This month, our morsels will be focusing on healing, in honor of Bhante Gunaratana's new book, Meditation on Perception. Today’s morsel comes from Laura S.'s 12 Steps on the Buddha’s Path. Laura (a pseudonym) describes her own journey of recovery from alcoholism and marks out the path that allowed her to emerge from that darkness as a wise and compassionate person living a life that is joyous and free. In the selection below, she begins to learn about the historical Buddha as a way to continue her recovery.
When I went to AA, what I read in its literature was much less important to me than the intimate stories I heard people share about themselves in meetings. To the extent that I identified with their feelings rather than comparing the details of my experiences to theirs, I discovered the commonality of our lives and essentially joined the human race. Their honesty made my own possible. I learned to understand the AA program through the context of others’ lives and recovery, including the cofounders, Bill W. and Dr. Bob S. I decided to try to do the same thing by learning something about the life of Siddhartha Gautama, the man who became the historical Buddha.
I knew from my first trip into relatively remote areas of Nepal that many aspects of the way of life had not changed significantly since Siddhartha was born in Lumbini, near the Indian border, in the sixth century BCE. On four subsequent trips to Nepal and India, I immersed myself as much as possible in the cultural continuities that might help me understand his life better.
Siddhartha was the son of the head of the Sakya clan and lived a life of privilege and protection. A seer had predicted before his birth that the son would become either a great political leader or a great spiritual leader. His father gave him every possible material enticement to ensure that Siddhartha would “come into the family business” as his heir. Despite having “everything”—palaces, dancing girls, a wife he loved, a newborn son—Siddhartha asked himself, “Is this all there is?”
Although I have no claims to royalty, growing up in a middle class Western family and having all my material needs more than adequately answered I had found myself seeking some deeper meaning to life (often in a bottle) and asking myself the same question. Like other idealistic malcontents of my generation, I had become an adolescent expatriate, then a hippie, then a political activist, before becoming enmeshed—still kicking and screaming “peace”—in the Establishment. Siddhartha followed a path not out of the ordinary for his time and place: He turned his back on the bountiful life he was leading and sought among ascetic teachers in northern India answers to what it means to be born as a human being and to sicken, age, and die.
For twenty-nine years Siddhartha lived in luxury. For six years he was an ascetic spiritual wanderer. He had not found the answer to his spiritual quest through extremes, so he turned to what he called the Middle Path. On the night of his thirty-fifth birthday, while meditating near Bodhgaya, India, he became enlightened about the questions regarding the nature of life that had driven his search, and he spent the next forty-five years teaching others about the pervasiveness of suffering (dukkha), the causes of suffering, the fact that the end of suffering is possible, and the path that can lead to the end of suffering, teachings widely known as the Four Noble Truths.
Now called the Buddha (the “Enlightened One” or “Awakened One”), he specifically defined dukkha as aging, illness, death, sorrow, despair, not getting or losing what we cling to. (Although dukkha is translated variously as suffering, dis-ease, dissatisfaction, pain, or stress, I’ll frequently use the original Pali term, with all its connotations.) I had no trouble acknowledging that life is filled with suffering—I had been depressive all my life. I could easily see that natural aspects of life, such as aging, illness, and death, cause pain. It took me a lot longer to understand that suffering originated with and was perpetuated when I, who am myself impermanent, cling to other things that are impermanent (life, health, a life partner, a job) as if they could ensure my happiness and would never change.
While I grappled with these ideas about clinging, I decided to turn to the Fourth Noble Truth—also called the Eightfold Path—to try to get a jump on the new happiness I was sure was coming my way. I just figured I’d work my linear way along the path until I too was enlightened. But I was quickly stymied. The more I learned about the Eightfold Path, the more certain I became that it should be called the Eightfold Circle. After even more study, it was clear to me that the only way to “lay out” the Eightfold Path was to use a hologram!—because only a three-dimensional rendering could show that everything is related to everything else.
Because the Eightfold Path falls into three broad areas—wisdom, morality, and mental training—I decided to start with the larger areas, beginning with mental training because that was my entry point into Buddhism, and because I’m perverse enough to want to master what I thought was the “ultimate goal” first.
Although I was able to meditate from the beginning, with all its benefits, I really didn’t understand why I was meditating until I began to have insight into all the other teachings. Just as I had to start with Step One in AA, I found that I needed to start with the Four Noble Truths in Buddhism. And in what seemed like simple statements, I found a depth and complexity that challenged and intrigued me.
Only by patiently exploring the ideas could I assimilate them into my life and into my AA program. Only then could I integrate Twelve Steps into the Eightfold Path, the third part of this book. I had learned through people in AA that I had to change my way of living in the world if I was to be a “happy” recovering alcoholic. I was about to learn that I had to change my way of thinking about the world if I was to be happy. Period.
How to cite this document:
© Laura S., 12 Steps on the Buddha's Path (Wisdom Publications, 2006)
This selection from Twelve Steps on the Buddha's Path by Laura S. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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