Bodhisatta (n): In the Pali canon, the Bodhissata Siddhartha Gotama is described thus:
Before my awakening, when I was an unawakened Bodhisatta, being subject myself to birth, sought what was likewise subject to birth. Being subject myself to aging… illness… death… sorrow… defilement, I sought happiness in what was likewise subject to illness… death… sorrow… defilement.
I am looking out the window of a car. Parked like countless others in a hot part of Johannesburg on a warm day in November. I’m waiting.
Waiting for my brother, John, to be released from invigilating an exam. “International Political Economy”, he explained when I asked what the students were writing. I think I’ve asked him half a dozen times what Political Economy means and on each occasion felt the answer slip through the cracks of my attention. Too quickly diverted to other matters. Recently, I’ve been dropping more catches in life on account of this restlessness, this inattention.
I greeted that map every morning, wishing it goodnight to it in the evenings. It seemed so far away from reality.
‘Bodhisatta’ was a word I had come across recently. Unlike International Political Economy, it stuck. Remembered, brightly and resonant. It’s someone undertaking the journey to Buddha-hood. Or if eastern-flavoured religion isn’t your thing, it’s someone looking for that thing in their life that they believe will put their restlessness to peace. It’s trying to find that fundamentally different manner of seeing the world, and a new better reason for being a part of it. Some element in me has been a Bohissata since a time before I even realised I was searching. I had been wrestling an impulse to push the life I had organised for myself somewhere new – wanting to see more and learn more than I ever seemed to be able to. Some months ago, I resolved to let that impulse free.
Which was how I found myself waiting this hot November morning.
In an hour, I am off to the airport. Then Cape Town and the beginning of a journey of almost two months between the poles of Africa. Excitement and terror have passed equally through my mind this last week. Nights spent awake, fantasising and fearing a hundred faceless locations ahead. I’d re-imagined a thousand times how today – how setting off – might feel. How tomorrow might. And the next day. And beyond.
My state of mind? Calm. A sense of alert stillness. It’s the most unexpected part of today, after so much fear in the days of planning. I’d had a floor to ceiling map of Africa in my lounge since February, with the route marked in fat pins and string. I greeted that map every morning, wishing it goodnight to it in the evenings. It seemed so far away from reality. Swathes of green and yellow a thousand miles from forest, desert, sky and dust.
The fear, I suspect had grown in the space between that map and confronting the reality of where that string led. As of this morning, that space is closed now. I have nowhere left to be scared. Inevitability, it seems, makes us face up to ourselves.
I watch the trees at the end of the parking lot swaying in a breeze that’s passing me by. The leaves sparkle in a Johannesburg summer morning. I’d never watch tree leaves on any other day. There’d have been no time. Or something more important to do. Today, I realise, I have nowhere better to be, and it’s liberating. It’s a deep, satisfying freedom born from checking out of the self-involved human race. I woke up, picked up my backpack and left my life behind.
In the days to come, I have all I need with me in these two bags. It’s enough to cross a continent, and a sad indictment of the excesses of a world confused.
I’ll not be rushing today to earn money. To accrue the baubles that the world demands I obtain for their respect. until acquiring them became my purpose. Everything my life requires fitted into a backpack and a little black day bag last night. The rest lies behind, to greet me again as a stranger when I return. The thought of the life I am leaving behind draws into memory the words of a writer I had read somewhere in my months of planning and staring at that fat-pin map. “We are eating ourselves alive, and we are still hungry.” No more this morning.
In the days to come, I have all I need with me in these two bags. It’s enough to cross a continent, and a sad indictment of the excesses of a world confused. We lash out for ever more stuff when all we really want, deep down, are new ways of living. I think to myself, waiting, that perhaps I am trying to find some simpler, wiser, more fundamental truth. About myself. About the world. About how I answer the simplest questions asked of that space between it and I. Or perhaps to come to some new meeting with my soul. Watching the sparkling leaves, it seems unnecessary to be an apart-thing from the world, to profit from it. Why not share in the joy that it provides, step into the dancing air and the sparkling leaves and just revel for a single childlike moment again. And if for a moment, why not a life?
“I wonder”, he said
And because he did, he went.
Embracing his fear, turning it to the wind
Bringing the scent of tomorrow
Of the just beyond
“I wonder”, he said
“I wonder where the road goes”
And because he did, he went.
There was a time that I laughed at thoughts like these. I studied science at university. Worked with computers. Was going to earn money and be powerful. I would be important. And because of this, my life would matter.
It took years for that illusion to erode, but erode it did. It lacked the steel of an explanation to myself as to how my life mattered to the world. How, for that matter, it even mattered to me. Absent some fundamental good, it was a matter of time until too much of the structure washed away. I think I began to see too much somewhere, think too much, find too many questions about this place I call my life.
The world gave me no ready answers. It challenged me instead to create stories, find my own way , seek and discover for myself why I think I matter. Doing so means stepping out. Means seeing the thing I am trying to understand in as much of its contradiction as possible. That is about as well as I will ever be able to articulate why I am in this car. I am waiting to begin.