In this issue:
Before the Buddha was the Enlightened One, He was the Bodhisattva, Siddhartha Gautama. He was a spiritual pilgrim, as we are ourselves. What was it that inspired His journey to know the Truth about Himself and the world? When I reflect on this question I think of the story of the Four Sights.
He was born an Indian prince, and the accounts of His life say that His father rotated Prince Siddhartha's attendants through the palace so that they were always young and beautiful and healthy and vital. He was kept in a virtual time bubble of perpetual youth.
When He was in His late twenties, though, the Buddha ventured out from His pleasure palace and witnessed four aspects of the human condition He had not seen before: a feeble old man; a diseased man with running sores; a dead man surrounded by distressed mourners; and a dignified hermit. Siddhartha was shaken to His core by the first three sights, and His attendant assured him that these unhappy states happen to all people. The sights shocked Him with the visceral realization that He, too, was bound by time and was mortal; His protective time-bubble was burst. He had a radical and direct experience of the truth that all existence is impermanent. Put in logical form, here is what the future Buddha understood in the depths of His being:
All human beings suffer and die;
Siddhartha is a human being;
Therefore Siddhartha will suffer and die.
The first three sights are experiences we all have to some degree from a relatively early age: a beloved pet dies, grandma gets older and more frail, a cousin near our age dies of leukemia, grandpa gets sicker and sicker with heart disease and fades away and dies….
We experience these events as traumatic and disorienting. Consequently, with time we build a protective psychic shell around ourselves to protect us from the frightening personal implications: we ourselves will get old; we ourselves will get sick; we ourselves will die. This is too much for our ego to contemplate and accept, since self-preservation is its overriding concern, so we hide the implications from ourselves and live as if they won't happen to us.
Siddhartha had no such protective shield. Because of His exceptionally sheltered and protected life the shocking reality of the three sights struck Him with its full-force as an adult: He was mortal and would lose all the joys and pleasures He took for granted in His life of ease and luxury. He would be destroyed by time.
But the calm and serene presence of the renunciate represented something else: a timeless centered stillness in the midst of the traumas of this world. Something in His heart called out to Him that this was His path for living in this mixed-up world of sorrows and material pleasures. He knew He must heed that call, and headed out on His journey of discovery to find the Real, the Timeless, the Eternal.
This is the call each one of us hears. Rev. Master Jiyu used to say that, in Buddhism, “All are called but few choose to answer.” We are called to make a pilgrimage from self to Self, a journey from the prison cell of obsessive self-preoccupation to an expansive, boundless Reality that includes all things, where the Four Wisdoms of charity, tenderness, benevolence, and sympathy illuminate the landscape of our lives. If we do not heed this call we may grow physically, but no matter how old we become we remain spiritual children. We may become wise in the ways of the world, but we lose the world in death.
The miracle of our pilgrimage to the Timeless, the Eternal, the Deathless is that the only traveling we have to do in space is to cross over to our sitting place. Each time we sit in meditation, allow our thoughts and emotions to quiet down, and open up our hearts to the Eternal we take a step forward on our journey. When, with time, we learn that our sitting place is not just on our cushion but everywhere and now, the experiences of everyday life become our walking stick. As the Sandokai teaches,
If from your experience of the senses
Basic truth you do not know
How can you ever find the path that certain is
No matter how far distant you may walk?
When in daily life we catch ourselves before breaking a Precept, a hazard is removed from our path. When we “make offerings although we ourselves get nothing in return;” when we “behold all beings with the eye of compassion, and speak kindly to them;” when we “create wise ways of helping beings;” when we “identify oneself with that which is not oneself” our steps are lightened and our path smoothed.1 When we are present, alert, attentive, mindful, and aware we keep to the path and away from the thorny undergrowth of selfishness that borders the path all along the way. And when we do lose our way and find ourselves stumbling blindly in the thickets of self, renewed resolve and self-forgiveness will disentangle us and propel us back on the path.
Although we must call upon our own discipline and walk the path ourselves, we do not go alone. Our Zen tradition provides the written and recorded oral teachings of earlier spiritual pilgrims who have gone before us and surveyed the path. They describe the perils and pitfalls that threaten along the way, as well as the breathtaking vistas waiting around the bend if we but keep walking.
Besides the wise words of people long gone from this world, our tradition emphasizes the living master-disciple/teacher-student relationship. It’s common for novice pilgrims to go just so far and say, “I didn’t realize that this path led away from the world and the familiar facades I took as real, and I’m afraid of losing my self…where I am is good enough and I’m going to stop here where I’m safe.” A master or teacher who has walked the path a bit longer and a bit farther in experience can reassure the reluctant traveler that they leave behind nothing but unreality and will begin to know the Real. And, if necessary, out of kindness they will haul the student to their spiritual feet and give them a not-so-gentle push back on the path.
The path of deep spirituality–a spirituality rooted in meditation–is perilous and magnificent. And it is the only path that will lead us, as it did the Buddha, home to who we really are.
I will close with an image that reflects the spiritual journey for me. Some years ago I re-imagined Flammarion’s engraving of a clockwork universe to one that reflects the spiritual journey. I call it Pilgrim Finds the Eternal.
1 The quotations are from the descriptions of the Four Wisdoms in Great Master Dogen’s Shushogi, (“What is Truly Meant by Training and Enlightenment”), published in Zen is Eternal Life, translated by Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett.