Eight Awarenesses of Enlightenment

Manifesting Buddha Nature

The Eight Awarenesses, or Aspects, of Enlightenment are a guide to Buddhist practice, but they are also the characteristics that distinguish a Buddha. The Awarenesses come from the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, which for Mahayana Buddhists presents the final teachings of the historical Buddha before his death. It is said that to fully realize the Awarenesses is Nirvana.

Don't think of the Awarenesses as progressing from first to last, because they arise together and support each other. Think of them as a circle that can begin at any point.

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Freedom From Desire

In his book (with Bernie Glassman Roshi) The Hazy Moon of Enlightenment, the late Taizan Maezumi Roshi wrote, "Our life is always fulfilled in just the right way. We have this life, we live it, and this is enough. In the best sense, having few desires is to realize this. Yet, somehow, we think something is lacking, and so we have all kinds of desires."

This is the teaching of the Four Noble Truths. The cause of suffering (dukkha) is thirst or craving. This thirst grows from ignorance of the self. Because we see ourselves as small and limited, we go through life trying to grab one thing after another to make us feel bigger or safer.

Realizing freedom from desire leads to satisfaction.

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Liberated from desire, we are satisfied. Eihei Dogen wrote in the Hachi Dainin-gaku that dissatisfied people are chained to desire, so you see that the first Awareness, Freedom From Desire, causes the Second Awareness to arise.

Dissatisfaction causes us to desire things we think we don't have. But acquiring things, having what we desire, gives us only fleeting satisfaction. When not hindered by desire, satisfaction naturally manifests.

When satisfaction arises, so does the next Awareness, serenity.

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True serenity arises naturally from the other Awarenesses. Zen teacher Geoffrey Shugen Arnold explained that true serenity cannot be contrived or created. "If our serenity is an act of creation, then the clock is ticking. It’s going to pass. So it’s not true serenity; it’s just a passing experience of being serene. Which is fine, but when we try to perform that magic trick and declare that it is permanent, then there is disappointment. To realize the uncreated is to realize that which has no beginning or end."

To realize the uncreated is to be free of the ignorance that creates desire. It is also prajna, or wisdom, which is the Seventh Awareness. But to realize the uncreated takes meticulous effort.

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Meticulous Effort

"Meticulous Effort" sometimes is translated "diligence." Eihei Dogen wrote in the Hachi Dainin-gaku that ceaseless diligence was like ceaselessly flowing water. Even a small amount of dripping water can wear away a rock. But if parts of practice are lax, it is "like someone who stops striking a flint before having ignited a fire."

Meticulous Effort relates to the Right Effort of the Eightfold Path. The next Awareness, Correct Remembrance, also relates to the Path.

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Correct Remembrance

The Sanskrit term samyak-smriti (Pali, samma-sati) is variously translated "correct remembrance," "balanced recollectedness" and "right mindfulness," the last of which is part of the Eightfold Path.

Thich Nhat Hanh wrote in The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching, "Smriti literally means 'remembering,' not forgetting where we are, what we are doing, and who we are with.... With training, every time we breathe in and out, mindfulness will be there, so that our breathing becomes a cause and condition for the arising of mindfulness."

Remembrance, or mindfulness, brings about samadhi.

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In Buddhism, the Sanskrit word samadhi is sometimes simply translated "concentration," but it is a particular kind of concentration. In samadhi, consciousness of self and other, subject and object, disappear. It is a state of deep meditation sometimes called "single pointedness" of mind," because all dualisms have dissolved.

Samadhi develops from mindfulness, and the next Awareness, wisdom, develops from samadhi, but it can also be said these awarenesses arise together and support each other.

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Prajna is Sanskrit for "wisdom" or "consciousness." In particular, it is a wisdom that is intimately experienced rather than conceptualized. Most of all, prajna is insight that casts away ignorance of the self.

Prajna is sometimes equated with enlightenment itself, especially prajna paramita -- the perfection of wisdom

Our list of Eight Awarenesses does not culminate in wisdom, however.

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Avoiding Idle Talk

Avoiding idle talk! How mundane. This is a characteristic of a Buddha? Yet this is an Awareness that ties into all the other Awarenesses. Avoiding idle talk is, also, part of the Eightfold Path.

It is important to remember that karma arises from speech as well as from body and mind. Two of the Ten Grave Precepts of Mahayana Buddhism deal with speech -- not discussing faults of others and not elevating self and blaming others.

Dogen said that idle talk disturbs the mind. A Buddha, fully mindful of his thoughts, words and deeds, does not speak idly.