The story of the Buddha’s enlightenment, like the Nativity story, developed over time. In the best known version, the Buddha sits down under the Bodhi tree, vowing not to get up until he attains enlightenment.
As he’s sitting through the night Mara appears, and attempts to unsettle him with apparitions to create fear and sexual desire. Yet whether he is unsettled or not, the Buddha continues to sit. As dawn approaches, the Buddha touches the ground with his hand, and Mara and his forces disappear. As dawn breaks, he looks up to the sky and sees the morning star, Venus. And at that point he attains awakening.
The earliest versions of the Buddhist enlightenment contain hardly any of these ingredients. We’re simply told that he attained Nirvana. Not that he attained enlightenment. And it’s clear from the context that Nirvana is not a unique quality or faculty which only the Buddha had, but is something readily available to other people, once the nature of our existence is understood.
So when the Buddha starts teaching, others will frequently attain Nirvana too.
Elaborating the story to make it about the Buddha’s enlightenment carries the risk of removing him from the whole messy mass of humanity. Changing him from being a very unusual person to a unique person.
Yet there’s also a way of looking at the enlightenment story which is a simple description of our experience in zazen. The tree – the Bodhi tree – under which the Buddha is sheltering- is hollow, empty. It has no self essence, only location and connection. Its branches extend everywhere into space. Its roots extend everywhere in time. It’s a clear symbol of interdependence.
The ground which the Buddha touches is the ground of your practice body. And Mara, I would have thought, is clearly indicative of intruding and habitual patterns of thought and feeling. The space, which is actualised by the Buddha looking up and seeing the morning star through and within this vast space, is the space of awareness in zazen.
What’s the function of the morning star? The word that is rendered as enlightenment,yet ‘Bodhi’ doesn’t have any connotations of light, or of illumination. It simply means ‘awakened’. Yet it’s said (in the story) that at the moment of his enlightenment the Buddha said, “Now I and all other beings are enlightened.”
If you think about light, then the light – space, illuminated – must permeate everywhere. If it didn’t then he could neither see the morning star, or anything else. But at the same time the morning star is particular. So it is both particular and universal. As are we.