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The Life of Buddha
The legend of the life of Buddha has many variations. Even the date of his birth is disputed. In China, he is believed to have been born in 947 BCE, but elsewhere the most commonly given date is 563 BCE. At birth, he was given the name Siddhartha, and his family name was Gautama. He is also called Sakyamuni, which means the sage (-muni) of the Sakya clan. Buddha is a title, not a name. It means one who is awake. To the Buddhists, a Buddha is no longer a person. It is a different category of beingnot a mere god, but a being superior to a god. The following account is a popular version of Buddhas life, focusing, as do the Buddhist texts, on Siddharthas early life and his heroic quest for enlightenment. The oldest Buddhist texts were written in the first century BCE in Pali (an ancient language of northern India close to the language that Siddhartha spoke), although the oldest copy of a Pali manuscript that we actually have today is about five hundred years old.1 These stories are more concerned with symbolic significance than an accurate account of Siddharthas life. Later a more complete biography was written in Sanskrit. In the Pali texts and the subsequent Sanskrit texts, we learn not only of Siddharthas life, but also of his past lives and of the twenty-four Buddhas who preceded him in other ages. At one time in a past incarnation, Siddhartha was a Brahman named Sumedha, an ascetic who came into the prescience of the first Buddha, named Dipankara. Like all Buddhas, Dipankara had the power of clairvoyance, and seeing Sumedha in the midst of the assembled crowd, he announced that one day Sumedha would also become a Buddha. This event set Siddhartha on his spiritual path, and led to his eventual Buddhahood. In the following 547 incarnations, Siddhartha experienced life as a lion, a snake, and other animals, as well as a human. During this process he purified himself and perfected the ten virtues: generosity, morality, renunciation, intelligence, energy, patience, truthfulness, determination, benevolence, and equanimity. He became a Bodhisattva, a title that refers to a person on his or her way to becoming a Buddha, and he incarnated in Tusita Heaven with the gods. Tusita Heaven is a paradise above Mount Meru in the sacred center of the world. The beings that live there are gods, but in Buddhist theology, the gods are not immortal. Although their lives are so long that they seem immortal to us, they, too, will suffer death. Of the six worlds shown on the Wheel of Life mandala, Tusita is the best place in which to incarnate. Realizing that his time there was ending, Siddhartha knew that it was time to incarnate in the world of men and to take the final step that he had been preparing for throughout all of his past lives: to become a Buddha. Siddhartha was born on the full moon in Wesak (our month of May), although the Chinese fix his date of birth on our modern calendar as April 8. He was born in Kapilavastu, a principality that no longer exists but which included an area that is now encompassed by northern India and Nepal. His father and mother were Suddhodhana and Maya, the wealthy rulers of Kapilavastu. They were members of the Ksatriya caste (the noble or warrior class). Before Siddharthas birth, Maya had a dream in which she was visited by a white elephant with six tusks. In the dream, the elephant impregnated Maya by piercing her side painlessly with one of his tusks. Ten lunar months later, Siddhartha was born. After his birth, it is said that he immediately stood and a white lotus rose under his feet from which he surveyed the ten directions. He then took seven steps toward each of the cardinal directions, and declared this to be his final birth. In some versions of the story, Suddhodhana and Maya had not yet consummated their marriage when Maya became pregnant. Therefore, Siddharthas birth, like that of Jesus, was from a virgin. Seven days after Siddharthas birth, Maya died of joy and ascended to Tusita Heaven. Mayas sister, Mahaprajapati, married Suddhodhana and raised Siddhartha. A short time later, a seer named Asita, a saintly old man from the Himalayas, came to visit the child and confirmed that two possible destinies awaited him. If Siddhartha embraced a worldly life, he would grow to be a chakravartin (literally, a wheel-turner), a great emperor over a unified India. If he embraced asceticism, he would become a world saviora Buddha. Asita was sure that Siddhartha would take the religious path. As the child was growing, his father summoned a council of wise Brahmans (members of the priest class). They determined that Siddharthas destiny hinged on whether or not he beheld the four sights: old age, sickness, death, and the life of the holy hermit. Suddhodhana wanted his son to succeed him to the throne and become a powerful ruler instead of an ascetic, so he kept Siddhartha in a beautiful palace with sumptuous gardens and delightful young women to serve as his attendants or as his courtesans. Some accounts say that the palace was surrounded by three...(Continues)