Life of Buddha (2004)
The life of the Buddha presented in the subsequent ten acts is neither history nor a myth. It is a pious report of the founder of Buddhism as the Buddhist tradition tells it. The whole story of the Buddha takes on a mythic and legendary character. A wealth of detail is to modern sensibilities of a decidedly "miraculous" and "supernatural" nature so that readers who want to see it from a historian's perspective might be puzzled over its authenticity. Of course, modern scholars have attempted to find out who was the historical Buddha and have agreed upon a few bare facts of the life of a man who, some 2,500 years ago, left home to become a wandering ascetic and attained perfect enlightenment. But then they have faced another problem of missing the story's own sense of truth, which has made a great impact on the mentality of Buddhist followers throughout Asia. In other words, that legendary account of the Buddha in turn constituted another reality on which Buddhist thoughts and practices have prevailed. Thus, the upcoming account of the life of the Buddha is no more than a pious story faithful to the earliest literary and iconographic sources available. Now, let us the story speak for itself.
Traditionally, the Buddha's life story centers on events from his conception to his Awakening and his first teaching. In this particular account of the life of the Buddha, however, we'll add to the narrative a few more post-enlightenment episodes which are fascinating in their own right.
1. The Conception of the Buddha
The earliest Buddhist sources state that the future Buddha Shakyamuni was born SiddharthaGautama, the son of a local king in Kapilavastu on what is now the Indian-Nepalese border around the fifth century BCE. He was thus a member of a relatively privileged and wealthy family, and enjoyed a comfortable upbringing. Buddhist world-view, however, views his birth not as a onetime event so much as a grand finale of a long series of countless previous lives as an enthusiastic seeker of religious truth.
The story goes back incalculable numbers of aeons ago to when there lived an ascetic called Sumedha (the future Buddha Shakyamuni) who encountered the buddhaDipamkara. This meeting affected Sumedha in such a way that he too aspired to becoming a buddha. Sumedha thus set out on the path of the cultivation of the "Ten Perfections."
2. The Birth of the Buddha
Having carried the Boddhisattva in her womb for precisely ten lunar months, Maya gave a birth to him. On the full moon in May, passing by the Lumbini grove on her way to her home town, she was captivated by the beauty of the flowering sala trees and stepped down from her palanquin to walk amongst the trees in the grove. As she reached for a branch of a sala tree, which bent itself down to meet her hand, the pangs of birth came upon her. Thus, while other women are depicted as giving birth sitting or lying down, the Bodhisattva's mother is shown delivering her child while standing and holding on to the branch of a sala tree in the garden of Lumbini.
Soon after his birth the infant Bodhisattva was examined by brahmin specialists in "the thirty-two marks of the great man." According to Buddhist tradition two destinies are open to one who possesses these marks in full: either he will become a great "wheel-turning" king ruling the four quarters of the earth in perfect justice, or he will become a buddha. On hearing that the brahmins had pronounced his son was one who possessed the marks, Shuddhodana determined that his son should become a wheel-turning king. To this end he arranged matters that Siddhartha should have no occasion to become unhappy and disillusioned with his life at home. In this way Shuddhodana hoped that he might prevent Siddhartha from renouncing his home-life for the life of a wandering ascetic.
After the strange and marvelous circumstances of his birth Siddhartha grew up as a son of a royal family, confined within his palace, leading a life of luxury enjoyed by the very wealthy and privileged. This lifestyle made him more and more delicate and sensitive. Following is the Buddha's recollection of his youth:
I was delicate, most delicate, supremely delicate. Lotus pools were made for me at my father's house solely for my use; in one blue lotuses flowered, in another white, and in another red. I used no sandal wood that was not from Benares. My turban, tunic, lower garments and cloak were all of Benares cloth. A white sunshade was held over me day and night so that I would not be troubled by cold or heat, dust or grit or dew.Yet even while I possessed such fortune and luxury, I thought, "When an unthinking, ordinary person who is himself subject to aging, sickness, and death, who is not beyond aging, sickness, and death, sees another who is old, sick or dead, he is shocked, disturbed, and disgusted, forgetting his own condition. I too am subject to aging, sickness, and death, not beyond aging, sickness, and death, and that I should see another who is old, sick or dead and be shocked, disturbed, and disgusted---this is not fitting." As I reflected thus, the conceit of youth, health, and life entirely left me. (Rupert Gethin. The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 20-21)
3. The Four Encounters
This brings us straight to the next act, Siddhartha's disenchantment with his life of pleasure. This stage of the Buddha's life is told through story of Siddhartha's rides with his charioteer. As he leaves the confines of his luxurious apartments, he encounters for the first time in his life a decrepit old man, a severely ill man, and a corpse being carried to the funeral pyre by mourners. The experience is traumatic, and when he afterwards sees a wandering ascetic with serene and composed features Siddhartha resolves that he will leave his home and take up the life of a wandering ascetic himself.
4. The Great Departure
Siddhartha was now nearly thirty and the moment of his final decision was imminent. Tired of waiting, his father, King Shuddhodhana, had already begun preparations for the crowing his heir, and in seven days Siddhartha was to be enthroned. Shuddhodhana took every precaution to prevent his son's flight and even mobilized all Shakya people capable of bearing arms to guard the palace exits. At this same moment Siddhartha's son, Rahula, was born. "It is a bondage which has come to me," said Siddhartha when he heard of his first-born and only child, meaning that it was another tie added to those already holding him back. However, that night as he left his palace, he stopped and thought: "I must see my son." He went to the residence of his wife and opened the door. She was asleep on a bed, her hand on her son's head. Siddhartha, with one foot in the doorway, stopped and watched. "If I lift the Queen's hand to take my son in my arms she will awaken and thus my departure will be hampered. When I shall become Buddha I will come back and see him." And with these words he went forth on his horse, accompanied by his charioteer, Chandaka. But how did he pass through all the doors and gates heavily guarded? Again, it was the moment when supernatural assistance interfered and helped him.
During these six years he first spent time with and practiced the systems of meditation taught by two leading ascetics of the time. Although he mastered their respective systems, he felt that here he had not found any real answer to the problem of human suffering. So next, in the company of five other wandering ascetics, he turned to the practice of severe austerities. The old texts preserve a hauntingly vivid description of the results of this practice:
My body reached a state of extreme emaciation. Because of eating so little my limbs became like the jointed stems of creepers or bamboo; my backside became like a buffalo's hoof; my backbone, bent or straight, was like corded beads; my jutting and broken rafters of an old house; the gleam of my eyes sunk deep in their sockets was like the gleam of water seen deep down at the bottom of a deep well. (Rupert Gethin. The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 22)
But despite his grueling penance he again felt he had not found what he was searching for. Then he recalled an experience from his youth. One day seated quietly beneath the shade of a rose-apple tree his mind had settled into a state of deep calm and peace. Buddhist tradition calls this state the first meditation or "dhyana." As he reflected, it came to the Bodhisattva that it was by letting the mind settle in to this state of peace that he might discover what he was looking for. This required that he nourish his body and regain his strength. His five companions thought he had turned away from the quest and left him to his own devices. At this moment a young woman named Sujata offers milk-rice to the Bodhisattva. Now nourished, he seated himself beneath a pipal tree, henceforth to be known as "the tree of awakening" or Bodhi Tree. It was once more the night of the full moon and he made a final resolve: "Let only skin, sinew and bone remain, let the flesh and blood dry in my body, but I will not give up this seat without attaining complete awakening."
The oldest accounts describe the Awakening in sober technical terms, most often by reference to the successive practice of the four dhyanas culminating in the knowledge of suffering, its cause, its cessation, and the way leading to its cessation-what come to be known as the "Four Noble Truths." However, perhaps because they do not exactly make for a good story, the later legend of the Buddha recounts the Awakening through the description of the Bodhisattva's encounter with demon Mara. This is a story rather more vivid and immediately accessible than the abstract concepts of Buddhist meditation theory.
Mara is a being who in certain respects is like the Satan of Christianity. His name means "bringer of death" and his most common epithet is "the Bad One." Mara is not so much a personification of evil as of the power of all kinds of experience to seduce and ensnare the unwary mind. So as the Bodhisattva sat beneath the tree firm in his resolve, Mara approached, mounted on his great elephant and accompanied by his dreadful armies. His one purpose was to assault the Bodhisattva and frustrate his efforts of finding the way to immortality.
Mara's armies were incredibly horrible, being composed of most repulsive monsters with hanging tongues, bared fangs, eyes of burning coals, deformed bodies, some devils with the heads of ferocious beasts, heavily armed soldiers shooting arrows, and a fierce demon flaming out at the Bodhisattva. The king of death tried to spur his troops on, but even the arrows of his monsters lost their sharp points and spontaneously were covered with flowers. Enclosed by a zone of complete protection around him, the Bodhisattva laughed at his aggressors while not a single hair on his body was disturbed. Mara then sent his beautiful daughters before the Bodhisattva to test his commitment to his purpose by offering themselves to him. (See ftp://ftp.buddhanet.net/artbud/enlight.gif for another image of this scene.) When this too failed Mara approached to claim the Bodhisattva's seat directly. He asked him by what right he sat there beneath the tree. The Bodhisattva replied that it was by right of having practiced the Perfections over countless aeons. Mara replied that he had done likewise and, what was more, he had witnesses to prove it: all his armies would vouch for him, but who would vouch for the Bodhisattva? The Bodhisattva then lifted his right hand and touched the ground calling on the very earth as his witness. This is the "earth-touching gesture" depicted in so many statues of the Buddha through the ages. It signals the defeat of Mara and the Buddha's complete awakening. As the Buddha touched the earth Mara tumbled from his elephant and his armies fled in disarray.
The Buddha had achieved his purpose. In Buddhist terms, he had a direct experience of "the unconditioned," "the transcendent," "the deathless," Nirvana. It is said that at that point his mind inclined not to teach:
This Dharma that I have found is profound, hard to see, hard to understand; it is peaceful, sublime, beyond the sphere of mere reasoning, subtle, to be experienced by the wise. But this generation takes delight in attachment, is delighted by attachment, rejoices in attachment and as such it is hard for them to see this truth, namely.nirvana.
According to the oldest tradition it is this moment when the great god, the Brahma called Sahampati, or "mighty lord," came and requested him to teach, saying: "There are beings here with but little dust in their eyes. Pray teach Dharma out of compassion for them."
In a deer park outside Benares the Buddha thus approached the five who had been his companions when he practiced austerities and gave them instruction in the path to the cessation of suffering that he had discovered. In this way he set in motion the Wheel of Dharma, and soon, we are told, there were six awakened ones in the world. For the Buddha this was the beginning of a life of teaching that lasted some forty-five years. Many stories and legends are recounted of the Buddha's teaching career, but we must pass over many of them and choose just a few which come with iconographic depictions.
7. The Uruvela Conversion
Soon after his first turning of the wheel in Benares, the Buddha decided to return to the site of his enlightenment. He must have known that near Uruvela there were three brahmin brothers called Kashyapa who led the life of matted-hair ascetics and practiced the fire-cult.
The Kashyapa followers were recognized by their large mop of hair and by their garments made of bark. They lived in huts built of branches on the edge of the jungle. Their austerities, their complicated rites had quickly brought them popular veneration in the Benares area. It is this hermitage of Uruvela-Kashyapa where the Buddha visited and asked if he could spend the night at the hut in which the sacrificial fire was kept burning. Taken by the stranger's self-confidence and personality Kashyapa did not dare refuse, but warned him that the place was haunted by a venomous divine serpent (naga). But the Buddha did not allow himself to be frightened off, and spent the night in the hut. As soon as he went in the hut the serpent entered and a terrible struggle ensued. Smoke against smoke appeared, fire against fire, so that the whole structure seemed to go up in flames. In the end the supernatural power of the Buddha overcame the naga's fury, and he placed the serpent in his begging bowl. When morning came, Kashyapa and his followers went to the hut and said: "The young monk must have been fiercely burned by the serpent's fire." But the Buddha came out of the hut and presented the distressed brahmins with the serpent quietly coiled inside his alms bowl.
Totally overpowered by this miraculous feat, Kashyapa and his five hundred threw their ritual utensils into the river and converted to the Buddhist faith. Sometime after their conversion the Buddha delivered the well-known Fire Sermon, which alluded thematically to the practices of the Kashyapa brothers' fire cult. It begins with these famous words: "Everything is ablaze!" The message of this sermon is that if anyone's senses are ruled by greed, hatred and delusion, all his perceptions will kindle, because they arouse further desires and aversions in him: for him the world is on fire. But whoever exerts control over the six senses is free from lusts and passions, and will gain freedom from rebirth.
8. Return to Kapilavastu
Seven years after he left his native city the Buddha decided to return to Kapilavastu. King Shuddhodhana had not yet forgiven his son for the "Great Departure," which had caused the cruel disappointment of his dynastic expectations. Shuddhodhana even reproached his son for degrading himself as a beggar in his hometown in front of everybody. The Buddha's former wife Yasodhara, who had lived for eight years as a "monk's widow," had never given up hope of winning back her husband.
When the Buddha paid a visit to his father's house, Yashodhara adorned with all her jewels pushed the fruit of their union, Rahula, now aged eight, to him, saying: "Rahula, that is your father. Go and ask him for your inheritance!" Yashodhara had in mind the kingdom. Little Rahula did as he was told. He greeted the Buddha politely, and waited until his father had left the house without giving any direct answer. Then Rahula followed him with these words: "Shramana, give me my inheritance!" The Buddha's reaction was as dignified as it was effective. He instructed his chief disciple Shariputra to ordain the boy as a novice, saying: "This is your inheritance." Yashodhara was again left with her vain hopes and her jewels, much to the grandfather's sorrow.
9. Subjugation of the Mad Elephant
Toward the end of his life the Buddha was aging and weary. His influence over the Sangha was waning accordingly. The monk Devadatta, his cousin, watched the Buddha's aging carefully, and decided to take over the control of the Order as his successor. Devadatta had the courage not to pursue his aim solely by intrigue, but to proclaim it openly. Once, when the Buddha was preaching before a large congregation, Devadatta got up and said to the Buddha: "Lord, you are now old, worn-out, an aged man, you have lived your allotted span and are at the end of your existence. Lord, may you be content to live in this world henceforth unburdened. Hand over the Order to me- I will lead the Sangha!" The Buddha declined, but Devadatta repeated his plea three times. This stirred the Buddha to a rebuke: "I would not even hand over the Order to Shariputra and Maudgalyayana, still less to you, Devadatta!" By his sharp reaction, the Buddha had made Devadatta his enemy.
Devadatta, who was humiliated in public, planned a series of intrigues to kill the Buddha. The third attempt on the Buddha's life took place within the city of Rajagraha. Devadatta bribed with promises certain mahouts to let the working elephant Nalagiri loose against the Buddha.
The mighty bull-elephant, which had already killed one person, stormed through the streets on the exact path along which the Buddha was coming on his alms-round. Throwing away a person with his trunk, the brute elephant rushed at the yellow-robed Buddha who, unafraid, radiated loving-kindness towards him. Then came the miracle! Suddenly the raging elephant became calm and peaceful, and knelt before the Buddha, who lifted his right hand and patted the animal's forehead. This is the well-known story of the Buddha's subjugation of a mad elephant in Rajagraha.
10. The Great Passing
There is a majestic and poignant account of the Buddha's last days preserved in the ancient canon under the title of "the great discourse of the final passing." As the old canon describes, at age 80 the Buddha was weary and not in a good condition:
I am now grown old, and full of years; my journey is done and I have reached my sum of days; I am turning eighty years of age. And just as a worn out cart is kept going with the help of repairs, so it seems is the Tathagata's body kept going with repairs.
With an untiring zeal for teaching, however, the Buddha decided to embark on another long preaching journey. After passing through a number of villages, the Buddha proceeded to a place called Pava where he and his disciples were invited to dinner by a lowly blacksmith, Chunda. After the meal, however, the Buddha, who was already in a weakened condition, became seriously ill. In spite of the sever pains, the Buddha insisted upon continuing his preaching tour, and soon ended up in a small village called Kushinagara. By this time the Buddha was too exhausted to go on and wanted to lie down. The monk Ananda prepared a resting-place for him between two blossoming sala trees. Then Ananda, who was struck by grief, lent against a door and wept. Then the Buddha asked for him:
Enough, Ananda, do not sorrow, do not lament. Have I not formerly explained that it is the nature of things that we must be divided, separated, and parted from all that is beloved and dear? How could it be, Ananda, that what has been born and come into being, that what is compounded and subject to decay, should not decay? It is not possible. (Rupert Gethin. The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 26)
The Buddha told Anana to make his impending death known to the people in Kushinagara so that they could prepare his funeral. At that time, a wandering ascetic named Subhadda came to see the Buddha but was sent away by Ananda who tried to prevent the exhausted old master from being disturbed. But the Buddha, who overheard the conversation, asked the ascetic to approach his side and, after answering his questions on the Law, accepted him into the Order. Thereby Subhadda became the last person to be accepted to the Order in the Buddha's lifetime. And then the Buddha gave the surrounding monks a last opportunity to question him about the Law:
Ask, monks, lest you afterwards feel remorse, thinking: "We sat face to face with the Master, and yet we failed to ask him personally."
The Buddha asked three times but the monks remained silent. Then the Buddha gave them one more chance: if they did not dare to speak out of respect for him, they should ask through a fellow-monk. Again the monks remained silent. There was no unclearness anywhere. The night was far advanced, and it was quiet between the trees when the dying teacher gave the monks his last words:
Now, monks, I declare to you: all elements of personality are subject to decay. Strive on untiringly!