Transformation of Prince Siddhartha Gautam to Shakyamuni Buddha
There is a great tradition of seeking complete cessation from life (Nirvana). During the 5th century, Prince Siddartha Gautama achieved this final cessation. He renounced his life as a prince. Becoming a wandering ascetics, he practiced severe austerities. He released himself from attachment and suffering, by the method of the middle path.
Like all beings of a mundane World (Samsara), Buddha too lived many lives before attaining enlightenment. From the merit collected in those lifetimes, he was reborn in Tushita Heaven. As a Bodhisattva “White Banner" (Shvetaketu), his birth took place. Bodhisattva perfects their traits and waits in Tushita for the right time and place of a final rebirth in this heaven.
This includes the right time, family, caste, and lineage for the perfect rebirth of the soon-to-be Buddha. Buddha-nature leads them on the path to ultimate understanding as enlightened Buddha.
In the place named Kapilavastu, Bodhisattva Shvetaketu saw the perfect opportunity for rebirth. King Shudhodhana and Queen Mayadevi were the leaders of the Shakya family. They were known throughout the land for their fairness and compassion. Recognizing this as a place for his rebirth, he chose this couple as his parents for his final rebirth.
His descent from Tushita Heaven occurred as a dream to Mayadevi. She dreamt that she was brought to Tushita heaven. A white elephant approached her while asleep, and touched her right side with its trunk. At the same time, Bodhisattva entered the womb of Mayadevi and impregnated her. The next morning, Mayadevi told her husband about the dream. He sent her to the oracle for an interpretation. After hearing her story oracle predicted that she was pregnant with a son. This child would live his life either a great Universal Monarch (Chakravartin) or a Buddha.
She carried him in her womb for ten months with no complications or pain. At the end of her pregnancy, she left Kapilavastu to visit her parents in Devadaha. But on the way, she went into labor in a mango grove in the Lumbini Garden. Approaching one of the trees in the grove,
"Mayadevi raised her right arm, shining like a lightning flash in the sky. She grasped a branch of the plaksha' tree to bear her weight, stretching, she gazed at the broad expanse of the sky". Buddha-to-Be emerged from his mother's right side and was "untouched by the taint of the womb."
Like all Buddhas before him, he was born with thirty-two marks and eighty attributes. He was named Siddhartha Gautama. Siddhartha means "Accomplisher of Aims," and Gautama, "Best Bull," as his clan name.
Unfortunately seven days after giving birth, Mayadevi died. Afterwards, her sister took on the role of mother to the young prince and wife to King Shudhodhana. Asita, a seeker residing in the Himalayan Mountains recognized strange happenings around him. He was sure that a great perfection had been born to the world. He led to Kapilavastu to see the king with hopes of meeting his revered son. He too predicted that the young prince would either be a great monarch or become a Buddha.
He recognized the thirty-two marks of a great man on the body of the prince and predicted he would leave from home. He will take the robes of an ascetic and “get the peerless Enlightenment of a perfect and complete Buddha."
Siddhartha was provided with the finest upbringing. His life was full of opportunity and security. He received the finest education and mastered all lessons taught to him. He mastered many skills, knowledge, surpassing even his teachers. He was being groomed to be his father's successor. He lived a life of luxury, ornamented with the finest garments, jewels. He was always surrounded by attendants. Contrary to the predictions made before, the king sheltered the prince to leave him with no desire to leave the safety and comfort of the palace grounds. His life was free of want and suffering.
One of the most significant events of Siddhartha's youth occurred when he was a teenager. While watching a plowing contest away from the security of the palace, he grew tired and retreated to the shade of a nearby tree. Sitting under the tree, he relaxed and slipped into a meditative state. It says the gods did not want anything to disturb the Buddha-to-Be. As the sun moved across the sky, the shade of the tree remained unmoved, fixed on the seated prince. King saw this miraculous event and he fell to the ground, bowing at the feet of his son. Regardless of the gods’ favor, king was determined to keep his son attached.
Siddhartha married a young woman named Yasodhara, Sustainer of Glorious Beauty. She was from a neighboring kingdom and after several years they conceived a child. King then believed his son would not leave the palace because of his worldly responsibilities as husband and father.
Yet, the prince was developing a great curiosity to see his kingdom and his people. He was then 29 years old and wanted to see the world outside the palace. So, he asked to take a chariot out to see his country.
The king ordered streets to be clear of any ugliness and filled with flowers and banners. The whole kingdom was glorified with wealth. Even after such precautions, the prince came upon sights that shocked him.
First, he saw an old man. He was not able to understand what he was seeing and asked his charioteer, Chandaka, what had happened to the man?
Chandaka explained that this man had grown old. His body had become weak because this is the normal progression of life. Siddhartha had never seen old age as youth and beauty had always surrounded him.
Next, they came upon a sick man lying in the street.
Again, the prince asked the charioteer to explain what was the matter with this man?
Chandaka explained that the man's body was ravaged by a sickness that had taken control of his body. He was astonished, never experiencing sickness in his life.
Furthermore, they came across a dead man surrounded by wailing mourners. He did not understand what he saw, since he was too young when he lost his mother.
Chandaka explained that this man had died and his family was mourning his loss. The scenes he had seen were not rare events. They are always present in the lives of people and affect everyone at some point in their life.
Still, in shock at these sights, Siddhartha came across a wandering ascetic. Again, he asked Chandaka to explain:
"Lord, this man is one of those whom people call Bhikshus. Having abandoned the joys of desire, he has perfect and disciplined conduct. He has become a wandering monk seeking inner calm, without desire he wanders, without hate he wanders, asking for alms."
These four sights shook Siddhartha's understanding of the world. He had lived a life ignorant of the pain and sufferings. He was forced to question the truths and began re-evaluating the life he had once known. The palace walls no longer kept him safe. He had learned that all beings are subject to sickness, old age, and death. This realization changed his understanding of his existence in the world. He wanted to find an end to suffering. Not for himself but also for all beings trapped in this endless cycle of existence.
With this newfound understanding, Siddhartha entered into a period of great contemplation. He could not accept suffering and despair as the only reality in life. He remembered the wandering ascetic and thought it as means to find the ultimate truth. Knowing that it would not be possible inside of the palace, he resolved to renounce the world of pleasure. He left the palace that night.
Upon leaving the palace gates, he vowed not to return until he had attained enlightenment. He traveled far from his home and entered the country of Maghadha. There, he cut his hair, removed all ornaments of his past, and took the robes of an ascetic. He wandered in search of teachers who would help him. But none of their teachings brought him the universal understanding. So, he began his own search. He joined with a group of five other ascetics and practiced severe austerities. These austerities included self-deprivation and starvation.
Even after 6 years of extreme practices, he realized these practices would only kill him. And he would not be able to attain enlightenment. His earlier life as a prince could never bring protection from the suffering of the world. And these practices of deprivation would only bring death.
He remembered the clarity and calm achieved while meditating in his youth. This was the way out of samsara. The path of meditation and moderation was the Middle Way. And this was the only way to achieve enlightenment.
He became aware of the need for food to have enough strength to continue. He left his companions and began searching for food. The five ascetics looked at him in disdain, thinking he had given up on his search for enlightenment.
While coming down from the mountain to get alms, he approached the outskirts of the village and sat under a tree.
A milkmaid Sujata approached him, believing him to be a tree spirit. She refreshed him with an offering of milk and honey. This offering restored his energy and allowed him to search for a place to attain enlightenment. This led him across the Nairanjana River and to the foot of the Bodhi Tree in Bodhgaya.
This spot, Vajrasana, or adamantine throne, is where all previous Buddhas attained enlightenment. He took a sear on the eastern side of the tree. And vowed to remain in the same spot until attaining Supreme Enlightenment.
His strong vow threatened Mara, the Buddhist manifestation of death and desire. Mara's power and control originate from the suffering and attachment of all sentient beings. Enlightenment would free him from Mara's control. It provides an opportunity for others to free themselves by presenting a method to follow.
With his sons, daughters, and demons, Mara led an attack to shake Siddartha from his spot under the Bodhi Tree. Groups of minions brandishing weapons in each hand encroached on Siddhartha. They raged all around him, attempting to frighten him. But Siddartha saw through these beasts' illusion and said:
"There is no demon, no army, no beings;
there is not even a self.
Like the image of the moon in the water, the cycle of the three worlds is misleading.
There is no eye, no man, no woman, and no self;
no ear, no nose
likewise, no tongue and no body.
Substances arise by depending on each other, free from a creator or one who perceives.
They are empty within and empty without.
With words of truth, he declares the truth that all substances are empty."
This realization rendered Mara's threats useless. Steadfast and resolved, the Buddha-to-Be remained in his seat.
The Buddha-to-Be touched the earth with his right hand and said,
"This earth is my witness."
At that time, the earth goddess Prithvi emerged and said,
'Yes! It is so...I have beheld it! I along with the gods, am your witness!'
With this earth-touching gesture, Mara was finally defeated. Siddartha left to meet enlightenment. Finally, after six years of struggle, he was able to meet enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree. Under the guidance of all Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and other heavenly beings, the Enlightened One meditated without distraction. He would often be called Sage of the Shakyas (Shakyamuni). During the night, he passed into various stages of meditation.
Buddha acquired during “the first watch of the night, the knowledge of previous existences. In the middle watch of the night, the divine vision. And in the last watch of the night the knowledge of the causative process. Bringing about Supreme Enlightenment by dawn, he was now a Enlightened Buddha.
For seven days after his enlightenment, he remained seated under the Bodhi Tree. He contemplated the bliss of emancipation. He spent his 49 days after meditating around the Bodhi tree and perfecting his understandings.
Unlike anyone, he had achieved a complete understanding of the causes of suffering. It was the tools to escape this existence.
A caravan led by two merchant travelers, Trapusa and Bhallika, approached Buddha. They were approached by a deva (deity) who urged the travelers to stop and offer food to the awakened Buddha. They were told, this would bring them great merit.
They approached Buddha and said, “We pray the Lord, eat of this refreshment of honey as a favor to us".
Buddha recognized he did not have a bowl to receive alms.
The Guardian Kings of the four directions brought him lavish bowls to receive his alms. But he, rejected these bowls, as those bowls were not what an ascetic should carry.
The Guardian Kings then returned with four bowls made of stone. Buddha accepted them. He stacked the bowl together and touched them with his thumb. The bowls turned into one. He then received the offerings of the two travelers.
After Buddha received the offering, the travelers asked to take refuge in Buddha and Dharma. So, they became the first lay disciples of Buddhism.
He further contemplated either to teach his newfound understanding to the rest of the world. He felt the truth of his realization would be too difficult for beings to understand, and he said:
"Enough with teaching the Dhamma (Skt. Dharma]
That even I found hard to reach
For it will never be perceived by those who live in lust and hate.
Those dyed in lust, wrapped in darkness
Will never discern the abstruse Dhamma
Which goes against the worldly stream,
Subtle, deep, and difficult to see."
Brahma Sahampati knew what was in Buddha's head and intervened by asking him to teach the Dharma. The first two times he asked the Buddha to teach the Dharma, he refused.
But the third time, he opened his divine eyes. He saw beings with the potential of understanding his teachings. Buddha said,
"Open for them are the doors to the Deathless,
Let those with ears now show their faith.
Thinking it would be troublesome,
O Brahma, I did not speak the Dhamma subtle and sublime."
It would be these individuals, ready for the truth, who could accept the Buddha's teachings of the Dharma. So, it was out of compassion for all beings that he decided to teach the Dharma. The next issue for him was deciding who should be the first to hear his teachings.
Firstly, he wanted his former teachers to be the first to hear the Dharma. But he learned that they had all recently died. Then, he remembered his former colleagues. He believed their minds were ready to grasp his teachings. He then left Bodh Gaya to meet his former companions in an area known as Deer Park.
But when he approached his companions, the five ascetics decided to ignore him. This was because of his previous rejection. But as Buddha came closer, they noticed a change in his presence.
They created a seat for Buddha, unaware of the level of his attainment. As he spoke, they recognized a change in his understanding of the world. He had attained enlightenment. As he expounded his revelations, they looked upon him with reverence.
They knew they were in the presence of a fully Enlightened Buddha.
A being who had followed his own path (the Middle Way) and had arrived at enlightenment.
The foundation of the Middle Way bases itself on the Four Noble truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, and the Twelvefold Chain of Causation.
Buddha perfected his knowledge and understanding of these principles. The Four Noble Truths are based on the laws of cause and effect.
The first truth is the recognition that suffering exists in the world.
The second truth states that suffering is caused by desire and craving.
The third truth reveals that there is a way out and that the suffering in the world can be eliminated.
The fourth truth establishes the Noble Eightfold Path as the means to end suffering and attachment in the world. The Noble Eightfold Path is the Right view, Right thought, Right speech, Right action, Right livelihood, Right effort, Right mindfulness, and Right concentration.
The Twelvefold Chain of Causation relates to the interdependency of all things. All things are contingent upon one another.
The Life of Buddha became a paradigm for followers of Buddhism. He was a teacher of the Middle Way. It was through meditation and diligent striving, he attained Supreme Enlightenment.
The time Buddha spent explaining the universal truths to his companions at Deer Park became known as the First Sermon. Within this Sermon is the foundation of all Buddhist thoughts.
After hearing his teaching, each of them became highly realized. They became the foundation for the Sangha, or community of followers. And completed the precious triad of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.
The first sermon established Buddha as the fundamental teacher of humankind.
With the support of the Sangha, he went on teaching the Dharma for another 40 years. The end of his teaching came with his death at the age of 80. His final cessation (Parinirvana) was the result of his understanding of suffering. He attained Nirvana and cessation from any future rebirths. He would never again be reborn because he had conquered samsara. The attainment of enlightenment is the focus of all Buddhist practices.
Thus, Prince Siddhartha became known as Buddha, Tathagata (the Thus Come One/Thus Gone One).