In his Dharma talk, Practice Is Forever (Eight Awakenings of Enlightened Beings), Zen priest Norman Fischer offers a rendering of the story of the Buddha’s initial home-leaving which is quite at odds with how the story is traditionally told. The dance between these two renderings brought to mind a number of issues relevant to Taoist practice, which I’d like to explore in this essay. But first, the two versions of the story ....
Prince Siddhartha’s Home-Leaving: The Theravada Rendering
In the way the story is traditionally told (i.e. according to the Theravada tradition/texts), the Buddha, when he was still Prince Siddhartha -- ensconced within the luxury and protection of his father’s palace, being groomed to be the next King and military ruler -- was married to Princess Yasodhara. The couple had a son, named Rahula (translated in the Theravadin texts as “fetter”), who was an infant when Prince Siddhartha decided to renounce his palatial life, whose privileges and pleasures he had come to see as “fetters” to a deeper and more valuable quest, viz. for spiritual enlightenment, ultimate peace and freedom. So one night, when his wife (the Princess) and his son were fast asleep, the Prince wept a final tear, and then slipped out of the palace, alone, to begin the six-year search which would culminate in his solitary enlightenment beneath the Bodhi tree.
Prince Siddhartha’s Home-Leaving: The Sarvastivada Rendering
The way the same story is rendered within the Sarvastivada tradition/texts (an early Buddhist sect) is quite different. According to this telling of the story, Prince Siddhartha and Princess Yasodhara shared not only a sexual but also a profound spiritual partnership. They were deeply in love not only in their current lifetime, but also had been married in many previous lives.
As Prince Siddhartha began to feel an impulse in the direction of spiritual practice, he shared this with and was supported fully by Yasodhara. The Princess had eight dreams-of-clarity, foretelling her husband’s spiritual awakening, and so encouraged him to leave the palace, to initiate this unfolding. On the night that he was to leave, the two -- both wide awake -- made love one last time, and it was on this night that their future son, Rahula, was conceived.
The subsequent events of Siddhartha’s quest for spiritual awakening were paralleled exactly by the events of Yasodhara’s (six-year!) pregnancy. For instance, the period during which Siddhartha was engaged in ascetic practices, eating almost nothing, Yasodhara also engaged in a period of extreme fasting. And the conclusion of the full-moon night, when Prince Siddhartha saw the morning star, and emerged as a Buddha, was the moment when Yasodhara gave birth to their son, Rahula -- translated not as “fetter” but rather as “Moon-God” in the Sarvastivadin texts. Later, both Yasodhara and Rahula rejoined the Buddha, becoming members of his sangha.
Truth & Metaphor In Taoist Practice
Now, to my ears and heartmind, the Sarvastivadin version of this story rings infinitely more true than does the Theravadin version -- though obviously, at least certain elements of the story (notably, Yasodhara’s six-year pregnancy) must be understood either metaphorically or magically/miraculously. Is this a problem?
Taoist scriptures and Inner Alchemical texts are chock-full of symbolic language, for reasons that I’ve explored in more detail elsewhere. In brief, there is an acknowledgment of the power of metaphor and allegory to reveal nonconceptual truths which simply cannot be rendered via strictly representational modes of speaking.
Primordial Yang & Primordial Yin
The Sarvastivadin version of the story of the Buddha’s home-leaving and subsequent home-coming resonates strongly with aspects of Taoist cosmology, and issues around gender and the Tao. If we understand the relationship between Siddhartha and Yasodhara as akin to the relationship, within Taoist cosmology, between Primordial Yang and Primordial Yin (within the “palace” of Tao) then their intimate relationship can be read as exemplifying the dance of opposites out of which emerge the illusory appearance of the ten-thousand-things: all the inhabitants of the “kingdom.”
Playfully, Yin and Yang separate, in order to enact, moment by moment, or lifetime by lifetime, or over the course of a six-year period, the drama of home-leaving and home-coming. Just so, Siddhartha leaves the palace, leaves his Beloved, in order then later to return, transformed fully by the realization that he has never, in Reality, left Home.
The Two Truths: Tao & The Ten-Thousand Things
The union of Tao with the ten-thousand-things (i.e. the Absolute with the Relative) is drawn like a thread beautifully throughout the story: the conception of Siddhartha’s spiritual awakening (i.e. of the Immortal Fetus, in Taoist parlance) happens concurrently with the conception of his worldly son. Then, the birth of himself as a Buddha (the dissolving of his worldly identity-with-form) happens concurrently with the coming-into-form of his worldly son. The “emptiness” he realizes is an emptiness-of-self, not an emptiness-of-other: the Two Truths in a union as eternal as that between Siddhartha and Yasodhara -- Primordial Yang and Primordial Yin.
I don’t know why, but somehow this poem by Rilke (translated here by Stephen Mitchell) comes to mind, as one that could just as easily have been written by Yasodhara, singing out to Siddhartha -- her “silent friend of many distances” -- her feelings of longing, and encouragement, in the midst of their apparent separation, during which he was indeed “changing himself into wine”: into a simultaneous “flowing” and standing as “I am”:
Silent friend of many distances, feel
how your breath enlarges all of space.
Let your presence ring out like a bell
into the night. What feeds upon your face
grows mighty from the nourishment thus offered.
Move through transformation, out and in.
What is the deepest loss that you have suffered?
If drinking is bitter, change yourself to wine.
In this immeasurable darkness, be the power
that rounds your senses in their magic ring,
the sense of their mysterious encounter.
And if the earthly no longer knows your name,
whisper to the silent earth: I'm flowing.
To the flashing water say: I am.