Impermanence is central to Buddhism, this fact, this truth, that everything at every level is changing, from galaxies to thoughts, from personal emotions to planets, in fact everything is change.
Change is constant.
You can treat this talk as a reflection; one of my points will be the importance of reflecting particularly using your imagination, reflecting imaginatively.
I'm going to look at the life of the Buddha before he was the Buddha because that's possibly more relevant to us, Siddharta before he was the Buddha struggling to follow the path. I'm going to use this part of the Buddha's life as a kind of symbol, a representation of the life of any human being.
Buddhism consists of the Path and teaching which enable all human consciousness to unfold and evolve into the awakened state - awakened to the true nature of Reality.
In this talk I want to look at that Path as it is illustrated by the life of Siddhartha. The story of the life of Siddhartha is a universal story and the significant episodes in that life indicate truths relevant to the spiritual life of any practitioner.
I’m going to look at some of these episodes - from the Four Sights up to the four archetypal images associated with the Enlightenment experience and I want to draw out the universal significance of each episode and perhaps a few points that could be of specific significance to us here today.
So first I’ll begin with the episode known as the Four Sights.
I believe this episode prefigures the later story of the appearance of Mara, the Earth Goddess, Brahma Sahampati and Mucalinda at the time of the Awakening - we’ll look at these parallels later. The story of the four sights tells us that Siddhartha had led a very sheltered life, protected by his father from all suffering, but as a restless young man he found a way to get out and some wider experience. What he experienced was seeing a sick person, an old person, and a corpse for the first time in his life and also a wandering holy man. These sights, we are told, had a profound effect on him and led to him giving up his life of luxury and going forth into the world in search of truth and a solution to the problem of human suffering.
You could take this story literally - that he had never encountered sickness, old age and death before - or you could understand it as meaning that he saw these things as if for the first time, in other words, he saw the significance of sickness, aging and death. He saw that it was what happened to everyone and what would happen to him. He saw it clearly, with the full force of a shock - he saw it in such a way that he couldn’t deny it, he couldn’t ignore it, couldn’t just carry on living as if everything was the same as before. No, now death was a reality for him, illness and old age were realties and they had to be faced up to. He couldn’t go back to a superficial life in the face of these existential facts which had shocked him into waking up to the naked insecurity of life. This was a process of insight for Siddhartha and it is a process that happens for many people, perhaps it has happened to some of us here. For some people this sort of awakening has a profound life-changing effect and they set out on the journey of spiritual searching and spiritual discovery - as Siddhartha did.
For others the experience gradually fades and old habits take over so that they manage to ignore their deeper experiences. Some people deliberately bury their insight into life’s insecurity, beneath a life of hedonism or even addiction. And some people embark on the spiritual quest, but get lost along the way or begin to use their spiritual practice as a way of avoiding the raw truths of sickness, old age and death rather than as a way of facing and transcending them.
But many of us, hopefully all of us here, are inspired by the image of the wandering holy man - the image of someone who gives up everything for the sake of truth, someone whose life is a wholehearted quest for truth.
Seeing these four sights is not an easy matter and I don’t believe it is usually a one-off event. Seeing these four sights is a process of deepening insight, a process of dawning clarity, a process of emotional, intellectual and spiritual adjustment to the fact that life is change. Sickness, old age and death are inevitable because change is the nature of life. The more deeply we see and understand this, the more acceptable it becomes and therefore the less we suffer by trying to resist change. This process of seeing the four sights - seeing them deeply, being affected by them, understanding and being moved by the significance of them - this process can go on throughout our life and it is worth our while reflecting on these four sights again and again.
We can ask ourselves questions. What is my attitude to illness? Do I see any deeper significance in it? Is my attitude to illness different when it affects me and when it affects others? Why is it different? Similarly with old age and death. What are my attitudes to old age and death? Am I aware of old age and death around me? Am I aware of myself as someone subject to old age and death? And what does the wandering holy man mean to me? Is there an equivalent of the wandering holy man in my life? Is there something which reminds me of the deeper significance of life? How often am I aware of that dimension represented by the wandering holy man? Am I moved to action by the image of the wandering holy man and the spiritual dimension of life? Perhaps for some of us the question will be - Have I really seen the four sights and if I have, am I still aware of them?
Because I've been healthy all my life it comes as a shock to me when I get sick, it’s something I don't normally experience or reflect upon. As I get older I am having to take it on board more. Sangharakshita some years ago when he was experiencing the effects of old age, including the loss of some of his eyesight, said that he had reflected deeply on death but he hadn't reflected deeply enough on old age and it's affects. It's not easy to be aware of these things.
Siddhartha did see the four sights. He saw them very deeply. He saw the significance of sickness, old age and death and the wandering holy man and it shook him to the core of his being. He could not be the same again; he had to change his life. He left home and set out in quest of the truth, in quest of the answer to the problem of human suffering. This episode in his life is known as the Going Forth. Going forth doesn't just apply to the Buddha it can apply to anyone of us and in different ways. Some of us may go forth in the traditional way and undertake something like a journey. Sangharakshita talks about going forth in terms of getting rid of his papers, passport and all those things and journeying around India on foot. When I was 22 I gave up my career and possessions to go in search of meaning. That was the result of seeing an older person in the work place retiring and seeing how empty their life was after spending 50 years in that job, it just shook me and I gave up everything. I did find Buddhism 6 years later.
The Going Forth represents a reorientation of one’s whole life - it involves actively moving away from the mundane, self-interested values of the world around us and moving towards values that are compassionate and based in a deeper awareness of the nature of life.
Sometimes it is quite difficult to see what the values of the world are because we are so much in the world and so much influenced by what we read and hear, a bit like fish swimming in water we can't see the water, - the newspapers, internet, TV and so on. If we are not sufficiently aware, we may not even notice that certain values are being promulgated all the time by the media, by politicians and so on.
Some of the more obvious values today are: that choice is a good thing, that economic growth is a good thing, that nation states have a real existence, that quality of life can be measured by the ability to buy things and so on. And some of the values will be so much a part of the air that we breathe that we will apply them to our spiritual practice without even noticing. For instance I have noticed that the notion of choice has become more and more prevalent over the past 5 to 10 years. Politicians tell us that what people want is choice and on the Internet, on TV, in the shopping centres, we are inundated with offers of choice. And of course, we often believe it, we believe that we are being offered genuine choices and that having these choices gives us greater freedom. We become enthralled to the idea that choice means freedom and we start to look for choice in our spiritual life, a choice of practices, a choice of lifestyles, a choice of teachings, a choice of teachers and so on. And of course the choice is there, a whole spiritual supermarket of choices, a whole shopping mall of choices - even within Buddhism and then of course there are all the tasty morsels from elsewhere - from various therapies and other disciplines - a whole smorgasbord of choices. So this one value of the world we live in could potentially cause us a great deal of confusion and lead us astray on all sorts of interesting sidetracks, especially if we haven’t quite seen the four sights yet away from depth of experience. I am not saying it is wrong to investigate other practices - just that we should go for depth in what we do.
Going Forth then, is a re-orientation of our life towards the spiritual values of awareness and compassion, the value of awakening more and more to reality and we need to examine other values in the light of this - does the multiplication of choices lead to greater awareness and compassion? Does nationalism or consumerism lead to greater awareness and compassion? What values do we have? What values are promoting greater awareness and compassion in our lives? What values are hindering our awakening to reality? What values are obscuring our vision of the four sights?
The questions mean reflecting, and the importance of reflecting on life and experience. It’s not such a good idea to expect immediate answers from yourself or anybody else the important thing is the question not the answer, the best answers come from the depth of your own experience. If you have an attitude of question, of reflecting then in your ordinary life as experience happens you will be reflecting because you will be bringing that attitude to what ever happens. You will be seeing the significance.
For Siddhartha going Forth meant a complete change in his life - internally and externally - for each of us it may mean that or it may mean something else. Whatever it means I think that it is also best seen as an ongoing process rather than a one-off event. As we will see it was an on-going event for Siddhartha too. The event symbolises the process - a process that carries on until awakening dawns. It is the process of letting go of everything that holds us back from seeing clearly the truth of constant change and living our lives by the truth of constant change.
The truth of constant change applies to our bodies, our thoughts, our emotions, it applies to other people, it applies to everything in this world, it applies to the whole universe. The truth of constant change transcends death because death is only a moment in the vast interplay of energies we call life. So we go forth from limitations, limiting views, limiting values, towards an open road, an open dimension where we can live in harmony with the reality of constant change.
(Joyful theme evoked by Walt Whitman)
Here is how the Sutta Nipata puts it
“Now I will tell the going Forth. How he, the Mighty Seer, went forth. How he was questioned and described the reason for his going forth. The crowded life lived in a house exhales an atmosphere of dust; but life gone forth is open wide: he saw this, and he chose the going forth.” (Nanamoli p. 11)
Let’s hope that given all the choices we have, we too choose the Going forth again and again.
The next episode in the life of Siddhartha that I would like to look at briefly is his attainment of Dhyana.
Siddhartha became the disciple of Alara Kalama first and later of Uddaka Ramaputta and under these teachers he became adept at entering dhyanic states of consciousness - right up to the highest formless dhyanas. He was such a good disciple that Alara asked him to become co-leader of his community of followers and Uddaka Ramaputta asked him to take over complete leadership of his community. However Siddhartha was not satisfied and was well aware that he was still within the realm of egotism and had not solved the problem of suffering. So he left these teachers and went forth yet again - this time to a life of great austerities. I think many of us would love to be able to get into dhyanic states at will. Indeed many of us probably feel that not being able to attain to the dhyanas means that we cannot meditate and we may even become despondent about meditation and perhaps give up. But Dhyana is not the aim of spiritual practice - it is a pleasant side-effect. I some Tibetan traditions the student is warned against Dhyana and told to come out of it as quickly a possible - it is regarded as a dangerous distraction. In the Brahmajala Sutta the Buddha outlines the 62 wrong views to be avoided if one is to make spiritual progress. Now the interesting thing about these wrong views is that most of them arise out of some kind of higher experience and quite a few arise from misinterpretation of higher Dhyanic experience. As Kamalashila put it in a talk on the subject, “It seems that if one practices within a framework of self-view, ten every attainment in meditation will simply confirm that view.”
So the danger of dhyanic experience is that it may lead into a cul-de-sac of wrong views, which block any further spiritual progress.
Siddhartha saw this and went forth from Dhyana. Perhaps we need to reflect on the significance of this. If we are regularly in Dhyana - we may need to let go of it and go forth into deeper insight and if we are regularly yearning to experience Dhyana perhaps we need to go forth from that yearning and start to see our meditation practice as being concerned with truth seeking rather than pleasure seeking. The pleasure will arise of its’ own accord. (David Smith p.118)
So, then, Siddhartha undertakes severe austerities, in line with practices current at the time. It was felt that the demands of the body, for food, sex, warmth and so on, were a major hindrance to spiritual insights and therefore the body had to be subdued. It is said that he took this to an extreme too, but in the end he realised that was not helping and he went forth from the life of austerities too - his third major Going Forth. I don‘t think there are very many people in the FWBO who undertake austerities - I’m not aware of any really but perhaps there are still some lessons to be learned here.
So Siddhartha moved from blissful practices to painful practices, hoping that what he didn’t gain through bliss he would gain through pain. And it is true for many people in the FWBO that there can be an over-emphasis on pain. We can give a lot of attention to painful emotional experiences and value them perhaps more than we need to, even considering them to be somehow more authentic or real, than pleasurable experience.
The American psychotherapist and mystic, Suzanne Segal, talks about this from her experience as a therapist (quoted in my talk “The Five Wisdoms”)
So for some of us at least there may be a sense in which we could helpfully go forth form an over-emphasis on the painful aspects of experience. We could deliberately affirm what is positive in our lives, some people have a practice of thinking at the end of the day what did I enjoy today, think of 5 or 10 things that I enjoyed today and it can give you quite a different perspective on life if you deliberately do that, just very small things like the light through the trees or the clouds in the sky. What you find if you do that is that you start to notice thoughts enjoyable things and you start to have more enjoyment in your life. It’s good to do a practice like that as it affirms what's positive and what's enjoyable in your day-to-day life.
Sometimes it is said that Siddhartha was making an unbalanced effort in practising austerities and he needed to find a middle was of more balanced effort. This is not borne out by the texts, which represent him as making a strong, even forceful effort, when he sat beneath the Bodhi tree. What was wrong about his effort in austerity was that it was effort in the wrong direction, effort leading nowhere.
So what we have to consider about our spiritual efforts is not so much a matter of quantity, but rather a matter of quality. We don’t need to worry too much that our efforts might be too strong, what we really need to pay attention to is whether our efforts are effective, spiritually speaking. Whether they are leading in the direction of truth. The direction of more Compassion, more Metta.
So Siddhartha went forth again, in the process losing his reputation, and being criticised by his former companions. Going Forth can bring unpopularity it seems. Your friends and family might think you're being foolish or a failure if you turn your back on material values.
So he took some nourishment and sat down beneath a peepul tree, thereafter known as the Bodhi tree. This tree prefigures the image of Mucalinda - naga and youthful hero. The tree represents a uniting of the heights and depths. Its’ roots go deep down in to the rock and its’ branches soar heavenwards. It is generating energy in the hidden depths and manifesting beauty and protectiveness in the world. This uniting of opposites - depths and heights, inner and outer - symbolises the enlightened state - a state of completeness uniting Wisdom and Compassion, uniting energy and stillness. This is something worth reflecting on - do we have a sense of heights and depths on our lives? What do we mean by heights? and depths? In what way are our heights and depths not united? In what ways are they united? How could we bring about more unity of our heights and depths? Or to put it another way, do our ideals, aspirations, dreams and imaginings have a strong connection with our on-going awareness of ourselves, physically, emotionally and mentally? Are the branches connected to the roots by a trunk of awareness and metta?
Siddhartha was sheltered by the tree or put symbolically, his aspiration and faith gave him protection.
And he needed protection because now he is assailed by Mara. Mara is the personification to spiritual awaking.
Firstly he is attacked by Mara’s army, then tempted by Mara’s daughters and then Mara tries to undermine his confidence. So here we have very dynamic images for hatred, craving and ignorance.
Mara’s army attacks with arrows and spears but all the missiles hurled at Siddhartha turn into flowers, blossoms and settle gently at his feet. This attack of Mara’s army represents a massive internal conflict. Siddhartha’s unshakeable determination is coming up against all the forces of his psyche that resist the implications of spiritual death. This is an inevitable part of any spiritual endeavour. We are never 100% behind our spiritual aspirations and so we experience conflict and you could say that dealing with this conflict is the raw material of our spiritual practice. That's what we are working with our aspirations and our actual desires and experience. We can take that raw material of inner conflict and d o something creative with it. If we don’t deal with our inner conflict it will begin to manifest externally and we will end up blaming other people for our lack of spiritual progress and limitations. It can seem more reasonable and comfortable to blame others for our hindrances and settle down into a habit of rumbling resentment. On one level inner conflict is a manifestation of the integrated psyche and the disparate parts have to come into some sort of relationship - just as the Buddha’s awareness and faith comes into relationship with Mara’s armies and the conflict resolves into flower blossom - symbols of beauty and growth.
On another level inner conflict is a manifestation of the ego’s resistance to reality. It’s an existential thing this inner conflict. Experiencing inner conflict doesn't mean we are bad or un-spiritual or incapable of practice, it is what happens if you try to lead a spiritual life. If you haven't done so already you will.
Either way it is more creative to recognise inner conflict for what it is and take awareness into it. We have to become acutely aware of how we resist spiritual insight and how we cause ourselves suffering. If we manage to do this thoroughly then our resistances will subside. For instance, we have an ideal of spiritual community, an ideal of harmony and co-operation and goodwill. We value friendship and collective activities. But then we may find ourselves feeling lonely or isolated - our ideal is not working - and this leads to a conflict within us - a conflict between our personal experience and our ideal. So this could lead us to blame the other people around us. It is because they are selfish or because they are unfriendly or because they are English or whatever - that’s why your ideal of a harmonious spiritual community is not happening and that’s why you feel lonely. Or you might blame the circumstances - it’s because community life is unnatural - or because the Buddhist Centre is not being properly run or whatever. So we look outside ourselves for causes and we find lots of imperfections in the people and the world around us which seem plausible reasons for our dissatisfaction. But we could take a different approach. We could assume that our conflict was a manifestation of egotism in some form and once again I’m not saying that egotism is bad but we could investigate it from that standpoint. We could ask ourselves: in what way am I being selfish? How is my loneliness and isolation a manifestation of selfishness? And we might discover some things to make us sit up and take action. We might realise that the antidote to loneliness lies in our own hands - we need to think of others and go out to them, befriend them. It’s a kind of counter-intuitive response- loneliness doesn’t mean I need friends, it means I need to befriend others. In a way, what we discover if we look deeply into our dissatisfaction is that we are both victim and perpetrator, we are experiencing suffer and causing suffering and if we see that clearly enough we stop perpetrating our own suffering and the spears and arrows of inner conflict turn into benign blossoms.
Another aspect of Mara’s army is that they represent fear- our worst nightmares - all the fears that hold us back from living more fully. Fear is one of the most tangible experiences of ego that we can have. Where there is fear there is ego. Where there is fear there is self-centeredness. The tantric yogis go into the cremation grounds at night to encounter fear - to encounter ego in a very potent form - and by facing fear they break through to a new level of freedom - symbolised by the dakini.
Most of us have no need to find a cremation ground- we experience fears, large and small, all the time - sometimes it is just the fear of being with other people or the fear of being alone. We can try to notice our fears and make use of them in our spiritual practice - by taking little risks here and there we gain a little more freedom and develop the habit of freedom and confidence. On a little personal note here, at the time of my ordination one of my greatest fears was the fear of speaking in public, which I assumed every order member had to do. I was even on the verge of holding back from ordination, to avoid ever having to speak in public. It was only by doing it that I gradually discovered it wasn’t as bad as I had feared.
After Mara’s army we have Mara’s daughters - Siddhartha was a heterosexual man and so Mara’s daughters represent craving for sense pleasures. So Siddhartha is not having an easy time - it’s one distraction after another. Earlier we were told that he could get into dhyana at will and now he is enmeshed in conflict and distraction. From one point of view he is having a really bad meditation - anger, ill-will, fear and craving. I’m sure some of you are familiar with this kind of meditation, or at least you’ve heard about it. But Siddhartha knows what he is doing - he is deliberately facing all the resistance, all the egotistic forces of his own mind and transforming them into something positive. Mara’s daughters - the energy of craving, are transformed into inspiration - the energy of faith or shraddha - represented by the Earth Goddess. Mara’s armies, the energies of inner conflict, are transformed into compassion, represented by Brahma Sahampati. And Mara himself - the energy of ignorance is transformed into the great Wisdom represented by Mucalinda.
In the Vimalakirti Nirdesa - Mara tries to make a gift of his daughters to a monk - who refuses to accept them, but Vimalakirti does accept them and turns them into teachers of the Dharma. So Mara’s daughters are the energies of desire, which can move from being desire for sense pleasure to being desire for the Dharma - from kama chandha to dhamma chandha. In the symbolism associated with Siddhartha’s struggle, the Earth Goddess, Vasundhara, could be seen as his muse, his inspiration, his Dhamma chandha - she is the transformation of the energies represented by Mara’s daughters. The Earth Goddess is a witness to Siddhartha’s practice over lifetimes - she is an appeal to experience. In the context of transforming the energies of craving this means that if we bring awareness to our actual experience - we will see that our dissatisfaction has never been fully satisfied by succumbing to our sense craving - in fact our craving for sense pleasure is itself dissatisfaction, it is dukkha. Our experience is telling us the truth and if we listen often enough, eventually we will hear.
(Importance of reflecting on experience again.)
The earth Goddess is also an appeal to experience in the face of doubt and lack of confidence.
Mara suggests to Siddhartha that he is wasting his time - he could be having a good life - plenty of money, property, power - whatever he wanted - it’s all his for the taking - who does he think he is anyway trying to solve the problem of human suffering. He is assailed by doubts - doubting whether what he is doing makes sense and doubting whether he is capable of attaining to Wisdom. Any one on the spiritual path is going to experience doubt about whether what you are doing makes sense and if you are capable of it. And the Earth Goddess emerges and reassures him that she has witnessed all his efforts and he is indeed capable and worthy of gaining Enlightenment. The Earth Goddess has always been there - she represents something timeless, eternal - and she can attest that the pursuit of truth is worthy and worthwhile endeavour for human consciousness. Perhaps we could even say that the Earth goddess asserts that it is natural for human consciousness to want to evolve towards the truth. She is hinting at something that is made more explicit later in the White Lotus Sutra - that the dharma is eternal or timeless. Reality is always reality and has always been Reality and will always be Reality. So this is the answer to Mara’s attempts to sow the seeds of doubt.
When we experience doubt we may find it helpful to reflect on what spiritual experience we have had and what spiritual progress we have made. We may also find it helpful to reflect on the millions of people down the generation who have been inspired and uplifted by the Dharma - a concrete testimony to the power and efficacy of the Dharma. When we are beset by doubts, what we need is to appeal to experience and inspiration - our own experience and inspiration and the experience and inspiration of others -if we do that we will have the Earth Goddess on our side. If we are experiencing doubt we will need the help of others.
The next episode represents a big turning point - a kind of internal going forth. Brahma Sahampati appears. The story says that the Buddha was inclined to keep his realisation to himself because nobody would be able to understand it and Brahma Sahampati appeared before him, telling him there were some who would understand and pleading with him to teach what he had discovered.
Brahma Sahampati represents great compassion arising in the mind of Siddhartha. Previously he has been concerned with an internal struggle to overcome fear, hatred, craving and doubt but now he is turning outward - he is becoming concerned with the fear, hatred, craving and doubt of others. Having seen through the causes of suffering in himself - he now wants to help others to the same realisation.
This process is mirrored in our own lives. Often we take up the spiritual life for a mixture of selfish and idealistic reasons and as we practice we experience the conflict between our recalcitrant egotism and our altruistic aspirations. We necessarily become concerned with ourselves, with the workings of our own mind, the trajectory of our own habits and so on. However in time we should experience a quietening of the inner turmoil and a growing concern for the spiritual welfare of others and a willingness to help others through the mess of their inner conflicts.
As with all the other episodes in the life of Siddhartha, this episode also represents a process - the process of growing generosity and compassion. We all have our own version of Brahma Sahampati - a voice urging us to acts of generosity and kindness. As we progress spiritually we will find ourselves listening to that voice more and more. The more we hear that voice and pay heed to it, the more we can be sure we are developing spiritually.
The next episode is the appearance of the Serpent King - Mucalinda. He appears in order to protect Siddhartha from the rain. He wraps his coils around Siddhartha and spreads his hood over him. This image reminds us of the Bodhi tree shading Siddhartha from the sun. When the rain stops the serpent king transforms into a young man and salutes the Buddha. This young man, about sixteen yeas old, represents the prince of beauty and purity and is later seen in the forms of the archetypal Bodhisattvas - the great spiritual heroes. The serpent king - the king of the Nagas come from the depths of the ocean - Nagas are associated with wisdom, with depth of understanding. The great Buddhist sage Nagarjuna is said to have travelled to the depths of the ocean where the Naga kings transmitted to him the Prajnaparamita sutra. So the Naga king stands for Wisdom and the youth is the spiritual Hero, the Bodhisattva, acting compassionately in the world. The Serpent king and youth represent again the unity of heights and depths, as in the image of the Bodhi tree - but now at a higher level, wisdom/compassion, stillness/activity. The serpent is also an image of tremendous energy - the gathered energies of the Enlightened consciousness. Our spiritual life is fed and nourished by images and symbols and our imagination is the crucible in which our lives are transformed into energy streams of wisdom and Compassion. We need images and symbols of the life of Siddhartha - there are some I haven’t touched on. We need to allow our imagination time to engage with the whole rich panoply of images that Buddhism offers. It doesn’t do to reject some images as not suitable - all the images are interconnected - they are a huge pattern of psychic growth and if we reject some images we may be disrupting the pattern and making our psychic life more difficult. I mention this because in recent years some people have wanted to reject the image of the young hero - but here with Mucalinda we see that the young hero is integral to a complete image - a union of opposites. Usually when we want to reject symbols or images it's because we are taking them too literally, we are giving them a literal meaning, so we should reject literalism in the realm of symbols not the symbols themselves.
We began with the four sights - sickness - which mirrors Mara, the sickness of the mind, humanity’s illness. Then old age, which mirrors the appeal to experience and ageless wisdom of the Earth Goddess. Then death which mirrors the death of all the vestiges of ego or selfishness when Great Compassion arises as in the episode of Brahma Sahampati and finally the wandering holy man, the symbol of the pursuit of Reality mirrors Mucalinda, the Serpent king and young hero representing that reality at its height. The wandering holy man is also an image for the rest of the Buddha’s life. It's the archetype of spiritual life.
So we have been through a spiral of interweaving images, each with many meanings and each sparking off more and more imaginative reflection. This is the story of Siddhartha and this is our story, this is your story, because Siddhartha represents the individual human being - Siddhartha is everyman and every woman.
Siddhartha was born, as we are born
What Siddhartha attained, we too can attain
What Siddhartha overcame, we too can overcome
We reverence Siddhartha, and aspire to follow him.
This world of imagination and symbols, this world of heights and depths - intuited, imagined and experienced - this is the context in which we grow old, gain wisdom, suffer and experience pleasure. This is the rich tapestry of human existence. This is the context of constant change, constant letting go, constant growth and decay in which we live and die.
This vast context of flowing constant change gives us a perspective that can comfort our suffering and loss and can be a call to freedom for our exuberance and inspiration. We have only to engage with it - imaginatively and wholeheartedly - then death will be less important and life will be more full and meaningful.
I will conclude by giving the last word to a Christian monk and mystic, who was moved, inspired and awakened by Buddhist images. Thomas Merton, the American Trappist monk travelled widely in Asia and had many contacts with Buddhism.
At a place called Polunnaruwa in Sri Lanka there are some huge Buddha images carved from rock. There is a seated Buddha and a reclining Parinirvana Buddha and a standing figure of Ananda. When Thomas Merton visited there in 1968 these Buddha figures had a profound effect on him. Here is how he describes it in his journal. (By the way he died four days later in Thailand in an accident involving faulty electrics in his hotel). The reason why I’m doing this is the importance of images and the power of imagination. If we really want to attain spiritual insight you have to engage with the world imaginatively is where insight resides, the intuition, it is not something literal or intellectual.
“Polunnaruwa with its vast area under trees. Fences. Few people. No beggars. A dirt road. Lost. Then we find Gal Vihara and the other monastic complex stupas. Cells. Distant mountains, like Yucatan.
The path dips down to Gal Vihara; a wide, quiet hollow, surrounded by trees. A low outcrop of rock with a cave cut into it, and beside the cave a big-seated Buddha on the left, a reclining Buddha on the right, and Ananda, I guess, standing by the head of the reclining Buddha. In the cave, another seated Buddha. I am able to approach the Buddha barefoot and undisturbed, my feet in wet grass, wet sand. The silence of the extraordinary faces. The great smiles. Huge and yet subtle. Filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, knowing everything, rejecting nothing, the peace, not of emotional resignation but of Madhyamika, of sunyata, which has seen through every question without trying to discredit anyone or anything - without refutation - without establishing some other argument. For the doctrinaire, the mind that needs well-established positions, such peace, such silence, can be frightening. I was knocked over with a rush of relief and thankfulness at the obvious clarity and fluidity of shape and line, the design of the monumental bodies composed into rock shape and landscape, figure, rock, and tree. And the sweep of bare rock sloping away on the other side of the hollow, where you can go back and see different aspects of the figures.
Looking at these figures, I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tired vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious. The sheer evidence of the reclining figure, the smile, the sad smile of Ananda standing with arms folded. The thing about all this is that there is no puzzle, no problem, no ‘mystery’. All problems are resolved, and everything is clear, simply because what matters is clear. The rock, all matter, all life, is charged with dharmakaya - everything is emptiness and everything is compassion. I don’t know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual vitality running together in one aesthetic illumination......
I mean, I know and have seen what I was obscurely looking for. I don’t know what else remains, but I have now seen and pierced through the surface and have got beyond the shadow and the disguise......
It is pure, complete. It says everything. It needs nothing. Because it needs nothing it can afford to be silent, unnoticed, undiscovered. It does not need to be discovered. It is we who need to discover it.” Thomas Merton, The Intimate Merton, Page 435.