Why Is This Man Smiling?
We humans are curious. We're curious about ourselves and we're curious about other humans. Hence the existence of books and diaries. Biographies and memoirs. Our own lives are, of course, the world's greatest story, for sure; they're the one where we're most curious to find out what happens next. ("Tune in again tomorrow!") We're also inspired by others. Helen Keller, Babe Ruth, Spinoza, Cesar Chavez, _____________ (fill in the blank). Everybody has their favorites.
Some of these fellow human beans we designate as role models. We even set aside national holidays so we can contemplate their accomplishments. True, some teachings are independent of the life story of their teachers, such as Taoism (see Chapter 2, "One Taste, Different Flavors: The Teachings Adapt to Different Lands"). In other traditions, such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, the very lives of the teachers are, themselves, a teaching, as inseparable as an ember from a coal. This is certainly true of the man we're about to meet. Obviously, I think it's a story everyone should know. If you've never heard it before, just think: the life of the Buddha is known to one third of humanity. Join the club.
"Don't believe a teaching just because you heard it from a man who's supposed to be holy, or because it's contained in a book supposed to be holy, or because all your friends and neighbors believe it. But whatever you've observed and analyzed yourself and found to be reasonable and good, then accept that and put it into practice."
~ The Buddha
Once there was a man who discovered a realistic, commonsensical, priceless guide to happiness. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Happiness, if you will. The answer, he found, was available to every human being. Right in front of their face. But, as he would also discover, something so simple may not be for everyone. Why not? Well, for one thing, the Buddha only said he discovered something that worked for him, and inviting others to try it and see for themselves. He was a guide but not a god, and some people prefer to wait for God or priests to tell them what they can find out for themselves or intuitively know already. (Might this be you?)
Moreover, some people prefer to imagine their happiness will last forever. (Could this be you?) Others have a hard time letting go of the accumulation of wounds and labels that have stuck to them throughout life, rather than appreciating the blue sky, solid earth, and tender green plants, always present for enjoyment. (Is this you?) And others tenaciously clinging to sorrows, as if for ballast, rather than let go and sense the innate, ineffable lightness of the spirit. If you can see yourself in this portrait gallery (and who can't?), then join the club. It's sometimes called The Human Condition. Right there, in a nutshell, you have it. We spin around in our rat cage when all along the cage door is unlocked.
Buddha, derived from the Sanskrit root budh, to wake, is a title, not a name; like King, or Christ. As such, it means Awakened One, Supremely Awakened. (There are degrees of awakening, culminating in supreme enlightenment.) The common Buddhist word for the daily round of sleep in which we seem bound is samsara, meaning faring on, a perpetual stream, a global flow of endless becoming ~ with the connotation of illusion, going round and round like a wheel.
As long as there are people living their life as if sleepwalking through some kind of depressing bad dream, there'll always be some one or some thing called an awakener. That's what Buddha means, in essence. Thus it might be said that an alarm clock is a buddha, if it wakes you up spiritually, psychically, and physically. Really awakens. Or it could be the sound of a bird. Or the look of amazement on a baby's face. Stop, right now, be attentive, listen and look: a buddha voice or buddha sight will probably appear. Now, if all such things can be buddha, then we need to talk about the original Buddha.
The Buddha once said, "If you want to really see me, then look at my teachings. " The reverse is equally true. That is, the life of the Buddha is itself a teaching, or series of teachings. Here one person alone utterly makes a difference. Alone, meaning without divine intervention or revelation. Utterly, meaning that, since he could do it, we can, too. After all, he did it all on his own, and we have him as a landmark, a trailblazer, our guide.
The Buddha teaches that becoming intimate with life, becoming awake, is to awaken to ourselves, to our fullest potential as human beings, to the buddha within all of us. It's as important as life and death, and as easy as drinking a cup of tea.
Please note that, over the millennia, hard facts of biography have mingled with legend and even mythology to form one of the most multi-layered biographies of all time. Yet throughout it all, there remains the Buddha's ineffable smile, beyond words. You'll see. It starts like this ...
One full-moon night in May, around 560 b.c.e., a woman on a journey gave birth. Her name was Mahamaya, and she'd been headed from her home to her father's house, about 50 miles away, to lay in waiting, as was the custom in India in those days. So she returned home to the foothills of the Himalayas, on the border between what's now India and Nepal, to present her husband his son. This would be no ordinary son. Mahamaya was a queen, married to King Suddhodana, the ruler of the Shakya people. Her son would be prince of their small but prosperous kingdom. They named him Siddhartha, meaning "a wish fulfilled" or "aim accomplishment. "
Sometimes it seems like this one guy had more names than a con artist has on a rap sheet. Here's the lowdown. Gautama (go-tah-mah) was his family clan name, and Siddhartha was his personal name. He's also sometimes called Shakyamuni, meaning the recluse or sage of the Shakya tribe. That's enough for now, but for more see "Buddhas, Deities, and Others."
According to the hereditary caste system of India at the time, the only class higher than Siddhartha's noble family were the Brahmins, the priests. So the king was quite concerned when a very wise Brahmin soothsayer predicted that Siddhartha would rule over all the land, but only if he were kept from the reality of decay and death. Otherwise, he'd be a great spiritual teacher. Either way, he was destined for greatness.
The king adored his son and wanted him to rule over his kingdom and so kept him cloistered within the strong, high palace walls ~ not unlike the way we cloister ourselves in our set ways and go about our lives unquestioningly. Moreover, some say the father went so far as to create an environment as artificial as a Hollywood soundstage, wherein sick people, the elderly, even dirt and withered leaves were all whisked from view. But, as the story reveals, the truth is always out there, where the persevering seeker will find it.
Anyway, the king brought the finest tutors to educate his son. The prince was a prodigy and excelled; he soon knew more than his teachers. Intellectually, he was unequalled in literature and math. Athletically, he surpassed everyone in swimming and running, archery and fencing. One legend has it that it was in a huge athletic competition that he won the hand of one of the most beautiful of maidens, Yashodhara (Keeper of Radiance), who became his bride.
Not only a whiz kid and a champ, he proved a compassionate and loving husband. The mark of success was upon him. Naturally, his father was delighted. He gave Siddhartha and his bride three different palaces, one for each of India's three seasons, hot, cool, and wet. There, the prince was lavished with beautiful attendants, endless fun and games, fabulous feasts, live concerts at the snap of his fingers, the whole bit. But Siddhartha started to champ at that bit.
Siddhartha wanted to know about the world outside the palace walls, the real world. So does anyone who wants to lead an authentic life. The king had to keep his son happy and granted his wish, yet made sure everything outside was as controlled as it had been inside.
Everywhere Siddhartha went, he saw prosperity and happiness until, somehow, a decrepit form passed through all the young, healthy people the king had arranged for him to see. Siddhartha asked his servant Channa, "What is this!?" The faithful servant told him that although he had white hair down to his knees, this was a man, an old man, using a staff to walk, and this is what happens to everyone, eventually. All the way back to the castle, Siddhartha brooded, and when the king heard about this, he increased the budget for Siddhartha's pleasures until his son seemed again like the prince he wanted him to be.
Would that everyone with whom we come into contact in our lives would be as honest as Siddhartha's faithful servant! And would that we could always recognize and listen to our own faithful, internal, truth-telling servant. (The Four Signs are out there, in our own world, for us to see.)
A second time, however, on another trip to the country, Siddhartha chanced upon a maimed person with bloodshot eyes, groaning through a frothy mouth. "What is this!?" Siddhartha asked, and was told by his faithful servant that this was a person who'd become ill, but that Siddhartha needn't worry since the prince ate a good diet and exercised. Siddhartha returned home brooding, and so the king surrounded him with even more opulent pleasures.
A third time, reality broke through yet again. On another outing, Siddhartha chanced upon a funeral procession, mourners sobbing and waving their arms in all directions, while at the head of the procession a body was being carried, utterly still, as if sleeping. Siddhartha asked and faithful servant Channa explained what death is ~ that nothing could be done for it, and that it happens to everyone. No point in worrying, he said, just hope for a long life.
What a shock! Old age and sickness were bad enough. But now this, their final resolution! The ultimate, inevitable destination of us all. Is there anyone for whom the first encounter with death isn't one of the most unforgettable, difficult moments of their life?
Each of these encounters were but glimpses, but perhaps their having been withheld for so long, made them even more of a revelation. In any event, Siddhartha saw they were a matter of his own life and death, and, by extension, of everyone he loved, and, indeed, all mortals. Was there no way out!? Meanwhile, when the king saw his beloved prince brooding more darkly than ever before, and found out why, he despaired. He didn't want to lose his only beloved son and heir. But did he level with him? No, he pampered him all the more. Yet life as it really is broke through the walls again, a fourth and final time.
Journeying outside the palace walls, Siddhartha happened to see a man with shaven head, clad only in an orange sheet the color of liquid sunshine, walking slowly, holding only an empty bowl, his entire manner radiating majestic tranquility and serene joy. "What is this?" Siddhartha asked and was told that this was a monk, who'd renounced the world in search of spiritual truth. This silent monk seemed to be telling him, yes, there is an answer to the questions burning inside him since he'd encountered old age, illness, and death. An answer he'd never find as long as he glutted himself with physical pleasures numbing his spirit. Well, when all this got back to the king, he was beside himself.
Just then, as fate would have it, Siddhartha's bride bore a child. Siddhartha probably was torn, as we can see from the name he gave his son, Rahula, which means "chain." The king took the occasion to stage a blow-out celebration to keep Siddhartha close to hearth and home. But after the sumptuous feast, as Siddhartha was being entertained by the finest dancing girls in all the land, he yawned, laid down on his cushion, and closed his eyes. No point entertaining someone who isn't paying attention, so the dancing girls stopped, laid down, too, and napped. When Siddhartha opened his eyes again, he saw these women who just moments ago had been the quintessence of beauty, now sprawled in awkward positions, once lovely faces now drooling or gnashing their teeth in their sleep. So much for the pleasures of the material world! And what a cue for an exit!
Stealthily, he got up and tiptoed out. Passing by his wife's chambers, he took one last lingering look at his sleeping beloved ones, and then was gone ~ gone in search of an answer to the human riddles of disease, decay, and death, in search of the ultimate meaning of life.
(Time out.) Before we follow Siddhartha on his quest, we might pause for a moment to consider his break with his past, his renunciation. For one thing, it was extreme: a prince renouncing the wealth and power that was his birthright. In today's terms, he could have been a trillionaire. Actually, though, it was respectable for noblemen of India to go off in search of truth, but only in their retirement, after they'd fulfilled their family and social obligations. For Siddhartha, however, the truth couldn't wait.
[Langston Hughes' Dream Deferred is quoted at
this in the book, but for copyright reasons it is omitted from the website
at the present time.]
[Langston Hughes' Dream Deferred is quoted at this in the book, but for copyright reasons it is omitted from the website at the present time.]
Plus, Siddhartha would be walking away from his responsibilities as a father as well as a prince. Siddhartha was aware of the pain he'd cause others by leaving, but suffering seemed the ever-present essence of this ultimate riddle he intended to resolve, once and for all. Once he'd found the answer, Siddhartha intended to return, bringing it back home to his people and all the land.
We must acknowledge the courage of Siddhartha, the fearlessness necessary to stand up for his dream, his ideals, his quest, to seek sovereignty over his own life rather than over a kingdom. It's also interesting to notice that Siddhartha was casting aside inherited ideas, as well as inherited privilege. A message here, I think, for all of us is to look at life with our own two eyes, regardless of what Simon says, without asking "Mother, may I?" ~ seeing for ourselves, beyond the high, strong palace walls.
So, Siddhartha gave his royal robes and jewelry to his faithful servant, shaved his head with his sword, leaving only a top-knot, and set out for the forests.
Now, in those days, India's wild forests and mountains were dotted with various seekers after truth. Siddhartha studied under one renowned forest teacher, then another. In relatively no time, Siddhartha learned all that his teachers knew and was offered a job carrying on their work, but that wasn't what he was looking for. True, he'd learned to transcend his senses and thoughts, his materiality and even his own consciousness, and to become one with space and infinity. But while these techniques transcended reality, they did not unlock it. They didn't resolve the problem of birth and death. They offered temporary bliss, but not permanent peace. They couldn't answer the pain still resounding in his heart.
Siddhartha had drawn to him a handful of companions. With them, he tried the ascetic path of self-denial and inaction to the point of self-mortification, as a means of attaining self-control and liberation. Soon, perfectionist and over-achiever that he was, he became so thin he could feel his spine when he rubbed his stomach. Indeed, even more so than his companions, he was on the brink of self-annihilation.
Ascetic, from Greek, originally meant "hermit," such as a person practicing austere self-discipline for religious purposes. Besides seclusion, common forms of asceticism are fasting, celibacy, and poverty. These self-disciplines are believed to sharpen the mind, heighten awareness, and free the practitioner from mundane attachments. In the forests of India at the time of the Buddha were spiritual seekers practicing varieties of asceticism. Vines reportedly grew around some hard-core ascetics as they remained motionless. Some even fasted to death in order to achieve mystic union with the cosmos.
At this point, a young girl from the village passed by with food her mother had given her as an offering to the forest gods. She saw Siddhartha, nearly unconscious, and put some rice-milk to his lips, and he drank. By so doing, he renounced not only asceticism but also extremism.
Many things are going on here. First, there's the wonderful recognition of the importance of our bodies and their relationship to our happiness! So many spiritual paths trod on the body as evil. Siddhartha realized he couldn't achieve his goal if his mind was in a trance and his body too weak to grasp and carry on the truth.
Moreover, he realized that self-denial didn't free him from attachments. Rather, self-denial was but another kind of attachment, another attachment to self. Of the many lessons which the life of the Buddha holds for us today, here's a supreme teaching, known as the Middle Way. We all meet with varying forms of extremism in ourselves and others. Siddhartha said find a middle road. Don't tear the ground out from under your feet. Nihilism obviously gets you nowhere, as does chasing after disembodied essences. Interestingly, he had to experience extremism, that of both self-indulgence and self-denial, firsthand, in order to reject it.
The Middle Way is a practical form of the Buddha's nondualistic thought. That is, Western philosophical and religious thought tends toward dualism: good vs. evil, self vs. other, mind vs. body, either/or, and so on. Buddhism, on the other hand, is more like fuzzy logic, which can see a door as both ajar and half-closed. (A whole school of Buddhism developed dedicated to studying the Middle Way, called Madhyamika.)
Well, his eating solid food definitely blew his credibility with his five self-appointed disciples, for sure. They wandered off before he could explain his realization. And so he went at it alone. At some point, we all must. But the girl returned and offered him food every day. With the recovery of his health came fresh perceptions which led to new insights, which would ultimately lead to wisdom and compassion.
Meditating in a healthy body allowed him to look at things around him with clarity. Whether looking at the food the girl offered, before he ate it, or just sitting under a tree and looking at one of its leaves, he saw that each of these things was not independent. Food might come from a leaf. And the leaf? The leaf came from the sun in the sky, from the earth beneath him, and from the water in a cloud. And where did each of these come from? They were all interconnected. Interdependent. Interacting and inter-reacting. He saw now that self-denial would never liberate him from the intricate and vast web of life. Nor was the web of life at fault.
Looking further he saw that no thing in life lasts. Nothing is permanent. The cloud passes away in the sun. The leaf falls to the earth. Similarly, he, too, was part of not only the interdependence but also the impermanence of all life. Meditating clearly now, these realizations made him appreciate each moment to the fullest. And why not? Why not live each moment to the fullest when each moment occurs only once, and when each instant potentially contains the whole of life?
Now he felt he was really getting somewhere. Now he was cooking! The meaning of suffering and death was becoming clear, at last. Before sundown, looking at the evening star beside the full moon of May, he felt that tonight he'd make his final, ultimate breakthrough.
Sitting beneath the sheltering leaves of a fig tree (the Indian banyan variety), he endured thunderstorms, some say even demonic temptations, lead by Mara (embodiment of death). First Mara surrounded the Buddha with the most seductive women imaginable, but the Buddha remained composed. Then Mara unleashed the most bloodthirsty warrior demons upon him, but he had no fear. Lastly, Mara tried to tempt him away from his meditation by challenging his motives, saying, "Aren't you really doing this for selfish reasons? Even if you did attain enlightenment, who'd believe you? And what right have you to try, anyway?" Whereupon the Buddha looked at Mara and touched the ground, with hand, taking the earth as his witness, all of creation. Mara admitted defeat.
Oblivious to all distraction, gazing deeper and deeper into his mind and the mind of creation, the heart of life. In the darkest night, he unlocked the enigma of life, that we are born to die, thus inevitably bound to suffer. Mortality leads to cravings which can never be fulfilled ~ and perpetuate false mindsets of self which only produce more suffering. He saw clearly now the jail in which we entrap ourselves and which we ourselves police.
He understood that what we call our life is but a wave, not the ocean. He became one with that ocean, and all the rivers and raindrops that feed it. He became enlightened. He saw the morning star in the sky, as if for the first time, and his heart, as wide now as the world, was overbrimming with understanding and love. The bright, keen, joyous starlight matched the smile on his lips. This was it. He had found out. Now he was fully awake.
A tree is primal in the spiritual
symbolism of many civilizations, often representing a medium and
intermediary between the human world and the divine, a still point in the
turning world. It's particularly interesting that Siddhartha would choose a
fig tree, which is parthenogenic. That is, it doesn't need an Other to
reproduce. Instead, it reroots its branches in the soil. Thus some believe
this tree to be immortal. And thus the tree seems to be saying: Renew! Every
day, do it all over again anew, and yet again new!
A tree is primal in the spiritual symbolism of many civilizations, often representing a medium and intermediary between the human world and the divine, a still point in the turning world. It's particularly interesting that Siddhartha would choose a fig tree, which is parthenogenic. That is, it doesn't need an Other to reproduce. Instead, it reroots its branches in the soil. Thus some believe this tree to be immortal. And thus the tree seems to be saying: Renew! Every day, do it all over again anew, and yet again new!
So imagine Siddhartha sitting there, at the culmination of a seven-year quest, now the most fully self-realized being ever in human history, so happy!, finally having found complete freedom from all mortal suffering. After some time, he stood up and took his first steps, just walking lovingly around the tree that had sheltered him. He felt the solid earth supporting his bare feet, the fresh wind caressing his cheek, as if he and the world had been born together just now. When the young girl brought food that day, she could feel his transformation in her own heart.
It's interesting to consider how he might have remained sitting beneath the tree in perfect nirvana for the rest of his days. Yet during his enlightenment he saw how the seeds of enlightenment are within the hearts of everyone, and so love for all beings and compassion for their needless suffering was bound up, part and parcel, with his ultimate insight. So he sought out his five former companions.
Siddhartha experienced great awakening and attained supreme enlightenment. That means he directly perceived ultimate reality, free from the limits of the mind, his awareness and wisdom encompassing and one with all that is. To dwell in this state is called nirvana (meaning literally "extinguishment," extinguishing transient passions and illusory concepts). Living thus, he earned the title "Buddha." Note: A logical mind might notice that these definitions refer to each other in a circular fashion: well, what goes around ...
Now when they saw Siddhartha coming, they turned their backs. They remembered him as having copped out on the rigors of the ascetic path, but it just goes to show you that people change. As he drew nearer, they could recognize with their own two eyes that he was transformed. Supreme Enlightenment was evident just from his presence. They let their judgments and preconceptions fall away, and welcomed him.
That night, he gave his first talk, known as "The Turning of the Wheel of Truth." Explaining his discovery, he introduced four premises, known as the Four Noble Truths, and a program for liberation, known as the Eightfold Path (see Chapters 5, "The Handshake: Buddhism's Basic Beliefs," and 6, "Taking Steps: The Eightfold Path"). While the others were still mulling it over, one of his disciples got it immediately and became enlightened, .
Dharma, from Sanskrit (Dhamma, Pali), has a number of meanings, depending upon context: the Buddha's teachings, doctrine, system, path, phenomena, reality, truth, (also virtue, law, standard, and cosmic order). One way to sum up is to say it refers to the Buddha's teachings and that to which they pertain (which includes everything in life).
Sangha means "assembly, crowd, host." Generally, it refers to the Buddhist community; more specifically, to the Buddhist monastic order, which is the oldest monastic order in the world.
And it was decided that these teachings would be called "Dharma," the path. Those on that path would be called "Sangha." And Siddhartha would become known as "The Buddha," the one who shows others the path in this world. Thus began the Buddha's course of teaching ~ to whomever would listen as he walked around the vast delta of the Ganges River, and to his growing band of disciples when they'd all go on retreat with him during the rainy season. All told, it was to be a journey lasting the next 45 years.
Buddha was a travelling teacher (peripatetic), on a perpetual pilgrimage. Thus did his teachings spread by foot. The traditional topknot of his hair is elongated to represent his enlightenment. His fingers are tapered to symbolize his ability to reach deep within. His gesture of one hand up means "Have no fear." The design displays an amazing balance of motion and rest. Sukhhothai, 3.53 cm [ts] 2.35 cm.
The entire next part of this book is devoted to a survey of the Buddha's teachings, but here are a few more stories from this final phase of his life that shed light on his method and thought.
Buddha's persuasiveness can be judged not only for the truth of his message but also the simplicity, inclusiveness, realism, and care with which he would present it. For example, a woman named Kisa Gotami came to him, clutching in her arms the body of her only child, who'd just died. She'd heard he'd transcended the bonds of death and, weeping, implored him to restore her daughter to life. He could see the state of shock she was in, clearly out of her mind with grief. Nothing he could say would get through to her. If you were the Buddha what would you do?
The Buddha smiled. "Before I do anything," he told her, "go to the nearby village and bring me a handful of mustard seed. But, please, make sure the seed comes only from a home where death is unknown." And so Kisa Gotami hurried to the village, believing the Buddha would save her daughter, and knocked on the first door. When the owners of the house saw her, clutching her dead child, they invited her in and said they'd be glad to give her some mustard seed. But when she added the Buddha's stipulation, the woman of the house wiped away a tear as her husband told her of the death of his father. Second house, third house: same thing. Eventually, she'd knocked on the door of the entire village. Kisa Gotami returned to the Buddha's enclave in the forest, buried her child, and asked to learn the Dharma.
Amazing story. He hadn't told her to be happy. No, he showed her a way to reach deeper into her grief, a way that also enabled her to see something larger than her own loss, something in which she could take refuge ~ the universality of impermanence.
Other times, the Buddha answered with silence. This was the case when asked questions not open to direct, personal experience, and so whose answer really did not matter. "It does not further," he might say, at best (meaning "time is too precious to go down that path"), when asked is space infinite, is the universe eternal, is the soul immortal, are body and mind identical. Had the Buddha heard of stand-up comedy, he might have replied with one-liners, like Woody Allen: "If man were immortal, just think of what his laundry bills would be!" Ba-dum!
Some people prefer to call Buddhism a way of life and thought. In Asia, "Buddhism" is often an alien term, because to them it merely refers to reality. Because the Buddha wouldn't deal with certain questions basic to metaphysics, there are reasons why his path isn't properly considered a philosophy. Likewise, because he never resolved questions about God or gods, or an afterlife, his teachings aren't precisely a religion. And since teaches that the self is an illusory construction, it can be tricky to categorize it exactly as psychology.
Sometimes Buddha answered such imponderables with a parable. He'd say, for example, that asking where the universe began was like a person who refused to leave a burning house unless he knew the origin of the fire. A variant is his story of the man struck by a poison dart, who won't allow himself to be taken to a doctor until he knows exactly who fired the dart, just what poison he used, precisely how the dart was made, and so on.
Parable is a favorite tool of the great spiritual masters, and the life of the Buddha is full of them. The most famous was yet another of his responses to questions that "do not further" and, more particularly, the dogmatism that arises around them.
He'd been called to deal with some intellectuals debating some unprovable philosophical matter, who were now practically ready to come to blows. He told them the story of a king who'd entertained himself by assembling some local blind men in front of him and then leading an elephant into their midst. One man felt its leg and declared it was a pillar. One man touched the end of its tail and said it was a broom, whereas another who held the tail itself said it was a rope. One man touched the side and swore it was a wall, while another, feeling a leg, said, no, it is a pillar. Another touched its ear and called it a basket for winnowing grain. Yet another felt the tusk and yelled that he was touching a ploughshare. The king watched with amusement as they began arguing, each having seen only one aspect of the whole and then insisting that his was the only reality.
The parable of the blind men and the elephant is relevant to Buddhism itself, too. Some may call it a religion; others, a system of ethics, or a philosophy; still others, psychological therapy; and still others, spiritual devotion. When you see the whole elephant, you'll recognize how it has elements of each, yet it's also really something unto itself.
Another aspect of the Buddha was his egalitarianism, which contradicted the social order of India of his time, based on the hereditary caste system. If India were a body, the peasants were the feet; the merchants and craftsmen were the legs; the warrior and nobility class, from which the Buddha hailed, were the arms; and the priestly Brahmins made up the head. As noted earlier, the Buddha and his disciples taught whomever they met, rich or poor, comparable to near heresy during the Renaissance in Europe, or radical income tax reform during twentieth-century America. But nirvana knows no boundaries, nor does spiritual liberation recognize social rank as an obstacle. The Buddha even touched the so-called untouchables, the outcasts below the peasant class. And, during his sojourn back with his family, he accepted women into his order, first the stepmother who'd raised him, followed by his wife. He also taught that the prevalent customs of animal sacrifice were mere superstition, further alienating him from the Brahmin elite.
The end was sudden and unexpected. Some feed he'd been given as alms was bad. He lay down. Just as he had taught meditation while sitting, standing, and walking, now he taught while on his side. (See the first illustration in Chapter 19, "Happiness Is Not an Individual Matter.") Naturally, many in the community feared they couldn't go on without him, but he reassured them it wasn't necessary for him to be there personally for them to practice his teachings for themselves. "The Dharma is the best teacher," he said.
"Even if I were to live for aeons," he told them, "I'd still have to leave you because every meeting implies a departure, one day." With his faithful disciples by his side, he died the way he'd lived for nearly 50 years, an exemplary spiritual teacher beyond compare. It is said that, as with his birth, and his enlightenment, his final nirvana (extinction) ... was on the night of a full moon, in May.
"It is the nature of all things that take form to return to what they once were. Be a lamp unto yourself. Don't look for the answer outside yourself. Hold onto the truth like a torch. Work out your own enlightenment with diligence."
~ From the Buddha's last words
And that's a quick sketch of the tapestry that is the Buddha's life: a life that is, itself, a teaching. From the very first, the Buddha, and each of us, was born with the capacity for a life of tranquility and joy. Harmony and love. Truth. This ability is a gift. And it is yours.
return to our main Dharma Door.