The Life of the Buddha

By Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche

THE BUDDHA OF THIS AGE, Buddha Shakyamuni,was born Siddhartha Gautama approximately 2,500 years ago to Suddhodana and Mahamaya, king and queen of the Shakya clan in Northern India near Nepal.

When the queen was sixteen, she dreamed that a six tusked elephant entered her womb; from that time on, she was changed, feeling great peace. She wanted to go on retreat, and the king allowed her to do so. She went to stay in a great forest, and after nine months and ten days she felt something unusual. Suddenly, she grasped the limb of a tree, and the Buddha emerged painlessly from her right side. Having emerged, the Buddha took seven steps toward each of the four directions, and pointing at the sky, He said, "In this universe, I have come to purify the confused mind of all living beings." These events prompted the king and queen to take their child to a great seer, who predicted that the child would become a universal king if He chose a mundane path, or a Buddha if He chose a spiritual one.

Determined to perpetuate the royal lineage, King Suddhodana did everything in his power to prepare the young Siddhartha for the life of a ruler. The child was schooled by carefully chosen tutors in all fields of learning and the arts, traditional to Indian royalty at that time, and He excelled to such a degree that He became a teacher to His own tutors.

At the customary age of sixteen He married Princess Yasodhara and began the life of a householder. The king, in an effort to protect his son from unhappiness, devised all sorts of entertainments and diversions, but Siddhartha was introspective by nature and often withdrew from the company of friends and family to sit quietly in the gardens surrounding the palace. Sensing his son's growing dissatisfaction with a life of luxury, and fearing that the prophecy of His Buddhahood might come to pass, and thus the termination of the royal lineage, the king forbade Siddhartha to leave the royal compound.

His father's efforts failed, however, and Siddhartha made four clandestine trips outside the palace grounds, where He encountered what are known in Buddhism as the four signs. During His first three ventures, He saw an old man, a sick man, and then a corpse. Profoundly affected by such distressing sights, from which He had been previously sheltered, He began to question the nature and causes of suffering. On His fourth trip, He encountered a monk who was seeking liberation. Shortly after that, Siddhartha decided to forsake His royal life.

Accompanied by his attendant, Chandaka, Siddhartha slipped out of the palace one night while everyone was asleep and rode away. After riding many hours, they stopped long enough for Siddhartha to exchange His princely clothes and jewels for Chandaka's simple garments. He asked Chandaka to return to His family with a message of comfort, explaining that there was no reason for them to grieve for Him since He was setting out to put an end to old age and death. He pointed out that the meeting of all living beings must inevitably end in parting and that it is best to let go of all attachment. Then, with unshakable resolve, Siddhartha said He would not return home until He had attained complete enlightenment.

For the next six years, the prince led a spiritual life, diligently studying the various yogic systems that prevailed in India at the time. In an effort to achieve a tranquil mind, He engaged in many ascetic practices, which culminated in a period of strict fasting that left Him extremely emaciated. Even though He was on the brink of death during this fast, His mind was brilliant and clear, and at a certain moment He discerned that excessive deprivation was not the way to become enlightened. He concluded that if the body is worn out by hunger and thirst, inward calm is not possible. He broke the fast by drinking some milk offered by the daughter of a local farmer. The other ascetics who had been His companions during the six years of austerities decided that He must have abandoned the holy life and expelled Him from their midst.

Siddhartha took a ritual bath in a nearby river, and thus renewed, He went on to Bodh Gaya. There, at sunset, He sat down in lotus posture on a cushion of kusha grass under a great spreading tree and vowed that He would meditate until enlightenment, even if His flesh and bones should rot away. During the night, many distractions arose. In the course of His meditative concentration, He was beset by visions of countless armies attacking Him with fearful weapons, but because His indestructible meditation could convert negativity into harmony and purity, the weapons all turned into flowers. When other visions and distractions arose, through the stability of His meditation, He remained unmoved. Sitting in a state of total absorption, He passed the four watches of the night, attaining all the degrees of realization up to and including full omniscience. The earth shook and rain fell from a cloudless sky in response to His supreme achievement. With the dawn, He arose as Buddha.

For the first forty-nine days of His enlightenment, the Buddha remained silent, refraining from speaking because others would not be able to understand the nature of His experience. Eventually, certain beings of the god realms requested the Buddha to teach all who were capable of comprehending. In response to their request, He went to Benares, where His former companions were staying in the Deer Park. When they saw Him coming from a distance, they joked among themselves, determined to mock Him; but as He approached and they saw His radiant form, they naturally and spontaneously treated Him with great respect. When they asked for teachings, He began, at the age of thirty-five, to expound the Dharma.