Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Wake Up

When asked if he was a saint, angel, or god, he responded simply, 'I am awake'.

The nature of his response is such that we are still trying to make sense of what he said, and that's the point.

The man in question was Siddhartha Guatama, formerly a minor princeling of the Sakumani clan, who lived around the turn of the 5th century B.C.E in Northern India or Nepal. His name means 'he who achieves his aims'. Shortly after birth, a soothsayer divine was summoned to divine the child's destiny. The signs were fortuitous, though the path unclear. Either he would be a chakravartin, which means universal king, or he would found a new religion.

A prince himself, the father desired his son become a conquering hero, and promptly lavished upon him all the trappings of royalty. Palaces were filled with feasts and dancing girls. A young woman was made wife; she bore him a son. The story of the Buddha's early life can be read against the backdrop of the Hindu caste system. He was born a kshatriya, among princes and warriors; his people looked askance at brahmins, the sages and priests. Becoming the chakravartin was the default option.

What does it mean that the Buddha woke up? To begin with, it means that father failed to entice son with pleasures or power. It means that the Buddha went on to found a new religion. And it especially means that the Buddha gained insight into the nature of human life: suffering. He saw suffering was suffering, and the joys and tangible pleasures of human life are also suffering, because they are fleeting.

One can, with a certain amount of ease, describe the Buddha's path to enlightenment. It reads like a dialectical ascent, in which every step negates or subsumes within itself previous steps. The narrative form of a life is easy for a reader to slip into. Herman Hesse's Siddhartha is an appropriate place for the English reader to start. The story of the Buddha is, or ought to be, the story of Everyman. And paradoxically, by being the story of Everyman, it is also only the Buddha's story, just as everyone has their own stories. He can show you the way and he can show you how to start; the end is yours to discover on your own.

Seated beneath the Bodhi Tree on the 49th consecutive day of meditation, the Buddha awakened to the discovery that there is no solid, substantial self, no immortal, deathless soul 'beneath' the bodies that we are. What this might mean is especially difficult to communicate. For example, it makes a certain amount of nonsense of the statement, 'I am awake', since there is, in the final assessment, no I in me that wakes up.

The implications one draws from what appears at first blush a simple logical contradiction the depends on the sorts of assumptions  brought to the table.

Through the 19th century and into the 20th century, Buddhism has earned a considerable amount of respect among American and European readers. The most well-known contemporary representative, the Dalai Lama, speaks to sold-out crowds wherever he goes. The absence of a personal God seems especially appealing to scientifically-minded folk: no apology need be offered for the apparently arbitrary actions of a divinity who reaches down into the flow of human history to tweak circumstances to the advantage of some and not others. So also is the apparent critique of an immortal soul, so integral to many Christian accounts of salvation. At the same time, accounts of the Buddha's former lives, and the many saints, angels, and gods that populate the Buddhist cosmos, are conveniently overlooked.

To post-Kantian readers, who are numbered in the above mentioned groups, Buddhism reads like a critique of Cartesian rationality, but in fact it is nothing of the sort. The Buddha's message is a critique of bodies that consume other bodies for the sake of securing for themselves perpetual and pleasurable existence. To check human desires, the Buddha discovered that one ought not fight with one's desires as if they were one's own. When the 'I' from the 'I want this' or 'I want that' is cut out of the equation, so also is the want for 'this' or 'that'. More and better food, bigger and grander houses, younger and looser sexual partners, those material things of the world that go beyond what I require to maintain my own existence: the futility of these the things is what the Buddha woke up to.

The Western readers, owing to a penchant for conceptual abstraction, have a difficult time understanding what is suggested. The tendency will be to fixate on some apparent logical contradiction, like the above statement about there being no I in me to wake up. The statement is meaningless apart from actually setting off down the Buddha's Middle Way, however, which directs persons neither to gorge themselves in physical pleasures nor deny themselves the basic necessities of life.

Armchair intellectuals and causal bloggers, like myself, cannot actually claim to 'understand' the Buddha's teachings. We draw a distinction between theory and practice, where one does not exist.

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