“It is the Unformed, the Unconditioned, the End, the Truth, the Other Shore, the Subtle, the Everlasting, the Invisible, the Undiversified, Peace, the Deathless, the Blest, Safety, the Wonderful, the Marvelous, Nirvana, Purity, Freedom, the Island, the Refuge, the Beyond.” (Samyutta Nikaya 43: 1-44)
The ultimate point of the Buddhist Path is enlightenment or awakening (‘Bodhi’ in the Sanskrit and Pali languages), the experience that the Buddha (‘the Awakened One’) had under the Bodhi Tree roughly two-and-a-half millennia ago. Also known as Nirvana (Nibbana in Pali), it is the subject of heated debates between Buddhists of different persuasions who argue over its exact meaning, and as to how easy or difficult it may be to experience. If we understand the words attributed to the Buddha, as quoted above, we may come closer to a true understanding of enlightenment, free of conceptual arguments. Let’s examine the first four synonyms for awakening found in the quote above: the Unformed, the Unconditioned, the End, and the Truth:
• The Unformed (Akata) All things have form, from the largest star to the smallest microbe; we may need a telescope or microscope to see such objects, but it is undeniable that they possess forms. Fortunately, we don’t need such instruments to observe that everyday things have form; we can simply look around us. Look at a wall, and its form is readily revealed; touch it, bang it, smell it, or taste it and its form is most apparent, also. (It would probably be best not to do some of these actions in company, however!) Observe your own body, and its form is discernable, with all its wonderful (or not so wonderful!) curves and bumps. But, you may justly ask, where is the Unformed to be found amidst all this form? Not in the world of things, that’s for sure; our initial explorations have clearly shown this. There’s one place we haven’t looked yet, and it comes as no real surprise when we remember that the Buddha taught enlightenment lies within us and not somewhere in the world. This place is right where you are now; in fact it is you – the real you that lies beyond all those physical and mental aspects of your individual being, that is. To see the Unformed right now, simply point at your body, noting its form, and then point at where you are looking from – what do you see there? Do you see any form whatsoever, or is it formless at your end of that pointing digit?
• The Unconditioned (Asankhata) All things are conditioned; they have myriad different influences that determine their present state. By contrast, No-thing has no such conditioning factors to be found, for it is out of time, and therefore nothing can have preceded it to condition it. Just one look at most people’s faces can reveal their ethnic as well their familial origins. Take a look at a picture of yourself and your relatives and note the similarities, often accentuated as we get older. Particularly in the face we can see dead giveaways as to who our immediate family are; the length of the nose, eye colour, shape of the mouth and size of the chin are all facial elements conditioned by our parent’s genes. There are no genes in our Original Face, however, and this can be seen when we gaze back and look at who (or what) is looking: No-thing. Are there any features to determine genetic heritage here? Is not the Unformed also Unconditioned, as the Buddha claimed, free of any limiting characteristics?
• The End (Anata) Enlightenment is often referred to as ‘the End’ by the Enlightened, from the Buddha right up to modern sages such as Ajahn Chah and D.T. Suzuki. But, one might reasonably ask, the end of what, exactly? Nihilists will claim that the End that Buddhism promotes is the death of self, along with the realization that beyond this world there is absolutely nothing. Many Buddhists, especially modern atheistic ones as well as some Theravada Buddhists, also hold to this materialistic interpretation of the Buddhist teaching of ‘the End.’ Such views, however, are opinions based on thought processes, not experience, and do not even agree with either Mahayana or Theravada scriptures and commentaries when closely examined. (The Buddha stated that by ‘the End,’ he meant the end of suffering, and more specifically, the end of the three poisons - greed, hatred, and delusion - that cause it.) All of this is still on the level of theory, however, and although Buddhism is full of intricate theories describing the way things are, all these notions really exist to point to, and to back up, direct knowing of the Dharma and not merely philosophizing about it. By the End is also meant the end of all philosophizing: armchair philosophers beware!
So, if the End is to be known experientially and not only intellectually, then what are we to do? Well, that’s what the Noble Eightfold Path exists for, with its emphasis on Sila (Morality), Samadhi (Concentration), and Punya (Wisdom). Full awakening or enlightenment comes out of the traversing of this Path, but as we have limited space and time here, we’ll have to satisfy ourselves with a glimpse of that lovely state in which all defilements have ended. Look at your thoughts, as they are arising in this moment. Take as long as you can doing this, say for five minutes (although five years would be better!), and then look at what is doing the looking: What do you see? Do you see another created thing or a spacious No-thing, empty of itself yet full of your thoughts? The same can be done with sights, sounds, and other sense objects. Things – including psychological states such as greed, hatred, and delusion – stop right here, where the self should be, but where instead there is No-thing at all. This is the End all right; the end of thinking that I am merely ‘I,’ and discovering in actual experience that the sense of being an ‘I’ is indeed a delusion, just as the Buddha taught two-and-a-half thousand years ago.
• The Truth (Sacca) What is truth? I had cereal for breakfast this morning: this is the truth. But, it is not the Truth that the Buddha wants us to discover for ourselves, but one of the myriad, perhaps infinite, relative truths that empirical evidence can vouch for. That the earth orbits the sun is another truth, and although I cannot see this for myself, nor ever remember seeing it, I have enough information to belief those experts that say that it does. This, also, of course, is a relative truth, relative in that it refers to things and not that which lies beyond their influence. The Buddha, on the other hand, encouraged us to look for ourselves and discover that which is neither a thing nor a process, and therefore Buddhist teachings are not the ultimate Truth, but simply point towards it. This ultimate Truth is revealed with enlightenment or awakening, and involves a radical reversal of who (or what) we believe ourselves to be.
If we close our eyes and touch our surroundings, what do we truly know of our immediate environment? Here, the floor is hard but smooth, the wall hard and rough, the cushion is soft and pliable, and the air is cool upon the skin. With the brain’s assistance, these tactile senses can be known for what they truly are; a varnished wooden floor, a grainy concrete wall, a stuffed fibrous cushion, and a pleasant breeze. This is the truth of this present moment, in the form of tactile sensations comprehended by the mind. But this is not the whole story, for to give a truly accurate description of the current situation, one more element is required: awareness. Without awareness, there would be no knowledge of the present moment at all, whichever sense is focused on. Moreover, this awareness has no signs attached to it to indicate that it is a thing. Unlike the floor, it is neither hard nor smooth, nor is it their opposites. It is the same whichever of the six senses (including the mind) that we apply to awareness: it is the unequivocal Truth that does not alter. Unlike things which are of limited forms, awareness is not restricted thus, and can be aware of anything that comes its way. It is the No-thing that contains all things, and this is the Truth.
So, whether we observe the Unformed via sight, the Unconditioned also by looking in, the End by watching thoughts, or the Truth via touch, we find the same spacious awareness that’s capacity for all to occur in. Moreover, the Unformed, the Unconditioned, the End, and the Truth are four of the synonyms used by the Buddha to describe awakening, or enlightenment, which we have just glimpsed. Not that all this makes us Fully-Awakened Ones just as he was, but it’s a darn good start!