Late in Siddhartha Gautama’s ministry, when India was on fire with his liberating message, people would come to him asking NOT who are you? NOT what’s your name, your origin, your ancestry? But asking this: WHAT are you? In other words: To what order of being do you belong? What species do you represent? Are you an angel? Are you a God? To which the historical founder of Buddhism would answer, every time, very simply, I am awake.
That’s what it means to be a Buddha: to be enlightened. To be awake.
But things did not start out that way. The path towards awakening is a crooked one, zigging and zagging crazily. There’s Buddha potential in everyone, but the story of how any individual person taps into it is always unique, and it always incorporates adversity of some kind. This is as much true for the founder of Buddhism as for ourselves, Unitarian Universalists.
One legend has it that at Siddhartha’s birth, his father, a King, summoned seers to divine his son’s future. All the seers agreed that this was no ordinary child and that, in fact, there were two remarkable possibilities before him, though only one could come true: either he would become military conqueror and ruler of all India, or he would become a spiritual leader and world redeemer. When the King heard this, he resolved then and there that he would do everything in his power to ensure that his son stayed away from spirituality. In contemporary terms, we might say that he wanted his son to go for the business major over the major in philosophy…. So the King surrounded his Prince with every luxury imaginable. Three palaces and 40,000 dancing girls (this is a legend, after all.) He gave strict orders to servants that no ugliness was ever to intrude upon Siddhartha’s courtly pleasures. He wanted to prevent the Prince from realizing that life might be more complex than it appears, and that it inflicts hurts which everything a King has—material wealth and power—are helpless to ease.
The man who woke up started life fast asleep. There’s not a straight shot to destiny in this hero story. For twenty-odd years, Prince Siddhartha would live in a bubble of his father the King’s making. But then, one day, he went out into the countryside, riding. It had been a longtime habit of his, riding, though the King would insist that he’d stay on the regular paths, from which he’d have servants clear away anything offensive. Any ugliness swept away. Except for this one day. One day, along the path, the Prince encountered an old man. Decrepit, broken-toothed, gray-haired, leaning on a staff and trembling. The Prince had never seen anything like it before.
Perhaps the psychological truth in the legend is this: that there is a King in all of us who has his own ideas about what success means for our lives and jealously tries to keep us in that bubble, wants to make us his Prince, keep us convinced we’re going to live forever. But the bubble always bursts. There’s always that time when it dawns on you: people are not immortal. Time flies. That moment when you look at a home you lived in for years for the last time, just before you leave, never to return—when you realize that life is but a series of such moments. The bubble bursts.
The King was furious when he found out. Of course. The ego is always furious when it’s out of control and its best-laid plans start to unravel. So he doubled-up the guard along the paths Siddhartha rode. Tripled them. Anything to prevent spiritual yearning from coming alive in him—anything to prevent him from hungering for more than a life of material wealth and power. His father the King decreed it.
In all of us, there’s a force that wants us to stay asleep. But the Spirit of Life won’t let us be. A disease like juvenile diabetes happens. Someone halfway across the world hacks into your gmail account and starts sending emails to every one you know, telling them that you are in London and all your money is stolen and you’ve been beat up and would you send money? Or this: the continuing tragedy in the gulf—the continuing oilspill—the spreading ecological catastrophe. Life won’t let us be.
In Siddhartha’s case, during his second outing, he saw a body racked with disease. During a third, he saw a corpse. And then came the fourth outing—perhaps the most surprising sight of all: there, by the roadside: a Hindu monk with shaven head, ochre robe, begging bowl, and peace. Peace in the midst of circumstances that, for all Siddhartha knew—given his experience up to that point—should make peace impossible. But the impoverished monk was happy. And Siddhartha, the Prince, despite his three palaces and 40,000 dancing girls, was unhappy.
Buddhists call this the legend of the Four Passing Sights, and it is said that these sights so overwhelmed the sensitive Siddhartha that he resolved then and there to give up the right to his father’s throne—leave everything and everyone he knew—and strike out on the spiritual quest. Become a monk himself. Find peace.
Thus he entered the next phase of his life. Ever afterwards, Buddhists have called one of his main learnings of the time the doctrine of the Eightfold Path, which basically says that if you want to quest after enlightenment, then above all, you’ve got to be practical, you have to look for the middle way—the balance between extremes—in all you do. Not too much attachment to worldly things, but neither too much asceticism and self-mortification. With this understood, do eight things:
1. Know some basic spiritual truths like the Four Noble Truths—more about them in a moment.
2. Be serious about your desire to grow spiritually.
3. Avoid gossip and cruel speech, and be kind and truthful with your words.
4. Do not kill, steal, lie, drink alcohol, or abuse sex. Strive for right behavior.
5. Avoid jobs that pollute your soul—work at jobs that further the good life.
6. Discover your own rhythm and move steadily at your own pace. Right effort.
7. Develop your awareness and thinking skills.
8. Learn how to meditate, and practice it regularly.
That’s the Eightfold Path. Fairly easy to summarize, but Siddhartha almost died on the way to learning it. It’s a crooked way. Fact is, it was Siddhartha’s basic disposition never to do anything half-way. It wasn’t enough for him just to resemble the Hindu monk who had shocked him out of his ignorance. It wasn’t enough just to shave his head, put on the ochre robe, beg for all his meals, practice physical yoga postures, meditate regularly, fast periodically. Siddhartha had to outdo him, be the best monk ever, because he was stubborn and strong-willed like no one else. That‘s who he was. To find peace, he was going to break the sensitive organ of his body that so thoroughly linked him to pleasure and pain. He was going to get beyond all that. Release the spirit trapped in the flesh. It got to the point that Siddhartha ate so little—only six grains of rice a day during one of his long fasts—that he looked like a concentration camp victim, until one day it just went too far. He lost consciousness, was sick near death. He would have died if it had not been for his companions, who nursed him back to health.
Trial and error was how Siddhartha learned the wisdom of the middle way. You can’t pursue spiritual truth without taking care of the body, without giving it what is natural and necessary. Of course, we say, but to get to the common sense implied in a phrase like “of course,” the future Buddha walked a crooked path. And so do we. We renounce our right to one kind of ego certainty, only to assert another kind of ego certainty. If we won’t be a Prince, we’ll be the best Monk. Zig, zag.
So we learn.
And now we turn to the last part of today’s hero story. Young Siddhartha has just realized for himself the wisdom of the middle way; he has survived his mistakes so far! And now he continues on, still in search of enlightenment. One day he sits down under a Bo Tree near Gaya in Northern India, and he intensifies his meditation practice, vows that he will not be moved from his spot under the Bo Tree until he finds ultimate peace.
And he’s almost there, he’s about to come fully awake … and guess who appears at the last moment? Not his father the King. Not the monk he felt competitive towards. But the Evil One—a demon who will test Siddhartha to see if there’s any unhealthy ego left in him which can be inflamed. This is what the ancient Buddhist legends say, and as an intriguing side note, consider how we have the same kind of thing happening in legends about another spiritual teacher from a very different tradition, named Jesus of Nazareth. There’s something to this theme of last-minute temptation. Something that cuts across space and time and suggests a truth about the basic human condition. Just when you are closest to awakening, that’s the time of greatest danger. In other words, if ever there’s a time when you can’t see your shadow—when you think your perspective is perfectly clear, when you think others are idiots and you yourself have the truth, or are blameless—the devil’s got you. You’re in the hands of the Evil One.
Back to the story: He approaches Siddhartha meditating under the Bo Tree and thinks, I’ll distract him by inflaming his sexual desires—this young man of his father’s court, who used to enjoy the company of 40,000 dancing girls. So he assumes the form of Kama, God of Desire, and all of a sudden: beautiful women are everywhere, beckoning. But Siddhartha remains unmoved. He’s renounced his addiction to physical pleasure. He’s come a long way since his days at court.
So then the Evil One thinks, Well, here’s what I’ll do instead. I’ll distract him by making him afraid for his life—this man who was once so freaked out by old age, sickness, and death. So he assumes the form of Mara, the Lord of Death, and all of a sudden, Siddhartha is surrounded by hurricanes, tsunamis, showers of flaming rocks. But Siddhartha allows the fear to come and go without clinging to it. It just comes and goes. He’s renounced his addiction to physical permanence. He’s come a long way since the Four Passing Sights.
In final desperation, the Evil One does this: He challenges Siddhartha’s right to do what he’s doing. Says he’s got no right. And this opens up a huge can of worms, because it takes Siddhartha back to his own father the King and his disdain for spirituality, his disappointment in Siddartha who, after all, went for the philosophy major. Siddhartha has every right to nurture resentment towards this man who tried to keep him in the bubble, who sidetracked him from his destiny for more than 20 years! Yet Siddhartha has forgiven his Dad. He’s renounced his right to resentment. He stops clinging to it. Siddhartha touches the earth with his right fingertip, and the entire universe responds with a thousand, a hundred thousand roars: “It is your birthright,” “it is your birthright”—just as it is the birthright of everyone in this room to seek and find their own unique destiny.
That’s when it happens. There, under the Bo Tree, near Gaya in Northern India: The Great Awakening. The hero has overcome, the great prize is his. Nirvana. Siddhartha Gautama becomes a Buddha.
He sees. Exactly what he sees, he ends up summarizing in his very first sermon, which he called “Setting Rolling the Wheel of Truth.” Summarizes it in the form of Four Noble Truths. Here’s the First: Life is Suffering. Suffering is basic to the human condition. Aging, sickness, death, enemies, resentment; new forms of suffering, emerging with new technologies, like identity theft; suffering that seems random and arbitrary, or suffering whose cause is unknown; suffering which is a matter of being tied to what one dislikes, or being separated from what one loves. So many forms of suffering. Life is suffering.
But what causes this? The Second Noble Truth gives an answer: Suffering is Caused by Self-centered Craving. I mean, isn’t it obvious that life is full of suffering? But if we truly knew this, then why do we get so upset about it? Why does it shake us to the core, every time? Something makes it so hard for us to accept the pains of life gracefully and courageously. The Buddha calls it tanha, habits of heart and mind which cause us to cling to personal expectations and “shoulds” about the way the world ought to be. We stew in the juices of our angers and resentments, and so we suffer.
So how do we stop it? This leads to the Third Noble Truth: To Stop Suffering, One Must Overcome Self-centered Craving through Nirvana. Some people think Buddhism is a real downer, yet with this Third Noble Truth, we have a true Gospel, we have genuine Good News. Suffering is not the end of the story. There is a cure, and the cure is the Nirvana experience, which is what Siddartha had under the Bo Tree. But it can only be had first-hand—and this leads us into some perplexity, for how can people understand nirvana if they’ve never experienced it personally, for themselves? Perhaps it is like what the boy from the reading experienced: a sense of self that can grow far bigger than any steel-grey knife thrown at it. Perhaps it is like the blowing apart of the walls of one’s limited sense of self, until all that is left is limitless, limitless compassion, limitless peace; and somehow you are still aware of your separate, individual self even as you feel its interconnectedness with everything else; and it is good, it is like a new Creation, very good, and in the face of this sweetness, why not let all the shoulds and expectations drop, why not let them go? The Evil One could come and throw everything at you, but there would be nothing to hit, there would be nothing in your soul that desire, or fear, or a sense of unworthiness could cling to. Perhaps this is what Nirvana is like. But again, words are one thing—and direct experience is something altogether different.
Which takes us to the Fourth Noble Truth: The Way to Nirvana is Through the Eightfold Path. And we have already been introduced to this. That eminently practical path to enlightenment.
That’s the Four Noble Truths. That’s the very first sermon that Siddhartha Gautama, now a Buddha, preached.
But at this point, what you need to know—and this is the last part of Siddhartha’s hero story we’re going to explore today—is that the sermon almost never got preached. There was a thin slice of time in-between Siddartha’s enlightenment and Siddartha preaching, and into that moment went the Evil One. Just as in every horror movie, when you think the coast is clear, but nope. Jason, or Freddie Kruger, or some other incarnation of horror—despite the fact that they’ve sustained the kind of battering that would take care of a hundred people—pops up. Horror happened to the newly-born Buddha.
Here’s the fact: upon experiencing Nirvana, the Buddha almost walked away, almost gave up his ministry before he even began. The Wheel of Truth stuck before it even got started.
What happened was this: The Evil One blindsided him with a fourth and last temptation, sucker-punched him with the very worst temptation of all, exactly because it appealed to one of the Buddha’s greatest strengths: his reason. Unitarian Universalists, if you have ears to hear, please hear this.
The Evil One said to Siddhartha, Good job with the whole enlightenment thing! Nirvana is yours. But of all people, surely you can appreciate how impossible it will be to put Nirvana into words. How can you do that? How can you teach what people can find only for themselves? How can you show what people can see only with their own eyes? So there you will be, going on and on about the secrets of spiritual enlightenment, and your audience won’t know what the heck you are talking about. Such isolation and misunderstanding you’ll experience. Worse, others will step to the fore, teachers pretending to know but only for the sake of duping others, making money, gaining power. Selling fake nirvana. Try to put the real deal into words, and look what might happen!
And with this, Siddhartha, the man who awoke, the man who became a Buddha, paused.
Can you relate? Ever had a moment in which you dream a great dream, and the hero path opens up before you, and your star blazes brilliantly above you, but then a voice of dry reason says: IT’S IMPOSSIBLE? Or, LOOK WHAT MIGHT HAPPEN?
And you can’t just dismiss the voice of reason here. Reason is essential. Reason keeps us safe. Reason keeps us connected to other people and to reality.
It is a crooked path to enlightenment.
Yet what I’m saying—what I believe is the ultimate message of this part of the Buddha’s story—is that we need more than reason to pursue the hero path. We need more than reason to dare what is great. If we stare too deeply into the complexities and possibilities of our future, we’ll be like the proverbial caterpillar who asks himself how he walks when he has so many feet going at the same time. Though he’d been doing just fine up to that point, upon realizing the complexity of it all, upon realizing that the life he inhabits is fundamentally a Mystery, that’s when he decides to control it, that’s when he insists on calling the shots, that’s when he puts ego square at the center. And that’s when it all comes apart. The simplest thing—walking—becomes impossible.
But it’s not impossible, when you have hope. When the Evil One blindsided the Buddha with his rational argument, the Buddha paused for a moment—but only for a moment—and then he said: “There will be some who understand.” “There will be some who understand.”
And you know the rest of the story: from the some who understood grew a world religion with billions of adherents today, which continues to transform lives. So many of us Unitarian Universalists, blessed by the riches of Buddhism.
But it was pure hope that took the historical founder over the top. Pure hope. May it put us over the top too.