Triple Gem
Chapter One


The Life of the Buddha

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Siddartha Gautama was born in the sixth century BCE in what is now Nepal. His father, Suddhodana, was the ruler of the Sakya people, and Siddartha grew up living the extravagant life of a young prince. Tradition tells us that Suddhodana had feared that the prince might leave the palace to take up the life of a religious wanderer. So he arranged for him to be sheltered from all the harsh realities of life. When the prince reached the age of sixteen, Suddhodana arranged for him to be married to his cousin, a charming princess named Yasodhara.

One day, however, Siddartha ventured out into the world and was confronted with the inevitability of aging, illness, and death. Overcome by dismay, the young prince wondered if there might be a happiness that was not subject to change and decay. Then, seeing a forest wanderer, he decided that only by taking up the wilderness life could he find the answer to his question. That night, at the age of twenty-nine, he left his kingdom and newborn son and entered the wilderness.

For six years, Siddartha submitted himself to rigorous ascetic practices. First he studied with different religious teachers, but, dissatisfied with what they saw as their highest goal, he set out to practice extreme physical austerities on his own. Yet even through the ultimate in self-denial, he did not reach his goal. Then one day he remembered a state of calm mental absorption he had experienced while sitting under a tree as a child, and realized that only through such a state of calm could liberation be found. And yet the strength of that calm could not be reached when the body was weak through austerities. The path to true happiness required balancethe middle wayrather than extremes of indulgence or self-denial. So on that day he ended his extreme austerities and and accepted a gift of milk-rice offered to him by a young woman.

That night Siddartha sat under the bodhi tree and meditated until dawn. In the first watch of the night he remembered his past lives; in the second watch, around midnight, he saw how beings die and are reborn through the power of their karma, which in turn was shaped by the skillfulness of their intentions; in the third watch, toward dawn, he purified his mind of all cravings, attachments, and defilements, and finally of all intentions, both skillful and not. With that, he attained awakening at the age of thirty-five, thus earning the title Buddha, or "Awakened One."

For the remainder of his life, the Buddha taught the dharma to othersmen, women, and children; rich and poor; people from all walks of life and all levels of societyso that they, too, might attain awakening. He established a sangha, or community of monks and nuns, to maintain his teachings after his death. Then, one full moon night in May when he had reached the age of eighty, he lay down between two trees in a forest park and gave his last teachings to the assembled followers, counseling them to be heedful in completing their practice of the dharma. With that, he entered total nirvana.

There is No One Buddhism

There has never been, nor is there now, a central authority in Buddhism. There is no equivalent to the Holy Father of the Roman Church or to anything that resembles papal law. With no supreme arbitrator, the diversification of Buddhism has flourished. This also means that there is no one Buddhism. There are many Buddhisms. So when we try to answer the question, "What is Buddhism?" we can only try our best to present the most inclusive and pan-Buddhist answers. And yet, it will serve you well to remember that the vast array of traditions, combined with the absence of a singular authority, means that in general, thinking in terms of "right and wrong" answers and "good and bad" answers is not a very useful approach.

Diversity of View and Understanding

This diversity of view and understanding may offer a refreshing alternative to doctrinal rigidity. It can also yield some very sloppy and indulgent versions of what "Buddhism means to me." But to maintain respect for differences, keep in mind some of the historic distinctions that exist within all religions and within all cultures. Some people approach spiritual belief systems in order to comfort themselves and to soften the inevitable harsh blows of lifeillness, loss, death, grief. For many people, the communal activity of ritualcongregations or sanghasitself offers a powerful experience of transcending the claustrophobic boundaries of the individual self in order to participate in a larger, more generous, bountiful experience. This can also be easily accomplished through collective singing or chanting, which is such a common feature of religions around the world. There is the way lay people engage in religion versus the lifestyle and commitments made by monastics. There are mystics and maverick masters, enlightened householders, dutiful abbots and those whose spiritual aspirations demand to know what this life is all about.