Buddha & the Bodhi tree

Buddha Purnima is celebrated on a full moon in the month of Vaisakh, according to the lunar calendar, and commemorates the enlightenment of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. Because there has never been a consensus on the exact date of his birth or his passing into mahaparinirvana (final extinguishment), both these occasions are tagged onto this day.

One can say that Buddha Purnima is “Buddha’s Day”, and honours his extraordinary quality of wholeness, indicated by the fullness of the moon.
The symbolism of the moon is quite appropriate, for isn’t a “Buddha” a human being who has maximised his or her innate potential for goodness, kindness, compassion and equanimity? Isn’t Buddha someone who is radiant with clarity and completely, unshakeably poised in an integrated balance?
How the Buddha became the Buddha — the “fully enlightened one” — is a story that must be retold on this day, not just in remembrance of that momentous event, but because it holds out to us a promise of inspiration.
It all started when Siddhartha, an accomplished young prince accustomed to the “good life”, felt the stirrings of dissatisfaction. By material standards, young Siddhartha had it all. And then… what?
By the time he was 29, he began to wonder whether this was all there was in life. Some sort of an awakening might have occurred that brought him to the realisation of the untapped potential that lay within him. Expected to live a princely life, Siddhartha acknowledged his own need to move beyond it. Slowly but surely, the time was approaching when he would have no option but to deal with this inner urge.
This was also the point when Siddhartha began considering issues he had not given much thought to earlier. For instance, “the Four Great Sights” that Buddhist scriptures credit with changing the course of his life — an old man, a sick man, a corpse and an ascetic — are perhaps symbolic of Siddhartha’s thought process. He was looking around with questioning eyes and along with individual fulfilment, was considering the circumstances that characterise the human condition.
As his mind ripened in contemplation, he felt the need to move on to a life of spiritual commitment. The time had come to renounce his identity as Siddhartha Gautama.
Leaving his wife and newborn son asleep one night, he chopped off his long hair with his sword and donned the yellow robes of an ascetic. Then, he probably inspected the spiritual scene for a teacher and settled upon Alara Kalama. He quickly mastered what Kalama had to teach — disciplining the mind to enter the “sphere of nothingness”. Then finding his teacher had nothing else to offer, and that what he had learnt was by itself not the realisation he sought, Siddhartha left. The meditative methods Siddhartha learnt from his initial teachers found an echo later in his teachings as the Buddha, in the form of useful tools to help quieten the mind. However, the quietened mind is not necessarily a mind that
has understood, or is fulfilled. Hence, his need to move on.
Next, he went to Uddaka Ramaputta from whom he learnt the Upanishadic concept of “the one absolute that manifests in everything”, which he would refute post-nirvana. He also learnt to enter the meditative state that is neither consciousness nor unconsciousness. Yet, this too, was not “it”. He decided to embark upon a rigorous ascetic practice on his own.
For the next six years, Siddhartha remained immersed in deep concentration. It was a harsh, merciless practice. To subjugate his body, he would eat almost nothing, at times only a single grain of rice. He denied himself protection against the scorching summers
and the harsh winters. Soon, he was more dead than alive.
Six years into this asceticism, Siddhartha knew he was doing something wrong. He was no closer to realisation than he had been at the beginning. With the question, “Might there not be another way to awakening?”, he ended his penance by accepting a bowl of kheer from Sujata, a young woman who mistook the hollow-eyed ascetic to be a spirit.
A revived Siddhartha then went to sit under a Bodhi tree. Till now, he had been striving for realisation, exerting his will. Now, he remembered, from a time in his childhood, an effortless flowing into equanimity. He felt an ease envelop him. The tightness in his body and mind softened.
“I will not get up until I find what I am seeking”, he vowed.
Six days later, over the four watches of night, it is said that Siddhartha realised his true nature and that of Reality. Although the actual character of what happened is mysterious, we do know that there was a sense of conclusion and of a supreme connection. This he expressed through a simple gesture, touching the earth, when asked for proof of his enlightenment. That
simple gesture conveyed that through his awakening, he had realised his connection with everything everywhere.
Siddhartha the prince had ceased to exist. As had the student and the ascetic. From under the Bodhi tree rose one who had awakened to his true, enlightened nature. It is this Buddha that we remember and celebrate on this day.

— Swati Chopra is the author of Women Awakened: Stories of Contemporary Spirituality in India, Buddhism: On the Path to Nirvana and Dharamsala Diaries. She can be contacted at

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