The tortoise

Out in the countryside beyond the palace, Siddhārtha studies with various wise men, and practices different techniques. He stays with a group of ascetics who attempt to achieve understanding by eating as little as possible. In diminishing the physical, they hope to strengthen their grasp of the metaphysical. Siddhārtha starves himself to the brink of death, but this strategy only perpetuates his pain. He comes to see it as another expression of his discomfort with the “ever-present problem of life and death.”

For six years, Siddhārtha continues in this pattern of discontent, unhappy with his life and miserable at the thought of death. He learns to make some concessions to his physical needs—sufficient food and a few creature comforts—but he still struggles with accepting things as they are, with feeling at peace in light of his human condition. He finds a pleasant spot under a tree, close enough to the trunk that he can lean against it if he needs to, and makes a nice place to sit with a bed of straw. He commits to staying put until he finds a way to put an end to his suffering. For a time, he falls into old habits: he gets caught up in the past; he worries about the future. Finally, he manages to subdue those thoughts, to plant his feet firmly in the “now.” At last, at the age of 35, he arrives at nirvana or “the extinction of all concepts.” He sees things just as they are, not filtered through memories or projections or ideas. His search for a more suitable place to be comes to an end. He settles into the simple peace that only the present moment can provide.

This newfound perspective transforms Siddhārtha into Buddha and eliminates his trepidation about life and death by providing him with a deeper understanding of the human condition. To communicate this insight to others, he used a number of analogies. One in particular involves a single blind tortoise swimming in a vast ocean on the surface of which floats a gold ring. The tortoise comes up for air only once every 100 years. It is rarer, said the Buddha, to be born human than for the turtle to come up for a breath with its neck through the ring.

The tortoise helps lift a burden I hadn’t realized I was carrying. From the Bible, I knew others had characterized the gate to life as narrow, but to have it acknowledged as so infinitesimally slender further illustrates the unimaginable odds. To sense this, and not put words to it, is to feel overwhelmed, even to perceive its enormity as a burden. But to acknowledge it is to bring it into the open, to begin to embrace those slim chances, to start on a path from fear to gratitude. At the same time, the analogy hints at the countless eons before and after the turtle emerges to breathe the air; the time it may spend with its head through the ring is a brief flicker in a larger story.

10 thoughts on “The tortoise

  1. Yes, it is a “lovely explanation”. The loveliness of it is in acknowledging, perceiving and embracing which then leads to gratitude and release. This raises it out of judgment or a sense that one can never walk through the “narrow” “gate or the eye of the needle”. It is in such teachings that Buddhism excels without mea culpas or begging forgiveness and looking for redemption. It reminds me of a song I like that begins, “My eyes are open now I see…”

  2. Not sure if I understand all that Siddhartha came to….It seems that part of it was a realization that we humans do not have to make ourselves dependent on “the next thing” to feel successful or fulfilled or enjoy life, to be at peace: it is right where we are.
    Frank, your mention of the “narrow gate” reminds me that, if you came to understand Christianity through the eyes of fundamentalism, remember that not all of what is taught there is Christianity or of Christ. There was soo much legalism there, and we didn’t see it at first–it kept me on a performance treadmill for much of my life.
    There is much confusion as to what Jesus was referring to by the narrow gate comment, and I think that’s largely to do with the fact that there is no clear meaning to it when considered out of context–so everyone simply plugs in their best idea, like Jesus being the gate, etc.
    Jesus mentions it toward the end of the Sermon on the Mount. I’ve come to understand him here as referring to the narrow gate being the will of God. Jesus had repeated clashes with the religious teachers because they were not following God’s will (nor do they yet), but mostly building on “tradition”. Immediately before the narrow gate statement, he mentions the golden rule, “for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 7:12), ie, God’s will. Immediately following, he warns about false prophets in sheep’s clothing being recognized by their fruit. After all, not all who claim to be his followers will enter the kingdom of heaven but “only those who do the will of my Father”.

    • One of the ways Buddhism works. From my favorite Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron:

      From: Pema Chödrön Heart Advice
      Date: Wed, Jan 1, 2014 at 7:35 AM
      Subject: Quote of the Week | Experiencing Laziness Directly

      January 1, 2014


      Laziness is not particularly terrible or wonderful. Rather it has a basic living quality that deserves to be experienced just as it is. Perhaps we’ll find an irritating, pulsating quality in laziness. We might feel it as dull and heavy or as vulnerable and raw. Whatever we discover, as we explore it further, we find nothing to hold on to, nothing solid, only groundless, wakeful energy.

      This process of experiencing laziness directly and nonverbally is transformative. It unlocks a tremendous energy that is usually blocked by our habit of running away. This is because when we stop resisting laziness, our identity as the one who is lazy begins to fall apart completely. Without the blinders of ego, we connect with a fresh outlook, a greater vision. This is how laziness—or any other demon—introduces us to the compassionate life.

  3. Just stopping by to wish one and all the very best New Year. I know that whatever differences we all have, we share the same desire for more peace, caring, sharing and good faith in this world of ours. Corinna and all of you, may 2014 be a year of prosperity for the mind, body, heart and soul.

    Yours in Christ

  4. Thank you very much for following the blog, I really look forward to reading your posts and happy new year 2014. Gede Prama 🙂

  5. what a complex yet simple explanation to explain the here and now. Just shows there is so much more to learn about ourselves and the world and how it works…

    or, in one cowboy’s words, “theres more then one way to skin a cat”…


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