THE STORY OF THE BUDDHA: A SYMBOLIC TALE
In this series of articles we look at the story of the Buddha as a living symbol, a story that speaks to lives being lived now; charting the way for those who follow those teachings first delivered 2,500 years ago.
We know little of the history of the man who became Buddha. We know he existed, that he came from a small kingdom on the border of modern Nepal and NE India. We know he preached and founded Buddhism. What we do have is a traditional tale.
There are a number of stories about the Buddha which appear in various places but nowhere is there one single version of events.
Why is it that some stories are told and re-told over many generations?
One reason may be that there is something about the story which resonates with the contemporary hearts and minds of the hearers. We may wonder if such a story is fiction or ‘real’. But perhaps a more pertinent question is what sort of truth does this story tell?
A story may or may not have happened. But its symbolic truth is a different matter and is not dependent upon historical events.
In this article we will be looking at what symbolic truths the Buddha’s story tells us and why that matters to someone living in our day and age.
The backdrop to this story is the Buddhist conception of time and its understanding of the nature of the world.
Buddhism is a child of the East and comes from a very different set of assumptions to our way of seeing the world and ourselves here in the West.
One such difference is the way we interpret time. Here, events are one-off. My life, your life and the life of the universe have a beginning, middle and an end. This is no rehearsal it is a ‘for one night only’ show that stutters briefly to life, endures for a while and then goes – we do not really know where – at least not anymore!
This puts a great emphasis on the individual life, whether of a person or of the world. The preciousness of our single life and of our world is emphasised.
In the East, time and events are cyclical. Here on this Wheel of Life there is a perpetual coming-to-be and ceasing-to-be. Here there are incalculable aeons and innumerable worlds. Buddha’s like ordinary people come and go in vast multiplicities that stretch from a beginningless beginning towards and endless end. Here the emphasis is not on the individual but on those institutions which outlive the individual life, such as family or tradition.
Another difference is how Nature is viewed. Here Nature is subservient to Man. Both in our religion and in our science it is for us to name it (as God gave to Adam in Genesis), and ultimately to control it.
In the East Nature itself is the ideal. We, on the other hand, have fallen from that ideal and so our task is to put ourselves back into alignment with it. Buddhism comes from this way of seeing.
Perhaps the biggest difference is the way good and evil are conceived.
In the West, they are seen as separate; we come from the lineage of dragon-slayers. Here the good knight will at some point slay the wicked dragon and then good will prevail. This is the root of our eschatology, our politics, our idealisms, that at some point in the future it would be possible to wipe out evil.
In the East that scenario would be inconceivable. Why? Because good and evil are a pair of opposites and like all other opposites such as light and dark, life and death, high and low, they are co-dependent. If we think of that classic Chinese symbol the Yin-Yang, the black ‘fish’ with a white eye and the white ‘fish’ with the black eye – they are eternally conjoined and cannot be separated. One side even contains the ‘eye’ of its opposite to make the point.
So when we look at the story of how Prince Gautama became the Buddha we must keep this difference in mind.
QUEEN MAYA’S DREAM
It starts with a dream. In the little Himalayan kingdom of the Shakya clan, King Suddodana rules with his wife Queen Maya.
One night the Queen dreams of a magnificent white elephant which comes towards her carrying a lotus flower and enters her side.
In our age, dreams may still catch our attention from time to time but they are not often seen as being of great importance. However, in the past dreaming was seen as one way that the gods spoke to us.
Still in psychotherapy, dreams are seen as ‘messages from the unconscious and these oracles worthy of note. But where do they come from and why do we dream?
There are different theories to account for them but tradition gives them a numinosity and a ‘big’ dream can prey on our minds and evoke powerful emotions.
Queen Maya consulted at the court as to the meaning of her dream and was told that it signified some great event. So when she became pregnant shortly afterwards it was assumed the coming birth would be most significant.
As it was the custom for an expectant mother to give birth in her father’s house, Queen Maya was on her way home, when she was caught short in the Lumbini gardens. The story goes that she gave birth to the great being standing up holding onto a tree with her right hand and with the child being born, not in the usual way but emerging from her right side.
Now, here we have the theme of a miraculous birth – typical of semi-divine figures of myths and legends. What are we to make of this? Should be put it down to a fanciful device of the storyteller’s craft or does it point to something else?
As this is the Buddha’s life story perhaps we can make an assumption; that the Buddha, who tells his own story in the different parts of the canonical texts, only told what was useful to walking the Way.
This being so, we can look deeper at this motif.
What is clear is that a miraculous birth is not an ordinary birth. In fact it points away from this by deliberately making the event magical.
The word ‘Buddha’ is not a name but a title meaning ‘The Awakened One’. The verb ‘budh’ means to ‘wake-up’.
We know that the Buddha’s teachings are motivated by suffering and the way out of suffering. But that way out is by the path of clear-seeing. Hence why ‘Right View’ is the first stage on the Noble Eightfold Path.
What is it that sees or hears, or touches, tastes, smells or cognizes? What is it that knows these things and can also be blinded?
Is it not our consciousness?
As a practice what are we doing?
We are developing mindful awareness, in our sitting meditation and in our daily activities and we do this so that we can see our true motivations and to distinguish what is real from what is not real.
So perhaps we can look upon this miraculous birth as the emergence of a consciousness that can see things as they really are? In Pali the word for this clear-seeing consciousness is ‘sati’, and there is a sutta devoted to it called in English ‘The Foundations of mindful-awareness (sati). This scripture gives the instructions for both sitting meditation and meditation in activity. It also includes the practice of restraint and working with the passions which blind consciousness when they take-over.
We all have the ability to be aware but it is partial, it is often not well developed. What we have in the teachings are ways of developing that awareness so that it becomes established in our lives and acts as the basis for living.
If we take this consciousness as the birth of the great being, then perhaps we can see that this story is not about someone who lived a long time ago in a far distant place, rather it is our own story as we take steps along the Buddha’s ancient Way.
As soon as he was born, it is said that the new-born baby took seven steps and looking in all directions declared:
“Between heaven and earth,
I alone am the World-Honoured One.”
If this awareness, when developed, is the instrument for the ending of suffering; then surely it is to be honoured and the single liberating factor for us and for all beings between ‘heaven and earth’.
LIFE IN THE PALACE
Once the Queen brought the baby back to the palace a wise man called Atisha was consulted on the future destiny of the child. Atisha’s forecast was that there were two possible destinies for the child. Either he would be a Great World Ruler or a religious teacher.
King Suddhodana, wanted more than anything for his son to follow in his own footsteps and was advised that if he wanted to avoid the boy turning to the religious life then to keep him in the palace to avoid any disappointments that could turn his head towards the spiritual life.
So the boy was raised to be a future king with all an education could bring him for that time. He was greatly skilled and had many gifts as well as a kind temperament. And although his father gave him all he could want he was not allowed to set foot outside the palace.
As was the custom, he married young the lovely Yasodhara who bore a son whom they called Rahula.
But Prince Gautama was restless and wanted to see what lay beyond the palace. He made a request to his father to be allowed to go outside. At first his father was reluctant but after much insistence by his son, he relented and hatched a plan to ensure that all would go smoothly…
We call childhood the age of innocence, and although this is a somewhat rosy view there is recognition that a human child must be protected, cared for and nurtured for a number of years so that the vicissitudes of the world do not overwhelm.
Ideally, we are not exposed too early to the full impact of the world’s suffering so as to avoid too much trauma. In this way our own childhoods are akin to Prince Guatama’s own palace home. Our needs are catered for and we learn our way gradually acclimatising ourselves to this world so that we become fully functioning adult members of society.
In this way we can see this stage of Gautama’s life as our own childhood writ large.
But to stay in this state is no good either. Learning to cope with real life full-on is part of the maturation process and is lifelong. If we are shielded too much or cannot make the break then we risk not being able to stand on our own two feet and never discover the strength of our own autonomy.
However there is one further thing to recognise from this part of the life-story. Even when we become adults, we have a tendency to keep creating such palaces within which we can live our lives. Here we have our comfort zones, our affirmations, our friends and family which for better and worse give us a sense of identity. What happens when life interrupts this self-made bubble? What happens when that relationship breaks down or the boss tells us that we are to be ‘let go’ or the doctor looks gravely at us and says there is some bad news?
No matter how protected we may feel into each life some such event or events will undoubtedly occur.
FOUR FATEFUL TRIPS BEYOND THE PALACE
So, King Suddhodana arranged for the streets to be cleared of anyone who looked ill or distressed and made sure only the most beautiful people were on show. However the story goes that the gods themselves took a hand in the matter as this was going to be a pivotal event in the life of the young prince and it was important that what happened next would cause a complete turnaround in his life..
So the prince took in total four trips outside the palace. On his first trip out he witnessed a sick man, on the second, an old man, on the third a corpse and for the fourth trip out sitting in the dust by the side of the road a wandering holy man.
Each time he had to ask his charioteer, Channa, what he was seeing? Channa explained quite graphically that what he was seeing was what happened to all of us in time. Not only does this happen to us but it happens to those we love, our parents, our spouses and our children.
This was a revelation to the prince.
Now, this may seem odd, as we heard earlier that the prince was well-educated and must be aware that people grow old, get sick and die and yet to see it with his own eyes somehow brought it violently home to him.
Every day we hear terrible things that are happening in the world and yet are we touched by them?
By and large we feel, perhaps unconsciously, that these things are happening to other people.
It is rather like if there is a terrible accident, say an aircraft crashes killing everyone on board. If the passengers come from the other side of the world then – yes, it is tragic but we soon forget it. If there are a number of passengers from our own country then we begin to sit up and take notice. If there is someone from our own town or neighbourhood then we begin to feel it is closer to home. If there was a member of our own family then we are bereaved.
The closer that it comes to ‘I’ the more ‘real’ it becomes.
Those first three outings brought home to the prince the precariousness of life and the truth of impermanence. When we look at the Great Wheel of Life we see that it is in the clutches of a three eyed fierce monster. That monster is nothing other the principle of impermanence, one of the Three Signs of Being. The reason that it looks so terrifying is that it is just at this moment taking away some cherished thing. If it is taking away a despised thing then it would assume the guise of a delivering angel. We see things in terms of ‘I’ and ‘me’ and ‘mine’.
By the time of the fourth trip out we must remember that the prince had been deeply traumatised by what he saw. All he could see was sickness, old age and death and the world was on fire with it.
When he came across the holy man sitting serenely he could not understand it. So he asked the man why we was so at peace? The reply came that his peace came from his search for the deathless.
The prince vowed that if that were so then he too would search for the deathless.
THE GREAT RENUNCIATION
The great bodhisattva (one who walks towards Enlightenment for the benefit of all beings), makes his decision to go forth to discover the cause of suffering. This means leaving his wife and child at home.
The only way he can live with this is by making a great vow to return once he has found his answer to give share it with those he loves and in fact with all beings.
It is rather like discovering that someone I love is fatally ill. How far will I go to cure them, even if it entails leaving home and abandoning them for a while to seek out that cure?
King Suddodana would not willingly let his own son and heir go so the prince leaves in the dead of night on his horse. According to legend the devas hold the hooves of his horse so that they make so sound or raise any alarm to the sleeping inhabitants of the palace.
This is a very moving part of the story as there is a time in all our lives when we have to leave the comforts of home to go forth into uncharted territory. What brings this about is some unsurmountable problem which drives me on.
Soko Morinaga Roshi, a contemporary Zen Master described his encounter with a new student.
When a new student comes to me the first thing I look for is whether or not he has a problem? If he does not then as quickly as possible I give him one. After that my task is to make that problem worse and worse until he has no option but to drop it. After that it is all over!
It may seem cruel but we can be lazy creatures and often reluctant to leave our personal ‘palaces’ of comfort even for the sake of the Dharma. So a strong motivation is needed – problems supply this motivation.
Even the Dalai Lama once said that our enemy is our greatest teacher!
TWO TEACHERS, TWO LINEAGES
The teacher recognises the great potential of his student and it is not too long before the bodhisattva attains the same depth of insight as his own teacher. But, still it is clear to him that these states do not reveal to him the cause of suffering.
In the meantime his teacher offers the bodhisattva the succession; that is after the teacher has died the bodhisattva would become guru in his place. This offer is declined because the bodhisattva needs to go on and find the answer to his question.
Now he finds another teacher and the same pattern as above is repeated. He excels in his attainment, equals his teacher and is offered the succession but declines because again he still cannot find an answer even in these more sublime states of consciousness.
There are two points to be made from this section of the story; one is about remaining true to the initial vow and not being distracted by personal attainments, the second is not being carried away by the glamour of profound states of consciousness.
An intensive meditation practice is demanding and will throw up all the attachments, which one by one must be laid down.
There will be times when a student will feel ‘I cannot go on’ and in fact reaching this point is necessary once or twice in order to ‘go beyond’ what ‘I’ think ‘I’ can do to discover the power of the Buddha nature that lies beyond ‘I’.
Once some attainment has accrued but before the thorough removal of ‘I’ has taken place there is temptation to just settle down. This is a well-known stage and must be firmly resisted. There is no half-way house here, if that deep root of ‘I’ is not weeded out then it is only a matter of time before it begins to grow again and what has been attained is lost.
There have been a many ecstatic religions throughout history. By ‘ecstatic’ is that transportation that takes place in bliss, whether it is produced by drugs, sex or meditational practices. But all such states are transitory – they do not last – and once it has worn off we are back where we started only now rather depressed that it has gone away again.
This is the error in attachment to spiritual ‘highs’ which can be brought about by intensive meditation.
Sometimes the student may feel that s/he must in in the right frame of mind to sit zazen but this is not true. The aim of zazen is awareness of what is just now arising – the judgements of ‘I’ over whether it is good or bad are also mental objects and can come into awareness. They too arise and pass away. To prefer one to the other and to go chasing after bliss states is only to pour petrol on the conflagration.
RETREAT TO THE FOREST AND THE FIVE ASCETICS
So he retreated to the forest, in the Southern tradition, or the mountains in the Northern tradition. There he began the severe ascetic practices.
It is said that he ate just one grain of rice a day; went naked and ceased from washing and cutting nails and hair and so on. This was the usual series of practices undertaken by the many sadhus and holy wanderers both now and then.
So severe did the bodhisattva maintain these practices that five like-minded ascetics took him as their guru.
After some time, practicing in this way, the bodhisattva realised that he was close to death. His body was little more than a skin bag of bones. It was said that he could grasp his spine with his hand from the front of his abdomen.
Although unafraid of death, he did not wish to die with his question unanswered. Remaining true to that initial vow he relinquished his ascetic practices by taking a meal of rice-gruel from a passing lay woman and washing in the river. When the five ascetics saw what he had done they were outraged; complaining that “The ascetic Gautama has taken to a life of luxury!”
The practice of asceticism is probably as old as religion itself it has had its adherents both East and West.
There is no doubt that it can induce altered states of consciousness including visions. However we must never forget that this is not the concern of Buddhism which can be summed up in that saying of the Buddha:
“Suffering I teach, and the way out of suffering.”
Particularly with our Western religions there is an inherent belief that spirit and matter are separate and opposed. That the world is the plaything of the ‘devil’ and all his works. Even today in secular society we have the notion that one can ‘sell out’ ones ideals to be a ‘wage slave’ contains an assumption that the two are somehow incompatible.
It is fundamental to Buddhism that essentially the world itself is quite neutral. What makes things good or bad is the motivational basis to our actions. The problem with the ascetic attitude is that there is still an assumption that certain things are inherently ‘bad’. Thus some things are to be avoided. Buddhism is quite forthright in laying the basis for human suffering as attachment to things especially to the view of self. The attachment lies in the heart not in the object of attachment.
The five ascetics believed that by avoiding certain things they are ‘rising above’ the attachments. But that error was revealed when they became angry at their ‘guru’ who was now eating and bathing – two things that go against the practice of asceticism.
When an attachment is activated then there is an emotional reaction. The attachment in this case was to the perfection of spiritual practice itself what is otherwise known as spiritual pride.
If they had asked Gautama about why he was doing this that would be one thing but they judged him, found him wanting and turned their backs on him. One can feel their anger in this response.
SITTING UNDER THE BODHI TREE
He had recalled a time from his youth when being left to his own devices during a ploughing ceremony, we fell into a deep Samadhi.
This memory re-surfaced at a critical time during the ascetic period and inspired him to try this simple practice from long ago as a possible way out of suffering.
Now starts the final leg of the long, long journey to Buddhahood for the great being.
If we take into account the many birth stories called jataka tales, then this journey started many long aeons ago. Now, finally we come to the culmination of all that effort.
Buddhism makes a great play on the long period of time it takes to achieve Buddhahood and it may be worth pondering why?
As we saw from the ascetics it is all too easy to get caught up in ‘my attainments’ and equally easy to lose heart when things do not happen as quickly as I would like. Like a straw fire, some students burn brightly at the beginning but quickly burn out when things do not happen fast enough.
Buddhism places emphasis on each step of the way rather than looking to end states or to achievements. The presence of the ‘here and now’ is extinguished by yearning for end results and so these too must be laid down as just another accessory of ‘I’.
Placing the aim so far into the future means there can be no reliance on it and so it can be let-go as we go deeper into the moment. In fact what we discover is that this end result is only a thought.
The length of time he sat under what become known as the Bodhi Tree (Tree of Awakening), varies in different tellings but most authorities say it was seven days and seven night.
It is because of this that in Chan/Zen monasteries the first week of December (the dark winter month), sees the Great Rohasu sesshin to commemorate the event.
This is a particularly harsh sesshin with very little sleep, in the great cold with intensive interviews (sanzen), it is particularly gruelling. For an account of what it is like interested readers are referred to ‘The Zen Way’ by Irmgard Schloegl (Myokyo-ni).
I remember Ven. Myokyo-ni once saying on her first Rohatsu, that after about three days any working on the koan had pretty much dropped off due to lack of sleep but she needed something to keep her going. So she developed a little mantra
‘Dead men have no wishes.”
This she said kept her going for a few more days but by the final two days even that did not cut it so she altered her mantra to:
‘Dead men have wishes and no thoughts!’
This she said saw her through.
THE TEMPTATIONS BY MARA
In the Hindu pantheon Mara is one of the great gods whose kingdom is this world of desire, Samsara.
Now any king is keen that his realm is not depopulated and Mara is no different. A Buddha comes along to show the way out from Samasara so naturally Mara is not keen for this to happen and will try to prevent production of a Buddha whenever he can.
He also provides another function. The final crossing over from the basis of ‘I’ to that of No-I is a perilous one, for if the vessel is not ready then the trauma can be so great as to shatter the container.
Mara’s temptations will show if the root of ‘I’ has been thoroughly removed or if there is still some vestige which will grow up when an opportunity presents itself. If this were to happen once the turning around of the heart base has occurred then all the power of the Buddha nature may be warped by the presence of remaining attachment to self and this will create a trail of destruction.
In that Zen classic the Bull herding pictures it is said that if this occurs what we get is not a Bodhisattva but a Bull-man or Bull-woman, a strangely charismatic figure who can lead others because of that great power and who can bring great suffering too because of that blindness caused by the unexposed root to self.
The first temptation was to the sense of duty.
Mara told the seated figure that this was quite enough and it was now time for him to take his place by his father’s side at his son and heir. Also that his son needed his father and his wife a husband.
These are powerful attachments, not only now but particularly in India where family was considered paramount.
But the great being knew that this was not going to save those he loved and that he must continue until that problem of suffering had been fully realised.
Next Mara sent his daughters, who are desire itself, they tried to inveigle the seated figure to leave the tree but there was no ‘I’ to be tempted anymore and so no inroad could be made.
Finally Mara sent his sons, the terrifying demons to use fear to try to make him leave his place.
Again there was no inroad as there was no-self left to frighten.
For desire and fear to work there has to be a feeling of ‘I’, because this ‘I’ must feel a lack of something or a wish to get rid of something and that can only occur if there is something other to obtain or repel.
Thus the duality of ‘I’ and ‘other’ is a pre-requisite for either desire or fear.
Mara having failed in his mission now withdraws
There is a traditional teaching in Zen that when the student is ready there is the need for some kind of intervention from outside to cause the turning around of the heart base. In traditional training circumstances it might be the teacher who provides this intervention.
The Sixth patriarch said “Before thinking of good and bad, what is the true face before father and mother were born?” This brought the monk called Myo to awakening.
Another when asked about the true nature of Buddha replied “The oak tree in the garden.” This also brought a student to awakening.
We also hear stories of one who awoke hearing the sound of a babbling brook; another who smells the peach blossoms; another who hears a key falling onto a desk.
All these are likened to the chick which is now fully formed inside the egg. The mother hen senses this and gives a sharp peck to the smooth shell which allows the chick inside a rough edge to use its egg tooth to release itself.
So there is coming together of inside and outside, Dharma and karma to bring this great work to fruition.
According to the Buddha’s story it was in the quiet of the morning of the eighth day at dawn that the bodhisattva, coming out of meditation, looked up into the sky and saw the morning star.
When that sensation impacted on that empty heart it awoke and became Buddha which means the One who is Awake.
Text copyright to The Zen Gateway