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LIFE AND TEACHINGS OF THE BUDDHA

Posted by Admin on January 30, 2011

Buddha giving the Sermon in the Deer Park, dep...

The Gautama Buddha

Introduction: This paper profiles the Buddha’s early life and teachings. Having started off with a description of the interesting story of his preordained birth and early life leading to his renunciation, it looks at the circumstances that warranted the birth of the religion he founded. After describing the core philosophical and spiritual aspects of Buddhism, this paper rounds off with a discussion of the present situation of this religion around the world.

Limitation of this paper: While most of the requirements of this paper are met, one limitation is that it looks at only Buddhism as a whole from the perspectives mentioned above, without giving a thought to its main sects or traditions. Secondly, since an attempt is made in this paper to illustrate as lucidly as possible the core concepts of this religion, no reference is made to the holy texts of Buddhism, and for this reason, this paper has no quotes from its holy texts. This has been avoided for the simple reason that these texts are in the ancient Indian languages of either Pali or Prakrit.

Birth and early life: Buddha, nee Siddhartha, was born at a time when circumstances warranted the advent of a great soul that would cleanse the world of its miseries and suffering. As has happened during the arrival of all great men, there were prophecies of his advent, too, right from the time of his conception –his mother, the queen of the princely state of Magadha in eastern India dreamt of a six-tusked white elephant descending from the heavens entering her womb, plucking flowers along the way. Thus was the Buddha conceived in the most spectacular of fashions. At the time of his delivery, it is believed that four divine angels held out golden nets to receive the baby boy. As is the custom in India, the baby’s birth had to take place in the mother’s parental home; during the arduous journey to her father’s house, the baby was born. To mitigate her labor, a sal tree, under which she rested, bent to give her shelter and ease the birth. The prophesying continued right into his infancy. A saint foretold that the child’s chancing upon four symbols – an enfeebled old man, a sick man, a corpse and monk would take him from the royal palace to the path he was destined to traverse.  Shuddhodana, his doting father, apprehensive of losing his auspicious son to the esoteric, tried desperately to bring the prince back to the mundane. He ensured that no such persons ever entered the palace. (Ballou) Such was the effort the king took to shield the prince from the sight of these kinds of persons that he got built three different palaces for each of the seasons for his son to enjoy, and, whenever Siddhartha was being shifted from one palace to another, made sure anyone of such a description was removed from the way. As the boy grew up in all the imaginable royal comfort under the gazing, protective eye of his father, there was little in his princely upbringing that gave even the remotest chance of being exposed to the vagaries and vicissitudes of life. Yet, for all the insulation Shuddhodana tried to place his son in, there was an inner spiritual craving in Siddhartha that was causing a sense of ennui in him. On one occasion, he insisted that he be taken for a horse ride. His loyal charioteer, Channa took the young prince out on a fateful day on the equally loyal, strikingly handsome stallion, Kanthaka. Everyday life steeped in misery in India in the 6th century B.C. was precisely the reason Siddhartha was born. This ride exposed him to all the four categories of persons his father so assiduously wanted to keep him away from. (Corless 7)

The sight of these four persons brought about such a transformation in him that he decided to renounce the world right there, and seek the ultimate truth. Divine afflatus was so much on his side that the gods placed their palms under his feet, so that his possessive father would not hear the noise of the footsteps at the time he was walking out of the palace. Yet again, a divine act was performed to facilitate his departure: Shuddhodana had been so anxious about retaining his son that he had ordered the palace gates to be shut, in case his son still managed to find his way out. However, it was decreed that Siddhartha would leave, and nothing would stop the transformation of the prince to the Buddha, the enlightened. The powerful gates opened on their own. Once he had departed, he implored his faithful companions, Channa and Kanthaka to leave. The heartbroken horse is believed to have died out of grief from this separation. (Ballou)

Background to the birth of Buddhism: In the centuries leading to the birth of Buddhism, there was a series of events that greatly convulsed Indian society. The discovery and molding of iron took the art of warfare to hitherto unknown heights, giving rise to kingdoms and making the role of the despot more important to everyday life than ever before; over time, this resulted in unprecedented greed for power and pelf. The vast, sprawling area below the mighty Himalayas had a mere 16 states. At the same time, the scriptural injunctions of Hindu society, the Vedas and the Upanishads, preached the oneness of man and God. Taken to the extreme, this belief led to a glorification of rituals that were no more than a superficial symbolism of the core values of the Vedas, with several mutually contradictory approaches to Moksha, or liberation. (Prebish 7-9) Rituals, animal sacrifice and a highly class-based caste system took center stage of religious and social life. Compounding Brahminical hierarchical superiority was the existence of another recent religion, Jainism, which took nonviolence to such absurd levels that the implementation of austerities this religion prescribed was almost impossible for the common man. (Craig 38) This then was the state of spiritual decadence that India was going through at the time of the birth of the Buddha. Is it any surprise that in Buddhism, the caste system is totally absent, and there is no place for rituals and animal sacrifice?

Understanding the core concepts of Buddhism:  Buddhism centers round the fleeting nature of life and the material world. Man, in his state of ignorance, fails to understand this, and ends up getting attached to all the impermanent ideals and possessions that surround him. All that this attachment begets is misery. This misery is only alleviated when he gains knowledge of his true self, which is the true nature of the soul. Thus, it is attachment to the ephemeral that is at the root of his ignorance, and which clouds his grasp of the true nature of his self. This ignorance can only be removed, and man can be made to understand the connection between his true self and the permanent source of wisdom, or God, when he rids himself of attachment to evanescent objects. The way to achieving this is Karma. Again, this is tricky, because karma in the traditional sense means action, which can be of any kind, both good and bad. It is the pursuance of good deeds that frees man from bondage, and from the cycle of rebirths, and puts him into a state of eternal bliss, or Nirvana. (Morgan 25) To Buddha, the way to achieve this is the core of his philosophy, the concept of the ‘Four Noble Truths’, the ‘Five Aggregates’, and the ‘Eight Fold Path’. Of these, while the ‘Four Noble Truths’ is central, the others are tied to this in sequence, as if they were a corollary to the core. (Prebish 29) Accordingly, these are: 1) suffering is inseparable from material existence; 2) the cause of this suffering is desire and ignorance; 3) freedom from this ignorance and desire is freedom from their attendant suffering; and 4) there is a method or way by which this freedom can be achieved. This is the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge of the self. (Gross 148) The metaphysical metaphor for this is the transitive phase of existence from disease to cure; Buddha is seen as the physician, the Bhavaroga Vaidya, or doctor who cures worldly illnesses by first diagnosing the disease, then understanding its cause, then moving on to deciding the cure, and finally, administering the cure. (Keown 45) The ‘Five Aggregates’ are form, sensation, perception, mental formations and consciousness. (Akira 44) Finally, the Eight Fold Path consists of right belief, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right occupation, right effort, right contemplation and right meditation. (“Exiled from Home, Loved” 3) If this is the core philosophy of Buddhism, then its chief spiritual traditions are nonviolence, tolerance and compassion for others; these are enunciated by the core means of community existence, or Sangha. (Boyle)

There are various theories ascribed to the growth of Buddhism. Though none of these is conclusive, the most widely accepted one is that after ancient India’s first great emperor, Ashoka, converted to Buddhism after his victory in the famous battle of Kalinga, in the 3rd century BC, he underwent a great transformation. Despite being the victor, he was so moved by the gore and grief the battle caused that he abjured all forms of violence, so essential a part of his sanguinary nature, before embracing Buddhism. The king was known to have made efforts to spread the essence of Buddhism to faraway countries such as present day Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, Near East and Macedonia. (Keown 69) To the present day, this religion is predominant in these regions –India, Southeast Asia consisting of most countries in the region, Sri Lanka, and in pockets in the West. (Boyle)

Conclusion:  To Buddha, the highest emphasis was the halt to meaningless rituals and on good conduct, beyond which there existed no higher form of benevolence or spirituality. These to him were more important than blind beliefs, which had become the bane of Hindu society at that time. The simple, yet incisive organization of thought is reflected in the stunningly refreshing strata of his thought and logic: the Four Noble Truths is the essence of life; this is accomplished by the exercise of the Five Aggregates, and results in the Eight Fold path. The logic of action and consequence, though rooted in the Hindu concept of Karma, was more straightforward. Like Hinduism, it too, lays out the belief that karma is individualistic and unique to the person attached to it. Like Confucius, who detested everything that was superficial, Buddha, too, felt the same feeling of revulsion towards blind adherence to only the flip side of the Upanishads. To him, good thoughts and deeds beget good, although over a cycle of births. Thus, his teachings, apart from standing out for their crystal clear logic, were aimed at cleansing the rot that had set in. Buddhism, an offshoot of Hinduism, went on to change the lives of people in an entire continent. (Ballou)

Written By Ravindra G Rao

Works Cited

 

Akira, Hirakawa. A History of Indian Buddhism: From Sakyamuni to Early Mahayana. Trans. Paul Groner. Ed. Paul Groner. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990. .

Ballou, Robert O., Ed. (1944). The Portable World Bible (1st Ed.). New York: Penguin Books.

Boyle, Joan. “Buddhist Discourse: An Instrument of Peace.” International Journal of Humanities and Peace 17.1 (2001): 27+. Questia. 26 Nov. 2005 <http://www.questia.com&gt;.

Cheetham, Eric. Fundamentals of Mainstream Buddhism. Boston, MA: Tuttle Publishing, 1994.

Corless, Roger J. The Vision of Buddhism: The Space under the Tree. 1st ed. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 1989.

Craig, Edward. Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2002.

“Exiled from Home, Loved in Liverpool.” Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, England) 27 May 2004: 3. Questia. 26 Nov. 2005 <http://www.questia.com&gt;.

Gross, Rita M. Buddhism after Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of Buddhism. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Keown, Damien. Buddhism A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Morgan, Kenneth W., ed. The Path of the Buddha Buddhism Interpreted by Buddhists.  New York: Ronald Press, 1956.

Prebish, Charles S., ed. Buddhism: A Modern Perspective.  University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994.

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