Pictured above: Buddha Groove Buddha Statue in Earth Touching Pose
Before Gautama Buddha
The 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 born
The 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.
Soon 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.
Persisting 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?
Siddhartha 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 Years
For 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.
Gautama 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 Awakening
For 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 Wheel
Gautama 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 Disciples
The 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.
The Buddha’s travels
Much of what we know about Gautama Buddha’s early teachings and the places he visited comes from the Tipitaka or the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism. These texts contain sufficient evidence that Gautama Buddha or Sakyamuni, as he was also called, was a well-known figure over large parts of north India; we also learn that large numbers of individuals from society’s elite were drawn to his doctrine of Dharma.
One reason for this growing attraction was, undoubtedly, the Buddha’s own personality. Notwithstanding the passage of time and the archaic language of the scriptures, the Buddha’s traits – self-confidence, serenity, radiance, and compassion shine through. His missionary zeal was another factor. Stilled as he was in mind, physically he was amazingly mobile, covering vast tracts of land on foot – according to some accounts, around 80,000 square miles.
Most of his travel occurred between the major cities of various kingdoms – Savatthi, Vesali, Kosambi, and Rajagaha. There were many hazards. Roads between cities were no more than dusty, wheel rutted tracks in the harsh summer. In the rains, they would turn into thick rivers of mud. Banditry was common on the route between Savatthi and Sakheta – the Buddha went through it all.
Once, he was walking around Kosala with a member of his group when they arrived at a fork in the road. The Buddha felt they should take one direction, but his attendant thought they should take the other. After some debate, the attendant, miffed at the Buddha’s insistence, set his alms bowl down and walked down the direction he wanted. A short distance later, robbers attacked him and tore his robes.
The Buddha and Angulimala
A famous story portraying the Buddha’s compassion is that of Angulimala (“Garland of Fingers”), the gifted warrior prince who was destined to be a bloodthirsty killer. To fulfill his jealous teacher’s demand for a gift of 1000 human right thumbs, Prince Ahimsaka of Kosala became a feared bandit, killing innocent travelers to harvest his gruesome collection. When the flesh from the thumbs rotted, he strung the bones into a garland – and hence the name, Angulimala.
The king decided to capture and kill him. His mother, Mantani, desperate to save her son, went to meet him ahead of her husband. Angulimala had collected 999 fingers. If he killed his mother for the thousandth finger, his evil karma would only be multiplied. The Buddha, hearing of this, approached Angulimala just ahead of Mantani. His attention diverted, Angulimala went after the monk with his knife but found he could not keep up. He cried out to him to stop, to which the Buddha famously replied, “I have stopped. It’s you who has to stop now.”
Explaining to the mystified bandit, Gautama said, “By ‘stopped’, I mean I have forsworn violence to all living beings. Through reflection, I am filled with endless love and compassion. But you continue to kill – that’s why you have not stopped.” The Buddha’s words jerked Angulimala back to reality. He realized he was in the presence of the Enlightened One who had come especially for him. Throwing away his weapons, he begged forgiveness and asked to become a monk, to which the Buddha gave his assent.
A wanderer’s life
In ancient India, a traveler rarely ventured into remote regions since there was no surety of food, water or shelter. The Tipitaka describes travel outside cities as tedious and uncomfortable, undertaken only out of necessity. But even as the Buddha progressed in age, he never stopped moving around. How did the monks cross rivers? There is no mention of bridges or boats, though the Tipitaka, in one section, describes monks swimming across a river by hanging on to the tails of cattle crossing over. In all his wanderings, Gautama probably went barefoot, as the texts mention his wearing sandals only once.
Typically, the Buddha would awaken before sunrise and go begging for a meal in the nearest village or city. After a meal, he would set off while it was still cool, walking till noon. In the afternoon, he and his monks would rest. If they were close to a village, they would stay the night; if not, they would walk until the next habitation. The Buddha’s stay anywhere depended on whether people came to meet him, whether they were receptive to his teachings and of course if food and water were available. On his first trip to Rajagaha, he left early when locals complained that too many youths were abandoning their families to join the monkhood. A warm welcome was not always forthcoming – at Thuna village, hostile Brahmins, hearing of his arrival, blocked their wells with cow dung and rice husk.
It is commonly presumed that the Buddha and his sangha were chiefly forest dwellers. Not so. Archaeologists have identified four monasteries he founded – Jivakarma, Ghositarama, Veluvana, and Jetavana. Ghositarama is inside a city while the rest are located close to towns. When the Buddha was not staying in these relatively more comfortable quarters, he would make do with what was available, sleeping in sheds on a bed of grass or in the mango groves on village outskirts. The caves of Prabhosa, in Kaushambi, Uttar Pradesh served as his sixth monsoon retreat. A large cave here, named Sita’s Window, is believed to have been his shelter.
With an increasingly large following, why did the Buddha continue such arduous travel? Possibly because he realized the importance of personal contact, particularly with newly inducted nuns and monks. Often he would visit a village, ordain a few followers and not return for years together. In such cases, monks wishing to meet him would set off to wherever he happened to be. Some texts describe the excitement and anticipation in a city when news would arrive of Gautama’s impending visit.
How did the Buddha communicate with people speaking multiple languages across the Gangetic plains? No one knows for sure; possibly, he used one or several closely linked dialects of Prakrit, the language of lay people in northern India. In one text, he is said to have expressed the view that it is essential to use local terms to avoid miscommunication.
The Buddha was equally accepting of local customs. He once came upon his monks bathing and frolicking in the water for too long and ruled that they must henceforth bathe just once a month. Some monks staying outside a town later reported to him that the locals were repelled by their unhygienic habits. The Buddha promptly granted them permission to take frequent baths in accordance with local habits. Incidents like this suggest that Gautama had the defining trait of the well-traveled – an open mind.
King Shuddhodana never gave up on trying to win back his son, despite learning about his spiritual accomplishments. Over a period of time, beginning with the first news of Gautama’s enlightenment, Shuddhodana sent ten delegations asking the former prince to return home to Kapilavastu. Nine of the delegations never conveyed the message; such was the power of the Buddha’s teachings that they chose to stay on and become arahants, or members of the sangha. The tenth delegation was headed by Kaludayi, Gautama’s childhood friend. While he did deliver Shuddhodana’s message, he too became an arahant.
It had been two years since the awakening under the Bodhi tree. The Buddha acquiesced to his father’s entreaties and undertook a two-month-long trek to Kapilavastu; along the way, he continued spreading the message of dharma. On the day of his arrival at Kapilavastu, a grand mid-day meal was prepared for him at the palace. The Buddha, however, was going around the city begging for alms. King Shuddhodana could not stomach this and went to meet his son.
“Our lineage is that of the warrior Mahamassata. No descendant of his has ever sought alms”, said the king.
The Buddha calmly replied, “In your royal lineage, begging for alms is certainly not a tradition. In my Buddha lineage, however, it is. Thousands of Buddhas have preceded me, seeking alms.”
Shuddhodana had to accept the inevitable. He invited the entire sangha to dine at the palace. This was followed by a talk on dharma. It is said that after listening to the teaching, Shuddhodana became a sotapanna, one who has taken the first step towards becoming an arahant. Many others from the royal family entered the sangha, including Gautama’s cousins Ananda and Anuruddha and his half-brother, Nanda.
Yashodhara, Gautama’s former wife still harbored hopes for his return. Adorned with jewels, she pushed eight-year-old Rahula, their son, towards the Buddha, urging him to ask his father for his inheritance – by that, of course, she meant the kingdom. Rahula politely greeted his father. When the Buddha left the palace, he went behind him and said,”Shramana, may I have my inheritance?” The Buddha’s reaction was to summon his disciple Sariputta and instruct him to ordain Rahula as a novice. To the boy, he said,” This is my legacy. ”
Death of Shuddhodana
The Buddha’s inner circle of five disciples consisted of Sariputta, Mahakasyapa, Mahamoggallana and his cousins Ananda and Anuruddha. Another six completed the number of his closest disciples – Subhoti, Upali, Mahakaccana, Punna and his own son, Rahula.
During his fifth monsoon retreat at Vaishali (in present-day Bihar), the Buddha received news of his father’s grave illness. Once more, he went to Kapilavastu and taught dharma to Shuddhodana. In his last days on earth, the king became an arahant.
The Buddha had always been reluctant to allow women into the sangha, even refusing his foster mother Maha Prajapati Gautami, sister of Queen Maya. After the king’s death, the determined lady, heading a group of royal Sakyan and Kolian women, followed the Buddha on an arduous journey to Rajagaha. Ananda, the Buddha’s disciple, pleaded her case with his master. Five years after the original Sangha was formed, the Buddha conceded to the request to ordain women as nuns. His arrival at this decision was based on the reasoning that men and women were equally equipped to experience enlightenment. However, ordained women had to observe Vinaya, an additional discipline to dharma.
Discord in the Sangha
Not all the tremendous compassion and spiritual radiance of Gautama Buddha could prevent human nature around him from asserting itself in negative ways. As the great leader slipped into old age, his weariness became apparent. There was an impression that his hold over the sangha was waning. Gautama’s cousin Devadatta, an ordained monk, was an ambitious man who carefully observed the Buddha’s gradual physical decline. At first, he spoke his mind openly before a large gathering, declaring that the Buddha, having come to the final stage of his life, should relinquish his position as head of the Order to Devadatta. The Buddha’s refusal did not deter him, and he repeated himself thrice. Finally, the Buddha had to rebuke him. “I would not consider handing over the Sangha even to Sariputta or Mahamoggallana, leave alone you, Devadatta!” The Buddha’s words hit a raw nerve in Devadatta. This was a public humiliation! Devadatta now decided to achieve his goal through intrigue, even if it meant killing the Buddha.
In his first attempt, he hired archers to shoot the Buddha, but when the would-be assassins met the master, they laid down their weapons and became his followers. In a second attempt, Devadatta rolled a boulder downhill towards the Buddha. This too was unsuccessful when the boulder smashed into another large rock; only a splinter grazed the Buddha’s foot.
Devadatta staged his third attempt at murder in Rajagaha, offering bribes to some mahouts to let loose the great bull elephant Nalagiri upon the Buddha, after getting it intoxicated. The drunken beast thundered down the street, the same path along which the Buddha was on his rounds for alms-taking. It hurled aside a passerby who came inadvertently in its way, as it made a beeline towards the yellow-clad figure of the Buddha. The Enlightened One simply stood still, radiating compassion and love. Miraculously, the elephant’s fury vanished. It came to a complete stop and humbly knelt down before the Buddha who gently patted its great forehead.
His heinous plans having unraveled, the jealous Devadatta tried to sow dissent in the sangha by proposing that the Vinaya or disciplines laid out by the Buddha ought to be made more stringent. When this too failed, Devadatta decided to form his own Order. A few monks joined him initially, but Sariputta and Mahamoggallana prevailed upon them to return to the true dharma.
The Buddha was 80 years old when he announced his weariness with existence:
“I am old now and have lived the full extent of my life. My body seems akin to a well-worn cart that can be made to run only with constant repairs.”
His zeal for teaching dharma, however, shone brightly as ever. He undertook another hard journey and arrived at the town of Pava. A humble blacksmith named Cunda invited the Buddha and his followers to dinner. After eating, the Buddha who was already in a fragile state became extremely ill. Even in his pain, the Compassionate One exhorted his disciple Ananda to allay the blacksmith’s sorrow by saying that the Buddha’s end was in no way connected with the meal; rather, it would bring Cunda great merit as he had prepared the final meal for an enlightened being.
The ailing master then insisted upon proceeding with the tour. In time, they came to the village of Kushinara. The Buddha wanted to make the jungles here his final resting place, from where he would enter Parinirvana. The grieving Ananda could not accept this, but the Buddha gently reminded him that Kushinara had once been ruled by a just king under whom dharma prospered. This was a kingdom where joy and goodness had reigned – could there be a more appropriate place for the Buddha to reach his end?
Between two sala trees in full bloom, Ananda prepared a place for his master to rest; then, overcome by grief, he wept. The Buddha consoled him, reminding him that since death and decay were the inevitable ends for all that is created, there was no room for lament.
He instructed Ananda to inform the residents of Kushinara about his impending death so that they could make arrangements for his funeral. Just then, an ascetic named Subhadda came by and wished to meet the Buddha. Ananda would have none of it, but the frail Buddha overheard them and called Subhadda to his side. Subhadda asked him some questions about dharma. After answering these, the Buddha accepted him into the sangha, the last member to be ordained by the master.
Finally, the Buddha called all his monks around him; this was their final opportunity, he said, to seek answers to their queries on dharma with him. Thrice, he repeated himself, but the monks were silent. Late into the night, the master spoke for the last time:
“Every element of creation is subject to decay and death. Strive tirelessly and with diligence for your own liberation.”
In his dying moments, the Buddha is thought to have famously exhorted his disciples to follow no master. After he was cremated, his relics were distributed among disciples and preserved in various monuments and stupas. A great soul had departed, but the simple message of compassion and prescription for right living that he left behind would flower into varied forms and inspire humanity for centuries.
What is Buddhacharita?
In the years after Gautama Buddha’s passing, the story of his life was handed down for generations through the oral tradition. The first written biography emerged in India during the 2nd century, under the patronage of the famous Buddhist emperor, Kanishka.
The Buddhacharita-kavya-sutra was composed in Sanskrit by the accomplished poet Asvaghosa. In the 5th century A.D. Dharmaraksha, a monk-poet translated the Buddhacharita into Chinese. In the 7th or 8th century A.D., it was translated into Tibetan.
The biography consists of 28 chapters detailing Gautama Buddha’s life from birth to the period after his death when his sacred relics were dispersed. Drawing from the Pali Tipitaka for information, Asvaghosa’s writing is a fine example of Buddhist literature. While remarkable for its superbly descriptive style and obvious reverence, the biography is also relatively realistic, taking care to avoid too much of mythological embellishment.
Only 14 cantos of the original Buddhacharita manuscript were discovered, the remaining having been lost during various invasions of India.
Pictured below: Buddha Groove’s Reclining Buddha Statue in Stone Finish