Now and then, when I feel that my practice needs a little inspiration, I turn to the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment. Buoyed by the accounts in the sutras or the many excellent books written about his life, I make space for him in my mind, attempting to walk in his shoes and feel myself as he must have been: a clear-eyed wanderer devoted single-mindedly to the search for liberation, a state he calls “the unbinding.”
Usually I pick up the tale at the point where the former prince has just left his teachers, having realized that their path was not his path and that their teachings would not lead him to freedom. In my mind’s eye, I see him wandering through the Magadhan countryside, where he’s gone looking for a place to practice. Over time, his wandering takes him to the town of Uruvela [now Bodhgaya], where he finds a quiet forest grove with a clear-flowing river, and nearby, a number of villages to do his alms rounds. Deciding it’s the perfect spot, he takes his seat, saying to himself, “‘This is just right for the striving of a clansman intent on striving.’ So I sat down right there, thinking, ‘This is just right for striving.’” (Maha-Saccaka Sutta, trans. by Thanissaro Bikkhu, 2008.)
He must have known that ultimately, the perfect place is not outside but inside. But being the future Buddha, he must also have known that it helps to have a place, a space, in which to do that initial turning. A space like a shrine room, or a gompa, or a zendo. Like the corner of a room with a small altar, a meditation mat and cushion. Knowing that the real power was in his mind, Siddhartha still took the time to choose his seat carefully, a place that would be just right for the kind of intensive practice he was about to do.
Wallace Stevens has a poem, “The Well Dressed Man With A Beard,” that says:
After the final no there comes a yes
And on that yes the future world depends.
One thing remaining infallible would be enough.
Ah! douce campagna of that thing!
Ah! douce campagna, honey in the heart…
In one sense, the Buddha-to-be was looking for that one infallible thing. The thing that would lead to the end of suffering. The one thing that he could truly rely on. So he sat down in this sweet country, this “douce campagna, honey of the heart,” and turned inward. This is the point where he begins his six years of ascetic practices, pushing himself to the edge of what a human being could endure and still live. He used awareness to crush his mind and practiced the trance of non-breathing. He went without food for long periods of time, and when he couldn’t fast any longer, he ate only a handful of soup or a few rice grains. Over time, he became so emaciated that his arms became thin like vines, his spine like a string of beads, and his ribs like a barn’s old rafters. His hair rotted at the roots, falling out in clumps, and his strength dwindled so much that when he tried to relieve himself, he fell on his face where he was standing. And when his life was more death than life, he realized that this was not the path to freedom and lasting peace, either. Then the crucial moment: the Buddha sits alone at the edge of the world, as it were, with everything known behind him. All he has is a sense, a wordless knowing, that in him is everything he needs to have, everyone he needs to be, to liberate himself. The question is how.
Long before realization, moments like this appear in our practice, and they can be excruciating. We know without a doubt that what we’ve been doing so far is no longer working, that the path we are on is no longer our path, but we don’t yet know where else to turn. These are the moments after the final no and before the first yes. But if we can trust that yes, then all we have to do is hang on, and be patient.
Not this practice, the Buddha realized after all his many years of single-minded searching. Not that teaching. Not this austerity. Not this painful striving. But if not these, then what? A memory. Looking in, the Buddha remembers himself, at eight years old, sitting under a rose-apple tree during his kingdom’s first spring planting. He remembers taking shelter from the heat, the noise, the life and death unfolding before him in the worms wiggling out of the hoes’ reach, a mouse scooped up by an eagle’s talons, the sweating, heaving hide of the oxen, the strained faces of the farmers. Facing all of these, Siddhartha folds his legs, lowers his eyes, and enters a deep, blissful, and effortless concentration.
Now, many years later, he asks himself, “Could this be the path to awakening? Could this be the way I’ve been looking for?” And trusting the question, the future Buddha again takes his seat and vows to himself to not budge until he’s realized himself.
I remember this when my own zazen feels difficult. I remember that after all those years of study, all those years of intensive practice, this is what the Buddha returned to: his own body and mind, stillness and silence. I remember this and I feel the faith and courage the Buddha needed in that moment to do what he did next—to sit, silent and unmoving, as Mara’s armies waged war with every weapon they had, trying to topple the prince from his seat. Lust, greed, thirst, doubt. The Buddha faced them all and stared them down, finally touching his hand to the ground and asking the earth to witness his realization. “I know you, house-builder,” the Buddha said to Mara, and said to himself. “You won’t build a house again. Your rafters are broken, your ridge pole is destroyed. My mind is now at peace.”
And all through this long night—many days or many weeks long, depending on the version of the story—the Buddha moved through ever-deeper states of concentration. He clearly saw the lives of every being that ever lived, and his own multiple lives and deaths. He saw worlds rising and passing away, each world containing infinite other worlds and taking shape according to karma and circumstances. He saw their creator and destroyer, and the possibility of putting an end to suffering.
The Buddha saw all this as thunder shook the sky and dark clouds hung low over his head, and when the clouds broke, they poured sheets of rain over the forest grove, drenching the World-honored One. But out of the river Nerañjara, the Naga King Mucalinda appeared, coiling his great serpent body seven times around the Buddha’s body to protect him. He then raised himself high and fanned out his hood to create a shelter. And the two of them remained like this, entwined, until the rain stopped and the clouds cleared, and after paying his respects to the Buddha, Mucalinda returned to his underwater kingdom.
I confess that I love imagining all this. I love the myth and the magic. But in the end, what I return to again and again, where I find the real inspiration, is in the Buddha’s simple, and yet extraordinary, moment of clear seeing. The moment in which he was able to face himself and reality, directly, and which the sutras pithily describe as the moment in which he saw “things as they are.” In other words, the moment in which he saw everything.
So I think of this when I’m feeling doubt and remind myself that my own life is but a drop in the ocean that was the Buddha’s life and practice. But being a drop, it’s made of water—the same water. I remind myself of this when I need to, particularly when traveling to the sweet country bounded by the edges of my zabuton. As I take my seat, as I lower my eyes, and let my mind settle, I think for a moment of the power of vow and of the unimaginable reach of a single yes. A yes on which the future world—and every world—depends.
May our own aspiration be a drop in the vast and unfathomable ocean that was the Buddha’s desire to awaken. May we too, in whatever small measure, reach the Unbinding.
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