The legend of Buddha’s journey to enlightenment, generally experienced as a quaint religious story, is, in fact, a powerful parable that deserves our serious examination. It is an extremely helpful insight into the journey that will be experienced by those who take up a meditation practice and as what will be encountered by those who live in sincere intention for a more evolved and enlightened life.
Here is the tale: One day a prince, named Siddhartha, of the kingdom of Shakya in northern India, ventured beyond the palace walls of his privileged and sheltered life where he encountered suffering that he had never known existed. Even more than the people’s physical suffering caused by poverty, disease, hunger, cruel treatment and death, Siddhartha was struck by the mental suffering. He was so moved and saddened by what he saw that he vowed to dedicate his life to understanding the source of this suffering and to finding a way to liberation from it.
In his quest, he at first took up the life of an ascetic for this was a widely accepted path in the world of ancient India for one who sought religious enlightenment. He learned to master his own body, thoughts, emotions, fears and desires. He learned to meditate deeply, to transcend the sense of isolated self and to merge with and unlock many secrets of the Universe. His fervor, however, was so great, and the rituals of his practice so extreme, that he had brought himself to near death with fasting and exhaustion. He had mastered many spiritual techniques, but the knowledge he sought eluded him. In a moment of insight, he realized this withdrawal from and rejection of the world, along with the extremity of the practice, could not be of help to ordinary people – that, in fact, this asceticism was a kind of arrogance. For how could one learn the secrets of mastering the suffering in the world by being in rejection of the world?
Following this realization, he cleansed himself in a river, accepted his first meal in many days, a simple meal of rice milk from a young woman who was passing by, and vowed to sit in meditation until he found the answers he sought. He understood intuitively that he must find a “middle way,” a path that was neither the materialism and conventional religious practice of his youth, nor the extremity of his recent asceticism. He sat beneath a fig tree, later to become known as the “Bodhi Tree,” and settled into meditation to contemplate his challenge. He sat for many days, and as he settled into perfect equanimity and stillness he began to see and understand the total balance of energy and form that is the Universe and he began to experience a vast clarity of mind capable of realizing the answers he sought.
The legend then tells that the god Mara, the god of darkness and destruction, who can be understood as a mythic representation of the dark side of human ego, became jealous of Siddhartha’s growing perfect peace and presence. He sent his five daughters, the spirits of pride, greed, fear, ignorance and desire in the appearance of seductive young women to distract and tempt Siddhartha out of his search. They danced and sang and beckoned to Siddhartha, but Siddhartha was looking beyond the world of physical desire and they had no effect on him. This enraged Mara and he conjured a ferocious storm filled with wind, thunder, and lightning-bolts to batter at Siddhartha. But Siddhartha was unmoved, his perfect stillness unshaken. Mara then sent the illusion of legions of soldiers marching toward Siddhartha who loosed flaming arrows at him. But as Siddhartha sat in perfect equanimity and composure, the falling arrows were transformed into flower petals that gently drifted down at his feet, and the sky cleared.
In a last attempt to corrupt Siddhartha’s journey to enlightenment, Mara appeared before him disguised in Siddhartha’s own visage and challenged Siddhartha, demanding to know what right Siddhartha had to be free of suffering. Mara challenged him to present a witness who would vouch for Siddhartha’s right, and in answer, Siddhartha touched his fingers to the Earth and answered, “The Earth is my witness that I and all sentient life have the right to be free of suffering.” And with this, Mara was defeated and faded away.
Siddhartha continued meditating until dawn and with first light, his enlightenment was complete. He understood perfectly this dilemma of suffering. He was now The Buddha, The Awakened One, and his mission soon commenced with his first teaching of the Four Noble Truths on the Nature and Cessation of Suffering to a group of his former fellow ascetics in the Deer Park nearby the holy city of Benares. These ascetics, realizing the perfection of his vision, became Buddha’s first disciples.
A beautiful story. If we look closely, however, we can recognize in the teaching allegorical parallels to our own experience that can be very helpful in the development of our meditation practice and in our journey into more conscious living.
We all want to be happy, to be without unnecessary suffering in our life. This is an important truth. But we have no idea of how to achieve it. We generally come to a meditation practice with a sense that the life we are living and the lives of those around us are not as peaceful, compassionate and wise as they might be. We have all looked to materialism for happiness, for as was Siddhartha, we were born into a materialistic world. Never in human history has material pleasure and comfort been so readily available to even ordinary people. It is quite clear, however, that materialism is not a certain path to peace and happiness. Often, in fact, it is a major source and cause of much emotional suffering.
And most people have had some sort of experience with conventional religion, and while it can be an important source of community and emotional comfort, only a very few find deep, unshakeable and lasting peace in conventional religion. And, as it is with materialism, many people find in their experience with religion much confusion and pain. Some people, not having found what they seek in either materialism or conventional religion, will turn to esoteric and extreme spiritual practices. Some will turn away from the world into severe practices not unlike the young Siddhartha. Many more, however, will dabble in ritualistic and arcane practices while their lives remain, on the whole, very materialistic. And while they may find moments of self-transcendence in rituals and devotion to some guru, when the rituals are over, they are left with the sense that the true peace they seek, a peace that can be brought into everyday life, still eludes them.
We hear of Buddhism, the so-called “Middle-Way,” and of its emphasis on meditation and a simple ethical life as a way to quiet our restless minds, as possibly a way to find peace and increased sanity. Perhaps, we hope, we will find a respite from unsettling thoughts and emotions and the reactive and impulsive behavior that is driven by these thoughts and emotions. We hear that there is a minimum of emphasis on ritual, particularly in Buddhism’s Zen manifestation. It seems to be free of what we in the West would associate with theology; it is more a psychology, and while practiced by millions in the world as a religion, it does not have to be. We hear that its figure-head, The Buddha, did not claim to be either a god or a prophet of some god, but rather a human being who taught that perfect peace, wisdom and compassion are inherent in every human being. So we take up the practice of Buddhist meditation and its ethical teachings as a path to overcome our own emotional turmoil and the suffering that comes with it.
At first, there is some reinforcing gain. For most who bring any serious intention and time to it, the practice of simple sitting meditation brings a measure of respite from the tension and mental busyness of ordinary life. However, bringing the practice deeper and into our everyday lives turns out to be extremely challenging, and here is where Buddha’s own story is very relevant. Just as we begin to settle into a quiet mind, we can expect to experience our own personal Mara, our egoic mind, challenging us with busy and insecure thoughts, parading “pride, greed, fear, ignorance and desire” through the field of awareness. The pull of our psycho/social conditioning, ego’s realm, will come in the form of boredom and restlessness. It will call us back to our very busy lives telling us to stop wasting time sitting, doing nothing. The very important teaching that perfect peace and oneness with Life is our own basic nature, and so certainly attainable, will not really register, because the face of our ego, our personality, cannot believe such things – for it would mean we were someone other than whom we are accustomed to. We find it nearly impossible to conceive that who we really are is the face of infinite balance, compassion and peace that is the vast Universe of Nature. We do not know to call on our own Nature, as Siddhartha called on the Earth, to be our witness that we have the right to this peace and wisdom.
Likewise, as our meditation practice begins to open into brief glimpses of Buddhism’s promise of “peaceful abiding,” “insight,” and “oneness” (Shamatha, Vipassana, and Samadhi), it will seem inconceivable that these states of consciousness could be our “everyday mind.” The pull of our habits of egocentricity, distractibility, hurriedness, judgment, emotional reaction and for seeking happiness and significance outside ourselves will be too strong. Like with Siddhartha, Mara will challenge us, and because of strong identification with our own personality, we will find it very difficult to open to the amazing possibilities for clarity and presence that can be the fruit of our practice.
What Buddha’s story tells us, however, what Buddha’s teaching (Dharma) promises, and the line of those who precede us into discovering the truth in Buddha’s teaching (Sangha) gives proof to, is that if we hold steadfast in the face of these challenges, if we find and hold our center, our balance, our stillness, our equanimity, our true Nature, Mara will be defeated. We will find the truth, we will awaken to the realization that Buddha’s mind is our mind and it can be our everyday mind, when we release clinging to our conditioned egoic mind. We will see that suffering is not the necessary result of difficulty and pain. We will see, we will experience, that peaceful abiding, wisdom and insight, along with the true vastness of our existence in unity with all things is the truth of who we are. This was Buddha’s story and likewise it can be yours.