The Importance of Being Disturbed
When we look at the life of Shakyamuni Buddha, we see that his early life was consumed in self-indulgence. Then we read the story of the ‘Four Sights’. He went out of his palace and saw a sick person, an old person, a corpse, and then a holy man. The first three sights disturbed him deeply and the fourth gave him the idea that he could be a better person than he was.
So we can say that Gotama’s question was, “Why is there birth, old age, sickness and death?” But then we can ask why was this his question? Why was he so troubled by what he saw that day? The answer is that this was a reality that he had been hiding from. Self-indulgence is one way of hiding. Why did he feel the need to hide from this question? Because of the question behind the question which, in his case, was, “Why did my mother have to die?” His mother had died seven days after his birth.
Koan Means a Universal Spiritual Problem in Personal Form
When we phrase it this way, we can see how the koan refers to a universal problem (impermanence) yet manifests in a deeply personal matter (his mother’s death). Why did my mother have to die has two aspects. “Why did this happen to me?” and “Am I guilty?”
The second of these questions then led Siddhartha into several years of penance. He joined the ascetics and practised torturing himself in an effort to neutralise or pay off his bad karma.
The two questions are like two sides of a coin. If you look at your own question you will probably find that it breaks down in a similar way, one half being to do with self pity and the other with self condemnation.
You have probably learnt that koans are insoluble spiritual riddles. In a sense this is true, but we should not let that idea fool us about how personal, penetrating and significant they are. Was Siddhartha guilty? His birth brought about his mother’s death. So, in one sense yes and in one sense no. Why did it happen to him? Fate? Bad luck? Karma? There is no clear answer.
Koans Defeat Us
Thus koans are not something that we solve. It is truer to say that they are the things that defeat us. That defeat is what we need. Until the ego is defeated it will go on running our life. When the ego has been defeated, there is is no need to go on grousing about life any more, and also no need to get oneself fixed. Thus a huge amount of energy that is normally wasted is saved and can be applied in more constructive ways.
Thus, when he was enlightened, Shakyamuni realised that it was not a question of how life was treating him, but of how he was treating it. In order to treat it well, he needed to have the faith to drop the idea that he himself needed fixing before he could do anything. Being set on curing one’s own guilt complex could go on for the rest of this lifetime, at the end of which one would just feel more guilty because of having wasted so much time that could have been spent doing better things.
All the practices he had adopted up to that point had been designed to sort himself out by paying off his own karma or attaining particular mind states. In the enlightenment experience he realised that Mara would always be there, that you could experience all the higher mind states and still be deluded, and that moods and emotions come and go like the weather depending on conditions.
Fixing By Not Fixing
Suddenly seeing all this, seeing that all the products of Mara were just life’s decorations, understanding the difference between things that come and go according to conditions on the one hand and things that remain eternally true on the other, enabled him to reorient his life. From then on he was able to enjoy life for what it is and help others in a natural way. He was no longer frightened of life because he was no longer trying and failing to make it into something different.
In a sense, he fixed himself by giving up the idea of fixing himself and/or fixing the world. After that he was able to live a constructive life, a noble life in the world as it is, which included many good deeds for others. It also included going home and making his peace with the family he had walked out on some years before. Instead of using up all his time indulging or torturing himself he founded a religious movement that would endure more than 25 centuries, helped innumerable other people, gave teachings that would inspire whole civilisations, and became one of the most loved and respected people on the planet.