Sep 2, 2020
Martin Goodson

How the Buddha's life-story is our life-story.

An examination of concepts and symbols embedded in the Buddha's life-story which act as a mirror for a deeper understanding of the meaning of one's own individual life.

M.C. Escher's - Drawing Hands

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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 these 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 that 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 these articles we will be looking at what are the symbolic truths that the Buddha’s story tells us and why that matters to someone living in our day and age.

The backdrop to this story is both 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 than 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. There, on the Wheel of Life, there is a perpetual coming-to-be and ceasing-to-be. There are incalculable aeons and innumerable worlds. Buddhas, like ordinary people, come and go in vast multiplicities that stretch from a beginningless beginning towards an 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 in the West Nature is subservient to Man. Both in our religion and in our science it is for us to name it (since God gave all Nature 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, particularly Chinese Buddhism, comes from this way of seeing.

Perhaps the biggest difference is in 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 will 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 interdependent. If we think of the 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.

Therefore, when we look at the story of how Prince Gautama became the Buddha we must keep this difference in mind.