As he sat under the Bodhi Tree, meditating and watching his thoughts come and go, his mind started to break free of the constraints of his ego. He entered each moment fully present as his thoughts dropped away.
The discovery under the pipal tree is usually described as enlightenment — his final illumination and transcendence of suffering. That moment has also been described as “awakening,” and in fact, Buddha translates into “an awakened one.” Enlightenment and awakening provide different images. Enlightenment suggests turning the lights on while awakening suggests coming out of sleep. Enlightenment conveys something esoteric while awakening suggests something rather ordinary, something you do every day.
Mara Gives His Best Shot
During his time under the tree, the Buddha's arch nemesis, Mara, appeared. Mara can be seen as a metaphor for desire; he marshals armies of beautiful women and alluring visions to distract Siddhartha from his path. Undeterred, Siddhartha persisted with his meditation, transforming Mara's forces into flowers that rained petals down upon his head. Mara's final ploy was to show Siddhartha a vision of himself, the one called “Siddhartha.” But this self, too, Siddhartha realized is not unchanging, not real, not worth clinging to. Striking a now famous pose, the soon-to-be Buddha reached down with his right hand to touch the earth as witness to his awakening — to his seeing through the illusions provided by Mara. Mara, having used all the tricks in his bag, gave up.
“Only when faced with the activity of enemies can you learn real inner strength. From this viewpoint, even enemies are teachers of inner strength, courage, and determination.” — The Dalai Lama
Siddhartha continued to meditate through the night, and according to the scriptures, he first experienced all of his past lives, and then finally experienced what is known as dependent origination — the “causally conditioned nature of reality.” Rebirth was a common belief in Siddhartha's time, so the first two insights are not original or particularly relevant to the power of his later teachings. However, the insight of dependent origination is original to him and crucial to his teachings. Dependent origination is the recognition that every moment is conditioned by a previous one, that things unfold in an interconnected chain of becoming.
The legend says that after his time under the pipal tree, Siddhartha had radically changed. When he encountered other people they could sense this change. Soon after the Buddha attained enlightenment, he walked by a man, a fellow traveler. The man was struck by the Buddha's unusual radiance and peaceful demeanor.
“My friend, what are you?” he asked the Buddha. “Are you a god?”
“No,” answered the Buddha.
“Are you some kind of magician?”
“No,” the Buddha answered again.
“Are you a man?”
“Well, my friend, then what are you?”
The Buddha replied, “I am buddho.” (“awake”)
And so the name stuck and Siddhartha became the Buddha. Siddhartha often referred to himself as the Tathagatha, one who had “gone thus.” At first, he was ambivalent about his discovery and feared that people would not understand it. It took some time and deliberation for him to make the decision to commence his teaching career, a career that would last forty-five years. His first students were his old emaciated ascetic friends and the first lesson he taught was The Four Noble Truths. This first sermon in the deer park at Isipatana (or Sarnaht) is often referred to as the first turning of the wheel of dharma. In some sense, if all you knew about Buddhism was the Four Noble Truths, you would have enough wisdom to attain your own enlightenment. Buddhism has emerged to incorporate many other teachings, but the Four Noble Truths remain at its heart.