Culture

How Siddhartha Broke Into the Buddha Business

Mahabodhitemple

So this is the way I heard it. More or less.

After his Enlightenment, Siddhartha was walking along a path in a forest. He didn’t have a goal and he wasn’t concerned with the weather: if it was hot, he sweated, if it rained, he got wet. He was untroubled, calm, serene.

In fact, he was so untroubled that it was obvious to anyone around him. He met a man traveling the opposite direction.

“Excuse me,” the man said, “are you a sadhu, a saint?”

“No,” Siddhartha said, “I’m not. Being a saint doesn’t really lead to peace of mind anyway.”

“But you’re … are you a God?”

“Hardly. I’m just a man. I don’t know if there are any gods, but I’m certainly not one.”

“Well… but you seem so different. What makes you so different?”

Buddha thought about it. It couldn’t really be explained, of course, but still the man deserved an answer.

“I am… awake.”


About 2500 years ago there was a city-state called Kapilavastu in what is now called Nepal. According to tradition, a man named Sudhodana was its king, although archeology and history suggest that it was an elected post in something much like a republic. Sudhodana had a wife, who we know as Mayadevi, which means something like “Enchanting Angel.” She was pregnant, and as the traditions of that time and place required, she was traveling to her home to have their child, when she went into labor and was taken to the shade of a tree in a place called Lumbini. Her child was born there, a son, who was named “Siddhartha”, “the one who achieves his aim”. Mayadevi died shortly afterward.


bodhi-tree-samadhi

An astrologer named Asita predicted, based on the place and time of Siddhartha’s birth, that he would either be a world conqueror or a world savior, a holy man who would deliver the world from suffering.

Sudhodana saw world-conqueror as a much better career path, so he saw to it that Siddhartha was given everything — except he was never taught anything of religion, and he was never allowed to see any sadness or bear any enduring pain. Siddhartha was said to have been a brilliant warrior and a supremely skilled archer. At sixteen, Siddhartha was married to a cousin named Yasodhara, and they were said to have been very much in love.

But not even a king like Sudhodana can keep the world out completely, and Siddhartha was being trained to be a warrior king as well as a prince. There came a day when Siddhartha had to go out and see his people. Sudhodana did his best, but Siddhartha saw an old man, bent and gray, and realized that the people he loved were also aging — he’d never wondered at his father’s gray hair before.

He returned to their palace, and while making love to Yasodhana realized that even she was going to grow old. Someone close to him became sick and he realized the same would happen to him; then there was a death, and Siddhartha realized for the first time that he too was mortal, that he would someday die.

He’d also been taught for his entire life that he was destined to conquer the world. If he could do that, he could find the answer for sickness and death and the suffering that accompanied them. And he would.

BodhiTreeSymbolism

As soon as Yasodhara had born him a son, so that he had satisfied his responsibility to his family and clan by producing an heir, Siddhartha bugged out. He left the palace in the middle of the night, and sought out the people who — he was told — knew the answer to release from suffering and sickness and death. He studied for six years, trying to be freed from the suffering of the world, until he finally was trying to release himself from the demands of the body by refusing to indulge it, refusing food or sleep or basic hygiene — and it damn near worked. He passed out, near death from starvation. He was revived when a little girl shared her treat, sweetened milk and rice, with him.

Now, the tradition says Siddhartha more or less finished his rice pudding and sat right down, but I don’t think it happened quite that way. I think he spent some time regaining his strength and his health, bathing, that sort of thing. And thinking. He’d spent the last six years trying to escape from suffering, from frustration and aggravation and the fact that life really was unsatisfactory. He’d learned a lot — tradition says he learned two schools of meditation well enough that he was asked to become his teachers’ successor before he started trying the rigorous ascetic route — but it hadn’t done the job. And being an ascetic had just proved he was strong willed enough that he could kill himself through starvation — but bearing suffering wasn’t the same as ending suffering.


Mahabodhitree

Once he was feeling better and stronger, he picked a place under a ficus tree, determined to stay there until he figured out an answer. That particular kind of ficus, called Ficus religiosa, had been considered auspicious long before; maybe that was part of it. In any case, they’re big pretty trees that provide good shade. The area near a big tree’s roots, with the gentle rise and the sort of terracing that grows up around the roots, I can tell you from experience is a good place to find a comfortable spot for meditation.

He settled down there, and started to think and meditate. But instead of practicing a meditation intended to bring about a trance, he began to just think, just allow himself to think; when distracted, he brought himself back to the Question: why life was so unsatisfactory, and how to make it more satisfactory?

Minds are funny things.

Siddhartha had a good grasp of the initial question, and he’d recently given up on what he’d been told was the escape route from suffering in the form of various forms of yoga. But yoga means “to yoke” — to put into harness, like a water buffalo. In his lifetime, Siddhartha remembered, there had been times when he had felt at peace, when life had seemed perfectly satisfactory — like when, as a child, he was completely absorbed in watching ants in a field.

Simple indulgence wasn’t an escape from suffering — most of his childhood and young adulthood had been spent indulging himself, and it just meant it hurt more when he realized it couldn’t last. And harnessing his will had nearly killed him at the cost of great suffering. Later on, he’d explain this particular insight with a metaphor — the strings on a sitar. If they’re slack, they make no music at all; if they’re drawn too tight, they break.

Instead of yoking the mind, he simply, gently but deeply, started to pay attention to the problem.

But minds are funny things. As he tried to simply consider the problem of suffering, strange thoughts came to distract him. He saw horrible demons attacking him, and it seemed so real that he touched the ground to reassure himself, to witness there was a reality right where he was sitting now. He remembered the dancing girls his father had provided in their palace, long days of feasts and orgies and the pleasure they’d given him. His mind wandered, and he imagined himself in other lives — a rabbit raising a family of bunnies; a wolf who killed the rabbit to feed her cubs; a prince who preferred to be thought an idiot to becoming a king.

With every fantasy, he brought himself back to a calm quiet mind, just paying attention to the problem of suffering.

Then, the most insidious fantasy came to him. Who was he to be the one to solve suffering? How dare he imagine that he could solve the problem that had defeated mankind for so long? Why not give up and go home? He had a wife, and a six year old son he’d never seen because he was out trying to save the world.

His answer: I am Siddhartha, the one who achieves his aim, and I will remain here until I solve this problem.

He sat through the night, which traditionally was the night of a full moon, and as the moon set, the Morning Star rose, and very suddenly the world changed. The answer was clear. The world was the world, and he and everything else was part of it; it was all a gigantic, universal, harmonious whole. Suffering happened because we let ourselves be captured by the illusion we were separate things that could overcome the laws of cause and effect. And suffering could end — had ended for him, just now, at that instant.

He had been imagining things, living a dream. And now he was awake.