Yesterday on the radio I heard that this coming Tuesday, December 8th, is “Bodhi Day,” the day that Buddhists believe Siddhartha became the Buddha. I’ve been interested in Buddhism lately. I’ve been interested in its beliefs and in the idea that the founding myth of Buddhism is that a wealthy prince retreats from his riches and sits alone under the Bodhi tree and reaches enlightenment.
It’s fascinating to me that where Christianity, Judaism, and Islam start with the idea of relatively middle-class prophets (carpenter, shepherd, son of a servant and the aforementioned shepherd, respectively), Buddhism starts with a wealthy guy. I feel like a lot of the “popular” Buddhists and meditation coaches today follow this same path, but don’t acknowledge it. When you listen to their apps or podcasts, or read the books, they all have a story about being a stressed out executive who then took time out to (metaphorically) sit under the Bodhi tree. Now they give, or sell, their enlightenment to those of us who are not under the tree.
These modern-day gurus follow other American myths about this idea of retreat and enlightenment. For years, I have been drawn to the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family always moving west to find more quiet, of Huck Finn “Lighting out for the territory” to get away from civilization, of Jack Kerouac getting stoned and driving to Mexico. Even knowing the truth about Henry David Thoreau moving to the edge of his mother’s property so he could better boink his buddy’s wife in solitude, and then writing a treatise about his independence, he still speaks to me.
Every weekend I make a “to do list” of chores and tasks. I put on the top of every list “Write, Read, Journal,” to remind myself to take time out of the weekend to read something, write in my journal, and try and create something. Even before Covid meant that my family was home with me 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, I had trouble finding enough mental space to think or create for myself. It is not that I am sooo busy. I have a comparatively relaxed and reasonable work schedule, and of course, no one currently has any activities. But two kids, two dogs, a husband, a house, work a previously cancerous breast, a global pandemic, it all takes up a lot of mental space. There are constant interruptions, and when there are not interruptions, there is still half of my brain listening and waiting for the interruptions.
I love the bustle of a house with dogs and kids and at the same time, I long for the solitude of the Bodhi tree, the three chairs of Walden, a joint and a road trip.
When I was reading about the Buddha and Bodhi Day I can across this line describing the difficulty Buddha had at transitioning away from the tree, “It is difficult for a liberated being who is free from desires and motivation to return to the world and become involved with people and their ways.” You can say that again sister. It’s also hard to get to the tree in the first place.