In my opinion, the discussion of Buddhism necessarily starts with its founder. Our historical Buddha is Shakyamuni Buddha, also known as Siddhartha Gautama Buddha.
According to the result of an archeological excavation by Dr. Robin Coningham of Durham University at the Mayadevi Temple, the exact birthplace of Shakyamuni Buddha in Lumbini, Nepal, revealed the Buddha was born in the sixth century BC.
Buddha was born into an aristocratic family, his father being the chieftain of the Shakya clan. Shortly after his birth, his father brought in a palace soothsayer, who told him that his son would grow up to be either a great political leader or a religious one. His father, keen on his son following him as a political leader, decided to shelter him from the harsh realities of the outside world and restricted him from wandering outside. In addition, he pampered his son with luxury and beautiful maidens who would please him with their physical beauty, music, dances, etc. Yet, these temptations did not move the young prince. Eventually, when he was twenty-nine, the young prince finally convinced his father to let him out of the palace. In four subsequent trips, he experienced what has become known as the Four Sights, which would change his life forever.
On his first journey, he saw an aging man. His charioteer, Channa, told him that aging is part of everyone’s life.
On his second journey, he witnessed sickness. But, again, Channa told him it is an inescapable part of life.
On his third journey, he saw a corpse for the first time and again realized that death is an inevitable fate that befalls everyone.
On his fourth journey, he was introduced to a mendicant monk. Channa explained that this person had renounced worldly comfort, pleasure, and luxury in exchange for spiritual life to seek answers to the existential sufferings that the prince saw in his earlier journeys.
The realization that all beings are impermanent and that all birth would inevitably lead to death with aging and sickness sandwiched between the two tormented the prince greatly. He decided that, like the mendicant monk, he would have to renounce the luxurious palace life to confront the realities of suffering and seek answers independently.
The young prince eventually eloped from the palace, abandoning his wealth and power. He cut off his hair, put on a robe, and started life anew as a wandering mendicant monk searching for answers to life’s misery and suffering. First, he visited the best gurus of his time to learn from them. Eventually, however, he found their teachings insufficient for permanent liberation from suffering and left them.
In his book, An End to Suffering, author Pankaj Mishra cited a few examples of Buddha’s disillusion with two gurus.
The first was a yogi named Alara Kalama. After studying under him for a while, Buddha realized that, like the other students, he only recited the yogi’s doctrine while proclaiming that they understood his teaching. The yogi never declared, “I myself know, realize, and take upon myself this teaching, abiding in it.”
The future Buddha decided to confront Kalama, “How far have you yourself realized this teaching by direct knowledge?” In response, Kalama taught him about the Sphere of Nothingness. Soon after practicing, Buddha realized the state of the Sphere of Nothingness and could abide in it. Impressed, Kalama invited Buddha to join the hermitage as a co-teacher. However, Buddha was not yet satisfied and turned down the offer because the Sphere of Nothingness “does not lead to revulsion, dispassion, cessation, calm, knowledge, awakening, and Nibbana.”
Next, the future Buddha went to another guru called Udraka Ramaputra. This time, the guru told him about the Sphere of Neither Perception nor Non-Perception. Again, Buddha could pick up the teaching quickly and abide by it. Once again, he was offered a leadership position, which he also declined. He left the second guru for the same reason as before.
According to author Pankaj Mishra, Buddha felt that the meditation these gurus taught, “no matter how deep,” was “temporary, comfortable abiding, in the here and now.” However, “one emerges from them, even after a long session, essentially unchanged.” These states were “without a corresponding moral and intellectual development, they by themselves did not end suffering.“
Buddha would later teach that to be enlightened and be released from repeated cycles of rebirth, one needs a higher meditative state than the “Realm of Neither Cognition nor Non-Cognition.” After his enlightenment, Buddh would teach a meditation technique known as samathavipasyana that could accomplish that.
However, Buddha’s time spent with these gurus was not wasted. The author suggested that Buddha “picked up ideas and techniques he would later rework into his own teachings.” Indeed, after enlightenment, Buddha teaches that the “Realm of Nothingness” and the “Realm of Neither Cognition nor Non-Cognition” are the two top-most tiers among the twenty-eight levels of Celestial Realms. These two celestial realms belong to the Formless Celestial Realm, meaning that beings do not have physical bodies there. However, the meditation states achieved in these two Realms are one or two steps away from enlightenment to being liberated from existential suffering.
The experience with the gurus also makes Buddha realize “that mere faith in what the guru says isn’t enough and that you have to realize and verify it through your own experience.” Indeed, enlightenment can only be experienced individually.
Of course, that applies to Buddha himself. Like the other gurus, Buddha is a teacher who shows us the path to enlightenment. Buddha teaches that his followers should not mindlessly follow his teachings but verify them personally. Indeed, while Buddha can show them the path to enlightenment, the journey to realizing enlightenment can only be completed individually.
After leaving the gurus, Buddha traveled to modern-day Bodh Gaya and spent six years practicing Jainistic asceticism. Jainistic asceticism practices severe fasting and self-mutilation based on the belief that one liberates the soul by relinquishing attachment to the physical body. Buddha followed the course and fasted for so long and so extensively that he became highly emaciated. As author Pankaj Mishra wrote, Buddha told his disciple Sariputra, “Because I ate so little, my buttocks became like a camel’s hoof, my backbone protruded like a line of spindles, my ribs corroded and collapsed like the rafters of an old and rotten shed, the gleams of the pupils in my eye sockets appeared deeply sunken, my scalp became wrinkled and shrunken….”
After six torturous years, Buddha starts to doubt the path he is on. Later, in Madhyama Agama, or the Collection of Middle-length Discourses, Buddha says, “although I practiced severe asceticism, I cannot attain the unique and extraordinary insight beyond the affairs of human beings. Would it be possible that there be another way to enlightenment?”
Now, he wondered if his great desire for enlightenment wasn’t the obstacle preventing him from going deeper naturally into a higher meditative state. He remembered his first meditation as a young prince when sitting by a tree; his mind drifted naturally into a calm, contemplative state. He felt serene as he experienced insight into how all are causally connected while watching a farmer plow his field, digging up worms that would become food for the birds. This insight would allow him to see the transient nature of all existences. He realized that all beings are impermanent and causally related. Furthermore, fleeting existence is a source of suffering. He decided he must find a way to end the misery for all.
With the memory of his first meditation, Buddha discontinued starving, stopping the pain and allowing him to regain his strength. Then, realizing that neither the extremes of a comfortable and luxurious princely life nor the painful self-mutilation of Jainistic asceticism would lead him to his goal, he decided to try the meditation he naturally drifted into as a youth. He found a fig tree, now known as the Bodhi Tree, seated under it and meditated, vowing not to leave until enlightened.
History tells us that he indeed became enlightened. Thereafter, he would be honored as the first Buddha of our era, designed for the one who encompasses all objects of universal knowledge.
After enlightenment, Buddha embarked on a journey to teach what he realized to all who would listen with the stated objective of setting them free from the bondage of existential suffering. The content of his verbal teaching would later be collected as texts. The collection of these texts would become Buddhist sutras/suttas, the canons of Buddhism.
In Lotus Sutra, Buddha clearly states his soteriological goal to end suffering from the fleeting nature of existence.
“I initially vowed.
To make all sentient beings my equal without a difference.
Now that I have fulfilled this vow
That I made in the past.
I can transform them.
So they all enter the path of Buddhahood.”
In other words, to end the misery of fleeting existence, one must enter the path of Buddhahood and be enlightened like him.
In the next post, we will discuss a few foundational concepts important in understanding Buddhism.