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To the Wonder (again)

9 Jul

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Scenes of the Buddha’s life: the teaching of the Dharma at Sarnath & attaining Enlightenment at Bodh Gaya [from back of Jing’yan Buddha in Shanghai, China] – (2012)

So, I had to get back. And in the week of Christmas 2014, I returned to India, the egg. This time I was arriving in Mumbai.  It had been 5 years since my first trip to the country when I gritted through the drought of parched north India and took a slow train from Delhi to Kolkata. Along the way, I was able to make my first pilgrimage to the sites of Bodh Gaya (where Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment and awakened as the Buddha) and Sarnath (where the Buddha first turned the wheel of dharma before his disciples in a small deer park near the holy Hindu city of Varanasi). [see posts: “Pilgrimage – Part I” and “Pilgrimage – Part II” at https://startupkoan.com/2012/08/04/pilgrimage-part-i and https://startupkoan.com/2012/08/14/pilgrimage-part-ii%5D.  When I walked outside of Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport and made my way to the taxi area — ohhh, that smell. It just took one whiff. Something opened in my mind and transported me to another plane of consciousness.  A mix of ash, dash of incense (like sandalwood), and the warm stench of urine. The smell wafts into your core and the rings of Mumbai’s smog circulate that smell into an orbit around the sprawling cityscape.  Yet, the smell is not repulsive. It is strangely welcoming and familiar– albeit a familiarity that is connected to something  deep and buried in us. Like some primordial chord that gets struck once the odor gets recognized by some vestigial sense receptor in us.  After a 15-hour non-stop flight from the United States, I was suddenly alive with wonder. The plan was this: 2 weeks to take a train from Mumbai to Aurangabad to see the 1500 year old rock caves carved in the gorge of Ajanta and hills of Ellora during Buddhism’s zenith in India. From Aurangabad, I would fly back to Mumbai and hop on a connecting flight to Goa.  I wasn’t interested in the beaches or hanging out with Russian tourists there– Christmas in Goa would be something special, but I had no idea I would come to face to face with the 550 year old body of St. Francis Xavier while I was there.

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Sunset over Haji Ali Darga Mosque – Mumbai, India (2014)

Mumbai itself does not have much by way of historical Buddhist temples or structures. It is dominated by Hindu religious fervor, but there is a sizable community of Muslims, as well as Parsis (Zoroastrians), in the city. A good chunk of today’s Mumbai consists of reclaimed land where former islands were brought together to form one landmass by the Portuguese during the 16th century.  One of the most memorable sights is the Haji Ali Darga Mosque that sits out in the Arabian Sea near the Worli neighborhood of Mumbai. Like Mont St. Michel in medieval France, this religious shrine becomes an island when the water rises at high tide and covers the stone walkway that leads to it.  The shrine was built to house the coffin of Haji Ali who died as he was returning from Mecca — his coffin somehow fell off the ship transporting his body to India and was found floating in the sea. The shrine was then built at the location where the coffin was recovered.

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Vipassana Pagoda – Gorai (Mumbai) (2014)

The one interesting Buddhist structure in Mumbai that I visited was the Global Vipassana Pagoda way out in the north of Mumbai.  The construction of this pagoda and its meditation hall began in 2009 and there was still some work remaining in order to finish the project when I saw it. The pagoda itself is a copy of the Schwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar (Burma). [see post: “Enter the Pagoda” at https://startupkoan.com/2013/06/21/enter-the-pagoda%5D. Inside the pagoda there is a huge empty space — a space that is framed by one of the largest interior domes in the world.

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Interior dome – Vipassana Pagoda

What caught my eye as I walked around a plexiglass area for visitors to peer inside the dome was a photograph showing what appeared to be pearls, but what were actually relics of the Buddha — pieces of bone that had transformed into shiny small balls.  These relics had been placed into a ceremonial vessel that was then interred inside the Vipassana Pagoda.

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Photo inside Pagoda showing relics of Buddha

The English messaging on the photo had me scratching my head: “most of the bone relics turn into this shape“. I had seen bone relics before such as at the Botataung Pagoda in Burma [see post: “Bones of Reverence” at https://startupkoan.com/2013/04/11/bones-of-reverance%5D, and these relics had not taken the shape of pearl-like shiny balls. I had also witnessed cremations in India and Nepal and it was hard to believe that human bones would form such shapes after being burned.  But, even if the messaging on the photo was simply an inaccurate English translation, India is more magic than logic. It is a land where ancient custom and ritual butt up against Bollywood and technology, so one must try to make sense of it all.  When I found myself in an old Goan cathedral a week later, I would see the 550 year old body of St. Francis Xavier at rest in a glass coffin. I saw little decay.  Instead of a human skeleton, I saw a fleshy black corpse with hair on its head, fingernails, toenails, eyeballs, and teeth all intact.  So, if without any mummification, the Saint’s body had been miraculously preserved — why couldn’t some of the bones of the Buddha turn into pearl-like balls after his cremation?

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Train to Aurangabad

While I was a bit hesitant to travel by train (2nd class coach) again in India after my last experience years earlier, I went ahead and bought a train ticket from Mumbai to Aurangabad.  The train left in the early afternoon and took about 7 hours. I ended up sitting next to a professor who entertained me with various YouTube videos that discussed conspiracy theories of terrorists plotting to attack India and the West. Of course, I was well aware of the siege of Mumbai that had taken place in 2008 by an Islamic fundamentalist group from Pakistan who entered the city by boat and attacked Mumbai’s landmark Taj Mahal palace and other buildings. So, I did not feel it was my place to point out some of the preposterous statements in the videos he showed me. I was rewarded for this because when our train arrived in Aurangabad the professor told me he was being picked up in a car and could drop me off at my hotel.  I took one look at the dusty torn up state of the Aurangabad train station and the void I had entered. There were no signs, lights, or any viable exit from the chaos of vendors, tuk-tuks, and tangle of bodies and bags around me. I eagerly said yes and jumped into the backseat of his car.

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Dreams of Ajanta – (Maharashtra state, India)

Excitement gripped me that first night in Aurangabad as I knew I would be seeing the legendary Ajanta caves the next day.  I had once seen an “Ancient Aliens” episode on the History 2 channel in the States — where the theory of “ancient astronauts” with advanced tools had dug and carved these otherworldly shrine caves into the black stone of Ajanta. I was hooked and had to see these for myself. So, here I was.

 

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Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak) – Prologue

2 Nov

What Adam’s Peak looks like on a non-monsoon day

By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, because from it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  Those were the last words that Adam heard as he was cast out of Eden. And where did his first step fall outside of the Garden? That was where I was headed. It has many names. Names tied to the many religious traditions which have revered it for several centuries. A few of these names are Ratnagiri, Shiva Padam, Mount Rohana, Samanalakanda, Pico de Adão or Adam’s Peak.  In Sinhalese, the proper religious name is Sri Pada or the “Holy Footprint”. It’s not a very tall mountain at 2243m (7,359ft), but it goes vertical from the forest floor to the clouds.  Years of pounding rains and erosion have chiseled it into a cone that dwarfs everything else around it.  At the top of Sri Pada is an imprint of a large human-looking foot in a rock. Legend has it that the footprint was first uncovered over 2000 years ago, when an exiled Sri Lankan King had been forced into living in a remote forest and then one day while hunting a deer he found his way up the mountain and stumbled upon the large footprint. Word of the footprint’s existence spread from there and it was deemed by the Sri Lankan Sangha to have been made by the Buddha’s left foot during one of the 3 trips he had made to Sri Lanka.  Certain Christian and Muslim traditions which took root in Sri Lanka through colonization and trade believed that this footprint was made by Adam himself when he fell out from Eden. Hindus who saw the footprint concluded that it had to be that of Shiva. Regardless of the exact divinity of the footprint, it is an object of deep veneration and during December to April of each year tens of thousands of pilgrims flock en masse to climb the mountain and pray at the shrine that has been built around the footprint. This shrine has metal doors that remain open during the pilgrimage season so that the footprint can be seen. However, the footprint image that is made available to the public is a man-made footprint complete with engraved depictions of the Wheel of the Dharma and other Buddhist symbols. The actual rock containing the footprint (or petrosomatoglyph) is found several feet below the public-facing external image and from what I understand this rock is not able to be viewed by the public. Based on writings of people who have seen the actual petrosomatoglyph, the footprint is nearly 5 feet long and would have to belong to a giant. Some accounts of the Buddha said that he was incredibly tall, but to have 5ft-sized feet certainly could not be possible. The Buddha was just a man who found a path and practice, and then was awakened. He was a giant in mind and purpose, but not in physical size. He could not have flown as Sri Lankan tradition believes he did from the top of Adam’s Peak down to Kelaniya in Colombo. I would have to personally make the climb, get to the shrine, and reflect on all of this.

Train to Hatton, Sri Lanka

I took a train from Colombo to Hatton which is a town in the middle of Sri Lanka’s Hill Country.  The elevation and climate of the area combine to produce some of the best tea on earth. Many tea estates and plantations dot the hills and some of these are open for tea tastings. From Hatton, I had to hop on a bus and then switch to a minibus in order to make the last leg of the journey to the village of Dalhousie which is located at the entry to the northern route to Adam’s Peak. Scottish tea planters apparently liked to bestow names from their own country onto the areas in Sri Lanka where they planted. I was staying at a guest house called the Yellow House. When I entered, it was immediately clear that I was only the person staying there. I did a quick recon walk down to the main area of the village and found it was completely deserted. There was not a soul around. When I went back to my guest house, I talked to the owner who said that during the monsoon season everyone left Dalhousie except for just a handful of people who worked in the tea estates around the area and maintained properties in the village.  He told me that if I was going to climb the mountain that it would be unlikely that I would see the sunrise because the mountain was encased in a cloud. He also cautioned that the mountain was extremely windy and rainy and that large chunks of the trail had been completely washed away. I thanked him for the info and said I was doing the climb. I wasn’t here to see a sunrise. I wanted to experience the same walk that the Buddha had undertaken over a millennia ago. I wanted to have my lungs burn, my legs quake, and my back ache in the same way as the Buddha must have felt when he did the steep climb to the summit.  I would leave in the early morning and hopefully get to the summit by noon. Before I left, I would make sure to see the proprietor one last time — just so he could be alerted to my absence if something were to happen and I failed to make it back. It was a morbid thought, but I nevertheless had to cover my base on that.

The first of ten thousand steps – “5km to Adam’s Peak”

So, that was my plan — to climb Adam’s Peak that next morning — come Hell or High Water.  While the High Water came in Biblical proportions, there was no Hell (despite my horribly mangled knees). Instead, there was something altogether different. A communion.

Out of India [South – The Doctrine of the Elders]

27 Oct

Gangaramaya Temple – Colombo, Sri Lanka (2010)

In May 2009, the 30-year-old civil war that had been waged in Sri Lanka effectively ended with the killing of Velupillai Prabhakaran – the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The Tamils are a largely Hindu minority in Sri Lanka who live in the north and northeast of the country, and in the early 1980s, a militant, separatist group led by Prabhakaran. The LTTE or Tamil Tigers employed various terrorist-like tactics (including the use of vest-wearing female suicide bombers) in an effort to gain independence from the Buddhist Sinhalese majority. I visited the country in June/July 2010 and was intrigued by how such a bloody armed conflict could have gone on as long as it had within a predominantly Buddhist nation. It seemed like the last vestige of the Dharma must have been cast out because otherwise how could any devout Buddhist sanction the killing of another person? I grappled with this question from the moment I landed in Sri Lanka’s capital city, Colombo. I had taken an overnight flight to Colombo from Dubai and the contrast between the dry, desert landscape and sultry, tropical blanket that covered me when I first stepped outside could not have been more extreme.  I flagged down a taxi and began the long drive to Colombo. There was no highway or expressway at that time which linked Colombo to Bandaranaike Airport, and instead, we were just on a sinewy, congested 2-lane road.  But, this drive gave me my first insight into the omnipresent nature of the Buddhist faith in Sri Lanka.  I saw may small shrines, temples, and monuments along the way. At one point, my cab driver stopped at a light that was near a road-side Buddhist shrine and did a quick, respectful prayer before the light turned green and we drove away. There were only small windows into the tangible pulse of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist heart.

Buddha statues – Gangaramaya Temple

Sri Lanka is an island that hangs like a teardrop in close proximity to India’s southernmost point. Yet, despite this proximity, the visual and cultural impact of Sri Lanka more closely brings to mind the look and feel of Southeast Asia and not the Indian subcontinent. Part of the reason for this is that the dominant Buddhist school that took hold in most of Southeast Asia was the Theravada tradition — the “Doctrine of the Elders”.  Sri Lanka was the petri dish in which Theravada was cultivated, groomed, and then exported abroad. In Bodh Gaya (India), I had learned the story of Princess Sanghamitta who had saved a cutting of the sacred Bodhi Tree which she then brought to her brother, Mahindu, who was a Buddhist monk already spreading the Dharma in Sri Lanka. I thought I would be seeing old sites tied to a Buddhist tradition that was likely no longer relevant or integrated into the everyday life of Sri Lankans. I thought the sangha or community of monks and laity had been weakened or marginalized by years of strife, war, and thirst for material possessions, the internet, and etc.  I could not be more wrong. What I found instead was an incredibly vibrant, active brand of Buddhism that provided a social infrastructure for lay people, monks, families, and other individuals of all walks of life to have a role in sustaining the Dharma — whether through giving alms, performing rituals, conducting parades and ceremonies, or undertaking pilgrimages to holy sites on the island.

Relief on outside wall of Gangaramaya showing Mara tempting the Buddha

The great surprise of Sri Lanka is that in the midst of its core Buddhist culture and tradition are various colorful odds and ends– remnants of Portuguese colonization such as striking Catholic churches and surnames, tea estates formerly owned by the British who supplanted the Portuguese with their own Anglican Tudor-designed churches and the Tamils they brought to Sri Lanka to work the tea plantations, and sprinkled here and there are mosques and calls to prayer in Arabic. The island took me on an immensely satisfying journey — both physically and spiritually — where I worked my way down to the south and then circled back up through the Hill Country, on to Sri Lanka’s cultural center, and finally up to its northern plains and ancient past. There is such radical contrast in the terrain and atmosphere in this small country. In the southern point of the island lays the colonial town of Galle and there stands an old Portuguese fortress with large sea-walls which held back the waves of the 2004 tsunami — although many people died around Galle and in the other low-lying areas of the southern Sri Lankan coast. But, things began for me first in Colombo where I had come to see the Gangaramaya Temple and the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara Dagoba (“Dagoba” being the Sinhalese word for Stupa) which marks the spot where the Buddha spoke during a visit he had made to the island. Both sites were remarkably active with streams of people and pilgrims pouring in and out, praying, sitting in contemplation, and performing rites. On the outside of the Gangaramaya Temple, there are very detailed reliefs which vividly depict stories from the life of the Buddha. These reliefs are all found on one large exterior wall of Gangaramaya and this wall itself looks like 2 large, gilded doors which reminded me of Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise” (the Renaissance-era doors created on the eastern side of the Baptistry of St. John in Florence). Ghiberti’s doors contain reliefs showing the story of Adam and Eve and other stories from the Old Testament, and that same kind of snapshot storytelling was impeccably conveyed in the reliefs found on Gangaramaya’s outside wall. From Colombo, I set off for the Hill Country. I hopped a train at Colombo Fort railway station and soon rose from the coast to the hills where I was surrounded by rolling greenery and tea bushes. When the sunlight hit these bushes and a wind rustled them slightly, they would flicker like gold. It was the monsoon season and I was headed to a sacred mountain. A mountain that I was intending to scale despite being told that no one — not even the most devout pilgrims — climbed the mountain during the time of the monsoon. I was unmoved. I would do the climb — not because it was there — but because I had to. It was a calling.

Part I (Cont’d) – Tree

8 Aug

The Emperor Ashoka ruled much of the Indian subcontinent in the 3rd century BC. He had consolidated his kingdom and dynasty through many brutal wars. He was a destroyer. But, after one particularly horrific battle where he was left alone to survey the carnage of rotting corpses, burnt villages, and destruction he and his army caused, he had an awakening. He was disgusted at what he had done and how meaningless it all was. At that moment, he felt a warmth come over him and he swore he would change his life. Buddhism had taken hold of much of the subcontinent during the 200 years since the Buddha had passed. The Sangha had grown and become strong. This community filled many parts of Ashoka’s kingdom and so Ashoka sought out the Buddhist monks in his midst. He converted to Buddhism and adopted the Buddha’s teachings as his own. Going forward, he would live his life and root his kingdom and legacy in the name of the Buddha and practice only non-violence and tolerance. He had two children from his first wife – a son called Mahindu and a daughter named Sanghamitta – whose name meant “friend of the Sangha.” His two children would devote their lives to Buddhism and Ashoka himself set out to visit the key sites of the Buddha’s life: Lumbini, the Bodhi Tree at Magadha, the deer park where the Buddha gave his first sermon, and Kushinigar.

Bodhi Tree – Bodh Gaya

When Ashoka came to Magahda he saw the Bodhi Tree and he placed a grey sandstone slab under it to mark the spot where the Buddha had sat. Then, Ashoka commissioned the building of the original Mahadabodhi Temple. Ashoka loved the serenity of the forest and spent many days and nights sitting and sleeping under the Bodhi Tree. Legend has it that he spent so much time with the Tree that his wife became jealous. This jealousy drove her to the point where she poisoned the Tree and it rotted and decayed. Other traditions say that the Tree was toppled during a battle Ashoka had with another warring tribe who had sought to claim the forest and the remnants of the Magadha kingdom. We may not know what exactly happened to that original Bo Tree, but we do know that the young Princess Sanghamitta understood the importance of the Tree and was able to save a small cutting or sapling from the Tree after it had been felled. Fearing any reprisals from her mother or Ashoka’s enemies, she hid the small shoot in her long hair and took surreptitious care of it. Her brother, Mahindu, had already become a Buddhist monk and begun a mission to the south of the subcontinent — even as far as to the island nation of what is today, Sri Lanka. Sanghamitta was determined to take the cutting of the Tree to where her brother was since she knew the Tree would be safe there. She traveled under the cover of night from village to village until she reached the end of the subcontinent. From there, she took a boat and sailed to the northern tip of Sri Lanka. The cutting of the Tree was kept in a golden vase during the crossing from India to Sri Lanka. Once she reached Sri Lanka an advanced guard of King Tissa met her and they took her to the royal capital of Anuradhapura where Mahindu had successfully passed on the Buddha’s teachings to an eager people. Mahindu himself had taken to living in a rock cave just outside of Anuradhapura. (Little did I know while I was reading this story at Bodhi Gaya about Mahindu, a year later I would be fumbling [barefoot again] down a ravine while getting followed by dubious looking dogs as I tried to find this rock cave. It was off a plateau now called Mihintale about 13km away from Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka. A “mango tree” dagoba had also been built on the top of this plateau marking the location where Mahindu had first met King Tissa. A very holy site for Sri Lanka Buddhists).

Rock Cave of Mahindu – Mihintale, Sri Lanka

Mahindu traveled to Anuradhapura to meet his sister there and she gave him the vase with the sapling. Then, during an elaborate ceremony, Mahindu, Sanghamitta, King Tissa, members of the royal family, and other monks planted the tree in an elevated mound. This all took place in the 3rd century BC. For more than 2000 years afterwards, this sapling grew and was taken care of by successive members of the royal family and the monks who lived in Anuradhapura up to the present time. What happened next was that centuries later when the original Tree in Bodh Gaya was toppled again by an invading army, the Buddhist order in Anuradhapura took a sapling from their tree – reverentially called Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi – and replanted it in Bodhi Gaya at the same site where the original Tree had sprouted. But, this Tree also was toppled and then in the late 19th century, the British viceroy or whatever who had control of th Bihar province had a new Bo Tree planted. It was this Tree that I saw in 2009. Although it was young (under a 150 years old), it was still mighty and massive with history. But, as I read the story about Sanghamitta I knew I would have to travel to Anuradhapura and see Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi. And in 2010, I was in Anuradhapura — an electrifying plain strewn with enormous, bubble-shaped Dagobas which I will detail later — but first it was the Tree. The Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi Tree is the oldest “human tended” tree in the world. The monks in Anuradhapura have meticulous records of how generation after generation their order has taken care of the Tree. There were golden shrouds tied around knobby elbows of the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi and various metal braces were placed around the tree in order to hold up and spread the weight of its lumbering branches. I had never seen such tender upkeep of any non-human being before. There were many pilgrims and lay people walking around the tree and praying in the covered shrines built around the tree. There was a rotating wheel of activity like being in a fair or carnival.

Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi Tree – Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka (2010)

I sat in a corner of the Tree complex and was covered by the shade of one of Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi’s large, leafy branches. I clearly remember the feeling I had of just how insignificant my own life was. I had the life span of a gnat in the eyes of this Tree. No question about that. There was something undeniably supernatural about being in the presence of another living thing that was over 2 millennia old. When I thought back to Bodh Gaya, the connection this Tree had to the Buddha himself, and the journey the Tree had made with Sanghamitta to get to this place – it was almost too much to comprehend. Every culture or religion has its share of myths and legends that sustain and define its identity. The Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden has been passed on by tradition as bearing forbidden fruit. The Bodhi Tree was just the opposite – it was a catalyst that led to the receipt of complete Knowledge in the case of the Buddha. The Tree was then an object to be revered and celebrated. Here, before me was its 2,200+ year old descendant. It had been cared for by the Sangha and would likely live on for another millennia, or until the Sangha was no more. Would there still be a Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi without the Sangha’s care? Would the Sangha have still been able to be as strong as it was in Anuradhapura without something tangible like the Tree to motivate it and stay true to the Buddha’s teaching? The two’s destinies had been intertwined. Each needed the other, but if either was to over-indulge on their attachment to the other, then there would be conflict and loss of purpose. As I stood up and was ready to leave the Tree complex, I noticed a few twigs and leaves that must have fallen from Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi. I picked up a couple of them and put them in my bag. I guess I needed to stay attached to this experience in some way. I had done the same thing at Bodh Gaya the year before. Back to Bodh Gaya then. From there, I set out like the Buddha had to the deer park.

Dharma

30 Jul

There would be many teachings in the Buddha’s long life, but the heart of these teachings was contained within the first sermon the Buddha gave to his 5 companions on that day.  There were 4 truths the Buddha wanted to share with them and each truth had to be recognized, its pursuit envisioned, and its attainment fully achieved in order for any person to become Awakened. “Think of these 4 truths as the footprint of an elephant,” the Buddha began. “Just as the footprints of all the other animals – tigers, deer, monkeys, and birds – in this forest can fit within the footprint of an elephant, in the same way, these 4 truths will provide the footprint for everything else you will ever learn.”  However, the Buddha prefaced his teaching of these 4 truths by explaining to his companions that one would never be able to pursue any of these truths through engaging in the practice of either extreme self-denial or extreme sensual indulgence. The companions had to follow the Middle Path in managing their lives and staying on the path that the Buddha could only map out for them. The first truth was based on those eye-opening visions the Buddha had experienced when he had gone outside the palace’s walls – sickness, old age, death, and the wandering stranger who spoke of suffering.  These realities of human existence could all be summed in one thing: there was suffering. From the moment of birth, each person took a step closer to aging, illness, and death. But, suffering did not manifest itself through the physical only. There was also mental and emotional suffering which most people had to face each day of their lives and this took the form of dealing with dissatisfaction in one’s life, being separated from what made one happy, and not getting what one wanted.  So, the Buddha told his companions that they had to accept the fact there was suffering in human life and they had to understand the physical and emotional incarnations of this suffering.  The second truth was acceptance of the underlying causes of suffering. Suffering was rooted in our attachments, our need to cling to things we believed made us feel better or made us look better in the eyes of someone else.  One’s desire to seek out that which was pleasing and to live a life only in pursuit of such desire was a common trait in all people.  And it was this same trait that had so many people become miserable in their lives because of how they could not cope with being cut off from what pleased them. The third truth the Buddha spoke of was simply the recognition that only when one detached and freed oneself from the innate desire to only seek out the pleasing could suffering end.  This was straightforward enough, but the spiritual practice and discipline that one had to apply to relinquish the blinding cravings for self-gratification that created suffering was not so easy. This was the fourth truth and it was more than just a statement. It embodied the same journey to Enlightenment that the Buddha had traveled and it was the essence of his teaching. After one accepts and understands the first 3 truths, one must recognize that the cessation of suffering will not occur through meditation and reflection alone. Again, extreme self-denial would not work. There had to be an active desire that would fuel one’s spiritual practice, but one could not let this desire to overcome and subvert the person.  The Buddha made sure to caution his companions about this. They would never be able to become Awakened if they only attached themselves to their cravings to attain Enlightenment. This compulsive  desire would have the adverse effect of creating suffering since they would become quickly dissatisfied with the clouded and forced nature of their findings. They would only awaken to the cessation of suffering through maintaining a Middle Way during their spiritual practice and the specific guidance the Buddha taught his companions for their practice consisted of 8 principles:  they each had to invoke the right understanding, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration.  There was an ethical import to the “right” kind of mindset and conduct each of them would have to integrate in their actualization of these 8 principles.  The Buddha would illustrate the nature of each of these principles in many of his parables and lessons he would later teach. His sharing of these 8 guiding principles with his companions for the first time could be said to be similar to when Moses received the 10 Commandments.  When Moses was given the 2 tablets listing each Commandment he was told to share them with the Children of Israel so that they would have a set of principles to follow. These principles established ethical parameters around their dealings with one other and their worship of God.  Breaking of any of these of the 10 Commandments would bring with it penalties of either an earthly or divine nature depending on the transgression. The Buddha explained that following this 8-fold path of spiritual practice could lead to Enlightenment for his companions in their present lives.  There were no provisions for worshipping the Buddha or any creator of the world, and there were no penalties if one fell off this path — the only consequence would be that one would not attain the complete knowledge that came with being Awakened.  Further, the Buddha told his companions that after one had achieved Enlightenment, then the final goal was to consummate the end of suffering by extinguishing it fully – and that was when one reached Nirvana.  This was not Heaven as understood in the usual Western sense, but instead represented one’s passing into a state of spiritual and physical bliss – freed of suffering – and it could be realized in life or upon death.  His companions absorbed all the Buddha spoke of on that day. They repeated the 4 truths and then discussed each of the 8 principles that they would incorporate into their spiritual practice going forward. They had become the Buddha’s first followers and wanted to travel with him to wherever he would go next. They had to spread his teachings and so they decided to go back to the site where the Buddha had attained his Enlightenment. The Buddha would return to see that king who had 6 years before asked him to rule the Magadha kingdom by side. The Buddha would now tell the king what he had learned and the king and all his subjects would convert to the Buddha’s teachings.  The Buddha knew he would need to establish a bond with the laity. He had to have a spiritual network that went beyond just those would follow him.  He would have to connect his ministry to the public and that meant creating a community. This community would then sustain him and his message.

Tempt

23 Jul

With his strength restored, Siddhartha crossed the river. On the other side he walked down a small hill and entered a grove of large canopy-branched trees.  One particular tree caught his eye. It was cheery with bright green spade-like leaves. It was still a young tree, but it provided just the right amount of shade for him in order to sit underneath. He would not sit without some comfort this time, and so he bunched together clumps of grass and fallen leaves and made a cushion for himself.  His stomach was full and his mind clear. He positioned himself to face where the sun would rise and he would not get up from his seat until he had discovered the answers to what he was seeking. When that had happened the last vestige of the prince would be gone forever.  He then lapsed into a sublime meditative state, but the threat of what Siddhartha may become should he succeed was a threat to the ignorance that kept so much of the world spiritually comatose.  Evil had taken notice and would not sit idly by while Siddartha began to tap into the source of the light. Christ was baptized in the Jordan River and after that he wandered into the Judean desert where it is said he fasted for 40 days and nights in order to steady his resolve and prepare for his earthly ministry.  As with Siddhartha, evil took notice of Christ’s meditation in the desert and was determined to lead Christ astray by tempting him 3 times. The devil — one who had fallen from the light — first tempted Christ by enticing him to turn stones into bread.  Despite his pangs of hunger, Christ rebuffed the devil. So, the devil next took Christ up to a high temple and implored Christ to jump as the angels below would catch him and break his fall. Certainly, the angels would not let Christ’s feet hit one stone below.  Again, Christ refused. Lastly, the devil showed Christ all the kingdoms of the world from atop the lofty peak of a mountain and told Christ all the below could be his if only Christ fell to his knees and worshipped him. Christ’s defiance was absolute. “Get away, Satan! It is written: The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.” With those words, the devil vanished and Christ was now ready to begin.  As Siddhartha sat, the powers of Mara — the Lord of Evil — began their relentless bombardment. Mara hoped to break Siddhartha’s concentration through planting seeds of doubt, hatred, and violence in his mind. The skies darkened and a punishing storm threatened to uproot the tree and wash Siddhartha away. Yet, he sat firm and unmoved. Next, Mara sent his 3 daughters before Siddhartha to dance and entice with him sensual delights. When that had no effect, Mara sent visions of Siddhartha’s wife and son.  Such visions would have to thwart Siddhartha and remind of him of his longings. But nothing. Frustrated and angry, Mara attempted to take Siddhartha’s seat.  But, it was as if Siddhartha had grown roots that tied him to the tree. Mara shouted at Siddhartha and said no one could testify as to what he was doing and that he was worthy to have the seat.  Then, Mara’s forces all yelled their support of Mara and that the seat was rightfully his.  What would be Siddhartha’s response to this? His 5 companions had deserted him and he was completely alone. Then, a curious thing happened. While still in the throes of his meditation, the middle finger of his right hand moved and gently touched the earth. The skies suddenly opened and the sun shone again as if to say “I stand witness.” And with that, Mara retreated into the darkness.

Renunciation

20 Jul

There had to be complete emotional and physical detachment. Both were difficult. The emotional came first when Siddhartha told his father his plan to leave the palace and his family. His father did not understand this and was angered. He absolutely forbade Siddhartha to leave. Guards were even stationed at the palace gates that night. Siddhartha did not argue with his father and did not attempt to explain what it was that he was after. This was a quest and one that Siddhartha himself did not yet fully comprehend. He knew only that he had to get on the wandering path. Next was his wife and child. How could he explain his leaving to them? When he entered their room his child was asleep in his wife’s arms and so he let them lay. He wanted to pick up his son and hold him one last time. But, he feared waking him so he did nothing but observe. He took in every detail. His wife may have him felt Siddhartha’s presence and the beating of his heart standing above her. She was still though. It was as if she knew nothing could change his mind and so she slept. Then Siddhartha walked towards the gates and there – wondrously – his father’s guards slumbered! He could not believe his luck. As he readied himself to cross beyond the walls that had nested him for so many years, he saw his faithful driver. The same one that had taken him out on that first day. Siddhartha told him to tell his father and family that perhaps one day he would return after he had discovered a way out of suffering. Then they could truly be happy. There would no longer be the horrible invetability of decay and death hanging over them. His driver nodded and kissed him. Siddhartha disappeared into that dark night and walked deep until his legs tired. Now came the physical detachment. As he sat in a forested area, he began to shear off his hair. His hair was long and luxuriant. He cut off big locks at a time that soon covered the area around him like the remains of a kill. He continued until he could cut no more. He then stripped off his royal silk garb and put on the simple cloth wrap like the wandering man he had seen. He removed his footwear and sank his bare feet into the earth. He would know this world through only his senses from now on. It would start with the touch of his feet and continue to his hands, nose, ears, and eyes. He was not embarking on a life of self-denial as it would appear. Rather he intuited that to position himself to find the answers he sought, he had to start with no obstacles or hang-ups. This was his renunciation and was truly a blissful moment. It took such great courage to detach in this profound way and something that if done in the same manner today would certainly cause the same anger as that of his father. Compare this with what the Gospels tell about Mary. The Annunciation. “And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.” The ring of truth in this is her reaction to when the angel Gabriel tells Mary she will have the son of God. And what is her first reaction? She is troubled. Many Italian frescoes that still survive from the 13th century depict this moment and what is telling is that in nearly all of them Mary is shown in a very accepting and accommodating manner. She actual bows to Gabriel in many of them. Yet, there is one painting that is true to how the above describes Mary’s reaction. Mary is shown recoiling in horror and has her dress held above her as if to shield her eyes from Gabriel. So, now even the Annunciation appears to be, at least initially, an act of denial by Mary. But, 2000 years hence we do not remember this. It was the most joyous of occasions with no fear or doubt. Siddhartha had no otherworldly encounter that brought him to his moment. He had earthly visitations that had done so. So, when he made the decision to cast off his attachments -all his worldly possessions and emotional ties- it was only so that he would be free from those things that had to be responsible for bringing suffering. Without them, he would be free in his journey. But, how would he survive? Surely he would have to eat and take shelter. He worried about these things like any other man would. He closed his eyes and tried to concentrate. But, he had monkey mind. He needed technique and training to master this. He had no idea where he would go or how long it would take.

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