The Buddha never claimed to be divine; nor did the Buddha claim to be a prophet in direct communication with the divine. While the Buddha is not considered a deity (such as the Hindu gods and goddesses), he is still venerated by Buddhists when they pay reverence to Buddha Statues by making offerings of incense and flowers to the sculptures, or while reciting prayers and bowing before them.
Because there were no written accounts at the time of the Buddha and the stories were passed along orally for several hundred years before being written and compiled into a collection of religious texts (known as a canon), there are differing accounts about the Buddha's life. However, most of them agree that the Buddha was born around 563 B.C.E. in the town of Lumphini to the son of a chieftain or ruler (although it is often stated that he was the son of a king). His family belonged to the Sakya clan, so the Buddha is often referred to as 'The Lion of the Sakya Clan" (Sakyamuni).
Shortly after Siddhartha was born, his father enlisted the help of fortune tellers to predict the future life of his son. All the fortune tellers agreed that Siddhartha would grow up to have an impact on the world. While his father hoped Siddhartha would grow up to be a powerful chieftain or king, the soothsayers noted that material wealth might not be the path he would take. Instead, they noted that if Siddhartha were to experience sorrow around him, he may take a spiritual path and grow up to be a world redeemer.
Siddhartha's father did not want for his son to take a spiritual path in life as it would require Siddhartha to give up everything he had. So instead, Siddhartha's father surrounded him with opulence. By all accounts, he lived a pampered life while growing up, and was not hesitant to remind his disciples that his upbringing was more luxurious than most people experienced. Legend has it that Siddhartha was given three palaces, along with the requisite attendants to run them. It was said that a staggering 40,000 dancing girls were on hand for his entertainment. Further, Siddhartha's father placed strict orders that the sorrows of daily life should be kept far away from Prince Siddhartha so that he would become enamored with pleasure and shielded from reality.
At the age of 16, Prince Siddhartha married a princess named Yashodhara, who was from a neighboring clan. It appears their relationship was quite good because they had a son together, whom they named Rahula.Yet despite this family bliss, throughout his twenties, Siddhartha grew increasingly weary of his pampered life. Legend has it that the last straw was reached when Siddhartha, on a parade outside the palace, saw four auspicious sites along the roads that lined the parade route; First, an old man. Second, a diseased man. Third, a corpse. And fourth, a monk dressed in robes, who had renounced the world and was following a spiritual path.
Siddhartha was so moved by these four sites that he vowed to leave the seductions of palace life behind and instead start his own spiritual quest. During the 29th year of his life, Prince Siddhartha decided he would break from his family, leaving all he had behind, and would take up the life of a wandering ascetic. So on a full moon night, while his wife and son slept, he rode out of the palace on his horse and into the Forrest to start his quest. He changed out of his silk robes and changed into rags, shaved his head, and left everything he had ever known behind.
Siddhartha Starts His Spiritual Quest
The future Buddha was on a journey to find "the realm where there is neither age nor death." It would be a six-year-long endeavor that would change course abruptly, and can be broken down into three different periods. The first began with Siddhartha seeking out two renowned spiritual masters. This period focused primarily on mastering meditation techniques, but he also learned much about spiritual philosophy from them. However, at some point, Siddhartha mastered the meditation techniques of his teachers and realized that he would have to move on to continue his spiritual journey.
The next phase saw Siddhartha joining a band of ascetics, who practiced self restraint and denial, which included prolonged fasting. The future Buddha was, by later accounts, so adept at denying his bodies needs that at one point he was able to eat just six grains of rice a day. But Siddhartha had doubts that this was the right path to reaching enlightenment, and one day when nearly fainting, a passing cowherdess offered him food. This act of compassion by a passing stranger had a profound effect on the development of Buddhism.
Siddhartha's realization that extreme asceticism would not lead to Enlightenment helped him conclude that there must be another path that would lead to liberation for all mankind. He reasoned that there must be a Middle Path that would fulfill the needs of the body - but without indulging it - that could lead to salvation. Siddhartha then set about on a rigorous practice of meditation and focused concentration. According to the Buddhist texts, one night Siddhartha sat down under a tree near the town of Gaya in northeastern India, and vowed not to arise from that spot until he had made his breakthrough in his quest for enlightenment.
It is said that the God Mara, who is often equated to Satan in Christianity, tried to block Siddhartha from completing his quest for Enlightenment, first by tempting Siddhartha with images of three beautiful women. When that failed to stop Siddhartha from his quest, Mara then took the form of powerful storms, tornadoes, and fiery rocks in order to terrify Siddhartha. That, too, failed to deter Siddhartha.
Seeing that Siddhartha was determined to use reason as a means of reaching Enlightenment, Mara then attempted to appeal to Siddhartha's logical side. He questioned Siddhartha's motivation for reaching enlightenment, and in response, Siddhartha reached down with his right hand and touched the ground, calling the earth as his witness that Siddhartha was seeking the ultimate knowledge of the universe in order to benefit all mankind, and not just as something to be kept for himself. Some accounts state that at that moment, the Earth Goddess Vasundhara sent waves of water in to wash away Mara and his demon army.
It is said that after the victory of Mara, Siddhartha spent the night in focused contemplation and that the mysteries of the universe were unveiled to him. He was able to see all of his past lives, and came to fully understand the law of cause and effect (karma) as well as understanding the root causes of suffering (dhuka). All in all, it took Siddhartha 6 years on his spiritual quest to achieve enlightenment.
After Enlightenment - Now The Buddha
While Siddhartha was relieved to have finally achieved enlightenment, he was dismayed at how difficult it would be to share the path with others. In fact, Siddhartha did not originally believe it would be worthwhile to teach others his religious path. It took the pleadings of the God Brahma, who asked the Buddha to teach the path and insisted that there would be people wise enough to understand and follow the teachings.
The Buddha then decided to form the first Buddhist community (sangha), built around his religion; he did not call it Buddhism at that time, but instead used the more common word Dharma (The Path, or The Religion) to describe his religious path. Unlike the Brahmins of the Vedic religion of that time - who believed that ONLY people who were born into the high caste would be able to reach liberation in this life - the Buddha believed that ALL men AND women would be able to obtain salvation (Nirvana) in this lifetime. Hence, many people of lower castes became followers of the Buddha.
The Buddha eventually died from food poisoning at the age of 80, but this event is also known as The Great Nirvana. While the Buddha was dying, he noted that he should not be worshiped as a god. "When I am gone, I will be truly gone," he said. The Buddha's last words were to his followers, and he stated that each of us is responsible for our own liberation, and that we must work continually toward that goal.
Frequently Asked Questions About The Buddha
Q) Was The Buddha A God?
A) No, the Buddha was often asked if he was a deity, and instead replied that he was a man who was awakened (Enlightened). However, there are later schools of Buddhism where they believe the Buddha to be a deity, and believe that being devoted to the Buddha can bring liberation.
Q) Was The Buddha An Atheist?
A) The Buddha never argued for or against the existence of a divine creator or all powerful god. Instead, the Buddha pointed out the folly of asking such a question, or of seeking salvation through devotion to a deity. The Buddha instead taught that our salvation comes from our actions as opposed to seeking the nature of the divine. He likened it to a person who is shot by a poisoned arrow, and will not go to a doctor to have the arrow removed until he is told who shot him, what type of bow was used, what type of arrow was used, was the bow made of wood or horn, was the string of the bow made from vines or animal sinew, what type of feathers were used in the arrow, etc. The Buddha insisted that we need to ask the right questions in order to find answers.
Q) If he is not a god, why do people pray to the Buddha?
A) Technically, many Buddhists do not pray to him, but instead pay honor to his teachings. Followers of the early Buddhist lineage (known as Theravada) will bow three times before a Buddha statue; once to pay respect to the Buddha, once for the teachings of the Buddha (the Dharma) and once for the brotherhood of monks (the Sangha).
Q) Was the Buddha a Misogynist?
A) No, the Buddha believed that both men AND women can achieve liberation in this lifetime. As such, the Buddha did have many female followers. However, the Buddha did try to segregate the communities somewhat, as he believed it would be extremely difficult for the male followers to keep their focus on religion when they are in close proximity. It should be noted that women play significant roles in the enlightenment of the Buddha; it was a woman who offered the Buddha food that changed Siddhartha's path from extreme denial to a middle way, and it was the female goddess Vasundhara who helped wash away Mara and his demon army.
Q) Was The Buddha Fat?
A) No, but many people confuse the Happy Buddha (who IS fat) with the Historical Buddha. The Happy Buddha is a Chinese monk who is venerated for being a great teacher of Mahayana Buddhism. By all accounts, the Buddha was, on the other hand, quite handsome.
Q) Did the Buddha have a shaved head?
A) For a period of time, yes. The Buddha shaved his head when he first left the palace on his path to enlightenment. However, in paintings and in statues the Buddha is almost always depicted a full head of hair, either straight or curly depending on the style and period of art.
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Buddhism References and Sources:
Brahmanism, Buddhism and Hinduism : an essay on their origins and interactions
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Kevin Trainor, general editor, Published 2001 by Oxford University Press, New York