Saturday, December 27, 2014

Right after he woke up

My teacher told me a story about Zen Master Seung Sahn. Someone asked him if he had seen Little Buddha, the film about the Buddha's life before he reached Enlightenment. Seung Sahn said yes he had.

The student then asked him what he thought about it. Seung Sahn said that he enjoyed the film, but there was only one problem.

"What's that?" asked the student.

I'm paraphrasing: "The film only showed the Buddha's life before he woke up; it didn't show the 45 years of teaching after he woke up. That's the Buddha's true legacy."

Very sharp teaching from Seung Sahn. Most studies of the Buddha concentrate on his life prior to awakening, while Seung Sahn was drawing our attention back to the Buddha's most significant achievement--a lifetime of service teaching the Dharma. Now that aspect of the Buddha's life is truly impressive.

To make a bit of a detour, I have been thinking more and more lately about a period between the before and after--the days or weeks between his Enlightenment and when he began teaching.

Some versions of the story cast the god Brahma petitioning the Buddha to teacher, despite the Buddha's reluctance (Samyutta Nikaya 6.1). The Buddha hesitates to teach because,
"This Dhamma that I have attained is deep, hard to see, hard to realize, peaceful, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise. But this generation delights in attachment, is excited by attachment, enjoys attachment. For a generation delighting in attachment, excited by attachment, enjoying attachment, this/that conditionality and dependent co-arising are hard to see. This state, too, is hard to see: the resolution of all fabrications, the relinquishment of all acquisitions, the ending of craving; dispassion; cessation; Unbinding. And if I were to teach the Dhamma and if others would not understand me, that would be tiresome for me, troublesome for me."
What was the Buddha thinking during this period? I mean, really thinking. I don't subscribe to celestial beings and so I read this entirely allegorically, Brahma representing the Buddha's compassion for the world.

So what really happened during those days or weeks? As the sutta passage above conveys, he must have been conflicted, torn between whether to go off and live the rest of his days in seclusion like a forest sage or teach. For me, this represents a very human moment in the Buddha's life, one that is often overlooked. I am very interested in what this great man and teacher's life was like in this missing period of his life.

It would make a great fiction book, similar to Thich Nhat Hanh's Old Path White Clouds. Who knows, maybe I'll pen it someday.

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