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When introducing a lost spiritual practice or sadhana such as the Bodhi Tree meditation, it may be helpful to first show a textual basis that could justify the practice. Examining the texts that follow brings up a question. Since the "watches of the night" were so essential to the Buddha's enlightenment, why are similar practices not part of contemporary Buddhist traditions?
The terma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism allows for continuing revelation. It often emphasizes new teachings. But in this case, we will be looking at older teachings which have been lost over time and are being written again.
The first of the lost sadhanas presented at this site is called the Bodhi Tree practice, and it is based on the stages of meditation of the historical Buddha as he sat in contemplation beneath the Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya, in Bihar, India. It emphasizes the importance of the stages of the Buddha's enlightenment, and it contributes to a fuller understanding of the development of Buddhism.
This is described in the Pali Canon or Tripitaka (in Sanskrit, Tripitaka), the earliest collection of sacred texts of Theravada Buddhism, which was written in the Pali language. It was organized at the First Buddhist Council in the fifth century BCE, several months after the Buddha's death (though modern scholars debate exactly which parts were added at which dates). It is believed by Theravada Buddhists to have the direct words of the historical buddha. We can see a description of his initial insight, sometimes called the first watch of the night, in a section of the Pali Canon called the Apannaka Sutta (MN 60):
With his mind thus concentrated, purified, and bright, unblemished, free from defects, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, he directs and inclines it to knowledge of the recollection of past lives (lit: previous homes). He recollects his manifold past lives, i.e., one birth, two births, three births, four, five, ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, one hundred, one thousand, one hundred thousand, many aeons of cosmic contraction, many aeons of cosmic expansion, many aeons of cosmic contraction and expansion, [recollecting], 'There I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose there. There too I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose here.' Thus he recollects his manifold past lives in their modes and details.While today most Buddhists understand this to be a historical or legendary description of the Buddha's experiences, unique to him, in the Bodhi Tree Meditation it is a model for initiates to imitate and practice. The Pali Canon also contains the Longer Discourse with Saccaka, in which the Buddha describes his experiences in the first three periods or watches of the night:
See online reference: "The Three Knowledges" : Buddhism (reddit.com)
When my mind had immersed in samadhi like this - purified, bright, flawless, rid of corruptions, pliable, workable, steady, and imperturbable, I extended it toward recollection of past lives. I recollected my many kinds of past lives, with features and details.
This was the first knowledge, which I achieved in the first watch of the night. Ignorance was destroyed and knowledge arose; darkness was destroyed and light arose, as happens for a meditator who is diligent, keen, and resolute. But even such pleasant feeling did not occupy my mind.
When my mind had immersed in samadhi like this - purified, bright, flawless, rid of corruptions, pliable, workable, steady, and imperturbable, I extended it toward knowledge of the death and rebirth of sentient beings. With clairvoyance that is purified and superhuman, I saw sentient beings passing away and being reborn - inferior and superior, beautiful and ugly, in a good place or a bad place. I understood how sentient beings are reborn according to their deeds.
This was the second knowledge, which I achieved in the middle watch of the night. Ignorance was destroyed and knowledge arose; darkness was destroyed and light arose, as happens for a meditator who is diligent, keen, and resolute. But even such pleasant feeling did not occupy my mind. When my mind had immersed in samadhi like this - purified, bright, flawless, rid of corruptions, pliable, workable, steady, and imperturbable, I extended it toward knowledge of the ending of defilements. I truly understood: 'This is suffering'. 'This is the origin of suffering'. 'This is the cessation of suffering'. 'This is the practice that leads to the cessation of suffering'. I truly understood: 'These are defilements'. 'This is the origin of defilements'. 'This is the cessation of defilements'. 'This is the practice that leads to the cessation of defilements'.
Knowing and seeing like this, my mind was freed from the defilements of sensuality, desire to be reborn, and ignorance. When it was freed, I knew it was freed. I understood: 'Rebirth is ended; the spiritual journey has been completed; what had to be done has been done; there is no return to any state of existence'. This was the third knowledge, which I achieved in the last watch of the night. Ignorance was destroyed and knowledge arose; darkness was destroyed and light arose, as happens for a meditator who is diligent, keen, and resolute. But even such pleasant feeling did not occupy my mind.
MN 36: Mahasaccakasutta.Bhikkhu Sujato (suttacentral.net)
Sometimes the fourth knowledge, or watch of the night, is called nirvana, the state of full enlightenment. We might debate whether the state of nirvana could contain knowledge, as it is non-dual, while knowledge traditionally requires both a knower and a known. At any rate, the fourth watch is the highest state, and the meditative practice to be described tends to focus on the first three watches which lead to it.
The four watches of the night are also described in Asvaghosa's Buddhacarita, written several centuries later, during the second century CE. He describes the first three watches of the night in a similar fashion to the Pali Canon, but goes into further detail on the fourth watch:
At that moment, in the fourth watch of the night, when dawn broke and all the ghosts that move and those that move not went to rest, the great seer took up the position which knows no more alteration, and the leader of all reached the state of all-knowledge. When, through his Buddhahood, he had cognized this fact, the earth swayed like a woman drunken with wine, the sky shone bright with the Siddhas who appeared in crowds in all the directions, and the mighty drums of thunder resounded through the air... The sage fulfilled his heart's desire, reflecting that on that spot he had obtained liberation. Then the sage, whose eye was like a bull's, whose gait like a rutting elephant's, desired to go to the land of Kasi, in order to convert the world, and turning his entire body like an elephant, he fixed his unwinking eyes on the bodhi tree. (trans. EB Cowell, Book XIV)
Here we can see some of the potential literary and historical origins for the Bodhi Tree practice. We can then examine a Vajrayana variant, in which these experiences are not merely myth or history, but rather a model for what future Buddhists should experience as they seek nirvana or ultimate freedom.
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Introduction | Methodology - Participant/Observer | The Bodhi Tree Sadhanas | Vajra Dakini Discussion | Vajra Dakini Commentary | Vajra Dakini Sadhanas | Vajra Yogini Commentary | Maitreya Sadhanas | Vajradhara Speaks About Yidams | Lost Sadhanas Conclusion
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