“Every day we hear stories, tell stories, and tell ourselves stories.”
Buddhism is a story, as is the self, rehearsing its narrative through the days and events of our lives. Our path of inquiry means waking to the nature of the elusive narrator and, then, doing the work needed to shift the narrative. “Do good, avoid evil, save the many beings”—the so-called “Three Resolutions”—is the path of all buddhas. This is the story we work on telling daily with action and with practice, not simply with words.
Stories set expectations and have consequences. The jatakas don’t always show the Bodhisattva as a perfect being. Often he’s a work in progress, making mistakes, struggling to do the right thing. As fanciful as jatakas can be with their talking animals, devas, yakshas, nagas, and kinnaras, such straight talk gives us room to consider that, odd as they are, they might be truer than we think. They are not mere hagiographies, but show the Buddha-to-be as an unfinished product, warts and all.
Here the Bodhisattva, as the Buddha is called in previous lives, is born into less than ideal circumstances. That’s an understatement: he’s the child of an ogress who eats human flesh, and he and his father are locked in a cave to keep them from running off and getting away! That’s a pretty hard start in life, to be literally caught in a confining, potentially devouring love. Even worse, the Bodhisattva in this past life is only half human; his other half is primitive, elemental, earthy, monstrous. Yet, despite this, he is honest, skillful, determined, and kind. He helps his father, performs rites for his mother, and tries to keep a king from ruin.
We fall into traps when we start comparing stories. “Am I good enough? Do I have what it takes?” are self-limiting tales. We have this breath, this brief moment in which to choose to act on our vow to awaken and be of use to all. It is a choice we make again and again. If we don’t, we fall back into the cave of our old story and end up treading the small bit of real estate we’ve inherited. Roshi Kapleau used to say, “We each had a mother and a father. It’s enough.” In other words, having been born gives us the opportunity to begin doing the work. Zen Buddhism affirms that our nature right now is none other than the nature of Buddha.
The Bodhisattva’s nature, even as the child of an ogress, was no different than his nature as Shakyamuni Buddha. He doesn’t acquire a different, better nature later on. His nature and our nature, the Dharma affims, are no different from fundamental or original nature, the originating principle of all buddhas and bodhisattvas. “From the beginning all beings are Buddha,” says Zen master Hakuin’s “Song in Praise of Zazen.” All beings—not just those with good cheekbones, above average intelligence, and supportive life circumstances. Hakuin’s song ends, “This very body, the body of Buddha.” This flawed, aging, somewhat ogreish body, this very body, he says, is Buddha. What does this mean?
Maybe your mother was an ogress, or your father an ogre. Maybe you are a bit ogreish yourself, showing the effects of your ogre lineage, ogreish upbringing, ogreish meals and vacations as well as, perhaps, having been locked in a cave by an ogreish parent, deprived of the light and air you craved. Your ogreish past created complexities and difficulties you deal with today. Join the club.
The Bodhisattva—the Buddha in a past life—was the same.
Excerpted from Before Buddha Was Buddha by Rafe Martin