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Transcribing the oral tradition...
Buddhasiha, Ipswich, UK
Viriyalila, FBA Team
Sangharakshita, Birmingham, UK
Viriyalila, Portsmouth, USA
Viveka, San Francisco, USA
Mary, FBA Team
Sangharakshita, Birmingham, UK
Coleen, FBA Team
The Buddha, Hakuin, Birth and Death
Audio available at: http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/audio/details?num=OM699
Talk given at Padmaloka Retreat Centre, 2004
01 The death of Dharmarakshita; the life of the Buddha – conditions for spiritual
Thank you very much, Padmadaka. Brothers in the Dharma. I’m going to dedicate this
talk to a very good friend of mine who I’ve just heard died. I have to mention this,
because it’s upset me quite a bit. He’s an Order member by the name of Dharmarakshita
who lives in India. He was in his 70’s and he seems to have died of a heart attack. He
really was a good friend to me, especially when I first went to India, and too, a very close
disciple of Sangharakshita. So, this evening – I’m not going to say more about him now
– but this evening we are in the puja going to, I want to do something for him, so our
puja’s going to be dedicated to him. He loved singing, and he wrote songs, so I think we
might do some singing.
So, yesterday I spoke about the different types of Ch’an, the different types of Zen. The
first of these, we saw is Tatagatha Ch’an, Tathagatha Zen. The Ch’an of the Buddha, the
Ch’an of basic Buddhism, basic practice. That’s our practice of Ch’an and Zen. We also
saw that as far as the Zen tradition is concerned, the Buddha is the origin of the tradition.
Ch’an and Zen practitioners are followers of the Buddhadharma, the Buddha Way. And
yesterday I spoke of the Buddha as the original Ch’an master, the original Zen master,
and I told the story of the Buddha holding up the golden flower. There were no words,
the teaching was holding up the golden flower. And in the Great Assembly, in all of
those people, only Kasyapa, only Mahakasyapa, understood. And he smiled, signifying
his seeing, his knowing, his understanding of what the Buddha was communicating. It’s
interesting, somebody came to me yesterday after the talk and said the first time they
went along to a centre, the Order member told this story – told it very well. And as soon
as they heard that story that was it, they were hooked on Buddhism. This is Osadha, who
lives with us. Sanghapala told this story, that was it. He was off. I’d never heard that
before, that was lovely.
So today I want to look into the life of the Buddha. I want to see how his life brings out
certain features that resonate throughout the Ch’an and Zen tradition. For many of you
this material will be very familiar, so I would ask you to listen with a fresh mind, listen
with beginner’s mind. You know this story back to front, but listen again. For
Buddhists, for those who have committed themselves to the Buddhist path, the Buddha,
the Enlightened One, is the center of their lives. This is why we have an image of the
Buddha at the center of our shrine room. The Buddha is the embodiment of the great
ideal, the great spiritual ideal, the human ideal, of Enlightenment. And that ideal of
Enlightenment of course consists of two great aspects, as you know: wisdom - seeing
things as they really are, and love, compassion, an overwhelming desire to release others
from suffering. Buddhists are those who strive to awaken wisdom and compassion in
their lives - awareness and friendliness, to begin with, in their lives. That’s why we do the
Mindfulness of Breathing and the Metta Bhavana, we’re on the path there of wisdom and
compassion. If you think of nothing else other than awareness and friendliness you really
can’t go wrong.
What’s hugely important here is that the Buddha was not born the Buddha. He became
the Buddha. He discovered the way to Enlightenment, the way to Awakening, and
realized that everybody could do the same. He didn’t, in that sense, regard himself as
unique. Wisdom and compassion are a possibility for everyone, enlightenment a
possibility – a potential – in everyone. But how did the Buddha attain enlightenment?
How did he get onto that path to enlightenment? In a way, the conditions for waking up
to the path weren’t that good, weren’t that propitious, in that the Buddha – it’s better if
we call him Siddhartha at this stage – came from a royal family. He lived in conditions
of great wealth, power, privilege and comfort. And so in a way there was nothing in the
environment that was particularly painful or difficult, that would make you think. It was
a smooth existence. It’s the kind of existence where you can become very complacent;
comfortable, a lot of enjoyment. So environments like that, although pleasant, can in fact
make spiritual life more difficult. We like to have things nice and smooth, nice and easy,
nothing to shake us up, that’s what we look for. But, you know, if it’s difficult you’re
very fortunate. Hakuin once said, “The best conditions for spiritual growth are when it’s
painful, when it’s difficult, when you’re tired, when you’re ill, when it’s noisy, when
there’s people around that you don’t particularly want to be with, that’s the best time to
make spiritual progress.”
Many of us in the modern west live, in a way, in a similar kind of position to Siddhartha.
Everything is really very comfortable. There’s lots of options, lots of choices, plenty of
food, plenty of opportunities. For Siddhartha, however, this kind of life was utterly
claustrophobic and confining, this is how he found it. In one text we find him
characterizing his early life, very simple words, as: “Cramped is this life at home, dusty
indeed its fear.” He felt cramped, restricted in this sphere, this circle. The atmosphere
was dusty, nothing was moving, so it was just gathering dust and dirt, just stuck in the rut
of convention. This “dust” is just the same way of talking about the stench that master
Yunmen spoke about, the stench of our own selfhood, the stench of our own shit – it’s the
same stuff, except the Buddha was more polite than Yunmen.
02 Noticing sickness, old age and death; the end of intoxication; the beginning of
So life at home was stagnant - pleasurable, colourful, with the different palaces, with all
the family members, with the dancing girls, and the girl musicians, and the servants – but
at its heart it was utterly stuck, dusty, stagnant, profoundly boring, meaningless. Not
only did Siddhartha feel cramped and confined, he had problems. Big problems. Not
psychological problems, you could call them existential problems.
He began to notice things as if for the first time. He started to notice sickness and illness.
The strong, youthful, handsome body gets sick, starts to just break down for a while. He
started to notice old age. The strong, youthful body starts to get aches and pains. You
start to notice as people get older that they bend over, that there are some gray hairs, and
that just seems irreversible - that old age, that aging. The youthful body ages, decays,
and in the end, dies. So he started to notice death. The lifeless body is carried away to
the burning ground, is just laid on a pile of wood and cow dung and is consumed in the
flames – turned to dust and ashes, that’s it. So this was all very deeply troubling for
He noticed too that peoples’ attitude to illness, old age and death was very strange. He
noticed that they felt aversion to it. They recoiled when they encountered it. That was
kind of the instinctive response – they pulled away, they felt disgust, they felt almost a
kind of humiliation in the face of it. And he realised, thinking about this, that this
happened because they didn’t recognise, they didn’t understand that illness, old age and
death would happen to them, inevitably it would happen to them. So, that recoiling was a
way of trying to avoid that truth. So, they had no empathy – no real deep empathy for
others – because they couldn’t recognise this happens to everyone.
At some point he had a kind of insight. He recognised that illness, old age and death
would all happen to him, there was just no avoiding these things. They were inherent to
reality, inherent to his reality. And it had an incredibly sobering effect. He said that all
the vanity, all the intoxication – the word is mada, intoxication – left him. The
intoxication with health, the intoxication with youth, even the intoxication with life, just
left him. So he had a profound sobering up. He started to feel deeply contemplative,
deeply meditative. Started to not be able to relate to what was going on around him.
Sometimes this happens. I remember with my father’s death a couple of years ago that I
didn’t sort of grieve exactly, I just felt sort of thrown into a state of contemplation - sort
of turned inside - and I found it very difficult to relate to what was going on around me, I
couldn’t think straight.
At some time as well, Siddhartha had other experiences as well at this time, great
openings, as you might call them, profound meditation experiences. He saw a field being
plowed. He saw the weather-beaten plowman bent over, and ...