“Wherever I go, the only person I meet is that beautiful monk.”
— Lalitavistara Sutra, Chapter 18
In early August, I went to a study retreat at the wonderful Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. Its title was “Mothers, Sisters, Seekers, Friends: Stories of Struggle and Transformation.” Twenty-one of us, under the guidance of four gifted teachers, explored a variety of early texts, using a variety of creative methods, in order to get some understanding of the lives of the contemporaries of Siddhartha Gotama, the man whose spiritual journey to awakening we now know as the Dharma. These are the wisdom teachings that we study and practice today in our Valley Insight Sangha. So it might be helpful to consider how this person’s actions affected those with whom he shared his life, as well as how their lives affected and contributed to his journey to awakening. What might these long-ago interactions mean for us today? Moreover, how do our own life stories fit into this picture of living a life in the Dharma?
One of our group’s teachers, Charles Hallisey, a scholar and professor in the field of Early Buddhism at the Harvard Divinity School, explains that when we engage fully with spiritual scripture—though reading, listening, imagining—we are changed by it. In turn, it is changed by us. Our own life stories interact with these ancient stories, and in this way, we inform and update them. We bring them into the modern world, where they expand and incorporate what, in a sense, they did not know before. In their dramas, we see ourselves and our own experience of the world in a greater and potentially more objective way. We might realize, Oh, other people feel this way too. Or maybe we notice that they feel a different way about a situation, and maybe they act in a different way than we have acted. This might open a new possibility for us. Our perspectives can, and often do, change.
During the four days in Barre, we became intimate with these ancient accounts. We met the mother, who, soon after giving birth to her precious son, realizes she is dying and that she will have to leave him; she chooses to hand her infant to her little sister, entrusting his care to her. We came to know this stepmother, who protects the child with her own life, only to be abandoned by him and told she cannot follow. We encountered the young wife, whose beloved husband leaves her, and the father whose gifted son denies his inheritance and does not follow in the family legacy of a ruling lineage, but instead leaves everything he loves to find his own path. The truth of dukkha is forefront for sure in these episodes. After ten years, this seemingly wayward man does return home again––as the Buddha, a fully awakened one. Even then, the story is far from over.
One of the stories we explored that was particularly moving to me revolves around the Buddha-to-be’s last meal before his awakening. It tells of Sujata, the young village woman, a cowherd, who served the meal. Within this tale, it was, first, the experience of Sujata’s servant girl Uttara that most inspired me. Her discovery drew me in and then led me towards an understanding of the intertwining and necessary participation of all three characters. Now that this account has entered and is living in me, I hope that it will continue to deepen and change and that it will transform me as it becomes a vehicle of practice and reflection in my own life.
The version we worked with was from Lalitavistara Sutra (a basic later Buddhist Mahayana text), Chapter 18, which tells us that Sujata, a cowherd living within a family in a small village, is a very generous, kind person. She offers food to all the mendicants who come through the village; and in her heart, she holds a strong intention that the food she offers will lead to the full awakening of a buddha. One day, she learns that the spiritually gifted Siddhartha, who, at his birth, had been predicted to become a buddha, is near the village. She senses that this is an important moment and sets about preparing a special meal of sweet rice milk. She sends her servant Uttara out to go and fetch the Buddha-to-be, while she herself puts the finishing touches on the meal.
“Very well, my lady,” answers Uttara, who does as she is told. She goes off in the eastern direction, but there she meets only the future Buddha. She goes south, but there as well she meets the future Buddha. She goes west and north, but in those places as well she encounters the future Buddha. When she returns to Sujata, Uttara tells her mistress what happened: “Wherever I go, the only person I meet is that beautiful monk. There are no others.”
Excited, Sujata realizes the meaning of this situation and says: “It is for his sake that I have prepared this meal. Go, Uttara, and fetch him.”
Uttara’s experience is to me a great and beautiful metta teaching: to see everyone we meet as a potential buddha: there is no one without this potential. Sujata’s further understanding of Uttara’s realization completes this wisdom teaching: to know that each person is simply in need of the right conditions, the appropriate meal, to be free from the sway of the eight worldly winds. Sujata sees clearly what is needed; she has the impulse to help; and she acts from compassion.
The village cowherd Sujata fills a golden vessel with the milk rice and honey and offers it to the future Buddha.
The story goes on to celebrate the joy of this situation (mudita) and to give way to the equanimity that allows the unfolding of liberation. The meal is beautifully and appropriately prepared and generously offered; but it is the agency, the action of the Buddha-to-be that decides the outcome of this tale. In the final paragraph:
The future Buddha had this thought: “Sujata has offered this food, and if I eat it now, there is no doubt that I shall truly attain perfect and completely unexcelled awakening.” The future Buddha ate his meal.
Whew! He ate the meal! In so doing, he became well prepared for his extended time of meditation under the Bodhi tree. The unfolding of the ethical journey towards the wholesome could continue. It continues into this day, into the Valley Insight Sangha, into the lives and practice of us all. We practice seeing the potential Buddha everywhere in everyone we meet. We offer friendship and beautiful, carefully prepared meals at the appropriate moment to support their journey to awakening. And, when the time comes, we choose to eat the specially prepared meal when it is given to us. Always we are knowing how deeply our lives intertwine.