This is the time of year traditionally said to be the anniversary of Buddha’s enlightenment. That has become the occasion for an annual intensive sesshin in which we strive to make Shakyamuni’s realization our own. It gives us an opportunity to reflect on the stories that come down to us about Shakyamuni, many of which of course are highly embellished or mythologized, being very hard to sort out with any certainty about the historical Buddha. But it’s instructive to look at the myths that surround him almost as much as it’s important to try to understand who he was as an individual.
To begin with we are usually told that Shakyamuni was born into a royal family and grew up in a palace, a sheltered life of wealth and privilege. I think an important part of the story right there is that he is presented to us as beginning in the very place that most of us spend our lives striving to get to. Most people look for a life of wealth and privilege and the security that they provide. They spend their whole life trying to get there. Well, that’s where he started out. It seems like he grew up enjoying it very much, thank you, until one day he happened to take a ride against his father’s wishes outside the palace walls where he is said to have seen an old man, a dying man, and a corpse. And this was the first time he ever encountered any sign of sickness, old age and death. So having been sheltered so thoroughly from these things, we can say again that the myth of his growing up sheltered from a knowledge of sickness, old age and death, is a parable for our own state of denial, the way we pass most of our lives denying as thoroughly as we can that those things are going to apply to us. When the young prince, according to this legend, first encountered them, well, it really put him off his feed and he could no longer enjoy the privileged sheltered life he had before and he left the palace resolving one way or another to come to terms with this new reality.
What does that really mean? What is the problem posed by sickness, old age and death? What kind of problem is that? What kind of answer could there be to those things? He was certainly shocked to see that this was part of life, and shock propelled him forward, but in a way I would say it is like the same kind of confused motivation we all have when we feel like we’re going to get some kind of solution to what it is to be human. Again, according to legend, he first consulted different teachers or masters of his time and in the copy of the Transmission of the Lamp that I have, that translation says first he studied with a master who taught the samadhi of non-action, whatever that is, for three years, and found that didn’t work so he gave it up. Then he studied with the master of the samadhi of non-thinking, he did that for three years, and also found that didn’t work, that wasn’t liberation, and he gave that up.
Now it’s not so clear what those practices were, of course, but let’s suppose that one way or another they are attempts to master the mind, to keep the mind still or to make the mind empty or to make the mind calm. One way or another we all try to study with those masters in our practice. At least at the level of the curative fantasy, in our unconscious, we imagine we are going to get our mind in some state of peace which will be permanent and imperturbable, and that will be the way we will find relief from the problems of sickness and old age and death. We will create this immovable mind, immovable empty mind, which is a great combination.
Well, I would say that probably his experience was not unlike ours in that if you practice very diligently in that manner you certainly can find ways to create unusual and blissful states of mind in yourself. Drugs help. But those states are not permanent and they don’t relieve the existential questions that drove him to practice. So he put those aside, and then he did something that sounds very strange to me: Having tried to subdue his desires and his thoughts, and finding that that didn’t work, legends say that he then became an extreme ascetic, as if he decided, well, if the problem is not in my mind, it must be in my body, and he subjected himself to severe ascetic disciplines. The legends say he subsisted on one grain of rice a day, that kind of thing, until his body was reduced to that of a skeleton.
One can only assume that he lost sight of the original problem. There’s a certain kind of -- if you’re afraid of death, act like you’re dead already so nothing will happen to you. But there is a way in which I think we all inevitably recapitulate in our practice and in our lives some version of these kinds of curative fantasies in which we feel like first, the mind is the problem, then the body is the problem, and the answer in some way is going to be in subjecting these entities to total mastery or total extirpation of desire or vulnerability. It’s a practice that says, I will learn to endure any amount of physical hardship and then I will be impervious to anything that life can throw at me.
I think there’s a strong element of that idea in a lot of Zen practice. There’s certainly a tendency to stress endurance, a capacity to sit with and through a great deal of physical pain, to limit conditions of very minimal physical comfort as if we’re going to get the body once and for all to ignore the difference between pleasure and pain. I think in some way or another we all have to enact a version of that in our lives and see where it gets us or where it doesn’t get us. In a way we can’t be told that it’s fruitless. We have to find it out for ourselves, just what mastery and endurance will do and not do for us.
It’s said that Buddha, after he practiced his starvation diet for six years, was practically near death when he realized that he must have made a wrong turn somewhere, and he left that practice and also, according to legend, was found and revived by a woman in a nearby village who took pity on him and fed him and restored him to health. Finally he was willing to take sustenance and to be cared for and nurtured back to health by this woman. It was only then that he was able to sit down and say, There must be a middle way between self-indulgence and self-destructive asceticism, that the truth has to be someplace in the middle there, between the life of the palace and the life of ascetic starvings, there must be something there. I’ve got to find the middle ground.
I think it’s worth pausing at this place in the story, where he allows himself to be nurtured and restored back to life by a young woman. I think it’s important that that piece of caretaking, being cared for, is in the story. It’s the kind of thing that we often omit. We often omit thinking that we need the kind of thing that we often want to bypass with our practice, that simple need to be taken care of.
So after he was restored to health, it’s said that he sat down under a tree and just said, I will sit here until I settle this once and for all for myself. What’s the problem? What’s the answer? It’s said that he sat for six days and nights continuously, and on the seventh, after sitting all night, he looked up and saw the morning star rising in the sky, and looking at that star, something happened. Now some old texts say he looks at the star and exclaims, In this moment, I and all beings attain Buddhahood together. In another version by Harada Roshi, he looks up, sees the star, and says Oh! That’s me!
When I think for myself, I ask, what is the essence of the realization in that moment? I try to be honest with myself: What have I experienced that could correspond with that? What of that do I actually share with Buddha? It would be something like realizing that I and everyone and everything are as perfect as that star, just as we all are, just as it is. You just look up at that star and see it’s just a perfect thing being a star. Nothing missing. And I’m just like that. I’m just myself and you’re just like that and everything is just like that. Just a star, just a person, just a plant, an animal, other people, everything is just completely being itself, with no problem, nothing missing, nothing to be added. After practically killing himself to solve the problem of life and death, he looks and sees how the star has solved it. It just is. It just is. And there’s some deep realization that he too can be like that star, and just be, as he is.
Now many of us, when we sit for a long time, will have moments like that, where everything is just perfect as it is. They may be little moments, lasting a breath, when everything is just at rest. There is no struggle anymore. Or they may feel like big revelations. But the real question for me as a teacher is, what happens next? What difference does it make that you have a moment like that?
One of the things that happens when you get known as a Zen teacher, is that you get called up by a lot of strangers who often want to come urgently to tell you about an experience they’ve had. People come, and they’ll tell you, if you let them -- I try to let them, it’s interesting, you know? -- they’ll show up and they’ll tell you some pretty wild experiences and sometimes I listen to them, and I say, Wow! I wish I had an experience like that! The whole thing -- white lights and everything. And they want to hear that this is somehow a valid experience, that this is real, which already tells you there’s something wrong. If they need you to tell them that, some next step hasn’t happened.
So I always try to listen to the whole experience, and then I say, How has this played out in your life? How are you living now? And unfortunately in most cases, at best, what you hear is, Well, my life went back to the way it was before. For them it’s like somebody who’s told you they’ve had this wonderful trip to Venice. They’ve never been there before. They’re just amazed at how beautiful it was and how incredible the food was and they never saw art like that and here -- here’s a postcard. This is my souvenir. But they’ve come back to the same life they’ve always lived. Like Venice, it’s a place they saw once and now it’s over. Sometimes it’s quite extreme. I’ve heard people with only slight exaggerations say, I’ve had this incredible mystical experience, but I still live in the basement of my parents’ house, I don’t go out much, I don’t have any friends, I support myself playing online poker. When I save up enough money I spend it on hookers and drugs -- let me tell you again about this incredible mystical experience I had.
The real point of these things is what happens next. In Buddha’s case we give him a lot of credit that a lot happens next. But we have to understand how his teaching, or how our practice is supposed to carry realization forward into our life. For one thing, I think we have to see how much of our ordinary way of living has been built up assuming that there’s something wrong, something missing, something we need to get or something we need to get rid of. Practically our whole life, our whole way of being is geared to dealing with those issues. If we have this moment when we feel like nothing is wrong, nothing is missing, nothing needs fixing, well, it’s going to make unemployed many of our previous habits and preoccupations. We don’t have to engage in all the things we used to when we assumed there was something wrong.
Buddha’s approach to that follow-through is in the Eightfold Path and in the life of precepts and in the life of a mendicant monk. He basically says to his monks: If there is nothing missing, if there is nothing wrong, and if that’s true for everyone in every condition regardless of whether they are healthy or sick, young or old, rich or poor, if that’s the case -- if all those conditions of life are not the point, then live a life that is simple and not about striving to get any of those things that we’re ordinarily after. So it’s like Jesus telling his followers to be like the lilies of the field. Save up nothing for tomorrow. Don’t strive to get anything whatsoever. Be content with whatever is given to you, day by day by day. So he creates a form of life, a whole culture of asceticism where the homeless monk is part of the culture that he’s living in, but he says, live this life of simplicity and homelessness and that life itself every day will be an affirmation of the realization that nothing is missing.
He’s saying, that’s the walk to walk if you’re going to believe the talk. That model is what is followed to this day by certain strands of Southeast Asian Buddhists who are forest mendicants, Bikkhus who live a life in which they live only with what is given in their begging bowl each day and they have no permanent residence. But in order to do that, you need to live in a certain kind of culture that in fact holds and maintains people who do that. Buddhism, as it spread into China and Japan, said, We’re going to have that realization manifest differently. We’re going to regulate it into monasteries, and the monastic life itself is going to be the affirmation of that realization. It’s going to be a life of simplicity in work and meditation one in which we owe nothing and strive for nothing, and cherish this moment just as it is. For Dogen, the identity of practice and realization is saying that this life, as we’re living it, is the fulfillment of realization.
Now how do we bring that up to date for us in a lay life in New York City today? What do we do with any realization we have that just like that star, we are perfect just as we are? I think there’s real psychological work to be done in seeing how much our daily life is geared to not believing that, how much we feel something is missing, what we strive for, what we think is wrong with ourselves, and how much fixing and avoiding is built into our identity. The next level of that is also to have great compassion for ordinary people like ourselves whose lives are built around feelings of inadequacy and striving because that’s just the way human beings are, it’s what we’re prone to, and we’re not really going to extirpate that any more than we’re going to extirpate any other kind of thought or desire. It will always in some way be with us. So our practice is a practice of deep self-acceptance at whatever level we can take that down to. As we sit in sesshin it means accepting the difficulties we may have physically and the difficulties we may have emotionally or mentally as we sit, just looking into this mirror and saying this is me, this is me, this is me.
What in the end do we say about Buddha’s original problem on seeing the old man, the sick man, the corpse? What kind of answer did he come up with for those problems? Are we prepared to say with him that those figures too are stars?