In the Khirarukkhopama, or “The Milk Tree,” sutra in the Samyuatta Nikaya, the Buddha talks of a milk tree. For those who have seen rubber trees and papaya trees, these are milk trees. When you take a knife and cut any place on the trunk, you get milk.

Similarly, what you put in will come out. This [Bhante gestures to himself] is my milk tree. The top of the milk tree is here [gestures to head]. If you put greed in here, greed comes out. With our eyes we bring greed in, and so greed increases and increases. Anytime you grasp at something, greed comes out. Similarly, when I put hatred in here, hatred comes out.

So, here we find the secret: clinging. As long as we cling to things, we can never escape this endless round of samsara, this wheel of existence. We die and leave the causes for our next life.

Photo by Douglas John Imbrogno, November 2021, Bhavana Society, High View WV

“At Every Moment We Die”

But let us look more closely. What do you see in these five aggregates—form, feeling, perception, thought and consciousness—if you follow the dharma path? You see impermanence and the inevitability of death. Once you are born and live a number of years, then our life finishes. That’s all we know about death. We are born and after a certain period of time, conventionally, we die.

But one who follows the dharma path sees another death: the truth that at every moment we die. That is why Buddha said: “Whenever somebody sees with wisdom rising and falling, rising and falling, that knowledge, that awareness itself, is immortal.” 

Every moment comes to a peak and passes away: uppada, thiti, bhanga. That is to say there is the rising moment, the peak moment, and the passing moment. We live only one moment—that peak moment—yet it, too, constantly passes away.

Think about the wheel of your car moving down the highway. The wheel touches the road only a tiny little fraction of a moment, and then the next moment, the next moment, and the next moment after that. Life is like that. Literally, every moment we are born, every moment we die. 

The same is true of these five aggregates of form, feeling, perception, thought, and consciousness. Every fraction of a second, these aggregates change. Every fraction of a second, oxygen must nourish our cells. We are made of trillions of cells, and every one needs oxygen. If we are deprived of oxygen for even a short period of time, we die. And so this constant change goes on and on. Perception, volition, consciousness—all are changing, so quickly. Seeing the five aggregates in this way is the dharma path.  

Seeing impermanence is the dharma path. 

“The Path Is Right Here”

I hear all the time that if you see the Buddha, you attain nirvana. But you can never do that. Instead, I say: “You attain nirvana, and then you see the Buddha.” 

How is that?

This is what the Buddha said to the Venerable Vakkali, who became a monk just to see the Buddha. One day, Vakkali was very sick in bed. He could not get up. Buddha came to visit him. Then, Ven. Vakkali cried. Buddha asked, “Vakkali, why do you cry? Have you any remorse and regret?” 

“No, venerable sir,  my conscience is very clear. But I’m sorry, venerable sir, that I cannot go and see you. My eyes ache when I don’t see you.” 

Then Buddha said: “Vakkali, what is the use of this decaying, dying body, the body that gets old, that dies, filled with impurities, like a milk tree?”

Buddha’s body, after all, was just like our body. He had aches and pains, too. And inside his body there was nothing beautiful or sweet-smelling. It is not the body that attains enlightenment, but the mind. 

So, Buddha said, “What is the use of seeing this body? You see dharma, Vakkali? If you see dharma, you see nirvana. Attain nirvana and then you see the Buddha.”

The path is right here. Not over there, not up there, not above the clouds. Here

That is the secret we have to find. Each and every one of us. 

The Ocean

Buddha spoke of “this ocean” we face. His disciples asked what he meant by “ocean.” He replied that the outside ocean is just a great expanse of water. But the real ocean is right here: the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind.

Why is that? Consider the amount of things you have seen and are seeing now. How many trillion things have you seen in your life? An ocean of things! What about the ocean of  sounds you have heard?  Human sounds, animal sounds, music sounds, scolding sounds, shouting sounds. So many sounds! How many things have you smelled already? An ocean of things. How many things have we tasted? So many types of taste! That’s an ocean. How many things have we touched? That’s an ocean. How many things have we already thought? How many moments of consciousness have we had? All oceans!

One who crosses these many oceans encounters crocodiles, sharks, demons, and so forth. What do these hazardous creatures signify? So many millions of problems caused by greed, hatred, and delusion. These oceans are teeming with them. Yet if one mindfully moves across this ocean in a raft or boat, without sinking, without capsizing, avoiding all these dangers, that is the one who ends karma. That is the one who attains nirvana. 

And that is the one who then sees the Buddha. Therefore, we try to see the Buddha in the way the Buddha asked Ven. Vakkali to see him. We try to see the Buddha in us through the dharma.

This article is an excerpt adapted from remarks Bhante Gunaratana delivered at the Bhavana Society’s Kathina Robe Offering ceremony Oct. 24, 2021, at the Bhavana Society a Theravada Buddhist forest monastery and retreat center in High View, WV. Bhante G, as he is known worldwide, is founder and abbot. He turned 94 in December and remains in good health. See the full talk here.