Life consists of a series of problems, also known as a series of stressors. Learning to manage stress is critical as long as we are here on earth. We have various techniques and approaches for such stress management. One of the well-known practices is meditation.
Thinking of meditation practice, we imagine a figure like a person sitting still, back-straightened, cross-legged, closed or half-opened eyes in the meditation hall, and so on.
Usually, the image is in traditional Buddhism, either Mahayana (including Zen), Theravada, or Tibetan traditions. Probably, the original image can go back to Siddhartha Gautama, sitting still under the Bodhi Tree, the tree of enlightenment.
Moreover, the meditation practices in his days even go back to a long history of the Vedanta traditions originating from the Vedas in the ancient Indus Valley Civilization, Vedic literature, etc.
Under the Bodhi Tree, Siddhartha meditated for forty days and nights without eating, being bombarded with various temptations, just like Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days and nights, attacked by the devil’s temptations.
Finally, after a long period of meditation, without eating anything, just like the angels ministered to Jesus, in Siddhartha’s case, Sujata, a milkmaid, offered him a bowl of milk rice. With her offer, then, Siddhartha regained the strength to realize the truth of life. And, he called himself the Enlightened One, the Buddha.
What was the truth of life he realized at that time? While there could be various stories in the traditions, the central tenets should be these three:
- The Middle Way
- The Four Noble Truths
- The Noble Eightfold Path
I have mentioned both the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path several times in other entries. Here, let me focus on the Middle Way.
As a son of the wealthy clan, Siddhartha’s life was full of material possessions in his younger days. He was supposed to be happy because of his extreme health and wealth. But he was not. Witnessing various sufferings many people experience, from aging to sickness to death, even living with multiple stressors, he wanted to know why we suffer in the first place on earth.
To find the answer, leaving his family in the palace, he devoted himself to extreme asceticism, based on the yogic traditions in his days, eventually, even to the extent that he ate only one grain of rice a day. He was able to touch his spine from his belly.
From extreme health and wealth to extreme asceticism, he exerts his best efforts to find the truth of life: Why do people suffer? But he was not able to find the answers. In the beginning, some gurus seemed to have the answer, but they didn’t. At other times, some specific teachings looked so, but they didn’t, either. He wandered from one guru to another and from one instruction to another. It seemed as if we do in modern-day society from one book or workshop to another and another.
And for his last resort, he had finally decided to meditate under the Bodhi Tree, promising himself that he would never stop meditation until and unless he finds the answer without eating, even taking any breaks. He was still “a man of extremes” at that moment. He was intelligent and talented with his iron will. But then, because of that, whatever he did became nothing but extreme.
Ironically enough, however, the answer didn’t come from the result of his extreme efforts but a small, even mediocre kindness that the unknown milkmaid, Sujata, gave him. A mere bowl of milk rice by a simple lady gave him the ultimate answer. It was neither his extreme effort and obsession for seeking the truth nor the strong will and heroic act of Sujata. The answer was merely on one of the daily activities between an obsessed practitioner and a simple household lady.
One day, one lady saw a guy who looked starving under the tree. Her simple compassion to help him let her cook a bowl of milk rice for him. What was outstanding about this action? I would say there was nothing special. It was one of the activities we all do in our communities and neighborhood.
Here is the paradox. It was nothing special. That is why it was so special. The extraordinary is in the ordinary.
One of our everyday practices was the answer for the truth of life. In it, nobody is proud of their actions and achievements. In it, nothing is a manifestation out of the esoteric teachings.
A mere bowl of milk rice symbolizes the Middle Way that transformed Siddhartha into the Buddha. Again, it was not that a bowl of milk had extraordinary power. It was not that Sujata’s compassion was exceptional. Siddhartha’s efforts and achievements were not outstanding. Many other ladies were as kind as Sujata. Many other ascetic yogis did much more extreme practices than Siddhartha himself.
- Sujata was one of the simple, kind ladies in the village.
- Siddhartha was not so different from other yogi practitioners at that time.
- Kindness between the two was part of the ordinary acts we see in our everyday life.
Does it sound familiar? Yes, it is for me. Let me rephrase these three as follows:
- People who met Jesus in his days mainly were ordinary folks in the village.
- Jesus himself was a carpenter who worked for himself, his parents, and siblings (becoming a fully human to suffer the sins of the world).
- Kindness among them was nothing esoteric. Jesus even wept for Lazarus and other folks in the village.
While the actions depicted in the Gospels looked miraculous, the core message was still the extraordinary in the ordinary. Nobody is proud of anything in their activities and achievements. Nothing is special. Nobody is special. That means, everything is special, and everyone is special. Therefore, God alone is special.
In the movie, Ben-Hur, Judah Ben-Hur got arrested due to a false charge and forced to work as a galley slave. On his way, while almost dying for dehydration, he nearly collapsed, Jesus passed by and offered him a glass of water. It was only a simple kindness Ben-Hur received. Perhaps, the action was one of the ordinary things that kind people would do for unfortunate slaves at that time. And yet, this glass of water was extraordinary in the ordinary. It was like a bowl of milk rice between Siddartha and Sujata. Because of this glass of water, Ben-Hur could survive for three years in the galley ship. And his faith in God became steadfast.
It was not his willpower but his faith in God. Therefore, he could never be proud of his iron will for his survival. (Strictly speaking, of course, he was not a perfect human at all. His anger against his childhood friend Messala who trapped him, was also part of why he survived. But again, because of his faith in God, the sense of forgiveness emerged in his soul at the end.) Though it is a fiction story, the message is tremendous.
What is the Middle Way? It means that anything extreme is harmful. Moreover, the teaching reminds us that the extraordinary is in the ordinary. It is the message that we can learn from a bowl of milk rice, and a glass of water.
Image by moritz320