Enlightenment | The Buddha


Years before, when Siddhartha was a small boy, his father the King had taken him to a spring planting festival. While he watched the ceremonial dancing being sown, he looked down at the grass. He thought about the insects and their eggs, destroyed as the field was planted. He was overwhelmed with sadness.

Jane Hirshfield, poet: “One great tap-word of Buddhism is compassion, which is the deep affection that we feel for everything because we’re all in it together. Be it other human beings, other animals, the planet as a whole, the creatures of this planet, the trees and rivers of this planet. Everything is connected.”

It was a beautiful day. His mind drifted. As if by instinct, he crossed his legs in the yoga pose of meditation. And the natural world paid him homage. As the sun moved through the sky, the shadows shifted, but the shadow of the rose-apple tree where he sat remained still. He felt a sense of pure joy.

Mark Epstein, psychiatrist: “The joy that he found is in the world that is already broken. It’s in this transitory world that we’re all a part of, and the fabric of this world, despite the fact that it can seem so horrible, the underlying fabric of this world actually is that joy that he recovered. That was his great insight. But he says, ‘I can’t sustain a feeling of joy like this if I don’t take any food so I better eat something’. And at that moment a village maiden mysteriously appears carrying a bowl of rice porridge.”

Buddha meditates, starving to death
Buddha meditates, starving to death
Thomas Laird
View LargerView Larger TimelineView on Timeline/Map Hirshfield: “And she said to him, ‘Here, eat.’ That moment of generosity and release when he accepted the rice was a decision towards life. It was what in the Christian tradition might be called grace that you cannot do it completely on your own, and in Christianity the grace comes from the divine. In the story of the Buddha the grace comes from the ordinary kind heart of a girl who sees somebody starving and says, ‘eat’.”

Venerable Metteyya Sakyaputta, monk: “There’s something beautiful. Whenever I remember that story it makes me so happy because I see the heart of Buddha—as the person he was—like the Siddhartha. This dish was the dish he used to be fed by his mother—rice pudding. He was missing that so much. And then he remembered further and further, and he remembered about his wife, about his son, and the deepest emotions that he had suppressed; they overpower, they come up. They were still there. And he had a feeling of missing. He had a feeling of seeing his son and a feeling of being near his loved ones. They were so powerful. Oh, that must have soaked his whole entire being.”

Hirshfield: “He was actually an utter failure. He had been clinging to the path of ascetism. And when he took the food, what followed was the return of his original question. Life is painful, life involves change. This is still a problem. The problem didn’t disappear.”

It wasn’t long before the ascetics who had been Siddhartha’s companions found him eating and turned away in disgust. “Siddhartha loves luxury,” they said. “He has forsaken his spiritual practice, he has become extravagant.”

D. Max Moerman, scholar: “But the man who will become the Buddha realizes that extreme deprivation isn’t the way to go. We can live as normal human beings, we can eat and drink. And, in fact, we kind of need to eat and drink and be normal human beings in order to break through, in order to attain the kind of realization that he was looking for.”

Siddhartha had put his faith in two gurus. They hadn’t helped him. He had punished his mind and body. That had almost killed him. Now, he knew what he must do: to find the answer to his questions, he would look within, and trust himself.

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