In the 1990’s I attended a retreat led by Thich Nhat Hanh on Ascutney Mountain in Vermont. Here’s how I remember a brief section of one of his dharma talks:
It’s OK, when you start out in a practice, to think that God is out there. But as you mature in your practice, you realize that God is inside you. It’s like looking for Ascutney Mountain. We can go all day looking for the mountain and not seeing it. That’s because we are already on the mountain. We need to realize we are already here. We have arrived.
Some think it’s egotistical to believe that God is within us, but I’d say the opposite. We human beings want to believe that everything is like us, so we give God a body and its own likes, dislikes and emotions. As a child growing up Jewish, my image of God was the statue in the Lincoln Memorial — a wise man with a beard sitting in a throne-like chair. I also happened to be confused between Abraham Lincoln and the Abraham of the Bible, but that’s another subject.
Children need to personify concepts (the good fairy, for example) in order to understand them, and most of us grow out of that. Or do we? Even when we understand otherwise, our brains don’t easily rewire themselves. So when someone talks to me about the God of the Old Testament, my mind still flashes on the image of that Lincoln statue.
Even though we Buddhists reject the idea of an external creator god who calls the shots in our world, we are not exempt from personification. And we are not exempt from deifying great teachers who were mortals, as we all are.
When I bow to a statue of the historical Buddha, known also as the Shakyamuni Buddha, I am bowing to the memory of a great teacher, philosopher, psychologist, scientist and sage, Siddhartha Gautama, whose insights gained through meditation were as remarkable in their time as the insights Newton and Einstein gained by pondering the universe were in theirs.
I am also bowing to the Buddha-hood within all of us. None of us needs to be a great teacher, philosopher, psychologist, scientist and sage in order to become a Buddha any more than we need to master physics to feel the effects of gravity as Newton and Einstein did. What we need is to let go and let be in order to feel the pull of our Buddha-hood as we do the pull of gravity.
Meditation, compassion and loving kindness help us touch the Buddha-hood within, as do the words of a good teacher, but what we are looking for is not out there. It is not in the Buddha statue. It is not on top of Ascutney Mountain. In the words of a meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh:
I have arrived
I am home
In the here
In the now
I am solid
I am free
In the ultimate
Emaho! (Ain’t it great!)
— Mel Pine (Fearless Lotus)
Copyright 2016 © Mel Harkrader Pine