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Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha

Siddhartha Gautama, the BuddhaSon of the raja of the Sakya clan, Siddhartha Gautama, was born at Kapilavastu (near Oudh). Much chronology depends on the era of the nirvana of Gaudama. On this point all Buddhist nations are not agreed, the Tibetan, the Chinese, and the Japanese having each a date differing from the other and also from that adopted by the Singhalese, the Burmans, Talaings, Shans, and other nations of Indo-China. The most common dates of his life among Buddhists are those of the Theravada school, 623-543 BC. European scholars have been equally divided, but the date accepted by them in the 19th century was that used by the Buddhists of Burma, which placed this event in the year 543 before Christ. This is the year 1 of the sacred Buddhist era, so that the year, AD 2011 answers to the year 2554 of the Burman sacred era.

Late 19th Century researches in India seemed, however, to prove that there is an error of 65 years in this date. Among the ruins at the ancient famous Buddhist temple of Buddha-Gaya has been discovered an inscription in the words "in the year 1819 of the emancipation of "Bhagavata, on Wednesday, the 1st day of the waning moon of "Kartik." According to the Burman reckoning this date answers to A.D. 1276. But the day of the week and the day of the moon being both given, it is by calculation easy to tell whether in any given year they so coincide. This calculation has been made by a learned Hindu astronomer, and it is found that the 1st day of the waning moon of Kartik in AD 1276 fell on a Friday, but in AD 1341 it fell on Wednesday, the 7th October, which would place the beginning of the Buddhist era, that is, the date of the nirvana of Gaudama, in the year 478 BC.

Until recently Western scholars dated the Buddha's life to about 560-480 BC. However, after the publication in 1991-2 of the proceedings of the international symposium on the date of the historical Buddha held in Gttingen in 1988, the original consensus on these dates no longer exists. Most scholars now place the Buddhas life in the fifth century BC. Some of the new dates for the Buddhas birth would be between 500 BC and about 450 BC, and his death, or more precisely, for his parinirvana, range between 420 BC and 368 BC.

According to accounts of his life, Buddha was an Indian prince born in a small kingdom in northern India between Nepal and Sikkim. His given name was Siddhartha and his family name Guatama. Six days after his birth an astrologer predicted that he would become a great leader. It was also noted that if the child saw signs of misery he would renounce royalty and become a monk. His father, doting and anxious that Guatama should succeed him as king, screened his son from all unhappiness and surrounded him with luxury. Whenever Guatama went out, the king sent messengers to clear the streets of anything that would suggest other than youth, health and strength. His early life also included a marriage, but when Guatama was 16 he married his second wife, Yasodhara, said to be the most beautiful in the kingdom, who bore him a son. This event, so far from binding him closer to the world, clinched his long-wavering purpose of becoming an ascetic; for he had early felt that life is vanity and full of suffering, and he yearned to deliver men from the illusions and misery that encompassed them.

Then, the legends say, Guatama escaped from the palace one day and met four divine messengers. The first three were disguised as an old man, a sick man, and a dead man. They revealed misery to Buddha. The fourth, disguised as a monk, caused him to decide to renounce his wealth and family to seek the way of deliverance for mankind. Full of this intense sympathy and high resolve, he secretly stole away, renouncing rank, wealth, and family joys, and betook himself to the pursuit of philosophy and religion.

Guatama shaved his head and put on the saffron robes of a monk and began years of wandering and austerity in search of the truth. Finally he came to rest under a Bo-tree (also "Bodhi" tree) at Buddha Gaya where he fasted and mediated. In the seclusion of the jungle, for six years he studied under two learned Brahmans the tenets of Hindu ontology and ethics, practising the severe penances by which devotees were believed to acquire superhuman wisdom and powers. Then, convinced of the futility of such exercises, and still keenly sensible of the fleeting unreality of all existence, he was seized with a temptation to return to his home and worldly affairs. Throughout a whole day he remained under a Bo tree (ficus religiosa), wrestling with despair and doubt.

The truth he sought, the way to relieve man's suffering, was revealed under this tree. At last the light of hope and certainty broke in upon him, as he perceived that in self-conquest and universal loving-kindness lay the true path of salvation from suffering. That instant he consciously became Buddha, i.e. enlightened.Buddha called this truth the "Middle Way," a way of moderation between the luxury of his youth and the asceticism of his wanderings. Finding the truth, he became Buddha, The Enlightened One.

After his enlightenment, Buddha traveled and preached, attracting large gatherings and making converts from all classes of society. Yellow-robed, clean-shaven monks of his order wandered tirelessly, preaching the doctrine of liberation. In his thirty-sixth year, he began at Benares publicly to teach his doctrine. Regardless of caste, he preached to high and low alike, enrolling his best disciples into a monastic order, or society of mendicants, distinct from the larger body of lay adherents or householders. For over forty years he travelled unweariedly throughout the region of the Mid-Ganges valley, dependent for his subsistence on alms, exhorting, instructing, and counselling all who cared to listen. He died peacefully at Kusinagara, eighty miles east of his birthplace in his eighty-first year. The Theravada places this date as 543 BC, while until recently Western scholars made it to be about 480 BC. Some of the recent scholarly dates for the Buddhas death, or more precisely, for his parinirvana, range between 420 BC and 368 BC.

The difficulties in knowing the "Historical Buddha" arise first from the Buddha's "Noble Silence" - he wrote nothing himself, and his teachings were therapeutic and occasional, not speculative, theoretical, or systematic. The first written records concerning the Buddha date to about 150 years after his death. By the time of the earliest Buddhist writings, different schools of Buddhism had already arisen, each of which emphasized particular dimensions of the Buddha's teachings. The Buddha taught over a period of over four decades, so there is an immense wealth of wide-ranging materials which makes it difficult to synthesize into a composite portrait. The whole story of the Buddha has taken on mythic and legendary elements, and a wealth of detail which to modern sensibilities has a decidedly "miraculous" and "supernatural" nature. While some scholars have attempted to distinguish the Buddhas original teachings from those developed by his early disciples, contradictory conclusions have led most scholars to be skeptical about the possibility of knowing what the Buddha himself taught.

His disciples, well trained and organised, zealously continued his work. For the first two centuries there are no trustworthy accounts of the progress of the religion. The sacred tradition, indeed, recognizes two "councils," that of Rajagaha, held shortly after Gotama's death for the purpose of fixing the canon of discipline and doctrine, and the council of Vesali, held a century later in order to settle 10 disputed points of discipline. In each case, however, the narratives of the proceedings are so filled with inconsistencies and impossibilities that they have little weight as history, although there is probably a basis of fact. With the reign of Asoka (273-232 B.C.), the 3d emperor of the Maurya dynasty, there is contemporary evidence for the spread of Buddhism; for the edicts of that monarch show that he became a convert and also a patron of the monastic order. This monarch, the Constantine of Buddhism, sent out missionaries in all directions.

In its origin and purpose, the Buddha's reform was only a new development of Hinduism. The distinctions between early Buddhism and Brahmanism, however practically important, are merely temperamental; fundamentally there is absolute agreement that bondage consists in the thought of I and Mine, and that this bondage may be broken only for those in whom all craving is extinct. In all essentials Buddhism and Brahmanism form a single system. Brahmans were among his first and chief disciples. Caste was not interfered with outside the limits of the order; and most of his basic ideas were taken from preceding systems of philosophy. Hence Buddhism is essentially metaphysical, not theological. It ignores a Creator, and denies the existence of the soul as a separate entity; its highest aim is not immortality, but the complete extinction of conscious existence (Nirvana). Yet it is the religion which, modified and combined with other systems, has perhaps found most acceptance among men.

According to Buddhist belief, all the doctrines and disciplinary rules of the religion were promulgated by the Buddha himself during his lifetime and were faithfully handed down by oral tradition for several centuries before being committed to writing; but Western scholars have shown that much of the contents of the sacred books must be subsequent to his time. The earliest complete records are the scriptures preserved by the Ceylonese Buddhists, which are written in the Pali language and known as the Tipitaka. These date in their final form from the 1st century BC, though their substance is much older. The Buddhists of northern India possessed from early times their own recensions of the canon, only fragments of which are extant, but these show no fundamental differences from the Pali version.

The later Buddhist works composed in India after the Christian era display a marked development in both legend and doctrine. The Pali canon may therefore be taken as the best authority for early Buddhism although it affords no certain means of distinguishing between the basic doctrines of Gotama himself and the scholastic expansion and classification of them by later minds. Even in the oldest texts Buddhism appears as an elaborate system with a long array of technical terms, and its doctrines show an evident relationship with earlier Indian speculation, which from the polytheism of the Rigveda had advanced to the monistic or dualistic conceptions of the universe tentatively expressed in the Upanishads. From such sources Buddhism derived its world-weariness, its notion of rebirth in existence after existence, and its theory of karma, "the act, namely, that a man's acts in one life are the cause of his lot in the next.

Many writers on Buddhism have called attention to the curious similarity between the legends that have gathered about Buddha and those that have gathered about Christ. Both Buddha and Jesus are represented as of royal lineage; both are born of virgin mothers; the birth of each is announced by heavenly messengers; princes and wise men seek out the infants respectively, bringing homage and costly gifts. Having arrived at manhood, each passes through a season of supernatural temptation before entering upon his public work as a teacher; at the death of each the earth trembles, etc.

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Page last modified: 08-11-2011 19:39:00 ZULU