I'd like to tell you a story. A scholar once approached a Buddhist monk, and told the monk he'd been studying Buddhism for many years. He'd assembled a great deal of historical data about the time in which the Buddha was supposed to have lived, about the cultures and philosophies and the socio-economic climate in which Siddartha Guatama is written to have grown up. He had analyzed the Pali canon, and the Suttas, and all the discourse on the Buddha that had been written hundreds of years after the Buddha supposedly had taught. His conclusion was that there was no way the Buddha had been a real person, the stories about him were obvious myths and fabrications. The evidence was overwhelming: the Buddha did not exist.
"Well," said the monk, "whoever came up with the Four Noble Truths, that is my Buddha."
Let me ask you a question: is that story true? Let me ask a better question: Does it matter? This story, in my estimation, is the perfect parable for Buddhism. Was the Buddha a real person? I dunno. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn't. Does it matter? Not a whit. Buddhism is about three things: Impermanence, Interconnectedness, and escaping from the cycle of suffering by Awakening. I've been very differential towards other forms of Buddhism throughout this series of posts, but I say this now with all conviction: anything beyond those three things is just window dressing.
Now, with that said, I'd like to tell you the story of the Buddha. Because, like the (semi-)parable at the top, the story is valuable for what it teaches, not for it's veracity.
Legends say that there was once a ruler in India whose wife became pregnant. A Holy Man prophesied that the rajah's son would either be a great ruler, or a great holy man. Because, in those days, holy men in India were all ascetics who lived in poverty and willfully starved and abased themselves, the rajah was determined that his son would become the former.
So he caused great walls to be built around his palace, and he constructed gardens and baths and great banquet halls. Everything a young prince could desire for a life of pleasure was prepared, and young Siddartha Guatama grew up in the type of lifestyle a god might be envious of.
But, as is wont to happen in these types of stories, our young prince grew restless, and he wanted to see what was beyond his palace's walls. So he got in his chariot and decided to take a ride.
As they were riding, they saw a sick person, coughing and hobbling feebley by. "What is that?" Siddartha asked.
"That is a sick person," the charioteer replied. "It is the nature of all living beings to know sickness and pain."As they rode on, he saw an old man. "What is that?" he asked his charioteer.
"That is an old person," the charioteer replied. "It is the nature of all living beings to grow old and feeble."
Now they came upon a funeral. The procession moved past them and Siddartha saw the corpse on the bier. "What is THAT?" he wondered aloud.
"That is a corpse, honored prince. It is the nature of all living beings to one day know death."
Siddartha was greatly troubled, and ordered the charioteer to take him back home. As they were travelling, however, Siddartha saw one last thing: a monk, sitting in contented meditation.
"What is that?" he asked.
"That is a monk," the charioteer replied. "He has forsaken the things of this world and lives in quiet repose."
After seeing sickness, age, and death, the pleasures of Siddartha's prison-palace no longer held enjoyment for him. So, fulfilling the holy man's prophecy, he renounced all his wealth and became an ascetic.
"If there is an answer to life's troubles, I will find it," he declared. And he threw himself into the ascetic lifestyle like a man dying of thirst would dive into a river.
Siddartha was the greatest of all the monks. All the others marvelled at how long he sat in meditation, at how fiercely he inflicted punishment on his body. It says, in one description, that Siddartha starved himself so greatly that he could touch his backbone through his stomach, and he did not have even the strength to get up.
A young girl found him and nursed him back to health. He was broken and defeated; a man in the grips of terrible depression. Living the hedonistic lifestyle of a prince had not given him peace, but neither had the way of the ascetics. Asceticism was just another extreme, the other side of the coin from hedonism, and neither offered him the answers he sought.
So he sat down again for meditation, under a bodhi tree. He meditated upon his life, swinging from extreme to extreme. He meditated on the condition of all life, including pleasure and pain, birth and death. While he sat there in contemplation, he remembered back to when he was a child, on a particular summer's day sitting under a tree like this, where he experienced for a little while a sense of true equanimity; where everything was equal, everything was in balance, and he was at peace.
It is said that under that tree, Siddartha Guatama realized the Four Noble Truths, and was enlightened.
Now, was that story true? Better question: does it matter? What we should ask ourselves is, true or not, why is this the story that is told about the Buddha's enlightenment; about the origin of the Four Noble Truths? Here are some important things that I, personally, think this story is trying to teach us.
1) The Buddha acheives his enlightenment not through divine revelation, but through quiet, patient contemplation. This tells us that the teachings of the Buddha are not some esoteric mystery that must be accepted on faith; rather, it is knowledge that is available to all humans who sit and contemplate the nature of things, casting aside all preconceived notions.
2) The Buddha's path is often called "The Middle Way," and this story illustrates the reason perfectly. Buddhism does not encourage an abandonment into hedonism and selfish gratification, but neither does it proscribe a strict doctrine of self denial and religiousity for their own sake. The path of Buddhism is the path of non-extremes. It is the path of balance.
3) The story is, itself, a parable of the Four Noble Truths.
What? I haven't gone over the Four Noble Truths?
Well, I guess you know what my next post will be about!