In the middle of the night Siddhartha prepares to leave the palace. But as he passes his wife Yasodhara’s room and sees her sleeping figure, he is overcome by her beauty and his love for her. He can’t leave. He goes to her, without telling her of his resolve, and they make love, conceiving their only child. Yasodhara senses Siddhartha’s impending distance. “Lord, wherever you go, take me with you,” she pleads. “So be it,” he replies, “Wherever I go, I will take you.” By morning, he is gone.
From that night on Gautama’s spiritual quest is mirrored by the course of Yasodhara’s pregnancy; both go on for six years and culminate during the same fateful night. Both Gautama and Yasodhara, in their very different circumstances, practice austerities, eating only one sesame seed, one grain of rice, and one pulse pod a day. And for both the period of asceticism is grim and unsuccessful: Gautama nearly dies and Yasodhara almost loses the child. When Gautama accepts solid food again, Yasodhara does too, and the child is saved. Gautama sits under the Bo tree full of strength and determination; Yasodhara enters labor. Gautama is then tempted by Mara while Yasodhara, in the palace, receives a messenger from Mara who tells her that her husband has died, and she, overcome with grief again, almost loses the child. But at the moment when the former prince is about to enter enlightenment, Yasodhara hears the truth, recovers, and gives birth to their son, Rahula, at the eclipse of the moon.
—Adapted from John Strong’s “A Family Quest: The Buddha, Yasodhara and Rahula in the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya” in Sacred Biography in the Buddhist Traditions of South and Southeast Asia, Juliane Schober, ed.
Being human is a tough proposition. The world is wonderful, colorful and bright. But it is also overwhelming, and embedded within it, as the very essence of its beauty, is the seed of suffering. As the Dhammapada says, the flower is beautiful, but within the flower there is an arrow pointing right at us. In our experience of the path we find the world quite often too much for us: too distracting and powerfully seductive. It pulls us in and eventually pulls us down.
But to set the world aside isn’t the answer either. Even imagining somehow a Shangri-la where we can be truly quiet, peaceful and fulfilled (supported somehow by an inheritance), we will still have ourselves to contend with and all the worlds of our own minds. Wars, storms, disgust and rage will be with us, even if the world is not. And even assuming we could somehow subdue all of this and find contentment, I think we would soon discover that that contentment was shallow without some way to express our gratitude for this body and life. So we would be very soon turning toward the world again, the world as a sacred place, a field for the activity of our practice. And so we would, with a new sense of things, be confronted again with our human dilemma.
Let’s consider the world as sacred. Sacred means set apart. The sacred is the exclusive; its sacredness comes from what it excludes from itself and is manifested in its very difference. There’s a built-in difficulty with this idea, of course: the very exclusivity, which renders the sacred, in the end, violent. For it seems as if the sacred, in order to be the sacred, must scapegoat the profane, must, in fact, see to it that there is a profane in order to scapegoat it. The exclusivity of the sacred is its downfall.
But perhaps there is another dimension to the concept of the sacred. What is separate or exclusive is also particular and distinct. It has a strong integrity in and of itself. It is this thing, not some other thing. So perhaps the essence of sacredness need not be exclusivity but rather particularity. Sacred particularity implies a powerful sense of commitment to something very concrete and specific. It involves a certain sense of vowing, of letting go of things outside the vow, outside the particular, of giving ourselves completely to one thing.
In fact, through total devotion to the particular we come out into the open space of our living. When we walk down the corridor of the particularities of our life we come out finally into the wide field where we can meet everything. Powerful practitioners I have met over the years achieve union with the universal in just this way. These people, through total dedication to a particular thing throughout the course of a lifetime—whether that thing be a relationship, a skill or an art, a practice tradition, or perhaps, most radically, each and every moment of living—have been able somehow to transcend that particular thing. In other words, they’ve been able to include everything within it, acquiring in the process an ease and a graciousness that looks quite a bit like enlightenment.
A traditional Sanskrit Buddhist term that might be useful for extending our discussion here is tathata. It means “thus,” “just,” “merely” or “as it is” and indicates the real nature of things as they actually are, without additional projections, elaborations or improvements. Seeing the world just the way it is sounds like a good idea—we all aspire to truth rather than falsehood, to accuracy rather than fuzziness—but it is a radical idea that requires more of us than it seems to at first sight, because the world as we know it is nothing other than the world of our projections and confusions. The very idea of “myself” is the biggest projection of all, the screen beyond which I cannot see. Everything in my experience is colored by it; everything I cherish and desire is created by it.
And “things as they really are” is constantly passing away, coming and going, free from our desires. Things as they are, from a human perspective, require an acute appreciation of loss—total loss, loss of self and loss of world. This is what freedom means. This is the real shape of the sacredness of the world, the union we find within the particularity of each moment of our lives.
In other words, it is not a question of holding on to the world or transcending it. The real world is its own transcendence, and our dilemma is conceptual. It is language and thought that imprison us, not the world, not even our own desire. In order to be free, we need to be free in relation to this transcendent world, because there isn’t any other way. There isn’t anywhere else to go.
A monk once asked Yun Men, “When there’s no thought inside and no thing outside, what is it?” Yun Men replied, “Upside down!”
Our world is upside down. We long for peace outside of activity, but there isn’t anything outside of activity. We want to hold on to the world, but the whole world in its real form is nothing but loss, moment by moment. And there’s no hope for this. There’s only the appreciation of it for what it really is. With this appreciation we can once and for all respond to conditions as they arise. With this point of view the whole world and our particular place within it is the field for our practice.
How to practice then? Didn’t the Buddha, facing a choice, leave home, renounce the world and his family, and devote himself to a life of dedication to Dharma? And don’t we as practitioners face a similar choice?
The story of the Buddha’s renunciation comes to us through the Theravada canon, one of several versions of the canon that were handed down in the various schools that existed after the Buddha’s time. That this particular version of the story is the one that has been given to us in the West is simply a historical accident. It is not the “official” version, nor is it in any way the best or the truest version. It is simply the one we happen to have given our attention to over the years.
I’d like to discuss a different version of the renunciation story (condensed above), which exists in the canon of the Sarvastivada, another major early school. After the Buddha makes love to Yasodhara, conceiving their only child, the story proceeds remarkably and mythically along a dual track. All of the events of Buddha’s quest are matched exactly by the course of Yasodhara’s pregnancy, which, like Buddha’s journey, lasts for six years. In the Theravada version of the story the word rahula is etymologized as fetter, but in the Sarvastivada version it is said to derive from the word meaning “Moon God,” because the dual event of the Buddha’s enlightenment and Rahula’s birth takes place on the night of the eclipse of the moon.
This story, as I understand it, is about sacredness and particularity and the loss these entail. The Buddha does leave home and Yasodhara does stay. They give each other up, and each must pursue his or her own path with full devotion. As a result of this opting with full commitment to the path taken, fruition comes about: inner and outer birth ensue. But I think the story, read on a structural level, is not simply about, on one hand, the Buddha and his solitary heroic quest for enlightenment, and, on the other hand, the girl he leaves behind. Structurally, the story is clearly presented as a single narrative with two halves. The implication is that the enlightenment of the Buddha isn’t something that happens to him or is effected by him alone. Nothing in the way the story is told here privileges Siddhartha over Yasodhara. It’s quite clear that it is the whole situation—both the outer birth and the inner turning—that describes the fullness of the path. Leaving home and staying home, renouncing the world and accepting the world, are seen here as parts of a seamless whole. We can’t have it all. Our path is particular and, as such, always involves renunciation. In the story, the Buddha is a renunciate. But so is Yasodhara. The Buddha gives up the home life, but Yasodhara gives up the homeless life. Together, through loss of each other and devotion to the particularity of their own paths, they create the whole of enlightenment. Both appreciate the world as it really is.
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