The Seven Steps
The story of Buddha’s birth is full of myth and magic. Modern people are often amused at the old myths, but they should not be so jaded as to miss the foundation of the teachings that shimmer through the rich imagery. One such element of the story of Buddha’s birth is his seven steps.

Moderns prefer the bald truth, like this scientific explanation of the tree under which Buddha was born: The botanical name for the Ashoka Tree is Saraca asoca or Jonesia Ashok. It belongs to the legume family and genus Saraca. One of its varieties is a very handsome, small, erect evergreen tree, with deep green foliage. Its flowers are very fragrant and are bright orange-yellow in colour and later turn red found in the foothills of central & eastern Himalayas. Its flowering season is around February to April.

Such an explanation is interesting. It may even make us mail order a plant for our lawns. But this explanation does not inspire us to move our lives in a better direction. Finding out that a human who became a Buddha was born from his mother’s side while she was standing holding on to the branches of the tree is another matter. Then when we find out that Mother Maya died shortly due to complications of the labour creates sympathy for both the child and the mother. Then the baby walking and talking adds strangeness to the story that gently pulls us into its inner meanings.

Here is a summary of the mythical story of Buddha’s Birth:

Queen Maya dreamt of a white elephant entering her body; a wise man interpreted this event as the impending birth of Prince Siddhartha. In keeping with the custom of the time, Queen Maya prepared to return to her parent's home to give birth to her baby. Along the way, she stopped for a rest in Lumbini Garden. As she reached to pluck the Asoka blossoms, her little son was born. Immediately, the child rose to his feet and walked seven steps. He raised his right hand toward the sky, his left hand reached downward, and he proclaimed, "Above heaven and below heaven, I alone am the World Honoured One." Then a very gentle and sweet rain fell on the baby and bathed him.

Then we hear about those Seven Steps. Seven is an important number in the West. It also brings a bit of math into a colourful talk. This tradition of the seven steps also spans cultures and centuries as far apart as our own Aboriginals in Canada & the people of Siberia. Each direction has a meaning and a colour.

East is often yellow, the colour of the rising sun. It is the beginning of a new day. On this first step the teaching is to experience a sunrise within ourselves. In Shin Buddhism we call this shinjin.
The South is often red, the colour of passion. It is both pain and pleasure, both wanting to do nothing and needing to do something. In Shin vocabulary it is the bonno (limitations) that makes us realize that we can depend on Amida’s Bodhisattva Vow.

The West is often deep blue or black. It is the colour of both the grave and the womb—both birth and death are the same pathway. This we call this ojo—going and being born into the world of awakening.

The North is white, the colour of the elders. For us the elders are the founders and teachers of our tradition. In Japanese they are called zenjishiki, good teacher friends. We respect them for their work, realizing that what we have today rests on their efforts.

Above are usually the sky beings—where the people since ancient times have thought the gods to dwell. We are taught here to respect all religions. Rennyo taught us that when we take refuge in Amida we naturally respect all divine beings and their traditions. We are both free of them and respectful of them at the same time. Although we honour them there is no need to worship them, since our lives are rooted in the Bodhisattva Vow.

Below is mother earth, as spiritual teachings worldwide have told us for centuries. In Buddhism there is a profound gratitude for Buddha’s mother, Maya, who sacrificed her life so a Buddha could be born on earth. Without her there would have been no Buddha. From her we learn about the sacrifice and love that make life worthwhile. This is the story in our chant the San-butsu-ge.

And finally we come to the seventh step—it is the step of inwardly directed mindfulness. It is the awareness that we need to awaken to the realities of our lives and the confidence that Buddha’s Way makes this awakening possible. For us it is the life of the Nembutsu.

Thus our understanding of the Seven Steps helps us see behind the myth and appreciate it as a beautiful at the same time. There are, to be sure, historically true elements imbedded in the myth, but it is the rich unspoken meanings of the story that ring true to us.

The best work so far for popular consumption is a little known book by Thich Nhat Hanh. It is titled Old Path White Clouds. It is a novel about the life of the Buddha, but at the end of the book Hanh gives the source of the information as he gleaned it from the Theravada Sutras. What we know about the Buddha is there, but put into a modern appealing story. Thus we develop our modern myth forms about one of the world’s greatest spiritual leaders.

So don’t worry about whether the story of Buddha’s birth is true or not. Just take those Seven Steps. Everyone is shaken up by the events in Japan. This is sympathetic response to the actual shaking of the earth, an inner earthquake to match the outer earthquake. This kind of identification is a normal reaction on our part.

Sensei Ulrich
April 24, 2011