The Buddha

Just the other day I watched with a couple of friends the childrens’ film Mary Poppins, starring Julie Andrews, on DVD, which actually was the first film I ever saw – for my 5th birthday – we didn’t have a tv in those days. Mary Poppins, for those who don’t know was a magical nanny who came to brighten up the lives of Jane and Michael whose parents are too busy to spend time with them. She arrives in this rather chaotic Edwardian household gliding in on an umbrella and instantly creates a positive environment for everyone, takes the children on an enchanting adventure through a chalk pavement drawing, and ends up getting their parents to want to spend time with them. I think I wanted someone like Mary Poppins to come into my life to sing a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down and take me on magical trips.

The second film I saw (for my sixth birthday) also happened to star Julie Andrews. In case you missed it one Christmas, in ‘The Sound of Music’ Maria von Trapp is a failed nun who is employed to look after a family of children who are being forced to live a rather regimented life by their widowed father. She transforms all their lives with singing and play, also enchanting their father in the process.

So actually I wanted Julie Andrews in my life, I may even have wanted to be Julie Andrews – at least I wanted to be a bit like her. I was a quiet shy boy who liked playing with his sisters dolls and wasn’t really interested in the heroes of other boys my age like Dan Dare, cowboys, soldiers or their father. Maybe this has something to do with me being gay. It’s all Julie Andrews fault.

Anyway, all human beings seem to want to have someone or something to look up to; we admire people who have qualities we want to possess ourselves. It is often said that God is made in Man’s image, I guess not by Christians though. People want to be like Hollywood stars or footballers, tennis players, pop singers etc and invest them with all sorts of qualities (that they maybe don’t have).

For Buddhists, of course, the person they most admire and look up to is the Buddha and traditionally the Buddha is the first of the Three Jewels, the three most precious things to a Buddhist: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The Buddha Jewel is not just the historical character who gained Enlightenment over two and half thousand years ago; it has a  number of other facets:  for example, the principle or ideal of Enlightenment – that it is possible for any human being to achieve, in a sense, a perfect state of harmony with the universe; another facet  is, archetypally, the embodiment of wisdom and compassion that are the main aspects of Enlightenment.

So in this talk I want to speak about three facets of the Buddha jewel: firstly, the historical Buddha and how he became Enlightened, secondly to give an idea of the Buddha’s experience of Enlightenment and thirdly how his Enlightenment was expressed in his actions.

So are you sitting comforably? ‘Once upon a time in a far off land there was a very wise King who was loved by all his subjects. However this occasion was a very happy and also a very sad time. He became a father for the first time but also a widower in the process…. The son was Siddhartha Gotama of the Sakyan clan born in what is now Nepal and I have started to tell the story as a fairy tale because so much of the early life of the person who was to become the Buddha has been mythologised. Apparently though we do know that he was born into a wealthy family and that his father Suddhodana was something like a president of the Sakyan state and the story goes that Suddhodana took the newly born Siddhartha to a great sage for his horoscope to be read, a very common practice in India then as it is, I believe, today. The sage predicted that Siddhartha would be a very great man – either he would become a great warrior and ruler or a great spiritual master, which would involve giving up everything.

Wanting his son to follow in his own footsteps, not surprisingly his father was disturbed by the second possibility of his son ‘dropping out’ as it were, so he tried to make sure that his son had everything he could possibly want and gave him all the training and education that a future ruler of India could need. He really tried to make sure he wouldn’t get to think too deeply about things and wouldn’t see the unsavoury side of life.
The Buddha is recorded as telling that his father had provided him with three beautiful mansions, one for each season, so that he should never feel discomfort from heat or cold or the rains. And he was surrounded by beautiful girls singing and dancing, one pleasure following another with hardly a moment for sadness.

The story goes on that he was married off at sixteen to a beautiful cousin, settled down happily and became a father himself. However he seems to have had a sense of dissatisfaction at the life he was leading and is aware that his father is trying to tie him into his vision of a future life. He loses interest in his martial arts and in all distractions laid on for him. It is not how it is put in the traditional stories but he evidently has a sort of spiritual crisis and this turning point is known to Buddhists everywhere in the form of a dramatic narrative known as the Four Sights. It probably didn’t happen like the story but it crystallises some fundamental teachings of Buddhism as well as shining light on Siddhartha’s spiritual development.

So the story goes that one day he asks his charioteer to take him out of the palace to see what goes on in the world. The charioteer says he can’t possibly do that as it’s against the king’s orders for Siddhartha to go out among the people. But Siddhartha says he’ll take the rap from his father if he finds out and so they go out into the village in the chariot. On their way they see a very old man. Siddhartha says ‘Who… what is that?’ to his charioteer. ‘Why is he so wrinkled and bent?’ ‘Well,’ says the charioteer, ‘he’s just an old man.’ ‘But why has he got like that?’ ‘You don’t have to do anything, it just happens, you just get old. It happens to everybody.’ ‘Will l become like that?’, asks Siddhartha. ‘Yes everybody. Your father, your wife, me and you too will become old.’

Siddhartha was shocked and broke into a cold sweat. ‘What is the point of being young vital if we end up fraile and decrepit?!’ He became despondent and told his charioteer he’d had enough and to drive home.

Now it is unlikely that Siddhartha hadn’t seen an old person before and probably had aged relatives who’d doted on him, but it was as though he’d not seen the significance of old age before. We do it all the time, we just don’t notice things until they affect us for some reason or another. Siddhartha realised that he was going to get old and that youth was brief even for him.

Shaken though he was by this he persuaded his charioteer to take him out again and this time he saw something else he hadn’t seen before. He saw a sick person lying by the roadside, tossing and turning in pain, with no one looking after them. Again Siddhartha asked the charioteer what was wrong with him. ‘Well, he is ill.’ ‘Will I be likely to suffer in this way as well sometime?’, asked Siddhartha. ‘All men and women are liable to sickness. At any moment our health and strength may go from us.’ Siddhartha has something more to ponder on their way home.

As the story goes they went out a third time and saw four men carrying something on a sort of stretcher – it was a man wrapped in a large sheet, but his face was expressionless and stiff-looking. Of course this sort of thing is a common site in India even today – at an Indian funeral the dead body is not hidden away, but a focal point of the proceedings, often being ritually washed before being carried in the streets to the burning ground. When he asked the charioteer what was going on he was shocked and horrified to find out that everyone dies one day and returned to the palace even more anguished.

These three sights are all existential situations we cannot escape from and many people ask themselves what is the meaning of these or is there no explanation?; who or what is responsible for this suffering?

Siddhartha was wrestling with these questions when he came across the fourth sight. Riding out in his chariot he came across a wandering mendicant, with a shaven head and yellow robe carrying a begging bowl, going from door to door. He found his mindful manner intriguing and asked the charioteer who it was who seemed so at peace with himself and the world. ‘This is someone who has gone forth from the world, from his family, from a home, to devote himself to finding the Truth, to find an answer to the meaning of existence. To do this he has given up all worldly ties and responsibilities.’ Even today in India there are such people who don the saffron robe, known as wandering sadhus who go round begging to support themselves in the search for Truth.

Seeing this figure inspired Siddhartha to go forth himself so that he could find a way to penetrate to the meaning of it all. He decided to become a sadhu himself and felt he could not rest until the answers to his questions could be found.

So one night he said goodbye to his sleeping wife and child and with his charioteer he rode out of the palace for the last time. He went to the edge of the Sakyan territory, cut off his hair and beard and swapped his fine clothes with those of a wandering  beggar, and saying goodbye to his charioteer and horse he walked into the jungle alone.

Thus Siddhartha the prince became Gotama the wandering holy man, now known simply by his family name. He went in search of teachers who he hoped might have penetrated into the mystery of existence. So he went from one teacher to another learning all they had to teach and often surpassing them in his mastery. However he hadn’t found what he was looking for, not that he could name it, but he knew it was something beyond their realisations. He began a programme of punishment of the flesh because there was a school of thought that this would liberate the spirit, and he became famous for his austeriities and gathered a band of followers. But he realised it wasn’t the way when he collapsed in a river because he was so weak and thin and would have died if he hadn’t been rescued. So he started eating normally again and his five disciples left him in disgust for abandoning the path, leaving him on his own again.

Six years had passed since Gotama had left the palace and he remembered a time when he was young and he had been sitting under a tree watching his father conducting a ritual to initiate the season’s ploughing. He had spontaneously become absorbed and reached a very blissful state quite naturally. He found an ideal place to meditate under the shade of a tree in a beautiful copse near a river and sat down resloving not to get up until he had gained Enlightenment. He found his way back to a state of integrated concentration, and letting it arise and letting go of whatever hindered it found himself in higher and higher superconscious states.

We do not know how long he sat there – days weeks or months but we know that on the night of the full moon of May/June he had realised his quest. He had become Enlightened, he had become a Buddha, which means one who is awake, awake to Reality (with a capital R), an awareness of things as they really are. Wow. Gotama had done it.

But what had he done, what had he achieved, and what difference did it make, to him, to us for that matter? What is Enlightenment?

Nirvana is the Buddhist word that is most often translated by the English word Enlightenment, although it means nothing of the sort. It literally means ‘blowing out’ as in the blowing out of a candle. As it is sometimes mistakenly taken to mean this does not refer to blowing out the self but the extinguishing of the fires of greed, hatred and delusion – the state of being where the desire for sensuous experience, of continued existence is absent. It is, in a sense, an experience that is beyond experience, a completely different mode of being, where the self doesn’t see itself as separate from the rest of existence, and so desire is a completely nonsense concept because, in a way, there is no ‘other’ in relation to the self. The experience appears as a completely universal love and cherishing because as far as the Enlightened one any other ‘being’ is no less important than his or her ‘own’ being.

In conceptual terms the Enlightenment experience is the principle of conditionality, that all phenomena arise in dependence upon conditions, including the Buddha himself, but not only that, everything is in a constant state of flux, ever changing. This means that over time the whole universe is recycled and so it makes no sense to identify with just one small part of the universe, eg my body – it’s just an illusion that I keep hold of – that I want to protect and nurture this particular speck of nature! The illusion is not so much that there is a self that really doesn’t exist – it’s more that we see ourselves as something fixed and unchanging and act from that view. However in many ways it is a very useful to see ourselves separately from the rest of the world, in order to function and create the world that we live in, but really it is just a model that our minds and  brains work with. We name objects and organise concepts and then assume that these are reality, that these objects exist in themselves. We just take all too literally.

The Buddha is able to see that the way we see the world is just a construction, and not only see it, but changes completely his way of relating to the world around him. He has gone beyond habits that fix his way of being and instead acts with a completely spontaneous creative unfoldment of compassion.

So, traditionally speaking Enlightenment has two aspects, the Wisdom aspect and the Compassion aspect. His wisdom means that he sees things as they really are and at his Enlightenment he saw into the heart of existence and understood how suffering grew from craving and ignorance, how – with minds rooted in craving, hatred and delusion – beings launch themselves into an endless cycle of birth, sickness, old age and death.

Compassion is the natural response of a Buddha to the suffering he sees in the world, although the word compassion in English is not really strong enough to convey the Buddha’s response to the suffering of beings.

There is a story that after his Enlightenment the Buddha looked out over the world and with his Enlightened vision he saw all beings as lotuses in a lake. Some were stuck in the mud at the bottom fully ignorant of the light above the water, others were beginning to rise up through the murky water towards the light. Others stood clear of the water and just need a little sunshine to coax them out of their buds. Great compassion blazed in his heart and for the sake of all beings who would be able to understand he resolved to find a way to express his Enlightenment and to teach others how to attain it. The word here that is translated as compassion is anukampa, which means literally shaking with. So this compassion is not a mild emotion but a complete response of his whole being to the state of suffering that unenlightened beings are in.

He realised that it was not just possible for him to experience freedom from craving but that all human beings had the potential gain Enlightenment as well. The first people he went to teach what he had learned were the five ascetic disciples who had abandoned him when he had started taking regular meals. Initially they were very suspicious of him when they heard he was coming to visit them but when he appeared before them they could see that something had indeed changed in him. He shone with a remarkable radiance and beauty and when he spoke his words seemed to come from such depths of wisdom and understanding and were expressed with such kindness and compassion as they had never encountered before. As the Buddha talked to them the immensity and the significance of what was happening slowly dawned on them. Gotama had attained what they had spent so many difficult years struggling to attain. So he sat with them trying to give old words new significance and push these ascetics beyond the limits of their present experience. He taught them, they discussed, meditated, reflected and eventually one by one they all came to understand, to share the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha. There were now six Enlightened beings in the world.

This was just the beginning of forty five years of wandering throughout northern India, gathering a community of disciples who would also go out and teach. The Dharma is the ancient Indian word that means the teachings of the Buddha, but it also means the Truth and the Way (to Enlightenment). So when the Buddha taught the Dharma it was often as not as much the way that he taught that expressed the Truth, or the way things are, as the content of what he said. This is particularly the case in the story of his encounter with a young woman and her baby.

Kisa Gotami had married into a family that didn’t really accept her. Her husband’s sisters thought he could have done  better for himself because she was rather thin (which wasn’t fashionable in India in those days) and her father couldn’t afford much of a dowry. So she was grateful that she had got married at all and although her husband was poor he was kind. That wasn’t to be said of her new relatives who were constantly criticising her saying she was too skinny to have children and she couldn’t keep her house properly and so on. She was always trying to please them but she never managed to do anything right and so when she did finally bear a child everyone was very happy and at last she felt accepted. She really loved her little baby and carried him everywhere with her even having the tendency to show him to everyone she met, so proud she was of her little boy. Then one day disaster struck – her beautiful baby became very very ill with a terrible fever and ended up dying in her arms. She was completely unable to believe what had happened and wandered around aimlessly asking everyone she came across if they could give her some medicine for her baby. No-one was able to offer her any help and some even tried to tell her that her baby was dead but she insisted that if she had the right medicine he would be alright. Then someone suggested that she go and find Gotama the holy man who was in the next street – he might be able to help her.

So she rushed and found the Buddha and immediately went up  to him – ‘Will you give me some medicine to make my baby well?’ The Buddha looked kindly at Kisa and said ‘Yes I can help you. but before I can make the medicine you must bring me one thing. A mustard seed.’ ‘Yes yes I will bring some immediately!’ says Kisa about to rush off, overjoyed. The Buddha continued, ‘There is one condition though. The seed must come from a house where no-one has died.’ Not giving this a second thought she went off on her way.

At the first door Kisa knocked on she asked if they had a mustard seed that would be for medicine for her baby. Yes they had plenty and went to get some, because in India mustard is a very common spice that everyone has in their kitchen. ‘Wait,’ she called out, remembering the Buddha’s condition, ‘has anyone died here in this house?’ ‘Oh yes only last year my grandmother died.’ ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ said Kisa, ‘I need a mustard seed only from a house where no-one has died.’ The next house she went to, and the next and the next all had tales of death in their families. She learned about brothers, mothers, aunts, sons and babies who had all died. She slowly came to realise that everyone has to deal with death in their lives. She was not alone in having to come to terms with the death of someone she loved dearly. So quietly and with great sadness she went to the funeral ground and said farewell to her baby.

She returned to the Buddha to thank him for giving her the medicine she needed and asked to join his followers. Later on she too became Enlightened.

This story beautifully illustrates the Buddha’s Wisdom and his Compassion. He cleverly allows her to find out for herself the reality of our lives, that everyone has to deal with the death of someone they love. He sees her distress and skilfully responds not by telling her what is obvious but by telling her what she wants to hear, that she can find a medicine for her situation. Of course the medicine is in the journey she makes in asking for the mustard seeds, not in any potion he might be able to make.

Hopefully we will make our own journeys and find out what we need to in order to see reality more clearly. Maybe we won’t be lucky enough to come across someone as wise and compassionate as the Buddha who will encourage us in our journey, but hopefully someone will come into our lives and help us see the world with new eyes. It might not be a Mary Poppins or Maria von Trapp who lights up our world for a time, it may just be a friend who says something that is just the thing we need to hear at that particular time, and we get closer to seeing the way things really are.