Category Archives: pilgrimage

Pilgrimage: Kusinara/Kushinagar

The final stop on our four week pilgrimage is the place where the Buddha died, the place of his parinirvana, the final nirvana which occurs upon the death of the body of an awakened being.
Shown here is the reclining Buddha statue at the Mahaparinirvana Temple.

He died in the small town of Kushinagar or Kusinara in Northern India, in the same Utter Pradesh province where he gave his first dharma talk to those scorning ascetic companions.

The Buddha lived to the age of eighty. We are fortunate that he lived as long as he did, for he had time to refine his message, to correct any errors in understanding in his students so that the dharma he taught could survive over 2500 years. Because he insisted that students sense into their own connection and insights, using the teachings for guidance when they lose sight of the importance of the practice, the dharma hasn’t become dry dogma, but feels as fresh and alive today as I imagine it to have been in his time.

He was such a dedicated and generous teacher that even on his deathbed he is said to have asked his followers if there were any last questions they wanted clarified before he passed on. They were naturally distressed over the impending loss of their dear teacher and leader. They couldn’t imagine, perhaps, how they would go on without him.

According to the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, he told them, “Be a lamp unto yourself, be a refuge to yourself. Take yourself to no external refuge. Hold fast to the dharma as a lamp; hold fast to the dharma as a refuge. Look not for a refuge in anyone beside yourself. And those who either now or after I am dead shall be a lamp unto themselves, who take themselves to no external refuge, but holding fast to the dharma as their lamp, and holding fast to the dharma as their refuge, shall not look for refuge to anyone beside themselves, it is they who shall reach the highest goal.”

‘Be a lamp unto yourself.’ This is a vital core of the teachings that keeps it a living practice. It is what drew me initially to Buddhism. And when I did begin to seriously study and adapt my own meditation to Buddhist Vipassana style practice, I didn’t feel I was discovering anything new. It was more of a homecoming and a reassurance that my own findings were grounded in the dharma. I felt like I was finding a wonderful ready-made structure upon which I could drape my inner explorations, like a dress form for a seamstress. The dharma allows me the freedom to work on my own insights, but gives me a solid foundation.

In these words, ‘Be a lamp unto yourself,’ we are encouraged to practice, and to notice and explore the validity of our own insights. We are reminded not to accept any teachings on blind faith. Another time the Buddha is quoted to have said, “Believe nothing on the faith of traditions, even though they have been held in honor for many generations and in diverse places. Do not believe a thing because many people speak of it. Do not believe on the faith of the sages of the past. Do not believe what you yourself have imagined, persuading yourself that a God inspires you. Believe nothing on the sole authority of your masters and priests. After examination, believe what you yourself have tested and found to be reasonable, and conform your conduct thereto.”

So that reminder to be a lamp unto yourself, given from his deathbed, was core teaching. How different Buddhism would have been without it!

But how did the Buddha die? There are several versions of the story, but recently a medical doctor did a careful analysis of all the accounts and came up with the hypothesis that makes the most medical sense from our current perspective. He said it was unlikely that it was food poisoning, but rather, caused by a mesenteric infarction, an intestinal condition that can be aggravated by eating a meal.

As any of you know who have lost someone near to you, the details of their death, as involving as they were at the time, become less interesting after a while. Instead, the celebration of their life becomes more encompassing. So perhaps we aren’t that interested in how the Buddha died. We are just grateful that he lived.

But the Buddha encourages us to look death in the face and not turn away from it. To be fearless when it comes to recognizing the nature of life and our tendency to act as if it is a given, that it will not be taken away, as if it’s a game of chance that we might just win. How often do people say, “If I die..” as if there was some option. We all die. Life is terminal. It is an incurable condition.

There is a Buddhist meditative practice of sitting in the charnel grounds amidst the cremated remains of the dead. Reality of the temporal nature of this earthly existence is a key acknowledgement. It is not a fascination with death or some death cult. Instead it is accepting the occasional naturally occurring reminder of life’s temporal nature, and is to be valued as such. With each occurrence there is the breaking of the shell of illusion that builds around each of us when we think nothing will change in our lives and that we and those we love will live forever.

I remember in the early days at Spirit Rock there was a skeleton on a stand in the corner of the community hall. It was a great weekly reminder. I wonder whatever happened to it? Did someone become like Siddhartha’s father and decide it was better if we weren’t exposed to it? Were they trying to protect us from the truth of impermanence in a place where the whole point is to remember it?

Did they remove it because they were afraid of facing it themselves? I think about the young Siddhartha’s discovery of illness, old age and death, and I think of my own generation’s plea, as sung by The Who ‘…hope I die before I get old.’ Death is not as scary to youth as old age, because death doesn’t seem real, something casually accomplished repeatedly in violent movies. Youth are known for taking outrageous risks of death, taunting it to take them. Death is more dashing than old age, which is ever present, both frustratingly authoritative and ‘ugly,’ — wrinkled, slow, hard of hearing, holding its own antiquated views of things. One of our family stories is how my father on receiving his granddaughter’s baseball-capped boyfriend into the house, roughly said, “We take our hats off in this house, young man.” Well, thanks for the welcome, you old fart, the boyfriend must have thought.

I remember when I was around twelve and my best friend and I had talks about old age, how horrible it seemed. We would play at being old, stacking our chins or stretching our necks to be fat old lady or skinny old lady, talking with our old lady voices, the ones we used for the wicked witch in Hansel and Gretel. All old age seemed wicked to us. We were more terrified of becoming decrepit than we were of dying. What was death anyway?

Each generation vilifies old age out of terror of growing old. Then each generation ages and becomes the old ones. And suddenly it doesn’t seem so terrible. There are sayings like ‘old age isn’t for sissies,’ recognizing that illness and old age often come together, but not necessarily. I am to the stage now where I am able to see the benefits of good diet and exercise on some friends and family members and the effects of bad habits on others, and though there is no escaping death, and some diseases seem to be the genetic luck of the draw, still, the responsibility people are taking for their well being seems to be paying off. May it continue to be so! And may we deal with whatever arises, whatever losses or limitations, with an open mind that allows us to accept, not resign to, this new vantage point, this ‘new normal’ that is now our life in the present moment.

As we age, death does become more present. We lose more loved ones more frequently. I remember my mother when she was in her early seventies, returning to the dinner table after receiving a phone call that yet another friend had died. I think it had been three that week alone. “Dropping like flies,” she said. I was shocked at her casual statement, so distant was death from my own experience at the time. I’ll never forget that! Within a couple of years, she was dead, too. That was no casually received event for me, of course. Still, twenty-one years later, it breaks my heart all over again to say it. Yet I notice that the little piercings of pain glimmer like jewels. To have known her, to have loved her, to have been her daughter -what a precious gift that was, and still is. Having her only in photos, letters and memory is not the same as being able to hug her, to hear her laugh, to see her full of life. But this is what normal is for me now, and the other day I realized I am looking more like her. I look at my hands and I see how they are a combination of her hands and my paternal grandmother’s hands — an odd pairing, her dry skin with grandma’s wondrous raised veins I loved to push around when I was small. Clearly these are not hand model hands, but for me they hold so much more than any pretty pair of hands possibly could.


Ultimately, how the Buddha died, how anyone died, is not as important as the reminder that death is woven into the fabric of our lives. In nature, we step over the fallen trunks of trees that have succumbed to disease, a lightening strike, a fierce storm or time, reminding us that to everything there is a season.

Awareness of our own mortality can be held in a spacious way, acknowledging any fear or heaviness, and staying with it until we can carry it with true acceptance, even gratitude for the reminder to live fully while we are here.

It helps us to dwell more fully in the present moment, not because we are afraid of the future, but because we know that the only reality is right here and right now. We know that death comes to us all, and we practice in part so that when it comes to us we will be present for the great transition from this corporal body to what we do not know.

A friend of mine was frantic with worry about her step-mother whose doctors could not predict the course of her illness. She wanted to know what would come. But the doctors could not tell her that, and she felt that all the wonders of medical science were failing her.
But none of us knows what the future will bring for our loved ones or ourselves. And finding a way to be comfortable with the not knowing is a huge benefit of meditative practice. It helps us so that if we sense the end of this corporal life is near, we can rest in the moment, in the ‘I don’t know’ mind. We only think we know, based on entries in our appointment book, what lies beyond our next breath at any given moment!

We practice meditation in part because we don’t want to realize, as we recline on our own deathbeds, that we should have been paying more attention, should have been savoring each moment fully. If only we had understood how fleeting it is, this rare and precious gift of life, of breath, of the senses. And so we are grateful for these reminders of mortality, even when they bring painful emotions and sensations. This is the nature of life. This is what it is to be alive in a human body on this earth — a precious fleeting gift.
———————
So we come to the end of our pilgrimage to the places where the Buddha was born, became enlightened, first taught and died. This pilgrimage has not been about devotion to the Buddha. He made it clear that he was not a god. He discouraged his followers from distracting themselves with honoring too much his mortal remains (which, by the way, did not discourage them from dividing up the little bits of bones and teeth and placing them in stupas where to this day devotees come, some doing ritual prostration all the way.)

For us, this pilgrimage is about learning from his life, and in turn from our own. From his youth, we can see ourselves as the young people we once were, and have compassion and understanding.

We can see the pivotal moment or moments in our own lives where we looked at the world with our blinders off. Even now, we can notice where we are still blinded by various causes and conditions, and how we can let the blame go and find our way.

We can take inspiration from his self-discipline in mastering his wandering mind and his intention to awaken in this moment.

We can be inspired by his compassion and generosity, his awareness of the intricate interconnection of all beings, his intense appreciation and valuation of all life, without a sense of entitlement or separation.

And we can remember his words on his death bed to his followers, and be a lamp unto ourselves, not taking the words of any teacher as the truth without giving ourselves the time and space to experience it directly. Each of us has Buddha nature within us, each of us is on our own path to awakening, and in our own way in our own time. We best honor the Buddha by honoring that Buddha nature within ourselves and within all beings.

Pilgrimage: Sarnath

We have been on an imaginary pilgrimage to the places where the Buddha was born and became enlightened. Our pilgrimage continues this week to Sarnath, also known as Sarnātha, the deer park where the newly enlightened Siddhartha gave his first talk.

Sarnath is located in northeastern India in the Utter Pradesh province. The Buddha went there from Bodh Gaya, where he became enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, and then spent a period of weeks on his own savoring the experience of being fully present, freed of all fear and desire, and formulating his insights into something he could share with others, that they too might become enlightened.

His attainment of enlightenment sparked a deep sense of generosity. And really, how could it not? If you come to realize the unity of being beyond any sense of barrier, how would you hoard this precious insight? Who would you hoard it from, if you understand yourself to be intrinsically entwined with all life?

Tapping into this sense of connection we are not just recipients of awakening, but conduits for it. Generosity is the first and foremost expression of enlightenment, by its very nature. And it was a primary focus of the Buddha’s teachings throughout the years. Taking opportunities to develop generosity in ourselves creates the channel for the flow of enlightenment.

Thinking back to Siddhartha’s initial exposure to the realities of life from which he’d been so carefully shielded, we remember that it was always his goal to understand suffering in order to find an end of it, not just for himself but for all beings. That generosity of spirit set his intention so that he could spend those years mastering the concentration practices. And that generosity also helped him to see that, at least for him, the path of the ascetic was not going to bring about the understanding he sought.

Siddhartha Gautama was not the only person ever to be a Buddha. Buddha means awakened and there have been many buddhas. But this particular buddha turned out to have the interest and capacity to see, understand and clearly explain the complex workings of the human psyche. Anyone, upon awakening, might be inclined to share the news, but Siddhartha had a gift for formulating his experience and insights into words that resonated and in turn enlightened others.

He went to Sarnath because this is where he knew he would find his ascetic companions of the previous six years. Despite any disagreement, he sensed that they were the most likely to understand his insights and attain enlightenment themselves. The fact that he chose them, not just any gathered group of people, points to the importance of the concentration practices. The ascetics had been practicing for many years, longer than Siddhartha. If anyone would be ready to understand, they would.

But when they saw him coming, they are said to have mocked him. He no longer had the emaciated quality that was the mark of the dedicated ascetic. He had clearly been eating and he was fully, albeit modestly, clothed. He had not returned to his princely raiment but still, they taunted him for having set aside his ascetic vows.

Reportedly, the Buddha replied, “Austerities only confuse the mind. In the exhaustion and mental stupor to which they lead, one can no longer understand the ordinary things of life, still less the truth that lies beyond the senses. I have given up extremes of either luxury or asceticism. I have discovered the Middle Way”.

The Middle Way
We have seen how Siddhartha lived the first three decades of his life indulged in every possible way. When he left that life behind, he chose the opposite extreme, a life of self-denial of even the most basic of human needs, doing only enough to keep the body barely alive.

These two ways of being, these two extremes, have something in common. They both set up false beliefs and boundaries.

When we surround ourselves with constant luxury, we run the risk of believing that we need luxury to live. We believe that material possessions will protect us from harm, so we make sure we are sufficiently buffered from all that we fear. But wealth does not protect us from illness, old age or death. It does not protect us from loss or heartache. And it puts us in a position of feeling we have more to fear, because we feel we have so much to lose. It also makes us feel fragile and vulnerable, as if the world outside our palace walls might infect us with some contagious virus. The more power we vest in wealth as protection, the weaker we become, and the more we lose sight of our true nature.

So is enjoying luxury wrong? Not at all. The world is full of wondrous pleasures and being able to enjoy them is part of the gift of life. But we need to notice the degree to which we depend on them. Is my having a good sleep dependent on the thread count of my Egyptian cotton sheets? Is my feeling good about myself dependent on wearing designer labels? Is my enjoyment of a meal dependent on it being up to gourmet standards and served in a beautiful setting, preferably by someone else?

Siddhartha’s youthful answer had to be yes, because the luxurious offerings of his time were all he knew. When he left the palace, he felt he needed to go to the other extreme in order to purify himself.

But what happens at the other extreme? We run the same risk of believing that we need to scorn all the sensual pleasures of earthly life in order to be pure or good or enlightened. We believe that material possessions will harm us, so we fear contamination, making all pleasure evil, and all who take pleasure in the delights of the world evil or at least deluded. But self-denial does not protect us from illness, old age or death. It does not protect us from heartache or loss of something much sweeter than any earthly pleasure. And it puts us in the position of feeling we have more to fear, because we are so at odds with the world around us, a world that clamors to be touched and tasted. The more we believe that self-denial is the path to enlightenment, the more judgmental we become, both of others and of ourselves for the desires that rise up within us.

So, having experienced both extremes quite fully, Siddhartha, in his newly enlightened state beyond fear and craving, recognized the truth of these extremes, and found the Middle Way. He discovered that he could eat a meal, enjoying each bite fully in the moment, without caring if it was simple or luxurious. He could enjoy giving his body the nourishment it needed and he could stop eating before his belly felt painful. He could accept what was offered with gratitude, and enjoy being able to give in return. He found a simple way of being in the world.

When we observe other species who seem to have no problem finding a balanced way to be in the world, you have to wonder why this is so often such a difficult hurdle for us? Many books have been written on the subject, especially around eating, and I won’t go into it here today. But it’s certainly something to think about. Next time we recognize that we are over-indulging or over-denying ourselves something, let us set the intention to explore the associative thoughts and emotions that arise with our behavior and beliefs. Let’s question our assumptions and see what happens.

The Buddha’s first discourse was titled the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, which can be translated as the discourse on the Dharma Wheel. Dharma or Dhamma means truth, the way or the teachings. In it he taught about the Middle Way, and how to find it through understanding the Four Noble Truths and following the Eightfold Path. (Both of these have been discussed extensively in this class, and we will be reviewing them in our ‘Summer Reruns,’ per class request.)

His previous companions in asceticism became his first students. One in particular is said to have become enlightened upon hearing this first discourse. Thus the wheel of the dharma was set into motion.

Together they formed the first sangha, that community of practitioners of the Middle Way who support and inspire each other to practice. They spent the rainy season in Sarnath, growing in number, and were disbursed to share the dharma with all who had an interest in learning it.

Engaged Buddhism
This desire to share the teachings is social activism of a sort. Sometimes Buddhism can look like a very self-indulgent escapist kind of path. Social activists get very annoyed with Buddhists who sit and meditate instead of marching and protesting. The two are not mutually exclusive, of course, and there is the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and a whole path of what is called ‘engaged Buddhism’ that speaks to Buddhist social activism. If you are interested in it, read Donald Rothberg’s book The Engaged Spiritual Life: A Buddhist Approach to Transforming Ourselves and the World.

But I think it’s worthwhile to notice that making our own peace is a vital first step to seeing clearly how to best help end suffering in the world. How often in organizations that have all the best intentions do things get bogged down in personality conflicts, striving for power, passive-aggressiveness and hurt feelings? How much of the agenda of activist organizations is reactive, a group of people united by anger against some agreed upon ‘other’, rather than insightful and responsive to the needs of the people they want to help.

However, as with most things, there is a kernel of truth in the accusations social activists make about Buddhist practitioners. You see the truth of it when those who have found peace within themselves, who have come to live more fully in the present and have found the Middle Way, continue to keep the focus solely on themselves and their own contained world, instead of acknowledging their connection with the world and using their wisdom and skills to help end suffering for others, as they have done for themselves. So that is something for us to always keep in mind and to question. How are we expressing our generosity? How are we engaging in the world with our understanding of the dharma? How are we supporting the extended sangha of all beings through our actions?

We ask these questions and perhaps the answer is “It’s too soon, I’m not ready.” But we need to explore further. Even if we are not ready to go forth in the world in support of a larger sangha, we can in our daily activities extend metta in our thoughts to all we encounter. And this is the valuable beginning of engaging in the world. This act of sending metta is the channel of generosity through which enlightenment will flow.

Pilgrimage: Lumbini

At the end of the documentary “The Buddha” that aired recently on PBS, they mention the four places pilgrims visit to follow the life of the Buddha. They are Lumbini where he was born, Bodh Gaya where he sat under the Bodhi tree until his awakening, Sarnath where he gave his first dharma talk, and Kusinara where he died.

I thought it would be interesting to explore what we learn from visiting, either in person or in our thoughts, these places that supported the Buddha’s physical life and his spiritual practice. And how exploring his life inspires us to learn from our own lives as well.

Today, let’s talk about his birthplace. Lumbini is in the foothills of the Himalaya. It is located in southern Nepal very near the border of India. If you are surprised to hear he was born in Nepal, remember that neither of these countries existed in their modern forms in his time, but that’s where the village is located.
Here is a brief video of how it looks today. There are many versions of the story of his birth but most go something like this*:

Siddhartha Gautama was born in the sixth century BCE to a very wealthy, probably noble, some accounts say royal, family of the Sakya clan that lived in the city of Kapilavastu, 25 km east of Lumbini. His mother’s parents lived in Lumbini and it was (and is) common for a woman to return to the home of her parents to give birth. As she and her party neared the village, they paused to rest in a lovely grove. Perhaps she was already in labor and realized she couldn’t make it all the way, or perhaps she went into labor there. Under the shade of trees, she gave birth to a baby boy. Unfortunately, within a week after his birth she died.
His name Siddhartha, means accomplisher of aims. Gautama was his clan name.
It was predicted — either through dream interpretation or astrology — that he would grow up to be a great conquering warrior or a great spiritual leader. Though the culture of his day had clearly defined career paths for every child, based on the caste system, and of course every parent wants a child to do well, this powerful prediction seems like a lot to put on such a small freshly-arrived package of human flesh!

The Buddha advises us to pay attention to any residue of any of the labels we may have been given. Think back to words and other ways in which parents, sibling, other family members, playmates, teachers and others shaped your view of yourself. To what degree do you still accept some of them, unquestioned? This is a worthy exploration. Sometimes we like the labels we are given, or they grow on us. We can still question them. How much of what we like about them is just a sense of pleasure at being ‘known’ by someone we love?

So what was the effect of hearing about this prediction on Siddhartha’s father, a widower with a newborn son? Not surprisingly, given these two potential futures, he, of a warrior class, desired for his son to be a great conqueror rather than a spiritual teacher who would turn his back on the material wealth of his family.

So, the story goes, the father used every means to create the causes and conditions that he hoped would lead his son to appreciate and defend his possessions and position by pursuing the warrior path. He gave him a very sheltered life, never letting him go beyond the palace walls, and made sure that he was given a strong athletic education to be physically ready for battle.

He gave his son every luxury, but he went further than that. He actually made sure that there were no signs of illness, old age or death within the palace walls. The gardeners must have been very busy clipping off blossoms before they faded! And the servants must have gotten early retirements.

It reminds me of the old airline policies toward flight attendants, getting rid of them when they showed any signs of losing that youthful bloom. They might have been on to something! When air travel was in its early days, when so many of the passengers were new to this idea of flight, perhaps keeping them distracted with youth and beauty, keeping their minds off of the truth of aging and death, might have had some psychological basis, probably not calculated but just intuited.

Siddhartha’s father was protective, just as we are often very protective not just of our children but of ourselves, shielding ourselves from the pain of the world. I was reminded of this recently when someone was telling me how her husband couldn’t stand to be in a hospital room, no matter how much he cared for the patient inside. And I remember that my father, powerful and worldly in so many ways, couldn’t bring himself to go to the viewing of his mother’s body after her death. Until I was in my mid-twenties I used to faint at the sight of a needle piercing skin, even a rhinoceros getting a tranquilizer injection on Wild Kingdom!

To varying degrees we all put up protective palace walls for ourselves and those we love. When I was a teenager my beloved cat died in my arms late one night on the way home from the vets after she’d been pronounced incurable. The next morning I woke to plan her burial, only to find that one of my brothers had already buried her in some still-undisclosed part of our garden. He did this to protect his little sister from pain. He fortified the palace walls of an already sheltered life. It was so sweet and loving, but it was misguided, for it left me no way to come to terms with my loss, no ritual to release my emotions. He wanted to give me a bypass for my mourning. But there is no such thing. Trying to create one may set up a delaying mechanism that can go subterranean in our psyches and comes out in some other way.

As parents we all want what is best for our children, and we all know the impulse to protect them from suffering. The other day a friend expressed just such a concern. She was afraid that her teenage son might be hurt by a girl he had a crush on who didn’t seem to feel the same way towards him. I told my friend, yes, he very well might. And it will be difficult, but if that happens, it will also help to create compassion within him, an awareness of the responsibility of love. And, I added, that girl too will most likely some day be hurt, and it would be the very making of her. Getting hurt in love was the making of me when I was a teenager. Until I felt the pain of rejection for myself, I was at times thoughtless in my casual dismissal of the attentions of some very sweet boys who didn’t deserve my rudeness.

So in each of our lives there is this legacy of being labeled and being sheltered, then in turn we label and shelter those we love.

Siddhartha’s father intuitively wanted to protect his son from the unavoidable truths of earthly life: old age, illness and death. He had the same reasons all parents have, but also this prediction to deal with. He knew that it is these very things that awaken in each of us a spiritual yearning to understand the nature of suffering.

So often our pursuit of a spiritual path is ignited by a brush with serious illness, the death of a loved one, or the challenges of dealing with the process of aging. Think back to when you felt drawn to meditation or another spiritual path. Was there any loss, illness or realization about the nature of life that stirred this yearning within you?

Seeing this connection between brushes with the realities of life and the yearning for a spiritual path, Siddhartha’s father’s reasoning made sense. But, as it turned out, even the palace walls and every opulent delight was not enough to contain the curiosity about the world that Siddhartha, by now a young married man in his late twenties, developed. He implored his father to let him go out and see the world. So his father sent ahead men who would clear the streets of the village of any signs of illness, old age and death. But on his first venture outside, Siddhartha came upon someone who was ill, and asked after him and found out about the pain of illness. Then he ventured forth a second time and saw someone who was old and bent over, and once again he questioned and discovered that youth is fleeting. And when he ventured forth once again, he saw a corpse and discovered that the body and this earthly existence is impermanent. The fourth time he ventured out of the palace walls he met a traveling ascetic, someone who had abandoned material things to pursue a spiritual path, and he felt the call to follow that path, in order to find an end to suffering.

This was the piercing of the veil of innocence and the acceptance of a much more complex world than we at first imagined. Do you remember any point in your younger life when you felt the veil of innocence fall away? For me it was when I was around eight years old and some friend told me about the Holocaust. I could not believe it. But questioning revealed that it was true. I couldn’t understand how something like this could have happened just a decade before and I didn’t know about it. What else were they hiding from me?

Once the veil is pierced, then what? For Siddhartha it was clear that he had to give up his opulent life, leave his wife and baby to go off on his own in pursuit of the answer to how to end suffering for himself and all beings. So-called Christian bloggers who, for whatever reason, feel threatened by Buddhism, love to point out this moment, describing the Buddha as a runaway dad, a dropout and a loser.

We don’t need to make excuses for Siddhartha’s behavior. In the first place he was not yet enlightened or teaching. And he was human, a very important thing to remember that helps us have compassion for the human foolishness and foibles we find in ourselves and others, including the so-called Christian bloggers!

But let’s also put this in the context of the times in which he lived. He was not leaving his wife and child destitute. They lived in a palace with extended family, servants and resources. Does this replace a husband and father? Of course not. But remember that men of his day and class were not expected to consider the personal desires of their wives in determining their own paths. Nor were they expected to rear their own children. So it’s important to keep all this in mind, not to make excuses, but just to keep things in context. Had he been a warrior, he would have been off fighting wars for years on end, and this would have been totally acceptable by his (and our) society. But his choice went the other direction.

I find it interesting that Siddhartha ventured forth into the greater world at the age of 29. I’m reminded of Gail Sheehy’s landmark book Passages, that said that around the age of 28 one goes through a big shift. Siddhartha obviously did. Maybe you did too? Think about that period of the late twenties into the early 30’s. Was there anything expanding in your awareness, some realization that cracked open the world as you knew it?

For me it was the women’s movement, when I woke up to my blind complicity in accepting second class status as the way of things.

If you had an unveiling around that time, did it change the direction of your life? In what way? And if not, in what ways did this new awareness get incorporated into your life?

So you will see in this story of the early years of the Buddha’s life we can also discover lessons we’ve learned from our own younger lives. As a spiritual teacher the Buddha used stories from his own life to teach the dharma. Buddhist teachers today readily use their own lives as fodder for the dharma. And we each can look to our own lives for insight as well.

Next week we will talk about Bohd Gaya and the awakening of the Buddha.

*There are a number of variations on this story in the different Buddhist traditions. Some have more iconic aspects. I’ve chosen to tell the one that contains the most points of agreement and trust that the facts are contained in the core conjunction of these stories. However, if you have the interest, do an internet search for some of the variations of “Buddha’s birth.”
**His mother may have dreamed it, or her dream may have been interpreted to mean it, or astrologers may have predicted it.