“The earth is my witness.”
He was emaciated. By his own account, when he touched his abdomen, he felt his spine. He had spent the previous several years determinedly pursuing extreme ascetic practices in the hope of realizing the ultimate truth of human existence. He ate only a grain of rice a day in the hope of eradicating all desire from his body.
Then he had a change of heart. This asceticism was not working. A passing girl offered him some rice, which he gratefully accepted. Seeing him eating, several of his fellow ascetics abandoned him in disgust. He resolved at that moment to sit down under a nearby tree and not move until he had realized ultimate truth. His resolve unleashed the forces of Mara, or the myriad distractions of the untamed mind, determined to obstruct him. His own mind set upon him with visions both terrifying and alluring, irresistibly beautiful and unspeakably hideous. But he kept his seat. The forces of Mara raged on until they finally exhausted themselves, but Mara had one last trick up his sleeve. “What right do you have to realize this wisdom? Who are you to presume to such achievement?” Mara asked contemptuously. The man reached down and touched the ground. “The earth is my witness,” he replied. The earth shook, thunder clapped, and Mara fled.
The man fell into deep meditation. He realized that birth brings human suffering in its train inevitably as the result of ignorance, which brought on volition, consciousness, mind-body, sensual contact, and desire, culminating in cravings, or attachment to sense pleasure. Finally, as dawn neared, he saw the truth of human existence: suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering, and the path to the end of suffering.
He was awake. He was the Buddha.
The Historical Buddha
“I have entered homelessness because I cannot accept the tyranny of sickness, old age, and death. These are enemies I yearn to conquer. Against them your armies are powerless.”
The Buddha, Sherab Chodzin Kohn, A Life of the Buddha,
Shakyamuni Buddha, or Son of the Shakya Clan, was born in the area that is now northern India or southern Nepal so long ago that we cannot be certain of his dates of birth or death. Perhaps inevitably, various legends have grown up around the historical Buddha, some of which strike modern sensibilities as completely unbelievable. Because I think the Buddha’s teachings stand well on their own and do not benefit from such embellishment, I will stick to the most historically verifiable and plausible version of his life story. Part of the point of Buddhism is precisely that anyone can replicate the Buddha’s achievement, so it seems counterproductive to attribute to him any supernatural characteristics or accomplishments.
We can be sure that the historical Buddha, or Shakyamuni, existed. In 239 BCE the Indian King Asoka, a convert to Buddhism, had erected at Lumbini Park a pillar inscribed with the words “Here was the Enlightened One born.” Currently the best estimate for his dates are 563 to 483 BCE. The concept of reincarnation was widely accepted in the culture Shakyamuni was born into. It is not surprising that Buddhism adopted the idea. Buddhists not being particularly interested in dogma, whether any individual Buddhist believes in reincarnation or not is mostly up to the individual. Brad Warner, a prominent Zen Buddhist author, in his book, Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies, and the Truth about Reality explains that Soto Zen masters are at best, um, agnostic on the question of reincarnation. The Tibetan (more on these schools of Buddhism later in the book) master Sogyal Rinpoche (“Rinpoche” is an honorific, meaning “beloved teacher”) writes in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying about an incident in which he saw his main teacher bring a recently deceased person back to life briefly in order to help him move further along the path to complete enlightenment in his next lifetime. Go with whatever makes most sense to you. As we will see, Buddhists do believe in karma, which kind of boils down to the principle that, if you behave yourself, you will be happier in the long run, but more on that later. Many believe that the effects of karma carry over from one lifetime to another.
The standard stories of Shakyamuni’s life do tend to describe it as the last lifetime of the Buddha. As part of his enlightenment, or awakening, the Buddha did claim to have seen all of his previous incarnations, and specific stories exist about earlier lifetimes the Buddha lived before his birth as Shakyamuni.
Shakyamuni’s father was a king. At the time of his birth, a travelling seer predicted that he would become either a great king, or a great spiritual leader. His father strongly preferred the great king option and so set about arranging Shakyamuni’s life and surroundings such that he had as little knowledge of human life as possible. He had three palaces, one for summer, one for winter, and one for the rainy season. His attendants consisted of only the most beautiful girls in the area. His father ordered the removal of dying flowers from his gardens and their replacement with new, fresh flowers. When he achieved an appropriate age, he married a beautiful woman. Soon after, she gave birth to a son. His father really pulled out all the stops, as only a king can do, to make Shakyamuni’s life as easy and untroubled as possible.
But Shakyamuni was no fool and had begun by this time to have his doubts about the apparently blissful world he lived in. Despite his father’s best efforts, one day, while riding to a favorite park, Shakyamuni happened to see an old man. He asked his charioteer what that man’s situation was. The charioteer explained that the man was very old. Shakyamuni, again, was no fool, and it suddenly hit him that he would, if he was lucky, someday be old as well.
Soon after, during another outing, Shakyamuni saw a man who suffered some dread disease. Part of his body was bloated and part was covered with sores. He walked only with great difficulty and with the help of another person. Shakyamuni again asked his charioteer, what’s up with that? The charioteer explained that the man was ill, and that sickness was a common experience among humans. Again, Shakyamuni realized that he would not be immune to disease throughout his life.
On a third outing, Shakyamuni passed a funeral procession with the corpse visible on the bier. He asked the charioteer about that person. The charioteer explained that the person was dead. Again, Shakyamuni realized he would eventually die. Shakyamuni was learning late in life that all humans are subject to old age, sickness, and death.
Finally, on yet another outing, they saw a wandering mendicant who had a serene look about him that was striking, even from a distance. Shakyamuni asked about that man. The charioteer replied that he was a holy man who had renounced all worldly concerns to focus on ultimate truth.
All of this information about the world, the existence of old age, sickness, and death left Shakyamuni troubled. His father recognized the signs of puzzlement in his son and sent him to the countryside as a distraction. There he visited a farm that belonged to his father. But the sight of sweating, half naked workers and straining, slavering farm animals revolted him. Someone informed him that the workers were slaves to his father. He immediately ordered the emancipation of all of the slaves and the release of all of the animals. Not the acts of a future king.
At this time, Shakyamuni was twenty-nine years old and his wife was about to give birth. But his recent experiences started him to wonder, why, if he, too, was subject to old age, sickness, and death, did he want a life that would bring those things to him inevitably? Wouldn’t he do better to try to find the means to escape that fate, to realize the deathless, the unconditioned, a state beyond old age, sickness, and death? While contemplating these things, he awoke early one morning after a major party and looked around at the revelers, still sleeping, half-naked bodies flung about the room, drooling in their sleep, and wondered what was the point of all of this pleasure that was certain to disappear eventually? Every individual party had to end, and eventually, whether because of old age, sickness, or death, his partying days would end permanently. No number of parties would cure any sickness, or prevent old age and death. What was the point?
Soon after, Shakyamuni resolved to quit his life of ease and comfort and become a wandering mendicant, in search of ultimate truth. Thus began his journey to Buddhahood. He learned to beg for food, as was the custom for wandering mendicants of the day. Most people considered it a spiritually beneficial act to give some food to itinerant spiritual seekers, so living off of donations was easier then than it would be now, except that Shakyamuni had been raised a prince, so eating whatever anyone happened to throw into his bowl took some getting used to. But he adjusted to the reality of the new life he had chosen. He was determined.
Shakyamuni took up residence in a cave for a while, but he realized that he needed to find a teacher who would help him find what he sought. He heard of a famous teacher in the vicinity, so he went to the place where that teacher lived and asked to become a student. The teacher agreed to take him on, and Shakyamuni quickly mastered that teacher’s doctrine and practice. He proved to be such an adept student that the teacher offered to give him station as the teacher’s equal and lead the community, but Shakyamuni declined. He saw value in what the teacher taught him, but he recognized that it did not take practitioners to ultimate understanding, so he pressed on in his search.
He soon found a second teacher and, as before, quickly mastered the doctrine and practice of the new teacher, which took him one step beyond the previous teacher, but still not all the way, so again, Shakyamuni declined the offer to become a senior teacher in that school and kept up his search instead.
So began six years of extreme asceticism during which Shakyamuni nearly starved himself and tried extreme practices of holding his breath and attempting to subdue his mind through sheer mental force, enduring great pains in the process, but never achieving his goal. The extreme asceticism grew out of the belief, common at the time, that all pleasure was the sources of the trap that kept humans chained to the cycle of death and rebirth, such that only by suffering the most extreme forms of pain and deprivation could one achieve liberation.
One day, however, Shakyamuni recalled a moment in his childhood when he had spontaneously entered into meditation while sitting in his father’s field. He was yet innocent of sensual pleasures he would learn of later in life, yet he had found the state of meditation enormously pleasurable because of the meditation itself and the seclusion of the moment.
Recalling that innocent pleasure from his new perspective as an adult, with the continuing frustration of unavailing asceticism, he realized that this was the path to the complete enlightenment he sought. He had experienced the extremes of endless luxury and unremitting deprivation, and neither had worked. Now he decided to try the middle way. We still refer to Buddhism as the Middle Way.
He was emaciated. A passing girl offered him some rice, which he gratefully accepted. He resolved at that moment to sit down under a nearby tree and not move until he had realized ultimate truth. By the next dawn, he had achieved complete enlightenment.
He was the Buddha. He was awake.