L et my skin wither, my hands grow numb, my bones dissolve; until I have

 attained understanding I will not rise from here.” Dusk had come, and the

 resolute prince — the day was his 35th birthday — sat down cross-legged beneath a leafy pipal tree. He touched his right hand to the ground so Earth could bear witness and began to meditate. Through the watches of the night, under a full moon, he sat. And when he finally rose, there arose with him a new religion. For he was Siddhartha Gautama and the understanding he attained in a night of transcend-- ing revelations made him Buddha, “awakened” — the Enlightened One. Out of the mission he then set for himself— to impart the secret of enlightenment to all who desire salvation—came the faith we call Buddhism.


Today, 1971, that faith counts some 180,000,000 adherents. But political changes in eastern Asia, where most Buddhists live, make accurate estimates difficult. In the United States , today, some 100,000 follow the philosophy that as each man creates his own prison, “so may he also acquire a power superior to that of the gods.”

Of the historical Siddhartha Gautania modern scholarship sifts from the veil of time — and from legend and word of disciples — a few hesitant facts. He was born about 563 B.C. in what is now southern Nepal; a pillar erected in the third century B.C. commemorates the site. His father, highborn in the Kshatriya caste of warriors and rulers, was chief of the Sakva clan; moss greens an outline of stones described as ruins of his palace. In his maturity Gautama Buddha wandered

a region along the middle Ganges, preaching. About 483 B.C., having reached the ripe old age of 80, his body like “a worn-out cart,” he died.

Such essentials hardly presage a revolutionary impact. But northeastern 1ndia at the time was a ferment of religious and political turmoil and experimentation. Theological sects abounded, with charismatic leaders. Many people had grown discontented with the external formalities of Brahmanic sacrifices and the salvation- through—knowledge dispensed only to the chosen few.

Against this background Buddha preached. Brahmanic religion had shaped a resignation toward suffering in this life; it bound man in the collectivity of caste. Buddha built on the old faith but developed its dharma — dhamma in the Pali of Buddhism’s early scriptures — into a new doctrine, a new code of living. It recog- nized man the individual and showed him a way to end suffering and the wheel of rebirth, a way to overcome, through right conduct, the profaneness of existence. Its deepest insights — now as in Buddha’s clay — voice a salvation and com passion capable of inspiring political, social, and religious renewal.

About the personality that proffered this revelation Buddhist tradition weaves a rich tapestry of belief. The child who at birth announced “this is my last existence” grew up amid the pleasures of the palace, carefully shielded from all suffering and misery. At 16 he married, winning his bride by besting other suitors in remarkable trials of physical and intellectual powers. Then followed merry years at court, depicted by Sensuous scenes in Buddhist art.

On a chariot ride one clay the young prince saw an old man burdened with the weight of years. “Why is that man suffering?” he asked his charioteer. “That is old age, my lord. It is the sorrow of man, the depriver of his pleasures, the ruination of memory. “Troubled, the prince returned home. On other rides he meet a sick man and a funeral and learned about illness and death. Then he encountered an ascetic in rags, serene happiness lighting his face. ‘That night, his 29th birthday, he said goodbye to his slumbering wife and new—born son and set out on a pilgrim’s search for the essential truth.

First he studied with two yoga masters. But when their teachings did not satisfy his spiritual needs, he turned to extreme asceticism. Sometimes he ate but a grain of rice a clay, or stood for days on end. Yet five years of this brought him no nearer his goal, so he gave up austerity. And then, in a forest at Buddh Gaya he sat down on a grass mat spread beneath the pipal tree. During meditative trances in the night’s three watches he recollected his previous s existence, acquired the “divine eye” by which he envisaged the death and rebirth of all creatures of all time, and at last reached a higher state in which the “outflows” of his life — his ignorance and desires — were finally quelled. ft was then he grasped the Four Sacred Truths of the way to enlightenment; seven thousand heavens exulted and celestial beings wept for joy, Buddhist legend holds.

Later, in a sermon at a deer park near Battaras, he revealed those truths to five former companions who had left him when he gave up his “holy’’ asceticism “This is the Noble Truth concerning sorrow,” he told them. “Birth is sorrow, age is sorrow, death is sorrow’’ — all in the World is sorrow and suffering. The second Noble Truth holds that all suffering stems from craving the pleasures of life. Thirdly, the end to suffering can come only by ending craving. And the final Noble Truth reveals that the way to end craving lies in an Eightfold Path whose steps are Right Views, Right Resolve, Right Speech, Right Conduct, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.

By such steps Buddha decreed a path of spiritual improvement based on acceptance of the Four Sacred Truths and on such things as avoidance of ill will, malicious talk, lust, and hurt to hiving things. The path stressed mindful concen- tration — insight through meditation — in gaining understanding. It is the Middle Way between asceticism and worldly life, Buddha preached. It unseals the eyes of the spirit, leads to peace of mind, to knowledge, to enlightenment, to nirvana. For his followers, nirvana meant the state of bliss or emptiness — the zero and infinity — attained by escaping the wheel of rebirth. It has been likened to ex— tinguishing a flame: A man afire with craving and wrong inclination will flame again in a new life; cut off the fuel, and the flame goes. The word “nirvana” comes from a root meaning “blown out.

After his Banaras sermon, “Setting in Motion the Wheel of Righteousness,” Buddha spent the remaining 45 years of his life as “the Tathagata, the one who has come to teach you the way, the dhamrna.” For some of those years he wandered, preaching, using keen parables and living example to impart his message of compassion and selflessness to a flawed and troubled world. The rest he spent in monastic centers, busy with the thankless task of forging a life of right action among followers of all conditions and castes, women as well as men, who flocked to the primitive Buddhist community that has emerged as the sangha ,the brotherhood of monks. Then, feeling his end near, he traveled to a forest retreat not far from modern Gorakhpur. Sickened by tainted food, he died. His last words to those gathered around him were “Decay is inherent in all ... things. Work out your own salvation with diligence.” And the earth shook, the skies darkened; men wept, and the trees shed their leaves.

Disciples passed along Buddha’s teachings orally; the first written canons of the faith date from the first century B.C. In them he made no claim to divinity. Nor did he offer reliance on any gods for aid; because of this, Buddhism has been called atheistic. Rather than rejecting theism, however, it is indifferent to traditional gods as the means of obtaining salvation. A Buddhist may pray to the deities of his land. But usually for such immediate benefits as rain, or good harvests, or children. He does not pray to the gods for enlightenment. For the core of Buddha’s message is that only the individual can walk the path to inner understanding and ultimate truth.

Buddha’s dhamma set explicit rules. “Let a man overcome anger by love, let him overcome evil by good; let him overcome the greedy by liberality, the liar by truth,” he taught. ‘Shame on him that strikes; greater shame on him who, stricken, strikes back,” he said. “Since, for each one of us, our own self is the most important, respect the self of your fellow man as you respect your own.”

Over the centuries in India and Southeast Asia Buddhism became essentially a religion for monks. But in India monasteries grew wealthy, owned land and slaves, paid little heed to laymen .Scholars suggest that when Moslem invaders sacked the monasteries late in the 12th century, the laity had little incentive to restore the faith; Buddhism almost disappeared from the land of its birth.

But Buddhism also was a missionary faith. Buddha himself commanded his disciples to “go forth.....for the help of the many, for the well-being of the many, out of compassion for the world.” In the third century B.C. the great king Asoka, who welded most of India into an empire, became a convert and by his patronage made Buddhism an adjunct to the throne and a sweeping movement. Tradition says he sent missionaries to preach throughout Southeast Asia, had contact even with Egypt and Greece. Tolerant of other goofs and ideas, Buddhism flowed and absorbed and diversified. And in the 2 ½ millenniums since Buddha it has split into three main streams. One, Thcravada Buddhism, calls itself the Way of the Elders. Detractors labeled it Hinayana, the Lesser Vehicle. It prevails today in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos (though its role has likely been altered by recent political changes in the latter two lands). Theravadins stress the sangha as the means of following the dhamma: a monk who succeeds in reaching nirvana becomes an arhat, or saint. At the same time Theravada Buddhism gives the layman a positive role in supporting the sangha, winning merit to better his own karma.

In the first century B.C. arose a division of’ Buddhism known as Mahayana, the Greater Vehicle, because it offered a broader means of’ gaining the ultimate goal — a goal open to both pious monk and layman. The goal could be not only nirvana but also a godly existence of self-sacrifice and compassion. The ideal saint became not the arhat, but the bodhisattva–he who at the threshold of nirvana postpones his entry to help others to salvation. He acquires a store of merit that could be imparted to worshipers. A deification resulted — particularly of powerful bodhisattvas deemed Buddhas-to-come. Mahayana Buddhism, once centered in China, now predominates in Korea, Japan, and parts of Viet Nam. In each, indigenous religious added influences, and many sects developed.

The third branch of’ Buddhism, Tantric, sprouted around the sixth century A. D. and finds its chief expression in Himalayan lands. It interlaced Mahayana Buddhism with Tantric cults of India that invoked deities by magic and rituals. And it expanded the pantheon with an array of new divinities–personifications of Buddha’s thoughts and acts, feminine counterparts of deities, even demons.

Each division of Buddhism musters claim that it represents the original or true form. Actually, each developed by stressing specific elements within the early faith. And as Buddhism spread it articulated its insights in words and symbols that differed from country to country. In Southeast Asia it learned to speak the language of kingship. In Tibet it learned to speak with shamans. In China it picked up the language of the family. But its essence remains the message of Siddhartha Gautama: “Seek in the impersonal for the eternal man, and having sought him out, look inward inward-----thou art Buddha.”



A volume in the STORY OF MAN Library


Copyright@1971, (pgs. 87-100) BUDDHISM

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