Returning To The Source
My childhood was magical in many respects, but especially so for having fostered in me such keen awareness of the wonder of the natural world. Though we lived in a fairly developed suburban area, the family backyard opened onto a woodsy tract that has been with me either in reality or in reminiscence since I was old enough to venture beyond the confines of our little garden. Ostensibly, that plot of land was the plant cultivation area for a nearby garden supply retailer, which is why we in the adjoining neighborhood simply referred to it as ‘the nursery’. For all practical purposes, though, ‘the nursery’ was so infrequently tended and so overgrown that I experienced it then as I experience wilderness today.
|A woodsy scene very reminiscent of 'the nursery'|
A walk through ‘the nursery’ was a walk through a crazy-quilt of vaguely planned habitats stitched together and overlaid with whatever weeds and wildflowers and woodland succession plants happened to poke their way out of the soil. In one place there was a double row of at least a dozen oaks growing so close together that their branches overlapped – a veritable paradise for tree-climbing children. There were also sizable subplots of elm and spruce trees and shadowy caverns of juniper bushes and shrubberies. There were blackberry and honeysuckle brambles, and numerous other areas that I can only now recall as having a certain ambience created by the sunlight filtering through their leaves, or a unique scent of sap and soil, or the smoothness or prickliness or scratchiness of that which both filled and created the space.
I remember the stillness of those places – the silence dwelling within them regardless of whatever sound might have then been present. Stillness was there in the lonely birdcall on a sweltering afternoon, and it was there in the rapid-fire beating of wings of a grasshopper in mid leap. It was there in the blur of the dragonfly’s wings – hovering and darting, hovering and darting – and it was there in the chorus of frogs that fell silent as soon as my presence in the vicinity of their pond became known. Yes, there were ponds – tens of them – the rainwater filled holes left behind after whatever had once grown there was plucked from the earth. And in those ponds were eggs and then tadpoles, larvae and then nymphs. That which is moist nurtures life, and that which is dry welcomes rain. All of life is a transformation from one thing to another – a coming into being based on causes and conditions, and a passing away when those causes and conditions subside. Nothing exists of its own accord, and in the depths of everything is stillness.
These are the lessons that I learned by sitting still and allowing the world to unfold around me and within me. I sat beside those ponds until the frogs forgot that I was there and began to sing once more. I sat still enough for the dragonflies to light upon me as if I were a dead branch or a rock. I sat at the bottom of a ravine rimmed with wildflowers, watching as the clouds passed by overhead. I sat in the deep shade of a secluded hollow, letting my gaze grow soft and letting myself dissolve into the embrace of its water-shaped banks, its leafy canopy, and its tangle of fallen trees all vine-covered and green – yes, even in death.
Perhaps I’ve always been a Buddhist – if the natural wonder of a child exploring his existence needs to be named, that is! Ironically, it’s only after coming to know a little bit about the Buddhism “beyond words and letters” that I even try to identify that which I was with anything other than being fully and completely alive. Perhaps I should just return to living my life, being open to life, being in tune with the wonder of nature, being in tune with the stillness that is everywhere all the time (even in the midst of fury) and stop calling it anything at all. Perhaps that is precisely what the Buddha himself did such a long, long time ago.
A Child Becomes The Buddha
It might go without saying, but the Buddha was a great student before he became the great teacher that we know him to be. Wisdom didn’t simply manifest within him as if the byproduct of physical maturation; it required the completion of a great quest – one involving great risks to his physical well-being. Renouncing his birthright as future leader of the Shakya clan, Siddhartha Gautama left behind his princely life and commenced to living the life of a mendicant holy man – albeit, one who would one day come to understand the true nature of birth, old age, sickness, and death. He soon realized, however, that he would need to find a teacher.
And so it was that the future Buddha became a student of Alara of the Kalamas (Alara in Pali, Arada in Sanskrit). It is from Alara that Siddhartha learned mastery over what are often referred to as the five hindrances of sense desire, sloth & torpor, ill will, restlessness, and doubt (Gunaratana, 2011), those unwholesome states that “keep one caught up in the drama of the phenomenal world” (Kohn, 1994, p. 23). With mastery over the five hindrances Siddhartha was able to settle steadfastly into the first jhana – the first level of meditative absorption. From there he was able to progress quickly through subsequent stages of meditation before settling into one of equanimity and single-pointed concentration (Gunaratana, 2011), one of “unperturbed wakefulness” (Kohn, 1994, 23) – the fourth jhana.
But that wasn’t all. Alara taught the future Buddha that even in this fourth jhana there remains residual attachment to subtle form. He taught Siddhartha to focus on that subtle form and expand his awareness of it outward so as to encompass the boundlessness of space, thereby entering the fifth jhana. Alara then taught Siddhartha to bring his awareness to the consciousness perceiving that boundless space, thereby realizing the boundlessness of consciousness characteristic of the sixth jhana. From there, Alara guided the future Buddha to the attainment of the last of the meditative absorptions that he himself was capable of attaining – the perception of nothingness characteristic of the seventh jhana (MN 36, MN 121). At that point, Alara declared to the future Buddha: “I have no more to teach you. Your spiritual realization is equal to mine. Why not remain here with us, and you and I together will lead this community?” (Kohn, 1994, 24). The future Buddha knew, however, that he had not yet attained liberation from the cycle of birth and death. His understanding could be deeper still, his insight more penetrating. He thought to himself: “This Dhamma leads not to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to stilling, to direct knowledge, to Awakening, nor to Unbinding, but only to reappearance in the dimension of nothingness” (MN 36).
And so it was that the future Buddha took leave of Alara Kalama and sought the guidance of another teacher, one Uddaka Ramaputta (Rudraka in Sanskrit). Uddaka was able to guide him toward an even deeper level of meditative absorption, one in which the perception of nothingness gives way to a state of neither perception nor non-perception – the eighth jhana. But even this state beyond the perception of nothingness did not satisfy the future Buddha on his quest for total liberation. He thought to himself: “This Dhamma leads not to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to stilling, to direct knowledge, to Awakening, nor to Unbinding, but only to reappearance in the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception” (MN 36). Thus, despite Uddaka Ramaputta’s offer to yield to Siddhartha his position as leader of the community, the future Buddha took leave of his teacher and headed out on his own once more.
Perhaps the next part of the story is the more familiar one. Thinking that liberation from the cycle of birth, old-age, sickness, and death must require total victory over those most natural of human urges, the future Buddha commenced to venturing ever deeper into the depths of self-mortifying ascetic practice. After nearly six years of starvation and self-denial, however, he lay perilously close to death without having gotten any closer to his goal. It was then that he recalled a childhood memory of going out into the countryside with the rest of the royal family and its entourage in order to take part in the annual plowing festival. He remembered his nurses getting so caught up in the festivities that they wandered off, leaving him alone in the shade of a rose-apple tree. And he recalled how he’d spontaneously settled into the depths of meditative absorption amidst such pleasant bucolic surroundings. In the words of the Buddha:
‘I recall… when my father the Sakyan was working, and I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, then — quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful mental qualities — I entered & remained in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born from seclusion, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation. Could that be the path to Awakening?’ Then following on that memory came the realization: ‘That is the path to Awakening.’ I thought: ‘So why am I afraid of that pleasure that has nothing to do with sensuality, nothing to do with unskillful mental qualities?’ I thought: ‘I am no longer afraid of that pleasure that has nothing to do with sensuality, nothing to do with unskillful mental qualities, but that pleasure is not easy to achieve with a body so extremely emaciated.’ MN 36
Of course, the rest is ‘history’, as we say. The Buddha regained his strength and commenced to sitting as he had as a young child – albeit, one with unprecedented insight and determination. And so it was that he was able to subsequently attain the perfection of insight into the emptiness of all phenomena.
|Rose-Apple Fruit and Blossoms|
We are all innately endowed with the human form and faculties with which to witness for ourselves what the Buddha himself witnessed. We are all innately endowed with the potential to become buddhas. Practice exists so as to nurture the bodhicitta – the Way-seeking mind – that already resides within us. The Buddha recalled that pleasant childhood meditation in the shade of a rose-apple tree. I, too, recall such pleasant meditations – before I was yet “wise enough” to even know that I was meditating. The Buddha innately knew what he’d arisen in form to do. I knew, as well, and I’m pretty sure that you did too. Return to that source and nurture it. Find a natural place in which to sit in stillness. Find a group of like-minded people with which to practice. Find a teacher who can guide you along the path. And if you come to realize that your teacher can only guide you part of the way there, then follow the example of the Buddha and bid him or her adieu and find another. And if you can’t find another, then simply stay in touch with that child that yet dwells within you – the one who’s been sitting there in stillness all the while. Revitalize and further your practice by returning to the source.
Gunaratana, H. (2011). The jhanas in Theravada Buddhist meditation. Access to Insight, 16 June 2011,
Kohn, S. C. (1994). The Awakened One – A life of the Buddha. Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Majjhima Nikaya 36. Maha-Saccaka sutta: the longer discourse to Saccaka (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Tr.). Access to Insight, 12 February 2012,
Majjhima Nikaya 121. Cula-suññata sutta: the lesser discourse on emptiness (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Tr.). Access to Insight, 12 February 2012,
Entering Blackslough Wood by Graham Horn via:
Frog by Msikma via:
Dragonfly by Tim Bekaert via:
Rose Apple Bloom by mauroguanandi via:
Rose Apple Bloom and Fruit by Tatiana Gerus via:
Rustic garden gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft, Photoshop filters applied by author, via:
Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank