There’s a lot of talk in Buddhism about awakening—a buddha is literally “one who is awake,” so there’s no getting away from it. But we can get stuck on Awakening with a capital A and forget there’s more to it.
In the story of the Buddha, we’re told that Siddhartha (before he was the Buddha) managed one day to go beyond the walls of the palace where he had grown up and been protected, for years, from any encounters with suffering. Making his way through the town, he was confronted, for the first time in his life, with the realities of sickness, old age, and death. With each sighting, he asked his attendant, “Will this happen to everyone?” and then, “Even me?” In one devastating afternoon, he went from a life of total comfort to one of knowing that everyone, without exception, was either suffering or had suffering in their future. Even him.
We can roll our eyes at this—how, exactly, did he not even know that people around him were aging? But then we miss the point. The power of this story, of this moment, is that he got up that morning not knowing the inevitability of suffering, and when he went to bed that night, he knew. We may not have that one clear moment; whether we choose to confront them directly, we’re naturally aware of sickness, aging, and death. They’re there in the background, then an event close to us brings one of them to the foreground, then they fade back. Siddhartha, in the way the story is told, took it in all at once, and the shock was so great that it couldn’t possibly fade from his view. It became everything he saw—he couldn’t look away.
The suffering Siddhartha took in that day is always in front of our faces, but right now, it may also feel like it’s a bit closer. Sickness, rather than being an abstraction or a category, is one particular sickness; we’re all in relationship to it, whether we’re treating it or hiding from it. So even as we try to avoid this particular sickness, we cannot avoid sickness. Aging, too—because of how it ties into this sickness—is staring us all in the face. Am I of an age to be even more vulnerable? Are my parents? And death: in a way that we usually associate with war, we’re watching the numbers go up every day, and we know there’s more to come. Death is always all around us; in that basic sense, nothing has changed. But we’re more awake to it. And that matters.
Without that waking up—waking up to suffering—there is no other waking up. For many, it takes until we reach old age ourselves, and the sickness it can bring, and the starkness of mortality, before we open our eyes to it more than just a crack. But we can take this unique moment, this strange and frightening moment, to open our eyes wide. Wake up to this. Everything rests on that. Everything follows from that kind of seeing.
There’s another piece to Siddhartha’s afternoon, and it holds just as much weight as those first three encounters. After the shock of seeing sickness, old age, and death, Siddhartha saw a wandering ascetic, someone who had given up positions and status and dedicated everything to the spiritual path. That person, in their simple clothes, had put aside the distractions of politics and entertainment and gossip; they had let go of any conventional idea of success or wealth. They were free from systems, free to explore their own conditioning and move beyond it. Siddhartha saw this person and understood, in a way that changed his entire path, There is a completely different way to live. Everything he had taken for granted until then was revealed as a choice, as a fabrication.
By the next day he was an ascetic himself, and within a few years, he was the Buddha, the awakened one. Different traditions can argue about what that second awakening was, or how we can replicate it ourselves, but that first one, on that afternoon outside the palace—we know what that was. It’s what’s all around us right now: the suffering and the fear, yes, but also the clarity that however we did things before this started, there is a different way. We can rest in this sadness, and we can also choose a different approach. We just have to open our eyes a little wider.
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 Zen Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the ZNS Podcast.
In Buddhist culture, the dragonfly is symbolic to the concept of healing and transformation. The Dragonfly Reverie Earrings are made with sterling silver and paua shells. Made in the US.
Quality meditation cushions are an important, once-in-a-lifetime investment for every serious meditator. Purchase a matching solid- color buckwheat zafu (pronounced za' - foo) and a zabuton (pronounced za' - boo - tawn) as a set and save! The ZZSET makes a great gift! Also available in Jumbo for our long legged meditators over 6 ft tall.
Om Mani Padme Hum, the mantra of Great Compassion, is hand carved and hand painted on 8mm lapis beads strung with durable elastic. Lapis is the gemstone associated with the Medicine Buddha. Made in Nepal. Fits most wrists.