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Buddha

Category: Mystic

Siddhartha Gautama Buddha was a spiritual teacher from the Indian subcontinent, on whose teachings Buddhism was founded.

Siddhartha means "he who achieves his destiny or goal";   the hermit seer Asita journeyed from his mountain abode when Gautama was born and announced that the child would either become a great king (chakravartin) or a great holy man.  He is supposed to have been very good looking and among the '32 main characteristics' it is mentioned that Buddha had blue eyes, which in India would have been a bit special.

He is also referred to as "the Buddha" or most commonly simply as "Buddha."  Buddha  is generally translated in western literature to mean the  "awakened one" or "the enlightened one."    But this is a little misleading as there are various stages of enlightenment and Gautama appears to have achieved annihilation.  By doing so he became a 'god'.  Like Jesus whose life was not dissimilar.

 

The time of Gautama's birth and death is uncertain: most historians in the early 20th century dated his lifetime as circa 563 BCE to 483 BCE, but more recent opinion dates his death to between 486 and 483 BCE or, according to some, between 411 and 400 BCE.

Most Buddhist texts were produced after his death from the memories of his followers.  Most of his teaching was passed down by oral tradition, and first committed to writing about 400 years later.  The primary sources for the life of Siddhārtha Gautama are a variety of different, and sometimes conflicting, traditional biographies. These include  

  • The Buddhacarita is the earliest full biography, an epic poem written by the poet Aśvaghoṣa, and dating around the beginning of the 2nd century CE.

  • The Lalitavistara Sūtra is the next oldest biography, a Mahāyāna/Sarvāstivāda biography dating to the 3rd century CE

  • The Mahāvastu from the Mahāsāṃghika Lokottaravāda tradition is another major biography, composed incrementally until perhaps the 4th century CE.
  • The Dharmaguptaka biography of the Buddha is the most exhaustive, and is entitled the Abhiniṣkramaṇa Sūtra, and various Chinese translations of this date between the 3rd and 6th century CE..
  • The Nidānakathā is from the Theravāda tradition in Sri Lanka, was composed in the 5th century CE by Buddhaghoṣa.

From canonical sources, the Jātakas, the Mahapadana Sutta (DN 14), and the Achariyabhuta Sutta (MN 123) include selective accounts that may be older, but are not full biographies. The Jātakas retell previous lives of Gautama as a bodhisattva, and the first collection of these can be dated among the earliest Buddhist texts. The Mahāpadāna Sutta and Achariyabhuta Sutta both recount miraculous events surrounding Gautama's birth. 

Traditional biographies of Gautama generally include “numerous miracles, omens, and supernatural events.”

 

According to the most traditional biography, Buddha was born into a royal Hindu family to King Śuddhodana, the leader of the Shakya clan, whose capital was Kapilavastu.  This royal lineage is more important than it seems, because it indicates he had the right genes – the shamanic line of kings.  His upbringing was privileged.  His father, “wishing for his son to be a great king, is said to have shielded him from religious teachings and from knowledge of human suffering”.

His religious quest was “said to have been motivated by existential concern for the human condition”.  To put this another way he left the security and comfort of his  palace and saw abject poverty and misery, was shocked and decided a solution needed to be found.

“At the age of 29, Siddhartha left his palace to meet his subjects. Despite his father's efforts to hide from him the sick, aged and suffering, Siddhartha was said to have seen an old man. When his charioteer Channa explained to him that all people grew old, the prince went on further trips beyond the palace. On these he encountered a diseased man, a decaying corpse, and an ascetic. These depressed him, and he decided he needed to overcome ageing, sickness, and death”.

 

His story is a fascinating saga of failed attempts at getting a spiritual experience and enlightenment.  He became an ascetic begging for alms in the street. That didn't work.

He learned meditation from two hermit teachers. However, Gautama “felt unsatisfied by the practise, and moved on to become a student of Udaka Ramaputta. With him he achieved high levels of meditative consciousness. But, once more, he was not satisfied, and again moved on”.

Siddhartha and a group of five companions then tried to find enlightenment through deprivation of worldly goods, including fasting and self-mortification. After nearly starving himself to death by restricting his food intake to around a leaf or nut per day, he collapsed in a river while bathing and almost drowned. According to the early Buddhist texts, he decided after this that meditative jhana was the right path to awakening, but that extreme asceticism didn't work.

From this he started to devise what Buddhists now call the Middle Way—a path of moderation away from the extremes of both self-indulgence and self-mortification.

And how in the end did he succeed?

Communing with nature, coupled initially with Relaxation and eventually the practise of Contemplation and detachment.  He sat himself under a pipal tree—now known as the Bodhi tree—in Bodh Gaya, India, and  vowed never to arise until he had found the truth. Kaundinya and four other companions, believing that he had abandoned his search and become undisciplined, left. After a reputed 49 days of sitting and being peaceful, at the age of 35, he is said to have attained Enlightenment.

What he gained from this was wisdom.  No dramatic visions, no terrifying hallucinations, just wisdom. Using this wisdom he formulated them as  the "Four Noble Truths", which are at the heart of Buddhist teaching.

Buddha described the state he reached as Nirvana -  the perfect peace of a mind that's free from ignorance, greed, hatred and other afflictive states.

After this, he slowly gathered disciples, and in the Deer Park near Varanasi (Benares) in northern India, he delivered his first sermon to the five companions with whom he had sought enlightenment. Together with him, they formed the first sagha: the company of Buddhist monks.

For the remaining 45 years of his life, the Buddha is said to have traveled in the Gangetic Plain, in what is now Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and southern Nepal, teaching a diverse range of people: “from nobles to outcaste street sweepers, murderers and cannibals”.

According to the Mahaparinibbana Sutta of the Pali canon, he lived to a ripe old age. At the age of 80, the Buddha announced that he would soon reach Parinirvana, or the final deathless state, and abandon his earthly body. After his last meal, he died.

One of the best more modern summaries of his life is by Heinrich Heine and entitled simply Siddhartha.

References

  • Diamond Sutra - The Diamond sutra is composed in the form of a dialogue between Buddha and one of his disciples - Subhuti.
    "Now in the midst of the assembly was the Venerable Subhuti. Forthwith he arose, uncovered his right shoulder, knelt upon his right knee, and, respectfully raising his hands with palms joined, addressed Buddha thus: World-honored One, if good men and good women seek the Consummation of Incomparable Enlightenment, by what criteria should they abide and how should they control their thoughts?".
    The full text has been provided in a translation by A F Price, but I have also added some very short extracts in an alternative translation.
  • Fire sermon - The Ādittapariyāya Sutta (Pali, "Fire Sermon Discourse"), sometimes referred to simply as the Āditta Sutta, is a discourse from the Pali  Canon.  In this discourse, the Buddha preaches about achieving liberation from suffering through detachment from the five senses and mind.  I have provided the full text and an extract using an alternative translation.
  • The Heart Sūtra (Sanskrit: प्रज्ञापारमिताहृदय Prajñāpāramitā Hṛdaya) is a famous sūtra in Mahāyāna Buddhism. Its Sanskrit title, Prajñāpāramitā Hṛdaya, literally means "The Heart of the Perfection of Transcendent Wisdom." I have provided the full text and an extract using an alternative translation
  • The Sevijja or Tevigga sutta - I have provided a link to the full text but on the site an extract is provided.  This is the only Suttanta, among the thirteen, which leads up to the so called Brahma Vihàras 'the supreme condition' four states of mind held to result, after death, in a rebirth in the heavenly worlds of Brahmà.
  • The Dhammapada (Pāli; Prakrit: धम्मपद Dhammapada; Sanskrit: धर्मपद Dharmapada) is a collection of sayings of the Buddha in verse form and one of the most widely read and best known Buddhist scriptures. The original version of the Dhammapada is in the Khuddaka Nikaya, a division of the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism.

Observations

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