On the last day of the recent Kadampa Summer Festival, the life story of Buddha Shakyamuni was shown, as it always is, and well received.
Buddha’s story is a great story, and ours can be a great story too, if we stop thinking about ourselves in clichéd, samsaric ways. “Anything that has become trite or commonplace through overuse,” as one dictionary definition of cliché has it.
Once upon a time, when I was experiencing a break-up from a fun and always interesting relationship that had lasted over half our lives, when my larger than life, handsome, previously devoted partner, like countless men before him, left for a baby with a younger woman, I turned for desperate comfort to my dear friend M. “What a cliché!” I wailed to him. “I don’t WANT to be a cliché.”
And M replied, “Everything in samsara is a cliché.”
This shook me out of self-pity. Point being, despite variations on a theme, despite any extenuating circumstances, we have been there, done that, countless times – no tee-shirt will ever be big enough to document it all. We even call the appearances of samsara “common appearances” or “ordinary appearances”.
We might think it is just us, we’re in a private world of forlorn hopes and dwindling dreams; but pretty much everyone I’ve ever talked to finds growing older distasteful at least from time to time. This is especially if they assumed that they would be an exception to the rule — that with the help of Botox or a great exercise routine or a good hairdresser or alternative healing or a lot of money or a predictable partner they could avoid life’s biggest clichés. But the end of collection is dispersion, as Buddha pointed out, the end of rising falling, the end of meeting parting. Everyone (who lives long enough) seems to feel at some point or another old or ill, or past it, overlooked, or useless, or unglamorous, haggard, or paunchy, or an object of increasing irrelevance or ridicule – and then basically ends up losing everything. Just in time to buy into the next series of clichés in our next life.
Samsara manages to be both unpredictable and banally predictable all at the same time. The details may be unpredictable, but the pattern is wearyingly monotonous.
The seven sufferings of samsara are all one gigantic cliché and we’re all going to be living this forever if we don’t decide to think outside the box, in fact until we realize there is no box. Like Buddha did.
I have been thinking a lot about Buddha Shakyamuni recently because I was very moved by Gen-la Dekyong‘s teachings at the US Kadampa Spring Festival 2016 and also by the fact that Geshe Kelsang loves watching the Life of Buddha, so much, for all its teachings. He said he is watching not actors but the actual life story and protagonists, and he said something similar after watching the Life of Atisha play. It is as if Geshe-la is watching the actual life story unfold in the present, which makes me think the story is eternally present really, the examples timelessly relevant.
Think outside the box
I love that Prince Siddhartha had everything a man could ever want, and certainly far more than I could hope for in this life; yet he still walked away from it because he saw that it was built on a deceptive illusion, the utterly shaky edifice of the sufferings of sickness, ageing, death, and uncontrolled rebirth.
I mean, who amongst you has all the things he had – such as exceptional good looks, the most beautiful spouse in the kingdom, a whole harem of other glamorous people eager to please you, a really nice palace, riches and worldly achievements beyond compare, crowds of adulating villagers bowing at your feet?! Are you set to become a king or queen anytime soon?!
Prince Siddhartha didn’t even know, technically, that he was going to find the solution, but he decided he had to do it anyway. So if he could do it, I reckon we can develop renunciation for our relatively paltry objects of attachment, especially as Buddha did figure out our escape for us. Not to say that we have to abandon anything external, for that is not in fact renunciation; but we can abandon our attachment and turn our attention to the solution for the existential predicament we find ourselves in. Vis a vis, realize that the things we normally see — those common appearances that we normally buy into as if they are the only pathetic choice we have — don’t even exist.
Calling the earth to witness
Then there is that great scene when Buddha is sitting under the Bodhi Tree and is attacked by Maras — first appearing as enticing women and then as terrifying demons. And Buddha is entirely unbothered, he stays in undistracted concentration, he can see through the whole hallucination. He is infinitely more interested in blissful love and profound illumination. He is unbelievably cool.
Maybe we see that scene as something allegorical, and not even that relevant to us, just indicating Buddha’s extraordinary qualities as he showed the manner of attaining enlightenment. But I think it shows us a powerful way to deal with our own delusions or maras when they arise. After all, sure, in the play we can think that those enchanting women are too abstract to be tempting; but if all the people we ever really lusted after were to appear in front of us and say, “It’s always been you I love! I’ve been an idiot! Come with me!” might we not be tempted?! But Buddha saw right through them.
And when those same maras then tried to scare him, again we might think that is something abstract; but what are those maras? All are appearances created by our own scary delusions of anger, attachment, jealousy, self-loathing, loneliness, fear, anxiety, or existential despair arising as if out there, in front of us, trying to attack us, to overwhelm us. Think of the scariest appearances to your mind, your most feared enemies, those who have the greatest power (you think) to upset you – a neglectful parent, an off the rails child, a sneering rival, a bullying abuser, a ruthless boss, a dismissive ex, or plain old sickness, ageing, wrinkles, and death. But they get nowhere because we, like Buddha, can see right through them.
And at no point did Buddha identify with these appearances. At no point was he overpowered by them. He understood they were maras with no function other than to harm him. He accepted they were appearing, but instead of fighting them he saw right through them. He saw they were mistaken appearances, saw they weren’t even there; and with his love, concentration, and wisdom he called the earth to witness that he had overcome them all.
Buddha understood that none of these maras was outside his mind, so they all disappeared permanently the moment his final obstructions were lifted. In that moment, he became an omniscient being.
It’s kind of encouraging, don’t you think, that all this happened minutes before his enlightenment. No excuses, then, to think, “Bloody hell, I’ve been practicing Buddhism for six years already and I’m still being assailed by maras!” Looks like maras trying to scare or ensnare us might be the order of the day until the very last minute.
But, like Buddha, we can call the earth to witness that none of these phantoms has any hold over us whatsoever. We are waking up. We are learning to see everything as it is. We can finally do (and have) what we want because we realize that everything is created by our minds.
We can be like this. For hallucinations can only harm us if we buy into them, if we believe in them as being real, as existing independent of the mind. Ven Geshe-la says in How to Understand the Mind:
We mistakenly believe that our body that we normally see actually exists and, because of this, we experience sufferings of the body such as sickness as a hallucination, as a mistaken appearance, as like a dream. p. 311
Have you ever imagined what it would be like to not be hallucinating at all – not your self, not others, not your job, not your objects of desire, not anything? What will appear to you once common, banal appearances stop appearing? What will you choose to manifest or appear from the bliss and emptiness of your own mind, understanding the dreamlike nature of things?! This experience will be inexhaustibly joyful and meaningful, I think, and enable us to help everyone else in cosmically original, effortless, ways.
Over to you, comments welcome.