Enlightenment of Shakyamuni Buddha

Transformation of Prince Siddhartha Gautam | Shakyamuni Buddha

Throughout the Indic thought there is a great tradition of seeking the complete cessation from life (Nirvana). Evidence of this can be found in both the Vedic and Upanishadic texts. It was in 5th century B.C. E, Prince Siddartha Gautama achieved this final cessation. From renouncing his life as a prince and becoming a wandering ascetics who practiced severe austerities, he gained release from the attachment and suffering in the world by practicing the methodology of middle path. 

Like all beings trapped in the realm of the mundane world (samsara), the Buddha lived many lives before attaining enlightenment. The accumulation of merit during these lifetimes allowed to be reborn in Tushita Heaven as the Bodhisattva, “White Banner" (Shve- taketu). In this realm, the Bodhisattvas perfects their traits and, once when achieved, waits in Tushita for the right time and place of a final rebirth. This also includes the right time, family, caste, and lineage. Establishing the perfect rebirth allows the Buddha-to-Be to harness the Buddha-nature through the early years of life, leading them on the path to ultimate understanding as a fully enlightened Buddha.


During the 5th century B.C.E., the Bodhisattva Shvetaketu saw the perfect opportunity for rebirth in a royal family in the country of Kapilavastu.’ King Shudhodhana and his wife, Queen Mayadevi, leaders of the Shakya family in this country, were known throughout the land for their fairness and compassion. Recognizing this as the preeminent time and place for his rebirth, the Bodhisattva chose this couple as his parents for his final rebirth. The Bodhisattva's descent from Tushita Heaven occurred as a dream to Mayadevi. In this dream, Mayadevi was transported to the Tushita heaven where a white elephant approached the sleeping queen and touched her right side with its trunk. During this profound event, the Bodhisattva entered the womb of Mayadevi and impregnated her. The next morning, Mayadevi told her husband about the dream and he quickly sent for the oracle for an interpretation. After hearing the queen's story, the oracle predicted that Mayadevi was pregnant with a son, and this child would live his life either a great Universal Monarch (Chakravartin) or a Buddha. Both parents were excited by such a prediction. Mayadevi carried him in her womb for ten months with no complications or pain. Near the end of her pregnancy, Mayadevi left Kapilavastu to visit her parents in Devadaha; however, 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, and grasped a branch of the plaksha' tree to bear her weight. Stretching, she gazed at the broad expanse of the sky." The 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 the thirty-two marks of a Great Man along with the eighty attributes. The young prince was named Siddhartha, "Accomplisher of Aims," with Gautama, "Best Bull," as his gotra or clan name.

Unfortunately seven days after giving birth to Siddartha, Mayadevi died. As was the tradition, her sister took on the role as mother to the young prince and wite to King Shudhodhana. At the moment of the birth of Siddhartha, Asita, a seeker residing in the Himalayan Mountains, recognized strange happenings around him, he was sure a being with great perfection had been born to the world.  He led to Kapilavastu to see the king with hopes of meeting his revered son. In the presence of the Buddha-to-Be, Asita predicted (like the oracle before him) that the young prince would either be a great monarch like his father or become a Buddha. Asita recognized the thirty-two marks of a great man on the body of the prince and predicted he would depart from home, take the robes of an ascetic, and “surely obtain the peerless Enlightenment of a perfect and complete Buddha."

As the son of a king, 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. Throughout his life, he mastered and perfected many skills. His knowledge and understanding was beyond comparison, surpassing even his master teachers. As the eldest son of a king, he was being groomed for a life as his father's successor. He lived a life of luxury, ornamented with the finest garments and jewels while always being surrounded by attendants. Recognizing the two paths in his son's destiny, the king sheltered the prince, giving him 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, the young prince grew tired and retreated to the shade of a nearby tree. Sitting under the tree, he relaxed and slipped into a meditative state. It is said the gods did not want anything to disturb the Buddha-to-Be and, therefore, 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 own son. Regardless of the gods’ favor, Shudhodhana was determined to keep his son attached to the life of royalty. Prince Siddhartha married a young woman, “Sustainer of Glorious Beauty" (Yashodhara), from a neighboring kingdom and after several years they conceived a child. The king, now believed his son would not leave the palace because of his worldly responsibilities as husband and father. Siddhartha, however, was developing a great curiosity to see his kingdom and his people. Aware of this curiosity, the king attempted to guard his son from any unpleasant sights, from the world outside the palace gates. He was now twenty-nine years old and wanted to see the World outside the palace. So, he asked to take a chariot out to see his country. 

During this time, the king ordered the streets to be cleared of any uglines, filled with flowers and banners to glorify the wealth of the kingdom. Even with this precaution, the prince came upon sights that shocked him.

First, he saw an old man. He did not understand what he was seeing and asked his charioteer, Chandaka, what had happened to the man. Chandaka explained that this man had grown old and his body had become weak because this is the normal progression of life. Siddhartha had never seen old age before; 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. Siddhartha 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 just witnessed were not rare events, but 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 formerly and began re-evaluating the life he had once known. The palace walls no longer kept him safe for 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 just for himself but for the people in his kingdom and 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. Remembering the wandering ascetic, he thought this was the means to find the ultimate truth. Knowing that it would not be possible inside of the palace. So, he resolved to renounce the world of pleasure and left the palace that night.

Upon leaving the palace gates, he vowed not to return to Kapilavastu 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 princely past, and took the robes of an ascetic. Having left his life as a prince, he now strove for the  universal understanding for his own benefit and for of all other sentient beings. He wandered in search of teachers who would help him attain enlightenment, but invariably none of these teachings brought about universal understanding. Because of this, he began his own search, joining a group of five other ascetics in their practice of severe austerities in an attempt to bring about ultimate understanding. These austerities included self-deprivation and starvation.

After six years of such practices, he realized these practices would kill him before he would ever become enlightened. His earlier hedonistic lifestyle as a prince could never bring protection from the suffering of the world, but neither would these practices of extreme austerities. His deprivation would only bring death. In contrast, he remembered the clarity and calm achieved while meditating during the plowing contest in his youth. This was the way out of samsara. This path of meditation and moderation, the Middle Way, was the only way to achieve enlightenment.

With this realization, Siddhartha became aware of the need for food in order to have enough strength to continue. He left his companions, and began searching for food. The five other ascetics looked at this action in disdain, thinking he had given up on his search for enlightenment. In disgust, they left him in search of a new place to practice their austerities. Coming down from the mountain to get alms, Siddhartha approached the outskirts of the village and sat under a tree. There, the milkmaid Sujata approached the Buddha-to-Be, believing him to be a tree spirit. She refreshed him with an offering of milk and honey. This offering restored the energy of the Buddha-to-Be, allowing him to search for a place to attain enlightenment. This search led him across the nearby Nairanjana River and to the foot of the Bodhi Tree in Bodhgaya. This spot, known as the Vajrasana, or adamantine throne, is where all previous Buddhas attained enlightenment. Taking his seat on the eastern side of the tree, he vowed to remain in the same spot until attaining Supreme Enlightenment. 

Hearing this strong vow, Mara, the Buddhist manifestation of death and desire, was threatened. Mara's power and control originates from the suffering and attachment of all sentient beings. Enlightenment would free Siddhartha from Mara's control and provide an opportunity for others to free themselves by presenting a methodology to follow.

With his entourage of 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's place under the tree. They raged all around him, attempting to frighten the seated ascetic, but he 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.

Frustrated, Mara, in one last attempt, asked Siddhartha what right he had to sit in this spot where all the Buddhas of the past had become enlightened. Without disturbing his posture, the Buddha-to-Be touched the earth with his right| hand and said,

"This earth is my witness."

At that instant the earth goddess Prithvi emerged from the earth and said,

'Yes! It is so...I have directly beheld it! I along with the gods am your witness!"

With this earth-touching gesture, Mara was finally defeated and Siddartha was left to attain enlightenment. Finally, after six years of struggle, he was granted the right to attain enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree. Under the guidance of all the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and other beings of the heavenly realms, he, the Enlightened One (Buddha) meditated without distraction. He would often be called Sage of the Shakyas (Shakyamuni). During the night, he passed into various stages of meditation.

The 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. Siddhartha Gautama was now a fully Enlightened Buddha. For seven days after his enlightenment, the Buddha remained seated under the Bodhi Tree contemplating the bliss of emancipation. Buddha spent forty-nine days after his enlightenment meditating at various spots around the Bodhi Tree, perfecting his understandings. Unlike anyone, he had achieved the complete understanding of the causes of suffering and the tools to escape this existence. 

Simultaneously, a caravan led by two merchant travelers, Trapusa and Bhallika, approached the area where the Buddha was residing. They were approached by a deva (deity) who urged the travelers to stop and offer food to the newly awakened Buddha, saying that this deed would bring them great merit. 

They approached the Buddha and said, “We pray thee Lord, eat of this refreshment of honey as a favor to us". The Buddha, however, recognized he did not have a bowl to receive alms. Therefore, the Guardian Kings of the four directions brought him lavish bowls with which to receive his alms. The Buddha rejected these bowls, as ak were not what an ascetic should carry. The Guardian Kings then returned with four bowls made of stone, which Shakyamuni accepted. Buddha stacked the bowl together and touched them with his thumb, turning them into one bowl with which he received the offerings of the two travelers.

After the Buddha received the offering, the travelers asked to take refuge in the Buddha and the Dharma. So, they became the first lay disciples of Buddhism. By  the end of his time around the Bodhi Tree, Buddha contemplated whether or not to teach his newly found 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, though, knew what was in Buddha's head and intervened by asking him to teach the Dharma. The first two times Brahma asked the Buddha to teach the Dharma, Buddha refused, but after the third time he opened his divine eye and saw beings with the potential to understand 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. Therefore, it was out of compassion for all beings that he decided to teach the Dharma. The next issue for the Buddha was deciding who should be the first to hear his teachings. Initially, the Buddha wanted his former teachers to be the first to hear the Dharma. however, he learned that they had all recently died. He then remembered his former colleagues, with whom he had practiced austerities, and believed their minds were ready to fully grasp his teachings. The Buddha then left Bodh Gaya to meet his former companions in an area known as Deer Park. When Buddha approached his companions, the five ascetics initially agreed to ignore him because of his previous rejection. But as Buddha came closer, they noticed a change in his presence.

They created a seat for the 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, the five ascetics looked upon him with reverence and they knew they were in the presence of a fully Enlightened Buddha. Here was 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.

During the forty-nine days spent around the Bodhi Tree after his enlightenment, Buddha perfected his knowledge and understanding of these principles. As they are understood, 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 adherence to "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, with all things contingent upon one another. The Life of the Buddha became a paradigm for followers of Buddhism. He was a teacher of the Middle Way, and it was through the practice of meditation and diligent striving that he attained the insights of Supreme Enlightenment. The time Buddha spent explaining the universal truths of the world to his former companions at Deer Park became known as the First Sermon. Within this Sermon is the foundation of all Buddhist thoughts.

The Buddha proclaimed the Dharma of the Middle Way to his five companions who became the first disciples. After hearing his teaching, each became highly realized. This group of followers became the foundation for the Sangha, or community of followers, completing the Buddhist triad of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The first sermon established Buddha, whose methodology would bring about complete enlightenment, as the fundamental teacher of humankind.

With support from his community of followers, the Buddha went on teaching the Dharma to those who would listen for another forty years. The end of his teaching came with his death at the age 80. The Buddha's final cessation (parinirvana) was the result of his understanding of suffering and the way out of this suffering. With his death, the Buddha 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 practice.

Thus, Prince Siddhartha became known as Buddha, Tathagata (the Thus Come One/Thus Gone One), and spent the rest of his life teaching others. 

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