Buddhanusati is one of the four protective meditations.1 It is the focussed recollection of the Buddha and his qualities. It can be a wonderfully joyful and uplifting meditation, dispelling the gloom of negative mental states. However, it may be difficult for some practitioners to find the correct mental space. To many, the Buddha may seem a distant and abstract figure, scarcely to be imagined. When some people think of the Buddha, they don't get much further than the beautiful but rather stylized image in the shrine room. This is a shame, and it needn't be so.
Meditation on the Buddha is an exercise in imaginative visualization. The meditator focuses on the various aspects of the Buddha in turn and allows her mind to play with the meaning and significance of the words. In this way her mind can begin to reflect in some fashion the depth and power of a Buddha's mind. If you get it right, the mind is flooded with light and bliss.
The great 13th century Zen master Dogen talked about the paradox of seeing the Buddha and "old man Shakyamuni"2 at the same time. This points to a crucial consideration. The miracle, wonder and relevance of the Buddha is that he was a real flesh-and-blood human being who attained to a realization of the absolute. It is important not to forget the first aspect, nor to minimize the second.
Some approaches to the Buddha, especially in medieval hagiography, lose sight of the "old man Shakyamuni" altogether. It is no good to imagine the Buddha as some kind of divinity, negating all contact between him and us. A more likely pitfall for moderns, however, is to focus excessively on the "old man Shakyamuni" and to miss the aspect of Buddhahood. This is the danger in following some of the modern commentators on the Buddha who try to "demythologize" his biography and teachings. To approach the contemplation of the Buddha with a dry and barren rationality is to lose all the benefits that awe and wonder can bring.
In the reality of his humanity, the Buddha can be located as a specific man of a specific time and place, Siddhattha Gotama of the Sakyan nation in ancient North India. In the reality of his realization, he touched something beyond space and time. The amazing fact of his accomplishment is that he was one human being who absolutely and totally cleared out all impurities and obstructions, and by doing so, the unimpeded clear light of wisdom shone forth illuminating the entire world. This light, the light of true knowledge, is not something created by the Buddha. It was there all along, and in fact, our own dim light of unawakened consciousness is just that, but hidden by the thick clouds of our conditioning.
So, how does one begin to practise Buddhanusati? Sit before a Buddha image you find inspiring. Make sure it is placed a little higher than your eye-level, so that you have to look up to see it. Light candles and incense, bow three times,take your refuge in the Three Jewels and close your eyes. Use the likeness of the image as a point of departure to try and flesh out an image of the real Buddha as he might have looked sitting under a tree in the old days. Throughout the exercise, whenever the visualization becomes weak or the mind wanders, open the eyes and refresh the imagination with the image on the altar.
Remember, this is an exercise in disciplined imagination. Encourage the mind to play with and resonate on the various aspects as you proceed. Be creative and find what works to arouse a sense of joyful wonder.
The most traditional method is to go through the list of attributes in the Pali passage beginning "Itipi so Bhagava ..."3 which is commonly chanted as part of a puja. It is good to learn at least this much by heart, as a basis. The Pali is as follows;
The classical text on this meditation is the passage on Buddhanusati in the Visuddhimagga.4 ("Path of Purification") The text follows this list of attributes and provides an analysis for each one. It must be admitted, however, that this passage would be mostly useless for most modern meditators, even somewhat off-putting. It was probably assumed by Buddhaghosa that his readers would be very familiar with the words and their meanings, and what he provided is often more in the nature of etymology, or more precisely, a kind of punning word-play.
We can try and provide something more practical. What follows is some analysis and reflection on each epithet of the Buddha found in this chant. The meditator should not feel bound by these explanations, but is invited to use them as springboards for his own creative reflection. Remember that the point of the exercise is to try to imagine, as best as you can, what a Buddha would be like, and so to access in some lesser or greater fashion, the Buddha-like consciousness within yourself.
Araham - [ pron. - Ah-rah-hang] - (This is another grammatical form of the more familiar "arahant." ) In Buddhist terminology, an arahant is one who has reached the culmination of the path, who is fully enlightened. A Buddha is an arahant, and there is no difference between his realization of Nibbana and that of other arahants. The special qualities of a Buddha reside in his knowledge, power and teaching ability. The stock formula describing an arahant, found many places in the canon, is as follows; "one with taints destroyed, who has lived the holy life, done what had to be done, laid done the burden, reached the true goal, destroyed the fetters of being, and is completely liberated through final knowledge."
In the context of the epithets of the Buddha, the most important aspect here is the first, the destruction of the taints. This means the complete purification of the mind from all delusions, addictions, negativities and so forth. Just try to imagine what it would be like to have a mind like that, clear and open through and through without any hint of a shadow lurking anywhere to obstruct the light. In Buddhist psychology, it should be remembered, the innermost and most essential aspect of mind is pure awareness; which is light, void and bliss. It is only the presence of the defilements which obstruct us from accessing that inherent Buddha-light, and their removal is enlightenment.
Sammasambuddho - [ pron. - Sam-mah-sam-boo-doh] This means perfectly or completely (samma) awakened or enlightened (buddho) by himself(sam) i.e., without a teacher. There are three kinds of enlightened beings; arahants, pacceka-buddhas and sammasam-buddhas. An arahant, in this context, is one who has gained her enlightenment by following the teachings of a Buddha. Her path is called savaka-yana or the path of a disciple for this reason. A pacceka-buddha is one who attains his enlightened by his own effort, without benefit of instruction, during a dark age when there is no Buddha-teaching current in the world. His powers and knowledge are less than that of a fully perfect Buddha, however, and in particular, he establishes no dispensation of teaching so is forgotten after his time.
A sammasam-buddha like the historic Buddha Gotama (Sakyamuni) is one is completely and perfectly awakened with all the glorious powers and knowledges of Buddhahood. What is more, such a Buddha establishes a dispensation of teaching, so that his words live on after his passing.
In the Theravada tradition, this is seen as an exceedingly rare development. In the entire history of the human race on the planet Earth, there will be only five such Buddhas (Gotama, the current Buddha is the fourth; Metteya, the last, is still to come.) The arising of a sammasambuddha is an event of more than historic significance, it is an event with cosmic import, as it is said to illuminate ten-thousand world-systems. Properly understood, the one momentary event of the Buddha's awakening is seen as the single most important episode in the entire history of mankind. The shock waves of illumination from that event are still reverberating though the planet.
Vijjacaranasampanno- [ pron. - Wij-ja-char-anna-sam-pan-no] - This means perfect (sampanno) in knowledge (vijja) and conduct (carana.) The extent of the Buddha's knowledge is unimaginable to one who in not a Buddha. The Theravada tradition has generally assigned the Buddha a specific type of omniscience, the ability to advert his mind to any specific object and know it, e.g., the number of fish in the Ganges. There have been debates historically within Buddhism as to whether and in what sense the Buddha may be said to be omniscient. We need not enter into these discussions here, which are in any case rather pointless.5
What we can rely on as a starting point for contemplation is what the Buddha himself specifically claimed, which is amazing and wonderful enough. The most important aspect of the Buddha's knowledge is the "ti-vijja" or triple knowledge6 attained to on the night of his enlightenment. In the first watch of the night he gained insight into all his past lives, going back many thousands of world-ages. By this knowledge he dispelled the thick layers of forgetting that obstruct most beings' consciousnesses and saw his place in the cycle with stark clarity. In the second watch of the night he extended this knowledge outward and saw other beings rising and falling through the various realms in the process of birth, death and rebirth. With this knowledge he gained intimate understanding of the processes of karma. In the final watch of the night, he attained the most wonderful knowledge of all, the knowledge of destruction of the taints, that is to say, the utter purification of arahantship - and this knowledge constituted his full awakening as a sammasambuddha. Contemplate the incredible explosion of awareness signified by these three knowledges.
There is another list of ten "powers of a Tathagata" which describe the range of knowledge claimed by the Buddha for himself (see Majjhima 12). In one of these, he claims the knowledge of actions and their results, which is tantamount to understanding in detail the workings of karma. Several of the powers refer to specific knowledges that make the Buddha a consummate teacher, for example the knowledge of beings' inclinations and the knowledge of their faculties.
As for the perfection of the Buddha's conduct, this means of course that his morality was absolutely purified and that there would have been no transgressions at all of body, speech or even of mind. For example, the Buddha never spoke a falsehood or said anything at all which was not beneficial to others. But carana-sampanno goes beyond even this. His actions and thoughts were not only perfectly wholesome but also perfectly mindful. The Buddha would never have had a careless moment or a lapse of clumsiness. To see him move, walk and perform the mundane actions of life must have been a beautiful sight. His every gesture must have been impeccably controlled and superbly graceful.
Sugato - [ pron. - Soo-gat-toh] This epithet, one of the most often used in the canon, literally means "he who fares well." Thus, it is often translated "the Well-Farer" which is rather awkward. Much better is Bhikkhu Bodhi's "the Fortunate One" which captures the sense of one who lives happily.
One aspect of the Buddha's enlightenment is that he overcame all suffering (dukkha) and was no longer subject to any kind of mental distress whatsoever. This is the great promise, and the lion's roar, of the Third Noble Truth, that there is an end to suffering. So, after that accomplishment, the Buddha was one who walked in bliss.
Sugato is etymologically related to the word sugati which means a happy destiny, or a fortunate rebirth. Certainly there could be no happier birth than that of a Buddha.
Lokavidu - [ pron. - Low-kah-wee-doo] - "The Knower of the Worlds." Again we have an epithet that points to the inconceivable vastness of the Buddha's knowledge. Which is simply the unfettered potential of the human mind, once the obstructing defilements are overcome.
Note that this is "Knower of the Worlds," plural. The range of the Buddha's knowledge extended beyond this conventional human realm. There are many suttas where he speaks about conditions in the various other realms, such as the hells and the heavens. There is no reason to follow some modern commentators here and interpret all such passages metaphorically as indicative merely of psychological states. Firstly, this is clearly not the way the Buddha intended these teachings to be taken. He is quite categorical in several places in insisting on their status as real possible destinations of rebirth.7 Secondly, and more to the point, those who would deny reality to the other realms make the cardinal error of assigning some special ontological status to this human realm. There is a very real sense in which all realms, this one not excluded, are products and facets of perception. If we understand how perception works, then all so-called reality acquires a dream-like quality.
The Visuddhimagga, in explicating this term, launches into a long digression on the cosmological model then current, i.e., of a world with Mt. Meru in the centre surrounded by ocean and the four great continents. Since we have now moved beyond this model, to a round earth in a heliocentric system, the passage seems to a modern reader at best quaint. We should not be misled, however, into imagining that the Buddha himself necessarily accepted this model. We do not find him speaking about physical cosmology in the suttas. We do find him discouraging speculation on such matters as pointless, and there is his clear statement that he knows many more things than he chose to reveal; as many more as the leaves in the forest compared to a handful of leaves.8 It is easy to see that if he had some insight into the physical structure of the universe, he might have decided this was worthless knowledge for the overcoming of suffering. Moreover, had he spoken about such ideas as a heliocentric solar system, surely that would have attracted all kinds of debate, discussion and further investigation among both the Sangha and outsiders. This would have accomplished nothing but a waste of time.
Once again, the bottom line is that is impossible for us who are not Buddhas to imagine the power and range of a Buddha's knowledge. When meditating on this attribute, use your imagination to visualize what it might mean to know ten-thousand world-systems. Imagine the range of the Buddha "vertically" through the six realms of rebirth and "horizontally" through the physical dimensions of time and space. Can a Buddha smell the flowers on Alpha Centauri?
Anuttaro purisadammasarathi- [ pron. - An-oot-ah-row--Poo-reesah-dam-mah-sara-tee] - "Unsurpassed Trainer of People Fit for Training." The Buddha originally came from a warrior-noble family, so it is not uncommon for him to use terminology and imagery taken from that milieu. This title is a good example. A "sarathi" is a charioteer, or a trainer of horses. "Damma" is a name for an untrained animal, such as a horse or a bullock. "Purisa" is a word for "man" or "person." Hence, the literal meaning of this epithet is "Trainer of Untrained People." This imagery is in line with that used elsewhere, as for instance when the Buddha compares the training of the mind in meditation to the training of a wild elephant9 by tying it to a stake. This metaphor suggests the image of the untrained person's mind as wild and unruly, and the training as a process of gradual calming and making workable or tractable.
The Buddha is also called "anuttaro" here, which means "unsurpassed," literally; "without a superior." The Buddha, having attained supreme enlightenment himself, was the supreme teacher in the world. We have already seen how several of his special knowledges refer to abilities useful for teaching, that is to say, seeing the needs and potentials of the student. The Buddha, of course, also had the psychic power of reading others' minds. Beyond all this, the ultimate psychic power is said to be his "Miracle of Instruction," the ability to find the skillful means to help other's find the path to awakening.
When we contemplate the Buddha's attribute as supreme trainer of the untrained, surely the most amazing example must be his conversion and training of Angulimala. Here was an outlaw, a robber and a murderer of hundreds who was turned around completely by the Buddha's teaching, took ordination, practised diligently and attained even to arahantship.10
Sattha devamanussanam - [ pron. - Sat-tah--Day-vah-manoo-san-ang] - This attribute also refers to the Buddha's role as a teacher. It means "Teacher of Gods and Humans." The word "sattha" is a special word for "teacher" that is almost entirely reserved for reference to the Buddha and may be taken to mean "The Teacher."
After his enlightenment the Buddha devoted the remainder of his long life to teaching others, a teaching career of forty-five years in all. During this time he wandered from place to place in North India and taught all manner of people, young and old, rich and poor, men and women. It is especially to be noted that he broke the taboos of the Indian caste system by teaching even out-castes; there are stories in the canon of his singling out candalas (out-castes) for special attention because he saw that they were ripe for enlightenment.
The Buddha is also "The Teacher" because his teaching is the root of all the varied lineages of Buddhism in existence. Every genuine Buddhist teacher alive today was taught by others who were in turn taught by others in an unbroken chain back to The Teacher, the fountain-head of all lineages. Not only this, but indirectly his teachings have influenced many other traditions, for instance finding their way into Christianity via Neo-Platonism. His influence for the good on this planet has been inconceivable.
This title also points to the Buddha's role of teaching even the gods. This is another aspect of the cosmic or more-than-global import of his enlightenment. It raises the point, too, that the Buddha had something to teach even the deities. The states of consciousness that the Buddha was able to access routinely were such that even the dwellers in the heaven realms could not reach them, at least not without teaching and practise.
Among many others, the Buddha taught Sakka, the King of the Gods, [See Majjhima 37] the equivalent of the Vedic Indra and therefore of the Hellenic Zeus. Thus, this mortal man was respected as a teacher by an entity seen by other religions as supreme. But Sakka is only a dweller in the heaven of the Thirty-Three, and there are many realms in the Buddhist cosmology11 higher than this. The Buddha taught in these, too. He taught the Abhidhamma over the course of one Rains Retreat in the Tusita heaven, where his mother had been reborn after her death. Even higher than this are the realms of the Brahma gods, the fine-material worlds beyond any sensuality. The Buddha taught here also, as he was able to travel to all of these realms and did so to help beings escape from delusion. For example, he taught the Brahma god Baka who had come to the deluded conclusion that he was immortal and the creator of the world. The sutta describing the Buddha's encounter with this entity is a fascinating glimpse into the rarefied states of consciousness and being that are possible for the enlightened mind. [See Majjhima 49]
Buddho - [ pron. - Boo-doh] It is a little odd that of all the titles and epithets applied to the Enlightened One, it is this one that has become by far the best known. In the original canon it is much less often used than Bhagava, "The Blessed One," when the Buddha is being referred to in the third person, or Tathagata, "The Thus-Gone," when he is referring to himself in the first person. And yet we know him today as the Buddha, and his teaching as Buddhism.
Perhaps it has survived because of all the Buddha's epithets it is the simplest and most beautiful. Its literal meaning is "Awake." This is a simple concept but one with profound depths of meaning. It says that what the Buddha did under the Bodhi Tree was to waken from a dream, the dream which still binds all of us.
Even the form of the word has power. The two syllables "Bud" and "Dho" are often used in the Thai forest tradition as a simple mantra to be mentally recited as an aid to breath meditation. The sound resonates the meaning of enlightenment, liberation and awakening.
In its canonical usage, the word seems to be mostly reserved for speaking about the Buddha as a special class of being, one who has fully attained. Thus, it often occurs in passages speaking about the present Buddha as one in a series of Buddhas going back to beginingless time. One of the most striking episodes where the Buddha uses it of himself occurs shortly after his enlightenment when a wanderer, struck by his radiant appearance, asks if he is a god, a spirit or a man. He denies all of these, even the last and says "I am a Buddha." This could also be rendered more immediately into English as "I am Awake."
Bhagava - [ pron. - Bag-ah-wah] - This is by far the most common way of referring to the Buddha in the canon itself. The root bhaga means something like luck or fortune, so a bhagavant is one who has great good fortune, or a "Blessed One," the usual translation. This word has always been used in India for referring to holy people and still is today.
There are many implications to the title "Blessed One." At the most immediate level it simply points to the great respect his followers held for him, as it is the way they would most often refer to him. Another implication is the "religious" one of the inherent aura of the sacred or the numinous that was naturally projected by the Buddha. He must have seemed a holy man indeed. And of course there is the most literal connotation of "lucky," although in the Buddhist understanding the concept of "luck" doesn't really apply. We should understand instead that the Buddha was Bhagava because of his own excellent karma, accumulated over countless lifetimes. One of the aspects of Buddhahood is perfection of the paramitas12 , or excellent qualities, during long ages of struggle and effort as a Bodhisatta. The completion of this task is the most "lucky" karmic heritage conceivable.
Another, perhaps somewhat esoteric, aspect of the idea of Blessedness here is that the Buddha had been blessed by someone. This is a reference to the Bodhisatta's vow of aspiration made in ages past at the feet of the Buddha Dipankara. The contemplation of this aspect of the word will open the mind to the vast depth of the Buddha's quest for enlightenment. In the Theravada understanding of the Bodhisatta career, or path to Buddhahood, the "Bodhisatta Vow" is an aspiration made in the presence of a living Buddha. Only in this way is it binding or finally effective, although one made at another time may help to set up the karma for meeting a Buddha. The Buddha Dipankara lived many aeons ago, on another world at a time before this Earth was even in existence, that is to say, unimaginably long ago. At that time, the Bodhisatta who was to be Gotama the Buddha, was moved by faith to make his courageous aspiration, and he was recognized, that is "blessed," by Dipankara. In all the ages since, while several world-systems have come and gone, he laboured in birth after birth at the unimaginably difficult task of bringing the paramitas to absolute perfection.
So, when he finally walked this Earth as the Enlightened One of our epoch, he was "blessed" indeed!
If you develop this contemplation, you will find it a great boon. It is a powerful dispeller of fear and depression. As such , it is a useful technique to add to your repertoire for retreats or just for use as a daily tonic for the spirit.
A final word; the more you learn about the Buddha and his attributes, the more you can deepen your practise of Buddhanusati. The very best approach is to go back to the source; the original suttas13 of the pali canon.
1 Four Protective Meditations. These are meditations that protect the mind of the yogi. It is useful to develop these when going into retreat, to help overcome the inevitable difficulties that arise. The other four are the meditations on loving-kindness, foulness of the body and death.
2 Seeing the Buddha and Old Man
Shakyamuni 'Long ago when a sorceror who had the five
miraculous powers was attending the Buddha, he asked, "You have six
miraculous powers and I have five. What is the one I am
The Buddha called to him, "Sorceror."
"Yes," he responded.
The Buddha said, "What miraculous power are you asking about?"
You should thoroughly study the meaning of this dialogue. How did the sorceror know that the Buddha had six miraculous powers? The Buddha has immeasurable miraculous wisdom, which is not limited to six miraculous powers. Even if you see six miraculous powers you cannot master them. How can those who have lesser miraculous powers dream of the Buddha's six miraculous powers?
You should say, "When the sorceror saw Old Man Shakyamuni, did he actually see the Buddha? When he saw the Buddha, did he actually see Old Man Shakyamuni? If the sorceror saw Old Man Shakyamuni and saw the Buddha, did he also see himself, the sorceror of the five miraculous powers?"
"Enlightenment Unfolds" ed. Kazuaki Tanahashi pp.109 - 110
3 Itipi so This is part of a longer formula that includes attributes of the Dhamma and Sangha as well. It occurs at many places in the canon, most notably in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta (Digha 16) where "unwavering faith " in these attributes, together with spotless morality is given as the sign of Stream-Entry. (Get a printable copy of the whole chant. http://users.xplornet.com/~arfh/dhamma.html#dh05 )
4 Visuddhimagga See "Path of Purification" tr. Ven Nanamoli, VII 2 ff.
5 Rather pointless.. See "Path of Purification ", footnote 7 of chapter VII for a long discussion from the commentorial tradition on the question of the Buddha's omniscience. More to the point is the admonishment of the Acintita Sutta (Anguttara IV,77) which warns us that attempts to imagine the range of a Buddha's knowledge lead only to " madness and vexation "
6 Three Knowledges The description of these three knowledges occurs in many places. See for instance Majjhima 19. Read more about the Three Knowledges of the Buddha. http://www.xplornet.com/arfh/dhamma/tivijja.html
7 The gods are real See for instance the exchange with the brahmin Bharadvaja in Majjhima 100 where the Buddha answers the brahmin's question about whether there are indeed gods; "It is known to me to be the case, Bharadvaja, that there are gods."
8 Handful of LeavesThis is the famous simile of the Simsapa Sutta, Samyutta LVI,31.
9 Wild Elephant Or see the Kesi Sutta, Anguttara IV, 111 for an extended simile drawn precisely from the training of horses by charioteers.
10 Angulimala The story of Angulimala is told in Majjhima 86.
11 Buddhist Cosmology Read more about the
12 Paramitas These are qualities that are developed through practise and are said to be carried over from life to life. It is one of the charateristics of a Buddha that all of them are fully perfected, something not necessary for arahantship. In the Theravada enumeration the paramitas are ten in number; generosity, morality, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, resolution, loving-kindness and equanimity.
13 Sutta Reading An excellent starting place, and one very suitable for this practise, is "Life of the Buddha" by Ven. Nyanamoli. This is a collection of readings from the scriptures arranged to make a consecutive biography of the Buddha.