With only four days before Bodhi Day on Saturday, December 8, 2018, I advise you to spend at least some time wrapping your brain around enlightenment with some reading. Four days isn’t much time, but fortunately, there are three profound, short, easy-reading books that convey very Buddhist sentiments and are feasible reading within a few days period:
- Illusions, by Richard Bach
- The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
- Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse
Illusions is the easiest to read. The author, Richard Bach, cast himself as the star of the book. He is best known for “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”. The story is about his time with a “reluctant messiah” he meets in a field in Indiana named Don Shimoda. There is a punchline, a spoiler, which I won’t divulge here. I’ll just say Don realizes there is one more important lesson for an enlightened being to learn on Earth.
“The Little Prince” is by no means a child’s book, and it is one of the books I’ve read in youth, middle age, and now in “upper-middle-age”, that I’ve appreciated at different levels each time. What are “matters of consequence”? We humans have created our own game apart from Nature. Imagine playing the game Monopoly so much that you start to think that it is “real life”. It’s Mrs. Hanamoku’s absolutely favorite book.
“Siddhartha” is particularly interesting and clever. It is essentially the tale of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, but spiced with a bit of Western Philosophy, particularly, what is easily recognized as that of Heraclitus.
I’ll give you a couple of pointers, that are spoilers, but maybe will help smooth out your journey. One is that the main character, a Prince named Siddhartha, is himself not “The Buddha”, who too is named Siddhartha, Siddhartha Gautama from Shakya. The Siddhartha in the book, does indeed cross paths with the Buddha, and lives a similar story. But this isn’t just a “plot twist”. This is where the complementary sprinkling of classic Western Philosophy comes into play.
The meeting between the two men named Siddhartha holds a critical point. Siddhartha could have chosen to follow the Buddha when their paths crossed, but he decided to continue on his own. Very roughly speaking, Siddhartha expresses to the Buddha that something is still missing from his teaching. The Buddha essentially advises him that everyone must follow their own path to enlightenment. That is a common theme in most of the posts on fishnu.org.
In fact, there is a Zen saying: If you see the Buddha, kill him.
Ridiculous isn’t it? How ludicrous it would be if we replaced “Buddha” in that saying with “Jesus”? What could be more blasphemous?! There are several interpretations of this saying. My interpretation is along the lines of everyone having their own path towards enlightenment, or any other skill.
The Buddha’s primary teaching, captured within the Four Noble Truths (the 4th being the Eight-Fold Path), are high-level guidelines, like “Go West, young man!” Each of us can learn the same skill, but there is more than one way for our complex brains of 80 billion neurons and a quadrillion connections to wire any skill.
Paraphrasing Herman Hesse, The Buddha further advises the book’s Siddhartha that he only ever promised that he could relieve his suffering, so that he can see Reality clearly on his journey. But it’s still up to Siddhartha himself to keep on going.
We may have coaches that teach us chess, but no coach can actually get into your head and wire things up. Complex systems like the brain don’t “program” that way. So the Buddha, with his own brain had its own wiring he had to do for himself. No one could wire the Buddha’s enlightenment for him.
Towards the end of the book, after the Siddhartha of the book and the Buddha cross paths, have an amiable discussion, and go their separate ways, Siddhartha settles for a time at a river, making a living ferrying people across the river. After years at the river he has his enlightening insight that the river is constantly changing, you never step in the same river twice.
That phrase is sometimes incorrectly attributed to the Buddha, but it really comes from Heraclitus, who was actually a contemporary of the Buddha. It’s very unlikely the two men met or that they even knew of each other’s work – much like Newton and Leibniz, or Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace.
None the less, that phrase captures what underlies our suffering – everything is in constant turmoil and our poor brains are unable to keep up with it. We’re always to some extent a fish out of water as we’re always at least a little “behind the times”.
Perhaps this book, “Siddhartha”, is Herman Hesse’s personal path to enlightenment where he spiced the Buddha’s Eastern teachings with the Western Greek philosophy of Heraclitus, which would have been more familiar to him as a Westerner.
If you are a Christian, you may be reading this blog because you’re dissatisfied with what you were taught in Sunday School. Don’t give up on Jesus. Following the path of the Buddha itself doesn’t make you Buddhist nor does it make you any less Christian.
Just for kicks, read the Gospels again, but this time from a different point of view. Not the point of view of John 3:16, but the point of view of Psalm 23. And again just for kicks, consider that maybe a few things were lost in translation through the ages from God to the papyrus scrolls, to Martin Luther’s printing press, to the neighborhood pastor.
Study the Heart Sutra. It really does capture the essence of Buddhism in two phrases: “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form” and “… the other shore …”.
As I mentioned, it’s imperative that you to recite the Heart Sutra in English (or your native language if there is a translation) so the words have meaning to you – even if it may seem nonsensical at first. However, I do find much value in chanting the Heart Sutra in the traditional manner that I grew up with.
It’s tough because it’s in Sanskrit and the cadence is fairly quick. It will take some practice. Wait until next year to chant the Heart Sutra in Sanskrit with all the nice song bowls and drums, and practice by watching some videos, googling Shingon Hannya Shingyo.
For your first Bodhi Day, just recite the heart Sutra in English. I recite it in English as I would any piece of Western poetry, not in the same manner as it is traditionally chanted in Sanskrit, except in English. I think that my blog, The Other Shore, is a good primer for beginning to not just understand the Heart Sutra but to eventually Be It.
Lastly, a few miscellaneous pointers:
- All posts by Barbara O’brien on thoughtco.com are easy to read, bite-sized, and profound – a great introduction to Buddhism.
- Don’t watch the any movie versions of The Little Prince and Siddhartha. All fall very short of the book.
- Thich Nhat Hanh’s translation of the Heart Sutra is my favorite.
- Because the book, Siddhartha, is a “classic”, there are tons of very useful discussions and Cliff Notes on the Internet about this book.
- Your next shot at Bodhi Day is the upcoming “real” Bodhi Day, the lunar Bodhi Day. Remember, this Bodhi Season we’re talking about right now, in this post, is the secular Bodhi Season, a standardized date for modern society, always December 8. That lunar Bodhi Season starts on January 6, 2019 with Bodhi Day on January 13, 2019.
- Just a little musing. I’ve wondered if the Donald Shimoda in “Illusions” is Richard Bach’s nod to Carlos Castaneda’s don Juan.
Faith and Patience to You,
Reverend Dukkha Hanamoku
Links to the other posts belonging to this set of Bodhi Day 2018 posts:
- Tomorrow Begins the Secular Bodhi Season of 2018
- Day 1: Secular Bodhi Season 2018 – Buddhism is a Skill
- Day 2: Secular Bodhi Season 2018 – Have a Holly Jolly Bodhi
- Day 3: Secular Bodhi Season 2018 – A Bodhi Day Carol
- Day 4: Secular Bodhi Season 2018 – Our Unique Paths
- Day 5: Secular Bodhi Season 2018 – Traditions
- Day 6: Secular Bodhi Season 2018 – Trip to Our Bodhi Day Place
- Day 7: Secular Bodhi Season 2018 – Bodhi Day Eve
- Bodhi Day 2018!