Buddha is the great liberator, says Zenju Earthlyn Manuel. He taught that freedom comes from freeing your mind.
I first heard of Buddha at age eleven. My mother and oldest sister were on their second hour of shopping for our family of five, while I waited outside in my father’s shiny, green Buick. He and my younger sister were with me, and after they fell asleep, I escaped to indulge my favorite pastime of people watching. It was then that a Japanese couple walked up to me and introduced the Buddha. The strangers were members of the Soka Gakkai, a lay Buddhist organization steeped in the early teachings of a monk named Nichiren.
The couple had approached the right girl-child, as I was already focused on liberation. I considered myself an unofficial member of the Black Panther Party and an ambassador for the civil rights movement, but no one would have known this unless they’d listened to my simplified rhetoric about ending racism, especially the kind I endured daily in my desegregated middle school.
To smile and talk to Japanese strangers about Buddha, while my father wasn’t looking, was a personal act of rebellion. This was the early 1960s, and it was a world of free love, peace, and yes, Eastern religions arriving in the U.S., challenging Christianity. Since my family was Christian and protective, they would not have approved of a conversation, with strangers, about Buddha. Yet it was fate that the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni Buddha, would become a revered ancestor in my life.
As time passed, I learned Buddha was not God, just like Jesus Christ was not. But they both were of God. They believed in love and peace. Both wore the cloak of being saviors for those who suffered. They protested the evils of the world, such as war and hatred, and promoted peace and love.
My interest in Buddha grew when I discovered his teaching that liberation from suffering is possible. Buddha was like Christ in that he was not only a savior and protester, but also a liberator. While Christ’s liberation was steeped in love, Buddha’s was steeped in love and a freedom that comes from freeing our minds from what causes us to suffer. In the dharma, my perception of being black was expanded beyond the discrimination I endured. The internal pain was understood as a collective one, whether others thought so or not.
After decades of walking in Buddha’s footsteps, I began to see Shakyamuni Buddha not only as an ancestor, savior, protester, and liberator, but as a shaman. His quest in the woods, sitting on the roots of trees, led to a deep seeing and knowing about suffering. I see the Buddha as a shaman who taught not from his intellect but rather from the wisdom of his quest in nature, as would any shaman of the earth.
In the end, it isn’t Buddha or Buddhism that I am interested in. Often when I say this to people, they laugh because they see me stand before them in a Buddhist robe. But I am standing in liberation.
In His Image
In drawing the Buddha’s curved hands and gentle smile, Ira Sukrungruang finds peace.
I was born into a Buddhist family, with a statue of Buddha in nearly every room. Every Sunday we went to the Thai Buddhist temple of Chicago, Wat Dhammaram, which was once an elementary school, and we prayed to the gold Buddha residing in the former gymnasium. I wore a Buddha around my neck, my father wore several that clinked when he walked.
The image of Buddha was everywhere in my life. So much so that I became obsessed with his image. My aunty Sue encouraged my obsession. One day, she gave me a notebook.
“This is for drawing Buddha,” she said.
I had been doodling Buddha on scrap pieces of paper all over the house—his pointed head, curved hands, and long fingers. I also doodled boxes within boxes within boxes—endless geometric shapes. I was seven, and my head swirled with patterns and Buddha.
“Draw him when you feel anxious,” Aunty Sue said in Thai, “when you need to calm yourself.”
I was an anxious boy, whose legs bounced uncontrollably, who chewed the side of his cheek until it bled.
“Keep his image in your mind and remember to take deep breaths.”
I nodded because whenever my aunt spoke, she possessed a calm that stilled me.
“Remember to breathe,” she said, “like when you meditate. Breathe in, poot. Breathe out, toa.”
I told her okay.
“Draw the Buddha in the living room. Come show me when you’re done. Okay?”
I sat on the living room floor, the green carpet soft against my skin. Buddha sat above me. From the kitchen the sweet aroma of cooked jasmine rice fragranced the house. I opened the notebook on my lap and began drawing. First, his torso, the delicate V of it, then his face and the gentle curl of his lips, and then his eyes, about to wake from a pleasant dream.
Drawing Buddha was a form of meditation, and at the beginning it was difficult, just as stilling the mind is difficult when meditating for the first time. Too many thoughts invade. Negativity seeps through the barriers of your brain you thought you had fortified. When drawing, I wanted to draw a perfect Buddha, as pristine and golden as he is. This perfection frustrated me. Made me crumple up balls of paper. Made me erase over and over until the paper thinned and tore. But eventually, the act of drawing, the act of keeping him in my mind was more important than a crooked eye or a smile that looked vampiric. It was drawing that was important, not what was drawn. Wasn’t that how Buddha gained enlightenment? Sitting under the Bodhi Tree, letting the world whirl around him?
Over time, I let the pencil lead the way, let it follow the curve of his hands. Let it dimple the rivulets of his hair. Let it waterfall the creases of his robes. Let the image of him, in my steady hand, bring me peace.
The Buddha’s Greatest Teaching
You’d be amazed how much your spiritual journey parallels the Buddha’s, says Melvin McLeod. But he took the big step that woke him up. You can take it too.
The Buddha gave many teachings over the course of his long life, and they’ve been expanded on by great meditators in the 2,600 years since then. Yet the Buddha’s most important teaching is the story of his own journey to enlightenment. It’s the essential guide for our own spiritual journey.
So, let’s take a look at the Buddha’s path, stage by stage. I think you’ll be surprised how similar his spiritual journey initially was to ours. Then he took a big step, a surprising, counterintuitive step. It made him the Buddha, and we can take it too.
The Buddha was born into a royal family in what is now Nepal. This was the epitome of privilege at that time, the equivalent of being born into some tech billionaire’s family today. He had all the luxury and pleasures one could want.
Privilege is designed to shield people not only from suffering, but from the knowledge of suffering. But as we all know, no matter how good our life is, how insulated we are, eventually we have to acknowledge the reality of illness, old age, death, and all the world’s other sufferings.
That is what happened to the Buddha. He broke through the cocoon of luxury his family had built around him and woke up to the suffering of beings. His heart opened with compassion, and he saw that all the pleasure and wealth in the world does not protect us from old age, sickness, and death.
This realization ended the first stage of the Buddha’s journey: he’d enjoyed a life of material success and then he’d seen its ultimate futility.
I’m guessing that like the Buddha, you too have realized that material success doesn’t solve life’s most important problems. So, like the Buddha, you’ve embarked on a spiritual quest for the meaning and happiness that materialism can never give us.
This begins the second stage of the Buddha’s journey, and ours. We go from material struggle to spiritual struggle.
Seeking an answer to the problem of suffering, the Buddha left his family’s palace and went off into the forest, where he tried all the powerful spiritual methods of his day—yoga, concentration, tantra, asceticism. He was disciplined, dedicated, and courageous, and he became an outstanding practitioner.
But it wasn’t working. Try as he might to deny, purify, change, improve, or transcend himself, his practice did not deliver an end to suffering. It didn’t work to try to become someone different or better than he was.
That might be your experience too. It is certainly mine. Practicing with some self-improving goal in mind—whether it’s enlightenment, healing, becoming some great meditator, or just being a better person—we find that we’re still suffering. And try as we might, it’s extremely difficult to avoid tainting our practice with at least some goal orientation.
Up to this stage, our journey has been similar to the Buddha’s: we have seen the futility of material struggle and sought answers in spiritual practice. We’re working hard in our struggle to achieve something spiritually, and although it may not be working that well, we haven’t given up.
But here the Buddha did something we haven’t yet—he did give up. This was the third and final stage of his journey to enlightenment.
He stopped all struggling, both material and spiritual. He stopped the self-indulgence of material struggle and the self-abnegation of spiritual struggle. He took a middle path of just being who he really was.
Who he really was—who we all really are—was an awakened one, a buddha. He didn’t have to cultivate awakening; all he had to do was stop doing the things that obscured it, like trying to become something he wasn’t.
When he finally ceased all his struggle while seated under what became known as the Bodhi Tree, he saw himself and all reality as they really are—perfect, complete, and joyful. There was nothing that needed to be done because nothing needed improvement. He saw that we suffer because we don’t know this, mistakenly seeing ourselves as separate, solid, and imperfect.
The Buddha realized that because enlightenment is our natural state, we don’t need to seek, create, or achieve it. This struggle only obscures our true nature, and when we stop struggling we naturally awaken. This is the key to Buddhist meditation.
The Buddha is often portrayed reaching down to touch the ground after his enlightenment. But I think he’s doing more than gesturing toward the earth. I think he’s pointing us toward this whole reality, which is perfect and good. He’s telling us that this very reality is his true home, and it is ours. We don’t have to struggle to be anyone or anywhere else. The seat of enlightenment is right here where we are. We just have to realize that. This is the Buddha’s greatest teaching.
Siddhartha gave up everything to seek enlightenment. That story, says John Tarrant, is a linear depiction of a nonlinear event.
Imagine yourself a prince named Siddhartha, raised in a world in which the concealed knowledge is of old age, sickness, death, and the path to know the nature of mind. Messengers come from the gods and demonstrate this secret knowledge to you. You take it in. Then, secretly, at midnight, with a single backward glance, you turn away from your wife and newborn child. The hooves of your great white horse are muffled, and—with your only friend—you steal away. Earth spirits cast a slumber on the guards, and soon you’re out of the palace and riding through the night. At dawn you arrive at a place where the deer are not afraid. You dismount and take a free breath. You swap your silk clothes for a passing hunter’s coarse, red linen. As he departs, your friend weeps and your horse, too. Then you enter spiritual training.
When I first met this compelling story, I took it as encouragement to sacrifice, to work hard at spiritual matters, turning the whole of myself toward a transformative change. The extremity of the departures and losses struck me, also their repetitions; Siddhartha lost his mother when he was a baby, and in turn he abandoned his son. The pain of such recurrences is profound, and led him to turn to the deepest matters.
I didn’t quite fit my own, Tasmanian, culture; I couldn’t find a ready-to-wear outfit. After a succession of improvisations—working in the mines, working a fishing boat, working for land rights—I realized my question was an inner one: Who was I?
So, without knowing anything about the dharma, I gave up most things in order to study Zen. When I went through the gates of departure, the pieces of the Buddha story became natural, archetypal, stops on the way. I wanted to see the world differently, but I had no clue how to do that.
In the final piece of his story, the Buddha, having sat all night under a great fig tree, was attacked by Mara, the Lord of Death, facing terrors I was personally familiar with. As the first birds called, Buddha looked up and saw the morning star and cried out: “Now I see that all beings have the nature of the Tathagata. Only their delusions and attachments prevent them from realizing this.”
Everybody in our temple worked hard to awaken, but the effort was full of, well, effort. I was trying to get freedom, yet even my quest was full of desire.
There was the matter, too, of the children. Siddhartha abandoning his son on the night of his birth touched me. The night my daughter was born, she rested on my chest, and the tenderness of her skin seemed to be a mystery beyond the stars. She and I were both included in that pattern, along with her mother, the doctors and nurses, and the scent of plum blossom through the widow.
As my daughter grew, I took her with me when I traveled to teach retreats. The idea was that we could have silence, peace, and awakening in the middle of life. Other children came to retreats too. They’d take lunches and hurtle off up the creeks, coming back in time for supper.
I found that my story was an odd rhyme with Buddha’s story. There was a child, though she was a girl, not a son or prince like Buddha. I carried her onto an airliner, and she wailed all the way across the Pacific. It’s as if when I left the palace, the spirits tried to help me steal away, but she made all the noise in the world. So that’s the way we left the palace—together. A steward, saying “It’s hard to have a nipper,” secretly passed me a bottle of champagne from first class. He was like the farmer Sujata who offered Buddha blessings and nourishment.
I found I could enter Buddha’s story anywhere, and the journey itself was a resting place. The light seemed not to play on the story, but to strike the shards. The intelligent thread of instructions—this is how to do it and what to sacrifice—was all reasonable and even respectable. But my mind wasn’t reasonable or respectable. For me the light was in the leaves and tips of the grass, in the feelings as well as the thoughts.
Anywhere, I could enter Buddha’s story anywhere. Here was always good. As Chan ancestor Mazu Daoyi said, “Your thoughts and feelings are Buddha.” We’re not living the wrong life. The life we have now is Buddha’s life.
An Enlightened Community
Laywomen and men, monks and nuns—all were held in equal regard. Wendy Garling on the Buddha’s fourfold sangha.
My journey as a Buddhist began when I was a hippie, traveling in Nepal and India. Serendipitously, I visited Tibetan communities where I experienced, for the first time in my life, the depths of human potential for kindness and generosity. In shrine rooms amidst a cacophony of color and sound, I encountered riveting teachings from brilliant lamas that changed my life. One day in 1979, at the Delhi train station, I met a kind lama who turned out to be my root teacher and a cherished constant in my life until his passing three decades later.
Looking back, I see how fortunate I was that my introduction to the dharma was not gendered. I never heard that as a woman I was a lesser candidate for buddhahood than a man, or felt marginalized within a sangha by a hierarchy of males, or felt pressured by a teacher for sex. It’s been gut-wrenching that so many dharma sisters across all lineages have had just these experiences, with horrific stories of abuse continuing to emerge. And then there is the heartbreaking finger pointing at the Buddha himself; some say that he set the precedent for misogyny and patriarchal hierarchy.
And so, I take a breath and dive into stories of the Buddha to find answers for myself. What was he really like? What was his regard for women? From years of this research, my faith in him has only deepened. For me, there are a couple of stories that eclipse millennia of Buddhism’s misogyny. They’ve become guideposts for me as a female Buddhist, beacons in my practice, writing, and teaching. Let me share them with you.
Shortly after his enlightenment, the Buddha declared the goal of creating a fourfold sangha of disciples comprising both lay and monastic women and men. With an eye on his legacy, he intended that representatives from all four groups would become accomplished practitioners and dharma teachers during his lifetime. We know he actualized this model because in canonical sources he goes on to laud two dozen “foremost” women as exemplars of his highest teachings. Khema, for example, was recognized as the role model for embodying wisdom; Samavati for loving-kindness; and Khujjuttara for superior learning.
The Buddha’s equal regard for women was also underscored when he was asked to settle a dharma dispute between quarrelsome monks. Rather than make a ruling himself, he turned to his most accomplished disciples and appointed one judge each from the fourfold community. Mahaprajapati, a female monastic, and Visakha, a laywoman, were selected as equal judges along with a monk and a layman to rule on the accuracy of the dharma discourse in dispute.
At the end of his life, the Buddha expressed satisfaction that his mission of creating a fourfold sangha had been accomplished. Imagine how different Buddhism would be today if his nonhierarchical, gender-balanced model for dharma community had endured!