29 October 2008

Siddhartha - Gautama - Buddha

The other day I heard an interview with Deepak Chopra about his recent book Buddha: A Story of Enlightenment. In the end he piqued my curiosity enough for me to read the book, but maybe not for the right reason. Describing Buddhism, he said that it is a secular spirituality, not a religion in the Judeo-Christian sense. While it is true that Buddhism stands apart from the Westernized faith traditions in several fundamental ways, it horrified me to qualify it as secular spirituality. Now that I have read Mr. Chopra's book, and now that I have reread Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse and looked into the matter at least enough to understand what that statement could mean, I'd like to share my conclusions in hopes that this exercise will help those thoughts to continue evolving.

Both books repeatedly mention the "gods" in a way that we today speak of luck as that which helps you do something surprisingly effective. Both books make it clear that at the time it was common belief that people could become gods through an ascetic and holy life. In the same way, both speak of demons as the opposite force, and Mr. Chopra's book personifies a demon as one of the main characters who eventually provokes the final battle that leads Gautama to enlightenment. If this understanding of gods and demons is historically accurate, then Buddha would logically avoid confusing people further by centering his teachings on an Absolute, or God as we understand the concept. His focus on right view, aim, speech, action, living, effort, mindfulness and contemplation were surely the proper medicine that provoked the spiritual and material transformation necessary at that moment in time.

"The following is the Buddha's description of [the Absolute] in the famous Udana passage in the Khuddaka Nikaya: 'There is, O monks, an Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unformed. Were there not, O monks, this Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unformed, there would be no escape from the world of the born, originated, created, formed. Since, O monks, there is an Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unformed, therefore is there an escape from the born, originated, created, formed. What is dependent, that also moves; what is independent does not move' (Udana 8:3). Nagarjuna, the founder of the Madhyamika school of Buddhism, argues from this passage that without the acceptance of an Ultimate Reality (Paramartha) there can be no deliverance (nirvana) (Madhyamika Karikas, cited in Murti 235)."

If you think about it, no Founder of any religion has ever encouraged his followers to dwell on the concept of God beyond basic concepts of uniqueness and certain qualities that God embodies.
"Baha'u'llah similarly speaks of an entity, an Unknowable Essence, of which nothing can be predicated: 'To every discerning and illumined heart it is evident that God, the unknowable Essence, the divine Being, is immensely exalted beyond every human attribute, such as corporeal existence, ascent and descent, egress and regress . . . He standeth exalted beyond and above all separation and union, all proximity and remoteness. No sign can indicate His presence or His absence' (KI 98). It is simply not spiritually profitable to spend too much time trying to gain further comprehension of God's essence.

If we qualified Islam, Christianity or the Baha'i Faith as secular spirituality, we would surely rob each of them of their essence. So, why should Buddhism be any different? It is saddening that Buddhism seems to have gained much popularity over the past few decades because of this fundamental misunderstanding of Buddha's message.

Another key concept in both books, although more implicit than explicit, is that of reincarnation. Contemplating this has led me to conclude that reincarnation exists in the story of the Buddha, which especially as presented by Mr. Chopra, is the story of each and every human being. He grows up as Siddhartha and upon maturing beyond that role, transforms into Gautama in search of true meaning. This search leads him to again transform, this time into the Buddha when he discovers the reality behind suffering, time and all of creation. This enlightened state provides an unimaginably powerful vehicle for him to generate the same transformational process in others.

In a very real sense, Siddhartha died in order for Gautama to be born and Buddha was born from Gautama's ashes. Thus the same fundamental person was reincarnated twice in order to escape the wheel of suffering. All true change of the order presented in the movement from Siddhartha to Buddha implies death as well as birth. Embracing both as a single forward flowing journey opens us to constant evolution, a maturation process that can eventually induce enlightenment.

Moving beyond the illusion of duality is the single most important concept explored in both books, and they both do it brilliantly. In Mr. Chopra's rendition, Buddha becomes the elements around him, perceives the innermost sensations of others and is able to touch and heal them. In Mr. Hesse's rendition, this vision is personified in the river by which Siddhartha makes his final home. "He saw that the water continually flowed and flowed and yet it was always there; it was always the same and yet every moment it was new. Who could understand, conceive this? He did not understand it; he was only aware of a dim suspicion, a faint memory, divine voices."

Visudeva, Siddhartha's greatest teacher explains that "the river knows everything; one can learn everything from it." On this occasion, Siddhartha learned "that it is good to strive downwards, to sink, to seek depths." He also grows to learn that the present only exists for the river, "not the shadow of the past, nor the shadow of the future." Thus, "Siddhartha the boy, Siddhartha the mature man and Siddhartha the old man, were only separated by shadows, not through reality." Which also clearly implies that all sorrow, self-torment, fear, difficulties and evil happen in time and are thus conquered as soon as time is dispelled.

The river has many voices, in fact the voice of all living creatures are in its voice, as all living creatures come to the river for both physical and spiritual nourishment. This nourishment becomes those creatures, and their voice and their life and death.

"Siddhartha saw the river hasten, made up of himself and his relatives and all the people he had ever seen. All the waves and water hastened, suffering, towards goals, many goals, to the waterfall, to the sea, to the current, to the ocean and all goals were reached and each one was succeeded by another. The water changed to vapor and rose, became rain and came down again, became spring, brook and river, changed anew, flowed anew."

"Siddhartha listened. He was now listening intently, completely absorbed, quite empty, taking in everything. ... He had often heard all of this before, all these numerous voices in the river, but today they sounded different. He could no longer distinguish the different voices - the merry voice from the weeping voice, the childish voice from the manly voice. They all belonged to each other: the lament of those who yearn, the laughter of the wise, the cry of indignation and the groan of the dying. They were all interwoven and interlocked, entwined in a thousand ways. And all the voices, all the goals, all the yearnings, all the sorrows, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world. All of them together was the stream of events, the music of life. When Siddhartha listened attentively to this river, to this song of a thousand voices; when he did not listen to the sorrow or laughter, when he did not bind his soul to any one particular voice and absorb it in his Self, but heard them all, the whole, the unity; then the great sound of a thousand voices consisted of one word: Om - perfection."

This poetic description of the river, and the transformation into enlightenment resonates deep within me. I have felt this flow not in a river as the rivers near here don't flow too well, but in compost, of all places! The life-decay-life process that eventually becomes the source of nourishment as healthy, teeming, fertile soil attracts me like a magnet. All of our mineral, plant, animal and human ancestors are there, present, becoming nourishment. I have always felt that it is a terrible injustice to throw away kitchen waste because it interrupts this life-giving process. I tend to this process in my house, and I sit and listen to it, and watch it and work with it just to learn its lessons in my effort to become spiritual nourishment for others. Just as the river, humus carries a wisdom far beyond my current grasp.

So, beyond highly recommending both of the books under review, I hope that reading them leads the reader to such contemplation of our potential as spiritual beings as I have been provoked to undertake.

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