Jizo finishes eating his noodles in silence. Then he places his chopsticks down on the table, folds his paper napkin and stands up.
He smiles at the five of us:
“Time for meditation practice!”
I like to watch Jizo do things: simple things like eat and drink or stand up… or walk. He does everything very easily, never too fast or too slow but just the right speed. I haven’t figured out yet why there’s even such a thing as a right speed, but there’s no denying it. The man’s got a way of doing things. He gives his full attention to everything and it’s never fussy. Whatever it is, he nails it and moves on, so whether it’s one thing – liking putting down his chopsticks in a perfect line beside his bowl – or lots of things one after the other it always looks sort of effortless.
We file out of Wagamama onto the Embankment. It’s summer. The sun is shining. There’s not a cloud in the sky and every boat on the Thames looks like a cut-out from a postcard. It’s been going on like this for a week. Wow! This is London I’m talking about not California. The Evening Standard should run a front page photo of kids jumping into the fountain in Piccadilly Circus with the headline: “SUN, SUN, SUN. NO RELIEF IN SIGHT” There are masses of people about: boys with their shirts off; birds wearing their partner’s shirts and little else. They’re having picnics under the trees or just sunning themselves on the benches. We make our way to a side door of the National Theatre and take the big service lift they use for props all the way up to the top terrace.
Behind the potting shed, just as Jizo promised, is a row of square blue mats with round black cushions on them. He extends both arms toward us, like he’s welcoming us into his home:
“No need for formalities. Just find a place and sit down.”
I can feel my heart beat. I’m sure my armpits are wet. I say to myself:
“You’re about to sit on a cushion.
That’s all there is to it. What’s there
to be nervous about?”
Nothing doing. My body feels it’s about to be embarrassed and isn’t paying any attention to me. In fact that’s my whole problem: ADD - Attention Deficit Disorder! It’s like there’s a sign on my back that says “dummy”. I fumble towards the nearest cushion and plop myself down, but as soon as Jizo starts to talk, something odd happens: I start to relax. There’s nothing to worry about, Jizo says. He’s speaking to everyone, but it feels like he’s speaking just to me:
“You have a nervous system that works automatically, whether you’re awake or asleep. Without it you couldn’t breathe. Strictly speaking YOU don’t breathe. IT breathes you. The body knows what it needs to do to survive. It’s only our mind – perhaps we would be better to call it our thinking – that gets in the way. Then we feel self-conscious and awkward and make mistakes.”
Jizo points to my ear phones and wags his finger at me.
"Dylan, you don’t need that right now. We are going to listen to our heart … not to rap music!"
Everyone laughs. It kind of breaks the tension. Actually I’m recording Jizo, but he probably doesn’t want me to, so I don’t bother to explain. Anyway he’s already on a roll.
“Why do we meditate? Learning to meditate without knowing why is like learning to swallow without having a bowl of nice hot noodles in front of you. It’s a pointless exercise.
Jerry raises his hand
“But meditation helps you relax, right?”
“The body does relax in meditation,
but that’s not why the Buddha took
it up. He already knew quite a bit
about relaxing from his days as a
My feet are getting restless. I just sat down on the mat and already I want to get up, but something keeps me in my place. Why am I sitting up straight with my legs folded at the knees? I look round and see that all the others are too. It’s odd because Jizo hasn’t showed us a thing yet. Maybe it’s the most comfortable position, but I don’t know. Usually we would be lying about or resting against a wall or something.
On cue Jizo answers my question:
“Meditation is about collecting the heart,
but to do this we must first collect the body. That’s why it’s very important to learn the right form.”
Toshi, the cook at Wagamama, speaks up for the first time. He looks Japanese but his accent is pure Sloane Ranger:
“What do you mean by form – sitting
on a cushion in full lotus position?”
Jizo shakes his head. I take this as a “no”, but with Jizo you’re never sure. He looks like he’s thinking deeply about Toshi’s question, and I notice that he’s always careful when he answers questions about the dharma.
“There is a right way to sit on the cushion. It doesn’t need to be in the lotus position with both legs crossed . Not everyone can sit this way, particularly people in the West who have been brought up sitting on chairs. But there is a right form for everything, not just sitting in meditation. ”
Jizo looks directly at each one of us in turn.
“Any more questions before we start?
The girl Jizo calls Harriet is one of the girls at Wagamama. She’s tall and skinny. She wears three earings in her ears and has very pale skin and dark eyes that she makes even darker with lots of eye make up. She’s frowning now like she might be in pain. Anyway she’s trying very hard to look cool and not squirm around on her mat.
“Jizo, what is ‘collecting the heart’ ? Is
it the same as collecting your mind?”
Jizo breaks into a full smile, obviously pleased. Harriet has hit the bull’s eye with this question.
“Often I hear people say, “So and so
has a good mind” They mean that this person is clever. This person is a good thinker…”
“...but meditation has nothing to do with good thinking or bad thinking, so it’s best not to talk about collecting your mind or your thoughts. All we need to do is be aware of our thoughts and our feelings as they rise up one after the other. This awareness is what we call our heart. It is not our physical heart, but it is the heart of the matter if you’re trying to meditate!”
He claps his hands.
“Ok. Everyone stand up. We’re going to do a little bowing practice.”
I haven’t a clue what Jizo is talking about or what “bowing practice”
has to do with meditation, but I’m happy to be off the floor.
Jizo shows us how to bow to the mat and then turn around and bow
away from it. It seems a little silly at first, but who am I to complain?
Every time I bow it makes the backs of my legs stretch out in the most
wonderful way, so I let Jizo’s words wash over me like a gentle breeze:
“ When we bow we use our whole body.”
Jizo brings his hands together like he’s praying. His fingers and thumbs are together and straight and point out from his chest at a slight angle. His back is straight too, as always, and he holds himself upright in a way that looks balanced and relaxed. If they had skateboarders when he was young, he would have been awesome.
“ Watch carefully and do as I do and try to stay
He bows from the waist until his head is parallel to the ground and comes up again. Not too fast. Not too slow. Like he does everything. We copy his bow, but make a sorry go of it. What a ragged lot we are! Not one of us bows at the same time or in the same way as Jizo. This goes on for several more minutes as we gradually get it together. By now everybody is smiling and Jizo seems happy.
“ Bowing is one way of giving our attention
whole-heartedly to what is being done at this
moment. This is what we call “collecting the
heart”. This is also what we try to do when
we meditate. Ponder on this until next time.”
There he goes again with his “ponder” stuff! I look up and notice for the first time that the sun is much lower in the sky. I wonder how late it is. What have we been doing all this time? Can I have been sitting STILL all this time? Me, a kid with ADD! Jizo hasn’t even shown us how to meditate. Or has he?
I’m beginning to get it about the Buddha. He’s is a trailblazer. He’s trying hard to be an ascetic now so he figures that his body must be the problem. Maybe he’s too weak. If only he can toughen up so things like hunger and thirst won’t touch him anymore, then he won’t have anything more to fear.
His five friends join him in the forest. They live on nuts and berries. They eat less and less food. They meditate under the steaming hot sun or sleep on thorns or walk around naked even when the weather turns cold. They go out of their way to put themselves in situations that most people would find really, really uncomfortable, and they don’t run away from anything. Jizo says that he would rather not go into too much detail about everything they tried because some of it is pretty disgusting.
I remember seeing a documentary about the S.A.S. They were a special force being trained to fight in the jungle. They survived by eating insects and other horrible stuff. They had to fight an enemy they couldn’t see but who were out there somewhere. Jizo says Buddhists also train to fight an enemy they can’t see. But this enemy is somewhere inside. I suppose that’s the main difference.
As usual Siddhartha pushes himself harder than anyone else. He nearly starves himself to death. Jizo showed us this amazing picture of a starving Buddha. Actually he isn’t the Buddha yet but that’s what the picture calls him. It shows a life-size statue of a man who seems all skin and bones. His face is just a skull with deep holes around his eyes and you can see his whole rib cage. Later the Buddha tells his disciples that when he touched his stomach he could feel his backbone.
There have always been ascetics in India and even today you see them wandering around, but after Siddhartha awakens and becomes the Buddha he warns us not to punish our bodies like this. He calls his teaching The Middle Way because it’s a path between the two extremes of pleasure and pain he personally experienced, first as a prince and then as an ascetic.
Siddhartha is now thirty-five. For six whole years he’s done everything he can to find the answer to suffering, but he’s hit a brick wall. He knows he’s about to die, but what’s the point? He wants to be enlightened, not to commit suicide! Then a scene from his childhood rises up in his mind. It’s spring and the ploughing season and there’s a seed planting ceremony. Siddhartha is alone under the shade of an apple tree. He’s watching his dad, the king, drive his animal over the land. Just by sitting there he enters a place where he’s perfectly at peace with life and the world around him. Siddhartha remembers how supremely happy he was at that moment and thinks to himself “Well, what’s wrong with that? This contentment has nothing to do with selfish desires.” Like an archer, he tries to figure out how he first managed to hit the bull’s eye so many years ago. This vision provides the clue. He can’t meditate properly while he’s starving. Obviously body and mind can’t be separated. If he damages his body, he’s going to damage his mind. Siddhartha decides to start eating again.
We’re back on the gardener’s terrace behind the National Theatre. It’s as warm as last week, but the sky is overcast and the air feels heavy. The five of us are on our blue mats listening to Jizo:
“Last Sunday we did bowing practice.
we’ll bring the same awareness
to sitting on the mat. We are going
to focus our attention on breathing in
That word “attention” again. It’s so unfair. I have a problem with attention. I can’t do this. I want to get up and run away, but before I can move I feel Jizo balancing my shoulders.
“Relax them. That’s it”
They seem to drop from a great height. My neck and back muscles relax too. I must have been leaning to one side because my spine has just grown longer and I feel more solid than before. Jizo quickly moves on to the others, making little changes here and there until everyone is sitting straight. He looks pleased.
“This is called sitting with the right form.
Form is very important. The heart follows
the body, so when the body is collected
the heart can also be collected. This is
what the Buddha discovered when he gave
up being an ascetic.”
Jizo says that the next part of the Buddha’s story is so important that it’s been written about many times in great detail. But what do we really know about the Buddha’s life when he lived so long ago? So we have to understand these details in a special way. They tell us something true, but in the form of a story rather than a documentary.
For example there’s the story of Sujata, this thirteen year old girl who finds Siddhartha and gives him his first meal. In one version of the story a shepherd finds him after he collapses. In another it’s Sujata’s maid who finds him. The maid tells Sujata to bring a special meal because she thinks she’s seen a river god. I don’t care much for this version. The Buddha himself says he looked like a skeleton and was black with dirt. Would you expect a river god to look like that? The story I like is the one where Sujata finds the Buddha under a Banyan tree. We saw Banyan trees when we were India. They’re humungous and amazing-looking with branches that fall all the way to the ground. Siddhartha goes to the river for a drink and faints on the way out and Sujata brings him back to life with a bowl of milk and honey. She comes back and feeds him every day until he becomes stronger and his skin looks healthy again. I can see it in my mind, like a movie, so it’s easy to believe it happened this way
Meanwhile Siddhartha’s five friends think he’s given up looking for enlightenment. They don’t ask him of course. They just see him from a distance talking to a young girl. Maybe he’s smiling or laughing, even. They see him eat a whole bowl of rice porridge. Right away they assume he’s gone back to being a spoiled prince and storm off in disgust. This rings true to me. People think they know everything about what’s going on in your head. Then they storm off without realising that there’s a lot more they don’t know. Parents and teachers are like this, and sometimes even friends.
So now Siddhartha is all alone. If he’s going to break through to enlightenment, he’s going to have to fly solo, like one of those jet pilots in experimental planes. Already nobody can touch him. He’s up there all by himself. There’s no one in the world who can follow him or even wants to. One day Siddhartha rips a small piece of cloth from the end of his robe and twists it into a wick.
He lights the wick and places it in the bowl that Sujata gave him. Then he sets the floating candle in the river and says to himself: “If I am to attain enlightenment, may this bowl not disappear downstream” Just then the bowl catches a current that takes it in the opposite direction.
This is the sort of magic I can relate to in a story. Have you ever tossed a coin when you didn’t know what to do? Like “heads I go to school”; tails I stay home”? Of course it always comes up heads in these cases, so you trot off to school. But you feel a little better for tossing the coin because now you know it’s out of your control.
I remember one day I’m playing Pooh Sticks, the game in Winnie the Pooh where they throw sticks off a bridge to see which one appears on the other side first. I say to myself, “If the longer stick wins then my Dad is coming home. The shorter stick peeks its head out first, but it gets caught in a little whirlpool and the longer stick sails past so I shout: “The longer stick wins!” And I guess it did because you came home that night. Only you brought your new friend with you. I should have said, “If the longer stick wins then my Dad is coming home ALONE” But if I’d known about that why throw sticks at all?
Anyway, to get back to the Buddha, I reckon the point about the bowl going upstream is that it’s what Siddhartha does to become enlightened. Everyone else in the world tries to be happy by getting more and more of what they want and here’s this geezer who tries to be happy by wanting less and less. Jizo says that trying to be happy with less when everyone is trying to be happy by getting more is like swimming upstream against the current.
Yesterday was the most embarrassing day of my life.
I don’t care who knows it.
Once you fall this low it doesn’t matter any more. But it would be nice if just for a moment I could make someone out there know how it feels to be me: a turning sixteen year old no-hope dummy.
So here goes.
It’s our third meditation lesson with Jizo. Every one is really into it. Helen, the pretty redhead, is sitting next to me looking like a marble statue from the British Museum. Then there’s Harriet with all her rings and bells and tattoos. And there’s Toshi who was probably a Zen master’s cat in his last life. Ok, that’s a joke. Jerry doesn’t have a problem either. Nobody moves. Just me. I can’t sit still. My body won’t let me. It keeps shifting around, like there are ants crawling up my skin.
Jizo tells us to focus all our attention on our breath as it goes in and out of our nostrils. He wants us to count each breath slowly from one to ten, following the air out for as long as the breath lasts. As soon as a thought arises we have to be aware of it and go back to One. Or Wunnnnnn…it doesn’t matter if we don’t make it to Ten.
“ I don’t have any trouble counting to ten”
This makes Jizo laugh.
“Of course not. Counting is the easy bit, but try to count ten breaths without a thought arising. It doesn’t happen very often. You’ll see!”
Helen wants to know why it’s important not to have any thoughts. Jizo just looks at her. I have a feeling he’s waiting for the right words to come to him:
“Thoughts arise one after the other, whether you want them to or not. The important thing is not to let them carry you away.”
Everyone’s here because of me – because I was stupid enough to ask Jizo to tell us about meditation. Now ten minutes into it, everyone is sitting like little Buddhas. Everyone except me. Jizo tells us to keep our eyes down but not shut. Otherwise he says we’ll go off into dreamland. But that’s just where I want to be. In a far away land of my dreams. Anywhere but right here, squirming around like a fish on a hook. I know everyone is laughing at me. I wonder if I should just get up and leave. I start to count: one, two… but it doesn’t help. I shut my eyes and pretend I’m in my bed, dreaming.
Then it happens.
My dog Robbie is sleeping at the end of my bed when the wolf appears.
He opens his mouth wide so that his fangs shine in the moonlight. He’s so real. He grabs hold of Robbie’s leg and tears him off the bed.
Robbie is howling at me, wanting me to save him but I don’t. I can’t move.
And suddenly I remember that it’s all true.
This isn’t a dream. Robbie’s dead and I wasn’t able to save him.
... And I start to sob.
I can’t help it.
That’s when I open my eyes and see them all staring at me. Jerry has this smirk on his face. I don’t know what happens next. I’m running. I hear Jizo call my name, but I’m already flying down some stairs. It’s too late to turn back. I’m out of there. It’s over.
FIRST COMMENT APPEARS ON DYLAN’S BLOG:
You’re not “a dummy” and I’m not a marble statue. Your blog - it’s really cool!!!
Please come back.
I know Jizo wants to see you again.
Helen’s OK. I can’t say everything I’d like to now that I know she’s reading this, but I want to thank her. She got Jerry to ring me. He’s read the blog too. He thinks I have too much imagination but said I had him in stitches with my mat dance. We had a good laugh. He told me that Jizo INSISTED Jerry call me. Something important has happened to me. I’m not to run away from it or it will get worse.
So today I see Jizo again at Wagamama’s. He takes me aside and we have some noodles together, just him and me. I say I’m sorry about last Sunday, but he doesn’t seem at all interested. He repeats what Jerry told me:
“It’s important. This doesn’t usually
happen so soon.”
“ I know.”
Jizo shakes his head
“No, you don’t know!”
I give a big sigh
“I have Attention Deficiency Disorder”
For the first time I see Jizo really frown.
“What you have is fear. And the only way you are going to overcome it is to make that wolf your friend.”
I poke at the noodles on my plate. Don’t know what to say. Jizo knows. Helen’s told him about this blog. Obviously.
“What really happened to Robbie?”
“ He was run over by a car.”
Jizo leans over the table and gently places his old gardener’s hand on mine. He speaks in a tone of voice I haven’t heard him use before:
“Dylan, You were visited by Mara. One can go a long time without seeing Mara but he’s always nearby. He showed himself to Siddhartha on the night he became the Buddha.”
UNDER THE BODHI TREE
When Siddhartha sees his rice bowl float upstream he knows for sure the big day has come. He has already been warned by several powerful dreams. In one dream he is lying on his side, but he’s so huge that his hands and feet can reach all the oceans of the world while his knees touch the Himalayas. In another dream a beautiful lotus flower grows out of his body until it touches the clouds. In a third one he sees birds flying toward him from every direction. Like the people of the world they’re all different colours.
Siddhartha walks in meditation up and down the banks of the Niranjara river until evening, preparing himself for the biggest challenge of his life. As the Indian sun turns into a fiery red ball and starts to sink below the horizon, Siddhartha takes up his usual meditation posture under a tree and promises himself that he won’t get up again until he reaches his goal. He sits under a fig tree with heart-shaped leaves called a pipal tree, on a bundle of kusa grass that a local farmer gives him. Today the pipal tree is known as the Bodhi tree or the Tree of Enlightenment. And even the kusa grass has a place in history.
But this night is no walk in the park for Siddhartha. Mara is the Lord of Desire, but he wears all sorts of masks. He holds power over all who are born and die. And that’s everyone. As long as we live in this world we have to deal with Mara. Siddhartha’s father, King Suddhodana, tried to hide this truth from his son, but as soon as Siddhartha walks out of the palace Mara shows him his three great masks: old age, sickness and death. Siddhartha doesn’t turn away. He doesn’t bury his head in the sand like ordinary people. He wants to find out more about Mara.
Jizo lowers his voice until it’s just a whisper. He looks around the restaurant and then at me, like he doesn’t want anyone else to hear:
“Who is behind all the masks? Who is Mara
really? That’s what Siddhartha is trying to
After six years of searching non-stop, Siddhartha has come face to face with Mara, the demon, in all his power. Jizo says that an untrained person would drop dead with fright. Mara has to be respected. Mara is a force of nature like the sun. In ancient times people thought Mara was a demon who lived in a tree or a mountain or even in the sky, sending bolts of lightening down to kill people. Siddhartha is about to discover that Mara lives much closer to home. He finds Mara in his own heart. And this is where he gets ready to root him out.
Mara visits Siddhartha in the first hours of the night. Just as he’s entering the first stage of his meditation Mara sends his pretty daughters to tempt him. I don’t know why he thinks this will work. Siddhartha already left his beautiful wife and all the pretty dancing girls years ago. Maybe he’s like the drowning man who sees his whole world flash before his eyes. Maybe every powerful feeling he’s ever had comes back to him now. But Mara’s ladies, whoever they are, can’t seduce him.
Siddhartha enters a second, deeper stage of meditation. And now Mara sends in his army, which I suppose means his whole bag of tricks. Jizo says we’ll never know Siddhartha’s strongest desire, or his greatest doubt, or his worst fear but it doesn’t matter because we each have our own.
When I try to imagine that night under the Bodhi tree for myself, I imagine Siddhartha as a great Spanish bullfighter standing perfectly still, just flicking his cape as a four hundred pound wild bull charges past him at fifty miles per hour. Its horns will slice him apart if he makes one false move.
ON THE TERRACE
I find myself back on the terrace again, trying to meditate. Jizo asked me to try again. He said, “Mara has paid you a visit. He’s tracked you down. He’s chosen you!” Jizo said I should regard it as an honour to be challenged by Mara. But I have to face him bravely like a warrior or he will make me his slave forever.
Jizo moves my meditation mat to the edge of the terrace away from the others. It now faces the river.
Right below are more terraces and finally the Thames itself, with all the boats moving up and down. I sit down on the cushion. Jizo makes sure my posture is correct and my eyes are half open.
He tells me that on no account am I to shut my eyelids, but after last time I don’t need any warning. He shows me again how to make my back straight, how my neck needs to stretch all the way up with my chin tucked in.
Down on the mat, I can’t see the other terraces anymore.
It seems like I’m sitting on the edge of a cliff looking down on the water from a great height.
It makes my tummy feel a bit queezy, but helps me concentrate.
I don’t want to fall off the terrace.
Jizo tells me just to follow my breath. In and out. In and out. If I absolutely must move I should get up and slowly walk up and down the terrace with my eyes down, following my breath, like the Buddha did on the day before his enlightenment.
Somehow it works.
There are no crazy dreams. My body isn’t used to this strange straight-up way of sitting, but it makes following my breaths easier and gradually I’m relaxing into it. Thoughts are coming up, but they’re nothing special. I wonder how Helen is doing behind me
One, Two and how far a leap it is on a skateboard to the next terrace Wunn…
and I feel my left toe pinching my right buttock.
Or is it the other way round? Wunnnnn… toooooo…threeeeeee.
Wow! I’m getting the hang of this. Wunn…
Siddhartha is reaching the last frontier. He’s like the Gingerbread Man. His body is disappearing in the deep waters of his mind a little bit at a time. And his mind is dissolving into the great ocean of the universe. He is everyone and everything. He sees births and deaths - his own and others – over and over again but he sees that they are birth and death in appearance only. All living things are like waves in the ocean, forever changing their shape but always the same. Now Mara appears in person. Here at last. Unmasked! It’s the final test.
He challenges Siddhartha:
“What right have you to escape my kingdom?”
But Siddhartha is not afraid.
“Oh jailer, I see your face clearly! You will build no more prisons around me.”
So Mara tries a different approach.
“Get up from your seat! It doesn’t belong to you. It’s mine.”
Siddhartha is unmovable.
“ You are Mara, but you’re not enlightened.
You make no efforts to free yourself. You
perform no deeds of compassion.”
Mara denies Siddhartha’s accusations and tells his army to back him up. “Mara tells the truth!” they roar. Mara then challenges Siddhartha to find a witness of his own, but Siddhartha just points to the earth beneath his feet and the earth gives an even bigger roar. That’s because the earth is the dharma, the law of the universe that Siddhartha has discovered. This is the way things really are. Siddhartha Gautama - the prince, the ascetic and the samana - has disappeared. In his place there now sits the Buddha, the Awakened One.
THE BUDDHA'S PATH
Jizo and I step out onto the Embankment when he stops and looks at me.
“I want you to see how you walk”
I take a few more steps before looking around, wondering what new thing he has in mind for me. He tells me to keep going, but to use only one leg. I am to keep the other one firmly in place. After two or three steps my legs are already so far apart I can no longer keep my balance.
“ This is as far as I can go”
“ Not very far, is it?”
“What are you talking about!”
Jizo rubs his bald head in mock despair.
“To follow the Buddha’s Path you need to use both legs. The leg of Meditation and the leg of Daily Life Practice. If you use them together you may start to get somewhere!”
THE MORNING STAR
Jizo told us some more about the Buddha’s life today after our meditation practice.
After his enlightenment the Buddha sits and meditates for another seven days under the Bodhi tree. Seven days in a trance. Can you believe that! My legs start hurting after twenty minutes and I won’t tell you what’s going on in my head. Then I have to get up and move around. He tells us that in the training monastery in Japan, the monks meditate all day for one solid week every year to celebrate the Buddha’s enlightenment.
On the last day they continue right through the night. There’s the keisaku (the long flat stick) to help them stay awake, but that’s all. The sitting ends just before dawn when the monks file out of the meditation hall and look for the morning star. This is because the Buddha looked up and saw the morning star and was enlightened.
So every year the monks make a special effort to become like the Buddha. The week always ends on December 8th because in the Northern or Zen Buddhist tradition, December 8th is the Buddha’s enlightenment. But there are other Buddhist countries like Thailand or Burma in the Southern tradition who celebrate the Buddha’s enlightenment together with his birthday in May.
It’s question time so I raise my hand.
“Obviously nobody knows when the
Prince Siddhartha Gautama was born.”
“That’s true, but we celebrate the Buddha’s birthday, not Siddhartha’s. Siddhartha had to die before the Buddha could be born. So perhaps that’s why in the Southern tradition they celebrate Buddha’s birthday and Siddhartha’s death day together.”
Helen asks Jizo how someone can meditate for that long. She says she’s sure she could never do it. And I agree with her! Then Jizo tells us that when he started he had all the same problems we do. One day he told his own teacher that he didn’t know how he could make it through the Buddha’s enlightenment week. He wasn’t sure he was strong enough. And his teacher took him outside and pointed to the snow-capped mountain beyond the monastery:
“If you want to get to Mount Fuji you have to put one foot in front of the other. There’s a lot more to it of course but the truly important thing is to keep going, one step at a time.”
Jizo said that this was the best piece of advice his teacher ever gave him
MARA HAS ONE MORE GO
So the Buddha is sitting under this fig tree having a wonderful time. He’s figured out how to escape from suffering. He’s completely happy and what’s more he feels free in a way he could never imagine before. But if he believes he’s solved all his problems, he got another thing coming. Mara shows up again and whispers in his ear:
“Who are you going to tell?”
The Buddha understands at once what Mara is driving at and it shakes his confidence. If he tries to teach what he’s discovered, who will listen? Who will try as hard as he has to free himself from the world and all its illusions? Who wants to give up their toy even when it makes them unhappy? At first he thinks it will be impossible, but his heart is now open to the world. It’s no longer shut off in the palace of Me, Myself and Mine. He wants to reach out to the world and help where he can.
At this point in the story Brahma shows up. In India there are a lot of gods. Hundreds of them in fact. Everybody in India has their own personal god who they can pray to, but Brahma is the big bloke in the sky. He’s, like, God. So God shows up and tells the Buddha that for the good of mankind he has to teach and now the Buddha sits down under several more trees in the same clearing in the woods and tries to work out what he can say. This time it takes him more than a month!
It’s question time again and Harriet, the girl with the three earrings in each ear, raises her hand. She looks furious.
“I thought Buddhism didn’t require you to
believe in God. A lot of people in this country
don’t believe in God anymore.”
Jizo speaks carefully, like someone picking his way through a minefield.
“Certainly you don’t have to believe in God to be a Buddhist, but you do need to believe in your own Buddha nature."
“What is Buddha nature?”
Jizo studies her for a moment.
“Ah, that’s a mystery! It can be experienced
but it can’t really be described.”
Then he gives her one of his toothy grins.
"I can tell you this much: whatever you can
see or hear or touch or even think about has
nothing much to do with Buddha nature.”
Jizo strikes the big gong by his seat at the front of the meditation hall. It has a deep sound that goes right through my skin and makes me forget everything else. It’s the signal that today’s practice session is over.
Another Sunday at the Buddhist Society. The Wagamama Five are here and most of the other regulars. There are one or two new faces. Meditation over, Jizo takes up where he left off the last time: talking about his good friend the Buddha.
Siddhartha Gautama, now the Buddha or the Awakened One, is still chilling under the trees beside the river. His heart is free. The spring flowers are everywhere in the pretty clearing and the birds are singing of a new beginning.
It’s here that he tries to work out his philosophy so that he can share it with others.
Brahma is right.
A person who is free from fear and attachment is someone who no longer has to protect himself from others. And a free heart, he now realizes, overflows with love and compassion for the world. It’s a law of nature.
So what can the Buddha do to help others become free too?
His own struggle has been huge. There’s too much to say and it all goes against the flow of people always wanting one thing and another. So the Buddha says to himself, “OK. I’m not going to talk about everything I’ve learned. What’s important is how to be free.”
After the Buddha becomes a great teacher, his monks want him to tell them everything he knows about the world. ‘Does God exist?’ ‘What happens after you die?’ That sort of thing. He pulls a handful of leaves from a nearby tree and asks the monk:
“ Are there more leaves in my fist or in
the forest behind me?
“ In the forest, Lord”
He points first to the forest and then to his fist and adds:
“That is what I know. And this is what I
teach, because this is all you need to know
to be happy and free.”
So the Buddha decides to keep it simple.
People are often unhappy. Many of them are miserable. This is the normal human state of mind. It doesn’t matter how happy and free the Buddha himself is now. He’ll have to start from there.
He thinks back on his life as a prince. He had everything life could offer, but there was still something that made him very uneasy from the start.
He feared everything was about to change.
He knew he couldn’t stop getting old or sick or dying.
He couldn’t stop people he loved from being sick or dying either.
In the long run he realized that he couldn’t control anything in his life. He was stuck so he looked inside himself and found the real source of his pain. Now that he’s discovered it there’s not too much he can say about it, but he can at least point the way out of suffering.
So the Buddha decides he’s not a philosopher and starts thinking more like a doctor.
He doesn’t have to go about trying to tell people everything he knows. He just has to look at them and prescribe the right medicine. And he comes up with this clever little formula which he calls the Four Noble Truths:
1) Suffering exists: “Your problem, my friend, is that you’re suffering ”.
The fact that we all suffer is not so widely accepted
as you may think. People would rather dream about
all the nice things that are going to make them
happy – forever!
2) Suffering has a cause: “You have a fever”
You’re on fire because you’re always wanting stuff or wanting to be rid of stuff. You’re sure that all the things you really, really want are going to make you happy. You don’t get them. Or you get them and you don’t want them anymore. Either way they don’t make you happy for long.
3) There is an end to suffering: “There’s a cure!”
This is the good news. You can end your suffering here and now by giving up all this wanting. It’s like pouring water on the fever. Once you do this, you can cool down and get a better idea of what life’s really about. This is also called nirvana.
4) There’s a way to end suffering: “Let me tell you what to do”
This is Dr. Buddha’s prescription. It’s what you need to take on the road to recovery. It’s a checklist of things to do when you start to walk down this road. The checklist is a map, which he also calls the Middle Way.
Jizo ends by asking us to please think about the Buddha’s words and see if they apply to our own life. Then he sounds the gong.
The meditation lesson is over. Helen asks me if I would walk her to Victoria station. When she smiles at me her face lights up the room.
I say, ‘No problem’. On the way there she asks me if I’m unhappy. I say ‘no’ and it’s true. At this moment I’m feeling very happy.
So I ask her:
“ Are you unhappy?”
Helen looks thoughtful and doesn’t answer right away.
“Me too. Sometimes”
A great feeling of love and compassion wells up in me.
I want to kiss Helen on the lips, but restrain myself. She’s at least two years older than me. She probably has a boyfriend. And I don’t want her to push me off and spoil a perfect moment. So we walk on in silence before we plunge into the crowd at Victoria station.
She smiles at me again before running off to catch her train. I watch her red hair flying behind her as she disappears in the crowd. I feel a sharp pang in my chest. Is it regret or is it something more? How can a 15-year-old who hasn’t lived his life yet start to give up stuff that he’s never had? Too many questions are whirling around in my head. One thing the Buddha sure got right: the important bits are beyond words!
SECOND COMMENT APPEARS ON DYLAN’S BLOG
I’d call that “lust and longing” mate, not “love and compassion.” But go for it. I think she likes you. And as for your important stuff being “beyond words”- give over! More words have been written about that than anything else. That’s not what the Buddha’s talking about.
THIRD COMMENT APPEARS ON DYLAN’S BLOG
Stop being so crude Jerry and show a little compassion yourself.
BUDDHA LOOKS FOR HIS FRIENDS
The Buddha is ready to set off from the spot where he became enlightened, and start teaching. He wonders:
“Who do I know who has little dust in their eyes?”
I ask Jizo what the Buddha means by “dust” and he covers his eyes with the palms of his hands.
“Imagine that a speck of dust gets in your eyes. What’s the first thing you do?”
I think to myself, “This is obvious” but I say:
“You shut your eyes”
“That’s right. The dust blinds you. In the same way our desires blind us so we can’t see the truth of the Buddha’s words. The Buddha tries to think of someone he knew who isn’t so attached to his desires.”
The Buddha’s former teachers are already dead. His five followers have left him, but I suppose he knows where they are. If not he makes an incredibly good guess. They’re in a deer park over a hundred miles away near a city called Varanasi. It’s still around, but it’s now called Benares. You called it India’s holiest city, but did you know it was not only used by Hindus but also by Buddhists? Anyway the Buddha decides to find his old friends there.
On his way to Varanasi, the Buddha comes across a naked ascetic who notices that he has a special glow about him:
“Who is your teacher, friend? And what
law do you teach?”
The Buddha is like all Brahmins and truth seekers in India. He comes straight out with the truth.
“I have no teacher, and my like exists
nowhere in the world.”
He tells the ascetic that he alone is enlightened and is going forth to teach the Law, but the ascetic is unimpressed. He mutters:
“May it be so”
Then the ascetic takes a different route. It isn’t a very good omen. The Buddha’s first attempt to teach, if you can call it that, has been a quick failure. Soon after, he arrives at the Deer Park. His five friends spot him from distance. They agree not to pay him respect:
“Here comes the monk Gautama. He gave
gave up his struggle to find liberation. We
must not pay homage to him”
Nobody gets up, but as soon as the Buddha gets close they find they can’t keep their pact. I can imagine him walking up to them just like Jizo: not too fast, not too slow. He nails it. Perfect! One of the monks takes his begging bowl. Another offers him a seat. Another brings him water, a towel and a footstool for his tired feet. Like the naked ascetic they address him as “friend”, but he isn’t having any of it. Siddhartha the prince and Siddhartha the ascetic are in the past. They’re gone. He tells them to call him the Buddha. Now that he’s enlightened that’s what he expects to be called:
“ I shall teach you the Law. By realizing it
yourselves here and now through direct
knowledge you will enter the Holy Life.”
But his fellow monks still have trouble understanding how he became enlightened after returning to a life of luxury. At least this is how they see it. So the Buddha explains that there are two extremes to be avoided: a life devoted to pleasure and a life devoted to hardship. Both are harmful and unworthy and lead nowhere. Then he tells them about the Middle Way between these two extremes. He also tells them about the Four Noble Truths. Whatever he says, he seems different now. He’s the Buddha.
Kondanna has a flash of insight while he’s sitting there and becomes the first one to really get what the Buddha’s talking about. Soon everyone is convinced. The Buddha’s first try at being a teacher is called the First Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma. He says he didn’t invent anything new. It’s more like finding an old forgotten road to an ancient city. But the city is hidden in your own heart.
After 2500 years a kid like me is here listening to this stuff so the mighty wheel must still be turning