Enlightenment or Banana

[Photo copyright by Gareth Bogdanoff via Flickr under creative commons licence]

Today I would like to share a wonderful little story I remember from one of Jack Kornfields many online dhamma talks. It’s about Joseph Goldstein, one of the pioneers of the Vipassana-Meditation movement in the West.

When he was young, he practiced in India at monasteries where the food sometimes was very poor. Only every other day they would get something special for dinner; some sort of a small sweet banana.

One time he was sitting in meditation, feeling himself getting deeper and deeper into a very calm and relaxed state of concentration. He knew he was about to experience something wonderful, enlightenment was getting closer and closer, he could really just sense it…

** Suddenly he heard the dinner bell.**

He knew he had to make a decision:

It was either >enlightenment< or >banana<.

He said, usually the banana won.


Becoming noble

Noble Truths
[Photo copyright by Jess Hamilton via Flickr under creative commons licence]

The core teachings of Buddhism are condensed in what is known as the >Four Noble Truths< and for a good decade now I was confused about this terminology. Why would the historic Buddha, who was such an practical and straight forward man use such a weird and, well, kind of cheesy term like >noble truths<? They are not even truths, they are merely guidelines to train along, they are not even close to all the christian commandments. On top of it, if they are not even >truths<, why would they be >noble<? And by the way, what is noble?

I got lucky, because, I finally came across the brilliant talks of one Dr. John Peacock who kindly explained something very obvious that I was completely missing all those years. The historical context.

Turns out that in the time of the Buddha India was a highly structured society. You were born in a class, you stayed in that class, you died in that class (not that much different from today, I know). The spiritual world of this pre-Hindu society was guided by the Brahman priests who ruled over a very strict orthopractical religion. This means your life was not about what you believed (orthodox) but what you did (orthopractic) – and what you did were your daily rituals.

To be a good member of your society you had to perform rituals – a lot of them – at specific times throughout your day. When you were a good and thorough ritual-performer it was that what would make you a >noble< person. India by that time was all about becoming a noble person. And your guidelines were the >truths< watched over by the Brahmans.

Now imagine a guy coming along who not only questioned the whole class idea – which was the worst thing you could do at that time anyway – but who would also come up with his very own noble concepts about life.

He would say:
Here is what I think makes you a noble person. Wake up and realize that no matter what ritual you perform, you will never ever make your life completely satisfying. Do rituals all you like, but there will always be suffering. Now, that is what I call a noble truth. Chew on that one.

This is what the Buddha did. He pointed out the flaws in the doctrine of the dominant religious movement. He taught his own ideas by building on the ideas he found.
He took the meaning of key terms and turned them around to point back to and call out the ruling class.
Hence he did not only criticize his own society in a very harsh way, he also used their very own terminology to make fun of them.

I knew I liked that guy.

Buddhist God as a career path

(Picture copyright via wikipedia commons, rhe free media repository)

Here is something not every spiritual path has to offer.

In Buddhism you can actually be reborn as a god in one of the higher realms where the devas live (aka angels, sort of). A real god that lives in a heavenly realm, filling his life with nothing but bliss and ecstatic joys. It’s probably a promotion from the deva realms and involves a lot of good doing, being generally holy and pure, things like that.

It is noteworthy that this career choice  is not the same as reaching the (in)famous >nirvana< (pali: nibbana).  Buddhism sees nirvana as the state where every desire is extinguished and hence every suffering is eliminated. In Theravada Buddhism (one of the many branches of Buddhism), this is the only spiritual goal and the person who experiences it is called a fully cultivated being, or an >arhat< or >arhant< (Pali: arahati, >worthy one<). The final goal of Theravada Buddhism is to become an arhant and thus release them from the endless cycle of rebirth and suffering (aka samsara). 

Now, here is where it gets interesting: The human form also includes your highest chance to attain nirvana. It only gets worse from here. The chances seem to drop substantially for any other state of existence, including that of devas and gods, unless you come very well prepared. 

Let me say this again, because it is so cute: If you are a god, it is extremely hard, much harder than in any other form of existence, to become an arhant. In Buddhism eternal freedom from suffering is not part of a god’s job description (which explains a lot about gods, if you ask me).

While this might be understandable if you are stuck in an >evil< state of being, this may come as a surprise to those who thought of gods as almighty. Well, they are not. At least not in Buddhism. Also, there seems to be a generally low interest in practicing the dhamma among celestial beings. The only explanation I could find for this, is that if you are dwelling in the bliss of heaven, you are so overwhelmed with joy and ecstasy that you will never be able to comprehend the Buddha’s teaching about the truth of suffering. That kind of makes sense.

It reminds me of Aitken roshi who taught in his diamond sangha in Hawaii, back in the day. I read interview once, where he pointed out how very hard it was to get people in is meditation hall in the beginning. Try to teach people the truth of suffering, while they live on Hawaii, with the beach, sun and blue ocean right outside their door.

The only thing a god can do to change his sentence to eternal bliss is, well… to die. Which they will. Seriously. This is the drawback of any form in any realm of existence. It may take a million years but at the end even a god makes mistakes. In a heavenly realm this most probably involves evil thoughts of some sort. After which they fall from heaven and might just get reborn in human form for another fighting chance to attain liberation. Who would have ever thought that? 

Turns out that even gods are subject to the nature of change.