During the first watch of the night of his enlightenment, the Buddha tells us, he traced the personality known as Siddhartha Gautama back over many lives. In the second watch, he saw the world "as if in a spotless mirror"—the countless deaths and rebirths of other creatures, their context in life determined by the karma of past action. "And compassion welled up within him," for he saw only blind paths of stimulus and response: no understanding of the laws that govern what we call "fate," no awareness that we can take our lives into our own hands.
In the last hours before dawn, he focused his attention on how to break this chain of suffering once and for all.
The first link, he saw, is ignorance. Instead of seeing life as a flux, we insist on seeing what we want it to be, a collection of things and experiences with the power to satisfy. Instead of seeing our personality as it is—an impermanent process—we cling to what we want it to be, something real and separate and permanent. From this root ignorance arises the insistent craving for personal satisfaction. From this comes the frustration and suffering that are the human conditions.
With our glimpse into the Buddha's universe, it is clear why human grasping seemed to him so ignorant and blind. We are trying to get from life something that is not there—trying to find a real Clark Gable in a movie, trying to find some experience that will last. And what we are trying to hold on with isn't there either. We want to gratify a process with a process. The ego cannot be satisfied, and the more we try, the more we suffer.
But the frustration of this grasping, because it derives from ignorance, is not real. It is a shadow which can be dispelled by seeing life as it really is. The Buddha says succinctly, “This arising, that arises": whenever there is ignorance of life's nature, suffering has to follow.
What is this real nature? Here the Buddha remains silent. He comes to us to point the way, to show a path, but he steadfastly refuses to limit with words what we will find.
Yet he does tell us that there is more to life than flux and process and the mechanical working out of karma. "There is something unborn, unbecome, not made and not compounded.
When the mind is stilled, the appearance of change and separateness vanishes and nirvana remains. It is shunyata, emptiness, only in that there is literally nothing there: "no-thing." But emptiness of process means fullness of being. Nirvana is freedom from all illness; happiness; security; the absence of fear; peace of mind; freedom from compulsions; untouched by age; unaffected by death. It is, in sum, the highest joy.
Those who attain the island of nirvana can live thereafter in the sea of change without being swept away. They know what life is and know that there is something more. Lacking nothing, craving nothing, they stay in the world solely to help and serve. We cannot say they live without grief; it is their sensitiveness to the suffering of others that motivates their lives.
Without understanding this dimension, the Buddha's universe is an intellectually heady affair that offers little satisfaction to the heart. When we hear that our personality is no more real than a movie, we may feel dejected, abandoned in an alien universe. The Buddha replies gently, "You don't understand." If life were not a process, if thought were continuous, we would have no freedom of choice, no alternative to the human condition. It is because each thought is a moment of its own that we can change.
"Our life is shaped by our mind, for we become what we think." That is the essence of the Buddha's universe and the whole theme of the Dhammapada. If we can get hold of the thinking process, we can actually redo our personality, remake ourselves. Destructive ways of thinking can be rechanneled, constructive channels can be deepened, all through right effort and meditation. "As irrigators lead water to their fields, as archers make their arrows straight, as carpenters carve wood, the wise shape their lives."
"The universe is hostile," Werner von Braun once said, "only when you do not know its laws. To those who know and obey, the universe is friendly." When understood, the Buddha's universe too is anything but alien and inhibiting. It is a world full of hope, where everything we need to do can be done and everything that matters is within human reach. It is a world where kindness, unselfishness, non-violence, and compassion achieve what self-interest and arrogance cannot. It is, simply, a world where any human being can be happy in goodness and the fullness of giving.