Buddha had it easy. He was not distracted by television, the internet, news of disasters in foreign lands, or the latest shenanigans of stars and politicians. He did not need to return phone calls, respond to the emails piling up in his inbox, or catch up with the latest tweets and Facebook postings. He did not have to work at a job in order to pay the bills. He was not worried by stock market woes, radiation leaks, climate change, or bank failures. His mind was not ceaselessly buzzing with the dull roar of traffic, muzak, and ever-present electrical hum. He was not bombarded by seductive advertisements telling him he lacked this or that and could not be happy till he had them. He was not embedded in a culture which sought at every turn to focus his attention on having or doing the right things, filling his mind with unnecessary thoughts and invented needs.
Yet his path was hard. Growing up, the only spiritual advice he had was from Vedic priests who advocated elaborate rituals and sacrifices as the path to salvation. He had to leave home and spend years wandering through the forests and villages of northern India searching for spiritual guides. And those of any help were few and far between. The spiritual pioneers of the time were just beginning to realize that spiritual liberation came from within rather than some or other deity. But how to free the mind? He tried everything available, studying with the best teachers he could find, even adopting austerity to the point where he nearly died of starvation. But in the end had to work it out for himself. And when he did he came to the then radical realization that it is our attachment to our ideas of how things should be that keeps us apart from our true nature.
Today we have it so much easier. We can reap the benefit of Buddha’s discoveries—and of the many sages who augmented his teachings with their own discoveries, leading to the rich lineages of Tibetan, Zen, and Theravadan Buddhism. We can learn from the wealth of other Indian philosophies that have evolved over the centuries, from Taoist teachings, Sufi traditions, and Western mystics. Not only do we have the benefit of all those years of spiritual enquiry in so many cultures, we can access the wisdom of the many awakened ones alive today. We can go sit at their feet, read their words, listen to recordings, watch videos or live streams on the internet. We also have advances in psychology, neuroscience, chemistry, and biology to help us on our way. Most significantly, we are distilling the diverse expressions of this perennial wisdom into a common understanding. Stripping away the trappings of time and culture, we are collectively discovering, as Buddha did for himself, that the essence of awakening is simply letting go of our preconceptions and judgments, returning our attention to the present moment, and there recognizing our true nature.
In short, it is becoming easier and easier to awaken, while our times conspire to make it harder and harder. How do they balance out? Overall, is it any easier or any harder than 2,500 years ago? Who knows? But we can shift the balance in our favor by being ever watchful against the distractions, and taking advantage of today’s growing wealth of spiritual wisdom.