Beneath the sala trees at Kushinagar, India, in his last words, just before closing his eyes for the final time, the Buddha delivered his very last instruction or piece of advice to his disciples, who had gathered around him:
My disciples, my end is approaching; our parting is near, but do not lament. Life is ever-changing; none can escape the dissolution of the body. This I am now to show by my own death, my body falling apart like a dilapidated cart.
Make of yourself a light. Rely upon yourself; do not depend upon anyone else.
Atta deepo bhava! Be a light unto yourself!
The Buddha (for followers of the Buddha) or God (for followers of God) . . . Buddha/God doesn’t abide in a particular place or direction. Don’t try to search for them in a particular place or direction. They abide within you! They are not to be found in a particular place or a particular direction. They are not to be sought outside of oneself.
The Buddha said: “Buddhas cannot give you enlightenment, buddhas can only point the way. You yourselves must tread the path.” Another famous invitation or encouragement of the Buddha was: “Ehipassiko; come and see for yourself; come and find out for yourself, within yourself.” Buddha did not say: “Come and believe me; come and follow me.”
Enlightenment is not something that can be given; it cannot be transferred, it cannot be shared, it cannot be transmitted, it cannot even be communicated because there is no need to transfer Enlightenment from one to another. It is to be found or realized within each of us; one need only turn inward, to look within and to reveal it therein. That which abides within cannot be found outside; that which is already within you cannot be given to you by anyone else.
An enlightened Zen Master once said:
All human beings are potential buddhas. It is like water and ice; apart from water, no ice; outside living beings, no buddhas! Not knowing it is so near, we seek for it afar! What a boo-boo! It is like a fish in the ocean that cries out of thirst, not knowing it is surrounded by immeasurable water!
Searching for the Truth or Enlightenment outside of oneself would be like trying to squeeze oil from sand.
At one time, Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, arrived at Makkah al-Mukarramah (Mecca), the most holy place of Islam. He was feeling tired, so he lay down to rest. While he was resting it happened that his feet were stretched out toward the most holy shrine within Mecca. The priest/caretaker of the holy shrine noticed that somebody was laying down and stretching his feet out toward that most holy of places, what to him was “the house of God, where God abides.” He felt it greatly disrespectful to God, an insult to God, and he went and shook Guru Nanak awake, exclaiming: “Senseless man, shameless man! How dare you stretch your feet out toward God! Don’t you have an ounce of faith or respect for God?” Guru Nanak stood up and said: “I am greatly sorry if I have hurt your feelings. I had no intention to show any disrespect to God, friend, but what could I do? I was born with these two legs; I have to manage to keep these two legs with me until my death; would you be kind enough to show me one direction in which God’s presence is not to be found, I shall then immediately turn my turn legs to point in that direction.”
Buddha/God/Truth/Enlightenment is to be found right here, where you are, right now! There is no distance between you and Buddha/God/Truth/Enlightenment. They are within you. Yet even to say that they are “within you” would not be entirely correct, for they are you; you are them! The only difference is that you are not yet aware of it; you are not yet conscious of it.
Don’t search for the Truth in temples, holy places, holy scriptures, words, names, doctrines, or philosophies! Don’t search for heaven/paradise outside yourself! What we are so desperately searching for is not to be found outside of us; it is not far from us; there is no distance between us and that Truth we seek. It is discerned within; it is here and now.
Most ironically: It is here and yet we look there! It is within and yet we look without! That is why the majority of seekers have missed it again and again and again!
I have heard that somebody once lost his key and was searching in his garden for quite some time in an effort to find it. His neighbor noticed his friend searching for something, and so came and asked him: “It seems you are searching for something?” His friend replied: “Yes neighbor, I am searching for my lost key.” The neighbor said: “Oh I see. Can I join you in your search?” “Oh, please do. I would greatly appreciate the help!” the neighbor replied. Both of them searched for quite some time, but in vain. His friend finally asked his neighbor: “Do you remember where exactly you lost the key?” “Oh yes, I remember well, I lost my key in my room!” he replied. His friend, astonished, then asked: “If you remember well that you lost your key inside your house, then what the hell are you doing looking for it in the garden?” The neighbor replied, in a resigned manner: “What to do friend? There is no light inside the house, so I cannot see, while there is enough light in the garden, I can see here so I am searching here.”
What a foolish thing!
If you have lost your key inside the house, how can you hope to find it outside the house? No matter how bright the light may be outside the house, you cannot possibly find the key there. You must think and do something to create light within the house to enable you to find the lost key.
The same foolish mistakes are made by the majority of spiritual “seekers.” They keep searching for Buddha/God/Truth/Enlightenment outside of themselves. They keep going on pilgrimages; keep going to temples, churches, gurdwaras, mosques, synagogues; keep participating in prayers, pujas, and other religious ceremonies; keep attending discourses; keep chanting, reading, and reciting holy scriptures; keep offering flowers, candles, incense, food, milk, fruit, juices, and so forth to statues and images, treating the statues and images as though they were alive and could bestow salvation or enlightenment on the practitioner. How foolish!
There is another story of an enlightened Zen master:
Once an enlightened Zen master was a guest at a large and renowned Buddhist monastery in Japan. It was a bitterly cold winter. There were many wooden Buddha statues in the monastery. Early one morning, the Zen master awoke feeling very cold, for there was no proper heating system in the monastery at that time, so he brought down one of the wooden Buddha statues from the shrine and burned it in the fireplace to warm himself.
When the monks of the monastery came to see their guest they were thoroughly shocked to see one of the wooden Buddha statues being burned by the visiting master. The monks asked: “What have you done Master? Burning a Buddha statue is such serious bad karma! It is totally unexpected from a great master like you!”
The Zen master, took up a stick and started poking around in the fire as if searching for something. The monks asked: “Master; what are you searching for in the fire and its ashes?”
The Master replied: “I am searching for relics of the Buddha”
The monks said: “Master, how can you find Buddha relics within the ashes of a wooden Buddha statue? It is not a living buddha, it is made of wood!”
“Oh! Is that so?” replied the master, with a wry smile. “If that’s the case then, given that it is such a bitterly cold morning and I am feeling very cold, may I please take one more wooden Buddha statue to burn and thereby warm up?”
We keep Buddha statues and images to remind us of the real Buddha; the formless Buddha that abides within ourselves. However, we keep clinging to material buddhas made by unenlightened human beings as though they were real buddhas, thus missing the real Buddha abiding within ourselves!
I don’t mean to say that going to holy places, performing pujas and rituals, and reading the holy scriptures are wrong or unwholesome activities in themselves. Everything we do as a spiritual practice has its place and worth, its particular value and benefit, as a skillful means to an established end. In fact, if all of the aforementioned spiritual activities actually encourage the earnest seeker to turn their attention inward, to look within themselves, to find out what abides within, then they are absolutely appropriate and beneficial.
However, if we remain lost in external rites and rituals, in religious ceremonies, or focus our attention solely on acquiring more intellectual knowledge, then we are no better than those who search for the lost key in the garden rather than in the house! We would certainly be wasting our precious time and we would certainly never find the missing key or Truth! Unfortunately, this is what is happening with most people, most “seekers,” the so-called and oft-considered “religious.”
There is another story that I wish to share with you, which might be helpful in enabling the reader to understand more readily what I am trying so earnestly to impart here. Although, let me make it clear before I begin that this story is not a Buddhist story. It is quite a modern story!
The Buddhist concept of “God” is quite different to that of some other religions, where He might be believed to be the “Ultimate Creator” of this world. However, whether Buddhist or not, I love this story, and anything I love I also love to share with others. Please do not think too much about whether this story is true or mere fable, but rather reflect on its potential message, for every story contains some message; there is something to learn from every story—whether that story is true or mere fable. Please extract the message, the essential meaning of the story, and overlook its more fanciful side.
Before human beings were created, the world was a much more beautiful place. There was no pollution of the air, water, or earth. There was no corruption or brutal violence aimed at living beings or against mother nature and her supportive environs.
Everything was perfect. The beauty and purity of the world was beyond all imagination: the magnificence of the Sun, with its daily spectacle of dawn and dusk; the incredible colors and fragrances of flowers in bloom; the sublime majesty of the mountains and valleys; the sparkling waters of rivers, streams, and lakes; the shimmer and rhythmic movement of seas and oceans, the verdant splendor of trees and vast forests; the twinkling nighttime stars and lunar illumination—everything was in absolute peace and harmony. Oh! It was indeed the perfect Eden itself!
One day, God thought to himself: This world is so beautiful, with the vastness of its rich, azure blue sky, adorned with an elaborate patchwork of pearlescent clouds; the deep, sparkling oceans; the mighty trees and most colorful flowers; the spectacle of the dawn sunrise and dusk sunset; the glistening stars in the heavens and the crystal clear light of the moon; the ceaselessly flowing rivers and mighty mountains; the variety and promise of the changing seasons, summer and winter, autumn and spring; the diversity of birds, butterflies, and all the other living creatures. But. he further thought, something is missing yet! And in response, God decided to create a few human beings, so that they too could appreciate and enjoy the beauty of the world.
Thus, God created human beings and instructed them as follows: “My dear human beings, this world is so very beautiful, and because there was nobody but Me to fully appreciate and enjoy this living paradise, I have created you so that you may live in love, peace, happiness, harmony, and friendship, and thereby savor the manifold delights of this most wonderful world. Please go then and enjoy all that this world has to offer you, singing and dancing through the sheer delight of all your senses can behold—this veritable ‘Heaven on Earth.’”
The very next morning, there was a knock at God’s door. And never having experienced anything like that before God queried to himself: somebody is coming and knocking at my door so early in the morning? Who could it possibly be, and for what possible reason?
With a very curious mind, God rose from his seat, went to the door and opened it. Much to his surprise, he was greeted by the sight of the same few human beings that He had created the previous day standing before him, bickering and squabbling among themselves.
God was shocked and deeply dismayed by what greeted him, and He said: “What is all this disharmony and rancor about? It has not even been one day since I created you. How can you have found and fomented so much disagreement and displeasure in such a short time and in such a paradise? Didn’t I instruct you to live in peace, harmony, and friendship, and to take delight in the beauty of nature? Please now go and do as I have instructed!”
The humans said: “Yes Lord,” and subsequently departed from God’s door.
The very next morning, once again, but a little earlier than previously, there was a knock at God’s door, a little louder and more insistent this time.
God thought, who could it possibly be today, and for what purpose are they knocking upon my door? With a curious mind, He rose from his seat, went to the door, and opened it. Much to his surprise, before him stood the same few human beings that He had created just two days previously, back once again, but engaged in more heated and bitter arguments.
God was shocked, dismayed and angered by the sight that was before him, and he asked them: “What has happened to you? It is not even two days since you came into the paradise that I alone have designed and created for you to appreciate and enjoy. What is there to complain about? Why do you fight and quarrel with each other? Didn’t I tell you that I created you so that you too could partake of all the manifold wonders of this world? There are so many delightful things for your senses to behold and delight in. How dare you complain, quarrel and fight!”
God once again urged them not to complain, quarrel, or fight among themselves. And in reply, they agreed and departed once more.
The next day, the third in succession, there came a knocking at the door. This time much earlier and much more insistent. God, initially puzzled, thought who could this be now? However, before even opening the door, He realized it would be none other than the nonsensical and self-destructive few human beings He had created three days earlier.
For the first time, He said to himself: Oh my God! in recognition that He may well have made a serious error in creating these “nuisance” human beings. He was not entirely convinced that they could, or even would heed his repeated instructions to live in peace, harmony, and friendship, to abide with and alongside one another in peace. He felt almost resigned in the growing knowledge that they would do nothing but complain, quarrel, and fight among themselves, bringing yet more trouble and discontent to his door.
God further thought to himself: What can I do now? I am their creator, I cannot now destroy them.
In his growing despair, God called for an emergency meeting of his trusted ministers, and said to them: “Dear ministers, I am in serious trouble and I need your wise counsel.”
The ministers replied: “Lord, please don’t make such a joke. It doesn’t sound good that the Lord, God, the Universal Creator, is facing such serious troubles.”
God insisted: “Oh no, no, I am not joking! I am in serious trouble and I do need your help!”
The ministers replied: “Lord, we don’t understand, please tell us what you mean. How could the almighty God be in trouble? Please tell us, we don’t understand what you mean!”
Then God explained his heavy predicament, narrating the whole story to his ministers: how he had created human beings with such high hopes and expectations for them, and the sad events of the previous three days. God said: “I have made a grave error in creating these human beings. They are not going to listen to my repeated instructions. They refuse to live in peace, harmony, and friendship, and nor will they allow me to live in peace and harmony. I, being their creator, cannot now destroy them. Therefore, I need your good counsel as to where I can go and hide from them, so that I may find the peace I so desire.”
One minister stood up and said: “Lord, such a place is easy to find; why don’t you move to the top of Mount Everest? That place is very high, very cold, with lots of snow and ice, and there is no oxygen there. That’s the safest place of refuge for you. Human beings can never climb up there!”
God thought for a while, and then replied: “No, no, that is not a safe place, this Tenzing and Hillary will be reaching there very shortly.”
Another minister stood up and said: “Lord; why don’t you move to the deepest depths of the ocean? Human beings cannot go deep under the ocean, they need air.”
God thought again for a while, and then replied: “No, no, even the deepest depths of the ocean is not a safe place. I can see these human beings very soon putting something in their mouths and carrying something on their backs that would enable them to bring their troubles and strife to even the deepest depths of the ocean too. That’s not the safe place of refuge I seek.”
Another minister stood up and said: “Lord, why don’t you move to the moon? How could human beings ever hope to go there? It is impossible for human beings to go there!”
God thought again for a while, and then replied: “No, no, this is also not a safe place. This American will manage to reach there also very soon.”
Now, when these three suggestions, offered in all sincerity and with such tender care and concern by the ministers, had been rejected by God, the last and most aged minister, with a very long and white beard, stood up and whispered in the ear of God: “Lord, how about hiding in the hearts of these human beings? They would no doubt search for you everywhere else, in every other part of the world, in every other part of the universe, through the entire Himalayan mountain range, in the deepest depths of the oceans, in the darkest thickets of the forests, in all the holy places—in churches, temples, mosques, and shrines, between the covers of every holy book. They would no doubt be always searching for you far from themselves. They would almost certainly quarrel, fight, and kill one another in their fruitless search for you, never once looking within themselves.”
God thought again for a while, and then replied, with a smile: “That sounds perfect! Thank you so much! Please keep it confidential, don’t divulge this to those nuisance human beings!”
And so the story goes that since that meeting of ministers, God has been hiding, undiscovered and undisturbed, within the hearts of human beings! And look at what human beings have done in his absence! For the flowers of Buddha-God mean “LOVE, COMPASSION, WISDOM, ENLIGHTENMENT, WHICH CAN BE FOND ONLY INSIDE YOU!”
They have become expert in thinking too much; they have become expert in running too much; they have become expert in thinking about past lives and speculating about future lives; they have become expert in accumulating too much knowledge about everything in the universe; yet they basically remain incapable of living peacefully in the present movement!
Glean the important message of this story and forget the childlike naïveté of its narrative style. If someone is attempting to show you the moon by pointing his finger toward it, use the finger to see the moon and don’t fixate on the finger!
The important message of this story is that everything resides within us. Where we experience all the misery, fear, and sadness, is the very same place we experience all the joy, courage, happiness, harmony, wisdom, freedom, and enlightenment!
Ven. Bhikkhu Sanghasena is a renowned spiritual leader and socially engaged Buddhist. He is the spiritual director of the non-profit Mahabodhi International Meditation Center (MIMC) in Ladakh, northern India, the founder of the the Mahakaruna Foundation, the Save the Himalayas Foundation, and an advisor to the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB). Ven. Bhikkhu Sanghasena has launched numerous projects, events, and initiatives, among them providing educational opportunities and refuge for underprivileged children, empowerment and literacy programs for women and other socially disadvantaged groups, healthcare for the sick and needy, and a care home for the aged and destitute. The MIMC has evolved into an expanding campus that has become the hub for a multitude of socio-cultural and community programs to share the Dharma through spiritual and community outreach.