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The Life of the Buddha Essay

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Question 1- Select, describe and explain the events in the life of Siddhartha Gautama, which illustrate his religious development

There are generally many events in the life of Siddhartha Gautama, which illustrate his religious development, but personally, I have planned to look at specific events very carefully.

It can be said that the events contained specifically within the past lives of Siddhartha Guatama illustrate his religious development. There are, most evidently, the Jataka tales of the Pali Canon, which are supposedly stories of his actual rebirths. First of all, there is a most fundamental event, which occurs at around 100,000,000 aeons ago, where Dipuncena makes the crucial Bodhissatva vow to devote a life for the help of others. Now, after this, we see many stories of compassionate actions done by the 547 reincarnations of Dipuncena in the form of animal, god, and man. For example, one is the courageous story of Prince Vessantra, who gives up everything that he owns, even his wife and children out of compassion.

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The fact that he did this, giving everything and not expecting anything in return, portrays Dana, which is the idea of charity, and is a fundamental quality that is essential to be on the way to the Bodhissatva Path. There is also the story of the young prince, who ‘ slits his own throat in order for a starving tigress with seven hungry cubs, might live by eating his own flesh’1. In terms of religious development, this is clearly showing the Bodhisattva Concept as it is displaying extreme compassion, or Karuna. A clear favourite, is of the loving, and righteous monkey king, and how he, by bridging himself, saved his fellow monkeys, but died while being bridged.

This shows the Bodhisattva Concept again as he died to save his fellow monkeys and therefore delayed his enlightenment to help others. He developed the religious virtue of patience (Kshanti) as an ascetic in a previous life where he felt no hatred, only pity, for the evil king who cut his body into pieces, bit by bit. These stories all exemplify how the Bodhisattva developed all the qualities and characteristics of someone on the Bodhissatva path (according to Mahayana), and also, it shows the Bodhissatva concept, as his own enlightenment is delayed purely for the sake of other’s enlightenment, but on the other hand, he religiously develops himself to bring his spirit and mind even closer to attaining the ultimate enlightenment, and fulfilment of his vow.

The most obvious and clear event, which shows his religious development, is the four sights. Here, upon leaving the palace with a charioteer, he sees an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a holy man. Certainly in the first three, he realises that everyone grows old, everyone may face disease and everyone has to die. This is actually very moving for Siddhartha Gautama, as it increases his religious, and therefore Buddhist development, but more importantly, his awareness of life. However, a deeper analysis of his situation concludes that this impact of shock was even more penetrating, as his father had shielded Siddhartha from the natures of suffering. These sights he sees at the age of 29 while riding with his charioteer set him thinking about the issues now central to Buddhism (key to religious development) which lead him to realise that there is no release from suffering.

After this critical and indeed, pivotal moment, Siddhartha could now no longer enjoy any of the luxuries which had been set out for him, as he was conscious of the fact that none of these could save him from age, disease, or even death. However, he finally sees the fourth sight, the holy man, i.e a person truly devoted to spirituality. Now, this consequently leads him to decide that he too, can go and ‘seek after the unborn, unageing, unailing, deathless, sorrowless, undefiled supreme surceases of bondage, nibbana’2. So, he decided that ‘he too would leave home to seek a cure for the world’s suffering’3. He had felt so uneasy about human suffering that he thought by becoming an ascetic; he would understand and comprehend everything there is. Therefore it can be said that these sights led him straight onto the path of religious development, and especially on the road to understanding Dukkha (all life is suffering).

One of the most evident parts of Siddhartha Gautama’s religious development, was when he was enlightened. After receiving an alms bowl, Siddhartha Gautama left the hardship, and arduousness of the ascetic life. Upon doing this however, he left himself with no friends from his past, but nevertheless, was strongly assured by what he was doing, since he had evidently found the middle way (the reality between luxury and poverty). Hence this was because he had discovered ‘neither had given him real satisfaction.’4 Now, in spite of this departure, Siddhatha was determined to reach enlightenment, in such a way, that he sat under a Bodhi tree (pipal tree) determined to sit until he had reached divine reality and knowledge. As he sat in a meditative state, Mara tried to cast him away with his temptations, however they were futile and seemed to reflect of Siddhartha, since he had such a strong concentration and determination to fulfil his aim.

Mara even tried to deny him the right to be enlightened, but yet again, Siddhartha called upon the Earth goddess as witness, and eventually, upon realisation that Siddhatha would not be beaten, Mara backed down. Then the real enlightenment took place, in the form of the four watches. The first watch began with Siddhartha recalling past lives with unbelievable detail and understanding. The second watch took place with Siddhartha watching people and animals passing into and out of existence, and crucially at this point realising constant change.

The third watch was the realisation that all suffering is caused by a constant continual cycle of craving, and realised the way to overcome suffering. Finally, he was enlightened and blessed with Nibbana and showered with supreme knowledge and understanding, beyond belief. This represents his huge step into the known, and into the aspects of life in which we do not understand. This was all the result of determination, and specifically effort to fulfil the Bodhisattva vow, and was the final hurdle of the Bodhisattva Path, and after enlightenment, the BUDDHA could now teach, and help others more supremely than ever before.

After a life of purity and sincerity of teaching, the life of Siddhartha Gautama, had come to an end. His death marked the end of religious development for him. He died at Kushinara at the age of 80 from food poisoning, and his last, and severely crucial, words, were , ‘remember, all things are subject to decay, so be mindful and vigilant in working out your own salvation’ 5. Here he sends out his message, that all things are subject to change, even him. ‘He died in an obscure place which shows his humility and desire for people to listen to his message rather to make a fuss about his person.’6 The main point though, is that the Buddha didn’t want to increase fame, or celebrity status, he only wanted people to care for him for what he did.

He subtly died while in the jhana of meditation, and this critically shows the extreme emphasis on the fact that he was not a god, but a man, and even he would eventually die. His death, is extremely significant, and specifically illustrates his religious development, as it represents him entering parinibbana, and enlightenment beyond death. So, hence, consequently, an escape of Samsara (cycle of rebirth) occurs, and he has obtained total bliss. As a religious teacher, here he had reiterated and emphasised one of his most important teachings, and died in the highest form of concentration and meditation there is. Overall, at this point, religiously, he had reached the highest place and thus, the peak of his religious development.

1 Denise Cush: Buddhism (1994) pp 25

2 Denise Cush: Buddhism (1994) pp 20

3 S. Clark & M. Thompson: Buddhism: a New Approach London, Hodder and Stoughton 1996, p10

4 S. Clark & M. Thompson: Buddhism: a New Approach London, Hodder and Stoughton 1996, p11

5 Denise Cush: Buddhism (1994) pp 25

6 Denise Cush: Buddhism London, Hodder and Stoughton 1995, page 23

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