Last week we looked at Jesus; the man, the myth, and the message.
We know very little about the actual man, the historical Jesus; we know a lot about the myth, which is often presented as history, and the message is simple – be nice.
Today we’ll look at the same three aspects of the Buddha: the man, the young Prince Siddhartha; the mythological Buddha who is said to have had a miraculous birth from the side of his mother, Queen Mahamaya, and who was born fully awake, with the ability to walk and talk.’ (Note the reference to being ‘born fully awake.’)
Finally we’ll look at the message or teachings attributed to the Buddha – the model for living a good life, and the way to overcome mental anguish.
Because of their similarities, Jesus and Buddha are often put side by side; neither of them intended to found a new religion – Jesus was a Jew who was outspoken about his disagreements with the way Judaism was practiced in his time; Buddha was a Hindu who had was outspoken about his disagreements with the way Hinduism was being practiced in his time.
Siddhartha Gautama, who later would be called the Buddha, lived around 500 years before Jesus, who would later be called the Messiah, or the Christ.
We know very little about the actual life or precise teachings of either of them. What we do know is that a mythology developed about each of them and these mythologies were used to create the religions we know as Christianity and Buddhism, each of which comes in many flavors – more than the proverbial 28.
Much of Christianity became a religion about Jesus, and much of Buddhism became a religion about Siddartha – both Jesus and Siddartha would be surprised and chagrined.
Last week I talked about my personal experience with Jesus in the three Congregational churches in which I grew up – Jesus was always looking down at us, not from heaven but from a variety of portraits that hung on the wall in our classrooms.
Shortly after I left the Congregational church in the early 1960’s I was in a graduate program at Northeastern earning a master’s degree in educational administration I took a course in Social Foundations of Education, which turned out to be one of my all-time favorite classes, covering a smattering of anthropology, sociology and psychology, but more importantly it’s where I made an acquaintance with a new approach to religion – one I could embrace without mental reservation.
The professor wanted us to have an understanding and appreciation for the religions of the world so he randomly assigned each of us to do some research and give a ten-minute oral report on the religion we were assigned.
I got Mahayana Buddhism. I knew next to nothing about Buddhism, so I went to the library, asked the librarian for suggestions, and sat down and dug into it.
The more I dug into it, and thought about it, the more fascinated and enthusiastic I got!
What struck me about Buddhism, or the Buddha, was its lack of dogmatic theology – Western style – and its emphasis on compassion as the key ingredient to the religious life, or the life of the spirit. The Buddha is often referred to as ‘the compassionate one.’
While we think of the Buddha as a person, in my understanding the essence of Buddhism, as taught by the Buddha, it is not about a person, but about the qualities or characteristics in every person.
The question is ‘how to bring out your Buddha nature,’ or ‘how to be the Buddha.’
My favorite professor at B. U. S. T., Harrell Beck, said, “When you understand the concept of the Messiah you’ll know it’s the person next to you.”
I would say, “When you understand the concept of the Buddha you’ll know it’s the potential within you.”
So I gave my ten-minute oral presentation to the class at N.U. with enthusiasm, concluding with an announcement: “I think I’m a Buddhist.”
The teacher laughed a friendly laugh, but immediately explained: “Every time someone makes a presentation about Mahayana Buddhism he or she says the same thing!”
We didn’t talk at all about why I felt this affinity to Buddhism, but I thought a lot about it, both then and since. One of the most important reasons is its lack of theology – it is not theistic. It’s not about believing, it’s about be-ing.
The legend, referred to as the Four Passing Sights, goes like this:
When he was born his father summoned the fortune tellers to ask about Siddhartha’s destiny; they said that he was not the usual or common child, that he was destined for greatness, either as a politician who would unite all of India, or a great redeemer of the world, a religious savior.
Siddhartha’s father wanted him to become a great Chakravartin, a ‘wheel turner,’ or conquering king, so he did all he could to steer his son toward that end. Strict orders were given to all those in charge of his care to keep him from confrontation with the world of the spirit, and to keep him tied to worldly things, with worldly pleasures. (Television, ipods, computer games…all the latest gadgets and toys…the best schools and the right clothes, and so forth. As in any good myth we should see ourselves in the story.)
Even more specifically, the prince was to be kept from any contact with sickness and death, with old age, and with monks who had renounced worldly pleasures for the religious life, lest he get any ‘bright ideas.’
One day, the legend says, Siddhartha was out riding his great white horse when he saw an old man, bent with his years, broken-toothed and gray, leaning on his staff. Obviously this old man had been miraculously incarnated by the gods for Siddhartha’s education. He was shocked and asked his caretaker what this meant.
Thus he learned about the inevitability of aging and the loss of youthfulness and all that that implies.
On another ride outside the palace gates he encountered a man wracked with pain, filled with disease—thus he learned about human vulnerability to illness and disease.
On another journey he saw a corpse, shocked by his first encounter with death.
Finally, on the ‘Fourth Passing Sight’ Siddhartha encountered a monk with a shaved head, saffron robe and beggar’s rice bowl, and on that day he learned about the possibility of a way of life that was not materialistic or centered on gaining power over others—the religious life; this was his burning bush experience–what some refer to as a calling.
The legend says that in his twenty-ninth year he made his break with the world into which he had been born and set out on a spiritual journey—this is referred to as his Great Going Forth.
He shaved his head, donned a simple saffron robe and went forth to explore the world, both outer and inner.
Soon he was accosted by the evil god, Mara, (his shadow side) who taunted and tempted him and threatened to trap him and seduce him whenever he showed signs of weakness.
He met some Hindu priests who were trying to reach Nirvana through the practice of yoga, but Siddhartha rejected their way and decided on asceticism, extreme abstinence and self-denial; he became skeletal to the extent that he could feel his spine through his stomach, but he did not find enlightenment.
This led him to his first important discovery which he called The Middle Way – the way between the extremes of materialism and greed on the one hand and asceticism or extreme self-denial on the other.
He recalled an experience as a boy sitting under a tree and becoming engrossed with nature around him and in him; he was filled with a sense of compassion for all living things. So he sat under a Bodhi tree and went into a deep meditation that lasted for forty days and nights and he awoke and realized that he had achieved enlightenment.
The legend says that as soon as he achieved enlightenment he was immediately visited by Mara, the evil one, who once again threatened him. Siddhartha cried out to the earth to protect him and he was saved, which is why the Buddha is often portrayed in his sitting position pointing down to the earth, his salvation. (It reminds me of the environmental movement: take care of Mother Earth; and of the interdependent web of all Creation: we are of the earth, from the earth and return to the earth…we are part of Nature.)
The legend says that when his disciples asked him about God and the afterlife the Buddha said, “Do not speculate.” Theology is pure unadulterated speculation.
Simply put, the aim of spiritual practice in Buddhism is the alleviation of anxiety – it’s about what we would now call ‘stress reduction.’ The Buddha did not confirm or deny the existence of a Creator. Indeed, if the report is accurate, he said that questions about the origin of the world, as well as the originator of the world, are useless, or worse than useless, since they get in the way of true spirituality – they get in the way of universal love – they get in the way of inner peace – they get in the way of humility, which is at the core of one’s spiritual life.
My understanding of the Buddha’s advice is that speculation is reasoning that is based on inconclusive evidence – it’s about conjecture; it’s about opinion.
If you want to speculate, call your broker…speculation is the heart of the stock market – it’s another name for gambling. It’s risky. It’s a chance to make a big profit, or lose your shirt.
In religion, speculation provides a quick and easy way to make a big profit: ‘have I got a deal for you!’ We humans want answers…quick answers, easy answers, final answers. True religion acknowledges, first and foremost, that we do not have all the answers – the task, rather, is to hone the questions, to play with the questions by turning them around, upside down and inside out.
In my ten-minute talk to the class at Northeastern I was careful to present this brief sketch of Mahayana Buddhism objectively, not influenced by emotions or personal prejudices, but inside I was practicing for the liberation of this pulpit. (The idea of ministry was the furthest thing from my mind at that time.)
I had yet to read Whitman’s Buddha-like lines in Leaves of Grass, from his signature poem Song of Myself, chapter 48:
“I have said that the soul is not more than the body,
And I have said that the body is not more than the soul,
And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is…
And I say to mankind, be not curious about God,
For I who am curious about each am not curious about God,
(No array of terms can say how much I am at peace about God and about death).
I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least,
Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself.
Why should I wish to see God better than this day?
I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then,
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass,
I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every one is sign’d by God’s name,
And I leave them where they are, for I know that wheresoe’er I go,
Others will punctually come forever and ever.”
My understanding is that Buddha preached a religion devoid of authority—each person must be his or her own authority. (See Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay: Self-Reliance.)
He preached a religion of intense self-effort.
He preached a religion devoid of superstition, devoid of miracles. He said, “By this you shall know that a man is not my disciple—that he tries to work a miracle.”
The legend says that he sat under the bodhi tree for forty days and nights and received enlightenment.
But what is enlightenment?
I’ll offer my own view: first it means ‘to lighten up.’ Thoreau, who dug deeply into Eastern religion, summarized it by saying, “Simplify, simplify.”
Robert Frost pointed to it in his wonderfully simple poem, Birches. Read it again with the idea of simplicity and being awake as the basic components of enlightenment:
When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay.
Ice-storms do that. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust–
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
(Now am I free to be poetical?)
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows–
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
To be enlightened is simply to be awake, to be aware, to notice the details. Look again at the opening words to Frost’s poem: ‘when I see.’ When I’m awake and aware, I ‘see.’
I notice how the ice on the birch ‘turns many-colored as the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.’
To be enlightened is to notice when ‘truth breaks in with all her matter-of-fact…’
To be enlightened is to ‘keep your poise to the top branches’ as you climb through the days and decades…to keep your balance, to be free from ‘affectation or embarrassment’ – to keep your composure.
To be enlightened is to know when to stop looking at the distressing aspects of life, ‘to get away from earth awhile and then come back to it and begin again.’
That’s what meditation (or prayer or reflection) is about. It’s a Sabbath – “a time to stop trying to alter the universe.” A time for human be-ing rather than human do-ing.
To be enlightened is to accept what is – which doesn’t preclude doing what you can to change things; to change yourself; to change the injustices of the world; to change the inequities of the world.
The Buddha is said to have summarized it all in the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.
My Thoreau-like take on the Four Noble Truths attributed to the Buddha is this: life involves struggle and pain – various kinds of suffering; the cause of spiritual suffering is resistance to accepting things the way they are, first of all, rather than wishing they weren’t that way. The most Noble of the Four Noble Truths is that there is a solution, but you have to find it for yourself…you have to create it, and re-create it, again and again.
The Buddha suggested what he called The Eightfold Path, consisting of Right views: an understanding of the Four Noble Truths; and, in a more general sense, a right way of seeing life…of accepting ‘what is.’
Right conduct: do not kill, steal, lie, be unchaste, drink intoxicants.
Right livelihood – occupation
Right effort – will power
Right mindfulness – Dhammapada opens: “All that we are is the result of what we have thought…we become what we think.
Each of these deserves conversation. Suffice it to say that they give direction to the life-long process of spiritual development.
Enlightenment is a spectrum…we’re all enlightened, to a degree, and it can increase with one’s conscious effort.
I’m enlightened enough to know that it’s time for this little sermon to end, even though it’s not finished. You can finish it for yourself.