The story of the Buddha’s enlightenment is really one of the most powerful in world literature and I wish it was as well known in the West as, say, the story of the Exodus or the Crucifixion. Your average Westerner can look on an image of a bearded, robed man holding a pair of clay tablets and parse the encoded meaning (law, authority, revelation) without thought. With one glance, we are immediately reminded of an entire way of life, where it’s not necessary that we be able to recite all of the Ten Commandments to yet have a keen sense of how they implore us to behave.
But the meaning of the image of a man sitting cross-legged under a tree, while perhaps identifiable as Buddhist, will be tied up with Western ideology: that it’s a quaint religion, that it shares in an earlier polytheism, that it’s a hippie peacenik faith maladapted to “the harsh realities of life,” and so on, without knowing the significance of the hooded snake, the topknot, the rags, the seated position, and — most importantly — the hand that touches the earth. Everything important the artist intended to communicate is largely lost on us.
The hand in particular is an image that still gives me goosebumps. It is, for me, the greatest act of nonviolent resistance in history. It’s Gandhi on the Salt March. It’s Rosa Parks on the bus. It’s Wounded Knee. It’s what Mark Millar was channeling with Cap’s speech in Civil War about planting yourself like a tree — which the Buddha does, his feet entwined like roots.
While the image of Christ on the Cross is also extremely powerful, it sends a different message: the endurance of suffering — surely important in an ever-imperfect world, and something I wish the peddlers of rage would heed, but for me, it is a waiting: the worship of self-sacrifice and stoic resignation, the acceptance of that which you wish were different but isn’t.
Christians can object, and they wouldn’t be wrong. Symbology has no bounds. But it’s hard to argue that the core of Christianity isn’t a variant of the Stoicism it borrowed from its Greco-Roman forebears. That Stoicism is enshrined in the famous Protestant work ethic — that this life matters less than the hereafter; that since the original sin, it’s the nature of man to suffer; that it’s your job to shut up and do your work.
Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable. For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a man bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God. (1 Peter 2: 18-20)
I prefer the image above (additional versions below), also of a poor man dressed in rags, having abandoned wealth and title, with not a single possession to his name, assaulted by every evil and injustice in the world. But where Christ suffers and dies, The Buddha touches the earth and says “I am here. I have no castle or servants or fine clothes. But I am just as deserved as thee. I have no armies, I raise no weapon. But I will not be moved.”
The following is taken from Joseph Campbell’s description of the Enlightenment in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces:
A majestic representation of the difﬁculties of the hero—task, and
of its sublime import when it is profoundly conceived and solemnly
undertaken, is presented in the traditional legend of the Great Struggle of the Buddha. The young prince Gautama Shakyamuni set forth secretly from his father’s palace on the princely steed Kanthaka, passed miraculously through the guarded gate, rode through the night attended by the torches of four times sixty thousand divinities, lightly hurdled a majestic river eleven hundred and twenty-eight cubits wide, and then with a single sword-stroke sheared his own royal locks—whereupon the remaining hair, two ﬁnger-breadths in length, curled to the right and lay close to his head. Assuming the garments of a monk, he moved as a beggar through the world, and during these years of apparently aimless wandering acquired and transcended the eight stages of meditation. He retired to a hermitage, bent his powers six more years to the great struggle, carried austerity to the Uttermost, and collapsed in seeming death, but presently recovered. Then he returned to the less rigorous life of the ascetic wanderer.
One day he sat beneath a tree, contemplating the eastern quarter of the world, and the tree was illuminated with his radiance. A
young girl named Sujata came and presented milk-rice to him in
a golden bowl, and when he tossed the empty bowl into a river it
ﬂoated upstream. This was the signal that the moment of his triumph was at hand. He arose and proceeded along a road which the gods had decked and which was eleven hundred and twenty-eight cubits wide. The snakes and birds and the divinities of the woods and ﬁelds did him homage with ﬂowers and celestial perfumes, heavenly choirs poured forth music, the ten thousand worlds were ﬁlled with perfumes, garlands, harmonies, and showers of acclaim; for he was on his way to the great Tree of Enlightenment, the Bo Tree, under which he was to redeem the universe. He placed himself, with a ﬁrm resolve, beneath the Bo Tree, on the Immovable Spot, and straightway was approached by Kama-Mara, the god of love and death.
The dangerous god appeared mounted on an elephant and carrying weapons in his thousand hands. He was surrounded by his army,
which extended twelve leagues before him, twelve to the right, twelve to the left, and in the rear as far as to the conﬁnes of the world; it was nine leagues high. The protecting deities of the universe took ﬂight, but the Future Buddha remained unmoved beneath the Tree. And the god then assailed him, seeking to break his concentration.
Whirlwind, rocks, thunder and ﬂame, smoking weapons with
keen edges, burning coals, hot ashes, boiling mud, blistering sands
and fourfold darkness, the Antagonist hurled against the Savior,
but the missiles were all transformed into celestial ﬂowers and ointments by the power of Gautama’s ten perfections. Kama-Mara then deployed his daughters, Desire, Pining, and Lust, surrounded by voluptuous attendants, but the mind of the Great Being was not
distracted. The god ﬁnally challenged his right to be sitting on the
Immovable Spot, hung his razor-sharp discus angrily, and bid the
towering host of the army to let ﬂy at him with mountain crags.
But the Future Buddha only moved his hand to touch the ground
with his ﬁngertips, and thus bid the goddess Earth bear Witness to
his right to be sitting where he was. She did so with a hundred,
a thousand, a hundred thousand roars, so that the elephant of the
Antagonist fell upon its knees in obeisance to the Future Buddha.
The army was immediately dispersed, and the gods of all the worlds scattered garlands.
Having won that preliminary victory before sunset, the conqueror acquired in the ﬁrst watch of the night knowledge of his previous existences, in the second watch the divine eye of omniscient vision, and in the last watch understanding of the chain of causation. He experienced perfect enlightenment at the break of day.
Then for seven days Gautama—now the Buddha, the Enlightened—
sat motionless in bliss; for seven days he stood apart and
regarded the spot on which he had received enlightenment; for seven days he paced between the place of the sitting and the place of the standing; for seven days he abode in a pavilion furnished by the gods and reviewed the whole doctrine of causality and release; for seven days he sat beneath the tree where the girl Sujata had brought him milk-rice in a golden bowl, and there meditated on the doctrine of the sweetness of nirvana; he removed to another tree and a great storm raged for seven days, but the King of Serpents emerged from the roots and protected the Buddha with his expanded hood; ﬁnally, the Buddha sat for seven days beneath a fourth tree enjoying still the sweetness of liberation. Then he doubted whether his message could be communicated, and he thought to retain the wisdom for himself; but the god Brahma descended from the zenith to implore that he should become the teacher of gods and men. The Buddha was thus persuaded to proclaim the path. And he went back into the cities of men where he moved among the citizens of the world, bestowing the inestimable boon of the knowledge of the Way.
The Buddha’s enlightenment is the most important single moment in Oriental mythology, a counterpart of the Cruciﬁxion of the West. The Buddha beneath the Tree of Enlightenment (the Bo Tree) and Christ on Holy Rood (the Tree of Redemption) are analogous ﬁgures, incorporating an archetypal World Savior/World Tree motif, which is of immemorial antiquity. Many other variants of the theme will be found among the episodes to come. The lmmovable Spot and Mount Calvary are images of the World Navel, or World Axis (see page 32).
The calling of the Earth to witness is represented in traditional Buddhist art by images of the Buddha, sitting in the classic Buddha posture, with the right hand resting on the right knee and its ﬁngers lightly touching the ground.