© Rafe Martin 2013
Let’s go back to childhood before we knew were Buddhists, before we really knew much more than that the grass was green, and the sky blue. In the Grimm’s Brothers’ tale of “The Golden Bird,” which also appears in Russian oral tradition as the skazki or oral tale, “Prince Ivan, The Firebird and the Grey Wolf,” the good-hearted hero is tested multiple times, and it his failure in each of these tests that sets the plot in motion. At one point he has to sneak into a castle and steal a golden sword. But he is advised, in the Grimm’s tale, by the wise and mysterious little fox who is his helper and guide, not to take the golden scabbard that hangs on the wall, but to only take the ordinary leather one.
Alas, once he enters the castle and sees the gorgeous sword, he can’t resist thinking—and his thought is primary to his action—“This beautiful golden sword is much too good to be put in an ordinary shabby scabbard.” And forgetting the fox’s wise advice, he takes the jeweled scabbard instead, and thrusts the sword home. At once the alarm sounds, the guards awake, and grab him. And now he is set to a greater task. He must get the Golden Bird.
“But,” sagely advises the wise little fox on whose tail he rides, “Do not, I repeat, do not take the golden cage to put the Golden Bird in. Just take the ordinary wooden one.” “Right! Gotcha. No problem,” says the heroic prince. Then he sees the Golden Bird. And he thinks, “Put such a splendid bird in that ordinary cage? I don’t think so!”
Oops. Once again he finds himself making the same error. He keeps missing the central point though it is repeated over and over: “Don’t take the jeweled scabbard. Don’t take golden cage! Get it?”
The ordinary, just as it is, is IT, warts and all, difficulties and all. Don’t try to make perfection perfect. The inner is the outer. Form IS emptiness! Reality doesn’t need a halo, glowing lights, shining auras, special mind-states or supremely blissful circumstances to be good and true. Realizing this is the hard work of bare attention to what IS, called forth and embodied by all Buddhist traditions, indeed, by all paths of practice worth their salt. It was already known to us as children when we entered the ancient world of fairy tales. In short, as a bumper sticker might say, This is it. This is really it! Just as it is. Or to quote Porky Pig and Loony Tunes, “T-t-that’s all folks!”
So, in the jataka tales, once the Buddha was an Untouchable. He practiced. He realized something. He died. He was a fawn. He died. He was an osprey. He died.
He was a sage and embodied the way to the best of his ability. He died. Life is full of obstacles, full of unfinished stories and unrealized aims. The Buddha wanted so very much to be a Buddha. How many lives did he work at it? And how many times did he fail? Was he then dissatisfied in all those thousands and thousands of jataka lives, only a fraction of which have been recorded and identified as such, until he finally sat under the Bo-tree, glanced up, and saw the morning star? I think all those varied lives, let’s call them five hundred for convenience sake were, as Mumon says in his verse on the fox koan, lives of grace. Maybe obstacles are life. A monk once saw a snake eating a frog. It brought his mind to a stop. “I thought that life was suffering,” he said. “Now I see that suffering is life.”