For Iku Mayeda with deep gassho!
Japanese Buddhists celebrate December 8th as Bodhi Day, the day young prince Siddhartha Gautama of the Shakya clan dropped all clinging and aversion, stopped seeking, transcended suffering, and awakened to his true nature and to the true nature of all being. The young prince then became known as the Buddha, or the awakened one. For 2,600 years his teachings have spread across this planet, providing tools and insights that enable human beings everywhere to transcend the cause of suffering and awaken to their true nature.
The Buddha’s story is very much our story, in one way or another, so when I tell the story of the Buddha, I tell it as it might happen today.
Siddhartha was born into a wealthy and powerful family, much like the Kennedys or Rockefellers. His was a life of extreme privilege. He had no wants as his parents had the resources to provide anything and everything he wanted or needed.
He grew up in California in a beautiful and exotic gated community overlooking the Pacific Ocean. His father continued in the family business that had created the family fortune generations ago. From a very young age Siddhartha was groomed to someday take over the business.
Siddhartha’s mother was a beautiful, charming and compassionate woman who did great good as the family philanthropist. She believed in graciously sharing the family’s good fortune with those in need.
Siddhartha went to the very finest private school. He was an excellent student and athlete but tended to annoy his teachers and fellow students by questioning everything. He had an inquiring mind and always wanted to know how his teachers knew what they claimed to know. He was seen as being somewhat contrary, and yet he was very sincere in his questioning. He was a natural skeptic.
When he graduated from private school, he went on to Harvard. He did fairly well academically but was distracted by all of the fascinating possibilities that existed in the Cambridge/Boston/New England area. He found young women were very attracted to him and so he began experimenting sexually. He visited nightclubs and bars and went to rock concerts. He had many a late night.
Influenced by his studies in human psychology, Siddhartha began experimenting with various psychedelics. Through these experiments, he discovered how little humans really know about themselves and reality. He came to see that, like everyone else, he was deeply entranced by his conditioned mind and his assumptions about reality. What he thought was true was just that — thought. He found that, like everyone else, he lived within a self-reflecting bubble of perception.
And then one night an event occurred that radically transformed Siddhartha’s life. His latest girlfriend was intelligent, beautiful, and more than a little odd. She wanted Siddhartha to go with her to a talk that was to be given at a small meditation center way out in the country somewhere. If he hadn’t already read the scientific reports on the tremendous value of meditation, he would have never gone.
The meditation teacher was a very simple and unpretentious person who simply pointed out that no matter how powerful, wealthy, intelligent, or important you imagine yourself to be, chances are you will suffer, grow old, be sick, and die. This that we call “my life” is impermanent and transitory. It appears and then disappears, here one day and gone the next, like a bubble popping on the surface of a stream.
“What are you, really?” the teacher asked. “What is really real? What is really true?” The teacher looked directly into Siddhartha’s eyes. “You had better find out now, while you still have a chance.”
Siddhartha left the center completely in turmoil. He couldn’t sleep for several nights, as he saw the truth of everything the teacher had said. Even though he had been raised in the traditional family religion, he had early on rejected it, as none of the ministers of his church could even come close to satisfactorily answering the questions of his inquiring mind. From his point of view, they were a fearful and superstitious lot, accepting without question what they had been told to believe.
But now Siddhartha wished he could believe in something, in anything! He clearly saw the apparent emptiness and meaningless of life. You are born, you live awhile struggling with the tasks of everyday living, you grow old ( if you are lucky), get sick, and die. What does it all mean? Where is it all going?
In his last days at Harvard, Siddhartha entered into full-blown existential despair. He became anxious, depressed, bitter, and cynical. He easily saw through all of the traditional answers given by religion, philosophy, and science. Just before he graduated, he made an appointment to see the meditation teacher who had so disrupted his life. The teacher listened to his story with great attention and interest.
When Siddhartha had finished explaining the depths of his anxiety, depression and despair, the teacher laughed and said, “There can be an end to your despair. I can’t tell you how, only that it can happen. You must find it. There is now no other possibility for you. Ha, ha, ha, ha! And when you do find it, you will then know that you have always had it. You have always been it.”
Siddhartha graduated from Harvard and returned to sunny California. He entered the family business. He bought a beautiful home and several exotic cars and had all the luxuries of life. He soon met a wonderful young woman from a prominent family and they married. Within two years, they had a healthy baby boy. Everything in Siddhartha’s life seemed absolutely perfect. He seemed to be living the charmed life of privilege and power that everyone dreams of.
And yet every night he would spend hours lying awake contemplating the fact that he was one day closer to his death and he still had no idea what he really was and what life was really about, if anything at all. Although Siddhartha had it all, he couldn’t enjoy it, as his ongoing existential despair was a barrier between him and his life of privilege. Finally, he decided to do something about it.
Siddhartha began reading all of the books and attending all of the seminars and trainings by all those considered to be the best spiritual teachers around such as Adyashanti, Deepak Chopra, Eckhart Tolle, Ken Wilber, Gangaji, and the Dalai Lama. He went on retreat in India, Japan, and Costa Rica. He learned to meditate, chant powerful mantras, be present, create his own reality, and generate powerful, positive attractor fields.
Because he was a quick study, came from a well-known family and was a bit of a celebrity himself, he began to be asked to teach with the famous teachers. He wrote introductions to their books, appeared on TV shows with them, and sat at their side during satsang. Everyone assumed he was enlightened, because he was so charming and knowledgeable and could even sit quietly during meditation.
And yet something was still wrong. The overlay of spiritual knowledge and experience stopped working after the novelty of it all wore off. The existential despair returned, worse than ever. Siddhartha knew all of the popular spiritual answers, practices and truths, but they were clearly not it. What to do? Where to go? Who to be? Now what?
Late one evening, Siddhartha spontaneously left his gated community and caught the last night flight to Boston. He didn’t use the family jet, as he didn’t want anyone to know where he was going.
Early the next morning, he drove out to the little meditation center in the country. The teacher was home all alone. Once again, Siddhartha told him his story and once again the teacher listened with great attention and interest. When he finished, the teacher simply said, “There is nothing you can do and there is nothing you need to do. How hard is it to be what you are? Let everything fall away that can fall away. Let everything die that can die. And then see what is always here — unborn, deathless.”
Siddhartha went out into the woods behind the meditation center and sat under an old oak tree. Somehow, all seeking stopped. Everything fell away. The center pole that had propped up his whole house of cards collapsed. The dream of separation ended. Truth awakened to itself. Siddhartha was no longer Siddhartha, but Buddha, the Awakened One. Only One.
After awhile, Siddhartha got up and went back inside the meditation center. He sat quietly with the teacher in the meditation room for quite some time. Finally, the teacher said, “Come. Let’s eat.” They went into kitchen. Silence prevailed as they ate together. After the meal, they went outside to enjoy the cool New England weather and look out into the vastness of the night.
Siddhartha turned to the meditation teacher. He had to say it, deep from his heart, even though he knew it wasn’t necessary.
“Thank you. Thank you very much.”
The teacher smiled and replied, “De nada.” And then the teacher said to Siddhartha, “You know, teaching will begin to happen through you soon.”
“But this can’t be taught!” said Siddhartha. “There is nothing to teach! Teaching would be like selling water to fish in the middle of a lake.”
“Yes, yes, and it will all happen anyway. Spontaneously. And the teaching will be misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misrepresented from the very beginning. What to do? And yet, somehow, some will see it and awaken anyway.”
Eventually, Siddhartha left the center and returned home. His wife and parents thought he had had a complete mental breakdown because he just wasn’t himself any more. He eventually left the family business and the gated community that had been his home throughout his life.
Teaching did begin to happen through him and he was roughly criticized from all corners, as his teaching was nothing like those being sold in the marketplace. A few of his old teachers understood what had happened to him, nodded their heads, and kept their mouths shut. There was really nothing to say.
Compassionately, that which cannot be taught continued to be taught through Siddhartha for the rest of his long life. And over time, those who wanted to know the truth more than anything else eventually found their way to Siddhartha only to discover that they too are Buddhas. They, too, are awake. They, too, are unborn, deathless, and free. And so are you!
Happy Bodhi Day to you!
Namu Amida Butsu!