There are two enlightenment events in the Buddha’s life: the first one under the Bodhi tree at age 35 and the second one under the twin Sala trees at age 80. It seems these two events have been merged into one idea of enlightenment. I would like to discuss the Buddha’s enlightenment as occurring in two parts – with different qualities. This is called the Two Nirvana Theory.
We celebrate two separate special services for these two separate events. The first—which we celebrated just a few months ago—is called Bodhi Day, celebrated in December; the second is called Nirvana Day, celebrated on February 12th this year. The names of these two holidays can add to the confusion. It might be more accurate to refer to them as Nirvana Day and Parinirvana Day. Nirvana Day (“Bodhi Day”) celebrates the Buddha’s initial enlightenment. Parinirvana Day (“Nirvana Day”) celebrates the Buddha’s complete enlightenment just prior to his death.
This two-fold structure of enlightenment can be seen in the 18th vow of
The Larger Sutra: “If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the
lands of the ten directions who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, desire to be born in my land, and call my Name, even ten times, should not be born there, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment.” This initial enlightenment is somewhat technically called enlightenment with remainder, while complete enlightenment is called enlightenment without remainder. What is this remainder? It is the remainder of clinging. While the self still exists, clinging still exists – even for the Buddha. In other words, the triple fires of ignorance, greed and anger have been extinguished but the fuel still remains.
The human being named Gotama did not, upon enlightenment, become a completely different kind of being, a perfect being impervious to harm. Even after becoming a Buddha he possessed weaknesses and could be pursued and tempted by the remainder of clinging.
In ancient India, it was understood that even after a fire has been blown out, a latent fire still exists due to the remaining fuel of the candle. Our fuel also still exists until we die. So the best we can do – in the here and now – is make a wish and blow out the candle – while it is still smoldering.
Rev. Jon Turner