Crosslegged he sat under a tree, which later became known as the Bodhi Tree, the “Tree of Enlightenment” or “Tree of Wisdom,” on the bank of the river Nerañjarâ, at Gayâ (now known as Buddhagayâ), making the final effort with the inflexible resolution: “Though only my skin, sinews, and bones remain, and my blood and flesh dry up and wither away, yet will I never stir from this seat until I have attained full enlightenment (sammâ-sambodhi).” So indefatigable in effort, so unflagging in his devotion was he, and so resolute to realize truth and attain full enlightenment.
Applying himself to the “mindfulness of in-and-out breathing” (ânâpâna sati), the Bodhisatta entered upon and dwelt in the first meditative absorption (jhâna; Skt. dhyâna). By gradual stages he entered upon and dwelt in the second, third, and fourth jhânas. Thus cleansing his mind of impurities, with the mind thus composed, he directed it to the knowledge of recollecting past births (pubbenivâsânussati-ñâˆa). This was the first knowledge attained by him in the first watch of the night. Then the Bodhisatta directed his mind to the knowledge of the disappearing and reappearing of beings of varied forms, in good states of experience, and in states of woe, each faring according to his deeds (cutûpapâtañâna). This was the second knowledge attained by him in the middle watch of the night. Next he directed his mind to the knowledge of the eradication of the taints (âsavakkhayañâna).n9
He understood as it really is: “This is suffering (dukkha), this is the arising of suffering, this is the cessation of suffering, this is the path leading to the cessation of suffering.” He understood as it really is: “These are defilements (âsavas), this is the arising of defilements, this is the cessation of defilements, this is the path leading to the cessation of defilements.”
Knowing thus, seeing thus, his mind was liberated from the defilements of sense pleasures (kâmâsava), of becoming (bhavâsava), and of ignorance (avijjâsava).n10 When his mind was thus liberated, there came the knowledge, “liberated” and he understood: “Destroyed is birth, the noble life (brahmacariya) has been lived, done is what was to be done, there is no more of this to come” (meaning, there is no more continuity of the mind and body, no more becoming, rebirth). This was the third knowledge attained by him in the last watch of the night. This is known as tevijjâ (Skt. trividyâ), threefold knowledge.n11
Thereupon he spoke these words of victory:
“Seeking but not finding the house builder,
I hurried through the round of many births:
Painful is birth ever and again.
O house builder, you have been seen;
You shall not build the house again.
Your rafters have been broken up,
Your ridgepole is demolished too.
My mind has now attained the unformed Nibbâna
And reached the end of every sort of craving.”n12
Thus the Bodhisatta n13 Gotama at the age of thirty-five, on another full moon of May (vesâkha, vesak), attained Supreme Enlightenment by comprehending in all their fullness the Four Noble Truths, the Eternal Verities, and he became the Buddha, the Great Healer and Consummate Master-Physician who can cure the ills of beings. This is the greatest unshakeable victory.
The Four Noble Truths are the priceless message that the Buddha gave to suffering humanity for their guidance, to help them to be rid of the bondage of dukkha, and to attain the absolute happiness, that absolute reality, Nibbâna.
These truths are not his creation. He only re-discovered their existence. We thus have in the Buddha one who deserves our respect and reverence not only as a teacher but also as model of the noble, self-sacrificing, and meditative life we would do well to follow if we wish to improve ourselves.
One of the noteworthy characteristics that distinguishes the Buddha from all other religious teachers is that he was a human being having no connection whatsoever with a God or any other “supernatural” being. He was neither God nor an incarnation of God, nor a prophet, nor any mythological figure. He was a man, but an extraordinary man (acchariya manussa), a unique being, a man par excellence (purisuttama). All his achievements are attributed to his human effort and his human understanding. Through personal experience he understood the supremacy of man.
Depending on his own unremitting energy, unaided by any teacher, human or divine, he achieved the highest mental and intellectual attainments, reached the acme of purity, and was perfect in the best qualities of human nature. He was an embodiment of compassion and wisdom, which became the two guiding principles in his Dispensation (sâsana).
The Buddha never claimed to be a saviour who tried to save “souls” by means of a revealed religion. Through his own perseverance and understanding he proved that infinite potentialities are latent in man and that it must be man’s endeavour to develop and unfold these possibilities. He proved by his own experience that deliverance and enlightenment lie fully within man’s range of effort.
“Religion of the highest and fullest character can coexist with a complete absence of belief in revelation in any straightforward sense of the word, and in that kernel of revealed religion, a personal God. Under the term personal God I include all ideas of a so-called superpersonal god, of the same spiritual and mental nature as a personality but on a higher level, or indeed any supernatural spiritual existence or force.” (Julian Huxley, Religion Without Revelation, pp. 2 and 7.)
Each individual should make the appropriate effort and break the shackles that have kept him in bondage, winning freedom from the bonds of existence by perseverance, self-exertion, and insight. It was the Buddha who for the first time in the world’s history taught that deliverance could be attained independently of an external agency, that deliverance from suffering must be wrought and fashioned by each one for himself upon the anvil of his own actions.
None can grant deliverance to another who merely begs for it. Others may lend us a helping hand by guidance and instruction and in other ways, but the highest freedom is attained only through self-realization and self-awakening to truth and not through prayers and petitions to a Supreme Being, human or divine. The Buddha warns his disciples against shifting the burden to an external agency, directs them to the ways of discrimination and research, and urges them to get busy with the real task of developing their inner forces and qualities.