I don’t care what anyone says, the 1993 film Little Buddha is the best filmed depiction of the life of the Buddha I’ve ever seen.
First of all, Keanu Reeves is more or less the ideal person to depict a being who has transcended all earthly desires and outbursts of emotion (his name even means “cool breeze over the mountain,” seriously look it up.) But more important than that is the scene where Prince Siddhartha encounters Mara prior to his enlightenment.
Most depictions of the enlightenment story have a Mara who is what westerners would expect in a quasi-demonic being trying to tempt travelers away from the true path: he’s a big old goofy movie monster that even occasionally has the horns and the flames and the fangs and etc. Little Buddha’s Mara is just another Keanu.
Our most dangerous enemy on the path isn’t any demon or god or anything external at all. It’s our own petty desires, fears, and prejudices masquerading as spiritual progress.
And it’s not like the pitfall is easy to spot either. Between the manifold and sometimes idiosyncratic expressions of Buddha Nature, Christ Consciousness, Krishna Consciousness, and the like it is very easy for us to excuse our quirks and foibles as expressions of our divine light when their simply road signs telling us we have a long way to go.
You don’t need to look too much to find evidence of this. Every spiritual tradition has stories, both ancient and modern, of people who didn’t quite get it, of people who despite having a genuine spiritual practice going bring their own downfall via succumbing to their devices. It seems like every week another highly respected spiritual teacher is reported to have had a long history of sexual affairs with his or her students.
Worse than taking advantage of students though, are the reports that are cropping up more and more of Buddhist monks in Burma leading racial pogroms against the Rohingya, an ethnic minority in the country that traditionally practice Islam. As you read this, people’s houses and palaces of worship are being burned down under the guise of protecting Burma as a Buddhist nation. The monks and their followers claim self defense, yet there is a)nothing in Buddhist philosophy that allows racial hatred in self defense and b) no evidence of this being in self defense.
If Buddhist monks, more or less the universal symbol at this point for peace and kindness, people who have literally spent their lives meditating and cultivating feelings of love and compassion, were setting fire to Mosques, then what hope is there for the rest of us? If they’ve been unable to realize their pure Buddhahood, can anyone, especially those of us that divide our time between practicing our lofty ideals and trying to find materialistic ways to allow ourselves to do so?
One of my favorite Buddhist scriptures is the Upaddha Sutta. In it Ananda, the Buddha’s cousin, extols the virtues of having good friends to share the spiritual path with, friends that support and guide you. He goes so far as to say that having good friends with you is half of the spiritual life.
That invites criticism from the Buddha, who disagrees on the importance of good friends. He thinks that good friends is all of the spiritual life. I love this because I think it’s a really cool little story and because it reminds me of roadtrips, drugs, and tarot cards.
Once, a lifetime ago, I spent a summer traveling around with a group of friends reading fortunes. I read Tarot, someone else read palms, someone else was doing I Ching, someone else was drawing up astrology charts, etc. We went to hippy festivals, high school graduation parties, wedding receptions, wherever people would pay us, and read people’s fortunes. We traveled in an old white van that one of our crew had gotten from her dead grandfather. The van did not have a working speedometer or a working gas gauge, it was that kind of van.
On top of the issues with the van, along with our various forms of fortune telling, we also had a collection of drugs that would have done Hunter S. Thompson proud. So we were a group of stoned kids in a van that wouldn’t tell us how fast we were going or if we could even get there. If anyone has a better metaphor for the human condition, I’d like to hear it.
None of us could trust the van. None of us could trust each other. None of us could trust ourselves. But by learning to doubt all of these, we learned to rely on what we did know. If we traveled the same speed as the cars around us, we should be alright. If we stopped at least every three hours for gas, we should be alright. If we took shifts being sober enough to drive, we should be alright. And, most importantly, if we each kept ourselves open to criticism and feedback from the others, we should be alright.
And I’m increasingly coming to the conclusion that our best hope is that. Not relying on our inherently pure nature or our conceptions of how advanced we are, but relying on each other and on our experience of how reality appears to be reacting to us. It’s so easy to delude ourselves into thinking we’re right, that we know what’s going on and everyone else has lost the beat. But in my experience the further we get from what our spiritual friends are telling us, the further we’re getting from the truth.
This is not an advocation for blind conformity.
The situation in Burma speaks to what happens when that gets mixed with spirituality. It’s an advocation for listening to everyone, listening especially to the people that disagree with you, because they can be your greatest spiritual friends of all. Too often we shut out dissenting opinions, whether they happen to be the one that says we’re not perfect and have some work to do, or that we are good enough and it’s not as bad as we think it is. And that’s where our growth comes from, not whatever reinforces our view of the world but whatever destroys it. How else do you expect to steer this damn van?
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Ed: Kate Bartolotta