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Buddhist Beginnings:

Buddhism is a philosophy, a system of techniques for psychological integration and social healing, and certainly for millions of people -- perhaps as many as a fifth of the world's population -- a religion.  It is any or all of these things.  It is also the name given to the teachings of a historical personality   known as 'The Buddha'; Sanskrit for an Enlightened or 'Awakened' One.

The word buddha is made of the Sanskrit root budh, meaning aware, know. A buddha is one who has or holds awakened-ness/awareness; one who knows -- whose mind is completely unclouded.  Also, the state of knowing -- of being fully awake as is experienced by a buddha -- is termed bodhi and it is correctly translated as awakening

One of the first biographies was the 28-chapter Buddhacharita: 'The Deeds Of The Buddha' by the Sanskrit poet Ashvalagosha - 1st  century  CE, some 500 years after the death of the Buddha.   

The Founder

According to most Western Authorities, Siddhartha Gautama was born in a north Indian region within view of the Himalayas in what is now Nepal, in or around the year 563 of the era before this contemporary one, ie. 563 BCE.  (Atisha Dipankara, the great 10th century Buddhist scholar, placed the events much earlier, about 2100 BCE. The Kalachakra (Wheel Of Time) Tradition places the date at around 900 BCE)

 

The Prediction

He was a prince of the Shakya clan before whose birth the prediction was made that unless he was prevented from seeing the hardships of life as it is lived by ordinary people, he would not grow up to be the world ruler as his father had hoped.  Therefore, he was confined to the palace grounds even after he himself had fathered a son.

Care was taken to ensure that he be exposed only to what was good and beautiful.  However, some say that one morning he awoke to see the still-sleeping women in their usual awkward drooling attitudes and was disgusted by the sight.  This set him to thinking about what else he might not have noticed about life.

With his devoted driver, by horse and chariot he managed to elude the palace guards and to ride through the streets of Kapilavastu. There, it is said, he was shocked by the sight of a person disabled by advanced age, a person suffering from a serious illness and a corpse being carried to the cremation grounds followed by a group of weeping people.  

Later, he noticed a poor wanderer in simple cotton garb who seemed peaceful and happy in the midst of the city chaos. Tibetan tradition holds that it was a deva, a god manifesting as a renunciate or monk. 

Realizing that he had been deceived, he determined to discover the truth about human existence.  He left his family; his wives, Yasodhara and Gopa, and the other ladies of the court. He left his friends and his son, Rahula, and set out into the world.  

Following the example of the monk he had noticed, he cut off his own long hair with his ornate sword, and left everything behind including his horse and his faithful attendant.  Wearing tattered clothing, carrying only a water pot and staff, he set off to discover what it was that lay behind the contented smile of the ascetic.

He studied the principles of Indian philosophy with renowned teachers for a few years.  Not finding satisfying answers, he left them to study the methods of traditional yoga with a small group of fellow ascetics Two of their names are given as Harada Kalama and Udraka Ramputra. 

Now almost a skeleton,  very thin and weak from starvation -- he set off to find a tranquil spot in which to work on the problem.  From a passing milkmaid, Sujata, he accepted an offering of payas or milk-rice to break his long fast.  It was now six years since he had left his home and family. He said goodbye to his friends, five disciples who now left him in disgust and went away to Rishipatan (modern Sarnath).

After regaining some strength, Gautama, as he had been called -- after his clan or tribal affiliation --  came to the place where he determined to solve the problems of existence.

There he made the vow not to stir from beneath that tree until he had discovered the means to alleviate suffering, and went into a deeply concentrated state of meditation. The town is called Bodh-gaya , but the exact place is referred to as Thunderbolt Seat or in Sanskrit, vajr'asana (Tib. dorje den.) Note the significance of 'Dorje' here.

There is a tradition that says that Buddha Shakyamuni was not certain whether or not he ought to keep his knowledge to himself.  It is said that for the whole first week, he pondered the tree itself, and its form and nature may have persuaded him to spread his knowledge.

For another week he walked to and fro engrossed in his thoughts.  On the third week he walked clockwise in meditative concentration around the site, and returned to sit in meditation. 

Legend has it that Muchalinda King Of Serpents spread his hoods as an umbrella to shelter him from rain and sun while he sat lost in meditation. 

It is also said that the Adversary Mara appeared to him and tried to tempt him back to a worldly life of influence and power.  He also caused his gorgeous offspring to manifest in an attempt to lure Siddhartha to return to a life of indulgence in sensory pleasures.  When the crucial moment arrived, the Earth was called to testify to Gautama's worthiness and at that, the Enlightenment occurred.

After His Awakening, He is reported to have said, "What I realized is like ambrosia. But I am not going to explain it, for nobody will understand it."  And so He sat  silently in a perfectly balanced state of awareness  for 7 days until the gods Indra and Brahma intervened.  They  begged Him to teach others, to "turn the Wheel of Dharma" for the sake of other beings.

At last, he got up and walked to Rishipatan to find his five disciples.  Then at what is now Sarnath near Varanasi he delivered his first sermon that is described as the initial setting in motion of the Wheel of the Law (Skt. dharma- chakra-pravartana).

At Rajgriha, he converted his two greatest disciples, Shariputra and Maudgalyayana. Other important disciples were his cousins, Ananda and Devadatta.  Anuruddha and Upali were the names of two others, but he acquired followers in the thousands.

For over 40 years he traveled around and taught, settling down only during the rains each winter.  At the age of 80, Buddha attained Maha-parinirvana (great death without any necessity for rebirth -- this is where we get the term Tathagatha meaning 'gone that way') at Kushinagar which is today near Gorakhpur district in Uttar Pradesh.  That was around 440 BCE.  

The Buddha's last words are reputed to be, "All things which are made of parts eventually come apart. Be mindful, and achieve the Awakened state!" 

After his cremation, the relics were distributed among his closest friends and  patrons.   

There is the famous sacred tooth in the care of the temple in Kandy, Shri Lanka.  Another holy relic, housed at the Patna Museum in the Indian state of Bihar,  consists of a soapstone casket containing ashes, a punched copper coin and a tiny leaf made of gold. When found by archaeologist A.S. Altekar in 1956, the casket also contained a small conch shell and two glass beads.  

It was found during excavations of Vaishali, inside a mud stupa that had been encased in brick that is thought to be the one built by the Licchavi rulers to house their share of the Buddha's remains.  The shrine had already been opened long ago, and was renovated and enlarged more than once, notably in the 1st century CE.   It was last displayed to the general public in Bodh Gaya during the Buddha Mahasattva of 1998-99.  

Here is the mantra that praises Buddha as a great sage or wisdom-holder: 

         Om Muni Muni Maha Muniye. Swaha! 

   

-v