There was once a young man who lived in ancient India. He was the son of the king of the Shakya tribe, in one of India’s most northern provinces, near what is now Nepal. This elegant, sensitive young prince was brought up, he later said, with great care, dressed in silk, and instructed in civil and military arts. He later said of his early life,
“Although brought up in wealth, I was by nature very sensitive, and it caused me to wonder why, when all men are destined to suffer old age, sickness and death, and none can escape these things, yet they look upon the old age, sickness and death of others with fear, loathing and scorn. This is not right, I thought, and at that time, all the pride and courage I felt in my own youth and good health deserted me”.
This young man, Siddhartha Gautama, married, and his wife, Yashodha, bore him a son and heir, Rahula. But the questions that once vexed Gautama continued to do so. Why do old age, sickness and death invoke such terror in human beings?
Gautama, or Shakamuni, (sage of the Shakya tribe, as he was later known) couldn’t put these questions away. They continued to bug him. How torn his heart must have been at the thought of leaving his beautiful young bride and his beloved child, and of going against his dear father’s wishes. Eventually, though, he renounced his claim to the tribal throne in favour of his infant son, and went out into the world in search of enlightenment to the questions in his heart.
He first placed himself under one Brahmin teacher, and then another. Brahminism was probably the top-dog school of thought in those days, and though Gautama excelled under their instruction, he found no answer to his questions about human suffering,
He next turned his attention to the ascetic life. In Gautama’s time, it was common for men of a certain (middle) age to leave their homes, renounce comfort, and enter the forests to discover the truth of life, or new ideals, to bring back to society. Gautama’s approach to these austerities appears to have been determined in the extreme. At one point, his co-practitioners thought he had killed himself. Perhaps the idea that suffering is caused by desire lead to these austere practices in an effort to eradicate desire.
Perhaps also, Gautama began to realize that desire is inherent in life. If you eradicate desire, you eradicate part of your life, and become zombie.
After a number of years of such practice, Gautama took his emaciated body to the river, washed it clean, hauled it out, and replemished it with gruel brought to him by a village girl named Sujata. Later, he seated himself in the Lotus position under a papal fig tree, and determined not to move until he had won enlightenment to his questions.
Gautama first remonstrated with King Mara, the voice of sweet temptation in our minds, “Better to me that I die in battle than that |I should live defeated”. King Mara retreated, saying “Like a crow attacking a rock mistaken for aq tender morsel, I leave Gautama in dusgust an frustration”.
Gautama next purified himself of delusions arising from desire, as Brahmins and ascetics often did in those days. He then recalled his previous life times; what he had eaten, whom he had loved, his joys and sorrows and his deaths and rebirths through countless destructions and formations of the universe. Of this stage, he later said “Ignorance perished, and gave way to insight”.
Following this, Gautama observed the lives of others. He later said “I saw the passing away and rebirth of all creatures, according as their acts were lower or higher. Those living beings whose acts are harmful pass to the sphere of misery. Those others whose deeds are good win a place in the triple-heaven”.
Just what Gautama perceived during the final watch of his meditation, there is not full consensus. A contemporary writer writes:
“My conviction is that Gautama’s enlightenment was in a sense a cry of wonder at the mysterious entity called life, whose myriad manifestations are joined to and dependent upon one another through the links of cause and effect.
“But ordinary people are unaware of this truth and delude themselves into believing that they exist independently of one another. Such a delusion estranges them from the Law of life, and causes them to become the prisoners of desire. From desire stem suffering, tragedy and misfortune. How foolish and pitiful people are! They are led astray by ignorance, which is a form of evil, and there is no way out for them except to confront this evil that dwells in their minds.
“Such, I believe, must have been the thoughts that passed through the mind of Gautama, insofar as it is possible for an ordinary man like be to guess. Having attained enlightenment, he himself was free of the ignorance that blinded other men and could live in accord with the true Law of life. What joy, what bliss he must have felt.
“To summarise, what Gautama attained under the pipal tree was an intuitive grasp of the essence of life”.
For some time, Gautama savoured the bliss of his new understanding. Then he went to Benares Deer Park and preached his first sermon to the fife men with whom he had shared his ascetic life. Initially they were cool towards him, since he had abandoned his rigours, but he asked them, “have you ever seen me so radiant before?” Indeed, they hadn’t.
If Gautama had tried to explain his intuitive enlightenment directly to people, they almost certainly wouldn’t have understood it, subtle and complex as it is. For about forty years, he formulated ways of enticing people towards enlightenment, of encouraging them, and of healing and transcending suffering and bringing joy to people’s hearts. He told many people many things, and partly as a result of this, there are many forms of Buddhism around today.
At the age of about seventy-two, Gautama said to his followers, at a place they had named Eagle Peak because of its shape, “The Thus Come One (meaning himself) has long expounded his teachings, and must now reveal the truth.” He went on to clarify that all that he had taught up to that point were provisional, or partial teachings, and proceeded to teach what he called the Sutra of the Wonderful Lotus Flower.
We read in this Lotus Sutra, or teaching, that myriad Buddhas came to Eagle Peak from their Buddha lands to hear Gautama preach the Lotus, and that a great Treasure Tower, festooned with banners and adorned with jewels, arose from the earth to the sky. From within this Treasure Tower, the assembly heard the voice of the Buddha Many Treasures saying “Excellent! Excellent, Sage of the Shakyas, that you preach this Sutra of equality”. These are, perhaps, some of the metaphors that Gautama used to try to express the vast, harmonious state of life that one can experience when one’s life is one with that of the great universe. One message of the Lotus Sutra is that this state, Buddhahood, is inherent in our lives. Gautama later said “All beings alike possess the Buddha nature”. Gautama revealed that even Devedatta, Gautama’s own jealous cousin who had tried to kill him, was his, Gautama’s teacher in a previous life time.
Shortly before Gautama died at the age of eighty, he went to a place called Bamboo Grove Village. Here, resting under a Chapala tree one day after the rains, he is reported to have said with a sense of fulfilment, “This world is beautiful – it is a joy to live in it”.
WHAT the buddha had realized, the Law or principle that has never known before, is that the only way to bring happiness to all men was to create a human society based on this profound principle, the truth of which no one else had ever realized. In practical terms, this means that one must purge one's on life of defilement and then fashion human society from the foundation. To succeed in this task one must make a close examination of the nature of life- the basic starting point for all human activities- and acquire a grasp of the laws that govern it.In other words, implicit in the truth to which the Shakyamuni Buddha had become enlightened was a mighty, unprecedented revolution.
The buddha devoted the rest of his life to carrying his Philosophy to the ordinary people which lead leaving to the vastness of his teachings for the sake of happiness/enlightenment to all poeple.
Socrates' words, "Know thyself," have posed a problem which philosophy, down through history, has attempted to answer. Buddhism expounded about one hundred years before the age of Socrates, provided a concrete answer, but it was long obscured by the esoteric tendencies among early Buddhist scholars. The Buddhist philosophy is actually the revelation of a very practical way to bring out the true self, as opposed to the phenomenal self, as one moves toward perfection. It is not metaphysical speculation. Buddhism is basically a practical system of teachings providing a means to realize the ideal state of Buddhahood, which is self-perfection.
Buddhists perceive the ultimate reality of life equally within all human beings, and accordingly respect the dignity of all people. As one begins to recognize this, one understands that one must awaken others to the dignity of their own lives. One's belief urges one to teach and help others awaken to the ultimate reality existing within so that they can create truly happy lives. In that way one is helping others attain Buddhahood. Those who truly strive for the sake of others are called "bodhisattvas." The power, which infuses them with the desire to help others, is the impartial and infinite compassion of the Buddha called jihi.
The two goals of Buddhism, then, are the attainment of Buddhahood and the fulfillment of the requirements of the bodhisattva. Interestingly, they are restated in Immanuel Kant's idea that self-perfection and other people's happiness are at once the purposes and obligations of human beings, unconsciously echoing principles expounded at least 2,300 years before Kant's time. This shows that a universal teaching can and will reappear in entirely different cultural mediums.
No clear definition of Buddhism can be readily given. There are many explanations about what Buddhism is, presented from many different angles. Therefore, an attempt to formulate an explanation, which is understandable and satisfactory to everyone, is a virtual impossibility.
All the teachings of Shakyamuni, the historical founder of Buddhism, were recorded giving rise to a vast array of sutras or scriptures. Because they contain teachings which are at times contradictory, a large number of schools developed, basing their teachings on one or another of the sutras. As a result, endless controversies arose among the different sects, each asserting the superiority of its own tenets.
Notwithstanding these conflicts, however, all the Buddhist sects commonly acknowledge the account concerning Shakyamuni's motives for renouncing the secular world. It is as follows: In his youth, when he was a prince and called Gautama Siddhartha, Shakyamuni became aware of and profoundly troubled by the problem of human suffering. He gave up his princely status and pursued the life of a religious mendicant in search of a solution to the four inescapable sufferings which confront all human beings: birth, old age, sickness and death. According to Buddhist tradition, Siddhartha renounced secular life at the age of nineteen and attained enlightenment at thirty. Modern scholars generally place these ages at twenty-nine and thirty-five, respectively. After eleven years (six years according to the latter view) of ascetic practices and deep meditation, he finally realized the truth which would emancipate human beings from suffering, and he became a Buddha. An understanding of what Buddhism actually is can be gained from knowledge of the motive that prompted him to seek enlightenment. In the final analysis, all of Shakyamuni's teachings were expounded for the sole purpose of solving the universal sufferings of birth, old age, sickness and death, as well as to seek a way to transcend them.
However, this does not mean that Buddhism works to free its believers from the phenomena of aging, sickness and death. Shakyamuni Buddha himself grew old and passed away. He was in no way entirely free of sickness, as is indicated by the statement in the Lotus Sutra, "[The Thus Come One is well and happy,] with few ills and few worries." Then what does it mean to say that Shakyamuni overcame the four sufferings? The answer to this question will clarify the truth to which the Buddha was enlightened, comprising the essence of the Buddha's teachings.
Buddhism has its origin in the desire to solve the most fundamental problem of human suffering. The teachings of Buddhism effectively deal with the question of a human being's very existence and pursue the surest way toward establishing a secure basis for living. There has been a tendency to regard Buddhism as a religion which is nihilistic, negating the value of human life. On the other hand, there are a number of people who think that Buddhism is a means by which to satisfy their material desires. It is true that, among the Buddhist teachings, some speak out against attachment to mundane pursuits and urge people to seek the eternal truth beyond the impermanence of all phenomena, while other teachings assure one of the fulfillment of secular and material desires. However, it is a grave error to think that such teachings constitute the core of Buddhism. The reason for such conflicting views is found in the process by which Shakyamuni's teachings were recorded and transmitted, during which time the essence which integrates all of these partial truths of the Buddha's enlightenment was lost sight of. The purpose and significance of Buddhism lies in overcoming the four basic sufferings of birth, old age, sickness and death, as well as in enabling each individual to establish his own identity.
As stated earlier, the solution to these four sufferings does not mean the denial of the impermanence of life. It is an awakening to the reality of the eternal and essential life, which underlies and governs the constant universal cycle of birth, aging, sickness and death. As long as one clings only to the affairs of one's daily existence in this world one cannot grasp that reality. For this reason, the Buddha taught people to transcend their daily lives, which are uncertain and fleeting, in order to overcome these sufferings. However, to realize the essential life which continues eternally, transcending both birth and death, means to establish the solid foundation of human existence within the harsh realities of this world. One's awakening to the reality of this truth must be reflected in one's daily living. In other words, it manifests itself in such phenomena as the fulfillment of material desires and physical well being. In this sense, a promise of worldly happiness is also a part of the Buddhist teachings.