In Buddha's footsteps: My take on the meaning of Buddha’s life story
I'm going to tell a story, my personal take on the life story of Buddha. It does not follow the way the story is usually told, so it might seem irreverent to some people. The cartoonish simplification of my narrative is not meant to be irreverent, but to highlight the archetypal quality of the story and its subjective resonance in me.
So, once upon a time, there was this young prince. His father loved him so much that he wanted to spare him the unhappiness of life. And, because he was a powerful king, he was able to do so. However, despite this (or because of this), our hero grew up with the vague sense that something was not right in his life. Other kings have been known to offer their kingdom for a horse – – being alive is more important than being a king. And so, as a young man, our hero left the kingdom, his family, his wife and young child, all the trappings of happiness. One could say he left all of this behind because he had a sense that there is more to life than this kind of happiness. Another way to say it is that he didn't feel understood by the people he was living with, and he set out to seek kindred spirits.
In postwar Paris, he might have flirted with existentialism. In his time and place, the people who dealt with this type of issue where the ascetics. Unlike the café-terrace philosophers, the ascetics did not focus on talking, but on practices that aimed to achieve a higher degree of harmony with life. Our hero enthusiastically followed their example.
Then, at some point, something clicked for him. Newton is said to have found his big insight when an apple fell on his head. Who knows what fell on Buddha's head from the Bodhi Tree? The point is that this type of moment is just a catalyst, a moment when one is able to see all the experiences of the past in a new perspective that gives them meaning.
And so it came to be that Buddha realized that his life had been like a pendulum. In the first phase, he had been focused on attaining happiness, or contentment in life, by eliminating any possible source of unhappiness. Of course, that was an impossible task and therefore fundamentally unsatisfying for anybody who was not completely mindless. In the second phase of his life, the pendulum swung the other way, and he was focused on depriving himself of all the traditional trappings of happiness. Which, he came to see, was just another form of denial. He had this insight: A pendulum is in constant movement, but it goes nowhere. To actually move, you need to break away from the pendulum.
You might ask: Didn't he feel terrible about all the time he had wasted, in the first as well as the second phase of his life? The strength of the story as an archetype is that he did actually waste a lot of time, because it is impossible to get to where he did without the experience that accrues from seemingly false starts. So the wasted time is not wasted. Nevertheless, it is a heavy cost. So the archetype of Buddha is the opposite of a fairytale, in which great gains can simply be bestowed to you without cost.
In the first part of his life, he was living the life that the vast majority of us can only aspire to - - those of us who are not the children of an all-powerful king. We never really have a chance to realize how having all the trappings of happiness might not be enough to give us a deep sense of satisfaction in life, because we don't have them. Or we are afraid that, in dismissing such things, we might essentially be calling sour grapes the grapes that we cannot have.
Hence the way the story works for me at an archetypal level: Imagine that having what you want is not an issue. Let yourself imagine you can have all that you want, and you will realize that those conventional trappings of happiness are not nearly enough. You will realize that you want something else that is more important than that.
What then about the second part, the ascetic part of his life? All this voluntary deprivation might feel like an utter waste, So unnecessary in light of his newfound wisdom. However, there is another way to look at it: It was the way through which he needed to go in order to find this wisdom… just like Columbus who discovered America while he was seeking India. Would Columbus have undertaken such a trip in order to find a primitive land on the other side of the Atlantic? Or would his backers have invested in such a venture if they knew the immediate outcome of it?
Our hero did not find what he had hoped to find when he embarked upon the adventure of asceticism. But he found something else: In the process, he developed his ability to develop a ‘bigger container’, a greater ability to withstand the frustrations and anxieties of contemplating the difficulties of the human condition. After the fact, he realized that the point of what he had been doing was not the deprivations for the sake of deprivation. It was the cultivation of his ability to face difficult things without a flight into denial and mindlessness.
Nevertheless, all this wisdom came at a heavy cost. This archetype is not about sugarcoating things: Life is suffering. You can't escape that. So the real question is: Would you rather have your suffering while living mindlessly? Or encounter suffering in the pursuit of wisdom, meaning, and a deeper sense of contentment?
In any case, what happened is: After enlightenment, Buddha got off his butt. He went back into the world, looking for kindred spirits that he could actually connect with. He realized how much he needed a sangha, a congregation of kindred spirits. But there was none, and so he went about to create one.
As we are looking back at the story from the future of the time when it happened, we tend to view it through the prism of other myths. It is tempting to see Buddha as a compassionate Savior who shared with us his wisdom for our enlightenment.
Now, of course, Buddha was kind and compassionate. But not in the way that somebody who has everything gives to people who have nothing. The point of this story is that, through his own suffering, Buddha could empathize with others. Even more to the point: Buddha's compassion was also self-compassion: He knew how much he needed the sangha.
In this story, Buddha's awakening came from the deep realization that only by connecting together do we have a chance to alleviate the sufferings of the human condition. The self-compassion part was that, in assembling a sangha, he was actually finding a way to address his own needs. Now, of course, the beauty of this type of situation is that it transcends the absurdities of dualism: It's not about selfishness vs altruism. It is about finding the sweet spot where self-interest coincides with a common interest.
And so, as we now follow into Buddha’s footsteps, we realize we need to create around ourselves the communities that sustain us while we sustain them. And we are each at the center of our web of communities.