How to attain Enlightenment

In some form or another, you’ve heard the story of the prince.

The prince has an over-protective Dad aka the king. One day, the prince decides to get out of the palace and get some *me time*. He saddles up his horse – tells his executive assistant – who on hearing the Prince is heading out alone pees his pants and brings out his own horse and convinces the Prince he (the assistant) will accompany the prince from a distance. The Prince, restless to get out, agrees.

That’d be the last time the Prince would see the Palace.

On his journey outside the Palace, the Prince sees three things that change his life forever: an old man, a sick man, and a dead man.

The Prince is unable to fathom what he just saw and rides his horse straight into the forest. The assistant pees his pants again and follows the Prince. The Prince then asks the assistant to take back his horse and other princely gear back to the palace. The assistant goes batshit. The Prince says that for the first time in 29 years, he finally knows what to do with his life.

{He has no clue.}

The assistant gets all weepy and the two walk in opposite directions: The prince into the forest and the assistant into a plausible life sentence.

The Prince keeps walking, travelling past cities and sights, begging for food, sleeping on leaves, fainting, fasting, freezing; repeating. There’s really no mention of whether he ever doubted himself and his emo millennial-like decision. But the prince is a rad guy. So he continues his journey, starves again – then almost dies because of starvation and then, decides to sit under a tree and not eat anything for over a month. Because, you know, he likes to make a statement. Also, he also needs some answers.

Of course, for you and me, that looks like an existential crisis that behoves a visit to the therapist. But, the prince is not like you and me. He is on his way to becoming the enlightened one.

His name is Gautama. AKA: the Buddha.

In most retellings, the story of the Buddha begins here. Under the tree. Post-enlightenment. Even the image the Buddha conjures up is one of serenity and peace. Everything else is just a background to the seemingly important concepts like the noble truths, the eight-fold path and the likes.

The 21st century

In the 21st century, the practice of Buddhism is about meditation and calm. Renouncement, non-violence, or asceticism are not our goals. It’s more about not losing your shit and screaming your face off at the slightest affront. Enlightenment’s become about radiating the serene calm you see on the posters of the Buddha.

But that kind of enlightenment is impossible.

Because we all want to be the Buddha without having gone through the journey. Because from what we saw earlier, the journey is not a pleasant one. For a century that loves its shortcuts, hacks and listicles, the journey is not the most optimal way to spend time.

How can we undertake a journey fraught with suffering when our very definition of suffering is failing to live up to society’s ideas of success.

The question we are really asking is, can I get to be both the Prince and the Buddha? The answer to that is they are both the same people! What we are failing to see is that the journey is what made the Prince the Buddha.

Our conception of the Buddha is everything that happened after the seven weeks under the tree – the man with a halo and a serene smile. We rarely think of an unshaven man begging, being chased away and gorging rice and milk into his mouth at the same time because he hasn’t eaten in days.

Enlightenment – the alternate history

Just as the Buddha attained enlightenment, another guy – let’s call him S – sets out on a Bear-Grylls-like adventure into the forest. He convinces his friend to come along as well.

S sets off on this journey because he has spent the last decade studying every piece of information out there and in the process accumulated enormous knowledge. His brain is bursting out of his head because he is not sure what to do with all that knowledge.

He wants to find an answer to all the answers he has accumulated. And he believes a hike in the forest may help. He finds nothing in the first few days and decides to keep hiking.  His friend meanwhile is cool with the change of plans and does not question any of it.

The friends by now have spent a couple of months in the forest. By this time the Buddha’s personal brand has spread and the two friends hear of this guy called Gautama who just attained enlightenment. S finally thinks he’s found the answer he is looking for and rushes to meet Gautama.

Gautama revels S and his friend in his journeys and also gives them a quick lesson in Big history. When it’s time to leave, S drops the question: “Can I follow the Buddha?”

Gautama in his serene charm looks at S and says: If you follow the Buddha, you cannot become the Buddha.

Whoa!

Whoaaaaa!

That’s when S comes to the realization: All the knowledge he has accumulated was about knowing something. Becoming, however, is a journey.

So S asks his friend to take a hike and sets out on a journey of his own. He inevitably suffers some of the same tribulations Gautama went through years earlier. Years later, convinced the journey has given him all the answers he needs, S returns to the city.

S aka Siddhartha, unlike Gautama, doesn’t stay in the forest forever. He gets back into the city. He falls in love. He applies for jobs with a resume that reads: “I can think. I can fast. I can wait.”

City life soon takes over Siddhartha and he starts talking about money and success. One night, he finds himself drinking and gambling.

Consumed with what has become of his quest, he runs into the forest to find Gautama. That’s when he has a flight club moment:

He is Gautama. He is the Buddha.

Whoaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!

Realization

Realization is not the end of suffering. It’s the acceptance of suffering.

Enlightenment is not an epiphany. It’s not withdrawal. It’s not the result of sitting under a tree, reflecting. It’s throwing yourself into things. Into uncertainty. Ambiguity. Thoughts. Relationships. Acceptance. Danger.

Realization needs a journey. Not a state. If you are thinking of the state, you cannot make the journey. If you follow the Buddha, you cannot become the Buddha.

Most people are like fallen leaves that blow and whirl about in the air, then dip and fall to earth. But others, only a few, are like stars, which move on a fixed course where no wind reaches them; they have their law and their course within them. – Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse

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