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Tales of a Free Spirit-45 Years of the Buddhas Life

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by Vajrasara

Tales of a Free Spirit – 45 Years of the Buddha’s Life
by Vajrasara

Audio available at: http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/talks/details?num=LOC2
Talk given at London Buddhist Centre, 2006

So the thing about those batteries is that you never know when they are going to give up
on you. So let’s hope I make it through to the end of this retreat. So I’ve got the
enjoyable task of telling you about 45 years of the Buddha’s life in about 45 minutes, and
before I even go any further I’d like anyone at the back to wave if you can’t hear me. The
exciting thing about this is, of course, I can choose exactly what I like because I
inevitably can’t cover everything. So I’ve just chosen my favorite bits and that suits me
fine.

So last night we heard from Maitreyabandhu a little bit – something anyway – about the
Enlightenment, about what happened to the Buddha under the Bodhi tree all those years
ago, and the ramifications of that. Now, rather than list one of the many lists that
Buddhism goes into – the teachings come in a range of lists of three, four, five, six and so
on – I thought I won’t go into that. I thought I’d focus on some of his encounters, the
manner of those encounters and some of the teachings that came out of the numerous
people he met during that time.

For a start, he carried on living very simply, he carried on sleeping outdoors under trees,
he travelled from village to village – always on foot – and he met a huge range of people.
Some of them were very interested in spiritual questions and some of them not at all. But,
before long, he had as his disciples kings, murderers (sometimes both), playboys,
lunatics, laborers: the whole gamut that was around in northern India the Buddha seemed
to encounter. And he seems to have had an incredible impact on people: it seems to have
been his being, as much as what he said, that affected people; his presence, his level of
consciousness, his kind of disarming compassion - even when people came to challenge
him or test him in verbal combat (which seemed to have happened a lot).

It is not, in fact, that he was always popular – he wasn’t – but he had an impact. And
partly anything which is unconventional is not going to be popular in all quarters.
Because what he was teaching was revolutionary and very uncompromising in some
respects. It challenged the customs of the day – it challenged caste, it challenged animal
sacrifice, and many of the other customs. And you could say, in a way, that Buddhism is
not for the conventional, even today – particularly today perhaps – because it is
challenging our conventions, our habits, our assumptions and asking us, in a way, to ditch
them if they prove limiting. He was offering a viable path, a path which is definitely
relevant today, but it was to everybody - to men, women, householders and full-timers.
And although the scriptures really emphasize homeless wanderers we know for sure that
a number of his lay disciples became enlightened, and that is very encouraging for those
of us who are not interested in a homeless or monastic life today.

There are many stories of the Buddha’s encounters and lots of them reveal his
compassion. One I thought I’d choose is an encounter he had with a man called Sunita.
And I think this shows not only his kindness but in a way an outrageous challenge to the
status quo. Sunita was an outcast – what was called an Untouchable in those days – and
what that meant was that his job, his lot in life, was to shovel shit, to do all the menial
tasks which no one else wanted to do and he had to make sure he did not “contaminate”
higher caste people, particularly holy men. If he saw one coming he would make himself
scarce. So, one day he sees the Buddha coming along the road, and the Buddha sees him.
So, Sunita scuttles into the next lane and the Buddha follows him. He nips down a side
street and the Buddha keeps on coming. He turns the next corner and the Buddha keeps
on following. And soon Sunita has nowhere else to hide. Apparently he flattens himself
against the wall and as the Buddha approaches he puts his hands together in respect. He’s
dismayed when the Buddha comes right up to him and says, “Friend, would you like to
give up this horrible life and follow me?” Sunita is dismayed, astonished and appalled
and says “Sir, no one has ever spoken to me in such a friendly way. If you’re happy to
have a dirty scavenger like me then I’ll gladly follow you.” It seems as simple as that.
The Buddha ordains him on the spot and says “Come brother.” (or something like that)
and there it is. He had no aspirations whatsoever to become spiritual and was probably
reeling in shock, but in a flash the Buddha spotted him, knew that he had a retched life
and just went for it, and knew that – like all beings – he had potential.

This exemplified his kindness as well as his daring, his audacity and it also gives a good
view of the breadth of the Buddha’s vision. It was truly egalitarian in that every being -
no matter what race, what gender, whatever - has that potential for enlightenment. And it
was very radical. Those of the higher castes, particularly the Brahmins at that time, were
outraged. They felt that spiritual matters were their preserve and didn’t like it at all. But
the Buddha was strongly against that. He said it kept people fixed and degraded people
and so he carried on ordaining Untouchables, ordaining all sorts of people that wouldn’t
have imagined that they would have spiritual potential.

But this was irksome to some Brahmins. So we have an example here of the Buddha on
his alms round – going out with his begging bowl – and he comes across a Brahmin land-
owner who scoffs at him and says, “Look, Gautama (Gautama was his family name), I
plough and sow, and having done so I eat. Now, you plough and sow and then you too
can eat.” And the Buddha replies, “Look Brahmin, I too plough and sow and then I eat.”
The Brahmin says, “Well, I don’t see your plough. I don’t see your oxen.” And the
Buddha says to him, “The seed I plant is faith, my harness is self-mastery, my plough is
wisdom, and its course is secured by conscience, the rope I firmly hold is mind, and my
goad is mindfulness. And, ever watchful of word and deed, I eat only when I need to. My
oxen are unfaltering effort, and this leads to the end of sorrow and regret. So this is my
plowing and its end is freedom.” The Brahmin is silenced by this, and in this way the
Buddha explains that while his life might look passive and dependent on others for his
food and so on, actually it demands continual work, continual inner work. Anyway, the
proud landowner was convinced and offered him food from his golden bowl.

I think this meeting is typical of a number that you read in the scriptures. It shows the
Buddha meeting like with like. Whatever comes towards him, he meets it but turns it
around. So he addresses people in the way that they are best able to hear, using farming
metaphors or whatever, as well as flexibility – it’s known as skilful means in the
Buddhist tradition. He taught people in their own language – literally and metaphorically
– he was very keen that his teaching was communicated in the language of the people,
not the elitist language that usually religious doctrines were taught in. He didn’t want to
exclude less educated folk. He also used similes and parables to illustrate his point and
very much timeless imagery, so it is still relevant today.

One story I like is of a monk called Yassa. And Yassa – we all may recognize ourselves
in Yassa (I certainly do) – was distracting himself with busy-ness. There wasn’t a great
deal to do as a monk, they only had something like four possessions, but nonetheless he
found his way to fiddle with them. He spent his time mending robes, running errands to
the village, fetching and carrying water, chatting with the other monks. Anything, in a
way, to avoid the challenging business of being aware of himself. However, the Buddha
was onto him. He draws a parallel between Yassa and a nearby hen. One of the hen’s
eggs has hatched but the other eight haven’t hatched and they are abandoned in the nest.
The hen, apparently, like Yassa, had wandered off to the village and left her nest. When
she returns from the village she starts pecking away at her eggs and there is not much
sign of life. The Buddha says to Yassa, “You’re like that hen. You want the result but you
don’t want to do what it takes to bring that result about. How are you going to manage if
you wander off to the village, you divide your attention, you don’t brood your eggs, you
neglect your meditation. How are you going to train your mind?” So, again and again, in
these simple ways he’s pointing out that actions have consequences, and I’m sure that
lots of us can relate to this kind of teaching. We want to train our minds, we want to
grow, we want to integrate, but we do not necessarily brood our eggs. We distract
ourselves with busy-ness. I know that in some moods, even the hoovering can seem a lot
more attractive than applying ourselves to meditation. So, Yassa and the eggs. Brood ...

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