Twenty-five hundred years ago there was born to the royal family of the Sakya clan, a son, the Prince Siddartha, who, through no fault of his own — rather the contrary — caused the King, his father, deep concern. This was because even so many centuries before the coming of the great Christian Teacher, and before the Prince had reached what is commonly termed the age of discretion, he had already discovered the balance of values between the treasures of earth and the Treasures of Heaven. So that although born into one of the best of families, where nobility of character vied with wealth of possession to surround him with all that heart could desire, he seemed often to retire inward to a world unknown to his associates. Handsome he was, and strong, and brave, but he had no interest in the sports that engrossed his cousins, and while they busied themselves in friendly games of contest, he would steal away into the garden, and sitting under his favorite tree try to recapture that elusive thing that haunted him as a half-memory of a purpose in life not yet revealed. The sage Viswamitra, who had charge of his scholastic training, is said to have "picked up his books and departed, marveling." It was as if no human brain had store of knowledge great enough to instruct him who was destined to become the Buddha.
The case of a Buddha is different from that of a Savior belonging to the Avatara-group, such as Jesus, the Christ. An Avatara is a demonstration to humanity of the keen interest with which superior beings — shall we call them gods? — watch broodingly over the progress of men. For an Avatara is the mysterious union of a divinity with the highly evolved soul of one who has formerly become a Buddha, acting in a pure physical body. And this magical, but not supernatural, appearance of a divinity among men takes place particularly at times of spiritual barrenness in order to encourage those who are seeking the light of truth by showing them glimpses of sublimer heights yet to be climbed in their search. In the case of Avataras it is the teachings which should occupy our fullest attention; the personal life, noble as it is, is relatively unimportant. With the Buddha, however, the study of his life, his trials and testings of teachers and methods, arouse our keenest interest. His procedure is that which every one of us can follow if we will. He started out aeons ago a man, as we are now. According to the stories, it was
A hundred thousand cycles vast
And four immensities ago
that he registered his first vow to reach Enlightenment — Buddhahood. This vow he kept fast in his mind and heart, resolving anew under twenty-four successive Buddhas — a necessary part of the fulfilment of such a vow, we read. On account of the inspiration and example which the life of such a great man is to us, this is well worth our serious thought and study; in fact, it is an essential part of the exposition of his teaching.
Many and fanciful are the tales related of the pre-natal visions entertained by the noble Maya, the one chosen as mother by the Bodhisattva, together with the interpretations put upon them by the Sages of the day, wise Brahmanas versed in true astrology. We read also descriptions of the conditions of existence of the Holy One in the heaven-world where he is represented as teaching the inhabitants thereof in the interim between one earth-life and the next; and there are some 550 'Birth-Stories' said to be episodes in the various incarnations of this aspirant to perfection, dating from the beginning of the world. Significant indeed is the impression we receive that his birth into the Sakya family was a conscious, well-considered act: as imminent Buddha he took this step. His royal father, Suddhodhana, as was the custom of the day, summoned wise men to his court to examine the child and read the signs they saw on him. He possessed all thirty-two marks of divinity, and the prophecies of six of the Sages were unanimous: if he remained in the household life he would rule as became the best of kings; but if he relinquished that life he would become Lord of the Universe, the Awakened One, the Buddha. The seventh Sage, however, a younger man but nevertheless more intuitive than his brethren, saw one course only open to the young Prince: attainment of Buddhahood.
Now the king was a wise and kindly ruler, but he had no understanding of the nature and status of a Buddha. To his mind, human kingship was the destiny above all others that he would choose for his son. So he tried to fill his life with beauty, wealth, happiness, distractions of every pleasurable kind, building for him stately palaces and gardens appropriate to the four seasons of the year, providing for him in marriage the loveliest of his royal cousins, the radiant Yasodhara, and bringing to the court for his delight and entertainment the flower among the dancing and singing maidens of the country. Poor foolish king, to think mere beauty of sight and sound could appease the nostalgia in the soul of a Bodhisattva!
According to the legends, the gods now became impatient. It seemed too long the future Buddha was lingering in the toils of material allurements. So in defiance of the King's commands that when his son rode abroad he should see naught but youth, health, success, and beauty, the gods provided for him the Three Awakening Sights: an old bent man, hideous with age and deprivation; one stricken with fatal illness; and a corpse being borne to the funeral pyre. Not all at once were these Sights sprung upon the young Prince, but singly during three successive drives, and day by day the power of his resolve gathered momentum. From the time of the seeing of the First Awakening Sight, he began to observe his fellows in a new way, and he found none in whose face he could read signs of the true course of life. At last, after the third Sight, he met a hermit wearing such a look of peace that now he knew and would wait no longer. It was the striking of the karmic hour, and henceforth and for ever there was no possibility of Siddhartha's succeeding his father as merely a human king. In the dead of night, his beloved wife smiling in her sleep, he bade a silent farewell, fearing lest the pain of parting prove too great for the human will if accompanied with words and tears.
It should be well understood that this breaking of home-ties is not a course of conduct recommended by the Buddha to men in general; in fact, he urged obedience to mother and father, faithful performance of duties owed to others. He once sent back as unready one who hoped to become a devotee of truth without having first observed the loyalties due to the home-circle. In these words he is said to have spoken: "If you would find comfort in my society, the first thing for you to learn is purity of conduct. Go back, therefore, to your home, and learn to obey your parents, recite your prayers, be diligent in your daily occupations. Let no love of ease tempt you to neglect cleanliness of person or decency of dress; and then, having learned this, come back to me, and you may perhaps be allowed to enter into the companionship of my followers."
Nor were his loved ones unprepared for his leaving. Often he had told both wife and father of his desire to enter the ascetic life in order to seek release for mankind from the ills of sickness, old age, and death, which seemed to make futile all their lofty aspirations and worthy ambitions. He felt that ignorance was the cause of man's suffering, that there was truth which he was entitled to have, and, balancing the temporary anguish his absence would bring his own family circle, against the liberation of mind and spirit he knew they would gain when he became Buddha and they his faithful disciples — as did happen — he gave up all that men ordinarily hold most dear and began life anew as a hermit.
Six years the Prince, clad in yellow gown and carrying the ascetic's begging-bowl, studied under various teachers, Rishis and Brahmanas, tried their methods, spared himself not at all, undertook discipline so severe that it was rather self-torture; but still he did not attain the inner illumination he was seeking. At the point of death, and sorely grieved that he had not reached his goal in this life, he decided to break his fast and seek another way. Again the gods are said to have intervened, providing him with pure and nourishing food that restored his wasted tissues and caused the fresh blood to course through his veins. Thus he was ready for the final test which is pictured in allegorical form as his meditation under the Bodhi Tree, where Mara's hosts, the mighty Powers of Darkness, made their greatest and most prolonged attempt to dissuade the Holy One from his purpose.
Fearful and wonderful was the battle which raged during the watches of the night: on the one hand violence, hate, envy, and all the brood of hideous vice — these the Bodhisattva overcame easily with the peace and tranquillity of mind he had attained; but when Mara, using subtiler wiles, caused apparitions of his wife and father to call to him to return home and ease their distress, it needed more than human strength to resist. Yet this strength too was his. Calm and unperturbed he remained under the Sacred Tree, reiterating once again his ancient vow: "Let the sun and moon fall down to earth, let these snowy mountains be removed from their base, if I do not attain the end of my search: the pearl of the True Law."
Then indeed he did attain. The Hosts of Darkness vanished away, and morning broke upon the marvel of the Holy One grown at last from Bodhisattva, the promise of a Buddha, into the full flower of Perfected Manhood, the Enlightened One, the Buddha. He sat in contemplation for seven days and nights, seeking the best way to tell mankind what he had learned. Brooding on the mystery of life, on the composite, and therefore impermanent, character of the visible Universe and of man, he wondered if words existed that could tell the truths he knew. And then, picturing to himself lotus-flowers in a pond, and remembering how some of them grow high out of the water, some less high, and others never rise above the surface, and thus they receive varying amounts of sunlight, he thought: Men are like the lotus-flowers, the sun is the truth. The wise do not need my teaching, the stupid would not understand it; but those neither wise nor stupid, who question, seek, but know not where to find, these should receive help. Therefore I will teach. At this the very elements of the Universe joined with the Heavens and the Earth to proclaim their joy upon the arrival of a Buddha of Compassion.
Thereafter for forty-five years Sakyamuni fulfilled his promise. He wandered up and down India, teaching all who would listen to him. Among his earliest disciples were five anchorites who had witnessed in amazement the extremes of asceticism to which his zeal had led him, but who later reviled him when he, as they thought, relapsed into the worldly life. Sitting at their devotions, these five saw approach one whom at a distance they recognised as the monk Gautama, and thinking to show their disapproval of what they thought his treachery to their Order, they conspired to show him courtesy upon his arrival, but no deference. They little knew the transformation that had occurred in the meantime, nor what power it was that drew them to their feet and caused them to do most reverent obeisance. For looking into his face and seeing the glory with which he was transfused, they entreated the Buddha to accept them as his pupils; and because of their sincerity, and their faithfulness to the light of truth as they had seen it, he granted their request. Many an instance is given of similar meetings — even Brahmanas, who were indignant at his refusal to discriminate between the castes and his willingness to impart what they had kept so rigidly secret from the masses of men, and who challenged him with questions which they thought he could not answer, were glad to yield their allegiance to one whose presence and wisdom were so superior to theirs that deference to him became the highest honor they could desire. It is unfortunate for their descendants that more of this learned caste did not come to understand the mission and teachings of the Buddha, for the heart of both Brahmanism and Buddhism is the same; and the Buddha came not as inventor of a new religion, but as illuminator of the old, which had its source in the same Heart of the Universe as all the World-Religions have had.
It is not taking a one-sided view of the situation to speak of the beauties of the teachings of the Buddha and to fail to condemn the deficiencies of modern Buddhism. Whatever may be lacking in the application men today make of religion in their lives is the fault of the men themselves, not of the original teacher of that religion. It would be decidedly unfair were we not to mention that even after twenty-five hundred years Buddhism is still active, and a powerful influence in the lives of millions of people; and that of all the known world-religions of history it has created least disharmony, been the cause of no wars, undertaken no conversions by violence, inaugurated no inquisitions, nor approved any form whatever of mental or physical torture, whether self-inflicted or not. It could well be adopted by men of every race with very slight modifications even today. The cornerstone of it is love for all beings, and its building-bricks all the virtues which, when practised, make life beautiful. Ignorance is a vice not to be tolerated, for truth is in the Universe and is to be had for the taking.
The Buddha concluded his mission among men at the ripe age of eighty years. In full possession of his faculties he gathered his disciples around him for the last time. His farewell speech has been given in varying forms by the translators, but in each the message is the same: Salvation for mankind comes from within; when self-appointed teachers appear, test what they say by the truth you already possess; do not believe without examination everything you hear. Think for yourself. "I have lit the lamp of wisdom. Its rays alone can drive away the gloom that shrouds the world. On your part, be diligent! With virtuous purpose practise well these rules; nourish and cherish a still and peaceful heart. Be lamps unto yourselves. Work out your own salvation. Look within! Exert yourselves to the utmost; give no place to remissness. Earnestly practise every good work."