known date in the history of India is the death of the one called Buddha in 483
BC, and even that date is somewhat controversial. Buddha means "one who is
intuitive, awakened, or enlightened." The famous historical person known
as Buddha was also called the Tathagata, which means "the one who has come
thus," and Shakyamuni, which means "the sage of the Shakya tribe."
He is said to have lived eighty years, and thus was probably born in 563 BC.
His father Suddhodana of the Gautama clan was elected king of the Shakya tribe by its five hundred families just south of the Himalaya mountains in the realm of influence of the powerful Kosala monarchy. The son was born in the Lumbini garden and named Siddartha, which means "he who has accomplished his aim." Many myths and legends surround the birth of Siddartha, but most of these seem to have been developed centuries later in the Jatakas. A famous seer named Asita predicted that the child would either become a great king or, if he left home, a great teacher. His mother Maya died seven days after giving birth, and her younger sister Mahapajapati, who was also married to Suddhodana, became his foster mother.
By all accounts Siddartha was raised amid the finest luxuries of the time. Later he said that three palaces had been built for him - one for hot weather, one for cold, and one for the rainy season. His clothes were of the finest silk. When he walked on the grounds, someone held a white umbrella over his head. Even the servants were well fed, and music was played only by beautiful women.
Having demonstrated his skill in archery, Siddartha chose Yasodhara to be his wife, and they were married when he was about sixteen years old. For the next thirteen years he continued to live in luxury with his wife and concubines. Then about the time of the birth of his son Rahula, the famous four signs occurred. According to legend, his father had tried to prevent his princely son from experiencing any suffering or sorrow or religious contact so that he would become a king rather than a spiritual teacher.
However, one day while traveling outside the palace gates, Siddartha happened to come across an old man for the first time in his life. He was appalled at the wrinkles and decrepitude. On another occasion he happened to observe a sick person and learned about the loathsome nature of disease. The third sign came when he witnessed a funeral procession and was able to see the lifeless corpse that was being carried. The suddenness of these three experiences set him thinking about the transitoriness of human life. Finally he came upon a religious ascetic, who had renounced the world to seek enlightenment, a common occupation for Kshatriyas like himself as well as for Brahmins.
With the birth of his son he had fulfilled his obligation to continue his family line and decided that he too must renounce his kingdom and seek a way out of the human miseries of old age, sickness, and death. So he took off his silk garments and put on the coarse clothes of an ascetic and went south to Magadha seeking enlightenment.
While begging for his food in Rajagriha, the capital city of Magadha, his princely demeanor was observed by King Bimbisara (Shrenika). The king went to see Siddartha to find out who he was and what he was doing. Siddartha told him that he was purifying himself in order to achieve nirvana, and he promised to teach the king after he attained enlightenment.
Like the sages of the Upanishads, Siddartha practiced yoga and meditation. At Vaishali to learn meditative concentration he studied with Alara Kalama, who was said to have had hundreds of disciples. Siddartha soon learned how to reach the formless world, but still having mental anxieties he decided not to become a disciple of Alara Kalama. Nor did he become a disciple of his second teacher, Uddaka Ramaputra, after he attained the higher state of consciousness beyond thought and non-thought.
Still not satisfied, Siddartha decided to practice the path of extreme austerities, and in this quest he was joined by the sage Kaundinya and four others. He pressed his tongue against his palate to try to restrain his mind until the perspiration poured from his armpits. He restrained his breath and heard the violent sounds of wind in his ears and head. He went into trances, and some thought he was dead. He fasted for long periods of time and then decided to try limiting his food to the juice of beans and peas. As his flesh shrank, the bones almost stuck out of his skin so that he could touch his spine from the front; after sitting on the ground his imprint looked like a camel's footprint.
For six years Siddartha practiced such austerities, but instead of achieving superhuman knowledge and wisdom he only seemed to get weaker and weaker. Finally he thought that there might be a better way to attain enlightenment. He remembered how, while his father was working, he would sit in the shade of an apple tree free of sensual desires. Perhaps in concentrating his mind without evil ideas and sensual desires he should not be afraid of a happy state of mind. However, to gain the strength he felt he needed for this concentration he decided to start eating again. When he gave up practicing the extreme austerities, the five mendicants who were with him became disillusioned and left him, saying that Gautama lives in abundance and has given up striving.
Siddartha reasoned that a life of penance and pain was no better than a life of luxury and pleasure, because if penance on Earth is religion, then the heavenly reward for penance must be irreligion. If merit comes from purity of food, then deer should have the most merit. Those who practice asceticism without calming their passions are like a man trying to kindle fire by rubbing a stick on green wood in water, but those who have no desires or worldly attachments are like a man using a dry stick that ignites.
Regaining his strength from normal eating of the food he begged, Siddartha once again practiced meditation. Now he easily attained the first stage of joy and pleasure, then a joyful trance arising from concentration with serenity and the mind fixed on one point without reasoning and investigation. The third stage produced equanimity to joy and aversion in a mindful, happy state. In the fourth stage pleasure and pain were left behind in a mindful purity. With his mind thus concentrated and cleansed he directed it to the remembrance of former existences from previous births, also perceiving cycles of evolution and dissolution of the universe.
Then he directed his mind to the passing away and rebirth of beings, perceiving how the karma of evil actions, words, and thoughts leads to rebirth in miserable conditions and suffering in hell; but those beings leading good lives are reborn in a happy state in a heavenly world. Finally directing his mind to the means of ultimate release Siddartha realized that there is pain, a cause of pain, the cessation of pain, and a way that leads to that cessation of pain. Thus his mind was emancipated from sensual desires, the desire for existence, and ignorance.
According to legend this whole process occurred in one night after he had decided to sit under a tree until he became enlightened or died. It was also said that he was tested by Mara, the tempter, but Siddartha could not be swayed from his purpose. Thus darkness and ignorance were dispelled by the light as Siddartha Gautama became enlightened and was henceforth known as the Buddha.
Having gained this doctrine, the Buddha thought how difficult it would be for humanity to understood because of their attachments and lust. Trying to teach it to them would be vexation for him. However, the god Brahma asked him to teach the doctrine, because some people, who were not too impure, were falling away from not hearing the teachings. Then the Buddha in pity for beings surveyed their conditions and saw some of little impurity whom he could teach. At first he thought of his former teachers Alara Kalama and Uddaka, but in his clairvoyant awareness he realized that both of them had just died in the last few days. Then he decided to teach the five mendicants who had been with him in their striving. Perceiving that they were in the deer park at Benares, he decided to go there.
Along the way he met an Ajivika ascetic named Upaka, who when told of the Buddha's enlightenment, merely said that he hoped that it was so and went his way. When the five mendicants saw Siddartha Gautama, they thought they would not rise in respect but would offer him a seat. However, as the Buddha arrived, they spontaneously greeted him as a friend. They still criticized him for living in abundance, but the Buddha explained that he does not live in abundance. He spoke to them as one enlightened, and they had to agree that he never had spoken to them in that manner before. While he admonished two of them, the other three went off to collect alms; then he spoke with those three while the other two went for alms. In this way all five soon attained insight and the supreme peace.
In this deer park at Benares the Buddha gave his first sermon in which he explained that the two extremes are not to be practiced by the one who is enlightened - what is joined with the passions and luxury which is low, vulgar, common, ignoble, and useless, nor what is joined with self-torture which is painful, ignoble, and useless too. Avoiding these two extremes the enlightened follow the middle path which produces insight and knowledge and leads to peace, wisdom, enlightenment, and nirvana. Buddha then expounded the four noble (aryan) truths of his doctrine.
Now this, monks, is the noble truth of pain:
birth is painful; old age is painful;
sickness is painful; death is painful;
sorrow, lamentation, dejection, and despair are painful.
Contact with unpleasant things is painful;
not getting what one wishes is painful.
In short the five groups of grasping are painful.
monks, is the noble truth of the cause of pain:
the craving, which leads to rebirth,
combined with pleasure and lust,
finding pleasure here and there,
namely the craving for passion,
the craving for existence,
and the craving for non-existence.
Now this, monks,
is the noble truth
of the cessation of pain:
the cessation without a remainder of craving,
the abandonment, forsaking, release, and non-attachment.
this, monks, is the noble truth
of the way that leads to the cessation of pain:
this is the noble eightfold way, namely,
correct understanding, correct intention,
correct speech, correct action, correct livelihood,
correct attention, correct concentration,
and correct meditation.1
The Buddha declared that Kaundinya had understood the doctrine, and he welcomed him as the first monk in the community by saying, "Come, monk, well proclaimed is the doctrine; lead a religious life for making a complete end of pain."2 After further instruction the other four mendicants were also admitted into the community (sangha). Then the Buddha preached to the five that the body, perceptions, feelings, the mind, and even discriminating consciousness are not the self or soul. By turning away from the body, perceptions, feelings, mind, and discriminating consciousness, one becomes free from craving and emancipated. Life then becomes religious and is no longer under finite conditions.
Yasa, the son of a wealthy guildmaster, lived in luxury at Benares, and like Siddhartha he became disgusted with his palace attendants. After hearing the Buddha's doctrine he left home and became the first lay disciple in the new community. The first women to become lay disciples were Yasa's mother and former wife. They were soon followed by four friends of Yasa and then fifty more. The Buddha then suggested that the sixty disciples wander around separately to preach the doctrine so that others may be liberated from the fetters of illusion, while he went to Uruvela in Magadha.
There thirty men of royal blood had entered the forest with their 29 wives and a courtesan for the one who was not married. When the courtesan ran off with their gold, silver, and gems, they all went to search for her and found the Buddha. He asked them if it was more important to seek for that woman or for themselves. When they agreed that their selves were more important, they sat down so that the Buddha could teach them how to seek within themselves.
Shakyamuni was sitting under a banyan tree when a Brahmin named Drona approached him in awe, asking if he was a god. The Tathagata said no. The Brahmin asked if he were a kind of nature spirit (gandharva or yaksha), but again the Buddha denied it. When he asked if he were a human, he denied that too. Finally Drona asked him if he was neither divine nor non-human nor human, then what was he? The reply was that he is Buddha (awake).
Shubha, a Brahmin student, asked the Buddha why humans differed so much in birth, intelligence, health, and so on. Shakyamuni explained that beings are heirs of karma, the consequences of their actions. Evildoers may experience happiness until their deeds ripen, and the good may experience bad things until their good deeds ripen. The pure and the impure create their own destinies; no one can purify another.
Also living in this region were three Brahmin brothers of the Kashyapa family. They were ascetics with matted hair over the age of seventy and were the most respected religious leaders in Magadha with a total of about one thousand disciples. The Buddha spoke with the oldest, Uruvilva Kashyapa, but it was difficult for him to accept that such a young man could be so holy. Finally the Buddha used his mystic powers, and convinced of the Buddha's superiority Uruvilva decided to follow him. The Buddha suggested that they ask his five hundred followers what they wanted to do, and they all decided to join as well, shaving their hair and beards and throwing their ceremonial utensils into the river. The two Kashyapa brothers saw the implements in the river and eventually joined as well with their disciples.
On the way to Rajagriha the Buddha and the thousand disciples saw the volcanic mountain Gayashirsa with its glowing fire. The Buddha preached his sermon on fire - how the sensations, perceptions, thoughts, and actions are burning with the poisons of covetousness, anger, and ignorance. At the capital he preached to King Bimbisara about the triple doctrine of charity, precepts, and good works. The king declared that all five of his wishes had been fulfilled - that he might be king, that a Buddha would come to his kingdom, that he would meet him, be instructed by him, and understand the teachings. After the sermon King Bimbisara donated a bamboo grove near the capital as a site for a monastery.
Also at Rajagriha lived the agnostic Sanjaya, who also had many disciples under two named Shariputra and Maudgalyayana, who were seeking enlightenment and a better teacher. Shariputra observed Assaji (one of the first five mendicants in the community) begging and learned of the Buddha's teachings. He told Maudgalyayana, and they told the two hundred fifty disciples of Sanjaya. Even though Sanjaya tried three times to stop them from going away, they all went to find the Buddha, who greeted them with the revelation that these two would become his greatest disciples. Within two weeks of joining the community both Shariputra and Maudgalyayana had become enlightened.
In meditating Maudgalyayana had trouble with drowsiness and falling asleep. The Buddha suggested several remedies including laying down for a while to sleep before resuming meditation. The uncle of Shariputra was a skeptic like Sanjaya and told the Buddha that he could not accept any conclusive doctrine. Shakyamuni simply asked him if he recognized his own doctrine as conclusive. Caught in self-contradiction, he realized the weakness and limitation of skeptical philosophy. Then the Buddha explained the law of causation in human life.
Having heard that his son had become a Buddha, King Suddhodana sent Udayin to invite Shakyamuni to the capital at Kapilavastu. Udayin was converted to the new religion, and Shakyamuni returned to his home town. His father criticized him for begging for food when he was rich enough to feed thousands of followers. Shakyamuni replied that mendicancy was the correct custom for his line, by which he meant the line of Buddhas. Verbal discussions were not enough to win over people who had known him as a boy; so the Buddha used his mystical powers to convince them.
Siddartha's half-brother Nanda was about to be declared crown prince and married to Sundari, the most beautiful woman in the kingdom, but he decided to join the community instead. However, he could not help thinking about Sundari; so the Buddha gave him a vision of hundreds of heavenly maidens, though this was later criticized by others as a wrong motivation for seeking enlightenment. Eventually Nanda repented of this motivation and asked the Buddha to dissolve his promise of these maidens, and Nanda attained enlightenment and became an arhat (a term meaning "worthy" or "honorable" used for disciples who attained the highest level of awareness).
Siddartha's son Rahula was also admitted to the community at the age of ten, but later a rule was made that minors under twenty could not join the community without permission from their parents. Many Shakya nobles also joined the community at this time (according to legend 80,000) including Ananda, Anuruddha, Devadatta, Bhaddiya, and Kimbila. On the way to Buddha they were accompanied by their barber and slave, Upali. They sent him back to Kapilavastu with their jewels, but afraid of the Shakyas' reaction, he put them on a tree and rejoined the five aristocrats. Upali, who was of the lowest caste, was ordained first giving him seniority over the nobles he had served so that their Shakya pride might be moderated. Like Mahavira, the Buddha taught in the ordinary language of the people rather than in the aristocratic Sanskrit.
Complaints that monks wandering around during the rainy season trampled the grass and destroyed living creatures led the Buddha to adopt the custom of staying in retreat during the three months of rain. After one of these retreats, a wealthy householder from Shravasti, who became known as Anathapindada ("Giver of alms to the unprotected"), confessed to the Buddha that he enjoyed his investing and business cares. Shakyamuni suggested that he be a lay disciple and continue his work and use it as a blessing for other people. So Anathapindada invited the Buddha to spend the next rainy season at Shravasti, the chief city in Kosala, where he purchased and built the Jetavana Monastery. Later when Anathapindada was dying of a painful illness, Shariputra went and taught him the mental concentration for the avoidance of pain usually only taught to monks; Anathapindada died in peace.
The Buddha liked the Jetavana Monastery to be quiet, for he once dismissed Yashoja and five hundred monks for talking too loudly after they arrived. However, they went to another place near Vaishali and made great spiritual gains. Later when the Buddha traveled to Vaishali, he noticed that the area was illuminated. He told Ananda to invite Yashoja and the five hundred monks to the hall with the peaked roof. When they arrived, the Buddha was sitting in silent meditation; they too joined him in silent concentration. Every few hours Ananda approached the Buddha to ask him to greet these monks, but Shakyamuni remained silent and in the morning told Ananda that if he understood meditation better, he would not have kept asking him to greet the monks, who were likewise sitting in immovable concentration.
A new monk once confessed to the Buddha for having eaten meat in his almsbowl, but the Buddha forgave those who ate meat that was not prepared for them. Their ethical principle was not to harm any living creature. Yet he criticized those who hunt and kill animals for sport and warned his followers not to accept any food from such blood-stained hands.
After Shakyamuni's father died as a lay disciple, he declared that a lay disciple, whose mind is free from the poisons of lust, attachment, false views, and ignorance, is no different than anyone else who is free. Fearing a famine, the Shakya warrior chiefs agitated for a war with the Kolyas over water rights to the Rohini River. The Kolyas had built a dike to conserve water; when they refused the Shakyas' demand to dismantle it, both sides prepared for war. Just before the battle was to begin, the Buddha spoke to both sides, asking them to compare the value of earth and water to the intrinsic value of people and the human blood they were about to spill. He told a parable about a decrepit demon, who fed on anger and took over a royal throne, becoming stronger as more anger was directed at him until the true king came and calmly offered to serve the throne, which led to the diminishment and disappearance of the anger demon. In this way the war was avoided.
Krisha Gautami was stricken with grief when her only son died. Unable to find a physician who could bring him back to life, someone suggested that she go to the Buddha. He told her to get a handful of mustard seed in the city, but it must be from a house where no one has ever lost a child, spouse, parent, or friend. Eventually she came to realize how common death was and put aside her selfish attachment to her child.
Prajapati, the aunt and foster mother of Shakyamuni, asked to be admitted to the community. With Ananda acting as intermediary, the Buddha established eight conditions for the admittance of nuns into the community. Nuns had to make obeisance to all the monks, even the newest, and nuns were not allowed to criticize a monk even though monks criticized nuns. Although they were not treated equally, at least women were allowed to join the community. The sexism was also apparent when the Buddha told Ananda that the religious life would only last five hundred years instead of a thousand because women had been admitted.
A legend tells how a disciple used magical power to get a sandalwood bowl that had been tied from the top of a bamboo pole as a kind of contest. When the Buddha heard of it, he forbade those in the community to use such magical powers and had the bowl broken up and used as perfume. He suggested that his disciples only gain adherents by the miracle of instruction.
In the ninth year after the enlightenment the Buddha was at Kaushambi, and the monk Malunkyaputra complained that the Buddha never explained whether the world is eternal or temporary, finite or infinite, or whether life and the body are the same or different, or whether arhats are beyond death or not. He even threatened to leave the community if the Buddha would not answer his questions. First the Buddha asked him if he had ever promised to explain these things; he had not.
Then he told the parable of a man who was pierced by a poisoned arrow, and his relatives summoned a doctor. Suppose, he said, the physician had said that he would not remove the arrow nor treat the patient until his questions had been answered, such as who made the bow, what kind it was, all about the arrow, and so on. The man would die, and still the information would not be known. Then the Buddha told Malunkyaputra that a person would come to the end of one's life before those metaphysical questions he had asked could be answered by the Tathagata. Those questions do not tend toward edification nor lead to supreme wisdom. However, the Buddha's teaching regarding suffering, its cause, and the means of ending it is like removing the poisoned arrow.
A conflict arose in the community when a monk who refused to admit he had committed an offense was expelled. Some complained that this violated their principle that only evil deeds committed with conscious intent are morally reprehensible. However, the Buddha declared that the two greatest ways to obtain demerit are not to ask forgiveness after committing a wrong and not to forgive one who has confessed and asked for forgiveness.
A Kalama nobleman from north of Kaushambi admitted that he had doubts because various teachers expressed contradictory views. The Buddha responded that he was wise not to believe everything but to question with reason and by experience. After thorough investigation whether the teachings are good, free from faults, praised by the noble, and when practiced lead to the welfare and happiness of oneself and other beings as well, then they may be accepted and lived.
At Asyapura they found Brahmin priests sacrificing horses, sheep, goats, cows, and other animals on bloody altars decorated with images of gods. The Buddha told his followers not to be deceived but to purify their hearts and cease to kill. They should not refuse to admit they are ascetics, who enjoy robes, bowl, bed, and medicine. In their simplified lives they learn how to calm their bodies and concentrate their minds to awaken the four religious qualities of loving friendship, compassion, altruistic joy, and equanimity. The Buddha also declared that in regard to this ascetic life all the castes are equal.
A monk named Sona in the Sitavana Monastery at Rajagriha was so zealous in walking that his feet left a bloody trail. The Buddha asked him if his lute could be played well if the strings were too tight or too loose. Just so, excessive zeal may make the mind weary and one's thoughts irritable and uncertain. He suggested to Sona that gradual progress led to self-mastery and happiness rather than anxiety.
A young Brahmin named Vakula was so infatuated with the Buddha that he continually kept him in his sight. The Buddha explained that the one who sees the dharma (doctrine) sees the Buddha, but Vakula still always remained in his presence. Finally at the end of the rainy season the Buddha asked him to go away. Realizing that Vakula was climbing Vulture Peak to commit suicide, Shakyamuni went after him and called him back lest he destroy the conditions for winning great fruit.
An ambitious disciple named Purna decided to spread the doctrine to the Shronaparantakas. The Buddha, knowing that they were a dangerous people, asked him what he would do if they insulted and abused him. Purna said he would consider them good and kind for not hitting him and throwing rocks at him. But what if they hit and throw rocks? Then he would be glad they did not use clubs and swords. If they used clubs and swords, he would be glad they did not kill him; even if they kill him, they will have delivered him from his vile body. So equipped with patience and love Purna went to the Shronaparantakas and was about to be killed by a hunting archer for fun, when the hunter was so struck by how willing this person was to die that he stopped and eventually accepted the three refuges of the Buddha, the doctrine, and the community.
Another monastery at Purvarama near Rajagriha was donated by Vishakha, the daughter of a rich man. Once at this monastery the Buddha remained silent on the moon day when the preaching service and confessions by the monks took place. Finally the Buddha said to Ananda that the assembly was not wholly pure. Maudgalyayana, perceiving who the immoral person was, asked him to leave; when he refused to leave three times, he was escorted out of the hall by the arm. The Tathagata thought it strange that he should wait until he was thrown out. Then the Buddha declared that he would no longer attend these sessions, but the monks would recite the regulations themselves.
When Shakyamuni was about 55, his personal attendant at the time, Nagasamala, insisted on taking a different road than the Buddha advised and was beaten by robbers. At the Shravasti Monastery the Buddha announced that he wanted to have a permanent attendant. Shariputra volunteered, but the Buddha said his work was teaching. Maudgalyayana and others were also rejected. Ananda remained silent, but Shakyamuni asked him if he would find it a bother. Ananda said that it would not be bothersome, but he did not consider himself worthy. Then he offered to do it on the following eight conditions: that he not have to accept gifts or alms given to the Buddha nor dwell in his chamber nor accept invitations offered only to him and that he may accompany the Perfect One when the monks are invited, that he may present him to those who come from a distance, that he may have access to him at all times, and that whatever teaching he missed by absence should be repeated to him by the Perfect One's own lips. The Buddha heartily agreed, and Ananda was his personal attendant for the rest of the Buddha's life.
Shakyamuni was able to tame a dangerous robber and admitted him into the community. He also bathed and treated a monk, who was suffering from dysentery and had been neglected by the other monks because he lay in his own excrement. On another occasion he found that a leper understood the doctrine very well as he explained that whatever has a beginning must have an end.
About 491 BC when Shayamuni was 72, a schism arose in the community, because his cousin Devadatta wanted to take over as head of the community; but Buddha refused, saying that he would not even turn it over to Shariputra or Maudgalyayana much less to a vile one to be vomited like spit. Devadatta became resentful and used his magical powers to win the favor of Prince Ajatashatru, the son of King Shrenika Bimbisara. They plotted together to take over the kingdom of Magadha and the Buddhist community. Bimbisara and the Buddha were to be murdered; but since Bimbisara turned over his kingdom to his son, he was merely put in prison. There he soon died, though chronicles stated he was killed by his son.
Hired killers were converted by the Buddha, but Devadatta tried to roll a huge boulder from Vulture Peak down upon him. However, only Shakyamuni's foot was scratched. Yet spilling the blood of a Tathagata with murderous intent created terrible karma for Devadatta. When he had learned of his intent, the Buddha had already declared that Devadatta's words and actions were not to be considered as representing the community in any way. Although he had gained a few followers, these were persuaded to return to the real community after long sermons by Shariputra and Maudgalyayana when Devadatta fell asleep after his own talk. Abandoned and with his psychic powers destroyed by his evil intentions, Devadatta soon became ill and died.
King Ajatashatru, who had also listened to Mahavira, was eventually converted by the Buddha; but his previous evil intentions and actions prevented him from attaining the enlightenment he might have achieved in that life. Ajatashatru married the daughter of the Kosala king Pasenadi, and Pasenadi's son married a maiden of the resentful Shakyas who was secretly of low birth. Her son, Vidudabha, swore revenge against the Shakyas. Pasenadi killed his powerful general and his sons, replacing them with the nephew Digha Karayana. While Pasenadi was listening to the Buddha, Digha hurried off and put Vidudabha on the throne. Pasenadi tried to get help from Ajatasatru but died of exposure on the way to Rajagriha.
Surveying the world, the Buddha became aware of Vidudabha's intention to attack the Shakyas and three times was able to convince him to turn back; but on the fourth time the Shakyas' karma for poisoning the river could not be averted, and they were massacred. Enough Shakyas remained, however, to accept a portion of Shakyamuni's relics after his death. When Shakyamuni was 79, both his chief disciples, Shariputra and Maudgalyayana, died. Shariputra died in the home where he was born, but Maudgalyayana was killed by robbers to balance karma from a former life.
At the age of eighty the vitality of the Tathagata's body seemed to diminish, and he declared that he had only three months to live. Ananda missed the opportunity to plead with him to stay until the end of the eon as Buddhas could do, and Ananda was later blamed for that by the community. Finally Shakyamuni took his last meal, ordering a smith named Cunda to give him some mushrooms (literally pig's food or pork) and give the monks other food and then bury the rest of the mushrooms. Sharp sickness arose with a flow of blood and deadly pains, but the Buddha mindfully controlled them and declared that he would die in the third watch of the night. He sent word that Cunda was not to feel remorse but consider this giving of alms of the greatest merit.
Ananda asked the Buddha how he was to act toward women. The Buddha advised him not to see them; but if he saw them, not to speak to them; but if speaking, to exercise mindfulness. Then he said his burial was to be handled by the local Kshatriyas. That evening Ananda brought the local families to say goodby, and then the Buddha answered the questions of an ascetic named Subhadda. Before going through the four stages of higher awareness into nirvana, the last words of the Buddha were, "Decay is inherent in all component things. Work out your salvation with diligence."3
Having taught for forty-five years from his enlightenment to his death, the Buddha left behind a large compendium of teachings that were memorized by various of his disciples. Since writing was a rarity then in India, they were passed on through the community until they were written down several centuries later. These earliest texts are in the common Pali language and usually are dialogs between the Buddha and others. Often the Buddha emphasized that it was more important for disciples to see the dharma (doctrine) than the Buddha, because the dharma would remain and was what they needed to practice to attain enlightenment and even afterward. The third refuge for the Buddhist was in the community (sangha) of monks and nuns.
The Buddha advised his followers not to feel ill will or get angry when others spoke against them, because this might disrupt their self-mastery and prevent them from being able to judge whether the criticism was valid or not. For the same reason they should not be overly glad when the doctrine is praised.
In regard to the moral precepts, the Buddha described himself as having put away the killing of living things, holding himself aloof from the destruction of life. Having laid aside weapons, he is ashamed of roughness and full of mercy, being compassionate and kind to all creatures. He does not take what has not been given, is chaste, and speaks truth being faithful and trustworthy, not breaking his word to the world. He has put away lying and slander and does not raise quarrels. Thus does he live:
as a binder together of those who are divided,
an encourager of those who are friends,
a peacemaker, a lover of peace, impassioned for peace,
a speaker of words that make for peace.4
In describing the fruits of living as a recluse the Buddha emphasized to King Ajatasatru the importance of mindfulness toward the ethical significance of every action and word. Then having mastered the moral precepts, restrained the senses, endowed with mindfulness and self-possession, filled with content, the recluse chooses a lonely and quiet spot to meditate in order to purify the mind of lusts, the wish to injure, ill temper, sloth, worry, irritability, wavering, and doubt.
At the end of this long dialog King Ajatasatru confessed his sin in putting to death his father and asked to be a disciple of the blessed one. The Buddha accepted his confession and noted that in the tradition of the noble ones' discipline whoever sees one's fault as a fault and correctly confesses it shall attain self-restraint in the future.
The Buddha was quite a penetrating psychologist and described the psychological causality that leads to suffering in his theory of pratitya-samutpada (dependent origination). Sorrow, lamentation, misery, grief, despair, old age, and death are all caused by birth, which depends on existence, which depends on attachment, which depends on desire, which depends on sensation, which depends on contact, which depends on the six senses, which depend on name and form, which depend on consciousness, which depends on karma, which depends on ignorance. However, by ending ignorance, then karma, consciousness, name and form, the six senses, contact, sensation, desire, attachment, existence, and birth with all the misery that comes after birth can be ended. Sensation and desire also lead to pursuit, decision, gain, passion, tenacity, possession, avarice, and guarding possessions, which can lead to blows and wounds, strife, quarreling, slander, and lies.
This process is further described in a parable about an ancient kingdom where the celestial wheel symbolizing the dharma disappeared. The king ignored the advice of the sages that he should share some of his wealth with the destitute. This led to widespread poverty and theft. At first the king gave some wealth to a thief to solve his problem, but then not wanting to reward stealing he ordered that thieves have their heads cut off. This led to the arming of the poor, increased violence associated with their stealing, and more murders. This also caused more lying, evil speaking, and false opinions. Eventually greed, adultery, perverted lust, and incest became common, followed by lack of respect for parents, religious teachers, and the heads of the clans. Human life became like hunters feel toward their game, and at times people treated each other like wild beasts. Finally deciding to do something good, people started to abstain from taking life, which led to abstaining from taking what is not given, abstaining from lying, and abstaining from adultery. As the virtues were practiced, the health of the society returned. When this happens, a fully awakened one (Buddha) called Maitreya will come. Until then the Buddha recommended that people live as islands unto themselves, taking the dharma as their refuge, letting the mind be filled with love, compassion, joy, and equanimity.
In another dialog the Buddha clarified the meaning of the eightfold path by saying that right view is knowledge of the four noble truths of suffering, its cause, cessation, and the way that leads to its cessation. Right aspiration is towards benevolence and kindness. Right speech is to abstain from lying, slander, abuse, and idle talk. Right doing is to abstain from taking life, from taking what is not given, and from carnal indulgence. Right livelihood is only described as putting away wrong livelihood. Right effort is toward preventing bad states from arising, putting away evil that has arisen, toward good states arising, and nurturing good that does arise.
Right mindfulness is being self-possessed and mindful in regard to the body, overcoming craving and dejection in feelings, thoughts, and ideas. Right rapture is being aloof from sensuous appetites and evil ideas, entering into and abiding in the four levels of higher awareness. The first of these has cogitation and deliberation born of solitude and is full of ease and joy. The second suppresses cogitation and deliberation evoking by itself concentration, calming the mind and dwelling on high. In the third stage one is disenchanted with joy, is calmly contemplative and aware. The fourth state leaves behind ease and transcends former happiness and melancholy by entering into the rapture of pure mindfulness and equanimity, feeling neither ease nor ill.
According to the Buddha the four motives that lead to evil deeds are partiality, enmity, stupidity, and fear. The six channels for dissipating wealth are being addicted to liquors, frequenting the streets at unseemly hours, haunting fairs, gambling, bad companions, and idleness.
These ethical teachings and discourses on many other subjects are from the sayings (Nikaya) of the Buddha in the first of the Three Baskets (Tripitaka) that make up the Pali Canon. The second basket contains the discipline (Vinaya) books for the monks and nuns. Later commentaries on the original teachings make up the third basket of "higher doctrines" (Abhidharma). The first book in this last collection has been called A Manual of Psychological Ethics (Dhamma-sangani).
The Dhamma-sangani lists the good states of consciousness as the following: contact, feeling, perception, volition, thought, application, sustained thinking, zest, ease, self-collectedness; the faculties of faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, insight, ideation, gladness, and life; right views, endeavor, mindfulness, and concentration; the powers of faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, insight, conscientiousness, and the fear of blame; the absence of greed, hate, dullness, covetousness, and malice; serenity, lightness, plasticity, facility, fitness, and directness in mind and mental factors; intelligence, quiet, intuition, grasp, and balance.
The list of bad states of consciousness is similar except that the views, intention, endeavor, and concentration are wrong instead of right, and there is unconscientiousness, disregard of blame, lust, dullness, and covetousness instead of their absence. In a further discussion of these ties the perversion of rules and rituals and the disposition to dogmatize are added to covetousness, lust, and ill will. To the cankers (asavas) of sensuality, rebirth, and ignorance is added speculative opinion about useless metaphysical questions such as whether the world is eternal, the soul is infinite, the soul and body are different, or whether one exists after death.
A work on human types (Puggala-pannatti) analyzes individuals in terms of many characteristics such as the six sense organs and their objects (including mind as the sixth sense); eighteen elements of cognition, twenty-two faculties or functions, and such negative traits as being wrathful, vengeful, a hypocrite, a charlatan, jealous, avaricious, shameless, impudent, disobedient, associating with the wicked, having unguarded senses, being immoderate as to food, forgetful, unmindful, infringing moral laws, having wrong views, and internal and external fetters as well as their opposites. However, these texts mostly consist of dry and abstract lists with many repetitions.
One of the greatest literary works of early Buddhism is the Dhammapada, which was placed among the smaller sayings in the first basket of sutras although it contains 423 stanzas in 26 chapters. Put together from highlights of Buddha's ethical teachings, it was in existence by the time of Emperor Ashoka in the third century BC. It begins with the idea that we are the result of our thoughts, impure or pure.
Those who harbor resentful thoughts toward others, believing they were insulted, hurt, defeated, or cheated, will suffer from hatred, because hate never conquers hatred. Yet hate is conquered by love, which is an eternal law. Those who live for pleasures with uncontrolled senses will be overthrown by temptation. Those who cleanse themselves from impurity, grounded in virtues, possessing self-control and truth are worthy of the yellow robe. Those who imagine truth in untruth and see untruth in truth follow vain desires.
Passion enters an unreflecting mind like rain comes into a badly roofed house. Wrong-doers suffer and grieve in this world and the next, but the virtuous find joy and happiness in both. The second chapter is on awareness and begins:
Awareness is the path of immortality;
thoughtlessness is the path of death.
Those who are aware do not die.
The thoughtless are as if dead already.
The wise having clearly understood this delight in awareness
and find joy in the knowledge of the noble ones.
These wise ones, meditative, persevering,
always using strong effort,
attain nirvana, the supreme peace and happiness.5
It is good to control the mind, but thought is difficult to guard and restrain. Yet a tamed mind brings happiness. A wise person, who shows you your faults, may be followed as though to hidden treasures. The wise, who teach, admonish, and forbid the wrong, will be loved by the good and hated by the bad. The wise mold themselves, as engineers of canals guide water and carpenters shape wood. The path of those who have stilled their passions and are indifferent to pleasure, perceiving release and unconditional freedom, is difficult to understand like that of birds in the sky.
Whoever conquers oneself is greater than the person who conquers in battle a thousand times a thousand people. In regard to punishment this text warns that those who inflict pain on others will not find happiness after death. Self is the master of the self, and a person who is self-controlled finds a master few can find. By oneself wrong is done and suffered, and by oneself one is purified.
In regard to the world the Buddha recommended not following a bad law any more than a wrong idea or thoughtlessness. He advised us not to be attached to the world but to follow the path of virtue, for the world is like a bubble or mirage. Most of the world is blind, but the wise are led out of it by conquering temptation. The teaching of the awakened ones is not to blame nor strike, but to live alone and restrained under the law, moderate in eating, and practicing the highest consciousness.
Joy is the natural state for those who do not hate those who hate them. Craving is the worst disease and disharmony the greatest sorrow. Health and contentment are the greatest wealth, trusting the best relationship, and nirvana the highest joy. Grief comes from pleasure, attachment, greed, lust, and craving. Anger may be overcome by love, wrong by good, avarice by generosity, and a liar by truth. The wise hurt no one and always control their bodies.
There is no fire like lust, no chain like hate;
there is no snare like folly, no torrent like craving.
The faults of others are easy to see;
our own are difficult to see.
A person winnows others' faults like chaff,
but hides one's own faults,
like a cheater hides bad dice.
If a person is concerned about the faults of others
and is always inclined to be offended,
one's own faults grow
and one is far from removing faults.6
Anyone who tries to settle a matter by violence is not just. The wise consider calmly what is right and wrong, proceeding in a way that is nonviolent and fair. For the Buddhist one is not noble because of injuring living beings; rather one is noble, because one does not injure living beings. Whoever realizes that all created things suffer, perish, and are unreal transcends pain. There is no meditation without wisdom and no wisdom without meditation, for in meditating one becomes wise; but in not meditating wisdom is lost. Whoever has wisdom and meditation is close to nirvana.
Lift up your self by yourself;
examine your self by yourself.
Thus self-protected and attentive
you will live joyfully, mendicant.
For self is the master of self;
self is the refuge of self.
Therefore tame yourself,
like a merchant tames a noble horse.
Joyful and faithful in the doctrine of the Buddha,
the mendicant finds peace,
the joy of ending natural existence.7
No one should hurt a holy one, but no holy one should strike back. The sooner the wish to injure disappears, the sooner all suffering will stop. The holy are free of all attachment, anger, and lust. Though having committed no offense, the holy bear reproach, ill treatment, and imprisonment. They are tolerant with the intolerant, peaceful with the violent, and free from greed among the greedy, speaking true words that are useful and not harsh. The holy call nothing their own, letting go of attachment to humans and rising above attachment to the gods. Eventually a holy one knows one's former lives, perceives heaven and hell, and reaches the end of births, having attained perfection.
Questions of King Milinda
Another great literary work of the Theravada ("way of the elders") school of Buddhism is The Questions of King Milinda. Menander was one of the Greek kings who ruled Bactria after the conquests of Alexander, carrying Greek power further into India than any of his predecessors in the last half of the second century BC; his name was Hinduized to Milinda by the unknown Buddhist author, who wrote this work a century or so later.
The philosophical dialog is preceded by a prophecy from the previous lives of the two individuals whereby the Buddha foretold they would have this discussion some five centuries hence. While living as a god in a heavenly world, Mahasena is persuaded to be reborn as Nagasena so that he could help to enlighten this king. King Milinda delights in philosophical discussion and has never met his match until he encounters Nagasena. He asks the sage every difficult question he can think of and is continually amazed at the sagacious replies of Nagasena. In this way the Buddhist doctrine is thoroughly tested and explained.
Even the first question asking his name elicits the response from Nagasena that there is no permanent individuality. King Milinda asks then who it is who lives, receives gifts, devotes himself to meditation, attains enlightenment, etc. Like a chariot it is none of the separate parts though their combination comes under the name "chariot," and he is known as Nagasena. Nagasena wants to know if Milinda will be discussing as a scholar who may be convicted of error or as a king who punishes disagreement, and King Milinda agrees to discuss as a scholar.
The next day the king asks Nagasena what is the goal of his renunciation. The highest aim is the end of sorrow and the complete passing away. Sinful beings are reindividualized after death; sinless ones are not. True wisdom is cutting off one's failings, and this is accomplished by good conduct, faith, perseverance, mindfulness, and meditation. Good conduct is achieved by virtue and wisdom. Faith frees the heart of lust, malice, mental sloth, pride, and doubt. Perseverance renders support, and mindfulness discerns the good qualities from the bad; but meditation is the leader of all the good qualities. The one who will not be born again is more aware and, though suffering physical pain, is free of mental pain.
But if there is no soul or individuality, how does reincarnation occur, and what reincarnates? Nagasena explains the doctrine of karma - how causes have their effects even from one life to the next. One who sets a fire is responsible for the other things that are burned by the spread of the fire. A person who prepares poison and drinks it oneself as well as giving it to others is responsible for one's own pain and shares responsibility for the pain of the others too. According to the Buddha it is karma that causes the many differences among people.
The king asks why the recluses are so concerned about taking care of their bodies if they don't love their bodies. The body is like a wound that must be treated with salve, oil, and a bandage even though one does not love the wound. Although Buddhism is in many ways a pessimistic philosophy, Nagasena nonetheless finds more merit than demerit, because eventually the wrong-doer acknowledges the wrong and feels remorse, eventually correcting and ending demerit. Yet those who do well do not feel remorse but gladness and peace and blissful feelings; thus good increases.
After seven days of abstinence the king continues his discussion with Nagasena, asking him about various dilemmas he found in the Buddhist doctrine. Nagasena solves every problem by giving various illustrations. For example, the Buddha admitted Devadatta to the order even though he knew that he would cause a schism because he perceived that even this contact with the Buddha would keep Devadatta from becoming even worse. Social prejudice is transcended as even a prostitute is able to perform a miracle by the power of truth.
Eleven advantages come to those who feel love toward all beings and put it into practice. Such people sleep in peace, awake in peace, have no sinful dreams, are dear to people and spirits, watched over by gods, not harmed by fire nor poison nor a sword, are easily tranquilized, calm, undismayed by death, and if arhatship is not attained, are reborn in the Brahma world. Though of a loving disposition, Prince Sama was shot by a poisoned arrow, because the virtues are not inherent in the person but are only effective at that moment while in use. The king is convinced that the felt presence of love has the power to ward off all evil mental states. Nagasena agrees heartily:
Yes! The practice of love is productive
of all virtuous conditions of mind
both in good and in evil ones.
To all beings whatsoever,
who are in the bonds of conscious existence,
is this practice of love of great advantage,
and therefore ought it to be sedulously cultivated.8
The king asks Nagasena whether virtue or vice is more powerful. The karma from vice seems to be effectively punished, this balancing in fact causes it to die away rather quickly; while virtue because of its grandeur lasts for a long time. Because virtue is rarely rewarded immediately as vice is often so punished, the results of virtue usually are received more abundantly in the lives to come. Also according to Nagasena vice only affects the doer, while virtue overspreads the whole world of gods and people. By giving the individual no peace the remorse from wrong-doing leads more quickly to the eradication of that evil.
Finally at the end of their discussions King Milinda ordered a building constructed for Nagasena and the monks, turned his kingdom over to his son, abandoned the household life to become homeless, grew in insight, and eventually became an arhat himself.
After the Buddha's death in 483 BC, the first Buddhist Council was led by Mahakassapa during which Ananda recited the discourses on the doctrine and Upali the rules of the discipline. These were then memorized and became the first two baskets of the Pitaka, the Sutta and Vinaya. Buddhism added abstinence from intoxicants to the four cardinal rules of abstaining from violence, stealing, lying, and sexual misconduct.
At Buddhist gatherings the Pratimokshasutra was recited, followed by confessions of monks who felt they had violated any of it. The four offenses that led to expulsion were having sexual intercourse, taking what was not given, taking of a human life or persuading anyone to commit suicide, and falsely boasting of supernatural attainments. The thirteen offenses deserving suspension included sexual misdemeanors, harming living beings by building a hut, falsely accusing another monk of a major offense, persisting in causing divisions in the community, and refusing to move when admonished by other monks. Other minor violations were eating between meals, attending secular entertainment, using unguents and jewelry, using high or luxurious beds, and handling money.
A century after the death of the Buddha the monks of Vaishali relaxed the rules on ten minor points, leading to contributions of money to the monks. These were protested by the elder Yasa, who organized a council to condemn the changed rules. The easterners from Vaishali became known as Mahasanghikas, and the traditional westerners Theravada. According to tradition Theravada soon divided into eleven sects and Mahasanghikas into seven. Thus Buddhism was administered locally, though a monk could reside in any monastery irrespective of sect.
In the third century BC the Emperor Ashoka tried to unite the Buddhists, but he was stricken with remorse when his minister beheaded monks refusing to comply. Advised by the most learned monk of the time, Moggaliputta Tissa, all monks who did not follow the Theravada were dismissed from the community, and refutations of heretical views were published in the Kathavatthu of the Abhidamma basket. The number of sects was reduced, but others later denied that Ashoka ever held such a council. Regardless of whether that council was held, the support of Ashoka for Buddhism greatly expanded its influence so that it was even adopted and promoted by Greek rulers such as Menander.
The deification of the Buddha by the non-Theravadins led to the ideal of the Bodhisattva or future Buddha instead of the mere arhat. Bodhisattvas are enlightened persons, who postpone their own nirvana in order to help save all sentient creatures. This along with the conception of the pure mind (vijnana) eventually led to the "Greater Vehicle" or Mahayana Buddhism.
According to Edward Conze the earliest part of the Prajnaparamita Sutra is from about the first century BC.9 It explains that the Bodhisattva comprehending the truth does not retire into the blessed rest but dwells in wisdom to help others. In this wisdom one finds that all truths are empty. The Bodhisattva, assured of future Buddhahood by previous Buddhas, whether absorbed in trance or not, knows the essential original nature. Seeing everything and everyone as illusion, the Bodhisattva is not attached to anything, while guiding all beings to nirvana. The world is transcended in this practice of wisdom, the highest perfection. Later during the Christian era this form of Buddhism was to spread into China and throughout Asia.
Among the major religions Buddhism is unusual, like Jainism, in that it did not originally believe in God, though it recognized gods and goddesses and heavens and hells. Less stringent and more popular than the ascetic Jainism, it's emphasis on ethical behavior and the quest for enlightenment appealed to both those who renounced the world and laypeople. Though it also offered excellent individual models of ethical behavior and friendly attitudes, except in its religious community it was unable to convert society as a whole to its way of nonviolence any more than Jainism could.
Nevertheless in my opinion both Jainism and Buddhism even more provided outstanding examples of supremely ethical attitudes and actions. They were not afraid to criticize the priestly corruptions of Brahminism nor the violent ambitions of the ruling class (Kshatriyas). Mahavira and the Buddha were great teachers and leaders, and the non-theistic religions they founded nourished and enriched the spiritual tradition of India and encouraged ethical behavior among its people.
Perhaps the greatest contribution they both made was to make nonviolence a noble path in a culture where the word for noble (Aryan) had stood for racism based on color and the violent conquest of India. Their devotion to truthfulness and their ability to live simple lives with few material possessions as well as their chastity kept their lives relatively pure and free of entanglements and exploitation. Though surely not without their individual imperfections and occasional schisms, the good contributed to the world by these teachings and the lives of their best followers must have been substantial.
1. Samyutta Nikaya 5:420 tr. Sanderson Beck.
2. Thomas, Edward J., The Life of the Buddha, p. 88.
3. Maha Parinibbana Suttanta 6:7 (156).
4. Brahma-Jala Sutta 1:9 (4).
5. Dhammapada 2:1-3 tr. Sanderson Beck.
6. Ibid. 18:17-19.
7. Ibid. 25:20-22.
8. The Questions of King Milinda tr. T. W. Rhys Davids, 4:4:16.
9. The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines & Its Verse Summary tr. Edward Conze, p. x.
Copyright © 1998-2004 by Sanderson Beck