When I sought the historical Buddha in the Nikāya texts, I was troubled by my inability to accept the cosmology in those texts. I see no reason to reject the evidence that the Nikāya Buddha believed in rebirth. However, since I have looked on these texts as a huge, collective literary endeavour, I have found it much easier to extract the honey from sentences such as the following (in the Sutta of Conveying the Nature of Reality): “Immovable is my freedom. This is my last birth. Now there is no cycle of becoming.”

When I look upon these texts as reflecting something about human experience, then I’m curious about that experience, and not about what the texts say about the ultimate status of the so-called physical universe. I don’t care for that. Don’t I know where to find ‘birth’? Don’t these texts show me where to find birth, death and liberation? It’s in human experiencing.

The Nikāya Buddha wanted to find a way out of an unsatisfying continuity of experiencing. Haven’t I, too, found myself in unsatisfactory cycles of becoming – the same old, same old? Haven’t I, too, found myself asking the kind of questions that the Nikāya Buddha asked at the beginning of his quest: “There must surely be more to this? Is there a life-affirming inner end to psychological pain? What is this?”

When I first understood that I couldn’t be a believer in rebirth (at least, not in its traditional form), I committed myself to interpreting these texts as documents regarding the liberation of experiencing, documents of self-evident sophistication. The dynamics of mind evident in their theory of dukkha was enough to make me want to stick at it – the ancient culture with its patriarchal views, notwithstanding.

That was possibly about forty-five years ago, and my intuition was rewarded. The Buddhist way has provided valuable tools for dissolving layer upon layer of habitual protection of false ways of being; to gradually come to trust an open, spacious, groundless ground. (The Nikāya Buddha describes himself and other tathāgatas as ‘traceless, like the sky.’)

Perhaps one way to express the core of the path which is offered by this teaching is that it involves the development of personal responsibility to the extent that you are willing to inhabit your experiential space, alone – without a second.

We must be diligent today.
To wait till tomorrow is too late.
Death comes unexpectedly.
How can we bargain with it?
The sage calls a person who
dwells in mindfulness
night and day
‘the one who knows
the better way to live alone.’

Bhaddekaratta Sutta (MN131), translated by Thich Nhat Hanh, in Our Appointment with Life: Sutra on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone.

To do that you necessarily undertake the humiliation of recognition of delusion in yourself and responsibility for the harm that has flowed from your delusions. It’s no wonder that this path has engendered so much respect throughout the centuries; yet, without producing any radical transformation in the societies which have taken it up. (In today’s world, we can’t call Sri Lanka, Thailand, or Burma exemplars of the Buddhist way – all of them with appalling human rights records.) Most people admire the saint, without wanting to go all the way with her.

What am I saying? I’m saying the wheel of birth and death – the stranglehold of materialistic personality – is very hard to escape. Our dukkha involves the interplay of ignorance, unconscious shaping factors, consciousness, identity, sense domains, contact, feeling tones, craving, grasping, and becoming; resulting in ignorant conceptions of birth, old age, sickness and death, which in turn feed back into that dynamic mesh. It’s no wonder that the Nikāya Buddha is portrayed, in the days after his enlightenment, sitting on the banks of a river, saying (more or less): “This is deep, subtle, difficult to see. Surely it would be vexatious to try and communicate this to people addicted to sense pleasures.”

However, here is the key: Dukkha is fabricated out of the experiential space. You and I have that always – in our living, which includes in our dying. Always, it’s all there is for us. And, dukkha is derived, not basic. The reason that the Nikāya Buddha can withstand Mara under the Bodhi tree is that he trusted his experiential space. He found that Mara is not real and is way less dependable than the Earth, which, on that night of his enlightenment, he called upon as a witness to his right to inhabit his experiential space absolutely. You and I have that Earth available, too.

Hence, the two fundamental meditation texts in this teaching – the Sutta of Breathing in and Out and the Mindfulness Sutta – establish the meditative endeavour has beginning in and flowering in the body – with the support of the earth element. This is the spirit reflected in: “Immovable is my freedom.”