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An Extraordinary Yet Ordinary Human Being

Ajahn Pasanno

Visakha Puja is the commemoration of the Buddha's birth, enlightenment and passing away. It is the most important festival in the Buddhist calendar. In Thailand, this day is different from other Buddhist festivals in that, while many can become occasions for drinking, feasting and big parties, Visakha Puja has retained a quality of recollection and spiritual aspiration. The birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha all took place on the full moon in May. It's a good reflection to see these events as inextricably linked. Birth can be seen as the coming into being of the quest for enlightenment. Then, there is the enlightenment itself. Finally, when the physical body dies, does the enlightenment principle die with it? Not really. The whole point of the Buddha's life was the realization of the deathless. That is, there is something beyond birth, sickness and death, something beyond change and separation. The Buddha asked the question: "Why do I, being subject to old age, change and separation, seek after that which is always subject to old age, change and separation?" This is a question in all of our lives.

The general plight of people in the world is bound by ignorance and obstructed by craving, creating a vortex of forces in the unenlightened human mind. The aspiration of the Buddha's life is to seek that which is unbound and unobstructed. His enlightenment is a continual, ongoing example that this is possible.

The Buddha named his son Rahula, meaning "fetter." The birth of his son was something that was binding. When one hears the word "fetter," one might believe the name was chosen through aversion, nastiness or pettiness. Instead, it was the deep love that the Buddha felt towards his son that led him to realize that even this kind of love needs to be transcended, needs to be gone beyond.

The Buddha's quest for enlightenment was inextricably bound to love and compassion for others. He realized that if he himself were bound by attachment, then the whole human race must be bound in the same way. So how do we work with qualities of love and attachment? How do we deal with aversion and irritation? These are the circumstances and difficulties that the Buddha himself worked with, dealt with and understood -- even the ordinary squabbles and petty jealousies that can take root in a community and grow into great conflicts.

The qualities of compassion and lovingkindness were manifested in the Buddha's own renunciation, his own relinquishing of comfort and worldly success to seek liberation. Spiritual seeking is itself an act of compassion. Often, when we think of renouncing or giving up something, of having to desist from a passion with which we identify strongly, there is a feeling of loss, fear or insecurity. Actually, letting go is an act of compassion and kindness that includes everyone. Letting go can be to our attachment to precepts or meditation as well as to our obsessive thoughts. Often, the mind balks at renunciation and tries to fill itself up with other things.When one lifts the mind to a recollection of the benefits of relinquishment, one can draw on compassion and kindness. One is fortified for going though the wavering of the mind and turning towards that unbinding and unobstructed quality. This is what the Buddha's teaching is about.

There is a lovely image in the suttas where the Buddha was quite old and recovering from an illness. He was still weak but managed to get outside to warm his limbs in the afternoon sun.

Ananda came along and said, "I'm so glad to see you are getting better. I was worried about your health. I was afraid you were going to pass away." Ananda sat beside the Buddha massaging his back and limbs, commenting on how marvelous and strange it is that the Buddha's formerly firm, strong and glowing body was now old, wrinkled and losing its luster. The Buddha replied, "Yes, this is very ordinary. This is the way it is." His body was like a drum that had been patched again and again over the years. After a while, some of its original parts were simply not there any longer.

We should look at the Buddha as a human being. He was not a mythological figure or a god. One reason many of us were attracted to Ajahn Chah as our own teacher was his very humanness. I remember a story of Ajahn Chah from when he taught at the Insight Meditation Society in 1979. Ajahn Chah had been at IMS for many days, and people felt uplifted by his presence and teachings. He was a very inspiring and charismatic figure. One day after the meditation as he got up and walked slowly out of the meditation hall, he turned to the group and said,"My knees hurt."

People often think, "Ah, here is a great spiritual master. He probably doesn't experience any pain, his feelings are not like mine." That's not true. Our aspiration is not to be rid of feelings. We should not think that if we didn't have certain feelings or if we had other feelings, then we could become enlightened. Instead, the path to enlightenment is to pay attention to the ordinary qualities of our likes and dislikes, our loves and attachments.How do these things work and how do they affect us? How do they obstruct us and bind us? How can we be free from them? It's through questioning and seeing clearly that we find our way through. This is the path of knowing.

I remember travelling with Ajahn Chah to one of his branch monasteries. Sometimes the main monastery,Wat Bah Pong, could be quite busy, so he would go to a smaller monastery for a rest. By this time his health was not so good, and he wasn't walking on almsrounds with the rest of the monks.When I came back from almsround, I was preparing a ball of sticky rice for him. Ajahn Chah had always trained us monks to just eat a small ball of rice.When I brought the rice to him, he started to make his ball bigger and bigger! I didn't say anything. Finally, he looked at me and said, "I'm getting old. In the olden days, I could pack it really tight."

Knowing oneself and seeing clearly does not mean attaining some ethereal height of renunciation. One uses one's circumstances for understanding oneself. That's the same thing as the aspiration for freedom. It's very ordinary. We tend to look at the Buddha or other great spiritual teachers and believe that we are separate from them. That is not what the Buddha taught. The Dhamma is imminent here and now. It is present for everyone's access and realization. This is the legacy of the Buddha.

* Adapted from a Dhamma talk given on May 9, 1998.


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

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last updated: 10-01-2005