What the life of the Buddha tells us about our own path to freedom

As the story is told, the Buddha – Siddhartha as he was then, had a particular and extreme upbringing. What can we learn from comparing his life with our own?

Apparently he was carefully protected from the realities of human existence, being kept entertained within the palace grounds (his father being “king” of the region), given every pleasure and shielded from knowledge of all suffering. When he finally pleaded to take a tour outside, all efforts were made to present for him a picture of happiness and prosperity. However when this failed, and he saw someone suffering as a result of old age, someone sick, and one who had died, it therefore made a deep impression upon him.

We tend to take our life as being normal, but in the wider context of human experience in all parts of the world and through all ages of history, we are quite exceptional. We enjoy tremendous luxury and leisure, and shield ourselves from life’s inconvenient truths – witness our creation of special places for caring for our infirm aged, for those with long-term mental and physical conditions, for the dying, and the way we hide death from general view.

hardened to violence and suffering

What we do have that Siddhartha didn’t is second-hand reports of suffering – via newspapers, radio and television news, and the internet. I wonder if the effect of this hasn’t been merely to harden us to this distant, removed suffering. We hear so much – and can do so little – that we learn to restrain our natural compassionate response. We may even get help in this strategy from our use of fantasies – films, books and plays, where we are exposed to suffering – even gruesome violence, but it resolves into a good or meaningful ending – and it was only fantasy, so we walk away cleansed, our compassionate feelings resolved. In the process, of course, we are hardened to the violence and suffering we have watched so often.

For the Buddha-to-be, no such desensitisation prepared him for the sights he witnessed. His whole life was turned on its head by them – what was the point of such a charmed existence if he too was destined for sickness, ageing, and death? His palace life now seemed a golden cage, no difficult decision to renounce it was needed, he was clearly living a lie.

And for us? We have a far more pervasive and manipulative force than Siddhartha’s father, tempting us to ignore the pointlessness of a self-satisfying existence: we have consumerism. Our whole economic system is founded upon capitalism underpinning a consumer lifestyle. All our communication systems are used for advertising – to keep us “grabbing for treats on the way to the gallows”, as I have previously put it. So we could miss the transformation that affected the Buddha-to-be. Renunciation of this aim in life would take a new realisation for us, a conscious decision.

the deception of a life seeking pleasure and avoiding pain

What could Siddhartha do in response to his profound discontent? His life story tells us that he subsequently saw a holy man, a wandering seeker — he learned that others had abandoned the deception of a life seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, in order to search for what was true. This was the catalyst he needed: his compassion had until then met – like ours – with the impossibility of doing anything extensive enough to be of any use – now it turned to determination. Determination to find the truth, the rightness, which lay behind the wrongness which suffering intrinsically felt to be.

So he abandoned the project of living for pleasure, not at first trying the opposite approach, but recognising the centrality of the mind in our dissatisfaction – like other seekers of his time he learned meditation practices to still the troubled mind. His determination served him well (a lesson for us), he quickly attained the refined mental states which his teachers had accomplished. And this worked… as long as he maintained that state. But on leaving the meditative tranquillity, the problem returned. By effort one could escape for oneself, but it was only temporary – really another form of trying to avoid pain and achieve pleasure. Is this a conscious or unconscious motivation of ours when we wish to meditate? We should check, and note Siddhartha’s conclusion.

determination applied to a wrong approach

Another tactic which some of his fellow seekers would try was asceticism: if materialism and seeking bodily comfort was useless, try anti-materialism. Instead of aiming to pacify our incessant urge to satisfaction by seeking pleasure, try to deaden this urge by pitting it against physical privations. He would approach the problem through the body and sensations. The story has it that he gave this a thoroughly good trial, nearly killing himself in the process. Determination applied to a wrong approach can take you a long way down a cul-de-sac, but it did give him great certainty that this way too would not succeed.

Now he had two empirical conclusions: any lasting remedy had to work with an active mind, not one selfishly blissed out, and it needed to be a middle way between materialism and asceticism – neither extreme was relevant to his search.

If manipulating the external world was no help, and manipulating internal mental states was no better, what did this tell him? He had explored suffering from both a physical and a mental perspective – neither could overcome the propensity to suffer, the ‘dukkha’ he had clearly identified as being the problem. Dukkha continued to arise, despite mental and physical attempts to overpower it – but if it kept arising, it must have a continuing cause. If he could understand the cause and remove that, he would have succeeded. So it was a matter of understanding suffering, not of manipulating anything to appease it.

Did he make a transformative turn-around in his thinking at this point? If dukkha permeated all his experiences of mental and physical phenomena, perhaps he should examine, not the phenomena, but the one who seemed to be experiencing them. What was the sense of self that remained unsatisfied whatever it experienced?

the only guide he could rely upon

And what could he trust as evidence, in investigating where others had yet to penetrate? Certainly not the thinking of his time, the given knowledge that was available. The only guide he could rely upon was his own direct experience. He would seek a knowledge based solely upon this – a revolution in itself, and a valuable indication to us of where to focus our attention.

He realised that the sense of wrongness which we experience as suffering was an intuitive guide to answering his search. It tells us we are going against truth, the basic truth of our nature, and that finding this truth for ourselves could be inherently liberating. He became inspired by truth itself, and he set out to meditate with the intention to discover it for himself. This was the origin of what we know as vipashyana, insight through meditation.

And how did he meditate? He had the strength of motivation to avoid distraction – even to avoid mental temptations (symbolised by Mara), he had the intention to understand the underlying misconceptions by which we create our sufferings. And he had another guide, which would prevent him being drawn into the misconceived effort of ‘doing something’ to attain peace: he remembered an occasion in childhood when the simplicity of natural peace of mind had come upon him under a rose-apple tree. He knew that effortless settling of the mind was possible, and that in this clarity lay his hope for realising the truth.

pointers for our own liberation

From his story we can take a number of pointers for our own liberation. Firstly, his mission was to understand suffering – from its grossest manifestations to the most subtle, hence the use of the word dukkha. We must take suffering seriously, not hiding from it but turning our attention towards it in order to understand what is going on within ourselves — because it is about ourselves, not an aberration in the external world which needs correcting. We need to investigate suffering and to include in this the one who seems to suffer.

We must look within for answers, and meditation is our method – but not a meditation whose end goal is stopping thoughts and creating an artificial state of peace in our minds. Our meditation must open us to an understanding which will liberate us from our self-induced captivity beyond the meditation period, not a temporary seductive escape. We need to question our way of interpreting our experience, to open to insight – vipashyana, from a stable basis of calm clarity – shamatha.

This tells us that it is not a matter of believing anything, any doctrine passed down to us: it is necessary to discover for ourselves where beliefs are misleading us, and then to trust the truth we find. It is this truth that will set us free, but not as second-hand information. We need to know experientially – our direct experience is what we can trust to guide us, what we can interrogate for answers, what will ultimately transform our vision. We rely on our heart, our inherent sense of the wrongness of suffering and the rightness of the truth we discover.

The Buddha’s use of effort is also instructive. He began with great determination, the avenues he tried he tested thoroughly, gaining certainty from his experiences. He did not stint in effort to realise his clear intention… but finally he needed to relax and allow his intention to carry him through in a natural unforced way, to let the truth speak to him.

His final advice to his disciples was to “work out your own salvation with great diligence”, and the account of his life leading to his enlightenment gives us plenty of clues how to approach this.

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