Vesak and the Buddha’s life
Vesak and the Buddha’s life
A talk given at Cloud Mountain Retreat Center in Castle Rock, Washington on June 10, 2006.
- About Vesak, the holiest day of the year for Buddhists
- The Buddha’s life and how it can be a teaching
- The importance of requesting teachings
- How to make ourselves open-minded students
Like I said before, this is the holiest day of the year in the Tibetan tradition. My teachers teach it as the anniversary of the Buddha’s birth, his attaining enlightenment, and his parinirvana—they all fall on the full moon of the fourth lunar month. In the Tibetan calendar, this is the full moon of the fourth lunar month. Different traditions may put the Buddha’s birthday on different days. That’s okay. I’m not saying this is the right one and everybody else is wrong. I think the important thing is you have one day that you select out and you think it’s that day. For me this day always causes me to reflect on the Buddha’s life, and I find the Buddha’s life is a tremendous teaching for us: in the situation he lived in, what he dealt with, and his life example, he shows us how to practice.
The Buddha was born in the 6th century BCE in ancient India in a little town called Lumbini. He was born in Kapilavastu, which was the capital of a small democratic republic of which his father was the king. I don’t know if it was totally democratic but it was a pretty small kind of oligarchy. His father was the one in charge and he grew up as the prince who was expected to take over from his father.
At the time of the Buddha’s birth, there were some soothsayers who came to the palace and told the king, “Your son is either going to be a great worldly leader, or he’s going to be a great spiritual leader.” And the Buddha’s father said, “Spiritual leader? I don’t want my son doing that. He’s supposed to take over for me, he’s supposed to do what I’m doing. I want him to be successful in the world, I don’t want any of that spiritual stuff, this is just new-age junk. I want my son to take over the family business, running this country.”
And so he structured the environment of the Buddha, who wasn’t a Buddha at the time—Siddhartha was his name. He structured the environment in which Siddhartha grew up and made it a very closed environment. He didn’t want his son to see any suffering. He wanted his son to have the best education possible, by the best teachers, not to be exposed to anything unpleasant, to see no suffering whatsoever and to be really trained in the skills that were going to be necessary to take over the governing of the little country afterwards. You can make the analogy that it’s like the Buddha was born in Beverly Hills to a family that had status. The Buddha grew up in all this splendor, he had everything that money could buy. We might say, well, I didn’t grow up in Beverly Hills, but there wasn’t a middle class at the time of the Buddha. There was just this tiny middle class.
But we did grow up in a similar environment to the Buddha. We probably grew up in middle-class America, I suspect. Our parents gave us the best education that they could afford within their income. They tried to give us the best life considering how they grew up. And bought the best things. When we wanted more toys, when we wanted certain things for Christmas, they got us those things. Kids in this country run the family and we tell our parents what to do. Our parents served us very well, giving us everything that they possibly could. And with it came a lot of expectation that we were to grow up in a certain way. And we lived with that expectation and we grew up kind of having a good life. Of course we could get into all the things that went wrong in our life, but, hey, we didn’t grow up in Somalia, we didn’t grow up in Iraq, we didn’t grow up in Afghanistan or in India. Our life was really privileged.
We may not be able to see it, but we grew up with a very, very privileged background. Considering how most people on this planet live, it’s kind of similar to the Buddha’s background. Our parents didn’t want us to feel any suffering. And so our society hides everything. We put old people in old people’s homes. We make cemeteries into parks. We hide sickness. People go to the hospital and as children we probably weren’t taken to the hospital to see our grandparents intubated and everything like that. We were protected from seeing aging, sickness, and death. We were often protected from seeing violence. Although we watched a lot of violence on TV but that was called entertainment, it wasn’t called violence. So he had that kind of upbringing, very sheltered. And he had the best education possible. Everything that money could buy.
He got married, had a child. He did what the societal expectations were then. And he was well on his way to fulfilling society’s expectations and his parents’ expectations for what he should become. But then he got a little bit curious about life. And he thought, well, maybe I should leave the palace and check out what’s going on in the broader society. He started sneaking out. We snuck out. Our parents didn’t know where we were going or we told our parents we were going to one place and we went to another. Anyway, the Buddha, Siddhartha at that time, he started sneaking out and he had his charioteer take him into town, and in town he saw, over different visits, what are called the four messengers.
The four messengers
At first he found somebody who was lying on the street who appeared to be in great pain, and he said to his charioteer, “What is that?” and the charioteer said, “That’s somebody who’s sick.” The Buddha didn’t understand sickness. “You know, when the body elements get out of whack and there can be a lot of physical suffering and mental suffering. We’re all subject to this kind of sickness,” which was a big surprise to the Buddha. In our lives we think that sickness is something that other people get. We don’t see it so much. It’s what other people have. But this awareness of sickness, when the Buddha saw it, really woke him up and it’s like, oh, I’m living my life and it isn’t as pure as I thought it was.
The next time he went out he saw somebody with gray hair and wrinkles who was bent over and walking with extreme difficulty. He had never seen anybody like that and he asked his charioteer, “What is that?” The charioteer said, “That’s somebody who’s old. “ And he said, “What is aging?” The charioteer explained that’s when the body doesn’t work as well. “The body gets worn out. The body doesn’t function as well. It doesn’t have that much energy, and we’re all subject to aging. As soon as we’re born we are aging.” And Buddha thought, “Oh, me too, I’m subject not only to sickness but also to aging. “
The third time Siddhartha went out he saw a corpse. In ancient India you’d see corpses on the street. In modern India you sometimes see corpses in the train station. I’ve seen corpses. You see corpses being carried on the back of trucks. Maybe their family is taking the corpse to Benares to be burned. You see the funeral pyres at Benares. It isn’t hidden in India like it is here. It was something he was now exposed to and he asked, “Well what is that?” and his charioteer said, “Well, you know, it’s a corpse, it’s someone who’s died. It means that the consciousness leaves the body, and the body decays. The person is gone, the person is no longer here. “ And Siddartha went, “Wow, even that’s going to happen to me. This life ceases at some point. This whole personality that I’ve set up for myself is not fixed and permanent and eternal, it’s going to end some time.” It made him start thinking about life and what the purpose of life was.
The fourth time he went out, he saw the fourth messenger. This was the mendicant. In ancient India they had all sorts of mendicants from different spiritual traditions, and they were all trying to find the way out of suffering, a way to moksha or liberation, to nirvana, or that which is beyond sorrow, and so here was this mendicant wearing saffron robes. Saffron is considered an ugly color so only poor people or mendicants wore it. Here’s this mendicant with his alms bowl, existing on what is offered to him wandering from place to place. He’s not looking totally neat and tidy, and is living a very simple life, and Siddhartha asked, “Well, who in the world is that?” And the charioteer explained, “It’s a mendicant, it’s somebody who is seeking liberation, who lives a simple life and devotes his life to being intent on virtue, to being intent on discovering the way out of suffering. “
Siddartha went back to the palace and was thinking about that. Yeah, there’s old age, sickness, and death. And I’m subject to it. But there might be a way out. There are groups of people who are looking for a way out, and I think I need to join them because I don’t want to be overtaken by sickness, aging, and death.
The Buddha’s journey
That night there was a big event at the palace. His wife had just given birth so he had a child. That’s like the measure of success, so now you have offspring who will take over the kingdom even after you. There was a big event with the dancing girls and at the end of the evening, Siddhartha looked around at all these beautiful women who had been dancing for him who were now exhausted and laying down on the floor, stretched out any old way snoring. You know how we snore when we sleep? Our mouths open [snoring sounds]. All these gorgeous women snoring and spit dripping down. True or not true? Doing everything that our body does when we’re sleeping, unbeknownst to us. And the Buddha’s thinking, “Hm, is this what it’s all about?”
That night he left the palace once again. He bid his sleeping wife and child goodbye [inaudible] and then he left the palace. He wasn’t leaving the palace as a deadbeat dad. Some people say the Buddha just abandoned his wife and child, he’s a deadbeat dad, he couldn’t even pay alimony. [inaudible] He wasn’t doing this for his own personal gain. He wasn’t doing it because he didn’t care. He left the palace because he cared, and he wanted to find a way out of suffering knowing that if he found a way out of suffering then he could also teach it to his family because he cared about his family.
Of course, he was wearing his royal garb, and in ancient India the men had long hair, which was a sign of royalty. We see that his earlobes are very long. That’s from wearing all the jewelry, the big, heavy earrings stretch out the ear lobes. He was dressed like this when he left the palace and the charioteer took him out, and when he got to a certain distance, then he changes clothes and he put on very simple rags, very simple clothes. He cuts his hair off. He throws away symbols of royalty. He takes off his jewels and his ornaments and gives them to his charioteer and he says, “I have no need for all of this stuff anymore.” So here he had this whole palace, and his whole presence as a royal being and he gave it up.This would be like us giving up all the perks of our middle class upbringing and really dedicating our life to spiritual practice.
At that time he went around and was searching for a spiritual path, he asked who were the great teachers. He went to study with a couple of them and these teachers taught him what they had to teach, which were very deep states of samadhi, deep states of concentration, which the Buddha mastered. In fact he quickly became as skilled in meditation as his teachers. So much so that his teachers said, “Come and help me lead the community.” Now he wasn’t just a spiritual practitioner but he had the opportunity to lead the community together with his teachers. But he knew that he hadn’t attained liberation; he knew that he hadn’t cut the seeds of ignorance, anger, and attachment in his mind, even though he had attained these deep states of samadhi. So he left one teacher and went to seek another one who taught him a deeper state of samadhi, which he actualized. That teacher also offered to share the leadership of the community with him. But the Buddha was honest about his own practice and said, “I still haven’t attained enlightenment. I haven’t cut the source of suffering.” So he left that teacher and that teacher’s organization also.
And at that point he went with five friends into the countryside and there he thought, “Well, maybe if I practice really strong ascetic practices, you know, because this body is so much the source of my attachment. I’m so attached to this body, and then when the body doesn’t get what it wants, then I’m angry. So this body is just a big problem, being the source of that ignorance, anger and attachment. So maybe if I torture this body through extreme ascetic practices I’ll be able to conquer my clinging to it.” So he practices with his five friends these very strong ascetic practices for six years, and he ate only one grain of rice a day. So think about this when we have our huge lunch. He ate only one grain of rice and he got so thin that when he touched his belly button he felt his spine.Think about that.
He practiced this way for six years. Then he realized that, even using these strong ascetic practices, he still hadn’t eliminated the cause of suffering in his own mind, and so he said, “I’ve got to stop these ascetic practices, get my body back in shape so I can practice and continue to seek what is actually full enlightenment.” So he left his five companions and his five companions thought, “Of course he’s a complete fake,” and criticized him. “Oh, look at Siddhartha: he couldn’t do these ascetic practices, he couldn’t take it any more, he’s leaving. We’re the real practitioners doing our ascetic practice. Don’t talk to him. Don’t give him anything. This guy is just completely [inaudible].” Okay. But Siddhartha didn’t care about his reputation, he didn’t care what other people thought about him because he was seeking the truth.
So he left his friends, and one of the women in the countryside came up to him and offered him some sweet rice; it was rice cooked in milk. To this day this is considered a very special dish in Buddhist settings. She offered him sweet rice, and he ate it, and gained his bodily strength back. And he crossed the river and went into this little place called, oh it wasn’t called Bodhgaya at the time, but this little place and there was a big bodhi tree there and he sat under this bodhi tree and vowed not to arise until he had attained full enlightenment.
He sat down to meditate and, as we all know when you sit down to meditate, all of our useless things come up, all of our interfering forces come up. So what appears to the Buddha during his meditation? At first there were weapons, there were people coming to kill him. It was as if he was having nightmares galore. And in his meditation all these armed bandits coming to kill him and shoot him and hang him and mutilate him. And he realized, “This is a karmic vision due to my own negative karma of anger. Why do I have this karmic vision of all these beings trying to harm me? Because I had ill intent, malicious thoughts towards others, I harmed others before. So what I’m seeing is the manifestation of my own anger, my own ill will.” How did he deal with this appearance of enemies? He transformed all the weapons into flowers. The Buddha is the original flower child. He transformed all those weapons into flowers. Instead of weapons, there’s just this rain of flowers falling upon him. These are symbolic allegories: he generated metta, loving kindness, in the first round of hatred. Even hatred coming from others or his own anger, his own hatred towards others, he counteracted that with loving kindness.
What happens next is that all these beautiful women appear, so they’re posing this way, posing that way, doing this and doing that. Anything to incite his desire. Similarly, Siddhartha saw through this and realized this is just the appearance of a mind of attachment. Because what does the mind of attachment do? It creates all of these appearances that get the mind going, ohhhhhh, I want, I want, I want, I want. So in his meditation, he transforms all these beautiful women into old hags. In other words he saw that the appearance of the body as beautiful is a false appearance because the body ages and gets decrepit and when it’s decrepit it’s no longer so attractive. So they became hags, and they all ran away.
This is often called Mara. They have the expression, Mara, meaning the devil. Mara is just figurative. There’s no real devil. The devil is our own ignorance, the devil is our own self-importance, self-preoccupation. It wasn’t an external Mara causing these problems, it was the fanciful mind causing these appearances, but he knew how to handle them in his meditation, he made them disappear. And so as he meditated he gained very deep samadhi combined with insight and he began to see all of his past lives. I think when you have this kind of clairvoyance, of seeing your past lives, it probably gives you tremendous energy to get out of samsara. People always think, “Yes, I want to see past lives, to see who I was in my past life. That’ll solve all my problems. Maybe I was Cleopatra or maybe I was Mark Anthony.”
There are so many people who remember being Cleopatra in their past life.. Not many people remember how many people Cleopatra had decapitated. “Ohhhhh, in a past life I did this and that. “ But when we think about it, imagine if you had memories of your previous lives and what you’ve done in previous lives, all the people you lied to, all the people you killed when you were a soldier in a previous life, all the people whose trust you betrayed in a previous life, all the times when you were born in the hell realms, in the animal realm, ignorant, walking around. The times we were born as a grasshopper and couldn’t think for ourselves, all you did was hop around looking for food here and there. All the times when you were born as a donkey carrying other people’s rocks and stones. All the times as a hungry ghost just running here, running there, looking for food, looking for drink, looking for something to cease your suffering, and it evaporating every time you came close to it. All the times when we were in a god realm having sense pleasure deluxe, being on top of the world only to die and then fall down to a lower realm again.
Can you imagine having clear experience of all these previous lives, seeing what we’ve been born as, seeing what we’ve done, understanding the cause and result system of karma? If I did this in my previous life and caused this kind of experience. I mean when I think about it, it’s like, if you had that kind of clear sightedness and memory, wow, you’re going to want to get out of cyclic existence real fast. Nothing glamorous about seeing your previous life. It’s like, get me out of here. You’ve been there, done that, been born with everything, had everything, done everything, from the highest pleasure, to the most atrocious action. What more is there to do? And if we don’t get out the mind’s just continually sucked in by its attachment and its ignorance and it’s just going to continue on again and again and again. I think if you have this vision of your previous life, you’re going to go [inaudible] and go, I want out of here okay, and that’s going to give a very strong impetus to your Dharma practice and that’s what happened, and he had very strong impetus to practice.
The Buddha also, when we listen to Buddha, and listen to the bodhisattva— he had very strong bodhicitta at that moment—he saw in this hellhole that we call samsaric pleasure, he saw that everybody else was in exactly the same position. That there was no difference between himself and others. But everybody else’s mind is under the influence of ignorance, anger, and attachment circling around again and again and again and again in cyclic existence. Here are all these beings who’ve been his mother, all these beings who have been kind to him since beginningless time, and they’re all going up and down, up and down, experiencing all this tremendous suffering in cyclic existence. And his heart is going out to them, and he says, “I have to do something to help them. “ That great compassion, that renunciation of cyclic existence, is what motivated him to meditate on emptiness. Through realizing emptiness, he used that to cleanse his mind of all the defilements.
At dawn of the day (at dawn when we were all sleeping even though we’re in the meditation hall), at dawn of that day on Vesak of the full moon of the fourth month, then he purified his mind of all defilements and developed all of his good qualities limitlessly and became the awakened one, the Buddha. It’s the cause of great rejoicing.
When the Buddha was born—I forgot to mention this at the beginning—but when he was born he had a miraculous birth. He came out of his mother’s side, as the legend goes, he said, “This will be my last birth.” So you already knew something special was going on. His birth is something to celebrate. His enlightenment is something to celebrate. Because he was a wheel-turning Buddha—Siddhartha became a wheel-turning Buddha—in other words, a Buddha who appeared at a time when the world was shrouded in darkness, when the teachings of the Dharma had not been there, where there were all sorts of other spiritual paths but nobody yet had been able to describe the exact path for full enlightenment. And that became his special mission.
He had actualized full enlightenment and he wanted to share with others. He spent the first seven weeks in what became known as Bodhgaya, the vajra seat, the seat of awakening. Walking up and down and meditating and thinking, I want to help all sentient beings but who in the world is going to listen? They are all so involved with their lives, with their objects of attachment. Who’s going to listen? They’re all too busy to come to teachings. They’re too busy, they have to go here, they have to go there, they have their families to take care of, they have their education to take care of, they have their jobs to take care of, they have their social obligations to take care of. And even if they got over their busyness and came to the teachings, their minds are so distracted. Who’s going to listen? And they’re so filled with doubt that anything I teach they’re going to say, “What in the world are you talking about, what kind of rubbish is this?” And so he was really perplexed, “Who am I going to teach? Why in the world should I teach? Nobody is going to understand.”
As the legend goes, as the story goes, Brahma and Indra and all the powerful gods—because this is who people respected in the time of ancient India: nowadays the analogy might be Bill Gates and whoever we consider important or rich or famous in our society—in those days it was Indra and Brahma came and humbly beseeched the Buddha. They put their palms together and said, “There are beings with a little dust in their eyes, please go and teach them. Don’t think that all your effort is going to be wasted. These beings have just a little dust left in their eyes, and they will be receptive to the teachings.” So the Buddha reconsidered and thought, “Ok, I will give it a try.”
This is where the custom of requesting teachings came from. And this is why it’s important to request teachings. These powerful gods did it on behalf of everybody else but we should also ourselves request teachings. Nowadays teaching in the Dharma world is so different. We don’t request teachings, we just sign up for a course and put a deposit down. We don’t request the teachings. Sometimes even the teachers advertise themselves, or their students advertise it. “Oh, the best class, the most profound teacher, the most realized teacher, yours for only $99.99.“ We’ve forgotten about requesting teachings. We’ve forgotten about seeing ourselves as the patient who is suffering from the ills of samsara. We’ve forgotten about the fact that we’re going to the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha as a sick person would go to the doctor and the medicine and the nurse. We’ve forgotten about the importance of requesting teachings and even if we request them we’ve forgotten that we should show up with a mind [inaudible].
Nowadays we just take everything for granted. “Oh! There are all these courses going on. Look, I can’t believe, there’s a year-long schedule. What do I feel like going to? What fits in with my schedule? What’s the topic of interest for me?” I mean, look at what our motivation is nowadays.
This is where the custom of requesting teachings comes from, because it’s very important that we request. It’s very important because to request we have to really see ourselves as somebody in need of the teachings, and that the practice of making a sincere request is what opens us up to listening to the teachings, to see the teachings as being like medicine, because otherwise we think, “Oh it’s time for the Dharma course, teachings should be entertainment. If the teacher’s not entertaining I’m not going to stay for these teachings, I have other things to do. The teachings are too long, I’ll just leave. If the teachings are too this or too that, I’m not going to hang around. The teachings should be given at the time I want and the length I want. It should be amusing and interesting. I should be able to sit comfortably. My teacher should pay homage to me and acknowledge what a sincere and devout practitioner I am.” We have it all really very turned around don’t we? This traditional practice of requesting teachings and getting in the right frame of mind is what we need in order to make our own practice fruitful. That willingness to endure hardship for the sake of Dharma is something that’s quite important. That willingness to put ourselves out there where it’s a little bit insecure. Where it’s a little bit shaky. Where we might have to do some things that don’t meet our standard of fun. But we do it because we see the benefit of it. We see the importance of taming our minds, we see that the teachings show us how to do that and so we are willing to put ourselves out there.
So we look at the Buddha’s life, and that’s what he did. He left his home, he put himself out there, he wandered from place to place. We can’t even drive across town in the comfort of our car because the Dharma center is too far away. You begin to see that when we have a sincere motivation then that really affects our practice, and it affects how open and receptive we are to the teachings, and it affects how deeply we’re able to understand and gain realizations from the teachings. If we are dissatisfied with our practice because we want results, then we need to look at where our motivation is because maybe we need to refine our motivation and make ourselves a more receptive vehicle in order to hear the teachings and practice them so that we can gain realizations.
In learning the Dharma it’s not just the [inaudible] teachers teaching. Our teachers are not our employees, we don’t hire them to teach, but we try and have a humble mind and make ourselves open vessels for the teachings. We try and make ourselves into qualified disciples and that takes some work, and that takes some practice to make ourselves into qualified disciples, letting go of our arrogance, letting go of our smugness, letting go of wanting everything to be our way. Becoming a qualified disciple—because it’s this gradual path of becoming a qualified disciple that indicates what’s going on in our practice. In other words, as we practice we become a more qualified disciple, as we become a more qualified disciple our practice deepens, as our practice deepens the more we become a more qualified disciple. And it goes back and forth like that. We really appreciate the need to do that.
Venerable Thubten Chodron
Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.