In Buddha’s Footsteps
I’m going to tell you a story, my take on Buddha’s life. It does not follow the traditional telling of the story, so it might seem irreverent to some people. My intention is not to be disrespectful. I want to highlight the archetypal quality of the story and its resonance in me.
Once upon a time, there was this young prince. His father loved him so much that he wanted to spare him the unhappiness of life. And, because he was a powerful king, he was able to do so. The father’s efforts had unintended consequences. Our hero grew up with the vague sense that something was not right in his life. And so he left the kingdom, his family, his wife, his young child, and all the trappings of happiness. One could say he left all of this behind because he had a sense that there is more to life than what he had. Another way to say it is that he didn’t feel understood by the people he was living with, and he set out to seek kindred spirits.
In postwar Paris, he might have flirted with existentialism. In his time and place, the people who dealt with this type of issue where the spiritual seekers. Unlike the café-terrace philosophers, the seekers did not focus on talking, but on practices that aimed to achieve a higher degree of harmony with life. Our hero enthusiastically followed their example. He followed the path of the ascetic seeker.
Then, at some point, something clicked for him. Newton is said to have found his insight when an apple fell on his head. Who knows what fell on Buddha’s head from the Bodhi Tree? The point is that this type of moment is just a catalyst, a moment when one can see all the experiences of the past in a new perspective that gives them meaning.
And so it came to be that Buddha realized that his life had been like a pendulum. In the first phase, his focus had been on attaining happiness, or contentment in life, by eliminating any possible source of unhappiness. Of course, that was an impossible task and, therefore, fundamentally unsatisfying for anybody who was not completely mindless.
In the second phase of his life, the pendulum swung the other way. His focus was on depriving himself of all the traditional trappings of happiness. Which, he came to see, was just another form of denial. He had this insight: A pendulum is in constant movement, but it goes nowhere. To move, you need to break away from the swing of the pendulum.
An archetypal journey
And so this is how the story works for me: It is not so much a biography as it is an archetypal journey.
In the first part, we get to see what it would be like if all our dreams were to come true. Even in the best-case scenario, being the pampered son of a king, we would come to realize that the conventional trappings of happiness are not nearly enough. We would see that there is something more important than that.
What then about the second part? All this voluntary deprivation might feel like an utter waste. However, there is another way to look at it. It would have been impossible to get where he did without the experience that accrues from seemingly false starts. It takes the suffering of trial and error to gain wisdom.
Our hero did not find what he was seeking when he embarked upon the adventure of asceticism. But he found something else. In the process of being an ascetic, he developed his ability to establish a ‘bigger container.’ That is, he improved his ability to withstand the frustrations and anxieties of facing the challenges of the human condition.
The point of what he had been doing was not to deprive himself for the sake of deprivation. The hidden benefit was to cultivate his ability to face difficult things without a flight into denial and mindlessness.
Life is suffering
Nevertheless, all this wisdom came at a high cost. This archetype is not about sugarcoating things: Life is suffering. You can’t escape that. So the issue is not whether you can avoid suffering. You won’t. The question is: Would you rather suffer while living mindlessly? Or while seeking wisdom, meaning, and a more profound sense of contentment?
In any case, what happened is: After enlightenment, Buddha got off his butt. He went back into the world, realizing how much he needed a sangha, a congregation of kindred spirits. But there was none, and so he went about to create one.
It is all too easy to view Buddha’s story through the prism of other myths. So we might see Buddha as a compassionate Savior who shared with us his wisdom for our enlightenment.
Of course, Buddha was kind and compassionate. But not in the way that somebody who has everything gives to people who have nothing. Buddha’s compassion was also self-compassion: He knew how much he needed the sangha.
As we follow in Buddha’s footsteps, it is helpful to remember that his path did not proceed in a straight line. It took many experiences to get him to change the way he interacted with the world.
It turns out that Buddha’s ultimate path was neither to exclusively focus on his own happiness in a conventional way, nor to renounce all the conventional trappings of happiness. He eventually came to the profound realization that there was another path altogether: Only by connecting with others do we have a chance to alleviate the sufferings of the human condition.
In assembling a sangha, Buddha was finding a way to address his own needs. The beauty of this type of situation is that it transcends the absurdities of dualism: It’s not about selfishness vs. altruism. It is about finding the sweet spot where self-interest coincides with the common interest.
Joining communities does not mean losing ourselves in them. We are each at the center of our web of communities. We need to take an active role in sustaining the communities that sustain us. This includes being true to ourselves as we are in community.