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Buddhadharma : Winter 2009
69 winter 2 00 9 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly Buddhism was born in crisis. One day, the coddled young Siddhartha Gautama found himself incapable of enjoying the pretty things of the world. The very life that had once given him such delight now appeared threatening. “The world, indeed, now looks to me as if ablaze with an all-consuming fire,” he said at the outset of his epic quest for understanding and resolution. Gautama resolved his crisis, and in the process, he claimed, he discovered something significant about dealing with life’s difficulties. Two classical dialogues, or sutras, recorded in the Pali canon help to illuminate this discov- ery. The sutras are called “Quenched” and “Destination.” Before I turn to these sutras as fitting responses to our own difficult times, I want to explain why I call the speaker of the text “Gautama” (Gotama in Pali), rather than “the Buddha.” The short answer is that I agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson that our life-guides “must be related to us, and our life receive from [them] some promise of explanation.” Gautama fulfills this basic requirement. The Buddha does not. I have given up on the Buddha. That is to say, I have given up on the Enlightened One, the Blessed One, the omniscient Lord of people and gods who works miracles, knows unknowable things, and continues to exert his power from beyond. When I ask Buddhists to explain why I should accept their revered sage as a modern-day life-adviser, I am typi- cally offered only articles of faith (claims to be believed in or rejected) and rarely good (that is, examinable and testable) reasons. I imagine that some readers are like me in StephanIecarter Glenn Wallis is chair of the applied Meditation studies program at Won institute of Graduate studies in Glenside, Pennsylvania. He specializes in indian Buddhism and is the author and translator of Basic Teachings of the Buddha and The Dhammapada: Verses on the Way. this regard: we have been inoculated against the religious bug. We are no longer willing, or even able, to acquiesce to the inscrutable sureness of the religious authorities’ advice concerning the most important matters of life and death. Like the Kalamas in ancient India, living at a crossroads of competing religious– philosophic commerce, we have eyes only for what lies in full view. And what lies in view is the merit of a claim, not its sacred origins in some cosmic or cognitive transcendence, such as “enlightenment.” But along the way, something unexpected happened. I met one of the world’s most gifted teachers. He is Gautama, the human figure behind the fanciful facade of the Buddha. Like the Stoics, Epicureans, and Platonists in ancient Greece and Rome, Gautama instructed in the manner of a philosopher, a lover of wis- dom. He taught and modeled a viable way to human flourishing, and did so rooted firmly in everyday life. With precision, care, and intelligence, Gautama articulated for us the categories and practices through which we may clearly understand our lives and, doing so, know for ourselves the simple happiness of existing, in difficult as well as trouble-free times. And all of his advice on these matters stands in full view—conspicuous, open to scrutiny, testable. Now, as Gautama would say, don’t take my word on any of this. It is better that you con- sider an actual example. So, let’s return now to our sutras, “Quenched” and “Destination.” They happen to contain wonderful advice for dealing with difficulties. At least, that is what I discovered when I put these instructions to the test.