Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Beginnings of Buddhism

The founder's family name was Gautama, and by that name he was commonly known during his lifetime. The personal name given him as a child was Siddartha. Those who wished after his death to speak of him with reverence called him Sakya-Muni, the Sage of the Sakyas. These were a tribe who dwelt, at the period of the story, i.e. half a millennium before Christ, in the country to the north of the sacred Ganges, a few days' journey from the city of Benares. Gautama's father, Suddhodana, was rajah (chief) of the Sakyas; his residence was Kapilavastu, near Oude. The future sage thus belonged to the Kshatriya class, and was accustomed to a position of rank and ease.

We hear little of his youth; he had been married ten years, and his wife, whom he loved, had just brought him a son, when, at the age of twenty-nine, he suddenly and secretly left his home to devote himself to the religious life. He was led to this step by witnessing various painful sights which caused him vividly to realise the suffering which accompanies all existence, and made him scorn a life of luxury. It was a time when many were seeking a better way, and when a superior mind naturally turned to that retirement and absorption in which it was believed that the key to life's pains and mysteries was to be found. In the "Great Renunciation," as this act is called, there is nothing we cannot understand. This lofty act, however, was followed by a temptation; Mara, the spirit of evil, urged him, but urged him in vain, to give up the purpose he had formed.

He then attached himself to Brahmanic ascetics, from whom he learned their philosophy; and after this he devoted himself for six years to a life of fasting and penance, the Brahmanic method for drawing nearer the goal of the religious life. After this period he gave up his fasting, not having profited by it as he had expected, and returned to an ordinary diet. This change cost him the adhesion of five disciples who had become attached to him, and had been filled with wonder at his mortifications. But the loss was a small one compared with the gain which was at hand. After a second great spiritual struggle and a renewal of the temptation, he at last reached that which he had long been seeking. Seated under a ficus religiosa, the tree afterwards called the tree of knowledge, or the Bo-tree, he rose in contemplation above all his temptations and doubts till he beheld at length the true nature of things.

From this moment he was Buddha, Enlightened; he had the key of truth, and for himself he was assured that sorrow and evil had lost all hold on him. His doctrine had dawned in his mind. He had discovered the cause of the sorrow which is so closely intertwined in man's life, and had divined the way in which sorrow might be overcome. The method had been found by which one could escape from the unending succession of new lives, all painful, to which, according to the general belief of the time, men were condemned. The words placed in the mouth of the founder when he attained to Buddhahood tell their own tale. "Looking for the Maker of this tabernacle, I have to run through a course of many births so long as I do not find him; and painful is birth again and again. But now, Maker of the tabernacle, thou hast been seen; thou shalt not make up this tabernacle again. All thy rafters are broken; thy ridge-pole is sundered; the mind, approaching the eternal, has attained to the extinction of all desires."

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