These days, since I have joined the 50 years plus club on January fifth 2008, my mind is very reflective, pensive and meditative. When one has lived exactly fifty years on planet earth and knowing that one has much more than half of one's life span lived, one wonders what one has achieved, what all the fuss has been and is about and where exactly one should be going. Older preoccupations with worldly success and achievements of various sorts have well and truly paled into less significance. Older biases and prejudices have declined and some few are almost faded away entirely.
I suppose a fifty year old is more tired of struggling against the vicissitudes of life than his younger counterpart; is more inclined to go with the flow; is more inclined to fight in a more realistic and less energy-consuming fashion; is more inclined to accept criticisms; is more likely to be far more compassionate on the weaknesses of self and others; is somewhat more likely to be more open to possibilities, and probably more realistic of what he can hope for from life. He or she is also probably more receptive to a depth-dimension to life - to a spirituality in the widest possible meaning of that word, a meaning that stretches beyond the boundaries of confessional or denominational religions. Also it is a spirituality that stretches to embrace and confirm not to reject and deny.
It's at times like these that I need to be compassionate for the little boy within. I have always subscribed to the Onion Theory of the Personality - that is, that rather than throwing off each previous stage of growth, we add a new layer of growth like the onion as we grow older. Our task is to have compassion on each of our previous layers of existence. And so like Siddhartha Gautama, we set out anew to find some small glimmers of hope on our pilgrim journey and who knows perhaps some day enlightenment.
I mentioned in my last post how the young prince Siddhartha Gautama later to be called Shakyamuni Buddha or Gautama Buddha or more simply still The Buddha had left his father's palace to find the answer to the great questions of life - like the meaning of ageing, suffering and dying. That's where we left the young prince Siddhartha in yesterday's post. Like most of our spiritual leaders and gurus from early history the facts about the man himself are sketchy, though we know a lot about his teachings and philosophy. Today the majority of scholars give dates within 20 years either side of 400 BCE for Gautama's death and he lived for approximately 80 years. These are nice round figures and are easy to remember so I like to stick with them. Also it is good to know that he was born in the city of Lumbini in Nepal, that he married a cousin at 16 and bore a son. While his father sought to protect Siddhartha from all possible suffering by keeping the ill out of sight, Gautama longed for a deeper understanding after his father's vain efforts failed in this matter.
And so our hero fled his royal palace in pursuit of the key to the meaning of life and suffering. He now became a medicant monk and accordingly went from place to place begging for alms. He also experimented with asceticism which became very extreme at one stage - long days of fasting, long periods of holding his breath and exposure to bodily pain. (It is interesting to recall that the ancient Irish monks experimented in such ascetic practices also - not to mention the Desert Fathers). However, Siddhartha was quick to realise that these extreme practices brought no genuine or long-lasting spiritual benefits. In fact, he found like many before and after him, extreme measures never lead to any great satisfaction at all. Hence he abandoned these extremes. He then realised that surely there must be a Middle Way. The Middle Way is a path of moderation that lies mid-way between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. He began to meditate, and in his meditation he started by following a practice called Anapanasati which literally means the awareness of breathing in and out.
One day while he was sitting under a sacred fig tree (almost Biblical indeed) he vowed never to arise until he had found the Truth (again with Biblical and literary resonances - "What is Truth?" said jesting Pilate and he did not wait for an answer." Francis Bacon). This sacred fig is also called the pipal tree or the Bodhi tree. His then five followers thought that he had lost his mind and abandoned him to his impossible quest as they thought. It is said that after 49 days meditating under the Bodhi tree, at the age of 35, he attained also what is also easily remembered bodhi which is also known as "Awakening" or "Enlightenment" in the West.
From this on out Siddhartha is now known as Buddha or Gautama Buddha. For the next 45 years he went around teaching his insights into life. These insights are collectively referred to as the Dharma. With Siddhartha's complete awakening came his insight into the mystery of suffering in this world. The cause of human suffering he taught was humankind's ignorance of the very nature of the world. Initially he was loathe to teach his insights as he felt humankind were neither ready nor willing to take them on board. He could see around him the many lost, deceived and deceiving souls afflicted with all their various desires - greed, ambition, pride, lust for power and all their delusions of grandeur. Could they be ready for a wake up call?
I will finish with a few timely Buddhist quotations that I love:
The happiness we seek, a genuine lasting peace and happiness, can be attained only through the purification of our minds. This is possible if we cut the root cause of all suffering and misery—our fundamental ignorance.
-His Holiness the Dalai Lama, The World of Tibetan Buddhism
Sakka asked: "What is the cause of self-interest?"
The Buddha answered: "It is perception of the world as one's object."
"How does one overcome this perception of the world as apart from oneself?"
"By acting for the increase of goodness and happiness. It is in this way that the world ceases to be one's object."
From "Buddha Speaks," edited by Anne Bancroft, 2000. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Boston, www.shambhala.com.
"I, without grasping, will pass beyond sorrow,
And I will attain nirvana," one says.
Whoever grasps like this
Has great grasping.
From "365 Buddha: Daily Meditations," edited by Jeff Schmidt. Reprinted by arrangement with Tarcher/Putnam, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc.
Above I have uploaded another "reflective" image which I took along the banks of the Garravogue Summer 2006.
The key, during both life and death, is to recognize illusions as illusions, projections as projections, and fantasies as fantasies. In this way we become free.
-Lama Thubten Yeshe, Introduction to Tantra
Copyright Wisdom Publications 2001. Reprinted from Daily Wisdom: 365 Buddhist Inspirations, edited by Josh Bartok. Reprinted with permission by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, 199 Elm St., Somerville MA 02144 U.S.A, www.wisdompubs.org.