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Saltwater Buddha

Part I: Leaving Home

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Part I
Leaving Home

While still young, a black-haired young man endowed with the blessing of youth, in the prime of life, though my mother and father wished otherwise and wept with tearful faces, I shaved off my hair and beard, put on the ochre robe, and went forth from the home life into homelessness.

— The Buddha

Indeed, one feels microscopically small, and the thought that one may wrestle with this sea raises in one’s imagination a thrill of apprehension, almost fear. Why, they are a mile long, these bull-mouthed monsters, and they weigh a thousand tons, and they charge into shore faster than a man can run. What chance? No chance at all, is the verdict of the shrinking ego.

— Jack London,
writing of waves and his first surf session

10

1. WHEN I WAS THREE, my dad got stationed at a U.S. airbase on the island of Terceira off the coast of Portugal. We flew there on a military cargo jet, ears plugged to soften the engine roar. We moved into a white adobe apartment above a shoe store where wool-sweatered men smoked cigars and stray dogs begged.

This was before my parents started fighting and years before their divorce, so there were four of us in the family. A round number, I often thought, a good number.

My older sister, Ciel, and I found endless satisfaction in the novelties of the island: the bullfights on cobblestone streets, the patchwork lava rock walls that quilted the hills, the serrated bluffs dotted with old fishermen, the spitting llamas. We adopted fourteen puppies and fed them oatmeal. We built forts out of mud. We climbed into the foggy hills and searched for wizards. Most of all, we loved the beach.

The praia — as we called it in an attempt to feel local — lay just down the street, a two-minute walk. We could always hear it and smell it. The beach was littered with trash; the wall at its border was stained in graffiti and urine. But the sand was soft and the ocean warmed by the Gulf Stream.

My dad taught us to body-surf. As a teenager, he’d been a surfer in New York (one of the brazen few who’d surfed Jones Beach in the winter in jeans and a 11wool sweater) and then in Hawaii while stationed on Oahu during the Vietnam War. He often told us nostalgic tales of big waves, near drowning, heroism. Then he taught us how to watch the waves, how to jump off the sand at just the right moment so the wave caught you in its grip like a baseball mitt and thrust you forward like a roller coaster.

I remember the Atlantic all inky black and rough like crumpled tinfoil. But the inner waves, the ones we rode, were an opaque brownish-green, full of silt and rubbery seaweed. The waves were frightening. But we felt safe with my dad. He could lift us up above the water, or keep us steady in the midst of strong currents.

When a good wave finally came, we laughed and shrieked. Then we turned and dove down the face, shutting our eyes tight, gripping each other’s hands.

Sufficiently tumbled, we jogged up to our big yellow blanket where Mom was usually reading a book. We warmed up. And then we talked about the islands together, told stories about their strangeness and magic.

Three years later, my dad got transferred again, this time to McClellan Air Force Base outside Sacramento, two hours from the nearest beach.

It wasn’t so bad in the valley. I made new friends. I got a BMX bike and a Variflex skateboard. Mom ran a daycare so there were always screaming kids to 12play with. Occasionally, the four of us went to the beach near San Francisco and talked about how nice it would be to live by the sea again, if only we could afford it. Maybe someday.

But we never could afford it. My parents divorced after a few years in suburbia. And so there were three of us — a different three every other weekend. Then the numbers of immediate family–members rotated: six, then four, then back to three. But it wasn’t weird. It was ordinary. We just grew up: soccer and swim team, keg-stands at the river, fireworks and football. It was a normal American upbringing. I can’t complain.

But the sea never left me. I couldn’t let go. Or it wouldn’t let go. Or both.

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2.

Dear family,

Please do not worry. I am somewhere in the world and I will call you when I get there. I had some dreams that led me to believe that I need a change and I could not make it here. I’m sorry. I took some money from Mom’s credit card and I apologize. I plan to pay it all back when I get settled.

I love you very much.

Jaimal     

BY THE TIME my mom found this note on my bedroom pillow, I was on a one-way flight to Hawaii. I was a junior in high school and had saved a few hundred bucks mowing lawns and selling old baseball cards. Added to the $900 I stole from my mom’s credit card (which I did eventually return), I had just enough to start a shiny new life in paradise.

On the ATA flight, movies of waterfalls and women in hula skirts readied us for the islands. And the further from land we flew, the more I felt the shackles of adolescence dissolving. I was reading a book about the Buddha’s life, which I knew quite a lot about having grown up with what you might call “New-Agey” parents. (Our home libraries could fill an East-West bookstore.) But I read it again because the Buddha’s story 14made me feel better about running away. I thought of myself as leaving home, much like Prince Siddhartha did, to discover truth.

Siddhartha’s story began like this. He was born a prince in present-day Nepal around 2,500 years ago. At his auspicious birth, a soothsayer told his parents that Siddhartha would become a great spiritual teacher and abandon his kingdom, or else he would conquer a vast stretch of land and be a powerful leader. His father wanted the latter, so he tried to shelter his son from the sufferings of the world — old age, sickness, death. He feared exposing the prince to suffering would push him to seek spiritual truth. So the king kept his son surrounded with beauty and youth within the palace and conned him into thinking the whole world was roses and immortality. Of course, Siddhartha, an unusually smart young man, soon realized that it was all a lie, and when he witnessed the real suffering outside the palace — corpses, leprosy, famine, and an ascetic renunciant — he was overwhelmed with compassion and he vowed to do something.

He probably had a hunch suffering arose in the mind and could also cease in the mind. But he wanted to find out for sure. He abandoned the kingdom, renouncing all its pleasures to become a wandering mendicant and focus on ending the suffering within.

15

I loved Siddhartha’s story. And miles above the Pacific, I thought about how similar the prince and I were. My parents, having rejected their native Catholicism and Judaism, had raised Ciel and me to go to Hindu temples, too. Born in my parents’ full-fledged hippie phase, I was even named after an Indian saint: Baba Jaimal Singh. And it couldn’t have been just coincidence (I thought) that my Lithuanian grandparents’ name was shortened to Yogis. I figured I was destined, like Siddhartha, for spiritual greatness.

By running away, all the elements were coming together. I was abandoning the pleasures of the palace. Okay, so I wasn’t running away because I was overwhelmed with compassion for all living beings, and our four-bedroom home in Sacramento was hardly a palace. But we did have a pool and a hot tub. And I figured that in modern America, most people lived with almost as many luxuries as the prince had 2,500 years ago. And I was giving up quite a bit: television, QUAD 102.5 radio jams, my friends. And just as Siddhartha was fed up with the cycle of birth and death, I was fed up with the endless cycle of suburban trivialities — especially my midnight curfew.

16

3. BEFORE I COULD CONTINUE living out my version of the Buddha’s story, I had to decide which of the seven islands I would settle on. Oahu sounded too Disneyland. The Big Island: too volcanic. I hadn’t heard anything about Kauai. I looked for a spiritual sign. The in-flight magazine said that Maui was the “Island of Love.” This conjured images of me on the beach with a Hawaiian Tropic model.

I went to Maui.

17

4. MY PARENTS CALLED THE POLICE:

“Our son ran away,” my mom cried.

“Uh-huh,” said the officer. “And how do you know this?”

“He left a note.”

“Uh-huh. Well, ma’am, we can’t pronounce him missing until he’s gone a week.”

“A week! He could be dead in a week.”

“Uh-huh. Well, if it’s any consolation, we see this all the time. He says he ran away to some far-off land, but he’s probably down the street playing video games at his friend’s house.”

“He doesn’t play video games.”

“Uh-huh…”

18

5. MY MAIN GOAL WAS TO LEARN TO SURF. There were, of course, subtexts to this: a struggle for independence; a rebellion against the deadness of suburbia; the first sparks of a spiritual path; a need to shock my parents, especially my dad, from whom I’d grown distant since the divorce.

But surfing trumped all. There had been dreams that needed answers: dreams of waves and surfboards and dolphins and coconuts and breathing underwater and swimming with a fishtail. I awoke from these dreams with a feeling of possibility — more than I could say about life in public high school.

I’d known for some time that I needed to get out of town, away from strip malls and SUVs and especially my friends. I had lots of friends and it’s not that they were bad guys. Most of us had grown up together. We all came from nice, middle-class families. We dressed in designer brands crossed with our hardcore skate gear: Think, Plan B, Shorty’s. We were popular kids with pretty girlfriends and we went to lots of parties. We drank only the best micro-brews, smoked only the best pot. My friends, all way wealthier than me, drove fancy new cars that we raced through suburban streets like life was something you could order in a catalogue.

I guess maybe it doesn’t sound so bad. And I guess it wasn’t. But deep down, we were bored. We complained about everything. We wrote ourselves fake parental notes and cut classes and drank ourselves 19into high-minded stupors. We vandalized things for no particular reason. We lied to our parents constantly because it didn’t matter. We acted like everything was okay. But really, I think we felt like the smog that blew in from the coasts and stagnated in the valley. We were stuck.

I always thought life under the valley haze was missing something. I felt too that something got clarified when I went to the coast or up to the snowy peaks. But then I would descend into the haze again — and forget.

I had been in a rebellious phase since the divorce. It began with pyromania (mostly blowing up action figures and Barbie dolls) and concluded with my parents picking me up at a Lake Tahoe police station, drunk and handcuffed to a wooden chair after being arrested for driving drunk.

This, the most recent “big trouble” I’d gotten myself into, began a six-month probation sentence. And my parents reacted as most parents would, withdrawing the only tidbits of freedom I still had, which only made me more restless.

I knew I needed to make changes but didn’t feel strong enough around my peers, who all seemed determined to make their lives into a twisted after-school special. So I sought sanctuary in the only thing that still seemed open, malleable, and out of reach of the authorities: my dreams of water.

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6. THE MAUI AIRPORT SMELLED OF JASMINE, plumerias, and fresh grass clippings. Don Ho played over the speakers: “tiny bubbles, tiny bubbles, in the wine, in the wine.” The air was like silk, no, like rose-water — warm dew.

I collected my bags and giggled, thinking about my new life and freedom. But freedom — I was about to find out — isn’t all that fun when you’re broke with no car.

I had brought with me these things: a bodyboard, a boom box, a case of CDs, a skateboard, a backpacking pack, a tent, a guitar, a sleeping bag, a skimboard, three pairs of shoes, a duffel bag of clothes, books (Michener’s Hawaii, The Teachings of Don Juan, The Tao Te Ching, The Old Man and the Sea, The Dharma Bums, Moby Dick, and Siddhartha), and a small metal Buddha statue my dad had brought back from Japan.

After all, I was moving.

Without a car, going anywhere with all this stuff proved impossible. So I bought a mountain bike for $100, which, in fact, made it more impossible. As I pushed my duffel bags on my skateboard and dragged the rest behind me on the pavement, tripping every few steps, the Buddha’s teachings — “attachment causes suffering” — started to make literal sense.

But I had enough money to buy one cab ride to a nearby campground.

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“Traveling alone?” the cabbie asked with a relaxed Hawaiian lounge-singer smile.

“Something like that.”

“Best way, brah. Aloooo-ha.”

“I hope so.”

As night fell, I realized I didn’t have food. Or a flashlight. Rain poured down as I assembled the tent, soaking my pile of stuff, which suddenly seemed beyond superfluous. The rain poured harder and the more it poured the more I cried. I bawled. I prayed. The rain washed my salty tears into the sand. The world suddenly seemed very cruel.

And the night was dark.

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7. THE SUN ROSE EARLY. I awoke to the scent of guava and the sound of the tide lispingly slurping pebbles. The salt air pried open my lungs. The morning sea was blue: indigo blue, teal blue, metallic blue. I had really made it: I was in Hawaii. And the world was hopeful again, supportive.

I rode my skateboard down the rutted road to Lahaina, a tourist town where vacationers drank gaudy fruit drinks on their hotel verandas. I ate a four-dollar bran muffin and sat under a banyan and thought about what I should do.

There is surf in Lahaina, but the day I arrived, the horizon was dead flat. I checked the newspaper and all the rooms for rent were unaffordable, the hotels more so. I knew from watching surf films that I had to make it to the north shore, the surfer’s mecca during the winter swells. But how? Bike? With all my stuff?

The world began to seem cruel and hopeless again.

“Help,” I cried to an unknown god, confused and desperate. “Please.”

23

8. I MUST HAVE LOOKED DESPERATE too because, wandering through town past all the damn happy kids with their nice rich (not-divorced) parents, a friendly stranger approached me:

“You lost?”

“You could say that.”

“What are you looking for?”

“Well, a lot of stuff. But cheap rent and good surf to start.”

“Oh, Paia, man. You gotta go to Paia.”

“Are you going?” I asked, thinking at him as loudly as I could: Please, please offer me a ride.

“Nah. Too many hippies out there. I’m on vacation with the wife and kids. But it’s just on the other side of the island.”

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9. Just on the other side of the island. If he only knew. But I took his advice as an answer to my prayers. And so began my consecutive forty-mile roundtrip bike-rides, ferrying my stuff in batches to the other side of the island. My strategy wasn’t elaborate. On each trip, I brought with me a new item. The move took several days and made my knees feel like rusting bolts. But it did force me to let go of some attachments, or, I suppose, exactly one attachment: my skimboard. I gave it to a young Hawaiian boy on a beach near the campground.

“Oh, fo’ real, cuz?” the boy said when I handed it to him.

And he ran to show his friends.

25

10. ON MY FINAL JOURNEY, I pedaled through the Dole pineapple fields: miles of spiky little shrubs that hadn’t yet borne fruit. Unfortunately, I had no idea what a ripe pineapple looked like (at the time, I thought they grew under the ground like a potato) so, parched, sun-stroked, sweat-caked, and hauling a backpack full of books and the metal Buddha, I stopped and tried to pick one with my bare hands. Of course, as anyone who has ever tried to uproot a pineapple plant would know, the thing wouldn’t budge an inch.

Dirty, angry, and pineapple-less, I groaned the rest of the way through sugar cane fields until I arrived in the land that at this point might as well have been Zion.

Paia was everything I’d imagined. Women with hairy armpits and long skirts roamed mural-lined streets dotted with hemp shops and surf stores. Bearded backpackers played hacky-sack at the bus stop; rusted station wagons bumped over pot-holes; a man with beads in his hair and a nose ring the size of a tennis ball sold beaten travel guides to Bali, Tahiti, Samoa, and Fiji for three bucks each.

“The journey is the destination, man,” he said, as I walked by.

“Don’t remind me,” I said. “You don’t know what I went through to get here.”

“Right on, man. Keep truckin’.”

26

That day, for $250 per month, I found a plain bedroom in a beach shack where some Australian windsurfers were living — which is to say passing their days windsurfing, watching cartoons, and drinking a hell of a lot of beer. They were friendly, though. One of them agreed to be my “parent/guardian” so I could sign up at the local high school. “Totally,” he said when I suggested the plan to him. I had known him for all of thirty minutes.

The landlord of the beach shack lived there, too. He was a wiry Vietnam veteran who grew pot in the backyard and looked like an emaciated version of Egon from Ghostbusters. “You sure you’re eighteen?” he kept asking, bloodshot eyes squinting behind thick glasses. “I don’t want the authorities coming after me.”

“I just look young,” I assured him.

“Well, I like that you’re on a spiritual journey,” he said, looking at the Carlos Castaneda book I was reading. “Don Juan changed my life.”

I smiled. From the looks of him, the book hadn’t worked too many miracles. And I didn’t tell him that I thought Castaneda was a bit of a crackpot, or that I was on a journey away from intoxicants.

But his comment was a nice gesture.

And the place was all I could afford.

27

11. AFTER I PAID MY RENT and bought some extremely expensive organic groceries — all you could find in town — I had about two hundred dollars left over for survival. So I spent one hundred of them on a 6’6” shortboard. Technically, one should learn to surf on a longboard, but I was far too cool for that. I was an obsessive skater and snowboarder and I figured I would be an absolutely ripping surfer within a few weeks, chumming it up with Kelly Slater and Sunny Garcia by the year’s end.

At the surf shop, I tried to play the erudite board connoisseur, employing the lingo I’d learned from Surfer magazine. “I want something I can really whip around,” I told the shop-owner. “Something with thin rails and a lot of rocker.” The owner looked at me (white boy, no tan) suspiciously. “Um, yeah, this is Christian Fletcher’s old board,” he said, referencing a god-like pro surfer whose poster was pinned up on my bedroom wall back in Sacramento. “It split in the middle, but the repair job is good. Pretty snappy.”

For me, this was the surfer equivalent of an aspiring golfer finding Tiger Wood’s old clubs at a garage sale.

“Okay,” I said, feigning flippancy. “Sure.”

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12. FROM THAT POINT ON, with the exception of a nice mom donating a whole pizza to me while I was sitting on the beach (I must have looked hungry), I had to pick pineapples (not barehanded) and avocados to get any food. I consoled myself by noting the uncanny resemblance between my story and Prince Siddhartha’s. My road to sagehood was going according to plan.

Once he left the palace, Siddhartha encountered various meditation teachers and quickly surpassed them in wisdom and skill. Siddhartha saw that these masters were still attaching to certain states of mind and were thus still caught up in the cycle of endless suffering: samsara, as it was called in Sanskrit. So he decided to push harder. He hung out with die-hard ascetics for six years, fasting, eating only seeds and roots, and denying himself any healthy sustenance or pleasure. His fasting was so severe that his ribs bulged from his back like a Spanish-tiled rooftop; skin hung off his bones like tinsel. He was near to death — and he realized that even were he to die, it wouldn’t much help him end his suffering. (At the time, just about everyone in the area believed in reincarnation so dying would’ve meant starting over, and maybe as a monkey or a grasshopper.) Eventually, after much time, the prince concluded there was nothing liberating about malnutrition, and he took real food again: a bowl of rice and milk.

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I had only spent a few days on my diet of pineapples and avocados but I was already having a similar insight. I broke down and spent ten of my last hundred dollars on enchiladas.

Though Hawaii is not known for its Mexican food, those were the best enchiladas I’ve ever eaten.

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13. IMMEDIATELY AFTER PURCHASING the shortboard (who knows if it really was Fletcher’s?), I walked up the road to a sandy break in town. Coming up the path wearing the closest things I had to surf trunks — I think they were basketball shorts — I could hear it: the repetitive smack and gurgle of big surf. My chest pounded with giddiness.

And then I saw what I had come for: the North Shore. It wasn’t the north shore of the movies I’d watched dozens of times, the one teeming with pro surfers and full of legendary breaks: Pipeline, Sunset, and Off the Wall. That’s on Oahu. But to me, it might as well have been.

The waves crashed and spit and spun. Perfect lines of blue folded over into turquoise walls. Young, tanned surfers skimmed along, spraying peacock tails of water behind them. Some teenage girls in bikinis played smashball on the beach. I tried to flex a little when they looked up at me. They went back to their game.

I jogged into the warm water, unaware that learning on this board on these waves would be like learning to ski on superfast skis on my way down a double black diamond slope. Though if someone had told me, I would’ve ignored the warning. Tiger sharks could’ve been circling the break and I would’ve gone out, dammit. I had waited eleven freaking years for this.

31

As a high school water polo player, I was a fairly strong swimmer. But no amount of pool calisthenics could have prepared me for learning to surf on Maui’s north shore in winter. The sea was hungry, and the currents sucked at my ankles.

I lay down on my surfboard and paddled for the horizon, digging my hands in with a big grin. But no sooner had I made a few strokes out then a wall of white foam socked me and sent me flipping backward.

I aimed a smile at the bikini girls.

“Unlucky entry point,” I muttered. But when I paddled back out at another point, the same thing happened again — and then again, and then again.

I noticed some of the locals laughing at me — yet another kook, as Hawaiians call amateur mainlanders, invading their precious space.

I shrugged off the taunts. I was sure it wouldn’t take me long. And I did learn something after a dozen or so times through the washing machine: once hit, struggling only made it worse. Fighting against a wave, I lost all my breath. But if I softened and then surfaced when it let me go, I saved my energy.

32

14. I WAS FRUSTRATED. I wasn’t used to being so bad at a sport. I sat on the beach staring at the waves: they had looked so soft and feathery moments ago, now they looked like impenetrable walls, like frothing monsters.

I knew that I needed to learn to duckdive, a maneuver in which the surfer presses the entire board a few feet beneath the surface to get under the oncoming surge — but it’s not exactly intuitive how to shove a thing buoyant enough to support one’s weight under a freight train of rushing water. I pushed down the nose of the board with all my might and the back of the board popped out. Physics. So I tried to jam the back down using my knee or foot, but the nose jutted up. It didn’t help that when my eyes met an enormous wave that was about to pound me my brain sent a paralyzing message to my limbs. My eyes squeezed shut and I froze like a cat in a tree.

I spent hours each day at that break, most of it choking on saltwater. Once in a while, there would be a lull and I would make it out with the other surfers — only to realize that I didn’t want to be there. I could barely sit on the board (the standard position for waiting for waves) and if I couldn’t sit on it, there wasn’t a chance I was going to stand on the thing riding down a vertical liquid wall.

Nonetheless, around the third day, I got it. I really got it. One of the biggest waves I had ever encountered 33reared in front of me — snarling. I can’t tell you how big because even small waves seemed three stories tall during this learning period. (They were probably about three feet.) At any rate, it looked hopeless. The lip plunged toward me, but surprisingly, I didn’t freeze. I kept my eyes on the clarity of the water. I pushed the nose of my board under, deep. I crammed the tail of the board down with my knee as if I was trying to force open a locked door. I braced myself. But it was as if the impenetrable wall had melted; my board submerged and I was sucked down, under, and through — effortlessly. I popped up on the other side, turning my head from side to side. Why wasn’t I ten feet back in the other direction?

And that’s when it all kind of clicked. There was a way, a method that worked. The walls were not impenetrable. I realized in that moment that all the initial poundings had scarred me, in a way. I had known intellectually that if I did this duckdiving thing right, it was possible to get through even very big waves. But I’d started believing I couldn’t do it. And so I couldn’t.

But now I had experienced it.

And I knew.

34

15. YEARS LATER, an oceanography professor taught me how to better understand what these strange walls of water actually were.

Waves begin with wind blowing on the surface of the water, which creates ripples. Those ripples become like little sails that catch more of the wind’s force and transfer it into bigger ripples. The bigger lumps eventually garner speed and spread out, turning into swell.

The swells move through the sea in a complex spiraling motion that gives them “feelers” or “legs.” When a swell moves through shallow water (approximately only twice as deep as the swell is tall) those feelers touch the reef, sandbar, or rocks, and the swirling energy “trips.” The top of the swell continues at the original velocity while the bottom part stops short, causing the swell to heave up and over itself and pitch into a breaking wave.

The theatrical performance creates the illusion of a fixed entity, a “wave” made of water, which has traveled miles to its destination. But really, the wave is a domino effect of energy, a series of causes and conditions. In essence, the wave is the memory of wind energy transferring between water molecules. Very little water is actually moving. A wave is at once real (real enough to pound rocks to sand) and completely different in every second. Though the wave is definitely real, and appears solid, it is also something of an illusion. (Jumping ahead a little bit, I could also 35add that our bodies are like these waves, as the molecules that make them up constantly shift and change over time — and the idea that there’s a single solid and persisting entity called “me” is a similar illusion.)

When I duckdove that wave, I was capitalizing on two basic principles: a wave is spinning energy, and water is porous. I was able read those principles (the wave’s latent identity as something changing and permeable) and react correctly (duckdive through it), rather than read its appearance (sea monster!) and get thumped.

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16. IN MY GRANDIOSE WAY, I figured my duckdiving insight was kind of like Prince Siddhartha’s first big step toward enlightenment: a micro-version, but still, a step in the right direction. After hanging with the ascetics, Siddhartha was frustrated: “By this racking practice of austerities I have not attained any superhuman distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones. Could there be another path to enlightenment?” Seeking other avenues, he finally discovered the middle way and accepted an offering of food from a village girl. The curmudgeonly ascetics called him a cheater. With newfound strength from nourishment, Siddhartha resolved to end suffering once and for all. He vowed to sit under a bo tree in lotus posture and not get up until he had seen through suffering and its causes. It is said that while he was deep in meditation, Mara, the demon king, tried to distract the prince from his samadhi, his meditative focus, creating grand illusions: armies of darkness to scare him and fair maidens to tempt him. But Siddhartha was undeterred. He touched the earth and said, “With the earth as my witness. I am not moved by the demons.”

Who knows what Siddhartha saw the night of his enlightenment? But he came out of the whole experience in awe: “Wonder of wonders!” he declared under the bo tree...

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