The Fundamentals of Buddhism
The Life of the Buddha
I would like to turn to the life of the Buddha Shakyamuni. I shall not
attempt to treat this topic exhaustively, nor to cover the great
majority of the biography of Shakyamuni. The accounts of the life of the
Buddha are for the most part narrative, and they have been presented
elsewhere by both ancient and modern authors. Instead, I would like to
use this brief consideration of the life of the Buddha to draw attention
to a few important Buddhist values that are strikingly illustrated in
the accounts of the life of Shakyamuni.
Chapter 2, I discussed the origins and nature of the two ancient
traditions of India, the one having its source in the religious culture
of the Indus Valley civilization and the other associated with the Aryan
civilization. In addition, I indicated that these two ancient
traditions, originally quite different, in the course of time began to
interact with and influence each other until, by the first millennium of
the common era, they became almost indistinguishable one from the other.
It is, perhaps, no coincidence that the area of the north central
Gangetic plain and the Nepalese Tarai, which came to be known as
"the central country," or Madhyadesha, was one of the regions
in which the two traditions came into active contact, and even conflict.
The priests who were custodians of the Aryan tradition associated the
eastward movement of Aryan civilization with the threat of a dissipation
of the purity of Aryan culture and with the growth of unorthodox
practices and attitudes.
history of religions teaches that, when two very different traditions
like those of the Indus Valley civilization and the Aryans come into
contact and conflict, a tremendous potential is created for the growth
of new attitudes and patterns of religious culture. The life and
teaching of the Buddha can be usefully viewed in the context of this
historical phenomenon. Moreover, as mentioned in Chapter 2, there were
significant social, economic, and political changes affecting the lives
of the people of the region in the sixth century B.C.E. These naturally
contributed to a heightened level of religious consciousness. It has
consistently been the case that, in times of major social, economic, and
political change, people tend to look inward for safety and security in
an ever more uncertain world. They instinctively look to religion--and
to the ostensibly unchanging values embodied in religious belief and
practice--for stability in the midst of uncertainty.
periods have almost always produced great religious revolutions and
revivals. This was most certainly the case in sixth century India, just
as it was in China in the sixth century, and just as it was at the
beginning of the Christian era in the Mediterranean world.
are three values of paramount importance that emerge from the life of
renunciation, (2) love and compassion, and (3) wisdom. These values
stand out very clearly in many episodes throughout his life. It is no
coincidence that these three, taken together, are the essential
requisites for the attainment of nirvana, or enlightenment.
to the teaching of Buddhism, there are three afflictions which cause us
to be reborn again and again in the wilderness of cyclical
existence--namely, attachment, aversion, and ignorance. These
afflictions are eliminated by the correctives of renunciation, love and
compassion, and wisdom, respectively. Through cultivating these three
attitudes, the Buddhist practitioner is able to remove the afflictions
and attain enlightenment. Consequently, it is no accident that these
attitudes should feature so prominently in the life of the Buddha
Shakyamuni. Let us consider these essential attitudes one by one,
beginning with renunciation. As in the case of love and compassion, the
first signs of renunciation manifested themselves very early in the life
of the Buddha. Basically, renunciation is the recognition that all
existence is permeated by suffering. When you realize this, it leads to
what we might call a turning about, that is to say, the realization that
all of common life is permeated by suffering causes us to look for
something more or something different. This is precisely why suffering
is counted as the first of the Four Noble Truths, and why the clear
recognition of the reality and universality of suffering is the essence
as it happens, Prince Siddhartha is believed to have participated, as we
might expect, in the annual plowing ceremony of his clan at the tender
age of seven. It was then that, while watching the proceedings, the
young prince noticed a worm that had been unearthed being devoured by a
bird. This casual observation led Siddhartha to contemplate the
realities of life--to recognize the inescapable fact that all living
beings kill one another to survive, and that this is a great source of
suffering. Already, at this early age, we find in the Buddha's biography
the beginning of the recognition that life as we know it is permeated by
we look again at the biographical accounts of Siddhartha's early life,
we soon come to the famous episode of the four sights that moved him to
renounce the life of a householder and adopt the life of an ascetic in
order to seek the truth. Seeing an old man, a sick man, and a corpse led
him to consider why it was that he should feel unsettled by these
sights. Clearly, he himself was not immune to these conditions but was
subject to the inevitable succession of old age, sickness, and death.
This recognition led the prince to develop a sense of detachment from
the ephemeral pleasures of this world and prompted him to seek the
ultimate truth about existence by way of renunciation.
is important to remember at this stage that the prince's renunciation
was not prompted by despair occurring in the ordinary course of life. He
enjoyed the greatest possible happiness and privilege known in his day,
and yet he recognized the suffering inherent in sentient existence and
realized that, no matter how much we may indulge ourselves in pleasures
of the senses, eventually we must face the realities of old age,
sickness, and death. Understanding this--and encouraged by the fourth
sight, that of an ascetic-- Siddhartha was moved to renounce the life of
a householder and to seek ultimate truth for the benefit of all living
us look next at the attitude of love and compassion, which also appears
very early in the life of the Buddha. The most striking example is the
episode of the wounded swan. The biographical accounts tell us that the
prince and his cousin Devadatta were wandering in the park that
surrounded the royal residence when Devadatta shot down a swan with his
bow and arrow. Both youths ran toward where the swan had fallen, but
Siddhartha, being the faster runner, reached the place first. The young
prince gathered the wounded bird up in his arms and sought to allay its
suffering. Devadatta reacted angrily to this, insisting that the swan
belonged to him, inasmuch as he had shot it down. The youths took their
dispute to the wise man of the court, who decided to award the bird to
Siddhartha on the grounds that life rightly belongs to him who would
preserve it and not to him who would destroy it. In this simple story,
we have an excellent example of the Buddha's early manifestation of the
attitude of love and compassion, an attitude whose object is to foster
as far as possible the happiness of others and to allay their suffering.
Later, also, after his enlightenment, the Buddha continued to
demonstrate this attitude in remarkable ways. There is, for instance,
the well-known episode wherein the Buddha took it upon himself to nurse
the ailing monk Tissa. The latter's illness was such as caused all the
other members of the Order to shun him. However, the Buddha, resolved to
lead by example, personally cleaned and cared for Tissa's diseased and
decaying body, thereby alleviating his suffering.
let us take a long look at the attitude of wisdom, which is the most
important of the three, being commensurate with enlightenment itself. It
is wisdom that finally opens the door to freedom, and wisdom that
removes ignorance, the fundamental cause of suffering. It is said that
while one may sever the branches of a tree and even cut down its trunk,
if the root is not removed, the tree will grow again. In a similar way,
although one may remove attachment by means of renunciation, and
aversion by means of love and compassion, as long as ignorance is not
removed by means of wisdom, attachment and aversion are liable to arise
principal instrument through which wisdom may be gained is meditation.
Again, there is an event early in the Buddha's life in which his
precocious skill in concentrating the mind is evident. According to the
accounts of the life of Shakyamuni, immediately after witnessing the
unhappy incident involving the worm and the bird at the plowing
ceremony, the prince sat under a nearby rose-apple tree, and there
spontaneously began to meditate, achieving the first level of meditation
by concentrating his mind on the process of inhalation and exhalation.
In this event we have evidence of a very early experience of meditation
in the life of the Buddha.
when he renounced the life of a householder and went forth to seek the
ultimate truth, one of the first disciplines he developed was that of
meditation. The accounts tell us that the ascetic Gotama (as he was
known during his six years of striving for enlightenment) studied under
two renowned teachers of meditation, Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta.
Under the tutelage of these teachers he studied and mastered the various
techniques of concentrating the mind. In Chapter 2 I mentioned that
there is evidence which suggests that the origins of meditation go back
to the dawn of Indian civilization, to the golden age of the Indus
Valley civilization. It is very likely that the two teachers mentioned
in the biographies of the Buddha were exponents of this very ancient
tradition of meditation, or mental concentration.
yet, remarkably, the ascetic Gotama left the two teachers in question
because he found that meditation alone could not permanently put an end
to suffering, even though it might supply temporary relief. This fact is
important, because although the teaching of the Buddha emphasizes the
practice of mental development and is therefore clearly in the tradition
of the Indus Valley civilization, the Buddha transcended the limited
goals of mere meditation and brought a new dimension to religious
experience. This is what distinguishes the Buddha's teaching from the
teaching of many other Indian schools, particularly those which, in one
form or another, embrace the practice of yoga, or meditation.
short, what distinguishes Buddhism from the contemplative traditions of
Hinduism and other religions is the fact that, for Buddhism, meditation
by itself is not enough. We might say that, for Buddhism, meditation is
like sharpening a pencil. We sharpen a pencil for
a purpose, let us say, in order to write. Similarly, by means of
meditation we sharpen the mind for a definite purpose--in this case, the
purpose is wisdom. The relationship between meditation and wisdom has
also been explained with the help of the example of a torch. Suppose we
want to see a picture on the wall of a darkened room with the aid of a
torch. If the light cast by the torch is too dim, if the flame is
disturbed by drafts of air, or if the hand holding the torch is
unsteady, it is impossible to see the picture clearly.
if we want to penetrate the darkness of ignorance and see into the real
nature of existence, we will be unable to do so if our minds are weak,
distracted, and unsteady as a consequence of habitual indolence and
emotional and intellectual disturbances. The Buddha
put this discovery into practice on the night of his enlightenment.
Then, we are told, he made his mind concentrated, one-pointed, and
supple by means of meditation, directed it to the understanding of the
real nature of things, and comprehended the truth.
the enlightenment of the Buddha was the consequence of the combination
of meditation and wisdom.
are also other dimensions of wisdom exemplified in the life of the
Buddha. One of these is the understanding of the Middle Way. The
conception of the Middle Way is central in Buddhism and has many levels
of meaning, all of which it is not possible to consider here. However,
this much may be said at once: The most fundamental meaning of the
Middle Way is the avoidance of the extremes of indulgence in pleasures
of the senses and, alternatively, tormenting the body. This fundamental
aspect of the Middle Way is illustrated in the life of the Buddha by his
very own career and experience. Before his renunciation of the life of a
householder, Siddhartha enjoyed a life of luxury and sensual pleasure.
Later, when he had become an ascetic in search of the truth, he spent
six years practicing all manner of physical deprivations and
self-mortification. Eventually, he understood the futility of such
practices as well as the meaninglessness of his former life of
indulgence, and discovered the Middle Way that avoids both extremes.
are, of course, many other important episodes in the life of the Buddha
that would be interesting and valuable to discuss, but my point in
choosing to concentrate on these few elements is simply that we can
begin to look at the Buddha's life as a lesson in conduct and concept,
and not simply as a biography containing a number of names and places.
Then we can appreciate the attitudes exemplified in Shakyamuni's career.
In this way, a greater and more genuine insight into the real
significance of the life of the Buddha becomes possible.