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The Life of Buddha by Allan Kohl

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The Life of Buddha
by Allan Kohl
February, 1998

Divine Conception

Queen Maya was the wife of Suddhodana, virtuous ruler of the minor kingdom of Kapilivastu in what is now northern Bengal. One night she had a strange dream: a Bodhisattva descended from heaven, riding on a white elephant, the symbol of divine kingship. The white elephant touched Maya's side with his trunk, and she became pregnant with the spirit of the Buddha.

Miraculous Birth

The Buddha's birth was similarly miraculous. On the eighth day of the fourth lunar month, Queen Maya was walking in the Lumbini Garden in Suddhodana's palace grounds, south of the Himalayas. As she stood under a sala (ashoka) tree and raised her right arm to pick a blossom, the infant Buddha sprang from her side without causing his mother pain or bloodshed. He immediately took seven steps towards the north, and announced in a loud voice that this was his final incarnation.

The Young Prince

The young prince Gautama Siddhartha was born into the ancient Sakya clan, whose symbol was the lion; hence he is often known as "Sakyamuni" (the Sage of the Sakya), or as "Sakyasimha" (the Lion of the Sakya). His father belonged to the warrior caste. Soon after the young prince's birth, a wise sage named Asita predicted that the child would grow up to be a holy man, rather than following his father as ruler. Suddhodana tried to prevent this from happening by making sure that the prince lived a sequestered life of ease and luxury in the royal palace, ignorant of the world outside. When he was sixteen, he was given the beautiful princess Yasodhara as his wife, and they had a son, named Rahula.

The Four Encounters

In the spring of his twenty-ninth year, Prince Gautama Siddhartha grew troubled in spirit, and decided to leave the sheltered palace enclosure to view the flowers in bloom; instead, he came face to face with the world's pain and misery. Departing through the eastern gate on the first day, Sakyamuni was troubled by the sight of an old, decrepit man. On the second day, passing out through the southern gate, he came upon a man suffering from a debilitating illness. On the third day, leaving by the western gate, he beheld a corpse surrounded by weeping mourners. Finally, travelling towards the north on the fourth day, he met a mendicant monk, and resolved to follow this holy man's example.

The Great Renunciation and Departure from his Father's Palace

Now fully aware of the sorrow that pervaded the world outside the sheltered life of the palace, Sakyamuni resolved to abandon his opulent life as a prince, vowing instead to seek through fasting and meditation a way to relieve the sufferings of humankind. Fearing that his father would try to prevent his departure, he decided to leave secretly at night. The king's guards fell into a deep sleep, and four nature spirits (yakshas) lifted the Prince's horse Kanthaka into the air, so that his hooves would make no noise on the cobblestoned pavement.

Sakyamuni's Descent from the Mountain

As an ascetic in the Himalayan Mountains, the former prince lived an austere life of self-denial -- fasting, subjecting his body to strict discipline, meditating in the lotus position in all weather. Yet after six years, enlightenment still eluded him. He came down from the mountains, bathed, and sat beneath a pipal tree at Gaya, vowing not to move from that spot until he attained full enlightenment.

The Assault of Mara's Host

As Sakyamuni meditated beneath the tree, a light began to shine from his forehead over all the earth. Mara, the Evil One, shuddered: he knew that his power to mislead humankind was threatened. Deciding to confront his opponant directly, Mara sent a host of demons to destroy him. Some, Mara's daughters, appeared as beautiful women, bent on distracting or seducing Sakyamuni. Others assumed the forms of fierce animals. But their roars, threats and temptations failed to move the meditating Sakyamuni, and their weapons melted away into lotus blossoms.

Siddhartha becomes the Enlightened One

Finally, at age 35, on the night of a full moon, Sakyamuni attained enlightenment. (From this time forward, the pipal tree under which he sat would be known as the Bodhi tree, or tree of enlightenment.) As he was alone with no one to witness this momentous event, he called the Earth itself to be his witness by touching the ground with his right hand in a gesture known as the Bhumisparsa mudra.

The Buddha's First Sermon

The Enlightened One gave his first public sermon in the Deer Park at Sarnath, near Benares, setting in motion the wheel of the dharma (or spiritual law) as he expounded the doctrine of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. This first sermon is represented by the dharmachakra mudra, a two-handed gesture symbolizing the setting in motion of a wheel. This mudra is also used to show the Buddha in his role as a teacher.

Death of the Buddha

At the age of 80, after 45 years of teaching, the Buddha entered into a deep trance and died peacefully in the Sala Grove in Kushinagara. This event, often called the (Maha)parinirvana, is depicted with the Buddha reclining gently on his right side, often surrounded by sorrowing attendants and disciples. Sometimes his body appears already shrouded with muslin, as his follower Ananda prepares for his master's funeral.

The Buddha's coffin proved impervious to ordinary fire, but a divine flame came from within; it burned for seven days and reduced Buddha's earthly remains to ashes. These remains, or sharira, were divided into into eight parts, and sent throughout the world. The recipients reverently enshrined these holy relics in special mounded shrines called stupas, where they became the subject of worshipful reverence, often serving as the focal points of Buddhist monasteries.