The word Buddha’ means enlightened one’ or ‘awakened one’. The Buddha is also referred to as the Tathagata’ or the thus gone one’, which means the one who has achieved enlightenment. Buddhism has the notion of not just one Buddha but many. The historical Buddha is just one of these and is referred to as Sakyamuni, meaning sage of the Sakyas’. The Sakyas were the tribe that the Buddha and his family belonged to.
The cradle of Buddhism was the Ganges basin, a region that is to be found in north-eastern India . During the fifth century BCE much of this land was forested but agriculture was developing quite rapidly and hence there was a certain degree of deforestation. Rice was grown extensively but fresh fruit of various kinds could be gathered from the forests. These could be quite dangerous places (the threat of wild animals and bandits, for example) but the forest was also a place of great beauty and could afford a place of solitude for those who wished to develop their spirituality in isolation. At the same time, population was increasing and cities and towns were becoming increasingly more urbanised.
The principal religion of the time was Brahminism. The key figures of authority in this religion were the Brahmins (or priests). The key practices were animal sacrifice and chanting, through which means the universe, they believed, was sustained. The Brahmins were powerful figures and had the highest status within society at this time. Some were very devout and practised various austerities; others were less so. In addition to Brahminism, there was also a tradition of ascetics known as samanas who would put themselves through rigorous fasting and sometimes wandered around naked. Ideas about reincarnation and karma (or kamma) the doctrine that good deeds lead to happy states and bad deeds lead to unhappy ones were prevalent at that time.
The Buddha’s historical name was Siddhartha Gautama (or P: Siddhattha Gotama). Although the precise date of his birth is not known, the consensus of opinion puts it between 400 and 480 BCE. He was born in a small village called Lumbini which was situated in the foothills of the Himalayas in what is present-day Nepal . The largest city was Kapilavastu which, along with the province of Kosala , was governed by the Buddha’s father, Suddhodana. The Buddha’s mother, Mahamaya, died a week after giving birth and the maternal role was taken by his mother’s sister, Mahapajapati.
Within Buddhist literature there are a number of more elaborate versions of Siddhartha’s birth. One describes how the Buddha descended from Tusita, one of the Buddhist heavens, and entered his mother’s womb. From this point, his mother was incapable of wrongdoing. After a ten- month pregnancy, the Buddha emerged unsullied’ by the bodily fluids that normally attend childbirth. As soon as he was born, he stood firmly with his feet on the ground; then he took seven steps north, and with a white parasol held over him, he surveyed each quarter and uttered the words: “I am the highest in the world; I am the best in the world; I am the foremost in the world. This is my last birth.”
As his father was wealthy, Siddhartha’s childhood and youth were characterised by the luxury and privilege one would expect: I enjoyed myself…I had three palaces, one for the rainy season, one for the winter, and one for the summer. I lived in the rains’ palace for the four months of the rainy season, enjoying myself with musicians who were all female.
But despite such wealth, privilege and access to all that was pleasurable, Siddhartha was deeply dissatisfied. His marriage to Yasodhara, a local princess at sixteen, did nothing to alleviate this and nor did the birth of a son, Rahula thirteen years later.
As might be expected, Siddhartha became curious about the world beyond the palace grounds and had his groom, Channa, take him out to see what was there. On the first occasion he saw a sick man. On the second occasion he saw an old man; and on the third occasion he saw a corpse. The effect on Siddhartha was profound. What these sights confirmed in his mind that all the wealth, privilege and pleasure he had experienced was temporary. Nothing could hold out against the inevitable onslaught of old age, sickness and death. It was the destiny of each and every individual. On the fourth occasion, he saw a holy man and had the urge to leave his life of privilege behind and become one too. If there was a way out of this underlying suffering then this was perhaps it!
It was with this intent that one night, Siddhartha looked at his sleeping wife and child and crept out of the palace in to a new life in which winning enlightenment was his only goal, a life in which he would be free of family ties and responsibilities. He was twenty-nine years old and would spend the next six years searching for enlightenment.
It was with mixed emotions no doubt Siddhartha set out for his new life – sadness perhaps at leaving his family, especially his wife and new-born son, yet uplifted in the sense that the true purpose of life had at last begun. What happened during these six years can only be summarised. It is certain that Siddhartha experimented with many austere and indeed life-threatening practices including fasting to the extreme: So I took very little food, a handful each time.While I did so, my body reached a state of extreme emaciation. Because of eating so little my limbs became like jointed segments of vine stems or bamboo stems. The assumption was that denying the body comfort and pleasure were conducive to spiritual endeavour.
During this period Siddhartha joined up with five fellow seekers, notably Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta and through them came to some deeper understanding than he had attained to up to this point. But despite what he learned through these teachers, he realised that ultimate deliverance from the state of suffering eluded him. All his austerities had not let to the desired end. Instead, he felt exhausted and frustrated. Despite all his endeavours, he was still far from ultimate knowledge.
Where could he go from here? He had left all that was comfortable and secure behind him. He had sought out the most experienced seekers he could find. He had driven his body to almost unendurable limits. Yet still he had not found what he sought.
It was at this point that he remembered a time in his youth when he had been sitting idly under a rose-apple tree while his father worked in the fields. For a moment, he slipped into a trance-like state which was full of joy and calm. This state had nothing to do with sensory pleasure but seemed to be something much more profound. When my father was occupied, while I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, I entered upon and abided in the first jhana (a state of deep meditation). He came to the sudden realisation that this was the path to enlightenment.
From this point on he changed his approach. He came to understand that an emaciated body is a tired body. To win through to enlightenment it was necessary to maintain the body in a healthy state to generate the energy that sustained meditation would require. He also realised that pleasure that was wholesome’ and did not have its basis in sensual attachment was in fact a sign of progress. He started to eat properly again and, after a while, restored his body to its natural state. (It is for this reason that Buddhism is often referred to as the Middle Way ‘, as it avoids extreme self-mortification on the one hand and over-indulgence on the other.) His fellow seekers and former teachers were disappointed in him. They thought he had gone soft’ and was no longer serious in his quest for enlightenment. Siddhartha ignored this and continued in his own way, hoping that he had finally found the right method that would lead him to enlightenment.
At the age of thirty-five Siddhartha came to a small place in northern India known as Bodh Gaya. He placed himself at the foot of the tree and sitting cross-legged began to meditate. He vowed at that point not to arise from his seat until he had won through to enlightenment, even if it meant he sat there till he wasted away. He sat there for seven days.
During this period of meditation he came to realise fully and irrevocably the true nature of existence. He saw that his present life was just one in a long succession of previous lives. He saw that it was the same for others too and that each being was reborn according to their actions. Those who had done good in their lives were reborn into happy states and those that had done bad things were born into unhappy states. This was the law of action’ or karma ( or kamma). Thirdly, he saw that the world of suffering was fuelled by craving or selfish desire’. Most importantly, he also realised that there was a state of perfect bliss, indescribable in words, where there was no suffering whatsoever. This he called Nirvana (or P: Nibbana). He also saw that there is a practical method for attaining Nirvana, namely, the Noble Eightfold Path. Finally, he saw that there was no such thing as a permanent self or soul.
In Siddhartha’s enlightenment experience lies the essence of Buddhist teaching. But now that he had won through to enlightenment, now that he had reached Nirvana, what next?
Siddhartha was now a Buddha, an enlightened one. The traditional story, however, has the Buddha facing a dilemma. Principally, should he share his newly acquired knowledge with others or keep it to himself? His initial thoughts were that what he had discovered would be too difficult for others to understand: This truth I have attained is profound, hard to see and hard to understand, peaceful and sublime, unattainable by mere reasoning, subtle, to be experienced by the wise. He also felt that mankind was too absorbed in worldly affairs and that his knowledge would not be perceived by those who live in lust and hate.
One account describes how the compassionate deity Sahampati appeared to him and persuaded him to share his teachings for the benefit of others: let the blessed one teach the Dhamma.There are beings with little dust in their eyeswho will understand. The Buddha listened to the deity’s pleas and saw for himself beings with little dust in their eyes and with much dust in their eyes, with keen faculties and dull faculties, with good qualities and bad qualities, easy to teach and hard to teach. Surveying the world, the Buddha realised that there were those who could benefit from his teaching.
After spending several weeks at Bodh Gaya he decided that he would share his knowledge with those he thought would have most chance of understanding it. So he returned to those who had been his fellow seekers in the six years of his searching and revealed his teaching to them.
As he approached them, their first instinct was to shun him. After all, this was the man who had turned his back on the austerities that were required of a true seeker. But as he got nearer to them they recognised that a radical change had taken place. It was there in the Deer Park at Benares that the Buddha delivered his first sermon. In it he expounded the four noble truths the very heart of his teaching. These were: the noble truth of suffering…the noble truth of the origin of suffering…the noble truth of the cessation of suffering…the noble truth leading the way to the cessation of suffering. This episode in the Buddha’s life is often referred to as the turning of the wheel of dharma’.
For the next forty-five years, the Buddha spent his time as a wandering monk, teaching to all who wished to listen. Except for a plot on his life from his cousin, Devadatta, the outward facts of his life appear to be relatively undramatic. The scriptures focus more on what the Buddha said than what he did. What is revealed is that there was nothing dogmatic about his approach. He invited those who were interested to put his teachings to the test through their own endeavours. In the early Buddhist scriptures the Buddha is often depicted demolishing the arguments against his teachings through a combination of logic and analogy. At all times, he comes across as someone with great patience and great authority, as a man who has seen and therefore knows. He is also able to adapt his teachings to suit different audiences, sophisticated and profound or simple and direct, depending on those who he was talking to.
In addition to teaching on morality, the Buddha also gave very precise instructions on different meditation techniques, which he saw as necessary for gaining insight into the true nature of reality. As well as encouraging his followers to seek wisdom, the Buddha also placed great emphasis on compassion and loving-kindness.
The Buddha’s death is referred to as his parinirvana (or P: parinibbana) because it signified his final entrance into Nirvana, the bliss and peace that is beyond selfish desire and suffering. In the months before he died in a small village called Kusinara, he addressed Ananda, one of his most devoted followers. You should live as islands unto yourselves, being your own refuge, with no-one else as your refuge, with the Dharma (or teachings) as an island, with the Dharma as your refuge, with no other refuge. His final words to his followers were All things are impermanent, strive on with diligence.