By Wes Annac, Editor, Openhearted Rebel
Buddhism is a religion predicated on detachment, renunciation, inner peace, and enlightenment. Buddhist teachers encourage their students to look within and become aware of what sustains the ego that keeps them focused on the outer world.
Through meditation and other practices that involve detachment, you can shine a light on your inner world and the fact that you are the driving force of your life. You’ll see that with a little discipline and understanding, you can create peace in yourself and in the world around you.
Buddhism encourages us to be content and open to the idea that we are all one. This is no different from most other religions, which share a common central message of peace, love, empathy, and unity. But in terms of its reputation and how its followers behave, Buddhism is far more peaceful.
A New Shirt
One great thing about this religion is that it doesn’t demand compliance (more on that later). You don’t have to give your life over to it to experience its benefits. A little openness to its ideas goes a long way, but you don’t have to go any further than that.
You can try a Buddhist practice like you would try on a new shirt. You might like the shirt’s color, you might think it’s a good fit for you, but you might still put it down and decide not to buy it. Buddhists don’t care if you buy their beliefs. The genuine ones don’t, at least. Their sole desire is to share the transcendent peace they’ve found in themselves, and peace is not concerned with whether you believe in it.
Although some Buddhist practices require discipline (which is arguably good for you), its approach to nonbelievers is laid-back compared to other religions. As we’ll learn, this is one reason religious people and atheists find it appealing.
I know very little about Buddhism’s history or how it spread from India to the rest of the world. When I realized this, it led me down a rabbit hole of research into what turns out to be a rich history. It made sense to compile some of the information into an article.
With that said, here’s a brief exploration of the Buddha’s life with some myth sprinkled in for fun.
Let’s start with some general information on Buddhism and the “awakened one” who started it.
The Asia Society writes that the many forms of Buddhism are each an attempt at capturing the meaning behind the Buddha’s teachings:
“Buddhism, founded in the late 6th century B.C.E. by Siddhartha Gautama (the ‘Buddha’), is an important religion in most of the countries of Asia.
“Buddhism has assumed many different forms, but in each case there has been an attempt to draw from the life experiences of the Buddha, his teachings, and the ‘spirit’ or ‘essence’ of his teachings (called dhamma or dharma) as models for the religious life.
“However, not until the writing of the Buddha Charita (life of the Buddha) by Ashvaghosa in the 1st or 2nd century C.E. do we have a comprehensive account of his life.” (1)
Patheos writes that we can boil down Buddhist teachings to the Four Noble Truths, which “form the basis” of the Buddha’s first sermon after his enlightenment, and the Eightfold Path. The latter is like an instruction manual for life. (2)
Buddhism has changed at lot since it was first conceived, Patheos writes. We can divide it into three main branches that are dedicated to different ideas and traditions. According to Patheos, these are “the Theravada (‘Doctrine of the Elders’), the Mahayana (‘Great Vehicle’), and the Vajrayana (‘Diamond Vehicle’, often simply called ‘Tibetan Buddhism’)”. (2)
Buddhism has spread everywhere, Patheos writes. Rather than make it their religion, some westerners incorporate it into their belief system or lack thereof – whether it’s Christianity, Judaism, or atheism. (2)
The Buddha’s Story
You might be wondering how this belief system came into being. According to Religion Facts, it all started with the Buddha himself – Siddhartha Gautama:
“Buddhist history begins with the life and teachings of an Indian prince named Siddharta Gautama, who lived around 500 BCE. According to Buddhist tradition, the sheltered young prince was shocked by the suffering he saw outside his palace walls, so he left his life of luxury to seek answers.
“Eventually he succeeded, becoming the Buddha–the ‘Enlightened One.’ He spent the remaining 45 years of his life teaching the dharma (the path to liberation from suffering) and establishing the sangha (a community of monks).” (3)
Siddhartha Gautama led an interesting life. The Asia Society writes that he was born to a king and queen around 563 BCE in a highly spiritual and intellectual era. Legend states that before he was born, a soothsayer predicted he would live a life of renunciation. (1)
According to the Asia Society, Gautama’s father – a king who didn’t want the prince to live in such a way – surrounded him with treasures in hopes that they would entice him. Gautama’s fate was sealed, however, when he took a series of chariot rides outside of his kingdom walls as a young man. Each ride revealed things, most of which were heartbreaking, that led him to renounce his material life. (1)
During the chariot rides, the Asia Society writes, Gautama witnessed “the more severe forms of human suffering: old age, illness, and death… as well as an ascetic renouncer”. This made him realize his life as royalty was an illusion and a distraction from the suffering he was now forced to confront. (1)
He then left his family and embarked on a new life of intense spiritual development, the Asia Society writes, studying under numerous teachers and nearly starving himself in the forest. He eventually saw that a life of total renunciation also creates suffering. This prompted him to finally eat before sitting under a tree and meditating on his revelation. (1)
According to the Asia Society, the amount of time he spent under the tree is disputed. Some say he sat there all night; others say he was there for months. However long it took him to get back up, when he did, he emerged enlightened. He had become aware of the causes of suffering and thus freed himself from it. He soon began to teach his new philosophy. (1)
Bamber Gascoigne at History World writes that his religion was well known by the time Gautama died.
“By the time of his death, at about the age of eighty, the Buddha’s followers are established as communities of monks in northern India. Wandering through villages and towns with their begging bowls, eager to describe the path to the truth, they are familiar figures. But so are many other such groups, including the Jains.” (4)
Mythology Behind the Buddha’s Birth
Now that we’ve learned about Siddhartha Gautama’s life, let’s look at the mythology behind his birth and the purpose of his presence here. Mythology is obviously not meant to be taken literally, but like a good fiction book, it’s fun to read and think about. Personally, I like to extract the little bits of truth and wisdom you can find if you look hard enough.
Nitin Kumar writes that the Buddha was driven to incarnate on Earth after witnessing humanity’s spiritual decline.
“Before the Buddha was born into this world as Shakyamuni, he was a bodhisattva in the Tushita heaven (home of the contented gods). His name there was Shvetaketu (‘White Banner’).
“From here he witnessed the dark ages engulfing the human realm, leading to its spiritual impoverishment. Moved to compassion like a true bodhisattva, he vowed to manifest himself in the sentient world and relieve people from their sufferings.” (5)
The Buddha’s act of compassion, Nitin writes, represents the bodhisattva ideal of putting aside enlightenment to go live in the trenches (aka Earth) and help those who struggle here.
“Indeed, in strictly canonical terms, a bodhisattva is defined as an individual who discovers the source of the Ultimate Truth better known as nirvana, but postpones his own enlightenment until he has guided all his fellow beings to this same source of fulfillment.
“Thus, Buddha, looking down upon the sentient beings suffering in the throes of ignorance, felt a pang of compassion, and in accordance with his bodhisattva status, decided to descend to the earth and spread the word of Dharma.
“Visually, Buddha is depicted making this vow surrounded by other sacred beings, holding aloft a lotus flower in his right hand, symbolizing the purity of his intention.” (5)
You’d need a superhuman level of compassion to leave the bliss of an exalted higher consciousness and help other struggling life forms. Moreover, it’s unimaginable to set up a series of events in your life in which you see heart-wrenching things that awaken you and make you start anew when you could instead stay in heaven. It’s a significant sacrifice to say the least.
Queen Maya’s Dream
Legend states that Gautama’s mother, Queen Maya, had a dream signifying the Buddha’s birth. According to Nitin:
“The Lalitavistara (1st cent. AD) says that Buddha himself selected the time, place, and caste of his birth. He finally short listed King Shudhodhana and his wife, Queen Mayadevi, rulers of the Shakya (Lion) clan, as his future parents.
“This generous couple was well known throughout the land for their just and noble bearing. Scriptures assert that Buddha chose a king as his father since the royal caste was more respected that the priestly one.
“It indeed seems strange that the Buddha, who never believed in the caste system, was so particular in the choice of a Brahmin or Kshatriya family for his own birth. In fact, it was precisely to show the futility of the notion of high-birth as an aid in spiritual salvation that this choice was made.
“The bodhisattva’s descent from the Tushita heaven occurred as a dream to Mayadevi. In this dream, a white elephant approached and touched her right side with its trunk. Through this symbolic act, the bodhisattva entered the womb of Mayadevi and impregnated her.” (5)
The elephant is symbolic, Nitin writes. Its color is also part of the message:
“The choice of an elephant as a symbol of her impregnation is a well-thought out metaphor because elephants are known for their strength and intelligence, and also associated with gray-rain clouds and thus with fertility, since rainwater means that seeds will germinate and vegetables will be able to grow.
“The white color (of the elephant), adds to this an element of purity and immaculacy. The royal fortunetellers explained that the dream announced the queen’s pregnancy, and that the newborn would possess exceptional traits.” (5)
Queen Maya’s child would indeed do “exceptional” things by challenging himself intensely before starting a belief system prominent nearly everywhere today. The impact of this truth-seeking prince’s teachings has lasted for thousands of years.
The story of Siddhartha Gautama makes his belief system even more interesting. Without knowing its story or the myths behind it, I’ve always found Buddhism to be one of the more compelling religions. Since it provides wisdom without the need for devotion, it’s arguably one of the most beneficial as well.
I’m one of many who gravitate toward Buddhism without considering myself a Buddhist, because you find a great deal of wisdom in its philosophy that you can apply to the struggle for a better life and a better world. You’ll end up feeling less like you’re struggling and more like you’re living according to plan in a conscious universe, the intelligence of which you can draw from every day.
The choice is yours to accept Buddhist teachings or not. But we can’t deny that its history is worth knowing.
- “The Origins of Buddhism”, The Asia Society – https://asiasociety.org/education/origins-buddhism
- “Buddhism”, Patheos – http://www.patheos.com/library/buddhism
- “History of Buddhism.” ReligionFacts.com. 22 Nov. 2016. Web. Accessed 27 Apr. 2018 – www.religionfacts.com/buddhism/history
- Gascoigne, Bamber. “History of Buddhism”, HistoryWorld.net From 2001, ongoing – http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?historyid=ab77
- Nitin Kumar. “Life of the Buddha.” ReligionFacts.com. 20 Nov. 2016. Web. Accessed 27 Apr. 2018 – religionfacts.com/the-buddha
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2 thoughts on “The Buddha’s Life Story”
Reblogged this on Blue Dragon Journal.
Buddhists are convinced that the Buddha said “Take no sentient life.” A Tibetan lama said to me, “Its all consciousness,” meaning everything is sentient. Gary Snyder received the Pulitzer prize in poetry for his book, Turtle Island, which contains a poem the title of which comes from Chiang yen, “Speak not to a skilled hunter about what is forbidden by the Buddha.” Snyder is an Oriental scholar and his translation of the original Buddhist text convinced him that the original meaning was not ” take no sentient life,” but, “cause no unnecessary harm.”