Buddhism is literally “the religion of the awakened one” and has become one of the three largest world religions. In fact, there are currently over 350 million Buddhists worldwide. Buddhism is a path of spiritual and mental practice to develop oneself in order to awaken the mind to the true nature of the universe. Through practicing morality, concentration (meditation), and wisdom, Buddhists work towards achieving complete enlightenment or Nirvana. These practices also bring about a greater awareness, compassion and kindness towards all beings.
In Buddhism there is no idea of an omniscient creator that oversees all of creation. Instead one is left up to oneself to live a life of sincere practice in the awareness that one shall reap what is sown. The two core principles or beliefs of Buddhism underlying this kind of life are that everything is impermanent (void of a real, constant existence), and that all effects or events in our life are results of actions we create on our own. In this respect, one may realize that we are the creators of our own destiny and that, since everything is in constant flux (impermanent), there is a great empowerment in that we have the ability to change our own future, either in this or following lives.
The Awakened One – Sakyamuni Buddha
In the 6th to 5th centuries B.C.E., a noble prince named Siddhartha Gautama was born in Nepal, just north of India. His mother passed away shortly after his birth and he was consequently raised by his father and loving aunt, who became his step-mother. When he was a young boy a renowned sooth-sayer prophesied to Siddhartha’s father, King Shuddodana, that his boy would one day become either a great king or a great sage and savior of humanity. Out of fear that Siddhartha might choose to become a sage, he protected his child from witnessing any suffering or injustices that took place in his kingdom.
Prince Siddhartha grew up to be a strong and handsome young man and, as he was born into the noble warrior caste, he was learned in the five main areas of Language and Composition, Arts and Crafts, Medicine, Logic and Religion as well as being trained extensively in the arts of fighting and war. When he was sixteen he married a beautiful young princess named Yashodhara. When he grew a little older he developed a deep desire to see his people and lands. His father had carefully arranged a tour of the capital in which Siddhartha would be unable to witness any suffering, for he feared that his son would choose the life of a sage upon being subject to such scenes. However, King Shuddodana was unable to prevent what would happen next. During four separate tours of the capital, young Siddhartha was witness to four sights:
- He saw an old man and finally realized the truth that all beings lose their youth, grow old, and become frail.
- He saw a man who was severely ill and became aware of the suffering that is inevitable with illness and disease.
- He came upon a funeral procession and cremation ceremony being performed and knew that all beings will one day die and be no more.
- Finally, he witnessed an ascetic who appeared content and happy as a result of renouncing all worldly possessions and choosing a life of religion.
These scenes left a deep impression within him and, at the age of 29, Siddhartha decided that he must leave his palace life to find the answers to the questions he had concerning birth, life, sickness and death. Late one evening he gave away his clothes and jewelry, cut his beautiful long hair and bestowed his horse upon his male attendant, Channa. He thereupon set on a journey to realize the answers he was seeking for.
After witnessing the methods of two ascetic gurus and feeling their practices were lacking, he decided on a grueling and intense lifestyle with five other ascetic monks in the forest of Uruvilva. At one point he found that his efforts were still not producing the results he had wanted and consequently increased his efforts, by abstaining from food and drink, until he was very close to dying. It was at this time a young maiden saw the famished Siddhartha and, taking pity upon him, implored him to have some of her milk rice. He then realized that these extreme ascetic practices would not lead him to life’s answers any more than a life of luxury. He therefore decided that he must follow a middle path, so he ate, drank and bathed in the river, at which point the five other monks abandoned him, assuming that he had given up his practice and compromised his belief.
After this realization of the middle path, Siddhartha resolved to sit in deep meditation under a fig tree (the Bodhi tree) in Bodhgaya, India until he could realize the solution to the problems of suffering. It was under this tree that Siddhartha spent days meditating and finally reached enlightenment to become “the awakened one”, the Buddha. His first disciples were the five ascetic monks with whom he had practiced so extremely. He revealed to them the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.
Sakyamuni Buddha continued his life by traveling throughout the country surviving on alms and winning over people’s hearts with his teachings to accept this pure way of life. Two great teachers, Sariputra and Maudgalyayana, and their two thousand disciples came to him. Even King Suddhodana, who had been extremely disappointed and had suffered greatly by his son’s choice to live as a sage, eventually became the Buddha’s faithful disciple. Maha-Prajapati, the Buddha’s aunt and step-mother, and Princess Yasodhara, his wife, and all the members of the Shakya clan, came to believe in and follow him.
After forty-five years of preaching and influencing people to follow his enlightened way of life, he became ill. Still, although predicting that he would pass into Nirvana three months hence, he traveled to Pava where he became seriously ill by food offered by Cunda, a blacksmith. Upon reaching the forest close to Kuninagara Castle he continued conveying his teachings to his disciples until he passed away while lying between two large sala trees.
Upon cremation in Kusinagara Castle, his ashes were divided among Kusinagara and the seven neighbouring rulers and consequently buried under eight great monuments. So ended the life of one of the most time-honoured teachers the world has ever witnessed and began a religion that has encompassed the globe and transformed the hearts and minds of people everywhere.