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Prince Siddhārtha: The Enlightened One
In 563 BC, a young man was born in northern India who was prophesied to be a great man. Conceived in a dream, Siddhartha Gautama had a couple of different ways to prove his greatness, but the one he chose was not the one his father had sought for him. In the end, however, his path gave him greatness even his parents could not have imagined.
The Birth of the Buddha
Suddhodana Gautama was the king of the Sakya clan in what most scholars believe was modern day Nepal. He and his wife, Queen Maha Maya, had waited a very long time to have a child then, more than twenty years into their marriage, Queen Maya had a dream. It was a clear night with a bright full moon when the devas, spirits, came to her. They carried her high into the Himalayas, where they bathed her, draped her in beautiful gowns, put perfume on her skin, placed flowers around her neck and then placed her on a silver sofa. She was taking delight in her beautiful makeover and surroundings when a white elephant appeared before her. She thought it quite interesting that the elephant held a lotus flower in its trunk and circled her three times. When it stopped next to her and thrust its trunk into her right side, she felt no pain. Once the elephant left her, the queen woke back in her own bed. Despite the realization that it was only a dream, Queen Maya believed something very important and wonderful had just occurred.
On April 8, 563 BC, when the queen gave birth, legend says the baby was born from her right side just where the elephant had entered her during her dream. She was strolling through a lovely garden and held onto a tree limb for the birth then bathed her newborn in a nearby stream, but Queen Maya would not live to raise the precious son she had waited for so many years to receive.
Five days after his son's birth, King Suddhodana had a celebration to name his new son and invited all of the local Brahmin priests to attend. These were the priest of the local Hindu religion. All of those who attended, announced that the young prince would either become a great king and military leader or a great spiritual leader when he was grown.
Seven days after the birth, the queen died and was raised to the world of the devas, a place called Tavatimsa.
With the uncertainty of the prophecy surrounding his son's birth, King Suddhodana did everything in his power to ensure that his son would grow to be a great and wise king as opposed to a religious leader. With his mother now gone, Siddhartha's father brought his late wife's sister Maha Pajapati to the palace to raise the boy. He provided the boy with the finest of everything, clothing, food, education. He provided for Siddhartha's entertainment giving him beautiful gardens to stroll through, the finest musicians to play for him, servants to meet his every need, but he would not allow his son to leave the palace complex. Suddhodana did not want his son to see the suffering that existed in the world.
When Siddhartha turned sixteen, the king arranged his son's marriage to a beautiful noble girl named Yasodhara. Though Siddhartha was curious as to what the world outside the palace walls was like, he continued to follow his father's instructions and did not venture outside. The young prince and his bride had a son, Rahula, and lived in splendor for another thirteen years.
The Four Sights of Prince Siddhartha
Finally, Siddhartha knew that despite which way his prophecy was to go, he needed to go out into the world and see for himself what it was like. The prince convinced his charioteer, a man named Channa, to accompany him into his father's city.
On the first trip outside of the walls, Siddhartha saw an old man with wrinkled skin and little hair who barely walking even with the help of a cane. Siddhartha had never seen anything like this before and asked Channa what was wrong with the man. Channa explained that people grow old and suffer pain like the old man.
On the second trip outside of the walls, Siddhartha saw a man lying on the ground and moaning in sever pain. Again, Siddhartha had never seen anything like this and asked Channa to explain. His friend explained that the man was sick and that it could happen to anyone at anytime. Siddhartha was disturbed by what he was seeing but returned to his own palace to consider these things.
On the third trip outside of the walls, Siddhartha saw a body lying on the ground not moving at all. This time Channa explained to the prince that people die and it was inevitable for everyone. Siddhartha was now quite bothered by all that he had seen and the troubles that people had to face in life.
Siddhartha decided to take a fourth trip outside of the walls. This time he came upon an ascetic, a person who seeks only those things needed to sustain life. While the man had very little, he seemed to be peaceful and happy. Siddhartha began wondering if he could learn from the man.
He returned to the palace once again where a lavish party had been planned, but throughout the festivities, he could not stop himself from thinking of all the suffering he had seen. It brought him to a realization, that he needed to do something to end the suffering of the people.
The next morning, Channa saddled Siddhartha's favorite horse Kanthaka, which had pulled his chariot each time he had ventured from the palace, and the two men set out again. This time, however, Siddhartha removed his royal robes and all possessions and gave them to Channa to return, along with the horse, to his wife in the palace. He then set out to live his own ascetic life.
The Road to Enlightenment
Siddhartha first came upon the city of Rajagaha and began to live his life as a beggar on the street. The life of an ascetic requires begging for alms, which is anything and everything needed to survive. Siddhartha believed that if he was meant to eat, someone would provide him with food, and if he was meant to be warm, someone would provided him with clothing. It did not take long, however, before the local king's guards recognized the young prince. Siddhartha explained to King Bimbisara that he was on a quest for enlightenment from pain and suffering. The king then offered Siddhartha his own kingdom if he would stay, but Siddhartha was serious about his journey and refused the offer, but agreed to return once he found enlightenment.
The prince moved on and met a teacher of meditation. He studied under the master until he as well had mastered the technique. When his teacher, Alara Kalama, asked him to take his place as the master, however, Siddhartha rejected the offer and continued on his way.
Next he met Udaka Rumaputta, a master of yoga. Again, Siddhartha studied the art until he mastered it and was again asked to stay and become the master. Again, Siddhartha declined the request, as his journey had not been accomplished.
Now Siddhartha set out with five followers to begin an ever increasing asceticism. Eating nothing more than one nut per day, Siddhartha was starving himself to the point of near death. Then one day he passed out while bathing in a river and nearly drowned. He realized that maybe he needed to reconsider the starvation then sat in meditation, thinking about an event from his childhood. As he thought about his father performing a plowing ritual at the beginning of the planting season, he reached such a state of meditation that he was completely refreshed. This meditative state is called jhana.
Siddhartha now realized that it was meditation not starvation that would lead to enlightenment, and though certain levels of asceticism were needed, it was the Middle Way that should be followed. The Middle Way is described as neither over indulging in one's desires nor completely abstaining from them. Siddhartha then sat down under a tree, now known as a Bodhi tree, and stated to his five followers that he would not get up again until he had reached enlightenment. After a few days, his followers thought he had given up on the search all together and left him sitting there, but Siddhartha continued his meditation.
After 49 days, Prince Siddhartha finally reached the state of enlightenment. For Siddhartha, he described his enlightenment as obtaining an understanding of the nature of three things:
- His own past lives
- Karma and reincarnation
- The Four Noble Truths
For Siddhartha, the key to living a happy life was through understanding the Four Noble Truths. These are as follows:
- All things will experience pain and suffering but nothing (happiness or sadness) lasts forever
- Suffering is caused by wants and desires that cannot be met
- The way to stop suffering is to stop wanting things that are not essential
- The way to stop wanting for things is to live in accordance with the Eightfold Path
At this time, he also set down the Eightfold Path.
- Right view (the right way of looking at life)
- Right intention (doing right things for the right reason)
- Right speech (no lying, no arguing, no verbal abuse or idle talk)
- Right action (doing the right things, no stealing, killing etc)
- Right livelihood (making a living through a noble trade)
- Right effort (continue trying to do the right things)
- Right mindfulness (keeping the mind fresh and alert)
- Right concentration (keeping thoughts clear and focused during meditation)
He believed that by strict adherence to these rules, any person could reach the state of enlightenment called Nirvana.
Siddhartha had now reached that state of enlightenment known as Nirvana. He told his followers that he felt complete peace and freed from all negative feelings known to the world. From this point he would forever be known as the Buddha, the enlightened one.
Despite initial concerns that people were so hung up on the negative things in the world that they might never be able to reach Nirvana, he finally agreed to teach others what he had learned. His first sermon was to the five followers who had been with him the longest, despite their temporary loss of faith. These men became the very first sangha, community of Buddhist monks. The Buddha and his followers then traveled the land teaching his ideas now called the Wheel of Dharma. His first stop, as promised, was Rajagaha.
Suddhodana eventually learned of his son's transformation to the Buddha and sent several messages requesting his son return home. The first nine times, however, the messengers became members of the sangha before they could deliver the king's message. The tenth messenger converted as well but not before delivering the message. The Buddha agreed to return home, but it is said that upon his return, he disagreed with his father about his followers begging for alms, as was their custom. Eventually however, the Buddha agreed to enter the palace and offered a sermon to his own family. Several of his male family members, including his young son Rahula, became his trusted disciples.
Following the death of his father, many of the female members of his family asked to become members of the sangha as well, but the Buddha refused. Maha Pajapati, the aunt who raised him following his mother's death, refused to take no for an answer and, along with several other ladies from the palace, followed the Buddha until he reconsidered and created an order of Buddhist nuns.
The Buddha Goes to Parinirvana
The Buddha continued to teach until he reached the age of eighty. It is said that the Buddha announced to his sangha that it was time for him to go into Parinirvana. This is described not as death but when the mind leaves its earthly body. He ate a final meal then became ill but insisted that the preparer of the meal be told it was not the meal that lead to his leaving. The Buddha then asked if any of his disciples had any last questions before he left, but when they had none, for he had shared everything throughout his life, he went to Parinirvana. His body was cremated and distributed among the sacred places of the Buddhists.
Continued Importance of the Buddha
Siddhartha's parents were Hindu, and even as the Buddha, he never gave up the traditions he was taught as a child, for Buddhism is more of a way of thinking and living than a belief of a certain god or gods. For this reason, other religions have considered the Buddha to be important as well. The Hindus believed he was a descendant of Vishnu, one of the three main Hindu gods. Certain sects of Islam consider the Buddha a prophet just as they do with Jesus. The Chinese thought he was Lao Tzu, the philosopher and founder of Taoism, reincarnated. In Christianity, the Buddha is Saint Josaphat.
Prince Siddhartha fulfilled the prophecy from his birth and became the Buddha, despite his father's wishes, but in the end, even his own father converted to his teachings. As the king of a clan in India, he might have impacted several hundred people over the course of many years, but as the Buddha, he has and continues to impact millions who believe in his lessons and strive to live a life worthy of his idea making Buddhism the fourth largest religion in the world.