Friday, May 15, 2020

Story of Shakyamuni Buddha; edited by Amber Larson, Dhr. Seven, Pat Macpherson, Wisdom Quarterly
"Enlightenment" mural scene with devis at Bodhgaya Temple, India (Marianna Rydvald)

The historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama or "the Sage of the Scythians" (Shakyamuni), lived in what became northwest India (Gandhara, Central Asia, now partitioned into Afghanistan and Pakistan), between 563 and 483 BC. 

As a "Buddha-to-be" (bodhisattva) he was reborn through many existences before coming to Earth for his final awakening to make an end of rebirth. That last lifetime began as the son of the king of a Scythian (Shakyian, Sakka, Shakya) tribe, King Suddhodana, who ruled territory -- the "foothold of the familial clan" (janapada) -- from Kapilavastu (Kabul, Afghanistan).

He was born in a garden grove called Lumbini as his mother, Queen Maya, traveled back to her parents' home to give birth, as was the ancient custom in the region. He was reborn into what Brahmins labelled a kshatriya or "warrior noble" tribe generally called the Shakyas, as the sage from that tribe of non-Hindus living as nomads in the great frontier of Central Asia that was in ancient times part of Great Bharat, which came to be called India centuries later when Emperor Asokha united disparate kingdoms and territories.

According to ancient tradition his mother first had an auspicious dream of a rare white double-tusker elephant coming down into her womb and entering from the side. This was interpreted as a sign that a universal emperor, a world ruler, was about to be reborn. When her time came, Queen Maya went into Lumbini garden and gave painless birth to the Bodhisattva. The story has been embellished to say he immediately walked, spoke, and was received by Brahma.

Five days later, the young prince was named "Siddhartha." When his parents took him to the Brahmin priests, there were great rejoicings of the people over the arrival of the illustrious prince. Also at this time an old seer named Asita came down from the Himalayas to meet the newborn prince.

Asita was an ascetic with high spiritual attainments, and he was particularly pleased to hear this happy news. Having been a tutor to the king, he visited the palace to see the royal baby. The king, who felt honored by this unexpected visit, carried the child up to him for the child to pay Asita due reverence. To the surprise of all, the child's legs turned and rested on the matted locks of the ascetic.

Instantly, the ascetic rose from his seat and -- recognizing in the young child the 80 signs of a great person and foreseeing with his supernormal psychic vision the child's future greatness -- saluted the baby with clasped hands. The royal father followed suit. The great ascetic smiled then was sad.

Questioned regarding his mingled feelings, he answered that he smiled because the prince would eventually become a fully enlightened teacher (a buddha), and he was sad because he himself would not live to see it and benefit from the baby's wisdom when he became the "Awakened One" in the future, owing to his prior death before then and his rebirth in one of the formless planes (as a result of a high but unenlightened spiritual attainment, the mastery of a certain meditative absorption).

After seven days his mother Queen Maya died. Her place was taken by her sister, Queen Prajapati Gotami, whose devotion and love for the prince became legendary. (She would later become the world's first Buddhist nun).

When the young prince was 12 years old, the king called together a council of wise Brahmins. They revealed that Prince Siddhartha would devote himself not to popular rule but to solitary asceticism if he realized that the world is full of aging, sickness, suffering, and death — and if he were to meet a wandering ascetic that had renounced and left the world behind.

Wanting his son to be a universal monarch (chakravartin ruler) instead, the king surrounded the palace with a triple enclosure and guard and proclaimed that the use of the words death and grief were forbidden. At the age of 16 the most beautiful princess in the land, Yasodhara (his 16-year-old cousin Bimba, who later became the nun Ven. Bhaddhakaccana), was found for his bride. After Prince Siddhartha proved himself in many tournaments of strength and prowess, the two were wed.

The prince was kept amused and entertained for some time by his privileged life behind the palace walls until one day his innate purpose awoke in him. He decided to visit the nearby town. The king called for everything to be swept and decorated and for all ugly or sad sights to be removed.

But these precautions were in vain, for while Prince Siddhartha was travelling through the streets, an old and very wrinkled man appeared before him. In astonishment the young prince learned that decrepitude is the fate of those who live life through.

Still later he met an incurable invalid and then a funeral procession. Finally, his karma or devas placed in his path a wandering ascetic, who told Prince Siddhartha that he had renounced and left the world behind to get beyond suffering and sensual joy, to attain peace of mind and heart.

Confirmed in his meditation, all these experiences awakened in Prince Siddhartha the idea of abandoning his luxurious life to embrace wandering asceticism. He opened his heart to his father and said, "Everything in the world is changing and decaying. Let me go off alone like the wandering ascetic."

Grief stricken at the idea of losing his son just as the seers had warned, the king doubled the guard around the walls and increased the pleasures and distractions within. At the age of 29, Princess Yasodhara gave birth to a son, who was named Rahula (meaning "chain" or "fetter"), which indicated Prince Siddhartha Gautama's sense of dissatisfaction with being trapped in this life of luxury and futility ignoring reality. But the birth of a son evoked in him much tenderness and attachment.

His apparent sense of dissatisfaction turned to disillusionment when he saw three things from the window of his palace, each of which represented different forms human suffering: a decrepit old man, a diseased man, and a corpse.

But even this could not stop the troubling thoughts in his heart or close his eyes to the realization of the impermanence of all life and the vanity and instability of all objects of sense desire.

His mind made up and renounced the world. When he became the Buddha six or seven years later, he retold the story of his life of luxury as a prince and how and why he renounced it for a life of spiritual seeking.

In telling and retelling this story, adding details, he told the story of a previous buddha. Somehow nearly everyone has misunderstood and taken this to be the story of what happened to him. But the sutra very clearly states that it was a buddha from long ago who awoke one night and, casting one last look at his wife and child, mounted his horse and rode off accompanied by his charioteer.

The details of the historical Buddha's life have been confounded with the story of that previous buddha. And even people like Buddhist monastics, scholars, and meditation teachers who should know better, repeat it without checking the texts. So the exact details of how he came to leave are told in various sutras, but the Buddha's life story is not personal. It is told as an allegory of all our lives.

That previous buddha did leave his wife behind to a life of luxury in the palace with the newborn heir to the throne, the new prince. But the historical Buddha's wife knew he was leaving, knew why, knew where he was going and what he was doing. She emulated him in the palace. When she found out he was only wearing saffron robes, she started to dress that way. When she learned he was not using a bed, she took to sleeping on the floor and so on.

His father and foster mother, Queen Maya's co-wife, her sister the chief consort and queen, knew it as well. The king sent messengers to try to talk his son into abandoning this whole spiritual quest nonsense and to get back to work as a ruler. But the wandering ascetic Siddhartha was not interested in any of that and could not be convinced to give up his spiritual and meditative pursuits, which he had followed in many previous lives.

In any case, having abandoned the throne and left the palace, the new wandering ascetic entered a hermitage where Brahmins accepted him as a disciple. Prince Siddhartha had disappeared, and now the shramana or wandering ascetic Gautama studied with two meditation teachers, first the yogi Alara Kalama then the more famous yogi Ramaputra.

For years he studied their meditation techniques and doctrines (dharmas) until, having mastered them fully and become disillusioned, he wandered and fasted and performed austerities, assuming this way the way to enlightenment and the cure for the problem of suffering.

His teachers had shown him how to reach very deep states of meditative absorption (jhana, samadhi). This did not, however, lead to enlightenment, the end of rebirth and suffering, or true knowledge-and-vision of things. They gave temporary peace, so he abandoned the practice of deep meditation in favor of a life of extreme asceticism, which five companions joined him in pursuing.

But again after some time of extreme self-mortification, he felt he had failed to achieve true insight and actual liberation from ignorance, rebirth, and suffering. So he rejected such practices as harmful and ultimately futile. He companions mistakenly thought he had given up the quest, so they abandoned him thinking he was returning to a life of luxury.

Resolved to continue his quest, he made his way to a grove, in present day Bodh Gaya, Bihar, India. Here he sat beneath a tree meditating on death and rebirth. Discovering that excessive fasts were destroying his strength, he realized that just as he had transcended earthly luxuries, must next transcend severe asceticism.

Weak and alone from excessive penances and body-destroying practices, he took solid food and was nursed back to health by a kind woman named Sujata and her servant. Having regained his health and strength, he went to another grove, bathed in the river, and sat beneath another kind of tree, what came to the bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa), a pippala or "sacred fig tree," and determined to not rise without first winning the wisdom he sought.

A mara or demonic spirit (a kind of Tempter figure like Lucifer or the serpent in the Garden of Eden with the temperament of an ogre or yakkha protecting his treasured sensuality), fearing Gautama's power to find a way out of rebirth in the Sensual Sphere (of which Mara is a high-born deva or "angel" or "being of light," lit. "a shining one"), sent his three beautiful daughters to distract him.
  • This is figurative, as his daughters are named "Craving," "Dejection," and "Lust," Tanha, Arati, and Raga, in the Buddha-Carita (xiii.) Ratī, Prītī, Trsnā, and in the Lal. (353) Ratī, Aratī, and Trsnā). These names are from the Samyutta Nikāya (S.i.124f.; given also at Lal. 490 (378); cp. A.v.46; see also DhA.iii.195f ). In the Dhītaro Sutra they are represented as tempting the Buddha after his enlightenment. Their names are evidently personifications of three of the ten forces in Māra's army, as given in the Padhāna Sutra. They assume numerous forms of varying age and charm, full of blandishment, but their attempts are in vain, and they are obliged to admit defeat. When Māra came to be regarded as the spirit of evil in Buddhism, which is not how he was originally thought of, all temptations of lust, fear, greed, and so on were regarded as his activities. And Māra was represented as assuming various disguises in order to carry out his nefarious plans and temptations. The texts mention various occasions when Māra appeared before the Buddha and his disciples, male and female, to lure them away from their chosen spiritual path.
When that failed, Mara sent an army of ogres to destroy him. Finally, Mara attacked the Buddha with a terrible weapon capable of cleaving a mountain. But all this was useless, and the motionless Buddha sat in meditation.
It was here that he attained the knowledge of the way things really are. It was through this knowledge that Siddhartha Gautama acquired the title the Buddha (meaning "the Awakened One").

This awakening or enlightenment was reached during a night of meditation, which passed through various stages as the illumination he had sought slowly arose in his heart/consciousness. He knew the condition of all beings and the karmic causes of their rebirths. He saw beings live, die, and be reborn according to their well-done and ill-done deeds (actions = karma).

In meditating on human suffering, he awakened about both its origin and the means of bringing about its complete destruction. The complete end of ignorance is called awakening or enlightenment (bodhi), and the complete end of suffering is called nirvana.

In this first stage of awakening, he saw his countless previous births and understood the chain of cause and effect factors that led him along goaded by craving (lust, greed), fettered by ignorance (delusion, wrong views), and stymied by aversion (hatred, anger).

In the second stage he surveyed the rebirth and redeath of all living beings in the Round of Rebirth (samsara) and understood the karmic law or governing standard operating in this impersonal Cycle of Birth and Death.

In the third he identified the Four Noble Truths:
  1. the universality of suffering (disappointment)
  2. the cause of suffering (conditioned by ignorance and craving)
  3. the solution to suffering (nirvana)
  4. the way to overcome all suffering (the path).
The fourth truth is the Noble Eightfold Path, the eight factors consisting of wisdom (right views, right intention), virtue (right speech, right action, right livelihood), and mental discipline (right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration), which ultimately lead to liberation from the causes of all suffering.

When daylight came, Siddhartha Gautama had attained perfect awakening and had become a buddha with the ability to teach and establish knowledge of the path to awakening.

The rays or aura emanating from his body shone to the boundaries of space. He stayed in meditation for seven more days. Then for four more weeks he stayed by the tree that he had awakened under. Through this process of great enlightenment (maha bodhi, the awakening to Buddhahood) he discovered that all sentient beings in this universal life possess the ability to eventually awaken and are all potential arhats (enlightened beings) or buddhas (supremely-enlightened beings with the ability to teach).

From that point on he had two alternate paths. He could enter the bliss of nirvana immediately and give up all troubles, or else he could stay and spread the teaching of the path to enlightenment.

After considering it for a time, Brahma came in person to ask him to teach the Dharma rather than simply keeping the knowledge he rediscovered to himself. The Buddha yielded and stayed on in the world.

For 45 years he traveled and taught the path to wisdom about the force of compassion, mindfulness, virtue, concentration (coherence of mind through the meditative absorptions called "right concentration" or samma samadhi) and the destruction of all ignorance.

Although initially hesitant to attempt to share so subtle a Dharma, a Teaching (about the nature of reality and the way to direct insight and realization of the truth for oneself depending on no teacher's beliefs), on the grounds that devas and humans were not likely to be interested in giving desire, aversion, and delusion -- preferring their lust, resentments, and wrong views -- the Buddha decided to communicate what he found to those willing to listen.

He chose as his first students the five wandering ascetic companions with whom he had lived when he followed his extreme asceticism. To them he taught his first discourse or sutra in the Deer Park at Isipatana in Benares (on the banks of the Ganges in the ancient city of Varanasi), outlining to them a teaching now encapsulated as the Four Noble Truths.

From this small group of wandering ascetics, the community of monastics (or Buddhist sangha) grew to about 60 fully enlightened disciples. It would come to include his foster mother, wife, son or sons (Ananda in some traditions being his son from a harem woman named Mrgri, and Rahula being his son from his wife Bimba Devi, popularly known as Rahulamata), cousins, other Scythians. While his father did not ordain as a monk, he did attain a stage of realization before passing away thanks to the Buddha's teaching.

Later, the Buddha was persuaded by the woman who raised him as his adoptive mother, Queen Prajapati, to accept females into the sangha. This followed Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, allowing women into his wandering ascetic school, but was always in line with his stated goal that his mission would not be accomplished until he had established a full sangha, which had to include female monastics and lay disciples. Buddhism therefore became the first world-religion in history to accept women.

The remaining 45 years of the Buddha's life were spent journeying around what is now north and northwestern India and back to Central Asia, alongside the Ganges and other great rivers like the lost Saraswati, teaching devas and humans.

Basic teachings

"There are two extremes to be avoided -- a wasted life of hedonistic pleasure, which is low and ignoble, unworthy and useless, and runs counter to awakening, and a life of extreme austerity, which is sad, unworthy, and useless for awakening.

"Perfect realization has kept its distance from these two extremes and has found the Middle Way [that avoids these two extremes and] that leads to repose, knowledge, illumination, and nirvana.

"So here is the enlightening (i.e., noble) truth about suffering (disappointment): Birth, old age, sickness, death, and separation from all we love are 'suffering.'

"And this is the origin of suffering: It is [ignorance firstly and the] craving (thirst) for pleasure, craving for eternal existence, craving for annihilation.

"And here is the truth about the cessation of suffering: It is the extinction of this craving by its destruction [through wisdom].

"Letting go (giving), knowledge, and virtue are possessions that cannot be lost. To do a little good is worth more than accomplishing works of a difficult nature. The perfect person is so by radiating kindness on all creatures, consoling the abandoned. This Dharma is a doctrine of compassion. The way of liberation is open to all. Destroy passions as the elephant would trample a reed hut. But know that it is a mistaken idea to believe that one can escape one's passions by taking shelter in hermitages. The only remedy against harmful karma is a healthy knowing-and-seeing of reality."

So the Buddha wandered [knowing "Not all wander are lost"] and taught all able to listen. He performed many miracles but saw danger in doing so so avoided it as much as possible. He returned to Central Asia and converted his family and many Scythian followers [in what are now called the Stans].

During his life he taught that no one was to succeed him as leader of the sangha. Instead, his teach, the Dharma, was to become the "teacher." The sutras and monastic disciplinary rules were to become the guide he worked 45 years in establishing so as to not need his presence. These were to become the sole guides, taking oneself as a guide, enlightened disciples, and the teachings handed down first orally then written, and from practitioner to practitioner since that time.

By the time the Buddha reached the age of 80, he began to feel the ill effects of aging. He visited all the monasteries he had founded and prepared to meet his final liberation from death, rebirth, and suffering.

Before his final nirvana, he was severely ill from eating mushrooms. He journeyed with his attendant Ananda northwest to the banks of the river Hiranyavati, walking with disciples, and ate an offering of truffles ("pig's delight") by the blacksmith Cunda.

He saw that no one would be able to digest them (presumably because they were some form of toxic fungi). In the end, he came to the river and bathed. Then he set down a robe between twin sal trees. He positioned his body in the lion's posture, lying down on his right side with his right hand supporting his head, the other resting on his body, and a rolled robe tucked under his right arm.

This reclining posture is how he reclined into nirvana and became a popular motif indicating his final attainment of peace and the end of suffering.

The Buddha's disciples kept watch on him after they were told he was to attain "final nirvana" (parinirvana). That night as countless devas gathered around and many disciples also came to see him, a Brahmin scholar came to ask a question. But he was stopped by the Buddha's attendant disciple, Ananda.

Hearing Ananda turn him away, the Buddha requested him to allow him to ask. The scholar Subhadda approached and asked. Therefore, he became the Buddha's last disciple. The Buddha said to his disciples that they should not be sorry but instead take their guidance from the "Threefold Guidance" (ti-sarana) from the "Three Jewels" (ti-ratana) of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, the three most precious things in the world because they guide any followers to the end of all suffering. Disciples were to become "lamps or islands unto themselves" with these three guides pointing the way. Their awakening depended on their doing and no one else.

The Buddha spoke one last time with his final exhortation. "Do not say, 'We have no teacher now.' The Dharma I have made known will be your guide when I have gone. Listen, I implore you: All conditioned things are hurtling toward destruction. Work out your liberation with diligence."

With these final words the Buddha went into the meditative absorptions (stages of jhana). Going from level to level, step by step, one after the other, he moved more deeply and returned. He started with ecstasy. Then he came out of the first meditative absorption and into the second, back and forth. An enlightened monk proficient in the psychic powers was able to discern this and explain what was happening in real time. Then the Buddha passed into final nirvana, leaving nothing whatsoever remaining that can cause rebirth again in this or any other world.

The Buddha's remains were cremated in accordance with ancient tradition of how to treat the remains of a universal monarch, as became the Buddhist tradition for all arhats, building a stupa or tope over the relics.

This great passing, like his birth and attainment of awakening, occurred about 483 BC on the full moon day of the ancient month of Vesak.

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