In "The Bear" by William Faulkner, a boy is hunting a great bear, one that hunters have chased for years but never succeeded in killing, a mammoth creature that is rarely seen and never caught. He searches and searches for the bear, to no avail. His mentor is Sam, son of a black slave and a Chickasaw chief. “It’s him again,” Sam said. “You will have to choose.” So the next day the boy leaves his gun back at the camp and enters the great woods with only a compass, a watch, and a stick against snakes.
He had left the gun; "by his own will and relinquishment he had accepted not a gambit, not a choice, but a condition in which all the ancient rules and balances of hunter and hunted had been abrogated."
But nine hours later he still has not seen even a trace of the bear:
". . . The leaving of the gun was not enough. He sat for a moment—a child, alone and lost in the green and soaring gloom of the markless wilderness. Then he relinquished completely to it. It was the watch and the compass. He was still tainted. He removed the linked chain of the one and the looped thong of the other from his overalls and hung them on a bush and leaned the stick beside them and entered it."
Without his compass he gets lost in the woods. So he backtracks even as the afternoon wears down and it gets dark, and in the end he finds the compass and the watch, and right near them—the bear.
I think of this story when it comes to the Buddha’s search for enlightenment, and my own search, too, for that experience of oneness, of something not defined by the dualities and judgments of my regular life. Today is my birthday, and many years ago Joan Halifax told me that on my birthday I should always call my mother and thank her because of the struggle and pain she endured on this day so that I could have life. I am not sure that this is that struggle, but there is a great deal of loss on the journey to enlightenment.
The Buddha lost his family, his palace and position in the world, and became a sanyassin. This may seem glamorous to us here, but when I spent a little time in India near Arunachala, Ramana Maharshi’s mountain, I saw a lot of sanyassins doing pilgrimage in the monsoon season. Scrawny and barely clothed, they were wet, muddy, and dirty all the time. I was told that many of them had emotional or mental difficulties and had been thrown out by their families to fend for themselves. But the Buddha became a sanyassin, and after he accepted a little food from a young girl his friends, fellow seekers, also left him. So first he lost his family, and then he lost his sangha. And even after this loss he still had not found what he was seeking, like the boy who had not found the bear.
So he said: I am going to sit here now and not get up till I have found what I am looking for. Now the site of the bodhi tree where he sat is a big shrine and place of pilgrimage, like Arunachala, but then it was like any other place. He could have said: I am going to sit at 75 Amherst Road in Leverett, where we are now, or 98 Ripley Road in Montague, my home; it could have been your address or any address at all. He didn’t say: I will wait till I get there—some special place—and then I will sit. Like the boy, he let go of the compass, the instrument that directs us in a particular direction and helps us find a destination. He simply said: Here.
And when would he do this? Now. Not later. Not after more years of study. Not once he retired, not after he accomplished this or that, or met another teacher. Now. He let go of the clock, the inexorable watch, the mechanism that tells us time and which we use to direct our lives. I am sitting here and now. He let go of the two things that were left to him: place and time, destination and timeframe.
I think about me and the many times I say: When I finish this book then I will really -– [fill in the blank]. When I retire I will really -- . When the winter is over I will really -- . This is the place now. Enlightenment is here and now. There is no problem with time and destinations; in the end the boy found the bear right by his compass and watch. But he had to let go of them first, he had to lose his fear of being without them, of getting lost.
What did the Buddha say when he awakened? I and the entire universe are enlightened as we are. That’s another way of saying: Here and now is the place of enlightenment. This is the place now. Whatever I am doing, wherever I am, here and now is great enlightenment.