Studies in Buddhadharma - On Buddha Śâkyamuni
About 2500 years ago, Siddhârtha Gautama (ca. 563 - 483 BCE) was born to a life of privilege & wealth in a town called Lumbinî, near Kapilavastu, just inside the borders of Nepal. This was the home of the capable Śâkya clan and Siddhârtha ("one who has accomplished his goal") was the son of Śuddhodana, a warrior of wealth and power, and Mâyâdevî, a woman of refinement. Alternative research suggests he was born ca. 450 or ca. 485 BCE. Apparently nobody knows for sure.
At the time of his birth, among the foothills of the Himalayas, there were clan-based republics resisting the expansion of the new monarchies of the central Ganges basin. Most likely, the traditional brahmanical society had not yet made any great impact upon this region. The republic of the Śâkyas was ruled by Śuddhodana, belonging to the ruling oligarchy and a member of the Ksatriya or warrior-nobility caste, the second of the four Indian castes. Later traditions dubbed Siddhârtha a "prince" and his father a "king".
From all various sources dealing with the founder of the "śâsana" or dispensation of the Buddhadharma, a central core dawns, detailing important events in the life of Siddhârtha Gautama the Buddha, or Buddha Śâkyamuni, at least as perceived by his disciples, for -like most spiritual founders- he left no autobiography, nor did he write down any of his thoughts ...
Short Biography of Siddhârtha Gautama the Buddha
The short story-line of Buddha's biography served as the archetypal model for Buddhists over the centuries and can be summarized as follows (cf. the Buddhacarita, postdating the Buddha by 500 years !) :
- 563 - 533 BCE : early life : as a "prince", Gautama had three palaces, one for each of season. His life was luxurious and his father, wishing him to become a worldly ruler instead of a spiritual master, surrounded him with every possible pleasure. Although elegant & refined, Gautama found his homes crowded and dusty. When his son, Râhula, or "fetter" was born, he felt no pleasure and yearned for an "open" existence ;
- 533 BCE : after witnessing the Four Signs (a sick person, an old person, a dead person and a religious mendicant), Gautama decided to leave his family to find a spiritual solution to the problems of the human condition, in particular rebirth. At 29, taking a last look at his sleeping wife & child, he departed to become an ascetic of the Śramana Movement, wandering renunciants adopting a path alternate to Vedic rituals :
- they denied an omnipotent Creator-God ;
- rejected the Vedas as revealed texts ;
- believed in "karma", "samsâra" and rebirth of the soul ;
- believed in purification of the soul to attain enlightenment ;
- sought liberation by non-violence, renunciation & austerities ;
- denied the efficacy of sacrifices and rituals of purification ;
- rejected the caste system.
- 533 - 528 BCE : to enlightenment : the first teacher he took was Âlâra Kâlâma. Soon he mastered his teaching, entering the four levels of concentration on form ("dhyânas") one after the other. Offering him joint leadership, Gautama refused because, although blissful and serene, one eventually exited these concentrations on form and returned to the fundamental problems of waking consciousness : birth, sickness, old age and death. Then he found Uddaka Râmaputta, who had mastered the four formless ("ârûpya") absorptions ("samâpattis"). But the fourth, or most sublime state of mind possible in the formless realm, was again not the goal he sought. Râmaputta wished to become his disciple, but Gautama refused. Next, he turned to austerities, aimed to subdue the desire nature. Neither did these self-mortifications produce the result he was seeking ! Emaciated, his hair began to fall out. He was unable to sit upright. After six years of hard austerities, he spontaneously realized extremes of any kind were unproductive. When the cord of the bow is too stretched it may snap, when it is too loose, one cannot play it. Moreover, only one criterion should persist, namely direct personal knowledge (hearsay, tradition, intellectual speculation & the ways of honourable ascetics are rejected). So "Know for Yourselves !" sums it up. This measured asceticism was designated as "the Middle Path" ;
- April/May 528 BCE : enlightenment : in the course of a single night, seated beneath a large tree, later kown as the Bodhi tree (Ficus Religiosus), Gautama attained a complete state of awakening or enlightenment and was henceforth called "the Buddha" (the awakened one). He acquired the power to remember all his previous lives, became clairvoyant, knew he had rooted out ignorance, clinging & aversion once and for all and put an end to his own rebirth. Staying at Bodh Gayâ for seven weeks, Buddha Śâkyamuni pondered his future. Considering humanity too gross to benefit from his teachings, he decided to remain silent about his profound realization. Only after the "pure ones", like Brahmâ Sahampati & Indra, came down from the highest planes of existence begging him to teach the Dharma, did the Buddha decide to help and so teach those with only "little dust in their eyes" ;
- 528 - 483 BCE : the Four Turning(s) of the Wheel of Dharma : arriving in the royal deer park near Vârânasî, he was welcomed by the group of five ascetics who had earlier turned their backs on him for rejecting the path of austerities. He proclaimed himself a "Tathâgata", a word etymologically meaning "a speaker of the Truth", but also "one who has attained what is really so" or "one who is thus gone" (remarkably, "tathâ âgata" means "one who is thus come") and gave his First Sermon, called "Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Dharma".
- The First Turning contained the essential teachings : the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path & the Two Truths, acting as the foundation for the entire Buddhadharma : the Hînayâna (Tripitaka), the Sûtras & the Tantras. All five became his disciples and soon realized enlightenment. A large number of people realized the same and the teachings spread. An order of monks and one for nuns was established. Travelling on foot through the town and villages of North-East India (an area somewhat smaller than Ireland), the Buddha addressed a variety of audiences and gave teachings adapted to each of them.
- The Second Turning took place at Vulture Peak Mountain in Râjagriha, Bihar. It focused on compassion ("karunâ") & emptiness ("śûnyâta"). Compassion is the primary constituent of the "mind of enlightenment" ("Bodhicitta"), essential to the Mahâyâna, and a preliminary to the understanding of emptiness.
- The Third Turning took place in Kuśinagarâ and had our Buddha-nature as object (the "Tathâgatagarbha" doctrine).
- Lastly, in the Fourth Turning, Buddha explained the Tantric teachings, crucial to the Vajrayâna. This Turning is said to have occurred on the subtle planes of reality, with Buddha appearing to superior meditators as Vajradhara. This last turning is not accepted by those refusing to incorporate Tantra into the Buddhadharma.These different "turnings" represent various levels of the teachings, and therefore call for different audiences. Together, they constitute the "84.000 Dharma Doors" ;
- 483 BCE : physical death : when he was 80 and in failing health, the Buddha continued his travels on foot, eliminating the effects of his infirmity with his mental powers. He did not appoint a successor, for none was needed. After his physical demise, the Dharma would be the only guide. On matters of doctrine, so he told his disciples, each person should make up his or her own mind, cross-referencing views and opinions against the teachings. In Kuśinagarâ, lying on his right side between two Sal trees, the physical body of the Buddha died. His last words were : "All compounded things are ephemeral. Work diligently on your salvation." ;
- 483 BCE : final enlightenment : dying serene and self-composed, the Buddha passed through several levels of meditative absorption, entering "parinirvâna", often equated with the state of "nirvâna" after physical death. Entering this state did not annihilate him, nor did it sustain him. The "Dharmakâya" is beyond conceptual affirmation & denial. The Buddha is the First Jewel of the Triple Gem.