Late in Siddhartha Gautama’s ministry, around 2500 years ago, when India was on fire with his liberating message, people would come to him asking NOT who are you? NOT what’s your name, your origin, your ancestry? Not that, but this: WHAT are you? What species do you represent? Are you an angel? Are you a God? To what order of being do you belong?
To which the historical founder of Buddhism would answer, every time, very simply, I am awake.
That’s what it means to be a Buddha: to be awake.
But things didn’t start that way. The path towards awakening is a crooked one, zigging and zagging crazily. There’s Buddha potential in everyone, but the story of how any individual person taps into that potential is always unique and always incorporates adversity of some kind.
This is as much true for the founder of Buddhism as it is for you and me.
One legend has it that at Siddhartha’s birth, his father, a King, summoned seers to divine his son’s future. They all agreed that this was no ordinary child and that there were two remarkable possibilities before him, though only one could come true: he would become ruler of all India, or he would become a world redeemer. That’s what the seers said.
Which led his father the King to make a decision. He would do everything within his power to ensure that his Prince stayed the heck away from spirituality. In contemporary terms, we might say that he wanted his son to go for the business major over the major in philosophy. So, the King surrounded his Prince with every privilege imaginable. Three palaces and 40,000 dancing girls (this is a legend, after all). Strict orders to servants that no ugliness was ever to intrude upon Siddhartha’s courtly pleasures. Nothing to suggest that life might inflict hurts which even the things a King has cannot heal.
The man who woke up started life fast asleep. There’s not a straight shot to destiny in this hero story. For twenty-odd years, Prince Siddhartha would live in his bubble of privilege, disengaged from the real world. But then, one day, he went out into the countryside, riding. It had been a longtime habit of his, riding, though the King would insist that he’d stay on the regular paths, from which he’d have servants clear away anything offensive. Except for this one day. One day, along the path, the Prince encountered an old man. Decrepit, broken-toothed, gray-haired, leaning on a staff and trembling. The Prince had never seen anything like it before.
During Siddhartha’s second outing, he saw a body racked with disease. During a third, he saw a corpse. And during the fourth: perhaps the most surprising sight of all: there, by the roadside, a Hindu monk with shaved head, ochre robe, begging bowl … and peace. Peace in the midst of circumstances that, for all Siddhartha knew up to that point in his life, should have made peace impossible. But the impoverished monk was at peace.
And Siddhartha, the Prince, despite his three palaces and 40,000 dancing girls and everything else comprising his bubble of privilege, was not at peace.
Buddhists call this the legend of the Four Passing Sights, and perhaps the truth for all of us implied by it is that there are social forces wanting us to stay asleep in whatever bubble of privilege we may be in. Last week we talked about how middle class culture is exactly one such force. But the legend goes on to suggest that the Universe ultimately won’t allow for it. Use your preferred spiritual words here. I’ll use the phrase “Spirit of Life.” The Spirit of Life won’t allow for such disconnection, for long. It pushes against all such obstacles to wholeness. It puts situations and people in our lives that disrupt our privileged bubbles. Sometimes it’s misfortune, or disease.
Life won’t let us stay in the cozy cocoon of unknowing forever.
It is said that the Four Passing Sights so overwhelmed the sensitive Siddhartha that he resolved then and there to give up the right to his father’s throne—leave everything and everyone he knew—and strike out on the spiritual quest. Become a monk himself. Find peace.
Thus he entered the next phase of his life, where, through trial-and-error, he developed a complete spiritual way of life. Ever afterwards, Buddhists have called it the Eightfold Path, which is fundamentally a practical way, fundamentally a way of finding balance between extremes. Not too much attachment to worldly things, but neither too much asceticism and self-mortification. With this understood, do eight things:
- Know some basic spiritual truths like the Four Noble Truths—more about them in a moment;
- Be serious about your desire to grow spiritually;
- Avoid gossip and cruel speech, and be kind and truthful with your words;
- Do not kill, steal, lie, drink alcohol, or abuse sex. Strive for right behavior;
- Avoid jobs that pollute your soul—work at jobs that further the good life;
- Discover your own rhythm and move steadily at your own pace. Right effort;
- Develop your awareness and thinking skills;
- Learn how to meditate, and practice it regularly.
That’s the Eightfold Path. Balance between extremes. Fairly easy to summarize, but Siddhartha almost died on the way to learning it because Siddhartha was all about extremes. He was stubborn and strong-willed like no one else. It was his basic disposition never to do anything half-way. It wasn’t enough for him just to become like the Hindu monk who had shocked him out of his ignorance. It wasn’t enough to do all the things required to join the community of monks and be one of them. Siddhartha had to be better than that. He had to become the most ascetic, world-denying monk ever. Monkishness as if it were a competitive sport….
It’s something we can all relate to today. Attempts at virtue which go to extremes of either self-sacrifice or the sacrifice of others, in service to a vision of the end justifies the means. We see this in political parties and we see this in religious parties and social justice parties. Right and Left, we see it. People anxious to signal their purity and how they are not like those others. People willing to say extreme hurtful things and do extreme hurtful things in service to purity.
For Siddhartha–on his own purity quest–it got to the point that he ate so little (only six grains of rice a day during one of his long fasts) that he looked like a concentration camp victim. Until one day, it just went too far. He collapsed, was sick near death. He would have died if it had not been for his companions, who nursed him back to health.
Trial-and-error was how Siddhartha learned the wisdom of the Middle Way. You can’t pursue spiritual truth without taking care of the body, without giving it what is natural and necessary. There must be balance.
We are ourselves on this very same zig zag quest for balance, today, in this world where the centrifugal forces of political and religious extremism are so very powerful.
The quest for perfect purity must give way, finally, to the quest for wholeness and humanity.
But now we turn to the last part of today’s hero story. Young Siddhartha has just realized for himself the wisdom of the Middle Way. He has survived his mistakes so far! And now he continues on, still in search of enlightenment. One day he sits under a Bo Tree near Gaya in Northern India, and he intensifies his meditation practice, vows that he will not be moved from his spot under the tree until he finds ultimate peace.
He’s almost there, he’s about to come fully awake … and guess who appears at the last moment? Not his father the King. Not the monk he felt competitive towards. But the Evil One—a demon who will test Siddhartha to see if there’s any unhealthy ego left in him which can be inflamed. This is what the ancient Buddhist legends say, and as an intriguing side note, consider how we have the same kind of thing happening in legends about another spiritual teacher from a very different tradition, named Jesus of Nazareth.
There’s something to this theme of last-minute temptation. Something that cuts across space and time and suggests a truth about the basic human condition. Just when you are closest to awakening, that’s the time of greatest danger. Just when you’ve lost sight of your shadow—when you think your perspective is perfectly clear, when you think others are idiots and you yourself have the truth and are blameless—ah, that’s when the devil’s got you. That’s when you’re in the hands of the Evil One.
Back to the story: The Evil One approaches Siddhartha meditating under the Bo Tree and thinks, I’ll distract him by inflaming his sexual desires—this young man of his father’s court, who used to enjoy the company of 40,000 dancing girls. So, he assumes the form of Kama, God of Desire, and, all of a sudden, it’s raining women. Beautiful women are beckoning everywhere. But Siddhartha remains unmoved. He’s renounced his addiction to physical pleasure. He’s come a long way since his days at court.
The Evil One then thinks, Well, here’s what I’ll do instead. I’ll distract him by making him afraid for his life—this man who was once so freaked out by old age, sickness, and death. So, he assumes the form of Mara, the Lord of Death, and all of a sudden, Siddhartha is surrounded by hurricanes, tsunamis, showers of flaming rocks. But Siddhartha allows the fear to come and go without clinging to it. It just comes and goes. He’s renounced his addiction to physical permanence. He’s come a long way since the Four Passing Sights.
In final desperation, the Evil One does this: He challenges Siddhartha’s right to do what he’s doing. Says he’s got no right. And this opens up a huge can of worms, because it triggers Siddhartha’s father issues. His father the King was so disappointed in him, that he would give up his bubble of privilege for the life of a monk. His father the King was not proud.
Besides sadness, there was resentment. For his father the King did all he could to keep him in the bubble and so essentially sidetracked him from his destiny for more than 20 years!
Yet Siddhartha had forgiven his Dad. He had renounced his right to resentment and had stopped clinging to it. He’d also made peace with himself. Siddhartha touched the earth with his right fingertip, and the entire universe responded with a thousand, a hundred thousand roars: “It is your birthright,” “it is your birthright”—just as it is the birthright of every Unitarian Universalist—gay or straight, cisgender or transgender, black or brown or white—to seek and find their own unique destiny, even if it might go against a loved one’s wishes….
Siddhartha was untouched by the three temptations of Mara the Evil One. And that’s when it happened. There, under the Bo Tree, near Gaya in Northern India, 2500 years ago: The Great Awakening.
Buddhists call it “Nirvana.” It is a very special kind of experience. Exactly what Siddhartha experienced, he ended up proclaiming in his very first sermon, which he called “Setting Rolling the Wheel of Truth.” In it, he speaks of Four Noble Truths.
Here’s the First: Life is Suffering. Suffering is basic to the human condition: aging, sickness, death, enemies, resentment. Suffering that seems random and arbitrary, or suffering whose cause is unknown. Suffering which is a matter of being tied to what one dislikes, or being separated from what one loves. So many forms of suffering. Life is suffering.
But what causes this? The Second Noble Truth gives an answer: Suffering is Caused by Self-centered Craving. I mean, isn’t it obvious that life is full of suffering? But if we truly knew this, then why do we get so upset about it? Why does it shake us to the core, every time? Something makes it so hard for us to accept the pains of life gracefully and courageously. The Buddha calls it tanha, habits of heart and mind which cause us to cling to personal expectations and “shoulds” about the way the world ought to be. We stew in the juices of our angers and resentments, and so we suffer.
So how do we stop it? This leads to the Third Noble Truth: To Stop Suffering, One Must Overcome Self-centered Craving through Nirvana. Some people think Buddhism is a real downer, yet with this Third Noble Truth, we have a true Gospel, we have genuine Good News. Suffering is not the end of the story. There is a cure, and the cure is the Nirvana experience, which is what Siddartha had under the Bo Tree. But it can only be had first-hand—and this leads us into some perplexity, for how can people understand Nirvana if they’ve never experienced it personally, for themselves? Perhaps it is like the blowing apart of the walls of one’s limited sense of self, until all that is left is limitless, limitless compassion, limitless peace; and somehow you are still aware of your separate, individual self even as you feel its interconnectedness with everything else; and it is good, it is like a new Creation, very good, and in the face of this sweetness, why not let all the shoulds and expectations drop, why not let them go? The Evil One could come and throw everything at you, but there would be nothing to hit, there would be nothing in your soul that desire, or fear, or a sense of unworthiness could cling to.
Perhaps this is what Nirvana is like.
But again, words are one thing—and direct experience is something altogether different.
Which takes us to the Fourth Noble Truth: The Way to Nirvana is Through the Eightfold Path. And we have already been introduced to this. That eminently practical, holistic path to enlightenment.
That’s the Four Noble Truths. That’s the very first sermon that Siddhartha Gautama, now the Buddha, preached.
But at this point, what you need to know—and this is the last part of Siddhartha’s hero story we’re going to explore today—is that that very first sermon of his entitled “Setting Rolling the Wheel of Truth” almost never got preached.
Here’s what happened.
There was a gap between the moment of Siddartha’s enlightenment under the Bo Tree and the time when he was to give his sermon. Into that gap flew the Evil One with an unexpected temptation–temptation number four. Just as in every horror movie, after all the battering that’s already happened, and you think the coast is clear, but no! Up pops Freddie Krueger, up pops Michael Myers, up pops Chucky, up pops Jason!
Horror happened to the newly-born Buddha!
What happened was this: The Evil One sucker-punched him with the very worst temptation of all, exactly because it appealed to one of the Buddha’s greatest strengths: his reason.
The Evil One said to Siddhartha, Good job with the whole enlightenment thing! Nirvana is yours. But of all people, surely you can appreciate how impossible it will be to put Nirvana into words. How can you do that? How can you teach what people can find only for themselves? How can you show what people can see only with their own eyes? So there you will be, going on and on about the secrets of spiritual enlightenment, and your audience won’t know what the heck you are talking about. Such isolation and misunderstanding you’ll experience. Worse, others will step up, teachers pretending to know but only for the sake of duping others, making money, gaining power. Selling fake Nirvana. Worst of all: people who do know real Nirvana will, for various reasons, start creating tribes, and vicious infighting will ensue, and religion will turn competitive. Siddhartha, listen: if you set rolling the Wheel of Truth–if you talk about your Four Noble Truths and Nirvana and on and on–you will only be setting yourself up for failure. Is that what you want?
And with this, Siddhartha, the man who awoke, the man who became a Buddha, paused.
Can you relate? Have you ever had a moment in which you dream a great dream, and the hero path opens up before you, and your star blazes brilliantly above you, but then a voice of dry reason says: IT’S IMPOSSIBLE? Or, LOOK WHAT MIGHT HAPPEN? Or I’M NOT GOING TO TALK ABOUT MY UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST FAITH BECAUSE IT’S NOT EASY TO SUMMARIZE AND MOST PEOPLE WON’T GET IT ANYHOW?
The voice comes, and you just press pause?
And you can’t easily dismiss the voice of reason here. Reason is essential. Reason keeps us safe. Reason keeps us connected to other people and to reality. Reason makes us very aware of how strange our many-sourced Unitarian Universalism is to folks who just know “one-way, one-truth, one-light” religion.
Unitarian Universalism is a crooked path to enlightenment.
Yet what I’m saying—what I believe is the ultimate message of this part of the Buddha’s story—is that we need more than reason to pursue the hero path. We need more than reason to dare what is great. If we stare too deeply into the complexities and possibilities of our future, we’ll be like the proverbial caterpillar who asks himself how he walks when he has so many feet going at the same time. Though he’d been doing just fine up to that point, upon realizing the complexity of it all, upon realizing that the life he inhabits is fundamentally a Mystery, that’s when he decides to control it, that’s when he insists on calling the shots, that’s when he puts ego square at the center. And that’s when it all comes apart.
The simplest thing—walking—becomes impossible.
But it’s not impossible, when you have hope beyond reason.
With this fourth and last temptation, the Evil One blindsided the Buddha with rational argument, and it made the Buddha pause. But the Buddha paused only for a moment. And then he said, “There will be some who understand.”
“There will be some who understand.”
That’s when the Buddha set his Wheel of Truth in motion. That’s when he said GO. You know the rest of the story: from the some who understood grew a world religion with billions of adherents today, which continues to transform lives and blesses us Unitarian Universalists, today.
It’s not perfect, but perfection is not needed. Some even say that perfection is the enemy of the good or even the great.
It was pure hope that took the historical founder of Buddhism over the top. Pure hope.
May it put us over the top too.