Bahiya and The Cosmic Joke
This story comes from the Buddhist Suttas. Bahiya of the Bark-cloth was a wondering renunciate and arguably the Buddha's best student.
One day Bahiya comes to wonder about himself,
“Am I awakened? Am I an enlightened being?”
So Bahiya asks a passing God—a Deva,
“Am I awakened?”
The Deva answers,
“No. Not only are you not awakened, but you also haven’t even entered the path to becoming awakened.”
Bahiya responds with, “Well, who can I talk to about it to learn?”
Deva says, “You should talk to the Blessed One, Gautama Buddha.”
So Bahiya goes on his way and eventually encounters the Buddha.
He happens to catch the Buddha on a morning when the Buddha is making his way into a village for alms rounds to collect food. Bahiya says, to the Buddha,
“Will you please instruct me on the Dharma?”
The Buddha says,
“No. This is not a good time. I’m on my way to alms rounds. I will talk to you later.”
Bahiya responds with,
“No. I can’t wait until later. We don’t know what’s in the future. I might not live through the day. You might not live through the day. You need to tell me now.”
Again, Bahiya asks the Buddha to instruct him on the Dharma. And again, the Buddha refuses the request saying,
“This is not the time, Bahiya. We have entered the town for alms.” Then Bahiya persists with a third try.
“Teach me the Dharma, O Blessed One! Teach me the Dharma, for my long-term welfare and bliss.”
In those days when you asked the Buddha a question 3 times he would often answer. The Buddha responds,
“Alright, I will give you a quick Dharma lesson. I don’t have much time.”
“Bahiya, you should train yourself thus: In the seeing, there is only the seen. In the hearing, there is only the heard. In the sensing, there is only the sensed. In the knowing, there is only the known. This, just this, is the end of stress.”
Bahiya immediately understood the teaching at a deep intuitive level and became fully awakened.
The path to enlightenment is to be conscious of our moment-to-moment sensory experience and cognition. The Buddha is emphasizing the importance of not over-identifying with the ownership of our known experience or always framing our experience in relation to our ego.
Coincidentally, later that day, Bahiya is killed by a cow protecting her calf. When the Buddha finds out about it, he instructs his monks to cremate Bahiya as an Arhat, or fully awakened being.
The Buddha suffered terribly in his quest to gain enlightenment. The cosmic joke, as told by meditation instructor Kenneth Folk, is that the Buddha went through so much difficulty to gain enlightenment and yet Bahiya gained enlightenment by listening to the Buddha’s one-minute lecture. He was able to let go of the common misconception of self. Bahiya got the cosmic joke.