What Are You?

Zoltan Tasi, "Penshurst Place & Gardens," Penshurst, United Kingdom via Unsplash

Soon after he attained enlightenment, the Buddha went walking. He was probably wild to stretch his legs because he was sitting under his tree for forty days, according to legend (some scholars believe this not a literal number but an ancient expression for “a very long time”—forty days in the desert, at sea, under the tree, etc.). But he also walked in the spirit of looking at the world with new eyes. What else would you do after you saw to the very heart of reality? Everything probably looked astonishing.

His radiance, his je ne sais quoi, was so striking that another man passing by stopped him in his tracks.

“What are you?” the man asked the Awakened One. “Are you a god?”

“No,” the Buddha replied, probably with a serene smile.

“An angel?”


“Are you a wizard, then?”


“Are you a man?”


This last answer probably confounded the man. What was left? It annoyed me when I first heard it because a big draw of Buddhism is the repeated assurance that the Buddha is an ordinary human being just like the rest of us. His example is meant to inspire us. If he can do it, we can do it! And yet here comes the news that he is not like us. What changed after his enlightenment?  It wasn’t what he gained but what he lost. The fear, craving, and distraction you see in most eyes—the endless flight and fight and freezing out of pain that drives the ego and our lives—was gone. Completely gone.

“I am awake,” he replied.

The Buddha was not a man in the sense that he was liberated from all the “hindrances” that give the rest of us our charming quirks and trip wires. The glow he emanated was utter relief. He woke up from the fever dream of fearful separation that most of us endure. Lightened of all his emotional baggage, all his defenses, he looked at everything as if it was family. This did not mean a snake was not a snake. It meant it was familiar to him. He saw it through and through, so he didn’t have to fear it. It could not take him by surprise by pretending to be a stick.

The Buddha is sometimes called a doctor. He knew the best medicine for poisonous negativity, for destructive emotions and inside and outside, is not positivity but warmth, acceptance. From that first walk, he expressed the ease of attitude and kind attention that literally shares a root with kin. He woke up to see all life was kindred, intricately and inextricably related. And he was part of it.

6 thoughts on “What Are You?

  1. thank you, Tracy. You’ve brought me closer to a slight appreciation of what ‘enlightenment’ represents. Understanding through and through so as to feel the oneness.

  2. Very correct Tracy. He lost the want for worldy things, that are so connected with the personality’s concepts of good/bad-right/wrong, that is, duality. Finally he experienced life as it is, without any judgements, from the view point of essence. He “died” figuratively speaking, died to want, never satisfied hungry ghosts which drives the persona, and was reborn in essence. 😇

  3. As I heard it, the story ends this way: The man asks, “Then what are you?” The Buddha replies, “I am awake,”

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