It is said that at the end of the Buddha’s life, he gave a teaching about eight awarenesses that are present in “great beings.” The teaching appears in the Maparinibbana Sutta. The same list holds a special place in my tradition, Soto Zen—the founder, Dogen, offered a brief commentary of it at the end of his life as well. 1700 years apart, these two teachers looked at the incredible depth and variety of teachings in the Buddhist path and made a point of saying, “Don’t forget this.”
It takes a while to unpack these eight awarenesses—the first step is to unpack “great being.” What is that? Have you ever met one?
It’s natural, when we encounter an idea like “great being,” to imagine it’s something we can’t possibly understand—or perhaps can’t understand yet, as long we’re not great beings ourselves. If you’re Buddhist, your mind might go directly to the image of a buddha, or at least someone buddha-like. It probably brings up a picture of wisdom and serenity; depending on what tradition you come from, it may even include a hint of the supernatural, someone not quite bound by normal human existence. Someone who glows.
That sounds really nice. And who knows, maybe such beings exist. But if you haven’t personally met one, then at the very least, it doesn’t make sense to make that your goal—how do you even start? Better to take up a vision of greatness that you’ve at least glimpsed, if not in yourself than maybe in someone you know.
Here we come to a nice historical and linguistic twist on this teaching about “great beings,” which is that the way it’s written in Chinese characters (大人, literally “big person”) also happens to be the common word for “adult.” So on the page, a “great being”—at least at first glance—is understood simply as a grown-up. If we’re looking to understand wisdom in real terms, then this is a great starting place.
One of the most difficult things in any spiritual practice is demystifying the things that make it most appealing. We can all recognize compassion, but as soon as we hear it said in a sutra, it becomes Compassion—and as it does, it floats out of our reach. Awareness, being awake, wisdom—we already know them, but when we hear them in a spiritual context, suddenly it’s as if they’re beyond our imagination.
We all know that it’s possible to be a legal adult but still act and think like a child—we see it all the time. So what defines an adult? Beyond someone who has reached a certain age or has certain responsibilities, what makes someone a real-live grown-up? When we meet someone who seems wise, what gives us that impression?
We may not agree on all of it, but I’ll bet we agree on a lot. People who seem grown up, who seem mature, seem able to let go of things. They do what needs doing, even when it’s hard. They don’t make everything about themselves. They aren’t distracted by things that are unimportant. They have a sense of what matters, and that’s where they place their attention.
In future posts, I’ll try to unpack some of these “awarenesses of great beings.” But I want to start with this simple idea: on some deep level, even if you’ve never considered the question before, you’re probably aware of them already. You may not embody them or even give them much thought, but you’ve noticed them in others, and maybe even in yourself. This is big, big stuff, but it isn’t beyond our reach.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia (his talks can be found on the their podcast) and editor of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide.