The dawn had not yet begun to illuminate the sky above the Himalayan foothills on that morning in 529 BCE (all dates approximate). A twenty-three year old man from a village in the north Indian Plains rose. He shaved off his shoulder length black hair. He put on the saffron colored robe of the Mu-ńi, and walked quietly to the door of his palatial home, careful not to awaken anyone. His name was Siddhartha Ĝotama, the son of a wealthy family in the town of Lumbini in southern Nepal.

He saw great pain in those around him. He himself felt hopelessly limited by the trappings of his own luxurious life and the outwardness of his society and rituals. This legendary pioneer was beginning his spiritual journey as a homeless wanderer. He sought knowledge, freedom from limitations, and a greater way of being. “Like others, he sought something deeper, simpler, more luminous.” (1)

Siddhartha walked south down the road to a nearby town and talked with other yellow robed travelers along the way. A flood of other men and women were also leaving their homes. They were taking up the ways of the radical liberation movement of the Unity Seekers.

Like many others, Siddhartha sought out the best teachers and endeavored to be a perfect student. He put all of his strength into intensely practicing the highly disciplined methods and insights of his teachers that may have included meditation. These techniques were stern and exacting. They required tremendous self control. Ĝotama pushed himself almost to the point of starvation. Ĝotama became more exhausted than enlightened.

After several years of total dedication to perfecting these rigorous practices, he realized that they were not working. He collapsed, close to death. He had done everything he possibly could, but had still not awakened or reached a higher level of being. Totally disillusioned, Siddhartha left all his companions. He settled alone in a quiet forest grove where he could recuperate. When his fellow seekers saw him eating again, they were disgusted and left him.

SIDDHARTHA WAS NOW TOTALLY ALONE on his journey. He wanted to live a deeper life in greater harmony. But he had failed in his life as a householder; he had walked away from his family. He had been unsuccessful in his life as a disciplined student. He had given up on his teachers and broken away from his old beliefs. (2)  Now there was no one left to tell him what to do.

The Tripitaka

In this peaceful wooded setting, removed from those around him, Siddhartha gradually regained his strength and tried to understand why his life had been such a great failure. Was there really some higher state of being human? What did a person have to do to develop a more complete existence? There must be a better way than all the harsh self-torture practices he had perfected. What was he missing?  (3) He was soon to have an extraordinary insight into these questions that would someday influence billions of people. The story is told in the ancient texts called The Five Nikayas Majjhima.

The Empiricist: Siddhartha had begun his solitary spiritual quest with no clear path ahead. He had a method for searching. He was an empiricist. He began by directly observing himself to understand what was happening. He experimented and refined his ability to search, to observe and to reflect on his own life.

The story of what happened next is preserved in the Tripitaka, the eighty-thousand wood blocks meticulously carved by Korean monks a thousand years ago. The Tripitaka is the largest and most basic text of Buddhism.

Siddhartha was an empiricist. He searched directly within.

The story of what happened next is preserved in the Tripitaka, the eighty-thousand wood blocks meticulously carved by Korean monks a thousand years ago. The Tripitaka is the largest and most basic text of Buddhism.

Siddhartha suddenly recalled an event from his own childhood, a seemingly insignificant memory, not so different from ones that many people experience “growing up”. It was the memory of a quiet moment alone. (4)

Remembering Nibanna: Siddhartha was a five-year-old in the spring of 547 BCE. One morning his family and the other villagers walked out into the fields that surrounded the village. Here the community performed an ancient annual ritual – the first plowing of the soil. (5)

Siddhartha’s caretaker brought him to a shady spot beside the field under a rose-apple tree. Sitting there alone, he watched the ceremonial plowing. A deep sadness came over him as he watched the plants and grasses and tiny insects being damaged and killed by the plowing ritual. He felt connected to his dying friends.

Then, in the quiet and warmth, he experienced a powerful moment. Even though he felt great pain at the killing, he also saw the perfection of the beautiful spring morning. There was life and growth and change. It was all just as it should be. He became intensely aware of the complete perfection of everything around him.

Siddhartha had, for a moment, gained a new way of seeing, a fuller perspective. He had been swept into this interconnected moment as a child. In this inner moment he experienced a fuller mode of being.

Now in his mid-thirties, recuperating in the quietness of the cool forest grove, Siddhartha realized the great significance of this moment in his early life. In this childhood moment he had glimpsed the world as one, perfectly interconnected. In the quietness of a childhood moment it had all happened naturally. He realized that he had been too young to have been taught this new view. He would not yet have received any instructions about the yoga positions or meditations or rituals that were known at the time. The extreme practices and rituals that he had worked so desperately to perfect were, as it turned out, unnecessary. There needed to be balance; there could be a Middle Way.

Buddha saw silence as a core essential condition for the solo journey of awakening. Human growth requires turning inward, awakening from outside reality. Exploration requires attention, concentration, and freedom from distraction. The self evolves and grows in silence. (10) Silence helps us become receptive and able to listen and see. Happiness of the highest order is attainable any age, even without having passed through preparatory stages.

It was all perfect.

Waking Up:

Almost three thousand years ago, Siddhartha Gotama woke up. The “Awakened Buddha” reached profound and wide-reaching realizations about human development and he saw silence as an essential condition for growth.

Buddha saw humans as on a journey of individual awakening. In modern terms, we are star travelers, temporarily embodied, on a journey of exploration. We are inherently divine; our true nature is like an unfolding and blossoming flower.

In looking at his own life, he realized that this greater part of himself had disappeared as he grew up and became a young student and a householder, as he assumed the roles and desires of his surroundings. The Buddha eventually discovered Nibanna as a higher state of being that could be glimpsed, and attained naturally, in the quietness. (6) It was a monumental insight. (7)

Humans are capable of finding their own true path in this journey of awakening. The true guide is one’s awakened self, not some person in the role of teacher. (8) Buddha’s last teaching was: “Be lamps unto yourselves, work out your own liberation with diligence.”

Awakening to one’s fuller being is fueled by active work in our silent laboratories, becoming receptive to the teachings to be found in our own experience. Buddha advised his disciples to test by logic and life “rather than accept anything from teachers as the wise test gold by burning. (9)  There is little need for dogma or intolerance.

Buddha saw silence as a core essential condition for the solo journey of awakening. Human growth requires turning inward, awakening from outside reality. Exploration requires attention, concentration, and freedom from distraction. The self evolves and grows in silence. (10) Silence helps us become receptive and able to listen and see. Happiness of the highest order is attainable any age, even without having passed through preparatory stages.

BUDDHA AS TEACHER

He was known as Sakyamuni – the Mu-ńi from the kingdom of Sakya. He was an active teacher until age eighty. Buddha was “The Awakened One”.

Silent teaching: At first, Buddha was very reluctant to tell others about what he had experienced. Talking about silence seemed to disturb the very place out of which his awakening was coming. (11) But silence could become part of ritual. In his teaching, the Buddha showed how silence helped us awaken to our deeper self. “He lived the kind of life which he taught that men should live.”

Buddha’s silence was eloquent. Eventually, he did discover how to use the language of silence in his teaching. His Flower Sermon is a remarkable wordless teaching. Sakyamuni held up a lotus flower for all to see, but, according to tradition, said nothing. Only one monk smiled, understanding what was happening. This wordless transmission of wisdom about “suchness” is said to be the origin of Zen Buddhism. The lotus blossom became a powerful symbol of human unfolding.

“The Buddha never said a word”, some followers believe. (12) He discovered that the most profound teaching might take place from the silence of a smile or a flower.

He conveyed the power of graceful silence through the way he lived his own paths to awakening. “Sakyamuni never involved himself in social justice, far less government…” (13)  He thought of the world as being ignorant, rather than evil. A person’s greatest contribution to others is his/her own self-realization.

The images of Buddha, created much later, show a knot of hair atop his head that came to symbolize his awakening. Buddha’s quiet presence is often memorialized with monuments in the form of footprints. By entering the path of the Buddha, people discovered their own paths and their awakened selves. Buddhism became the first of the great religions to incorporate silent practices into its very essence.

Silence was central to the radical new vision of human possibility that Buddha was unveiling.

Buddhism provided a mental toolkit for improving psychological well-being. “Among all the world’s religious traditions, the unique contribution of Buddhism may have been to demonstrate that, if you wished, you could remove supernatural beings from the picture and start investigating the mind solely for the purpose of improving well-being. Having shown the gods the door, essentially what we were left with was psychology.”  (14)

The journey of awakening is following one’s true path.

SUGGESTIONS FOR PRACTICE

● Write about an aspect of Siddhartha’s life that you most identify with.

● In the Dhammapada, Buddha said “Empty your boat, seeker, and you will travel more swiftly.” Write about what that means to you personally.

©Robert Charles Smith, PHD


(1)Carmody, Denise Lardner and Carmody, John Tully (1996) Mysticism: Holiness East and West, p. 61.  https://amzn.to/2A7jHiV
(2)Radhakrishnan, S. (1950) The Dhammapada, p. 8.  https://amzn.to/2IRhquT
(3)Armstrong, Karen (2001) Buddha, Penguin p. xxv.   https://amzn.to/2IUXoPS
(4)The Five Nikayas, http://host.pariyatti.org/treasures/The_Five_Nikayas-Anguttara_Nikaya.pdf 410.
(5)Armstrong, Karen (2006) The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, p. 277.   https://amzn.to/2QMbgPh
(6)Armstrong, Karen (2001) Buddha p. 81.  https://amzn.to/2IUXoPS
(7)[nibanna = “blowing out” Karen Armstrong, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, 2007 p. 275]
(8)Zimmer, Heinrich (1969) Philosophies of India, p 160.  https://amzn.to/2QMbt51
(9)Radhakrishnan, S. (1950) The Dhammapada, p. 10-11.  https://amzn.to/2IRhquT
(10)Radhakrishnan, S. (1950) The Dhammapada, p. 31.  https://amzn.to/2IRhquT
(11)Prothero, Stephen (2011) God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World p. 208.  https://amzn.to/2QL19ug
(12)Prothero, Stephen God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World.  https://amzn.to/2QL19ug
(13)Matthiessen, Peter. The Snow Leopard. (2008) p. 18.   https://amzn.to/2QRURsT
(14)Kingsland, James, (2006) Siddhartha’s Brain, p12, 72.  https://amzn.to/2pNHZby