Mind Full to Mindful
Some folk singers were on their way to perform in a village fair. They were about to cross a river and paid no attention to Buddha who lay there emaciated, almost lifeless.
“You are always tinkering your lute,” one of the bards chastised his companion who was fixing the strings of his veena (lute). “Either you make the strings so tight that they snap or you make them so loose that they are out of tune. Only if you leave them the way they are supposed to be, will you be able to produce melodious music.”
These words fell upon Buddha’s ears. He had what we call Satori in Zen, an instant realization; his first flash of awakening. He understood, “I have been too hard with myself. While in my father’s palace I lived a life of luxury, almost a debauched life, and now I have gone to the other extreme of depriving my body and mind of even basic nutrition and care.”
This was not the way to progress on the path, he realized. That while life might be suffering, it had to be lived with grace and gratitude.
Living a graceful life that has meaning and happiness is an art anyone can master. As Socrates posited that whatever we do in life we have learned it somewhere. So it is with happiness. Essentially, that is what Zen is about: a state free of conditioning so that mind can rest and rejoice, so it may go with the flow of life without the anxiety to always get somewhere. Life is here. Now. This moment. Easier said than done, I know. It’s possible though.
This is awakening in a nutshell: to have a graceful response to everything life throws at you without losing your serenity and inner calm.
Life and our emotions needn’t be as serious an affair as we have made it out to be. To be enlightened is to take things lightly (not for granted though), to laugh away the whims and irritabilities of life. Because that is the root cause of most of our agony: we tend to take ourselves too seriously.
When our mind that is full of conditioning starts to empty itself by way of mindfulness and a natural awareness, a sort of calmness rises to the brim of our consciousness like bubble from the bottom of a lake to its surface. What if we could do away with our conditioning and have a mind that would not be so quick to judge everything around us? While our ability to make quick judgements has an evolutionary basis and allows our mind to do more by going back to the patterns it knows, it’s also the cause of most of our emotional and mental suffering. For, whenever anything doesn’t fit in our conceptual reference, we struggle to deal with it.
Unlike other systems of meditation where you go through rigorous practices to tame your mind, Zen says, I don’t have to go anywhere. Everything I need to be happy is here. I don’t have to concentrate or build my concentration. Not all meditation is sitting down in one rigid posture. Walking, eating, doing dishes, everything we do in life can be done in a manner so it turns into meditation. Like a child living merrily, or at least freely, from one moment to another, a Zen practitioner aims to be mindful of the “natural” flow of life, the nature of things.
When Buddha, the originator of Zen, practiced intense meditation for six years, he went through many experiences and he dabbled in many systems of spirituality under various teachers. Buddha also tried the path of complete self-abnegation, where he would not even eat for days at a stretch. Sometimes, he survived only on his own body residues. But then one day, when the words of the folk singer fell on his ears, he realized that this was not the way to progress.
From that moment on, Buddha decided that he would feed himself well. Being kind to ourselves as well progressing on a spiritual path can go together. For the next few months, he started eating proper meals. His body, which had become little more than a skeleton, started to gain energy, sinews and a bit of flesh.
Then one day, Buddha, tired of not making significant progress, sat under the Bodhi Tree with the promise he made to himself: “I am not getting up till I am awakened.”
After Buddha gained the realization he was seeking, he got up. Even though I have used the word “gained”, enlightenment is not something you gain or attain, it’s something you become. A common misconception is that when Buddha attained enlightenment, something changed in his body or a miracle overtook him, or he suddenly became somebody from the other world. That there were rainbows in the sky and petals of flowers fell on him. I doubt any of that happened. In fact, I am convinced that nothing as fantastical as that occurred. Instead, something infinitely more powerful and useful thing happened: Buddha got up with a new perspective. A fresh perspective on life; a different take on how he ought to lead his life, and how he ought to help others in the process.
When he was walking — this is a famous story I have told many a time — he was stopped by two wandering sadhus. They asked him, “Who are you? We see this extraordinary radiance on your face, we feel drawn towards you. Your energy is irresistible. Who are you? Are you God?”
And Buddha said, “No, I am not God. There is no God.”
“Well, are you some celestial being then?”
“You must be a Gandharva (heavenly being) then. Look at your graceful limbs, and look at your gait.”
“No, I am not a Gandharva.”
“Well, are you a saint?”
“No, I am not a saint either.”
“This can’t be right,” they contended. “There is great difference between you and us. There must be an explanation. Look at you and look at us. We look like mangos sucked dry and thrown onto the road, whereas you look so attractive, so beautiful. Your inner beauty is shining through — it’s exuding from you.”
“I never said that there is no difference between you and me,” Buddha spoke calmly like a murmuring river, “There is a tiny difference. You are sleeping, and I am awake. You sleep through your whole lives, and I am aware of each passing moment.”
With that, Buddha walked away. And legend has it that they joined the sangha and became his disciples. Buddha asked them to shave their heads and don ochre. The word Buddha in Sanskrit means jagrita, awake. This book, however, beyond the first chapters, is not about Buddha or his story. Instead, it is about you, me, our story. The story of our life. The story of our mind. Walk with me.
This article first appeared on os.me.