shakbuddhastatue
Indian Buddha with Cobra. Courtesy of Scala/Art Resource, NY.

Buddhism begins with a man. In his later years, when India was afire with his message and kings themselves were bowing before him, people came to him even as they were to come to Jesus asking what he was. How many people have provoked this question—not “Who are you?” with respect to name, origin, or ancestry, but “What are you? What order of being do you belong to? What species do you represent?” Not Caesar, certainly. Not Napoleon, or even Socrates. Only two, Jesus and Buddha. When the people carried their puzzlement to the Buddha himself, the answer he gave provided a handle for his entire message.

“Are you a god?” they asked. “No.” “An angel?” “No.” “A saint?” “No.” “Then what are you?”

Buddha answered, “I am awake.”

His answer became his title, for this is what Buddha means. The Sanskrit root budh denotes both to wake up and to know. Buddha, then, means the “Enlightened One” or the “Awakened One.” While the rest of the world was wrapped in the womb of sleep, dreaming a dream known as the waking state of human life, one of their number roused himself. Buddhism begins with a man who shook off the daze, the doze, the dream-like vagaries of ordinary awareness. It begins with the man who woke up.

His life has become encased in loving legend. We are told that the worlds were flooded with light at his birth. The blind so longed to see his glory that they received their sight; the deaf and dumb conversed in ecstasy of the things that were to come. Crooked became straight; the lame walked. Prisoners were freed from their chains and the fires of hell were quenched. Even the crimes of the beasts were hushed as peace encircled the earth. Only Mara, the Evil One, rejoiced not. 

The historical facts of his life are roughly these: He was born around 563 B.C.E. in what is now Nepal, near the Indian border. His full name was Siddhartha Gautama of the Sakyas; Siddhartha was his given name, Gautama his surname, and Sakya the name of the clan to which his family belonged. His father was a king, but as there were then many kingdoms in the subcontinent of India, it would be more accurate to think of him as a feudal lord. By the standards of his day his upbringing was luxurious. “I wore garments of silk and my attendants held a white umbrella over me …. My unguents were always from Banaras.” He appears to have been exceptionally handsome, for there are numerous references to “the perfection of his visible body.” At sixteen he married a neighboring princess named Yasodhara, who bore him a son whom they called Rahula.

Here, in short, was a man who seemed to have everything: family, “the venerable Gautama is well born on both sides, of pure descent”—appearance, “handsome, inspiring trust, gifted with great beauty of complexion, fair in color, fine in presence, stately to behold”—wealth, “[He] had elephants and silver ornaments for [his] elephants.” He had a model wife, “majestic as a queen of heaven, constant ever, cheerful night and day, full of dignity and exceeding grace,” who bore him a beautiful son. In addition, as heir to his father’s throne, he was destined for fame and prestige.

Despite all this, there settled over him in his twenties a discontent which was to lead to a complete break with his worldly estate.

The source of his discontent is impounded in the legend of The Four Passing Sights, one of the most celebrated calls to adventure in all world literature. When Siddhartha was born, so this story runs, his father summoned fortunetellers to find out what the future held for his heir. All agreed that this was no usual child. His career, however, was crossed with one basic ambiguity. If he remained with the world, he would unify India and become her greatest conqueror, a Chakravartin or Universal King. If, on the other hand, he forsook the world, he would become not a world conqueror but a world redeemer. Faced with this option, his father determined to steer his son toward the former destiny. No effort was spared to keep the prince attached to the world. Three palaces and forty thousand dancing girls were placed at his disposal; strict orders were given that no ugliness intrude upon the courtly pleasures. Specifically, the prince was to be shielded from contact with sickness, decrepitude, and death; even when he went riding, runners were to clear the road of these sights. One day, however, an old man was overlooked or, as some versions have it, miraculously incarnated by the gods to effect the needed lesson: a man decrepit, broken-toothed, gray-haired, crooked and bent of body, leaning on a staff, and trembling. That day Siddhartha learned the fact of old age. Though the king extended his guard, on a second ride Siddhartha encountered a body racked with disease lying by the roadside; and on a third journey, a corpse. Finally on a fourth occasion he saw a monk with shaven head, ochre robe, and bowl and on that day he learned of the life of withdrawal from the world. It is a legend, this story, but like most legends it embodies an important truth. For the teachings of Buddha show unmistakably that it was the body’s inescapable involvement with disease, decrepitude, and death that made him despair of finding fulfillment on the physical plane. “Life is subject to age and death. Where is the realm of life in which there is neither age nor death?”

Once he had perceived the inevitability of bodily pain and passage, fleshly pleasures lost their charm. The singsong of the dancing girls, the lilt of lutes and cymbals, the sumptuous feasts and processions, the elaborate celebration of festivals only mocked his brooding mind. Flowers nodding in the sunshine and snows melting on the Himalayas cried louder of the evanescence of worldly things. He determined to quit the snare of distractions his palace had become and follow the call of a truth-seeker. One night in his twenty-ninth year he made the break, his Great Going Forth. Making his way in the post-midnight hours to where his wife and son were locked in sleep he bade them both a silent goodbye, and then ordered the gate-keeper to bridle his great white horse. The two mounted and rode off toward the forest. Reaching its edge by daybreak, Gautama changed clothes with the attendant who returned with the horse to break the news, while Gautama shaved his head and “clothed in ragged raiment,” plunged into the forest in search of enlightenment.

Excerpted from The World’s Religions (HarperCollins, 1991), a revised and updated edition of The Religions of Man (Harper & Row, 1958). Reprinted with permission from HarperCollins.

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