Eight Realizations of the Great Beings

Buddha, the Founder of Buddhism

Commentary by Jayaram V

The eight realizations of great beings are taken from the Sutra which goes by the same name. It is based upon the conclusions or insight of the Mahasattvas (Great Beings), Buddhas, and Bodhisattvas. They are used in many Buddhist schools of both Mahayana and Theravada traditions for meditation and recitation, as the foundational practice to know and gain insight into Dharma with right attitude, awareness and understanding.

Hidden within the eight realizations are eleven subjects or Buddhist teachings namely impermanence, suffering, not-self, impurity, desire, contentment, diligence, understanding, generosity, sameness, and compassion. Those who regularly recite them and contemplate upon them not only overcome their confusion and doubts about the teachings of the Buddha but also progress on the path and achieve liberation from the cycle of births and deaths.

We do not know the true origins of the Sutra. It was translated into Chinese in the second century A. D. by a Chinese monk, An The Cao. Each of the following eight realizations can be used in regular meditation to gain insight. It is a great way to open the mind to the deeper teachings of Buddhism such as the ones mentioned above and understand their practical implications.

The following discussion on the eight realizations is based upon the translation of the Sutra by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thitch Nhat Hanh 1, who was nominated in 1967 for Nobel Prize by Martin Luther King Jr. Even if you are not a practicing Buddhist, you can meditate upon them to cultivate knowledge and wisdom to continue your spiritual practice with right awareness and attitude. For convenience, I have shortened the realizations.

1. The world is impermanent.

The first realization is about impermanence. The world is ever changing. Nothing lasts forever. The body is subject to decay, sickness, aging and death. The mind is unstable. The world constantly changes, like a flowing river or an undulating sea, and never the same. People change, relationships change, circumstances change and the person you met yesterday will not be the same next time when you meet him. As time goes by, our interests, identities, behavior, attitude, health, appearance, habits and outlook also keep changing. The impermanence of the world is a great source of suffering. It makes an unprepared mind anxious and insecure. However, the wise ones contemplate upon it to cultivate compassion, consideration, sensitivity and understanding towards both animate and inanimate objects. Impermanence means you have a limited window of opportunity to treat everything with care and compassion, without clinging, and let go of whatever that you lose or leave behind.

2. More desires mean more suffering.

Desires provide direction and purpose to our lives. However, they also make our lives unhappy and complicated. Our desires are endless. They keep increasing with time, as we become increasingly involved with the world and as we want to feel good about ourselves. Desire for wealth, appreciation, approval, acceptance, love, belongingness, success, achievement, pleasure and fulfillment are a few which keep us busy, restless and overworked. Desires produce suffering when they are not met or partially met. As we move on, they also lead to more desires. Since we cannot always fulfill our desires, we are bound to experience failure and disappointment when we do not realize them. If you want to experience peace and happiness or escape from the cycle of births and deaths, you must restrain yourself and limit your desires. When you limit your desires, wants and needs, you will realize how you have complicated your life and allowed yourself to be a victim of your own actions. When you have fewer desires you will have better opportunities to experience peace and stability. If you want to resolve suffering, you must overcome greed, simplify your life, limit your desires and practice contentment.

3. The human mind always looks for possessions and never feels fulfilled

We cannot live in the world without certain possessions. We need shelter, food, clothing, and a few things to stay clean and healthy. However, we are not satisfied with merely having these few basic possessions. We seek a lot more to feel secure, proud, superior or happy. Seeking things which you do not have or what others have, seeking more than what you need, owning things for which you are neither qualified nor prepared or accumulating possessions which you do not need at all, these are a few examples of unwholesome behavior which produce intense suffering. To hoard things which you do not need is a bad karma because you are denying them to those who may need them. Hoarding is selfishness, which mentally makes you more constricted and possessive. If you want to simplify your life and feel peace and happiness, you should keep a few possessions that are essential to your survival and cultivate contentment. On the path of Nirvana, if you want to move swiftly, you must have fewer possessions, desires, wants and needs.

4. Laziness is an obstacle to spiritual practice

When you restrain your desires and limit your possessions, you run the risk of becoming lethargic and less motivated. Renunciation does not mean you renounce actions or disengage from active spiritual life. An idle mind is vulnerable to evil thoughts, desires and temptations. Lethargy results in the predominance of tamas, which is the source of many evils such as daydreaming, fantasizing, ignorance and negligence which breed desires and evil thoughts. Therefore, it is necessary to use time effectively and keep yourself actively engaged in your daily activities, even if you do not seek things or desire for them. For that, you can practice yoga, meditation, mindfulness, or study which will serve you well to improve your thinking, cultivate discernment or increase your knowledge. You can also help others without expectations or create opportunities to practice virtues such as compassion, detachment, dispassion, nonviolence, etc. The idea is, you must put your energies to proper use to train your mind and body so that you can progress on the path, experience peace and equanimity and lead a wholesome life. In this regard, mindfulness practice is also very helpful since it keeps you diligent, active and attentive.

5. Ignorance is the cause of the endless round of birth and death

What is ignorance? It is defined differently in different traditions. In Buddhism ignorance means ignorance of the Dhamma in general and the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path in specific. In Hinduism it is ignorance of truth, reality and the essential nature of the Self. In some it is equated with innocence or lack of true faith. Buddhism views ignorance as an existential problem, which can be resolved with right knowledge and right living. Not knowing how beings are bound to the cycle of births and deaths or how they are caught between attraction and aversion and stuck in the net of desires and attachments is a major problem for the sentient beings. Unless they overcome it, cultivate discernment and learn to see the truths of Dharma, they cannot make progress on the path of liberation. Ignorance can be overcome by studying the scriptures, contemplating upon the teachings of the Buddha, listening to enlightened masters, cleansing the mind and body and practicing mindfulness. One should contemplate upon the important concepts of Buddhism such as the impermanence of things, not-self, the dependent origination of things or how things are interdependent and arise from one another.

6. Poverty creates hatred and anger and a vicious cycle of negative thoughts and actions.

The world is always divided into categories and classes according to the wealth and status of the people. It is said that 90% of the wealth in the world is owned by less than one percent of the world population. While the affluent people live in opulence and spend their wealth upon various enjoyments, millions of poor people cannot afford to have even basic amenities. No one can remove the disparities in the world because karma shapes the destiny of each individual. Poverty makes people angry, frustrated and envious or depressed. It also often leads to revolutions, violence, crime and social unrest. Buddhism states that negative feelings arise when we view people as unequal or label them as rich or poor, superior or inferior, weak or strong and so on. One does not have to be generous or practice generosity only when one is rich or one has surplus wealth. It is also not necessary that only the wealthy should always help. Sometimes poor people can help rich ones with kind words, love, knowledge or understanding. Generosity is a matter of the heart. You can always help others within your means, treating them equally without discrimination, likes and dislikes. You can treat them as equals, whether they are friends or foes, rich or poor, or weak or strong.

7. The five categories of desire lead to difficulties.

Buddhism recognizes desire as the root cause of all suffering. We have already discussed how desires produce suffering and how we need to limit our desires and simplify our lives to experience peace and happiness. Here, our attention is particularly drawn to the five categories of desires, which produce suffering. They are the desire to be wealthy, the desire to look attractive or beautiful, the desire to achieve success, fame and name, the desire to enjoy pleasures and the desire to be lazy and do nothing. We are familiar with these five types of desires and how they control our personal and social lives. The world worships those who are rich, good looking, and successful which breeds in us the desire to be like them. Unfortunately, everyone cannot fulfill these desires because of several limitations, which lead to envy, anger, frustration and other negative feelings. You can learn to deal with them by cultivating detachment, renunciation and sameness and live like a lotus flower, untouched by the impurities of the world. The principles of right living on the Eightfold Path are also greatly helpful to practice generosity, simplicity and contentment.

8. The fire of birth and death is raging, causing endless suffering everywhere

On the surface, it may appear that only some people are unhappy and the rest are comparatively better. However, in truth no one is truly happy, and no one is free from suffering. Suffering is universal. Everyone suffers, even the tiniest of creatures. Whoever is bound to the cycle of births and deaths is subject to suffering. Therefore, the wise ones say that one should show compassion, understanding and generosity towards all living beings, without discrimination. The Bodhisattvas exemplify this virtue. They are not merely concerned with their own suffering or wellbeing. They reach the shores of Nirvana, but return to help the sentient beings escape from the cycle of endless births and deaths. The Bodhisattvas can be our role models in this world. Instead of being selfish, we can be generous and kind to others and help them in whatever way we can. With the help of the teachings of the Buddha one can develop the virtue and the fortitude to follow the Way and help others achieve Nirvana. Following their example, we can put others before us. We can learn from our problems, suffering and difficulties and use that knowledge to help them or caution them in advance. The enlightened masters practice it. Without being selfish and preoccupied with their own liberation, and knowing the universal nature of suffering and samsara, they help others within their capacity to reach the shore of Nirvana.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Notes: 1. It was further translated into English by Diem Thanh Truong and Carole Melonian.

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