Posts by insight

I don’t want to die without knowing all this. — Joanna Macy

If I have faith in anything, I have faith in life. — Stephen Batchelor

Birth, vulnerability, aging, death, awaking, and full liberation: in all Buddhist traditions, there is one special day, near the first full moon in May, intentionally chosen to celebrate all of these important events in the life of Siddhartha Gotama, a living person who transformed into the Buddha, one who is awake, in his own lifetime. His presence in our worlds today, as a living source of understanding and compassion, continues to offer us a way to the “lasting peace” possible in a path of boundless friendship and caring –– and through the practice of the wisdom of a clear knowledge of the way the world works.

Gotama was born sometime around 563 BCE in an area near modern day Nepal, to a wealthy village leader. His mother died hours after giving birth to him, and he was raised by his mother’s sister, who became one of his father’s wives. His was a life of ruling class privilege in which he was kept materially satisfied and protected from the trials and tribulations of daily life. He was so protected, in fact, that it is said that the gardening staff would work at night to cut off any dead blossoms, so that while growing up, Gotama would never see death. It was expected that he would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a power ruler.

As a young man, he took a wife, and they had a child. To others, he seemed content, satisfied; but even before the birth of his son, Rahula, this bright and curious Gotama had begun secretly leaving his gated community at night with the help of his own charioteer. He wanted to know about all aspects of life. Seeing sick and injured people showed him that there is an inherent vulnerability in our bodies, hearts, and minds. An old woman taught him about aging. A child’s dead body burning on a funeral pyre led him to the startling realization that his own son would die one day––whether as a young man or an older one––as would his wife, his stepmother, his powerful father. He recalled that his own young, healthy mother had died unexpectedly at childbirth.

Death could happen to anyone at any time. All that he loved and held dear “would become otherwise, would become separate and different from him.” Even he himself would sicken, grow old, and die. He knew this with certainty now, but he did not know when or how these events would occur. What should he do?

As this full picture became clear to him, Gotama had a life-altering insight into dukkha, the built-in unsatisfactoriness and uncertainty inherent in our human existence, which is an unavoidable result of being born. He felt the paradox of life and death––the interconnectedness that calls forth love but cannot prevent loss. This moment of full-bodied knowing was undoubtedly heightened by the visceral bond that he, as a first-time father, felt towards his just-born son, whose given name, Rahula, refers to a bond, an attachment with a felt-sense of responsibility. The story tells us that, in this moment, samvega, a courageous, inner spiritual urgency, was aroused in this soon-to-be-Buddha. Knowing that in his absence, his wife, mother, and son would be well cared for in this large, extended-family compound, Gotama set out alone to find “the deathless.” He was looking for a path that would offer freedom from the dread of death and loss; freedom from the push and pull of liking and disliking; freedom from despair, greed, and hatred. He vowed to return to his son, as well as to his entire family and extended household, with an answer.

He left his wealth and safe home, stepped into homelessness, and became a wandering mendicant, living among other seekers in the Indian villages and forests of the time, and relying on the generosity of others for food and shelter. He studied with two of the greatest meditation teachers of that era. After learning all that they had to teach, he went off on his own to practice with what he had learned and to take it further in a way that might be accessible to others. He vowed to sit down to meditate and not get up until he felt a true “knowledge and liberation.” As he sat, a young servant girl and a village woman saw Gotama sitting in his emaciated, weary condition. They understood his quest and its deeply altruistic aspirations; they realized its importance for all beings, in all times. To support his efforts, they carefully prepared and personally offered him nourishing sweet rice milk. Their kindness warmed his heart and stirred a memory of the love and safety of his own home.

Gotama specifically recalled the contentment he felt on one early spring day, sitting under a rose apple tree as farmers plowed the surrounding fields. The women’s generosity, and the simple joy of his reverie, refreshed his heart and mind. The Buddha continued his quest in silence and in stillness throughout the night. After a series of inner struggles, he refined his insights into the uncertain, unstable, changing nature of the mind and heart. He accomplished a liberating understanding of the futility, incorrectness and danger of operating as if there is an aspect of mind that can directly control life. He entered an experience of nirvana (nibbhana in early Buddhist language), which is explained as the complete cessation of the flow of mental activity. It is a profound and unique cessation––the end of all subjective experience. As such, it is beyond our current understanding and language. Nonetheless, it is profoundly transformational.

This nirvana is not death. The body does not die, but it is said that the person who emerges from this transformative experience is changed in all aspects of life. Through an intentional stopping of the workings of the mind, all the deep, habitual tendencies towards mindlessly reacting to events, which are based on spontaneous wanting or disliking, are gone. Greed, hatred, and delusion in all their many blatant and subtle forms are gone––not just while in the state, but also afterwards. Even the slightest possibilities of their arising in response to an interaction have vanished. Afterward, only wisdom, kindness, and compassion remain in the person.

We are told that following this first connection with nirvana, Gotama sat alone in the forest, savoring its effects for weeks––contemplating and integrating its life-altering potentials for himself and for others. At first, he thought that other people would not be able to understand the full deconstruction, this alteration of his whole being, which had occurred from this “hidden in plain view” experience; perhaps it was something meant for him alone. But then he thought that maybe others could comprehend and even have the experience themselves. He knew it would be of immeasurable benefit if they did. So he set out in search of his five most recent practice companions to discuss his findings with them. While on the road and before meeting up with them, he encountered a man whom he knew only slightly. This person was startled by Gotama’s radically changed appearance––he seemed so healthy, bright, and alive––almost glowing. “Who are you?” asked the man, “You seem familiar, but are you even a man? Or are you a god?”

Perhaps momentarily confused by the question, and probably speaking for the first time after weeks of deep meditation, Gotama answered thoughtfully, “I’m not a god or a man; I am awake.” In that moment, he named himself for us––not with a noun, but with a descriptive adjective. In his language “awake” is expressed as buddha: “I am Buddha.”

He continued on to gather with his friends in a forest grove and to share his understanding of the Dharma, the natural laws of the world, with them and to make his suggestions about how best to live to be in harmony with these three truths of causation, change, and interconnectedness. This first teaching contained the insight that led him to start his quest: the truth of dukkha, his initial insight into the unavoidable pain and loss woven into the happiest of lives. It included his new knowledge also: there is a way to lessen and end this dukkha. He explained the roots of the struggle that can result from resisting the Dharma; he spoke of the fact that humans mistakenly add to the existential pain of existence by relying on the deeply embedded habit of thinking of things as “me” and “mine,” wrongly perceiving the sometimes-useful concept of an organizing, controlling self as truth.

A freer, more fluid, less stressful life is possible, and the Buddha taught a path, a way to proceed in life, which incorporates his findings. Everyone quickly understood, and all five friends soon awakened through these teachings. The group then moved on together, forming a living practice community. This first sangha arose from the Buddha speaking the Dharma. Their numbers grew, and their practice, study, and teaching continued to expand throughout the countryside, as the Buddha made his way back to his family’s home village. There too his transformation and his explanation of the path to healing were received as a precious gift.

The Buddha stayed with them for several weeks, and then he left home again. This second time his intention was to further practice and study what he himself was learning––and to share this potentially liberating knowledge so that others could try it for themselves. People from his home and the village complex joined him. His son Rahula went along; and soon the boy became a novice monk in the growing community that was arising in the light of his father’s guidance. The Buddha’s wife and his step-mother also followed him: they were leaders among the first group of fully ordained Buddhist nuns. His father, the regional ruler, was touched by the Dharma as well, and though he didn’t follow his son into a homeless life, he became a financially supportive lay practitioner. The Buddha continued to live as a mendicant for the rest of his life––teaching and interacting with increasingly large numbers of male and female monastic and lay practitioners in an extensive area in north central India. He died of dysentery at age eighty in a simple rural way station.

The Buddha aged during his very active lifetime; he was said to have had chronic back problems for years. His final illness was common in his time, and his death was a real death, a complete death. He didn’t rise from his tomb, and, importantly, he wasn’t reborn. In his culture, which was firmly rooted in the acceptance of rebirth as a natural phenomenon, his was a unique death in that he would not be reborn––either in earthly or heavenly realms. The Buddha had stepped off the seeming “endless wheel of birth, death, and rebirth.” Because of this, it was said that he realized “the deathless.” He would not again experience birth, the root cause of dukkha. This death is referred to as parinibbana, and included as part of it, is nirvana.

So Vesak Day does not celebrate the Buddha as a perfect, omniscient, permanent person or as a god. With this in mind, we could say that Vesak Day is a celebration of the fullness of life: life as an ongoing, ever-changing, yet recognizable process; life as possibility; life as an awakening; life as complete in itself; enough. The Buddha in the earliest teachings was a person like us. Though he lived in a different era under different life circumstances, he had the same kind of physical body, the same sensory and neurological apparatus that we do. He faced difficult situations in his inner and outer life. His mind had at times flailed about in confusion as he faced the unbearable moments in life; but he discovered a way to reduce the stress and fears enough to stay balanced and kind and connected. He found and taught a mindful and compassionate way to be in relationship with life’s inevitable ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows––a way which deepened his own wisdom and at the same time laid out a clear path that others can follow, a way that leads towards peace of mind and ease of heart, towards the end of addiction, cruelty, selfishness, hostility. This path that he taught has been helping and supporting people for over 2500 years, and it still is.

In his book Being Peace, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote that not only do we take refuge in the Buddha, but also, the Buddha takes refuge in us. May it be so. May kindness, wisdom, and compassion find a home, a place of refuge, in our hearts. May we come to understand and to know Buddha alive as a teacher in the world now. . . .

Please join us to celebrate the Buddha’s well-lived life with us this year on May 7, from 5:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. at St. Barnabas Church in Norwich or online. See the announcement in this May newsletter for details.

To conclude, here are the Buddha’s last words of advice, in Pali, with three translations courtesy our resident Sangha Pali scholar, Debby Garreston:

Vayadhamma sankhara appamadena sampadetha’ti

Stephen Batchelor’s translation:  Things fall apart, tread the path with care.
Ajahn Sujato’s translation: Conditions fall apart. Persist with diligence.
Ajahn Anandajoti: All conditioned things are subject to decay, strive on with heedfulness.

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