Saturday, December 8, 2018

Be a Light

My first daughter was born at home and immediately after that miraculous event, while the mid-wives were attending to my wife, I took her in my arms, intoned a Buddhist chant and whispered in her ear these words from the Buddha:

“In this body is birth and death and the key to liberation from birth and death. Be a light unto yourself.“

Today is Buddha’s Enlightenment Day, the day Buddha arose from his meditation under the Bo Tree with the insight that would give birth to one of the world’s major religions. The insight itself defies language, but is described as an awakening, as a parting of the veils of ignorance, as a removal of the impediments that obscure our original, true, Buddha nature.

I liked this story enough to become a lifetime practitioner of Zen Buddhism, the active branch of the religion that is not content with worship, belief, mere rituals and rites, but seeks to recreate Buddha’s experience under the Bo Tree by an intentional, disciplined practice. The idea of being born with a pure, true Buddha nature that gets clouded over by our own ignorance was much more appealing to me than the idea of being born into Original Sin and being saved simply by believing in Jesus and giving lots of money to the church. And the idea of active practice and first-hand experience made much more sense than blind faith and belief in someone else’s story.
Zen is like the Orff of religion—you have learn by actively doing.

Buddhism is the only major religion without a god at the center. When the Buddha was teaching, someone asked:

“Are you a god?”
“Are you a spirit?”
“Are you a saint?”
“What are you then?”
“I am awake.”

“The Buddha” means “an awakened one” and it was the name Prince Siddartha took on after his enlightenment.

The idea that everyone equally is graced with Buddha nature was quite radical in the caste system of Hinduism that was prevalent when Siddartha was born. It implies a move towards social justice millennia before the Constitution. And the idea that all sentient beings share something of this nature was a radical vote for ecology and sustainability, humbling humans to a more co-participatory rank alongside the plants and animals. The monasteries themselves are places where traditionally the head Zen Master worked alongside the monks and all of them choosing a simple life quite different from the lavish jewels and large cathedrals and big money of say, the Catholic Church. Finally, Buddhism has never endorsed cajoling or forcing others to join in a ravaging, colonial kind of mission work based on subjugation and conquering (pay attention here, Christians and Muslims!). All of this and more made Buddhism an attractive place to park my own spiritual yearnings. And still does. Alongside jazz and Orff and just plain decent living.

But none of this is intended to cajole or convince you to join the team. And when it comes to the actual way human beings live who call themselves Buddhists, I can’t say the track record is that much better than any other religious group. Witness the Japanese invasions around World War II (Pearl Harbor was the day before Buddha’s Enlightenment Day!) or the Chinese decimation of the land, water and air. And even Zen Masters get caught in sex scandals or money issues.

But for those who feel exiled from that childhood wonder of their original nature and don’t feel at home with the other major religions, consider spending some time sitting on cushions. Read the story of a privileged Prince shielded from suffering from an over-protective father who then renounced it all, went to various extremes before settling on “the Middle Way,” and achieved an awakening from his own efforts and the grace of a Dharma truth looking for a voice in the world.

And now to go sit zazen. Happy Buddha’s Enlightenment Day!

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