Buddha and the Wilderness

(July, 2004)


    The story is told that Siddhartha Gautama was born in 563 BC and was the son of a wealthy ruler of a small kingdom in the Nepal region of India. Siddhartha’s family were Hindus, who believe that humans are trapped in an endless cycle of life, the samsara cycle, of suffering, death, and rebirth. The goal of life is to escape suffering by accumulating knowledge and wisdom to transcend attachment to the physical world and unite with Brahmin in the spiritual world. Hinduism dates back to before 2,000 BC.

    Siddhartha lived in luxury and was set to inherit his father’s fortune and social status. According to the story, one day a fortune-teller showed up at Siddhartha’s family palace and predicted that the young Siddhartha would become a great emperor provided he did not see a sick man, an old man, a dead man, or a monk. Siddhartha’s father tried to keep him from seeing suffering. One day, however, Siddhartha left the palace and quickly encountered the suffering of the sick, the aging, the dying, and the voluntary poverty of a monk. Siddhartha gave up his life of future riches and took up the life of a wandering monk, seeking answers to why there was so much suffering in the world and how to escape it. He realized that being rich would not prevent him from growing old, getting sick, and dying.

    So, Siddhartha went searching. He studied with Hindu holy men and he fasted for six years, but found only more suffering. One day Siddhartha sat down to meditate under a banyan tree and unexpectedly awoke enlightened as the Buddha. He had found Nirvana, a place of freedom from suffering, the end of the painful road of physical life and emergence into the realm of spiritual enlightenment and bliss.

    Buddha stayed on earth approximately another forty-five years preaching and teaching others what he discovered about transcending suffering. He developed the Three Universal Truths, the Four Noble Truths, the Five Precepts, and the Eightfold Path. He taught meditation. By detaching from the physical world and going inside one’s self, one could find enlightenment and Nirvana. One could escape the physical world and the abstract interior world of the mind. Through meditation one could discover that the physical world and the world of thoughts are not real. They are illusions, impermanent, and ever changing. The past is gone and not real. The future is not here and it is not real. Only the present is real, but not the physical world, sensations, emotions, or thoughts of the present. Only the spirit of the present is real and never changing. Any attempt one makes to hold onto anything that is not real leads to suffering, the suffering of attachment. Also, any attempt one makes to try to avoid or escape suffering makes the reality of suffering more real, leading to more suffering. The goal of meditation is to be ever present in the moment of the Now, constantly flowing, and detached from all that is not real. Suffering becomes an illusion to be ignored. Ignorance is Bliss. Bliss is Enlightenment. Enlightenment is Nirvana and there is no suffering in Nirvana.

    Our earthly world is full of suffering. It seems real to me. It’s hard to imagine it’s all just an illusion. I’ve tried to shut my eyes to the suffering of this world. I’ve tried to meditate it away. I’ve even tried to medicate it away. Most of my excursions into nature have been attempts to free myself from the suffering of the modern world, to flee from its pain, to escape.

    One thing I love about being in nature is the ease with which I can enter a meditative state where I become mindful of the present, of the here and now. In nature I am able to forget about the past and not worry or dream of the future. I can experience the flowing spiritual moment and forget my suffering and the suffering of this crazy, modern world.

    Nature has taught me about the natural order of life. The natural world is full of aging, sickness and disease, dying, and death. Nature can be harsh. One animal’s suffering is another animal’s delightful meal. Nature can be neutral and indifferent to suffering. Nature has taught me to have some acceptance of this natural order of things. Most of the time I have a detached attitude about this kind of suffering. I do not take it too personally. With understanding and acceptance, this suffering is not as painful.

    My involvement and time in nature has shown me that most of the suffering in the world is caused by or complicated by unnatural human and cultural forces. Whereas human civilization and culture could help ease the pain of the natural causes of suffering, it has evolved into a system that causes more pain than it cures. More specifically, it is the economic systems and philosophies operating in the world that cause most of this world’s suffering. It is the economic system of greed that creates and will not cure famine and disease. The economic system of greed causes wars to be fought. And it is the economic system of greed that is causing our earth’s environment to be sick and dying. The suffering caused by nature is neutral, indifferent, and based on need. The economic system of greed is willfully self-centered and aware of the suffering it causes others by its exploitation and injustice. The greedy choose to be neutral and indifferent to the pain they cause.

    Siddhartha realized that inheriting his father’s wealth would not ultimately save him from suffering old age, sickness, and death. Instead, Siddhartha chose to be a poor monk and found his own Nirvana, a world indifferent and neutral to suffering, a spiritual metaphysical world beyond all pain caused by involvement in the real physical world. Buddha’s escape to Nirvana over 2,500 years ago was primarily motivated by escaping the cause of natural suffering. Nature seemed to be causing most of the world’s suffering then. By closing his eyes to the natural world, he made it disappear, seeing it as an illusion not to be desired, not to be attached to. He became neutral to nature, indifferent.

    The world has evolved since Buddha’s day. There still remains about the same amount of natural suffering now as then, but the amount of man-made suffering has increased explosively. I have repeatedly escaped the world of suffering, particularly the suffering caused by human culture. I have closed my eyes and meditated my way far, far away from human pain. And I have run away from human society, escaping into the wilderness of nature, running far, far away from anything human. There are places I have been to where the human world does not exist, where humans have vanished and the world of humans is only an illusion. If I had stayed up on the mountain meditating or wandering that wilderness desert for another forty days and forty nights without food or water, I could have stayed in Nirvana forever. But I came back; I always come back. I’m not yet ready to leave forever. I love this earthly journey. In spite of all the natural suffering, I’d like to stay a while. It’s the suffering caused by economic greed that causes most of my pain and concern. There is no excuse for it. I can’t ignore it for long and I surely won’t accept it.

    Every time I come back after leaving, I find the human world of greed worse than when I left. But every time I get a chance to escape the man-made world, I see it from the perspective that it’s all a man-made illusion and that it suffers mostly from unnatural causes made by humans themselves. Consequently, I realize that if it’s all an illusion and man-made, then it can be imagined differently … remade, recreated. Humans have the capacity to choose to live differently, to establish and live by economic systems based on needs, equity, fairness, justice, compassion, respect, mutual aid, cooperation, and love. Not greed.

    The Buddha meditated his way to Nirvana, but he came back and many of his teachings were about social justice and creating more equitable communities. I believe in meditating. There are times when I need to close my eyes to the suffering of the world. There are times when I need to escape in order to see the world of suffering as an illusion, in order to try to imagine the world differently.

    The problem I have with meditating these days is that every time I open my eyes, I see nature disappearing. I see the wilderness vanishing before my very eyes. Human need and human greed are gobbling up the natural world, replacing it with a world of humans. We humans have already created over six billion of us on the face of the earth. It is becoming harder and harder, almost impossible, to escape the human world, the modern man-made world, to find nature, and experience the wilderness.

    We humans cannot create more nature; we can only create more humans. We can use nature and alter nature. We can reconstruct nature in the image of humans. We can destroy or preserve nature, but we cannot create more nature.

    I love the reality of nature and the realness of the wilderness. We need nature. We need the option to escape into nature, into wilderness, in order to remember who we are and where we came from. The ability to escape the human world in order to imagine and dream of new possibilities, new beginnings, and new ways of living is necessary for our existence. We must not alter or destroy all of nature. Instead, we must use nature wisely and preserve nature. Human life depends on nature. All of life depends on nature. The well-being of life depends on the wellness of nature. Of course, there is sickness and disease, the process of aging and dying, and death. That is part of the natural order of life. I accept natural suffering as part of this life. In nature new life comes from dead life. Nature reincarnates itself. It is the suffering caused by humans that is unacceptable.

    At this point in evolutionary time, the well-being of all life and the wellness of nature depend on human involvement, interaction, and intervention. Humans are causing planetary sickness and disease. Nature is in the process of dying an unnatural death. The fate of nature is in human hands. How much longer can humans continue to live in a world dominated by the economic system of greed? When will we open our eyes? When will we awake and become enlightened by the truth, beauty, and love of nature?

    I’m still here physically and spiritually. Perhaps I’ve always been here, and perhaps I’ll always be here. Maybe I am caught in the endless cycle of samsara. Or maybe I’m living a never-ending cycle of bliss and Nirvana. There is something about this life on this earth that is so very real, so incredible, for both the natural world and the human world. I hope to live here a while longer. I hope that life on earth continues forever, never to die an unnatural death because of human greed. I hope we humans decide to live by a new economy of love for all our neighbors and for all of nature. I hope we can find a new balance between the world of humans and the world of nature.

    I have three children of my own on this earth. I hope they get a chance to live here a long, long time and experience a world of human kindness. I want my children’s children’s children to be able to see nature and experience the wilderness with eyes wide open. I hope our journey continues.