The Buddha had no plans to teach after he became enlightened. Isn’t that interesting? He planned to abide peacefully and at ease. Undoubtedly he beyond pleasant when someone happened to cross paths with him. But he had no plans to try to convey the great shift that had taken place inside him. And who could blame him? Have you ever tried to convey fully your state of mind?
Undoubtedly, the Buddha was radiant. In one famous story, someone crossed paths with Buddha just after he achieved awakening, and asked him about this radiance. Are you a god? I am awake, answered the Buddha. That was all he said and the man was like, whatever, and walked on. How are we to understand this awakening, this enlightenment, this lighting up and lightening up of all burdens?
We have all seen radiance in the face of babies and those newly in love and sometimes in the face of those who have been spared. One day, as I was walking down a road near my home, intermittently listening to the birds and feeling the air on my skin and sinking back into the dense cloud cover of my own problems and concerns, when a woman rushed out of her house. “My husband is alive!” she exclaimed. “He just had a liver transplant and he is going to be okay!” Her face and eyes were shining. “I just had to tell someone!” She smiled at me and smiled back and agreed that this was wonderful news, stranger to stranger, human to human.
The woman’s face was shining with relief, with wonderment at being alive and out of pain and danger. One definition of “nirvana” I once heard is the breaking of a fever. Sweet cool relief. And yet as we stood there smiling, I wondered if it would last. There was unalloyed happiness at her release from suffering, yet this little edge of anxiety. Can it last?
Sometimes the Buddha is called the Tathagata, which roughly translates as one who has gone beyond, or one who has come and gone. One who has attained a state beyond words, a peace beyond all conditioning, all fretting about can I hold on to this state. This can mean something cosmic. But it can also mean something very human and down to earth.
After his awakening, the Buddha became the designated driver at the wild and sweaty party of life. He went beyond by becoming extremely calm and collected. Recollected, to be exact. The ancient word for mindfulness means to remember, literally re-membering or re-collecting all the different parts of ourselves, body, heart, and mind. This state of recollection, of bringing head, heart, and body all together brings a rootedness and a freedom and a presence that people who are carried away by one part just can’t know.
Have you ever tried to reason with someone who was drunk on alcohol or their own political views or swept by some other raging passion? Suddenly, or not so suddenly, you see that that it is just futile to try to talk with them and just stop. “Never argue with a fool,” writes Mark Twain. “Onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.”
After his awakening, the Buddha was still physically present in the world. In fact, he was radiantly present. He wasn’t blinded by his own desire or aversion or delusion. He was sober and relaxed and how can you transmit that to another? And yet according to legend, Brahma, the god of creation, came to the Awakened One and implored him to teach, asking him to see that there were at least some beings without too much dust in their eyes.
What are we to make of this story? Did a divine apparition really appear and have this exchange with the Buddha? Or did the whole event happen inside the Buddha? In a sense, the question is irrelevant. All great myths convey living truths. They are organic and accessible to us, and always changing as we change. The god of creation may not touch down before us but at one point or another life itself will challenge us to make a stand for our deepest truth. Situations will come along that cause us to remember who we really are. At certain times and in certain places, we will remember our deepest wishes and intentions. We remember that what we really, really, really want is not to be self contained and away from it all but to participate in life freely and without fear. In our sanest most awake moments, we don’t want huge conquests. We don’t want to take at all. We want to share our moments of lightening, of light.