A Pocket Buddha
by Joseph W. Hall
2500 years of fascination with a single individual have cultivated fields and fields of prose and poetry, with each age and each sect adding more and more words to a body of writing larger than any library. As Buddhism has deepened over the centuries, the number of perspectives has grown exponentially and any statement of “fact” about the Buddha can be challenged from all sides as soon as it arises. Even if a lifetime of scholarship were endeavored to the cause, one would be hard pressed to gain a complete understanding of the facets of Buddhism in a single incarnation. Each of us, then, is left to fashion our own construction of the Buddha. Dauntingly, this is like trying to remake a crystal vase from the shards of glass found in a dustpan.
Fortunately, while mesmerizing to look at, a 100 foot Buddha does not enlighten anyone. A pocket size Buddha fits inside the head quite nicely and can be carried around for use wherever needed. Our task here, for those who are meeting Shakyamuni Buddha just now, is to make a utilitarian Buddha which you can take with you to lectures, read books with, and to ponder the occasional overheard conversation. It can be useful as a structure to support and to illuminate new ideas as they come along and to provid a place to sustain your understanding as it grows. To do this, we will try to confine ourselves to basics of a simple story which has resonated across the millennia. And we will stick only to the things that we can be seen to be true, whether they happened or not. So, once upon a time….
A few centuries before the birth of Christ, the part of the world we now call India was caught up in a time of catastrophic peace. Centuries of warfare had come to an end leaving a feudalistic society where property, resources and spouses were held in the hands of a few. This was a society bound together by caste, an immutable system of class, facing a growing threat in the form of a increasingly restive population of young men with no work, no families, and no prospects. It was, in short, a crucible. The pressure grew year after year and if ever a revolution was inevitable, the Indian lands were headed for it.
Late one night, in the northern country that we now call Nepal, a child was born to a chief and was given the name Siddhartha Gautama. As was done in these stories, an astrologer was summoned and he foresaw that the young child would either become a great chief and rule the world or follow the path of renunciation to become a holy man. The chief, like most fathers, was both elated and terrified and so built high walls around his compound to hide the boy and the world from each other. So Siddhartha grew for 29 years, shielded from pain and suffering, his every whim indulged by a bevy of servants with every means at their disposal. At 16, he married and later started a family but at 29, despite the vigilant efforts of everyone around him, Siddhartha one day ventured outside the palace walls.
Riding in an ox cart with a servant, Siddhartha had four encounters which would irrevocably change the path of his life and the future of the land. The first encounter was in seeing a very old man. Siddhartha, appalled at the condition of this person, recoiled and asked what terrible affliction had befallen the man. The servant driving the cart informed Siddhartha not only that this person was aged, but that growing old was happening to every one. Since he was in a town, there was not time to regain his composure before a sick person appeared alongside the road and once again the young prince asked his guide for an explanation only to discover that this general condition of illness would spread amongst all the people with no place to escape. The cart moved on. Passing the river, Siddhartha discovered a corpse floating by. Needless to say, he asked and was horrified to discover that he was looking at his future, and the future of all he knew. The beautiful day had become a macabre landscape. Seeing the suffering and despair, the turmoil of the people searching for food, clothing, and the things they needed to survive, the young prince grew bewildered and terrified. Then, entering the center of the city, Siddhartha had his final encounter, discovering a solitary man, sitting at peace on the side of road. This man had nothing, but yet the smile on his face seemed to radiate and bring calm to those around him. Asking who this person was, he was told that man sitting at the roadside was a renunciate, a holy man. This man had possession of no part of the world that Siddhartha lived in and yet he sat in the midst of all its suffering with peace and equanimity.
The cart moved on to the market, the sun crossed the sky, and in the end the cart passed back behind the palace walls. Despite the fury of Siddhartha’s father, the journey could be retracted. Returning to his home, Siddhartha was inconsolable. Everyone and everything he loved was in a state of decay. Even his young son would one day wither and die, all the while in constant peril of destruction. Not even the earth itself was immune to this suffering. For a fortnight, Siddhartha wandered the palace grounds, wondering what kind of chief he would be if he left his people to a life of misery. But within the walls of the palace there were no answers and one morning his father awoke to find that the young Siddhartha was gone.
It was within the holy man, a yogi, that Siddhartha had seen a glimmer of hope and so it was holy men he sought to teach him how to transcend his suffering. India at the time was alive with a great many religions and practices but the dominant faith of his class was Brahmanism, a practice of ritual and animal sacrifice to appease the various deities and compete for their favor. Siddhartha immediately abandoned the indulgent faith of his childhood and took up the more populist practice of yoga. Over the next several years, Siddhartha rose before dawn and worked day after day to master the most intricate and challenging meditations, breathing exercises and postures, seeking to unite his body and mind. He learned to breathe only once a minute and to slow his heartbeat until it was indiscernible but he discovered that control of body could do nothing to end his suffering permanently. Siddhartha, by now the head student, said goodbye to his teacher and joined the ascetics.
Having failed to end his suffering by perfecting his body, Siddhartha next sought escape by destroying it. For the next several years, traveling with five friends, he studied the teaching of the ascetics. Siddhartha became exquisitely skilled in the various mortification practices of his day, exposing himself to starvation, privation, and pain, all in the hope that the body could be defeated and the mind released. Finally, six years after leaving the dream world of his youth and now eating just a single grain of rice a day, an emaciated Siddhartha sat on the side of a river, approaching the edge of death, realizing that he was no closer to discovering an answer for his people now then when he began.
As he sat, he was swept away by a memory of his childhood. He had sat on the edge of a river as a young boy alongside his father and looking at the grass, he had been distracted by insects. Suddenly, the thought of the insects being destroyed had overwhelmed him and awoke in him a monumental wave of compassion. He realized that all things are connected. Naturally, the future Buddha sat in a meditation pose and the world was revealed to him and this compassion led him to feel profound and penetrating joy. Understanding clearly that the joy he had experienced as a child could not be sustained without food, the renunciate prince now decided that he must eat.
At this moment, a woman approached and offered him a bowl of rice which he accepted. As his strength returned, he realized that his answer lay in neither of the extremes of indulgence nor denial. Instead, Siddhartha became convinced that he would find his answer in the middle way. Failed by friends, abandoned by teachers, he resolved to look within. Fed and bathed, Siddhartha sat beneath a bodhi tree and said, “I will not rise from this spot until I achieve enlightenment.”
Some say he sat many days, others just a single night, but on the last night they say Mara came. Mara, of course, is a demon, one completely devoted to distracting people from the spiritual life. Mara personifies unskillfulness. As Siddhartha approached enlightenment, Mara rushed to the bodhi tree and tried three times to tempt the young bodhisattva. First, Mara sent an army and their weapons were turned to flowers. Then he sent his three daughters, but the young bodhisattva simply sat still, implacable. Finally Mara approached Siddhartha and asked what right he had to enlightenment and demanded to know who would speak for him. Siddhartha touched the earth and the earth shuddered and the demon surrendered. Undisturbed, Siddhartha meditated the rest of the night. When the morning star rose, it is said that he roared like a lion, “At this moment, I and all beings awaken together”
For the next several weeks the new Buddha, or awakened one, remained by the bodhi tree, joyous. But as time passed, the awareness grew that, without the teaching of what was learned at the bodhi tree, the suffering of the world continued. When he could resist this call no more, The Buddha returned to the village and encountered his five friends at a place called Deer Park.
Meeting them he told them that he had achieved enlightenment, a claim which was met with derision, but finally they agreed to sit and listen to his story and the Buddha gave his first sermon. It was simply to tell his companions what he had seen…
And so the Buddha spoke of Dukkha, a wheel which spun slightly off center in its axis, creating a variety of vibrations. Our problem he said is that we expect this wheel to spin perfectly true. This wheel was our lives and there was nothing wrong with the wheel, only in our wanting it to be different then it is. He told of the Four Noble Truths which would form the basis of Buddhism and he began to lay out his framework. One of his friends, Ananda, was said to have the gift of perfect recall and would later write down the words spoken by the Buddha that day, and he began with the first of many lists…
The Four Noble Truths:
- "There is suffering"
- "The cause of suffering is craving"
- "suffering can be extinguished"
- "The end of suffering is via the eightfold noble path.”
This path of which the Buddha spoke was simply a series of practices which were achievable by any human and would lead to escape from samsara, the cycle of endlessly repeating the same actions and results which held us in the quicksand of suffering. These were…
The Eightfold Noble Path
1. Right view
2. Right Intention
3. Right Speech
4. Right Action
5. Right Livelihood
6. Right Effort
7. Right Mindfulness
8. Right Concentration
And so, as the Buddha continued to speak, Ananda continued to write, and as the new religion grew, the fragile peace would begin to root itself deeply in the land and in the region of India, the flowering of a great civilization was just beginning as a young man spoke quietly to his friends.
And it is here, in Deer Park, that I will leave you with Buddha by the edge of a stream.