(ORIAS, Changhwan Park)
Conception of the Buddha
2. The Birth of the Buddha
3. The Four Encounters
4. The Great Departure
7. The Uruvela Conversion
8. Return to Kapilavastu
9. Subjugation of the Mad Elephant
10. The Great Passing
Glossary for Illustrated Life of Buddha
The life of the Buddha presented in the subsequent ten acts is neither history nor a myth. It is a pious report of the founder of Buddhism as the Buddhist tradition tells it. The whole story of the Buddha takes on a mythic and legendary character. A wealth of detail is to modern sensibilities of a decidedly "miraculous" and "supernatural" nature so that readers who want to see it from a historian's perspective might be puzzled over its authenticity. Of course, modern scholars have attempted to find out who was the historical Buddha and have agreed upon a few bare facts of the life of a man who, some 2,500 years ago, left home to become a wandering ascetic and attained perfect enlightenment. But then they have faced another problem of missing the story's own sense of truth, which has made a great impact on the mentality of Buddhist followers throughout Asia. In other words, that legendary account of the Buddha in turn constituted another reality on which Buddhist thoughts and practices have prevailed. Thus, the upcoming account of the life of the Buddha is no more than a pious story faithful to the earliest literary and iconographic sources available. Now, let us the story speak for itself.
Traditionally, the Buddha's life story centers on events from his conception to his Awakening and his first teaching. In this particular account of the life of the Buddha, however, we'll add to the narrative a few more post-enlightenment episodes which are fascinating in their own right.
1. The Conception of the Buddha
The earliest Buddhist sources state that the future Buddha Shakyamuni was born SiddharthaGautama, around the fifth century BCE, the son of a local king in Kapilavastu in the Himalayan foothills in what is now modern Nepal. He was thus a member of a relatively privileged and wealthy family, and enjoyed a comfortable upbringing. Buddhist world-view, however, views his birth not as a onetime event so much as a grand finale of a long series of countless previous lives as an enthusiastic seeker of religious truth.
The story goes back incalculable numbers of
aeons ago to when there lived an ascetic called Sumedha
(the future Buddha Shakyamuni) who encountered the buddhaDipamkara.
This meeting affected Sumedha in such a way that he too aspired to becoming
a buddha. Sumedha thus set out on the path of the cultivation of the "Ten
(Nepalese image of Dimpankara from Patan Museum)
The Bodhisattva cultivated these perfections over many lifetimes. The life in which he becomes the Buddha Shakyamuni some time in the fifth century BCE, represents the fruition of Sumedha's distant aspiration and tireless endeavors. An old tradition tells us that shortly before his final rebirth the Bodhisattva spent his life as a god in Tusita (the Heaven of the Contented). Surveying the world from Tusita, the Bodhisattva saw the time had come for him to take a human birth and at last become a buddha; he saw that the "Middle Country" of the great continent of Jambudvipa (India) was the place in which to take birth, for its inhabitants would be receptive to his message. The Bodhisattva was conceived on the full moon night in July; that night his mother, Maya, dreamt that a white elephant carrying a white lotus in its trunk came and entered her womb through her right flank.
Figure 1 and 2 depict the scene of the Boddhisatva's descent into earth and entry into her mother's womb.Figure 1, the sculpture from the stupa of Bharhut, took on the task of illustrating the above-mentioned story in a simple manner. Maya is shown reclining, her head to the left of the spectator, on a four-legged bed. A water pitcher and a lighted lamp (indicating that the scene took place at night) complete the furnishings. Maidservants at the bottom watch over their mistress' sleep, one holding a fly whisk and the other being startled to see the entry of the white elephant into Maya. Above the medallion there are inscribed the words "the descent of the Blessed One." The white elephant here symbolizes perfect wisdom and royal power; in India, an elephant is accounted the most sacred animal on earth. As a matter of fact, prior to the descent, the Bodhisattva in the Tusita heaven consulted with other gods about what guise he should take to enter his mother's womb. The gods suggested all the divine forms imaginable, but one of them, who knew the writings of the brahmins better because of his recent birth, closed the discussion by stating, "In the form of a white elephant having six tusks."
Now the Bodhisattva enters his mother's womb in the form of a white elephant, but here we encounter a little problem in that we are not informed at what moment he exchanges his animal form for a human one. The Chinese thought they solved this problem by showing the Bodhisattva as entering his mother's womb "mounted on an elephant" as shown in Figure 2, the Chinese painting of the same scene. One more point that attracts our attention is that at this decisive moment of conception Maya is always shown alone on her couch; her husband is always absent. This restraint can be attributed to the religious belief of the time that everything having to do with the birth of the Buddha be physically and morally pure. This preoccupation with moral purity is carried over to the second act, the birth of the Buddha.
2. The Birth of the Buddha
Having carried the Boddhisattva in her womb
for precisely ten lunar months, Maya gave a birth to him. On the full moon
in May, passing by the Lumbini grove (in modern day Nepal) on her way to her home town, she was
captivated by the beauty of the flowering sala trees and stepped down from
her palanquin to walk amongst the trees in the grove. As she reached for
a branch of a sala tree, which bent itself down to meet her hand, the pangs
of birth came upon her. Thus, while other women are depicted as giving
birth sitting or lying down, the Bodhisattva's mother is shown delivering
her child while standing and holding on to the branch of a sala tree in
the garden of Lumbini.
(See this moment illustrated on the murals of Baiya Monastery, Tibet.)
under construction: Figure 3 illustrates the Bodhisattva issuing
forth from his mother's right flank, where he entered at the time of conception;
his head is encircled by a halo.) The
baby is caught by the god Brahma, identifiable by his brahmin attire and
turban. The woman who is to the right side of Maya is Mahaprajapati,
Maya's sister who raises the boy after her imminent death.
Figure 4 depicts the Bodhisattva almost diving from his mother into the swaddle held by a maidservant. It is said that this kind of birth didn't hurt his mother at all. As soon as the Bodhisattva was born he took seven steps to the north and proclaimed: "I am chief in the world, I am best in the world, I am first in the world. This is my last birth. There will be no further rebirth." Because no child can immediately walk or talk, let alone make proclamations at birth, it is by these acts that the Buddha's prodigious nature, even as an infant, is revealed. We are told that he was already the size of a six-month-old child and had the "thirty-two marks of a great man." The Bodhisattva was thus born among the Shakya people into a khsatriya family whose name was Gautama. Seven days after his birth his mother died and was born in the Tushita heaven. The child was named Siddhartha-"he whose purpose is accomplished."
Soon after his birth the infant Bodhisattva was examined by brahmin specialists in "the thirty-two marks of the great man." According to Buddhist tradition two destinies are open to one who possesses these marks in full: either he will become a great "wheel-turning" king ruling the four quarters of the earth in perfect justice, or he will become a buddha. On hearing that the brahmins had pronounced his son was one who possessed the marks, Shuddhodana determined that his son should become a wheel-turning king. To this end he arranged matters that Siddhartha should have no occasion to become unhappy and disillusioned with his life at home. In this way Shuddhodana hoped that he might prevent Siddhartha from renouncing his home-life for the life of a wandering ascetic.
After the strange and marvelous circumstances of his birth Siddhartha grew up as a son of a royal family, confined within his palace, leading a life of luxury enjoyed by the very wealthy and privileged. This lifestyle made him more and more delicate and sensitive. Following is the Buddha's recollection of his youth:
This brings us straight to the next act, Siddhartha's disenchantment with his life of pleasure. This stage of the Buddha's life is told through story of Siddhartha's rides with his charioteer. As he leaves the confines of his luxurious apartments, he encounters for the first time in his life a decrepit old man, a severely ill man, and a corpse being carried to the funeral pyre by mourners. The experience is traumatic, and when he afterwards sees a wandering ascetic with serene and composed features Siddhartha resolves that he will leave his home and take up the life of a wandering ascetic himself.
Figure 5, a Chinese Painting from the Tang Dynasty, shows the two scenes of the young prince encountering these painful miseries of a human life. It is perhaps difficult to understand why Siddhartha reacted so violently to the sight of these miseries, because we know that most people become accustomed to seeing them from childhood on. His reaction can be understood only by learning that his father Shuddhodhana, always haunted by the fear that his son might enter the religious life, had succeeded in keeping such sights from him until his manhood.
4. The Great Departure
Siddhartha was now nearly thirty and the moment
of his final decision was imminent. Tired of waiting, his father, King
Shuddhodhana, had already begun preparations for the crowing his heir,
and in seven days Siddhartha was to be enthroned. Shuddhodhana took every
precaution to prevent his son's flight and even mobilized all Shakya people
capable of bearing arms to guard the palace exits. At this same moment
Siddhartha's son, Rahula,
was born. "It is a bondage which has come to me," said Siddhartha when
he heard of his first-born and only child, meaning that it was another
tie added to those already holding him back. However, that night as he
left his palace, he stopped and thought: "I must see my son." He went to
the residence of his wife and opened the door. She was asleep on a bed,
her hand on her son's head. Siddhartha, with one foot in the doorway, stopped
and watched. "If I lift the Queen's hand to take my son in my arms she
will awaken and thus my departure will be hampered. When I shall become
Buddha I will come back and see him." And with these words he went forth
on his horse, accompanied by his charioteer, Chandaka.
But how did he pass through all the doors and gates heavily guarded? Again,
it was the moment when supernatural assistance interfered and helped him.
As Figure 6 show, thirty-three gods descended from the sky and put all of Kapilavastu's inhabitants into such a profound sleep that no sound whatsoever would awaken them. And to be even safer they held the horse's hoofs in their hands to soften their pounding on the ground and helped him jump over the wall of the palace. According to traditional reckoning he was then twenty-nine years old and this was the beginning of a six-year quest for awakening.
During these six years he first spent time with and practiced the systems of meditation taught by two leading ascetics of the time. Although he mastered their respective systems, he felt that here he had not found any real answer to the problem of human suffering. So next, in the company of five other wandering ascetics, he turned to the practice of severe austerities. The old texts preserve a hauntingly vivid description of the results of this practice:
My body reached a state of extreme emaciation. Because of eating so little my limbs became like the jointed stems of creepers or bamboo; my backside became like a buffalo's hoof; my backbone, bent or straight, was like corded beads; my jutting and broken rafters of an old house; the gleam of my eyes sunk deep in their sockets was like the gleam of water seen deep down at the bottom of a deep well. (Gethin, p. 22)Figure 8, (under construction) the famous sculpture form Gandhara, captures even more visually the moments of the Bodhisattva practicing severe austerities.
But despite his grueling penance he again felt he had not found what he was searching for. Then he recalled an experience from his youth. One day seated quietly beneath the shade of a rose-apple tree his mind had settled into a state of deep calm and peace. Buddhist tradition calls this state the first meditation or "dhyana." As he reflected, it came to the Bodhisattva that it was by letting the mind settle in to this state of peace that he might discover what he was looking for. This required that he nourish his body and regain his strength. His five companions thought he had turned away from the quest and left him to his own devices. At this moment a young woman named Sujata offers milk-rice to the Bodhisattva. Now nourished, he seated himself beneath a pipal tree, henceforth to be known as "the tree of awakening" or Bodhi Tree. It was once more the night of the full moon and he made a final resolve: "Let only skin, sinew and bone remain, let the flesh and blood dry in my body, but I will not give up this seat without attaining complete awakening."
The oldest accounts describe the Awakening in sober technical terms, most often by reference to the successive practice of the four dhyanas culminating in the knowledge of suffering, its cause, its cessation, and the way leading to its cessation-what come to be known as the "Four Noble Truths." However, perhaps because they do not exactly make for a good story, the later legend of the Buddha recounts the Awakening through the description of the Bodhisattva's encounter with demon Mara. This is a story rather more vivid and immediately accessible than the abstract concepts of Buddhist meditation theory.
Mara is a being who in certain respects is like the Satan of Christianity. His name means "bringer of death" and his most common epithet is "the Bad One." Mara is not so much a personification of evil as of the power of all kinds of experience to seduce and ensnare the unwary mind. So as the Bodhisattva sat beneath the tree firm in his resolve, Mara approached, mounted on his great elephant and accompanied by his dreadful armies. His one purpose was to assault the Bodhisattva and frustrate his efforts of finding the way to immortality.
Figure 9 colorfully shows, Mara's armies were incredibly horrible,
being composed of most repulsive monsters with hanging tongues, bared fangs,
eyes of burning coals, deformed bodies, some devils with the heads of ferocious
beasts, heavily armed soldiers shooting arrows, and a fierce demon flaming
out at the Bodhisattva. The king of death tried to spur his troops on,
but even the arrows of his monsters lost their sharp points and spontaneously
were covered with flowers. Enclosed by a zone of complete protection around
him, the Bodhisattva laughed at his aggressors while not a single hair
on his body was disturbed. Mara then sent his beautiful daughters before
the Bodhisattva to test his commitment to his purpose by offering themselves
to him. (See ftp://ftp.buddhanet.net/artbud/enlight.gif
for another image of this scene.) When this
too failed Mara approached to claim the Bodhisattva's seat directly. He
asked him by what right he sat there beneath the tree. The Bodhisattva
replied that it was by right of having practiced the Perfections
over countless aeons. Mara replied that he had done likewise and, what
was more, he had witnesses to prove it: all his armies would vouch for
him, but who would vouch for the Bodhisattva? The Bodhisattva then lifted
his right hand and touched the ground calling on the very earth as his
witness. This is the "earth-touching gesture" depicted in so many statues
of the Buddha through the ages. It signals the defeat of Mara and
the Buddha's complete awakening. As the Buddha touched the earth Mara tumbled
from his elephant and his armies fled in disarray.
Burmese image of "earth-touching gesture" from Bob Hudson's web site.
12th Century Nepalese example at Patan Museum.
The Buddha had achieved his purpose. In Buddhist terms, he had a direct experience of "the unconditioned," "the transcendent," "the deathless," Nirvana. It is said that at that point his mind inclined not to teach:
In a deer park outside Benares the Buddha thus approached the five who had been his companions when he practiced austerities and gave them instruction in the path to the cessation of suffering that he had discovered. In this way he set in motion the Wheel of Dharma, and soon, we are told, there were six awakened ones in the world. For the Buddha this was the beginning of a life of teaching that lasted some forty-five years. Many stories and legends are recounted of the Buddha's teaching career, but we must pass over many of them and choose just a few which come with iconographic depictions.
7. The Uruvela Conversion
Soon after his first turning of the wheel in Benares, the Buddha decided to return to the site of his enlightenment. He must have known that near Uruvela there were three brahmin brothers called Kashyapa who led the life of matted-hair ascetics and practiced the fire-cult.
As we see in Figure 10 from the the great stupa at Sanchi in India, the Kashyapa followers were recognized by their large mop of hair and by their garments made of bark. They lived in huts built of branches on the edge of the jungle. Their austerities, their complicated rites had quickly brought them popular veneration in the Benares area. It is this hermitage of Uruvela-Kashyapa where the Buddha visited and asked if he could spend the night at the hut in which the sacrificial fire was kept burning. Taken by the stranger's self-confidence and personality Kashyapa did not dare refuse, but warned him that the place was haunted by a venomous divine serpent (naga). But the Buddha did not allow himself to be frightened off, and spent the night in the hut. As soon as he went in the hut the serpent entered and a terrible struggle ensued. Smoke against smoke appeared, fire against fire, so that the whole structure seemed to go up in flames. In Figure 10, we can see the flames coming out of all the openings of the hut, which looks as if it is burning up, while the brahmin ascetics seem stricken with horror and the novices rush forward with jugs of water to put out the fire. The Buddha is here represented by the stone slab between the five-headed serpent and the sacrificial fire. In the end the supernatural power of the Buddha overcame the naga's fury, and he placed the serpent in his begging bowl. When morning came, Kashyapa and his followers went to the hut and said: "The young monk must have been fiercely burned by the serpent's fire." But the Buddha came out of the hut and presented the distressed brahmins with the serpent quietly coiled inside his alms bowl.
Totally overpowered by this miraculous feat, Kashyapa and his five hundred threw their ritual utensils into the river and converted to the Buddhist faith. Sometime after their conversion the Buddha delivered the well-known Fire Sermon, which alluded thematically to the practices of the Kashyapa brothers' fire cult. It begins with these famous words: "Everything is ablaze!" The message of this sermon is that if anyone's senses are ruled by greed, hatred and delusion, all his perceptions will kindle, because they arouse further desires and aversions in him: for him the world is on fire. But whoever exerts control over the six senses is free from lusts and passions, and will gain freedom from rebirth.
8. Return to Kapilavastu
Seven years after he left his native city the Buddha decided to return to Kapilavastu. King Shuddhodhana had not yet forgiven his son for the "Great Departure," which had caused the cruel disappointment of his dynastic expectations. Shuddhodhana even reproached his son for degrading himself as a beggar in his hometown in front of everybody. The Buddha's former wife Yasodhara, who had lived for eight years as a "monk's widow," had never given up hope of winning back her husband.
When the Buddha paid a visit to his father's house, as the bas-relief from Amaravati (Figure 11) portrays, Yashodhara adorned with all her jewels pushed the fruit of their union, Rahula, now aged eight, to him, saying: "Rahula, that is your father. Go and ask him for your inheritance!" Yashodhara had in mind the kingdom. Little Rahula did as he was told. He greeted the Buddha politely, and waited until his father had left the house without giving any direct answer. Then Rahula followed him with these words: "Shramana, give me my inheritance!" The Buddha's reaction was as dignified as it was effective. He instructed his chief disciple Shariputra to ordain the boy as a novice, saying: "This is your inheritance." Yashodhara was again left with her vain hopes and her jewels, much to the grandfather's sorrow.
9. Subjugation of the Mad Elephant
Toward the end of his life the Buddha was aging and weary. His influence over the Sangha was waning accordingly. The monk Devadatta, his cousin, watched the Buddha's aging carefully, and decided to take over the control of the Order as his successor. Devadatta had the courage not to pursue his aim solely by intrigue, but to proclaim it openly. Once, when the Buddha was preaching before a large congregation, Devadatta got up and said to the Buddha: "Lord, you are now old, worn-out, an aged man, you have lived your allotted span and are at the end of your existence. Lord, may you be content to live in this world henceforth unburdened. Hand over the Order to me- I will lead the Sangha!" The Buddha declined, but Devadatta repeated his plea three times. This stirred the Buddha to a rebuke: "I would not even hand over the Order to Shariputra and Maudgalyayana, still less to you, Devadatta!" By his sharp reaction, the Buddha had made Devadatta his enemy.
Devadatta, who was humiliated in public, planned a series of intrigues to kill the Buddha. The third attempt on the Buddha's life took place within the city of Rajagraha. Devadatta bribed with promises certain mahouts to let the working elephant Nalagiri loose against the Buddha.
As (Figure 12-under construction) illustrates, the mighty bull-elephant, which had already killed one person, stormed through the streets on the exact path along which the Buddha was coming on his alms-round. Throwing away a person with his trunk, the brute elephant rushed at the yellow-robed Buddha who, unafraid, radiated loving-kindness towards him. Then came the miracle! Suddenly the raging elephant became calm and peaceful, and knelt before the Buddha, who lifted his right hand and patted the animal's forehead. This is the well-known story of the Buddha's subjugation of a mad elephant in Rajagraha.
10. The Great Passing
There is a majestic and poignant account of the Buddha's last days preserved in the ancient canon under the title of "the great discourse of the final passing." As the old canon describes, at age 80 the Buddha was weary and not in a good condition:
I am now grown old, and full of years; my journey is done and I have reached my sum of days; I am turning eighty years of age. And just as a worn out cart is kept going with the help of repairs, so it seems is the Tathagata's body kept going with repairs.
With an untiring zeal for teaching, however, the Buddha decided to embark on another long preaching journey. After passing through a number of villages, the Buddha proceeded to a place called Pava where he and his disciples were invited to dinner by a lowly blacksmith, Chunda. After the meal, however, the Buddha, who was already in a weakened condition, became seriously ill. In spite of the sever pains, the Buddha insisted upon continuing his preaching tour, and soon ended up in a small village called Kushinagara. By this time the Buddha was too exhausted to go on and wanted to lie down. The monk Ananda prepared a resting-place for him between two blossoming sala trees. Then Ananda, who was struck by grief, lent against a door and wept. Then the Buddha asked for him:
Enough, Ananda, do not sorrow, do not lament. Have I not formerly explained that it is the nature of things that we must be divided, separated, and parted from all that is beloved and dear? How could it be, Ananda, that what has been born and come into being, that what is compounded and subject to decay, should not decay? It is not possible. (Gethin, p. 26)The Buddha told Anana to make his impending death known to the people in Kushinagara so that they could prepare his funeral. At that time, a wandering ascetic named Subhadda came to see the Buddha but was sent away by Ananda who tried to prevent the exhausted old master from being disturbed. But the Buddha, who overheard the conversation, asked the ascetic to approach his side and, after answering his questions on the Law, accepted him into the Order. Thereby Subhadda became the last person to be accepted to the Order in the Buddha's lifetime. And then the Buddha gave the surrounding monks a last opportunity to question him about the Law:
|Images on the web:
"Four Encounters" image property of the British Museum. (http://www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk/compass/)
Ancient Buddhist Sites of Sanchi & Barhut. Photograhy by Morihiro Oki. Text (in Japanese) Shoji Ito. Japanese publication.
New History of World Art (Sekai bijutsu daizenshu), Vols. 4 & 13. Tokyo : Shogakkan, 1997.
?Chhaya Bhattacharya. The Art of Central Asia. Delhi : Agam Prakashan, 1977.
Eds., Luis O. Gomez and Hiram W. Woodward, Jr.Barabudur, Buddhist monument on island of Java. (View of the terminal stupa as seen from the plateau. Photo by Louise Yuas.) Berkeley Buddhist Studies Series, 1981.
Les Artes de L'Aise Central.
If you would like to use more primary source materials, the Access
To Insight web site has selections from the Pali canon which narrate
the life story.
|Return to ORIAS home page||Return
to Class Page
|Top of Page|