Vesak! A Brief History of Buddha
Siddhartha was born in the current city of Lumbini, in modern-day Nepal. In 544 B.C., the city was called Kapilavattu, and the area was ruled by an aristocratic king named Suddhodana. Suddhodana married two sisters from the same clan (Sakya), Mahamaya and Prajapati Gotami. They were married for a long time but unable to conceive a child. One night, queen Mahamaya had a vivid dream. She dreamt that she was carried away by four spirits to a Lake in the Himalayas. After bathing her in the lake, the spirits dressed her in heavenly clothes and covered her with perfumes and flowers. Soon after, a white elephant, holding a white lotus flower in its trunk, appeared and went round her three times, entering her womb through her right side.
The next day, the queen told the king about the dream. The king summoned eight Brahmins, erudite in prophesy, to discover the meaning of the dream.
The Brahmins explained to the king that they will have a son. If the son leads a palace life, he will become a universal monarch. If the son leaves his home and goes forth as a homeless ascetic, he will become a Buddha.
As Mahamaya’s delivery was near, she desired to go to her parent's home to give birth. On her way to her father’s city, the entourage had to pass through a grove of Sal trees. This grove was known as the Lumbini Grove. Attracted to the blossomed trees, she got off the coach and reached up to a flowerful branch. The scripture says the branch bent towards her and she then goes into labor, delivering the child holding to the branch of a Sal tree in a standing position.
The entourage returns to the palace. The son’s birth was celebrated with a great ceremony. On the fifth day of the son’s birth, the King invited five Brahmins for the naming ceremony. The Brahmins named him Siddhartha - One who has accomplished a goal.
His mother, Mahamaya, dies seven days after giving birth. From there on, the stepmother, Prajapati Gotami, would raise Siddhartha. Siddhartha would go on to live quite a luxurious life, enjoying a lifestyle fit for a king. At the age of eight, Siddhartha started his education in Vedas, Upanishads, and mastered the philosophical and military education suited for a king.
Siddhartha grew up in the company of his half-brother, Nanda (son of Suddhodana and born to Prajapati Gotami), and cousins.
At the age of sixteen, Siddhartha was invited by a King from a neighboring country, along with other young aristocratic men of neighboring lands, to meet the King’s daughter. Among them, Yashodara picked Siddhartha to marry. Siddhartha and Yashodara married when they were both sixteen.
To prevent the prophecy of Siddhartha becoming Buddha, his father distracted and involved his son’s life in the ultimate pleasures of his palaces. But the prince was not content with life. He felt unfulfilled. When Yashodara was nine months pregnant, Siddhartha told his father, "I must go out of the palace gate and see how other people live."
The Four Sights
The king consented and Siddhartha was paraded in horse chariot through the streets.
1. He noticed a man with gray hair, wrinkled skin, slightly bent, and with a cane. He inquired from his charioteer, Channa. Channa explained about getting old and that everyone will grow old. Siddhartha felt sad and thought to himself, “If we all grow old and feeble, why does everyone seem so happy and delighted?”
2. Next, he noticed a man on the ground, crying in pain with a rash all over his body. He inquired from his charioteer, Channa. Channa explained that he was a sick man. “Everyone in the world gets sick sometimes and it can happen anytime.” Siddhartha felt sorry for the man and thought to himself, “If we all are prone to getting sick and in pain, why does everyone seem so happy and delighted?”
3. Next, he saw four men carrying a body wrapped in white linen on a plank, with several people walking behind them crying. He asked Channa to follow the crowd. The crowd came to a bank of the river, set the wrapped-up body on a pile of stacked wood, and then set it on fire. “Why was that body wrapped in linen and why was it set on fire?” asked the prince. Channa replied that it was a dead body and burning is the ritual. “Everyone dies”, Channa replied. “Everyone?” said the prince. “Yes, all living things die”, Channa said. Siddhartha was shocked. He felt miserable and depressed. The prince thought to himself, “If we all are going to die, why does everyone seem so happy and delighted?” He asked the charioteer to take him back to his palace.
4. On the way back to the palace, he kept thinking of getting old, getting sick, and then dying. The prince noticed a man wearing an orange-colored robe, sitting under a tree at a distance. He asked Channa to stop at the tree. The prince noticed a calmness in him. The man sat cross-legged with his eyes partly shut. “Channa”, the prince asked, “why does this man look so serene. What does he do?” Channa replied that the man was a holy man. The holy man has left his home and left behind a comfortable lay life. He has a simple life and is at peace with himself. He hopes to find the truth and overcome the suffering that troubles the world.”
The Great Renunciation
The prince felt very happy coming back to his palace. He contemplated the worthlessness of sensual pleasures. Upon arrival, he was notified that princess Yashodara had given birth to a son. He didn’t feel joy. He felt that the child was a bond to keep him in lay life. The prince uttered, “An impediment (Rahu) has been born.” Having heard this, the King named his grandson, Rahula.
King Suddhodana realized his son’s depression. He ordered a grand dinner and dance for the prince and the princess to celebrate the birth of Rahula. But he couldn’t find pleasure in the extravaganza. He kept thinking about the sorrows and impermanence of life. He was determined to find an answer to end all suffering. He decided to become a holy man. In the middle of the night, he went to his charioteer and asked to saddle up his horse. Then he went to the chamber where Yashodara and Rahula were sleeping. They were fast asleep. He stared at them and walked away with a light heart.
At the age of 29, prince Siddhartha renounced the lay life (Great Renunciation) and began a historic journey, leaving his family and luxuries behind in search of truth and true peace.
The ascetic Siddhartha was determined to find a way to escape the impermanence of life. He set out on a 250-mile journey barefoot from high elevations in Nepal to the dense forests of neighboring India. He wandered for the next 6 years, seeking the answer, or the Enlightenment. He wandered wearing raggedy clothes, homeless, begging for food. He meets with many religious teachers. There are two noteworthy teachers, Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta. Their doctrines had a tremendous impact on Ascetic Gautama’s mastery of the mind. Still, he had not found a way to truth nor enlightenment.
He traveled from city to city, village to village, and strenuously went through trials and errors at each place. In ancient India, there were many rites, ceremonies, and penance. The ascetic decided to practice self-punishment by abstaining from food. He gradually decreased the amount of food taken until consuming only a grain of rice a day. But the harsh practice only led to a skin and bone body and brought him to the verge of death. A nearby villager name Sujata found him fainted on the ground. She serves him water, milk-rice and brings him back to health. Ascetic Gautama realized the futility of self-indulgence and self-mortification. He realized a sharp mind requires a healthy body.
He is now in the city of Bodhgaya. He found a suitable place to sit down and meditate. On the eve of the May full moon day under a Bodhi Tree, after sitting cross-legged with his back towards the tree, he made this resolution: "Though my skin, my nerves, and my bones shall waste away and my lifeblood goes dry, I will not leave this seat until I have attained the highest wisdom, called supreme enlightenment, that leads to everlasting happiness."
Ascetic Gautama began to meditate, contemplating on his breath. The single-pointedness of mind transcended him to various states of mind (Jnana). In the first watch of the night, impure thoughts, thoughts of desire, craving, fear, and attachment arose in his mind. Through his trained mind, he was able to ascend, and go beyond them. He was able to recall his past lives. This was called the first knowledge. In the second watch of the night, he finds the true understanding of the impermanence of life, and death and rebirth. This was the second knowledge. In the third part of the night, he realized the cause of all evil and suffering and how to be released from it. He understood how to end sorrow, unhappiness, suffering, old age, and death.
“The ascetic Gautama passed into a deep meditation, passed beyond the limits of ordinary human understanding, saw the world as it is, and not as it appears to be. And having understood the world as it is, the Buddha was perfected in wisdom, never to be born again. Craving and destructive desire had been completely eradicated — as a fire goes out for lack of fuel.”
“Ignorance was dispelled, and wisdom arose; darkness vanished and light arose.”
At the age of 35, ascetic Gautama became Buddha Gautama. Buddha means “to awake” or to “understand”.
“Bathed in the brilliant light of all wisdom and truth sat the Buddha, the Perfect One. And all about him, the world lay calm and bright and a soft breeze lifted the leaves of the Bodhi tree. Filled with compassion, the Lord sat beneath the tree in deep contemplation of the Dharma, residing in the perfect peace of nirvana.”
The first seven weeks after Enlightenment
The first week (seven days) he sat in deep mediation experiencing the bliss of emancipation.
The second week (seven days) he stood in front of the Bodhi tree staring at the tree with motionless eyes. It is said this action was to show gratitude, even to an inanimate tree, for giving him shelter in his trials.
The third week (seven days) he paced up and down, in deep meditation, between two exact points, just above the ground, in the air.
In the fourth week, he sat in deep meditation contemplating the intricacies of Abhidhamma (highest teaching). It is said that his body was so purified, six colors emitted from his body - blue, yellow, red, white, orange, and a mixture of these five(sixth color). Today these six colors make up the Buddhist flag!
The fifth, sixth, and seventh weeks were spent continuing deep meditation and contemplating emancipation bliss under different trees, each week.
Expounding the Dhamma
The Buddha then begins his journey of expound dhamma and teaches how to attain enlightenment. He traveled to the 5 Brahmins who were at his naming ceremony.
To them, the Buddha delivered his first teaching. This first discourse is called Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (which means the Turning of the Wheel of Truth). It was delivered the teaching on a full moon day in July. The discourse taught the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. They were the first 5 monks to become his disciples, and all attained enlightenment.
When the number of disciples reached 60, the Buddha sent them away to teach people everywhere. Buddha continued his journey. Soon, the number of disciples reached 1,000.
The news reached King Suddhodana that his son has attained enlightenment. He was rejoiced and wanted his son to return home and take his place. The King sent messengers to invite Buddha to his palace. Buddha accepted the invitation, but declined a chariot ride to the palace. Buddha and his monks walked to the King’s palace. From a distance, the King saw the Buddha begging for food from door to door. The annoyed king asked, “Why do you disgrace me, my son?”
The Buddha replied calmly, "I am not putting you to shame, O Great King. This is our custom. This is not the custom of the royal family, but the Buddhas. All the former Buddhas have lived by receiving food this way."
The King begged the Buddha to take food in the palace and the Buddha accepted the invitation.
Buddha continued to travel for the next 45 years teaching dharma to those who would listen. Everyone related to him- his stepmother, son, and cousins, became monks and reached enlightenment. He gained followers from all social classes. His followers either joined the order of the monk, but many remained in lay life. The lay followers are offered the five percepts – these are commitments to abstain from killing living beings, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and intoxication. The five precepts are meant to develop mind and character to make progress on the path to enlightenment.
Death – Maha Parinirvana
Three months before turning age 80, he announced he would pass away in three months (a full moon day in May). A few days before his death, in the city of Kusinara, he accepted a meal from a metal worker and his wife. Buddha realized the dish had gone bad. He instructed the worker to serve him only and bury the rest of the dish without offering it to other monks. The Buddha became severely ill shortly thereafter. He lay down on his right side between two Sal trees, which immediately blossomed out of season. The scriptures say 500 monks were present at the time. The Buddha then explained to the monks that after he was gone, the dhamma and the Vinaya (code of monastic conduct) should be their teachers. Buddha provided instructions for his funeral; that lay people should make pilgrimages to the place of his birth, the place of his enlightenment, the place of his first teaching, and the place of his passage into nirvana.
Finally, the Buddha asked the 500 monks if they had any last questions or doubts. They remained silent. He then gave his last sermon to them, “Behold, O monks, this is my last advice to you. All component things in the world are changeable. They are not lasting. Work hard to gain your salvation. Do your best.” These were his last words.
The Buddha then entered into meditative absorption, passing from the lowest level to the highest, then from the highest to the lowest, before entering the fourth level of concentration, whence he passed into nirvana.
The Buddha and His Teachings
The Buddha and His Teachings. By Venerable Narada Mahathera
What the Buddha Taught. By Venerable Walpola Rahula
Video recommendations(on YouTube):
The Buddha: A documentary of The Buddha’s Life: https://rb.gy/9s7lfj
Bones Of The Buddha: (a documentary on discovering Buddha’s relics): https://rb.gy/ddeuzy
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