People In Vain

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People in Vain


Quite often in the West we use the words “awakening” and “enlightenment interchangeably. This is a misinterpretation on our part. They are not synonyms but clearly represent two distinct stages on the Path. Awakening is often referred to as the “Great Awakening” in the Canons of both Pali and Mahayana. Awakening can be seen as a process, indeed it is the process leading to the attainment of Enlightenment.There are many degrees of Awakening and Enlightenment. Attaining the Enlightenment of the Arahants, Pratyekabuddha (Pali, paccekabuddha, literally “a lone buddha”, “a buddha on their own” or “a private buddha”), Bodhisattvas, and others. It need to be awake in order to see clearly. That clear seeing allows us to at least have the possibility of gaining Enlightenment.

To experience a Great Awakening is to achieve a complete and deep realization of what it means to be a Buddha and how to reach Buddhahood. It is to see one’s Nature, comprehend the True Nature of things, the Truth. In some traditions this is called a “provisional enlightenment. It is only after becoming a Buddha that one can one be said to have truly attained “Supreme Enlightenment”; that is, attained the Way becoming sammāsambodhi. This is the ‘Perfect Enlightenment’ of Universal Buddhahood, the state attained by one by whom the liberating law (Dhamma/Dharma) which was once lost to the world, but has again been discovered, realized and clearly proclaimed to the world. One must be awakened before one can be enlightened.

“Now, someone, in things never heard before, understands by himself the truth, and he therein attains omniscience, and gains mastery in the powers. Such a one is called a Universal Buddha, or Enlightened One” (Puggalapaññatti 29). The doctrine characteristic of all the Buddhas, and each time rediscovered by them and fully explained to the world, consists in the 4 Truths (sacca) of suffering, its origin, its extinction and the way to its extinction (Marga/Magga).

One metaphor appearing in the Sutras is that of a glass of water containing sediments. As long as the glass is undisturbed, the sediments remain at the bottom and the water is clear. However, as soon as the glass is shaken, the water becomes turbid. Just as when a practitioner experiences “a” Great Awakening and awakens to the Way, his or her afflictions (attachment, aversion and delusion) are temporarily suspended but not yet eliminated. To achieve Supreme Enlightenment, to be rid of all afflictions, to discard all the mental sediments is the ultimate goal of one who is really treading the Path of the Buddha. Only then can he or she completely trust his mind and actions. Until then, the mind is not our friend, it is an untrustworthy ally in our daily struggles and confrontations with life. It is one thing to know the seemingly appropriate words but quite another to experience Awakening. 

We all know people, self-proclaimed “enlightened ones,” who have an uncanny ability to utter Zen sounding phrases, a few choice Tibetan words, a pretty verse or two from the Sutras. They sometimes use them to brush off authentic Dharma. “There is no body,” they might say, as if no one should feel pain, no woman ought to go through childbirth, no one need eat, age or die. Theirs is a pseudo-awakening. They’ve fooled themselves but no one else. Of the seemingly infinite variety of deceptions available to us in the market place, there’s none as bad as deceiving yourself. These are “people in vain.”

When we haven’t really seen the truth, what business do we have making suppositions about ourselves? Who are we that we can proclaim our attained of this or that sort of knowledge or attainment and that we know enough to teach others correctly? 

The Buddha is very disparaging of this kind of teacher. He called them “people in vain.” They get caught up in their own mastery of the Dhammic language. Even if we are able to great numbers of people to become arahants or highly developed bodhisattvas, while we have not tasted the essential character of the Dhamma for ourselves, the Buddha says that we are “a person in vain.” We have to keep examining ourselves. If we have not yet really trained ourselves in the things we attempt to teach to others, how will we be able to liberate ourselves from own suffering?

Consider this for a moment. It is a subtle matter to extinguish suffering and gain release from suffering. Dukkha, stress and suffering, is absolutely personal. When we question ourselves in this way, we will be right on course. Yet even so, we must be careful. If you start taking sides with yourself, the mind will cover itself up with wrong insights and wrong opinions, like “because all things are empty, nothing matters.” It is precisely because all things are empty that every thing matters, including our bodies and the experiences we have.

Before a genuine awakening, one ought to be cemented to the precepts and keep a close watch on his mind and thoughts, like a cat stalking its prey, ready to pounce on evil thoughts immediately as they arise. To do otherwise than this is to certainly court failure and great disappointment. There are hundreds of stories of wayward monks, roshis and gurus demonstrate to illustrate the folly and harm a “person in vain” can cause.

The awareness that eliminates the sense of self depends more than anything else on your powers of observation. That power allows to see if there’s still anything in our preconceptions, learning or opinions that comes from the force of pride in any sense of self — even when we deny that self’s existence. We have to use the full power of our mindfulness and discernment to cut these things away, cut through the delusion. It’s not a trivial matter. 

If we gain a few insights or let go of things just a little bit, we can’t go around thinking we are anything special. We can’t go around telling others that we are someone special either. The defilements are honest enemies, they don’t hold armistice with anyone — not even you. They keep arising incessantly. We have to be circumspect and examine things on all sides just as they are. Only then will we be able to benefit ourselves and others in ways that make the defilements and sufferings lighter. After all, most people aren’t really interested the attainment of Enlightenment, they just want to get through the day with as little pain as possible.

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About Sensei Mui

Sensei Mui is a Buddhist monk who took formal refuge and bhikkhu ordination as a Theravada monk in Thailand during the early 1970s. Since those days he has both studied and was ordained in multiple Mahayana lineages. Today the main focus of his practice and teaching is from the Pure Land perspective. He currently acts as the Director and Administrator for Hongaku Jodo, an educational and practice oriented organization of Buddhist teachers of Dharma, pure and simple.
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