In the year 480 BCE, while pregnant with a very special child, Queen Maya of the Sakya clan had a significant dream. A magnificent white elephant offered her a beautiful lotus flower and then the totem animal entered her womb. When the sages were asked to interpret this they made a major prophecy proclaiming that she would give birth to a boy who would either become a very powerful ruler or a legendary holy man. It was decreed that he would either go on to conquer the world or to save it. Then, one day, on the way to her parents’ home, Queen Maya stopped to rest in the Lumbini Garden. There, on April 8th, she unexpectedly gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. He was given the name Siddhartha, which means “every wish fulfilled”. Tragically, a week later, Maya died quite unexpectedly. So, raising her son Sidhartha fell to her sister Mahaprajapati, the other wife of his father, King Suddhodana Gautama. Thus, the prophesied one was actually raised by his biological father and aunt in Kapilavastu, an ancient Indian city in the foothills of the Himalayas along the border of what is now Nepal.
There, Siddhartha lived a life of extravagant luxury, being intentionally spoiled rotten. His father the Sakya raja wanted the boy to become the next great leader of their ancient warrior clan, so he completely sheltered his son from any kind of suffering to prevent him from wanting to become a sage. Thus, Siddhartha experienced nothing but sheer joy throughout his formative years. The power-hungry king wanted nothing more than for his son to rise up and become the “Emperor of India”, bringing sixteen different kingdoms together as one. Thus, shielded from the stress of normal life, Siddhartha was free to indulge in all of life’s pleasures. The king made sure that his son never grew bored or lonely, giving him whatever he desired. In this way, he hoped to make Siddhartha into an entitled elitist military man rather than an egalitarian minimalist wisdom seeker. This way, the boy would never even think of walking away from palace life. He remained blissfully unaware of everyday life for years. Then, at the age of 16, his father arranged for Siddhartha to be married, and the two soon fell madly in love with each other.
When he was 29, Siddhartha’s wife gave birth to their son. Unfortunately for her, Siddhartha felt an overwhelming urge to join the acetic sages, but he knew that if he met his son he would not be able to leave and live the rest of his life as a spiritual seeker. So, Siddhartha rather begrudgingly turned his back on his family and went away forever. He was faced with an existential crisis of epic proportions. Nonetheless, he persisted, choosing to follow his destiny in search of an end to all human suffering. He abandoned his princely status and wealth to become a lowly mendicant. Siddhartha was finally alone in the world for the first time in his entire life. At that point, he cut off his hair and adorned a robe, vowing to find enlightenment no matter what it would take. Then, he embarked on an arduous journey of spiritual self-discovery. Bravely following wherever his inquiry led him, refusing to be constrained by convention. In many ways, he had left a life of war to pursue one of peace.
Siddhartha Gautama wandered south from the foothills of the Himalayas toward the sacred Ganges River in search of yogis and other practitioners that he could apprentice under. He initially went to Rajagaha, where he began his ascetic life by begging for alms in the street. After King Bimbisara’s men recognized Siddhartha and the ruler learned of the spiritual quest that he was on, Bimbisara offered Siddhartha the throne. However, Siddhartha rejected the offer, although he did promise to visit the kingdom of Magadha first, upon attaining enlightenment. Siddhartha left in search of a mystical teacher who could help him find what he was looking for. First, he met a yogic meditator named Alara Kalama but soon surpassed his abilities. He learned that life, death, and rebirth are part of an endless struggle, but Siddhartha was determined to find a way out of what he saw as a senseless cycle. So, he moved on again. Next, he became a student of Udaka Ramaputta but was also disappointed with what he learned.
Siddhartha was willing to do whatever it took to put an end to suffering, once and for all. This led him to eventually discover the path of liberation. He learned to achieve great stillness of body and soul, through motionlessness and meditation. Soon, the young psychonaut became very highly adept at navigating through the metaphysical space within him. This required a great deal of work that attracted the attention of various local mystics. Having abandoned his life of luxury as a prince to become a lowly pauper, a group of radical denouncers became adamantly inspired by Siddhartha’s devotion to reject materialism and wholly embrace mysticism. As such, Siddhartha became a kind of guru to five devout renunciants who had been living in a religious vacuum between the Vedic teachings of old and the Buddhist wisdom yet to come. They were completely mesmerized by the young man and what he was doing.
As an ascetic, Siddhartha wandered around naked and disheveled, subsisting on a single grain of rice a day. He became so emaciated that he could touch his backbone through his abdomen. Of course, he eventually came to realize that this only made him suffer more, not less. So, after torturing himself with extreme abstinence, Siddhartha was confronted with the reality of his ugly predicament. He finally understood that this was not the answer. Torturing his body would not liberate his soul, so he had to find a new way of going about this. Therefore, Siddhartha Guatama accepted some milk and rice pudding from a really nice village girl named Sujata. As was to be expected, his wilderness disciples did not see eye-to-eye with him on this issue, so they left him to his own devices. All alone yet again, Siddhartha began anew. After he finished eating and bathing, the refreshed mystic sat in the shade to gather his thoughts. There, in the loving embrace of a very special tree, he resolved to stay locked in meditation until he found what he had been seeking for six long years.
After realizing that meditative dhyana was the right path to awakening, but that extreme asceticism didn’t work, Siddhartha had discovered the virtuous Middle Way, between the vicious extremes of abstinence and indulgence. He also envisioned Buddhism as the demystification, democratization, and secularization of Brahmanism. So, people could reincarnate without worrying about being reborn into the caste system. This bold new doctrine could also determine how people should behave, whether or not God exists. Thus, in 445 BCE, at the age of 35, the Buddha found the source of inner strength that he so desperately needed to make sense of everything and overcome anything. He meditated all day and night, regressing through all of his past lives, and reliving his final life. At that point, the Buddha finally understood that a permanent self cannot exist because identities get stripped away between lifetimes. That incredibly significant act freed his ego from the delusion of personal identity, so he received profound religious visions in Bodh Gaya under the Bodhi Tree. Thus, having fully understood the Two Truths (relative and absolute), the Buddha was then released from the bonds of the Three Poisons (greed, anger, and delusion). In this way, the enlightened master finally uncovered a path to personal liberation and, in so doing, paved the way for monks and nuns with the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Four Noble Truths are the truths of the Noble Ones:
- The truth of suffering — The first truth reveals that pain and dissatisfaction are innate characteristics of existence that come with each rebirth.
- The truth of the origin of suffering — The second truth reveals that attachment is the cause of all suffering.
- The truth of the cessation of suffering — The third truth states that suffering can be ended through the elimination of attachment.
- The truth of the path to the cessation of suffering — The fourth truth is that there is a path to enlightenment.
Symbolically, the Four Noble Truths represent the awakening of the Buddha, and of the potential for his followers to do the same. They are a conceptual framework that appears in the Pali canon and early Sanskrit scriptures. These provide a conceptual framework for introducing and explaining Buddhist thought, which ultimately has to be personally experienced to be understood.
The Noble Eightfold Path is an early summary of the path of Buddhist practices leading to liberation from samsara, the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. This consists of eight practices which are often symbolized by the Wheel of Dharma:
- Right view — The “right view” is that actions have consequences, even after death, including the concepts of karma and nirvana.
- Right resolve — The “right resolve” is to adopt the life of a mendicant in order to follow the religious path in peaceful renunciation.
- Right speech — The “right speech” is that of never lying, gossiping, or being rude.
- Right conduct —The “right conduct” means not harming, stealing, fornicating, or even coveting.
- Right livelihood —The “right livelihood” is that of a beggar.
- Right effort —The “right effort” requires the prevention of unwholesome states and the restraint of the senses.
- Right mindfulness —The “right mindfulness” is about the retention of the elements of the teachings that are beneficial to staying on the path.
- Right concentration — The “right concentration” is about achieving meditation that leads to the ultimate revelation.
In classical Buddhism, these practices started with an understanding that the body-soul works in a corrupted way, followed by entering the Buddhist path of self-observance, self-restraint, and cultivating compassion, thus culminating in that which reinforces these practices for the development of the body-soul. In contemporary Buddhism, insight has become the central soteriological instrument, leading to a different concept and structure of the path, in which the main objective is simply to put an end to ignorance. Such are the teachings of the Awakened One who asked his followers to forget the teacher and just remember the teachings. Instead, a man who opposed cults of personality has now become a god. However, long before any images of the Buddha were ever made, the central object of worship was the Wheel of Dharma. Thus, just as the wheels of carts, and now cars, have kept on revolving so too should the teachings be spread endlessly…
Praise be to the Buddha!
Praise be to the Dharma!!!