While many traditions commemorate the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and passing into nirvana on one day, with the celebration of Vesak, Zen has traditionally spaced them out. His passing is marked on February 8, his birth on April 8 (or sometimes May 8), and his enlightenment on December 8. At Zen temples around the world—some on the first day of the month, some a little later—practitioners will sit in silent retreat, or sesshin, breaking on the morning when, according to the story, Siddhartha looked up and saw the morning star.
Whether you’re sitting from morning till night in a monastery or in your pajamas in the living room for a few minutes before your kids wake up, this time of year is an opportunity to ask, “What am I doing—what am I aiming for, with this Buddhism and meditation stuff? And how am I doing it?” Much of how we answer those questions might depend on how we imagine that scene with Siddhartha and the bodhi tree, and where we see ourselves in relationship to it.
The most common approach, I suspect, is to see ourselves as Siddhartha, just as he’s sitting down. That’s a beautiful place to be, a place of perfect possibility. In that simple act of sitting is an attitude of perfect resolve, total commitment—Siddhartha said he would not stand up again until he achieved his aim, and though most of us probably don’t have quite that same determination or follow-through, we can try it on and soak up some of the inspiration behind it. It’s a posture of confidence and safety—according to the story, Siddhartha wasn’t kidding about not standing up again, and the tree knew it, and the animals knew it, and the clouds knew it, and all those beings watched and collectively held their breath, not because they weren’t sure he could do it but because his resolve had made his success a certainty. What a place to be.
Most of us—most of the time, at least—probably don’t feel any of that. Still, we sit down because there’s a faith in the practice, in the process. We’re here, in all our doubt and stress and confusion, but there’s something over there, something we can reach with some sincere effort. If this is how you feel, like there’s a goal and a way to get there, then the point is to find that deep sense of resolve, to find that feeling of immovability. That may not come naturally, but it’s available, always.
In Zen, at least in the tradition in which I was trained, there’s another way of doing this. In this approach, you’re not Siddhartha sitting down in the evening, full of promise. Instead, you’re the Buddha the next morning, sitting beneath the tree with the great matter of life and death resolved. All those beings that were watching in anticipation have silently celebrated and taken a breath again. The sun is coming up. The birds are singing. And you are resting in goallessness, free from any idea of here versus over there, ordinary versus enlightened.
This posture stems from the teaching that we are all already buddha, whether we see it or not. And most of us don’t. But Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen in Japan, made a whole career of saying, in a thousand ways, “You’re a buddha—start acting like one.” For most of us, that practice may initially have elements of imitation. What would Buddha do? But the real message here is not to sit like a buddha but to sit as a buddha, to rest in that and to let go of your feeling, even for a moment, that buddhahood is somewhere on the horizon or around the corner. In this approach, the critical thing is to gently let things be as they are—you, others, the room, the noise from the neighbors. Let the idea of obstacles dissolve.
There’s a third approach: be the tree. Let go of the idea that you are becoming something. Let go of the idea that you have become something, or even that you’ve always been that thing. Instead, open your heart and mind to see, with sympathy and love, that everyone else is navigating this same complex journey. Some are looking for the tree; some see it but aren’t ready to approach, some are sitting down, forming that unshakeable resolution. And some are sitting as if they’ve always been there—but maybe, as even the Buddha himself was, not quite sure how to get up, or where to go from there. Being the tree beneath which others take shelter is more than an act of generosity—it’s an act of letting go of your own story. It’s dropping the project of enlightenment, dropping the idea of fruition, and taking up the practice of seeing—wherever you look, in everyone you meet—buddhahood. It’s embracing others’ confusion and pain and making space for it. It’s being a safe place, creating a small patch of shade for others to work out their own path.
All three of these approaches are authentic—all three are beautiful reflections of this vast, profound tradition. And: we don’t have to choose just one. Maybe one day you’re Siddhartha, another day the Buddha, another day the Bodhi tree.
Maybe we can be all three at once. There’s only one way to find out.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the their podcast.
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