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Gathering Together the Three Levels of Truth

Ajahn Amaro

From my experience, I see three levels of truth that can be found in all spiritual traditions. The first is the level of history or "what actually happened." The second is the level of myth. The third is how the first two layers map on to our own psyche and experience. These three are interwoven in all religions.

Using the example of the Christian or Hebrew Bible, one can see that for the past 150 years, academics have been going through the text questioning its authenticity and validity. This is a bit like a little kid dissecting a slug to see how it works and then becoming upset that the slug can no longer move around or eat lettuce. The dissection of religion takes away its true meaning. Does Cinderella become a useless story because there might not have been an actual young woman named Cinderella? No. It's a great story! And why do we keep telling it? Because it is useful. Any of the thousands and thousands of tales repeated around living rooms and camp fires are told because they are good stories. They convey meaning that is useful to us.

Among these is the story of the Buddha's life. About 2,500 years ago in a Nepalese kingdom, a male child was born and for various reasons left the life of privilege and comfort in a royal household to become a wandering mendicant.

Somewhere along the line, he had a profound experience of insight and then proceeded for the rest of his life to wander as a yogi living on whatever was offered from the benevolence of the local people. In exchange, he would teach those who invited him to share what he had to say. After eighty years, he passed away, having founded a religious order of both women and men. Most historians would agree that something like this happened.

On the mythological level, events happened in a much more glorious and miraculous way. The Buddha's birth on the full moon of May occurred in an environment of earthquakes, rainbows and celestial music. His mother gave birth to him standing up. He walked and talked as soon as he was born. His birth had been predicted to be that of an amazing person: either a world conqueror or the greatest sage to walk the planet. Since his father, the king, wanted his son to end up as a world conqueror, he made sure to keep out of sight anything that would cause his child to incline towards the religious life. The old, sick and deceased were hidden from him. Of course, the prince eventually left the palace and saw these forbidden sights, along with that of a wandering mendicant showing him the path he would soon embark upon himself.

There are many wonderful and marvelous events in the Buddha's historical and mythological lives. But the Buddha himself said that the most wonderful and marvelous quality was that when a feeling arises in the mind of the Tathagata, he knows this is a feeling arising. When a feeling abides in the mind of the Tathagata, he knows this is a feeling abiding. When a feeling fades away in the mind of the Tathagata, he knows this is a feeling fading away. So too with thoughts and perceptions.

So why then are the Buddha's birth, death and enlightenment brought together on one day? My own theory is that this points to the very practice of meditation itself for perhaps there is something in our experience of the moment that gathers together in a similar way, that follows the same pattern on an internal and much-diminished scale. For example, we notice a sensation in our body: our knee starts to ache. This is equivalent to "the life of the Bodhisattva" before the enlightenment: a sensation arises; it is born. There is a bit of happiness and a bit of pain. Then the pain in our knee no longer comes and goes but begins to dominate our perceptions -- "This hurts" -- and we struggle with it. This is comparable to the Buddha becoming dissatisfied with life in the palace: it is tedious, boring and burdensome. Perhaps then we remember some spiritual instruction. In the life of the Buddha, this is the ripening of spiritual virtues, or paramitas.When he saw sickness, old age and death, followed by the religious seeker, those virtues ripened, and he said, "Ah ha, that's the way!" In our own microcosm, we remember that we are supposed to be paying attention to the pain in our knee, not just sitting there wrestling with it, hating it, fearing it, resenting it. Perhaps we have imagined it is bone cancer or a ripped cartilage. "Wait a minute," we think. " I should be working with this instead of getting carried away!" So that's the Buddha waking up to the problem of pain and seeking to do something about it.

"All right," we may say, "this is a pain in my leg. I should get rid of the pain by suppressing it and paying attention to the breath instead." This is what the Buddha did in the beginning. He used his will to drive out all that was unwanted in his mind, such as fear, thoughts and emotions. Six years of suppression left the Buddha in a barren, intense and collapsed state. Then in our meditation we remember the Middle Way. Suppression is motivated by fear and hatred -- the thought " I want to get rid of it." Instead, we should make friends with the pain. It is just a feeling. All feelings arise and pass away. Just relax. This is the moment of "enlightenment." The heart releases. The feeling of pain is still there, but we let go of the tension around it, let go of the fear, let go of negotiating. It just is what it is. In that moment we share the life of the Buddha. The feeling in the leg may persist -- it may get a bit stronger, disappear, come back, change and move around -- but it's no longer a problem.

Eventually the pain goes away or the bell rings for the end of the meditation. This is the "Parinibbana," the final Nibbana, the passing of the Buddha. The object disappears. Even with just a thought or a sound, there is a natural quality of pure bliss with its cessation.When the chirping of birds or the hum of the refrigerator stops, there is a feeling of relief. This is a micro- or nano-parinibbana. When the condition ceases, we experience the bliss of the free mind. That bliss, clarity and peacefulness has been there all along, but it was obscured by the experience of grabbing the feeling, the hope, the fear or the excitement. The pattern of the entire life of the Buddha thus charts the process of our experience, if the heart is guided wisely, as it manifests in a few seconds of meditation. The birth, enlightenment and Parinibbana celebrated at Visakha Puja gather together in this way as a symbol of this path of insight and true knowing that leads to the heart's release.

* Adapted from a talk given May 15, 2000.


Source: Fearless Mountain Newsletter, Spring 2004, www.abhayagiri.org 

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