Born a prince
Siddhārtha Gautama was born an Indian prince (around 563 BC) to a life of privilege. At his birth a wise man had offered the prediction that he would either be a great king and leader of his people, or a great sage and teacher. His father, intent upon him pursuing the role of king, bestowed on the young prince every luxury imaginable, living in a fine palace where nothing was wanting. However, whatever the trappings of royalty that were offered, the young Siddhārtha Gautama exhibited a reflective and contemplative nature. It was a characteristic that his father tried to arrest with distractions and enticements of luxuries and entertainments.
From a young age Siddhārtha Gautama already showed he had a deeper view of the world and questioned what was placed around him. One story of his life is that at the age of eight, when taken to a festival in a rural area near the palace, he took himself away from the business of the day and the royal engagements and sat in the cool shade of a tree observing the physical struggle of a farmer tilling the soil and the strain of the oxen to move the plough; he noticed the worms being cut up by the plough, the birds swooping to eat them, then a larger bird of prey attacking the smaller birds. In the background he could hear the Brahman priests who had been engaged by his father to make prayers for the day. His stepmother eventually found him, sitting in stillness under the tree. He asked her, ‘What good are all those prayers for the ox or the worms and birds?’ He had perceived the prayers were empty and could not change the suffering he observed.
His awareness was such that he kept seeing through the veil of creation thick around him.
As time progressed his father engaged him in the life of the court and ensured that he would have a wife and family, all means to keep the young prince engaged with the world and lost in it. But Siddhārtha was an observer of life. As he lived at the court he noticed the corruption and lies of the courtiers and those in official positions. He saw that his own wife, Yasodhara, who sought to alleviate the suffering of the children in the villages by tending to them when they were sick, found no peace in her activities and she was bereft when one of the children died. A turning point for the young prince was seeing a dying man no older than himself beside the road, racked with disease; he tried to assist the man, but he was beyond a physician’s help and passed away with the young prince close by. Siddhārtha heard the wails of the mourners as they lit the funeral pyre. All that he had taken for granted – his good health and his mortal existence – vanished.
He had everything – riches, comfort and a loving family – but he could see that all the trappings of creation could not assuage the suffering he could see all around him, and in his own heart he had an innate sense that there must be another way.
Yasodhara knew that her husband would leave his position, home and family to seek what he most wished for, since he had confided in her of his concerns and that he felt he could not continue with the constant unrest in his heart, and his resolve that he must seek a Way to understand the deeper meaning of life. He told her that when it was time for him to leave and pursue his calling, he knew she would be a great mother to their son and that she had the strength to endure their separation. He promised her that he would return to her and his son once he had found the Way.
When he asked his father for permission to leave home to become a renunciate, his father suggested that he wait until he was an old man, so he could fulfil his royal duties first. His father said that he should think first of his royal duties, his parents, his wife and child and his people. Although Siddhārtha did not wish to abandon his responsibilities, whilst his heart had no peace he could not see how could he fulfil any of his duties or have the trust of his subjects.
His father was intent on diverting the young prince from his stated objective and arranged all sorts of events, obligations and parties to distract him. Gotami, the prince’s stepmother, had always been sympathetic to the young Siddhartha’s spiritual and more reflective leanings and being privy to these intentions she had warned the couple of the king’s intentions. In this regard, the prince could be said to have received true support from Gotami as this forewarning no doubt assisted him with his strength of resolve to not be distracted by his father’s attempts to keep him from his destiny.
What is perhaps missing in many tellings of the Buddha’s story is the strength and support of the women in his life; for example, Yasodhara accepted her husband’s movements towards his vocation and knew that he was to leave. She understood that the prince’s dedication to find a path out of suffering was for himself, for her and all equally. Reading between the lines of the sutras, her support for him is demonstrated in that without her husband even knowing, she prepared his servant to be ready in advance with the prince’s horse and provisions to allow him to leave at a time she knew he would. In this regard, Yasodhara already showed her own discipline to the path, one that she would ultimately be able to follow when Siddhārtha himself returned as the Buddha to share what he had realised.
After a big and luxurious party, another of the King’s engagements to keep the prince distracted, Siddhārtha knew he had to leave that night. He chose to not wake his sleeping wife, understanding that he had already said all that needed to be said and an emotional goodbye would simply be more painful to her. He left the palace with the resolve that if he did not find the Way he would not return. He was 29 years old.
After leaving the palace, Siddhārtha let go of his princely robes and adopted the dress of a renunciate, he learnt to gather food from the forest and beg for food, which was the common practice of holy men.
Over a period of five years he sought the teachings of the greatest and most renowned spiritual teachers of the time. Alara Kamala taught him about breath and meditation, however, although Siddhārtha excelled in stilling his mind and reached various states of what were considered high realisations through those teachings, he felt that the ability to experience these states in meditation did not liberate him from the suffering he felt arising from his own deepest mental afflictions and emotional suffering. Studying meditation under another renowned spiritual teacher of the time, Uddaka Rāmaputta, who had many hundreds of disciples, Siddhārtha quickly mastered the meditative state of transcending all ordinary states of consciousness, however, although he experienced the meditative state as very peaceful, when he stirred from his meditations he was aware that it did not ‘unlock reality’. Whatever these masters imparted, the realisations Siddhārtha attained did not assist in the unease of living in this world with a body that is born and dies, and the suffering and anxiety that he had identified characterised human life. In response to his dedication – and that he had attained all that each of these teachers had shown him – both Alara Kalama and Uddaka Rāmaputta had respectively invited the young Siddhārtha to remain with them, teach alongside them and ultimately become their successor. As such the young man would have been assured of students and a life of relative ease as a spiritual master, where all his needs would be met. However, in this regard, yet again Siddhārtha would turn his back on the comforts being offered by the world. First, he had spurned the illusion of the riches of the prince and the ties of family, then the glamour of being a highly respected teacher with a life supported by his students. He was intent on finding the Way and he would not rest until he had left no stone unturned.
During the five years after he left the palace he had also explored and examined the life of the Ascetics, who lived unclothed in forests and lived on nothing but leaves and roots. They believed that such austerities would secure them a place in heaven upon death. Siddhārtha again observed that this path offered no relief from the suffering in the world. He remained steadfast in his understanding that the true path was not one of escape from the world, but dealing with the challenges and suffering of the world directly. He moved on, understanding that neither the path of self-abuse through such deprivations, nor the path where all sensual desires are indulged or satisfied, could offer such liberation.
Siddhārtha studied with different teachers and kept practising meditation. Eventually he took up residence in a forest near the city of Magadha. His steady demeanour and strength of purpose were obvious in his movements and were noted by those in the city, who would offer him alms and be moved by his serenity. The King of Magadha, Bimbisara, was so moved by Siddhārtha’s demeanour he offered him great wealth and power, even half his kingdom, if Siddhārtha would come and be by his side and be his teacher, offering that Siddhārtha could return to his path later in life. Again, Siddhārtha declined these trappings of wealth and power. Such a life could not take him away from that which ignited his every movement and purpose, which was to find the path to liberate himself and all beings from suffering, explaining to Bimbisara that he had already left a kingdom behind and that despite extensive spiritual practice over five years, he was still subject to greed, anger, hatred, passion, jealousy and pride.
Siddhārtha had been offered time and time again great rewards which he saw through and declined, knowing that they would distract him from his path. He had received teachings from the best meditation teachers in the land and accomplished all that they could impart, yet he saw through their limitations, holding an awareness that they were limited as they did not pierce the veil of reality; he knew in his pursuits he had not addressed the liberation from suffering that he burned to resolve. He realised that he would have to find the key to liberation on his own – there was no teacher who had resolved this and no answer outside himself.
He had now been on his path to find liberation for 5 years; he was 34 years old. He settled in a mountain cave and determined to practise extreme asceticism with a resolve to overcome his physical desires, since nothing else had challenged what he saw as his mental and physical obstructions. He meditated in the most dangerous parts of the forest through the night and even as he was overcome with fear and panic, he would not stir from his meditation. His mind would play tricks with the possible dangers that were imminent, yet he stayed steady, believing that if his body was no longer a slave to fear he would break the chains of suffering. Through extreme austerities over a period of a year he further deepened his discipline and courage, such that he was able to endure great physical pain, but still he had not found a stability of peace in his heart. He went to extremes, as he had vowed to ‘carry austerity to the uttermost’. He ‘tried various plans, such as living on one sesamum seed or on one grain of rice a day, and even ceased taking nourishment altogether’, his body wasting from lack of food and through the extremities he placed it under he was ‘emaciated to the last degree’; near death, he was no more than ‘loose flesh hanging off protruding bones’.
Then one day, sitting in a cemetery, a cool delicious breeze caressed his body, and the cool shade offered a respite from the stinging sun. Siddhārtha woke up with a jolt to how wrong the path of self-mortification was. In that moment he felt such a great ease, and saw that the body and mind were one and could not be treated separately, the peace and ease of the body were directly linked to peace and ease in the mind: in essence, to abuse the body was to abuse the mind. He collected himself, reflecting on all he had understood from his life and the teachings he had received: there was no need to try to avoid the joy and ease he experienced in his meditation, it was different to the obstructing desires he had found contaminated his awareness and it could support the indomitability needed to seek liberation.
He turned away from the extreme asceticism and nourished his body, caring for himself, bathing and eating and practising his meditation in the leafy forest. He had a few companions in the forest over the year he had practised as an ascetic who had been inspired by his dedication, who now turned away from him and spurned him for what they perceived as an indulgence in luxuries, losing confidence in him. Siddhārtha continued unperturbed by this abandonment, such was his focus and purpose. He instructed himself, meditating on his body, then turning to his feelings, then turning to his perceptions and all the thoughts that arose and passed through his mind. ‘He saw the oneness of body and mind, that each and every cell of the body contained all the wisdom of the universe’. He went beyond the idea of a separate self (atman) and realised that the teachings in the Vedas which had been the foundation of all he had been taught were mistaken; there was no separate self.
He continued in his practice and with each day his awareness deepened. He could feel that nothing in the body remained the same – that all his feelings, pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, would arise and pass away; like the cells of his body they were impermanent. With the depth of his practice and his deepened concentration and physical strength he turned his awareness to reflecting on perception.
He saw with his deepest awareness that human perception influenced reality and the process of birth, life and death. If perceptions were clear and accurate then reality revealed itself with ease – it was clear there was no self and all things are connected and that we create our own existence; but if perceptions were erroneous, then reality was veiled.
In this state, people were caught in endless suffering because they could only see that what is impermanent is permanent; that which is without self contains self; that which has no birth and death has birth and death; and they divided that which is inseparable into parts. In other words, they were lost in creation’s constant ebb and flow, forever enslaved to their perception of self and the attachments that came hand in hand with it, fraught with emotions or desires (fulfilled or unfulfilled).
He examined all the emotions which he identified as the sources of suffering – fear, anger, hatred, arrogance, jealousy, greed, and ignorance – understanding that they all had the same source, ignorance, that could only be broken if there was direct experience of the nature of reality. Not an intellectual understanding but a direct experience of it. He understood that if such a state was sustained then the negative emotions and mental obstructions would vanish – they were no more than fleeting shadows. In further and deep contemplation he saw that liberation lay in accepting impermanence and emptiness of self; that the source of suffering is a false belief in permanence and the existence of separate selves.
On the day he was to embark upon what is called the Great Awakening, the Buddha was visited by two village children, who gave him food and fresh grass for him to sit upon. He ate, bathed and sat with a Bo-tree at his back and faced the east, the west to his back. The story of the Buddha’s ‘enlightenment’ is rich in symbolism. The turning of his back to the tree is no less a significant element of a story of grand renunciation. He had already renounced the trappings of wealth, power, emotion and family ties in pursuit of truth; he had seen through the deceit of higher realisations which he could see with his refined awareness were false and did not overcome the dis-ease of living in creation. He had identified that ‘no amount of action had brought him any freedom from the shackles he identified’ and that the only path remaining was one of surrender. The turning of his back on the tree symbolises a turning away from knowledge [and the trappings of Brahman], and looking to the wisdom to be found within. As he turned his back to the tree he made a ‘mighty resolution’:
‘Let my skin, and sinews, and bones become dry, and welcome! and let all the flesh and blood in my body dry up! but never from this seat will I stir, until I have attained the supreme and absolute wisdom!
He sat solid and unmoving in a cross-legged position, the position of his legs offering a symbol of the bind of creation, determined to find the source of all pain and suffering, knowing that nothing he had done or seen had offered the truth.
Buddhist scriptures describe a demon ‘Mara’ (which translates as ‘destruction’), who symbolises the passions that snare and delude us: there are various versions of how Mara sent all kinds of attacks to stop Siddhārtha piercing the veil of creation.
Mara brought his most beautiful daughters to seduce Siddhārtha, each daughter symbolising a different obstruction – Tanha (thirst), Arati (aversion, discontentment) and Raga (attachment, desire, greed and passion). Siddhārtha, however, had already developed such a depth of renunciation and practice of mind and body that he was untouched by these attacks; nor did he stir when Mara sent vast armies of monsters to attack him. His living will allowed him to understand that each ‘temptation’ and all his fears were empty and had no substance.
As he sat he saw every cell in his body contained all of existence, heaven and earth and past, present and future, he saw worlds arise and fall, and universes arise and cease, he saw beings caught in the endless cycle of birth and death were simply waves upon an ocean when the ocean itself was beyond life and death, and that if the waves understood they were the water, not the waves, they would find true inner peace. He understood that all beings suffer because they are trapped by the jail of ignorance of their true nature; that ignorance of this is the root of all attachments, a sense of an individuated self, fuelled by greed, anger, arrogance, doubt, jealousy, and fear. Ignorance of their innate true nature had been the jailor. Because of ignorance, the truth was obscured:
‘Clouded by endless waves of deluded thoughts, the mind had falsely divided reality into subject and object; self and others; existence and non-existence; and birth and death. From these discriminations arose wrong views—the prisons of feelings, craving, grasping, and becoming. The suffering of birth, old age, sickness, and death only made the prison walls thicker.’
Finally, after six days, he opened his eyes to the rising morning star, realising that what he had been looking for had never been lost, neither to him nor to anyone else. There was nothing to attain, and no longer any struggle to attain it. He is reported to have said; ‘this very enlightenment is the nature of all beings, and yet they are unhappy for lack of it.’
"The ultimate ascension of the man Siddhartha Gautama to Buddha, the Light of the World, unfolded as he removed himself from personal investment and became one with the greater plan offering light as the only means by which one can assist and not, as he learnt, to interfere or desire the process to be different. In effect, Siddhartha Gautama, through movement (True action), eventually positioned his body such that he had ultimate awareness. But his final release of false light, the highest form of evil, the pure good of creation, also known as Brahman, was made cognisant to his human mind when it, the human ideal, was removed to make space for the great workings of the plan. He thus became the Light of the World because that is what is precisely needed, the light of God lived on a plane of life that has shunned it."Serge Benhayon Esoteric Teachings & Revelations Volume III, ed 1, p 462
The power of his realisation and his demeanour drew many thousands of disciples and he embarked upon 45 years of teaching. He reconnected with his family and old friends who were moved by what they could see was the truth, and many teachers with their own students became his students of the Way. He taught and treated all equally – kings, noblemen and the lowliest in society from the caste of untouchables. He was skilled at making the teachings accessible to all those who sought them, adjusting them as needed.
The Buddha, as he now was, could see that no one would be able to achieve his own realisation by the path he had undertaken, so he set out a Way that would be suitable for all to embody. His path out of ignorance was shared with the world as the Noble Path, or aryamarga. Thus, the Buddha, as he now was, revealed that life is illuminated by the way we think, express and move and how we live with others. In this regard, he laid out eight approaches to movement which were what he had understood made the body ready for the deeper understanding needed to overcome the lies of creation. These are described as ‘right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.’ It is of importance to understand that the word ‘right’ as used by the Buddha does not arise from any ideal of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but from a state of being and knowing that is at-one with the absolute truth of all things. The term ‘right’ is thus identical with ‘true’.
Practically the whole teaching of the Buddha, to which he devoted his next 45 years, presented this path, explained in different ways and in different words to different people according to the stage of their development and their capacity to understand and follow him. Rather than teaching sitting at length, he presented ‘the whole process to quiet the body from the imposed turmoil then move it free of the pranic commotion.’
Each of these eight movements are clustered under three elements considered essential to the path the Buddha laid out: (a) ethical conduct (sila), (b) mental discipline (samadhi) and (c) wisdom (panna), and are best understood looked at under each of these elements.
Far from being a dry intellectual pursuit, the Buddha’s teachings were founded on and enlivened by a vast conception of universal love and compassion for all living beings. This was to be developed as a living quality and embraced three factors of the noble eightfold path necessary for harmonious relationships with others: namely, right speech, right action, and right livelihood.
- Right Speech: the essence of this instruction is to abstain from wrong and harmful speech. This includes telling lies, any talk that is hateful or brings disunity or disharmony, any language that is abusive or malicious and any idle, useless, foolish babble and gossip or careless talk. What is left is space to speak the truth and using words that are meaningful and useful. In this respect, like the Pythagorean education of silence, if there is nothing useful to say, then silence should be maintained.
"Speak not until your voice equals the serenity of silence."Serge Benhayon
Right Action: Right action aims at promoting moral, honourable, and peaceful conduct. The Buddha instructed that this included three aspects: ‘abstaining from taking life, abstaining from stealing, abstaining from unchastity or wrongful sexual intercourse’, as well as assisting others to lead a peaceful and honourable life.
Right livelihood: The Buddha suggested that whatever way one’s living was earned, it should fundamentally not cause harm to others or involve lying or cheating. Trading arms or making intoxicating drinks or substances or killing animals would all have transgressed this basic part of the path.
The ethical and moral conduct laid out in these parts of the path are based upon the intention that the whole of society be able to share a joyous and harmonious life, and this is considered an indispensable foundation for all higher spiritual attainments. In this sense, the Buddha himself offered a true reflection of all he taught – he walked his talk and he was renowned for his virtue and understanding, with his virtue shining in the way he walked and his every gesture and expression.
Mental discipline includes the three factors of right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. In each of these the Buddha’s own story offered deep insight into the mental discipline and dedication he had developed to pursue the Way, but equally these need to be considered along with his own revelation discussed above, that the mind and body were one and neither could be developed at the expense of the other (a matter often forgotten in the adoption of Buddhism and the pursuit of ‘enlightenment’ seen in the West, and the denial of the body).
Right effort: Right effort involved the instruction that we should relinquish negative and harmful thoughts and states of mind – sensual desire, ill-will, dullness, restlessness and worry, and doubt, and instead cause positive and beneficial ones to arise. Unfortunately, this aspect of Buddhism has led to the idea that one can simply ‘stop’ thoughts or change states of mind, rather than engage with what the Buddha’s story instructs us and that the whole of the eightfold path directs. Other elements of the eightfold path instruct living in a way that holds the body in a state that means equanimity will follow; if this is experienced (as the Buddha did), then the state of the body guides the nature of our thinking. Although observation will show that thoughts never stop, with dedication and observation however, the thoughts are not engaged with, as they are exposed as insubstantial – they arise and pass away and are never permanent. What is offered here is that the mind be directed to a greater purpose, that of the advancement of ourselves and all of humanity. If the body is taken care of and the dedication of purpose is realised, then intrusive thoughts will have no traction, they are cut off at their root.
Right mindfulness: Right mindfulness (sammā-sati) is a focus on building awareness of the workings of the mind and body, requiring diligence of observation of all the movements of mind and body, how they arise and disappear. It calls upon an awareness and attentiveness to: the activities of the body (kaya); sensations or feelings (vedana); the activities of the mind (citta); and, ideas, thoughts, conceptions, and things (dhamma). Part of the Buddha’s awakening was extensive meditative practice in observing the mind and body with the object of understanding there is no individuated self. The practice of focus on breathing is one of the teachings the Buddha gave to build mindfulness. What is key is that the practice of mindfulness, which has become a trend in psychology, was never intended to be divorced from the entire wisdom to be found in the eightfold path, which provided in truth a body-centred practice of liberation.
Right concentration forms the last part of development of mental discipline; it is the development of an accurate and precise awareness of the present moment uncoloured by ideas, memories, beliefs or expectations. In this regard it is a singleness of mind equipped with the other eight factors – right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort and right mindfulness – with a view to purifying actions of speech, mind and body through constant reflection to identify if those actions have or could have harmed oneself or others. In effect, all actions of mind, speech and body are to be reflected upon to identify if those actions are healing or harming.
Right resolve (or thought or intention) and right understanding (or view) are the wisdom aspect of the noble eightfold path:
- Right resolve/intention/thought: The aspiration to act with correct intention, doing no harm, arising from the understanding that all our thoughts or intentions and actions have consequences, and that death is not the end. This is tied to the concept of karma that is immediate in this life, or arising in the next or future lives. Actions could be beneficial or deleterious; the focus of the path is to accumulate beneficial rather than deleterious actions in order that the connection to the teachings might be assured in future lives, or be unobstructed in this one.
Right understanding/view: Right understanding is the understanding of things as they are, according to the understanding imparted by the Four Noble Truths. This is a significant step on the path as it relates to seeing the world and everything in it as it really is, not as we believe it to be or want it to be. In this context, understanding is not a mental concept, but a direct lived experience of the truth of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths – which are:
- Suffering: Life always involves suffering, in obvious and subtle forms. Even when things seem good, we always feel an undercurrent of anxiety and uncertainty inside.
- The cause of suffering: The cause of suffering is craving and fundamental ignorance. We suffer because of our mistaken belief that we are a separate, independent, solid ‘I.’ The painful and futile struggle to maintain this delusion of ego is known as samsara, or cyclic existence or ‘creation’.
- The end of suffering: That our obscurations – such as emotions, ideals and beliefs, fixed opinions, wrong views of reality like self-identification, and the suffering that arises – are temporary. They are like passing clouds that obscure the sun of our enlightened nature, which is always present. Therefore, suffering can end because our obscurations can be purified by living according to the Way outlined by the Buddha. The body and mind can be experienced as one and be awakened – it is a state that is always available because it is innate and ever present.
- The path: Through ethical conduct, mental discipline and developing wisdom (as laid out in the eightfold path above), along with the practice of meditation and reflection, the path allows an individual to see the truth of reality or creation.
Wisdom is developed by living by all the other eight instructions of the path. The ultimate understanding of ‘the way things are’ cannot be viewed outside of the deeper realisation that when creation is seen as it is, that realisation leads to a natural movement to understand that we’re all in this together, that is, that we are all interdependent. The Buddha’s arising to teach the Way to thousands of students over a period of 45 years came from a great surpassing love arising from that wisdom, to wish that all beings would open to this same wisdom and be free of the misery that arises from ignoring the way things are.
His return to his family
The Buddha was good to his word and returned to his family to share his realisations, and all his family were moved to live and dedicate themselves to his teachings. The many kings and nobles he had met on his journey also found inspiration in the living quality that the Buddha imparted. He taught until he was 80, surrounded by many hundreds of dedicated practitioners of the Path. He taught women, children, nobles, kings and the poorest of the poor (untouchables) alike. His teachings were adaptable and suitable for both the renunciate and the practitioner at home. He had a broad reach, advising kings on how to rule their kingdoms and their subjects and how to adapt the Path to political life. He equally provided instruction to householders to apply the Path in family life. The Buddha also challenged society by receiving women and untouchables into his sangha, all being considered equal to receive the teachings. Many condemned the Buddha for violating sacred tradition in this regard and suggested he was plotting to overthrow the existing order. However, the Buddha was resolute in his view that all were equal, and all should share in the teachings, and whatever criticisms were laid at his feet he had to share the Way. His approach was that the adherents would reveal their lived quality to his critics who would be silenced by their example, which is what occurred.
The symbolism of the tree of knowledge
As is shown in the above outline of the Buddha’s life and teaching, the Buddha’s great realisation was not simply a moment of meditation under the Bodhi tree, but a life of lived dedication and true purpose to see behind the veil of creation. The eightfold path he outlined so all could be freed from the turmoil of mind and body and the ignorance that held them bound in creation was the result of all his movements from his early life until that point. As his story shows, he had built his body to support the access to the wisdom he experienced, having already renounced the temptations offered by creation; he turned his back on riches, worldly power, the distractions of politics or indeed a family life and he had understood that the body and mind were one, when finally he turned his back on knowledge and sought the ultimate wisdom within.
Written by Alison Greig