By Toni Bernhard, J.D. on November 30, 2011 - 8:56am
The name Buddha means "awakened one." This is the story of how a young man became the Buddha. As with all ancient tales, we can't know what is to be taken literally and what is to be taken metaphorically. It doesn't matter to me. I'm inspired by his story either way.
The Buddha was born a prince in a small kingdom that is part of modern-day Nepal. His name was Siddhartha Gautama. His father, the king, indulged his son's desires and protected him from being exposed to human suffering. The king posted guards at the palace gates to keep Siddhartha from seeing how less fortunate people lived. He even had attendants hold a parasol over his son so he wouldn't experience heat or cold or dust. Everything unpleasant about life was hidden from him.
When Siddhartha was nine-years old, his father took him to a plowing festival. At one point, the nurses left the prince unattended under a rose-apple tree. In striking contrast to the noise of the festival, it was calm and quiet under the tree. Siddhartha sat cross-legged and became aware of the sensation of his breath going in and out of his body. It was his first experience of true calm and peacefulness. Soon his nurses returned and broke this peaceful abiding, but the experience had a profound effect on the young prince.
One day, when Siddhartha was a young man, he talked his attendant, Channa, into taking him beyond the walls of the palace. For the first time, Siddhartha was exposed to life as the rest of us experience it.
As the story goes, when he saw an old person with shriveled skin, bent over and leaning on a walking staff, he asked Channa what was wrong with him. Channa replied, "He's old. Everyone who lives for a long time gets old and looks like that."
When Siddhartha saw a person who was delirious with fever and whose skin was covered with blotches, he asked Channa what was wrong with him. Channa replied, "He is sick. Everyone is subject to disease."
When Siddhartha saw a corpse on the side of the road, he asked Channa what was wrong with him. Channa replied, "He's dead. We all die, sweet prince."
Then Siddhartha saw a man seated cross-legged under a tree, looking calm and peaceful. He asked Channa, "What sort of man is this?" Channa replied, "He is a homeless wanderer in search of truth."
Siddhartha was shaken to the core by this first glimpse of human suffering and by the man he'd seen under the tree. He felt called to leave his life of luxury and become a wanderer himself. He sought the answer to three questions: Why do people suffer, could one find freedom from it, and if so, how?
Siddhartha's renunciation is unparalleled in history. At 29, he was a prince in the prime of his life—a life of power, privilege, and wealth. But he gave it all up. He traded his opulent clothes for a robe made of scraps of material found lying around. He ate only what was given to him. He slept under a tree for shelter.
He sought out spiritual teachers and undertook many different practices. He found that he could easily attain transcendent states of mind, but they always passed, leaving him with his three unanswered questions. At one point, he became an ascetic, starving himself in an attempt to gain spiritual awakening. This extreme didn't bring him any closer to understanding suffering or to the freedom that he sought than had the other extreme of a life of luxury and sensual pleasure at his father's palace.
So, Siddhartha decided to go off by himself. Recalling his experience as a child under the rose-apple tree, he accepted some much-needed food from a young girl and then sat down under a fig tree, vowing not to get up until he knew the answer to his questions.
As he sat, he was assailed by mental suffering in all the forms that are so familiar to each of us—the painful mind states of greed, ill-will, confusion, and their cousins: temptation, fear, and doubt. He just sat. After seven days, he had his great insight which people have been speculating about for 2,500 years and which I describe here based on my understanding of his teachings.
He saw that everything arose due to causes and conditions, and that everything was subject to dissolution—both the physical body and mind states of all varieties. When he saw that painful mind states arose as the result of causes and conditions and were impermanent (as opposed to being a fixed part of his identity), they lost their hold on him. He realized that reacting with aversion to them just intensified his suffering, but that when he just witnessed and acknowledged their presence, a contented peace came over him.
In this stillness, he at last saw the answers to his three questions: why do people suffer, could one find freedom from it, and if so, how? He became the Buddha—the awakened one—seeing clearly these things:
(1) Suffering is present in the life of all beings because everything that arises is subject to dissolution and so any satisfaction can only be temporary. Every one of us is subject to illness, old age, death, and separation from those we love. During the course of our lives, we will experience joy and we will experience sorrow.
(2) Freedom from mental suffering is possible because painful mind states, like all phenomena, are impermanent and so we need not identify with them as "me" or "mine."
(3) Freedom from mental suffering is attained by greeting our experience with an open heart, knowing that some of it will be joyful and some of it will be sorrowful. When we are openly present with whatever arises—not clinging to the pleasant and not recoiling from the unpleasant—we, too, can experience the peacefulness of a buddha.
The Buddha spent the rest of his life—45 years—as a wandering monk, sharing his insight with others, regardless of their caste or gender. He devised an astounding number of practices to help people understand suffering and to point the way to attaining the peace and contentment that he attained under that fig tree. I've written about some of these practices, such as the cultivation of compassion and equanimity (see 4 Qualities of Mind that Alleviate Suffering) and the practice of mindfulness (see 6 Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness Outside of Meditation).
It is said that soon after his experience under the fig tree, the Buddha passed a stranger on the road who was so struck by the Buddha's calm radiance that he asked him, "Are you a god?" The Buddha replied, "No. I am not." "What are you then?" the man asked. And the Buddha said, "I am awake."
For me, this story is inspiring because it means that, through our own effort, the peaceful contentment we see in statues of the Buddha is within the reach of all of us.
The Buddha's teachings have given rise to dozens of schools and traditions. Some of them have elevated the Buddha to a god-like figure to be worshipped. But the ancient texts make it clear that he was just an ordinary—if remarkable—person who embarked on an extraordinary journey of discovery. This is why I and many others don't consider Buddhism to be a religion.
To me, Buddhism is a path of practice that helps me understand suffering—my own and that of others—and teaches me how to open my heart so wide that it can respond with compassion to the suffering in the world, while, at the same time, resting in the peaceful contentment of a buddha.
© 2011 Toni Bernhard.
I'm the author of the How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers, winner of the 2011 Gold Nautilus Book Award in Self-Help/Psychology. Website: www.howtobesick.com