*This article was inspired by David Grubin’s film The Buddha: The Story of Siddhartha. Available on Netflix.
AS A WESTERN GUY interested in global spiritual practices, the story of the buddha stands out as the archetypal quest for enlightenment, a flight from the world we all call ordinary.
But after hearing the story many times I’ve come to believe its not about escaping reality, it’s about re-entering the reality of nature, as opposed to that of our distracted modern mind.
The story of the buddha is not one of escaping the world, but escaping the manmade world—and mind—of modern civilization.
You may be thinking that the story of the buddha dates back to about 600 B.C.—how is that modern? Well, at that point the structure of modern agricultural civilization was fully erected, accompanied by a stratified society of haves and have-nots. The kings, warriors, and priests at the top; merchants, famers, and the untouchables—conquered peoples of foreign cultures who were effectively slaves—at the bottom. Siddhartha was, within in this structure, pretty well-off.
So here’s how the story goes…
Siddhartha is a prince, walled-off in his palace, enjoying all the pleasures of food, sex, and princely pampering.
However, he grows up and eventually sees the outside world and all its suffering. He sees old age, poverty, sickness. Viewing the life of the peasant is just too much for him. This triggers his desire to change.
It must be noted that this outside world of sickness is actually the shadow side of a system of hierarchy that Siddhartha enjoyed from the inside. As I mentioned, the caste system of India was intense in its day—with priests and warriors at the top of the pecking order. The rest were second class citizens. So in effect, Siddhartha is shocked by the world that his class has created in its subjugation of others.
Siddhartha then sets out on the very male path asceticism. He tries way too hard to escape the world he grew up in. That world is evil. The body is evil. Nature is evil. This path is emphasized by his renunciation of his wife and children, a renunciation of the feminine—a male march out the family to engage in spiritual battle. But he doesn’t win the battle. For years he tries and fails.
Emaciated and almost dead, Siddhartha is nourished by a passing maiden who gives him milk and rice. This symbolizes a return to the world and the feminine. Not a transcendence, or an escape.
It’s only then that Siddhartha finds enlightenment, sitting beneath the Bodhi tree. The symbolism couldn’t be any stronger. Like the Semitic Tree of Life or the aboriginal World Tree, the Bodhi tree shows us that enlightenment comes from a return to nature, seeing the connections of all things to one another like branches.
When final enlightenment comes, the Buddha points to the Earth. The earth itself is the one who will testify that he is worthy of the title “He Who Has Awakened”. The story ends here in the real world, on earth, in a recognition of the patterns of nature.
But again, twisted through the lens of traditional spirit and body dualism of both East and West, we tend to look at the story of enlightenment and nirvana as an escape from the world. It is not.
Perhaps Samsara—the Wheel of Return—is the endless return to the mind of violent civilization, and our resultant heightened sense of ego. Nirvana might have been here all along, waiting for us in the fields, gardens, and forests.