SKATEBOARDS & BUDDHAS
Hi. My name is Dylan. I want to write a blog about the Buddha because of my friend Jizo. I know him through skateboarding.
This blog is for me so I can remember what he said and what I want to ask next, and also for you-know-who, so you don't keep asking me to explain these things and give me funny looks. I'm just going to point you to these pages so you'll know everything I know.
Jizo is an old geezer. I'm not sure how old, though, because he seems very fit. But he has a bald head and a wrinkly old face and when he laughs, which is quite often, his eyes disappear and all you can see are a lot of teeth. Me and my mates, we like to skateboard in the afternoon and on weekends near the National Film Theatre along the Thames. We all like Jizo because he doesn't have an attitude toward us like other adults. He treats us with the same respect that he would anyone else. He doesn't try to tell us what to do, either, even though he's the grounds keeper for the buildings along the Embankment. He's in charge of the planting on the terraces. Jizo loves his plants and is always looking after them.
When we slalom in and out of the planters and grind the railing close to his flowers he could get very freaked out if he was a different sort of person, but he doesn't. Once he shouted "look out!" at me - but it wasn't about the plants. There was a toddler's toy smack in my path, the sort that's pulled along on a string. I could have killed myself. Jizo is always spotting things. That's what's so amazing about him. He sees stuff other people don't. He likes watching us skateboard and he knows all the moves we make and the techniques of how to do them, even if he doesn't know the jargon. One day I see him gazing at these flowers in a border he's just planted and I ask him why he's looking at them like that, so focused-like.
"If I really look at them with no other thought in mind," he says, "they look back at me and tell me what they need"
Jizo says weird things like that all the time, but when he says them somehow they always sound normal. He's just this nice low-key kind of person, who makes you feel very relaxed whenever he's around. But he's a lot more with it than you might think.
So I find out the other day that Jizo is a Buddhist and that really makes me wonder.
"What's a Buddha?" I ask him.
"I presume you mean who is the Buddha?"
My sister Angie's stage voice appears from nowhere.
Whether it's a bad flip off the wall or I'm catching a smoke she always shows up at the worst possible moment.
Angie's two years older than me - sixteen going on seventeen. She wants to be a dancer and maybe one day an actor, but she's good at Maths and Mum 's keen that she study Economics so at least one of us learns how to make some money.
She has four As predicted on her GCSEs and she knows everything about everything.
Or at least she thinks she does.
As far as Angie's concerned I'm just this tosser with ADD who has no other interest in the world besides my i-Pod and skateboard.
She can talk!
Her interests are:
2) Boys... in that order!
"Don't you know anything?!"
Angie likes to tease me:
She smiles knowingly at Jizo as she says this, just to rub it in. But Jizo turns to me, his eyes lighting up:
"What is a Buddha? A good question!
Buddha means 'one who is awake'. You're right, Dylan. Buddha is not really someone's name. Buddha is a title like 'Sir' or 'Lord'. This title was given to a very special person who lived a very long time ago."
Angie seems impatient. She's not a great listener.
"Mum's expecting us for dinner. You can look all this up on the Web."
Jizo winks at me:
"There's a Buddhist film showing all this week at the NFT. Would you
like to see it? I know the manager of the cinema."
Angie rolls her eyes at me likes she's saying: "What's this old man want from you?" But we don't have money for the movies any more and I've never even been inside the NFT.
Any know Jizo. He's O.K. so I say "yes" before thinking, and that's how this whole thing starts.
The NFT is right next to the skateboarding practice area. The film is an old one called The Cup and it turns out didn't have much to do with the Buddha. It was about some student monks from Tibet who live in a mountain monastery just across the border in India. They're obsessed with football, and do all sorts of stuff they're not supposed to so they can see the World Cup on TV.
Some scenes made me laugh out loud.
I could really relate to these monks. None of them were much older than me. The older monks who were their teachers were a lot like my teachers, but nicer.
The whole thing about them dreaming about football when they're meant to be studying reminded me of school and skateboarding. After a while it didn't matter much that they were monks with shaved heads and red robes speaking a foreign language.
BUDDHA THE POINTER
Jizo and I have a Coke after the movie. I ask him to tell me the story of the Buddha and what makes him so important and this is what he told me, as much as I can remember.
“There are really two parts to the story,” he says. “But they’re closely connected.”
The first part is about a prince who lives in India in ancient times. He has everything you dream of, but he isn’t happy. His heart is not at rest so he leaves his old life behind and travels a long way to find the answers he’s looking for. When he finally reaches his goal, he’s no longer that prince and in no way like his old self. End of Part One.
In Part Two he’s the Buddha, the Awakened One.
In other words he’s not an ordinary man anymore. But he doesn’t want anyone to think of him as a god. He’s just a man who wakes up from a bad dream.
For the next 45 years he travels across India, helping people find peace and happiness and teaching them what he’s learned. He finally dies of food poisoning or something, but by then he’s already old and worn out. In all that time he meets loads of people and he’s awfully convincing because he quickly attracts this humungous following.
I guess you could say he starts the Buddhist religion. That’s what happens anyway. But he doesn’t want people to listen to his teaching and believe it just because he’s this grand gent and then repeat it like parrots, the way they make you do in school. He isn’t interested in that at all.
The Buddha calls his teaching the Dharma, which means the law – as in law of the universe – or the way things are. He says you have to discover for yourself the way things really are - not the way you think they ought to be - and then make up your own mind about life. He doesn’t want his followers to believe some fairy tale because everybody else seems to believe it. He wants them to see clearly. That’s what he means by being awake. Jizo is very strong on this point.
“Who taught you to skateboard?” he asks me.
“I don’t know. A few of us hang out together. We give each other pointers from time to time, but mainly it’s just practice. You fall down a lot before you get the hang of it”
Jizo thumps his knee.
“Just so! The Buddha said, ‘You have to practice. I can only point the way.’ Buddha fell down a lot too. He was brave enough to fall down many times before he woke up. He’s not a god, not even a philosopher. Just a pointer!”
Then Jizo laughs until his eyes disappear.
PRINCE SIDDHARTHA GAUTAMA
I haven’t told you the story of the Prince or the Buddha yet because I had to get the business of the pointers out of the way first.
Jizo makes it clear these stories are of a special kind. Some people call them legends, but this could make you believe they’re not true and that would be a mistake. Jizo calls them “teaching” stories. Each bit of these stories has something to say to monks as well as ordinary people who are practicing to see clearly and want to follow the Buddha’s example.
The Prince-who-became-a-Buddha was a real person, but he lived an incredibly long time ago so a lot of the details are missing. It’s like we know he was an awesome skate boarder who flew through the air and did moves no one ever thought of before, but whether he wore a Billabong or a Gold Fish Catch Trucker nobody will ever know. So this is the story:
The little Sakya kingdom is shown above Kosala to the right of Sravasti
Prince Siddhartha Gautama was born in a little kingdom called Sakya in the foothills of the Himalayas….2600 years ago! For those of you who can count, that’s 600 years before Jesus Christ. Unbelievable as it may sound India is already civilized. They aren’t cave men. They build beautiful palaces and cities.
They ride on elephants and horses. They sail up and down wide rivers and trade with countries thousands of miles away. Of course there are a lot fewer people than today. There are no machines. The towns and fields are still surrounded by dense jungles filled with tigers and lions and other wild animals. But their whole society is very organized.
You don’t just grow up and decide what you want to do, like today. You’re born to a particular group that does a certain thing and you’re supposed to do that job. You might be born as a farmer or a merchant or a crafts-person or just a bricklayer.
The ruling class are the warriors.
The priests are even more respected than the warriors, but they don’t rule.
Siddhartha was supposed to become a warrior. He’s the only son of King Suddhodana and from the start he’s educated to become a king himself. And in those days it wasn’t just about cutting ribbons or running charities. You had to know how to hunt and shoot and ride horseback and go to war.
Siddhartha is a proper prince. He grows up strong and tall and good-looking and learns all the skills of a warrior. In fact he wins his bride, this hot princess called Yashodhara, by beating all the other princes in an archery contest.
They say he split the arrow of his chief rival in two as he hit the bulls-eye. Ho-hum. That’s the sort of detail which makes you wonder, but I suppose the point is he’s the best in his class, not some pathetic dropout.
This is important because he does in fact drop out big time. He abandons his new wife and baby son.
He also leaves his dad and his whole clan high and dry and disappears into the forest for six years.
I have a problem with this as you might expect, but more on that later.
Anyway Siddhartha might as well be dead and in a way he does die. Granted what he brings back is so mind blowing it will influence the world for thousands of years.
But the personal story of Prince Siddhartha, the only part that’s told in any detail, is his decision to abandon his family and his kingdom and go off in search of wisdom.
From the beginning there are clues about what road Siddhartha might take.
When he’s born, the priests check him out from head to toe. They’re like palm readers except they read the whole body for signs and decide that he will either be a great ruler or give up the world to become a wise man.
And what the priests say is taken very seriously.
Remember these gents are born to be priests and they’re supposed to know things like telling the future and making the gods happy so the crops will grow. And the king believes them, but he’s going to make sure that Siddhartha Gautama becomes a great king, not a great “drop-out”. Ok, that should read “great sage” but you can see where King Suddhodana is coming from.
King Suddhodana at the birth of his son
The king makes sure that everything is done to make Siddhartha happy.
The prince’s mum has died in childbirth so he’s being raised by his mum’s sister.
We’re told that his auntie loves him even more than her own baby. He’s educated in all the arts and sciences. He lives in incredible luxury. There are servants around all the time to look after anything he needs. Remember, there are no machines, no computers. Everything is done by hand, and kings can have hundreds, even thousands, of people working for them round the clock.
King Suddhodana has three palaces: one for summer, one for winter and one for the rainy season. So Siddhartha never has to worry about getting very hot or cold and wet, like other people in India.
During the four months of the rainy season, he’s constantly entertained by a girl band that sings and dances only for him. Wow! His dad sure isn’t leaving anything to chance.
The Buddha, looking back on his years as a prince, says:
“I was spoilt, very spoilt.”
But it’s pretty clear he wasn’t your ordinary prince.
Once when his cousin Devadatta shoots down a bird with his bow and arrow, Prince Gautama sees that it’s only wounded and rescues it. Devadatta thinks the bird is his because he shot it, and goes before the king’s court to force Siddhartha to return the bird, but the prince says,
“Who should a creature belong to? The one who tries to kill it or the one who tries to save it?”
This convinces the king and his advisers so they let Siddhartha save the bird. But, hey man, what a weird thing to say if you’re born to be a warrior!
OUTSIDE THE PALACE GATES
The prince goes for a stroll.
King Suddhodana obviously knows how to fix things and is used to getting his way. He thinks he can make it so his son will never find out about the bad side of life. At least not until he himself becomes king.
Like Siddhartha will never think of asking himself why everybody has to suffer or why we all get sick or grow old and die?
I guess all mums and dads hope that their kids won’t suffer, too, but of course we all do. Just look what happens every day at school. Anyway I suppose the prince manages to escape the pain longer than most of us, but one day the bubble bursts. It’s his own restlessness that does it.
Siddhartha starts to ask himself what his life is all about.
Then he decides to go out for a ride with Channa, his charioteer. The king doesn’t like the prince leaving the palace and makes sure that his son’s route is prepared in advance. The streets are swept clean. The old and sick are moved out of sight to make way for a cheerful crowd of healthy young people along the way. In spite of all the king’s efforts, this is the day that Siddhartha sees an old lady all bent over.
She looks like a wrinkly bag of bones.
“What is the matter with that woman, Channa?”
“Nothing. She’s just old.”
Siddhartha suddenly imagines his beautiful bride as an old woman.
“Do you mean my Yasodhara could look like that one day?”
“We all grow old, my lord.”
Siddhartha is shocked and wants to return to the palace, but things aren’t the same for him anymore. His doubts are growing and the vision of the old woman is obsessing him.
“It’s so obvious,” he thinks. “We will all be old like that before we know it. And yet no one talks about it!”
THE SECOND RIDE
Yasodhara is very pregnant and her body is also changing every day. Next time Siddhartha slips out of the palace without telling the king. He wants to visit the town outside the palace walls before people know he’s coming.
Maybe fate has planned it so because right away their chariot runs into a diseased man on the ground. His face is covered in flies and he has glazed look in his eye.
“What’s wrong with that man?” cries Siddhartha, shocked again.
Channa looks at him in surprise.
“He has a fever, my lord.”
Siddartha has seen enough. He orders Channa to turn round and head back to the palace .
When Jizo first told me this story I didn’t get it. How could Siddhartha be so shocked? But then I remember of our trip to India. I was twelve, wasn’t I?
You invited Angie and me to visit you there before you left Mum. Your company had a contract to build water purifying plants or something. That was the best trip ever. You took us to the Taj Mahal, which was even more amazing than in the postcards.
It’s all right here in my head. The little town next to the Taj Mahal is called Agra. It has a castle called the Red Fort with a moat around it. But unlike the Taj Mahal the water there is gone and in its place are great mounds of stinking rubbish.
There’s a narrow bridge over the moat and that’s where all the beggars wait to launch themselves on unsuspecting tourists. I never saw so many cripples in all my life! When they started galloping toward us, their stumps and crutches swinging madly in the air, I was really shocked.
That night I was totally happy to be back in our air-conditioned hotel with its marble floors and fountains and glass fronted shops selling jewelry and fancy silk outfits. We had a first-rate Indian curry with all sorts of spices and you let me have a sip of your beer and it made me feel grown up and special.
Back in his palace Siddhartha is anything but happy.
He isn’t enjoying himself any more. Getting old is one thing. It happens gradually. You think, “Well, I probably have years and years ahead of me. It’s not something I have to worry about now.”
But sickness can strike at any time. He wonders about his Mum who died giving birth to him.
Why hasn’t he seen any sick people about?
The prince is beginning to get wise to the pleasure bubble around him and wants out. Early next morning he and Channa are up at the crack of dawn and out on the road. This time they run smack into a corpse!
The prince jumps back in horror.
“My child will end up like that one day, won’t he, Channa?”
Channa nods sadly.
“One day we all will.”
You might think this doesn’t happen very often – running into corpses in the street and all - but that’s because in our world we hide things like that from sight just like King Suddhodana did. (I suppose it’s bad for business. Who wants to “shop-til-you-drop" if you think you’re really going to drop tomorrow!)
After the Taj Mahal you took us to Benares. You said it was the holy city of India and if you’re a Hindu, which most Indians are, you want to die in Benares and have your ashes scattered in the Ganges because it’s going to wash away all your sins.
You see? If it’s important I can remember plenty.
You wanted to look at the ghats too, but we are all freaked out by the bodies on the big fires along the shore. I could smell them through the smoke.
That’s when the men in white shirts ran by carrying a corpse.
Angie was pushed back and screamed. The body was wrapped in a sheet so thin you could see through it. They also decorated it in orange scarves. I figured the body was about to go on the fire and thought:
That corpse sticks in my mind. I can see why Siddhartha had trouble with that. It’s not the sort of thing you forget very easily.
Anyway Siddhartha is not a happy camper.
He feels like his world has been broken up into little pieces, and it has. How is he ever going to get back his old peace of mind when all he can think about is old age, sickness and death?
He wanders around the palace and its beautiful gardens like a condemned man desperate to find a way out.
The next day he and Channa are on the road again.
This time they meet a very different sort of person. Still and upright by the side of the road, he is dressed in a simple robe with a begging bowl at his feet. He looks like he’s in a trance. There’s a peaceful look on his face.
Siddhartha turns to his chariot driver:
“Channa, what sort of man is that?”
“ He’s an ascetic, my lord. He’s renounced the world. “
“What’s he doing?”
“ He’s meditating.”
Siddhartha is fascinated and wants to hear what this man has to say for himself. The ascetic looks up at Siddhartha and smiles.
“ I’m a man who has given up everything
to search for the deathless.”
Could this be a sign from the heavens?
Is this the way out of the hell his thoughts have plunged him into? There must be a way. And at this moment Siddhartha makes a vow. He will devote the rest of his life to finding the path that leads beyond birth and death. Not only for himself. For Yasodhara too. And for their unborn child.
Jizo unlocks the metal door on the little shack that houses his plants and prepares to put away his tools. I ask him what the “deathless” means. He pauses for a moment, like he’s trying to find the right words to explain it.
“The Buddha calls it ‘going beyond birth and death’. In other words beyond anything one can imagine or expect from normal life. Beyond even oneself. ”Jizo locks up the garden shack again.
“But the man Siddhartha meets – the ascetic - is searching for the deathless.
He has only a picture of it in his mind. If he had found the deathless he would
be the Buddha.”
But there must have been something about him or Siddhartha
wouldn’t have stopped in his tracks like that. I ask Jizo if he
knows what it was.
“The peace that comes from giving things up.”
“Isn’t that enough?”
Jizo shakes his head. I suppose the ascetic would have to wait a longtime to find the deathless because Siddhartha hadn’t even left home yet.
Jizo walks quickly along the Embankment as I push along beside him on my board. He says he himself had all sorts of pictures in his head when he started his training in Japan as a young man. He was certain that if he trained hard enough he would develop supernatural powers.
“Like seeing through walls or flying?”
“How were you going to fly?
“ Like you, only without the skateboard.”
I must look completely amazed because Jizo stops to stare at me. Then he doubles over with laughter.
Siddhartha is back in his palace again, stalking the corridors like a trapped elephant . A courtier comes to announce the birth of his son and heir. This is the news that the prince has longed for but now it only makes him unhappy. He’s done his duty. He’s produced an heir to the throne. The royal line won’t die out. But how can he give
up the world and at the same time be a good father to his son? How can he leave the palace now? He wanders back to his princely apartments feeling powerless and angry. Soon a royal delegation arrives to congratulate the new father and ask if a name has been chosen for the future monarch.
“Rahula,” Prince Siddhartha mutters.King Suddhodhana is alarmed when he learns the name that Siddhartha has given his son and heir.
Rahula means “fetter”. A fetter is a chain you put around an elephant’s leg to keep it from running away. Have the king’s plans gone wrong? Is Siddhartha about to abandon his family and the world like the priests predicted he might? More and more young men at this time are abandoning their homes. There have always been a few Brahmins - men born to be priests - who turn their back on the world to meditate in the forest, but this is like a plague. The old priests are unhappy because their sons no longer care about the rituals they’ve been taught. They’re all saying:
“Why do we need to worry about the gods?” This is the age of discovery. The crops grow every year no matter what we do. We’re getting better at growing them all the time. We’ve invented yeast. Now we can make bread that rises.”
Jizo says that in many ways India in the age of the Buddha was a lot like our own times. India was rich and powerful and thinking up new technologies all the time and their old traditions were coming under attack from all sides, making people feel very uncomfortable. Young people were looking for new ways to cope with all the changes they were seeing.
King Suddhodhana gives it one last try. Maybe Siddhartha is just upset by all the fuss about his first child. It happens. Married life can be boring at times. The king decides to organize a big bash with lots of dancing and singing. You can just imagine the fantastic curries and beer. Anyway the king is not going down without a fight. He isn’t going to lose Siddhartha, his son and heir, to the new drop-out movement. What will become of his kingdom? What will become of India?
The party scene is a famous one. Jizo says it’s been described in many places in different ways. In some versions Siddhartha drops off during the banquet and then wakes up to discover that it’s very late and there are dirty plates everywhere and the dancers and girl bands are passed out on the sofas and the floor and everybody looks terrible. In other versions, he stays awake but in his own world until every one else is too exhausted to go on. Anyway you get the picture. Siddhartha is totally done with the palace and its entertainments. He gets up, whispers to Channa to get his favourite horse, Kanthaka, for him and decides on the spot to leave his world behind.
Before Siddhartha leaves the palace, he makes his way to Princess Yusodhana’s bedroom. He wants to say goodbye to his wife but she’s asleep with the baby in her arms. He leans over to take his first look at Rahula, but Yusodhana’s arm is hiding the baby’s face. He’s aching to see his newborn son, but he’s also afraid that it will break his resolve so he just stands there looking at them and finally turns away.
The king, who is nobody’s fool, has doubled the guards at the gate, but they too have been caught up in the great celebrations and have fallen asleep at their posts. Maybe it’s fate or whatever you want to call it, but tonight is obviously the night to go.
Siddhartha and Channa ride their horses out of the palace while it’s still dark and cross the river beyond the city. There they dismount and the prince takes off his sword, his fine clothes and his royal jewellery, and hands them all over to Channa.
He exchanges them for the yellow rags of an ex-convict. Siddhartha, pointing to the rags that have been abandoned on the road, says:
“This man too was under the sentence of death.”
Even today Buddhist monks wear the same yellow robes.
Siddhartha cuts his long black hair and takes up a begging bowl. It’s the only thing he has left.
He says good-bye to his friend, Channa, who weeps. Kanthaka - Siddhartha’s horse -is supposed to have wept too, but I think that’s going too far.
I don’t believe horses weep when they’re unhappy.
Dogs who lose their masters can whimper though. Robbie whimpered all night after you left us.
The Buddha promises not to see his family again until he solves the problem of old age, sickness and death.
You didn’t promise anything, did you?
You just left.
Maybe you’re thinking, ‘How can Dylan remember all this stuff?’
All the strange names and everything! Especially since I have ADD and my teachers are sure I can’t concentrate for more than five minutes at a time?’ Well, it’s like this. First I CAN concentrate if I’m interested. And second I have the handy little tape recorder you gave me. It’s not new but it still works and it plays my music so it’s always on me. Jizo says it’s alright to use it to remember but not to write the blog. He doesn’t want me to just copy what I hear. He says he wants me to “ponder” it. Don’t have a clue what he’s on about. Nobody ever used a word like that in my presence before. When I say that he laughs.
“Ponder is a perfectly good English word. It means to think about what you’re told, but also to test it against your own experience.”
I guess I look confused. Jizo shakes his finger.
Look Dylan. It’s simple. I tell you a story about the Buddha and you think, ‘Oh, I know how he must have felt leaving his family.’ It’s your own experience that tells you that.
Jizo gets a far-away look in his eyes.
For many years I pondered the story the Buddha this way until one day I realized that the Buddha’s story was also my story. And I can tell you the very day it happened.
It was a cold morning in the mountains of northern Japan. I had spent several hard years in a training monastery, getting up at the crack of dawn and breaking my bones on the meditation cushion for long hours every day and sometimes through the night. I also cooked and cleaned and swept out the rooms and gardened. There are strict rules about how to behave in a monastery but I was used to the routine and had grown to love it.
This morning I was up as usual, but everything seemed different. I was leaving this place that had become my home and I had no idea what was going to happen to me. In Japan, monks who have finished the first part of their training are sent out to test the strength of their insight into the Buddhist teaching. They can travel on foot for hundreds of miles, through forests and along steep mountain paths as well as through strange towns and big city streets and they need to be prepared.
So just as I was setting out, my teacher came to say good-bye and handed me a beautifully wrapped parcel. I asked him if I should open it but he said “No”. I was to keep it in a safe place. It was money to be used for my burial should anything terrible happen to me. Then he knelt down and gently knotted the laces of both my sandals.
At that moment I felt the immense tenderness and compassion of this great man and for an instant my heart felt as if it was about to break. ‘Never untie these knots,’ he told me - and in a way I never have. I am happy to be a knot in the long rope that leads all the way back to the Buddha and that has guided every generation of travelers along the Buddhist path since the very beginning.”
O.k. So I taped that. Not everything can be put in your own words.
Then I ask Jizo a question:
“So you’re a monk?”
“Yes and no.”
And I wonder. Is it true? Is Jizo a Buddhist monk like the ones we saw in the movie?
“Where are your robes?”
I blurt this out and regret it almost at once. Jizo smiles at me:
“They’re not so important.”
JIZO'S OWN STORY
Jizo doesn’t like answering questions about his personal life, but I’m the same. I hate it when my mother’s friends start firing questions at me about school and what I want to be when I grow up and all that rubbish.
I just clam up.
Jizo loves to talk about the Buddha though.
We meet mostly at Wagamama. He’s always there at lunchtime with his bowl of noodles. He knows all the kids who work there and they all gather round when he talks about the Buddha’s life. Here’s the latest instalment:
As soon as Channa rides off with Kanthaka, Siddhartha is alone in in the forest. It’s not all that far away from the family palace, but already it’s another world: dark and scary like a horror movie. The trees are full of snakes that look like climbing vines and vines that look just like big snakes in the shadows. There are huge spiders and other creepy-crawly things as well as dangerous animals. This forest is a wild place. For the next six years before he becomes enlightened, Siddhartha will live as a forest monk. Tonight the clear moon shines through the branches and he feels alive in a way he’s never felt before.
At this point Jizo’s voice, which usually skips along in a sing-song sort of way from one chuckle to the next, drops to a hoarse whisper. I press PLAY on my handy recorder. It’s automatic, I can’t help it.
“I will never forget my first night after leaving the monastery. It has stayed with me in every detail. The moon is shining through the trees just as it shone for the Buddha, but in Japan it gets very cold at the start of the new year. There is snow on the ground and every step I take crackles loudly in the still mountain air. Suddenly there’s a howling noise that sends a chill up my spine. The wolves are calling to each other from the hilltops. They sound like they’re right behind me.
My body is overcome by fear and I realize that this is my first test. All those years in the monastery have brought me to this moment. Am I ready to die? Is the strength there or have I been fooling myself? It’s time to find out.
I drop my backpack in the middle of a circle of birch trees. Then I proceed to piss on the trunks, just as I have been told to do. Wolves mark out their territory in this way and they respect each other’s boundaries. After this I sit down in the centre of the circle to meditate. Before long my body relaxes into the traditional lotus posture that has become familiar to me. The cold no longer bothers me and I sink into a state of deep meditation. The river of thoughts streaming through my mind slow down to a trickle and suddenly stop. It is as if I had become a stone or a tree in the forest. Yet I am also at one with the other stones and trees around me and also with the wind rustling through the leaves and the sounds of wolves howling at the stars.
Then I sense the unmistakeable presence of a wolf pack. They are skulking around the trees, sniffing my piss. Perhaps they are wondering what to do next. I don’t know. I don’t think about it. Where am I? The wolves are circling closer. They are there in all their glory, but somehow Jizo the frightened monk is not.
Suddenly there’s a weight on my lap. It feels like the muzzle of a large dog. Through my half-closed eyes I see the hot mist rising from a wolf’s nostrils. Nothing more happens for what may have been a long time or a brief one. The sense of time too seems to have gone. There is only the big expansive present and the certainty that this is the happiest moment of my life.
I spent many more nights in the forests of northern Japan over the next few years, but I didn’t meet any more wolves, even though I would have liked to see them again and have them camp beside me. Now it seems more like a dream.”
The whole of Wagamama has gone quiet. No banging of plates. No shuffling of feet or chairs scraping along the floor. No one moves. Everybody seems to be listening to Jizo. Then a voice breaks the silence. It’s mine but I don’t know where it comes from.
“ Can you tell us some more about meditation?”
Jizo looks straight at me, and breaks into one of his big grins. Like he was just waiting for me to ask.
“I can do better than that. Who would like me to
show them how to meditate?”
Four other hands shoot up: two girls who always wait on tables at lunch time; Toshi, the assistant cook; and my mate Jerry.
“Good. Tomorrow after lunch we’ll go to a quiet
spot I know behind the potting plants on the top
terrace where I will arrange some cushions.
THE FIVE DISCIPLES
Jizo looks at each one of us across the table:
“ You know the Buddha had five friends too.
They went everywhere together.”
Jizo tells the Buddha story a bit at a time so it’s difficult to know what happened first. But that’s how the Buddha tells it himself.
If something has happened to him, he uses it to teach the Dharma, this universal law he discovered through meditating. Over time these teachings were written down. Then other people came along and strung together all the bits into one story. Even if they didn’t make things up - like the Siddhartha’s horse having a good cry – there would still be holes.
The Buddha never set out to tell the story of his life. When today’s celebs get on TV they always give you lots of details about their life. They’re really interested in their own stories, but the Buddha was only ever interested in showing people how to be happy.
Anyway when Channa comes back to the palace with the prince’s sword and royal jewels and his horse Kanthaka you can believe the King goes out of his mind. Channa is already pretty upset, so the king doesn’t cut off the man’s head. You have to suppose he already knew his son was going to take off.
There’s an old priest at the court called Kondanna. The moment he saw baby Siddhartha, he figured he was going to be a great wise man. Kondanna has waited all these years for this piece of news and now he sets out with four younger men, all sons of the court priests, to join Siddhartha. These five will one day be the Buddha’s first disciples, but first they have to track him down.
The river Siddhartha crosses that night with Channa is called the Ancona. It divides the hilly kingdom of Sakya (ruled by his Dad) from the flat kingdom of Magadha. Siddhartha slowly makes his way south toward the capital city, Rajagaha. When Siddhartha first stepped outside his palace walls he saw only one ascetic, but in Rajagaha there are many more. It’s a spiritual centre. On almost every street there are monks like Siddhartha, all carrying begging bowls, but he has a special air about him. Even in his rags he looks and acts like a prince and soon King Bimbisara hears about him. Anyway the hot news about King Suddhodana’s son has already spread far and wide. The young king is so sure this is Prince Siddhartha he comes out of his castle to say hello.
Jizo thinks the story of Siddhartha’s meeting with King Bimbisara is about having second thoughts. Even when we make important decisions of our lives - like choosing our best mate – there are always second thoughts. Jizo wants us to come up with our own examples. Of course there’s Mum and her one glass of wine before dinner. Every few weeks Mum decides to stop drinking alcohol, and for a while it looks like she’s done it, but she always has second thoughts around dinner time. In the Buddha’s case it was never going to be about a glass of wine. King Bimbisara presses him about giving up the chance to be king. They’re both young men. Siddhartha is 29 years old; the king is only 25. He instantly likes Siddhartha but he’s also shocked. They’re both royals. It’s a class thing. The king wants to know what he’s doing here.
“Did you quarrel with your father?”
But Siddhartha smiles.
“No. I left the narrow life of the palace for the freedom of the open air. I’m seeking an end to the suffering we all go through because of old age, sickness and death.”
King Bimbisara tests him.
“I tell you what. If you give up your foolish search I’ll give you half my kingdom.”
Siddhartha politely turns him down and now the young king is majorly impressed . He thinks if anyone is going to reach his goal it will be this man, and he makes Siddhartha promise to come back after he’s enlightened and teach him everything he’s discovered. One day they’ll be great friends, but right now Siddhartha’s off to find a teacher.
Remember what Jizo said about the castes in India in the Buddha’s time? How everyone is born to do a certain thing for life and they have to do it? Well, here are some more names. I want to put them down before I forget:
brahmin: anyone born to be a priest .
Basically being a priest involves lots of chanting and other special ceremonies to make sure the gods are happy and the crops grow.
kshatriya: a warrior.
They also rule. The Buddha’s family are kshatriyas.
samana: a homeless person looking of enlightenment.
guru: a teacher. We kind of know this word already, but this is all it means.
There are brahmins in India today, but they’re no longer just priests. They do all sorts of things. You don’t hear about kshatriyas anymore because warriors don’t rule India. But there are still samanas. There were wandering samanas before the Buddha’s time. Anyone could leave home even then and become a samana. But there was one thing: you were supposed to find a spiritual teacher - your guru. It didn’t matter who this was. It was your choice. Some gurus were famous and had lots of students. Some just had a few followers. The important thing for samanas was to follow a spiritual path and not stand around pretending to be holy so people would feed them.
In India people still respect samanas. They believe that if they give a samana food the gods will reward them. Of course they don’t like being fooled by beggars, but in the Buddha’s time this wasn’t a problem because most samanas were also brahmins and brahmins were famous for their honesty. They would rather die than tell a lie. (Imagine that!) If you asked them who their guru was they would tell you straight out. If you asked them about their own wisdom they would be honest about that too - what they knew and what they didn’t know.
Siddhartha hears of a guru called Alara. He’s a yoga teacher and one of the most famous gurus in northern India. By this time Kondanna, the old court priest, and the four young brahmins have found Siddhartha so they decide to learn from this guru together. Alara is famous for being a master of concentration. He can go into a trance and totally shut out the world. He can sit under a tree completely awake and have five hundred carts go by with all kinds of banging and shouting. He won’t notice them. Siddhartha and his friends enroll as Alara’s students. Siddhartha quickly masters the technique. Alara is impressed and offers to make him a partner in his meditation business. Of course everyone knows Siddhartha is a royal. And a friend of King Bimbisara. Maybe Alara figures he’s onto a good thing. Together they’ll attract more followers than ever. But Siddhartha is disappointed because now he knows everything his guru knows and it isn’t that much. Whenever Siddhartha comes out of his trance he’s back to square one. The problems of old age, sickness and death are still there. So Siddhartha turns down Alara’s offer and decides to move on.
The next guru Siddhartha comes across has a name that doesn’t stick in my mind: Uddaka Ramaputta. Uddaka inherits his meditation school from his father Rama, but he never quite reaches his level. Siddhartha and his friends agree to become his students. Siddhartha throws himself into his studies and we already know he’s a super quick learner. So before long he’s mastered Rama’s technique. Rama’s son is amazed and offers to make Siddhartha the head of his school, but Siddhartha turns him down too. He may know as much as Rama did and even more than Rama’s son Uddaka, but his heart is not yet at peace.
Siddhartha decides it’s time to strike out on his own. He becomes a wandering samana again, but this time he decides to practice being an ascetic. What is an ascetic? Jizo says an ascetic is someone who is suspicious of the easy life. An ascetic thinks that people who just want to eat, drink and be merry are wasting their time because they end up soft and selfish instead of strong and free. So instead of working to get more and more for themselves, ascetics try to get by with less and less. Siddhartha likes the idea of being an ascetic and throws himself completely into his new practice. Alone again, he travels further south until he finds a nice spot in a forest. It’s on a river bank near some villages where he can find food. There he sits down and tries one thing after another. He clenches his teeth hard to make himself stop thinking. He really goes at it, forcing himself again and again, but only manages to break into a sweat. Then he holds his breath until he hears loud roaring noises in his ears. He gets lots of headaches and stomach cramps but he’s no wiser for it. He can’t control his feelings or reactions to things either. Here’s what the Buddha says about those days:
“The loneliness of the forest is hard to bear. It’s hard to take pleasure in being alone… When at night I stayed in such frightening and fearful places, and an animal passed by, or a peacock broke a twig, or the wind rustled among the leaves, I was filled with terror and panic.” (MN4)
Jizo knows these words of the Buddha by heart. I thought this was because of Jizo’s own experience in the forest, but he says ‘no’. He remembers them because they show the Buddha trying to meditate and failing. Jizo calls this an example of “beginner’s mind”. Even though the Buddha studies with the two best teachers in India, and is their star student, he doesn’t fool himself into thinking he’s got somewhere when he hasn’t. He just goes back to the beginning again and again until he really gets it. Then what he learns isn’t something he has to remember. It’s just who he is. Jizo says his own teacher at the monastery called this “learning with the body”. It can’t be explained. It has to be experienced in the body. I suppose it’s like learning to do a kick flip on a skateboard.
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Kyoto ginkakuji: monastery under snow - theheartthrills.wordpress.com
Snow wolf - www. fansshare.com
Snow headed Buddha statue - www.keblawben.com
Umbrellas along Thames Embankment – thezengateway.com
Zafu cushion s