Buddha Skakyamuni was born as a royal prince in 563 BC in a place called Lumbini, among the southern foothills of the Himalayas, which was originally in northern India but is now part of Nepal. He was born in the Shakya clan that belonged to the warrior (Kshatriya) caste. His mother's name was Queen Mayadevi and his father's name was King Shuddhodana.
One night, Queen Mayadevi dreamed that a white elephant descended from heaven and entered her womb. The white elephant entering her womb indicated that on that very night she had conceived a child who was a pure and powerful being. The elephant's descending from heaven indicated that her child came from Tushita heaven, the Pure Land of Buddha Maitreya.
Later, when she gave birth to the child, instead of experiencing pain the queen experienced a special, pure vision in which she stood holding the branch of a tree with her right hand while the gods Brahma and Indra took the child painlessly from her side. They then proceeded to honor the infant by offering him ritual ablutions.
When the king saw the child he felt as if all his wishes had been fulfilled and he named the young prince “ Siddhartha ”.
The King invited a Brahmin seer to make predictions about the prince's future. The seer examined the child with his clairvoyance and told the king, “ The child was endowed with the thirty-two auspicious marks of spiritual awareness, which indicated a life of spiritual achievement. He could become either a chakravatin king, a ruler of the entire world, or a fully enlightened Buddha ”.
At first, King was pleased to hear his prophecy, but later he started to worry about the possibility of his only son leaving the palace to become a homeless recluse. He wanted his son to take a worldly path and to become a great King who would carry on the Shakya Dynasty. He was determined to shield the child from anything that might result in him taking up the religious life.And so Siddhartha was kept in one or another of their three palaces, and was prevented from experiencing much of what ordinary folk might consider quite commonplace. He was not permitted to see the elderly, the sickly, the dead, or anyone who had dedicated themselves to spiritual practices. Only beauty and health surrounded Siddhartha.
As his mother passed away seven days after his birth, the queen's sister brought up the prince with great affection and tenderness. He was surrounded by all kinds of luxuaries. He received an all-round education. Being intelligent and eager to learn, the Prince became very good at studies and military skills.
Adorned with the ornaments, he became expert in astrology and literature. When he departed the city, he meditated in samadhi. Under the shade of the jambu tree, he was praised by the six sons of the gods.
One day, the Prince saw a farmer in worn-out clothes, ploughing the field and whipping an ox. He came to understand the difficult life of living beings. He also saw a bird pecking at an earthworm and an eagle swooping down on the bird. He came to understand that living beings kill one another and only the strongest can survive. His compassion was shown at his young age, when a crane was shot by Devadatta, he took it in his arms, nourished it, saving it.
In his 16th year, he was married to his own cousin Yasodhara, daughter of Suddhodana. He passed his youth amid luxury and splendor, in three mansions appropriate to the three seasons, surrounded by forth thousand nautch-girls, like a very god surrounded by troops of celestial nymphs.
The Four Encounters
As Siddhartha continued living in the luxury of his palaces, he grew increasing restless and curious about the world beyond the palace walls. He finally demanded that he be permitted to see his people and his lands. The king carefully arranged that Siddhartha should still not see the kind of suffering that he feared would lead him to a religious life, and decried that only young and healthy people should greet the prince.
The prince asked his attendant, Dunpa, drove his chariot in the eastern, southern and western directions. While riding his chariot, Siddhartha encountered an old man walking along the road. Intrigued by his first encounter with old age, the prince addressed his charioteer, “ Who is this man there with the white hair, feeble hand gripping a staff, eyes lost beneath his brows, limbs bent and hanging loose? Has something happened to alter him, or is that his natural state? ”
“ That is old age, the ravisher of beauty, the ruin of vigor, the cause of sorrow, destroyer of delights, the bane of memories and the enemy of the senses. In his childhood, that one too drank milk and learned to creep along the floor, came step by step to vigorous youth, and he has now, step by step, in the same way, gone on to old age! ” said the charioteer.
Amazed and confused, he chased after them to find out what they were. Then he came across some people who were severely ill. And finally, he came across a funeral ceremony by the side of a river, and for the first time in his life saw death. He asked his friend and squire Chandaka the meaning of all these things, and Chandaka informed him of the simple truths that Siddhartha should have known all along: That all of us get old, sick, and eventually die.
The charioteer thus revealed in his simplicity what was to have been hidden from the king's son, who exclaimed, “ What! And will this evil come to me too? ”
“ Without doubt, by the force of time, ” said the charioteer.
Amazed and confused, he came across some people who were severely ill. And finally, he came across a funeral ceremony by the side of a river, and for the first time in his life saw death, leading to great turbulence in his mind. Finally, Siddhartha saw an ascetic, a monk who had renounced all the pleasures of the flesh. The peaceful look on the monks face would stay with Siddhartha for a long time to come.
Escape and Renunciation
At the age of 29, Siddhartha came to realize that he could not be happy living as he had been. He had discovered suffering, and wanted more than anything to discover how one might overcome suffering.
One night, when all his attendants were asleep, he thought that he should leave the palace to seek the true happiness. After kissing his sleeping wife and newborn son Rahula goodbye, he snuck out of the palace with his squire Dunpa and his favorite horse Kanthaka. They left the city of Kapilavastu riding together on the prince's horse, heading for the city of Vaishali, galloping through the fields at midnight.
As day was dawning, they reached Vaishali. They rode a few miles north from Vaishali, into the jungle. There, Siddhartha cut off his hair and removed all his ornaments. He gave Dunpa the locks of his hair, his sword, his ornaments and jewelry, saying, “ Dunpa, you must go back to my kingdom and give these to my father. Please tell him that I'm not leaving forever. I'm leaving to achieve my path, and once I have accomplished that, I will return to see him.”
After renunciation, he went from place to place and learned from many well-known teachers in his search for the Truth and practice meditation. The prince spent the next seven days in Anupiya Mango Grove in the enjoyment of the bliss of monkhood. He then went on foot to Rajagaha, the capital of King Bimbisara, and made his round for alms from door to door. Bimbisara, pleased with his deportment, offered him his kingdom. But the prince refused his offer, declaring that he had renounced all for the sake of attaining Supreme Enlightenment. Bimbisara then requested him, as soon as he should become a Buddha, to visit his kingdom first, the future Buddha gave him his promise to do so.
He then attached himself to two famous gurus, Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta, but found their practices lacking.
The Six Years of Austerities
Wandering in his search for enlightenment, finally Siddhartha reached Uruvela, situated by the river Neranjara at Gaya. There was a village located nearby where he could get his alms. Finding it to be a suitable place to continue with his quest for enlightenment, he decided to stay.
He joined five ascetic rishis (Kondanna, Bhaddiya, Vappa, Mahanama, and Assaji) in a way of discipline based on progressively severe fasting. He ate a single grain of rice for each of the first two years, drank a single drop of water for each of the second two years, and took nothing at all during the last two. Consequently, his bones stuck out like a row of spindles. His hair fell out and his skin became withered.
Siddhartha had to face the fact that asceticism had failed to redeem him. All he had achieved after this heroic assault upon his body was a prominent rib cage, and a dangerously weakened physique. Finally, it dawned upon him that physical austerity is one of the two extremes, and that the Middle Way between these two extremes is the path to enlightenment.
He thus slowly rose, and went to bathe in the stream. He crossed over to the far bank where he met a village girl named Sujata who offered him a bowl of rice pudding (kheer). It was the first food he had accepted in years and it instantly restored his body to lustrous good health. Thereupon his five companions were very angry regarded him as a backslider. They deserted him and went to the Deer-park near Benares.
The Defeat of Mara
After giving up the ascetic practice, Siddhartha then made his way to a place near Bodhgaya, North India, where he found a suitable site for meditation.
He spread the kusha grass as a seat under the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya, and he sat under that tree and vowed not to move from that spot until he had attained full enlightenment.
Hearing this solemn vow, Mara, the Buddhist manifestation of death and desire, felt threatened. Mara first sent his three beautiful daughters named Desire (Future), Fulfillment (Present), and Regret (Past). The Buddha had already disengaged himself from these pinnings and thus remained unmoved. This prompted Mara intimidated the venerable one by installing fear in his heart. He generated an army of wrathful and hideous creatures, the very personifications of death. But all through the tribulations, Buddha sat calm and unflinching. In this way he triumphed over all the demons of this world.
Siddhartha then continued with his meditation. In the first part of the night, he achieved the four stages of samadhi and the state of super-awareness. In the middle watch of the night, he achieved the clairvoyance of recollecting his previous lives; and in the last hours of the night he achieved the stainless wisdom of the end of afflicting emotions. He then realized in a moment the nature of the twelve links of interdependent origination (the twelve nidanas) both in their arising and cessation, as well as the Four Noble Truths. Thus, in a moment, he achieved Enlightenment, the perfect Buddhahood at his age of 35.
The Proclamation of the Teachings
After attaining liberation and enlightenment, Buddha hesitated teaching others the way to achieve the same. He felt that no one would be able to understand. So he thought he should stay in the forest without speaking. But Brahma (the Indian god) and Indra implored him to teach.
Brahma requested and said, “ O Sage, please give the teachings. The teachings previously given in Magadha are all impure and false. Such confused belief inevitably brings frustration and suffering. ”
For this reason, the Buddha finally accepted Brahma and Indra’s request. Seven weeks after enlightenment, filled with compassion and the desire to help others achieve freedom from suffering, Buddha decided to leave Gaya in order to begin turning the Wheel of Dharma.
The First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma
Buddha thought first of his former companions, the five disciples who had abandoned him after he had broken his vows of austerity. So Buddha left Gaya and walked towards Varanasi and Sarnath. As Buddha neared the forest of Sarnath, one of the five ascetics, Aàhvajit saw him walking toward his forest. He ran back to his four companions and announced the news. They all agreed that they would not receive him with respect and not stand up when he came because Siddhartha had broken his vow and left the path of asceticism.
Nevertheless, in spite of their decision, when Buddha approached them, they spontaneously stood up in greeting. They could not help it. One of his old disciples fetched water, as was the Indian custom, so Buddha might wash his hands and feet. One fetched a stool so he could sit. Another took Buddha's begging bowl. They all attended him as a matter of course. The splendor of his presence was so evident that they could not resist him.
Buddha expounded them the Four Noble Truths. Hearing his discourse, they became his first followers and formed the first sangha, and hence, the first formation of Triple Gem (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha) was completed.
Buddha stayed there a long time, but eventually he decided to leave that place.
The Second Turning
Buddha turned the Second Wheel of Dharma, which consists primarily of Mahayana teachings, at Rajagriha on Vulture Peak Mountain. There, Buddha turned the Wheel of Dharma of the Prajnaparamita Sutras, the Sutras of Transcendent Knowledge.
During this time, Buddha emphasized the teachings on egolessness, selflessness, or emptiness. Buddha simply presented the idea of the self being free from such imputations as permanence and inherent existence. He taught that there is no permanent, solid individual ego or self-nature. Buddha also presented the teachings on bodhichitta, which literally means enlightened attitude or awakened heart.
The Third Turning
Buddha turned the Wheel of Dharma three times. The third turning took place in various cities, beginning in Vaishali. At this time, Buddha emphasized the teachings on Buddha Nature, or tathatagarbha, which reveals that complete enlightenment, is within our hearts, right from the beginning.
Buddha also presented Vajrayana teachings to a very limited audience of disciples. When he taught the Vajrayana, the Vajrayana disciples saw him as the Lord of the Mandala. Buddha would appear in a Nirmanakaya buddha form, such as in the form of the Kalachakra deity or as one of the other deities of the Vajrayana, and then teach the tantras, or Vajrayana dharma. These teachings of the Vajrayana dharma were given in secret, so they are not usually recorded in the Buddhist sutras.
Return to Kapilavastu
Seven years after he left his native city the Buddha decided to return to Kapilavastu. Yasodhara, Buddha's former wife, took little Rāhula to see his father, the Buddha . Yashodhara told Rahuala that he should ask his father, the Buddha for his inheritance. Little Rahula did as he was told. The Buddha's reaction was as dignified as it was effective. He instructed his chief disciple Shariputra to ordain the boy as a novice monk at his age of eight.
Shortly after Rahula’s ordination, the Buddha taught him the importance of telling the truth. This discourse is known as the Rahulovada Sutta. The Buddha placed truth as the highest of all virtues. Rahula subsequently became one among the many arhants through following the Buddha's teachings.
Later in his teaching career, Buddha instituted a community of nuns in Vaishali (Yangs-pa-can), at the request of his aunt Mahaprajapati .
For forty years, Buddha met sentient beings face-to-face, and he taught the three yana dharma to many disciples. He spent many years developing the monastic and lay communities. Finally, at the end of his teaching, Buddha went to Kushinagar, a beautiful forest in northern India not far from the border with Nepal.
It was a full-moon night and also his eightieth birthday. When the time drew near, Buddha asked Ananda to prepare a bed between two salwa trees. Then he lay there, reclining on his right side, facing west, with his head supported by his hand, and prepared for his parinirvana.
“ Before dawn tomorrow, I will go into parinirvana, ” he prophesied to Ananda. That day, he ordained his last disciple. Furthermore, he shared his seat with arhat Mahakasyapa, and he announced, “ After I go into parinirvana, Mahakasyapa will be my regent here. He will lead the sangha and continue its activity.”
The monks and disciples were very sad, crying and lamenting, and with their palms joined together they beseeched Buddha, “ Without you, how can we continue the monastic rules? How can we continue with the Vinaya practices? ”
Buddha answered their pleas, saying, “ Vinaya should be practiced with three considerations in mind. You should practice Vinaya in accordance with the law of the country. You should practice Vinaya in accordance with the customs of the times. You should practice Vinaya in accordance with the cultural environment. On the basis of these three considerations, you should feel free to make any necessary changes and so continue to practice. ”
Buddha declared, “ You should follow no leader, but follow his teachings (dharma). All sutra should begin with the sentence of ‘ Thus have I heard ’, indicating the words to follow are the Buddha’s words and Dharma with ‘ thus ’can be believed. In the future, whoever reads my sutras, whoever hears my teachings, will meet me. Even if I were to meet them face to face, I would have nothing more to say than these teachings, or these sutras.”
At dawn, Buddha entered mahaparinirvana. As with his enlightenment, he passed through all the levels of samadhi—the four samadhis of the form realm and the four samadhis of the formless realm. As before, he returned to the fourth samadhi of the form realm, and then he passed into mahaparinirvana. Buddha's body became even more splendid than before. Shining with a beautiful color, encircled by a halo, it possessed an even greater presence. The disciples who witnessed Buddha's parinirvana were amazed. The elder arhats explained to them that the major events of a Buddha's life happen twice, once during enlightenment, and again during the mahaparinirvana. With these signs, Buddha passed into parinirvana.
The disciples cremated the body of the Shakyamuni Buddha. Many relics of different colors came from the ashes. They eventually were carried throughout the region. Thousands of stupas were built in India, Nepal, Tibet, and other Asian countries to enshrine these precious relics.
Meeting the Buddha
Buddha's regent Mahakasyapa and eight other regents continued to teach. The first gathering of the sangha of the five hundred arhats took place soon after Buddha's parinirvana. They recited all the sutras by heart, and in this way the teachings of Buddha, which were not recorded during his lifetime, were authenticated and preserved.
They were written down many hundreds of years later. All sutras begin with the words, ‘ Thus have I heard ’. The arhat is saying, “ This is what I have heard directly from Buddha and from no one else. and I am reciting the teachings exactly as I have heard them. I am not adding or subtracting anything.”
Therefore, the sentence of ‘ Thus have I heard ’ is an important part of the sutra. By this means, the activity of the Shakyamuni Buddha, the Lord Buddha, continues even now, from the time of the regents and arhats to the present.