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Buddhism & the Life of the Buddha

The Bodhisattva Guanyin, 1740-1800. Museum no. T.97-1966

The Bodhisattva Guanyin, 1740-1800. Museum no. T.97-1966. The last dynasty of China was the Qing dynasty, which ruled from 1644 to 1911. The style of multi-armed image represented by this woven picture of Bodhisattva Guanyin conforms to one of the Qing dynasty schools of Buddhism with Tibetan affiliations.

The legends associated with the major events of the Buddha's life, given here in condensed form, are based on a number of sources. Among the most important is the Buddhacarita or 'The Acts of the Buddha', the first full length biography of the Buddha written by an Indian poet called Ashvaghosha in the 1st century AD.

There are a number of ancient traditions concerning the dates of the Buddha's life making it almost impossible to know exactly when the events took place. In all probability, however, the Buddha lived between just after the mid 6th century and the late 5th century BC.

Conception and birth of the Buddha

The Buddha's parents were Suddhodana, king of the Sakyas, people living on the Indian borders of Nepal, and his wife Maya. According to legend, just before her conception Maya had a dream in which a white elephant entered her womb. Wise men prophesied that this meant that her future son would either become a 'World Sovereign'  known as a Chakravartin or a Buddha. When the time came for her to give birth, she withdrew to the garden at Lumbini, attended by her maidservants. Her baby was born miraculously from her right side, his limbs shining like the sun with dazzling brilliance. He immediately took seven long strides to the north and looking north, south, east and west he said, 'I was born for enlightenment and to benefit all that lives. This is the last time I have been born into this world of becoming'.  He was named Siddhartha Gautama.

The Great Renunciation

The young Siddhartha Gautama grew up surrounded by luxury and wealth. He was protected from the harsh realities of life by his father who had been warned that his son would withdraw from the world should he encounter such sights. However, one day when riding outside the palace grounds, the future Buddha saw four things that deeply disturbed him; an old man, a sick man, a dead man and finally a wandering holy man who had given up his home and family to search for knowledge. The prince became determined to find the reason for human suffering and the final cure for it. He decided to leave his luxurious life, wives and palace to seek spiritual salvation. One night he left his palace accompanied by his attendant and richly bridled horse. When far from the city he took off his princely jewellery and clothes and cut off his hair and beard with his sword. He changed his royal robes for the simple robes worn by holy men and gave his horse to his attendant.

The Enlightenment

Wandering in the forest with five other holy men Siddhartha followed a very strict regime of fasting and deprivation until he almost starved to death.  Realising at last that he had failed to acquire spiritual knowledge by such extreme means he resolved to seek it by a moderate 'Middle Way'. He took food and seated himself under a Bodhi tree or 'Tree of Wisdom', vowing not to move until he had gained enlightenment and finally solved the mystery of human suffering.

Warriors of Mara, late 15th century. Museum no. IS.2-1966

Warriors of Mara, late 15th century. Museum no. IS.2-1966

Mara, god of the world, sent his demon armies to prevent him as if Siddhartha succeeded, this would weaken Mara's kingdom which was founded on deaths and rebirths. Seated in mediation Siddhartha resisted the physical assaults of Mara's army, the seductions of his daughters and finally a challenge to his worthiness to claim enlightenment. In response to the last challenge he touched the earth calling it to witness his spiritual qualities. In response the earth shook and Mara and his armies fled.

Siddhartha then entered deep meditation and through the following night had a succession of realisations that culminated in a final understanding of the cause of human suffering and sorrow. He saw his own successive re-births, how all beings passed into the higher and lower worlds and finally how craving, desire and ignorance are the cause of the process of re-birth. With this realisation he became a Buddha which means 'Awakened One'. He remained for seven days under the Bodhi tree or 'tree of wisdom'.

The first sermon in the Deer Park

The Buddha at first hesitated to spread the truths he had discovered, thinking them too difficult to understand, but urged by the gods Indra and Brahma, he decided to begin teaching. Remembering the five holy men he had previously known he travelled to Varanasi to pass on his knowledge to them. Here, to the north of the city, in the deer park of Sarnath, near modern Patna in Bihar, he preached his first sermon. In the first 'Turning of the Wheel of the Law' the Buddha explained the essence of his teachings in the form of the Four Noble Truths. He spoke of the fact of suffering, identified desire as the cause of suffering, explained that suffering can be stopped and that the way to escape suffering is by following the 'Noble Eightfold Path' which showed eight ways in which people should live. At this time he also ordained the first Buddhist monks to spread his message.  The Buddha spent the next forty-five years travelling throughout north eastern India teaching and ordaining monks.

Death of the Buddha, schist relief, 2nd-3rd century AD, Museum no. IM.247-1927

Death of the Buddha, schist relief, 2nd-3rd century AD, Museum no. IM.247-1927

The death of the Buddha

The Buddha lived till over 80. His death occurred at Kusinagara (modern Kasia) after eating a meal prepared for him by a blacksmith.  When he knew that the end was approaching he gathered his disciples around him and gave a last speech.

His final words were 'Decay is inherent in all compounded things, work out your own salvation with diligence'. Then laying on his right side on a couch between two trees he passed into successively higher states of awareness and then into the final state of Nirvana. After his cremation his ashes were divided into eight parts and distributed amongst the eight local rulers. Burial mounds known as stupas were raised over each set of ashes.

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