An introduction to Buddhism and Gothama Buddha, by Ven. Piyadassi Thera
The Buddha, the founder of the great religious philosophy of Buddhism, lived in North India over two thousand and five hundred years ago and was known as Siddhattha (Siddhartha = one whose purpose has been achieved). Gotama (Sanskrit= Gautama) was his family name. His father, King Suddhodana, ruled over the land of the Sakyans at Kapilavatthu on the Nepalese frontier. His queen was Mahamaya, a princess of the Koliyas.
On a full-moon day of May, when the trees were laden with leaf, flower and fruit, and man, bird and beast were in joyous mood, Queen Mahamaya was travelling in state from Kapilavatthu to Devadaha, her parental home, according to the custom of the times, to give birth to her child. But that was not to be, for halfway between the two cities, in the Lumbini grove, under the shade of a flowering Sal tree, she brought forth a son.
Lumbini or Rummindei, the name by which it is now known, is 100 miles north of Variinasi and within sight of the snowcapped Himalayas. At this memorable spot where Prince Siddhattha, the future Buddha, was born, Emperor Asoka, 316 years after the event, erected a mighty stone pillar to mark the holy spot. The inscription engraved on the pillar in five lines consists of ninety-three Asokan (brahmi) characters, amongst which occurs the following:
‘Hida Budhe jate Sakyamuni’, ‘Here was born the Buddha, the sage of the Sakyans’. The mighty column is still to be seen. The pillar, ‘as crisp as the day it was cut’, had been struck by lightning even when Hiuen Tsiang, the Chinese pilgrim, saw it towards the middle of the seventh century after Christ. The discovery and identification of the Lumbini park in I896 is attributed to the renowned archaeologist, General Cunningham.
Queen Mahamaya, the mother, passed away on the seventh day after the birth of her child, and the baby was nursed by his mother’s sister, Pajapati Gotami. Though the child was nurtured till manhood in refinement amid an abundance of material luxury, the father did not fail to give his son the education that a prince ought to receive. He became skilled in many a branch of knowledge, and in the arts of war easily excelled all other. Nevertheless, from his childhood the prince was given to serious contemplation. When the prince grew up the father’s fervent wish was that his son should marry, bring up a family and be his worthy successor; but he feared that the prince would one day give up home for the homeless life of an ascetic.
According to the custom of the time, at the early age of sixteen the prince was married to his cousin Yasodhara, the only daughter of King Suppabuddha and Queen Pamita of the Koliyas. The princess was of the same age as the prince. Lacking nothing of the earthly joys of life, he lived knowing nothing of sorrow. Yet all the efforts of the father to hold his son a prisoner to the senses and make him worldly-minded were of no avail. King Suddhodana’s endeavors to keep life’s miseries from his son’s inquiring eyes only heightened Prince Siddhattha’s curiosity and his resolute search for Truth and Enlightenment.
With the advance of age and maturity the prince began to glimpse the woes of the world. As the books say, he saw four visions: the first was a man weakened with age, utterly helpless; the second was the sight of a man mere skin and bones, supremely unhappy and forlorn, smitten with some pest; the third was the sight of a band of lamenting kinsmen bearing on their shoulders the corpse of one beloved for cremation. These woeful signs deeply moved him. The fourth vision, however, made a lasting impression. He saw a recluse, calm and serene, aloof and independent, and learnt that he was one who had abandoned his home to live a life of purity, to seek Truth and solve the riddle of life. Thoughts of renunciation flashed through the prince’s mind and in deep contemplation he turned homeward. The heartthrob of an agonized and ailing humanity found a responsive echo in his own heart. The more he came in contact with the world outside his palace walls, the more convinced he became that the world was lacking in true happiness. In the silence of that moonlit night (it was the full moon of July) such thoughts as these arose in him:
Youth, the prime of life, ends in old age and man’s senses fail him when they are most needed. The hale and hearty lose their vigour and health when disease suddenly creeps in. Finally death comes, sudden perhaps and unexpected, and puts an end to this brief span of life. Surely there must be an escape from this unsatisfactoriness, from aging and death.’
Thus the great intoxication of youth, of health, and of life left him. Having seen the vanity and the danger of the three intoxications, he was overcome by a powerful urge to seek and win the Deathless, to strive for deliverance from old age, illness, misery and death, to seek it for himself and for all beings that suffer. It was his deep compassion that led him to the quest ending in Enlightenment, in Buddhahood. It was compassion that now moved his heart towards the Great Renunciation and opened for him the doors of the golden cage of his home life. It was compassion that made his determination unshakable even by the last parting glance at his beloved wife asleep with their babe in her arms.
Now at the age of twenty-nine, in the flower of youthful manhood, on the day his beautiful Yasodhara, giving birth to his only son, Rahula, made the parting more sorrowful and heart-rending, he tore himself away – the prince with a superhuman effort of will renounced wife, child, father and a crown that held the promise of power and glory, and in the guise of an indigent ascetic retreated into forest solitude to seek the eternal verities of life. ‘In quest of the supreme security from bondage-Nibbana’.
This was the great renunciation. Dedicating himself to the noble task of discovering a remedy for life’s universal ill, he sought guidance from two famous sages, Nara Kimma and Uddaka Ramaputta, hoping that they, being masters of meditation, would show him the way to deliverance. He practiced concentration and reached the highest meditative attainments possible thereby, but was not satisfied with anything short of supreme enlightenment. Their range of knowledge, their ambit of mystical experience, however, was insufficient to grant him what he earnestly sought. He left them in turn in search of the still unknown.
In his wanderings he finally reached Uruvela, by the river Neranjara at Gaya. He was attracted by its quiet and dense groves and the clear waters of the river. Finding that this was a suitable place to continue his quest for enlightenment, he decided to stay.
Five other ascetics who admired his determined effort waited on him. They were Kondanna, Bhaddiya, Vappa, Mahanama and Assaji. There was, and still is, a belief in India among many of her ascetics that purification and final deliverance from ill can be achieved by rigorous self-mortification, and the ascetic Gotama decided to test the truth of it. And so there at Uruvela he began a determined struggle to subdue his body, in the hope that his mind, set free from the shackles of the body, might be able to soar to the heights of liberation. Most zealous was he in these practices.
He lived on leaves and roots, on a steadily reduced pittance of food, he wore rags from dust-heaps; he slept among corpses or on beds of thorns. The utter paucity of nourishment left him a physical wreck.
‘Rigorous have I been in my ascetic discipline. Rigorous have I been beyond all others. Like wasted, withered reeds ‘became all my limbs. . . .’ In such words as these, in later years, having attained to full enlightenment, did the Buddha give his disciples an awe-inspiring description of his early penances. Struggling thus, for six long years, he came to death’s very door, but he found himself no nearer to his goal. The utter futility of self-mortification became abundantly clear to him by his own experience; his experiment for enlightenment had failed. But undiscouraged, his still active mind searched for new paths to the aspired-for goal. Then it happened that he remembered the peace of his meditation in childhood under a rose-apple tree, and confidently felt: ‘This is the path to enlightenment’. He knew, however, that, with a body so utterly weakened as his, he could not follow that path with any chance of success. Thus he abandoned self-mortification and extreme fasting and took normal food. His emaciated body recovered its former health and his exhausted vigour soon returned. Now his five companions left him in their disappointment; for they thought that he had given up the effort to live a life of abundance.
Nevertheless with firm determination and complete faith in his own purity and strength, unaided by any teacher, accompanied by none, the Bodhisatta (as he is known before he attained enlightenment) resolved to make his final search in complete solitude. Cross-legged he sat under a tree, which later became known as the Bodhi tree, the ‘Tree of Enlightenment’ or ‘Tree of Wisdom’, on the Bank of the river Neraiijara, at Gayii (now known as BuddhaGaya)-‘a pleasant spot soothing to the senses and stimulating to the mind making the final effort with the inflexible resolution:
‘Though only my skin, sinews and bones remain, and my blood and flesh dry up and wither away, yet will I never stir from this seat until I have attained full enlightenment (samma-sam-hodhi).’ So indefatigable in effort, so unflagging in his devotion was he, and so resolute to realize Truth and attain full enlightenment.
Applying himself to the ‘Mindfulness on in-and-out Breathing’ (ana + pana sati), the meditation he had developed in his childhood, the Bodhisatta entered upon and dwelt in the first meditative absorption. By gradual stages he entered upon and dwelt in the second, third and the fourth jhanas. Thus cleansing his mind of impurities; with the mind thus composed, he directed it to the knowledge of recollecting past births. This was the first knowledge attained by him in the first watch of the night (6 p.m. to 10 p.m.).
Then the Bodhisatta directed his mind to the knowledge of the disappearing and reappearing of beings of varied forms, in good states of existence, and in states of woe, each faring according to his deeds (cuti + upapata). This was the second knowledge attained by him in the middle watch of the night (10 p.m. to 2 a.m.). Next he directed his mind to the knowledge of the destruction of the taints. He understood as it really is: This is suffering (dukkha), this is the arising of suffering, this is the cessation of suffering, this is the path leading to the cessation of suffering.’ He understood as it really is: These are the taints, this is the arising of the taints, this is the cessation of the taints, this is the path leading to the cessation of the taints.
Knowing thus, seeing thus, his mind was liberated from the taints: of sense-pleasures, of becoming and of ignorance (avijjiisava). When his mind was thus liberated, there came the knowledge: ‘liberated’ and he understood:
Destroyed is birth, the noble life (brahma cariyam) has been lived, done is what was to be done, there is no more of this to come (meaning, there is no more continuity of the mind and body, that is, no more becoming, rebirth). This was the third knowledge attained by him in the last watch of the night (2 a.m. to 6 a.m.).’ Thereon he spoke these words of victory:
‘Being myself subject to birth, ageing, disease, death, sorrow and defilement; seeing danger in what is subject to these things; seeking the unborn, unageing, diseaseless, deathless, sorrowless, undefiled, supreme security from bondage-Nibbana, I attained it (literally I experienced it). Knowledge and vision arose in me; unshakable is my deliverance of mind. This is the last birth, now there is no more becoming, no more rebirth. Thus did the Bodhisatta Gotama on another full moon of May, at the age of thirty-five, attain Supreme Enlightenment, by comprehending in all their fullness the Four Noble Truths, the Eternal Verities, and become the Buddha, the great Healer and Consummate Master-Physician (bhirakko) who can cure the ills of beings.
For a week, immediately after this enlightenment, the Buddha sat at the foot of the Bodhi tree experiencing the bliss of deliverance. Then he thought over the Dependent Arising (paticca samuppada). The Blessed One then spent six more weeks in lonely retreat at six different places in the vicinity of the Bodhi tree. At the end of the seven weeks, he made up his mind to communicate the Dhamma, his, discovery of the Ancient Path (puranam maggam), to his former friends, the five ascetics. Knowing that they were living at Varanasi in the deer park at Isipatana, the Resort of Seers (modern Sarnath), still steeped in the unmeaning rigours of extreme asceticism, the Buddha left Gaya for distant Varanasi, India’s holy city, walking by stages some 150 miles.
There at the deer park (migadaya) he rejoined them. Now on a full moon day of July, at eventide, when the moon was rising in a glowing Eastern sky, the Blessed One addressed the five ascetics:’Monks, these two extremes ought not to be cultivated by the recluse, by one gone forth from the house-life. What two? Sensual indulgence and self-mortification which lead to no good. The middle way, understood by the Tathagata,’ the Perfect One, after he had avoided the extremes, gives vision, and knowledge, and leads to calm, realization, enlightenment, Nibbana. And what, monks, is that middle way? It is this Noble Eightfold Path, namely:
right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.
Then the Buddha explained to them the Four Noble Truths. Thus did the Enlightened One proclaim the Dhamma and set in motion the matchless ‘Wheel of Truth’ (anuttararm dhammachakkam). With the proclamation of the Dhamma, for the first time, and with the conversion of the five ascetics, the deer park at Isipatana (Sarnath) became the birth place of the Buddha’s Dispensation (Buddha-sasana), and of the Sangha, the community of monks, the ordained disciples. Before long fifty-five others headed by Yasa, a young man of wealth, joined the order of the Sangha. When the rains ended (vassana, July-October), the Buddha addressed his disciples, the Accomplished Ones (arahats), now sixty in number and said:
‘Released am I, monks, from all ties whether human or divine. You also are delivered from fetters whether human or divine. Go now and wander for the welfare and happiness of many out of compassion for the world, for the gain, welfare and happiness of gods and men. Let not two of you proceed in the same direction.
Proclaim the Dhamma (doctrine) that is excellent in the beginning, excellent in the middle, excellent in the end, possessed of meaning and the letter and utterly perfect. Proclaim the life of purity, the holy life consummate and pure. There are beings with little dust in their eyes who will be lost through not hearing the Dhamma. There are beings who will understand the Dhamma. I also shall go to Uruvela, to Senanigama to teach the Dhamma.”
Thus did the Buddha commence his sublime mission which lasted to the end of his life. With his disciples he walked the highways and byways of Jambudipa, Land of the rose apple (another name for India), enfolding all within the aura of his boundless compassion and wisdom.