it comes to holidays, Buddhism has got to be the most efficient religion in the
In Christianity, the commemoration of the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus takes up three major holidays. But Buddhism rolls the "birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha all into one holiday -- Vesak, or Buddha Day -- which occurs around this time of year.
Since one of the official sources of our living Unitarian Universalist tradition is wisdom from the world's religions, the proximity of Vesak provides a good excuse to reflect upon the life of the Buddha, his teaching, and its relevance to our lives today.
Gautama Siddhartha grew up on what is now the border between India and Nepal, the child of a local king and queen. As the story goes, prior to his birth it was foretold that he was destined for "greatness -- either as the ruler of a great empire or as a great spiritual savior.
His parents had a strong preference that he go the emperor route. And they thought they would rig the outcome by raising the child under most extraordinary conditions. Gautama was for the most part kept within the palace grounds, surrounded by beauty and pleasure. Unpleasantness of every kind was shielded from him.
Whenever he did venture out of the palace, guards went ahead clearing from his path anyone who was sick or dead or elderly. The idea of all this was to avoid giving him reason to question his life and be drawn to spiritual reflection.
This was his uncommon manner of life until the age of 29. Imagine for a moment the state of mind this would have left him in, being carefully insulated from not only his own personal misfortunes and frustrations, but the suffering of others as well.
Eventually, it so happened that one time the guards missed a broken down elderly person. And so Gautama had his first encounter with the reality of aging and physical deterioration.
A while later there was another slip up and a sick person was encountered. Yet later a corpse. So it was that despite all precautions Gautama encountered the realities of aging, sickness, and death.
These experiences left him thunderstruck. His whole view of life was overturned. He saw that life, rather than being uninterrupted stream of happiness, inevitably involved pain and grief. And that people suffered terribly.
Then on a fourth occasion, he encountered one of the many wandering ascetics common in India even then. These mendicants, instead of seeking sense pleasures, practiced extreme austerities and intense meditations in an effort to transcend the world and its pain.
Gautama was so moved by human suffering and the example of the ascetics, that he set forth from the palace seeking a solution for the universal human predicament.
He studied under the most esteemed teachers of the day, and he was an extraordinary student, quickly mastering their subtlest teachings and attaining the deepest levels of meditation. Though meditative trances produced experiences of tremendous bliss, they were only temporary escapes from the world and its difficulties.
Seeing that the greatest teachers did not have the answers he sought, he set off with a small band of ascetics, five in number, and undertook austerities more severe than ever before, nearly to the point of death. Though he was acclaimed for his discipline, he observed that it did not yield liberation.
In this way, he realized that neither self-indulgence nor self-mortification are the path to freedom.
So he left his ascetic companions behind and set off on his own. He began taking adequate nourishment and caring for his body -- but not so much as to bring complacency. This was his Middle Way. As his strength and health and clarity of mind returned, he explored the depths of human experience with single-minded determination.
One evening, seven years after leaving the palace, Gautama felt he was at the brink of a great breakthrough. He sat himself under the Bodhi tree and vowed not to rise until Complete Awakening was his.
As he sat in meditation, great temptations came to him, distractions of desire and fear and pride, but he remained steadfast.
His meditation deepened throughout the night, into realms of consciousness previously unknown to humanity. And as the morning broke, his awareness penetrated the final barrier. He saw through all illusions to the true nature of reality -- interconnected and ever-changing. With this realization, he became the Buddha, meaning One Who Has Awakened.
We must understand that in Vedic India, the spiritual quest was all about achieving union with the Unchanging Brahman. And the Buddha sees to the core of the matter and reports that there is no Unchanging. Even Brahman is changing.
Legend has it the Buddha sat in uninterrupted meditative bliss for 49 days. In time he arose and set off to share his marvelous discovery. At first he had doubts, not as to the value of his insight, but as to whether it would be possible to convey such a truth to others. He nearly chose to withdraw into nirvana and be done with the world, but he thought, "There will be some who will understand." And for their sake, he began to offer his teaching.
Shortly, he came upon the five ascetics, his former companions and admirers. It was obvious from his physical health and vitality that he had abandoned his austerities. They ridiculed him for having gone soft, but not for long. He preached to them his first sermon, explaining the essence of his liberating discovery -- the Four Noble Truths.
They were struck by the cogency of his message and became his first disciples.
Now there are not many ministers whose career gets off to such a great start -- converting the entire congregation with the first sermon.
Thereupon followed a forty-four year ministry of teaching during which the Buddha gave lessons in great detail and led many monks to full awakening.
And what are these Four Noble Truths?
The First Noble Truth is that life is characterized by "dukkha," often poorly translated as "suffering." You often hear it said, "Oh, those Buddhists say 'life is suffering.' That's too pessimistic for me."
What the noble truth of dukkha really means is that life as we ordinarily experience it has an ever-present level of distress or dis-ease. Yes, there is happiness and pleasure in life, but even these experiences contain the seeds of unhappiness, because they are bound to pass away.
The great insight here is that dukkha is pervasive. It touches us all, and not just once in awhile. We can perhaps learn to generate more intense pleasures or more frequent pleasures, but still we are ill-at-ease because of the insecurity of these things.
The Second Noble Truth is that the cause of this distress is attachment. We crave and cling to what we like, and try to push away what we dislike.
Above all, we cling to the notion that we ourselves are, or ought to be, some sort of permanent fixture in the universe. Because of this, not only is the prospect of death a source of great distress, but anything which threatens our expansive sense of self (our bodies, our property, our relationships, etc.) also yields distress.
This latching on to what must change is a deep misapprehension of rea1ity. It's like trying to capture the wind in a jar.
The Third Noble Truth is that it is posible to cut the roots of attachment and gain freedom. It might be that there is nothing for it. But the Buddha says there is a solution.
And the Fourth Noble Truth is the path or the way to gain freedom. The Noble Path outlines a way of life which leads to liberation, with three key features:
Mental discipline -- training the mind to observe without bias.
Morality -- behavior which generates neither ill-will nor inharmonious relations.
Wisdom -- an accurate apprehension of reality.
Anyone familiar the medical model will recognize in the Four Noble Truths a familiar pattern:
What is the first thing the doctor says when you go in for an appointment? What is the problem? Answer: Distress or dukkha. So there is an assessment.
Then diagnosis. What is the cause of the problem? Answer: Attachment or clinging.
Prognosis. Is recovery possible? Answer: Yes, there is a cure. The prognosis is good.
Treatment. What is the cure? Answer: Learn to stop setting yourself against reality, and instead embrace your true nature.
Okay, that is a nice tidy model, but how does it work in day to day life?
Say for example some one has done something which aggravates you. Perhaps you react by saying, "What a jerk!" Look objectively at the consequences of this response. It sets you against your neighbor and harms relationships. It generates self-righteous anger and the suffering inherent in that state of mind. And frankly, it distorts reality. That person is not "a jerk." They are a struggling, yearning, loving, suffering being just like yourself.
With practice, you can learn to observe more closely and notice deeper truth, "I am really frustrated." This is true, and it does not generate additional distress.
With yet deeper practice, you can see beyond the ego-centeredness of even that and note with an element of compassionate interest, "Frustration is arising." This leads to a very different experience from the practice of reacting with blame and hostility, building up resentment and hostility.
This practice does not make everything go your way. It's not a magic way to always get your preference. What it does, though, is it rearranges the game and gets you on the same side as reality, instead of against it. Come to think of it, if you are aligned with and accepting reality, then, I guess you maybe do get your way.
It could be said that the Buddha was an early humarnst. He was emphatlcally pragmatic in his approach. People were constantly asking him metaphysical questions about the nature of God and the heavenly realms. He would say, "Has this to do with the nature of life's distress and the way to relieve it? If not, I don't want to talk about it."
People would ask him if he was a god. He'd say, "I am awake." When referring to himself he wouldn't say I or me. He'd say "the tathagata" this or that. Now, tathagata is a play on words, depending on the context it means "thus come" or "thus gone." So in effect he went around referring to himself as, "This coming or going, depending on how you look at it."
The Buddha was quite clear that liberation was something that one could give to another through words or any sort of magic, but one could, by practicing in the proper way, find for themselves.
Once the Buddha visited the village of Kesaputta. The people came to him and explained that a variety of yogis and teachers come through from time to time, each espousing their own doctrine and condemning the teaching of others. The villagers were in a constnat state of perplexity over who to believe.
The Buddha replied,
"Yes, it is proper that you have doubt, that you have perplexity, for a doubt has arisen in a matter which is doubtful. Do not be led by reports, or tradition, or hearsay. Be not led by the authority of religious texts, nor by mere logic and inference, nor by considering appearances, nor by the delight of speculative opinions, nor by seeming possibilities, nor by the idea: 'this is our teacher.' But when you know for yourselves that certain things are unwholesome, then give them up. And when you know for yourselves that certain things are wholesome, then accept them and follow them."
The Buddha would have liked the first of our Unitarian Universalist Sources: "Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life."
Direct experience which opens us to the forces creating and upholding life.
First-hand insight into the interconnected and ever-changing nature of things, and a heart which embraces reality as-it-is -- that is liberation.
A teacher may offer clues worth investigating, but it is only through direct experience and the application of wisdom in one's life that the fearful, prideful, half-living, delusional life we commonly accept as normal is brought into accord with our true essential nature.
Of course, people who did not fully realize his teaching were eager to put the Buddha on a pedestal. But he would have none of it, for such devotion distracted from the real task at hand, getting free of attachment.
At a gathering of the monks, the Buddha said, "Well, disciples, I summon you to say whether you have any fault to find with me, whether in word or in deed."
And one advanced student, Sariputta, said, "Such faith have I that I think there never was, nor will be, nor is now any greater or wiser than the Blessed One."
And the Buddha replied, "Of course, Sariputta, you have known all the Buddhas of the past?"
"Well, then, you know those of the future?"
"Then at least you know me and have penetrated my mind thoroughly?"
"Not even that, sir."
"Why, then, Sariputta, are your words so grand and bold?"
I love the Buddha's down to earth, almost scientific approach to the essential problem of the human condition. It is certainly not the only helpful perspective on the subject. One can be a Buddhist and still observe the ways and practices of other religions, but this wisdom is applicable across all social and cultural situations.
The contemporary Thai monk Achaan Chah sums it up with utter simplicity:
"Do everything with a mind that lets go. Do not expect any praise or reward. If you let go a little, you will have a little peace; if you let go a lot, you will have a lot of peace. If you let go completely, you will know complete peace and freedom. Your struggles with the world will have come to an end."
My friends, may you live with a mind that lets go. And a heart that 1ets in. May you be free from craving and grasping. Free from aversion and hostility.
Insisting on what you prefer may be the very thing that separates you from what you really need.
Come home to your true self. Cultivate a radical acceptance of the unfolding universe -- your home -- that you may have life, and have it more abundantly.