By Syed Manzoor Alam, New Age Islam
October 28, 2013
“To live a pure unselfish life, one must count nothing as one's own in the midst of abundance.” Buddha
Buddha’s father, King Suddhodana wanted to shield his son from the human suffering that encompassed all around him. At the age of 16, Buddha was married to Yashodhara, of the same age. Their life went smoothly at the beginning and she gave birth to a son, Rahula. What more could one want- a beautiful wife, a charming boy, wealth and luxury all around... But Buddha was not satisfied, he urged for something more and that finding of something more became his ultimate goal.
Surely he felt life was beyond his palace. One day he was riding in a park outside his palace and he saw four sights: an old person, a sick person, a corpse and a wandering ascetic. According to the story he was shocked by this vision of suffering. This came to him as an unrealistic thing, because he had never seen suffering, and then and there he decided to leave his palace and the comforts of his life to become an ascetic himself. 1
He shaved his head, gave away all his possessions, taking up the robe and begging like a wandering monk (this also symbolises that in this life we don’t own anything, we borrow things temporarily). As a monk Siddhartha immediately did not find much success. He joined a group of ascetics to discuss and confront the problem of old age and death by starving himself until he was nothing but skin and bones. It however did not bring him the results that he wanted. So one day he accepted a bowl of rice pudding from a young woman and withdrew into the style of life that Buddhists call the ‘Middle Path’.
The ‘Middle Path’ colours almost every aspect of Buddhist’s life. The point is to avoid the two extremes: the extreme of self denial, like the self denial when Siddhartha almost starved himself to death and the extreme of self indulgence. These extremes do not just apply to the way how people live but also how people think.
Buddhist philosophers constantly ask themselves ‘what do we mean by ‘self’’? The answer though varies amongst philosophers but on one thing there is total harmony and that is the avoidance of extremes in their thinking and answers. They cannot affirm too much identity to the ‘self’ and they also cannot deny it too much because it needs to be taken seriously to pursue the religious life.
Once Siddhartha found the Middle Path, things began to move smoothly for him. He sat down under a tree, which eventually came to known as the Bodhi Tree and he fixed himself in meditation. He was tempted by Mara, who is the personification of death and who first sent his daughters to seduce him and then sent his son’s army to attack him. Obviously these temptations were ignored and Mara was defeated. And this gesture, ‘Bhoomisparsha’, the Earth touching gesture, in which Siddhartha sat has been immortalised (and even bombarded!) in statues.
Once Mara had been defeated in the dark of the night, Siddhartha passed through several stages of meditation and finally understood what caused the suffering of the world and how he could bring it to a definitive end. This is the moment when we can truly call Siddhartha, the Buddha or the Awakened one or the Enlightened one.
When Siddhartha became the Buddha he also achieved the state of ‘Nirvana’. There is a lot of confusion about ‘Nirvana’. First of all there is confusion because the sages say that only the purest of the pure can attain this state, so whatever is said about this state is merely a tip of the iceberg. ‘Nirvana’ means “to extinguish” or “to blow out”. A Buddha is someone who has not only understood the causes of suffering but has “extinguished” them.4 He no longer suffers from the desire that feed the fire of death and rebirth.
Tradition says that Buddha wanted to stay under that tree and perpetually enjoy Nirvana, but he got up and walked to Sarnath, a city on the outskirts of Banaras and he talked about his Awakening to a group of ascetics. This event is called in the Buddhist tradition- the First turning of the wheel of the law (Dharma). It represents the beginning of the Buddhist tradition.
There are so many stories that surround this phase of Buddha’s life. Take the example of the story of ‘Anguli Mala’- “garland of fingers”:
When the story starts Anguli Mala is a pious student and the favourite of his teacher. His classmates became so jealous that they told scandalous stories about him and provoked the teacher to try to seek revenge. Anguli Mala went to his teacher and he asked how much he needed to pay for this final teaching. The teacher said that his final fee would be to go out in the forest and bring to him the severed finger of a hundred people whom Anguli Mala has killed himself.
Anguli Mala, the devoted student, went into the forest and he tried to follow his teacher’s instructions. The news spread about this and the king sent a punitive expedition to capture Anguli Mala and bring him to justice. Anguli Mala’s mother heard about the King’s plan so she decided to warn Anguli Mala. But Anguli Mala had become so fanatic that he would even kill his mother to get her fingers and then Buddha went to intercede. Here the story becomes interesting. Buddha is slowly moving and Anguli Mala is running after the Buddha and he said ‘stop, I want your fingers’. And although the Buddha is moving slowly, no matter however much Anguli Mala ran fast, the Buddha would slip away.
Anguli Mala kept repeating ‘stop you bald-headed monk, I want your fingers’. Finally the Buddha stopped and turned around and said ‘I have stopped, why don’t you?’ This struck Anguli Mala like a revelation. He stopped, bowed and cried in front of the Buddha and asked for forgiveness. He is forgiven and after severe penance he becomes a monk and from that moment when he heard these words- ‘why don’t you stop’, he sees himself in a totally different way and attained nirvana.
It is time we asked- when will we stop...harming others?
1. Robinson and Johnson, The Buddhist Religion, ch. 1.
2. Strong, The Experience of Buddhism, ch. 1.
3. Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, ch. 2.
4. Great World Religions: Buddhism. Professor Malcolm David Eckel
5. For a directory of Dharma centers, please visit www.dharmanet.org/infoweb.html
For Zen Mountain Monastery, please visit www.mro.org