La Fleur- Buddhism - L14 FUEL/fl e B UPDH/SM a history...

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Unformatted text preview: L14 FUEL/fl e B UPDH/SM a history oszrddhism 71 ’ it is the rough “enlightenment” or an “awakeningf at least of falsehood are removed th dharma that can be seen in all its clarity and solidity.The important thing, to the Buddhists, is that it always was there, is there, and will be there. It does not come into being at a certain point in history and does not ever pass awayieven though our own human awareness of it may be dimmed during certain periods of our history. Time neither makes nor breaks the dharma; history too does not seri- ously affect it. This “always there’ dhists, part and parcel of its universality. and portrayed very pictorially: the dharma is the Truth that always was and always history will be at the inner structure of the universe or cosmos, in all places and in all time frames. Being Indians, the early Buddhists immediately thought of the universe in ity and as a frame within which many world-systems exist. arily measured I of buddhtsm terms of vast immens The distance of other worlds and times from our own was custom in terms of the kalpa,‘ a unit of time equal to 4,320,000,000 of our years. Therefore, when the early Buddhists of India talked about a man whom they had personally known and who had been for them an unparalleled teacher. they he who we today called him the enlightened one or “the Buddha.” He is someo estimate must have lived roughly between 560 and 480 B.C.E. But the important ‘ ‘ hat the Indian Buddhists did not regard him as the one and only hey regarded him as one among many Buddhas or enlightened closest to them—and even the closest to us today—in time because accordin dharma is universal and f the dharma is. according to the End- ’ characteristic 0 And this universality is taken very literally Buddha; rather, t ones. He was the one g to them the ALWAYS THERE: THE OPEN ENDS 0F HISTORY and space, but, precisely This chapter will be largely historical; it will take up the basics of the life of the pervading the universe, the early Buddhists simply assumed that the dharma could man usually referred to when the term “Buddha” is used to point to one specific not possibly have begun with him. According to their logic, it had to be older, individual living within a specific time in world history. But before giving the ac- much older—as old as the universe itself. It extended far beyond the reaches of our count of his life, something needs to be said about the way in which most Bud- most ambitious imagination, and, since it was the habit of the Buddhists to refrain dhists themselves view this aspect of their own history. Specifically, we need to from thinking of the universe as having a definite point of beginning, this meant note that Buddhists do not claim to be possessors of any “revelation” in the sense that the dharma was very old indeed' of some news or information divulged or delivered to humankind from some extra- The implications of this were profound. For one thing, this meant that their Gods, as we shall see, do not have an important role, Buddha, the one they themselves knew and talked with, had not just happened into history but had been prepared for this life during earlier lives. He had, they as- reparatory training for his present life by being taught Buddhists, human or supernatural source. to play in Buddhism, and as a re man either. What the Buddhists d they call the dharma. The content of this will be d true that the word “dharma” has many meanings and uses to what at bottom is true, real, and reliable about man an you have left over after conducting the most thoroughgoing analysisesornetimes mes. To these early suit, there is no real role for divine revelations to Indians, the matter ofliving o regard as crucially important,however, is what sumed, undergone intense p lds and other time fra iscussed in Chapter 5, and it is by other Buddhas in other wor this was not a matter of speculation or conjecture; as “rebirth,” “metempsychosis,” or “reincar- . But most often it refers multiple livesrwhat we sometimes call fthe basics of their minds and d the universe. It is what ' "—was simply assumed to be true. It was part 0 it assumption, not a “maybe” or a possibility. The fact of mul- as certain to them as was the daily rising and setting ofthe sun. culture, an implic set out to tell the story all the falsehoods, fabri- while doing meditationeto clear away and dispense with cations, and half-truths that people hold in their minds and use for shaping-or just tiple lives seemed ves. The Buddhists share in one of the general supposi- So the question became: Where do we begin when we of the “life” of the Buddha? If we begin with a date somewhere around 560 3.05., a is always there underneath all as likely misshaping—their li hidden behind a bank of clouds tions of Indian culture in h the delusions we manufacture; i or like the mountain that is tempora that these are a couple ofthe most favo olding that the dharm : Prentice- t is like the moon 1 Perspective (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, ‘ David R. Kinsley, Hinduism: A Culture rily obscured by mist and fog. (It is no accident red metaphors in Hall, 1982], p. 86. Buddhism.) When the veils 10 12 chapter two we will already have twisted what most Buddhists believe out of shape to some ex- tent and refashioned it to fit the contour, presuppositions, and expectations of our culture. If we begin the historical account in the sixth century B.C.E., we will al- ready have shaved off an immensely important prehistory, the kalpas oftime when _ the dharma was already “there” and when other Buddhas—one named Dipamkara, for instance—were the enlightened ones of their own aeons and were in their time and space frames busily involved in giving the necessary training to the one who would later be born in a place and time relatively close to us, that is, in India in the sixth century B.C.E. According to many Buddhists, that was when he became “our” Buddha, but he really existed much earlier as a bodhisattva, that is, a Buddhato-be. it was as such that he was trained by Dipamkara and other Buddhas in the cosmos. The important point is that, at least according to many Buddhists, those earlier lives were in an important sense also parts of his comprehensive biography; to chip them away because our culture does not share the same assumptions as the lndians is to chip away a piece of something very important to many Buddhists and to an under- standing of this form of religious philosophy. According to them, the only right way of talking about the “life” of the Buddha is to switch to the plural and talk about his “lives.” Buddhists have usually done this through an entire genre of narratives, the Stories of the Buddha ’5 Pre- - vious Lives (Jritalca);2 some of these stories are as old as the second century B.C.E. and are believed to tell the story of how he made a slow but steady ascent up the ladder of being and rebirth until he was born and lived in India with the name of Sakyamuni (Sage of the Sakya clan). This slow ascent even involved earlier lives in nonhuman form. Many Buddhists believe that these stories are rooted in the preaching of the Buddha himself,3 that is, lives that he, by virtue of the wonderful mental power that was part of his enlightenment, became able to remember and recollect. His mind had become one from which the fog of forgetfuiness had been dissolved. and, it was assumed, he himself had told his companions the details of his earlier lives. After centuries of telling and retelling, these got to number 547 tales concerning 547 lifetimes and were collected most completely in Sri Lanka in the fifth century C.E. The modern skeptical mind will wonder about all of this and suspect that most or all of them are fabrications, stories of a later time that were appended to whatever original germ of truth was there. The traditional Bud- dhist. however—unless he or she too has been touched by the presuppositions of the modern Westeusually holds these to be factual accounts. / 2Buddhist Birth Stories or Jétaka Tales, trans. by T. W. Rhys Davids (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1880). 3Frank E, Reynolds, “The Many Lives of the Buddha: A Study of Sacred Biography and Theravada Tradition,“ in Frank E. Reynolds and Donald Capps, eds., The Biographical Process: Studies in the History and Psychology of Religion (The Hague and Paris: Mouton, 1976), pp, 37—6lr See also Richard Gombrich. “The Significance of Former Buddhas in the Theravadin Tradition," in Somaratna Balasooriya, ed., Buddhist Studies in Honor of WalpoIa Rahula (London: Gordon Fraser, and Sri Lanka: Vimarnsa, 1930), pp.62—72. :2 history of buddhism 13 DEVELOPMENT: FROM éfitKYAMUNl TO THE BUDDHA If it is understood that many B I and will continue to be many Buddhas in the vastness of cosmic time and space, we may now narrow our focus and tell the basic events in the life of the Buddha who is both closest and most important to usisakyarnunifi At the end of the nine- teenth century, many European scholars were very skeptical as to whether such a person had, in fact, ever lived. They thought that the whole of his life story might be a pious fiction. something concocted by a religious community, or maybe even a solar myth. Today, however, there is a general agreement that we need not be prune so skeptical. Although certainly the story of his life was elaborated and embellished by many retellings and the imagination of pious people, all the extant biographies seem to have been based on one lost one that was composed a little more than a century after his death. Scholars now also generally hold that the events narrated concerning the latter part of his life are far more trustworthy than are those about the earlier part. I I But it is not necessary here to try to sort out the different levels ofcredibil- ity. More important for us is to grasp the basic outline of the story of the Buddha that has captured the imagination of the Buddhist community for more than two thousand years and, for Buddhists, still serves as the paradigm ofideal human exis- tence. Perhaps because Buddhism continues to bear the stamp of something that arose in India rather than in the history-conscious West, it is said by some contem- porary Buddhists that the truth ofthis basic life as paradigm would remain true and compelling even if someone were to come along some day and prove definitively that Sakyarnuni had never even lived. That is, according to Indian thinking. the truth of the universal paradigm is much more important than are any individual The life span of Sakyamuni began somewhere around the year 560 B.C.E. when he was born on the full-moon date of the fourth month as the son of Sud- dhodana and his wife Maya. Suddhodana was the ruler of Kapilavastu. a city or town on the plain where the Ganges river meets the foothills of the Himalayan range. Pious tradition probably exalts his status considerably, telling us that he was a king and a person with immense wealth. Thus. his son‘ 5 later renunciation of that status and wealth was made even more impressive. It also greatly exaggerates the nature of Sakyamuni‘s birth; the Jataka tales say that his mother became pregnant when she had a dream of a white and wondrous elephant, that he was born from her side rather than through her birth canal, and that as a newborn infant, he im— mediately stood up, pointed Skyward, and predicted to all that he would become a Buddha in this lifetime. One aged wise man is said to have confirmed this prophecy. but others predicted that he would become not a religious sage but a cakravertin or Wheel-Turning Monarch instead. This either-or prophecy becomes the fulcrum on / “ Another frequently used name is Gautarna (Getarna). 14 chapter two which the future hinges. The narratives make clear that his father, Suddhodana, preferred the royal career for his son and was determined to do evertything in his power to prevent him from taking up a spiritual vocation. He circumscribed his son’s life with guards and with pleasures, building three palaces for him, choosing a beautiful wife for him at age sixteen, and, according to the Jatakas, keeping him entertained with forty thousand dancing girls. But at age twenty-nine, the young man slipped outside the royal compound of his confinement and over four succes- sive nights saw the “four signs,” the very things from which his father wanted so desperately to shield him. This became the crucial turning point. According to the account he was astonished to see four types of human con- ditions he had never before observed or known to exist: on the first night an old man bent with age, on the second a man riddled with disease, on the third a corpse, and on the fourth a serene-looking wandering monk. With each night‘s shocking new revelation of the real facts of humanexistence, the young Buddha-to-be’s resolve to change the course of his own life became more fixed. it was precisely at this point in his life, however, that his wife gave birth to a son, something that ordinarily would have tied him much more to the householder’s life. He immedi— ately named the child “Impediment,” thereby indicating that he had already re-- solved to break with life as husband, father, and householder. He retired to his harem that night, but in their sleep and nakedness, even his dancing girls seemed “like a cemetery filled with dead bodies,” and he concluded that our multiple passions tend to turn our existence into “houses aflame with fire.” With this he decided that the pursuit of the highest dharma was most impor- tant, left the household once and for all, cut off his hair as a symbol of his new life, and began to walk the life path of a homeless monastic. At first he sought out some of the most famous spiritual and philosophical teachers of his time. He quickly and completely mastered the things they advocated, but still remained unsatisfied. Therefore, he turned to more severe and demanding practices. Having lived in the lap of luxury for twenty-nine years prior to his renunciation, he turned to the op- .‘rl4mi ;"="'\4x":‘ r:';\-§‘Ltvr1>i1;:.Mn-.'F.Wl'- :mWWu; _ a history of buddhism 15 posite extreme and became an ascetic yogi living in the forest. His practices there and his self-starvation took him to the point where his eyes were deeply sunken in his head and his body was just skin over bones. But he found that this did not uest either and he received refreshing nectar from a young woman who satisfy his q took pity on him. This led him to discover something that he would later call the Middle Way. This discovery, the dharma, has among its characteristics the avoidance of the extreme of indulgence in pleasures and also the extreme of self-mortification. He discovered the truth that there is no abiding self or ego, that is, no trace of what the Indians in most of their philosophies called the ritman. Then he went to the north of the forest to a place near the village of Bodh Gaya and sat down under a tree, vowing not to rise from that spot until he experi- Sitting alone, he entered enced complete enlightenment, the essence of nirvana. into the deepest of meditations. He was on the brink of the most important event in his long sequence of lives and in the history of Buddhism. 0n the night of his thirty-fifth birthday, another full-moon night, he was spiritually accosted by Mara, the powerful “Robber of Life" who is the personification of evil and is attended by a whole army of accomplices. That night the Buddha-to-be persevered through the most excruciating trials and temptations. But in the end he gained knowledge of all his previous existences, gained the “divine eye,” and also fathomed the truth of what was to be called pratitya-samurpéda or dependent co-origination. His goal had finally been attained; he was now united with enlightenment, no longer a Buddha- to-be but a Buddha. Long kalpas of preparation had yielded their positive result; Sakyamuni himself knew the deepest dharma, the taste of nirvana. The next question became one of what he now should do. For a number of weeks he stayed in deep meditation near the tree where the great event had taken place, a tree later to be called the Tree of Enlightenment and the parent of a tree that exists even today in Bodh Gaya. One tradition holds that a couple of mer- chants, laymen rather than monks, stopped to pay tribute to him and offer him rice and honey cakes. The gods immediately appeared and provided him with sapphire humble bowls of stone in- bowls to use for eating, but he refused these and chose stead. Sometime afterward, having hesitated to teach because he thought his own insight into _the dharma too profound and difficult for ordinary folk to compre- hend, he decided at last to give expression to what he had learned and mastered. Compassion for the suffering of other beings and his deep desire to lift them out of their misery compelled him to bring into being the sangha, that is, the commu- nity of those trying to follow the same path. At a place called Deer Park near the holy city of Benares, he addressed his first discourse to a group of mendicant monks. This is known as the Sermon that Turns the Wheel (of the dharma). Its core is usually summarized in two formulas, the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. The former is Sakyamuni‘s insistence that spiritual liberation consists of com- ing to a realization of (l) the Truth of Suffering (duhkha) and its pervasrveness in ding ourselves; (2) the Truth of the Cause of Suffering as lying in all beings, inclu 16 chapter two our selfish cravings for pleasure, for perpetuation of our own existence, or for the illusion that we might somehow be exceptions to the law of impermanence; (3) the Truth of the Cessation of craving which is found by recognizing the vanity of our illusion of self and self-perpetuation and by living life consistent with this factgand (4) the Truth of the Eightfold Path which leads to the eradication of suffering. ‘ This fourth truth, logically, leads to the specification of the points of the Eightfold Path. It consists in (I) right seeing, (2) right thinking, (3) right speaking, (4) right action, (5) right livelihood, {6) right effort, (7) right mindfulness, and {8) right meditation. This also articulates the content of the Middle Path which stresses following the norms that S'akyamuni himself discovered to be “right” in the sense that they are those of the deepest dharma of the universe. From this point on in the life of Sakyamuni, there were many places to visit and many sermons to preach. His life as an itinerant teacher lasted for the next forty-five years. MUSt Buddhists through history have beiieved that the sermons he preached on different occasions and to different audiences were remembered by disciples and later copied down. They became the sutras or scriptures of Buddhism. These record in specific detail the names of the people who became his disciples and the ongoing interaction between Stikyamuni and those disciples as he corrected their understanding of the dhanna and encouraged them toward the liberation that he had come to know. Often these disciples appear in the sutras with distinctive and interesting traits of character: Amanda, S'ariputra, Kaéyapa, and Maudgalyayana are among the better known. Some of these were ascetics whom he had known earlier and who now, deeply impressed with the evidence of Sakyamuni‘s attain- ment, joined his sangha. Others were kings and influential citizens who sometimes joined the order as monks or nuns but more often as devout laypersons. These in- cluded even Bakyamuni’s own father, Suddhodana, who earlier had so opposed his aspiration to seek enlightenment. Also Sakyamuni's son, the child born just as he was about to leave the householder’s life, became a follower of his father, now the Buddha. According to the sutras, large numbers converted quickly to his teaching of the Middle Path. Lay patrons made it possible for the compa...
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