The Buddha of history is not the same as the archetypal Buddha, but we can come close to him through the words he left behind and though imagination. This article was a keynote talk at the 2011 Triratna Buddhist Order Convention and reveals the Buddha to be a man of humour and intelligence with an uncanny gift for communication as well … and something more as well (see the video here)

If you go on pilgrimage to India, you may well visit Rajagriha — the greatest city of the Central Ganges Basin in the Buddha’s time and a place where he often stayed. You see the ring of mountains that encircled the central plateau to create a natural fortress; but the site of the city itself is covered with shrub and gorse, and whatever remains is still waiting to be excavated. There’s much we don’t know about the Buddha’s world.But the Buddha didn’t actually live in the city. Like other holy men, he dwelt in the mountains above it, especially on Vulture’s Peak, and you can walk up the steep path he would have climbed each day as he returned from his begging round. And for the most part you see what he would have seen. The vegetation gradually turns to scrub, stark outcrops of rock loom above you and rough caves hollow out the rock beneath. Then there’s the atmosphere. It’s intense, but hard to define, more harsh than tranquil; and you feel like an outsider who must speak quietly and walk carefully. You sense why people have long believed that phantoms and tormented spirits populate the hills.

The path winds up to a rocky clearing where the Buddha is said to have lived, taught and meditated while his followers found themselves ledges and hollows in the hills around. In the Lotus Sutra’s account the air around Vulture’s Peak is filled with Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, but what you see is a spectacular view across the valley. Only a few pilgrims come here and signs of modern life are scarce. So as you gaze across the valley it’s easy to imagine that the noises of a long-ruined city rise again through the air, that ochre-robed monks are meditating amid the rocks and that Gautama Buddha is among them.

My subject today is the Buddha of history: the man who lived and taught in places like Vulture’s Peak. In the Mahaparinibbana Sutta the Buddha suggests that people with faith should bring him to mind by visiting the places associated with his life. My own visits to the Buddhist pilgrimage sites had that effect, but they also changed my view of the Buddha in ways I only appreciated some time later. The Buddha I’d envisaged till then combined an historical individual with a legendary sage and a transcendent archetype. You can’t separate these different images of the Buddha entirely, but overlaying them creates a hazy and blurred composite. Standing in the places where he stood, and seeing sites he saw himself, reminded me that, whatever other dimensions we may envisage, the Buddha was a real person made of real flesh and real blood.

Writing my book on the Buddha took this much further. I had been asked to write an historical biography, and I hoped that placing the Buddha in the distant past would make him more real and therefore bring him closer. That meant trying to enter his contemporaries’ ways of thinking so I could understand better why he spoke to them as he did. And as I read the ancient texts, it meant trying to distinguish the voice of the genius who originated their remarkable insights from the ponderous form in which they’re expressed.

I need to say a little more about what I mean by ‘the Buddha of history’. In subsequent talks we’ll hear from Dhammadinna and Jnanavaca about the Buddha of myth and the Buddha of reality. But we can also distinguish several versions of ‘the historical Buddha’. For Mahayana Buddhists the historical Buddha is Shakyamuni. People saw his nirmanakaya form, but his true aspect is the transcendental samboghakaya figure who is better conceived sitting on a lotus in the clear blue sky. Then there’s Siddhartha, whose legendary life is related in the classical biographies and depicted in Buddhist art. Often, when we retell stories of the Buddha’s childhood in the palace, the four sights that led him to leave home, and so on, we take them to be historical in the literal sense of things that actually happened. But in many cases it’s clear when we peruse the texts that these are legends that were added to the Buddha’s biography. The name ‘Siddhartha’ (or ‘Siddhattha’ in Pali) is never mentioned in the Discourses.

There’s nothing wrong with legends: they feed the emotions and the imagination. But our culture has learned to distinguish between legend and history and I think we must do the same. We may well lament the loss of the imaginative and heroic dimension the legends evoke, but repudiating the modern view of history means refusing to respect the evidence on which it bases its conclusions. We do so, I think, at the peril of our intellectual, and even our moral, integrity. What’s more, the historical approach may in fact open up new ways of relating to the Buddha that are invisible to people who’ve grown up in traditional societies. It allows us to be much clearer about what the Buddha himself taught in contrast to what others made of his teachings.

In practice, when we speak of the Buddha of history we really mean the figure who appears in the Discourses of the Sutta or Sutra Pitaka. What the archaeologists have unearthed tells us something about his society, but it adds nothing to what we can say about his life or teachings. For information on these we have only the texts. We know that the Pali Canon isn’t a wholly reliable historical record of what the Buddha thought and did, so we need to read these texts critically and intelligently. But I believe that the Discourses do contain many words that come from the Buddha himself, even if they’ve been filtered and translated. We can often see that certain elements have been worked up by scholastic monks or repackaged to aid memorisation. But we’re left with an astonishingly original vision of reality, with parables of genius, with poetic richness and even with humour. No committee could ever devise these: they’re the imprints of a great mind.

None of the evidence for the historical Buddha is beyond dispute, but it does exist and we should give it its due weight. It should shape and sometimes constrain our view of him. And disciplines such as sociology, anthropology and literary criticism can also help us make sense of it. But, if we approach this material as Buddhists rather than as historians, our aim won’t just be gaining more accurate information. For me, the point of seeking the Buddha in history — whether through texts or pilgrimage — is to come close to him; or, rather, to feel his closeness to us.

So let us turn to those volumes of Buddhist scriptures that rest on our bookshelves, blowing the dust from them if necessary. I’ll start by exploring the personality of the Buddha as it appears in the texts, then say something about his teachings and finally consider how we can have a sense of the Buddha’s Awakening. I’ll also have a few things to say about engaging with the Pali Canon.

Bhante Sangharakshita’s advice for people approaching the Discourses is to begin with the most accessible volumes — the Udana, the Sutta Nipata and the Dhammapada — which have the virtue not only of being short, dramatic and relatively light on doctrine, but also of being among the earliest texts. So let us start with a text from the Sutta Nipata that’s been very important for me in catching the Buddha’s voice and personality: the Attadanda Sutta, sometimes called ‘Taking Arms’.

It starts with a dramatic statement about the nature of the world:

‘Fear is born from arming oneself. Just see how many people fight!’

Sutta Nipata 4.15 (Sn 935)

Immediately, the Buddha inverts the usual way of thinking according to which people arm themselves because they’re afraid, and Gautama tells us that to explain what he means he’ll share his own personal experience :

‘I’ll tell you about the dreadful fear that caused me to shake all over.’

He’s describing the state of mind that caused him to leave home and set out on his path to Awakening. The pre-Enlightenment Gautama we encounter in texts like the Buddhacarita, who has been practising Buddhist virtues for countless lifetimes, is already virtually perfect. By contrast, the young Gautama of the Discourses is incomplete and highly emotional, shot through with a ‘dreadful fear’ of the world’s true nature as he has glimpsed it. He continues:

Having seen people struggling and contending with each other like fish in a small amount of water, fear entered me. The world is everywhere insecure, every direction is in turmoil; desiring an abode for myself I didn’t find one uninhabited. Seeing people locked in conflict, I became completely distraught.

The first image captures the world Gautama knew as a youth. People struggle for space like writhing fish in a shrinking river. That evokes a very different scene from the protected idyll of the legends. We can imagine this Gautama battling for his place among Shakya’s competing nobles, and perhaps we sense the vulnerability of his nation, which, according to the traditional account, was destroyed at the end of his life in an orgy of ethnic cleansing. The Discourses never say that Gautama’s father was a king, that his wife was called Yashodhara, that he saw Four Sights or that he stole away from his wife and son in the middle of the night. Their account is simpler and sharper. They speak of his intense awareness that people seek superficial pleasures and willfully blind themselves to old age, disease and death, and of Gautama’s intense wish to escape the common condition.

The most important point in the Attadanda Sutta’s account comes next:

Then I discerned here a thorn — hard to see — lodged deep in the heart.

It’s only when pierced by this thorn that one runs in all directions.

So if that thorn is taken out — one does not run, and settles down.

That’s a powerful image. You look into your own heart and see that you’re wounded. It’s a personal realisation and a vision of the human condition that stayed with Gautama all his life. The cause of our unhappiness lies in our own hearts. There’s a thorn stuck in there, and we can’t even see it. We run in all directions not realising the fundamental cause of our distress, but once we do see it everything is different and suddenly clear. Right there, you have the first three noble truths: the fact of dukkha, its cause and the possibility of its cessation, but here these truths are expressed as a visceral image and an intense experience rather than through concepts.

I think a vivid personality emerges from these lines — intense, passionate, determined and fiercely individual — and a version of that character persists throughout Gautama’s life. On the way to Enlightenment he’s guided by a powerful urge to pull out that thorn, and he follows his intuition in deciding which approach will help him. In the end, he discards every practice he’s offered and questions the views that justify or mystify them. The dominant issue of his life is pulling out the thorn and he rejects ideas about God, the soul and the universe because they don’t help. Instead, he does something that no one else in human history has ever done. He looks intently at his own experience and finds a way to see how his mind is constantly shaping and reshaping itself. ‘What one frequently ponders and dwells upon becomes the inclination of one’s thought.’ He sees that his consciousness, the greatest given of all, arises and passes away according to conditions, and his experience is molded by the skillful and unskillful mental states that arise in his mind. And he learns to guide his responses to those states. He becomes the master of his mind and can finally remove the thorn.

When he comes to teach the Buddha’s message addresses the same concerns: suffering and the end of suffering; how we distort reality in order to cope with existence, and how we can find a new way of being that accords with the impermanent, insubstantial way things really are.

The Buddha directed his teaching at people who shared, to some degree, his sense that there’s a thorn buried somewhere in their hearts, and that everyone else has one, too, without realising it. That insight explains the world because it explains ourselves. As I worked over the material that became my book, I saw that I couldn’t be objective about the Buddha because my fundamental motivation in writing – the reason I’m interested in him at all – is my own desire to go beyond confusion and unskillfulness and to help others do so. It’s a very personal thing, and when I resonate with the Buddhas words in the Attadanda Sutta I feel I’m making a personal connection with him. This is the great merit of seeking the Buddha in history. He was born as we are born, and he also grew old, got ill and felt pain just as we do. He communicated his insights to people whose minds were tangled up in views and attitudes that promised security but delivered suffering. Just like ours. And he lived in a complex, violent and unjust society, just like ours, and had to find a creative response to its challenges.

The Buddhist tradition hasn’t wanted to explore the subject of the Buddha’s personality because it has found it much more important to say that through his Enlightenment the Buddha became one with the Dharma, a reality that went beyond such things as personality; and because the state of Buddhahood he attained had a supra-personal and cosmic significance. The formal descriptions of the Buddha in the Discourses offer us lists of qualities that would apply to any Enlightened being and are largely removed from the qualities we find in ordinary people. But we have learned through reading novels and watching plays and films to identify with others through observing their behaviour and connecting with the distinctive personality it expresses. And if we bring that sensibility to the Pali texts, we discover an individual and recognisably human dimension of the Buddha that’s been there all the time.

For example, the Discourses repeatedly describe Gautama’s capacity to establish rapport – a relationship of mutual trust and emotional affinity – with the people he met. At the end of his life he reflected on how he’d done this:

I matched my appearance to their appearance, I matched the sound of my voice to the sound of theirs, and I instructed them with talk about the teaching, encouraging, enthusing and inspiring them.

The religious world in which the Buddha lived was often tense and sometimes vicious. Saccaka set off to debate with the Buddha declaring:

We will draw the recluse Gotama to a dispute, pulling him about and dragging him about as a strong man, taking a sheep by its long fleece and holding it by the ears, would shake it about.

We read of death threats and conspiracies, and of fierce rivalries between the various groups of shramanas who competed for lay support and royal patronage. They thought nothing of abusing one another; rhetoric and browbeating filled their debates; and we even hear of religiously inspired murders and political infiltration of their groups.

Some shramanas mocked Gautama for keeping out of the debates like a ‘bison that circles around the herd but stays at the edge’. But he did agree to debate with people if they came to see him and there was some chance to manage the tone of the conversation. His usual approach in the Discourses is to accept the terms in which a person thinks and speaks, rather than challenging them from the outset, and then to infuse their way of thinking with a new meaning. When the brahmin Sonadanda comes to visit the Buddha, worried that he won’t be able to keep up with philosophical shaman ideas, the Buddha puts him at ease by asking him to describe the qualities of the true Brahmin. Then he leads Sonadanda step by step towards his own way of thinking until Sonadanda agrees (to the dismay of his companions) that being a true Brahmin has nothing at all to do with birth, appearance or knowledge of the sacred mantras. Then again, when the Buddha converses with an animal trainer he speaks of training the mind; with a farmer he uses agricultural metaphors; with those intent on union with Brahma he speaks of the brahmaviharas: directing his listeners to the qualities they cherish rather than the forms and views with which they have become associated. He’s afraid of no one, and open to everyone, attending to no distinctions between individuals other than the inclinations of their minds. Not caste, wealth, age, beauty or intelligence.

All of this suggests a distinctive personality. The Buddha of the Mahayana Sutras convinces people through the power of his Awakened Mind or by engulfing them in his radiance. The Buddha of the Discourses also impresses people, but he persuades them through friendliness, discussion and communication. That’s closer to home. What’s more, he often fails to convince people, disgruntled bhikkhus sometimes turn hostile and even the faithful ones sometimes ignore him. That’s very close to home. Things that happen to us all the time, but never happen to an archetypal Buddha, also happen to Gautama. The archetypal version is perennially youthful; but Ananda turned one day to Gautama and said:

“It’s amazing, lord. It’s astounding, how the Blessed One’s complexion is no longer so clear and bright; his limbs are flabby and wrinkled; his back, bent forward; there’s a discernible change in his faculties.”

Gautama replied.

“That’s the way it is, Ananda. When young, one is subject to aging; when healthy, subject to illness; when alive, subject to death.”

Jara Sutta: Samyutta Nikaya 48.41 (V 216)

The Discourses’ also protray the Buddha as a virtuoso of communication who can adapt his words in a thousand ways. He’s a very considerable poet who can think in images, and create whole streams of image-thinking as subtle and complex as his concepts. The Attadanda Sutta, for example, is a powerful poem. The image of fish in a drying river prompts more water imagery when the Buddha tells us:

‘Greed, I say, is a great flood; it is a whirlpool sucking one down, a constant yearning, seeking a hold, continually in movement. Difficult to cross is the morass of sensual desire.’

We must live in the water where others jostle us for space and we cannot find a place to stand. The stream flows through our minds and eventually it will wash us away or engulf us. This is just one instance of the many water images in the Discourses. We must swim against the current until we feel firm ground beneath us, and then, perhaps, we find we have entered another stream that flows on towards Nirvana.

A series of great images bind the he Discourses together: the mind is a fire; the self is a house. And an array of similes draws on the natural world and social life. The Buddha tells us: ‘Irrigators draw off water; fletchers shape arrows; carpenters carve wood; the spiritually mature discipline themselves.’ And there we are, in the streets of Kapilavastu with the fascinated young Gautama observing the craftsmen’s intent concentration, and a seed is planted that will grow into the insight that if we learn another kind of skill we can bring a craftsman’s expertise to the rough material of our minds.

The Gautama of the Discourses is often kindly and sometimes stern. He’s strongly motivated to share his insights with others, but he also loves solitude and the wandering life and sometimes he seems divided between these two impulses. When things get too disturbing he just walks off into the forest on his own without telling anyone where he’s going. Ananda is used to his ways and knows that he doesn’t want to be followed. When he’s with monks, Gautama might sit quietly with them through the night, or he might start talking about the Dharma in a way that expresses his ideas with utter freshness or knits together concepts that have hitherto been separate.

He tells jokes. The humour is often buried so deep beneath the Discourses’ ponderous surface, or require so much explanation, that we can’t expect many belly laughs. But we may learn to recognise a distinctively wry tone, especially when the Buddha is poking fun at Brahmins or teasing the monks.

‘Monks … suppose there were a beetle, a dung-eater, full of dung, gorged with dung, with a huge pile of dung in front of him. He, because of that, would look down on other beetles and say, “Yippee! I’m a dung-eater!” In the same way, a certain monk goes into a village or town for alms. Having eaten as much as he likes he goes to the monastery and, in the midst of a group of monks, boasts, “I’ve eaten as much as I like, I’m full of almsfood and have been invited again for tomorrow.”’

Pilahaka Sutta SN 17.5

As I’ve spoken, you may have noticed that I’ve gradually dropped the qualifications I mentioned earlier about the status and reliability of the texts. That’s because, while we need to read intelligently, connecting with the Buddha is also a matter of emotion. At some point we need to set aside the qualifications and simply immerse ourselves in the texts, loving them and loving the Buddha they describe. In any case, I think the qualities I’ve been describing in these texts are the strongest argument for trusting them. If this figure isn’t really the historical Gautama then he must be one of the most remarkable literary characters ever created. No doubt monastic committees have redacted and bowdlerised the Discourses, but I don’t believe that any committee, even one comprised of arahants, was ever capable of so much subtlety and fecundity.

Another thought may occur to you at this point. Is he really talking about the Pali Canon? These literary delights may seem to have little connection to the dread that fills one on seeing the PTS volumes lined up on a shelf, or finding oneself sinking in the quagmire of repetitions, or getting lost in those vast, 2000 page-long books. I understand the difficulties but I’m here to say that you can get beyond them. Or perhaps you don’t feel that way and you really love reading the Pali Canon; but I think we can agree that engaging with the is a daunting undertaking and some guidance might help. So here are some tips.

Firstly, the short collections I mentioned earlier are a good starting point and repay considerable study. The difficulties come when we go past these and engage with the large collections: the Digha, Majjhima, Samyutta and Anguttara Nikayas. The two anthologies of material from across the Nikayas translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi and Rupert Gethin are excellent starting points, and I think we should use these for collective study. English speakers are also fortunate to have, for the first time ever, readable and accurate translations in clear, contemporary English of the first three Nikayas in the series published by Wisdom; a complete Anguttara Nikaya is on its way and many more texts are available on the internet. But connecting with this material is a big jump. My advice is that you don’t try to read these volumes as if they’re novels. They aren’t, and you’ll probably get lost. A good approach is to take a book, such as my own, that has many quotations and references and follow up the sources in the large volumes. Pursue threads. See what the original discourses really say.

However, the main focus of most discourses isn’t so much the Buddha as the teachings he gives. So, if you want to really get into the Pali Canon you need to get interested in these teachings. Take a book like Analayo’s Satipatthana and follow up the references to topics that grab your interest or are relevant to your practice. Gradually, you’ll learn to navigate those volumes. The Digha Nikaya, or Long Discourses, is actually quite readable. The Samyutta Nikaya, or Connected Discourses, divides the suttas by subject, so you can easily follow the various treatments of a certain topic, and the differences stand out once you start looking for them. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s introductions are an excellent guide. The Majjhima Nikaya, the Middle-length Discourses, is the heart of the Canon, but you can get lost in it, so pick certain suttas and go into them in more depth. If I have a single suggestion about Order study in this area it’s that we focus on the Majjhima Nikaya and that some of us work together to develop a body of commentaries on key discourses.

These teachings are often detailed and rather technical, which may well suggest that editors have been at work. But they express a powerful and remarkably unified vision of the human condition. It’s well known that the Buddha refused to respond when asked whether the universe is finite or infinite, whether the soul and the body are the same or different, and what happens to the Tathagata after his death. I could say much about the Buddha’s teachings, but I will restrict myself to just one point: their pragmatism. We don’t always appreciate just how far the Buddha goes in refusing to engage with metaphysics. He’s thoroughly pragmatic, focusing constantly on our experience, how it works and how it arises and passes away in dependence on conditions. Yes, there are devas, yakshas and super-normal powers, presumably because these were all aspects of the world as the Buddha and other ancient Indians experienced it. But the Buddha’s concern is how we relate to them, and the same principles apply as when we’re dealing with any other aspect of experience. Craving and other unskillful tendencies separate us from the truth of experience, and the path means replacing them with skillful tendencies in every aspect of our lives: body speech and mind. These skillful states enable us to see and then inhabit the impermanent, insubstantial, dependently arisen reality that presents itself to us in every instant and which we constantly reject.

Despite their often cumbersome expression, all those lists are an invitation to become interested in our minds and learn how to change them. They describe how consciousness works, how it produces dukkha, and, most importantly, how we can change our relationship to experience and free ourselves of the craving that is dukkha’s cause. The vipassana meditation practices the Buddha teaches show us how to dismantle the essential delusions of our lives, especially the delusion that we exist as fixed beings who are separate from the flow of arising and ceasing phenomena. All meditation practices introduce us to states of mind the BUddha experienced himself and wanted to share with others: mindfulness, loving-kindness or maitri, dhyana and so on.

Approached like this, the scope of the teachings in the Canon is a source of wonder: so many different ways of seeing the mind. And then one sees the array of intricate metaphors and subtle parables that open one’s mind to the truth that our experience arises in dependence upon conditions.

“Once, monks, the devas and asuras were arrayed for battle. Now, in that battle the devas won, so the devas of the Thirty-three bound Vepacitti, the lord of the asuras, neck, hand and foot and brought him before Sakka. When the thought occurred to him, ‘The devas are in the right and the asuras are in the wrong. I’m now going over to the city of the devas,’ then he viewed himself as freed from that bond. But when the thought occurred to him, ‘The asuras are in the right and the devas are in the wrong. I will go over to the city of the asuras,’ then he viewed himself as bound. That’s how subtle the bonds of Vepacitti were. But the bonds of Mara are even more subtle.

Yavakalapi Sutta SN 35.207 (iv 201)

The distinctive vision of existence that we find in the Discourses, and their mistrust of speculation and philosophy, is the reason to make them the bedrock of our approach to the Dharma. They don’t ask us to wrestle with the contention that the mind is the only reality and the outside world is a dream. There’s no mention of a non-dual Dharmakaya beyond the world and no Buddha Nature at the heart of experience. I know that Bhante’s recent insistence on the early Buddhist tradition sounds to some people like a rejection of later Buddhism, and that would be troubling if you find particular inspiration in one of the later traditions. The best response I can think of, is to cite Bhante’s work taken as a whole. If he’d wanted to reject the Mahayana he would have become an mainstream Theravadin. Bhante is intensely inspired by the Mahayana and the Vajrayana, and he’s communicated his enthusiasm to us. But his approach is integrative, not eclectic or sectarian. He thinks that if we just pick and choose among the Buddhist traditions our understanding and practice will be superficial while following a single later tradition is liable to be partial. Integrating the traditions means understanding what’s at their core: the Dharma that was realised and taught by the Buddha. Far from cutting us off from later Buddhism, having these essential teachings as a foundation of our approach to the Dharma is precisely what allows us to engage with later ones. Then we can see when they’re creative re-expressions or helpful expansions of the tradition’s core outlook, and when they contradict it. If a later teaching really does contradict an important aspect of what the Buddha seems to have said, then a degree of caution is surely appropriate.

I have spoken of the value of approaching the Buddha historically to make him more vivid and recognisably human and to illuminate his core teachings. All of this helps demystify both the Buddha and the Dharma, bringing them right down to earth and into our lives. But what about the Buddha’s Enlightenment: his otherness, the sense that he partakes of a different order of reality? I could try to evoke this by quoting some of the more mysterious passages in the Discourses, but I suspect that might not bring us close to the Buddha himself. If the Buddha really was Enlightened as he claimed, the best we can hope for is that a sense of his Awakening somehow transpires through the details of his behaviour and the impact of his ideas. Asked if Gautama was wise, one of his disciples replied that he didn’t know, but he could deduce Gautama’s accomplishments by examining external signs, in the way that an elephant tracker knows the dimensions of the beast he’s following from the size of the footprint it leaves behind. That’s what we do when we seek the Buddha in history and in the texts.

To get from the footprint to the elephant means imagining it, and that’s what I was doing in writing my book. I was imagining or even re-imagining, the Buddha while letting the evidence of texts and history constrain and shape my imagination. We have all been making connections with the Buddha, directly or indirectly, through our practice of Buddhism and an historical approach is part of that. First we need to get to know the Buddha, immersing ourselves in the great ocean of stories and teachings we find in the Discourses, and using our intelligence to discriminate the figure they describe. But as well as constraining the imagination, the ancient texts and their historical setting can fuel it. We need to read them with a willing mind and attune ourselves to their way of thinking and to a society that’s probably very different from anything we’ve experienced. Then we can just relax in reflection or meditation and sense that the Buddha is sitting beside us. Having spent so much time getting to know the Buddha in the ways I’ve described, I sometimes find I can imagine his presence quite easily and feel that I’m connected to him. Sometimes, I imagine that the Buddha is alive in the world right now, and I ponder how he might respond. What would the Buddha say if he was asked to do a Thought for the Day broadcast? Sometimes, when I meditate he’s a large and friendly presence beside me, and sometimes I feel I’m connected to a mind that’s as vast as the sky, and that with time and patience my own timid, habit-ridden mind might find the courage to expand into its terrifying spaces.

If we approach the Buddha in this spirit, perhaps the texts will cease to be dusty tomes and become the quietly stated words of a close friend and counselor. If we visit Vultures Peak or Bodh Gaya, a door may open and the far distant past be right here with us in the present moment. And if we’re careful and patient and listen hard we may feel the powerful presence of Gautama himself walking beside us and hear in his calm, vivid voice the reverberations of something beyond history, texts or personality and the possibility of new way of being in our own lives.