Early Buddhism was confined largely to India and is usually referred to as eravada Buddhism. Later Buddhism, which became very popular outside India (notable in China and Japan), became known as Mahayana Buddhism. The cornerstone of Buddhist philosophy is the view that all life is suffering. Everyone is subject to the traumas of birth, sickness, decrepitude and death to what they most dread (an incurable disease or an ineradicable personal weakness), as well as separation from what they love. The cause of suffering is desire – specifically the desire of the body and the desire for personal fulfilment. Happiness can be achieved only if these desires are overcome, and this requires following the ‘eight-fold path’. By following this path the Buddhist aims to attain nirvana, a condition beyond the limits of mind and feelings, a state of bliss.
Siddhartha, who was to become the Buddha or the the ‘Enlightened One’, was born in Lumbini near Kapilavastu on the northern edge of the Ganges river basin, in what is today southern Nepal. During the late Vedic period the peoples of the region were organised into tribal republics, ruled by a council of elders or an elected leader; the grand palaces described in the traditional accounts of the life of the Buddha are not evident among the archaeological remains. His family is said to have belonged to the Kshatriya caste. Information about his life derives largely from Buddhist texts, the earliest of which were not committed to writing until shortly before the beginning of the
Common Era, several centuries after his death.
The events of his life set forth in these texts cannot be regarded with confidence as historical, although his historical existence is accepted by scholars. He is said to have lived for 80 years, but there is considerable uncertainty concerning the date of his death. There was supposedly a prophecy given at the time of his birth by a sage at his father’s court. The prophecy said that
the child would become a great king if he stayed at home, but if he decided to leave home, he would become a saviour for mankind.
The young prince enjoyed an opulent life; his father shielded him from exposure to the ills of the world, including old age, sickness, and death, and provided him with palaces for summer, winter, and the rainy season, as well as all manner of enjoyments. At age 16 he married the princess Yashodhara. One day Siddhartha informed his father that he wished to see the world. is excursion would forever change his life, for it was during this journey that he saw ‘the four passing sights’.
- The first troubling sight Siddhartha saw was that of a decrepit old man. When Siddhartha asked what had happened to this man, he was told that the man was old, as everyone would ultimately become.
- Later he met a sick man and was told that all people were liable to fall sick and suffer pain like that individual.
- He then saw a funeral procession with a corpse on its way to cremation, the followers weeping bitterly. When he asked what that meant, Siddhartha was informed that
it was the way of life, for sooner or later both prince and pauper would have to die.
- The last sight was that of a monk begging for food. The tranquil look on the beggar’s face convinced Siddhartha that this type of life was for him.
Having been exposed to the various ills of human life, and the existence of those who seek a state beyond them, he asked the king for permission to leave the city and retire to the forest.
The father offered his permission.
The prince left Kapilavastu and the royal life behind and entered the forest, where he cut off his hair and exchanged his royal robes for a simple dress. From that point on he ate whatever was placed in his begging bowl. Over the next six years, the prince studied meditation and learned to achieve deep states of blissful concentration. But he quickly matched his teachers and decided that despite their achievements, they would be reborn after their death.
He next joined a group of five ascetics who had devoted themselves to the practice of extreme forms of self-mortification. The prince also became proficient at their practices, eventually reducing his daily meal to one pea. Buddhist art represents him seated in the meditative posture in an emaciated form, with sunken eyes and protruding ribs. He concluded that mortification of the flesh is not the path to liberation from suffering and rebirth and accepted a dish of rice and cream from a young woman.
Since his companions remained convinced of the efficacy of asceticism they abandoned the prince. Now alone, the prince vowed to sit under a Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya (earlier known as Uruvela, Sambodhi, Vajrasana) and not rise until he had found enlightenment. On the night of the full moon of May, the prince sat in meditation through the night. In the third watch of the night, the hours before dawn, he was liberated. On this night he became a Buddha, an awakened one who had roused himself from the sleep of ignorance and extended his knowledge throughout the universe.
The Buddha remained in the vicinity of the tree for seven weeks. One of those weeks was rainy, and the serpent king came and spread his hood above the Buddha to protect him from the storm, a scene also commonly depicted in Buddhist art works. For Buddhists, Bodh Gaya today is the most important of the main four pilgrimage sites related to the life of Gautama Buddha, the other three being Kushinagar (the place of his passage into nirvana), Lumbini (the place of his birth), and Sarnath (the place of his first teaching). The Mahabodhi Temple, located in Bodh Gaya, is now recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Bodhisattva and Buddha
A person who has set out on the long journey to discover the path to freedom from suffering, and then to teach it to others, is called a bodhisattva. A person who has discovered that path, followed it to its end, and taught it to the world, is called a buddha. Buddhas are not reborn after they die but enter a state beyond suffering called nirvana (“passing away”). Because buddhas appear so rarely over the course of time and because only they reveal the path to liberation from suffering(dukkha), the appearance of a buddha in the world is considered a nextordinary event in the history of the universe.
Jatakas are collections of stories of the Buddha’s past lives, and form one of the early categories of Buddhist literature. Here, an event reminds the Buddha of an event in a past life. He relates that story in order to illustrate a moral maxim, and, returning to the present, he identifies various members of his audience as the present incarnations of characters in his past-life tale. The Jataka stories have remained among the most popular forms of Buddhist literature. They are the source of some 32 stone carvings at the 2nd century BC stupa at Bharhut in northeastern Madhya Pradesh; 15 stupa carvings depict the previous life of the Buddha.
Stone carvings provide an important source for identifying which events in the lives of the Buddha were considered most important by the community. The Jataka stories are also well-known beyond India; in Southeast Asia, the story of Prince Vessantara (the Buddha’s penultimate reincarnation)—who demonstrates his dedication to the virtue of charity by giving away his sacred elephant, his children, and finally his wife—is as well-known as that of his previous lifetime.