When Buddha sat under the tree, he had a series of experiences.
1. He remembers that, as a child, he had entered a state of reverie or rapture while sitting beneath a rose apple tree while everybody else was enjoying themselves at the Spring Ploughing festival. He thinks to himself, why can’t I just enjoy such an experience now? So he does so and this is called the First Dhyana. He then passes through seven more dhyanas. It is clear from several texts, however, that this ability to enjoy the dhyanas is not considered to be enlightenment. In fact, Buddha says in the very first sutra of the Majjhima Nikaya that one can experience all these dhyanas and still be completely deluded. So I think we should try to understand this.
Really, dhyanas are states of enjoyment that are independent of any extra stimulus. This is enjoyment that does not depend upon having a movie to watch or other form of entertainment, does not require alcohol or drugs, does not require a sex partner, does not require anything other than simply joy in being alive. We can imagine the Buddha asking himself, Why not? Why not just enjoy being alive? It is a good question. The dhyanas are available to anybody. Secluded from all unwholesome thoughts, all unwholesome stimuli, the Buddha was able to enjoy all eight dhyanas.
I remember that when I first got involved in Buddhism it was in the late sixties. It was the time of “flower power”. People were “dropping out and turning on”. The people who were promoting meditation at that time often said that meditation is the way to get everything that drugs can give you but with no bad side effects and without it costing you anything. This was a strong argument and it was not so far from what Buddha said to himself. The dhyanas were, and indeed are, tranquil and delightful abidings.
2. However, hot on the heels of this pleasant abiding, Mara arrives with all his host. What does this mean? It means, in psychological terms, that the attempt to simply push the unwholesome thoughts, fantasies and urges aside and enjoy life without them, provoked a reaction on a large scale. What is pushed aside goes for a time, but then it comes back, perhaps in even greater force.
This is how the mind works. We can impose rules upon it and it will follow them for a time, but it does so by holding the things that don’t fit back. This only works for a limited time and, as Freud said, “arguments are of no avail against… passions”. Whatever rule we impose upon ourselves, there will be times when it comes undone. So, on the rebound from the happy thought that he could simply enjoy peace, secluded from the passions, the passions return in force.
3. It says that Buddha was able to turn all of Mara’s host into celestial flowers. I take this to mean that this time, rather then resisting, destroying or setting them aside, he was able to receive, accept and honour the passions without them leading him into unwholesome action. This was an act of sublimation. Instead of putting the fire out, he was able to contain and direct it.
4. It was after this that he had insight into dependent origination. Looked at in this context we can take dependent origination to be, broadly, the idea that the passions appear in different form according to whether they are built upon avidya or not. Buddha had been able to turn them into flowers by not being caught in avidya. So what is avidya? Avidya is something that we could call wilful ignorance. The Buddha concluded that wilful ignorance is a function of personal conceit. These two, thereafter, were the main objects of his attack and criticism - conceit and its derivative wilful ignorance, These two are the root of all evil in Buddhism.
So we can say that the essence of Buddhism is to transform avidya into vidya and conceit into a non-self attitude. This, however, cannot be done by the conceited, wilfully ignorant mind and herein lies the problem of self-power. The conceited, wilfully ignorant mind can do many things - enter all the dhyanas, practise awareness, be in the present moment, at least every now and again, and can use all the Buddhist methods and practices, but when it does so it will turn them to its purpose of self-agrandisement, self-abasement, self-definition, self-projection, self-esteem, self-love, self-centredness and so on.
The best method available, therefore, is to despair of self - cultivate a sense of humour about oneself - and baffle self-power by worshiping what is mysterious and gracious beyond. This is why Mahayana Buddhism developed such a panoply of sambhogakaya Buddhas. Such an approach asks the Buddhas for their help. It says, “I see that I cannot do this. Please help.” Thus, there is no method by which one can ensure arrival at enlightenment except complete reliance upon a Buddha or all the Buddhas. Their Dharma will save one - one can take refuge in that even without knowing really what it is. In fact, one never really knows and it is that essential ignorance that makes such reliance real. This means that ignorance is essential for its accomplishment and that this is the only way for conceited, wilfully ignorant beings to have a chance of fully entering the grace.
It does not really matter whether you take as your object of refuge Amida Buddha, Quan Shi Yin, the Lotus Sutra, Samantabhadra, the Buddha’s relics or whatever. In the Amida Shu we turn to Amitabha, but that does not mean we are in opposition to those who turn to some other manifestation of Buddhadharma. To be so would just be another demonstration of conceited wilful ignorance.
So one of the things that Buddha is telling us by this story of his own experience is that , yes, it is possible, by will, to put unwholesome states aside temporarily and enjoy coasting through the dhyanas, however, you can expect a comeback. Mara will return. However, armed with this knowledge, you can be ready for him. This means that as passions arise, you are ready to investigate their true nature - celestial flowers - and see how them affecting you one way or the other way depends upon the functioning of self.
You might think that seeing in this way would then free you from self, but it doesn’t. Insight into the cause of a disease does not cure it. It permits wiser management of the condition, but it does not cure. A person can know all the reasons why and how he is an alcoholic and he still goes on drinking. It takes something else. It takes faith that something beyond oneself can help.