Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Buddha's life is our life

Traditionally, the Buddha's life prior to his awakening has been read as a parable or caveat for extreme living. The young prince was raised in a life of luxury, sheltered from the knowledge of old age, sickness, and death. Eventually though, he was confronted with the inevitability of these realities. His whole world was turned upside down, and so he vowed to find an end to suffering. He wandered the land as a religious ascetic for seven years, enduring the most extreme physical mortifications in India at the time. But none of this worked. So, weak, starving, and still no closer to awakening than he had been as a prince, the Buddha decided to abandon asceticism--look where it had gotten him!--in search of a Middle Way between these extremes. And this is the path that led him to Nirvana. The lesson here is that neither extreme--a life of indulgence or one of physical mortification--is the answer; the path lies between the two, in the middle. And that is the Buddha's Way.

But I think there's another way to read this story, one that has direct and immediate bearing on our lives. Rather than view the Buddha's life as an allegory about which paths to avoid, I see his life as a microcosm of human experience itself. Let me explain. The Buddha taught that we suffer because we are constantly trying to surround ourselves with pleasurable things and trying to avoid unpleasant things. It's the classic psychological pleasure/pain principle: we want more of the things we like and none of the things we don't. Well, that's how I see the Buddha's pre-enlightenment life: luxury and mortification are metaphors for the very processes that we experience on a moment to moment basis. At any given time, we face situations that we either like--and so we're happy, yeah!--or or don't like--and so we're angry, sad, upset, booh! For it's our responses to life that cause us to suffer, not life itself. So when the Buddha speaks about the unconditioned (Nirvana, which literally means "to extinguish"), he means a life not conditioned by greed, anger, and clinging (for their hold on us has been "blown out," so to speak). Don't get me wrong: they still exist; we don't live in some mystical bliss state. We're just not driven or controlled by them like we used to be.

You see, the Buddha's life is our life. We walk in his footsteps all the time. In fact, we can't help but walk in them, for his story is the human story, which is why it's so powerful, I suppose. We suffer because of the way we are blindly driven by habitual responses. And the Buddha's life teaches us how to find freedom from this self-induced suffering.

I find this reading perfectly consistent with Buddhist doctrine, for as Zen teaches, we are already perfect, complete, and lacking nothing (in other words, Enlightened). The path is to recognize our aversions and attractions, see them for what they are (conditional, impermanent responses), greet them with kindness and acceptance, but be bound (attached) to none of them. That's what the Buddha's Enlightenment says to me: the Middle Way lives in between aversion and grasping, rejecting and bound by neither.

No comments:

Post a Comment