Pictured above: Buddha Groove Buddha Statue in Earth Touching Pose
Before Gautama BuddhaThe historical version of Gautama Buddha’s birth may be familiar even to those with no more than a nodding acquaintance with the faith he founded. In the Buddhist tradition, however, Gautama’s birth was no accident of fate. Rather, there is a backstory preceding his arrival on earth. Non-believers would see this as myth; to the faithful, it is a spiritual truth, a different kind of reality in keeping with the essence of Buddhism. In this version, the Buddha’s birth was not so much the beginning of a tradition as the spectacular culmination of a series of events. Sumedha was an ascetic who once met an enlightened man, a Buddha named Dipamkara. The encounter had a profound effect upon Sumedha. He too wished to become a Buddha; to this end, he set out to cultivate the “Ten Perfections” – Charity, Forbearance, Morality, Effort, Discernment, Meditation, Expediency (the skill needed to teach sentient beings about the way of Buddhism), Vow (to achieve enlightenment), Spiritual/Occult Powers and Omniscience. As a bodhisattva, Sumedha spent several lifetimes tirelessly cultivating these qualities. His birth as Sakyamuni or Gautama Buddha, in the 5th century BCE, was the culmination of this aspiration.
The Buddha is bornThe bodhisattva Sumedha, before his rebirth as Sakyamuni, spent a lifetime as a god in the Buddhist heaven Tushita. Gazing upon the earth, he knew the moment had come to be born a human and at last, attain Buddhahood. Where should he be born? He chose the ‘Middle Country’, the continent known as Jambudvipa – India – whose inhabitants he felt would be most receptive to his teachings. In what form should he be conceived? The bodhisattva consulted the gods in Tushita, one of whom suggested the form of a six-tusked, white elephant, an animal that symbolizes both great power and wisdom.
On a beautiful, moonlit night in July, Maya, queen of the Sakya clan, dreamt of a white elephant clasping a white lotus flower in its trunk. The elephant passed through her right side into her womb, growing within as a human infant. Maya carried her child for ten lunar months. At the end of this period, she was traveling to her hometown when she passed by a grove at Lumbini (in present-day Nepal). The sala trees were in full bloom; enchanted by their beauty, the queen stopped her palanquin for a stroll through the grove. She reached up to clasp a branch – which according to legend, bent down to her open hand – when she was overcome with the pangs of birth. Her child was born even as she stood by the tree, holding its branch for support. The bodhisattva came forth into the world from his mother’s right side – extraordinarily, she suffered no pain from his birth. This was no ordinary infant. Born the size of a five-month-old with a halo around his head, the Buddha-to-be walked seven steps northwards and declared: “I am the first and the best. This is my final birth.”. He was named Siddhartha (“One who has accomplished his purpose”) and was also known by his family name, Gautama. On the seventh day after Siddhartha was born, Queen Maya died and entered Tushita.
Prince SiddharthaSoon after Prince Siddhartha was born, he was closely examined by Brahmin priests and pronounced as possessing the 32 marks of a great man. For such a person, according to Buddhists, there are two possible futures. He will grow up to become a dynamic and just king – or he will be a ‘Buddha’, renouncing the world for enlightenment. Like any ruler, King Shuddhodana wanted his son to succeed him, to enjoy the pleasures of royalty and to rule with goodness and justice. But could he ensure this? Shuddhodana did everything in his power to keep the prince content and merry. Siddhartha led a privileged life, never leaving the luxurious confines of the palace. No stone was left unturned to ensure that the prince was not exposed to sorrow, pain or ugliness, lest such experiences cause him to ponder too much. Later, he would recollect images of this sumptuous life: lotus pools for his personal use, sandalwood and fine garments from Benares, a white sunshade always protecting him from the elements and three palaces, one for each season.
Four EncountersPersisting in his ambition to groom Siddhartha into a ruler, King Shuddhodana arranged for his son to marry the lovely Princess Yashodhara. Siddhartha now had everything a man could wish for. Shuddhodana however, had failed to understand his sensitive son. The prince yearned to know what lay beyond the palace. At the age of 29, he knew that he must venture out on his own. Commanding his charioteer Channa, he began traveling to the nearby town. Outside the palace’s protected environs, another world unfolded before his eyes. He was to make four such trips – ventures that would forever change his life. On his first ride, he met an aging man, wrinkled and weak. On his second venture, he came across a diseased man and on his third, a funeral procession bearing a corpse for cremation. The prince was shocked beyond thought. Shielded as he had been from life’s harshness, he now perforce pondered the nature of illness, aging, and death – the fate of all beings. How could he, who was as subject to these processes as any other, be disgusted by them? It was not fitting. Reflecting thus, his pride and the intoxication with his own youth, strength, and life, fell away. The pain and grief he had seen impacted him deeply, raising many questions within. Why did suffering exist? Was there a way to overcome it? On his fourth trip outside the palace, he thought he had found an answer. He encountered an ascetic, a man who had renounced everything in pursuit of the divine. Siddhartha was drawn to this radiant, serene being who literally had nothing and led a life of severe austerity. Was that how one could come to terms with the existence of suffering?
RenunciationSiddhartha was almost thirty when he quietly came to the decision that he must renounce his royal life and leave the court. Around the same time, King Shuddhodana, ever fearful that his son would spurn the throne in favor of a religious life, decided to anoint Siddhartha as the ruler during his own lifetime. Preparations began in full swing for the coronation. With only seven days to go for the grand event, Shuddhodana took no chances – every Sakya clan member who could bear arms was commissioned to guard the palace gates, lest Siddhartha slip away. At this time, Yashodhara, Siddhartha’s wife, gave birth to a son, Rahula. The prince received the news with mixed feelings. Love for his newborn son conflicted with the knowledge that having a child was a form of bondage, in addition to the ones already holding him back from his spiritual quest. That same night, he decided to go away. He abandoned his royal silks for the orange robes and alms bowl of an ascetic and shaved off his lustrous, black locks. Before leaving, however, he could not resist seeing his son. He went to Yashodhara’s palace. She lay asleep, her hand on the infant’s head. “If I remove Yashodhara’s hand to carry my son, she will wake up and I will be unable to leave. I will return to see him when I have become the Buddha.” Thinking thus, he left the palace on his horse along with his faithful charioteer. Every door and gate in the palace was guarded. How did Siddhartha pass through? Help came from the heavens. Thirty-three deities lulled all the citizens of Kapilavastu into a slumber so deep that nothing could awaken them. To make things even safer, the gods held out their hands beneath the horse’s hooves to cushion the sound and helped it to clear the palace wall. Thus began Prince Gautama’s journey into the outside world, in search of an answer that would take him six years to realize.
The Early YearsFor six years, Gautama led the simple, yet extraordinarily hard life of a religious man. He first stayed with two well-known ascetics and practiced their systems of meditation. Though he mastered these practices, they did not lead him to resolve the riddle of human suffering. Next, he accompanied a group five wandering holy men with whom he practiced the severest of austerities. He encountered wild animals in the forests. The midday sun burned his skin; on winter nights, he froze in the cold. He subjected his body to every torment – sleeping on a bed of thorns and living in cemeteries. Having virtually given up food, he grew emaciated and terribly weak. Every bone in his body jutted out frighteningly, while his eyes, sunken in their sockets appeared like water gleaming at the bottom of a deep well. At some point, the realization dawned that if he kept going on this path, he could well die without reaching his goal.
The AwakeningGautama and his ascetic companions reached Bodh Gaya (in present-day Bihar, India). He had still not found his answer. If harsh austerities could not help the Bodhisattva realize his goal, what path should he take? Would a Middle Way, between luxury and deprivation, take him to the right place? Gautama recalled a wonderful experience from his younger days. He was sitting beneath a rose-apple tree one day when his mind was filled with a deep sense of peace – in the Buddhist tradition, this is dhyana, the first meditation. Reflecting upon that memory, it occurred to him that allowing his mind to ease into that serene state could well lead him to what he sought. For that to happen, he would have to eat and regain his strength. His fellow ascetics, however, could not accept this line of thought and abandoned him. Then, a maiden named Sujata appeared before him and offered him a bowl of milk-rice. The Bodhisattva partook of the food with gratitude. Feeling stronger, he sat down beneath a great, spreading pipal tree. It was a beautiful, full moon night in May. The Bodhisattva decided that he would stay there until he had an answer, even if he died trying. He slipped deep into meditation. The oldest Buddhist accounts describe what he then experienced as the practice of four dhyanas (states of meditation). In these states, he could look into his previous lives and understand the cyclical effects of karma. Also, he realized how to detach himself from worldly desires and blind acceptance of untrue or fixed ideas. Thus, he came to know the Four Noble Truths – understanding the meaning of suffering, the cause of suffering, the path to freedom from suffering and how to achieve it.
After Mara, the AwakeningFor many, the meditative process leading to the Bodhisattva’s awakening is far too abstract and removed from personal experience to be fully understood. The myth of Mara the demon makes it more accessible. Mara, or “harbinger of death” was a monstrous being who contained within him every power in existence that ensnares and seduces the unguarded mind. As the Bodhisattva sat beneath the pipal tree, resolute in purpose, Mara arrived there seated on his enormous elephant, leading his dreaded army. His aim was to shatter Gautama’s meditation and prevent him from finding the path to immortality. Mara’s soldiers were a gross, nightmarish lot with bulging, fearsome eyes, lolling tongues, malformed bodies and bared fangs. However, their arrows aimed at the Bodhisattva failed to wound him for they would mysteriously become covered with flowers. In fact, an invisible shield seemed to protect the Bodhisattva, for not a hair on his body could be disturbed by his aggressors. Mara then unleashed his lovely daughters, but their seductive charms failed to have any effect upon the calm Bodhisattva. Finally, Mara rode his elephant before the Bodhisattva and roared, “That place beneath the tree is mine! What right have you to claim it?” Gautama replied that he had earned the right after having practiced the Ten Perfections over several lifetimes. Unfazed, the demon replied, “Hah, I have accomplished this too! What’s more, my armies will vouch for me. Who will stand witness for you, ascetic?” The Bodhisattva raised his right hand and placed his fingers upon the ground, calling upon Mother Earth to be his witness. It was a defining moment. As Mara slipped from his elephant and his armies scattered, Gautama experienced the Awakening he had sought for so long. He was now Buddha, The Enlightened One. The tree under which he sat, would henceforth be known as the Bodhi tree or “Tree of Enlightenment”.
From Nirvana to the Turning of the WheelGautama had accomplished his purpose – the attainment of Buddhahood. He had directly experienced the elusive and sublime beauty of Dharma. He now understood the cause of human suffering and how it could be eliminated. These spiritual insights came to be known as the Four Noble Truths, the essence of Buddhist philosophy. The oldest Buddhist scriptures, however, tell us that the Buddha was at first reluctant to impart his knowledge to others. He was filled with doubts about people’s receptivity to his teaching, knowing as he did, humanity’s delight in material attachment, its easy surrender to ignorance, avarice, and hatred. How could such beings even begin to understand a path that was both subtle and profound? Then Brahma the Creator approached the Buddha and pleaded with him to change his mind. Not all human beings were the same, said Brahma; there existed people with no more than “a little dust in their eyes”. Could the Buddha not teach them Dharma out of compassion? Surely, they would benefit from his wisdom. The Buddha agreed to his request. Thus began a lifetime of traveling and teaching that lasted for about forty-five years. It is thought that the Buddha’s wanderings were primarily around the vast Gangetic Plain (in modern India, the states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and southern Nepal). The Buddha traveled to Isipatana (Sarnath, near Benares). In a deer park here, he met his five, erstwhile ascetic companions and shared with them, the revelation that had shown him the path to the end of suffering. With this first sermon, he set in motion the first turn of the Wheel of Dharma. Now, there were five more enlightened beings in the world to go forth and spread the Buddha’s great message. Along with Gautama Buddha, they became the founding members of the sangha or association of Buddhist monks.
The Buddha’s DisciplesThe Buddha’s teachings were open to everyone, regardless of caste or religion. The simple, yet remarkable profundity of his message struck a chord in people from varied walks of life – ascetics, youths, rich and poor. Gautama Buddha’s first disciples were two merchants, Tapussa and Bhallika. Both are believed to have received hairs from the Buddha’s head, now revered as relics in a Buddhist shrine in Myanmar.
After setting in motion the Wheel of Dharma, the Buddha traveled to Uruvela. Here, he met the Kashyapas, a trio of ascetic brothers. The severe austerities and esoteric rituals of their fire cult made them revered figures around Benares. The Buddha took shelter in the hut where their sacrificial fire constantly burned, despite their warning that it was haunted by a Naga (celestial, poisonous snake). True enough, the Naga appeared at night. The hut was enveloped in smoke and flames. Next morning, Kashyapa and his disciples ventured towards the hut, thinking the worst. But the Buddha emerged from within and showed them his begging bowl, with the serpent lying coiled quietly within. Overwhelmed by the Buddha’s spiritual power, the Kashyapas and their cult followers converted en masse to Buddhism. The Buddha then preached the famous Fire Sermon. Its message – when an individual’s senses are overcome by avarice, hate, and delusion, his perceptions will further stoke base desires and negativity, one feeding on the other. Thus, his whole existence is on fire. But one who controls the six senses is liberated from this burning trap and the endless cycle of rebirth. Among the first laymen to join the Buddha was Yasa, a wealthy, young man who had grown weary and disgusted with his life of opulence and sensual pleasure. Yasa and his fifty-four friends, after receiving the Buddha’s teachings, swelled the ranks of the Buddha’s arahants (“spiritually enlightened beings”). The sangha eventually grew to over 1000 members. They traveled all over the subcontinent, teaching dharma. The only time they ceased to wander was during the vassana, or monsoon season when mendicants rarely move around, to avoid harming tiny creatures that come out of their hiding places in the earth. During this period, the Buddhist monks retreated to monasteries, forests or public gardens, where lay people would come to listen to them. The Buddha spent his first vassana at Benares, where the original Sangha was created. After this, he traveled to Rajagaha, the Magadha capital of King Bimbisara. There was a special reason for this visit. In the days after the Buddha left his palace, he traveled to Rajagaha and lived like an ascetic, begging for alms. The King’s men recognized him as Prince Siddhartha and took him to the court. Bimbisara, moved by Siddhartha’s quest, offered him the throne. Siddhartha refused this honor but promised that after attaining enlightenment, his first visit would be to Magadha. He stayed for three seasons at the Veluvana Bamboo Grove monastery of Rajagaha. The Buddha acquired two important disciples in Magadha – Sariputta, a Brahmin ascetic and his good friend, Mahamogallana – who were converted to the faith by Assaji, one of the original five followers.