Buddhism is known as a religion of enlightenment and emancipation or freedom. Buddha is a generic name given to one who has realized enlightenment or bodhi, and is derived from the root budh, "to awaken, to perceive, to understand." In Chinese its form is usually Fo, or Chiao-che, the Awakened One, or Chih-che, the Learned One. In Japanese it is Butsu, Butsuda, or Hotoku. In Tibetan it is rendered as Sans-Rggas (pronounced Sangyas), the One who woke up.
Gautama the Buddha never claimed to have founded the Dharma (truth or doctrine), but only to have reestablished knowledge of it as the old path followed by "ancient Buddhas" who had preceded him, and it will be restated again and again by those who follow him. His life work was an act of compassion, and his teaching of the Middle Way or road to enlightenment between extremes was offered to all mankind.
Among the different ways to consider Buddha, let us first view him historically as a man. Prince Siddhartha was born about 2,500 years ago in Kapilavastu, the son of Suddhodana, a maharaja who ruled over a kingdom in Northern India. It was predicted that the prince could become either a world conqueror or a sage of great renown. As his ancestors had all belonged to the warrior caste, Suddhodana expected that his son would follow this tradition, but it had also been foretold that, should the prince behold the sorrows of old age, disease, and death, he would seek the forest to follow the holy life. To circumvent this the king vowed that his son should never behold these three sights.
As a youth Siddhartha excelled in all fields of endeavor. He married and had a son, and though all that surrounded him was perfection, there were moments when he seemed withdrawn, occupied with thoughts far from the luxurious conditions about him. This was of growing concern to his wife, Yasodhara, and to his father. They decided that other palaces should be built allowing greater range for the interests of Gautama, as the young prince later was called.
One day Siddhartha asked his father if he might visit the new palace not yet completed. Though every precaution had been taken by the maharaja and his men, a man of extreme old age met the procession on the road, as though by divine intervention. The prince was shocked and did not continue his outing. Subsequently, he was confronted by a man riddled with disease; and on another occasion by death. Siddhartha became most agitated that people and all living beings should have to endure such suffering. After prolonged thought he determined to leave the palace and set forth to discover a means whereby mankind might overcome the trials of old age, disease, and death.
He left the palace at night and journeyed to the forest where he met the great Brahman teachers, Alara and Uddaka. He became their student and with incredible swiftness comprehended the Vedas and Upanishads. Eventually when the other disciples asked him to become their teacher he realized that, though he had reached the acme of available learning about man and cosmos, he had not discovered the answer to his search for release from samsara — the chain of births and deaths. He left his Brahman teachers and became an ascetic, mortifying his body in the hope that if he lessened its hold upon his spirit he might attain his goal.
After six long years, near death from fasting and meditating, he concluded that he would not find his answer in this manner and accepted rice and milk from a kind woman. Slowly his strength returned and, upon beholding a holy fig-tree he seated himself beneath it to resume his inward search. Through the night he pursued his flight in consciousness to ever greater spiritual heights until he attained final enlightenment, when he might leave earthly existence forever if he wished.
He saw all his past existences and realized this moment as the consummation of them — each one following the other by karma. He viewed the birth and death of all creatures in all worlds and understood the recurring cycle of existence and the causes of old age, disease, and death. Freed from the confines of illusion, in his enlightenment he beheld the world as it truly is. He had reached the unfathomable source of Truth. Having become Buddha, and while still not accepting nirvana, Siddhartha mused that if he were to return to the world and its ways, where people seek only that which gratifies their desires, no one would listen to the Law. "Surely I am lost," he reflected, "I and all my fellow creatures." But Divine Thought entered his mind: "O Perfect One! Let thy Great Law be uttered!" Casting his vision forth he saw that there would be a few who would hear and understand and he said, "Yea! I preach! Whoso will listen let him learn the Law."
Buddha spoke the first words of the Teaching of the Law (Dharma) in the Deer Park of Isipatana near Benares where he set forth the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. These Noble Truths, briefly, are:
1. existence is full of misery;
2. the cause of this misery is desire;
3. this desire can be destroyed;
4. the means of destroying this desire is the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Noble Eightfold Path comprises:
1. right belief or insight;
2. right thought or aspiration;
3. right speech;
4. right action;
5. right means of livelihood;
6. right exertion;
7. right remembrance;
8. right meditation or concentration.
The Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path are the centerpiece of the Buddha's presentation of the Dharma, a presentation that is concerned mainly with ethics, with living, with ideas that can be applied to end the suffering people experience in the world. The term dharma is used in many ways and with different meanings. It may be translated as law, justice, doctrine, nature, truth, morality, and good conduct — the foundation and spiritual support of all things.
Buddha Sakyamuni (sage of the Sakya clan) traveled from place to place teaching and establishing the Samgha or Monastic Order. He sent forth the monks to impart as much of the Dharma as they had found to be true. His ministry lasted 45 years, but it would be four centuries before his teachings were written down. It is said that shortly after his death the monks held a council to determine which teachings attributed to Sakyamuni were truly his utterances, and to try to remember his exact words as closely as possible. Around a hundred years later another council was held in case any further information should have come to light; only a few changes were made at that time.
The Buddha's life is in itself an example of the compassionate path, of love for all beings, of sacrifice. Theologically speaking, Buddha as a historical figure excites little interest. The concern is not so much who Buddha was, as what is meant by the term buddha. The early texts mention seven Buddhas of whom Buddha Sakyamuni was the seventh. Later texts allude to many more Buddhas in this and other worlds, not only of the past but yet to come. The concept of the Buddha began to shift from the historic Gautama to the cosmic principle which finds expression in all Buddhas. The Encyclopaedia of Buddhism sums it up neatly thus:
The historical Buddha is a provisional (avatara), phenomenal (rupakaya) Buddha while the basic Buddha is the Buddha of Truth and Essence, i. e., the Dharma. . . . It is indeed through the realization of this Dharma that the Buddhas of the past, present and future attain Enlightenment. Consequently, the Dharma is the original Buddha and the Buddha is the Dharma personified. In other words, the Dharma is revealed through the personal form of a human Buddha.
We can express the thought differently. The unselfish man, motivated by compassion to help all creatures along the evolutionary way, on reaching enlightenment calls forth an equally compassionate response from the cosmic buddhic principle. Then the man becomes its embodiment and for the time he is a god on earth, a buddha.
There are those who become Buddha and return no more to this world. There are others who reach the state of nirvana and by renouncing it become Bodhisattvas and work for the salvation of all lives. Again, there are those chosen few Buddhas, as was the case with Gautama, who appear at certain cycles among mankind as the embodiment of an aspect of the cosmic principle, Adi-Buddha or Buddha-Essence, and guide the destiny of humanity for long periods of time. On the death of Gautama Buddha, his physical body was cast aside, but Buddha Sakyamuni remained in the inner worlds as a nirmanakaya — i.e., a complete man in possession of all his faculties though not embodied. In this form he continues his compassionate mission to watch over and protect mankind, until he is replaced by the one who is destined to follow him. From this idea arises the concept of some Buddhist schools that Buddha's sayings and teachings continued to be given forth after his death.
During the centuries that followed Gautama's death the Buddhist monks divided into two principal schools — the Southern or Theravada and related schools, and the Northern or Mahayana with its various divisions. The Theravada or Hinayana Buddhists accept as canon only the teachings approved in the early centuries after Buddha's death. They hold that one should accept nirvana and no longer be subject to samsara, or the round of births and deaths. Moreover, it was not stated that all could become Buddha. Thus a line came to be drawn between arhatship and buddhahood, and to become an arhat, a worthy one, emerged as the ultimate goal — a relative nirvana.
Mahayana Buddhists on the other hand have been flexible as to their canon, and their teaching has variously been reexpressed as it became a part of the culture of the countries accepting it. Some philosophical terms have developed diverse shades of meaning in different schools, and sometimes new methods of training have been accented, as in Zen. A second difference lies in the Mahayana idea that, as the essential nature of Buddha is Dharma, and that as Dharma or Buddha-nature is inherent in all beings, it is possible for all sentient life to become Buddha. Therefore the fundamental concept of the Bodhisattva arose, that of compassion and love for all creatures and altruistic sacrifice on their behalf.
Buddhism spread north and south while it virtually disappeared from India. The Theravada traveled to the southern countries of Sri Lanka, Burma, and Indo-China, Java and Sumatra; while the Mahayana teachings moved into China, Korea, Japan, and Tibet more or less in that order.
The Buddhism first presented to the Western world was the Theravada or Southern School. Its rigid interpretation of the canon and striving for individual escape from this world of sorrows caused most European scholars to consider Buddhism as pessimistic, negative, and atheistic. This view was held for years until the Mahayana spread its beliefs in the Occident, and simultaneously appeared books primarily on Zen and Tibetan Buddhism. With this awakening of the Western public to the existence of Mahayana came the concept of compassion, its portrayal of love, service, and personal sacrifice, and its absolute tolerance of other religions.
The path of enlightenment is the heart of every savior's message, though few religious faiths stress spiritual attainment for all living beings. Where does the path begin? All lives follow it as the natural course of universal evolution. For man, because of his consciousness of self, there comes a particular moment when he realizes that he can self-direct his evolution. The discipline is not out of reach of the least of us. All can learn to love and forgive; indeed, ignorance of this truth is the tragedy of our present age. The sorrows arising from selfishness and greed, which lead to separateness, have become almost overwhelming. But breaking these chains we have forged — narrow and limited phases of ourselves — brings joy and understanding as effects of the awakening Buddha-nature within us. To govern our lives in concert with the growth and becoming of all creatures is the compassionate path lighted by successive Buddhas from dawn till twilight of universal existence.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1986. Copyright © 1986 by Theosophical University Press)