Make a Wish and Blow Out the Candle

by Rev. Jon Turner.

Siddhartha Gotama led the life of a sheltered and pampered royal.  He was a prince in line for his father’s crown.  One day he ventured out beyond the castle walls, and for the first time he saw the realities of life: growing old, becoming sick and dying.  For the first time, he realized that his royal lineage would not protect him from these events.  During that same adventure outside that castle he met a monk.  He was radiant and unconcerned with the future.  He seemed to have found a way of living beyond the extremes of life and death.  

This story is called The Four Gates.  It is this last gate with the monk, that awakened a latent desire within Prince Siddhartha.  It was a wish to seek a life of spiritual meaning rather than one of materialism.  Soon after this encounter at age 29, Siddhartha cut his hair, removed his jewelry, donned the saffron robes of an ascetic and left the castle in search of a teacher.

After six years of continuous practice, Siddhartha realized enlightenment.  He became known as the Buddha – someone who has awoken from the long, dark night of delusion and suffering.  For the next 45 years, until his death, the Buddha taught others and the Sangha grew to perhaps 10,000.

This is a condensed biography of the Buddha.  However, it only tells half the story.  There are actually two enlightenment events in the Buddha’s life: the first one under the Bodhi tree at age 35 and the second one under the twin Sala trees at age 80.  It seems these two events have been merged into one.  I would like to discuss the Buddha’s enlightenment as occurring in two parts – with different qualities.  This is called the Two Nirvana Theory.

We even celebrate two separate holidays for these two separate events.  The first is called Bodhi Day, celebrated on December 8th, and the second called Nirvana Day, on February 15th.  The names of these two holidays also add to the confusion.  It might be more accurate to refer to them as Nirvana Day and Parinirvana Day.  Nirvana Day celebrates the Buddha’s initial enlightenment and Parinirvana Day celebrates the Buddha’s complete enlightenment just prior to his death.  

This two fold structure of enlightenment can also be seen in the 18th vow of The Larger Sutra: “If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten directions who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, desire to be born in my land, and call my Name, even ten times, should not be born there, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment.”
This initial enlightenment is called enlightenment with remainder while complete enlightenment is called enlightenment without remainder.  What is this remainder?  It is the remainder of clinging.  While the self still exists, clinging still exists – even for the Buddha.  In other words, the triple fires of ignorance, greed and anger have been extinguished but the fuel still remains.  

This fuel and fire is represented metaphorically as the demon Mara.  Scholar Hajime Nakamura has found that “certain ancient texts … say that Gotama was assailed by the temptations of Mara after his [initial] enlightenment. … [but] later Buddhists, having deified Gotama, placed the subjugation of Mara before enlightenment to give his biography more drama.”  

Mara’s continued activities can also be seen in a couplet from the Sanbutsuge:

無            明            欲            怒
MU             MYŌ         YOKU         NU
No            Light        Desire        Anger
Ignorance, greed and anger,

世            尊            永            無
SE             SON         YŌ             MU
World        Noble        Last            No
in the World-Honored One, does not last long.

In other words, while Mara’s attacks still continue, their effects no longer last.  The fuel exists but the fire does not.  Nakamura concurs stating that “people of that time regarded Mara’s temptations as continuing even after the [initial] enlightenment. … I consider this to be of great importance.  The human being named Gotama did not, upon enlightenment, become a completely different kind of being, a perfect being impervious to harm.  Even after becoming a Buddha he possessed weaknesses and could be pursued and tempted by Mara.”  

We often hear that “nirvana" means blowing out the fire.  This is actually a metaphor that has been interpreted too literally.   In ancient India, it was understood that even after a fire has been blown out, a latent fire still exists due to the remaining fuel of the candle.  Our fuel also still exists until we die.  So the best we can do – in the here and now – is make a wish and blow out the candle – while still smoldering.

In gassho,
Rev. Jon Turner