The Historical Buddha

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The term “Historical Buddha” (Sakyamuni Buddha) refers to the Buddha Siddhattha Gotama, the founder of Buddhism, who was born in North India some 2,500 years ago (around 600 BC) and whose authentic teaching has lived on to this day, mainly through Theravada Buddhism. The exact place of his birth is considered to be the Lumbini Garden, which is located today right on the southern border of Nepal. Gotama’s father was Suddhodana, a local king or lord (rāja) of the Sakya tribe, which had its own autonomous state within the Kingdom of Kosala, and Siddharttha Gotama was considered a prince of Sakya.

When Gotama was born, a wise ascetic of high intellectual achievements named Asita predicted that he would eventually become a Buddha.

On the fifth day after the birth of prince Gotama, he was named Siddhattha, meaning “the one whose purpose has been attained”. His family name was Gotama.

According to the ancient custom, Suddhodana invited Brahmanical priests to the palace for the naming ceremony. Among them were eight distinguished priests. After examining the characteristics of the child, seven of them raised two fingers and gave a double interpretation, saying that if he continued to live among the people and consented to rule, he would become a world monarch, but if he renounced it and turned to asceticism, he would become a Buddha.

But the younger one, Kondañña, who surpassed the others in knowledge, raised only one finger and firmly declared that Siddhattha would certainly renounce the world and become a Buddha.

When he heard this, Suddhodana tried in every way to keep his son in the palace, in a secure and luxurious world, wishing that his son would succeed him.

He even constructed three palaces for him, one for each of the three seasons, where Siddhattha was brought up in luxury; he wore the most beautiful and expensive clothes, used the best perfumes, his servants held a white umbrella over his head day and night, so that the cold and the heat, the dust and the dewdrops would not get to him, he was entertained by musicians, none of whom were men, he only ate the best food and for the most part, he did not leave the palace. (AN Sukhumālasutta)

At the age of 16, he married a young noblewoman named Yasodhara, who gave him a son named Rahula.

Until the age of 29, everything was going smoothly and King Suddhodana was careful not to cause his son any misery.

The Buddhist scriptures describe four incidents that awakened Siddhattha and thus he came to know the four evils – birth, old age, sickness and death – from which all people suffer; but he also felt the desire to find a solution. Eventually, he renounced his princely position and embarked on a spiritual search to find out how to overcome the aforementioned human evils.

He snuck out of the mansion at night, exchanged his beautiful silk clothes for the simple orange tunic of a holy man and cut off his beautiful black hair. Then, having nothing with him but a bowl for begging in order to be offered food, he began his great search.

For six years, he lived ascetically, meditating and fasting. Eventually, he stopped fasting because he thought it was extreme and by discovering his own method of meditation, he achieved enlightenment under the pippala tree.

At first, the Buddha hesitated to teach other people what he had discovered, thinking that they would not understand him, but at the urging of the Brahma, he began to preach.

He then established the Monastic Community (Saṅgha), first for the male monks and then for the female monks. The first female monk was his stepmother, Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī, and then five hundred other monks of the Sakya tribe. His ex-wife, Yasodhara, also became a monk later on.

His skills are described in the texts:

…he had memories of his many past lives, he had the ability to see beings die and be reborn according to their actions as lucky and unlucky, inferior and superior, beautiful and ugly, he could see how the effects of actions (kamma) that have happened in the past, future and present really are (vipāka), he understood, such as they really are, the ways that lead to all destinies, the world with its numerous and different elements, the different inclinations of beings, the contamination and purification of the mind in relation to ecstasies (jhāna), emancipations, concentration and intellectual achievements; he knew how to eliminate the wrong qualities of the mind; he had the ability to read the minds of others, and he had realised, with a direct knowledge, the release of the mind and the release through wisdom, through the elimination of mental corruption (āsava) – of the deep-rooted mental contamination that binds beings to the cycle of rebirth. (MN 12, Mahāsīhanāda Sutta)

The Buddha was primarily a man and did not claim to have been inspired by any God, any supernatural being or any external authority. He attributed all his awareness and achievements to human endeavour and human intelligence. A man and only a man can become a Buddha if he so desires and works for it.

He says: “Like a lotus born and raised in water, that stands above the water and is untouched by the water, so the Buddha was born and raised in the world, but having overcome the world, he remains untouched by the world”. (S. iii. 138, Pupphasuttaṃ).

Relying on his own unceasing effort, he achieved the highest mental and intellectual achievements. He reached the peak of purity and was perfect in the best qualities of human nature. He was an embodiment of compassion and wisdom, the two guiding principles of his Teaching.

Through his personal experience, he understood the superiority of man and found that the concept of a “supernatural” being that rules over the fate of beings is a mere illusion and delusion. The Buddha never claimed to be a saviour who tried to save “souls” through a revelatory religion. Through his own perseverance and understanding, he proved that man has infinite possibilities and that human effort plays an important role in order to develop these possibilities. He showed with his own experience that enlightenment and liberation are entirely and utterly in the hands of man. Thus, according to Buddhism, the position of man is supreme.

By becoming himself the representative of an active life offering a lesson and an example, the Buddha encouraged his students to cultivate their self-confidence as follows: “One indeed is one’s own saviour. How can others be a saviour to one? With oneself thoroughly tamed, one can attain a saviour, which is so difficult to attain. (Dhammapada 160)

But if the Buddha is to be called a “saviour”, it is only in the sense that he discovered and showed the way to liberation, Immortality, Nibbana. So he says, “You yourselves should make the effort. The Buddhas can only show the way. Those who meditate and practice are freed from the bonds of Death”. (Dhammapada 276)

Practice is the Noble Eightfold Path that leads to enlightenment and higher security through the awareness of the Four Noble Truths.

It is with this principle of individual responsibility that the Buddha offers freedom to his disciples. This freedom of thought is unique in the history of religion and is necessary because, according to the Buddha, the release of man depends on his own awareness of the Truth and not on the goodness of a God or any external force in the form of a reward for his obedient behavior.

Nevertheless, the Buddha was such a perfect man that he began to be regarded as a superhuman in popular religion, giving him metaphysical, transcendental, mythical and divine qualities. Thus came to be the deification or apotheosis of the historical Buddha in the more recent types of Buddhism, such as Mahayana and Vajrayana.

On the contrary, in orthodox Theravada Buddhism, there is a rather realistic and humane view of the Buddha. Here, it should be noted that the above description of some of the abilities of the Buddha, such as reading the minds of others, are supernatural powers acquired through meditation but they are not metaphysical, transcendental.