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History & Philosophy
Stories and reflections on the Buddhist approach to life
Shakyamuni Buddha's early life and his quest for enlightenment.
The actual dates of Shakyamuni's life are unknown. Most contemporary scholars believe that he died somewhere around the fourth to fifth centuries B.C. Nevertheless, many differing opinions still exist on this point today.
What is known, however, is that Shakyamuni was born as a prince of the Shakyas, a small tribe whose kingdom was located in the foothills of the Himalayas south of what is now central Nepal. His family name was Gautama. Later, when he attained enlightenment, his followers came to call him Gautama Buddha or Shakyamuni-- meaning "Sage of the Shakyas."
Shakyamuni was the son of King Shuddhodana and Queen Maya, rulers of the Shakyas. He was born in the Lumbini Gardens, while his mother was on her way from Kapilavastu to her parents' home. It is believed that Maya passed away a week later. As a result, Shakyamuni was raised from infancy by his maternal aunt, Mahaprajapati.. It was a tumultuous start for a turbulent life.
related article On Practice SGI President Daisaku Ikeda on the practice of Nichiren Buddhism from Discussions on Youth—For the Protagonists of the Twenty-first Century. As a prince, Shakyamuni grew up in the lap of luxury and was educated in both the civil and military arts. He had a different palace at his disposal for each season of the year and attendants with parasols were always on hand to shield his head from the sun's burning rays. During the rainy season, female attendants, dancers and musicians would serve and entertain him so that he would not have to venture outdoors. He lived in complete ease and comfort.
However, he was extraordinarily sensitive, and eventually began to suffer from deep spiritual anguish. Often he would walk by the edge of the pond in the palace gardens, immersed in deep philosophical thought.
"No matter how young and healthy we may be," he thought, "old age, sickness and death will inevitably overtake us. This is a destiny none of us can avoid." Shakyamuni discerned the workings of aging, sickness and death in his own life and scrutinized them carefully. "Yet, people look upon the aging, sickness and death of others with disgust and derision," he mused.
He was deeply sensitive to the prejudice and arrogance that lurked in the human heart, prompting people to view old age, sickness and death as if they were the sole concern of others. He came to believe that there could be no true happiness in life without resolving these unavoidable questions inherent in the human condition. This was the start of much agonizing soul-searching for the young prince.
Buddhist tradition holds that a series of incidents known as "the four meetings" motivated Shakyamuni's decision to renounce secular life.
Venturing outside the eastern gate of the palace on a pleasure outing one day, he encountered an old man; leaving from the southern gate on another occasion, he saw a sick person; and passing through the western gate yet another time, he came across a corpse.
Then one day, he left through the northern gate, where he chanced upon a passing ascetic. This encounter struck a deep chord within him, and he mustered the resolve to renounce his princely title and go out into the world in search of enlightenment.
The story of "the four meetings" is probably not literally true, but an embellishment added in later times. Nevertheless, viewed from the perspective of Buddhist teachings, Shakyamuni's motivation in renouncing secular life must have been deeply connected to his desire to find a way to transcend the fundamental human sufferings of old age, sickness and death.
Shuddhodana sensed that his son and heir, Shakyamuni, was thinking of entering religious life. According to one source, he arranged Shakyamuni's marriage to the beautiful Yashodhara to prevent his son from leaving home. The two eventually had a son named Rahula, who later became one of Shakyamuni's ten major disciples.
Having married and produced an heir, it seemed to most around him that Shakyamuni would settle down. But the young prince's spiritual torment continued. Indeed, the more he thought of his responsibility to assume the throne, the more his suffering intensified.
"People fight and kill each other, trying to dominate through military might. Yet even the most majestic military power is doomed to be destroyed some day by the very means it used to conquer others. None of us can escape the sufferings of the human condition--old age, sickness and death. Surely what is most important is to seek the way to liberate ourselves from these sufferings," he thought.
Rather than live in a world ruled by military prowess, he sought the true path of humanism. So he resolved to renounce his princely life and embark on a journey to seek the eternal realm of the human spirit.
The king immediately took measures to prevent Shakyamuni from leaving home to pursue a religious life. He provided his son with even greater luxuries and comforts than before and ordered his retainers to lavish the prince with entertainment and attention. But Shakyamuni remained firm. Finally, the king completely forbade his son to step outside the palace walls.
But nothing could quench the flame of Shakyamuni's seeking spirit. One night, riding a beloved steed in the company of a faithful attendant, he slipped through the tight security and left the city of Kapilavastu.
Sources differ on how old Shakyamuni was at the time; some say he was nineteen; others, twenty-nine.
Shakyamuni made his way south through the kingdom of Koliya, crossing the Anouma River. There, he removed all clothes and ornaments that could identify him as a prince and handed them to his attendant along with the reins of his favorite horse. He cut off his hair with the blade of his sword and, turning to his attendant, said: "From here, I go alone. Please return to the palace and tell my father and my wife that I shall not return to Kapilavastu until I have fulfilled my purpose in leaving secular life."
Having pondered the question of whom to study under, Shakyamuni finally called on a Brahman, a hermit-sage said to be a master of yogic meditation. It was said that by practicing yogic meditation, people could liberate their pure, undefiled spirit from material attachments.
The hermit-sage whom Shakyamuni chose as his first teacher had, through such meditation, attained the stage known as "the realm where nothing exists"--a state of emptiness in which one is free from all worldly attachments. Under him, Shakyamuni applied himself to practice and in a short time attained the same level as his teacher. However, he felt that the teaching did not provide a fundamental solution to the questions of human life and death.
He sought out another teacher, also a hermit and master of yogic meditation, who through that practice had attained "the realm where there is neither thought nor no thought"--a state where there was no mental activity. Again, Shakyamuni quickly mastered this practice, but it also failed to fulfill his purpose in pursuing a religious life.
Aging, sickness and death--all are real sufferings that torment human beings. Shakyamuni keenly sensed that the enlightenment of these masters, for whom meditation had become an end in itself, was ultimately ineffectual in providing fundamental solutions to these questions of life and death.
Shakyamuni left his second teacher to continue his quest for true enlightenment, seeking a tranquil place to devote himself to the practice of austerities.
He arrived in the village of Sena, nestled on the banks of the Nairanjana River, which flowed west of Rajagriha. The village had a beautiful green forest. It was here that Shakyamuni chose to begin his austerities. Many other ascetics lived in the woods for the same purpose.
It was commonly believed in India in those days that the body was tainted and the spirit alone was pure. The body held the spirit captive; by mortifying the body and physically weakening oneself, it was thought one could attain spiritual freedom.
Shakyamuni thus embarked on ascetic practice. It was the beginning of an unremitting struggle with himself, a struggle to attain perfect and penetrating enlightenment. His austerities included engaging in long fasts, lying on a bed of thorns, sleeping on the bones of corpses in the cemetery and eating filth. Fellow ascetics, seeing Shakyamuni lying immobile, his breathing indiscernible, sometimes thought he was dead. So punishing were the rigors he inflicted upon himself that no one could rival him in the practice of austerities.
Shakyamuni's body was cruelly emaciated. His ribs and the veins on his chest protruded painfully. His skin was smeared with dirt and covered with festering sores and wounds he had sustained in the course of his ascetic practice. His beard and hair were long and unkempt. Only his eyes, bloodshot as they were, shone with unusual lucidity and clarity.
He had devoted himself to austerities for several years, pushing himself to the very limits of his endurance. Yet despite all of these efforts, he had failed to attain enlightenment . . . Recognizing that extreme asceticism would not enable him to attain the enlightenment he sought, he decided to abandon this path.
Having left the woods, Shakyamuni stood on the banks of the Nairanjana River. The sunlight glistened on the leaves of the trees and shimmered like diamonds on the water's surface.
He made his way unsteadily down to the river to bathe his body. He was dazed from extreme exhaustion, but the water revived him. He washed away the grime of his accumulated austerities so that he might start anew.
His body was so weak it required an enormous effort for him to climb out of the river. As he sat on the river bank and straightened his hair, a young girl, named Sujata, from the nearby village appeared at his side and offered him some rice gruel. After his long fast, Shakyamuni gladly accepted the food. Fresh life began to infuse his entire body.
After resting a while and recovering some of his strength, he set off in search of a new path that would lead him to enlightenment. Crossing the Nairanjana River, Shakyamuni eventually came upon a large pipal tree. He sat down beneath its branches, crossed his legs and assumed the lotus position.
"I shall remain in this position until I have attained true enlightenment, even if my body withers in the heat as I try," he vowed, and then gently closed his eyes. From time to time, the wind rustled through the leaves of the pipal tree, but Shakyamuni, lost in deep inner contemplation, did not stir.
According to Buddhist writings, at this time demons began to tempt him. The devious means they resorted to differ with the various Buddhist writings, but it is interesting to note that some involved quite a soft and subtle approach.
In one, for example, a demon tried to sway Shakyamuni by whispering to him gently, "Look how gaunt you are, how pale your face is. You're surely on the verge of death. If you keep sitting here like this, it will be a miracle if you survive." After pointing out the peril he was in and strongly urging him to live, the demon tried to persuade Shakyamuni that if he followed the teachings of Brahmanism, he could accumulate great benefit without having to undergo such hardship.
Shakyamuni's efforts to attain enlightenment, the demon declared, were meaningless. This episode of being tempted by demons symbolized an intense personal struggle taking place within Shakyamuni.
Doubt assailed him, shattering his inner peace and throwing his mind into turmoil. With his body extremely weak and his physical reserves all but depleted, the specter of death also came to haunt him. Shakyamuni's mental torment was all the greater because of the knowledge that he had gained nothing from the intense austerities he had undertaken. Might not this effort, too, he thought, ultimately prove meaningless? He was plagued by attachments to worldly desire, racked by hunger for food and a craving for sleep, tormented by fear and by doubt.
Demons are the workings of earthly desires and illusions; they attempt to unsettle the mind of those who seek the way to true enlightenment. Sometimes demons arise in the form of our attachments to worldly desires, or appear as hunger or sleepiness. At other times, they torture the mind in the form of anxiety, fear and doubt.
Whenever they are led astray by such demons, people invariably justify their failing in some way. They convince themselves that their justification is perfectly reasonable and natural.
However, Shakyamuni saw these devilish functions for what they were and summoned a powerful life force, sweeping away all the disruptive thoughts that plagued him. In his heart, he cried out: "Demons! You may defeat a coward, but the brave will triumph. I will fight. Rather than living in defeat, I would rather die fighting!"
With this, his mind was restored to a state of tranquility.
The quiet blanket of night enfolded him, as countless stars above glittered with a pure, crystalline brilliance.
After overcoming the onslaught of devilish forces, Shakyamuni's mind was left fresh and invigorated, his spirit as clear as a cloudless blue sky.
Having secured an impervious inner state, Shakyamuni now focused on his past. No sooner had he looked back over his present life, than images of his immediately preceding life began to appear. As he continued this inner quest, memories of countless former existences came back to him vividly one after another. And further beyond that still, he recalled countless formations and destructions of the universe.
Shakyamuni realized that his present existence as he sat meditating under the pipal tree was part of an endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth, which had continued since time without beginning. He thus awakened to the eternal nature of life that spans past, present and future.
At that moment, all fears and doubts which had resided in the depths of his life like a heavy sediment since birth evaporated. He had arrived at last at the deep, unshakable roots of his own existence. He felt the darkness of illusion that shrouded him fall away as the brilliant light of wisdom illuminated his life. He had unlocked within himself a state of being akin to commanding a clear, unhindered view in all directions from atop a lofty mountain peak.
With this sharply focused inner vision, Shakyamuni turned his attention to the karma of all living beings. Images of all kinds of people undergoing endless cycles of birth and death passed through his mind. Some were born into misery while others, into fortunate circumstances. With single-minded concentration, Shakyamuni traced the cause of this discrepancy.
"Those burdened by the karma to be unhappy," he observed silently, "have in some past lifetime, through their actions, words or thoughts, committed evil deeds and slandered the practitioners of the Buddhist Law. Their attachment to erroneous views formed the basis for mistaken actions.
In contrast, those who were good and virtuous in their actions, words and thoughts, who did not slander practitioners of the Buddhist Law and conducted themselves correctly based on correct views, enjoyed happiness in later existences.
"The present life is determined by karma accumulated from past existences, while future existences are determined by our actions in this life."
Shakyamuni now clearly understood this. He plainly discerned the uncompromising law of cause and effect operating in people's lives throughout the unending cycle of life and death.
Dawn was drawing near. At the very moment the morning star began to shine in the eastern sky, something happened....
Like a limitless, penetrating beam of light, Shakyamuni's wisdom suddenly broke through to illuminate the eternal, immutable truth of life. He felt something like an electric shock coursing through him. He trembled with emotion, and with his face radiant and tears filling his eyes, he said:
"This is it!"
In that instant, Shakyamuni attained a profound awakening. He had finally become a Buddha--one enlightened to the supreme truth. It was as if a door within his life had been thrown open to the entire universe, and he was released from all illusion. He felt he could now move and act freely based upon the Law of life. It was a state he had never experienced before in this lifetime.
Now Shakyamuni understood:
"The entire universe is subject to the same constant rhythm of creation and change. This applies equally to human beings. Those now in infancy are destined to grow old and eventually die and then to be reborn again. Nothing, either in the world of nature or human society, knows even a moment of stillness or rest. All phenomena in the universe emerge and pass into extinction through the influence of some external cause. Nothing exists in isolation; all things are linked together over space and time, originating in response to shared causal relationships. Moreover, a Law of life permeates the entire process."
Shakyamuni had grasped the wondrous truth of existence. He was convinced that he could develop himself limitlessly through this Law he had awakened to. All criticism, obstacles and hardships would be nothing more than dust before the wind.
"Unaware of this absolute truth, people live under the illusion that they exist independently of one another. This ultimately makes them prisoners of their desires, estranging them from the Law of life, the eternal and unchanging truth of existence. They wander about in darkness and sink into unhappiness and suffering. But such darkness stems from delusions in one's own life. Not only is such spiritual darkness the source of all evils, but also the essential cause of people's suffering over the realities of birth, aging, sickness and death. By confronting this delusion and ignorance in our own lives, we can open the way to true humanity and indestructible happiness."
As the sun rose over the horizon, its bright light began to dispel the morning mist. It was truly a radiant dawn of happiness and peace for all humankind.
Bathed in the joy of his awakening to the Law, Shakyamuni watched the light of a new morning spread across the land.
For a time, Shakyamuni simply savored the joy of awakening to the Law, but soon he began to grow deeply troubled. He faced a painful new dilemma: Should he preach this Law to others or should he remain silent? Sitting in the shade of the pipal tree, he agonized for many days over this question.
No one had ever before heard, let alone expounded, this magnificent, unsurpassed Law. A vast gap lay between the brilliant realm within his own being and the real world outside. People lived in torment, fearing sickness, aging and death; consumed by desire, they fought constantly among each another.
All this was due to their ignorance of the law of life. Yet even if he taught them the Law for their own sake, it was possible that no one would comprehend it.
Shakyamuni felt completely alone. His was the "loneliness of the truly enlightened," known only to those who have gained an understanding of a profound principle or truth that no one else is aware of.
According to one account, at this point, demons reappeared to torment Shakyamuni. This episode can again be interpreted as a struggle with the devilish functions in his own life, which were now attempting to dissuade him from teaching the Law to others.
Shakyamuni couldn't stem this upsurge of doubt and hesitation at the thought of forging ahead and disseminating the Law. He agonized over what to do.
Devilish functions thus continued to plague Shakyamuni even after he had become a Buddha. They vied to attack him through even the smallest breach in his heart.
A Buddha is not a superhuman being; one who has attained this state continues to experience problems, suffering and pain and is still subject to illness and to temptation by devilish forces. For that reason, a Buddha is a person of courage, tenacity and continuous action who struggles ceaselessly against devilish functions.
No matter how lofty a state we may achieve, without continuous efforts to advance and improve, our faith can be destroyed in a moment.
According to one Buddhist text, the god Brahma appeared before the still indecisive Shakyamuni and entreated him to preach the Law to all people. This episode symbolizes the determination that welled up in Shakyamuni's life to go forward and fulfill his mission.
"I will go forward!" he resolved with finality. "Those who seek to learn will surely listen. Those of little impurity will understand. I shall go out among the people, who are shrouded in delusion and ignorance!"
Once he had made this determination, he felt a surge of new energy flow through him. At this moment, a great lion of an individual stood up for the happiness of humanity.
The sage of the Shakyas buoyantly set forth from the woods. The sky, clouds, forest and river were bathed in a dazzling golden glow. A breeze rustled gently through the branches. Nature seemed to be applauding his journey with a beautiful, jubilant melody.
--SGI President Daisaku Ikeda
Excerpted from The New Human Revolution Vol. 3 (SGI-USA, 1996)