Why might you be at all interested in walking in the Buddha’s footsteps?
It’s not just that living is difficult, it’s that living well is very difficult. Few succeed.
The way to living well is like a journey across a minefield of problems and distractions. What’s the best way to cross a minefield? Walk in the footprints of someone who has crossed it successfully.
Let’s agree to call someone who lives well a “sage.” (If you prefer some other term such as “saint” or “successful philosopher” or “someone who is wise,” just substitute your preferred term.)
Here’s the fourfold method for living well: Select a sage to emulate. Find out what that sage did to live well. Reproduce that pattern of success in your own life. Help others who are interested do the same.
There must be enough understood about the spiritual biography or hagiography of the sage you select so that you are able to understand how to emulate that person. Use the description of that sage’s life as a prescription for your own life. The footprints of the sage you select reveal what to value, in other words, what is important to do and to be. Hagiographies are edifying.
Since the Buddha is my favorite sage, I’m trying to walk in the Buddha’s footsteps. Even if you are not interested in walking in the Buddha’s footsteps, this post may nevertheless provide you with a usable example of what to do to live well.
The man we now refer to using ‘the Buddha’ is, to use the Sanskrit, also referred to as ‘Sakyamuni Buddha.’ He was the Sage (muni) of the Sakya clan whose personal name may have been ‘Siddhartha.’ He is known by his family name simply as ‘Gautama’ (or, in Pali, ‘Gotama’).
Historically, Gautama’s footsteps are obscure; we don’t know a lot about his life. We don’t know exactly when he was born. He was born in the foothills of the Himalayas in what is now southern Nepal. Though he seems to have had a favored upbringing, we don’t even know whether or not he was literate. He dropped out of society and had few material possessions. He wandered around for decades teaching and begging for a living. His followers considered him to be an enlightened sage worth emulating. He seems to have died when we was about eighty. (It’s even possible, though I think highly unlikely, that he never lived at all.)
Spiritually, however, we know enough about Gautama’s life to be able to walk in the Buddha’s footsteps. In addition to the usual pattern of any normal life of birth, growth, maturity, and death, in Gautama’s case we have the important pattern of renunciation, search, enlightenment, and teaching. Although we’ll likely never understand the details, scholars today have a lot of confidence in these two patterns. The historical details are sufficient for spiritual purposes.
The Buddha’s Footsteps:
The Buddha-to-be Gautama was born into a relatively wealthy, prosperous world. He married and had a son. His future was bright. His sheltered world was rocked when, supposedly at age 29, he observed a sick man, an old man, a corpse, and a wandering ascetic – and, for the first time, genuinely grasped their implications. He had come of age.
Ceasing to defer to the wishes of his family, he decided to become a homeless wanderer in search of release from the apparently inevitable suffering caused by illness, aging, and death. Following the advice of various gurus, he spent six years wandering about trying to learn from practices of serious self-mortification without finding release. He concluded that the rigors of asceticism could not provide the answer to human suffering.
He sat down calmly and decided to awaken or die. He did what needed to be done and was released from suffering. He thoroughly absorbed his awakening and decided that, if he taught others, they might believe him. Basing his teaching on his own direct experience, he spent the last forty-five years of his life teaching others. He died (probably of accidental food poisoning) when he was 80.
Lessons for us from the Buddha’s footsteps:
Supposedly, Gautama was already an advanced Buddha-to-be (Sanskrit: bodhisattva; Pali: bodhisatta) before he was born! He had already spent many lifetimes preparing for Buddhahood. Even if that was true in Gautama’s case, it’s too late for us to emulate his birth and early growth. Since he himself rejected them as dead-ends in terms of lasting relief from suffering, there’s no justification for emulating either his marriage and his reproducing. Nor do we have to worry about emulating his death; soon enough, each of us will die anyway.
That leaves his renunciation, searching and their outcomes. If we follow the Buddha’s footsteps and drop out of ordinary life in search of a way to live well, we’ll either succeed or fail. If we fail, there’s no need to worry about emulating his enlightenment and teaching; if we succeed, we’ll succeed in awakening and naturally want to help others do the same.
In terms of emulating his searching, we do not have to do what Gautama did. Why? Unlike him, we are able to walk in the Buddha’s footsteps! It is unnecessary for us to be spiritual geniuses. He has left us a specific, eightfold plan that describes what to do to live well.
So, in terms of following the Buddha’s footsteps, that leaves renunciation. To follow Gautama is to drop out, to renounce the ordinary life of a householder. To renounce is to commit wholeheartedly to seeking liberation. It is to reject an ordinary life of nonseeking. It should be done to liberate others as well as oneself.
As I explain in The Meditative Approach to Philosophy, the key successful seeking is to lead an examined life. Wisdom requires a deliberate rejection of an ordinary life, a life of nonseeking or minimal seeking. That is what all philosophers reject. That rejection is renunciation.
In other words, to follow in the Buddha’s footsteps with respect to renunciation does not mean that we have to give away all our possessions, deliberately become homeless, and live lives of beggars. Of course, that is a possibility, but it’s not a requirement.
In fact, even deliberately joining a monastery or nunnery (or anything like that) isn’t required. Actions like those can be counterproductive, because they may be nothing but subtle ways of seeking spiritual gains. What is required is the Way of Losing, not the Way of Gaining (see The Meditative Approach to Philosophy).
It’s not possessions or relationships that are problematic; instead, it’s attachment to them. So it’s not letting go of possessions or relationships that is critical; instead, what is critical is letting go of attachments.
It’s impossible to understand classical Indian civilization without understanding the concept of “dharma” [see Buddhist Thought (referenced below), p. 15]. That concept is both descriptive and prescription. Accepting it implicitly rejects the popular fact/value distinction.
Buddhist teaching or dharma is a “gnostic soteriology” [Buddhist Thought, p. 17]. Renunciates are committed to salvation by directly experiencing truth. This is their central motivation.
Truth is apprehended reality. It is the foundation of liberation. Salvific truth leads to moral action and living well.
Buddhist renunciates take refuge in Dharma. They think, speak, and behave in disciplined ways that lead to, and are based upon, a direct fundamental apprehension that irrevocably liberates seekers from all experiences tainted by suffering.
Any Buddha-to-be becomes a Buddha by this direct apprehension of reality, the actual Dharma. Realizing Buddhahood requires overcoming fundamental ignorance about the way things are.
So the central goal is this “seeing” things as they actually are and not, for example, becoming a wandering renunciant. In the terminology of the Bhagavad Gita, following in the Buddha’s footsteps is a jnana-yoga.
The Buddha has shown the way. Will you follow in the Buddha’s footsteps? If you do, your salvific function may be fulfilled.
In other words, the Buddha’s life is an important teaching aid.
We don’t normally see things as they are, which is why we suffer. The Buddha’s life is an implicit argument that the way to eliminate suffering, dissatisfaction, and frustration is to see things as they are. The way to do that is to do what the Buddha did. Following in the Buddha’s footsteps by renouncing ordinary life and doing whatever is required to seek successfully may be the only way to salvation.
As always, if you know someone who might benefit from this post, please pass it along.
Recommended readings: my The Meditative Approach to Philosophy; Paul Williams with Anthony Tribe, Buddhist Thought; Thich Nhat Hanh, Old Path White Clouds; and Karen Armstrong, Buddha.