One of the most compelling things about Buddhism is that it is such a human religion. Despite some attempts to present the Buddha as somebody beyond ordinary humanity, the teachings of Zen repeatedly, ceaselessly, establish him as a human being, just like we are. If we appreciate the Buddha’s utter humanity, we can no longer give ourselves the excuse that we are unable to live up to his example. So from this perspective, I wanted to look at the pivotal moment in the Buddha’s journey in which he turns, finally, towards something deep within himself. What is it that guides him there? And, turning within, what is it that he sees?
In this passage from the sutras, the Buddha speaks of the point in his journey when he recognized that he had reached a dead end, and that in order to continue, he needed to fundamentally change something about how he was seeking. This happens at the end of six years of ascetic practices that brought him to the brink of death. To briefly recall: after he left his family and renounced his life as a warrior and a leader of his community, he sought the teachings of the yogic masters and perfected them. But he wasn’t satisfied, and for six grueling years he attempted to disembody himself, to conquer himself, to navigate a path away from pleasure and escape the reality of this life. He pushed it as far as anybody could. Earlier in this sutra, the Buddha recollects all the extreme practices he did that involved mortification of the flesh or entering into specific states of mind through painful struggle, and he recognizes that in spite of all those efforts, he really had nothing to show for it. Despite the sacrifices he had made, despite the pain he endured and the pain he caused his family, the question that he vowed to answer remained. This is when he asks, “Could there be another path to enlightenment?”
As he asks himself that question, a memory emerges that marks a fundamental change in his perspective of what it means to seek happiness, a shift of perspective that transforms his path and shapes his teaching. If you stand close enough to the statue of the Buddha on the altar, you see that shift reflected in his subtle smile. Or you can find it in the exuberant expression of Hotei throwing his head back in laughter. Or in Master Dogen when he speaks about zazen as the gate of ease and joy—not just zazen as a seated practice of meditation, but as a way of being in the world.