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Home Academic Work Articles Archive Crossing the wilderness: how the Buddha narrates his own travels. - Page 4

Crossing the wilderness: how the Buddha narrates his own travels. - Page 4

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Crossing the wilderness: how the Buddha narrates his own travels.
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The metaphor of travel and Indian philosophy

 We have had in the first part a discussion of the great qualities of the Buddha; but here we have an application of these when he is the bodhisatta. The story is a simple tale of physical travel. For ancient – and modern – Indians existence itself is perceived as a kind of travel.  According to the Indian traditions of  Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, all living beings exist in endless cycles and rebirths of wandering. The word sasāra,  derived from the root form sam sī, means “to flow together with, to go about, wander or walk or roam through; to walk or pass through (a succession of states), undergo transmigration, enter or pass into."[14] It implies endless travel, but of a somewhat fruitless or aimless kind. It comes to be used within early Buddhism to denote the state of all beings, as they pass from one life to another without ceasing, until they find release. Within Buddhism, words connected with a more directed form of travel are also used to express the means by which we can free ourselves from that sasāra.[15] The content of the first sermon of the Buddha describes this eightfold path of right view, understanding, speech, livelihood, action, mindfulness, effort and concentration. It uses the same word, magga, one would apply to a local thoroughfare like the Cowley Road, for instance, and is employed for the “road” in this first tale; the word applies to any path that takes people from one place to another. The Buddha's teaching is elsewhere likened to a path that the Buddha has found just as a man might cut through an overgrown track in a jungle, which leads to a beautiful forgotten city.[16]The word path has levels of meaning according to the particular area of Buddhist thought: in the philosophical tradition of abhidhamma, it refers to the attainment of stages along the way to enlightenment and, specifically, the moment of enlightenment itself.  To travel along this path is to find the means of release and escape from wandering. It refers also to the attainment of the four graded spiritual states of which the last is full enlightenment: stream entry, the moment when one first perceives the path, one-return, non-return, and arahatship. These are mentioned in the first part of the story in connection with the recollection of the Triple Gem. So “path” applies to the daily practice of life as a Buddhist, the way to the end of suffering and to the final fruition of all factors of the path in the awakened mind: only enlightenment itself reveals it in its entirety. Travel and movement from one place to another are certainly not the only analogies used by the Buddha to describe his teaching: metaphors and similes in Buddhism tend to be used in richly various ways, as these stories show us.  But the idea that how we behave, speak, think and deal with others places us on some sort of road and gives us the means to travel, and that this path will lead eventually to the end of suffering, indicates how deeply the association of movement in a certain direction is equated to the means and the end of spiritual development.  Further images employed within early Buddhism reinforce this association. The word of crossing over for instance, with its associations of finding a further shore and passing over a gulf, is used to describe the way to enlightenment.[17] The raft is taken as the teaching that takes us across an otherwise impassable river. Sasāra is also sometimes likened to an ocean. In the Vessantara Jātaka the bodhisatta entreats his son with the words: “Be a steady boat to carry me on the sea of becoming. I shall cross to the further shore of birth, and make the world with its gods cross also”.[18]

It seems apt that the followers who have left the path are compared to those who are not sensible and so cannot cross the terrible wilderness. Elsewhere in the Pāli canon the idea of a wilderness is used to express the state of scepticism and the kind of doubt that corrodes genuine search and investigation: in the Sāmaññaphala sutta the same word, kantāra, is used in a simile that describes overcoming the five hindrances to the meditation practice and a healthy and skilful mind (kusalacitta). Its placing as the fifth simile concerned indicates, as the commentaries point out, an association with doubt, the fifth hindrance.[19]  I think most of us today would use the word to describe a state of spiritual desolation, or a feeling of abandonment. One only has to fly over the sub-continent today to sense the power and sense of danger desert wastes would have held for ancient Indians. In early Buddhism it is used to express existence itself: in the Paisambhidāmagga the Buddha is quoted as saying, under the section on the Great Compassion, “Worldly life has entered a great wilderness, there is none other than myself to get it across the wilderness”.[20] I do not know if this meaning, so redolent of the first lines of both Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Dante’s Divine Comedy, applies to the first tale too.[21] It seems a very suitable image, though, for the outset of a collection of tales in which 547 separate and distinct identities across many aeons of time are described and explored.

[13] I am grateful to Justin Meiland for pointing out that whereas these recollections are said only to produce the meditative state of access concentration by Buddhaghosa in his commentary the Visuddhimagga (Vism III 121-2), here they are given far greater weight. See also A I 30.

[14] Monier Williams, SED 1119.

[15]Within the abhidhamma the concept of path itself is used in a technical sense to describe the moment of each of the four spiritual stages of enlightenment.  According to the Dhammasaṅgani, a canonical abhidhamma text, path factors may exist severally in any moment of skilful consciousness, such as the moment of giving, but cannot exist altogether as a fully activated path until one of these four stages has been attained (DhS 277ff). My impression is that the tales take the more conventional point of view of the path as a way of travelling. See R. M.L.Gethin, The Buddhist Path to Awakening, A Study of the Bodhi-Pakkhiyā Dhammā (London, New York and Cologne 1992), 223-226.

[16] S  II 105-6.

[17] See for instance the first sutta of Saṃyuttanikāya – another interesting beginning.

[18] J VI 546; Gombrich/Cone, ibid, 58.

[19] See D I 73. See Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Sāmaññaphala sutta and its commentaries (Kandy 1989), 145.

[20] Patis I 597.

[21] Pilgrim’s Progress, 1678: “As I walked through the wilderness of this world.” Dante’s opening lines to the Inferno: “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita/ mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,/ che la diritta via era smarrita.” (Biblioteca universale, 47-8, Milan 1949), I, i.


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