Apr 9, 2023

Happy Birthday Buddha!

An Easter Essay

The ‘miraculous birth’ is a symbol that appears in many religions, but in the case of the Buddha what it represents might not be what you think.



This year sees the confluence of three religious festivals in the same week.

We have the Jewish Passover festival, the commemoration of the ‘passing-over’ of the angel of death, the final plague sent upon Egypt by God, which triggers Moses to lead the Israelite slaves to liberation and finally to the Promised Land.

Friday is ‘Good Friday’ marking the death of Christ with Sunday as the day of resurrection.

Sandwiched in between on Saturday 8th April is the birth of the Buddha in the NE Buddhist tradition. This birthday is a time for children to pour a ladle of water over the baby Buddha whilst making a wish.

The story of his birth is an interesting example of what the American mythologist, Joseph Campbell, calls the miraculous birth of the hero.  Christ too has a miraculous birth since it was taught that his mother remained a virgin. In the case of the Buddha-to-be, his mother dreamed of a white elephant entering her left side. Shortly afterwards she fell pregnant. Dreams have mostly been taken as portents and messages from heaven. So, it was not surprising that the royal court were expecting this birth to be extra special. They were not disappointed.

The expectant mother, when approaching her time of confinement, was making her way to her own family’s house for the birth, when she was caught short in the Lumbini Gardens. Surrounded by her ladies-in-waiting and standing upright  holding onto the branch of a tree, the baby emerged from her right side. As if that was not sufficient of an entrance, the story goes that he took seven steps in each of the four cardinal directions pointing one hand to heaven and one to earth and declared:

“Between heaven and earth, I alone am the World Honoured One.”

That this story coincides, along with Easter, with Spring and the return of life to the land may be taken as a metaphor for the season but is it possible that it also contains a spiritual truth that could be argued precedes the metaphors of birth, resurrection and liberation?

Joseph Campbell, when talking of the ‘miraculous birth’ suggests that what is pointed at is not a physical birth but a spiritual birth. This still begs the question though, the birth of what exactly?

The Buddha declared that only from the human realm is liberation from samsara possible. Why and what is this liberation anyway?

The classic image of samsara is the Wheel of Life with beings dying and being reborn within the matrix of the six realms - heaven, fighting demons, animals, hell realms, hungry ghosts and the human realm. As a psychological map, it point to our daily round of going through the states of consciousness conditioned by the fires of hot wanting and not-wanting that arise in the presence of the delusion of a separate self - ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’.

It is the heart’s tendency to become attached to ‘I want’ or ‘I must have’ or ‘I won’t’ that, according to the Second Noble Truth of the Buddha, is the cause of our suffering. What ties us to this suffering is that ‘I’ collude with it. In other words, we can be our own worst enemy as anyone who has tried and failed to overcome a bad habit or start a new habit can attest. This tendency to act against our better judgement is what we call impulsiveness. As the saying goes ‘Act in haste, repent at leisure’.

One of the main tasks of a spiritual practice is to shore up this ‘better judgement’ so as to be able to resist the power of the blind impulses. One who has attained the skill of restraint and can exercise better judgement is a person who is more reliable than one who suffers from constantly yielding to his impulses.

However, this is only half the story.

After all what about our animal brothers and sisters?

They live an instinctual life and those instincts guide them. They show the spider how and where to build a web to catch prey and lay eggs. They inform the day-old chick to flee for cover when a hawk flies over the coup. They navigate the salmon over the Atlantic ocean and up the Scottish river to the traditional spawning grounds. These things happen in accord with the time and place in which the creature lives. These are not the same as the impulses in humans which act independently of time and place. Why is this?

Animals live a more unconscious life than humans. What they lack is a strong feeling of separateness in their existence. They are not apart from their situations but form part of it. Humans on the other hand can want food, sex, and power independent of the requirements of the circumstances or situations formed by time and place. Hence, in Buddhist cosmology and metaphysics the emphasis placed on the inter-connectedness of all things to each other and the emptiness of separateness of self in all things.

But what sort of consciousness underpins the existence of ‘I’, for, although the Buddha said that a separate self is a delusion, there has to be a genuine state of consciousness that allows the actual delusion to come into being? In fact, there is.

This faculty of consciousness that underpins what is called sati in Pali and smrti in Sanskrit. These terms are usually translated as ‘mindfulness’ in English but this can obscure an important characteristic of this state. It has the power to reflect back on other states of consciousness. Whereas the state of a fighting demon may know heat and aggression and desire to violence, sati knows that this state has arisen. Because it knows this it also knows that this demon is not itself. In effect it is the difference between the one who utters ‘I hate you!’ and the one who knows ‘I am feeling hatred towards you.’ However, even this latter one is still identifying as a self ‘I’ who has feelings of hate. So, even though there is reflection and a differentiation from the hateful impulse by this reflective state it is still caught up in seeing/feeling itself as a separate being. What the Buddha pointed to in his sutta on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness is a more neutral state that sees without ‘I’, the expression is more along the lines of: ‘There is a feeling of hate that has arisen’. This is pure sati/smrti without the delusion of ‘I’.

In the schemata of the Five Wisdoms, this is the mirror-wisdom that has the quality of non-duality and that can see clearly without denying the interdependence of all things, that which Thich Nhat Hanh calls ‘interbeing’.

To see things as they really are in all circumstances, as interbeing, is the Enlightenment of the Buddha-Seeing. It is this consciousness that, when afflicted, becomes the delusion of ‘I’ and when cleansed of this affliction is synonymous with the Buddha’s own Wisdom. Surely this seeing is ‘World Honoured’? What is more, it sees clearly everywhere, represented by the babe’s taking seven steps in the four cardinal directions.

As we see the flowering trees and new shoots emerging and as we watch the birds build their nests which will house the next generation, perhaps we can reflect that this state of interbeing is and has always been around us, if we can open up and take it in.

Happy Birthday Buddha!

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