(623 B.C. – 543 B.C.)
Buddhism originated in India over 2,500 years ago and has spread throughout most of Asia where it has had a tremendous influence on religion, culture, philosophy, and psychology. Within the last century, its popularity has spread to the West, particularly Europe and the United States. It has had an impact on the fields of psychology, philosophy, and disciplines that address the study of the mind and the meaning of existence.
Buddhism is the name given to the practice of the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha . The Sanskrit word Buddha means the “Enlightened One” or “Awakened One,” and refers to those who have awakened to the Truth. The historical founder of Buddhism was Siddhartha Gautama, who came to be known as Shakyamuni Buddha upon his Full Enlightenment. His teachings on seeing the Truth of life and awakening to one’s true nature are as relevant today as they were in the Buddha’s time.
The beauty of Shakyamuni Buddha is that he did not promise to remove the ills of the world; he empowered us to bring compassion to them.
Let us look at the life of the man whose quest for Truth continues to be the model for those seeking a relief of suffering. (Sources: “The Life of the Buddha,” By MasterHsing Yun; “The Story of the Buddha,” by The Association of Buddhists Women in the U.K., and Piyaratne Hewabattage; “A Pictorial Biography of Shakyamuni Buddha,” By Gunapayuta, Venerable Jan Hai, Z.A. Lu, and Y.F. Lee)
More than two thousand five hundred years ago in North India, at the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains, there were a number of little kingdoms, each ruled over by its own Raja or King. One of these kingdoms was the land of the Shakyas. They were a warrior clan and the name of the King who ruled over them at the time was Suddhodana. The King lived in the capital city, called Kapilavastu, on the Nepal frontier.
One night, Queen Maha Maya had a very strange dream. She saw a huge white elephant coming into the room, carrying a lotus flower. The elephant trumpetted as it walked round her bed three times. In the morning, the King summoned the wise men of the land to the palace, to find out the meaning of this dream. “Oh, King! A great and noble son will be born to your Queen,” they said. The King and Queen were very happy.
When the baby was due, according to the custom at the time, the Queen asked her husband if she could visit her parents in the neighboring kingdom. The King readily granted her wish and ordered that everything possible should be done to make the journey pleasant. She was carried in a royal palanquin and was accompanied by many attendants all beautifully dressed and sparkling with jewels.
On the way, they had to pass a forest and some lovely gardens called Lumbini. When the Queen arrived at this delightful place, within sight of the snow-capped Himalayas, she thought that she would like to rest for a while in the cool shade. When she seated under a Sala tree in the peaceful Lumbini Garden, she felt her birth pangs and thereafter gave birth to a baby boy. It was the full moon day in the month of Vesak (May). All the trees were in flowers and a gentle breeze sang to the music of the birds and animals of this lovely forest garden. It was as if all nature was happy over the birth of this Prince. The whole party returned to Kapilavastu, where the new Prince was greeted with great rejoicing.
The Prince was very beautiful. His skin was the color of gold and his eyes were a lovely deep, violet blue. His hair was black and his whole body and limbs were perfectly formed. As was the custom, King Suddhodana summoned the most learned of wise men to foretell his son’s destiny. One of the Prince’s first visitors was a renowned sage named Asita. On seeing the baby, he first smiled and then tears began to trickle down his face. The King and Queen were worried.
“Will any harm come to our son?” the King asked. “Oh, no. Your Majesties,” the Sage replied. “I am smiling because I am very lucky to see your son, who is no ordinary human being. He has the look of the Great Man. In fact, he will become a Buddha one day, a Fully Enlightened One, who will teach the whole world how to find true happiness and relief from sorrow. I am old now and shall not live to see that day.” After saying this, he knelt down to pay worship to the Prince. Unconsciously, King Suddhodana followed him, also kneeling down to the Prince.
Five days after the Prince’s birth, King Suddhodana invited more learned and wise men to the palace, eight of them for the naming ceremony of his child. They studied special markings on the body of the baby. Seven of them said that the Prince would one day become a great Emperor, or a Buddha. But the eighth sage was very definite that the Prince would one day see four Special Signs and give up his palace and family. He would lead the simple life of an ascetic in meditation and become a Buddha. The King and Queen were very upset when they heard this. The baby was named Siddhartha, which means, ‘the One whose wishes will be fulfilled; realization of all aims’ and the family name was Gautama.
Seven days after the birth of the Prince, Queen Maha Maya died. The Queen’s sister, Prajapathi Gautama, lovingly raised the Prince as if he were her own. He grew up to be handsome, tall and strong, and very good at his studies. He learned many subjects. At the same time, he was gentle and kind, well-mannered and loved by his people.
One day, his father took him to the ploughing festival which took place every year. The King drove the first pair of bullocks which were decorated with golden trappings and pulled a golden plough. The other nobles followed the King, driving silver ploughs and their bullocks had silver harnessing.
The young Prince was seated in the shade of a rose-apple tree. Instead of enjoying the ceremony, he started meditating: he concentrated on his breathing, now a breath in, now a breath out. When his attendants returned to him, they found him sitting cross-legged and in a deep trance. “What an unusual child,” they said and went to inform the King.