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"A Life of One Piece" by Sharon Salzberg

29 March 2010

From the beginning of my practice, I was very moved by the sense of the Buddha as an integrated being. Most of us can easily experience our lives as somehow fragmented, divided. We might feel perfectly full of lovingkindness, strongly in touch with the radiant essence of our being when we’re alone, but as soon as we're with other people, it's very difficult. Or we might feel fine when we're with other people, but feel quite ill at ease when we are alone. We might relate one way at work, a different way in the context of our families.

Our lives can easily be experienced as split up into these little bundles, whereas for a being like the Buddha, it is seamless. There are no parts, there's no division, there's no fragmentation. His life was of one piece, with threads of wisdom and compassion guiding his actions whether he was alone or with others, wandering through India or being still; teaching or meditating. I found that tremendously inspiring.

The living tradition that is our heritage is his example of a life of harmlessness and compassion plus the body of the teachings. This Buddha, our Buddha you might say, arose in India in this world around 563 BC. He came to birth as a human being, just as we did. His questions, his very compelling questions, were about the nature of life. It's as though he were asking, “What does it mean to be born into this human body, to be so vulnerable and dependent as an infant, to grow up, to grow older whether we like it or not, to die even as we see all others die around us?” 

“What does it mean to have this human mind which seems to veer constantly from one extreme to the other, always changing, so that we might wake up in the morning delighted to be alive, full of faith, really happy, by the afternoon we're frightened, we're angry, we feel guilty, we question our very right to be happy. It seems incomprehensible to us. And then at night it's something different again.” 

“What does it mean as a human being to look for happiness, peace, joy, that is not confined within the body, within that changing mind? Is there a happiness, is there a peace that is not a compounded thing subject to change, to destruction as conditions change?”

He had questions in effect that are very similar to our own. As he phrased the call to awakening for himself, he said, "Why should I who am subject to birth, old age, sickness, death, sorrow, and suffering, seeing the danger in these things, why should I take refuge in that which is also subject to change, to death, to sorrow, to suffering? Let me find that which is changeless, which is deathless, which is without sorrow, which is unborn and undying, that is a true refuge." And in fact this is what he found. He found his true refuge.

We say a human being sat under a tree in Northern India 2500 years ago, motivated by compassion, brought there, moved there on a wave of moral force. At dusk he was attacked by Mara, that legendary figure, a tempter. And yet he kept his resolve, he just kept on sitting there. Throughout the night, which was a full moon night in May, he sat, and he saw the conditioned nature of suffering, sorrow, grief, loss, and death. He traced it back until he came to ignorance. 

As the night went on, he saw not only the roots of ignorance, but the means of liberation. He saw suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering, and the path to the end of suffering. At the first light of dawn, just as the star Venus broke in the morning sky, he saw through the very last trace of ignorance in himself and was completely enlightened. And that is why, all these years later, we know of a path that can free us.

Sharon Salzberg is a founding teacher of the Insight Meditation Society, the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, and the Forest Refuge in Barre, MA. She has written and edited many books, including Lovingkindess: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness and Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience.


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