Siddhartha, the Buddha-to-be, was the son of a wealthy king who ruled over a beautiful kingdom in the foothills of the Himalayas. At his birth, the king’s advisors predicted that he would either forego the world and become a holy man or he would be a great king and ruler. Siddhartha’s father was determined to have his son to follow in his own footsteps. Knowing that seeing the pain of the world would turn the prince towards spiritual pursuits, he surrounded him with physical beauty, wealth and continuous entertainment. Only kind and beautiful people were allowed to care for him.
Of course the king’s project to protect his son from the suffering of life failed. As the traditional story tells it, when Siddhartha was twenty-nine, he insisted on taking several excursions outside the palace walls with his charioteer, Channa. Realizing his son’s intent, the king ordered his subjects to prepare for the prince by cleaning and beautifying the streets, and hiding the sick and poor.
But the gods, seeing this as the opportunity to awaken Siddhartha, had other plans. They appeared to him in the guise of a sick person, an old person and a corpse. When Siddhartha realized that such suffering was an intrinsic part of being alive, his comfortable view of life was shattered. Determined to discover how human beings could find happiness and freedom in the face of such suffering, he left the luxurious palaces, his parents, his wife and son. Setting forth in the dark of the night, Siddhartha began his search for the truths that would liberate his heart and spirit.
Most of us spend years trying to cloister ourselves inside the palace walls. We chase after the pleasure and security we hope will give us lasting happiness. Yet no matter how happy we may be, life inevitably delivers up a crisis—divorce, death of a loved one, a critical illness. Seeking to avoid the pain and control our experience, we pull away from the intensity of our feelings, often ignoring or denying our genuine physical and emotional needs.
Because Siddhartha had been so entranced by pleasure, the path of denial at first looked like the way to freedom. He joined a group of ascetics and began practicing severe austerities, depriving himself of food and sleep, and following rigorous yogic disciplines. After several years Siddhartha found himself emaciated and sick, but no closer to the spiritual liberation he yearned for. He left the ascetics and made his way to the banks of a nearby river. Lying there nearly dead, Siddhartha cried out “Surely there must be another way to enlightenment!” As he closed his eyes, a dreamlike memory arose
It was the annual celebration of the spring plowing, and his nurses had left him resting under a rose apple tree at the edge of the fields. Sitting in the cool shade of the tree, the child watched the men at work, sweat pouring down their faces; he saw the oxen straining to pull the plough. In the cut grasses and the freshly overturned soil, he could see insects dying, their eggs scattered.
Sorrow arose in Siddhartha for the suffering that all living beings experience. In the tenderness of this compassion, Siddhartha felt deeply opened. Looking up he was struck by how brilliantly blue the sky was. Birds were dipping and soaring freely and gracefully. The air was thick with the sweet fragrance of apple blossoms. In the flow and sacred mystery of life, there was room for the immensity of joy and sorrow. He felt completely at peace.
Remembering this experience gave Siddhartha a profoundly different understanding of the path to liberation. If a young, untrained child could taste freedom in this effortless and spontaneous way, then such a state must be a natural part of being human. Perhaps he could awaken by stopping the struggle and, as he had done as a child, meeting all of life with a tender and open presence.
What conditions had made this childhood experience of profound presence possible? If we look at our own life, we see that such moments of presence often occur in times of stillness or solitude. We have stepped outside the normal rush and into the openness and clarity of a “time out of time.”
Had Siddhartha been around the distracting chatter of the nurses or playing games with the other children, he would not have been so attentive and open to his deeper experience. In the moments of pausing and resting under the rose apple tree, he was neither pursuing pleasure nor was he pushing away the suffering of the world. By pausing, he had relaxed into a natural wakefulness and inner freedom.
Inspired by his childhood experience, Siddhartha began his final search for lasting freedom. After bathing himself in the river, he accepted the sweet rice offered to him by a village maiden, and then slept a sleep with wondrous dreams. When he awoke, refreshed and strengthened, he once again sought solitude under a tree—known now as the Bodhi Tree—and resolved to remain in stillness there until he experienced full liberation.
The image of the Buddha seated under the Bodhi Tree is one of the great mythic symbols depicting the power of the pause. Siddhartha was no longer clinging to pleasure or running away from any part of his experience. He was making himself absolutely available to the changing stream of life. This attitude of neither grasping nor pushing away any experience has come to be known as the Middle Way, and it characterizes the engaged presence we awaken in pausing.
The practice of Radical Acceptance begins with our own pause under the Bodhi Tree. Just as the Buddha willingly opened himself to all parts of himself, we too can stop running, pause, and make ourselves available to whatever life is offering us in each moment—including the unfaced, unfelt parts of our psyche. In this way, as Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, we “keep our appointment with life.”
From Radical Acceptance (2003)
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