AS 201 Buddhism: Origins
“Remember Me as One who Woke Up”
According to Buddhist tradition, Shakyamuni (a name meaning "Sage of the Shakya Clan") is the founder of Buddhism (he is also sometimes referred to as "Siddhartha Gautama"). Shakyamuni was born around 563 B.C.E. to a royal family who lived in a palace in the foothills of the Himalayas. He probably died in or around 483 BCE.
From the moment he was born, Shakyamuni did not lead a typical life. For example, legend states
that Shakyamuni was born from his mother's hip while she remained standing in a grove of trees. In his youth, Shakyamuni's father provided him with everything he wanted and encouraged him to excel in his studies. However, he would not permit Shakyamuni to leave the palace grounds. Shakyamuni grew up with many luxuries and married a beautiful princess, but he still
was not happy. He longed to see what was beyond the palace gates, thinking that a clue to his search for the meaning of life lay beyond the safety and luxury of the palace.
At the age of 29, Shakyamuni left the palace on four separate occasions to explore. He was deeply affected by what he saw. During his first trip outside the palace, he saw a very old man who
was bent over and had trouble walking. As Shakyamuni passed by in his carriage, the old man peered up at him, his eyes squinting
from his severely wrinkled face.
In his second outing, Shakyamuni observed a sick man, wailing in pain. During his third excursion, Shakyamuni came upon the still and lifeless body of a dead man. Shakyamuni was shocked and saddened by the sights of old age, sickness, and death. During his fourth outing, he saw a wandering monk, a seeker of religious truth. These four outings and what Shakyamuni saw (old age, sickness, death, and a seeker of religious
truth) are called the "Four Sights."
Meeting the monk inspired Shakyamuni to leave the palace, his wife, and his newborn son. He wanted to understand more about life, why human beings suffered, and how one could help relieve suffering in the world. Thus, he began his religious quest.
Shakyamuni began his search for enlightenment. According to Buddhist belief, enlightenment is the experience of true reality, an "awakening" through which one could comprehend the true nature
of things. Shakyamuni thought he could reach enlightenment by practicing asceticism, a lifestyle of severe discipline. Sometimes he would not eat or drink for long periods of time. After six years of
enduring many hardships, Shakyamuni realized that he had not come to a deeper understanding of life. He realized that neither luxury nor starvation would lead to enlightenment and instead
decided to follow a moderate path or the Middle Way. He went to a village called Bodh Gaya where he became awakened to a true understanding of life. The moment of his enlightenment took place
while he was seated in meditation under a tree. He saw that the world is full of pain and sorrow. But there is a way out, a way to end the suffering. These sorrows, all the pain and suffering, come about because of human desires and the tendency to "attach" to these desires. There is a pathway to end the power of these desires or attachments, and if you follow it, you may become enlightened.
In his enlightenment, the Buddha gained the power to see his former lives, the power to see death and rebirth of all types, and finally the realization that he had eliminated all desires and ignorance within himself. He had become a Buddha, a title meaning "awakened one."
For centuries, the Vedic rituals had commanded respect for the gods and inspired conviction. But by Siddhartha's time, the rituals no longer spoke to the spiritual needs of many Indians, leaving a spiritual vacuum, and a sense of foreboding. Interesting how Confucius found a way to reinvigorate Zhou rituals and make them relevant to very different times. Now at this time in India there were lots of renunciants out there. It's a flourishing, renunciant tradition. There are many different people who have given everything up and practice austerities and meditate in order to escape from the cycle of death and rebirth. The notion of reincarnation is something that is part of Indian culture, part of Indian civilization, part of Indian religion that was there long before the Buddha, and it was the, in a sense, the problem that the Buddha faced."
Suffering didn’t begin at birth, and finish with death. Suffering was endless. Unless it was possible to find a way out—become enlightened, become a Buddha.
With the authority of the priests worn thin and wisdom seekers like Siddhartha roaming the countryside, holy men emerged teaching their own spiritual disciplines. Siddhartha apprenticed himself to one of them, a celebrated guru who taught that true knowledge could never come from ritual practice alone. It was necessary to look within. The teachers of the time are already teaching forms of yoga and meditation, teaching that the self reflective capacity of the mind can be put to use to tame the mind, to tame the passions—that was already established in India. And there were probably so many schools of yoga and meditation in those days just as there are now."
So, he ascends to these very, rarified states of consciousness, but it’s not permanent and it does not bring penetrating truth into the nature of reality. So these become a temporary escape from the problem of existence but they don’t solve the problem."
Siddhartha apprenticed himself to another popular guru, but the results were the same. He said later:
"The thought occurred to me; this practice does not lead to stillness, to direct knowledge, to deeper awareness.” Disenchanted, he left this master, too. Siddhartha continued to drift south, still searching for the answer to his questions: "Why do human beings suffer? Is there any escape?"
He’s trying and trying and searching and searching, and he already experienced extreme luxuries, so now he tries extreme deprivation."
"One key concept in Buddhism is compassion, which is the deep affection that we feel for everything because we’re all in it together. Be it other human beings, other animals, the planet as a whole, the creatures of this planet, the trees and rivers of this planet. Everything is connected."
It was a beautiful day. His mind drifted. As if by instinct, he crossed his legs in the yoga pose of meditation. And the natural world paid him homage. As the sun moved through the sky, the shadows shifted, but the shadow of the rose-apple tree where he sat remained still. He felt a sense of pure joy. But he says, 'I can’t sustain a feeling of joy like this if I don’t take any food so I better eat something'. And at that moment a village maiden mysteriously appears carrying a bowl of rice porridge."
"And she said to him, 'Here, eat.' That moment of generosity and release when he accepted the rice was a decision towards life. It was what in the Christian tradition might be called grace that you cannot do it completely on your own, and in Christianity the grace comes from the divine. In the story of the Buddha the grace comes from the ordinary kind heart of a girl who sees somebody starving and says, 'eat'."
"The joy that he found is in the world that is already broken. It’s in this transitory world that we’re all a part of, and the fabric of this world, despite the fact that it can seem so horrible, the underlying fabric of this world actually is that joy that he recovered. That was his great insight. Siddhartha had put his faith in two gurus. They hadn't helped him. He had punished his mind and body. That had almost killed him. Now, he knew what he must do: to find the answer to his questions, he would look within, and trust himself. Every Budhist knows the story of how Siddhartha, after accepting the rice milk from the young girl, put aside the rags he was wearing, bathed himself in a nearby river, and, strengthened, sat down in the shade of the Bodhi tree, and began to meditate. It was springtime. The moon was full. Before the sun would rise, Siddhartha’s long search would be over.
He gains the power to see the process of birth, death, and rebirth that all creatures go through. He’s given this sort of cosmic vision of the workings of the entire universe."
As the morning star appeared, he roared like a lion. "My mind," he said, "is at peace." The heavens shook, and the Bodhi tree rained down flowers. He had become the “awakened one”—the Buddha. "You’re already enlightened. He’s saying the capacity for enlightenment, that your awake-ness already exists within you."
Nirvana is this moment seen directly. There is nowhere else than here. The only gate is now. The only doorway is your own body and mind. There’s nowhere to go. There’s nothing else to be. There’s no destination. It’s not something to aim for in the afterlife. It’s simply the quality of this moment."
"Just this, just this, this room where we are. Pay attention to that. Pay attention to who's there, pay attention to what isn't known there, pay attention to what is known there, pay attention to what everyone is thinking and feeling, what you're doing there, and pay attention. Pay attention."
The problem, Buddha taught, is desire—how to live with the confused and entangling desires of our own minds. "People often misunderstand Buddhism as saying, 'in order to wipe out suffering you have to wipe out desire.' If that is what the Buddha was saying then where does the desire for enlightenment fit in? The Buddha’s saying 'be smart about your desires'." "Desire must be there. Without desire how can we live our life? Without desire how can we achieve Buddhahood?
The Buddha gave his first sermon, known as the "First Discourse," explaining his realization to the group of ascetics with whom he used to practice. These men became his first disciples. He continued to spread his knowledge throughout towns in India for 45 years thereafter, gaining increasing numbers of followers until his death at the age of 80. After his enlightenment, he went to the Deer Park near the holy city of Benares and shared his new understanding with five holy men. They understood immediately and became his disciples. This marked the beginning of the Buddhist community. For the next forty-five years, the Buddha and his disciples went from place to place in India spreading the Dharma, his teachings. Their compassion knew no bounds, they helped everyone along the way, beggars, kings and slave girls. At night, they would sleep where they were; when hungry they would ask for a little food.
Wherever the Buddha went, he won the hearts of the people because he dealt with their true feelings. He advised them not to accept his words on blind faith, but to decide for themselves whether his teachings are right or wrong, then follow them. He encouraged everyone to have compassion for each other and develop their own virtue, "You should do your own work, for I can teach only the way." He never became angry or impatient or spoke harshly to anyone, not even to those who opposed him. He always taught in such a way that everyone could understand. Each person thought the Buddha was speaking especially for him. The Buddha told his followers to help each other on the Way.
Why do human beings suffer? Is there a way to end this suffering? Is there any escape? Exdtreme deprivation; will that work? Asceticism: punishing the body. Extremes of hardship and pain.
Deeper awareness, awareness that is permanent is what is needed.
The Four Noble Truths
1. Life is full of pain, suffering and anxiety.
2. Suffering is caused by Human Desires and Attachments.
3. Suffering can have an end. We are capable of understanding these weaknesses and triumphing over them. How?
4. There is a path which leads to the end of suffering, the Eight Fold Path..
The Four Noble Truths form the basis of Buddhist thought. It is believed that suffering, in part, is due to the impermanence of life. Even if one is happy at a given time, this happiness is not
permanent. Since it is believed that life is suffering, the ultimate goal in Buddhism is to end the cycle of suffering, the cycle of repeated death and rebirth. The achievement of this goal is called
So Buddhism takes a very psychological approach to the human condition.
Even the most abstract of the Buddha's teachings had a practical, ethical dimension. Compassion, the Buddha taught, comes from understanding impermanence, transience, flow—how one thing passes into another, how everything and everyone is connected. The Buddha talks about the three poisons: greed, and anger, and ignorance, and how the three poisons are what is making the fire, and the way out of doing this is not to deny the three poisons, but to recognize that if you turn them around, you come to their opposites."
Instead of greed, you have generosity; instead of anger, you have compassion; and instead of ignorance, you have wisdom. The Buddha said:
There is a story of a Brahmin who one day found the Buddha under a tree, calmly meditating. The Buddha’s mind was still. He radiated such power and strength that the Brahmin was reminded of a tusker elephant. The Brahmin asked him who he was.The Buddha replied:
“Imagine a red lotus that had begun life underwater but grew and rose above the surface until it stood free. So I too have transcended the world, and attained the supreme enlightenment."
"Who are you, then?" the Brahmin wondered.
The Buddha said:
"Remember me as the one who woke up."
The goal of Buddhism is to become enlightened and experience nirvana, which is to say, to experience the reality that life is actually blissful if we can open ourselves to it. Nirvana is believed to be attainable only with the elimination of all greed, hatred, and ignorance within a person. Nirvana signifies the end of the cycle of death and rebirth.
According to the Four Noble Truths, "life is suffering" so ending the cycle of rebirth is something to be desired. Some Buddhists think of nirvana as a type of heaven where there is no suffering; other Buddhists view nirvana as a state of mind free from suffering. According to Buddhist belief, a final nirvana is attained at the time of an enlightened being's death, and is no longer part of the cycle of reincarnation and death.
D. How to Achieve Nirvana
Buddhists believe that the path toward nirvana, called the Middle Way or the Eightfold Path, outlines how people should live in order
to reach nirvana.
The Eightfold Path consists of three categories: moral conduct, concentration, and wisdom.
Moral conduct consists of:
1. right speech (refraining from falsehood, malicious talk, and abusive language)
2. right action or conduct (refraining from stealing, killing, and unchastity)
3. right livelihood (earning a living through proper means, not killing living beings, making astrological forecasts, or practicing fortune-telling)
Concentration consists of:
4. right effort (energetic will to prevent or get rid of evil and promote goodness)
5. right mindfulness (to be diligently aware, mindful, and attentive)
6. right concentration (to rid oneself of unwholesome thoughts and achieve pure equanimity and awareness)
Wisdom consists of:
7. right thought (selflessness and detachment, universal thoughts of love and nonviolence)
8. right understanding (understanding of things as they are, a full understanding of the Four Noble Truths)
One Point: Everyone and Anyone could follow this path.
Some schools of Buddhism including those of Chinese Buddhism believe that becoming a bodhisattva is a more important goal for
individuals than achieving nirvana. A bodhisattva is a being who has attained enlightenment, but vows not to enter into final nirvana until all living things are released from suffering. Bodhisattvas
choose to be reborn so that they can continue to work to relieve the suffering of others and try to make them aware of the Buddha's
teachings. In China, bodhisattvas are sometimes worshiped as much as the Buddha. For example, the female bodhisattva Guanyin became widely worshiped in Buddhist temples throughout China.
In Buddhism, Guanyin is the Chinese Bodhisattva of Compassion known as Kannon in Japanese.