[ <- Part 4]

In the life of Sidhartha Gotama who became Shakyamuni Buddha, there are two great turning points. Both are instances of paravritti, of turning back.


The first of these is the occasion of his leaving home. We are told that after his experience of seeing the Four Sights - an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and a saddhu, he found himself in a much changed frame of mind. Up to that time he had rather mindlessly enjoyed all kinds of indulgence in luxury, hunting and playing. Then, that night, he got up and saw the dancing girls all asleep, perhaps all rather the worse for alcohol, dishevelled and snoring. These were girls whose charms he had enjoyed many times, but this time, instead of feeling lust and attraction, he felt a great surge of nausea. “I cannot go on like this,” he thought. Soon afterwards, he left the palace and went forth on his quest, seeking for liberation from the carnal impulses that bound him to the domain of Mara.

He then spent several years learning yoga and practising penitential exercises, trying to subdue the flesh. This led to him becoming weak and emaciated but it did not expunge the lust, greed, hate, pride and other impulses that caused him so much trouble. Looking honestly at his own condition he realised that although he had learnt many practices and even achieved a reputation as a great ascetic, the same passions rose in him as before.


Finally, we come to the night of his enlightenment. This was a turning in the fullest sense. It was a turning away from the ascetic, self-punishment that he had engaged in. He now felt a revulsion for this just as strong as his earlier revulsion from sensual indulgence. Both of them, he saw with unavoidable clarity, were vain, ignoble and useless.

Remembering his experience as a child under the rose apple tree, he now once again turned away from the creation of needless suffering, felt a revulsion for it, realised his error, and thus reawakened a fundamental innocence that is pure, clear, fresh and light. He felt as if freed from prison or as somebody who had been lost who suddenly recognises the road.

It was thus a turning toward the life of great compassion that he was then to follow for the remaining forty five years of his life. Turning toward this ministry was also a turning toward the example of the Buddhas of all times. He was now Shakymuni and felt himself to stand in the lineage of all these Buddhas who, throughout ages, bring the Dharma into myriad worlds for the sake of sentient beings. He then went forth again, but in a new way, gathering and inspiring those who were ripe to receive his message and example.

Before this second turning he was focussed upon himself and his need to overcome himself and his own passions. After it he was focussed upon helping others, upon the needs of the world around him. This was a turning from a belief in and pursuit of self-power to an outward orientation. In the former position, he was striving for mastery, whereas in the second he practised vigourous action in a context of great acceptance. This is a complete turning around.

He later described this turning around by using the example of crossing a river. A person on this side of the river racks his brains how to get himself across. He strives to build a raft. He gathers the materials and makes the crossing. However, when he reaches the other shore, he has no need of the raft. He goes on his way, leaving the raft behind. His attention is upon the new country he is in, not upon his own problem and how to solve it.


Paravritti is, in a sense, the Buddhist equivalent of conversion, not in the sense of being gathered into a new congregation but in the sense of a profound change of heart. The word “conversion” comes from the Latin verb convertere which means "to turn around". When a thing is genuinely converted, it does not go back. When Shakyamuni was awakened, he could not unlearn what he had discovered. His embodiment of the path of sila, samadhi and prajna was now not so much a practice as an inevitable way of life for him. This is because he was now, as it were, looking in a different direction. What concerned him was no longer his own passions and his struggle to abolish them.

Pious Buddhists tend to assume that the Buddha no longer had such impulses, that although they were clearly with him on the night of enlightenment, they were all swept away by his great realisation. I suspect that this is not quite right. What the realisation achieved was that he now viewed them in a different way. He had turned around. He was no longer concerned with either indulging or abolishing them; they had become part of the scenery of life. They became the basis of his great compassion, rather than either an obsession or a hindrance.

It is all a matter of how one views things. When we turn around we see them from a different angle and in a different way. We could say that this is a turning from passion to compassion, but the passion is still there and is, in fact, the foundation. Basic instinctive energies are turned into something sublime by a reorientation. This is what Buddha described in his first declaration of the Four Truths for Noble Ones: that it is from dukkha itself that the path springs forth when one restrains the up-welling surge of passion and, rather than be swept along by it, has the faith and nerve to see it as it is and redeploy it in the service of what one knows to be good.

[Part 6 ->]

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