Fundamentals of Buddhism


Today I would like to spend a little bit of time on the life of the Buddha. I do not intend to spend too much time on the life and career of the Buddha since most of the biography is essentially narrative. But I would like to take the opportunity today to draw attention to a few important Buddhist values which come through strikingly in the life of the Buddha.

Last week we talked about the two traditions and how the two traditions which were originally very distinct gradually began to interact and eventually fused in India and we said that the beginning of this process of interaction can be placed about the time of the Buddha. In fact during the time of the Buddha, we can see the beginning of the interaction and it was a process that continued until a thousand years later when the two traditions fused and became difficult to differentiate. It is not perhaps a coincidence that one of the primary areas where the two traditions came into the most active contact was in the area known as Madhyadesha, the area around what is now Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. This area was regarded by the Brahmins as an area of challenge to the Aryan tradition. It happens that when two traditions of this nature meet, it creates an atmosphere where there is a great potential for the growth of new religious directions. To a large extent we can see the life and teachings of the Buddha in this context. In addition to the interaction of the two religious traditions, there were also significant social, economic and political changes that were taking place and which we have touched on last week. All these contributed to a heightened level of religious consciousness. It always happens in times of political and social upheaval that man looks inward, that man turns to religion. When they see the institutions that their forefathers took as stable and unchanging shaken, there is a natural tendency to turn to religion, and this contributes to heightened religious consciousness and activities. This is very much the case in the 6th century B.C.

The values that emerge from the Buddha’s life that I would like to highlight are essentially three, and they are renunciation, loving-kindness and compassion, and wisdom. These three values emerge very clearly through episodes in the Buddha’s own life. Incidentally it is no coincidence that these three qualities between them equal the attainment of Nirvana because as you know there are three defilements (Klesha) that cause us to be born again and again - the defilements of desire, ill-will and ignorance. In this context we might also remember that renunciation is the antidote for desire, loving-kindness and compassion is the antidote for ill-will, and wisdom is the antidote for ignorance. Through cultivating these three qualities one is able to eliminate the defilements and attain enlightenment. So it is no accident that these qualities should stand out so prominently in the life of the Buddha.

Let us look at them one by one and let us start with renunciation. As often happens, some of the very first evidence of the Buddha’s renunciation manifested itself while He was still very young. Renunciation is basically a recognition that all existence is suffering. When one recognizes the fact that all existence is suffering, this brings about what we might call a turning about, in other words, seeing that life is full of suffering one begins to look for something more. This is why suffering is the First Noble Truth. This recognition that existence is suffering is the essence of renunciation. You may know of Prince Siddhartha’s visit to the annual ploughing ceremony at the age of seven. It was there that while watching the ploughing the prince noticed a worm that had been unearthed by the plough devoured by a bird. This sight led the prince to contemplate the realities of life, to recognize the fact that all living beings kill each other for food and this is a great source of suffering. Already we see at this tender age in the biography of the Buddha the beginning of this recognition that existence is suffering. If we look a little bit later in the life of the Buddha, we will come to the famous episode of the four sights which moved the prince to renounce the household life and to follow a life of asceticism to seek the truth. The sights of old age, sickness, death and an ascetic led Him to consider why it was that He should feel uneasy when in fact He was Himself not free from, was subject to old age, sickness and death. This consideration led Him to develop a sense of detachment from pleasure, led Him to seek the truth by way of renunciation. It is interesting to note that Prince Siddhartha’s renunciation is not renunciation out of despair. He enjoyed the greatest happiness and yet saw these sufferings of life, recognizing that no matter how great one’s indulgence in pleasures of the senses might be, eventually one would have to face these sufferings. Recognizing this, He was moved to renounce the household life and seek enlightenment for the sake of all living beings.

Let us next look at the quality of loving-kindness and compassion. Here too we can see this quality manifested very early in the life of the Buddha. The most striking example of this is the episode of the wounded swan. We are told that He and His cousin Devadatta were roaming in the park surrounding the palace when Devadatta shot down a swan with his bow and arrow. Both boys ran towards the spot where the swan had fallen, but Siddhartha being the faster runner came to the place where the wounded bird lay. Gathering the bird in His arms, He nursed the bird and this brought about a reaction from Devadatta who insisted that the bird ought to be his since he was the one who shot it down. The boys brought this dispute to the wise man of the court who decided that life belonged rightly to the one who preserved it, not to one who destroyed it. Here we have a striking example of the Buddha’s attitude of loving-kindness and compassion which grows directly out of this recognition that the nature of life is suffering. Later too after His enlightenment, the Buddha continued to display this quality, as for instance in the famous episode in which the Buddha nursed the sick Tissa whose illness was such that the other members of the Order shunned him.

Let us look at wisdom which is the third of the three qualities. Wisdom is the most important of the three qualities because after all it is wisdom that opens the door to enlightenment. It is wisdom that uproots ignorance, the underlying cause of suffering. It is said that just as one can cut off the branches and trunk of a tree and yet if the root of the tree is not taken out the branches and trunk will grow again. So in the same way one can eliminate desire through renunciation, ill-will through loving-kindness and compassion, but so long as ignorance is not eliminated, this desire and ill-will are liable to grow again.

Wisdom is achieved primarily through meditation. We have an episode again early in the life of the Buddha in which we see His early development of skill in concentrating the mind and this episode in fact occurred at the same time as the incident we considered a moment ago involving the bird and the worm. We are told that after having witnessed the bird devouring the worm, having recognized the unhappy nature of life, the young prince sat under a tree and began to meditate spontaneously. He achieved the first level of meditation through concentrating the mind on the process of in-breathing and out-breathing. So we have this experience of meditation in the early life of the Buddha, and later when He renounced the household life and went forth to seek the truth, one of the first disciplines which He tried was again the discipline of mental concentration. We are told that He studied with two foremost teachers of the time, Arada Kalama and Udraka Ramaputra and He learned from these teachers the methods of mental concentration. Last week we said that amongst the discoveries made at Mohenjodaro and Harappa were images of the figures sitting in postures of meditation. We have very good reasons to believe that the methods of mental concentration go as far back as the 3rd Millennium B.C. and it is very likely that these two teachers were exponents of this tradition of mental concentration. Yet we find that the prince left the two teachers because He found that meditation alone could not permanently end suffering. This is important because, although in its emphasis on mental development Buddhism is very much in the tradition of the Indus Valley Civilization, yet the Buddha goes beyond the tradition of mere meditation. This is what distinguishes the Buddha’s teachings from the teachings of many other Indian schools, particularly the teachings of the tradition of Yoga. It is also what distinguishes Buddhism from some of the contemplative traditions of other religions, because in Buddhism meditation by itself is not enough. Meditation is like sharpening a pencil, sharpening the mind so to speak. Just as when we sharpen a pencil we sharpen it for a purpose, so that we can write with it, so in sharpening the mind we have a purpose and that purpose is wisdom. Sometimes this relationship between meditation and wisdom is exemplified by the example of a torch. Suppose we want to see a picture in a darkened room with a torch. If there are many draughts in the room, we will find that the light of the torch will flicker. Similarly, if our hand shakes, the light cast by the torch will be unsteady, and we will be unable to see the image. In the same way, if we want to penetrate into the real nature of things, if our mind is unsteady, distracted, wavers as a result of emotional disturbances, then we will not be able to penetrate into the real nature of things. The Buddha applied this discovery on the night of His enlightenment when we are told that with His mind concentrated, made one-pointed and supple by meditation, He directed it to the understanding of the nature of reality and penetrated the real nature of things. So the Buddha’s enlightenment is the direct result of this combination of meditation and wisdom - concentration and insight.

We also find other aspects of wisdom expressed in the life of the Buddha, and one of the more important ones is of course the Middle Way. We do not have time today to discuss all the various levels of the meaning of the Middle Way but suffice it to say that the most basic significance of the Middle Way is the avoidance of the extreme of indulgence in pleasures of the senses and the extreme of tormenting the body. The Middle Way is exemplified in the life of the Buddha by His own experience of a life of luxury as a prince and by the six years of vigorous asceticism which He practised after He left His father’s palace. After realizing the futility of these extremes in His own experiences, He then hit upon the Middle Way which avoids these extremes.

There are many other important episodes in the life of the Buddha. But if we can begin to see and understand the life of the Buddha as a lesson and not simply as a biography containing a number of names and places; if we can begin to appreciate the values and qualities that are exemplified in the life of the Buddha, we will have gained greater insight into the real significance of the life of the Buddha.

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