Buddhism 1


The image on the slide here is a painting
by contemporary American artist and comedian Yogadawg, whom I recommend to you. He’s
got a pretty cool website; it’ll keep you busy for a while. The image is reminiscent
of Warhol, but without any distortion to the central repeated figure, which is the head
of the Buddha, modeled after a late 5th century sculpture from Uttar Pradesh. I like this
image as a visual introduction to Buddhism because it can be seen to represent in a small
way, and through the artistic tradition, the sort of inevitable transience that characterizes
human experience. We’ll come back to that. For now, though, look at the story of the
Buddha. The story of Buddhism begins in the 6th century BCE – the time of the pre-Socratic
philosophers in Greece (like Heraclites, Anaximenes, Anaximander), of Upanishadic development in
India, of Cyrus the Great in Persia, of Confucius and Laozi in China – Buddhism is one more
of the Axial Age traditions that we’ve talked about. And it begins with a man, a fortunate man
who would become the first of today’s 3 Gems. This set is known as the Triple Gem,
or the Three Refuges. Buddhism – like Christianity and Islam – is a missionary religion, and
conversion is easy. All you have to do to convert is to recite the 3 Refuges (with,
again, full sincerity and honest commitment). And we can see them here. I take refuge in
the Buddha; I take refure in the Dharma; I take refuge in the Sangha. We’ll get to each of these, but for today,
we’ll concentrate on the first, the Buddha. The word “Buddha” means “enlightened
one” or “awakened one.” Like Christ, Buddha is not a name. It’s an honorific
title. It is the name that was given to a man whose accomplishments were seen to warrant
it. That man’s name was Siddhartha Gautama, also known as Shakyamuni, or “the sage of
the Shakya clan.” His standard (though contested) dates are
563-483 BCE. He was the son of Kshatriya parents (which, remember, means that he was born into
the warrior / ruler caste, but not into the spiritual elite caste, known as the Brahmins).
His birth was accompanied by all kinds of auspicious signs, and this image is a relief
sculpture showing the circumstances surrounding the birth of the Buddha-to-be. He was conceived
when a white elephant entered his mother’s side (in a dream). He was born – not in
the natural fashion – but again, taken from the side of his mother. And as soon as he
was born, he stood, took seven steps in each direction, and said “Supreme I am in the
world; greatest I am in the world; noblest I am in the world; never will I be reborn.”
And lotus flowers blossomed from the ground where he stepped. His mother died shortly after he was born;
his father ruled a small state in the foothills of the Himalayas, in Lumbini (in modern-day
Nepal). Here’re prayer flags in Lumbini, which remains a very popular pilgrimage site.
Now, remember that his father was a Kshatriya ruler, and he wanted the same sort of power
and leadership for his son. But shortly after the boy’s birth, a soothsayer tells the
father: your son will be great, in either politics or religion. He will either conquer
armies and rule many people, many states; or he will conquer suffering, and learn to
rule the mind. And so his father, in the interest of channeling
the boy’s life into a life of political leadership, raises him within the palace walls,
where he has everything he could ever want and knows nothing of suffering. And we have
to appreciate this. The king was onto something here. Seeing, experiencing, knowing of suffering:
that can push folks into spiritual questions. And that’s not what he wanted for his son.
His father was a religious man, but he was also practical. He wanted his son to be a
king, wanted his happiness and security, and so he shielded the boy. Three palaces, beautiful wife, beautiful son
(whom Siddhartha named Rahula, which means “fetter”)…but he couldn’t rest contented,
couldn’t rest his mind. He begins to wonder how he got this place he finds himself in,
what lies beyond the palace walls. This man, born into a high position in a stratified
society, finds himself spiritually dissatisfied. There was in him a wanting, without end, a
fundamental, and seemingly in-built, dissatisfaction. And this wanting wasn’t sated by material
goods. Food…good food…organic food…locally grown organic food…better locally grown
organic food. These are seen by many to be good reasons to be motivated toward something
better, to be moved. But the reasons aren’t in question. There can be good reasons. The
point is that there are always reasons. The idea of better, of more, seemed to Siddhartha
to be part of his every dissatisfaction – and further, and worse, it seemed to be latent,
waiting, even within his every satisfaction. The family, the food, the pleasure, the music,
the dancing girls. There was always, in all of it, the possibility for greater satisfaction.
What Siddhartha saw was that want was structurally, not circumstantially, infinite. So at age 29, he leaves the confines of the
palace. His father (reluctantly) agrees to send him on something like a grand tour – though
he first did all that was in his power to clear the way, to script the journey his son
would take. (Some stories have it that Siddhartha broke from the script by sneaking out of the
palace before the time his father had planned. Later, especially Mahayana interpretations
say that the gods conspired to disrupt the plans of the father, to reveal to Siddhartha
the suffering he had not known.) At any rate, while he is outside the palace
walls, Siddhartha sees what have come within tradition to be known as the Four Sights.
This is what Prothero calls a “truly momentous midlife crisis,” and it ended the Buddha-to-be’s
spiritual blindness, absolutely wrecked the illusion of ease with which he had been living.
And the nature of the story highlights what will continue to be the tradition’s emphasis
on experience. So here’s what he sees. First, he sees a
sick man, which he had never seen before, and he asks his charioteer, Chandra, “What
is that?” And Chandra responds, “That is a sick person. Each of us falls sick, you
and I alike. No one is exempt from sickness.” And the story repeats itself with an old man
and a dead man. Now, all three of these sights profoundly disturbed Siddhartha, who we can
imagine must have been repulsed by all this decay at the root of life itself. And then
he sees the sanyassin, the renunciant on a spiritual quest, whom Chandra tells him has
cut off his attachment to the material trappings of this life, in order to concentrate on spiritual
truths. Seeing old age, sickness, and death, Siddhartha
saw that we reach out to things and to people and to activities and even to ideas (many
of them good), to get away from the constant falling-away of the world from our grasp.
You age, fall ill, and die – EVERYTHING ages, falls ill, and dies. This is a very
difficult truth. So we turn to fun – to beer (good beer…local
organic microbrews or the great American lager) to escape a sense of old age, sickness, and
death. We turn to love (good love, kind and strong lovers, generous in their affections
and just in their estimation of us) to forget old age, sickness, and death. To feel – for
just a moment – forever satisfied. But we’re not forever satisfied. The high wears off.
The lover shows a side we’ve not seen, or develops a new interest, or maybe the hormones
just stop pumping. And a new desire, a new wanting kicks in. With the four sights, the Buddha gets a hint
of all this, sees that he had been spiritually blind and decides that there must be more
to life than power and pleasure, and he decides that he will find that something more, that
he will follow in the path of the sanyassin that he saw, that he will leave the palace. The next day, in what tradition has dubbed
the “Great Departure,” an act that is reenacted in ordination ceremonies all over
the world, Siddhartha leaves home. He walks to the edge of what would have been his inheritance,
shaves his head, strips himself of his finery, and takes up with a group of Shramanas. And, in an effort to get past that wanting,
he denied the body, as those wandering ascetic shramanas do. And we
do this, as did the Buddha-to-be, we deny
the wanting, deny the body, practice severe austerities. Or we feed the mind, sit alone
in a bare and empty room and listen to minimalist jazz, or take off across north India and study
with every ascetically minded teacher available. The Buddha-to-be did this. And he mastered
every teaching he came across. He was eating little, practicing austerities, and very thin.
But still, he found, there was a wanting, a thirsting, a hunger, for wisdom or knowing
or the opposite of material goods, or something, always something. So he sat. And, sitting, he came to this profound
realization, profound and simple, intimidating almost in its simplicity, and he translated
this profound realization into a teachable lesson, or set of lessons. For years he had wandered with the 5 shramanas,
whittling his body down until, naked and half-starved, nearly dead, he realized that this was not
gonna work. The more he disciplined his body, the more often and the more desperately it
called out for food and sleep. There was something amiss. The extremity stopped him. He reconsidered
his path. The 5 shramanas at this point, totally disappointed, leave. And striking out on his
own, the Buddha-to-be dedicates himself to the Middle Way, between asceticism and indulgence,
between starvation and luxury. At age 35, after 6 years with the shramanas, he sat down.
After having accepted some rice and regained his strength, he sat down. And he vowed not
to get up until he had found either death or liberation. He sat down in Bodh Gaya, the 2nd great pilgrimage
site in Buddhism, under the Bodhi tree. It’s at this point, when he’s relaxed his extreme
desire, that he’s able to settle into a sense of realization, that he begins to see
clearly. And he sat for a long time: 49 days. During this time, Mara (the Lord of Illusion,
the demon tempter, king of the demons) tries to distract him. First, with beautiful (but
false) things, like his three daughters, Desire, Aversion, and Lust (that undergirding appetite
that drives the other two). And then, when that doesn’t work, Mara tries fire and brimstone,
a demon army. But the Buddha-to-be remains unperturbed, so unperturbed that he turns
their weapons into flowers. And he reaches Enlightenment, or Nirvana (which
means “to cool by blowing,” or “to blow out”). He has cooled the hindrances of Greed,
Hatred, and Delusion that bind us to Samsara. And he reaches down to touch the Earth, which
itself bears witness to his enlightenment, his awakening, his becoming the Buddha. Next
time we’ll turn to the Buddha’s first teachings.

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