Path to Nirvana Uncovered by the Four Signs

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Via Ceylon Today
Kaushalya Premachandra
(Courtesy: Kumbalgama Sri Sangharakkitha Thero of Peellakanda Arya Sila Foundation)

Siddhattha Bodhisatta found his destiny when he encountered the four signs of an old man, sick man, corpse and a monk on his very first venture outside the royal enclosures. Prince Siddhattha was anxiously guarded by his father, King Suddhodana, against exposure to suffering fearing the prediction upon his birth that the Prince would abandon all worldly comforts in search of enlightenment if he happened to see the inevitable old age, sickness and death, and the path to liberation from suffering. Like any other father would have wished, the King wished his son to become the Universal Monarch (Chakravarti) which was his predicted destiny if was not he to abandon the palace in search of the truth. However, the great King was ignorant of any superior means to obstruct the path of his son towards the Supreme Bliss. He was ignorant that a Bodhisatta could not be kept in an unwitting captive of nescience of the most elementary and realistic facts of human life and that luxury and indulgence could not fulfill a Bodhisatta’s destiny.

“Bodhisatta” in Pali connotes the meaning of one who aspires to awaken or enlighten (bodhi) in the truth (satta). “Siddhattha” means one who has “achieved” (siddha) what was searched for (attha) or who, in other terms, has comprehended the truth that was searched for. The “chariot” in which the prince sets off to the royal gardens is symbolic of this “body” which endlessly travels through sansara (the cycle of death and rebirth). The “charioteer” is symbolic of the mental process (citta and cetisika) which leads the body in the direction it wishes.

It was apparent that no royal enclosure could stop Bodhisatta from setting off for his destined journey in his royal chariot with Channa, his faithful charioteer (symbolic of his own faithful mind which was solely directed in search of the truth) to encounter the inevitable truth of life – old age, sickness and death. On his way back to the palace the prince heard the news of his new born son, Rahula and as he moved further towards it Kisagotami, the Sakyan princess, greeted the prince Siddhattha saying,

  • Nibbuta nuna sa mata,
  • Nibbuta nuna so pita,
  • Nibbuta nuna sa nari,
  • Yassayam idiso pati”

(quenched and full of joy are the mother and the father and the wife who own this prince so glorious).

Towards the end of such a fateful day in his life prince Siddhattha rejoiced over hearing the word nibbuta and thought when the fires of lust, hatred, ignorance, pride and false beliefs are extinguished, nibbuta (nibbana) or the supreme bliss should be found. His great renunciation from the palace enshrined a profound and deep renunciation within himself in search of what was truth (kim sacca gavesi) and what was wholesome (kim kusala gavesi).

This symbolic legend enshrines a profound truth about life and more than a mere occurrence of events it manifests the process of awakening through which each of us should proceed to find that truth within us. Although we do not live in royal palaces we share with the young prince who lived behind the royal enclosures the oblivion to stark realities that are constantly seeking our attention. Hence, we should join the young prince in his journey outside the royal enclosures – the enclosures of our own self-assuring preconceptions in order to steer our chariots on to the great path towards enlightenment.

Aging (jara)

In Patticca Samuppada sutta the Lord Buddha shows that “from birth as a requisite condition aging and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair come into play”. This means that birth results in all those following conditions or inevitable realities of life. The Lord Buddha, further, explains the meaning of “aging” in Vibhanga sutta preaching that it is mainly the declining of life-force (ayuno sanhani) and the weakening (or maturation) of the faculties of a being (indriya paripako) among decrepitude, brokenness, graying and wrinkling.

In Indika sutta, explaining how the body is formed, the Lord Buddha preaches that; first, there is the fetus (kalala) with the rebirth-consciousness (pratisandhi viññāna – initial consciousness that forms the next birth). Then, it proceeds through the abbuda stage (saliva-like consistency), the pesi stage (jelly-like cellular mass) and the Ghana stage (solid mass) before the child is born out of the mother’s womb.

The pratisandhi viññāna (rebirth consciousness) enters into the fetus, which is already formed in a fertile mother’s womb as a result of the parental union, with a life-force which we refer to as lifespan, which is analogous to a wind clock. The pratisandhi viññāna winds up the life (clock) with a certain length and force according to one’s karmic energy. Aging or declining of life-force starts as the consciousness enters the fetus, when simultaneously the life’s wind is let loose. Hence, we are subjected to aging even before we are born out of the mother’s womb. Maturation of faculties starts in there too. Maturation means growing old and weakening of the faculties. Most of us do not see this reality that thrust on our attention until we reach a certain stage of old age of endless pains. However, it is a reality that renders no escape for any being and that cannot be guarded against even with royal enclosures.

“Even royal chariots well-embellished wear out,

And so does the body succumb to old age,

But the Dhamma of the good does not succumb to old age,

Thus, the good make it known to the good.” (Jara Wagga, Dhammapada).

Sickness (vyadi)

The Lord Buddha has preached that this body is a nest of diseases (roganilan pabhanguran: Jara Wagga) and that starvation is the worst disease (jighachcha parama roga: Sukha Wagga). This body which depends on the food and liquids we take in constantly for its sustenance is afflicted by 49 diseases including starvation and thirst as the Lord Buddha has named them specifically in Girimananda sutta.

If we could be mindful of our daily affairs, we would realize that all our endless efforts are to ease the pains of our body, like one treating an incurable disease. Apart from cleaning the sewage flowing from nine doors from the body, the rest of the efforts we take to earn a living once again are to satisfy the wants of this body. However, we are blind to the truth that these endless pains can be extinguished by only being fully awakened to this reality as it is and taking the efforts to achieve nirvana. Nirvana is the supreme bliss which is the precious gain and the greatest wealth (nibbanan paraman sukhan).

“Hunger is the worst disease,

Clinging to five aggregates is the worst suffering:

Those who see this reality as it is,

Realize Nibbana through wisdom; It is the highest bliss” (Sukha Wagga, Dhammapada).

Death (marana)

In Vibhangha sutta, the Lord Buddha preaches death as “deceasing, breaking up, disappearance, completion of time, break up of the aggregates, casting off of the body…”. The Buddhist teaching explains four ways in which death can occur through an analogy of an oil lamp.

  1. Ayukkhaya – Death due to exhaustion of the lifespan assigned to that particular type of species – analogous to the wick burning off in the lamp.
  2. Karmakkhaya – Due to exhaustion of the karmic energy that caused the birth – analogous to the consummation of oil in the lamp.
  3. Ubhayakkhaya – Simultaneous occurrence of the above two causes – analogous to the consummation of the oil and burning off of the wick in the lamp.
  4. Upacchedake – Unexpected, untimely happenings – analogous to the wind blowing out the light.

There are four types of deaths described in Dhamma:

  1. Momentary death (kshanika marana) – Moment-to-moment death of nāma (mind – citta and cetisika) and rūpa (matter – body created by apo, thejo, wayo, patawi).
  2. Death by evolution of aggregates (santati marana) – Both mind and body undergo death of continuum of aggregates every moment. This is visible when the child evolves into an adolescent, adult, and old man. For instance, the child and his childish thoughts are dead when he is an adolescent.
  3. Conventional death (sammuti marana) – The actual death or the inevitable perishing of beings due to old age, disease, accident.  
  4. Absolute death or death by cutting-off (samuccheda marana) – This is the absolute death of contents (both klesa and skanda) of consciousness without a trace or liability to rebirth-linking at the moment of enlightenment. This klesa parinirvana and skanda parinirvana are experienced only by those who are enlightened.

Buddhism encourages one to be mindful of his own death as it will lead one to realize the impermanent and dissatisfactory nature of conditioned existence. The Lord Buddha shows that this body is not something we could treasure with pride as it is fragile, full of diseases and wears out. This body is a foul mass which breaks up and ends with death.

“This body is like a city made of bones,

plastered over with flesh and blood,

whose hidden treasures are:

pride and contempt, aging and death” (Jara Wagga, Dhammapada).

Monkhood  

The Lord Buddha explains that the life of recluse is like the space or the sky (abbhokasova pabbajja – Pabbajja sutta), as the monk who contemplates on the present moment lives detached to the passing phenomena. He is the one who realizes the universal realities of life within him by contemplating aging, illness and death in both nāma (mental phenomena) and rūpa (physical phenomena). Although, his body could be afflicted by illnesses, his mind could not be afflicted as he does not cling to the five aggregates as “self”. Instead he sees the five aggregates as passing phenomena which are impermanent, dissatisfactory and cannot be claimed as “self” (Nakulapita sutta). He sees the arising of mind as its birth (jati), he sees its temporary existence as aging (jara), he sees its attachment to “self” (upadana to five aggregates) as its illness (vyadi), he sees its deceasing as its death (marana).

When his noble mind is purified of all evils (klesas), it is like the clear sky without limitations like a mirror without frames (no-self/ he has overcome attachment to self), which keeps no trace of anything (detached). He is detached and free of worries. He has profoundly renounced from the world and within his own self. He who stops his birth is not subject to decay, disease and death. This is called enlightenment or the supreme bliss.   

“There are no traces of footsteps in the sky,

and no Buddha (as a person or self) outside;

Ordinary men delight in worldliness,

but the Buddhas are free from worldliness” (Mala Wagga, Dhammapada).