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The life of the Buddha



Close upon the Himalayas in the north of Indiaand about 160KMto the north of Varanasi(Benares) was living in the 7th century before Christ a Sakyan clan, ruled over at that time by the caste of professional warriors, called Kshatriyas. The name of the chief ruler and his family was Gotama, a name derived from one of their ancestors who lived many centuries earlier. The ruler of the clan at the time when our story begins was known as Suddhodana and he lived in Kapilavatthu. The Raja was married to a close relation of his, Maya Devi, who was the daughter of the ruling chief of a nearby township, called Devadaha, also known as Koli. That Koliyan Raja’s name was Anjana.

 Maya Devi, the chief consort of King Suddhodana, and better known as Maha Maya, had one night a dream that a white elephant had entered her womb. This dream of hers was interpreted by some sages, that in due time a son would be born to her who would be a worthy descendant of the royal clan. When in the course of time she felt that the day was drawing near that she should bring forth a child, she wished to visit her parents in Devadaha. King Suddhodana, her husband, willingly granted permission to do so. On the way between Kapilavatthu and Devadaha one had to pass a park, known as, theLumbiniGardens, situated in modernNepal. Wishing to enjoy the cool shade of the park and to relax a while before continuing the journey, the party which accompanied queen Maha Maya entered the gardens. Then unexpectedly her time was full and seeking shelter under the low hanging branches of some sal trees, she brought forth a son.

Many years later, the great Indian emperor Asoka had a pillar erected on the very spot. On the pillar was carved an inscription commemorating the event and identifying the place of birth. This column was discovered by Dr. Fuhrer on the 1st of Dec. 1926. Its size is about nine feet above the ground, though the upper part is broken off. It is still standing on the original spot, thus proving beyond doubt the truth of this historical birth. For the child which was born here was not to live in this world as so many other princes who lived and died, and whose very names we have forgotten. This child when grown up would be a light to the whole world even to this day.

 After having given birth to here child, queen Maha Maya and her party did not travel on to Devadaha but returned to Kapilavatthu, where the happy news had spread already through the town and where all were received with great rejoicings.


Near the town was living an old hermit who was highly respected by all, even by the king. This hermit, –Asita was his name, – was informed of the royal birth, and he too had come to the palace to see the little prince. The king had such a high regard for Asita, the hermit, that he wished to show his respect even when introducing him to the royal baby. And thus he presented the child with its head turned towards the hermit. But Asita did not allow this to be done. Not the child, he said, but he had to bow his head. And touching the little feet of the child with his forehead, he indicated its great future. While he was thus lost in thought for a moment, he became sad and began to weep. King Suddhodana, fearing that the sage saw some evil omen lurking over the child’s future, asked whether something wrong would befall his son. But Asita the hermit assured the king that no evil would come to the child. The reason of his sorrow was, he said, that he himself, being an old man already, would not live to see the future greatness of the new-born prince.

 On the fifth day after the birth of queen Maha Maya’s son, some learned men were called to cast the horoscope, to read the lines in the palms of his hands and on the soles of his feet, to explain other marks on the body and to fix his name, they found in all thirty-two characteristic marks, all indicating his future greatness, but their opinion was divided as to the nature of that greatness. Most thought that he would become a great ruler or wise teacher. Only one excluded the possibility of a worldly career and said the prince would certainly become a great religious reformer. Finally the name was chosen, and henceforth he was called prince Siddhattha, which name means “successful in the accomplishment of his task”. To this name is usually added the name of Gotama, which was the name of the royal family and clan.

Queen Maha Maya had never been well since she had given birth to her child and on the seventh day after the happy events at Lumbini she died, leaving the care for the education of her son, prince Siddhattha, to her younger sister Mahapajapati, who thus became the fostermother of the future Buddha.

 All this happened in the year 623 before the birth of Christ according to the traditional way of counting, but from historical research some doubts have arisen about this calculation, which is based on a fundamental date, a treaty of Chandragupta with the Greek Seleucus Nicator, which date however is not quite certain. Even the indication of years before or after Christ is not to be fixed with historical certainty, as there is probably a discrepancy of several years in the date of his birth. Recent historians place the birth of prince Siddhattha about the year 563 B.C.


When prince Siddhattha was old enough to walk about, he was allowed on a certain day to accompany his father, King Suddhodana, who had to perform the ceremonial ploughing, an equivalent to our modern cutting of the first sod. As the ceremony with the subsequent rejoicings would last a considerable time, the young prince was placed in the shadow of a rose-apple tree. There in the cool shade, away from the noisy crowd of merrymakers, without sensual desires and without evil ideas, he attained the first stage of mental absorption (jhāna), a state of happiness arising from seclusion and freedom from sensuous and worldly ideas, leaving his heart serene, pure and imperturbable. It was the remembrance of this fact, which many years later made him give up his austerities.

 This aloofness seems to have been characteristic in the young prince, so much so that his father, king Suddhodana, thought it necessary to provide him special care, for his health was excessively delicate, — and with extraordinary luxury to distract his mind from his frequent pensive moods. The three seasons of the year, winter, summer and rain-season were spent in different places, where amusements were provided according the time of the year. But his delicacy was such that neighboring chiefs were reluctant to send their daughters, till prince Siddhattha proved in public performance not only his fitness to handle the bow, but even his superiority over all his rivals in the contest.

 At the age of sixteen he was married to princess Yasodhara, a daughter of his mother’s brother Suppabuddha and his father’s sister Pamita. They were of exactly the same age, having been born on the same day. Little is recorded about her life at home and private happiness, but the description of the luxury in which they lived, of the care wherewith the king had surrounded them, makes one feel that nothing could be lacking in the completion of their bliss.

 Yet, prince Siddhattha was not satisfied. He soon realized that even pleasures produce disgust when prolonged too much. To escape from the monotony of the pleasures of his palaces, to learn about the conditions of living of other human beings, a great desire arose in him to come in contact with the world. And so, one day he went forth, being driven in his chariot through the decorated town by his faithful charioteer Channa. Notwithstanding all precautions to the contrary, his eyes met with some sights which left a deep impression on his mind. An old man, an ill man, a corpse taught him the lessons, which had been kept hidden from him, that all are subject to old age, decay and death. The sight of a recluse whose peace of mind seemed to have raised him above the sorrows of the world, made the prince wonder, whether not there would lie the solution of life’s problem, the mystery of sorrow and conflict.


While the plan ripened in his mind to leave his luxury and to experience poverty, privation and misery, so as to understand them better and to find a solution of the difficulties of others, on a certain day the message was brought to him that the princess, his wife, had given birth to a son. Realizing that this child would be a fetter which would bind him tightly to the home-life, he named him Rahula, which means fetter. Seeing that he would not be able even to start on his self-imposed mission, if he would let this new affection take roots in his heart, he left palace and possessions, father, wife and child that very night. Channa, his charioteer, let him out on his horse Kanthaka. Then the prince assumed the garb of an ascetic, returning his ornaments with Channa.

 Having thus retired from the world he began the usual ascetic’s life. He went on foot and begged his food from house to house in the town Rajagaha. He learned the art of yogi and mind concentration from ascetic teachers as Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta. They were to teach him mind-concentration up to the third and fourth stage of formless ecstasy (arūpa-jhāna) but not beyond. And so he left them dissatisfied.

 With five companions, Kondanna, Bhaddiya, Vappa, Mahanama and Assaji, he began that life of austerity, the mere reading of which makes one shudder. The satisfaction of all the wishes had not brought the solution of life’s problem; it had only accentuated it. Therefore, he would set out on the opposite route: the denial of all demands of the body. For, “where the senses are present, where sense-objects are present, where consciousness is present, there is Mara and the play of Mara.” The body felt the need of company: he sought the loneliness of the woods. The body felt the need of food: he starved himself till utter weakness made him faint. The body felt the need of being cared for: he neglected not only his health, but with the severest ascetic practices he reduced his body systematically to a wreck. The mind felt the need of wandering: he concentrated it without release on the problem he was intent to solve.

 Thus he lived and spent his young manhood in extreme asceticism for full six years. Physical exhaustion to the point of a complete breakdown made it impossible for the mind to apply its keenness to psychological truths. Finally he had to admit: “Never did these dire austerities bring me to the ennobling gifts of superhuman knowledge and insight, because none lead to that noble understanding which, when won, leads on to deliverance and guides him who lives up to it onward to the utter extinction of all ill” (Majjh. N. 12). Coming to the decision that austerities are not the way to enlightenment, he again resorted to the taking of normal food, much to the disappointment of his five companions, who deserted him.


Once the bodhisatta had regained his strength and was able once more to concentrate his mind on the problem of conflict, he went to Uruvela in the district of Magadha, close to the town which is now known asGaya. There in a pleasant forest grove he strove with spiritual exertion, recalling to his mind the pleasant experience he had as a child under the rose-apple tree during the royal ploughing festival. While he was thus enjoying again that peace of mind, he was observed by a pious lady, named Sujata, and her servant, who in their excitement mistook him for a deity to whom they made their offering of milk-rice, seated at the foot of a banyan tree. “May your wishes prosper like mine own,” she whispered and withdrew.

 After having taken his bath in the river nearby, he partook of the food and threw the bowl into the water which was caught in a counter-current, went thus a little up-stream and sank in the whirlpool. Taking this as a good omen, he sat himself in the evening at the foot of a fig-tree with the strong determination: “Let my skin, sinews and bones shrivel and wither, let my flesh and blood dry up, rather than from this seat I will stir until I have attained that supreme and absolute insight.” But Mara, the personification of lust in the senses, tempted him to abandon the struggle. His mind must have been tortured with the thoughts of doubt and discouragement, while the bodily senses clamoured for satisfaction with lust, indolence and pride. All these depravities, however, were put to shame by the remembrance of the ten perfections (pāramī) he had practiced so faithfully.

 Thus, with mind stilled, purified, cleansed, spotless, with the defilements gone, supple, dexterous, firm and undisturbed, he directed his mind to the passing away and rebirth of beings, to the destruction of mental corruptions. Thus he realized the truth of universal suffering, the truth of craving being the cause of conflict, the truth of the cessation of sorrow through the overcoming of craving, the truth of the way that leads to the overcoming of craving and conflict. In the world of luxury he had tried to satisfy the ‘self’ and thus attain freedom from desire. When he failed there, he tried to kill that ‘self’ by mortification. But when he failed again, he began to understand that the world of desire and self is only in the mind and is thus entirely subjective. Thus, by the realization of non-self (anatta), by avoiding both extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification, he found the middle path (majjhima patipadā) and the peace of heart and mind he had been looking for so long.

 Since that Wesak full-moon night prince Siddhattha Gotama is called the Buddha, which means the Awakened One, the Enlightened One. That night, at the foot of the bodhi-tree he realized the truth, not through inspiration or revelation, but by his own understanding and insight, through himself and in himself, the real nature of all things as impermanent, sorrow-fraught and soulless (anic a, dukkha, anattā). In that realization all selfishness and craving had been conquered, and hence all rebirth and conflict brought to an end. “Architect, I see thee! Never a house shalt thou build again. … Achieved is the cessation of craving’s thirst” (Dhammapada v.I54).


 Seven weeks the Buddha spent under and near the Bodhi- tree, now absorbed in meditation and enjoying the bliss of emancipation, then formulating the law of dependent origination (paticca-samuppada), tracing the fact of conflict in life to ignorance of the nature of self; sometimes answering questions of passers by, informing a brahman that only he who is free from lust and hate and pride, who is pure, restrained and self – controlled is a true brahman, at other times receiving the pious gifts of simple people. But even in this all-pervading peace there arose in his mind an indecisive thought: This truth which he now realized after so much struggle, which was certainly sublime but also abstruse, would it serve any purpose to propose that teaching to people in the world who were solely devoted to the attachments and pleasures of the senses? But then also came the thought to him that there would be beings whose sight was only slightly blurred and covered with some dust of worldliness, who would go to ruin if they were not taught the truth, and who might become knowers of the truth on hearing it. His compassionate heart gave him the lead, and he decided to spend the rest of his life in the service of the propagation of his newly found doctrine.

 Thinking first of his erstwhile teachers Alara and Uddaka, he found out that they had deceased already. And thus he set out for Benares to meet his five companions in the ascetic life. Though they had discarded him as one unfaithful to their austere practices, yet the peace of mind visible on his countenance and the conviction of his utterances made them listen with respect. There in the Deer Park at Isipatana in Sarnath near Benares the Buddha delivered his first discourse and set thus arolling the Wheel of Truth (Dhamma-cakkappavattana Sutta). There he spoke to them about the two extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification which are both useless and leading to no good. There he taught them the middle path which is the Noble Eightfold Path (ariya atthangika magga) of right action with mind control, the way he had found after the realization of sorrow, its cause and its cessation. One of those five then realized for himself that whatsoever is of the nature of arising that is also subject to cessation. Thereby he entered the stream (sotapanni) which finally leads to Nibbana and he was henceforth known as Koudanna who attained insight: Annakondanna. The second discourse of the Master which brought the full enlightenment of arahantship to all his five followers was on the most essential characteristic of his teaching, the doctrine of soullessness (anatta). In the Anatta-lakkhana Sutta all views about a permanent soul or self or substance are utterly discarded, and the analysis of mind and matter (nama-rupa) shows but the rolling on of ever-changing and passing phenomena. It is the necessary corollary of the Buddha’s teaching of impermanence (anicca), which, if misunderstood, lead to conflict (dukkha), but if rightly grasped leads to Nibbana, the deliverance of the delusion of self.


The Order of monks (Sangha) was thus established. The first layman to take his refuge in the Triple Gem (Buddha-Dhamma-Sangha) was Yasa who disgusted with the fleeting pleasures of the world sought ordination under the Buddha. He in his turn persuaded some of his friends, first four, later fifty more, to follow his example. They all renounced the world and after having been instructed by the Buddha for soma time, they all became arahants. Then the Buddha sent his sixty disciples to preach the newly realized truth, instructing them not to go with two in the same directions. They made many converts and out of those converts so many desired to renounce the world that the Buddha allowed his monks to admit them into the Order themselves by making them recite the three fold refuge. Young men playing games together with their wives were converted and ordained on the spot. Many ascetics with their disciples were convinced of the futility of their penances and joined the Order forthwith. King Bimbisara who ruled at Rajagaha was so pleased with the new doctrine and the monks, that he donated to the Buddha and the Order a bamboo-grove (Veluvana) to establish there a residence. It was here within the first year after the enlightenment that the two friends Upatissa and Kolita, attracted by the recollected deportment of the arahant Assaji, were won over to the new teaching and became the two chief disciples of the Buddha, Sariputta and Maha Moggallana. Just as the Buddha by founding the kingdom of righteousness became the king of the truth (Dhammaraja), so his chief disciple Sariputta became the general of the truth (Dhammasenapati). On several occasions he preached on instruction and in the presence of the Buddha, who praised him as chief among those endowed with insight. Maha Moggallana was eminent in psychic powers (iddhi) and both in their diverse ways contributed much to the spreading of the doctrine.

 As the Buddha’s teaching is a doctrine of renunciation, the number of monks was growing steadily, so that the people of Magadha became alarmed and even averse for some time, accusing the Buddha of bringing the country to ruin through the breaking up of families, producing childlessness and widowhood.

 Having spent the winter months in Rajagaha, the Buddha received there the invitation of his father, king Suddhodana to return to his town Kapilavatthu. This he did and took lodging with his monks in the banyan park. Not having received an invitation from anyone to partake of the next day’s noon-meal, they all went begging for their food from house to house. When the king came to hear of it that his own son was thus begging in his own town, he became perturbed in his mind; but, when the Buddha explained that this was the custom to throw off all sloth in the practice of the Dhamma, king Suddhoodana became a stream -enterer (Sotapanna). Princess Yasoodhara had not come forward to receive her Lord, but the Buddha condescended to go with his chief disciples to her apartments, where he allowed her to do reverence according to her desire. A later Sanskrit work, the Mahavastu, says that when she heard that the Buddha lived on one meal a day, slept on a low couch, did not use any ornaments, but dressed in a yellow robe, she did likewise. And now when the Buddha came to her, she clasped his ankles, touched his feet with her forehead and did reverence according to her desire. And the Buddha did not blame her.

 It was during that same visit to Kapilavatthu that the wedding feast was arranged for prince Nanda, the son of Mahapajapati, the Buddha’s foster mother. The Buddha came to the palace for alms, gave the bowl to prince Nanda and left immediately. Prince Nanda, not knowing what to do with the bowl, followed the Buddha who returned to the banyan park. Out of respect and reverence prince Nanda did not dare to refuse when the Buddha asked him whether he did not wish to renounce the world. No wonder that shortly after he was ordained, he had great desires to go back home again. But the Buddha spoke to him about a heavenly reward in a life to come so vividly that Nanda decided to persevere. Only when other monks scoffed at him for leading the holy life like a hireling for the sake of remuneration, his mind took a different attitude and he attained the highest perfection.

 Thus, under the royal protection of king Suddhodana and king Bimbisara the Order grew rapidly and the new teaching spread. Even Rahula, the Buddha’s son, was ordained, for that was the real inheritance the Buddha could give him after having renounced all worldly wealth.


It was especially during the first twenty years after his enlightenment that the Buddha spent the most active part of his life, from 35 to 55 years of age, by preaching and travelling as far west as Kosambi. When he was 40 years old, king Suddhodana, his father, died, after which Mahapajapati decided to renounce the world. But the Buddha repeatedly refused to give permission. Only on the intervention of his disciple and personal attendant Ananda the Buddha consented while he was staying at Vesali if Mahapajapati would take upon herself eight strict additional rules. She consented eagerly and many noble ladies renounced the world with her.

 In the tenth year after his enlightenment we hear of a quarrel among the monks, which even the Buddha was not able to settle. Thus he left them to themselves for three months which he spent in solitude in the Parileyya forest. When at the end of three months the quarrel-some monks found that the support of the lay people was waning, they reconciled and obtained the Buddha’s pardon.

 The Buddha’s compassion showed itself in many different ways. A poor farmer of Alavi had lost his ox and in searching for it he came late for the discourse to be delivered by the Buddha. But the Master had waited for him, and when the man finally arrived, the Buddha wanted him first to be served with some food so that his mind would be tranquil. A weaver’s daughter had for three years practiced the Buddha’s advice to meditate on death. When after that period the Buddha came again to that village she was prevented from going on time, owing to pressing work. But again the Buddha had waited, and on further instruction she entered the path of holiness (sotāpanna). On her way home she was killed by accident. On another occasion, he washed with his own hands the wounds of a monk called Putigata Tissa, who was neglected by his brethren because of his loathsome disease. Refreshed in body, calmed in mind, he attained arahantship and died.

 Compassion of a. higher kind the Buddha showed with Kisa Gotami, who came to him to have her dead child cured. By sending her to fetch some mustard seed from a house where none had died, — a thing which she found impossible, — she understood the universality of sorrow, became a stream-enterer and a nun, and attained later arahantship. The Buddha had not restored the child to life, but he had cured the mother from the cause of all sorrow and death, i.e. from craving.

 During the last 25 years of his life, from 55 to 80, the Buddha spent most of his time in Savatthi in the residence built by Anathapindika in the grove of prince Jeta (Jetavanarama), where the good Ananda was his personal attendant. In Savatthi was also residing the wealthy lady Visakha who built a monastery in the Eastern Park (Pubbarama) and bestowed her generous gifts on the Buddha and his monks, who considered her as their mother.


Knowing that he would not live longer than three months, the Buddha made Ananda gather the monks at Vesali to whom he gave a final discourse before leaving them. Travelling on through different villages they reached Pava, where Cunda, the smith, provided them with food in his mango-grove. The meal was served with sukara-maddava which means ‘pig’s soft food’, but it is not clear whether it was food made of pig’s flesh, or some sort of truffles, which is the food eaten by pigs. Anyhow, it made the Master suffer greatly from dysentery with evacuation of blood (lohita-pakkandika). But still he continued his journey to Kusinara, on the way taking a river-bath. Reaching a grove of sal-trees near the town, the Buddha laid down on his right side with his head to the north. Ananda, realizing that he was only a learner, while his Master was passing away, began to weep, but the Buddha consoled him, pointing out the impermanence of all things, and giving him the doctrine as his teacher. Subhadda came to settle some doubts and was converted by the Buddha, the last in his long missionary career.

Finally, the Buddha invited the monks to ask anything if they had some doubts to clear; but all remained silent as even the youngest monk present there had entered the stream of holiness. After this the Buddha spoke his last words: “Well then O monks, I exhort you; component things are subject to decay. Strive on with earnestness” (handa dani bhikkhave āmantayāmi vo; vaya-dhammā sankhārā. Appamādena sampadetha), Then, for a moment he attained to cessation of perception and feeling (saññā-vedayita nirodha). But returning from his trance to normal consciousness, he passed finally away.

By Henri van Zeyst

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