Sixth century B.C. was an important era in history. This was the period when a great benefactor of mankind was born and became renowned as Gotama the Buddha. The Buddha rediscovered the path of Dhamma leading to the eradication of universal suffering. With great compassion he spent forty-five years showing the path and this helped millions of people to come out of their misery. Even today this path is helping humanity, and will continue to do so provided the teachings and practice are maintained in their pristine purity.
History tells us that in 624 B.C. King Suddhodana ruled the kingdom of Sākya. He had two queens: the chief queen was Mahāmāyā and the younger queen was Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī, the sister of Mahāmāyā. When Mahāmāyā was travelling from Kapilavatthu, the capital, to Devadaha, her parents’ home, to have her first child, she gave birth along the way to a son under a large sāla tree in the Lumbinī grove on the full moon day of Vesākha (month of April-May). An aged sage, Asita, visited the palace, and on seeing the marks of greatness (mahāpurīsa lakkhaṇa) in the child, first expressed joy and then shed tears. He was joyful at seeing that a great being had come to earth to teach suffering humanity how to eradicate its misery, yet he shed tears because he would not live long enough to be able to benefit from this.
Five days after the birth the name-giving ceremony was held to which a number of brāhmans were invited. All, except Koṇḍañña, foretold: either the child would be a great Emperor (Cakkavatti Rājā) or an Enlightened One, a Buddha. Koṇḍañña, however, said quite decisively that the boy would be a Buddha. The boy was given the name of Siddhattha, meaning one whose aim is accomplished.
Just seven days after the birth, Queen Mahāmāyā passed away and the young Siddhartha Gotama (Gotama being his family name) was then raised by his stepmother amd maternal aunt Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī. As he grew, the young prince preferred solitude and a meditative life to the games and pranks natural for his age. This was observed by his father who, fearing the prophecy, tried his best to divert the attention of the young Siddhartha towards worldly things, while at the same time shielding him from the sight of any worldly suffering.
At the young age of sixteen, Siddhartha was married to Yasodharā, a beautiful princess. It was his father’s hope that she would bind him to the family life. Until the age of twenty-nine he lived the life of a householder amidst great luxury and ease. 1
One day, as Siddhartha was going out in his chariot, he saw along the way a decrepit old man, then a sick man, then a dead body, and finally an ascetic radiating with a glow of peace and tranquility on his face. These four incidents made a distinct impression on him. He began reflecting on the misery inherent in existence; at the same time he felt drawn to renounce the world and seek a way of liberation.
When Prince Siddhartha and Princess Yasodharā bore a son, Siddhartha saw the event as a bondage and decided to call the child Rāhula, meaning an obstacle. Ultimately, however, the child did not prove to be a bondage, as Siddhartha thought it better to renounce the worldly life before his attachment grew stronger. He decided to adopt the life of a wanderer in quest of truth. One night, he left the palace along with his attendant Channa. After going some distance he discarded his royal robes and ornaments, giving them to Channa, and then cut off his hair and became an ascetic. He was twenty-nine years of age.
For six years he wandered in search of truth. First he met the spiritual teachers Āḷāra Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta, and learned from them deep absorption concentrations (the seventh and eighth jhānas) that were practised at that time. Despite this practice Siddhartha wasn’t satisfied. Although his mind was more calm and peaceful, and now purified to a great extent, still at the deepest level of his mind there remained latent defilements. His mind was not totally pure.
At this stage in his search he proceeded to Senānigāma in Uruvelā. There he practised rigorous austerities along with five other mendicants—the pañcavaggiya bhikkhus. By fasting he was reduced to a mere skeleton, yet total purification still eluded him. As a result of all these experiences he realised that as the life of ease and physical luxury was one extreme and not the way to eradicate suffering, so also the life of physical torture and severe penance was another extreme. This realisation brought him to the middle path. He decided to take food again, and was offered rice gruel by Sujātā, a young maid living nearby. At this point his five companions left him, as they were still convinced that the path of self-mortification led to enlightenment.
Siddhartha continued on alone. On the full moon day of Vesākha (April-May), after refreshing himself in the Nerañjarā River, he was drawn towards a pleasant grove of trees. There he sat down with a strong determination (adhiṭṭhāna) not to leave until attaining enlightenment. 2 He spent that night in deep meditation, exploring the truth within, and rediscovered the long-lost technique of vipassanā.
Vipassana means to see things as they really are, and not just as they appear to be. In the Brahmajāla Sutta he states how he practised this to achieve enlightenment:
Having experienced as they really are the arising of sensations, their passing away, the relishing of them, the danger in them, and the release from them, the Enlightened One, O monks, has become detached and liberated.3
Practising Vipassana, he penetrated the veils of ignorance, delusion, and illusion. He discovered the law of dependent origination (paṭiccasamuppāda), the chain of cause and effect conditioning the universe.4 Whatever arises, arises due to a cause; when the cause is eradicated there can be no resulting effect. Therefore, by totally eliminating the cause of suffering one can attain real happiness, real liberation from all misery. With this realisation, he penetrated the illusion of solidity in mind and matter, dissolved the tendency of his mind to cling and crave, and realised the unconditioned truth. The darkness of ignorance was dispelled and the light of wisdom shone forth in all its brilliance. The subtlest defilements of his mind were washed away. All the shackles were broken. No craving remained for the future; his mind became free from all attachments. Siddhartha Gotama attained supreme enlightenment, experiencing the ultimate truth in all its purity, and became a Sammāsambuddha. The tree under which he sat became known as the Bodhi tree and the area as Bodhagayā.
With the experience of total liberation the following words of joy (udāna) came forth:
Anekajātisaṃsāraṃ sandhāvissaṃ anibbisaṃ,
gahakārakaṃ gavesanto dukkhā jāti punappunaṃ.
Gahakāraka diṭṭho’si puna gehaṃ na kāhasi,
sabbā te phāsukā bhaggā gahakūṭaṃ visaṅkhitaṃ,
visaṅkhāragataṃ cittaṃ taṇhānaṃ khayamajjhagā.5
-Through countless births I wandered in saṃsāra, seeking, but not finding, the builder of the house. I have been taking birth in misery again and again. O builder of the house you are now seen! You cannot build the house again. All the rafters and the central pole are shattered. The mind is free from all the saṅkhārā. The craving-free stage is achieved.
After his enlightenment the Buddha spent several weeks enjoying nibbānic peace. At the end of this period Tapassu and Bhallika, two merchants of Ukkala offered him rice cakes and honey. 6 These two became the first lay disciples (upāsakā) taking refuge only in the Buddha and the Dhamma, as the Saṅgha had not yet come into being.
The Burmese tradition maintains that both these merchants were from Okkala, an ancient city near present day Rangoon. The Burmese take pride in the fact that the first people to give respect to the Buddha and the Dhamma were from Burma, and that the first food that the Buddha took after enlightenment was Burmese rice and honey.
With infinite compassion the Buddha decided to teach the profound Dhamma. His two previous teachers Āḷāra Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta, who could have understood the Dhamma, had passed away. So he decided to go to the Isipatana-migadāya at Sāranāth, the deer park near Vārāṇasī, to teach his five companions who had left him just before his enlightenment. It was on the full moon day of Āsāḷha (June-July) that the Buddha set in motion the Wheel of the Dhamma by teaching the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta7 explaining the middle path to them. They became his first five bhikkhu disciples and therefore the first members of the Bhikkhu Saṅgha (Order of Monks). This sermon was later followed by the Anatta-lakkhaṇa Sutta,8 at the end of which all five became fully liberated (arahant) by the practice of Vipassana. They realised the truth of the impermanent, substanceless, and unsatisfactory nature of reality (anicca, dukkha, and anattā) at the experiential level.
Not long after this, Yasa, the depressed and mentally disturbed son of a wealthy merchant of Vārāṇasī who could not find peace in his riches and way of life, approached the Buddha and received ordination. He was followed by his fifty-four friends who also became monks. Having tasted Dhamma, they soon gained the peace which they sought and with continued practice they all attained the stage of arahant. 9 Yasa’s father and mother became the first lay disciples to take refuge in the Triple Gem, as now there were three qualities in which to take refuge: the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Saṅgha.
The next months were the rainy season and the Buddha spent them in retreat (vassāvāsa) at Sāranāth with the Saṅgha, which had grown to sixty arahant bhikkhus. As the rainy season ended he instructed them as follows : Wander forth, O monks, for the benefit of many, for the happiness of many. Shower compassion on the world for the good, benefit, and happiness of gods and men. Let no two go in the same direction.10
The Buddha sent these sixty bhikkhus to various places to teach the Dhamma. Because they had realised the truth of the path to liberation themselves, they became shining examples of what they taught. Their teaching did not consist of mere discourses, mere words. Their success lay in enabling the people to practise what was taught. The nature of the Dhamma is that it is beneficial in the beginning, beneficial in the middle, and beneficial in the end.11 The results of the practice (paṭipatti) started to manifest. People from different sects, castes, and classes were attracted. Leaders of various sects started practising the Dhamma. While the Buddha was on his way to Senānigāma at Uruvelā, the thirty Bhaddavaggiya received ordination. At Uruvelā, the three Kassapa brothers with their thousand followers became monks. 12 Also the two brāhmans Sāriputta and Moggallāna took ordination, and later became the chief disciples of the Buddha.13
Many other important people of that time also became attracted to pure Dhamma: the Kings Bimbisāra, Suddhodana, and Prasenajita; the wealthy merchants Anāthapiṇḍika, Jotiya, Jaṭila, Meṇḍaka, Puṇṇaka, and Kākavaliya; and important women such as Visākhā, Suppavāsā, and Khemā. They donated various monasteries to the Saṅgha with the wholesome volition that the Dhamma might spread throughout society. These facilities enabled people to learn and practise the Dhamma, and thereby come out of their suffering.
The Buddha spent his second, third, and fourth rainy seasons at Rājagaha in the Bamboo Grove donated by King Bimbisāra. The Buddha always remained at one place for the rains and moved around northern India teaching Dhamma during the rest of the year. One of these journeys was to Kapilavatthu at the invitation of King Suddhodana. The Buddha was received with honours by the native Sākyans. During this visit thousands of them joined the Saṅgha, including his son Rāhula and half brother Nanda. Others such as Anuruddha, Bhaddiya, Ānanda, Bhagu, Kimbila, Devadatta, and even the royal barber Upāli, also joined.
The fifth rainy season was spent in Vesāli. It was in that year that King Suddhodana, the Buddha’s father, died. His widow, Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī, requested the Buddha to allow women to join the Saṅgha. Ānanda interceded on their behalf and their request was granted. This was the beginning of the Order of Nuns (Bhikkhunī Saṅgha).
The Buddha spent the next rains retreat at Maṅkulapabbata, and the seventh at Tāvatiṃsa preaching Abhidhamma (higher teachings) to Mahāmāyā and other devas.
Subsequently, the eighth to the nineteenth rains retreats were spent at the following places: Bhesakalāvana, Kosāmbī, Pārileyyaka Forest, the brāhman village of Ekanāḷā, Verañjā, Cālikapabbata, Jetavana in Sāvatthi, Kapilavatthu, Āḷavī, and Rājagaha.
In the twentieth year the Buddha transformed the life of the ferocious Aṅgulimāla who had earlier killed 999 people. Coming into contact with the Dhamma, Aṅgulimāla became a saintly person and later on became an arahant. The Buddha spent the twentieth retreat at Rājagaha.
From the twenty-first up to the forty-sixth, his final rains retreat, the Buddha spent his time at Sāvatthi in the Jetavana Vihāra and Pubbārāma Vihāra.
Throughout his life he continually faced opposition from those espousing old superstitions and beliefs based on birth, caste, class, animal sacrifice, etc. At times he faced great opposition from sectarians who tried to discredit him and his teaching by trying to create scandals. One monk, Devadatta, tried to create a schism in the Saṅgha, and even tried to kill the Buddha by various means. In all instances the Buddha used his infinite wisdom, love, and compassion to overcome these opposing forces, and continued to serve more and more suffering beings.
At the age of eighty the Buddha visited Vesāli where the courtesan Ambapālī offered him a meal and made a gift of her Ambalaṭṭhikā Grove to the Saṅgha. Through the practice of Dhamma she came out of immorality, established herself in truth, and became an arahant. Later in the same year he visited Pāvā and stayed in the mango grove of Cunda. Here he took what was to be his last meal, and became ill. In this weakened condition he continued on to Kusinārā. There he instructed Ānanda to spread his upper robe between twin sāla trees, and informed him that the end of his life had come. A large number of monks, lay followers, and devas assembled around him to pay their last respects. The Buddha gave them his last admonition, known as pacchimā-vācā:
-Decay is inherent in all compounded things,
work out your own salvation with diligence.
Thus teaching the Dhamma as he himself practised it, the Buddha attained Mahāparinibbāna in his eightieth year, on the full moon day of Vesākha in 544 B.C.