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About The Book

Four hundred million people call themselves Buddhists today. Yet most Westerners know little about this powerful, Eastern-spawned faith. How did it begin? What do its adherents believe? Why are so many Westerners drawn to it?
Essential Buddhism responds to these questions and many more, offering an accessible, global perspective on the religion's past, present, and future. It identifies how the principal concepts and practices originated and evolved through diverse cultural adaptations into three basic formats:
* Theraveda (including Vipassana, brought from Vietnam in the 1960s and including such practitioners as Jack Kornfield and Jon Kapat-Zinn)
* Mahayana (including Zen Buddhism, originally brought to America by Japanese teachers after World War II and popularized by Jack Kerouac and Thomas Merton)
* Vajrayana (including Tibetan Buddhism, from the teachers who fled the Chinese takeover of Tibet in the 1950s as well as the Dalai Lama, and embraced by Allen Ginsberg, Richard Gere, and countless others)
Essential Buddhism is the single best resource for the novice and the expert alike, exploring the depths of Buddhism's popularity and illuminating its tenets and sensible approach to living. Written in the lucid prose of a longtime professional storyteller, and full of Buddhist tales, scriptural quotes, ancient stories, and contemporary insights, Essential Buddhism is the first complete guide to the faith and the phenomenon.


Chapter One: The Great Awakening: The Buddha and His Legacy

You are your only master.

Who else?

Subdue yourself,

And discover your master.

?the Buddha

One evening, soon after the Buddha's enlightenment, a man named Dona was walking down a rural road in northern India when he saw the Buddha walking toward him. Dona knew nothing about the Buddha but was nevertheless struck by the radiance surrounding this individual. I've never seen a mortal being look so joyful and serene, he thought, so when the Buddha came close enough to converse, Dona couldn't resist asking, "Are you, by chance, a spirit?"

"No," said the Buddha.

"Then are you an angel?" asked Dona.

"No," said the Buddha.

"Are you, perhaps, a god?" asked Dona.

"No," said the Buddha.

"Well, what are you?" asked Dona.

The Buddha replied, "I am awake."

A fundamental part of Buddhism's appeal to billions of people over the past two and half millennia is the fact that its central figure, commonly referred to by the title "Buddha," was not a god, or a special kind of spiritual being, or even a prophet or an emissary of one. On the contrary, he was a human being like the rest of us who quite simply woke up to full aliveness.

The Sanskrit word buddha means "the awakened one" and derives etymologically from the same Indo-European root that gives us the English word bud. In a sense, the Buddha was a sentient being who managed to bud and then bloom into total consciousness of his nature, or, to use a more traditional expression, into enlightenment. The amazing truth of the matter is that we are all potential buddhas, perfect and complete right at this moment, but very few of us realize it.

The historical Buddha's awakening may have been a simple accomplishment,
but it wasn't an easy one. It took him many years -- and, according to strict Buddhist belief, countless lifetimes -- of single-minded endeavor before he finally achieved it. Nevertheless, once he did, he claimed that any individual could do the same thing: that is, realize his or her own "buddha nature," as it came to be called in the Mahayana tradition. He devoted the rest of his life to teaching the way.

Buddhism is therefore a religion centered around a teacher instead of a divine being. As such, it can be said to feature lessons rather than creeds, precepts rather than commandments, and reverence rather than worship. These distinctions are examined and clarified later in the book. First, let's take a closer look at the historical Buddha's existence, for it continues to explain many features of the Buddhist religion and to serve as an inspiring prototype for the Buddhist way of life.

Throughout the twenty-four centuries since the Buddha's death, the basic design of his biography has been embroidered over and over again to suit different purposes. As a result, we now have many versions to consider, and woven into any one of them are likely to be various ideological biases, liturgical details, cultural references, mythical touches, and psychological shadings -- all embellished with a certain amount of plain old yarn-spinning.

The following account of the Buddha's eighty-four years on Earth synthesizes the most prevalent versions into three separate sections describing his early years, enlightenment, and teaching career. The commentary in each section discusses major points relating to Buddhism in general and alludes to especially significant or intriguing story variations.


In 566 B.C.E., the Buddha was born into the childless royal family of the Shakya kingdom, located in the Himalayan foothills of what we now call southern Nepal. His clan name was Guatama. Prior to his conception, his mother, Queen Maya, wife of King Suddhodhana, had taken a spiritual vow of celibacy. However, one night, as she slept in her chaste bed in the rose marble palace in Kapilavastu, she had a wondrous dream: Into her bedroom strode a magnificent white elephant with six dazzling white tusks. His trunk arched gracefully above his head, holding aloft a perfect golden lotus flower. He knelt beside her bed and caressed her right side with the flower. At that very moment, she felt
charged with new life and woke up.

Queen Maya roused her husband and told him about the dream, and he immediately summoned his chief counselor to interpret it. "You will give birth to a son destined for greatness," the counselor told them. "If he remains at the palace and follows a secular path, he will enjoy many triumphs and become a mighty ruler, emperor of the world. But if he leaves the palace, seeking something more spiritual, he will endure many hardships and eventually become a buddha, a great teacher to gods, beasts, and humankind."

Months later, on a fine spring day around the time of year we now call April, Queen Maya and her attendants set out for her parents' home, the customary place for a mother-to-be to give birth. On the way, they came to a beautiful park near the town of Lumbini.They lingered there in a grove of sala trees. Queen Maya was standing beneath the most ancient and luxurious tree, gazing upward into its crown, when a transcendent sensation all over her body told her the birth was beginning.The tree bent down a branch to her, and she grasped it and smiled.

Suddenly, a host of wonders occurred all at once. From the sky fell white and golden lotus petals. From the now-trembling earth rose the fragrant scents of jasmine and sandalwood. From the air resounded the lilting music of bells, lutes, and ethereal voices. And from the right side of Queen Maya, without causing any pain, emerged the baby.

Gods appeared and bathed the infant in heavenly dew, then set him down on his feet. Fully conscious, he took seven steps forward. In advance of each step, a lotus blossom sprang up to support his foot.Then, pointing one hand up toward the sky and the other down toward the ground, he announced in a loud, clear voice: "Behold, I am all between heaven and Earth! In this lifetime I shall awaken!"

The miraculous baby then assumed the normal state of a newborn and was named Siddhartha, which means "every wish fulfilled." The phrase referred to his parents' long-standing desire for a child, but his daily existence as a young prince seemed to reflect it as well. His father Suddhodhana, himself a monarch, was determined that his only son would pursue a grand career as an emperor rather than a grueling one as a buddha, so he treated him accordingly. Confining Siddhartha to the palace, he lavished every worldly luxury upon him, made sure he was surrounded only with beautiful, happy people, and prevented him from witnessing or even hearing about any of life's adversities.

Although Siddhartha's mother died shortly after he was born, he was lovingly raised by her sister, Prajapati. Under her astute care, he grew up to be remarkably wise, kind, good-looking, and strong.At age sixteen, he won the hand in marriage of the loveliest woman at court, his cousin Yasodhara, by piercing seven trees with one arrow, and his subsequent displays of charm, intelligence, and athleticism earned him popularity and respect throughout the kingdom. His future as a valiant, uniquely successful military leader seemed assured.

Then, at age twenty-nine, came a crucial turning point in Siddhartha's life. His wife, pregnant with their first child, was indisposed and urged him to seek some diversion on his own. As it happens, he had overheard someone talking earlier in the day about the splendors of spring just unfolding in the forest beyond the palace. Eager to see them, he pleaded with his father so ardently and persuasively for permission to travel there that he couldn't refuse. Instead, the king secretly commanded servants to remove or conceal all disturbing sights along the route from the village adjoining the palace walls to the forest some miles away. The gods, however, decided to intervene and send the pampered prince a sign that would spur him on to his greater, spiritual destiny.

As Siddhartha rode on horseback through the village streets, that sign suddenly appeared in front of him -- a man with white hair, wrinkled skin, and frail limbs.The mystified prince asked his driver, "What is this creature?"

The driver, his tongue loosened by the gods, explained, "He is an old man. He, too, was once young like you. And you, too, will age as he did, losing your strength and beauty. It is the lot of every human being."

Siddhartha was shocked and then deeply saddened. Later, as he sat in the palace gardens thinking about the encounter, he asked himself, "Knowing what I do about old age, what pleasures can these gardens now afford me?"

Future excursions to learn more about the outside world brought him two other signs of mortal afflictions: a sick person and a corpse. Finally he confronted the fourth sign sent by the gods, a bald man wearing a ragged robe and carrying a begging bowl but nevertheless projecting uncommon tranquillity. When he asked his driver to explain this man, the driver replied, "He is a monk. He has put worldly matters behind him and is seeking a higher good."

That very night, as Siddhartha rode back into the palace grounds, he heard everyone celebrating the birth of his son. Instead of welcoming the news, he despaired, thinking of the cycle of birth and death beginning yet again; the generational dynasty that bound him to his present, now frivolous-seeming lifestyle; and the restrictive, authoritarian role he'd need to assume as a father.

Despite Siddhartha's great personal love for his family, he decided that it was best for him and for others if he renounced the life of a materialistic warrior-prince to lead the life of a spiritually questing monk. Perhaps then he could find out for himself and all humankind how to escape life's grave troubles, or at least how to understand and tolerate them better.

Siddhartha wasted no time. That same night, he secretly rode away from Kapilavastu, the gods themselves silencing the hooves of his horse. At sunrise, after crossing a distant riverbank in the kingdom of Magadha, he changed from his aristocratic garments into a humble robe, shaved his head, and sent his chariot and driver back to the palace.

So began six years of homeless wandering in search of the truth about life and death. Siddhartha studied with the most renowned meditation masters of his time and, in keeping with one of that era's primary spiritual disciplines, starved himself until his body turned skeletal. Gaining more and more fame as the Great Ascetic, he gradually acquired five disciples -- called the Band of Five -- who followed him everywhere.

Still, Siddhartha believed that his quest so far had accomplished nothing. He later described this period as being "like time spent trying to tie the air into knots."

One day, walking along the Nairanjana River, a tributary of the Ganges River, near the village of Uruvela, Siddhartha chanced to hear a boatman tuning a three-stringed instrument. When the boatman plucked the first string, it made a gratingly high-pitched ping! because it was wound too tight. The second string, wound too loose, emitted an unpleasantly twangy sound. Only the third string, not wound either too tight or too loose, produced a beautiful, perfectly pitched tone. Extrapolating from this incident, Siddhartha suddenly realized that the "middle way" of life was the best: neither so austere that existence itself was threatened, nor so sybaritic that one lived selfishly just for pleasure and power.

Meanwhile, a farmer's daughter was passing by on her way to make an offering of curds to a sacred fig (or pipal) tree nearby. Moved by the sight of the emaciated Siddhartha, she offered him the curds instead. He accepted them as a first gesture in taking the Middle Way, thus breaking his austere dietary habits and causing the Band of Five to desert him in disgust. He then bathed in the river and, just before sunset, sat beneath that same sacred fig tree with his eyes facing east. Vowing not to rise again until he achieved enlightenment, he crossed his legs, lowered his eyes, and began to meditate.

Commentary. Unlike other major religions, Buddhism has no world creation story. Instead, the Buddha's life functions as a kind of substitute: the creation of a fully enlightened being. As Buddhism evolved, borrowing heavily from its parent religion Hinduism, the Buddha's personal history was given more cosmic and mythological resonance by being linked more significantly with his prior existences, each succeeding life representing another step up the spiritual ladder. For more on his rebirths, see "The Jataka Tales" on page 8. For more on the relationship between Buddhism and Hinduism, see page 25-30.

The Buddha's previous lifetimes originated in the beginningless past and occurred intermittently over kalpas (huge periods of time) extending up to the birth of Siddhartha. Buddhist literature is replete with mind-boggling metaphors that attempt to convey how indescribably long a kalpa is and, therefore, how inconceivably impressive the Buddha's journey was -- part of a consistent message in Buddhism that many things cannot be grasped by the rational mind. For example, suppose an eagle's wing brushes against the top of a high mountain once a century. A kalpa is how long it would take for that action to wear the mountain entirely away. Imagine a wooden yoke with one hole,
thrown into the ocean to float. If a one-eyed turtle rises to the surface of the ocean once a century, a kalpa is how long it would take before the turtle just happened to rise through the hole of the yoke.

The individual we know as the Buddha -- also called Siddhartha Guatama or, alternatively, Shakyamuni (in Sanskrit, "Sage of the Shakya Clan") -- is not even the first or the last buddha. Depending on which particular tradition you consult, anywhere from seven to countless numbers of buddhas lived, one after the other, each many kalpas apart, before Shakyamuni was born. Many kalpas from now, the next buddha, called Maitreya (in Sanskrit, "friend"), is destined to appear and revive the spiritual teachings long after they've been forgotten. Thus, Shakyamuni is the buddha of our age, and our age is fortunate to have one, because many do not.

Some Buddhist traditions pay more attention than others to the previous
lives of the Buddha -- and, indeed, to the entire concept of rebirth,
as other sections of this book make clear. One of the virtues of Shakyamuni
Buddha's life story all by itself is that it symbolizes so beautifully the core spiritual struggle that human beings in general go through.

In our childhood, we begin life with a pervasive joy, innocence, and
security that give us a sense of royal entitlement, of belonging to the
universe. Then, sooner or later, comes a personal knowledge of life's
adversities that forever separates us from that childhood realm.We leave
the land of our birth and wander out into the cold, cruel world, seeking
greater meaning and purpose in life.

The same paradigm appears in Genesis. Adam and Eve live in the Garden of Eden, where everything is provided for them. Only one thing is prohibited: the knowledge of good and evil. When they feel driven to gain this knowledge nevertheless, they are expelled from the garden. For Shakyamuni, that expulsion took the overt form of a renunciation, but deep inside, he truly felt he had no choice. Indeed, the gods of his universe worked to make his renunciation inevitable, as it was destined to be, despite the overwhelming incentives to linger.

To many non-Buddhists, Siddhartha's renunciation of his family can seem stunningly irresponsible. To others, including Buddhist believers, its shock value operates differently, as a startling and humbling example of a supreme act of compassion, of putting the salvation of humanity far above the most compelling personal interests. In essence, his renunciation is similar to the one Buddhist or Christian monastics make in giving up their worldly ties to devote themselves to the spiritual welfare of everyone.

Shakyamuni's immediately preceding lifetime can be viewed as a test to discover if he would be capable of this kind of sacrifice. Living as Prince Visvantara, a wealthy, spiritually driven young man, he gained so much fame for his generosity that he attracted challenges to it from the most learned spiritual leaders of his time. Step by step, he gave up all that he had. With great anguish, he even turned over his two children and his wife to brahmins (members of the Hindu priestly caste) who solicited them as slaves.Thereby convinced of his sincerity, these brahmins revealed themselves to be gods in disguise, and his loved ones were restored to him.

Shakyamuni visited his family not long after his enlightenment. By that time he felt he was better prepared to enter and help transform the life of his son Rahula (meaning "fetter," a word Siddhartha was overheard to utter in referring to his son's birth before departing). Eventually Rahula became a monk in the Buddha's sangha.

The above account of the Buddha's early years touches on two important Buddhist doctrines that are discussed more thoroughly elsewhere in the book: interdependence and the Middle Way. Siddhartha's first pronouncement immediately after his birth, "I am all between heaven and Earth" (phrased different ways in various texts, including "I am the only one") is not an egotistical statement but just the opposite: It expresses the concept that all things are connected or interdependent, that there is no such entity as a separate self, except as a functional -- or dysfunctional -- illusion. The doctrine of the Middle Way, which is not always illustrated by the anecdote of the boatman cited here, lies open to many interpretations, but one of the most prevalent is the notion of avoiding dualistic extremes.


The evening that Siddhartha sat beneath the fig tree was full moon night in the month we call May, 531 B.C.E. It's a soft, warm, dreamy time of the year known in India -- then and now -- as Cowdust, when the air is lambent and flecked with golden sand stirred from the roads.

Once he sank into utter silence and stillness, however, he was overwhelmed with tormenting visions sent by Mara, the evil one, who sought to divert Siddhartha from his path toward enlightenment.

First Mara bade his own three daughters to dance lasciviously in front of Siddhartha. As they did, Mara shot him with flower-tipped arrows to inflame his sensuality. When Siddhartha managed to resist this temptation, Mara appealed to his pride. "It is shameful for a prince to live like a beggar!" he cried. "Take command of your people, and be the true warrior you are!"

Siddhartha remained unmoved. Furious, Mara then waged fierce battle against him. Legions of grotesque demons hurled huge spears, fiery trees, and whole mountains at him, but his sheer composure either deflected them or turned them into sun motes or lotus petals.

At a loss for any other strategy, Mara finally rose to his full, awesome splendor and commanded Siddhartha, "Rise from your seat! It rightfully belongs to me, not you!" Pointing to his demons, he added, "All these beings are witnesses to my right! Who bears witness to yours?"

Siddhartha, still sitting motionless, touched the ground with a finger of his right hand, and Earth thundered back, "I bear witness!" Mara instantly disappeared in defeat.

With Mara gone, Siddhartha's meditation deepened and went through three periods, or watches. During the first watch, he recalled each one of his past lives with full clarity. During the second watch, he became aware that all those lives and the lives of others were governed by the law of karma (in Sanskrit, "action"): For every cause, there is an effect, which in turn becomes a cause, and so on. During the third watch, he perceived the links by which birth is connected to death and rebirth -- the Wheel of Life -- and this realization awakened him to the Dharma (Great Law). He later formulated it into the following basic teachings:


  1. All life is suffering.
  2. The cause of suffering is desire.
  3. Suffering can be ended.
  4. The way to end suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path.


  1. right understanding
  2. right thought
  3. right speech
  4. right action
  5. right livelihood
  6. right effort
  7. right mindfulness
  8. right meditation

As dawn broke, Siddhartha looked up for the first time since he
began sitting and saw the morning star (Venus) in the eastern sky. At
that exact moment, he attained a state of all-knowingness or enlightenment
and spoke these words:

Many houses of life have held me. Long have I sought to find him who made these prisons of the senses. But now, you builder, I have seen you at last. Never again will you construct such houses of pain! The walls are broken and the ridgepole shattered! Now that the bonds of ignorance and craving are sundered, deliverance is obtained for all! Wonder of wonders! Intrinsically all living beings are buddhas, endowed with wisdom and virtue!

The earth trembled, and the gods sang in the heavens. Siddhartha had at last become the Buddha.

Commentary. The concepts of enlightenment, the Four Noble Truths, and
the Noble Eightfold Path as they apply to the religion of Buddhism are discussed in chapter 3. Focusing on Shakyamuni's enlightenment in particular, we are struck right away by the dramatic contrast between his stillness under the tree and the universally vast, turbulent, and revolutionary nature of the visions that came to him in this state. We are also doubly impressed by the overnight time span: so brief considering the magnitude of his discovery, and yet so lengthy considering the sheer number of hours he kept his mind, body, emotions, and spirit absolutely quiet.

To understand each of these phenomena a little better, it's necessary to appreciate that Shakyamuni's night of enlightenment was the culmination
of a long, anguished seeking for the truth -- six years of intensive asceticism and study in his present lifetime and countless previous lifetimes of suffering, single-minded effort, enormous sacrifice, and hard-won wisdom. The Buddhist scholar Clive Erricker, in his 1995 book Buddhism, offers a useful analogy for grasping how that single night's meditation functioned to resolve such an extensive period of searching:

We might think of times when, in trying to understand apparently complex, insoluble problems, we have hit on an instant when answers revealed themselves so obviously that it was as though we had previously missed what was right before our eyes. Moments when we have said, "Of course, how could I have been so blind!"...It is as though the truth has been there all the time, but we have not had the capacity to realize it. It was this capacity that Siddhartha developed and finally fulfilled. (26)

Although the teaching content of the Buddha's enlightenment remains basically the same from account to account and school to school, certain other details vary. For example, disagreement exists over the chronological nature of the meditation itself. Most versions concur that the three watches and final enlightenment took place on one special night. Some insist the battle with Mara took place during a previous night or a series of days and nights. A few imply that weeks of meditation occurred before and/or after the night of enlightenment that helped induce, support, or amplify it.

Virtually every account says that Shakyamuni pointed to the ground, and Earth bore witness for him. This mudra (in Sanskrit, "hand gesture") often appears in artistic renderings of him. The overt reference is to all the previous lives on Earth that he endured on his way to enlightenment. Additionally, the earth can be taken to symbolize what Buddhists call the "ground of being," the fundamental nature of things, which, according to Mahayana Buddhism, manifests itself in living creatures as their "buddha nature."

Every account also includes Shakyamuni's statement of liberation, although the precise wording varies. It's important to understand that the "builder" or "you" here refers to the self (in the Buddha's case, himself). Liberation depends upon transcending the notion of a separate, isolated self, one that appears to live only within the "house" of an individual life or, as the Zen expression goes, within a specific "skin bag." Instead of remaining trapped in this very limited, conditioned existence, we can become one with the universe, immense and unconditioned. In rediscovering this truth, the Buddha liberated all sentient beings, not just himself, because he cleared the way for every person to realize that he or she, too, is intrinsically a buddha (or, as some schools prefer to express it, capable of being enlightened). When the awakening came to him, it reentered human consciousness after untold ages of being entirely forgotten.

Just as accounts of Shakyamuni's life differ regarding certain story details, they also vary in literary style, from the spare, realistic, bare-bones reports one finds in many Zen sources to the elaborate, highly symbolic, visionary sagas more typical of Theravada or especially Tibetan (Vajrayana) sources. As an example of the latter, consider the following deliberately mesmerizing sentence composed by Tse Chokling Yongdzin Yeshe Gyaltsen, a famous eighteenth-century Tibetan teacher, describing the celestial response when Shakyamuni first sat down beneath the tree:

Innumerable Bodhisattvas gathered from the buddhaverses of the ten directions and manifested various magical displays; creating flower palaces, radiating thousands of colors from their bodies, radiating sunlike rays, shaking the earth, carrying four oceans on their heads and sprinkling the ground with fragrant waters, offering jewel-offering trees, flying in the sky, dissolving their bodies and turning into garlands filling the universe, pronouncing millions of discourses from the pores of their bodies, making their bodies huge, bringing trees with Bodhisattva bodies emerging halfway from each leaf, bringing axial mountains, stimulating masses of water with their feet, making great sounds like great drum rolls filling a billion universes.

(Thurman, Essential Tibetan Buddhism, 72)

The above sentence uses the word bodhisattva, which has various meanings depending on its specific context as well as the school of Buddhism involved. In its most orthodox usage -- and in the Theravada tradition -- it refers to someone seriously on his or her way to being awakened. Thus Shakyamuni Buddha, for example, could be labeled a bodhisattva up until his enlightenment, and so could all of the sentient beings he was in his previous lives -- plant, animal, or human.

In Mahayana Buddhism, which in its broadest definition incorporates the Tibetan or Vajrayana tradition as well as Pure Land, Zen, and other schools, bodhisattva can have the same meaning. However, it more pointedly refers to an enlightened being who postpones his or her own liberation from the Wheel of Life (into a state sometimes called nirvana or the extinction of craving) to help others achieve enlightenment.

Furthermore, there are enlightened bodhisattvas such as Avalokiteshvara or Manjushri that can be said to exist on a different plane altogether, one where idealized, universal forces dwell -- part of the Trikaya (or Three Body) concept discussed in chapter 2. The bodhisattvas in the passage quoted above belong to the latter category.

As for Shakyamuni and his enlightenment, Buddhists and other individuals continue to honor it today by making pilgrimages to Bodh Gaya, India, which occupies the site of ancient Uruvela. For over two thousand years, monasteries, shrines, and stupas (memorials) have been built there, but the hub of veneration has always been the bodhi (or bo) tree, claimed to be a direct descendent of the sacred fig tree under which the Buddha sat and had his great awakening.


After his enlightenment, Shakyamuni debated with himself about whether or not to teach what he had learned. As blissful as his awakening had been, it was obviously something one had to do for oneself.

Unfortunately, the people he observed around him gave no indication in their behavior that they would listen to his message and take on that responsibility. They appeared to be too caught up in their personal identities, interests, and ambitions to believe that they were not, in fact, separate beings, or to aspire to a self-liberating form of awareness.

Seeing Shakyamuni's hesitation, the gods Indra and Brahma descended from heaven to plead with him to teach. "Now that you have crossed the ocean of the world of becoming, have pity on others!" they cried. "Rescue those that have sunk so low in suffering they may not even see it!" Stirred by their words, Shakyamuni told himself that some people with "only a little dust in their eyes" might be liberated if he would just point the way.

Shakyamuni's first step was to reconvene with the Band of Five, now settled in Deer Park at Sarnath, near Varanasi. When he approached his former associates, his beaming figure impressed them in the same manner it would later affect the traveler Dona, as recounted at the beginning of this chapter. Although they began by scorning him anew for not practicing self-mortifying austerities -- the most obvious explanation for his glowing health?they couldn't sustain their attack. The power of his presence soon mollified them and persuaded them to ask, "What is this truth you say you have seen?"

In response, Shakyamuni delivered the Sermon at Deer Park, his initial act of teaching, or as it came to be phrased, "the first turning of the wheel of the Dharma." His sermon articulated the doctrine of the Middle Way, the Four Noble Truths, and the Noble Eightfold Path. Upon hearing it, the Band of Five vowed to rejoin their former leader and help him spread the Dharma.

Thus Shakyamuni launched a thirty-five-year teaching career that followed the same pattern each year. During the nine months of favorable weather in northeast India, he and his disciples wandered from place to place to teach, begging in silence for food and lodging as they traveled. During the three-month monsoon season, they retreated to a shelter (at first a cave, but later a monastery built for them) and engaged in more intensive group practice.

As the Buddha's entourage grew in size, each follower forsaking any other home, job, or personal entanglement, rules and regulations became necessary to ensure harmonious living conditions. These early codes led to the formation of two monastic orders: first, bhikshus (male beggars) and later, after repeated petitions from his stepmother Prajapati, bhikshunis (female beggars). Thus evolved the concept of a community of seekers, rather than the solitary wanderer. This community is referred to as a sangha. For more on Prajapati and her often-cited role as mother of Buddhism, see page 19.

The Buddha frequently conveyed the Dharma through stories, parables, and experiential learning assignments given to individual seekers (see, for example, "The Story of Kisa Guatama" on page 21). His converts included the rich and the poor; the high caste and the low; the intellectual and the uneducated; family members, friends, and strangers. Among the more prominent ones were:

  • Ananda, the Buddha's cousin, who became his personal attendant and is generally recognized as the monk closest to his heart
  • Devadatta, also the Buddha's cousin, who, seeking to institute a more austere discipline in the sangha, unsuccessfully tried to control it and even to kill Shakyamuni
  • Kashyapa (also Mahakashyapa), who in some traditions is regarded as the only individual to whom the Buddha formally transmitted the Dharma (that is, qualified to be a teacher) through a specific gesture acknowledging Kashyapa's enlightened statear
  • Shariputra, directly addressed as the listener in several of the Buddha's surviving sutras (sermons), including the most quoted one in the Mahayana tradition, the Heart Sutra
  • Rahula, the Buddha's son, who was fully ordained as a monk at the minimum age of twenty
  • Vimalakirti, who in the Mahayana tradition achieved enlightenment and continued to practice and teach as a layperson or "householder" rather than a monk

At the age of eighty, in 486 B.C.E., the Buddha, now feeling weary in body, prepared for his death -- an event traditionally called parinirvana, "completed extinction," indicating that the spiritual nirvana he attained during his enlightenment was now being complemented by a physical release. Discussing this eventuality with a grieving Ananda, he promised, "As long as monks like you gather in a group, follow the rules, and train themselves, the Dharma will thrive. Be lamps unto yourselves. Holding fast to the Dharma, be your own refuge. Do not seek refuge beyond yourselves. In this way, you will overcome darkness."

The specific mechanism leading to Shakyamuni's fatal illness (and in
many traditions engineered by him) was a piece of spoiled boar's meat
innocently placed into his begging bowl by a blacksmith named Cunda. Out of gratitude, Shakyamuni was obliged to eat it. Later, weak with dysentery, he entered the small village of Kusinagara and reclined on the ground between two trees.

There Shakyamuni lay peacefully for hours, free of any pain, fear, or doubt. To make sure that Cunda would not feel bad about what had happened, he summoned him and told him that the two meals he was most thankful for receiving in his lifetime were the curds before his enlightenment and the meat Cunda gave him.

As night descended, crowds of people gathered around Shakyamuni to pay homage and hear his final words, which were, "All created things are impermanent. Strive on with diligence." Death brought a smile to his face, and for the third time in his life, the earth trembled. At dawn, his disciples cremated his body and collected the remaining relics -- bone fragments and teeth -- to place under stupas.

Commentary. In the above account of the Buddha's teaching career, we see the crystallization of the Three Jewels (or Treasures) of Buddhism: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Specifically they refer, in order, to Shakyamuni, the Great Law revealed to him during his enlightenment (later codified into official sutras), and the monastic community committed to realizing that law.

However, each jewel has also come to be understood in a more general, cosmic way. The Buddha component of the Three Jewels is often interpreted to mean any qualified teacher of the Dharma or, in the Mahayana tradition, the buddha nature that exists within every sentient being. The word sangha (lower case) can be applied to any group of people forming a Buddhist community, or even to all sentient beings, who are interdependently linked. Dharma can refer not only to the official body of Buddhist teachings, but also (usually in lower case) to the entire phenomenal universe, which continually provides teachings to those aware enough to see them.

Throughout the rest of the book, we'll examine the Three Jewels and their paramount significance, as well as other Buddhist doctrines, practices, and institutions relating to Shakyamuni's teaching career and death. Special mention will also be made, when appropriate, of common Buddhist images or objects that derive from Shakyamuni's lifetime.

For example, both the Wheel of Life, symbolizing the cycle of birth-death-rebirth that Shakyamuni saw during his enlightenment, and the Wheel of the Dharma, representing the teachings that he first "turned" in Deer Park, are major Buddhist icons. They appear frequently as artworks in their own right (for example, Tibetan mandalas) or as design elements in larger works. Only the contextual details of a given wheel clarify which theme it is portraying.

The wheel itself, in fact, was a symbol of kingship throughout Indian culture well before the Buddha's lifetime. According to many accounts, one of the primary indicators of the infant Buddha's great destiny was alleged to be a wheel pattern on the soles of his feet -- a recurring motif in Buddhist art. Footprint images with or without markings were often used in this era to represent important or "weighty" individuals, including the Buddha after his death. For several centuries, representations of his body or face were considered inappropriate, partly because he wasn't a god.


What are the sources for the Buddha's life story? How historically accurate are they?

Although the known facts of Shakyamuni's time on Earth are few and sketchy, historians agree that he did exist and led an eighty-year life following the same basic pattern as the one described above. No written records date from his lifetime, but the oral transmission from that period to the time of the first written accounts is strong and credible.

After all, the Buddha was the son of a prominent warrior-caste man (more likely a tribal chieftain than a king) and led a very public and peripatetic life for forty-five years. At the time of his death he was known and respected throughout northeast India, and his disciples immediately began spreading word of his life and teachings even farther afield, a process that has continued ever since.

Authorities do disagree over the exact years of the Buddha's life and death. Most accept the dates generally adopted within the Buddhist world: 566 to 486 B.C.E. Some Buddhists and non-Buddhists, however, claim it was more recent: 488 to 368 B.C.E. Each span is calculated by working backward, using a different equation, from Ashoka's consecration in 268 B.C.E., Ashoka being the first major, historically datable ruler to embrace Buddhism (see page 40). The former, more commonly acknowledged time frame is called the long version; the
latter, the short version.

The earliest document describing the Buddha's entire life is the
Buddhacarita ("the Buddha's acts"), a classic Sanskrit poem written by
the Buddhist scholar Ashvaghosha in the first century, before Buddhism split into distinctly different schools. The short biography offered above is drawn primarily from this work.

Another, later Sanskrit source is the Lalitavistara, an anthology of legends about different events in the Buddha's life. Some tales in this anthology first appeared elsewhere in written form as early as the first century B.C.E.
Hundreds of other stories depicting specific biographical episodes or details, including many that are not featured in Ashvaghosha's poem or that differ from his rendition, are incorporated into Sanskrit, Pali, or Shakyamuni himself is presumed to have spoken only Magadhi, a northeast Indian dialect. No writings in Magadhi of any kind survive from his era.

If the Buddha himself isn't a god, what are we to make of all the references to gods in his life story and elsewhere in Buddhism?

Based on all the available evidence, including the manner in which Buddhism developed during its first few centuries of growth, Shakyamuni did not worship any god, did not advocate such worship, did not claim to be a god himself, and was not deified after his death. More to the point, he achieved enlightenment through his own endeavor, not through the grace of a god.

However, the Buddha never denied the existence of gods. Throughout ancient Indian society, virtually everyone believed in supernatural beings of some sort. In many cases, these deities weren't especially powerful, except perhaps in terms of the magical feats they performed every now and then.They also weren't very involved in human affairs, at least on a steady basis. Among all these deities, the many gods in the Hindu pantheon were certainly the most prominent and widely worshiped, but they too tended to be regarded as remote forces who might grant favors, work miracles, or wreak mischief as they saw fit, rather than ever-present, omnipotent, judicious regulators of human existence.

The Buddha's spiritual vision rose out of a predominantly Hindu culture, and his career as a teacher was geared toward refining common religious beliefs rather than overthrowing them. As a result, Buddhism wound up with numerous references to Hindu gods in its sacred writings and liturgy. In this sense, it was an evolutionary spiritual movement instead of a revolutionary one. If nothing else, these allusions simultaneously helped to legitimize the new religion, to make it more familiar to the populace, and to lend it a compelling aura of grandeur.

The fact that the Buddha enjoyed a long, popular, and relatively untroubled
teaching career during a religiously volatile era testifies to his skill in avoiding controversy on the topic of gods or other core aspects of Hinduism. Thus the story of his life came to feature, for example, Indra and Brahma -- two of the principal Hindu gods -- urging the Buddha to become a teacher despite his own initial reluctance.

Nevertheless, the Buddha as a mortal being, symbolizing the human potential to become fully awakened to the truth and at one with the universe, remains "superior" in Buddhism to any deity. This perspective is dramatically illustrated in a passage of the Buddhacarita that recounts a day when the child Siddhartha, accompanied by his father and aunt, visited a temple of the Hindu gods:

As the child stepped across the threshold, the statues came to life, and
all the Gods, Siva, Skanda, Vishnu, Kuvera, Indra, Brahma, descended
from their pedestals and fell at his feet. And they sang: "Meru, king of
the mountains, does not bow before a grain of wheat; the Ocean does not bow before a pool of rainwater; the Sun does not bow before a glowworm; he who will have the true knowledge does not bow before the Gods." (Herold, The Life of the Buddha, 23) Buddhism also has gods of its own, but they are relatively inactive denizens of the highest, most comfortable realm of existence in the Buddhist cosmology. According to most Theravada schools of Buddhism, the other four realms (in descending order) are made up of humans, animals, hungry ghosts, and demons. In many Mahayana schools, there's a sixth realm of demigods between that of humans and that of gods.

This scheme of different worlds relates to the cycle of rebirths, a concept Buddhism also carried over from Hinduism. In the next life, a being advances upward or downward into one world or another depending on the particular karmic results of the present life. Gods also go through birth and death, but their life span is much longer than a human one, and their day-by-day existence much more agreeable. Still, the state of enlightenment, with its promise of liberation, is far preferable to life as an unenlightened god, and the former state can only be attained (or, as some schools express it, can most easily be attained) during a human existence. The reason is that human beings occupy a kind of middle ground in the scheme. They possess a consciousness that is capable of being enlightened, and yet they must also go through a great deal of suffering, which spurs their will to seek enlightenment. In most traditions, the realm of the gods consists entirely
or partly of beings who were once human and are waiting to be reborn into the human realm, where they will again have an opportunity to become enlightened.

Another dimension of Buddhism's five (or six) realms is strictly symbolic
in nature. Every human being has the potential to dwell emotionally, psychologically, or spiritually in any of these worlds at different moments or periods in his or her life. The specific qualities attributed to each realm vary from tradition to tradition, but they correspond logically with the type of inhabitants involved. In Tibetan Buddhism, for example, the six realms of demons, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, demigods, and gods are associated respectively with (among other things) the poisonous emotions of anger, greed, ignorance, desire, jealousy, and pride. For further discussion of this cosmology, see "Heaven and Hell" on page 27.

What is the historical context from which Buddhism grew? Why did it
appeal so strongly to so many people at the time?

The middle of the first millennium B.C.E. was a time of uniquely vigorous spiritual, philosophical, and political development in world history, so much so that it's often referred to as the Axial Age. Breakthroughs in Iron Age technology and, as a result, agriculture and human health gave rise to strong, socially more stratified city-states. These mini-civilizations competed with each other for leadership in all areas of life, from athletics and aesthetics to mercantile trade, military power, and territorial rights.

The beginning of this era saw the Trojan Wars in the eastern Mediterranean, the rebellions in China that toppled the Chou dynasty, and, in India, the conflicts that form the background of the national epic, the Mahabharata. In response to these upheavals and others, all sorts of novel questions and belief systems arose regarding a human being's proper or ideal place in the universe.

Shakyamuni articulated one such system, and so did a host of well-known historical figures whose lifetimes are roughly contemporaneous. The Jain religious leader Mahivira (who may have studied with Shakyamuni) taught that the individual soul must be kept pure through nonviolence. The Chinese sages Confucius and Lao Tse each formulated codes for living ethically and harmoniously with others. The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel exhorted their fellow Jews to take more personal responsibility for their destiny. Zoroaster (or Zarathustra) preached among the Persians that people must continuously
choose between good and evil. In Greece, Heraclitus philosophized that everything was transitory, and Socrates promoted a morality based on conscience rather than social demand.

As the answer to the preceding question indicates, the Buddha's teachings were in part a reformational response to the nature of Hinduism at that time. Many merchants, artists, and political leaders chafed at the Hindu-based caste system, which ranked them on a lower level than priests (brahmins). Furthermore, the Hindu religion as supervised by the brahmins was then perceived by increasing numbers of people as being too heavily ritualized (hence, static instead of dynamic) and too tightly oriented around gods rather than humans.

As a result, the roadways and villages of northeast India, somewhat removed from the stronghold of Hinduism farther west, were full of solitary persons and groups who sought or promoted new spiritual points of view. Robert Thurman, professor of Indo-Tibetan studies at Columbia University, captures this scene in his 1998 book Inner Revolution:

Wandering ascetics, holy men, and philosophers traveled from town to town, questioning the old myths and traditions. They championed the power of reason and the importance of the individual quest. They challenged the violent honor codes of the kings, the elitism of religious ideas and practices, and the validity of social hierarchy. The world was ripe for a new, critically deepened understanding of causation, of evolution, of the purpose of life. It was a time for a new possibility for human happiness and evolutionary fulfillment,
and many people hoped for the appearance of a fully awakened being, a buddha, to lead them. (46)

Copyright © 2001 by Jack Maguire and Roundtable Press, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (September 3, 2013)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476761961

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