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Entering the Buddha-s Realm

by Vishvapani

Entering the Buddha's Realm

by Vishvapani

The Buddha said that his teaching was both ‘strange’ and ‘wonderful’, and the word
‘realm’ suggests the same. A ‘realm’ is a region presided over by a ruler, a kingdom, and
it’s an archaic word, suggesting something romantic and mysterious, like ‘the realms of
gold’, through which John Keats says he passed in his journeys through literature.

On the one hand the Buddha and the Dharma are very down to earth. The Buddha
continually reminded people to be alert to the present moment and what is actually
happening. His key insights were into things you can easily verify by observing the world
around you: that everything is impermanent, for example. But on the other hand it would
be a mistake to think that the Buddha is just like you or me, and that the state of
enlightenment he describes is just like our ordinary experience minus the anxiety and
grumpiness. The Buddha also comes from another world, a world which is very strange
and quite beyond anything we already know. The Buddha has been described in the West
in many ways: as a philosopher, a psychologist, a social reformer, and a religious teacher
like the other teachers who we think we understand. Sometimes descriptions like these
can suggest useful points of comparison, but if we take them literally they are just as
likely to mislead us. We might be better off thinking that the Buddha is a mystery: not a
muddle and not an enigma, but something that we cannot understand through concepts

Perhaps a key to reconciling these two perspectives on the Buddha and the Dharma is in
the experience that you can have when you connect strongly with Buddhist teachings. If
you become deeply engaged with meditation you can feel that you are connecting with
yourself more truly than you have for a long time, even that you are able to experience
yourself – to be yourself – more fully than you ever have in your life. When you have
such an experience you also feel that it is just the start: that if only you could say
connected to that way of being it would unfold more and more fully. Or sometimes a
truth, such as the teaching of impermanence, can strike you with a stunning force – for
example if a relationship ends or someone you love dies – and along with the pain is a
sense of touching something more real and more true than your daily life. And you sense
that this is something you have always known somewhere deep down, and perhaps you
have forgotten. In the Buddha’s teaching we could say (as the American thinker Ralph
Waldo Emerson puts it) ‘we recognise our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us
with a certain alienated majesty.’

The realm disclosed by the Buddha’s teachings is wonderful for the same reason: because
it tells us something that we may have always known and forgotten, but which we
certainly don’t know in our present experience. But there is also a sense, when we engage
deeply with the Buddha’s teaching, that we are being told something that is absolutely
new – not because it is novel, but because its truth is as fresh and penetrating now as it
has ever been. This is the sense in which the Dharma is wonderful. Plato says that
philosophy begins with wonder, and the same is also true of the spiritual life. It grows
from the sense that the universe we inhabit is vast beyond imagining, and the possibilities
of our human lives are similarly incalculable.

Returning to the quotation from Emerson, the question arises, if these really are our own
thoughts then why should we have rejected them. Emerson himself says that it is because
we are fooled into thinking that other people’s thoughts are more important than our own.
This is conformity, the tendency to think that others know best and that we should keep
quiet and fit in. Emerson’s antidote to this, which is also very Buddhist, is to ‘learn to
detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across the mind from within’. These
insights do flash into our mind, only we do not have the habit of noticing them, and they
offer the opportunity to discover our selves in their glow.

But perhaps there is another reason as well. Perhaps we turn from such understanding
because we are afraid of what our deepest understanding tells us: afraid of the challenge
it poses our habits, the thousand ways we have found to make our lives comfortable. And
perhaps we also sometimes have the same response to the Dharma itself, the Buddha’s
reminder to us of what we might be.

The Buddha’s teaching does not come down to concepts such as the eightfold path or the
four kinds of emptiness; it isn’t about stories or symbols or rituals or the other things we
associate with religion. Perhaps it is best to say that it comes down to an orientation. This
doesn’t mean becoming oriental, it means a direction we can take in our lives. Following
the Buddhist path means becoming more kind and more aware, but we can go further
than that. It means travelling more and more in the direction of truth, and away from
ignorance and concealment about the real nature of ourselves, our lives and our
connectedness with others. And it means travelling more and more in the direction of
freedom. So not only is the Buddha described as being awakened, wise and
compassionate, he is also described as being free, and the Dharma is the path of

Siddhartha’s Going Forth

But what are we freeing ourselves from, and what are we freeing ourselves for? An
incident from the life of the Buddha tells the story of the start of his journey to freedom,
when he was known as Prince Siddhartha. The well-known legend of the Buddha’s
upbringing describes how he was protected from ugliness and suffering, and surrounded
only by the young and beautiful. But his dream of pleasure was interrupted by what came
to be known as the Four Sights: travelling outside his palace he encountered an old
person, a sick person and a corpse, and he understood fully and finally that these were
parts of life. Maybe, we can imagine, he had seen such people before, but this time he
saw them afresh and realised that they challenged everything he held dear.

But there was a forth sight in addition to the old person, sick person and corpse.
Siddhartha also saw a wandering monk or sadhu, a yellow-robed spiritual seeker who had
left behind the worldly life. The sight of this person affected Siddhartha just as deeply as
the others and seemed to suggest a way forward. He would have known that in the forest
lived other monks, who devoted themselves to seeking the meaning of life through
meditation and philosophy. There were rumoured to be great masters who could dwell for
weeks in a blissful trance, or go for months without eating. Perhaps, he may have
wondered, he could find among them a teacher who would help him answer his
questions. One thing was for sure, a life in which one did not try to find a way to
overcome human suffering was not worth living. It was a lie or an evasion.

So it was, the legends tell us, that In the middle of the night Siddhartha quietly rose from
his bed, and the Palace was asleep as he stole through its noiseless corridors to where
Chanda, his charioteer, was waiting. They rode into the night, and even the hoof-beats of
their horses seemed muffled. On the brow of a hill they paused to look back on the
sleeping town while the night-sky glittered above them like a thousand gods offering
their blessings. At dawn they crossed the border to the neighbouring kingdom of
Magadha and rode on to the edge of the forest. Siddhartha drew his knife from its sheath
and knelt down as he cut away at his hair. It lay on the ground like the past he was
leaving behind.

This episode has become known as the Going Forth, and the image of leaving behind the
world and its pursuits has inspired Buddhism ever since. Siddhartha went forth from one
lifestyle into another, a life of renunciation and intense practice. We may not be in a
position to follow him all the way into the forest, but he was also leaving behind a set of
attitudes and attachments that fettered him spiritually. Whatever lifestyle we adopt, if we
are to follow the Buddha at all, we need to ask what holds us back, and how we can let

This connects with the question, what is freedom? America describes itself as the ‘land of
the free’ and the Declaration of Independence speaks of the ‘unalienable Rights’ to ‘Life,
Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ Leaving aside the equally thorny question of what
really makes us happy, this leaves us asking, what is liberty? The Buddha’s key insight
was that true freedom is not to be found in free speech, free trade or even free love, fine
though these may be. It is to be found within, in freedom from what the English poet
William Blake called ‘the mind-forged manacles’: the tendencies that cause us to
constrain and limit ourselves, and which lead to the world’s other oppressions. As the
Buddha endlessly repeated, ‘All things proceed from the mind’.

The Three Fetters

Following his Awakening the Buddha described the spiritual path in numerous ways and
one of these formulations ...

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