Dawdling behind the Blessed One - reflections on Buddhist theology
Buddhistdoor International Ittoku
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The young monks are meandering somewhat behind their Lord as the rootless Sangha moves toward the next village to counsel merchants, minister to the sick, and comfort the poor. They will stay the night before moving on to one of the larger kingdoms, where a king has invited the Buddha to preach. Ironically, by renouncing their families and careers, the new initiates have become busier than ever.
It is the advent of Buddhism in ancient India.
It is already sunset. The Perfect One turns to His left and gives a slight nod to His cousin Ananda, who is mindful of his Lord’s every movement. Noting the Buddha’s silent request, the handsome attendant and counselor of nuns turns to the good men behind him. His words carry no impatience, only purpose. “The evening star, herald of the Blessed One’s Nirvana, has greeted us from the sky,” he says. “Let us quicken our pace so we may complete our alms rounds.”
Ananda’s gentle reminder prompts the young novices to adjust themselves. They start taking eager, broader steps, their eyes reflecting the back of the Tathagata as they follow Him into the worlds of suffering.
Buddhism concerns itself with happiness and enlightenment through wisdom and compassion. It is rightly respected for safeguarding the dignity of non-violence faithfully. But to succeed in moral flourishing and genuine peace is not easy and depends on appropriate channels of spiritual devotion. By following the Buddha, worship, liturgy and other forms of reverence become a foundation for living peacefully, personally and socially. From a pastoral perspective, when we follow the Buddha we are attempting to emulate His qualities and His compassion. We strive to live up to the enlightened example as we teach, preach, and provide care to sentient beings. Finally, disciples take the Lord’s hand in an ontological, Buddhological sense because by becoming mindful of the Buddha, they are simply regaining their real identity, no longer deceived by their attachment to a non-existent, impermanent self (anatta). They are remembering their true self and unconditioned nature: their Buddha Nature.
From these three aspects of “following the Buddha”, we are able to understand the full significance of the Buddha’s life as celebrated during Vesak. We are able to glimpse what the first, original Sangha experienced in the presence of Shakyamuni. The men and women who gave up everything to follow the former prince discovered a new joy, a rebirth of wholeness in moral accordance with Dharma (the cosmic law). They had the privilege to see, speak to, listen from, and touch the Enlightened One in a physical form. On Vesak, many masters suggest that we reflect on what made the Buddha of our world-system so special.
The early canon does not lack descriptions of transformative encounters with Shakyamuni. Physically, He was strikingly irresistible to look at. The Brahmin Sonadanda declared that He was handsome, good-looking, and pleasing to the eye, with a most beautiful complexion. He has a godlike form and countenance” (D, I:115). Although it was easy for men and women alike to be enchanted by Shakyamuni’s appearance alone, it was the Truth that He embodied that was the true essence of His preeminence. Believer and critic alike found Him to be “charming”, and His voice had eight characteristics: fluency, intelligibility, sweetness, audibility, continuity, distinctness, depth, and resonance, which only His audience could hear. (SV, II:452 f.; PS II:771).
Compassion defined His deeds, and He displayed a limitless repertoire of interpersonal skills. These skills were what won over His opponents. He welcomed them to share their views with Him and would use gentle humour in His argumentation to help people see different angles of the debate. He was an expert in philosophical rigour and precision, and would employ parables, metaphors and allegories to guide His congregations to a closer understanding of the truth. He would also praise listeners for asking good questions, making them feel welcome and encouraging them to learn more about themselves.
Laity, ascetics and priests alike were eager to dwell in His assembly. Whenever He spoke, tears of grief would become tears of devotion. Followers would prostrate low before him, and kiss and wash His feet. This demonstrated the love between the living Buddha and those who met Him.
The original saints (led by the Chief Disciples Sariputra and Maudgalyayana) were honoured as the Hearers or Auditors (sravaka). They were unique because they had direct, physical access to their Bhagavat. Nevertheless, it would have been exhausting to follow the Buddha across the lands of India. It was difficult to travel the realm by foot: the ancient Sangha, dependent on the generosity of laypeople, was continually beset by monsoons and the cycle of the seasons. But the monks continued to follow the Buddha, and by His side they remained until their deaths. They were motivated by their belief in the Dharma. They believed that serving the Buddha was not simply a worthwhile responsibility, but one that led to salvation and liberation.
The calling for modern Buddhists is not dissimilar. As Vesak draws closer this month, it is prudent to reflect on the importance of a sound and deep-rooted confidence (saddha). It is really with wholehearted trust that we can hold on to the Buddha’s hand. People are free to dawdle behind Him if we wish, but it is important not to fall too far behind. It is only with right intention in profound faith that human beings find freedom in following the Buddha. To me, this would seem to be a basic calling of discipleship.
The novices are fatigued, but Ananda says nothing. He understands their physical challenges all too well – the sore backs, the hurting legs, the calloused and bleeding feet. Painfully, he realizes that he understands the questions in their hearts too: their fears, their uncertainties, and their adoration of the Buddha. He does not pull away from his empathetic thoughts until Shakyamuni speaks. “Matanga is progressing well, O Ananda. For you, she is learning to love not only one man, but also all sentient beings. This is the new happiness that she discovered.”
The attendant lowers his head in silence, embarrassed by the fond memories of the girl who loved him. “She who gave me water at the well will now quench the thirst of many more,” he muses. “The Tathagata’s ministry has transformed so many. All creatures, born and unborn – there are none who can see the Teacher of Gods and Men and remain the same.”
Suddenly, he falls silent. The village, with its wooden gates and thatched huts, has come into sight at last. The tired monks can now begin their alms rounds.
“You are all tired. No longer,” says the radiant, smiling Shakyamuni.
Ananda gestures respectfully with his hand. Despite his own exhaustion, his discipleship is much more important.
“My rest can wait, O Bhagavat. Let me wash your feet.”