Under the Bodhi Tree

He considered St John of the Cross lucky – a dark night is one thing, but many years of purgatory quite another. And so, ignoring for a while the faith into which he was born, he determined to put to the test the simple teachings of an ascetic monk born in Nepal over two millennia ago.

What was he seeking, this modern man, this follower of an ancient and revered path? He sought freedom from suffering. It was that simple. And stripped to the core that is what Buddhism claimed to offer. Quite possibly he also sought a vanishing, a snuffing out. Nirvana itself.

If asked whether he sought enlightenment, he would be puzzled and somewhat reticent in his answer. An ascent to a state of bliss was one thing. But to become enlightened hinted at attributes to which he felt neither entitled nor worthy. He would settle quite happily for relief from pain and leave enlightenment to those saintly souls who possessed the qualifications to make such a goal attainable.

He had always had an intellectual and analytical disposition and there perhaps was his undoing. Some 30 years previously, during a particularly dark period in his blighted existence, he had taken on the serious task of discovering why it was that he was so cursed. The Book of Middle Eastern Faery Tales seemed to provide no answer and certainly no practical remedy for misery. Glorious as the language was and charming as he found some of its stories, no one appeared to be offering relief from suffering. Not in this world anyway.

In sharp contrast, the ancient Nepalese holy man and his band of followers offered far more practical help. In the here and now. Sit and meditate they said, and it didn’t sound very complex.

There was considerable other material in the Buddhist canon which, as with the Book of Middle Eastern Faery Tales, had grown over the years, as adherents added their own interpretation and complexity to what had once been a remarkably simple doctrine.

Those many years ago, he had assumed that all this extra baggage perhaps had some meaning. He came to realize more recently that it did not. It was all very simple really and it boiled down to doing unto others. A few simple rules, a few ethical guidelines written on a tablet of stone or spelled out as noble truths.

He had tried being good, as most of us have done, and partially succeeded although not to an extent he felt particularly satisfied with. He understood though that a release from suffering could not be attained from a position of pure evil or unpleasantness. He did his best, and off and on over many years he sat and meditated.

In earlier days he assumed that the task of meditation involved some magic, some esoteric secret that could only be learnt from masters in remote mountain caves or perhaps in blossom filled monasteries on Honshu. And he visited such places whenever the opportunity arose. And from those visits he gained much solace and there was indeed a magic which seemed to emanate from the beauty and order he found there.

On a bright spring morning at the Meiji Shrine, priests in traditional garb chanted and methodically beat an immense brass gong. Quite what the ceremony entailed he never discovered, but he was at home. As he was in any sacred place, be it a Benedictine Abbey, or a remote Buddhist shrine sitting atop a mountain on an island off Hong Hong.

Peace, he felt such a depth of calm and wonder in such places. But on his return the outside world always spoiled it for him – the drudgery of mortgages and bills, careers and responsibility.

One day he had had enough. In a period of extreme blackness he set aside the trappings of modernity and sat. And meditated. For many hours each day, over many weeks.

And he began to see what the Buddha had meant. Following his breath, he let his mind go blank and his body relax. And peace would descend, after a while.

He saw no visions, no gods. No dramatic revelations came to him. He felt neither omniscient nor omnipotent.

And yet the world receded and all that was left was his own consciousness. The darkness left and his soul floated.

So far, he is able to claim no permanent change. The dark night returns to be dispelled anew each day. But it can at least be banished, if only for a while.

A release from suffering as promised by the ancients? Maybe. One day, perhaps. The path may be a long and winding one, the cure not instant. But there is joy in a retreat into silence. A journey through quiet hours away from modernity and aggression. Days filled also with music and country walks, birdsong and singing.

A voyage into the soul, a search for god or reality. Not a path for all but he determined to continue along its way. The end was not in sight but he decided to trust that there was one.

15 Comments

  1. Unfortunately, Anthony, there IS an end, and it IS in sight. As Jim Morrison noted, “No one here gets out alive.” https://capost2k.wordpress.com/2015/12/06/no-one-here-gets-out-alive/
    We who are in retirement mode can see it more clearly, but anyone can see it if they are willing to consider all of life’s anomalies, how children sometimes die pre-birth, in infancy or as young people.
    It is what comes after this life that should concern us.
    As one writer put it, “If Christ is risen, nothing else matters. And if Christ is not risen — nothing else matters.” (Jaroslav Pelikan)
    Then Paul comes along and says, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.” 1 Corinthians 15:20-21
    ❤️&🙏, c.a.

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  2. For those who suffer dark nights (or years) an end often looks very attractive indeed and the very last thing such tortured souls would want is any sort of afterlife. Hence perhaps the attraction of Buddhism and its promise of emptiness. Which is effectively what meditation brings. In this life. Eastern mythology has always held a great appeal for me. I always enjoyed Grasshopper back in the 1970s!

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  3. I’m now just fifty eight months and the entry four days to stepping off the corporate hamster wheel (not that I’m counting!), at which point I’ll certainly take a leaf out of your book and spend a lot of time in quiet and peaceful contemplation, free from the distractions of the material realm.

    My right hemisphere is telling me to get off now, but is currently being overruled by my left hemisphere, so my Huxleyian reducing valve isn’t open enough to see the inner light, yet. But it will, in time…

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    1. And I know that you will benefit from that. The great conundrum of course is material security in an unsatisfactory world where intense human competition makes survival far from assured. Our religious friends put it down to Eve’s foolish attention to the serpent in the Garden of Eden before which, apparently, all was rosy. Much as I may think the story at once rather beautiful and nonsensical it does show just how much we mostly fear and loathe the necessity to maintain ourselves in a harsh physical world.

      Which is why of course I continue my search for Narnia, Hobbiton and Nutwood!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I like the way you look at the central purpose of Buddhism here, to relieve suffering. That is what the Buddha taught as the Four Noble Truths. I’ll paraphrase:
    1. Life is painful/disappointing.
    2. The cause of our suffering is attachment/craving.
    3. There is a way to end attachment and suffering.
    4. It is to follow the Eightfold Path.
    https://www.learnreligions.com/the-four-noble-truths-450095

    Meditation is part of the path, perhaps partly because it involves exaggerated conditions of happiness and suffering. We can enjoy immense bliss and peace, but we crave this and are frustrated by all sorts of disturbances. So it teaches us about that.

    Buddhism involves some fairytales too, though. Some of them can be blamed on later accretions, but some very central tenets were there from the start. Modern psychology makes a better job of explaining why ethical action, kindness and compassion, etc. helps us to be happy and free, compared with the dubious philosophy of karma, for instance.

    Thank you for a most thoughtful and stimulating post, Anthony!

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    1. Hello John! How nice to hear from you and thank you for posting.

      While I may dress up my thoughts in poetic language, nevertheless, like you, I have a horrible suspicion it all boils down to physics in the end. And evolution on top of that. Pleasant feelings in our minds being the result of chemical reactions. Evolution directing our behavior in ways suitable for the replication of our species.

      Having said that, nothing in science prevents feeling in certain ways, and mysticism (generated by chemical reactions) is still a genuine feeling, qualia perhaps. Psilocybin reliably brings on a mystical experience in the brain. A sense of awe, wonder, and connectedness. These feelings may not be “real” in any external sense and yet they are certainly real in terms of the experience “felt” by the pshyconaut.

      And so to The Hydrogen Sonata which I am re-reading currently. A Culture novel. Banks expands greatly on his idea of Subliming – the transfer of a species or even an AI to a realm which more traditionally would have been called Nirvana or heaven.

      All done with the aid of science. Such a place is to be found in the physical realm but somewhere within the 11 dimensions not normally accessible.

      In any event, the point I am trying to make is that reality itself is probably so dramatically more than we can currently see. And that Nirvana can probably be created by the science of an ultra advanced civilization.

      Or at least that is my hope!

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      1. It seems to me such a strange hope, the ‘probable’ ability of a civilization you don’t know exists to create a scientific Nirvana. Do you mean that, or something else? I can’t see how that hope is of any value to us, here in this ultra backward civilization. And your post was about Buddhism, the principles of which do offer real liberation.

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      2. I have yet to discover whether liberation is achievable. For me. Perhaps Buddhism has relieved the suffering of many others but the proof of the pudding must be in the eating. My narrow circle of aquaintenances does not contain any Buddhists. Let alone practitioners who have achieved enlightenment, Nirvana, release from the wheel of existence. Thus far I have obtained some temporary relief from endless depression. But I am no more qualified as yet to speak as to the truth of Buddhism than I am to opine on the existence or non existence of the Abrahamic God. I need to touch the wound, to experience the release of liberation. As to a scientific Nirvana, I have always rather enjoyed the extravagant claims of the American physicist Frank Tipler. Who knows. Not I.

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      3. https://lettersquash.wordpress.com/2019/06/01/natural-consciousness-part-1-emptiness/

        Science may be what its about though John. I have just been reading your post on emptiness. If all meditation does is to reduce consciousness to nothing perhaps suffering is only reduced while the meditative trance lasts. Although presumably this was not the Buddhist intention. Is the realization that we have no soul sufficient to induce a permanent reduction in suffering, or, once the meditative trance ends, does the incredible bleakness of such a belief cause us to fall right back into stygian gloom?

        So where does science come in? Whether or not a soul exists, science has the ability to alter qualia, to alter our experience of reality. Substances of abuse and meditation may enable us to escape feelings of despair on a temporary basis. Currently available drugs (morphine for instance) lead to decline and death if over used.

        What science may eventually provide is a medicine or a genetic enhancement to eliminate the feelings of despair and to raise the hedonic set point of somebody whose set point is too low to bear.

        In that respect a scientific Nirvana is a distinct and not at all unrealistic possibility. Perhaps inevitability. I quote Banks and sublimation merely as an example of such a possibility taken to its logical extreme. Such liberation would be every bit as real as that offered by Buddhism, perhaps more so.

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  5. Did he ever think of staying in the spiritually joyful places he visited? Or did the world you describe pull him back? There’s a tradition you cannot disobey without severe repercussions. Do you think this man you described disobeyed his promptings and suffered the consequences? I often wonder if despite my special blessings I inadvertently disobeyed my promptings only to plunge into a lifetime of worldly turmoil. K.

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    1. He is trying very hard at the moment to reside (for good) in the spiritually joyful places he visits. He has, probably for most of his life, been aware of his nature and ignored it, always getting sucked back into the material world you describe. Hence his fascination with monasticism and mysticism, Eastern and Western. While he does not necessarily “believe” as such in the various holy scriptures (be it the Tao Te Ching or the Gospels) his whole mind lights with joy when he reads them. Suggesting to him there must be kernels of truth to be found in all such good works. Today it was the turn of the Gospel of St John, read quietly in a stone church first built around 618 AD. What magnificent poetry, what majesty. In the Beginning was God. Substitute the word God for the transcendent reality of your choice and your mind reels with the infinite possibilities of ultimate reality.

      In other words Keith you are, as usual, entirely correct. The only sensible choice at his stage of life is to seek to see the face of god. To transcend, to see the truth hidden behind the screen of the mortal world. True happiness can only come from such a path and his wife is encouraging him to follow it.

      All good wishes
      A

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