Life, Liberation, or the the Pursuit of Happiness

As a branch of Mahayana Buddhism, Zen celebrates the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha on different days; Theravadins celebrate all on one day. In the Mahayana context of no-birth/no-death if nothing else, Happy Vesak, Happy Buddha’s Birthday, and happy Awakening, Happy Parinirvana to you! Legend has it that when Gautama was born from his mother’s side in the grove of Lumbini, he took seven steps--North, South, East, West, up, down, and right here, and proclaimed "I alone am the World-Honored One." That “I alone” part was something that would undergo some modifications over the years. After all, Gautama wasn’t the Buddha yet, and still had to go through all the stages prior to his being awakened to be the “World-honored one.” And, he was only an infant after all, so we have to cut him some slack.

There were prophesies made shortly after his birth that he would either be a powerful political leader or a someone of great spiritual abilities. His father, being the typical father, wanted his son’s life to be better than his own, and his own wasn’t too shabby. If not a king, he was a high ranking official, and if not a high-ranking official, he wasn’t hurting for material goods. So Suddhodana went out of his way to protect the young Siddhartha from all unpleasantness. And that worked until Siddhartha snuck out with his chariot driver and encountered old age, sickness, and death. Consequently, that set Gautama off on his quest to find the answer to the Big Question--How do we end this discomfort?

As apocryphal as the Birth legend may be--it’s no worse a story than virgin births, cutting down cherry trees, having a big blue ox, or any number of others. They all may be true, they may be partially true, they may be total fabrications. That really doesn’t matter, unless you’ve got a job as an historian, or are totally attached to “facts” as a requirement for you to believe or learn from anything. The birth of the Buddha story was quite possibly embellished by other legends when contact on the Silk Road was made with the Greeks or other cultures Alexander the Great had conquered. But we don’t know, we can’t know, and we don’t really need to know. It’s not like the whole of Buddhism is hinged around it; what it hinged on is whether it works. So far, in my experience it does.

Even though none of us here were born from our mother’s side after she had a dream about a white elephant--so far as I’m aware--what is important is that we are born as Buddhas--the essence of Buddha Nature. When we function correctly as a Buddha, we are Buddha. When we act in delusion, we are delusion. And in one instant we can have a thought of wisdom, and we’re right back to being a Buddha again.

When Gautama first left home, he was as much in delusion as any of the rest of us. He was every bit as much--and every bit as little--Buddha as any of us. Like the rest of us, what was required was to scrape off those layers of delusion and restore the brilliance of the prajna, or wisdom, that has been there all along. This brilliance never went anywhere. There’s nowhere for it to go. And we don’t have to go anywhere to have that thought of prajna. The more we try to find it somewhere other than ourselves, the further we walk away from it; the layer of delusion that says, “That’s not me” is just more of what needs the putty knife of insight.

When Gautama left home, he was looking for something: What is the Nature of life, what does it mean to be a human being, why is there discomfort, what is it that creates this discomfort, how does this discomfort end, and so on. He was doing the same thing the rest of us do. Some think the answer is found in religion, or career, of in alcohol and drugs, or in being alcohol and drug-free. We want to find that thing that will answer all those questions, and once we’ve found it, we’ll cling to it as if our life depended on it, and if it changes, then it must be because what we found wasn’t the real thing, so it’s off to the races again, going north, south, east, west, up, down--anywhere but here--chasing after what’s going to make it all better.

Liberation is in letting go of the looking. Letting go of the concepts, even of “life.” Letting go of north, south, east, and west. Letting go of the “I” who’s “not-happy.” What is it that’s looking, who is it that’s looking, what is it that’s creating concepts including of life, even of “liberation,” even that there is some inherent reality-based existence that can be found in what’s called ”happiness?”

If you live in pursuit of happiness, there is no happiness. If you live in the Middle Path of accepting reality for what it is at this moment, not settling for that as if it were permanent, rolling with the changes, adapting to everything in every moment, then there may be happiness. At least for a moment. Then it’s back to paying attention, using that prajna mind, and scraping away all those thoughts of needing to be elsewhere, of doing something else, clinging, clinging, clinging to what has nothing, is nothing  to cling to.

There’s this period between physical birth and physical death that we refer to as “life,” accurately or inaccurately. While in this “life,” we want desperately to find what we call “liberation” from what the Buddha found to be what happens to us in “life.” The Bodhisattva takes “life” as an opportunity to save all beings. In saving beings, we find the liberation from “self.” When we are liberated from the anchor that is “self,” then there is no need to be in the “pursuit of happiness.” Happy birthday to you, you Buddha you. But don't go in pursuit of that "happy" in that wish. Won't work.

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