On the 1st of January, 1994, I was in Sarnath, where the Buddha preached His first discourse, known as The Turning of the Wheel of the Law. I had arrived there from Kathmandu the previous evening, and was looking forward to spending time in this generally peaceful place. But upon entering the grounds of the sacred site after returning from an excursion in nearby Varanasi, I found it very unpeaceful, as—being a public holiday—it was crowded with holiday makers. They were everywhere, sprawled on the grass around the central stupa* and among the ruins, picnicking, playing football and cricket—some young people were even dancing to music from their cassette players!— although there were signs around the place forbidding such activities. Rules like this are seldom respected or enforced in India.

At one side of the main stupa a Tibetan lama was giving a Dharma talk to quite a large group of people, most of whom were Westerners, many of them monks and nuns. I didn’t want to join them, however; I only wanted to be quiet. But how to be quiet with so many noisy people around, and harsh music blaring from the ubiquitous loud-speakers outside the grounds? I felt sad at the irreverence of the local people, although I had seen so much of it before in other places that it should have caused me no surprise and I should even have expected it. Contrary to what many people think about Indians, they are, in general—though we must always be wary of generalizations—not highly spiritual, but, in reality, among the most materialistic in the world; the fact that they might not have the opportunities or financial means to indulge their materialistic desires does not disprove this, and the frequent occurrence of so-called ‘dowry-murders’ overwhelmingly supports it.

I passed through the crowds and went over to the Burmese monastery on the far side of the park, hoping to find some quiet there. Well, it was quieter, to be sure, but none of the monks I met or saw showed much friendliness, and I was either ignored or met with quizzical looks, probably because of my dress, which is different from theirs. It has been my experience, over the years, that Theravada monks, in particular, find it very hard to deal with monks who do not ‘belong’ or subscribe to their type of Buddhism (once, at the Great Stupa at Bodnath, Kathmandu, I saw a Nepalese Theravada monk, and greeted him in the customary way with joined palms and the word "Namaste". Getting no response from him, I then said: "No Namaste?", at which he hurriedly mumbled "Namaste". Sometimes, I wonder why I even bother). Sadly, sectarianism is widespread among Buddhists, although it has never given rise to violence, as it has among the followers of other religions.

Preferring the noise of the crowds to the non-friendliness of the Burmese monastery, I went back to the Deer Park, to look for a place to sit; I had a feeling that something was about to happen, although I had no idea what. So I sat down cross-legged beneath a tree, on an ancient wall of a ruined monastery, with my eyes half-closed and downcast, and my mind soon became focused and calm. Although curious people kept coming by to look at me and make fun and silly remarks, I ignored them and didn’t allow it to disturb me. After a few minutes, someone came and stood at one side of me, looking intently at me; I could feel his gaze; but I didn’t move or acknowledge him in any way. After some more minutes, he sat down nearby, and I thought: "He wants something. Well, let him wait; I’ll test him to see how much he wants it". So I continued to sit there, unmoving, for maybe another twenty minutes, and then I stirred, at which he stood up and came over to me with his hands joined in anjali (the Indian form of greeting). Politely and respectfully, he said: "I noticed you sitting there and was impressed, so asked my friends to leave me here for a while and come back later. I am interested in meditation", he said, "and wonder if you would explain something about this for me".

I asked him if he knew the significance of the place we were in, but he said, "Not really". I found this a bit hard to believe, as he had already told me that he was studying philosophy in the nearby Varanasi University, so how could he know nothing about this Buddhist holy place? Maybe he just said this to see how much I would tell him.

Anyway, I told him that this was the place where the Buddha gave His first sermon to the five ascetics who had formerly been his companions, and I related to him the reason they had left Him. Before his Enlightenment, they had followed him in his austere and extreme practices, waiting for him to make the breakthrough, and feeling that he would then show them the way. But when Siddhartha failed to achieve his goal by fasting so much that he was reduced to just skin and bones and almost died as a result, he realized that this was the wrong way and that, just as a life of luxury and pleasure, as he had lived in the palace, was ignoble and unprofitable, just so was a life of self-mortification and deprivation, which he had recently followed; both ways make the mind dull and incapable of seeing things clearly. He felt that there had to be a middle way which avoided these two extremes, and that it would be the way of meditation such as he had experienced in his boyhood when he had been taken out to the countryside and left in the shade of a tree while his father and courtiers went off to lead the Spring Ploughing Festival. Gradually, the young prince became aware of the suffering all around him: of how the oxen that pulled the ploughs were beaten and goaded to make them pull harder, how the ploughmen sweated and strained under the hot sun, how worms and insects were exposed and died as the plough-shares cut through the earth, and how birds came down to devour them, how big birds attacked small birds; he noted how life lived on life, from the smallest of its forms to the largest, and how man was also a predator. His observations moved him so profoundly that he seated himself cross-legged, with back erect, and his mind automatically became calm and clear. It was the memory of this incident so many years before that now showed him the way to go: not by torturing and starving the body shall I find liberation, he thought, but by observing how things are.

But when he began to eat again, the five yogis who had attended him thought he had abandoned his search and returned to a life of sense-pleasures, so left him in disgust; alone again, he nevertheless determined to continue his quest. Slowly, his strength returned, and after some weeks, recovered and refreshed, while seated beneath a tree respected by Buddhists ever since as the ‘Bodhi tree’ or ‘Tree of Awakening’, he became Enlightened, became a Buddha, an Awakened One. He had achieved His goal, had clearly understood Suffering, the cause of Suffering, that Suffering can Cease, and the way that leads to the Cessation of Suffering.

After His Enlightenment, He was at first inclined to remain alone in the forest, thinking that what He had discovered was very hard to comprehend, and that if He tried to share it with others, no-one would understand, and it would only be needlessly troublesome for Him. But we know that He eventually decided to go forth and teach, and when He had so decided, He considered who He should teach. He turned His thoughts to his five former companions. "They were intelligent and good, even if a little misguided", He thought; "They will understand".

And so He set off to join them in the place where, by His psychic vision, he saw them to be staying. This was in a park just outside Varanasi, about 200 kms from where He had become Enlightened. It took Him maybe two weeks or more to walk there as He was in no hurry. When He arrived there, the five saw Him coming in the distance, and said to each other: "See who is coming: it’s Siddhartha! Ignore him; we don’t respect him anymore; he abandoned his search for truth". But as He came nearer, so impressive was His appearance and bearing that they forgot their resolve to ignore Him, and spontaneously rose to receive Him respectfully. One took His alms-bowl, one took His upper robe, another brought water for Him to wash His face and feet, another gave Him water to drink, and the other prepared a place for Him to sit. Then, refreshed and seated, He addressed them thus: "Open is the Gate to the Deathless. I have found that which I sought! Listen, and I will reveal it to you", and He explained about the Middle Way He had discovered, which avoided the extremes of a life of pleasure and luxury on the one hand, and a life of self-mortification and deprivation on the other, and which leads to Enlightenment. He explained the Four Noble Truths: how all living things Suffer, how Suffering arises, how Suffering ceases, and the Way that leads to the Cessation of Suffering. As He spoke about these things, one of the five—Kondanya, by name—became enlightened, and the Buddha saw it on his face, because when a person understands something very deeply and clearly, it does show on his face, like a light radiating outwards through the skin. The Buddha exclaimed: "Kondanya has understood! Kondanya has understood!"

At this point in my narrative—and I must confess that I have fleshed it out a bit in writing here for the sake of further clarification for my readers—I asked the young man—as I will now ask my readers—to visualize the scene of the Buddha speaking to the five yogis; it is most important to do so. What the Buddha looked like, we really don’t know, but He certainly would not have looked like the images we have made to represent Him. If He had not yet shaved His head at that time, as an example of what He later asked His monks to do, He probably looked like a yogi Himself, with long, matted hair and beard. And if He didn’t look like that, the five almost certainly would have done, and not as most Buddhist art since then has shown them, as Buddhist monks, with shaven heads and faces, clad in typical Buddhist robes; we must keep it in mind that, at this point, there were no Buddhist monks; they were about to become the first; and it was some time after this that the uniform of the monks was decided upon. They—and the Buddha Himself—would have looked weather-beaten and not overly clean, living the life they did.

We have idealized the Buddha so much that it is now hard to imagine Him as a normal-looking human being, yet such He was, behind all the deification of Him that has gone on since. Indeed, there are still Buddhists who believe that He was about five meters tall! And in Thailand, there is a beautiful temple built around a depression in the rock that is believed to be a footprint of the Buddha, but it is so big that a person could get into it and lie down! This is not realistic and merely increases superstition and ignorance instead of diminishing them! Buddhists are often guilty of idolatry—as we are sometimes accused of being—but we are by no means the only ones; it is really quite common, and comes about through mistaking the form for the essence. (Besides, the Buddha never went to Thailand, and probably never even went beyond the Ganges river-valley, or saw the sea).

Continuing, I asked the young man if he imagined the five yogis to all be sitting in the same position—the posture we associate with meditation: cross-legged, straight-backed, hands in lap and eyes downcast—like statues, or photo copies of each other, as they appear in Thai or Indian pictures of this scene? Would they not probably—I went on—have been sitting in various postures—maybe with chin in hand, and so on—relaxed, yet perfectly attentive? We can be attentive without sitting cross-legged, can we not? And in that attentive state, they would not have been thinking about the past, the future, or even the present; nor would they have been thinking about or practicing meditation, as do so many ‘meditators’; they would have been rapt, paying complete attention; they were in the present, in meditation. Have we not all known this kind of meditation at times? Of course we have, but we probably didn’t realize what it was, and so we ask around about meditation, thinking that it must be something exotic and special instead of something we have known—in one way—for most of our lives. But it is because we have not understood what we have known that we continue to jump around, seeking teachers, doing meditation courses and retreats, and so on, looking, but not seeing, and in the end we have to come back to ourselves, having gone a long, circuitous way around, when a little intelligent thought would have saved us so much time and trouble. It is rather like rubbing two sticks together—and wet sticks, at that!—in order to produce fire, when there are matches and other means of ignition at hand. Why do we insist on doing things the hard way? What are we aiming for with our pious and strenuous practices? What kind of race do we think we are running—a marathon or something? If the aim of our meditation practice is insight—insight into how things are—do we think that insight can only be ‘attained’ by doing things like sitting cross-legged for hours and hours? Obviously, we think that insight can be made to arise, and that it is within our capacity to do it—to ‘storm the gates of heaven’, as it were. The corollary of this is to conclude that people who don’t practice such things are incapable of experiencing insight, which is a great misconception and reveals our greed and desire to get something in return for our efforts, instead of seeing things as they are and what we’ve already got. Thus, our religious practices become materialistic—what the late Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche—a well-known Tibetan lama—referred to as ‘spiritual materialism’: the craving for and attachment to results.

Still with my young inquirer: I asked him if he had seen the Tibetan monk over near the main stupa, speaking to a large group of mostly Westerners. He said he hadn’t, but I told him they were there anyway. These people, I went on, had left the comfort and luxury of their homes on the other side of the world, to come to dirty and smelly India where one must undergo so many hassles as a matter of routine (anyone who has been to India will surely know what I mean here), in search of Dharma. And all around them are native people oblivious to this, just enjoying themselves with picnics and games. Why should this be? And why are you different? Why do you want to know about these things? Why aren’t you enjoying yourself instead, like your people here? Don’t even try to answer, I told him, because you don’t know, which is how it should be, as the roots of the present—and of any situation and thing—are hidden in the past, and very few of them can be perceived. There are no accidents in life, but neither is everything pre-ordained; everything arises from causes, and there are so many contributory causes to each effect that it is simply impossible to imagine or perceive them all. You must accept the fact that you are different, even though it is often difficult to be different and ‘odd’. And try to keep the flame of your inquiry burning steadily—not high one minute and low the next. Ask questions, yes—ask questions of anyone and leave no stone unturned—but do not accept their answers unthinkingly, as their answers will not be your answers, and in such matters, second-hand answers will never completely satisfy us; at most, they can reassure us somewhat and help us to check and confirm our experiences; we must find our own answers; there is no substitute for this.

The young man seemed satisfied with my explanation and went away with a light step; and as for me, I knew that this was the reason why I had felt the need to sit down; my feeling had been vindicated.

Our desire and search for results from our efforts often blinds us to what is here. The Buddhist scriptures tell of many people becoming enlightened by listening to the Buddha speak, and often, these were people who had no conscious knowledge of meditation and had never ‘practiced’ it. So, to maintain that "meditation is the only way"—as a well-known Buddhist figure in Malaysia has said—is incorrect, unless we consider meditation in a much broader way than most ‘meditators’ consider it: that there is nothing outside of it, that it is all inclusive. Enlightenment arises as a result of seeing things clearly—not with our physical eyes, but with the ‘third eye’ or ‘eye of understanding’. Understanding plays such a big part in our lives—from very basic things like how to tie our shoelaces or make tea, to perception of reality. So, we might say meditation concerns understanding, and understanding is not something we do, but is rather something that happens to or in us, something, in fact, that does us! In this way, who doesn’t meditate? Who has not known meditation? Away with these foolish and elitist questions of "Do you meditate?", "What kind of meditation do you practice?", "Who is your meditation teacher?", and so on. Come on; wake up!

The Pali word ‘bhavana’ is usually translated ‘mental development’, and includes what we generally mean by words like concentration, meditation, contemplation and mindfulness. As ‘mental development’, therefore, what is it but bhavana when we learn how to read and write in school? This is also mental development, no? Moreover, being a healthy kind of mental development, it is in line with the Buddha’s Teachings.

If you wish to ‘practice’ meditation, by all means do so; do whatever you wish, as long as it’s not harmful to anyone or anything, and as long as you are prepared to accept the consequences of your actions without complaining or blaming others for them. Whatever you do, however, whether it be chanting, praying, ‘practicing’ meditation, keeping moral precepts, giving, abstaining from eating meat, etc., be careful not to become proud of it, as that would only defeat the purpose, and you would become like a dog running round and round in circles, chasing its own tail. It is not rare to come across people who are proud of their practices, thinking they are better than those who don’t do such things; but they should be regarded as our teachers, too, in that they show us, by their example, what not to do or how not to do it. Thus, everything becomes positive.

Care should be taken about one’s motives for ‘practicing’ meditation, and what one expects to get from doing so. We should know why we are doing what we are doing. Some people, overly concerned with results from their efforts, not only become blind to what is often right in front of them, but sometimes become mentally unhinged or disturbed. If one is not careful, and in a great hurry for results, meditation may easily become maditation! There are many cases of it.

Approach life with Dharma and everything becomes meditation; anytime, anywhere, insight might arise.

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* (A ‘stupa’ is a reliquary monument, usually with a hemispherical base surmounted by a spire; they are objects of devotion and pilgrimage. Some stupas, as found in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand, are huge and can be seen from far away).

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