Who was the Buddha?
The Buddha was not a god, but a man whose own efforts led him to enlightenment. He was born to a royal family in the 6th Century B.C. in Lumbini near the foothills of the Himalayas, in what is now Nepal. His birth took place on the full-moon day of May. He was called Prince Siddhatta, and at sixteen married the lovely princess Yasodhara. His life was one of endless pleasure and privilege. He hadn't a care in the world. His father, however, had.
Shortly after his birth, several astrologers predicted that Siddhatta was destined to become either a great ruler or a Buddha. But his father, who did not wish to see his son become a religious ascetic, shielded Siddhatta from every form of ugliness and pain, hoping to keep him ignorant of the world's suffering. At the same time he tried to strengthen his son's attachment to worldly pleasures.
That strategy worked until Siddhatta, during several chariot rides through the kingdom, happened to see an old man, a sick man, and a human corpse. Finally he saw the fourth "sign," a holy man. The experience was a turning point. The revelation that existence was tainted by suffering affected him so deeply that he determined to leave his grand life and search for a lasting solution. Although his wife had just given birth to a son, although his life seemed perfect by conventional standards, Siddhatta asked himself, "Why, being myself subject to birth, aging, ailment, death, sorrow and defilement, do I seek after what is also subject to these things? Suppose, being myself subject to these things, seeing the danger in them, I sought after the unborn, unaging, unailing, deathless, sorrowless, undefiled, supreme surcease of bondage, nibbana?" (Majjhima-nikaya 26.) And so, at the age of twenty-nine, he left the palace and renounced the world.
For the next six years he wandered through India as a homeless ascetic, studying with the greatest spiritual masters of his age. At that time the practice of self-mortification was revered as a means of achieving the highest spiritual states. Siddhatta was an intensely determined student. He did not hesitate to follow any method, no matter how painful, if there was the slightest hope that it would lead him to the deathless. Among other austerities, he practiced extreme fasting. Although on the brink of death he was unafraid, believing that at the moment of dying he might reach the pinnacle he sought. But after six years of striving, even though his renowned teachers considered him their equals, and even though his body was emaciated from the effort, he was no closer to his goal of total liberation from suffering. Finally, having plumbed the knowledge of the best teachers of his age and found it wanting, Siddhatta resolved to search for the truth on his own. If self-mortification were truly the path to enlightenment, wouldn't he have reached it already? "Whenever," he thought, "a monk or brahman has felt in the past, or will feel in the future, or feels now, painful, racking, piercing feeling due to striving, it can equal this but not exceed it. But by this grueling penance I have attained no distinction higher than the human state, worthy of the noble one's knowledge and vision. Might there be another way to enlightenment?" (Majjhima-nikaya 36.)
Once, as a child, Siddhatta had entered into spontaneous meditation while sitting in the shade of a rose-apple tree. He now remembered that experience and wondered, "Might that be the way to enlightenment?" It seemed that it was. He had gone as far as he could with both pleasure and pain. It occurred to him that only the Middle Way between the two extremes of sensual pleasure and self-mortification could lead to freedom, Nibbana. Realizing that a weak body could not do the work of freeing the mind, he abandoned the practice of fasting. But when he ate some rice and bread the five ascetics who had been his companions deserted him, thinking that he had "reverted to luxury." Some days later, having regained his strength, Siddhatta sat down under a Bo-tree near the river Neranjara and entered into meditation, making a strong determination not to rise until he'd reached enlightenment. At last, after meditating through the night, he saw the true nature of reality. By seeing the workings of his own mind and eliminating all traces of greed, hatred and delusion, he had touched an element immune to change or pain - the deathless element, nibbana. He was no longer Prince Siddhatta, but the Buddha Gotama, a Fully Awakened One. He saw that there had been many Buddhas before him and there would be more in the future. He knew, also, that any being who made the necessary effort was capable of becoming a Buddha, too.
The Buddha's first words after enlightenment were these: "Seeking but not finding the house builder, I traveled through the round of countless births. Oh, painful is birth ever and again! House builder you have now been seen. You shall not build the house again. Your rafters have been broken down; your ridge-pole is demolished too. My mind has now attained the unformed nibbana and reached the end of every kind of craving." (Dh. 153-54.)
The Buddha's realizations of ultimate reality were called, "The Four Noble Truths." But these truths were profound, subtle, and could only be seen after diligent effort. He doubted that others would understand them. But even as he was thinking this, a heavenly being descended to earth in order to persuade the Buddha to share his knowledge. Then in his mind's eye the Buddha saw the image of a lotus pool. He noted that, just as some flowers were sunk underwater while others rose above the surface, ready to open in the sun, so were the minds of beings at different levels; and some were ready to open in the light of dhamma (the truth or the law). Those beings would understand his teachings.
At the deer park in Isipatana (now Sarnath) he explained his discovery to his former companions, the five ascetics who had deserted him. Although skeptical at first, they proved willing to listen. Soon all five became enlightened. The Buddha spent the next four and-a-half decades spreading his teachings throughout India, explaining the Four Noble Truths and the Middle Way to all who were ready to understand them, regardless of wealth, sex, age or caste. His "dhamma" was open to everyone: penniless lepers and demons as well as kings. Such an attitude of equality was unheard of in that time and place. The Buddha taught monks, laymen, laywomen, murderers, spirits and heaven-beings about the suffering of life and the way to end that mental and physical distress. But he could not confer enlightenment; he could only show the way; each being, he explained, had to tread the path for him- or herself.
The Buddha was not an incarnate god, nor the mouthpiece of a god. He never claimed to be immortal or divine. Nor was his knowledge divinely inspired; it came from his personal realization of the truth. That liberating truth could only be found within. He urged his disciples to, "Be an island unto yourselves; be a refuge unto yourselves." No person, or natural or supernatural force, ruled over one's destiny.
Liberation from suffering, the Buddha taught, was something that anyone could gain through simple effort and persistence. It was hard work, yes; but the prize, nibbana, was priceless. The way to enlightenment lay in practicing what he termed the Middle Way and the Eight-fold path. The kingpin of that path was the practice of vipassana or insight meditation. By following that technique one could develop the knowledge to pierce through delusion and perceive all phenomena as they really were.
The Buddha never demanded blind allegiance from his disciples but advocated freedom of thought, constantly advising them to test his teachings for themselves, "... as the wise would test gold by burning, cutting, and rubbing it on a piece of touchstone." The embodiment of compassion, the Buddha preached nonviolence; he taught his disciples never to kill or harm another creature, not even an insect.
It's said that every morning he surveyed the world with his psychic "eye," looking for those he could help. Eventually the Buddha made a visit to his father's palace, to preach the dhamma for the benefit of his family. Many of his family members, including his former wife, father, stepmother, and son, became enlightened under his guidance. One day the Buddha fell gravely ill after eating a tainted dish called "hog's mincemeat." Characteristically, even though he was dying, the Buddha showed great compassion. He told his attendant that if Cunda, the man who'd offered the food, were to blame himself for the Buddha's death, the attendant was to console him and explain that he'd made great merit by offering the meal.
At the age of eighty the Buddha passed away in the village of Kusinara, his life a testament to the power of the human mind. His last words were an exhortation to his disciples: "All conditioned things are impermanent - strive on with diligence!"
Today, more than five-hundred million people continue to strive.
This essay Copyright © 2006 by Cynthia Thatcher