Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Buddha's Forest Tradition

Wisdom Quarterly
The Buddha lovingly bundled beholding the Himalayas from behind, Ladakh, India

The wonderful thing about Buddhism originally (the Dharma as taught by the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama) is that it was a forest tradition.

Siddhartha left Kapilavastu, the territory of his family, cut off his hair, discarded his fine clothes, crossed the river in a simple garment and went in search of yogis in the wilderness.

He found Alara Kalama and then Uddaka Ramaputra, wandering ascetics who taught him to meditate in the tradition of mental serenity. This led to a great accomplishment -- self control and a clear heart/mind.

But he left it behind as well because he realized that serenity in itself -- even to the tranquil depths of full absorption -- did not lead to final and complete liberation (moksha).

India had found many routes to the heavens. And many seers could see no further than this. Uddaka Ramaputra's teacher, Rama, had reached the zenith of worlds beyond form. But even that was not outside of samsara, the interminable Round of Rebirths.

Leaving behind these great teachers, Siddhartha plunged himself into the forest to practice austerities. Everyone understood that this had to be the way to break free of sensuality, the body, and all its temptations and bonds.

What the Buddha realized is what "everybody" knows now: The body is not to blame, but rather attachment and clinging, which are defilements of the mind/heart. Insight brought Siddhartha to this realization. And that realization made him the Buddha.

Siddhartha did his striving almost exclusively in the quiet and nurturing atmosphere of the forest, attaining buddhahood in a grove of Bo trees (Bodh Gaya).

Legend has it, that on becoming a supremely enligthened teacher (samma-sam-buddha) he remained in the forest, in the vicinity of the Bodhi tree (the sacred and sheltering fig tree), staring at unblinkingly in admiration.

Woodland sprites (fairies, earthbound-devas) had offered to save his life when his fasting had becoming so extreme that he looked dead. "He's dead," one said. The other explained, "No, this is how ascetics behave." "We should feed him deva food through his pores," they concluded.

"No," Siddhartha aware of their conversation said to them, "that won't be necessary. People think that I am fasting, and were I to be living on subtle deva nourishment, it would be deceiving them." But this encouraged Siddhartha to nourish his body with human food.

He came to understand that it was not by rejecting the world and such facts as the constraints of materiality (e.g., the need for nutrition) that one finds freedom. Instead, it is by practicing serenity-and-insight, Zen and Vipassana one can say. The first prepares the mind/heart through concentration (calm, collectedness, intensification, and focus). The other aims the laser singularity of consciousness on mindful contemplation of four things that lead to freedom here and now.

They lead the heart to realize nirvana and the complete end of suffering.

Realizing it and deciding to teach others the path of purification, the path to freedom, he walked to another forest in Sarnath, in a deer park outside of the famous ancient Indian city of Varanasi. There he instructed the first Five Disciples, who had formerly practiced austerities with him trying to reach liberation.

Siddhartha returns to the Five Ascetics as the Buddha and sets rolling in motion the Wheel of the Dharma by teaching them the path to enlightenment (History of Buddhism).

When the Five Ascetics reached enlightenment by hearing the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutra ("Turning the Wheel of Dharma"), the Buddha began a forest tradition of recluses. Whether lay people came to him or wanderers on a quest for enlightenment, the Buddha's essential advice was the same:

"Here in this Dharma (this Teaching), a meditator who has gone to the forest, or to the foot of a tree, or to an empty place, sits down cross legged, holding the back sustainably erect [not too stiff, not too lax], arousing mindfulness in front."

Of course, before there can be real insight into those four things mentioned before, there must be serenity. Mindfulness is not thinking. There is contemplation and reflection and reviewing (anussati), but that occurs as one emerges from the purifying absorptions (jhanas, zens, ch'ans as it were).

To gain concentration (samadhi) to the level of full-absorption one needs mindfulness, which simply means constant-bare-awareness, nonjudgmental attention, non-evaluative holding in consciousness. One avoids two extremes, rigidity and laxity, and balances in the blissful middle, awake but serene.

The Buddha often taught lay people and rulers outside of cities, villages, and hamlets while residing in groves and orchards.

Then the Buddha moved from grove to grove -- bamboo, mango... -- from glade to glade, staying outdoors, enjoying the freedom of the left-home life. He developed a great following. He said the home life was constricted and dusty, but renunciation (which need not mean getting rid of anything but simply letting go of the attachment to everything) was open and free:
  • "Household life is crowded, constricting, and dusty! A life gone forth is wide open. While living at home, it is not easy to carry out this noble life utterly perfect and pure as [the milky luminous lustre of a] polished conch shell... But suppose I cut off my hair and beard, don a saffron robe, and go forth from home into homelessness? What if I leave behind my fortune, small or large, leave behind my circle of family and friends, small or large? Then doing so out of verifiable-confidence (saddha) in this Teacher or this Teaching or these well-taught disciples, after past lives of accumulating the right conditions for attaining the expeditious state of a recluse in the Buddha's lineage, surely one has found the surest means of winning the stream that runs towards and merges with the deathless nirvana!"

Before monasteries were built, the Buddha sent his disciples into the forest to live, in no way harming nature, taking their ceramic bowls with them to gather alms food which delighted the people of India to give in a longstanding tradition of dana. After monasteries were built, the Buddha sent his disciples into the forest to practice. Even at the end of his days before his final passing into nirvana without remainder outdoors in a grove between twin Sal trees, he advised his deva and human disciples who had gathered in the tens of thousands (mostly devas):

The Buddha in a bamboo grove, Malaysia(Esani/Flickr.com)

If you would maintain in purity the [monastic] precepts, you should not give yourselves over to buying... You should not covet fields or buildings, nor accumulate servants, attendants, or animals. You should flee from all sorts of property and wealth as you would avoid a fire or a pit. You should not cut down grass or trees, neither break new soil, nor plough the earth. ...All of these are things which are improper (for a recluse).