Norman will be teaching from Thich Nhat Hanh’s Old Path White Clouds. I got to page 256 and I put it down, probably forever. We know that mythological stories are important for their archetypal themes and as an expression of populist religious ideas. That Buddha-to-be left his wife and child is well known, and it seems that in general we Buddhists – or at least the ones of know – accept the story, even if we do not totally agree that this was an ethical thing to do.
So at some level I accepted his leaving as an important story, the path to Buddha’s enlightenment. And since we tell this story every year around December 8th, the mythological date of the Buddha’s enlightenment, it no longer disturbs me as much as it did. But in the narrative by Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddha returns to visit his wife and very young child Rahula for a short time. It is said that Rahula is allowed to visit the Buddha in his forest monastery, and then he is ordained, breaking the heart of his mother and grandparents. Meanwhile we are told that the Buddha is walking gracefully and mindfully in the forest, (while his loved ones suffer.)
The message is clear: the Way is for male mendicants, and that it is all right to leave your wife and home in order to follow the Way. Not only is it all right, it is desirable!
As we know, religions mutate slowly in a new culture. So in American Buddhism, we now ordain women (thank goodness!) and we no longer believe that one must be celibate and live in a monastery in order to follow the Way.
But as I have considered this, I wonder about the deep story here. The goal of renunciation is to focus one’s entire life on spiritual practice. We say that we can attain the way “in the world,” but are we really practicing with the commitment and one-pointedness of the Buddha and his disciples in this story? Or even with the commitment of our friends who live a monastic life? What does it mean to practice with commitment anyway? Is reading a book or two and sitting once a day (a great discipline, actually) enough? I wonder if it isn’t very possible to become complacent. And what does “enough” mean anyway? We no longer talk about a specific goal like enlightenment, but what are we doing? Are we following the precepts and living ethically (a wonderful achievement)! Is that enough?
What does it mean to be a priest in our secular world, living at home, doing the shopping, etc? As I age and see death always on the horizon, I am called to commit, but to what and for what end?
Pretty slippery stuff, but we must, I think, continue to investigate and look deeper.