On the full-moon day of May, in 623 B.C., Prince Siddhartha Gautama, afterwards Shakyamuni Buddha, was born in Lumbini Garden, in Kapilavastu, on the borders of Nepal, His family being of the aristocratic Sakya clan or caste. His father was King Suddhodana and His mother Queen Maha Maya: seven days after His birth His mother died and His aunt, Maha Prajapati, His mother’s younger sister, who was also married to King Suddhodana, became His foster mother. Asita, who was an intimate friend of the king, visited the palace to see the Child but, when the Baby was brought to him, the Child placed His feet in the ascetic Asita’s matted hair. Asita, foreseeing by this action the Child’s future greatness, rose from his seat and saluted Him with gassho as did also the king. After this, Asita first smiled and then wept for he knew that Gautama was the Buddha that was to come and that he, owing to his own prior death and rebirth in a formless realm, could not be alive to benefit from the Buddha’s superior wisdom.
On the fifth day the Child was named Siddhartha Gautama, which means “wish-fulfilled,” and many learned Brahmins were invited to the palace for the naming ceremony. Among them were eight distinguished men, seven of whom, on examining the Child’s characteristics, raised two fingers thus giving a double interpretation that He would be either a universal monarch or a Buddha: the youngest and most learned, however, Kondanna, raised only one finger, thus firmly declaring that He would definitely retire from the world and become a Buddha.
During the ploughing festival the future Buddha had an unprecedented mental experience which served as the key to His enlightenment. This festival was arranged to encourage agriculture and both nobles and commoners, in gala dress, participated. The Child was left on a screened and canopied couch, beneath a rose-apple tree, to be watched by His nurses however, at the climax of the festival, the nurses stole away to watch and the Child, sitting cross-legged and concentrating on the inhalation and exhalation of His breathing, gained onepointedness of mind which is the first ecstasy. The Prince was so absorbed in meditation when the nurses returned that, struck with awe, they told the king who came and saluted his son for the second time.
After an excellent education and being specially trained in the art of warfare, Gautama married His beautiful cousin, Yashodhara, both of them being sixteen years of age. Thereafter He led a luxurious life, unaware of the life of tribulation led by most people outside the palace. He had three palaces so as to be able to enjoy His life to the full; each was for a different season, hot, cold or rainy. Renunciation of luxury and pleasure was not yet within His mind.
However, His contemplative nature and boundless compassion did not allow Him to enjoy royal pleasures as others did. He knew no woe but He had a deep desire to witness the way of life of humanity in general even amidst His own comfort and prosperity.
One day He went outside the palace and saw the darker side of the life of men. First He saw a decrepit old man, then a diseased person, later a corpse and, finally, a dignified hermit. The first three of these sights showed Him the inexorable nature of life and the universal sickness of humanity; the fourth showed Him the means of overcoming this and the way to attaining calm and peace. Thereafter, realising the uselessness of sensual pleasures and the value of renunciation, He decided to leave the world.
Recognizing that the time was ripe for His departure, he asked his attendant Channa to saddle Kanthaka, His horse. His compassion for his wife and child dominating Him even to the moment of His parting, He stole away at midnight, attended only by Channa, to become a penniless wanderer at the age of twenty-nine.
After travelling for a long way He rested on the far bank of the river Neranjara and there shaved His head, giving His garments and ornaments to Channa to take back to the palace. He now adopted the simple yellow garb of an ascetic and led a life of voluntary poverty as a homeless beggar.
He commenced His search for calm and peace by studying with Arada Kalama, an ascetic of repute who, after his pupil’s developing the seventh Arupa Dhyana, or the Realm of Nothingness, regarded Him as his equal. The future Buddha was not satisfied, however, with mere mental concentration so He went to Udraka Ramaputra with whom He developed the final mental stage of the Realm of Neither Perception nor Non-Perception. Since, in those days, the ancient sages could proceed no further than this in mental development, the teacher invited Him to take full charge of all his disciples.
Finding that there seemed to be no-one competent to teach Him, since all were enmeshed in ignorance, Gautama gave up looking for external help from teachers since He realised that Truth and peace are to be found within oneself and not gained from another. Thereafter He wandered in the district of Magadha arriving eventually at Uruvela. Hearing of His renunciation, Kondanna, who had foretold His destiny at His birth, and four sons of the other sages who had been present at the same time, Bhaddiya, Vappa, Mahanama and Assaji, also renounced the world and joined Him. Asceticism was practiced very severely in those days in India and Gautama practiced all forms of austerity to such an extent that His delicate body was reduced almost to a skeleton but the greater His torments the further His goal receded, their only result being exhaustion.
Then came Mara suggesting to His mind that He live a life of merit which would involve Him in sacrifices and celibacy, but the future Buddha discarded these things since sense desires, aversion, hunger, thirst, craving, sloth, torpor, fear, doubt, distractions, obstinacy, profit, praise, honour, false fame, the extolling of oneself and contempt of others He knew to be the weapons of Mara. Resolving that it would be better to die in the battle against such things rather than to live vanquished, He dismissed these possibilities and made firm His determination to reach Buddhahood.
It was after this decision that He abandoned self mortification as futile and adopted the middle path for He now realised that the way to enlightenment was the one of simply sitting which He had discovered when He was a child and He therefore took food. This so disgusted the five ascetics who were with Him that they deserted Him on the spot saying He had become indulgent. After a substantial meal, offered by Sujata, He resolved just to sit.
Seated under the famous pipal tree, at Buddha Gaya, with His mind tranquil and purified, He developed the supernormal knowledge of the true way to the destruction of the passions and, comprehending things as they truly are, realised His original enlightenment exclaiming, “I was, am and will be enlightened simultaneously with the universe.” He was thirty-five.
He was born human and He lived and died as a man; however, although He was human and neither deified nor immortal, He became an extraordinary man. He must not be thought of as an incarnation of Vishnu nor of any other god and His personal salvation cannot save others. “You yourselves must make the exertion; the Buddhas are only teachers,” was one of His sayings and, “Remember thou must go alone; the Buddhas do but point the way,” is another famous quotation. Instead of placing an unseen, almighty god over man, and making him subservient to such a belief, Shakyamuni Buddha raised the worth of mankind. Selfless service and the equality of all men and women are the corner-stones of His teaching.
Reprinted and adapted with permission from Zen Is Eternal Life, by Reverend Master Jiyu-Kennett. Shasta Abbey Press, 1999.