by Punnadhammo Bhikkhu
It is recorded in the Pali canon that on the night of His enlightenment the Lord Buddha attained to three supreme knowledges. In the first watch of the night He had the recollection of all his past lives for many thousands of aeons. In the second watch of the night He attained the knowledge of the rising and falling of beings, seeing how the laws of karma unfold in detail. In the third watch of the night He had the knowledge of the exhaustion of cankers, knowing that He had eradicated all defilements and made an end of ill.
How do you approach this story? One could take it in a pious or even superstitious way and simply believe it unquestioningly. For some simple hearted beings this may bring joy through the arising of the faith faculty, but it has to be admitted that this is a simple-minded approach. How can one really know the truth of these things, not having experienced them for themselves?
Or one could choose to reject this passage out of hand. Many do. This episode is seldom discussed by the agnostic Buddhists, probably because they find it an acute embarrassment. It implies so much that is outside a rational-materialist paradigm that, for them, it simply cannot be so. Their skepticism works not as an opening but as a closure to the consideration of passages such as this. For an agnostic Buddhist, this story must be false, or more politely (or patronizingly) mythical.
Or one could approach it with a real skepticism. You could begin by taking it seriously because it is a vital part of a venerable tradition (this is still far from believing it.) You could honestly consider that it very well might be literally true. This would lead you to consider the profound implications for the nature of the mind and the universe we live in, in which such an event could have transpired.
Only if one approaches it in this genuinely skeptical sense can the profound power and majesty of the teaching touch one deeply enough to have any transformative effect.
When all is said and done, how do you know it didn't happen, exactly as described?
Read a further clarification of the idea of true skepticism at http://users.xplornet.com/~arfh/dhamma/skeptic.html.