Opening to Suffering, Bearing Witness, and the Middle Way

I gave this talk on Saturday, December 17, 2022, at the Greater Boston Zen Center Rohatsu Sesshin.  A recording will be available here.

This is a version of the Rohatsu story, the story of Shakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment:

The story of the Buddha’s enlightenment is not told exactly the same way in all schools of Buddhism, and all include elements of folk history and fable.

Raised in a life of privilege and luxury and protected from all knowledge of pain and suffering, young Prince Siddhartha Gautama at the age of 29 is said to have left the family palace to meet his subjects, at which time he was confronted with the reality of human suffering.

Having been confronted with the Four Passing Sights, (a sick person, an aged person, a corpse, and a holy man) and greatly troubled by them, the young prince renounced his life, then left his home and family to discover the truth of birth and death and to find peace of mind. He sought out one yoga teacher and then another one, mastering what they taught him and then moving on.

Then, with five companions, for five or six years he engaged in rigorous asceticism. He tortured himself, held his breath, and fasted until his ribs stuck out “like a row of spindles” and he could almost feel his spine through his stomach. Yet enlightenment seemed no closer.

Then he remembered something. Once as a boy, while sitting under a rose-apple tree on a beautiful day, he had spontaneously experienced great bliss and entered the first dhyana, meaning he was absorbed in a deep meditative state.

He realized then that this experience showed him the way to realization. Instead of punishing his body to find release from the confines of the self, he would work with his own nature and practice purity of mental defilements to realize enlightenment.

He knew then that he would need physical strength and better health to continue. About this time a young girl, Sujata, came by and offered the emaciated Siddhartha a bowl of milk and rice. When his companions saw him eating solid food they believed he had given up the quest, and they abandoned him.

At this point, Siddhartha had realized the path to awakening was a “middle way” between extremes of the self-denial he had been practicing with his group of ascetics and the self-indulgence of the life he had been born into.

Siddhartha Gautama sat beneath a sacred fig and began to meditate. According to some traditions, he realized enlightenment in one night. Others say three days and three nights; while others say 45 days.

When his mind was purified by concentration, it is said he acquired the Three Knowledges. The first knowledge was that of his past lives and the past lives of all beings. The second knowledge was of the laws of karma. The third knowledge was that he was free of all obstacles and released from attachments.

When he realized release from samsara, the awakened Buddha exclaimed,

“House-builder, you’re seen! You will not build a house again. All your rafters broken, the ridge pole destroyed, gone to the Unformed, the mind has come to the end of craving.” [Dhammapada, verse 154]

Buddhist legends say that Mara, a sort of trickster god, wished to stop Siddhartha’s quest for enlightenment, so he brought his most beautiful daughters to Bodh Gaya to seduce him. But Siddhartha did not move. Then Mara sent armies of demons to attack him. Siddhartha sat still, and untouched.

Then, Mara claimed that the seat of enlightenment rightfully belonged to him and not to a mortal. Mara’s demon soldiers cried out together, “I am his witness!” Mara challenged Siddhartha—These soldiers speak for me. Who will speak for you?

Then Siddhartha reached out his right hand to touch the earth, and the earth itself spoke: “I bear you witness!” Mara disappeared. And as the morning star rose in the sky, Siddhartha Gautama realized enlightenment and became a Buddha.

Source:, by Barbara O’Brien, updated on June 21, 2018 (adapted)

I should say as I begin this talk that I’ll be making a couple of very brief and general references to some of the horrors of war.  I won’t be including much detail, and certainly not any graphic detail.  I hope and expect these general references won’t be too unsettling for anyone, but I just wanted to provide this advance notice that they’re coming to try to help ensure that.

Last week I was in Sarajevo helping facilitate an ongoing dialogue among senior leaders of key Israeli and Palestinian stakeholder groups seeking a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  This group importantly includes representatives of Jewish and Muslim religious nationalist stakeholder groups.  Prior peace processes have failed largely because they only included secular-political actors and worked only from the top down, rather than from the top down, bottom up, and middle out.  The initiative in which I’m involved attempts to correct for these problems.  It’s beginning to bear real fruit.

I’ve been involved in this particular initiative for the past six years, but I’ve been doing work like it for nearly 30 years.  I moved to Boston in 1995 to study at Harvard Divinity School, where I intended to get a Ph.D. in comparative religion, focusing on intersections between Zen Buddhism and the Christian contemplative tradition.  I started to doubt the wisdom of that decision almost immediately.  Much of my coursework seemed too abstract and disengaged.  

Midway through my first semester the New York Times ran a story about the massacre at Srebrenica near the end of the war in the former Yugoslavia.  Nearly 8,400 Bosnian Muslims—mostly men and young boys—were murdered systematically by Serbian soldiers.  The article included a picture of a Muslim woman who had taken her own life rather than be killed.  That picture moved me to tears.  It made me want to understand how and why religion sometimes gets entangled in and seems to help fuel violence.  I wanted to do something to help.  So I reoriented my studies to focus on that question, and on conflict transformation and peace studies more broadly.

Last week, after my meetings ended, I borrowed a friend’s car and drove three hours north of Sarajevo to Srebrenica, the site of the horrible massacre that had unsettled me so fundamentally, prompting such a major shift in the direction of my life.  The site is now a cemetery, memorial, and genocide research center.  I spent a few hours there, mostly walking among the gravestones, making sure I caught sight of every one of them.  I also read and listened to some of the tributes to those buried there.  Sadly, there are 20 or so fresh graves in the cemetery.  Victims’ remains are still being discovered in the forests surrounding Srebrenica 30 years after the massacre.

What does all this have to do with Rohatsu—our celebration of the Buddha’s enlightenment?  I want to trace three connections: allowing oneself to be moved by others’ suffering, bearing witness, and the middle way.

The first theme I want to highlight is opening to suffering:

In some versions of the Rohatsu story Prince Siddhartha’s father actively insulates him from exposure to the realities of sickness, old age, and death.  We hear that he lived his whole life in his father’s palace without awareness of these features of human experience.  His father even hoped to conceal them from him on the excursion about which we read, but Siddhartha nonetheless was confronted with them.  

I find it hard to believe that anyone could live into their 20s or 30s without awareness of sickness, aging, and death.  I can imagine a parent wanting to protect their child from hardship, however, and I also can imagine a young person in a privileged position delusively feeling rather exempt from the inevitability of sickness, old age, and death.  I can imagine a young person—and older people, too—not tuning into and being moved by others’ suffering.

Whether or not the Buddha’s turning point came precisely how it’s reported in our Rohatsu story, it seems his initial, transformative opening occurred when he allowed himself to notice and be moved by others’ suffering.  He became so affected and unsettled by others’ suffering that he completely upended his life.  We also should acknowledge that the lives of his wife and child also were upended—a feature of his story about which I feel very uneasy, I must say.

Many of us come to Zen practice quite absorbed in our own suffering and seeking escape from it in ways subtle and not-so-subtle.  Many of us hope Zen might offer a ticket into the sort of palace the Buddha left.  We figure Zen as a path to bliss.  It’s very important to see the Buddha’s own felt awareness of suffering not just as his motivation to experience enlightenment but as the inception of his conscious experience of enlightenment.  This motivation—bodhicitta—is enlightened experience, and we must maintain it.

It’s also very important to note that the young Sujata’s compassionate response to the Buddha’s suffering is part of his—and our—enlightenment experience.  This was another decisive moment in the Buddha’s awakening.  He accepted the reality of his own suffering by accepting Sujata’s kindness.  Having pushed himself to ridiculous extremes in search of someplace beyond our ordinary experience, he accepted his creatureliness and dependence.  

The second theme I want to lift up is bearing witness:

We’re told the Buddha, nourished by milk and rice and a fresh perspective, returned to meditation, and soon had a series of deep insights.  We don’t hear much about the nature of his ultimate realization as this version of the Rohatsu story ends.  We just hear that he “realized enlightenment and became a Buddha.”  

What does that mean?  Another version of the story ends with the Buddha saying, “I and all beings and the whole great earth have simultaneously attained the Way together.”  In other words, the Buddha experienced the unity of relative and Absolute, and not as an idea.  He experienced himself and all else as one—as distinct but not separate.

But before the Buddha has this realization he is visited by Mara, who attempts to prevent the Buddha from having it.  The figure of Mara, and other “gods” we encounter in the early Buddhist scriptures, may seem anachronistic—quaintly mythological—to many of us today, but the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment parallels some other ancient stories about religious figures in this way.  Think of Jesus, who also is said to have gone on a solitary quest, spending 40 days and nights in the desert, where he was tested by the anti-god Satan much like Mara tested the Buddha.  

However else the ancients thought about demons, they certainly understood, as we do, that demons can be in our heads.  We can think of Mara as the voice of delusive separateness that breeds violence and other forms of suffering; that voice in our heads that tells us we’re separate from other beings and there’s someplace other than here that we should be.  Mara’s soldiers bear witness to this delusive view and aspiration, just as those Serbian soldiers attested to and acted upon the deranged view that they were separate from and superior to the Muslims they slaughtered; that they could reach a promised land if they could just be permanently, existentially separated from specific others.

When Mara asks who speaks for the Buddha, he doesn’t conjure a chorus of angry soldiers. He simply turns one palm up and touches his other hand to the ground.  Heaven and Earth speak for me, he is saying.  They bear witness to me and I to them.  Each thing bears witness to and speaks for all others; no separation.  Were I to harm another being, I’d be harming myself.

It’s interesting and important that, in this story of the Buddha’s enlightenment, he is contesting a god.  Mara is asserting that he is above humans; that Buddha is trying to transgress the divine realm.  The Buddha’s response to that assertion, and the path he opened, is summarized well by a line in the Heart Sutra we just chanted: “Far beyond delusive thinking, right here is Nirvana.”  The binary that lies beneath all others that bedevil us is the heaven-earth binary.  Buddhism pierces that binary, and Zen Buddhism absolutely obliterates it—as a rigid binary, or dualism, that is.

We are called to bear witness to and act in accordance with the reality that form is exactly emptiness; emptiness exactly form.  That heaven and earth are one.  We’re called to bear witness to our inter-being; our interdependence.  This bearing witness demands that we practice non-harming and speak out and act up against harming when we see it.  It demands that we act to promote healthy connection among all beings.  We can never be disconnected, but we can act as if it’s possible to disconnect.  We are sure to cause harm if we do.  The Srebrenica massacre is an extreme example of that delusive line of thinking and the harm it can cause.

Finally, the third theme I want to highlight is the middle way:

The Rohatsu story is a story of one person’s discovery of a middle way.  It’s a very personal story in one sense, but this person obviously goes on to try to help others find their middle way, personally and also collectively.  We absolutely must find the middle way collectively, not just personally.  There really is no solitary middle way.  Finding our middle way is increasingly urgent on so many pressing issues, like climate change, for example.  The conflict transformation work I’ve been involved in in the Middle East and elsewhere is about finding a collective middle way in hope of averting more tragedies like the Sbrebrenica massacre.  

It is possible to bridge our differences—even our most intense and seemingly intractable differences involving our core, identity-defining values.  I see this happening in the work I do.  This work makes me hopeful.

A common misconception about this sort of work is that it inevitably resolves toward a facile, perhaps even dangerous, both sides-ism.  The assumption is that seeking a middle way in conflict inevitably leads to a mid-point between the parties’ starting points—and one that requires unacceptable compromises of one’s values.  This is simply not true.  

Parties sometimes meet in the middle through well-structured dialogue around deep differences, but sometimes one party moves completely to the other side; moves entirely to the other person’s perspective.  Either way, parties have opened to one another, at least if the outcome is a product of genuine, deep dialogue and deliberation.   If you doubt this, email me, and I’ll send you a study that proves it.  Actually, proof is in the news: the recent Respect for Marriage Act is one good example of this possibility.

So, to sum up, these are three lessons from our Rohatsu story that speak to me deeply right now, following my visit to Srebrenica:

  • We need to let ourselves be moved by others’ suffering and accept others’ responses to our own suffering;
  • We must bear witness, actively and concretely, to the reality of our non-separateness and inescapable interdependence; and  
  • We must continually seek and open up a middle way, not just personally and “spiritually,” but collectively, socially.  Genuine spirituality is social.

The enlightenment story is a story of continual opening to our own and others’ suffering.  It’s a story of one person who set foot on a path of engaging others in goodwill, conscious of our radical interdependence, to address and transform our suffering.  It’s our path, too, and it’s indeed the only Way.