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The long road to awakening…

Updated: Sep 2, 2019

One thing I wish I knew when I started practicing meditation is that even the most avid practitioners—Monks, for example—still don’t always fully control their mind, often having episodes of random thoughts jumping inside their head (we call it “Monkey Brain” for that reason). The big difference is that their training allows them to not “grasp” those thoughts. Rather, they watch them pass by like little white clouds in the sky; not like a storm they cannot get rid of! Pema Chödrön says it in a great way:

"The path of meditation and the path of our lives altogether has to do with curiosity, inquisitiveness. The ground is ourselves; we’re here to study ourselves and to get to know ourselves now, not later. People often say to me, ‘I wanted to come and have an interview with you, I wanted to write you a letter, I wanted to call you on the phone, but I wanted to wait until I was more together.’ And I think, “Well, if you’re anything like me, you could wait forever!’”

What a big lesson coming from someone who has been a Buddhist nun since 1974 and has spent 7 months each year in solitary retreat!

So you get the point: no goal, no destination. It’s today, and it’s the journey that matters. The other major point obviously is to practice, practice, and practice. Going to meditation courses is great, reading books helps, going to seminar is awesome, attending a retreat is great support ... BUT BUTBUT the most important thing is to practice, daily and regularly.

It’s like if you wanted to practice Karate. Imagine you go to seminars, read all the books about it, learn about all the masters’ stories, watch matches, but never really practice. Or you just practice for five or ten minutes when you think about it once a week. Guess what your level of skill would be after one year, five years, ten years… very low to non-existent.

So when I arrived in Bodh Gaya last week and walked through the most holy place for Buddhists, the Bodh Gaya Holy Temple, the place where Siddhartha Gautama (the future Buddha), sat for 49 days (non stop!), I was really thinking how hard he had to struggle to get to that point. As always in life, we really only get serious about a new practice when we feel deeply in our bones that it is essential. If not, we last for a week, a month, a few months and then fade away.

Siddhartha was born into a royal Hindu family around 500 BC. He was brought up as a prince, with three palaces as distractions and all the essentials and non-essentials of life as royalty. His father, King Śuddhodana, wishing for his son to be a great king, is said to have shielded him from religious teachings and from knowledge of human suffering. So Siddhartha rarely left his palace and did not know that one could get sick, ill, hungry, be in pain or even grow old! It is a little bit like living in NYC compared to the rest of the world ;)

At age 16 he married and had a son. He spent the first 29 years of his life with fame, “success,” and wealth. Many scriptures say that Siddhartha developed a feeling that there was something more to life, that despite having everything to be happy, he was becoming more and more unhappy. His fellow princes and wealthy friends did not really understand him as they continued to indulge themselves, buying precious jewelry, building larger palaces, having more women. That is where the story is so close and so relevant to today’s growing unhappiness in our modern, wealthy societies.

One day Siddhartha saw from his chariot an old man on the ground in the street, sick and frail. He asked his charioteer about the man and learned that people can indeed grow old, and become sick when they age, and suffer. It was a decisive moment in his life. So at age 29 he decided to run away from this sheltered life, and one night, dressed like a beggar, left his castle in secrecy.

He first lived in the streets as a beggar, and then began practicing Yogic Meditation. Unsatisfied by this, even after years of practice and being asked to succeed his teacher, he decided to move on. He started practicing Yoga with a great master and living a very ascetic life. Once again after years of practice, and despite achieving high levels of meditative consciousness (and again being asked to succeed his teacher) he felt he was not getting the answers he wanted, and moved on again!

Siddhartha, with a group of five companions, decided to go even deeper into a very difficult practice: he tried to find enlightenment through deprivation of all worldly goods, including food, and by practicing self-mortification. After nearly starving himself to death by restricting his food intake to around a leaf or nut per day, he collapsed in a river while bathing and almost drowned. This was another turning point. He began to completely reconsider his path. He discovered that the extreme (whether indulgence or ascetism) does not work. What works, he found, is the Middle-Way (today very dear to the Buddhist Path). His five disciples left him as he started to feed himself normally, believing he was wrong. Siddhartha was alone again, six years after he left his royal life, after six years of trials and “failures” that would lead him to his greatness…

He remembered a moment in childhood in which he had been watching his father start the season's plowing. He attained a concentrated and focused state that was blissful and refreshing, the jhāna. (If you’ve ever plowed a garden for a few hours you probably know that feeling.) He was in Bodh Gaya, and went to sit under a Pipal tree (known today as the Bodhi Tree), not to stand up until he found the Truth about human suffering! He sat there. For 49 days. And it is there that he became enlightened, where he became a Buddha. (Buddha means "awakened one" or "the enlightened one.”) It is the exact same place you can see in this picture.

There is a lot of scripture that describes what he saw. From the understanding of human suffering and the way to annihilate it, to the structure of the physical world, the universe, the ongoing cycles of death and birth, and more. The richness of the Dharma (his teaching) is so vast that even today quantum physics is just starting to validate what he saw and described at a sub-molecular level! Fascinating to realize that it took 2,500 years to get there.

I described the main teaching, the Four Noble Truths, to you in a post last week about the core of Buddhist teachings. Through mastery of these truths, a state of supreme liberation (Nirvana) can be attained by anyone. The Buddha described Nirvāna as the perfect peace of a mind that's free from ignorance, greed, hatred and other afflictive states (nothing to do with later interpretations of what Nirvana means!).

Now imagine standing up alone, after 49 days, holding all those teachings inside you. Immediately after his awakening, the Buddha apparently debated whether or not he should teach the Dharma to others. He was concerned that humans were so overpowered by ignorance, greed and hatred that they could never recognize the path, which is subtle, deep and hard to grasp. However, in the scripture, Brahma came to him in one meditation and convinced him to start teaching, arguing that at least some will understand it. So he did. Today the technique of meditation he used is still taught in Vipassana schools all over the world. As no one can really do 49 days (seven weeks), you can do 10-day courses. These courses are FREE in the pure original tradition. I did it a few years ago and recommended it to many other friends who did it too— very powerful.

So what’s the point here? The Path to end suffering is a journey. It’s a journey of practice, not a journey of learning, reading or seminars. I am not saying that those are not helpful, they are, but the most essential thing is to add a little practice to your daily life. Five minutes daily or 10 minutes daily to start, maximum. It’s important to practice daily, though. Like brushing your teeth, there’s no point in doing it only once a week for 30 minutes!

The Buddha also taught that we should never trust anything that is said to us (starting with his own teachings!) but that we should try to verify what we hear for ourselves, see what it does for us, and determine if there are any benefits or not. Inquire about the veracity of the teachings. Apply them to your daily life. These are not old teachings for people living in 500 BC, but universal teachings that any of us can benefit from in our personal and professional life.

Always remember that Siddhartha had what we would call set-backs so many times. But he continued to practice daily. Remember that he was left by his own disciples. But he continued to practice daily. Remember that he tried many practices (Yogic Meditation, Yoga, Ascetism), mastered them, but quit since they were not giving him the answer he wanted. He was human, like you and me, and may have often thought he should go back home to his palace and become a king as his father implored him to do. But he continued on the Path and he continued to practice. And everything that happened to him along the Path was essential in his liberation.

“Practice is the hardest part of learning, and training is the essence of transformation.” ― Ann Voskamp

When I left Bodh Gaya temple, despite the terrible incident that happened while I was there, I felt uplifted, hopeful and happy. Life is definitely a journey, and can be a beautiful and meaningful one, if we practice a little every day.

Hope you enjoy the reading, and remember to travel with your heart and to share this post if you liked it!


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