The life of Shakyamuni Buddha is the stuff of legend, and while some scholars like Stephen Batchelor are able to sift through the legends and give us valuable insights into the times and context of historical Shakyamuni, mostly what we have is parable and it’s interesting to study the way in which parables are shaped over the years and to what use they are put at different times and places. The Chinese were particularly preoccupied with lineage and continuity so the parable of the Buddha’s life was told in terms of transmission and when we chant the lineage it doesn’t begin with Shakyamuni. We chant the names of legendary Buddhas of the past to maintain the sense of timeless transmission. Like the turtles that hold up the world, it’s turtles all the way down, it’s Buddhas all the way down. That sense of continuity was very important in that culture.
When I look at the parables of the life of Shakyamuni I naturally tend to think of it in terms of a psychological parable, and to look at the story as a way of reflecting on our own attitudes towards practice, what drives practice, what we imagine we’re going to get from practice, something about how practice actually unfolds.
Now the traditional story is that Buddha was raised a prince in a highly protected life, raised so that he knew only security and happiness, was shielded from the suffering of the world outside the palace walls. I think in one sense we have a picture of childhood like that, at least an early stage of being protected within the walls of the family, being shielded by our parents from the reality of the world outside, and that growing up means having in some way to separate ourselves from that known world and venture out.
For many of us, family is anything but that secure island of the parable, and that difficulty intruded long before we ever had to leave home. But one way or the other we have to experience the shock of suffering and it may be the shock of our parents not being who we thought they were or wished they were, being unreliable or unpredictable or even frighteningly dangerous.
In any case, Shakyamuni one day is said to have left the secure walls of the palace and as he went outside he encountered an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and he also saw an ascetic leading a life of total abstinence and poverty. In the translation of the Transmission of the Lamp -- I just took a look at it -- it says that Buddha, upon seeing these signs of these three figures said, “Sickness, old age and death must be rejected. I must find a way.” I read that and I say, “Excuse me? Reject those things? Do you have problems with the law of gravity while you’re at it?”
But psychologically what we see is this natural kind of recoil from a traumatizing intrusion of the reality of impermanence: sickness, old age and death, and I think that it says something very true to our experience: That first response to practice is an attempt to reject those things, to find a way to somehow annihilate that reality. It’s also interesting that he takes them as immediate traumatic givens about the nature of the world. It’s not a parable in which he says, “My God! Look at these poor sick, suffering people! I’ve got to run back into the palace, sell the family jewels, give everything to the poor, set up a hospital, do everything I can to relieve their suffering!” It’s not directed toward the people out there at all. It’s “Oh my God! I can’t deal with all this! I’ve got to find a way to escape. It’s too much!”
We’re told that he follows at first the training of two different ascetic masters of his time. Although it’s pretty complicated to try to understand what those practices were, we could say he first attempts to completely control and dominate his mind, his thoughts and his emotions, create a practice where he will stop all thought and all feeling, to become impervious to the sights that he just saw. Then after that, developing an asceticism of the body, he tries to become completely insensitive to any pain or weakness or bodily need, starving himself nearly to death, a kind of: I will endure the worst this body can inflict on me and I will master it.
Over time he comes to see the failure of those projects and this in itself is something that may take us a lifetime of practice to do, to really see our own equivalent of those curative fantasies and really give up on them. We are all involved in some notion of how we will control our mind and our body to make us impervious to suffering and we may seek calmness and equanimity in meditation, we may seek health and eternal youth in exercise and diet. We have all these schemes for thwarting old age and death and we hold onto them as long as we can.
One way or another, Shakyamuni took those as far as could and eventually decided that these were dead ends. He sat down and tried somehow to resolve the problem from another direction. It’s said that after sitting, simply sitting quietly under the tree for six days, he saw the morning star rise and had the experience: That’s Me! Now one way I like to think about that, psychologically, is that he saw that star simply being what it was, that that star needed no improvement, no fixing, it just sparkled, it just was what it was. There was nothing missing, nothing needed to be done, it was simply perfect in its existence.
In some way that puts an end to the whole striving to control and fix and escape the suffering of our life. But it’s not exactly to the point to be able to say: That’s Me! only when looking at a star. The real test, of course, was for Shakyamuni to go back and see the sick man, the old man, the corpse, to look at them and say: That’s Me! That’s the real end point of the practice, to see all the things that he was desperate to escape and see them as inescapable, and he himself was not separate from that great changing, suffering mass of humanity. That’s Me! There’s no place to stand outside of that world.
What did he teach as a result of this? He taught both the reality of suffering and also the end of suffering. But that end of suffering is not the end of suffering that he sought when he started out. He did not find a way to become impervious to the suffering of the world. He found that suffering ends when we’re not separate from the suffering of the world. His Eightfold Path is a way of being in this world in a way that he speaks of as non-attachment, which really means not fighting against the reality of the world, not trying to make what’s impermanent permanent. That’s really the essence of the dilemma of attachment: trying to make what’s inherently impermanent somehow permanent.
Now I think that the way these realizations are transmitted to us in many forms still holds on to certain fantasies of imperviousness or transcendence. Probably the original community around Shakyamuni was a group of people who adopted an ascetic life of homelessness, having no possessions, embracing impermanence through literally holding onto nothing of their own. This was a practice that you could sum up as: If you ain’t got nothin’ you got nothin’ to lose. There’s a certain model of practice that says: Give it all away, have no security in this world, become one with the poor and the destitute, protect nothing, and you will find freedom there.
As you may have noticed, we’re not doing that. The whole notion of lay practice, to my mind, is really based on a different understanding of what it means to come to terms with impermanence and to say That’s Me! to the world of suffering. We do not go the route of having nothing so we’ll have nothing to lose. What we do is we say: We are in the world. We are not separate from this world of love and family and possessions and attachment and the desire for security. To have all those things, to want all those things, is part of being human. Our practice is not to try to learn to live without all of them so life can’t hurt us. Our practice is to face the reality of change and loss and to support each other in the midst of that reality.
We love one another and we will lose each other. We love the life we make, the jobs we have, the art on the walls, the roof over our heads, and we’ll have them for a while and then we won’t.
We’re not trying to run away from that reality. We’re not trying to extinguish desire so that we won’t be so attached to the things of the world that we won’t mind losing them. We’ll be attached and we’ll mind a lot. It will hurt. But we realize that that’s exactly what life is: The joy and the loss are a package and we will not try to imagine that we can have one without the other. Lay practice, to me, is a serious embrace of the world, of life as it is, of our humanity as it is. We’re not perfecting ourselves. We’re just saying: This is Me.