The main character of this story is Prince Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha-to-be, who lived more than 2,500 years ago. His father was the Rajah of the Sakya clan, King Suddhodana, and his mother was Queen Maha Maya.
They lived in a city called Kapilavatthu, in the foothills of the Himalayas in India. They belonged to the Indian warrior background.
The Buddha lived in India more than two thousand five hundred years ago. His teachings are known as Buddhism. Even as a boy, Siddhartha, the Buddha-to-be, liked to meditate. This is how he became enlightened. His teachings encourage people to live wisely and happily.
The Birth of Prince Siddhartha
A long time ago in India, there lived a king named Suddhodana and a queen named Maha Maya. They were both decent and caring people. One full moon night, the Queen dreamt of four devas. They carried her to a lake, to rest on a soft bed. A white elephant carrying a lotus flower went round her three times and vanished into her. Wise men described that the Queen was going to give birth to a prince.
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When the time came for the baby to be born, Queen Maha Maya left the palace with the assistants to go back to her parent’s home to give birth to the baby. On the way, they passed by a lovely park called Lumbini Garden. Queen Maha Maya took a rest in the garden. While she was standing up and holding on to a tree she gave birth to the baby.
The delivery took place on the fifth month of Vesakha, on a full moon day in 623 BC. We call it Vesak or Buddha Day. Queen Maha Maya then returned to the palace with her baby prince. King Suddhodana was very joyful and celebrated the birth of the baby with his people all over the country.
The Naming Ceremony
Five days after the birth of the prince, many wise men were asked to the palace for the Naming Ceremony. They observed at the marks on the child’s body. Seven of the wise men raised two fingers and said that the prince would either become a Great King or a Buddha. The youngest, Kondanna, raised only one finger and said that the prince would become a Buddha. The prince was then given the name “Siddhartha” by the wise men, which meant “wish-fulfilled”.
Seven days after the birth of her child, Queen Maha Maya passed away. Pajapati Gotami, her younger sister, who was also wedded to King Suddhodana, raised the prince as her own child.
The Childhood of the Prince
The prince grew up to be kind and generous. He was adored by all. When still in his early years, Prince Siddhartha saw a bird carrying a worm that had been turned up by the farmer’s plough. This scene caused him to think about the unfortunate situation of creatures which were slayed by other creatures for food.
Seated under a rose-apple tree the young prince experienced the joy of meditation. At another time, the kind-hearted prince saved the life of a swan which had been injured by Devadatta’s arrow.
As a prince, young Siddhartha received an education in the arts and sciences and mastered the art of war and the royal sports of his time
The Prince Marries
At the age of sixteen, Prince Siddhartha married a beautiful young princess called Yasodhara. She loved and cared for him, and together they lived a life of royal luxury for nearly thirteen years.
He was sheltered from all the problems of life outside the palace gates. He had all the luxuries that a prince of his day could wish. He lived in a world where there was nothing but cheerfulness and enjoyment. One day, however, he desired to learn the world outside his palace.
When the king found out about this, he gave an order to the people of the city, “Have the houses along the road to the city cleaned and ornamented. Make the roads sweet with incense and have the people dressed in colourful clothing. Make certain that all the bums, the elderly and the ill stay in the house until the prince has left.”
The Four Sights
After some time the prince was unhappy living in the palace. He wanted to go outside and see how other people lived. He went out with his helper, Channa. They left the palace four times.
On the first trip, the prince saw an old man. He came to recognize that everyone had to grow old.
On the second trip, the prince saw an ill man. He came to identify that everyone could get sick any time.
On the third trip, he saw a corpse. He knew that everyone would have to perish one day.
On the fourth trip, the prince saw a monk who was happy and calm. He decided on this own to leave home so that he could aid people to find peace and happiness.
The Prince Leaves Home
Siddhartha went quietly to see his newborn son for the last time. His wife was slumbering with the baby next to her, her hand resting on the baby’s head. The prince said to himself, “If I try to move her hand so I can take the child for one last hug I fear I will wake her and she will stop me from going. No! I must go, but when I have found what I am looking for, I shall return and see him and his mother again.”
Siddhartha left the palace. It was middle of the night, and the prince was on his white horse Kanthaka with Channa, his faithful follower, holding on to its tail. He was going away to try to understand old age, sickness and death. He rode to the bank of a river and descended from his horse.
He detached his jewellery and princely clothes and gave them to Channa to return to the king. Then the prince took his sword and cut his long hair, put on monks robes, took a begging bowl and told Channa to go back with Kanthaka to the palace.
Searching for Teacher
Siddhartha walked along the Ganges River searching for divine teachers. Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta were considered to be the greatest teachers in meditation at that period so Siddhartha went to study with them.
First he studied under Uddaka Ramaputta, then under Alara Kalama. Shortly he had learnt all they had to teach, but he had not learnt how to end suffering. He said to himself, “I must find the truth on my own”.
Six Years of Hardship
With his five friends, Siddhartha went to a forest near the village of Uruvela. Here, several holy men were living in and torturing themselves with extreme poverty.
They believed that if they put their forms through terrible physical suffering, they would understand the truth. Some slept on a bed of nails. Some stood on their head. They all ate so little they were just skin and bones.
Siddhartha found a silent spot on the banks of a nearby river. There he trained through the most severe hardship. He slept on a bed of thorns. In a day, he ate only one grain of wheat and one sesame seed.
At other times, he would eat nothing at all. His body wasted away until there was only a layer of thin skin covering his bones. Birds made nests in his matted hair and layers of dust covered his dried-up figure. Siddhartha sat totally still, not even sweeping away insects.
The Song of the Lute
One evening, a group of young girls on their way home passed by Siddhartha who was sitting in meditation. They were playing lutes, a musical instrument, and singing. He thought, “When the strings of the lute are loose, its sound won’t carry. When the strings are too tight, it snaps. When the strings are neither too loose nor too tight, the music is beautiful. I’m pulling my strings too tightly. I cannot find the Way to Truth living a life of luxury or with my body so weak.”
Thus, he decided to give up self-torture. He came to know that this was not the right way.
Soon after, while showering in the river, Siddhartha was so fragile that he collapsed and fell. Sujata, a young village girl who lived by the river, saw him and fetched him a bowl of rice and milk. After his mealtime, he instantaneously felt stronger and carried on with his meditation. When his five companions saw him eat, they were revolted, thinking he’d given up. So they abandoned him.
The Sun of Enlightenment Shines
Siddhartha recalled meditating under the rose-apple tree when he was a child. “I shall meditate as I did before. Perhaps that is the way to become enlightened.” From then on he began to eat daily.
Still seeking a way to understand the meaning of life, Siddhartha set out for Bodh Gaya. Near a grove, he sat down underneath a huge Bodhi tree. Silently he sworn, “Even if my flesh and blood were to dry up, leaving only skin and bones, I will not leave this place until I find a way to end all sorrowfulness.” He sat there for forty nine days. He was strong-minded to discover the foundation of all pain and suffering in the world. Mara, the evil one, tried to scare him into giving up his journey. For instance, he hoped to lure Siddhartha into having selfish thoughts by sending visions of his very beautiful daughters. But the Buddha’s goodness protected him from such attacks.
Throughout this period, Siddhartha was able to see things as they really were. Now he had lastly found the solution to suffering: “The cause of suffering is greediness, selfishness and stupidity. If people get rid of these negative emotions, they will be cheerful.”
During a full-moon night in May, Siddhartha went into deep meditation. As the daybreak star appeared in the eastern sky, he became an enlightened one, a Buddha. He was thirty five years old.
When the Buddha stood up at last, he stared at the tree in gratitude, to thank it for having given him a roof over his head. From then on, the tree was known as the Bodhi tree, the tree of Enlightenment.
The Four Noble Truths
The 1st Noble Truth of the reality of Dukkha as part of conditioned existence. Dukkha is a multi-faceted word. Its literal meaning is “that which is hard to bear”. It can mean misery, stress, pain, anguish, affliction or unsatisfactoriness. Each of the English words is either too strong or too weak in their meaning to be a universally successful translation. Dukkha can be gross or very subtle. From extreme physical and mental discomfort and torment to subtle inner conflicts and existential sickness.
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The 2nd Noble Truth that Dukkha has a causal arising. This cause is defined as greedy and clinging or hatred. On one hand it is trying to control anything and everything by gripping onto or trying to pin them down. On the other hand it is control by pushing away or pushing down and running away or flinching away from things. It is the process of identification through which we try to make internal and external things and understandings into “me and mine” or wholly ‘”other” than Me. This flies in the look of the three marks of existence – Anicca, Dukkha. Anatta – Impermanence. Stress or suffering and no-self. Because all conditioned existence is impermanent it gives rise to Dukkha, and this means that in conditioned existence there is no fixed and permanent Self. There is nothing to grip onto and also in realism, nothing or no ‘one’ to do the grasping! We grab onto or try to push away ever changing dynamic processes. These tries to control, limit us to little descriptions of who we are.
The 3rd Noble Truth of the end of Dukkha, which is Nirvana or Nibbana. Beyond clutching and control and conditional existence is Nirvana. “The mind like fire unbound.” The awareness of Nirvana is supreme Bodhi or Awakening. It is waking up to the true nature of actuality. It is waking up to our true nature. Buddha Nature. The Pali Canon of Theravada, the foundational Buddhist teachings, says little about Nirvana, using terms like the Unconditioned the Deathless, and the Unborn. Mahayana teachings speak more about the qualities of Nirvana and use terms like, True Nature, Original Mind, Infinite light and Infinite life. Beyond space and time. Nirvana defies definition.
Nirvana literally means “unbound’ as in “Mind like fire unbound”. This beautiful image is of a fire burning by itself. Just the flame, not something burning and giving off a flame. Picture a fire burning on a wick or twig, it seems to float around or just above the thing burning. The fire seems to be independent of the thing burning but it clings to the stick and is bound to it. This sense of the fire being unbound has often been misunderstood to mean the fire is extinguished or blown out. This is completely opposite to the meaning of the symbol. The fire “burns” and gives light but is no longer bound to any flammable material. The fire is not blown out – the clinging and the clung to is quenched. The fire of our true nature, which is awakening, burns self-sufficiently. Ultimately Nirvana is beyond conception and logical understanding. Full understanding only comes through direct experience of this “state’ which is beyond the boundaries and explanations of space and time.
The 4th Noble Truth of the Path that leads to Awakening. The path is an inconsistency. It is a conditioned thing that is said to help you to the unconditioned. Awakening is not “made” by anything: it is not a creation of anything including the Buddha’s teachings. Awakening, your true nature is already always present. We are just not awake to this realism. Clinging to restraints and trying to manipulate the ceaseless flow of phenomena and procedure obscures our true nature.
The path is a progression to help you remove or move beyond the conditioned responses that obstruct your true nature. In this sense the Path is ultimately about unlearning rather than learning – another inconsistency. We learn so we can unlearn and uncover. The Buddha called his teaching a Raft. To cross a raging river we may need to build a raft. When built, we single-mindedly and with great vigour make our way across. Once across we don’t need to cart the raft around with us. In other words don’t cling to anything including the teachings. However, make sure you use them before you let them go. It’s of no use knowing everything about the raft and not getting on. The teachings are tools not doctrine. The teachings are Upaya, which means skillful means or practical method. It is fingers pointing at the moon – don’t confuse the finger for the moon.
There are eight paths which are known as the Eight-Fold Path.
1. * Samma-Ditthi – Complete or Perfect Vision, also translated as right view or understanding. Vision of the nature of reality and the path of transformation.
2. Samma-Sankappa – Perfected Emotion or Aspiration, also translated as right thought or attitude. Releasing emotional intelligence in your life and acting from love and compassion. An informed heart and feeling mind that are free to practice letting go.
3. Samma-Vaca – Perfected or whole Speech. Also called right speech. Clear, truthful, uplifting and non-harmful communication.
4. Samma-Kammanta – Integral Action. Also called right action. An ethical foundation for life based on the principle of non-exploitation of oneself and others. The five precepts.
5. Samma-Ajiva – Proper Livelihood. Also called right livelihood. This is a livelihood based on correct action the ethical principal of non-exploitation. The basis of an Ideal society.
6. Samma-Vayama – Complete or Full Effort, Energy or Vitality. Also called right effort or diligence. Consciously directing our life energy to the transformative path of creative and healing action that fosters wholeness. Conscious evolution.
7. Samma-Sati – Complete or Thorough Awareness. Also called “right mindfulness”. Developing awareness, “if you hold yourself dear watch yourself well”. Levels of Awareness and mindfulness – of things, oneself, feelings, thought, people and Reality.
8. Samma-Samadhi – Full, Integral or Holistic Samadhi. This is often translated as concentration, meditation, absorption or one-pointedness of mind. None of these translations is adequate. Samadhi literally means to be fixed, absorbed in or established at one point, thus the first level of meaning is concentration when the mind is fixed on a single object. The second level of meaning goes further and represents the establishment, not just of the mind, but also of the whole being in various levels or modes of consciousness and awareness. This is Samadhi in the sense of enlightenment or Buddhahood.
* The word Samma means ‘proper’, ‘whole’, ‘thorough’, ‘integral’, ‘complete’, and ‘perfect’ – related to English ‘summit’ – It does not automatically mean ‘right’, as opposed to ‘wrong’. However it is often translated as “right” which can send a less than precise message. For instance the opposite of ‘Right Awareness’ is not certainly ‘Wrong Awareness’. It may simply be incomplete. Use of the word ‘right’ may make for a neat or reliable list of qualities in translations. The down side is that it can give the impression that the Path is a narrow and moralistic approach to the spiritual life.
The Spread of Buddhism
Throughout the third era of BCE, Buddhism was spread by Ashoka(BCE 270 – BCE 232), the third and the most authoritative Mauryan emperor, who created the first pan-Indian empire. After the battle of Kalinga, Ashoka felt enormous heartache due to the huge loss of lives during the war and thus decided to follow the path of Buddhism. After this, he began to apply Buddhist principles in the government of his kingdom and named the new code of conduct ‘Dhamma’. Here, in order to notify everyone about his new political and ruling philosophy, he got edicts (proclamation) engraved on stone pillars and placed them all over his kingdom, which are existing even today.
Ashoka not only helped in spreading the belief within India but outside India as well. The main reason for the spread of Buddhism into Southeast Asia was the backing of the emperor Ashoka himself. Teams of ministers were sent by him all over the Indian sub-continent, i.e. to Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Previous Burma), and other next-door areas so as to send the message of Buddhism. The missionaries sent by Ashoka to the other countries were well acknowledged by them and the alterations took place easily because of the impact and the personal supremacy Ashoka exercised.
The spread of Buddhism in Sri Lanka
Ashoka’s most successful missions were supervised by his son Mahindra, who journeyed to Sri Lanka along with four other monks and a novice. This task turned out to be so successful that the king of Sri Lanka himself converted to Buddhism, and Mahindra then oversaw the translation of the Theravada canon (written in the Pali language) into Sinhala, the Sri Lankan script. He also assisted in locating a monastery named Mahavihara, which became the main supporter of the Theravadin orthodoxy in Sri Lanka for over 1,000 years.
The spread of Buddhism in China
China noted contact with Buddhism with the arrival of a Buddhist scholar, Bodhi Dharma, who journeyed from India to China along with other monks in 475 CE. Bodhi Dharma presented the teachings of the Buddha to the Chinese, who were swayed by the teachings. Buddhism and Chinese Taoism intermixed with one another, thereby resulting in the Ch’an school of Buddhism in China.
From the Central Asian kingdom of Kusha, in 148 BC, a monk named An Shih-kao, began converting Indian Buddhist texts into Chinese in Lo-yang, which later became the capital of the Han dynasty. During the next three decades, An Shih-kao and a quantity of other monks (mostly from Central Asia) translated about thirty Buddhist texts.
The spread of Buddhism in Japan and Korea
In the centuries that followed, Buddhism gained its own identity, and from China, Buddhism spread further towards Korea and Japan. As per Nihonshoki in 552 CE, the Korean state of Paekche sent Buddhist texts and images to Japan so as to influence the Japanese emperor to become an ally in its war with the neighboring state of Silla. In the initial stages, Japanese liking towards Buddhism was majorly related to the magical powers of Buddha and Buddhist monks. But when the emperor Yomei (CE 585 – CE 587) adopted Buddhism, the Japanese began to travel to China in order to learn from the Buddhist teachers there, and a number of indigenous Buddhist schools developed in Japan.
Yomei’s son, Prince Shotoku (CE 574 – CE 622) propagated Buddhism, built various Buddhist temples and sent Japanese monks to travel to China for further studies on Buddhism. Besides these, he also wrote commentaries on three Buddhist texts. Undoubtedly, in later times he was viewed in Japan as an incarnation of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.
The spread of Buddhism in Tibet
The Indian scholar, Shantarakshita went to Tibet during the ruling of the Tibetan king Trisong Detsen (CE 740 – CE 798), but due to the disapproval from some of the king’s ministers, he had to leave. But before Shantarakshita left, he convinced the king to invite the tantric adept Padmasambhava, who his arrival asserted that Shantarakshita’s efforts had been ruined by the demons of the country. Padmasambhava defeated all the demons in a personal combat which impressed the king and his court who then invited Shantarakshita again and the first monastery in Tibet was built at Samye. This marked the beginning of the “first dissemination” of Buddhism to Tibet, which ended when the devout Buddhist king Relbachen (815-836) was murdered, which further led to the beginning of an interregnum period for Tibetan Buddhism, which ended in 1042 CE, when Atisha (982 CE – 1054 CE), one of the directors of the monastic university of Nalanda, traveled to Tibet. Tibetan historians consider this to be the beginning of the ‘second dissemination’ of Buddhism in Tibet. Atisha was so successful in bringing the dharma to Tibet that Buddhism quickly became the dominant religious tradition in the country.
The spread of Buddhism in western countries
Buddhism is acquiring a grip in Western countries today, where a number of prominent Buddhist teachers have established successful centres in Europe and North America. The Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Sogyal Rinpoche, a number of Zen masters (Roshi), and Theravada meditation teachers have been successful in spreading Buddhist teachings outside Asia. Besides these, books and articles on Buddhism are becoming a huge hit with the westerners, who have a zeal for the Buddhist teachings based on mediation and purification.
In other words, the Buddhist philosophy, which was patronised by some of the Indian emperors and was spread to different parts of the Indian sub continent and subsequently the world, is still in pace of its rhythm. The glory of Buddhism owes to the teachings of Buddha which were important not only in the contemporary world, but is still relevant in our lives as well.
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