His story is our story - a talk for Buddha DayOn Tue, 5 May, 2015 - 10:23
The following is the text of an introductory talk given at the commencement of the Walk in the Footsteps of the Buddha retreat incorporating the Buddha Day Festival at Vijayaloka Retreat centre.
Two and a half thousand years ago far away in the Ganges Valley, during the full moon in May, the world changed completely: an Awakened being arose in the world. Siddhatha Gautama become the Buddha.
Since then, his life, his example, his teachings have profoundly shaped individuals, schools of thought, nations, arts, languages, the very fabric of history. Enlightenment, freedom from suffering in all its forms and the attendant wisdoms that arise in the process of becoming awakened, became his legacy - a shared legacy for us all. And it has brought us all here on this retreat today.
But this retreat is not about exploring the Buddha’s biography. We will not read about his birth, early years, exposure to old age, sickness, death and the renunciant life (if indeed that actually did take place). Those details you can find anywhere. However, his story is more than a worthy history to google, to study and to revere. His story is also our story.
This morning in the puja we chanted the words as we often do, ‘What the Buddha overcame, we too can overcome. What the Buddha attained, we too can attain.’ The Buddha’s story is our story. Or more accurately within the confines of this retreat, Siddhartha’s story is our story. The main beats of the Buddha-to-be-Siddhartha’s life are remarkably similar to our own, regardless of his living so far back in time in such a far away place.
Consider this, he was born into affluence. His life was comfortable. The texts say that he had whatever he needed and that unsightly things were just that, unsighted, unseen. Whilst we might not live in a palace, we live within a culture of excess that relishes the flawless glamour of beauty, the thrill of entertainment and it hides from the unsettling stark reality of ageing. His life, also in accord with ours, knew love and duty and responsibility none the the less. He learned his part in the scheme of things, training as befits one of his social class. Like him, we may have initially trained to belong.
Yet, there was in him, regardless of the rendering of the story, a restlessness to know more. Surely, I can imaging him asking, there must be more than this?
The accounts vary, but that sense of discontent grew in him at a relatively early age. In his twenties I think it is said. When did that discontent grow for you? Perhaps it wasn’t a discontent of the grumbling kind. Perhaps it was more of a curiosity born from wanting to know more?
In the stories from the early texts, and elaborated in later ones, Siddhartha leaves the world he knew, the culture that had brought him into existence, that life of duty and honour and responsibility and pleasure, for something else, some unknown destination that was perhaps as elusive as the question in his heart.
Have you turned away, in even the smallest way, from the call of societal norms, from the demands of an accomplished life, from aspects of family, career and external expectations? Have you left where you grew up and the various behaviours associated with it? Well, you are on retreat and not at IKEA so, yes, you have.
Siddartha sought a path, led by the yearnings of his heart, towards the undisclosed goal that would free him and this is critical other people - he was not just in this for himself. He gained skill, wisdom, self-knowledge, greater compassion but not full-transcendence. Not at first.
Are you not also pursuing some gentle or insistent calls from within? Have you not muted some of your habits, taken on new more skilful ones and gained awareness to some degree? Have you let go of some of your views, habits, attitudes and ways of living? Are you in the process of transcending the limits of you? Is there a kindness in your heart right now?
You see, his story is our story.
His awakening that we celebrate today, is also a celebration of the human potential. A shared human potential. A celebration of our potential and our own journey towards it. It is also the potential of others we respect who have also walked this noble path. And of those who frustrate our efforts.
On this retreat we will be walking the path with the Buddha, placing ourselves if not in his footprints but at least a few steps behind.
To the practicalities.
We won’t be reading a lot from books. We will be practising, meditating, reflecting, rejoicing, engaging in ritual, enacting and imagining the Buddha.
In particular we will examine three key moments of his journey which are powerful symbols of transcendence. One will be more known to you than perhaps the other two.
The first one is we are calling The Cave and it relates to the time the still unenlightened Siddhartha spent engaged in austere practices away up in the mountains not far from the Naranjara river and the place that became known as the Bodhi Tree. This was, in a sense, a dead end for him. It did not lead to the goal yet at the same time the period of years spent practising there was not wasted, it lead to the understanding that this was not the way.
The second of these symbols is that of The Gifts. Even closer to the enlightenment experience on that full moon in May, Siddhartha received two gifts - one from a man of the land and one from a young girl. These gifts supported and sustained his striving.
The third is perhaps the most well known and the most dramatic - The Battle. It refers to the forces of Mara - death, impermanence, ego and clinging - desperately waging a war to stop the soon-to-be-Buddha from reaching the furthest shore.
Today we will reflect upon and recreate aspects of these symbolic moments (no, no dress up is required, no drama skills needed) rather you are invited to move into an imaginative connection with these three potent symbols and how they, in some way, manifest in our own lives. We won’t lose sight of the Buddha in all this and turn it into some mere psychological exercise. Our response to him will be at the forefront of all we do, after all this is his day.
But, as I’ve said before. His story is our story.
What the Buddha overcame we too can overcome
What the Buddha attained, we too can attain.
So let’s start walking in the footsteps of the Buddha.