Who Was the Buddha? The Story of a Human Being Like You and Me
by Toni Bernhard, guest contributor
An image of the Buddha is carved into a banyan tree at Wat Mahathat in Thailand. (photo: McKay Savage/Flickr, cc by 2.0)
The name Buddha means “awakened one.” This is the story of how a young man became the Buddha. As with all ancient tales, we can’t know what is to be taken literally and what is to be taken metaphorically. It doesn’t matter to me. I’m inspired by his story either way.
The Buddha was born a prince in a small kingdom in northern India. His name was Siddhartha Gautama. His father, the king, indulged his son’s desires and protected him from being exposed to human suffering. The king posted guards at the palace gates to keep Siddhartha from seeing how less fortunate people lived. He even had attendants hold a parasol over his son so he wouldn’t experience heat or cold or dust. Everything unpleasant about life was hidden from him.
When Siddhartha was nine years old, his father took him to a plowing festival. At one point, the nurses left the prince unattended under a rose-apple tree. In striking contrast to the noise of the festival, it was calm and quiet under the tree. Siddhartha sat cross-legged and became aware of the sensation of his breath going in and out of his body. It was his first experience of true calm and peacefulness. Soon his nurses returned and broke this peaceful abiding, but the experience had a profound effect on the young prince.
One day, when Siddhartha was a young man, he talked his attendant, Channa, into taking him beyond the walls of the palace. For the first time, Siddhartha was exposed to life as the rest of us experience it.
As the story goes, when he saw an old person with shriveled skin, bent over and leaning on a walking staff, he asked Channa what was wrong with him. Channa replied, “He’s old. Everyone who lives for a long time gets old and looks like that.”
When Siddhartha saw a person who was delirious with fever and whose skin was covered with blotches, he asked Channa what was wrong with him. Channa replied, “He is sick. Everyone is subject to disease.”
When Siddhartha saw a corpse on the side of the road, he asked Channa what was wrong with him. Channa replied, “He’s dead. We all die, sweet prince.”
Then Siddhartha saw a man seated cross-legged under a tree, looking calm and peaceful. He asked Channa, “What sort of man is this?” Channa replied, “He is a homeless wanderer in search of truth.”
Siddhartha was shaken to the core by this first glimpse of human suffering and by the man he’d seen under the tree. He felt called to leave his life of luxury and become a wanderer himself. He sought the answer to three questions: Why did people suffer, could one find freedom from it, and if so, how?
Siddhartha’s renunciation is unparalleled in history. At 29, he was a prince in the prime of his life — a life of power, privilege, and wealth. But he gave it all up. He traded his opulent clothes for a robe made of scraps of material found lying around. He ate only what was given to him. He slept under a tree for shelter.
He sought out spiritual teachers and undertook many different practices. He found that he could easily attain transcendent states of mind, but they always passed, leaving him with his three unanswered questions. At one point, he became an ascetic, starving himself in an attempt to gain spiritual awakening. This extreme didn’t bring him any closer to understanding the cause of suffering and to the freedom that he sought than had the other extreme of a life of luxury and sensual pleasure at his father’s palace.
So, Siddhartha decided to go off by himself. Recalling his experience as a child under the rose-apple tree, he accepted some much-needed food from a young girl and then sat down under a Banyan tree, vowing not to get up until he knew the answer to his questions.
As he sat, he was assailed by mental suffering in all the forms that are so familiar to each of us—the painful mind states of greed, ill-will, confusion, and their cousins: temptation, fear, and doubt. He just sat. After seven days, he had his great insight, which people have been speculating about for 2,500 years and which I describe here based on my understanding of his teachings.
He saw that everything arises due to causes and conditions, and that everything is subject to dissolution — both the physical body and mind states of all varieties. When he saw that painful mind states arise as the result of causes and conditions and are impermanent (as opposed to being a fixed part of his personality), they lost their power over him. He realized that he need not cling to them. He could just sit in their presence, without identifying with them and let them pass away on their own.
In this stillness, he at last found the peace and contentment he’d been looking for. He became the Buddha — the awakened one — seeing clearly these things:
- the presence of suffering in this life;
- the cause of suffering: identifying with and clinging to painful mind states by erroneously believing them to be a fixed part of oneself; and
- the path to cessation of suffering: just being present — without aversion or clinging — when these mind states arise and cultivating their opposites instead: non-greed (generosity), non-ill-will (kindness and compassion), and wisdom (seeing clearly the impermanent and interdependent nature of all things).
The Buddha spent the rest of his life — 45 years — as a wandering monk, sharing his insight with others, regardless of their caste or gender. He devised an astounding number of practices. These practices help us understand the cause of our suffering and point the way to attaining the peace and contentment of a Buddha.
It is said that soon after his experience under the Banyan tree, the Buddha passed a stranger on the road who was so struck by the Buddha’s calm radiance that he asked him, “Are you a god?” The Buddha replied, “No. I am not.” “What are you then?” the man asked. And the Buddha said, “I am awake.”
For me, this story is inspiring because it means that, through our own effort, the peaceful contentment we see in statues of the Buddha is within the reach of all of us.
The Buddha’s teachings have given rise to dozens of schools and traditions. Some of them have elevated the Buddha to a god-like figure to be worshipped. But the ancient texts make it clear that he was just an ordinary — if remarkable — person who embarked on an extraordinary journey of discovery. This is why I and many others don’t consider Buddhism to be a religion.
To me, Buddhism is a path of practice that unearths the cause of my suffering and points the way to opening my heart so wide that it can hold with compassion all the suffering in the world, while, at the same time, resting in the peaceful contentment of a Buddha.
Toni Bernhard was a law professor and dean of students of the Law School at the University of California–Davis before retiring due to chronic illness. She’s the author of How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers. You can read more of her work on the How to Be Sick website.
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