A question for us to consider is whether we can relate to the life of the Buddha, both in our formal practice and in our everyday lives, in a way that is meaningful for us in these times. Can we relate to his life in some way that gives perspective and context to our own? One possibility is to see the Buddha as a particular historical figure, a person who lived in what is now northern India in the fifth and sixth centuries BCE, and who went through a powerful awakening transformation at the age of thirty-five. We can relate in a very human, historical way, understanding his struggles, his quest, his enlightenment, from the perspective of one human being to another.

Another level on which we can relate is to view the Buddha as a fundamental archetype of humanity; that is, as the full manifestation of buddha-nature, the mind that is free of defilement and distortion, and understanding his life story as a great journey representing some basic archetypal aspects of human existence. By viewing the life of the Buddha in both of these ways, as a historical person and as an archetype, it becomes possible to see the unfolding of universal principles within the particular content of his life experience. We can then view the Buddha’s life not as an abstract, removed story of somebody who lived twenty-five hundred years ago, but as one that reveals the nature of the universal in us all. This becomes a way of understanding our own experience in a larger and more profound context, one that connects the Buddha’s journey with our own. We have undertaken to follow the same path, motivated by the same questions: What is the true nature of our lives? What is the root cause of our suffering?

In his book Hero with a Thousand Faces. . . , Joseph Campbell, the great scholar of humanity’s myths and archetypes, explores the nature of the hero myth. He speaks of lour stages in the great journey of the archetypal hero or heroine, and his discussion of the Buddha’s journey in terms of these four stages is a wonderful interweaving of the personal elements of the Buddha’s life and the universal principles they embody. Realizing how the events of the Buddha’s life relate directly to our own experiences can give tremendous energy and inspiration to our individual journeys, Reflecting upon the life of the Buddha brings a sense of joy to the mind, because in recognizing the power and magnitude of the Buddha’s spiritual quest, we reconnect with our own deepest impulses and motivations for practicing the dharma. . . .

Campbell calls the first stage of the hero’s journey the call to destiny. According to traditional accounts, the Buddha first heard this call many lifetimes before his birth as Siddhartha Gotama when he was a forest-dwelling hermit named Sumedha in the time of the previous buddha, Dip Ankara, One day Sumedha heard that Dipankara Buddha would be passing nearby and he joined the many people who were going to pay their respects. The people were preparing the road for Dipankara and the procession of monks and nuns, and Sumedha was given one small section of the road to prepare and make smooth. He had not quite finished and the road was still muddy when they were about to arrive, so at the last minute Sumedha laid his body down on the road for Dipankara to walk over.

It is said that when he saw Dipankara, Sumedha was so inspired by his presence and nobility that he resolved that he, too, would one day bring to perfection all the qualities of mind of a buddha. Dipankara saw this aspiration in the mind of the hermit and prophesied that many aeons of time in the future, Sumedha would be born a prince named Siddhartha Gotama and in that lifetime would attain to buddhahood. From the moment of hearing and responding to that call to destiny Sumedha was a bodhisattva, a being destined to attain the awakening and perfection of a buddha. . . .

The first stage of the archetypal journey is the call to destiny; the second is the great renunciation, the leaving behind of old patterns and habits, beginning to see our lives in a new way; the third stage is the great struggle with all the forces of delusion; and the fourth stage in this universal journey is the great awakening. After the hosts of Mara were dispersed, the bodhisattva spent the three watches of the night contemplating various aspects of the dharma. In the first watch he surveyed with his power of concentration the succession of births and deaths through countless lifetimes. Through seeing this process stretching back into beginningless time-being born into certain circumstances, going through the dramas of life, dying and being reborn-came a profound understanding of the impermanence and insubstantiality of existence. Life and death are arising and vanishing like bubbles on the surface of a stream. The long-range perspective of the cycles of lifetimes undercuts the seeming solidity and importance our attachments and preferences assume when we are identified with particular situations or experiences.

In the second watch of the night, he contemplated the law of karma. He saw how the karmic force of past actions propels and conditions beings through successive rebirths. Seeing beings driven by ignorance through the whirlwind of differing destinies awoke in him the energy of deep compassion. In the third watch of the night he contemplated the Four Noble Truths and the law of dependent origination. He saw how the mind becomes attached, and how through attachment there is suffering. He understood the possibility of deconditioning that attachment and coming to a place of freedom.

It is said that just at the moment of dawn, when the morning star appeared in the sky, his mind realized the deepest, most complete illumination. After attaining the great enlightenment, the Buddha uttered this verse in his heart:

I wandered through the rounds if countless births,
Seeking but not finding the builder of this house.
Sorrowful indeed is birth again and again.
Oh, housebuilder! You have now been seen.
You shall build the house no longer.
All your rafters have been broken,
Your ridgepole shattered.
My mind has attained to unconditioned freedom.
Achieved is the end of craving.

The Buddha saw that in this world of samsara, of constant appearing and disappearing, being born and dying, there was great suffering. Craving, the builder of this house of suffering (the mind and body), was discovered; the defilements of mind, the rafters, were broken; the force o~ ignorance, the ridgepole, was shattered, and thus the Buddha realized nirvana, the unconditioned [see also pages 307-314j. It is said that the path to nirvana, the Eightfold Path, is a silent vehicle, like a chariot that drives smoothly and gracefully, without emitting squeaks and clatter. The people who ride on this chariot, however, those who have realized the truth, may be quite noisy. They are noisy in their songs of praise for this vehicle and for this completion of their journey.

In the Theragatha and Therigatha—collections of enlightenment verses of the early monks and nuns—we often find the refrain “Done is what had to be done.” In attaining the great enlightenment, the bodhisattva experienced the completion and fulfillment of his long journey, a fulfillment of the potential shared by all human beings. He had become the Buddha, the Awakened One. He spent the next seven weeks in the area of the bodhi [pipal] tree, contemplating different aspects of the truth. He had completed his own journey of liberation, and he now wondered whether it was possible to share the profound dharma he had realized with others, blinded as they were by their attachments. . . .

The Buddha continued his teaching travels, and when sixty of his disciples had themselves come to full enlightenment, he sent them out to begin spreading the dharma with this exhortation: “Go forth, o monks, for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the good, benefit, and happiness of people and devas [celestial beings]. Let not two go by one way. Teach the dharma, excellent in the beginning, excellent in the middle, and excellent in the end. Proclaim the noble life, altogether perfect and pure; work for the good of others, those of you who have done your duty.”

We can see from this statement of the Buddha that the whole thrust of practice and of understanding is to develop freedom in oneself, compassion for the suffering of the world, and an active sense of service for the welfare of others. Seeing the purification of our own hearts and minds in the context of working for the benefit of others inspires and gives energy to our practice. Practice is never just for oneself; the manifestation of truth is always one of greater connectedness and compassion. . . .

The Buddha was endowed with three accomplishments. The first is called the accomplishment of cause, which refers to the extraordinary effort made by the bodhisattva through innumerable lifetimes to perfect the paramis [“perfections”-generosity, discipline, patience, endeavor, meditative concentration, wisdom); that is, he accomplished the cause for buddhahood. The second is the accomplishment of result, which refers to his enlightenment and attainment of omniscient knowledge. And the third is the accomplishment of service, seeing to the welfare of others. The Buddha was not complacent with his own awakening, but out of loving care for all beings he set forth to teach, and until he died he shared the dharma with all those who were ready to hear.

The heroic effort made by the bodhisattva to develop the perfections is only possible through the motivation of extraordinary compassion. Yet compassion alone is not enough; for it to bring effective results, com. passion must be acted upon, and this demands a discriminating wisdom as to beneficial or harmful actions, knowing which paths will bring happiness and which will not. Great compassion requires great wisdom in order to bear fruit, and great wisdom requires deep compassion as the motivation and impetus for action to be undertaken for the sake of other beings. These two great wings of the dharma were perfectly fulfilled in the Buddha.

It is said that even if one were to combine the love and compassion of all parents on the planet for their children, it would not approach the great compassion of the Buddha. Parents may have a great capacity to love and forgive their children. In the Buddha, these qualities were boundless. Because of his practical compassion, he ceaselessly exhorted beings to follow the path that leads to happiness, well-being, and freedom…

There are innumerable stories of people from all walks of life—beggars, merchants, artisans, courtesans, village people, nobles, kings and queens-each coming to the Buddha with varying degrees of faith and understanding, whom he helped come to freedom and peace through the power of his love, wisdom, and skillful means.

One discourse the Buddha gave that is particularly helpful in understanding the spirit of investigation and discovery in dharma practice is known as the Kalama Sutta. He was asked by a village people known as the Kalamas how they could know which among the many different religious teachings and teachers to believe. The Buddha said that they should not blindly believe anyone-not their parents or teachers, not the books or traditions, not even the Buddha himself. Rather, they should look carefully into their own experience to see which things lead to more greed, more hatred, more delusion, and should abandon them; and they should look to see what things lead to greater love, generosity, wisdom, openness, and peace, and should cultivate those things. The Buddha’s teachings always encourage us to take responsibility for our own development and to directly investigate the nature of our experience. There was no desire in the Buddha’s mind for fame, honor, or disciples. He was motivated by genuine compassion. . . .

As practice deepens and we come to a fuller appreciation and understanding of our own true nature, there develops a wonderful love and respect for the Buddha, both as a historical figure and as the archetype of the buddha-nature potential within us all. If we reflect on the three great accomplishments of the Buddha’s life, we can become filled with a sense of deep appreciation for having the opportunity to walk the path discovered by such a being, a path of the greatest distinction and truest nobility. With mindfulness and insight we can reflect the Buddha’s journey in our own.

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