Prince Siddhartha was born many thousands of years ago BC to helicopter parents so extreme they vowed to shield him from anything upsetting. Old age, sickness and the BC version of David Hasselhoff never made it through the palace walls. Our prince made it through adolescence without encountering decrepitude of any kind.
All that changed on his 16th birthday when his tutor, ‘Derek’ (not his real name) and took him on a forbidden field trip to the local market. You could put Derek’s disobedience down to his irritation over long hours and no health insurance, but really it was because he loved Siddhartha and didn’t want him to turn into a spoilt brat like all the high caste kids.
Have you ever been to an Indian market? There are spice stalls, saris and gulab jamun, but mostly it’s just … decrepitude. Decrepitude as far as the eye can see.
The little prince was horrified. ‘Like, wtf?’ he texted his friends. ‘I totally just saw a wrinkled creature walking on hind legs, buying spinach. What’s up with that?’ What’s up indeed – he hadn’t even seen the amputees. Siddhartha’s head finally out of his ass, Derek seized the opportunity to explain a few things. Like ‘the caste system’ and the biological deterioration of cells.
Siddhartha was so upset he had mini-awakening right there. Life was not as he knew it, horrible things existed, and he had a decision to make. Would he return to the comforts of the palace, with its climate control and 3rd Century Nintendo? Or would he wander to the land in search of eternal truth?
At 16, Siddhartha said goodbye to his pleasure garden (don’t ask) and personal chef to wander the land in a loincloth. ‘Is suffering avoidable?’ He wondered. ‘Do we have a true nature? Or are we just animals, awaiting our turn at the trough of life’s limited pleasures?’
After a while Siddhartha happened upon a merry band of ascetics. They were also into truth-seeking and loincloths, but they believed truth lay in traversing the spiritual plane by depriving their bodies of food and warmth. Siddhartha, impressed by what he described in a letter to Derek as their hardcore vibe, joined them.
For years they wandered: hungry, cold, and sometimes self-flagellating.
Eventually, Siddhartha grew ill. Some of us aren’t meant for deprivation, and even he could tell that living on liquefied kale and holding his arm in the air for hours leads nowhere good. ‘Surely we won’t find truth by creating more suffering?’ he wondered. ‘Must truth-seeking preclude ‘warm pants’ and the odd bowl of risotto? Surely I can truth-seek and watch Wife Swap U.K.sometimes, if I so choose?’ I am not making this up.
(From here on let’s refer to Siddhartha his new name, ‘Bodhisattva’, or ‘Future Buddha’. It shouldn’t give anything away.)
This realisation that extremes are counterproductive became ‘The Middle Path’ of Buddhism. Buddhism says it’s okay to drive a BMW (even if it’s a bit wanky) – Dreadlocks and fisherman’s pants won’t hasten realisation.
The realisation also lead to Buddhism’s second tenet: ‘Investigate.’ “Don’t blindly follow the first ascetic who tells you how to find enlightenment,” opined the artist formerly known as Siddhartha. “Be open-minded, but trust your own experience. If it checks out, dive in. If not, write a mean article about it on your blog.”r what I say back to your own experience. If it checks out, then dive in. If not, write a mean op-ed about it on your blog.”
The Bodhisattva had to walk the Middle Path alone. When he was lonely, he remembered his old palace buddies and the Crème Brule his chef used to make. But although years passed and blisters came and went, Siddhartha’s dedication never wavered.
One morning, after a night of lonely wandering The Bodhisattva finally had enough. He had been truth-seeking for two decades.
‘Stuff it,’ he thought. ‘I am going to sit under this here fig tree to meditate. And I am not moving until I realise eternal truth. I don’t care if I die – I don’t care if I never even see my Nintendo again.’ It was a high stakes game.
The Bodhisattva sat under what would be re-named ‘the Bodhi tree’ (get it?) for forty days and forty nights. He was hungry, he was cold, but he was getting close.
And wouldn’t you know it? That’s when the demon showed up.
Have you ever been on the verge of something amazing when, seemingly by coincidence, something came along to wreck it? Well that ‘something that came along’ was a demon named Mara.
Depending on how you like your oats, you could see Mara as Satan himself, or alternatively, you might say he represents our ‘small self’; the ego part that feels separate to the rest of the world. The part that sings only two songs: ‘I am a little bit more special than other people’ and ‘I am the worst person in the world.’
This small self likes to keep us safe, so it’s always on the lookout for dangers like speeding busses, reality TV producers and The Unfamiliar. The small self doesn’t give a crap if we never get anywhere new and exciting, because our small self is actually afraid of our true nature. What if it’s so vast, bright and unfamiliar we can’t control it? What if you take a step towards something new, and there are no guarantees of how it will play out? The small self doesn’t want any of it, thank-you very much, and will do everything in its power to stop you. ‘You don’t need that,’ it says. ‘Come have a num-num, get some new shoes, update your Facebook.’ It is the small self that whispers ‘Greatness? Meh. It’ll still be there tomorrow.’
That was Mara in a nutshell. Sensing hunger, he offered delicious bratwurst. Sensing cold, he manifested a slanket. But the Bodhisattva hadn’t spent years as an ascetic for nothing. He just smiled, silent in meditation.
Frustrated, Mara offered every other temptation he could think of. Puppies to cuddle, high profile Twitter followers, and court-side tickets to the best game in town which at the time was cock-fighting (these were un-enlightened times). Still the Bodhisattva sat.
So Mara brung on the honeyz.
Mara’s daughters were something else, as they played the sitar and just generally writhed. The term ‘Bodacious Babe’ (noun: ‘of the Bodhi tree’) was actually coined that night. But could they woo the Bodhisattva from his path? Hell no!
His resistance enraged Mara, who summonsed all the demons in the land. Shit suddenly got real as they whipped up such a storm, insurance premiums were never the same again. Demons hissed, terrifying all. But as the tempest raged within and without, still the Bodhisattva sat. Calm in the eye of the storm.
Then it happened. The Buddha reached his hand down and touched the earth beneath him.
‘Will you bear witness?’ he said. To what, you ask?
To his enlightenment.
He was 35 years old. Which isn’t bad as far as age-related milestones go.