Friday, April 5, 2019

Read All About It

I was in a grocery store recently, and a mother was pushing a shopping cart with a young girl of maybe two years old in the seat. The baby was sobbing, and the mother tried to console her with, “Yes, yes, I know. Life is so hard, it’s so hard” while stroking the little girl’s hair. The baby girl just learned the First Noble Truth from her mother in the frozen food aisle. Suddenly, there it was: Her Buddha Nature shining through, a natural Bodhisattva on display for all to see in that one perfect moment. I don’t feel the lesson of her teaching suffered because I don’t know her name, or where her family is from, and what socioeconomic status she has. It was just right there, right then, when the truth was revealed. I’m honored to have been able to witness it. Simple, with no personality or personal back story needed; the baby cries, so the mother comforts the baby. It was obvious what needed to be done, and her words and actions saved all beings from suffering right there and right then.

So why do we have this urge to turn the Dharma Teachings, or more accurately the Dharma Teacher into a celebrity? Does the Dharma change any if young Gautama didn’t really come from his mother’s side, or if he didn’t sit under the rose-apple tree? Does it matter whether Sujita gave him a bowl of porridge? Does it even really matter whether Gautama sat under a tree and then stood up the Buddha? Does any of that actually change the Dharma? The teaching of the Middle Path doesn’t need Gautama to come from a wealthy household any more than it needs him to have gone through the ascetic phase, it’s a convenient expedient that he did. The Dharma is the Dharma; the Middle Path is the Middle Path, with no need for embellishment, justification, or validation.

The Sutras themselves don’t spend much time on “The Buddha,” as a personality and as a spiritual superstar of some sort. It was generally pretty ordinary things he did. The Diamond Sutra starts with him going out and getting food, coming back to eat it, and putting away his bowl, just like we do. It’s not exactly the opening of Ulysses. But people like stories. We love stories about each other, we love stories about other people, be they celebrity, a mutual friend, and even a mutual enemy. Possibly the stories we love the most are ourselves, especially when we’re the superstar, when we’re the hero, or at least someone very special. And if we aren’t the special subject of a super story, we want someone else to be, even to the point of voyeurism. Consequently, we love stories about the Buddha as a personality, rather than just a person who gave us Great Teachings.

Among the Gossip Column subjects that are often discussed are, “Was the Buddha a misogynist because he had to be convinced that women should be allowed into the Sangha as men were?” “Did he really deliver the Mahayana Sutras, and are Mahayana Sutras are real or fake and were they composed in China or India, and is the Pali Canon real, and what’s a vestige of Indian culture and mores of the Buddha’s time, or later?” “Did the Buddha and the Sangha eat meat?” “Did he then later decide that vegetarianism was the Way, remembering when he sat under the rose apple tree and felt compassion for all the insects who were being disturbed by the plowing?” “Was the meat he ate at his last meal pork, or was it food they served to pigs? Was he poisoned intentionally, or was it just spoiled?”

Other than how any of these questions are mentioned or answered within the Sutras, does conjecture about any of these subjects have any bearing on the Teachings, or the Dharma? Granted, the questions don’t descend into Gautama’s favorite color before and after Awakening, but on the whole, they sometimes aren’t much above it either. Those incidentals are expedients, they could appear as a setup one way in one Sutra, and in a different way in a different Sutra, with both setups leading to the same teaching. If the Buddha, at that moment of giving the sermon, decided that “Call me Ahab” was the appropriate way to open the Avatamsaka Sutra, then so be it. It was skillful at that moment; he might have opened it up with “Once upon a time” in a different setting, preceded by the requisite “Thus have I heard,” to open.

What little we know about the Buddha as a personality is largely irrelevant. In fact, if what we now refer to as “The Buddha” was a composite of numerous people, or seven previous Buddhas plus Shakyamuni doesn’t really matter. The person or persons who taught the Dharma are still marked with the Three Dharma Seals—no inherent self, impermanence, and at least in the beginning, dissatisfaction. But the Dharma is just the Dharma, the Great Way is the Great Way. Not green or yellow, not high or low, and likewise not-not green or yellow, and not-not high or low. If we look through history, we can see that many others have effectively and truly taught the Dharma, from Nagarjuna to Mangong to a mother on a Sunday morning near the frozen food aisle. We wouldn’t start a cult of personality around a mother for doing what a mother does, and it’s unlikely that the Buddha would have wanted one just for doing what a Buddha does.