Six Lessons from the Life of the Buddha

A Guest Dharma Talk, written and given at Anacortes Mindfulness Community

by Steve Wilhelm

July, 2019

Steve Wilhelm, Eastside Insight Meditation, Kirkland, WA

What I want to share tonight, about parallels between the Buddha's journey and our own, arose out of a conversation Jon and I had about dharma practice and where it's rooted.

For me, who the Buddha was, how he became awakened and how his awakening manifested, have much to do with how my own spiritual journey. Because of this I've been attracted to early Buddhism, with its emphasis on the Buddha himself, as a way to understand my own spiritual journey.

Just a tiny bit about me is that I worked for more than 30 years as a journalist in newsrooms around the region, which means among other things I have an inclination to track down sources. In terms of the Buddha's life a wonderful thing is that we have access to the original suttas, now translated into excellent English, and over many years I have read and studied them. (List here.)

In terms of Dharma practice I started meditating in 1968 in raja yoga tradition, moved to Buddhadharma in 1987. For many years simultaneously practiced in Tibetan Mahayana tradition and Theravada tradition, until switching to mostly Theravada also known as early Buddhism, about 10 years ago.

For 19 years I've led Eastside Insight Meditation in Kirkland and also teach in other places around the region. I also edit NW Dharma News, and serve on the board of Tibetan Nuns Project.

OK, enough about me. Now the Buddha.

I gave this some thought, and I'd like to touch on six aspects of the Buddha's life and who he was and how that influences my practice, that may have some application to your own lives.

To bring this into the present a bit, I've been to India five times, twice including pilgrimage to the places where the Buddha was awakened and where he taught. The best known of these are Bodh Gaya, where he awakened; Sarnath near Varanasi, where he first taught the dharma; and Kushinagar, where he died.

The place most precious to me is Sravasti, in particular the site of the Jetavana Monastery, where the Buddha spent 24 rains retreats. This refers to the traditional three-month retreat during the monsoon period, when the monastics would stop wandering to avoid damaging crops, and because it was raining.

Others are the bamboo grove and the mango grove, both monasteries donated to the monks where the Buddha also practiced, and Vulture Peak, where he taught the heart sutra.

Especially at Sravasti the sense of the Buddha's presence is palpable and alive. It's an amazing place, north in Uttar Pradesh 50 kilometers from the nearest railway station. Wherever you sit there's a sense that the Buddha was here, right here, and the 2,600 years since he lived seems to collapse. It's made this very present for me.

Here are the six things I'd like to share about who the Buddha was, which may resonate with you.

The first is that he came from privilege, just like us. He aspired to the path of awakening from a deep sense of how transient and ephemeral worldly satisfaction is, and he had to cope with significant resistance on the way.

How many know this part of his life? He was son of a Sakyan king, of a minor kingship in what is now the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. His father wanted his son to succeed him, and did everything he could to prepare the Buddha for a life of wealth and power.

The Buddha rotated among three beautiful palaces, and in the suttas he describes them and their luxuries -- the silks from Benares, the dancers and musicians, none of whom where male. As a male youth he was at the apex of his world, just as we are starting by being white.

But the Buddha early on started realizing how fleeting all this is, beginning with one episode where he wandered outside the palace and for the first time saw an old person, a sick person, and dead person.

When he decided to pursue the spiritual path he was definitely going against the stream, so much so that he left the palace stealthily, in the middle of the night, and cut off his hair and swapped his clothes with someone he met in the forest to become a wandering ascetic.

Even then his journey was hard, because he was seeking an understanding and freedom he knew was possible, but which even the most advanced meditators around him did not understand.

We don't live in a Buddhist country, and I bet that many of you, outside this gathering, feel somewhat isolated. Who understands your deepest yearnings? Who can begin to see what you're striving for?

And then people around you, your relatives, your spouses, your offspring, your employers and co-workers, may all think you're misinformed, or even wasting your time. You're going against the stream, and this may mean it's hard to keep going, to maintain the momentum you need for actual change.

But the Buddha did maintain momentum, including on the night he awakened when he came up against all of his attachments and fears, and yet persevered regardless. As some of you may know this is the epic subject of the semi-mythical night of his awakening, when the Buddha was opposed by Mara, the embodiment of ignorance, who threw everything at the Buddha-to-be from weapons-wielding demons to his beautiful and tempting daughters, to dissuade him from finding freedom.

It's a lot like this for us, and all of us, myself included, struggle with our desires and aversions as we move on the path. But the Buddha did that and continued nonetheless, and we can in the same way.

This gets to the second factor, the Buddha's relentless application toward, and confidence in, the possibility of awakening for himself and everyone he encountered.

I've found his attitude confidence-building in myself, because if someone had the intention to advance along the path the Buddha encouraged him, famously saying

"There are these roots of trees, these empty huts. Meditate, bhikkhus, do not delay or else you will regret it later. This is our instruction to you.”

In this way he was a radical, because he encouraged people from any caste, men and women, monastic or not, toward the vision of full awakening.

He recognized the intent in people, and encouraged even untouchables to practice and to find attainment.

For instance there's the famous story of the bandit named Angulimala, or 'finger necklace," who had killed 99 people and who took off after the Buddha. The Buddha called out "Stop, angulimala," meaning to stop his addiction. Angulimala did so, stopped killing, and then took robes as a monk. The local king was so taken with his conversion that he offered Angulimala robes, lodging, food and medicine, but Angulimala replied, "There is no need great king, my triple robe is complete."

In another case the leper Suprabuddha heard the Buddha was teaching, and came near hoping for something to eat, because he was so excluded. But the Buddha, "grasping with his thought the thought of the entire assembly," saw the potential of SupraBuddaha to awaken, and taught the dharma in a way he could perceive.

And SupraBuddha did in fact awaken, after applying the teachings he had heard so that "The spotless and immaculate vision of the dhamma arose in him." And then he was gored by a cow and died, also suggesting to us how we should not waste time.

If and when monastics got hung up on pettiness the Buddha encouraged them to keep practicing, to shed that which wasn't important to focus on the path. Once when they were at odds over a question of protocol, he refused to even participate and went into retreat until they came to their senses and focused on the dharma again.

Always and repeatedly, he emphasized what was possible and urged people to seek the most transcendent liberation. He didn't settle for halfway. He said he was

"Teaching the Dhamma for the elimination of all standpoints, decisions, obsessions, adherences, and underlying tendencies, for the stilling of all formations, for the relinquishing of all attachments, for the destruction of craving, for dispassion, for cessation, for Nibbāna."

Third, just like us, the Buddha had family problems and political problems.

The Buddha did not exist in a spiritual bubble in some pristine mythic time, but in fact had to cope with gritty human issues just like we do. His awakened mind was constantly tested, and how he responded to those situations holds deep lessons for each of us.

At the top of the list is his cousin Devadatta, who opposed the Buddha and who actively tried to take over the sangha of monks, and even on several occasions tried to kill the Buddha.

Maybe even your most difficult relative wouldn't send a maddened elephant against you!

In addition his step-mother wanted to be a nun, another cousin Ananda became his attendant, and the Buddha ended up with responsibility for raising his son Rahula.

It has always struck me the compassion and steadiness the Buddha manifested in these situations, for instance never retaliating against Devadatta, who self-destructed.

Also the Buddha had contact with kings from several warring kingdoms, and had to cope with their greed against one another. In at least one case he talked a king out of attacking another kingdom, citing the kindness and generosity of the people in the kingdom that the king wanted to attack.

It was a tumultuous time, not that different from our own.

Often I have brought this into my heart, resonated with these stories, when I've had my own family difficulties. The fact that the Buddha had to navigate his own seemingly unsolvable complexities, and the fact that he did this with great grace and wisdom, suggests how we can also do the same.

Fourth, the Buddha suffered pain just like we do, clarifying for me the difference between pain and suffering.

He did experience pain. But he didn't suffer, because he was free of attachment and aversion.

Let's start with the fact that as a monk the Buddha lived just on what people offered him, and just once a day. Add to that, much of the time he had no place, no home, but just slept where he was while walking through the wilds of India. So there was much physical discomfort there, which he never even refers to.

Then in addition, the Buddha at times had a bad back, and at times suffered headaches.

Then there was the time his foot was pierced by a bone splinter, due to Devadatta's attempts to kill him.

The sutta says:

“Now on that occasion the Blessed One’s foot had been cut by a stone splinter. Severe pains assailed the Blessed One—bodily feelings that were painful, racking, sharp, piercing, harrowing, disagreeable. But the Blessed One endured them, mindful and clearly comprehending, without becoming distressed. Then the Blessed One had his outer robe folded in four, and he lay down on his right side in the lion posture with one leg overlapping the other, mindful and clearly comprehending.”

There’s the gold standard to how to work with pain. Not denying, fully acknowledging.

Fifth, the Buddha expressed compassion in so many ways, in every encounter he had with beings.

This always has seemed very important to me, because while we could say that Buddha's awakening to nibbana, the unconditioned wisdom, was his most unique and powerful contribution, his unceasing compassion was just as precious. Put another way, without compassion his awakened wisdom would be dry and perhaps unfeeling.

The compassion expressed by the Buddha takes so many forms, often surprising, that it makes us look at what compassion really is, and how it applies to us.

For instance in one case a woman was mourning the death of her son, and she asked the Buddha to bring the son back to life. In reply the Buddha asked her to bring a mustard seed from each home that had not suffered the sorrow of loss. When the woman could find no such mustard seed to bring back, she experienced a shift of compassion that helped her bear her own loss.

The woman later became the Bhikkuni Gotami, and when confronted by Mara she proclaimed her enlightenment, her freedom from conditions.

“I’ve gotten past the death of sons;

With this, the search for men has ended.

I do not sorrow, I do not weep,

Nor do I fear you, friend

Delight everywhere has been destroyed, The mass of darkness has been sundered.

Having conquered the army of Death, I dwell without defiling taints."

In another instance the Buddha was visiting the lodgings of monks, when he came on one sick with dysentery, fouled with his own excrement. The Buddha engaged with him, found the other monks weren't taking care of him because he wasn’t useful. Together he and Ananda drew water, washed the man, and then put him in bed.

Then the Buddha called the Bhikkhus together and said,

"Bhikkhus you have neither mother nor father to look after you. If you do not look after each other, who will look after you? Let him who would look after me look after one who is sick."

In a third instance, it wasn't monks but a group of boys, and a group of fishes, toward whom the Buddha extended compassion.

Early one morning the Buddha dressed, and taking his alms bowl went to Savatthi for alms. On his way he encountered a group of boys ill-treating fishes. He talked with them.

"Boys, are you afraid of pain, do you dislike pain?"

"Yes lord," they replied. "We are afraid of pain, we dislike pain."

Then the Buddha uttered this stanza:

"Who does not want to suffer

should do no evil deeds

Openly or in secret.

Do evil now, then later,

Try though you may to flee it,

Yet surely you will suffer."

What's notable about this is that while the Buddha was compassionate toward the fishes, he simultaneously was compassionate about the boys and tied them together.

What he said to the boys was something they could understand, a lesson for their lives, how their actions now would reap pain later.

Last and sixth is the fact that the Buddha died, just like us, and in fact he died in pain, just like we may.

It's such an interesting mix, because he already had said that at 80 his time was up, and that his body was like an ox cart held together with straps. As we all do, he knew death was coming.

In this case the goldsmith Cunda invited the Buddha to a meal. When the Buddha arrived he said something very unusual, which was that Cunda should only serve the 'hog's mincemeat' to him, and that he should bury the rest of it in a hole, because nobody else could digest it.

After the Buddha ate it,

"A severe sickness attacked him with a flux of blood accompanied by violent deadly pains. he bore it without complaint, mindful and fully aware."

And even these last hours, painful though they were, were connected with much beauty and compassion. First he told Ananda to tell Cunda that he should feel no remorse that his alms food turned out to be essentially poisoned.

"It is gain, it is great gain for you, Cunda, that the perfect one finally attained nibbana after getting his last alms food from you."

Then there's the case of Subhadda, a wanderer who was there in Kusinagar, and who realized that he had found the Buddha just when the Buddha was dying, which meant he might lose his chance to get rid of all doubts, to be freed.

Ananda told him to stay away, because the Buddha was sick and tired, but the Buddha overrode him, saying

"Whatever he may ask of me, he will ask it only for the sake of knowledge, not to cause trouble. And what I can tell him, he will quickly understand."

And so he instructed Subhadda, and then gave him the "going forth" to monkhood without the usual four-year probation. And not long after that the Venerable Subhadda realized the Buddha's vision and became an arhant, the last of the Buddha's disciples to awaken before he died.

So this in a way comes full circle, as an example how utterly focused the Buddha was on the awakening of his disciples, of all beings.

In his last moments the Buddha, surrounded by 500 disciples, asked them if that had any doubts or last questions. He asked them a second time, a third time, and the Bhikkhus were silent.

Then he said to them:

"Bhikkus, perhaps you do not ask because you are in awe of the teacher. Let a friend tell it to a friend."

But still the Bhikkus were silent. Then the Buddha started entering into the stages of death, and even here his teaching was magnificent, and laced with compassion, and with his consummate understanding that all beings could awaken.

His last words were:

"It is in the nature of all formations to dissolve. Attain perfection through diligence."


Steve has been meditating since 1968, and engaged in Buddhist practice since 1987. He has studied and practiced in the Tibetan and Vipassana traditions, including extended retreats in both, although his practice is now primarily vipassana. Steve has facilitated Eastside Insight Meditation since 2000, and serves as a local dharma leader for Seattle Insight Meditation Society. Explore the Eastside Insight Meditation Website for more information.

Steve edits Northwest Dharma News, online publication of Northwest Dharma Association, and also serves on the board of the Tibetan Nuns Project. He was an editor for the books “Open Heart Clear Mind,” “Tibetan Buddhism from the Ground Up, “ and “The Four Noble Truths.” Steve in 2017 graduated from the fifth Community Dharma Leaders program. He lives in Kirkland with his wife Ellen, and continues editing and writing after retiring in mid-2016 from a 34-year career as a journalist.

It was a privilege to have him give this dharma talk for us!

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