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More than two thousand five hundred years ago, there lived in India, in the shadow of the Himalayas, a tribe called the Sakyas. The chief of the tribe was Raja Shuddhodhana and his queen’s name was Mahamaya. Their capital was the beautiful city Kapilavastu. One night-Mahamaya had a strange dream. Learned Brahmins interpreted the dream as a sign that Mahamaya would soon give birth to a great and noble son. And so it came to pass. Mahamaya now turned back and returned to Kapilavastu. King Shuddhodhana received them enthusiastically and there was great rejoicing in the kingdom. Shortly afterward mother and child were visited by the sage Asita. Taking the prince, who was hardly a day old, in his arms he exclaimed with joy, “Indeed he will be a Great One!” Then tears began to trickle down Asita’s cheek. King Shuddhodhana was immediately filled with alarm. “What danger is going to befall my son?” he asked anxiously. “I am not crying for the child,” replied Asita, “but for myself. This child will one day bring deliverance to the world. I am old and will not live to see that day. So I cry.” Saying this sage went his way. The king and queen rejoiced at hearing Asita’s words and named their son Siddhartha.
This name in the pages of history bears much reverence for the work he had rendered for the service of humanity. The religious-philosophical religion he had started to preach was a response to the evils of other religions at that time. While not much is known about the earliest forms of Buddhism, it seems the earliest followers believed that there were only one Buddha and his teaching that would be followed to be enlightened.
He was the chief’s son of a tribal group, the Shakyas, so he was born as Kshatriya. At the age of twenty-nine, he left his family to lead an ascetic life. A few years later he reappears with some followers; he and his followers devote their lives to “The Middle Way,” a lifestyle that is midway between a completely ascetic lifestyle and one that is world-devoted. At some point, he gained “enlightenment” and began to preach this new philosophy in the region of Bihar and Uttar Kadesh. His teaching lasted for several decades and he perished at a very old age, somewhere in his eighties.
While Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, spent several decades teaching, none of his teachings were written down until several hundred years later. In the third century, Asoka, the great Mauryan emperor, converted to Buddhism and began to sponsor several monasteries throughout the country. He even sent missionaries out to various countries both east and west. During his reign, the teachings of Buddha spread all across India and Sri Lanka. When the teachings of Buddha were finally written into a canon, this canon is called the Tripitaka, or “Three Baskets,” for it is divided into three parts, the Vinaya, or “Conduct,” the Sutta, or “Discourses,” and the Abhidhamma, or “Supplementary Doctrines.” The second part, the “Discourses,” is the most important in Buddhism. These are discourses by the Buddha and contain the whole of Buddhist philosophy and morality. Therevada Buddhism holds that Buddha was a historical person who, on his death, ceased to exist. There were, however, strong tendencies for Buddhists to worship Buddha as a god of some sort; these tendencies probably began as early as Buddha’s lifetime. The Mahayanists developed theology of Buddha called the doctrine of “The Three Bodies,” or
Trikaya. The Buddha was not a human being, as he was in Theravada Buddhism, but the manifestation of a universal, spiritual Being. This Being had three bodies. When it occupied the earth in the form of Siddhartha Gautama, it took on the Body of Magical Transformation (nirmanakaya). This Body of Magical Transformation was an emanation of the Body of Bliss (sambhogakaya), which occupies the heavens in the form of a ruling and governing God of the universe.
In the Kalama Sutta, we find the Kalamas, a people of apparently skeptical natures, asking Buddha for guidance in distinguishing good teachers from bad ones, and proper teachings from evil ones. The Buddha answers in three parts, which are treasures of wisdom. First, he outlines the criteria we should use to distinguish well from bad teachers and teachings:
“It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain… Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor rumor; nor upon what is in scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher….’
“What do you think, Kalamas? Does greed appear in a man for his benefit or harm? Does hate appear in a man for his benefit or harm? Does delusion appear in a man for his benefit or harm?” “For his harm, venerable sir.” — “Kalamas, being given to greed, hate, and delusion, and being overwhelmed and vanquished mentally by greed, hate, and delusion, this man takes life, steals, commits adultery, and tells lies; he prompts another too, to do likewise. Will that be long for his harm and ill?” — “Yes, venerable sir….”
“Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,’ abandon them.”
He found the world a miserable place and seek eight noble paths for attaining the enlightenment of life. These are as follows:
- Right view is the true understanding of the four noble truths.
- Right aspiration is the true desire to free oneself from attachment, ignorance, and hatefulness.
These two are referred to as prajña or wisdom.
- Right speech involves abstaining from lying, gossiping, or hurtful talk.
- Right action involves abstaining from hurtful behaviors, such as killing, stealing, and careless sex.
- Right livelihood means making your living in such a way as to avoid dishonesty and hurting others, including animals.
These three are referred to as Shila or morality.
- Right effort is a matter of exerting oneself in regards to the content of one’s mind: Bad qualities should be abandoned and prevented from arising again; Good qualities should be enacted and nurtured.
- Right mindfulness is the focusing of one’s attention on one’s body, feelings, thoughts, and consciousness in such a way as to overcome craving, hatred, and ignorance.
- Right concentration is meditating in such a way as to progressively realize a true understanding of imperfection, impermanence, and non-separateness.
The last three are known as samadhi or meditation.
The Buddha’s teachings did not die with him. Even before his death, they had become a major force within the country. And today, more than two thousand five hundred years after the death of the Buddha the wheel depicted on our national flag is the wheel of righteousness which is a symbol of the Buddha’s teachings to the people. After his death, the Buddha’s teachings began to spread outside India, mainly because of the zeal of Emperor Ashoka. They spread in the east to Burma and Indo-China. In the south Buddhism became the religion of Sri Lanka. It ‘ rater spread in the north and east to Tibet, China, and Japan. Soon large areas echoed with the sacred hymn;
Buddham Sharanam Gacchami
Dammam Sharanam Gacchami
Sangham Sharanam Gacchami, which in English is:
I take refuge in the Buddha
I take refuge in the Law
I take refuge in the Order.