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Leisure • Eastern Philosophy

Following in the Buddha’s Footsteps

In northern India, by the 1st century CE, it became common to depict the Buddha in stone not as a smiling statue (as would later become the norm) but as a set of large and squared-off footprints. These Buddhapada, as the sculptures were known, were fixed to the walls of temples and private shrines or embedded in pavements or parks.

The Buddha had been the wisest man who had ever lived. He had discovered how to achieve everlasting calm, understood how to become impervious to evil and indifferent to wealth, and learnt how to reconcile himself to mortality. It was, therefore, incumbent on any human to try to follow in his footsteps – each of which was imprinted in sculpture with two lotus flowers, symbolising purity, and a three-tipped Triratna, evoking the Threefold Way. On either side of these noble footsteps, yakshis, Indian sacred spirits, bowed in veneration.

The tradition of the Buddhapada is likely to feel usefully odd to us. We are constantly encouraged to make our own way through the world. There should be no walking in anyone else’s footsteps, however grand these might be. We assume that we would lose a vital part of that all-too-precious commodity – our individuality – if we were to subscribe to ideas other than those that happen spontaneously to come into our minds.

Buddhapadas beg to differ. They imply that – so long as we find the right feet – we can only be enhanced by modelling our lives on those of well-chosen figures. The point is not to become more ‘ourselves’, in a random and wilful way, so much as to reach a state of wisdom and peace, which might well mean borrowing heavily from minds more nimble and perspicacious than our own, of which history can provide us with a wide-ranging library. Far from taking us away from our true selves, the thinking of others may be what offers us a path to our own latent potential. 

As children, we perhaps all had the idea of putting our feet in our parents’ enormous shoes and giggled at the unlikely strangeness of them, wondering if we would ever really one day grow into comparable giants. Because our parents may not, in retrospect, seem like ideal role models, the idea of walking in another’s shoes can now feel doubtful. But, with the help of history, we may look beyond the figures of our early youth and scan past ages in search of other, more suitable candidates: Socrates or Montaigne, Donald Winnicott or Matsuo Bashō, Edward Hopper or Ella Fitzgerald. It shows a healthy degree of self-possession not to mind too much, at points, ceding to the ideas of thoughtful and visionary long-dead strangers. We aren’t really alone, and we don’t have to be without direction; we simply need to discover a set of footprints that will fit us.

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