‘Buddha’ means ‘The Awakened One’, he who sees things as they really are, undistorted by delusion or fantasy. It’s the name we give to Siddhartha Gautama, a prince of ancient India who founded the religion of Buddhism. The following parable is attributed to him.
A man travelling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.
Two mice, one white and one black, little by little began to gnaw away at the vine root. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Clinging on to the vine with one hand, he reached out and plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!
From Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, by Paul Reps. (Penguin).
This reminds me of Dr Johnson’s grim pronouncement: ‘Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.’
The truth is we live our lives in a kind of waking dream, not really understanding ourselves, or where we’re going, or what it all means — just blown this way and that, like leaves in the wind, by every chance meeting or event, by every vagrant emotion, mood, impulse that comes along. It needs some vital shock, like a stark confrontation with death, to jerk us awake for a moment. Then we really see the world with unjaded eyes. And how beautiful it looks — as fresh and new as on the first morning of creation! A true miracle. And the real issues of life at the same time jump up into hard-edged focus: ‘Who are we?’; ‘What is the proper way to live?’
People who have been woken up in this way often report that they suddenly see the futility of merely living for oneself. To do something for the general good seems far more important. And the great issue of what lies beyond death also has to be addressed squarely . . .
The Buddha was a man who discovered practical methods that enabled him to become permanently awake — hence his name. We too can follow the trail that he blazed. One method is to cultivate the practice of awareness, of just observing ourselves and the world as they are, without judgement, without trying to change anything.
REFLECTION: Perhaps we can try to remember to wake up at least once sometime today. To wake up means to be aware of ourselves, of the simple but often overlooked fact that we are here, now. We can then go on to take a dispassionate two-way look: firstly, at ourselves, and, secondly, at the world. As they say in the Vodka ads: ‘The effect may be startling.’
[Originally broadcast on Prayer for the Day on BBC Radio 4.]
First published in the June 1989 Buddhism Now.