The Four Truths: Part 1
Sanjay hid behind a bush. Just a few feet away five men sat facing his
teacher, the Buddha. Fearing discovery, the young runaway made sure that
his crouched body was well concealed. Occasionally, he would lift his
head just high enough to catch a glimpse of his teacher’s face.
After the Buddha had bidden good-bye to the children of the Uruvela Village, he had traveled northward along the Neranjara River. And so had Sanjay, ever careful not to be exposed. The Buddha had first tried to find his two teachers only to learn that they had passed away. He had also learned that Assaji, Kondanna, and three other men were seen at Sarnath Park near Varanasi. These were the Buddha’s five friends who had meditated together with him. They had also practised ascetics for some time believing that by denying their bodies, they would improve their minds. To this end, they ate and drank the bare minimum and lived without any comforts.
A few days of travel brought the Buddha and his young shadow to Sarnath Park, where a reunion of the six meditation friends took place.
At that moment, the five men were asking the Buddha a lot of questions. The latter answered them one by one speaking in a gentle but clear voice.
“Why did you mix with ordinary people and make friends with the children of the Village?” Assaji interrogated the Buddha.
“We are friends like you and I, and we care and support one another,” replied the Buddha unfazed by his friend’s bluntness.
“Why did you give up fasting?” demanded Baddiya.
“Fasting alone does not lead to the truth.”
“We are supposed to turn our backs on the things of this world. We are supposed to shut our senses to all the outer things that tempt us. Why did you give up half-way through?” Baddiya accused the Buddha full of indignation. He felt the Buddha had betrayed their pact.
“We do not see more clearly by covering our eyes. We do not hear more clearly by plugging our ears. When the mirror is dirty, you wipe it clean so it could reflect clearly. You don’t cover it up.”
“What do you mean? Are we like the dirty mirrors? You speak as though you have found the truth,” pressed Baddiya, softening his tone somewhat because he felt what the Buddha had said made sense. “You speak as though you have found a way out of life’s problems. Please tell us if you have indeed found such an answer!”
“Yes. I have discovered the truth. This truth can only be seen through a most wondrous ability we all have. Without this ability we are like dirty mirrors. Everything reflected is unclear and inaccurate.”
“What is this wondrous ability?” asked Kondanna, the eldest as well as the wisest of the five men.
“It is perfect knowing. We have the capacity to understand. We have the ability to know. But we need to develop it.”
“How if not through fasting and shutting out this world?” demanded Baddiya with skepticism.
“An apple seed could grow into an apple tree. A pear seed could grow into a pear tree. Perfect knowing comes originally from a seed, too!”
“What is this seed?” Kondanna asked respectfully.
“It is right understanding.”
“You mean there is wrong understanding? Please explain.” Mahanama was eager to learn more.
“A rose is a rose. A dandelion is a dandelion. To think that a rose is more precious than a dandelion is wrong understanding. To think that a boy from a wealthy family is somehow better than a beggar boy is wrong understanding.
Right understanding means to be connected to the truth. Just like a young shoot breaks through the ground to receive the sun’s rays, our understanding also needs to be in the light of the truth in order to grow and expand. Truth is not some high and faraway idea or abstract talk. Truth is simply the way things are as they are… regardless of what we call it, regardless of what we wish it to be. It cannot be adjusted. It does not change. Truth simply is.”
“Do you mean that right understanding can actually grow into perfect knowing?” Mahanama wanted the Buddha to explain.
“Yes, at first our understanding about something may be just an idea. It is far from being complete. We have to allow it to grow. We have to experience the idea. We have to feel and see for ourselves whether it is true. Then it becomes right understanding. And the right understanding will open us to even greater truth. Little by little, our understanding increases until one day it is complete. That is when we can say we really know with certainty, and what we know is the complete truth.
My dear brothers, right understanding is the seed, perfect-knowing is the mature tree, and to live in the truth is the fruit.”
Assaji leaned forward and implored the Buddha, “We have meditated together for so many years. We once made a promise to share all our knowledge. Remember? You had disappointed us terribly when you left and gave up. When we first heard you were coming, we had decided to ignore you, to teach you a lesson.” Assaji paused. He noticed that the Buddha’s remained composed looking ever serene and peaceful. So he continued in his plainspoken way, “But now you are here, in front of us. You look so changed and radiant. There is no question in our mind that you have discovered something. Most of all, your inner peace is so tremendous that we could feel it just being around you. Please, what is it that you know or understand differently than before?”
“Words are limiting, but I try my best to express some truths that I now know. There are four. The first is…”
A steady rhythmic tapping could be heard from atop a tree. Sanjay could no longer hear what the Buddha was saying. He looked up and saw a bird. Its two sharpest clawed toes, one pointing forward and the other backward, grasped the tree trunk tightly. Its strong, pointed beak was hammering furiously at the trunk looking for its supper –bugs underneath the bark. Its stiffened tail feathers pressed against the tree’s surface supported and balanced its weight quite perfectly. Sanjay knew that this woodpecker was there for good. And his eavesdropping was… sunk.
Even though some words were still audible, Sanjay could not string them together to make any sense. He knew the Buddha was telling something very important – the four truths. Some time had passed, but the noisy bird was still at it and all patience had been exhausted.
“I’ve got to get rid of that annoying bird,” thought Sanjay. From his pocket, he took out a sling and picked up a round pebble from the ground. “I’m going to shoot it right out of the tree into oblivion!” He aimed at the winged creature and shot. The pebble hit one of the tree’s branches and ricocheted back down towards the ground. Sanjay stood right up to try to catch it. To his disbelief, it hit one of the men right in the back of his head.
“Ouch!” cried Assaji.
The men’s heads turned and all eyes were upon Sanjay. The poor boy felt his legs just about to give way and his face felt it was on fire. He wished that he could wake up from this nightmare.
“What do you think you are doing?” Assaji demanded.
“Sorry…I was trying to shoot the woodpecker. It was pecking so loudly that I couldn’t hear …” Sanjay paused for he knew he had no business eavesdropping either.
“Sorry? Are you sorry that you did not hit the little woodpecker and hit me instead? Do you have the right understanding of what you are sorry for?” Assaji thought a good scolding was just what Sanjay needed and he was more than willing to provide it. Poor Sanjay cowered in shame.
“Come here, Sanjay,” said the Buddha but Sanjay remained frozen, his eyes downcast.
“You know this boy?” asked Kondanna. The men’s attention shifted momentarily away from Sanjay.
“Yes, he is from the Uruvela Village. He followed me all the way here.”
Sanjay stood wide-eyed, stunned to realize that his teacher knew of his furtive trailing all along. He could hardly hold his head up as the weight of his embarrassment bore down on his shoulders.
“You should not be sneaking around and listening in without permission,” declared Assaji, quick to point out the boy’s transgression. Noticing how young the distraught boy was, he continued. “I bet you did not ask permission of your parents either. Did you just run away without telling anyone?” Assaji stared coldly at Sanjay.
“Just my mother; I left without telling her.” Sanjay was hoping that a clean admission could cut short the interrogation. To his relief, Kondanna interrupted just then, and addressed the Buddha respectfully.
“Dear brother, we’d like to offer you some tea. Won’t you please give us a moment to prepare?” He then motioned his friends to follow him to their makeshift ‘kitchen’ in the Park. Assaji, who had great respect for his elder friend, reluctantly complied and thus ended his berating of the boy.
Indeed, Sanjay felt guilty about leaving his mother without a word. She was always very strict with him. She taught him many things: how to make fire, how to cook, how to wash, how to mend clothes, and how to make marsala tea. She would always tell him that the greatest love she could give him was to teach him to be independent. She believed that this was the only way to find true happiness. Back home, Sanjay had many chores. In the morning, after feeding the chickens, he had to bring in the firewood for the day, and start the fire in the kitchen. He would then make breakfast to bring to his neighbors. This earned him a few rupees. After school, he would work at Mr. Gupta’s teashop serving snacks, sweet cakes, and tea to the customers. In this way, Sanjay was already half supporting himself and well on his way to becoming independent.
Just a few feet away Sanjay could see some tea towels hung up on a tree. On the ground beside the tree were a pot, some bowls, and some small sacs.
“Please, let me do it. Please allow me to prepare tea for you all.” Sanjay looked at Kondanna hoping to get his approval. Somehow he knew that this grey-haired elder sympathized with his predicament and would allow him the chance to make amends. The latter nodded and said to the others, “Let’s go for a walk now and reflect on what Gautama has just told us.”
Sanjay was now alone with his teacher. Feeling rather ashamed, he busied himself with building a small fire with dry twigs and branches. He was an expert at it. Soon the fire was going and a pot filled with water hung right over it. He looked in some dust-covered sacs and found some tea leaves. Much to his delight, in a small scrunched up bag were some spices wrapped in red strings and small cloths apparently never opened. Sanjay sniffed the dried spices and picked out the ones suitable for making marsala tea. In a very old and tattered jar, Sanjay found bits of sugar crystals. There was some fresh milk in a jug nearby. “Wonderful,” he thought. “I have everything.”
As he waited for the water to boil, Sanjay gathered bowls for his six elders and cleaned them. As he set them down in two rows of three on the flat surface of a rock, a hand placed a seventh bowl down.
“This is my bowl, and there are seven of us,” the Buddha said softly.
Sanjay understood that the Buddha wanted him to have tea, too. He shyly looked at his teacher whose countenance was calm and gentle. There was not the slightest sign of reproof. In his heart, Sanjay adored this teacher who was the kindest person he had ever known – this once-a-prince dressed in a plain robe had cared equally for all the Village children without any favoritism. He made each child feel useful in his own way. Moreover, he encouraged and showed Sanjay and his friends how to work together caringly and to always help one another. The children soon learnt how to resolve quarrels taking into consideration the needs of their friends as well. Every child of Uruvela wanted only to please the Buddha and to win his praise – Sanjay was no exception. At that moment, Sanjay only wished for forgiveness. He folded his hands and bowed to his teacher, “Ummm…I’m sorry that I…ummm…followed you.”
“Do you know why you are sorry, Sanjay?”
“Ummm, I…I don’t know but I feel it….” Some steam was starting to rise from the pot of water. Sanjay got the tea leaves ready.
The Buddha watched from the side and remarked, “You made a good fire and so quickly, too. The water is going to boil soon. You are not afraid of fire?”
Sanjay knew all about making fire. He made fire everyday at home and at the teashop. He could make them big and he could make them small. He remembered how he was once afraid of fire when he was just a toddler.
“I know fire so I am not afraid of it. But I do keep an eye on it.” Sanjay replied with a touch of pride.
“Tell me how you’ve come to make fire so well.”
Sanjay started to think more deeply on account of his teacher’s prompting and he voiced his thoughts quite openly.
“My understanding about fire began first when I was very, very small. My mother taught me never to go into the kitchen. She told me fire was in it. I was not to touch it, and never to play with it. I was told that fire could burn, and kill me. I did not really understand but I felt my mother very important so I listened to her. So I had this idea of a fire monster living in our kitchen.
When I was bigger, she showed me fire. She pointed to a candle and told me that that was fire. I was so disappointed, yet relieved at the same time, because fire was not a monster after all. She then took me into the kitchen and showed me the fireplace for cooking. She put some twigs into the fire and let me see how they burnt down to a crisp. My mother wanted me to know what fire was. She let me see it. She let me smell the burning of wood. She let me feel its heat. I remember I felt I did not have to be so afraid of fire. I also wondered why my mother made such a big deal of it in the first place.
Then one day, I saw with my own eyes the actual power of fire. It was a huge and hot fire that burnt down my neighbor’s hut. He lost everything in it. He had toppled his candle accidentally while weaving baskets. Then, in a few breaths, everything went up in flames. Our whole village got together and helped him build a new home. After that, I was fully convinced of the real power of fire. There was no doubt in my mind. My understanding came through my own experience of it first hand.
In time, my mother even showed me how to make fire. I learnt how to use it everyday in so many ways like cooking, and heating, and as a light at night. I use fire always with a lot of care, mindful of its awesome power. I am not afraid of it because I know what fire is.”
“Wonderful, Sanjay. You are very clear about how your understanding of fire developed.”
Sanjay paused for a brief moment, and then it dawned on him. He looked into the Buddha’s eyes. “Isn’t this what you were talking about earlier…about understanding a little bit first and then it growing until we experience and know the truth for ourselves? In the beginning, my understanding of fire was very little like a seed. And then through my own experience, it sprouted and grew like a tree. I really know fire now. What’s more, I can make and use fire for something good and that is the fruit.”
The Buddha nodded affirming Sanjay’s understanding. “Yes, and when the truth is known, there is no fear, and no confusion.”
“To think that fire is a monster is confusion?”
“Yes, and the confusion created fear in you.”
The water was boiling. Sanjay put in the tea leaves and spices just in the perfect proportions, and started to stir the pot. Before long, the aroma of the spiced tea permeated the surroundings.
Kondanna, Assaji, and the others soon returned from their walk. Their noses led them to gather around the pot of tea. Sanjay served everybody the fragrant milk tea. The Buddha laid out on a piece of cloth on the ground chapati, hummus, and sweet cakes given to him by one traveler he had met earlier that morning. Sitting altogether, the Buddha, Sanjay and his five friends enjoyed a most wonderful afternoon tea!
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