The Life of the Buddha

Buddhism: Week 1

The Life of the Buddha
Monday, August 31, 2015

I would like to let James Finley, who has long studied Buddhism, briefly give you the story of the Buddha’s life, so that you have some context for Buddhist teachings.

The Buddha’s given name is Siddhartha. He was born in India about the year 560 BCE. His father was the king of a clan. He kept Siddhartha sequestered on the palace grounds while he was growing up in order to rear him toward his destiny of kingship.

Siddhartha grew up, married, and had a son. Around the time of his son’s birth, he finally went into town. On his first visit, he saw an old person; on his second visit, he saw an ill person; and on his third visit, he saw a dead person. He asked his guide if these things happen to everyone. Being assured that they did, Siddhartha became disillusioned and disheartened. He said to himself, “How can I live in these conditions conducive to happiness knowing that so many of my fellow human beings do not live in these privileged conditions? How can I be happy knowing they are out there? And how can I myself be happy, knowing that all these possessions and all this wealth cannot protect me from illness, old age, and death?”

Siddhartha went into town for a fourth visit and he saw a sadhu (a wandering ascetic monk). The monk, although dressed in rags, radiated an inner peace not dependent upon conditions conducive to happiness. Siddhartha felt a call in his heart for a quest to come to the understanding of the liberation from suffering, and to come to true and abiding happiness, for himself and others. So at around age 29, he left the palace and his family to begin a six-year inner journey.

First, he joined a yoga community that practiced deep, meditative states. But Siddhartha came to see this as using meditation to evoke certain altered states of consciousness, which was a rarified version of a life based upon conditioned states. So he joined a wandering group of ascetics who practiced severe fasting. But he became so emaciated and weak that he was in danger of dying. He realized that since his goal was to discover freedom from suffering and the nature of true happiness, things weren’t going well! So he started to take food. The other ascetics were scandalized and left him.

Then Siddhartha, utterly alone, stopped and calmed himself and looked deeply into his situation. Since his situation was stripped of all superficiality, of all adornment of the extremes of wealth and the extremes of poverty, his situation is our situation. He reveals us to ourselves. He is the human being who has discovered the bankruptcy of the ego’s agenda to come to true abiding happiness and fulfillment based upon strategies of the ego. He made a vow to himself to sit there under a Bodhi tree until he resolved the human dilemma of suffering and the search for inner peace and fulfillment in the midst of life as it is. Through the night he was tempted by the demon Mara, but he was unshaken in his resolve. He stayed through the night gazing deeply into the bankruptcy of the human life based upon its own strategies.

At first light, Siddhartha turned and looked at the day star with awakened eyes, as the Buddha, meaning “the one who is awake,” seeing life the way it really is, free from all projections, all distortions, all delusions, all strategies, all agendas, all belief systems. He saw, we might say, the boundary-less, trustworthy nature of what is. He sat in the bliss of his enlightenment for some days.

Finally he realized that although many would not be ready to hear his teachings, some would. The Buddha’s first words to someone after his enlightenment were, “In this blind world, I beat the drum of deathlessness.” [1]

Gateway to Silence:
To understand everything is to forgive everything. —Buddha

Reference:
[1] James Finley, Jesus and Buddha: Paths to Awakening (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2008), disc 2 (CD, DVD, MP3 download).

Image credit: “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” (detail of woodblock print), Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849).
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