Gautama Buddha
Born 563 B.C.
Died 483 B.C. (Approximate Dates)

Buddha was born a privileged prince named Siddhartha Gautama in Nepal. He lived a luxurious life with his wife, Princess Yasodhara, till the age of twenty-nine, when he realized he’d never stepped foot outside the palace gates and might actually like to take a look around. Seeing poverty and death for the first time, he began to wonder not only how the other half lives, but how to attain a state beyond birth, death, or even desire. (If it were me, I would have run back inside to the grand buffet.)

Leaving the palace behind, he dabbled for six years in meditation, extreme asceticism, and self-mortification, rejecting them all for moderation. After one particular stint of mind-blowing contemplation under a tree, he attained Enlightenment, and became known simply as the Buddha. His spiritual awakening gave him brilliant insight into the nature and cause of human suffering, and a knowledge of how to become happy. The Buddha’s goal, then, was to teach his new philosophy to the masses -- or at least a few good men along the road.

The aim of Buddhism is to attain true enlightenment, or nirvana: a peaceful state where the individual is free from desire and self-consciousness. Passed down by oral tradition for hundreds of years after his death, Buddha (whose name literally means “enlightened one” or “awakened one”) had a message of love as the eternal rule, common sense, and focusing the mind on the present moment. For the last fifty years of his life, Buddha spread the word through out India to pretty much anyone who would listen: nobles, outcasts, common folk, and leaders of other religious faiths. His philosophy was open to all, and he made thousands of converts during his travels.

The largest concentration of Buddhists in the world today resides in eastern Asia. In India, Hinduism has absorbed many of Buddha’s ideas, and many Muslims believe Siddhartha is a prophet of Islam. Point being, there’s plenty of Buddha to go around . . . In fact, estimates put followers at around four hundred million, making Buddhism the sixth largest religion on the planet.

Michael Stusser: I gotta say, you are one happy fella.

Buddha: And for good reason: All that we are is the result of what we have thought. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves.

MS: That explains why my back is killin’ me, huh?

B: Those who are free of resentful thoughts surely find peace.

MS: Speaking of peace, what do you think of all the statues and key chains and T-shirts of you in hipster gift shops?

B: If they bring about spiritual enlightenment, I’m happy to be the icon for self-reflection.

MS: But did you see the Buddha tankini from Victoria’s Secret?

B: So long as it is not toilet paper, I am at peace.

[There is a long, awkward silence. Two more hours pass.]

MS: Ever hear of the band Nirvana?

B: A band of enlightened brothers?

MS: No, a hard-rock group from Seattle.

B: I have many devoted followers in Seattle.

MS: Try and make ’em give up coffee, we’ll see how long they stay enlightened.

B: Teach this triple truth to all: A generous heart, kind speech, and a life of service and compassion are the things which renew humanity.

MS: Point well-taken. Say, odd question, perhaps, but are you a god?

B: I consider myself a guide -- a teacher. But try and understand that there is no intermediary between mankind and the divine. People create distinctions out of their own minds and then believe them to be true. In the sky, for example, there is no distinction between east and west.

MS: Let’s say I wanted to take a beginner’s Buddhism class. Where would I start?

B: The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, nor to worry about the future, but to live the present moment wisely and earnestly.

MS: To be honest, I’m thinking about all the errands I need to run this weekend. I’ve got this bum lawnmower that --

B: Focus here, young man. The quiet. The tea before you. The sun as it streams into this room.

MS: But so much of your focus is on suffering. You’re like a Jewish mother . . .

B: Think of the suffering as identifying the disease. First we diagnose the problem, and more importantly, we prescribe the cure.

MS: More suffering?

B: Now it is you who are kvetching like a Jewish bubbe. The road that leads out of suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path.

MS: All right, give ’em to me.

B: The Eightfold Path: proper understanding, proper thought, proper speech, proper action, proper livelihood, proper effort, proper mindfulness, and proper concentration.

MS: I’m sorry, what was that last one?

B: Proper concentra -- HA! A joke from a young mind. This is a beautiful example of proper effort, but your understanding is faulty. This will take time.

MS: So the Buddha goes into a pizza shop and says, “Make me one with everything.”

[There is a long pause. Like, painfully long.]

MS: As a prince, you had it all. Your father, King Suddhodana, even arranged a marriage to a wonderful gal. But you left it all behind. Why?

B: At the age of twenty-nine I finally looked beyond the walls of the palace. There I saw the four sights.

MS: An old crippled guy, a diseased dude, a decayed, nasty corpse, and an ascetic, right?

B: The truth of life: that death, disease, age, and pain are inescapable. Poor outnumber the wealthy, and the pleasures of the rich eventually come to nothing.

MS: That is deep. Though I’m not sure if I saw these things I’d leave all my possessions -- and inheritance -- to become a monk.

B: You may or may not choose to walk in my footsteps. Remember that thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.

MS: Apparently -- Buddhas crop up like weeds. Some say you’re the seventh Buddha, others the twenty- fifth, and maybe the fourth. Which are ya?

B: The incarnation of a Buddha begins long before his birth, and continues moons beyond his death. In fact, millions of lives have walked the Bodhisattva path on the road to nirvana. If you want a number, simply pick one, and I’ll wear it on the back of my Buddha uniform.

MS: OK, more importantly, who’s the next one?

B: Like I’d tell you. I can share this: His name will be Maitreya, and he’ll appear after Shakyamuni’s teachings have disappeared from the world.

MS: Yeah, that helps. Listen, I hope you’re not offended by this, but I keep reading about how you were competent in martial arts and hiked for miles each day. So how come you were, ya know, so fat?

B: Yes, you are mistaking me for someone else.

MS: The jolly, laughing Buddha with the potbelly. That’s not you?

B: I’m afraid you are describing a character called Hotei, usually seen in China. He is a representation of an obese, medieval Chinese monk. I was quite fit.

MS: Really? Well, can you clear up any other misconceptions about yourself?

B: My eyes were blue, I had fine, curly hair -- yes, hair -- and rather than being the chowhound you may have imagined, I was indifferent to hunger, environmental conditions, and all bodily appetites.

MS: So, no Pringles, then?

B: No, thank you.

MS: And if I rub your belly?

B: Our interview will cease.

MS: There are a lot of “nightstand Buddhists” -- freelance Buddhists looking for a quick fix. Some inner peace. Is that cool with you?

B: There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth: not going all the way, and not starting.

MS: You really are the real deal.

B: Remember: Health is the greatest gift, contentment the greatest wealth, faithfulness the best relationship.

MS: I’m OK with a lot of this, but you were celibate from the age of twenty-nine until your death. Is that part completely necessary?

B: Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.

MS: Uh, it doesn’t.

B: And it doesn’t mean that you will ever awaken from the slumber of ignorance in this life or the next.

MS: Sex just seems like one of those things that’s on my mind a lot, that’s all.

B: However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do you if you do not act upon them?

MS: Or don’t act, in this case.

B: Remember this: What we think, we become.

MS: Then right now I’m a triple tall vanilla latte. I’m going to assume you don’t want one . . .

[The Buddha is still and quiet.]

MS: Your last words were, “All things must pass away. Strive for your own salvation with diligence.”

B: Yes.

MS: Well, dude, that was a George Harrison tune! From the Beatles?

B: Beetles, boars, men, and women can all learn from my inner peace.

MS: All right, but I gotta get you this CD. There are some things even I can teach the Buddha.

B: And let me turn you on to a state beyond suffering, called true Nirvana.

MS: So you do dig music! That’s awesome!

B: You have much to learn. Of this I’m sure.

Copyright © Michael A. Stusser, 2007

The above is an excerpt from the book The Dead Guy Interviews by Michael A. Stusser Published by Penguin; September 2007;$14.00US/$16.50CAN; 978-0-14-311227-3 Copyright © Michael A. Stusser, 2007

Author's Bio: 

Michael A. Stusser is a Seattle-based writer and game inventor. His "Accidental Parent" column (ParentMap magazine) recently won the prestigious Gold Award from the Parenting Publications of America. Stusser is a contributing writer for mental_floss and Seattle Magazine, and his work is frequently published by Law & Politics, Yoga International Magazine, and Go World Travel Magazine.

Stusser is also the cocreator of The Doonesbury Game with Garry Trudeau (winner for "Best Party Game of the Year," GAMES magazine, 1994); EARTHALERT, The Active Environmental Game; and Hear Me Out.