Working together for a better world...
The Buddha-to-be was said to be a prince. We can assume that he enjoyed his princely state for some while, he knew nothing else. His life would have been privileged by the standards of the time, he would have automatic respect from many people and lack nothing in the essentials for life. He was a married man living within extended family as was the custom, with a young wife and a new born son.
Then something happened which made Prince Siddhartha stop and question the bubble he had lived his whole life within. He suddenly became aware of sickness, old age and death, conditions that were almost certainly going to affect his future. You could say that he zoomed out, and saw the bigger perspective in a way he hadn’t seen it before. Perhaps he questioned his identity, as a prince, as a powerful-person-to-be, perhaps he saw that his princely status was not going to save him from these common human experiences of suffering.
We ourselves must have had these notions too, whatever age we are. Perhaps they become more insistent as we get older, as our friends start dying, our loved ones. I wonder if the Buddha-to-be saw these facts of life, and when he saw then, he saw them in a different way to how I see them. I think I’m still pushing them away, there is still “it won’t happen to me” there somewhere, as my striving for survival won’t quite believe that it could happen. Maybe I now believe that it can unfortunately happen to others that I see as pillars of my life and identity, but still it is difficult somehow to imagine the world without me. I, that am at the centre of the world as I know it.
Because to the Buddha, his insight made him, it seems, completely disillusioned with his life, and almost immediately he rejected his life outright. He rejected its ability to offer him any kind of lasting satisfaction or answers. Prince Siddhartha had a forth vision, encountering a holy man or sage, a person who he perceived to offer something different. This man whom he saw, who we believe to be a contemporary ascetic, seemed to Prince Siddhartha to invite him into an unknown that was strangely attractive to him. We can imagine that this ascetic was dressed in rags, and by no means beautiful to behold to the ordinary eye, much less to the ‘mundane’ eye of a prince. But Prince Siddhartha saw beyond the rags, beyond perhaps the malnutrition that has until very recently been a sign of poverty. He felt the presence of something more.
We know that Prince Siddhartha, following these insights, left his extended family including his young wife and baby son behind, renouncing all his wealth, present and future privilege. He left to become an ascetic, and sought out every known spiritual teacher in his area. He learnt to meditate; he performed acts of asceticism to greater extremes than any of his contemporaries. Asceticism was perhaps the main practise for spiritual seekers in those days, the practises of overcoming the flesh. Prince Siddhartha was admired for his discipline and self-denial, a gained his own group of followers. But the Buddha-to-be was not satisfied. He could not settle for his achievements, for being a teacher of a group of followers. From some compass inside his, he knew that he had not reached his goal, he had not found the answers he was looking for. He was by now famous for his ability to do without food, but seeing that his practises led nowhere he decided to eat, and he accepted an offer of rice milk, perhaps the equivalent of a child’s treat today. Upon seeing this display of weakness, as they must have perceived it, his followers promptly left him in disgust.
Now the Buddha had renounced the status given him by the people or group surrounding him twice. Firstly the status he had been born to, as a prince, and then the status he had earned by his own dedicated and painful effort. He had rejected the admiration of his fellow humans twice. He appears to have little or no attachment to admiration, even before his awakening. He didn’t believe those who told him he was great. I wonder how easy this would be for me? If I had a role, and I was expected to fulfil it, and people looked up to me, how easily could I walk away, after investing years in preparing for that role, and honestly find that wasn’t the path I should be on?
So the Buddha to be settled himself under the Bodhi tree and vowed to stay put until he had reached emancipation. He had remembered sitting under a tree as a child, watching the green peaceful landscape around him, and feeling a strange sort of freedom. Once there, we can imagine the Buddha-soon-to-be sitting with a powerful intention, a powerful vision, and a very powerful determination, which he had further honed throughout his ascetic practises. Now he was alone. He had no teachers, and no followers. Now he had to trust completely in his own ability to find an answer. We can imagine how strong his faith must have been, stepping alone into the unknown. Was there an answer to be found?
Prince Siddhartha’s family had clearly deeply disapproved of his leaving his mundane destiny, and his subsequent followers most strongly disapproved of him leaving his ascetic practises. Having met, and disregard the approval and disapproval of others, the Buddha-to-be now meets the resistance that exists within himself. Sitting alone, he meets the conscious and unconscious forces that drive us all. He meets the forces represented at the heart of the Tibetan wheel of life; greed, hatred and delusion. He meets fear, he meets lust, and lastly, he meets doubt, we are told. Mythologically the story is describedas Prince Siddhartha meeting the forces of Mara, Mara being that which ties us to the rounds of birth and death. Fear assails him in the mythical form of spears being thrown at him. He is challenged by his instinctive fear of death, the fear of not surviving, and the fear of the unknown that both death and his quest beyond the known might bring him. He is also challenged by the fear of pain, perhaps the fear of madness also. The-Buddha-to be sits resolute. When this fear is overcome, the next attacker, lust, assails him. The mythical Mara’s daughters entice him from the depths of his unconscious; trying to distract him with the desire to experience, to be, to procreate, to extend oneself into the future though children, entices him with sensual pleasures. The Buddha-to-be prevails and eventually, the storm of lust and desire stills. Lastly, doubt assails him. In the myth, he is challenged by Mara who asks him; what gives him the right to sit there, seeking freedom, who does he think he is? In the myth the Buddha calls upon the Earth Goddess to witness his determined practise, his meditation, his renunciation of worldly attachment, to family, to status, to the pleasures and the wellbeing of his body. The Earth, the silent winess, is there to back him. The Buddha-to-be eventually overcomes the challenge of doubt, doubt in himself, doubt in his quest, doubt in the possibility of emancipation. In fact, in that moment he overcomes himself all together. A Buddha has awakened in the world, he is the awakened, he is awakening, his body and mind from that moment is the vehicle of continuous awakening and wakefulness, in full resonance with the world around as it changes moment by moment. The Buddha has achieved the most difficult of feats; he has overcome himself.
What does that mean, to overcome oneself? In our experience, the self is who we are. I am myself. All my instincts, born in the depths of time passed from my amoeba ancestors down through myriads of generations are to protect myself, not just from physical harm, but from scorn and belittlement, from loss, of loved ones, of possessions even of status and reputation. I will continuously seek to fortify myself, with supplies of food and possessions, and also seeking praise and approval, status even. I am continuously seeking and building an identity, a positive identity, an identity that is acknowledged, reflected and protected by others. All those things fixes ‘my’ identity in the mundane world, the approval of others make ‘me’ safe, possession secure ‘my’ future.
We might have heard of non-duality in the context of the Dharma, and this can seem a little abstract; going beyond duality. But the most important duality for us to consider is between ‘me’ inside this body here, and everything else out there. Can you all relate to that? ‘Me’ in here, and the rest of the world out there? Would you just for a moment try to image what it would be like for your awareness, your consciousness and emotions not to be situated anywhere n particular? So that the centre from which you experience could move somehow, say into the person sitting next to you? And then into the person next to that? So that you could resonate with all they are for as long as you choose, without anything you know as ‘myself’ to be getting in the way at all? Could you image a state where the attention of your mind, whatever you deliberately or accidentally turn it to, you know that object of your attention fully, you become fully aware of the experience of being that, of being within that body/emotion/mind experience? You fully resonate with that tree, that fish, that planet even! Not a conceptual knowledge, but a deep, fully awakened resonance, a knowing and understanding of the depths of your object of attention, an understanding beyond words? Having an intimate and penetrating awareness of every atom and aspect of that construct?
Words are always been and will always be too limited, too one dimensional to convey what the Buddha saw when he overcame himself. And yet, perhaps we can glimpse a sense of what it might be like to lose ourselves, this limited prison of the self, that we spend nearly all our energy protecting, and in losing that prison, gaining the whole world? Gaining it, not to cling to, not to identify with, but as a continuous changing flow of awareness that flow through us, dependent upon where we turn our attention. To be empty of self-clinging,, and to be an open channel for ever changing reality to flow through? To gain an intimate understanding of others, and phenomena, that now seems strange, exotic or threatening to us. To become intimately aware of the strangeness that we call our own body, mind and emotions, because we are strangers to ourselves. It is not just people from other cultures or other religions that are strangers, or people we have never spoken to on the bus. We ourselves are unfathomable strangers to ourselves. As it says in the bible (I’m taking a bit of a risk here by quoting the bible at Wesak!) ”Now we see as if through a glass darkly, but then we shall see as we are seen”. We shall know as it is possible to know, outside the prison cell of the self.
We can only try to imagine how this enormous change affected the Buddha consciousness, this change which has also been called the turning around at the seat of consciousness. We know something however about the Buddha’s qualities, how he was experienced by those who met him, and those who lived and travel with him, from the sutras. For one, the Buddha manifested ultimate contentment. He was free from desire to come and go, to speak or to be quiet. He once said to a king that he would be content to sit quietly in one place for an indefinite period of time, not just for a few hours. The Buddha was not restless, and he had no preferences. If he was asked to teach, he taught out of compassion for the seeker, but if he wasn’t asked to teach, he had not personal need to do so. He could be with people, or he could be solitary. He had no desire or aversion for solitude or company, he made a decision for each situation, perhaps considering the needs of his own body and mind as if they were just another entity whose best interest he would have at heart, just as he would have with anyone? I would imagine he had no personal need to build a Sangha, or to spread his message, but he made his understanding available to those who wanted to follow him. At the time of his awakening, he thought that teaching would be futile, as he thought no one would understand but something changed his mind. He was not concerned with outcomes, or building power or influence for himself. The Buddha says of one who is calm (awakened) that he would not work because he wants something, and if he gets nothing, he is unperturbed. In fact, there is a story where the Buddha appears to have been indifferent to whether he lived or died, though with no sense of self-destructiveness. Not identifying with his body, he simply had no preference, bound as he knew his body was for its own self destruction. He had no pride or arrogance. He told his followers not to be offended if he, their teacher was scorned by others. He told them simply to check the accuracy of the scorn. If they thought it to be true, they should say; it is true. If they found it not to be true, they should say; it is not true, having no reaction and taking no offense. The Buddha indicates here that being his follower should not become an object of self-pride, as you might defend as teacher as a highly important part of your self-identity, in the same way we construct a self–identity, and then incorporate abstract notions such as a football team, a country, a religion and so forth, and defend it as if we are personally under attack. The Buddha taught his followers to hold his teachings lightly, to check them against their own experience, and not to be attached in such a way as for it to cause an identification to be grasped or defended, as part of a self. But it is difficult for unenlightened human beings to hold teachings lightly, as possible means to an end, rather than as an unquestionable truths.
Another quality we hear that the Buddha embodies is that when he turned his attention to you, it was as if an elephant turned its considerable bulk, slowly, deliberately towards you. The weight of his attention was powerful, and you would know that you had been fully seen by the Buddha. In fact, when he gave teachings, he usually taught an individual person, according to their individual needs. Such was his empathy and understanding, that when he turned his attention to you, he would see you fully, resonate with you fully in a way you don’t even resonate with yourself, and he would understand what exactly he needed to say to you, to help you progress. In his lifetime, many gained full awakening through his direct and personalised teachings.
The Buddha taught out of compassion for his fellow human beings. When he turned his full attention to you, and you might have felt that he saw right through you, his attention was kindly and compassionate as much as it was powerful. He knew you, and could see you, even if it was the first time he had ever met you, and he had your truly best interest at heart. His closest disciple, Ananda, said after his death, “he who was so kind”. Although the Buddha was ultimately wise, ultimately accomplished; the man that had been closest to him, who had been his personal attendant through 50 years of the Buddha’s teaching, was more than anything struck by his kindness. This is a window to us, that ultimate understanding leads to ultimate kindness, to know all is to love all. To feel compassion for those who hurt others even, because in their delusion they hurt themselves as much as they hurt others, if not more, and compassion is the automatic response to suffering when true understanding is present.
The Buddha also offered some more general guidelines, or training principles to those who sought to go beyond themselves. The five precepts are of course our main training principles, and they are contained in the noble eightfold path. The noble eightfold path is itself borne out of the Buddha’s four noble truths; that there is suffering, there is a cause of suffering, namely desire and aversion (and ignorance/delusion or doubt), that going beyond this suffering that we cause ourselves is possible, and that there is a path leading from suffering to awakening, which is the noble eightfold path. I thought it would be appropriate here to look at how the aspects of the path lead us towards overcoming ourselves, overcoming our self-centred perspective.
There is the ethical side of the eight aspects of the path, namely; right action, right speech and right livelihood. In these three aspects of the path are covered the first four precepts; to practise kindness and not to cause suffering, to avoid grasping to ourselves through theft but to give generously to others, to avoid causing suffering by being blinded by our own desires, and to avoid causing suffering and clouding reality by lying. If we look at the negative activities that we are seeking to avoid following this path, they nearly always serve to fortify or protect he self. Cruelty is most often the lack of empathy with the other, being locked in the fortress self, and seeing the other as an object. Grasping or stealing usually comes from a sense of wanting to fortify the self. Following our desires so as to cause suffering to others usually arises from a lack of a sense of the other beyond being an object for one’s own satisfaction. Lying is most often done to protect the self from blame, or to enhance the self. Should lying genuinely be to protect the other (rather than to protect the self from the dislike of the other), it would be seen differently in Buddhism, perhaps not as unskilful at all, perhaps as skilful (as in, lying to protect Jews from deportation during the second world was, which would often have entailed as risk to self). The intention, and what is behind the intention, is paramount in the practise to overcome the self.
The opposite of these self-building actions, are actions to go beyond the self; actions of kindness, of generosity and contentment, of containing the self to protect the other. This is to align oneself to the other, to put oneself in the other’s shoes. This is the practice, the training principle the Buddha suggested, to act, as far as we are able, to go beyond ourselves. To tell the truth even when it is painful to us is to align ourselves to reality rather than to our self- centred, self-protective view. Perhaps we could see the training guidelines as acting as if we are awake to reality, to whatever extent these actions are currently possible for us. And this change of behaviour in us should have consequences. I don’t believe that awakening happens all at once for most people. I believe that there is a gradual awakening as one practises these somewhat counter intuitive responses; one finds oneself to be more compassionate, more concerned about the other, more contained, more aware, more confident (but not necessarily self-confident), more contented, more inter-connected and alive, and more at peace with the world.
The second three aspects of the path are the three aspects concerned with the mind; concerned with effort, mindfulness and concentration. These correspond to the fifth precept. Instead of clouding our minds with alcohol, drugs, distractions and excitements, we are encouraged to be mindful of that which is present, without attaching any stories to it; to be mindful of the naked truth as it were, like for example our physical sensations. The body is perhaps the most stable part of our experience, our minds being so changeable and flitting. The Buddha encourages us to be mindful of the body, its movements and sensations, without judging them as good or bad. Also, to be mindful of everything we do, of walking, of eating and so on. This brings us into the present moment. Secondly, practise also requires energy, and effort is needed to be vigilant of the mind, which is conditioned to fall into states of greed and aversion. It takes effort to contain the mind in a state which is calm and receptive to experience, to encourage these states and discourage self-building states. Thirdly, concentration refers traditionally to meditation, but more broadly to the integration of the mind, to the unification of all the energies in the mind into a one pointed awareness based in the present. Towards this, meditation is an invaluable tool, giving ourselves the space for the mind to gather itself without at least, for a short time, external distractions. For the beginner as well as for the experienced practitioner, it is a chance to discover how much the mind really gets up to over a very short space of time!
The final two aspects (but traditionally cited as the first two aspects) of the noble eightfold path are called the wisdom aspects, right view and right intention. Here right view suggests that we have seen (perhaps at the outset) the unsatisfactory nature of living from a self-centred point of view, that we have truly seen the impermanence of the body, and the pointlessness of spending all our energies to preserve and promote it, to fend off and challenge to it. Also, that we have perhaps glimpsed that there is something beyond our mundane experience, something greater, something inspiring if yet unknown, beyond our familiar selves, and that we are truly wishing to move beyond our narrow point of view.
Secondly, right intention is here the intention to develop what we might call expansive mental states, or just expansive states, where we are increasingly aware of that which at the outset is other, that which at the outset is beyond my current experience. An intention towards empathy, resonating with our own body, emotions and mind, with other humans and other living beings and with all living things; just as we practise through the Metta Bhavena as well as elsewhere. It is an on-going intention to expand into kindness, generosity, contentment, thoughtful speech and radiant awareness.
Now all these things, all these practises, we might do with the intention of feeling better, of feeling calmer and more positive, of strengthening our resilience to the ups and downs of life and to improve our relationships with others. These are good intentions, and greater positivity and greater resonance with the world around us will undoubtedly have a positive impact on ourselves and the world around us. But ultimately right, or perfect vision is even more ambitions than this, and for heroic spirits intended. That vision holds in mind what the Buddha experienced beneath that Bodhi tree more than 2500 years ago, and which can be experienced again today, by any one, or all of us. That ultimate vision is not just to be a force for good in the world, not just to feel good and be good to be around. The ultimate vision is to go beyond good and bad, beyond pleasant and unpleasant, beyond self and other to break out of that shell that separates our mind from knowing the whole of experience, to be the whole of experience, and to reach the ultimate safety which is not needing to hold on to anything, of having nothing to protect.
Bodhakari (Edited 07/05/2012)
Add a Comment