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Lions Roar : January 2019
of a depiction of the Buddha’s birth. As was the artistic custom in the early centuries of Buddhism, the Buddha himself is not shown—just his footprints. Along with the other delegates, I’m ushered into a room that’s been prepared for us for meditation and I quietly take a seat on the floor. We sit facing an intricate pavilion, gleam- ing with gold, that was crafted from teak by Thai artists. This pavilion is roped off and behind glass, and I don’t know what it holds until someone whispers in my ear: they’re bone frag- ments from the Buddha. But are they really? The Buddha died so long ago. How can we know that these bits of skull belonged to him and not to someone else? This is a valid question. Yet as Shantum Seth rings the bell and a clutch of Theravadin monks in saffron robes begins to drone their Pali chants, it’s not a question that concerns me. What’s touching me is the fact that the Buddha had bones—and flesh—at all. So often we talk about the Buddha as if he were a figure from mythology, not a human being like you and me. Generation after generation, for thousands of years, we’ve revered his wis- dom so much that in our imagination he has become more of a deity than a person, and his life story has been embellished with fantastical flourishes—the stuff of legends. Maybe it’s because we want there to be someone who is more than human to save us. Maybe it’s because it’s so hard to grasp a time like 500 BCE, which is around when the Buddha lived. It sounds so far in the past that maybe it was never. But now I’m meditating in front of ancient bone and, for a moment, it feels as if the Buddha has reached through the cen- turies and tapped me on the shoulder. I was real, he seems to say. I was here. THIS IS HOW THE STORY GOES. Twenty-six centuries ago, in the foothills of the Himalayas, Queen Mahamaya dreamed of a white elephant with a lotus in its trunk. The elephant circled her three times and then entered her womb. Since elephants were con- sidered a symbol of greatness, this dream was taken as a sign that Mahamaya would have an extraordinary child. In those days it was customary for a woman to return to her parents’ house to give birth. So when Mahamaya felt the time had come, she set out for her ancestral home. Along the way they stopped to rest in Lumbini, a garden in what is now Nepal, and there she delivered her child. It is said that heavenly beings showered down flower petals and the newborn—shining like the sun—took seven paces in each direction and wherever he stepped, a lotus sprang up. It was prophesied that the boy, named Siddhartha, would grow up to become either a great king or a great spiritual leader. His father—hoping that Siddhartha would dedi- cate himself to the political realm—tried to guide him in that direction by sheltering Sid- dhartha within the luxurious confines of his palaces. When Siddhartha was sixteen years old, he married Yasodhara, who was also of his clan, and the couple eventually had a son. But then, at age twenty-nine, Siddhartha got a glimpse of the troubled world his father had protected him from. Out driving with his charioteer, he saw—for the very first time— old age, disease, and death, and he learned that this degeneration was the inescapable human condition. The prince was shocked. How could everyone just go about their lives, seek- ing silly pleasures, as if this shadow weren’t hanging over them? While mired in this thought, Siddhartha saw a holy man. Dressed simply, this man had such a peaceful look on his face that Siddhartha knew what he needed to do. In the middle of the night he slipped away, leaving his family and royal life behind. This is how he took his first step on the spiritual path. Siddhartha found a holy man and mastered his teachings; then he found another and mastered his. Yet Siddhartha still felt that something was missing in his understanding. So, fol- lowing the suggestion of the great Jain teacher Mahavira, he decided to follow the path of asceticism. Siddhartha’s approach was extreme and left him skeletal and weak. Rigidly practicing meditation, he held his breath for long, dangerous periods of time and each day ate only what fit into the hollow of his palm. Eventually, Siddhartha realized that this self-mortification was going to kill him, not lead him to enlightenment. What he actually needed to advance spiritually was a middle way, neither worldly indulgence nor harsh austerities. On Sid- dhartha’s thirty-fifth birthday, he broke his fast when a young village woman named Sujata made him an offering: a bowl of The Bodhi tree in present-day Bodhgaya, where the Buddha achieved enlightenment. The current Bodhi tree is a descendent of the original under which the Buddha sat. LION’S ROAR | JANUARY 2019 34