Tag Archives: Middle Path

Sangha

31 Jul

The 5 companions were now disciples and in turn they each spawned their own followers. As the Buddha travelled throughout the land, his teachings and storytelling took root and grew like the canopied branches of the banyan trees around him. People began to take notice of the Buddha’s wanderings into their towns and villages.  Some people were so moved by the serenity and peace that the Buddha brought with him that these people provided food, clothing, and shelter for the Buddha and his followers. It was as if these people knew that in helping the Buddha they were purifying themselves in some way.  Additionally, these people came from all walks of life — all castes, genders, and levels of society. The Buddha’s message was not limited to any a particular segment of society. It  provided a lucid paradigm for the attainment of the ultimate knowledge that any person could employ and strive towards. And even if a person was not ready to commit to the spiritual practice the Buddha taught, it was the idea of helping the Buddha and his followers continue on their journeys that connected the lay person to the Buddha’s message. This interdependence between the practitioner’s need to live and eat in some kind of balanced way and the lay person’s wish to do good in assisting the practitioner reach his goal was the basis for creating the community the Buddha had sought.  This community itself represented a Middle Way. It could not simply be composed of monks and disciples, but instead had to include the lay person. The Buddha expressed this concept of community to his disciples. “Remember that the desirous allegiance to only wanting to attain Enlightenment by yourself and just for yourself is like the man who stubbornly attempts to walk uphill in the face of a mudslide.  You must open yourself to other people even those not traveling on the same path. Through this opening of yourself, you both support and are supported by the other person. As such, you will learn to let go of the self and instead connect with the whole.”  His disciples understood the importance of establishing and maintaining this connection between themselves and the lay people surrounding them. There could be no “us” and “them”.  There had to be a shared experience leading to a  mutually beneficial result for both sides.  The Buddha continued. “The man that stands alone and who has decided to obey only his desire to find truth, may be weak and slip back into his old ways. Therefore, you must stand together, assist each another, and strengthen one another’s efforts. Be like brothers and sisters to your fellow man; one in love, one in holiness, and one in your zeal for the truth.”  On one of the Buddha’s initial travels with his disciples, the Buddha returned to Lumbini where his now 8-year old son approached him and asked for his inheritance. The Buddha who had nothing more than a begging bowl and the robes on his back told his son that his inheritance would be ordination as a monk. And so his son was ordained right then and there and joined the ranks of Buddha’s followers.  Buddha’s father who was still upset with his son could not hold on to his anger for long once he saw the wisdom and spirituality of the Buddha.  He too accepted the Buddha’s teaching.  Only the Buddha’s wife had not come out of her chambers to see the Buddha upon his return to the palace. She had been grieving his departure for many years and had even cut her hair once she had heard about the Buddha’s renunciation. She had been grappling with deep feelings of abandonment mixed with hope that one day he would come back for her and their son.  The Buddha went to her chambers and when he saw her, he immediately understood. The Buddha acknowledged her pain and explained that her devotion to him revealed that she had the highest moral grounding. Further, she had not only been his supporter in this life, but they also had a shared past and that she had saved his life during that previous life. She would become one of first nuns in the Buddha’s order and reached an exalted status due to her memory and knowledge. So, the Buddha’s outreach to his family had resulted in bringing them within his circle and they formed an important part of the initial pillars of the community the Buddha hoped to build. As the Buddha continued his physical wanderings during the next 45 years of his life, the threads of this community became strong and thick. They tied huge swaths of once disparate peoples and cultures together, and they brought together kings and hermits alike.  The Buddha knew that after he passed on, the legacy of his teachings would be intertwined with this community and so if the community disintegrated, then his teachings would likely succumb to the same fate.

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.

Wheel

26 Jul

Although he could stand on his own and had decided he would share what he had learned and understood, the Buddha was not quite ready to leave the site of his awakening.  He spent 7 weeks lingering. During that time he meditated and thought through his teachings.  He circumambulated the tree — placing himself in different areas where he could face the seat from which it had all happened. During his fifth week, a Brahman — a member of high caste society — saw the Buddha sitting in contemplation. Something about the look of calm and peace upon the Buddha’s face struck the Brahman.  The Brahman stepped close to the Buddha and asked him, “What caste are you?”  The Buddha opened his eyes. This was the first person he had interacted with since that woman who mistook him for a forest spirit those many months ago. “I come from no caste and it matters not as to who I am,” the Buddha replied. The Brahman was stunned.  This was a land where one’s identity was defined by the caste within which one was born. So, your fate in this life was set in stone from the second you entered. If you were born a Brahman as he was, then the fates had smiled upon you because your life had the highest worth and you received entitlements due to such worth.  “Surely you jest! You cannot think that the Dalits or untouchables are of the same worth as the Brahmans?” “One does not become a Brahman by birth. It is only by one’s deeds that one is a Brahman.”  The Buddha saw the look of shock on the Brahman’s face and knew he had to sketch a more vivid picture of what he meant. “If one wishes to make a fire, then one will use any dry piece of wood to do so. So, just as fire can come from any type of wood, a noble or wise person can rise from any caste. Only through knowing the truth does one become wise and that does not happen at birth. For at birth, there are only attachments to be clung to that obscure the truth. But, when one frees himself from these attachments and realizes the truth behind why things are the way they are, then one becomes wise. Then one becomes what you call a Brahman. But, what I would call being Awakened.”  The Brahman wobbled in awe. He had never heard such words nor had such words ever been uttered.  The Buddha had just given his first teaching! Though neither he nor the Brahman would have ever planned on their meeting resulting in a sermon. It had just happened. The Brahman could only thank the Buddha for his words and then he shuffled off still pondering the message that had been shared with him. As the Buddha watched the Brahman walk away, he realized that he would have to present his teachings through a framework that would be transparent and easy to understand. He knew he could explain the first step towards arriving to the supreme understanding he had attained. This was the Middle Path and it more or less was a general guide to living day-to-day that people would understand. But once one had committed to this Middle Path, then one would have to proceed through acceptance of certain fundamental truths of man’s existence. The Buddha could boil these down to 4 truths although the last truth itself had various spokes of guidance that he would need to further breakdown for ease of transferring such knowledge. But, he would explain the 4 core truths of his teaching  to his 5 companions through use of imagery they could grasp. He set out to find them and the journey took the Buddha across the bends of the holy Ganges a few different times until he came to ancient city of Benares.  Benares was dusty, chaotic, and filled with ghats or platformed steps that led down to the banks of the river below. Each ghat had its own distinct purpose and personality based on what ceremony or practice it was connected to.  There were no parks or spaces of solitude in Benares, but he was told of a small park known for its pockets of deer that lay just a few miles to the north of the city – away from the river.  The Buddha headed to this deer park and as he entered, there he saw his 5 companions — all grossly emaciated with looks of anguish on their faces as they still practiced extreme self-denial in their desire to find their own answers.  His companions slowly started to recognize the Buddha when they noticed his shape walking towards them. They began to snicker amongst themselves.  There could be no way they would welcome him back within their ranks. Yet, as the Buddha got closer and closer, they began to sense something different about the prince they had previously known. There was an undeniable glow and aura of wisdom surrounding him. He walked without effort and within a few seconds he had glided before them. They instinctively sat around him and offered him the few grains of rice they had stashed away for themselves. The Buddha did not want to eat, he only asked if they were ready to learn what he had discovered.  Any doubt the companions had about the Buddha evaporated in that moment. They could see the profound change that had come over him and they wanted to accept his teaching.  With his companions gathered around him, the Buddha began. The wheel of truth had started its first rotation.

Wilderness

22 Jul

Siddhartha was lost in the forest. He had made a break from all trappings of his former life and had nothing more than his conviction. He needed to learn to quiet his mind and realized he needed a teacher. He had heard of 2 Hindu masters and so he searched for them.  When he found them he explained his quest and how he could not keep his mind from darting from idea to doubt and back again.  The masters agreed to take on Siddhartha as their student and he studied all night and day with them. Weeks rolled by and then months. They taught him how to focus on his breath and to breathe in the world around him in the correct way. They showed him how to tame his body with his mind and to balance.  They explained that Siddhartha would never get on the true road that would lead towards the answers he wanted until he could still the world first and become one with it so that there was no external or internal but only one breath that rose and fell in unison.  Siddhartha mastered the art of meditation and his teachers were very pleased with him. Yet, within the deepest beatitudes of his meditative journeys, he still had not come any closer to discovering the way to end suffering.  His restlessness was noticed by his 2 masters and they told Siddhartha that perhaps he should go to another forest. This forest was much further south and in the heart of a thriving kingdom at that time. In that forest, there were others like Siddhartha living simply and freed of the shackles of attachments. So, Siddhartha began another long walk and headed toward Magadha.  He crossed parched plains and his feet were cracked and deep red like the clay he walked on day after day.  When at last he reached the forest, he saw that it was different from where he had just come from. This new forest was not densely stacked, but instead sprinkled with umbrella branched trees scattered across hills and gulleys with lakes and ponds in between.  Siddhartha felt an immediate connection to the area as if this was where he had been born. But, of course he was now far from Lumbini. He had entered a new land with its own King. This King had seen Siddhartha as he had entered into the kingdom and was intrigued by his presence. There was an air of determination about Siddhartha that captivated the King and so the King had summoned Siddhartha before him. When the King learned that Siddhartha himself had once been a prince, the King could barely contain his excitement. He knew there had to be reason why Siddhartha had so roused him. The King asked Siddhartha to stay in his palace and to help him rule. Siddhartha smiled and said he was after something else and that he only asked for the King’s consent to let him go into the forest of Magadha.  The King agreed but asked Siddhartha that should he ever find the answers to what he was looking for that he would return and teach it to him.  Siddhartha saw many different individuals in the forest. There were Brahmins, yoginis, sadhvis, and others.  But, Siddhartha was drawn to 5 individuals in particular who reminded him of that wandering man he had encountered. All 5 were ascetics and practiced the most extreme type of self-denial.  They only drank a spoonful of water after their mouths had completely dried and they thirsted like a man near death. They only allowed themselves individual grains of uncooked rice when they hungered. They slept on the forest floor with no matting and spent nearly all their time in meditation or in debate over how close each was to overcoming suffering in this world.  They each believed that through concentrated willpower they could conquer the sufferings normal people had to endure and achieve some kind of sublime peace of mind.  But, they did not how to articulate this in a way that they themselves could understand and they were also competitive with one another. They pushed the limits of their physical austerities.  When Siddhartha joined them they were leery at first. He seemed to be like any other interloper who was looking for some quick path to actualizing some limitation within him.  Yet, when they saw his seriousness and his highly skilled meditation practices, they grew to respect him and accepted Siddhartha within their ranks.  The 5 then became 6.  Day after day, they drove each other further and further as they took on more and more exposure to the elements around them. They accepted pain, hunger, the heat of the midday sun, the pounding rains of the monsoon, and the wild animals around them.  6 years went by like this and Siddhartha had become nothing more than an exposed rib cage with hollowed out eyes and drooping earlobes.  He had gotten no closer.  Doubt began to cloud his concentration and he was not able to maintain his meditation. He was just like that sick man he had first seen. He had become frail and weak and it was not just his body but his mind too. How could he get to the answers he sought when he barely had energy to draw in a breath?  As he lost his focus and came out of his meditation, his ears caught some faint echoes of music. He tapped into whatever reserves he had left in order to attune to the source of these sounds and heard strings being plucked and strummed. A musician must have been passing through the forest.  The music was so harmonious. He knew that to have such melodies come out of one instrument that instrument had to be in balance. The strings could not be too tight otherwise the notes would be sharp. If they were too loose, they would be flat. There had to be a tempered slackness to the strings so they could be struck and blend together. A compromise had to be attained between the sharp and flat.  He slowly came out of his repose and steadied himself with a stick as he found his legs. He was nothing more than a skeleton  and he was covered in dirt and rot. He went towards a river and began to wash himself. There, a woman appeared who planned on making an offering to the forest spirits who had blessed her with a child. When she saw Siddhartha, she thought he was one of those spirits and presented him with the milk rice dish she had prepared. Siddhartha nodded and accepted the bowl from the woman. What he did not know was that his 5 ascetic companions had been watching him. They had seen him break his meditation and followed his meander to the river. They were disgusted by the sight of Siddhartha accepting the food and eating it. This act had confirmed their initial doubts about him. The prince inside Siddhartha had won out and Siddhartha was not true to the spiritual quest like they were. They turned away from him and left the forest. They went out in search of a new wilderness in order to continue to their practice free from the abomination they had just observed. Siddhartha was enjoying his meal so much that he did not notice his companions leave. Siddhartha felt his body become alive again, and soon he felt that familiar stirring and it sharpened his mind.  He thanked the woman and told her he was not a spirit but only a man. A man searching for a path that would lead to the end of all suffering. Thanks to her, he had the strength now to get on that path. And for the first time he himself had a clear picture of what this was. A middle path.

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