The Buddha was born a prince in northern India about two and a half thousand years ago. Upset by the dark side of life — by old age, sickness, death — he quit his palaces to look for a solution to the problem. of suffering. After many years of searching without success, he finally sat down in meditation under a great peepul tree.
Suppose a man, wandering in a forest wilderness found an ancient path travelled by men of old, and he followed it and so rediscovered an ancient royal city where men of old had lived, with paths and groves and lakes, walled round and beautiful to see; so I too found the ancient path travelled by the Buddhas, the Fully Enlightened Ones of old, and following it came at last to the royal city of Nirvana…
What was this long-lost secret that the Buddha rediscovered? Well, he found that we all suffer because we’re deluded: our view of the world is out of true. Driven by the basic energy of elemental greed, we create a central reference point, the idea of an ‘I’ or a ‘Me’, a person with memories, relationships, a life history and so on. We then devote our lives frantically scheming to take care of its insatiable needs. We can see this any time by just stepping back and taking a look at what’s actually going on in our heads. ‘I must get that…‘ ‘Watch out for…‘ ‘Oh, if I don’t…‘ The same old roundabout spinning on and on ~ and almost always to the same self-centred tune…
This sense of ‘I’ and ‘Me’ does have its positive aspects. We need it to function in the everyday world. But at the same time it is the cause of all our suffering — and the world’s suffering too. To a Buddhist, the central question is then: ‘Is this all we are? For, if it is, there’s no escape from suffering; we’re locked into it forever.’
By exploring inwardly, through meditation, the Buddha found that there was more within than just the flotsam and jetsam of his own egotism. Like going down and down into a deep, dark lake. On the surface there was all agitation: perpetual worry and concern about ‘me’ and ‘mine’. But below there was stillness and peace, a vastness too that extended far beyond the confines of his own individuality to encompass everything that existed or would exist or could exist. Here was his true nature, an unshakable abiding of perfect bliss. Here too was freedom from suffering and death.
He called it Nirvana…
REFLECTION: Perhaps once or twice today we can let go of our worries and concerns. We can, if it helps, picture them as bits of rubbish that we’re chucking into a dustbin. Then, looking within the mind, we may for a moment catch a fleeting glimpse of the vastness and peace and freedom that is the basic ground of our being.
[Originally broadcast on Prayer for the Day on BBC Radio 4.]
Images with thanks: Birth, Old Age, Sickness, and Death from the Life of Buddha, Japan, early 15th century. © Metropolitan Museum of Art
Buddha Preaching the First Sermon at Sarnath. India (Bihar, probably Nalanda), 11th century © The Metropolitan Museum of Art