey is to realize our divinity by purifying our hearts and realizing the inherent unity or Oneness of all. For purity of heart, one should overcome the six inner enemies, namely, desire, anger, greed, infatuation, pride, and jealousy by the practice of the universal, eternal, and fundamental human values of truth (Sathya), right conduct (Dharma), peace (Shanti), love (Prema) and nonviolence (Ahimsa). He simplifies the eightfold path for practical living, saying, “See no evil; see what is good. Hear no evil; hear what is good. Think no evil; think what is good. Speak no evil; speak what is good. Do no evil; do what is good. This is the way to God.”

Ahimsa Paramo Dharmaha
(Nonviolence is the Highest Dharma)

In Buddha’s time, animal sacrifices were prevalent in the name of religion. Buddha presented an ideal for leading a life of nonviolence. He also practiced forgiveness. There are two divine incidents that exemplify how He lived in Divine Love.

The first is the incident of His cousin, Devadutta, who hated Him so much that he even tried to kill Him! He threw boulders at Buddha, shot arrows at Him, and even sent mad elephants to trample Him. But when Devadutta became sick and was on his deathbed, Lord Buddha visited him against the advice of His disciples. Sitting beside him, He said, “If I love you like I love my own son, Rahul, you will get up and walk.” Devadutta got up and walked! This is divine love–practicing forgiveness.

The next incident is about Angulimala, a dacoit and a cruel highway robber who would cut off the thumbs of his victims and keep them as mementos, strung into a garland around his neck. He collected 999 thumbs, and for the 1,000th one, he was going after his own mother! Lord Buddha, the compassionate one, wanted to save him from this heinous sin. He crossed paths with Angulimala and, with His love, transformed him. Angulimala became a saintly person and a great monk. Later on, he attained nirvana.

Swami says that the underlying principle of all human values, including nonviolence, is Love. Love in thought is truth (Sathya). Love in action is right conduct (Dharma). Love in feeling is peace (Shanti). Love in understanding is nonviolence (Ahimsa). But Swami also gives the highest meaning of nonviolence, saying that it should be at all levels–thought, word, and deed. Not only should we abstain from physical violence, but we also should not use any hurtful words or think hurtful thoughts. Hurting people by speech is more damaging than physical violence. That is why Swami said that our speech should be not only truthful but also pleasing and non-hurtful. We should also entertain only loving and helpful thoughts.

Brahma Viharas
(The Four Divine States)

Buddha taught the four states to be practiced and meditated upon:

  • Metta (Loving kindness)
  • Karuna (Showing compassion)
  • Mudita (Practicing sympathetic joy)
  • Upeksha (Maintaining equanimity)

These are very important concepts because, in life, we come across people who are either equal to us, less fortunate than us, more fortunate than us, or inimical/critical of us. These four states or precepts of Lord Buddha teach us how to maintain good human relationships as spiritual seekers with all types of people.

Metta: This is the practice of cultivating universal love, friendliness, and loving kindness. It is benevolence to all beings without discrimination or attachment. It is unconditional love where ‘I’ and ‘You’ disappear. It is loving kindness to ourselves, our peers, and even people who are difficult to deal with. Lord Krishna speaks about this in describing the qualities of a devotee in Chapter 12 of Bhagavad Gita that a devotee should have no hatred towards any being and be friendly with all.

Karuna: This is sympathy towards people who are less fortunate than us. Swami says, “The heart with compassion is a temple of God.” He says that a spiritual seeker must have the heart of Buddha, the hands of Emperor Janaka, and the head of the renowned vedic scholar and saint, Adi Shankara. Lord Krishna says, “He is the greatest Yogi who feels the pain and suffering of others as his own.”

Mudita: This is the practice of altruistic joy. It is the ability to take delight in others’ good fortunes or good deeds as a way to maintain calmness of mind and equanimity. In this state, one identifies with others and does not get jealous if they are more fortunate or have higher achievements. This is also emphasized in the Bhagavad Gita–a true Yogi feels the happiness of others as one’s own and doesn’t get envious, which is the antithesis of Mudita. We practice Mudita when we celebrate the success of others.

Upeksha: This is a state of equanimity when people criticize us, find faults, or hurt us. Swami’s definition of devotion is treating profit and loss, success and failure, praise and blame, pleasure and pain, as the same–as gifts of God. You accept everything for what it is and let go, for balance and composure. Thus, we are not agitated by expectations, attachments, and emotions.

Refuge in the Three Jewels
(Triratna Sharanam)

Triratna Sharanam is the highest Buddhist prayer of refuge. In the Dhammapada, the Buddhist Scripture, this is defined as:

  • Buddham Sharanam Gachchami
    (I take refuge in Lord Buddha)
  • Dhammam Sharanam Gachchami
    (I take refuge in Dharma)
  • Sangham Sharanam Gachchami
    (I take refuge in the organization/community of spiritual seekers)

It is said that people who practice these will understand the significance of the four noble truths and will be able to practice the eightfold path to attain Nirvana. Swami reveals the inner meaning of the three jewels. He says that when we say ‘Buddham Sharanam Gachchami’ it means that we should take refuge in our ‘Buddhi’ (intellect). We need to follow our fundamental discrimination between what is real and what is unreal. Also, we should have discrimination to see what is the highest good for all and not just selfish ends. Similarly, when we say, ‘Dhammam Sharanam Gachchami’, Swami says that we should use Buddhi to walk on the path of Dharma (right conduct) and a righteous way of living to help others. When we say, ‘Sangham Sharanam Gachchami’ it means we should serve society by using our intellect and following the path of Dharma. Swami said in a discourse that this can be done by following the three maxims of Daiva Preeti (Love for God which corresponds to Buddham Sharanam Gachchami), Papa Bheeti (Fear of Sin which corresponds to Dhammam Sharanam Gachchami) and Sangha Neeti (Morality in Society which corresponds to Sangham Sharanam Gachchami). This practice will help us experience divinity and bliss.

In His May 13, 2006 discourse on the occasion of Buddha Poornima, Swami gifted three more Ratnas or jewels to Buddhists and all humanity. The first one is ‘Sathyam Sharanam Gachchami’ (I take refuge in Truth). For us devotees, it is also about taking refuge in our Swami, whose first name is ‘Sathya.’ The second is ‘Ekam Sharanam Gachchami’ (I take refuge in Oneness). The ultimate truth is that there is only One. The dualistic feelings of ‘I’ and ‘You’ have to be given up. Swami says that a dual mind is half-blind. Real wisdom is experiencing Oneness. The third one is ‘Premam Sharanam Gachchami’ (I take refuge in Divine Love). Swami says that Love is the greatest wealth and power that one can have. He also says that God is Love, and Love is God. He exhorts us to live in Love as Love is the source, path, and goal of human life.

One who always lives in Divine Love will realize Oneness and divinity. This way, every human being can become enlightened. Everyone is a potential Buddha, truly divine. Thus, realizing the Four Noble Truths, practicing the Eightfold Path and understanding the concepts of Brahma Viharas (four divine states), and taking refuge in the Three Jewels (as expounded by Buddha and Swami), one attains Nirvana, the state of ultimate bliss.

The same divine principle of love is present in all of you. When you take to the path of love, you will become Buddha yourself. Today is Buddha Poornima. Poornima means full moon. The underlying message of Buddha Poornima is that the mind should shine with total purity like the full moon. It should unite with its source, i.e. the Atma, which is pure and effulgent. There is no darkness on the full moon night. On this auspicious day of Buddha Poornima, we should attain full purity of the mind.

Sri Sathya Sai Baba - May 13, 2006