Shakyamuni Buddha

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Awakening under the bodhi tree

Shakyamuni's sitting uprightly under the bodhi tree, vowing not to move until he could solve the problem of suffering, is the fifth and final element in the archetypal story of Prince Siddhartha as bodhisattva on the path to buddhahood. Some accounts say he sat there seven days, some say seven weeks.

As Shakyamuni sat in meditation, he contemplated the mental phenomenology of suffering. He realized that the world and its round of suffering are produced by a chain of causes leading from fundamental ignorance to habituated mental formations. These predispositions produce a consciousness that perceives the world as composed of estranged objects, which it names and categorizes. Some of these are felt as distasteful, others as desirable. This discrimination leads to craving and grasping at the objects of desire, which produces frustration and suffering.

The temptations of Mara

As Siddhartha sat under the tree clarifying this realization, he was faced with the temptations of Mara, the personified spirit of obstructive delusion. Mara attempted to unseat Siddhartha with worldly power, with fierce intimidating demons, and then with enticing women. Through it all, the prince remained unshaken and unmoved, aware of the temptations but intent on his meditation, thus modeling the determination to awaken and dissolve the suffering of all beings. Siddhartha's unshaken resolution is emblematic of the dedication of all bodhisattvas.

In a last-ditch effort, Mara demanded to know how the prince could claim to be an awakened buddha. Siddhartha responded by calmly touching the ground before him, calling the earth itself as his witness. This gesture, known as the earth-touching mudra, is memorialized in many images of Shakyamuni Buddha. Some versions of the story state that the Earth Goddess thereupon emerged from the ground to verify Shakyamuni's qualifications for awakening.

The morning star
After Siddhartha defeated Mara and continued sitting through the night, the morning star appeared. When he saw it, Shakyamuni was thoroughly awakened. The nature of this enlightenment is described in the Mahayana as the Buddha's realization that all beings fundamentally are expressions of the clear, open-hearted awareness referred to as buddha nature. Although some may not realize it due to their conditioning and ignorance, when Siddhartha was awakened, the whole world and all its creatures were awakened together.

Many followers of the Buddha over the past two and a half millennia have partaken of this awareness, sometimes to a great degree.

After his enlightenment, Shakyamuni devoted the remaining four decades of his life to spiritual teaching. Practice does not stop with enlightenment. Although this was the culmination of Siddhartha's bodhisattva career and the beginning of his buddhahood, in another sense the bodhisattva's work begins with, and assumes, this enlightenment.