Sometimes life works in mysterious ways and once again I walked one step further on my buddhist journey just by chance (or perhaps by fate). Before you wonder: why the heck is he writing in English now?! It’s just … because. From time to time I now want to publish my articles in English language not only to practice it but to reach more people. After all, one of my life’s purposes is to share my experiences and stories with you guys and ladies so that you can either laugh about them or maybe even learn from them.
Back to buddhism and the story of how I became a Disciple of Buddha himself – this time referring to the actual historical Buddha Siddhartha Gautama. When my sister and I were traveling Thailand, once again the initial South East Asian stress-syndrome hit me. Many impressions, many sensations, a half booked, half spontaneous trip ahead, with my sister who had no experience at all – I got stressed out pretty fast. As a result, I booked a day trip without being aware of the details. The price was a little high, yes, but I did not care about it. The next morning our private guide Chap approached us with a black limousine and our private driver, Mr. Balloon. Surprise! We had two Thais attending us for the whole day. Yay! Especially my sister who had depleted her budget the day before was … not amused.
But we swore to make the best out of it. So when our guide explained that he is a passionate buddhist, a normal man who loves Buddha’s teachings and who knows every story to every statue and picture of Chiang Mai’s most holy place, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, we accepted the challenge. And for every statue and every picture we got a story – myths and tales of Buddha incarnations, holy monks and spiritual leaders, of beasts and deities and demons and of great teachings supposedly leading to the enlightenment I so much strive for.
I was most impressed by the beautiful paintings covering the walls of the colonnade (Phra Rabieng) surrounding the main Chedi, the bell-shaped memorial monuments of Thai buddhist temples (called Wat). These paintings, I realized, depicted the Life of Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha and founder of buddhism. Never ever have I seen depictions of his life as aesthetic as these. Most paintings I knew always looked a bit cheesy and corny as if freshly taken from a Bollywood movie – too many colors, too saturated for the typical European eye and taste. And never ever have I been caught by his life’s story in that way. Realizing, in the end, that he is the one whose experiences I can identify with the most, the one whose path I want to follow and devote myself to.
The Life of Buddha
(Text by Barbara Hoetsu O’Brien, journalist and student of Zen Buddhism, with some alterations by myself; Photos by myself taken at Wat Doi Suthep)
The life of Siddhartha Gautama, the person we call the Buddha, is shrouded in legend and myth. Although most historians believe there was such a person, we know very little about him. The „standard“ biography appears to have evolved over time. It was largely completed by the „Buddhacarita,“ an epic poem written by Aśvaghoṣa in the second century CE. The following text is based on this poem translated and re-interpreted by Barbara O’Brien, a student of Zen Buddhism in New York city, and on the stories our guide Chap told us at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai.
Siddhartha Gautama’s Birth and Family
The future Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, was born in the 5th or 6th century BCE in Lumbini (in modern day Nepal).
Siddhartha is a Sanskrit name meaning „one who has accomplished a goal“ and Gautama is a family name.
His father, King Suddhodana, was the leader of a large clan called the Shakya (or Sakya). It’s not clear from the earliest texts whether he was a hereditary king or more of a tribal chief. It is also possible that he was elected to this status.
Suddhodana married two sisters, Maya and Pajapati Gotami. They are said to be princesses of another clan, the Koliya from what is northern India today. Maya was the mother of Siddhartha and he was her only child, dying shortly after his birth. Pajapati, who later became the first Buddhist nun, raised Siddhartha as her own in the city of Kapilavastu.
Lumbini in Nepal is the Buddha’s birthplace and thus the birthplace of buddhism
By all accounts, Prince Siddhartha and his family were of the Kshatriya caste of warriors and nobles. Among Siddhartha’s more well-known relatives was his cousin Ananda, the son of his father’s brother. Ananda would later become the Buddha’s disciple and personal attendant. He would have been considerably younger than Siddhartha, however, and they didn’t know each other as children.
At Wat Doi Suthep, the story of Buddha’s life started with a painting of the deity Shakra, riding on his holy elephant Airavata. In buddhism, Shakra rules over the much sought Devas (which are buddhist deities) realm of rebirth indicating that Siddhartha Gautama’s life is also just one of many lives, part of the reincarnation circle of buddhist believes. Shakra becomes the guardian deity of Buddha both watching over him and paying homage to his teachings.
The Prophecy and a Young Marriage
When Prince Siddhartha was a few days old, a holy man prophesied over the Prince (by some accounts it was nine Brahmin holy men). It was foretold that the boy would be either a great military conqueror or a great spiritual teacher.
King Suddhodana preferred the first outcome and prepared his son accordingly.
He raised the boy in great luxury and shielded him from knowledge of religion and human suffering. At the age of 16, he was married to his cousin, Yasodhara, who was also 16. This was no doubt a marriage arranged by the families.
Yasodhara was the daughter of a Koliya chief and her mother was a sister to King Suddhodana. She was also a sister of Devadatta, who became a disciple of the Buddha and then, by some accounts, a dangerous rival.
The Birth of Siddhartha, Siddharta’s Childhood, Marriage of Siddhartha & Yasodhara
The Four Passing Sights
The Prince reached the age of 29 with little experience of the world outside the walls of his opulent palaces. He was oblivious to the realities of sickness, old age, and death.
One day, overcome with curiosity, Prince Siddhartha asked his charioteer Channa to take him on a series of rides through the countryside. On these journeys he was shocked by the sight of an aged man, then a sick man, and then a corpse. The stark realities of old age, disease, and death seized and sickened the Prince.
Finally, he saw a wandering ascetic. The charioteer explained that the ascetic was one who had renounced the world and sought release from the fear of death and suffering.
These life-changing encounters would become known in Buddhism as the Four Passing Sights.
For a time the Prince returned to palace life, but he took no pleasure in it. Even the news that his wife Yasodhara had given birth to a son did not please him. The child was called Rahula, which means „fetter.“
One night he wandered the palace alone. The luxuries that had once pleased him now seemed grotesque. Musicians and dancing girls had fallen asleep and were sprawled about, snoring and sputtering. Prince Siddhartha reflected on the old age, disease, and death that would overtake them all and turn their bodies to dust.
He realized then that he could no longer be content living the life of a prince. In Wat Doi Suthep this reflection and realization is depicted as Siddhartha’s first encounter with the demon Mara. In Buddhist cosmology, Mara is associated with death, rebirth and desire. He is described as the personification of the forces antagonistic to enlightenment and thus tries to keep Siddhartha from being enlightened at all cost. Facing him alone at first, Mara is overcome by Siddhartha who is accompanied by his charioteer Channa, riding his horse Kanthaka.
That very night he left the palace and his hometown Kapilavastu, shaved his head at the river Anoma, and changed from his royal clothes into a beggar’s robe. Renouncing all the luxury he had known, he began his quest for enlightenment. Riding Kanthaka, Channa returned Siddhartha’s accoutrements, weapons and hair to Suddhodarnha upon his return to the palace. Following the departure of Siddhartha, Kanthaka died of a broken heart but was reborn as a brahmin and went on to attend dharma talks by Gautama Buddha so that eventually the former horse of Buddha achieved enlightenment. The death is variously described as occurring either at the banks of the Anoma or upon returning to Kapilavastu.
Siddhartha’s Realization; Siddhartha’s First Encounter with Mara; Siddhartha renounces his former Life
The Search Begins
Siddhartha started by seeking out renowned teachers. They taught him about the many religious philosophies of his day as well as how to meditate. After he had learned all they had to teach, his doubts and questions remained. He and five disciples left to find enlightenment by themselves.
The six companions attempted to find release from suffering through physical discipline: enduring pain, holding their breath, fasting nearly to starvation. Yet Siddhartha was still unsatisfied.
It occurred to him that in renouncing pleasure he had grasped the opposite of pleasure, which was pain and self-mortification. Now Siddhartha considered a Middle Way between those two extremes.
He remembered an experience from his childhood when his mind had settled into a state of deep peace. The path of liberation was through the discipline of mind. He realized that instead of starvation, he needed nourishment to build up his strength for the effort. When he accepted a bowl of rice milk from a young girl, his companions assumed he had given up the quest and abandoned him.
Alone and all by himself, Siddhartha continued his quest for enlightenment with resolve and determination. Being aware of everything that surrounded him and being one with everything, one day he saw the sign he had been waiting for: After he ate his meal he placed his tray on the river. Normally the tray would have flown along the river’s current. This time however, the tray flowed up against the current and Siddharta knew, the time had come.
The Six Ascets; Siddhartha accepts the Rice Bowl; Seeing the Signs; Preparing for Enlightenment
The Enlightenment of the Buddha
Siddhartha sat beneath a sacred fig tree (Ficus religiosa), known ever after as the Bodhi Tree (Bodhi means „awakened“). It was there that he settled into meditation.
The work of Siddhartha’s mind came to be mythologized as a great battle with Mara. This time the demon brought vast armies of monsters to attack Siddhartha, who sat still and untouched.
Mara’s most beautiful daughter tried to seduce Siddhartha, but this effort also failed.
Finally, Mara claimed the seat of enlightenment rightfully belonged to him. Mara’s spiritual accomplishments were greater than Siddhartha’s, the demon said. Mara’s monstrous soldiers cried out together, „I am his witness!“ Mara challenged Siddhartha: „Who will speak for you?“
Then Siddhartha reached out his right hand to touch the earth, and the earth itself roared, „I bear you witness!“
Mara disappeared. As the morning star rose in the sky, Siddhartha Gautama realized enlightenment and became a Buddha.
The Enlightenment of Siddhartha Gautama
The Buddha as a Teacher
At first, the Buddha was reluctant to teach because what he had realized could not be communicated in words. Only through discipline and clarity of mind would delusions fall away and one could experience the Great Reality. Listeners without that direct experience would be stuck in conceptualizations and would surely misunderstand everything he said. Compassion persuaded him to make the attempt.
After his enlightenment, he went to the Deer Park in Isipatana, located in what is now the province of Uttar Pradesh, India. There he found the five companions who had abandoned him and he preached his first sermon to them.
This sermon has been preserved as the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta and centers on the Four Noble Truths. Instead of teaching doctrines about enlightenment, the Buddha chose to prescribe a path of practice through which people can realize enlightenment for themselves.
Buddha’s first five Disciples and the Four Noble Truths
The Buddha devoted himself to teaching and attracted hundreds of followers. Eventually, he became reconciled with his father, King Suddhodana. His wife, the devoted Yasodhara, became a nun and disciple. Rahula, his son, became a novice monk at the age of seven and spent the rest of his life with his father.
The Buddha traveled tirelessly through all areas of northern India and Nepal. He taught a diverse group of followers, all of whom were seeking the truth he had to offer.
Buddha and his followers: Monks and nuns, nobles, his former family and friends and even deities payed homage to the enlightened one.
The Story of Devadatta
According to Buddhist tradition, the disciple Devadatta was the Buddha’s cousin and also brother to the Buddha’s wife, Yasodhara. Devadatta applied himself to practice. But he became frustrated when he failed to progress toward becoming an Arhat. So, instead, he applied his practice toward developing supernatural power instead of the realization of enlightenment. It was said he also became driven by jealousy of his kinsman, the Buddha. Devadatta believed he should be the World-Honored One and the leader of the order of monks.
At the same time, Devadatta vowed to have the Buddha murdered so he could take over the sangha. So that the deed could not be traced back to Devadatta, the plan was to send a second group of „hit men“ to assassinate the first one, and then the third group to take out the second one, and so on for some time. But when the would-be assassins approached the Buddha they couldn’t carry out the order.
Then Devadatta tried to do the job himself, by dropping a rock on the Buddha. The rock bounced off the mountainside and broke into pieces.
The next attempt involved a large bull elephant in a drug-induced fury, but the elephant was gentled in the Buddha’s presence.
Devadatta trying to murder the Buddha three times
Finally, Devadatta attempted to split the sangha by claiming superior moral rectitude. He proposed a list of austerities and asked that they become mandatory for all monks and nuns. Devadatta persuaded 500 monks that his Super Austerity Plan was a surer path to enlightenment than the Buddha’s, and they followed Devadatta to become his disciples.
In response, the Buddha sent two of his disciples, Sariputra and Mahamaudgayalyana, to teach the dharma to the wayward monks. Upon hearing the dharma explained correctly, the 500 monks returned to the Buddha.
Devadatta was now a sorry and broken man, and he soon fell mortally ill. On his deathbed, he repented of his misdeeds and wished to see the Buddha one more time. It was a very hot day so that on the way to Buddha, his liter-bearers had to stop and cool down in the waters nearby. Devadatta tried to do the same but the moment he stepped on the ground, the earth opened and swallowed him whole – before reaching the clear water, before reaching the Buddha and asking for forgiveness he left the mortal world, doomed to be reborn according to his Khama.
Devadatta splits the sangha; Devadatta pays for his sins
The Last Words of the Buddha
At the age of 80, the Buddha entered Parinirvana, leaving his physical body behind. In this, he abandoned the endless cycle of death and rebirth. The Buddha’s body was cremated. His remains were placed in stupas —domed structures common in Buddhism, called Chedis in Thai —in many places, including China, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka.
Buddha’s last years in the mortal realm and his Path to Parinirvana
„Behold, O monks, this is my last advice to you. All compounded things in the world are changeable. They are not lasting. Work hard to gain your own salvation.“
The story of The Life of Buddha left a deep impression in my mind – especially at this time in my life. Siddhartha Gautama started his journey when he was 29 years old. I am now 28 and never ever before have I experienced so many revelations and lessons learned. For some time now I’ve been connecting some dots in my life, as Steve Jobs put it, and the picture that arises is quite enchanting. The line I drew today leads to the dot named Buddha Siddhartha Gautama and it revealed something new to me, something that changed how I view the world and myself. Stay tuned for the next chapter of my story and stay curious in life.
Yours, literally, faithfully 🙂