Is it possible that the Buddha achieved his “enlightenment” as the result of a stroke?
This possibility first struck me last week while listening to a Radiolab program on language. The program included a segment with Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, the neuroanatomist who so famously suffered a stroke and recovered. Her TED talk about it is immensely popular, as is her book, My Stroke of Insight.
During her Radiolab interview she said the following about her experience:
Although there are many forms of Buddhism, one of the main tenets is not only a search for peace, but doing so in a way that connects someone to everything. In Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions he describes tanha, the second of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths, as consisting “of all ‘those inclinations which tend to continue or increase separateness, the separate existence of the subject of desire; in face, all forms of selfishness, the essence of which is desire for self at the expense, if necessary, of all other forms of life. Life being one, all that tends to separate one aspect from another must cause suffering to the unit which even unconsciously works against the Law.'” (Smith is quoting Travers Christmas Humphreys, who published many writings on Buddhism.)
“I had found a peace inside of myself that I had not known before. I had pure silence inside of my mind. Pure silence. You know, you wake up in the morning and the first thing your brain says is ‘Aw, man, the sun is shining.’ Well, imagine that you don’t hear that little voice saying ‘Man, the sun is shining.’ You just experience the sun and the shining. It was all of the present moment. I had joy … I had this magnificent experience of ‘I’m this collection of these beautiful cells; I’m organic.’ I lost all definition of myself in relationship to everything in the external world.”
The First Noble Truth is that life is painful and consists of suffering because “somehow life has become estranged from reality, and this estrangement precludes real happiness until it is overcome.”
Smith goes on to tell us why, according to Buddhism, we suffer. In part, he writes:
“Instead of linking our faith and love and destiny to the whole, we persist in strapping these to the puny burros of our separate selves, which are certain to stumble and give out eventually. Coddling our individual identities, we lock ourselves inside ‘our skin-encapsulated egos’ (Alan Watts), and seek fulfillment through their intensification and expanse. Fools to suppose that imprisonment can bring release!”
Many do not know that when the Buddha, his full name being Siddhartha Gautama of the Sakyas, famously achieved “enlightenment” while sitting under a tree, he had previously tried learning from Hindu masters and from a group of ascetics. Both of these “paths” lacked what he was seeking. And, if the stories are at all true, his time with the ascetics would have weakened him physically because they had him eating very little (“six grains of rice a day during one of his fasts”). Among other physical tests, he also ‘would hold his breath until it felt ‘as if a strap were being twisted around my head.'”
So, when he began to meditate on his own under the now famous Bo tree it is likely that his physical condition was not all it could be. Smith describes his eventual breakthrough to enlightenment as follows:
“Gautama’s meditation deepened through watch after watch until … his mind pierced at last the bubble of the universe and shattered it to naught, only, wonder of wonders, to find it miraculously restored with the effulgence of true being.”
Nirvana, the named used by the Buddha as “life’s goal,” as he now saw it, Smith describes as “the highest destiny of the human spirit and its literal meaning is extinction, but we must be precise as to what is to be extinguished. It is the boundaries of the finite self. It does not follow that what is left will be nothing. Negatively, nirvana is the state in which … private desire[s] have been completely consumed and everything that restricts the boundless life has died. Affirmatively, it is the boundless life itself.”
To summarize, the goal, if you will, of the lessons taught in the Buddhist tradition is to get rid of what makes us see ourselves as individuals. That, added to a list of other tenets and years of meditation and work, brings an ultimate kind of peace. It sounds a lot like what Taylor said about her experience during her stroke when she claimed that “I had joy … I had this magnificent experience of ‘I’m this collection of these beautiful cells; I’m organic.’ I lost all definition of myself in relationship to everything in the external world.”
To add to the anecdotal “evidence” in exploring this idea of a stroke being the cause of the Buddha’s achievement, let’s turn to those who have climbed Mt. Everest, the world’s tallest mountain. When ascending the 29,029 ft. peak, most climbers must carry supplemental oxygen. The air at that altitude is dangerously thin, with only about 1/3 the amount of oxygen available at sea level. Even those few people who have climbed the mountain without aid of supplemental oxygen can’t spend much time at the higher altitudes without eventually suffering from a whole host of possible ailments which can result in death.
Ronald Messner, the first person to climb Everest without oxygen, wrote in his book The Crystal Horizon the following about the result of the physical stress and lack of oxygen as he reached the peak:
“When I rest I feel utterly lifeless except that my throat burns when I draw breath … I can scarcely go on. No despair, no happiness, no anxiety. I have not lost the mastery of my feelings, there are actually no more feelings. I consist only of will. After each few metres this too fizzles out in unending tiredness. Then I think nothing. I let myself fall, just lie there. For an indefinite time I remain completely irresolute. Then I make a few steps again.”
Jon Krakauer in his book “Into Thin Air,” chronicling his 1996 trip to the top of Everest, wrote the following about one of the times when he ran out of supplemental oxygen:
The literature of Everest is rife with accounts of hallucinatory experiences attributable to hypoxia and fatigue. In 1933, the noted English climber Frank Smythe observed ‘two curious looking objects floating in the sky’ directly above him at 27,000 feet: ‘[One] possessed what appeared to be squat underdeveloped wings, and the other a protuberance suggestive of a beak. They hovered motionless but seemed slowly to pulsate.’ In 1980, during his solo ascent, Reinhold Messner imagined that an invisible companion was climbing beside him. Gradually, I became aware that my mind had gone haywire in a similar fashion, and I observed my own slide from reality with a blend of fascination and horror.
I was so far beyond ordinary exhaustion that I experienced a queer detachment from my body, as if I were observing my descent from a few feet overhead. I imagined that I was dressed in a green cardigan and wingtips. And although the gale was generating a windchill in excess of seventy below zero Fahrenheit, I felt strangely, disturbingly warm.
When the brain interprets the world surrounding the body in which it is encased that job is affected by all manner of forces and influences, among them being the lack of vital oxygen. It is so important, in fact, that only a few minutes need pass before permanent damage begins. During times when the brain is still “functional” but without the necessary source of the energy it needs to maintain normalcy, the output will not be normal either.
It’s probably never going to be possible to know if the Buddha suffered a stroke. He wrote nothing himself and the earliest writings we have are from about 150 years after he died. But, from the descriptions of the philosophy and religion he left behind, along with the stories that people tell about his life, maybe he did suffer a stroke which he interpreted as somehow a divine experience.