24 June, 2010

The Buddha Touches The Ground

When Siddhartha sat under the Bodhi tree, committing himself to stay there until he became enlightened, his demons licked their lips. In the traditional Buddhist story of the enlightenment, it is Mara – the embodiment of the devil – who made it his (her?) job to test the aspirant’s quest, to find out how real his sincerity was. Today we may not see this figure as an external reality but as an internal process – reflecting the doubts, fears and insecurities that we experience in our consciousness. In any event, as the story goes, Mara laughed at the sage, poured scorn on his efforts, tempted him with power, irritated and kicked him, seduced and distracted him, and offered him celebrity status. Siddartha sat firm – after all, he’d been through most of these scenarios during his years as a wandering monk and an ascetic. But then Mara dug into Siddartha’s self-belief. What makes you think you are worthy enough? You who have left your wife and abandoned your son, distressed your parents and rejected your ancestors, you who never gave alms and couldn’t even last as a yogi - what on earth makes you so special? Whoever we are, knowing ourselves as we do, it can be difficult to assert our worth. So what did Siddartha do? He didn’t compete or fight back. Instead, he saw the taunts and his own misgivings for what they are, accepting totally his own failings and weaknesses. As well as his strengths. To do this he had to detach from the content of all this doubt and uncertainty and rise above it. In other words, he began to meditate. In this way, when he was not caught up in his internal dramas, he found space and openness. As the scriptures say, he became ‘cool’. And, realizing that words would not do justice to this insight, he reached down with his right hand and touched the ground. Just touched the ground with his fingers. A gesture of connectedness, of belonging, of balance – beyond words, beyond ideas, beyond defending himself or trumpeting his greatness. Just touching the ground. At that point, the scriptures tell us, the earth moved and tilted, Mara fled with his troops and Siddhartha became the Buddha, the awakened one. It was then that the Buddha gave his famous smile – the smile of confidence, of relief and fulfilment, of love. That is what our tradition is built on - a smile and a touch.

This story lies behind the famous statue in which the Buddha’s left hand is in his lap in meditation while his right hand touches the earth. In the zendo at Poplar Grove that is the statue in the niche above the candles. And, when we see that figure smiling, meditating and touching the ground, it reminds us that our true worth lies in our sense of belonging. When we experience that, insults will not hurt us, nor sticks and stones, not even our recurring and crippling self-doubt. And when these thoughts pop up again (as they will), our practice is not to defend, resist, counter-attack or demean our accuser but to see what is happening and rise above it - a buddha-balloon – to the level where neither blame nor praise can unbalance us. We see the thoughts and emotions for what they are and let them be. From there the sky is clear. We are no longer locked into the dramas of our personality and self-image. In that moment, we are free to express our belonging to the undefinable flow of life and death. We may lift our face to the wind. We may smile. We may touch the earth. The soil is brown.