The Awakening and the First Sermon

- through Francois Leclercq

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From the fight against Mara to the sermon of Sarnath, the story of the long march towards Awakening.

The young prince, whom the texts will henceforth refer to as Gautama, or Shakyamuni, the silent sage of the Shakyas, has just renounced the world to embark on his quest. Several paths are open to him. At first, he followed successively the teaching of two masters who enjoyed, it seems, a certain reputation. A particularly gifted student, he assimilates the knowledge provided in record time. But he is not satisfied with these doctrines which seem to him very limited. Abandoning the two monks, he leads five other disciples as demanding as himself, to continue their search together.

The small group settled near the village of Uruvilva, not far from Gaya, in the current Indian state of Bihar, and engaged in extremely rigorous asceticism... five years of appalling mortifications at the end from which Gautama can only note the inanity of the method. He then made a crucial choice: turning his back on the extremes, he opted for the middle way. He must first restore his strength. After a bath in the nearby river, he makes himself a modest garment with a few rags received from a dying woman and accepts the frugal meal brought by the young Sujata, daughter of the village chief. Scandalized by what they perceived as lax complacency on his part, his companions abandoned him on the spot.

We are in the month of Vaishakha (April-May), the night begins. Seated under the branches of a majestic pipal tree, Gautama has made an unshakable resolve: whatever it takes, he will not leave the place until he achieves enlightenment.

The fearsome Mara

A real fight will then take place, between the future Buddha and his adversary Mara. Mighty God, Mara fears losing her grip on the world of samsara, of which he is the master. He launches against Gautama his armies of terrifying creatures, tries to use the charms of his daughters to make him stumble. In vain. He then presents himself in person before the young renouncer, and at the end of an oratorical contest which sees the goddess of the earth testify in favor of the Bodhisattva, he must recognize himself defeated and withdraw. This theme of the assaults of Mara, a very evocative metaphor for the mental obstacles that oppose committed spiritual progression, seems to have been introduced into texts of relatively late date.

The march towards enlightenment can then begin. At first, Gautama goes through the Four Meditations, refined states of consciousness that allow you to experience the practice of Mental Calm, Samatha. He then embraces the experience of his own previous existences, then examines the phenomenon of life and death in its totality, for all beings, in all conditions of rebirth. He can then devote himself to the analysis of the problem posed, breaking down the mechanism which links beings in the seemingly endless cycle of births and deaths. He goes through its stages, in the direction of production and then of cessation. Much later, the famous wheels of life of Buddhist art were to give his reasoning a tangible form.

The Buddha refers back to back the two extremes: addiction to the pleasures of the senses and the excesses of asceticism.

Finally, when the first rays of dawn break, he has become a fully and perfectly enlightened being, a Buddha. The seven weeks following the Awakening take place under the tree or in its immediate vicinity, punctuated by a few encounters and by the intervention of the serpent Mucilinda which protects the Buddha during a torrential rain. Mara presents herself again, suggesting that the Buddha fall asleep at once in the absolute stillness of Parinirvana. But the Buddha chooses to teach, to show sentient beings the path that will lead them to the Liberation.

A first question then arises for him: who will be his first audience? Respect would have him give precedence to his first two masters, but both are gone. His thoughts then turn to his five companions in asceticism. The Buddha therefore went to Varanasi, because he knew he could find them among the renouncers who readily gathered in the Parc aux Gazelles, on the site of present-day Sarnâth.

The Sarnath Sermon

After the usual greetings, the Buddha sends the two extremes back to back: complacency in sensual pleasures, and the excesses generated by asceticism. The group then engages in silent contemplation. The Buddha then speaks again and tells them the Truth about pain — in Pali, dukkha, which certainly means pain, but above all dissatisfaction, impermanence, and the conditioned nature of phenomena—the origin of pain, the cessation of pain and the path that leads to the cessation of pain. First public formulation of the Four Noble Truths which are at the heart of what is now called the Sermon of Sarnath and form one of the foundations of Buddhist doctrine. The wheel of the Law is thus set in motion.

Before even approaching the content of the first sermon, this phase of the life of the Buddha includes, by example, a teaching that is still essential today, in my daily life: knowing how to guard against the temptation of extremes, often seductive, to stay in the right balance of the middle path

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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