If you see the Buddha, kill him.
It was raining, but quite warm as we ran along the slatted wooden path that led from that white ‘i’ on the map towards what was signposted as ‘viewpoint’. We had paid our inflated foreign entry fee, signed our lives away, navigated the car park and left valuables in the boot. This 2km walk features in all the best brochures for its modern suspension bridge path, and has received positive reviews by thousands of retired Belgian insurance brokers. There would be no view in the rain, and as day visitors we were not permitted beyond the viewpoint. But running up the well maintained steps, my heart pumping, legs burning, sweat and rainwater pouring down my face, it didn’t matter how contrived or how authentic the experience might seem on facebook. During those moments I was experiencing the present. Each sensation, the thrill of my body battling my mind for control of the pace, the smell of wet forest and warm sea – these were as real as life itself, and remembering to notice them made that moment in my life so much more vivid.
Living in the moment is an ‘alpha stage’ development for me. Like a lot of good advice I have read about it, agreed with it, even shared it with others, but somehow neglected to take it myself. The problem, as usual, is that I only superficially understand it.
For most of my life, I have scorned anything for tourists. Wanting to find authentic experiences, I have shied away from popular places and guidebook suggestions. This has certainly given me a life of unique moments, and will always be my preferred approach. But the authenticity and value of many of my favourite memories have come from outside, and not from within. A solitary sunrise above a virgin wilderness is easy to appreciate. It will make an impression on anybody. It is a ‘beginner experience’ : anyone can see the Buddha in such a perfect moment, and that is why we seek out such moments, long for them, are recharged by them. The intensity and uniqueness of these beginner experiences helps us connect deeply with ourselves and accept our place in the world. They are very valuable.
But if you ask any monk, sadhu, prophet or religious text, you will find that these experiences our generation is addicted to are not the answer.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder… not the landscape.
Buddha exists as much in an engine or a factory as he does in a forest doe or a human soul.
People are the Church of God, not any building.
It’s not what you are looking at, but how you see it that matters.
We have probably all heard this in some form, from some tradition. I have heard it said myself in many different ways. But I didn’t understand it deeply. Our fast-food-learning culture gives us access to baffling volumes of information, but at the expense perhaps of deeper understanding.
When I reached the viewpoint I was elated. I stared out into the mist and rain, seeing nothing, but understanding something new. Living in the moment is the best thing in the world.
On the way down I wanted to be alone, and I ran all the way back down the trail and across the bridge. The tide was high and the swell was small. Nobody there for a moment, I donned swimming shorts, stashed my bag and dove into the sea. Lazy backstrokes in the warm Indian ocean took me across the canyon, looking up at the tourist bridge. Some Belgians took my picture. They were right after all, and I was just slow to see it. That place is beautiful, and the bridge doesn’t ruin it at all. It opens it up to so many more people, who are used to office cubicles and Starbucks and driving everywhere, and they need bridges and paths to get to beautiful places. This might be to them a ‘beginner experience’, wild and stimulating enough for them to seek out, long for, and be recharged by. The intensity and uniqueness of that experience might help them connect deeply with themselves and accept their place in the world.
Or maybe the tourist crowds are ahead of me again, and have learned to see beauty in all places. Maybe it is only me who hasn’t been able to see it. Experiences are not the same thing as reality – experiences exist in our minds, and we create them. Reality is just the palette we are given to paint with.
I was looking for the Buddha in the world, in a thing, in a moment – but he isn’t found there. He is found in everything. I had made a mistake I have been warned about, but had misunderstood the warning.
I thought I could find the Buddha.
But I ran up a hill in South Africa and understood something deeper:
If you see the Buddha, kill him.
He is not the Buddha.