The story of Buddha’s quest for enlightenment is a story about trust. Buddha, throughout his life, trusted himself deeply. He wasn’t a Buddhist. He simply practiced his life, and engaged it fully, convinced that he had what was necessary to respond to his questions and the challenges he encountered. His enlightenment confirmed that trust. In seeing the morning star and exclaiming, “I and all sentient beings on earth, together, attain enlightenment at the same time,” Buddha essentially declared, “Trust yourself.”
Buddha’s story begins some thirty years before the experience of seeing the morning star. The time was somewhere around 500 B.C. Sirus was preparing to invade Babylon. Greece’s experiment with democracy was flourishing. The Chinese civilization was being imbued with Taoist wisdom. Early tribes of the Native Americans were beginning to spread throughout this continent.
Buddha was born in a small tribal community in the northern part of Bengal, in the shadow of the great Himalayan peaks. The area was ruled by the Shakya family clan, of which Siddhartha Guatama was a member. Siddhartha was Buddha’s personal name, Guatama was his family name and Shakya was his clan name. Buddha is the title given to him upon his enlightenment. It means “the awakened one.”
Siddhartha was a handsome, capable young man. He was a prince, born into a very wealthy family. He lived an ordinary aristocratic life up until the age of twenty-nine. It was a very comfortable but not very satisfying life. There was no literature and the oral traditions of Vedanta were protected by the Brahmin priests. Very little information or knowledge about the world reached northern India. Siddhartha’s universe was bound to the north by the Himalayas and to the south by an endless expanse of desert. The city of Benares was a growing metropolis but it was over one hundred miles away. As a member of the warrior caste Siddhartha amused himself with hunting, partying and lovemaking. Everything that the good life had to offer at that time was at his disposal. He married at age nineteen to his beautiful cousin, Yashodara. The couple remained childless for several years. There was ample time for a life of leisure and entertainment, life in a sunny world of palaces, gardens, groves and irrigated rice fields. On the surface, everything seemed to be wonderful, with no signs of any problems.
Yet, it was in the middle of this idyllic life that a great discontent came upon Siddhartha. It was the unhappiness that surfaces within a mind endowed with a fine intellect, a mind that has nothing to engage when distractions turn vacuous. Everything can turn flat in an instant. In the middle of plenty and beauty, living a life fulfilling by any standard, deep in his heart, Siddhartha wasn’t satisfied. He noticed that something fundamental was missing.
People come to Buddhism and begin practicing because life is suffering. That suffering can simply manifest itself as the question: Is this what it’s about? Is life about going from one gratification to the next? Is it about making a living, making love, and raising kids? Eating and sleeping? Although Siddhartha’s questions weren’t even well-formed and articulated, there was a growing uneasiness within him about how he was conducting and combusting his life. He suspected that the existence he was leading was not the reality of life, but a holiday that veiled something more important — a holiday that had gone on just a little bit too long. While he was in this state of mind, he experienced four events that brought his situation into a sharp focus.
The appreciation of dis-ease is the turning point for many, if not all, people who enter the spiritual path. It is clearly discernible in the lives of many mystics — Moses, Saint Francis, Saint Teresa, Ramakrishna, Thomas Merton. Merton was living a playboy’s life in Paris — attending parties, writing poetry, drinking heavily, when this whole life-style collapsed, becoming inconsequential and painful. Master Dogen encountered this tension earlier in his life. He grew up in a comfortable and protective household, catered to in his childhood with the finest education. Yet again, the questions arose, dissatisfaction crept in. All of these mystics had a deep spiritual itch that they couldn’t quite scratch and couldn’t suppress. The questions started pouring forth; the seeds of doubt started budding.
In the midst of this incipient discontent and darkening mood, Siddhartha came face-to-face with four realities of life that he had not seriously noticed or considered before. He saw an old man, dreadfully broken down by age, bent over and feeble. A little bit further on he witnessed somebody suffering from a horrible disease. Finally, he came upon an unburied body, swollen and eyeless, with birds pecking at its flesh. When he turned to Chana, his charioteer, asking for an explanation of these disturbing sights, Chana said, “Such is the way of life. To that we must all come.” The immediacy of disease, mortality, and ultimate insecurity descended on Siddhartha’s mind. Suddenly, all happiness became unsatisfactory.
While pondering these discoveries, Siddhartha saw a wandering religious mendicant, one of those ascetics who traveled throughout India at the time, living under severe rules, spending long periods of time in meditation and debates on metaphysics. These ascetics were seeking deeper reality in their lives. On seeing the mendicant, a passionate desire to abandon the worldly life arose within Siddhartha. He realized that he had to find out the answers to the questions of old age, sickness, and death. He had to put an end to suffering. Siddhartha had raised the bodhi mind.
While he was still thinking about all of this, the news came to him that his wife had given birth to a son. The whole village was rejoicing. There was a great feast to celebrate this new life and the arrival of the successor in the clan lineage. Yet Siddhartha, rather than being filled with joy, woke up in the middle of the night following the festivities filled with great agony of spirit. He was like a man who has been told that his house is on fire. He got up and paced through the palace, stumbling into the bodies of sleeping guests and dancing girls who were lying around in a drunken stupor. He called out to his attendant and told Chana to prepare his horse. He went into his wife’s chamber and looked in. In the aftermath of the celebration, the room was filled with flowers. There was an oil lamp burning and in its glow he could see his wife’s form. His infant son was in her arms. As he stood at the threshold, he felt a powerful desire to take up the child in a first and last embrace before he departed, but he was afraid of waking his wife, so he turned away and went out into the moonlight. Chana was waiting with the horses. They mounted and rode off into the countryside.
They rode throughout the night. Mara, the tempter of humankind, traveled along side of Siddhartha, disputing with him. “Go back,” chided Mara, “Go back and be a powerful monarch. I’ll make you one of the greatest kings ever. Go on and you’ll fail. I’ll never cease to dog you in your footsteps. Lust, malice and anger will betray you. Sooner or later, you’ll fail.” This Mara is the same doubt that visits us in our life, during our zazen, challenging our commitment to wake up and encouraging us to settle for less.
In the morning they stopped by the river marking the border of the lands that belonged to the Shakya tribe. They dismounted, and there, on the banks of the river, Siddhartha took off his royal ornaments and jewelry and cut off his hair with his sword. He gave his belongings to Chana and instructed him to take his horse and return home. He went on by himself. When he met a raggedy man on the road, he exchanged clothes with him, putting on the beggar’s rags. Having divested himself of all worldly entanglements, he was free to pursue his search after wisdom unencumbered. His formal search and practice had begun. And this search was to be no different from the search of any other person, before or after.
Siddhartha made his way south, to a place where several teachers and their disciples gathered in a hilly forest. They lived in caves there, occasionally venturing to local villages and towns to obtain basic supplies and food, and to speak with anybody who was interested in hearing what they had to say. Siddhartha joined these communities and quickly became learned in the metaphysics and meditation practices prevalent at that time. But his acute intelligence was not satisfied and he continued to question, even when his teachers recognized his clarity and discipline, and offered him a prestigious teaching position. He declined.
The Buddha was living in a period of time when extreme asceticism was seen as one way of obtaining spiritual power and knowledge. This attitude was present in other world religions and continues in one form or another to this day and age. I regularly see Zen students who really believe that and practice accordingly. They don’t say that explicitly, but I notice that they’re sitting zazen so they hurt, because they can go deeper into concentration when they hurt. People come to me saying that they sit full lotus because the pain is excruciating. That’s practicing asceticism.
After leaving the religious communities, exhausting the forms and teachings he encountered there, Siddhartha turned to ascetisim. With five companions, he secluded himself in the mountain forests and began a very rigorous practice. He would fast and do without sleep for extended periods of time. And because he was fanatical about his practice, driven by his questions, his fame spread, and people all over started talking about this incredible sage.
Siddhartha continued like this for six years, yet he was not satisfied. The ascetic practices brought to him no sense of lasting truth. He could concentrate his mind into sublime states of bliss, but he could not resolve the question of the nature of the self and reality. He did not stop being completely honest with himself. Unlike many others on the spiritual path who fall into the pit of self-deception, he wasn’t ready to deceive himself and accept partial insights, or relax into fame that was offered to him.
One day, while he was walking in his weakened state, he staggered and fell unconscious. When he recovered and his mind cleared, the preposterousness of the magical ways of searching for wisdom became very obvious to him. To the amazement and horror of his five companions, he took food and abandoned the self-mortification practices. He rested and nourished his body, gaining strength. He regained his balance and acted on the insight that whatever truth a person may reach is reached best by a healthy body and mind. To his companions, this was heresy. And so they deserted him. In their eyes, Siddhartha failed. He was no longer the great sage who fasted more than anybody else, did without sleep longer than anybody else, mortified his body more intensely than anybody else. Siddhartha stayed true to his appreciation and understanding, unmoved by the severe judgement of others.
Siddhartha was alone. There was nothing and nobody outside of himself that he could turn to. He was the loneliest man in the world, battling for light. He had a deep sense that it was there. And he was going to find it. He had the courage to trust his own insights, to acknowledge when something wasn’t working, to let it go and to keep going. Even though everybody else was doing something else, he had a sense of direction and he trusted that. He trusted himself.
Siddhartha wasn’t practicing Buddhism. He was practicing his life. He was exploring his mind, leaving no stone unturned, using every opportunity to see more clearly. I see a similar attitude in some students who enter training today. They practice their lives before they start formal practice. And there’s a big difference when a person comes into training and they’ve been practicing their life, in one way or another, studying themselves in martial arts, or psychotherapy, or creative process, or other religious paths. None of it is wasted when done in the spirit of honest self-appreciation. I look back on my own life and I wonder how the long hours on the flying bridge of a destroyer in the middle of the Atlantic, looking for mines or submarine periscopes with binoculars, affected my awareness. There wasn’t a sound except for the waves slapping the side of the ship. There was just the horizon and attention. It was meditation. It was zazen.
Finally Siddhartha came to a quiet place near the river and sat down under a huge tree. He settled down with a simple yet unshakable vow to stay still until he realized the truth. Because of that diamond-sharp, solid, and clear commitment, the place he did zazen is called the indestructible seat. It’s the bodhi seat, the seat of enlightenment, the same seat you’re sitting on, that anyone doing zazen sits on. When the morning star appeared, he was suddenly enlightened and spoke the words, “I and all sentient beings on earth, together, attain enlightenment at the same time.” This was the first lion’s roar. After that, for forty-nine years he never stayed in seclusion, but was always teaching to help others. With just one robe and one bowl, he lacked nothing. At over 360 assemblies he taught time and time again. Then finally he entrusted the treasury of the eye of the true teaching to Mahakyshapa, and it has continued to be transmitted to the present day.
Yet all of the stories, all of the parables, all of the metaphors, all the explanations — all the teachings — didn’t go beyond the primary principle of, “I and all sentient beings on earth, together, attain enlightenment at the same time.” In that statement, “I” is not Shakyamuni Buddha, yet even Shakyamuni Buddha comes from this “I.” It doesn’t only give birth to Shakyamuni Buddha; all sentient beings on earth also come from there. It’s like lifting a net; when you lift the net, all of the holes are lifted at the same time. When Shakyamuni Buddha was enlightened, all sentient beings on the great earth were enlightened too. It wasn’t only all sentient beings on earth who were enlightened; all buddhas, past, present, future, also attained enlightenment. While that is so, don’t think of Shakyamuni Buddha as having been enlightened. Don’t think of Shakyamuni Buddha as outside of all sentient beings on earth.
Even though the mountains, rivers and the great earth, all forms and appearances, are various and profuse, all of them are the eye of the Buddha. And each of us is standing in the eye of the Buddha. It’s not just simply that were standing in the eye of the Buddha; the eye has become each of us. Buddha’s eye has become everybody’s whole body and mind, and therefore this clear, bright eye which spans all time and all space, is not only Buddha’s eye, but your eye, your body, and Buddha’s whole body.
Because of Buddha’s enlightenment statement, a question can arise: Is Buddha enlightened with you, or are you enlightened with the Buddha? If you say you become enlightened with the Buddha, or you say that Buddha becomes enlightened with you, this is not the Buddha’s enlightenment at all. It can’t even be called the principle of enlightenment. “I and all sentient beings on earth, together, attain the great way” are not one; nor are they two. Each one of us — skin, flesh, bones, and marrow — are together the lord and the host of the house. And this “I” does not have skin, flesh, bones or marrow.
On one side we have absolute; on the other side we have relative. On one side we have the individual; on the other side we have the unity. And they’re not two separate realities. This is the interpenetration of differences, the co-arising of differences. The first statement of the Buddha is mutual interpenetration and co-origination. And this principle is not only about Buddha’s enlightenment and the enlightenment of all sentient beings, but it applies to all existence, all things, the whole great universe and one’s self. In his very first insight, the Buddha spoke of nothing other than the great diamond net of Indra. This is the key to everything that followed — to the Four Noble Truths, to the endless sutras and scriptures and commentaries, to the endless generations that have moved over every direction on the face of the earth, and to the practices we do here now.
On his spiritual path, Buddha didn’t do koan study. He didn’t do shikantaza. He didn’t know what he was doing. He was just living his life and questioning it as he went, trusting himself in the broadest sense. At every step, he took up what he was doing with the whole body and mind. When he was an ascetic, he was the best ascetic on that mountain. Nobody could do it better than him. When he sat, he sat with the whole body and mind. Nobody could outsit him. When he taught, he taught until he dropped in his tracks, combusting like a burning star in his total dedication of forty-nine years. He was not competing with anyone. He wasn’t measuring his accomplishments, testing himself against anybody. He didn’t retire after ten or twenty years, or after he transmitted to Mahakashyapa. He kept teaching until he couldn’t say another word, couldn’t take another step. Then, he simply died. That’s the way we should live our lives. That’s the way we should practice our lives, straightforwardly, with the whole body and mind. What else are you willing to settle for? And that whole body-and-mind attitude includes everything that is your life. When you dance, dance with the whole body and mind. When you laugh, laugh with the whole body and mind. When you grieve, grieve with the whole body and mind. And when you sit, sit with the whole body and mind.
I recently received a letter from a student who couldn’t understand the teaching on the unity of cause and effect, and the responsibility that emerges within that realization. He was clearly angry, ranting in the letter about the ridiculousness of that teaching. If he’s flying in a plane and the wing falls off, how could he be responsible for the accident? He was in a desperate struggle to create a logical justification for his position, and he was attacking me as if this was my personal philosophy. The teachings are not my personal philosophy, nor the personal philosophy of anybody else, not even the Buddha. They are an experience of life. They are the experience of the Buddha and the experience of all the buddhas who followed, all the sentient beings who followed, who realized themselves, and verified that experience. That’s what practice and verification is about. We don’t debate the taste of chocolate when we have not tasted chocolate. When we have tasted chocolate, we don’t have to debate the taste. We know it. We could debate the truth of reality for years and arrive at no conclusion. Or maybe arrive at a conclusion. We can even take a vote and get a consensus. We can do that with a koan. “Did this person see Mu or not? How many in favor?” The fact is that unless you’ve experienced the truth and seen it for yourself, it doesn’t manifest in your life. Saying it the other way around, if the truth doesn’t manifest in your life, you haven’t realized it.
This is a wonderful life. And the key to that wonder is sitting right where you sit. Find out about it. Trust yourself. Its the most important thing that you can do in this life. Realize it. Make yourself free.
John Daido Loori, Roshi is the abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery. A successor to Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi, Roshi, Daido Roshi trained in rigorous koan Zen and in the subtle teachings of Master Dogen, and is a lineage holder in the Soto and Rinzai schools of Zen.
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