This talk was recorded in my home in Kansas City, Missouri
2,550 (or so) years ago today a man sat under a tree.
He saw a really divided world, where people struggled and argued and fought with each other, often over trivial things.
He saw people who valued greed over kindness,
He saw people who valued hate over love,
He saw people who valued lies over the truth.
And he saw that these people were not happy.
He saw people not finding fulfillment in their lives. He saw people railing against their own suffering, often making things worse.
And he thought, “we can do better.”
So he sat under a tree and tried to figure out the nature of the human condition.
And he became known as the Buddha. He taught a better way for people to live. A way centered in mindfulness and compassion. We can be better than we are.
But Buddhism isn’t about his enlightenment, not really.
It’s about yours.
The Buddha was right. We can do better.
Sometimes we just come to the Buddha’s story over and over, telling it in different ways.
Gautama was the son of a wealthy king and he lived a sheltered life. It’s said that he didn’t even know about suffering and sickness and death, but that’s almost certainly not true. The story is that his father did everything he possibly could to prevent his son from knowing that life is hard. We should all be so lucky. I think even people today that are born into incredible wealth still do know something about suffering. We all get older, we all get sick, we all die.
So, it’s said that one day Gautama discovered that life is full of suffering. A servant explained the whole thing to him and he just couldn’t stop thinking about it. He dwelled on this information in the same way that we can’t stop thinking about how stressful our jobs or ex-wives are sometimes. And he just had to ask himself, “Is life is full of suffering and (in the scheme of things) short, what’s the point?” This question really bothered him and he couldn’t even enjoy his privileged life anymore.
So he just left.
He left behind this life of luxury to go look for answers, to really try to figure out the meaning of life. At this time, in this part of the world, it wasn’t that rare. There were lots of guys wandering around trying to get spiritual insights in those days. Still, he had so much that he decided to give up and that is hard for us to really think about.
He just wandered around in the woods for years. He learned from various spiritual teachers. He learned a lot from them, but he really didn’t see any of the teachings he was getting as helpful. Nothing could make him stop wondering if life was worth living, what the purpose of life is with all this suffering and transient joy.
And one day, while sitting under a tree, he experienced Enlightenment. He had a great insight that revealed to him the origin, cause, and way out of suffering.
We call this the four noble truths and it’s really the foundation of all of Buddhism.
But this is just about the man. More about the teachings another time.
After that day he was called The Buddha. This means the one who is awake. He taught for over forty years. He taught this path to everyone; rich and poor, men and women, virtuous people and also criminals. His teaching about the cause and liberation from human suffering was and remains something that can be of benefit to anyone. It is open and helpful to anyone who tries it for themselves.
After the Buddha became a spiritual teacher, people asked many questions. One day a man approached him and had this exchange:
“Are you a god?”
“Are you a wizard?”
“Are you an angel or spirit?”
“What are you?”
“I am awake.”
I can’t even imagine walking up to someone, no matter how special they appear to be, and saying, “Are you an angel or spirit?” That seems very strange. But this is how the story is told.
The Buddha never called himself anything other than an ordinary human being, like us. He didn’t claim to be a god or inspired by a god. He didn’t claim to have super powers. He said that everything he achieved was due to normal human capabilities and efforts.
The Buddha isn’t something we pray to or worship. He was just a person who became awake. That is all.
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An Awakened Being is said to have deep wisdom. Wisdom is important in Buddhism. Wisdom is important but it’s viewed as highly as it was in ancient times. We think about getting wiser as we get older, but we often don’t think about wisdom beyond that.
Knowledge is appreciated a lot more than wisdom.
Knowledge is important. It has led to many great things in the world.
Wisdom is what can direct our knowledge and lead us to more balanced and fulfilled lives.
Buddhist teachings and techniques for increasing wisdom can help us a great deal.
When we are acting with wisdom, we aren’t being held back by our preconceived ideas. We are able to see what’s going on more clearly. We are better able to analyze the facts and determine the best course of action.
Wisdom is like a mirror that reflects reality clearly. What is reflected in this clear mirror is our interconnectedness. It helps us see through the delusion of separation.
An Awakened Being, or Buddha, is a person who intuitively understands this wisdom.
The concept Awakening is central to Buddhism.
On Taking Refuge in the Buddha
“Whoever sees his true nature is a Buddha.”
What does it mean when we say we are taking refuge in the Buddha?
For most of us Refuge Vows are taken fairly early in our practice. Does taking refuge mean that we’re asking the Buddha to do something for us? No. The Buddha was just a man. When we go for refuge in the Buddha, we are declaring that we want to follow his example. But, we are also taking refuge in the Buddha within, our true Enlightened self. The state of Awakening that is within us is what we are really taking refuge in.
When the Buddha saw his true nature he became Enlightened. This is a journey that we can take as well.
At our core, we are Enlightened, we just can’t see it because our minds are obscured by layers of delusion. But, deep down, the truth is there. Our journey involves penetrating through these layers of delusion to find our true nature, to know it intuitively.
Did the Buddha Exist?
It Doesn’t Matter.
There is a point of departure that sets Buddhism apart from most other spiritual paths.
It is this: if the Buddha didn’t exist, it makes absolutely no difference.
Modern scholarship suggests that some (if not all) of the stories about the Buddha are fabrications from later followers. The story of the four sights, for example, probably didn’t happen.
Now, there are other religions that would fall apart immediately if the stories about their founders were found to be untrue. But, in the case of Buddhism, it really makes no difference. Because Buddhism isn’t really about the historical Buddha. It’s about the Buddha within you.
The man isn’t the message. The path is.
Buddhism has a very large canon of texts that teach us about the nature of ourselves and the impermanence of all things.
More importantly, Buddhism provides a path for us to follow.
When we practice the six perfections we will come to Awakening. This is a roadmap to Enlightnment.
The Buddha gives us truths, but the real truths are within us.
Bodhi Day is next week. It’s the day we celebrate the Buddha’s Enlightenment.
Here’s something I wrote on that subject earlier this year:
Siddhartha had been a spiritual seeker for years and every path he had chosen had come to nothing. He was deeply unsatisfied with the mainstream religion of his time, which was anti-science and hostile to women and minorities. So, he had traveled for years looking for spiritual truth.
And he hadn’t found it. Many of us would have given up.
But, he sat under a tree. He had realized a small insight that had inspired him to look within himself for the truth. He had caught a glimpse of what we call our Buddha Nature.
So, he sat under this tree and meditated.
He didn’t invent meditation. It had existed for a very long time. People may not realize that Buddhism is part of a continuum, it builds on the religious teachings that preceded it.
He was a die-hard meditation enthusiast. He vowed to sit under that tree until he had a breakthrough, some fundamental insight into human suffering.
and he sat
and he sat
and he sat
and he cleared his mind
and he cleared his mind
and he cleared his mind
And the truth came to him. At this point, he became the Buddha, which means ‘awakened one.’
He looked up at the sky and saw a star twinkling and he said, “Look, I am twinkling.”
He realized fundamental truths on both a mundane level and on a deeper level.
He discovered that the source of our suffering is our craving, our endless state of wanting more and he described a path to overcome that suffering. This is the path that we still follow today. It teaches us that harming ourselves or others is counterproductive. It teaches us to think before we act, but also that thinking too much is often a problem too. Who among us hasn’t suffered due to excessive worrying.
He taught us to live in the present moment, rather than spending too much time in the past or future. This doesn’t mean we should forget the past. There’s a difference between learning from our mistakes and replaying them in our minds over and over.
And the Buddha taught us that all things are interconnected. We tend to think that we are separate from each other and from the world around us. This delusion is a great source of suffering in our lives. We are deeply connected to everything around us in countless ways. That’s why negativity and destructiveness are harmful. When we put violence into the world, we are harming ourselves too.
And the Buddha thought to himself, “This insight I have is experiential. I don’t think I can teach this to anyone. They would have to see for themselves.”
He considered staying, living out his life, alone in the wilderness. He was right, of course. Having an intellectual understanding of the Buddha’s teaching isn’t the same as enlightenment. We have to have a deeper understanding, an intuitive understanding rather than a philosophical one.
The Buddha was moved by a great sense of compassion. He thought teaching wouldn’t work, but not trying seemed unacceptable. So, he came out of the forest to teach us all how to save ourselves from suffering.