Over the centuries there have been numerous biographies of Gautama the Buddha in various formats, from the ancient traditional biographies1, to epic poems like Sir Edwin Arnold’s Light of Asia, to articles2, modern biographies3 and documentaries.4 Throughout all of these we find certain keynotes, certain events and ideas that form a basis for the life of Buddha, but we also find more fantastical aspects to the stories. Modern scholars tend to dismiss the latter as merely “mythological” or exaggerated, and they seek to find the “real Buddha” by stripping these away. We must see, however, that these fantastical elements are central to the Buddhist (and Indian) method of story telling, and furthermore that they are, in large part, allegorical, symbolic, metaphorical, with deep significance to one who would seek to understand Buddhism.5 The fantastical elements of the story not only breathe life into the biographies, they very often hide valuable teachings beneath their symbology. As examples of this symbology we may highlight the name of Buddha’s mother, Maya (symbolizing both the great illusion of manifestation and the power to manifest, as well as the womb or waters of space, feminine Nature, etc.)—a very meaningful term found in several ancient traditions.6 We may also see the role of young Siddhartha’s father, Suddhodana, as containing important hidden meanings, if we use the common symbolism of father-son as found in the oldest Upanishads: “A son, in the symbolism of the Upanishads, means a new birth; either spiritual regeneration, or simply reincarnation; this meaning of the new life which faith has entered, or of the soul in that new life . . . His father is the past birth, or the condition before the spiritual rebirth . . .”.7 So also the Father indicates the karma overshadowing the new incarnation, that which hinders or binds the new life to old patterns, or, we might say, that which imprisons the new life in the bonds of his past karma. Thus we find Siddhartha born, raised and largely imprisoned within the palace of his father, i.e. the “castle” of skandhas, past habits, karmic impressions, etc.. Many other elements of Buddha’s story are quite obviously symbolic as well, as, for instance, the role of Mara, the Ensnarer, the great Tempter, who is the “God of Darkness, the Fallen One, and Death”,8 or, in esoteric philosophy, the “personified temptation through men’s vices, translated literally [as] ‘that which kills’ the Soul”.9 So the Buddha’s biographies incorporate a blend of factual information (places, names, events, etc.) along with allegories and symbols that help reveal the heart of the Buddha’s life and doctrine.
The reason for such an approach to biography is not difficult to understand. The story of the Buddha’s life, as well as the stories of his supposed past lives,10 form a core element in the education of young Buddhists. Instead of relaying but the dry facts of Gautama’s life, as is our modern tendency, the Buddhists of old wove stories that would serve as both a historical foundation—teaching young disciples of the origins of Buddhism and of the great Teacher of Humanity—while also serving to supply the key elements of Buddhist doctrine, symbolical hints that serve to awaken our intuition. The very same method underlies the Upanishads, which provide certain historical elements interwoven with entertaining story-lines and embedded with deep symbolism and hidden meaning.
Furthermore, we have, in the Buddha’s story, not just a biography, but a tale of the path of all aspirants, a blue-print if you will, of the core elements of that Path. And this alongside hints of Buddhist doctrines, which, of course, are inseparable from that very path. We have, in short, a wonderfully layered teaching tool for young Buddhists. Our modern tendency to sweep all such elements aside in pursuit of dry fact seems to miss the importance of these “fantastical” elements. Those biographies who have done so are dry, shallow and rather meaningless. We will attempt to trace not only the historical basis for the life of the Buddha, but to unveil, as much as is possible, some of the symbolism involved therein. How far we are successful in so doing is left to the reader to decide.
SETTING THE STAGE
It seems appropriate to preface a biography of Gautama Buddha with a few foundational ideas. First, no biography of the great Teacher could be complete, or understood, without some notion of the meaning of the title he’s been given: the Buddha. What does it mean to be a Buddha? We may begin with a definition from H.P. Blavatsky:
Buddha (Sk.) Lit., “The Enlightened”. The highest degree of knowledge. To become a Buddha one has to break through the bondage of sense and personality; to acquire a complete perception of the REAL SELF and learn not to separate it from all other selves; to learn by experience the utter unreality of all phenomena of the visible Kosmos foremost of all; to reach a complete detachment from all that is evanescent and finite, and live while yet on Earth in the immortal and the everlasting alone, in a supreme state of holiness.11
Furthermore, in the Secret Doctrine we read:
“Æons of untold duration must have elapsed, before the epithet of Buddha was so humanized, so to speak, as to allow of the term being applied to mortals and finally appropriated to one whose unparalleled virtues and knowledge caused him to receive the title of the “Buddha of Wisdom unmoved.” Bodha means the innate possession of divine intellect or “understanding”; “Buddha,” the acquirement of it by personal efforts and merit; while Buddhi is the faculty of cognizing the channel through which divine knowledge reaches the “Ego,” the discernment of good and evil, “divine conscience” also; and “Spiritual Soul,” which is the vehicle of Atma. “When Buddhi absorbs our EGO-tism (destroys it) with all its Vikaras, Avalokiteshvara becomes manifested to us, and Nirvana, or Mukti, is reached,” “Mukti” being the same as Nirvana, i.e., freedom from the trammels of “Maya” or illusion.”12
This, then, gives us a foothold into what it means to become a Buddha. But there is more. Gautama Buddha is not the only Buddha. Various schools of thought present various accounts of just what it is to be a Buddha, and of how many Buddhas there are. There are the twenty-four “Buddhas”, or Tirthankaras of Jainism.13 There are the twenty-eight Buddhas of the Buddhavamsa.14 Theosophical teachings likewise have a detailed approach to the Buddhas, which the following well explains:
“Esoteric philosophy teaches us that every Root-race has its chief Buddha or Reformer, who appears also in the seven sub-races as a Bodhisattva (q.v.). Gautama Sakyamuni was the fourth, and also the fifth Buddha: the fifth, because we are the fifth root-race; the fourth, as the chief Buddha in this fourth Round.”15
“. . . in the Esoteric System, the Dhyanis watch successively over one of the Rounds and the great Root-races of our planetary chain. They are, moreover, said to send their Bodhisattvas, the human correspondents of the Dhyani-Buddhas during every Round and Race. Out of the Seven Truths and Revelations, or rather revealed secrets, four only have been handed to us, as we are still in the Fourth Round, and the world also has only had four Buddhas, so far.”16
So we have the fundamental idea that among humanity there has been, is, and will be, numerous Buddhas, each, perhaps, with a specific task at a specific time in our collective evolution. We have a series of past Buddhas, along with hints at coming future Buddhas, such as that of Maitreya.17 This gives us a basic context for the life of Gautama Buddha. Regardless of the school of thought to which we subscribe, Gautama must be seen not as a solitary appearance, nor as the creator of a system of thought, but rather as one in a series of great Teachers, another reformer in a long line. We may also view Gautama as distinct from many other great teachers of our recorded history in the sense of his role as the “chief” Teacher of this current stage of human evolution.
Beyond this context, we must then focus closer in on Gautama himself and seek to find context for his life in India near the turn of the 6th century BCE. We may grasp some basic context if we keep our minds fixed on three great landmarks of Indian culture and tradition, these being: 1) the time of the Great Upanishads, 2) the Great War (the Mahabharata) and the life of Krishna, and 3) the Life of Gautama Buddha. Indian chronology has been thoroughly mixed up and confounded by western scholars and historians,18 such that thousands of years of ancient history have been artificially condensed into but one millennium before the common era, very often with whole events and lives shifted inexplicably by hundreds or even thousands of years (see, for example, the life of Sankaracharya). But we may remedy this by appealing to Indian tradition and history itself.
We have first the time of the Upanishads, deeply buried in the pre-dawn of recorded human history. Therein we read of the great initiate Kings, the Kshatriyas, who taught their secret doctrine to the—at that time, uninitiated—Brahmans, who up until then were in possession of but their common system of ancestor worship, drawn from a surface reading of the Vedas, but who possessed nothing of the core doctrines of later “Brahmanism”, namely: the doctrines of reincarnation and liberation.19 The Upanishads are records of the teachings of these ancient King-initiates, and they accord wonderfully with the much later teachings of Gautama Buddha. When exactly the great Upanishadic period was, we cannot say, except that it predates the time of Krishna, and must predate it by a long stretch of centuries.20
Krishna is said, in Indian tradition, to have lived around 3100 BCE, and we see no reason to doubt this chronology. During Krishna’s day, we find the Kshatriyas warring among themselves, and we find little evidence of a strong or powerful Brahman caste, as we find in later times. The Mahabharata War seems to have served a death-blow to the strength and rule of the Kshatriyas, and given the opportunity for the Brahmans to steadily climb into power and authority across India. Thus in the Buddha’s day, unquestionably during the 6th century BCE, we find the Brahmans full of power and authority over the people of India. We also find them in possession of the Upanishads and of the secret teachings of reincarnation and liberation, which had been originally delivered to them by the Kshatriyas, and yet we find them outwardly maintaining a kind of religious dominance over the people of India through the use of priestcraft, ritual and the maintenance of a crippling system of ancestor worship.
Enter Guatama, prince of Kapilavastu, “a child of the Aryan soil; a born Hindu, a Kshatriya and a disciple of the ‘twice born’ (the initiated Brahmins) or Dwijas.”21 What we find at the time of his birth is an India in deep need of reform. We find the ancient doctrines jealously hidden away and guarded by the Brahmans; we find a priest-caste ruling over the masses through a tyranny of the mind and a corruption of the meaning of caste (a tyranny that, unfortunately, largely remains to this day, despite the Buddha’s best efforts). We further find a widespread confusion of teachings among the educated youth of India, such that most had become lost in webs of religious rationalizations and sophistries, unable to discern true teachings from false. This is well exemplified in the Tevigga Sutta, where the young Brahman Vasettha, full of confusion, asks the Buddha:
“Various Brahmans, Gotama, teach various paths to union with Brahma, is one true and another false, or are all saving paths? Are they all paths, which will lead one who acts according to them into a state of union with Brahma? Is it like the different roads that enter a village and that all meet in the center? Is it in that sense that all the various teachings of the Brahmans are to be accepted? Are they all saving paths? Are they all paths that leads one who acts according to them into a state of union with Brahma?”22
Buddha’s response to Vasettha is unsparing, and is worth reading in full for any who would like a keener insight into the state of the Brahmins during Buddha’s day. One selection may illustrate the essence of his reply:
“Vasettha, it is like a string of blind men clinging to one another, the foremost cannot see the way, neither can the middle one, nor the hindmost. Even so, methinks, Vasettha that the talk of the Brahmans versed in the three Vedas is but blind talk. The first sees not, the middle sees not, the hindmost sees not. The talk, then, of these Brahmans turns out to be ridicules, mere words, vain and empty.”23
India (and the world) was in need, once again, of a great Teacher and Reformer, and the call was filled by Gautama, son of Suddodhana, a Kshatriya Prince who would once more openly present and clarify the ancient teachings which were ages ago taught by the sages of the Great Upanishads (likewise Kshatriyas) and by Krishna (also a Kshatriya Prince). With this context in mind, we may now consider the life and teachings of Gautama the Buddha.
THE BIRTH STORY
The setting of the Buddha’s birth is presented in several biographies. Stanzas at the beginning of Ashvagosha’s Buddhacharita paint a picture of the majestic city of Kapilavastu, named after the sage Kapila. It was there that the father-to-be ruled, as King of the Sakyas. King Suddhodana is described as “pure in conduct and beloved of his people”24 and his wife Queen Maya is said to have had the beauty of Padma, and splendour to equal Suddodana’s might.25 By all accounts the kingdom and its ruling family were noble and good.
The stories of Buddha’s birth often begin beyond the realm of the Earth, among the Devas, illustrating a common Buddhist belief in the coming of, or descent of a Buddha at appointed times. Gautama is described in the most common traditional biographies as choosing the location and parentage of his present birth, being said, along with the Devas, to have recognized the nobility of Maya, the proper signs in the palace of Suddhodana, and the proper time of birth.26 Having decided upon Maya as the mother-to-be, and having marked the proper time of his descent, the story of Buddha’s birth unfolds, first with the dream of his mother at conception. In the Lalitavistara, queen Maya describes the dream thus:
“A noble elephant, white as silver or snow, having six tusks, with proportioned trunk and feet, blood-red veins, adamantine firmness of joints, and easy pace, has entered my belly. Such delightful form I had never before seen, nor heard, nor conceived; it produces in me the same corporeal and mental feeling of joy which one enjoys on being immersed in meditation.”27
H.P. Blavatsky, explains the symbolism:
“The tale about his entering his mother’s bosom in the shape of a white elephant is an allusion to his innate wisdom, the elephant of that colour being a symbol of every Bodhisattva.”28
As the day of birth neared, Queen Maya desired the atmosphere of the natural forest groves, that she might meditate in quietude. With permission from the King, she and her maids left the palace and retired to the grove called Lumbini.29 It is there that the child was born, “on the 8th day of the second (or fourth) moon in the year 621 before our era,”30 or perhaps “in 623 B.C. on a full-moon day of May”.31 These dates, or ones very similar, are the most commonly accepted by Buddhists around the world, though many modern scholars have put forward differing dates, based on their own speculations.32
The common biographies depict the child in the kind of glowing colours we would expect from those who had found in their teacher the ideal human image.
“With his lustre and steadfastness he appeared like the young sun come down to earth, and despite this his dazzling brilliance, when gazed at, he held all eyes like the moon. For with the glowing radiance of his limbs he eclipsed, like the sun, the radiance of the lamps, and, beauteous with the hue of precious gold, he illumined all the quarters of space.”33
There are further symbolic aspects to the birth stories, such as the baby taking seven steps in four directions, his immediate prophetic statement that he had come to bring happiness to the world and that this would be his last incarnation, the presence of the Nagas and Devas, etc..
“The statements that at Gautama’s birth, the newly born babe walked seven steps in four directions, that an Udumbara flower bloomed in all its rare beauty and that the Nâga kings forthwith proceeded “to baptise him”, are all so many allegories in the phraseology of the Initiates and well-understood by every Eastern Occultist.”34
The newborn child was named Siddhartha35 (“One who has attained or accomplished his object”), later to be known as Gautama the Buddha, or Sakyamuni, the Enlightened One.
“Gautama or Gotama was the sacerdotal name of the Sakya family, and Sidhartha was Buddha’s name before he became a Buddha. Sakya Muni, means the Saint of the Sakya family.”36
Following his birth a most important pronouncement was made to the King by his Brahman advisers.
“According to the signs found on this excellent one, the brilliance of gold and the radiance of a lamp, he will certainly become either an enlightened seer or a Cakravartin monarch on earth among men. Should he desire earthly sovereignty, then by his might and law he will stand on earth at the head of all kings, as the light of the sun at the head of all constellations. Should he desire salvation and go to the forest, then by his knowledge and truth, he will overcome all creeds and stand on the earth, like Meru king of mountains among all the heights.”37
King Suddhodana, initially focusing, it would seem, upon the former and not the latter possibility, was greatly pleased by this pronouncement. Like any good King, he desired for his son to one day inherit the throne and rule in his stead. For Suddhodana, nothing would be better than to see his son become a “monarch on earth among men”, and to bring the Sakya kingdom to new heights of glory.
The traditional biography proceeds to the arrival of the Sage Asita, “chief among the knowers of the Absolute”, who had come to know, through inner measures, of the birth of young Siddhartha, and had travelled to the kingdom to behold the child. But Asita, upon seeing the child, immediately began to weep. The King, alarmed by this reaction and concerned for what it may mean, bade the Sage to tell him why he was saddened. Thus Asita gave his own pronouncement:
“My agitation is not over aught untoward for him, but I am distressed for my own disappointment. For my time to depart has come, just when he is born who shall understand, the means, so hard to find, of destroying birth. For he will give up the kingdom in his indifference to worldly pleasures, and, through bitter struggles grasping the final truth, he will shine forth as a sun of knowledge in the world to dispel the darkness of delusion. With the mighty boat of knowledge he will bring the world, which is being carried away in affliction, up from the ocean of suffering, which is overspread with the foam of disease and which has old age for its waves and death for its fearsome flood. The world of the living, oppressed with the thirst of desires, will drink the flowing stream of his most excellent Law . . . And, as king of the Law, he will reach Enlightenment and release from prison the world which is entangled in its own snares of delusion and which is overwhelmed by suffering and destitute of refuge.”38
Though the King received this news with joyous heart, and proceeded with a celebration of his son’s birth, concern and anxiety began to creep into his mind. The possibility that his son might renounce all that he, the King, held dear, to give up the kingdom in favour of the homeless life and to pass his days as a wandering Sage—this was difficult for Suddhodana to bear. The King’s fear of losing the natural heir to the throne would, the stories tell us, come to dominate young Siddhartha’s upbringing.
Here we have some of the aformentioned symbolic aspects of the story. We are told that the King then “issues a general pardon in the world and all prisons were thrown open”, that “women, cows, horses, elephants, money”, etc., “were provided for everyone’s needs”,39 and so on. These aspects of the story have particular symbolic meanings, relating to the coming into the new birth, the gathering of past karma to be exhausted, the arising of earthly senses and powers in the child, and so on.
We find next that the King “selected an auspicious time through divination and moved his son back to his own palace.”40 If we keep in mind the symbolism of Father-Son, as found in the Upanishads and elsewhere in Indian literature, we may see the meaning clearly: the son is born and spends his first days, months, years in innocence, until a certain point of maturity arrives and he is “moved to the palace of his father”, i.e. begins to live within and experience the karma of his past as it comes again to fruition. The palace is, with all its luxury, but a veil thrown around the boy, sheltering him from the true reality of the world, a karmic and skandhic prison from which Siddhartha (as all such souls) must break free if he is to fulfill his dharma.
There is a further significant episode recorded in the biographies: we are told that Queen Maya died seven days after the birth of her holy son.
“Then, when Lady Maya saw that the son she had given birth to was as beautiful as a celestial youth, completely endowed with everything beautiful, she was overcome with an excess of joy. Her life ended and she was reborn in heaven. Mahaprajapati Gautami [Maya’s sister] saw that the Crown Prince was a celestial youth, that his virtuous appearance was wonderful in the world. After the life of his natural mother ended, she raised him with affection, as if he were her own son, and the child respected her as if she were his own mother.”41
This aspect of the story is also not without its symbolism.
We come, then, to the situation of Siddhartha’s childhood: his mother has passed, he is living in the palace of his father, under the care of his foster mother Maha-Prajapati, with all the luxury and benefits of royalty, but with a fearful father intent on guiding his son towards the life of a monarch.
The childhood and youth of Siddhartha is painted in vivid colours in the traditional biographies. The Chinese Buddhacarita begins with the following significant statement:
“In the royal house of Suddhodana, as he had a noble son, his close family and namesake brethren and his ministers were all devoted then. Elephants, horses and precious chariots, national riches, and vessels with the seven precious things—these steadily increased day by day and were accordingly amassed.”42
And from the Sanskrit version of the same:
“Day by day from the birth of his son, the masterer of self, who had come to the end of birth and old age, the king waxed mightier in riches, elephants, horses and allies, as a river waxes with the inflow of waters. For then he obtained many treasures of wealth and jewels of every land and of gold, wrought and unwrought, so as to overload even that chariot of the mind, desire.”43
We might compare this to the temptation offered to Nachiketas by Yama (Lord of Death) in the Katha Upanishad:
“Choose sons and grandsons of a hundred years, and much cattle, and elephants and gold and horses. Choose the great abode of the earth, and for thyself live as many autumns as thou wilt.”44
All these—cattle, elephants, gold, horses, etc.—have clear outer meaning, but also inner symbolic meanings, signifying powers, senses, etc., in association and affinity with worldly desires. Thus Siddhartha, as everyone else, finds himself raised in the “palace” of his own father-karma, surrounded by the “wealth” of the earth (the vast panorama of sensory objects), his consciousness and self-identification imprisoned through senses and powers constantly entangled in the material world. The traditional biographies relay many such allegorical statements at this point in the tale, each with hidden meanings to be sought by the student. There is, of course, also the plain meaning: Siddhartha was indeed, historically, the prince of the Sakyas, raised with the luxury of his position, and his father would certainly have been in possession of riches. We are also told that during Siddhartha’s childhood a great peace and prosperity came to the kingdom of the Sakyas and their neighbours, and we may imagine this to be the general condition during his youth: a kingdom at peace, without wars or other such troubles. Historically speaking, the Sakyas were, at this time, vassals of the larger Koshala kingdom, and for much of the life of Gautama Buddha—certainly for the extent of his childhood—the kingdoms of the Mahajanapada (“great realm”) were at peace with one another.
Young Siddhartha is said not only to have been of celestial beauty, but to have been a masterful student, wise beyond his years.
“He passed through infancy and in course of time duly underwent the ceremony of initiation. And it took him but a few days to learn the sciences suitable to his race, the mastery of which ordinarily requires many years.”45
“When he studied arts and various skills, he surpassed his instructors after hearing [their teachings] only once.”46
The Lalitavistara gives an elaborate description of the young Siddhartha’s education, for those interested in exploring his childhood in more depth.47
The most significant aspect of Siddhartha’s youth arises from his father’s fear of losing his son and heir to the path prophecized by the sage Asita. In the Sanskrit Buddhacarita we read:
“But, as the king of the Sakyas had heard from the great seer, Asita, that the prince’s future goal would be the supreme beatitude, he feared lest he should go to the forests and therefore he turned him to sensual pleasures.”48
Here the father once again plays the symbolic role of the past karma coming to fruition, along with the uprising of tanha (thirst for worldly life) that come to dominate the youth of all incarnate souls. In the Chinese Buddhacarita we read:
“Seeing his intelligence, the king, his father, was deeply worried about the revelation that [the boy] would go beyond the worldly. [The king] inquired far and wide among the famous nobility about a family with propriety and righteousness, instructed in deportment. The maiden with the finest appearance was called Yasodhara. She was fit to become his wife, the consort of a crown prince, alluring him and holding his attention. . . . The beauty of the worthy consort and her attractive and fair disposition were as captivating as a celestial queen’s. While dwelling together they were joyful night and day. They had a pure palace put up for them, spacious and beautiful, and with the utmost in adornment. It rose high in the sky, just like a white cloud in autumn. As its temperature was adapted to the four seasons, [the prince] chose the best dwelling for each season. He was surrounded by a group of singing women, playing celestial music. . . .”49
Again from the Sanskrit version:
“There the women delighted him with their soft voices, charming blandishments, playful intoxications, sweet laughter, curvings of eyebrows and sidelong glances. Then, a captive to the women, who were skilled in the accessories of love and indefatigable in sexual pleasure, he did not descend from the palace to the ground, just as one who has won Paradise by his merit does not descend to earth from the heavenly mansion.”50
Thus we have a glimpse of the conditions of his upbringing, perhaps more symbolic than historical, but certainly containing elements of both.
Siddhartha’s father had gone to great trouble to keep the young prince captive to sensual and worldly pleasures in an ultimately vain attempt to steer his path away from that of the sages. If we keep the symbolism already mentioned in mind, we may see the story of Buddha’s childhood as the type of all human lives, captive as we are to our skandhas, brought about by our past thoughts and actions (our karma), living in a state of thraldom to our senses, following our tanha, our thirst for sensual, material life.
This is a powerful aspect of the story of Buddha’s life, as we are not faced with a supreme being unfamiliar with or detached from the human condition, but instead with a man fully immersed in human life, just as susceptible to its every pitfall, just as enamoured by its sensual pleasures, and yet he is one who finds his way through this tangled web of worldly life. As the type of all human life, he presents us with the all-important truth that we too have within us the potential for Buddhahood.
As Siddhartha was being bathed in sensual pleasures and all the traps of material life, his father is said to have given himself up to a pure life, desisting from sin, practicing self-restraint, ruling as a noble king and living a holy life.51 If we understand the “father” to indicate the past life and the karma resulting therein, we may understand one possible symbolic meaning here: that Buddha had lived such lives in his past, developing karma in conformity with such virtues. This karma may be seen to have resulted in his princely birth, with the dharma to become a great teacher and reformer as the direct result of past lives of goodness, charity and holiness. This is, of course, but one of several possible interpretations. The Sanskrit Buddhacarita has a verse that hints at the symbology embedded in this aspect of the story:
“Since the monarch behaved thus, his servants and the citizens followed the same course, just as when the mind of a man in mystic trance [meditation] has become wholly calm and is compact of tranquillity, his senses become so likewise.”52
Another element of symbolic importance is the description of the “palaces” the King constructed for his young son. In the Nidana-Katha, we read:
“And the king had three mansions made, suitable for the three seasons, one nine stories high, one seven stories high, and one five stories high; and he provided him with forty thousand dancing girls. So, the Bodisat, surrounded by well-dressed dancing girls, like a deva surrounded by troops of nymphs and attended by musical instruments which played themselves, lives, as the seasons changed, in each of these mansions in the enjoyment of great prosperity.”53
One familiar with eastern symbology can see the meanings here. The three palaces have clear correspondence to the three states of the Mandukya Upanishad and the three vestures or bodies of the Vedanta: the physical, astral and causal bodies. The “nine”, “seven” and “five” have also their symbolic meaning. In addition to this, the “gates” of the palaces hold important symbolic meanings.
Siddhartha’s young life continued on, untroubled, immersed in the pleasure-grounds of his palaces. One other event is of important notice here, this being the birth of his only son.
“As the years passed, Yasodhara, the worthy consort of Suddhodana’s Crown Prince, eventually [became pregnant] and gave birth to Rahula.”54
This greatly pleased the king, who decided this was a sign that his son would remain as the heir to the throne, would inherit the kingdom, as he, the king, so greatly desired. But, as we will see, the sage Asita’s prophecy was not to be so easily turned aside.
The Nidana-Katha tells us that while the King was speaking to the sage Asita (there named Kala Devala), he asked the following:
“After seeing what, will my son forsake the world?”
“The four Omens” was the reply.
“A man worn out by age, a sick man, a dead body, and a monk.”
The king thought: “From this time let no such things come near my son.”55
This becomes one of the central aspects of the Buddha’s renunciation story. The King, as we’ve already begun to see, does everything he can to keep the Prince from seeing the real world as it is, outside of the pleasure-palace in which he has been contained, but this imprisonment cannot last.
We are also told that while living in the palace, surrounded by lovely women, music and all the pleasures of wealth, young Siddhartha was not fully taken by the allurement of the senses, that he “did not delight in them nor find contentment in his heart”.56 In addition to this, the Lalitavistara tells us that while being entertained by the women and their music Siddhartha was also implored by the “Lord Buddhas” from the “ten quarters of the world”, through song and verse, to take up the path of Renunciation,57 no doubt couching an esoteric truth, but also, in a simpler sense, indicating the inner voice of conscience and wisdom within each of us. We are further told that the young prince dreamed a prophetic dream, a vision of himself leaving the kingdom and donning the orange robe of the ascetic.58 All these illustrate that Siddhartha, even though surrounded by earthly pleasures and exposed to no suffering, could not fully embrace the worldly life, that within him was another voice, one that would awaken in him the compassion needed to become the great teacher of Man.
In each of the main traditional biographies we come to a point where Siddhartha requests his charioteer59 to take him beyond the palace walls, out in to the garden. Upon hearing the excursion request of his son, and in an attempt to maintain the veil over his son’s eyes, the king ordered that the streets and gardens be cleaned and ornamented and all signs of worldly suffering removed. As the Buddhacarita tells us:
“Then with the greatest gentleness they cleared away on all sides those whose limbs were maimed or senses defective, the aged, sick and the like, and the wretched, and made the royal highway supremely magnificent.”60
The king, remembered well the prophecy of the sage Asita, and would not allow his son to witness the four omens.
As the prince progressed down the royal highway the excitement of his presence overcame the townspeople. We have now, in Ashvagosha’s poem, a wonderful taste of Buddhist humour—something that runs throughout the suttas—in his vision of the townswomen scrambling to see their prince.
“Hearing the news from their servants, ‘the prince, they say, is going out’, the women obtained leave from their elders and went out on to the balconies in their desire to see him. They gathered together in uncontrollable excitement, obstructed by the slipping of their girdle-strings, as they put their ornaments on at the report, and with their eyes still dazed by sudden awakening from sleep. They frightened the flocks of birds on the houses with the jingling of zones, the tinkling of anklets and the clatter of their steps on the stairs, and reproached each other for jostling. But some of these magnificent women, though longing made them try to rush, were delayed in their movements by the weight of their chariot-like hips and full breasts. But another, though well able to move with speed, checked her steps and went slowly, modestly shrinking as she covered up the ornaments worn in intimacy. Unquiet reigned in the windows then, as the women were crowded together in the mutual press, with their earrings ever agitated by collisions and their ornaments jingling. But the lotus-faces of the women, emerging from the windows and mutually setting their earrings in perpetual commotion, seemed like lotuses stuck on to the pavilions. Then with its palaces full to bursting with young women, who threw the lattices open in their excitement, the city appeared as magnificent on all sides as Paradise with its heavenly mansions full of Apsarases. From the narrowness of the windows the faces of these glorious women, with their earrings resting on each other’s cheeks, seemed like bunches of lotus-flowers tied to the windows. The women, looking down at the prince in the street, seemed as if wishing to descend to earth, while the men, gazing up at him with upraised faces, seemed as if wishing to rise to heaven.”61
The vividness of such a passage typified Ashvagosha’s poetic skill. We can see and hear the women, picture the crowded street, become one with the scene itself. Such is the beauty of the Buddhacarita.
All four traditional biographies we have been quoting from tell us that the devas themselves, looking down upon this scene, decided to intervene in order to reveal the first of the omens. This they did by transforming one of their number into the figure of an old man, “wasted by age, with decayed teeth and grey hair, bent and broken down in body”.62 Then, just as Arjuna before him, young Siddhartha appeals to his charioteer for an answer to this new and troubling image. The charioteer promptly explains the reality of aging, the loss of vitality and youth and beauty, the weakening of faculties and loss of memory. He further explains that this fate is not restricted to this one man, but is the inevitable result for all human lives:
“Your Highness will also know this fate. As time changes, one’s appearance naturally changes. It will certainly happen, without any doubt. There is no strong youth who does not age. The whole world knows [this truth], but still hopes otherwise.”63
This greatly troubled the prince, who ordered his charioteer to return to the palace, saying:
“This being so, turn back the horses, charioteer; go quickly home again. For how can I take my pleasure in the garden, when the fear of old age rules in my mind?”64
Thus the first omen was completed.
“But even there [in the palace] he found no relief, as he ever dwelt on the subject of old age; therefore once more with the permission of the king he went out, all being ordered as before.”65
So the process repeats itself: Siddhartha embarks on another excursion outside the palace, with the royal road once again cleaned and adorned to remove all unsightliness from the prince’s path. But, once again the devas intercede, this time bringing forth the form of a diseased man, with swollen belly, who heaves and pants, pale with emaciated limbs, who wept and groaned, or as one biography puts it: “a diseased person, dried up, overcome with fever, weak, with his body immersed in his own filth, helpless and protectorless, and breathing with difficulty.”66 The prince once again asks his charioteer for an explanation and receives one—“it is the mighty misfortune called disease”, he is told, not peculiar to this man, but shared by all alike. The prince responds as he had done before—downcast and greatly troubled by the “thief of illness” he orders his charioteer to return him to the palace.
Thus the second omen was completed.
Having returned to the palace, Siddhartha found no ease; he took no pleasure in the objects of sense. Seeing this, the king arranged for another excursion, this time cleaning and adorning the royal road to the utmost glory. So Siddhartha once again ventured outside the palace, and once again the devas brought forth another form for him to see: this time, that of a corpse being transported in a funeral procession. Once again Siddhartha asks his charioteer for the explanation, and therein learns of the reality of death, and the common mortality of all human beings. Once again the prince returned to the palace, troubled in heart and mind.
Thus the third omen was completed.
The Buddhacarita does not immediately include the fourth omen, though the Lalitavistara and the Nidana-Katha do—in these the fourth excursion occurs immediately following the third, while in the Buddhacarita, it occurs well after.67 On the fourth excursion, Siddhartha is presented with the figure of a renunciant—a bhikshu or brahmachari, which stirs in him a great curiosity. This revelation completes the four omens.
There is another element of symbology here, where it is said that each excursion was taken through one of the four gates of the palace: the eastern, southern, western and northern gates. The symbolic meaning may be searched for through a study of the “four regents” of the four quarters of space, the Maharajas, and the general symbolism of the four cardinal directions.
In the Buddhacarita, the third excursion continues, as the charioteer, under the command of the king, pushes forwards, bringing the prince along the royal road until they reach the pleasure-gardens. Once there he is confronted by a great number of young, beautiful women who surround him and pour upon him the collective force of their temptation, devising a whole host of means to please him. But:
“The Bodhisattva’s heart remained pure, firm and difficult to change. Hearing the words of the ladies, he felt neither sorrow nor joy. He doubled his considerations of disgust. He sighed, thinking all this was strange. He knew for the first time that lustful thoughts of women were so abundant. ‘They do not know that youthful beauty is ruined in a moment by old age and death. Alas! Such great delusion! Foolishness obscures their minds. They should consider old age, illness, and death, and night and day apply and exert themselves! While a sharp sword hangs over their neck, how can they still have fun? They see the old age, illness, and death of others but do not know how to observe themselves.’”68
A Brahman, by the name of Udayin, then tries to convince Siddhartha, by all manner of sophistry, of the rightness and even the duty of submitting to the desires of the women, but to no avail. To Udayin’s imploring, Siddhartha replies:
“Udayin, I am moved by your sincere explanation. I will say something to you now. Listen attentively! I do not despise fine sense objects and I know that they give people in the world happiness, but because I see that they are characterized by impermanence, I am weary of them in mind. If [such sense objects and pleasures] would permanently stay this way, without the suffering of old age, illness, and death, I too would experience happiness and never feel any disgust. If one might [make fast] the beauty of the maidens, without final decay, even though desire is an error I might yet entertain my human feelings. If someone experiences old age, illness, and death, he himself should not be happy, much less feel any attachment for someone else! Impermanent are the objects of the five desires, and the same also applies to one’s own person. . . . Know that old age, illness, and death are a mass of great suffering! Advising me to fall into that—these are not the words of a good friend. Alas, Udayin! You really are very sincere! The ailments of birth, old age, illness, and death—this suffering is very dreadful. The eyes see that all decays, yet one finds happiness in their pursuit. I am utterly wearied now, and this heart of mine is constrained too. Considering that old age, illness, and death suddenly arrive, unanticipated, night and day I forget to sleep. Why would I indulge in the five desires? Old age, illness, and death are ablaze. They will surely arrive, without any doubt. If one still does not know any sadness, one’s heart really is made of wood or stone.”69
The powerful images of the first three omens was not to leave Siddhartha. He became increasingly concerned with the realities of life, finding ever-decreasing comfort in the pleasures of the world. The king, upon hearing of his son’s growing disgust with worldly life, summoned his ministers for advice. They had this to say:
“It is not the case that what the five desires are capable of will hold his attention.”70
So, according to the Sanskrit Buddhacarita, the king “found no means, other than the passions, for restraining his son’s purpose”.71
We have here another taste of symbolism. Just as in the Mahabharata, wherein the blind King Dristarasthra, with his many sons and subjects (the mind, senses, powers and objects of sense), is unable to keep the Pandu princes under his control, so too Siddhartha’s king and father (the blind sense-mind, the lower ego and personality built of the skandhas and governed by past karma), even with the strongest temptations of sense (the women in the garden, Siddhartha’s wife and consorts) through the five desires is unable to continue the imprisonment of the true Self within the palace(s) (body/bodies) and the pleasure-gardens of sense. When the Self is truly ready to break through those bonds, no effort of the father can restrain him any longer. This has its symbolic meaning on several levels, as applicable to the life of the disciple, as applicable to the process of meditation, as well as to the natural progression of cycles, and so on.
The scene now carries us back to the palace, with Siddhartha still immersed in his brooding upon the realities of life and the miseries therein. The prince has inwardly come to his decision: he will make the Great Renunciation; he will depart from the kingdom and take up the life of a renunciant, homeless, striving for the solution to human woe at all costs.
The Lalitavistara and Buddhacarita both relay a beautiful exchange between the prince and his father, as Siddhartha asks permission to make the renunciation. First from the Lalitavistara:
Standing in front of the king, he said:
“My lord, now the time is right for me to leave home;
Please do not hinder me and don’t be distraught.
My king, may you, my family, and the people of the kingdom forgive me.”
The king replied with tears filling his eyes:
“What will it take for you to change your mind?
Will you ask me for a boon? Tell me, I will give you anything!
I am yours, and you can have the palace, the servants, and this whole kingdom.”
Then, in a sweet voice, the Bodhisattva replied:
“My lord, I wish for four boons. Please grant them to me!
If you are able to give them to me, you will have power over me.
You will always see me here at home and I will not depart.
“I want, my lord, to be unharmed by old age;
To retain my fine complexion and youth forever;
To be healthy and without disease;
And to have infinite life without death ever coming.”
When the king heard these words, he felt extremely sad.
“My son, you are asking for the impossible; I am powerless here.
Even the sages who live for eons are not beyond
Degeneration and the dreads of sickness, old age, and dying.”
“My lord, if you cannot give me these four boons—
Freedom from misfortune and the terrors of sickness, old age, and dying—
Then I request of you another boon. Please listen, Your Majesty:
I wish that, after I die, I will not have to take rebirth again.”
When the king heard these words from the best among men,
He diminished his longing, let go of his attachment for his son, and said:
“Then go and benefit and liberate beings. I rejoice in that.
May all your wishes be fulfilled.”72
And from the Buddhacarita:
“Prostrating himself with folded hands, he said ‘O king, graciously grant me permission. I wish to become a mendicant to seek salvation; for separation is inevitable for me’”
“Hearing his words, the king shook like a tree struck by an elephant and, grasping him by his hands folded like a lotus-bud, he spoke to him thus in a voice choking with sobs: ‘Refrain, dear one, from this intention. For it is not yet the time for you to give yourself up to dharma. For they say the practice of dharma in the first flush of youth, when the intelligence is still unbalanced, is full of dangers. When a man is young with senses liable to excitement over the objects of sense and with resolution unfit to cope with, the hardships of the life governed by vows, his mind shrinks back from the forest, especially so when he has had no experience of solitude. But, O lover of dharma, it is now my time for dharma, after I have devolved the sovereignty on you, the cynosure of all eyes; but if you were forcibly to quit your father, O firmly courageous one, your dharma would become non-dharma. Therefore give up this your resolve. Devote yourself for the present to the duties of a householder. For entry to the penance grove is agreeable to a man, after he has enjoyed the delights of youth’.
“Hearing these words of the king, he replied in a voice like the kalavinka bird’s: ‘I will refrain from entering the penance grove, O king, if you will be my surety on four points. My life is not to be subject to death. Disease is not to injure my health. Old age is not to impair my youth. Disaster is not to take away tins my worldly fortune.’
“To his son, who had propounded a matter so hard of fulfillment, the king of the Sakyas made reply: ‘Give up this idea which goes too far. An extravagant wish is ridiculous and unfitting.’
“Then he, who was as grave as Meru is weighty, said to his father: ‘If this is not possible, then I am not to be stopped; for it is not right to hold back a man who wishes to escape from a house, that is being consumed by fire. And seeing that separation is the fixed rule of the world, is it not better to make the separation myself for the sake of dharma? Will not death sever me helplessly, still unsatisfied before I attain my goal?”73
However, the king, having appealed to his advisers, went to greater measures to keep the prince from departing. He “increased the exquisite happiness of the five desires with the ladies even more”,74 then gathered his guards and stationed a watch of many men at each of the four gates (more symbolism). The Sakya people likewise set up watches, as did the attendants of the prince’s step-mother. The palace became a fortress, intent on all sides to keep Siddhartha from renouncing palace-life and departing forever. Their great concern, echoing the king’s, is stated well in the Lalitavistara, thus:
“On his departure everything in the royal race will be grievous and this royal line of long standing will be cut off.”75
But with all his effort to restrain his son, or to win him over once more to worldly pleasures, the king could not hold back the tide of Siddhartha’s dharma. We turn now to Sir Edwin Arnold’s Light of Asia, for the incomparable poetic verses recording the renunciation and departure of Siddhartha, the future Buddha and teacher of humanity. Here Siddhartha is in the palace, deep at night, laying with his wife Yasodhara, who had just been troubled with three prophetic dreams of her husband’s life-to-come. Yasodhara awakes, tells Siddhartha of the dreams and seeks his comfort. In tears she asks:
“O Prince! what may such visions mean
Except I die, or—worse than any death—
Thou shouldst forsake me or be taken?”
Siddhartha’s response, calling upon the highest compassion, may fill our hearts with the essence of his.
As the last smile of sunset was the look
Siddartha bent upon his weeping wife.
“Comfort thee, dear!” he said, “if comfort lives
In changeless love; for though thy dreams may be
Shadows of things to come, and though the gods
Are shaken in their seats, and though the world
Stands nigh, perchance, to know some way of help,
Yet, whatsoever fall to thee and me,
Be sure I loved and love Yasodhara.
Thou knowest how I muse these many moons,
Seeking to save the sad earth I have seen;
And when the time comes, that which will be will.
But if my soul yearns sore for souls unknown,
And if I grieve for griefs which are not mine,
Judge how my high-winged thoughts must hover here
O’er all these lives that share and sweeten mine
So dear! and thine the dearest, gentlest, best,
And nearest. Ah, thou mother of my babe!
Whose body mixed with mine for this fair hope,
When most my spirit wanders, ranging round
The lands and seas—as full of ruth for men
As the far-flying dove is full of ruth
For her twin nestlings—ever it has come
Home with glad wing and passionate plumes to thee,
Who art the sweetness of my kind best seen,
The utmost of their good, the tenderest
Of all their tenderness, mine most of all.
Therefore, whatever after this betide,
Bethink thee of that lordly bull which lowed,
That jewelled banner in thy dream which waved
Its folds departing, and of this be sure,
Always I loved and always love thee well,
And what I sought for all sought most for thee.
But thou, take comfort; and, if sorrow falls,
Take comfort still in deeming there may be
A way of peace on earth by woes of ours;
And have with this embrace what faithful love
Can think of thanks or frame for benison –
Too little, seeing love’s strong self is weak –
Yet kiss me on the mouth, and drink these words
From heart to heart therewith, that thou mayst know –
What others will not—that I loved thee most
Because I loved so well all living souls.
Now, Princess! rest, for I will rise and watch.”
Then in her tears she slept, but sleeping sighed –
As if that vision passed again—“The time!
The time is come!” Where at Siddartha turned,
And, lo! the moon shone by the Crab the stars
In that same silver order long foretold
Stood ranged to say, “This is the night choose thou
The way of greatness or the way of good:
To reign a King of kings, or wander lone,
Crownless and homeless, that the world be helped.”
Moreover, with the whispers of the gloom
Came to his ears again that warning song,
As when the Devas spoke upon the wind:
And surely Gods were round about the place
Watching our Lord, who watched the shining stars.
“I will depart,” he spake; “the hour is come!
Thy tender lips, dear sleeper, summon me
To that which saves the earth but sunders us;
And in the silence of yon sky I read
My fated message flashing. Unto this
Came I, and unto this all nights and days
Have led me; for I will not have that crown
Which may be mine: I lay aside those realms
Which wait the gleaming of my naked sword:
My chariot shall not roll with bloody wheels
From victory to victory, till earth
Wears the red record of my name. I choose
To tread its paths with patient, stainless feet,
Making its dust my bed, its loneliest wastes
My dwelling, and its meanest things my mates:
Clad in no prouder garb than outcasts wear,
Fed with no meats save what the charitable
Give of their will, sheltered by no more pomp
Than the dim cave lends or the jungle-bush.
This will I do because the woful cry
Of life and all flesh living cometh up
Into my ears, and all my soul is full
Of pity for the sickness of this world;
Which I will heal, if healing may be found
By uttermost renouncing and strong strife.
For which of all the great and lesser Gods
Have power or pity? Who hath seen them—who?
What have they wrought to help their worshippers?
How hath it steaded man to pray, and pay
Tithes of the corn and oil, to chant the charms,
To slay the shrieking sacrifice, to rear
The stately fane, to feed the priests, and call
On Vishnu, Shiva, Surya, who save
None—not the worthiest—from the griefs that teach
Those litanies of flattery and fear
Ascending day by day, like wasted smoke?
Hath any of my brothers ‘scaped thereby
The aches of life, the stings of love and loss,
The fiery fever and the ague-shake,
The slow, dull sinking into withered age,
The horrible dark death—and what beyond
Waits—till the whirling wheel comes up again,
And new lives bring new sorrows to be borne,
New generations for the new desires
Which have their end in the old mockeries?
Hath any of my tender sisters found
Fruit of the fast or harvest of the hymn,
Or bought one pang the less at bearing-time
For white curds offered and trim tulsi-leaves?
Nay; it may be some of the Gods are good
And evil some, but all in action weak;
Both pitiful and pitiless, and both—
As men are—bound upon this wheel of change,
Knowing the former and the after lives.
For so our scriptures truly seem to teach,
That—once, and wheresoe’er, and whence begun –
Life runs its rounds of living, climbing up
From mote, and gnat, and worm, reptile, and fish,
Bird and shagged beast, man, demon, deva, God,
To clod and mote again; so are we kin
To all that is; and thus, if one might save
Man from his curse, the whole wide world should share
The lightened horror of this ignorance
Whose shadow is chill fear, and cruelty
Its bitter pastime. Yea, if one might save
And means must be! There must be refuge! Men
Perished in winter-winds till one smote fire
From flint-stones coldly hiding what they held,
The red spark treasured from the kindling sun.
They gorged on flesh like wolves, till one sowed corn,
Which grew a weed, yet makes the life of man;
They mowed and babbled till some tongue struck speech,
And patient fingers framed the lettered sound.
What good gift have my brothers, but it came
From search and strife and loving sacrifice?
If one, then, being great and fortunate,
Rich, dowered with health and ease, from birth designed
To rule—if he would rule—a King of kings
If one, not tired with life’s long day but glad
I’ the freshness of its morning, one not cloyed
With love’s delicious feasts, but hungry still;
If one not worn and wrinkled, sadly sage,
But joyous in the glory and the grace
That mix with evils here, and free to choose
Earth’s loveliest at his will: one even as I,
Who ache not, lack not, grieve not, save with griefs
Which are not mine, except as I am man;
If such a one, having so much to give,
Gave all, laying it down for love of men,
And thenceforth spent himself to search for truth,
Wringing the secret of deliverance forth,
Whether it lurk in hells or hide in heavens.
Or hover, unrevealed, nigh unto all:
Surely at last, far off, sometime, somewhere,
The veil would lift for his deep-searching eyes,
The road would open for his painful feet,
That should be won for which he lost the world,
And Death might find him conqueror of death.
This will I do, who have a realm to lose
Because I love my realm, because my heart
Beats with each throb of all the hearts that ache,
Known and unknown, these that are mine and those
Which shall be mine, a thousand million more
Saved by this sacrifice I offer now.
Oh, summoning stars! I come! Oh, mournful earth!
For thee and thine I lay aside my youth,
My throne, my joys, my golden days, my nights,
My happy palace—and thine arms, sweet Queen!
Harder to put aside than all the rest!
Yet thee, too, I shall save, saving this earth;
And that which stirs within thy tender womb,
My child, the hidden blossom of our loves,
Whom if I wait to bless my mind will fail.
Wife! child! father! and people! ye must share
A little while the anguish of this hour
That light may break and all flesh learn the Law.
Now am I fixed, and now I will depart,
Never to come again till what I seek
Be found—if fervent search and strife avail.”76
His heart set and his will resolute, Siddhartha made the Great Renunciation.77 The traditional biographies tell us that upon observing that the day had come, that Siddhartha was ready to set out on his ascetic journey, the devas themselves aided in his escape from the palace. In both the Lalitavistara and the Buddhacarita emphasis is placed on the women of the court, portrayed so beautifully in earlier chapters, so encapsulating all ideals of womanhood and sexuality and so captivating the young Siddhartha, but, as he made ready to leave he looked upon them and saw them in a new light—inspired by the devas, he saw them as disheveled, laying about the room in awkward positions, unseemly, unattractive. As the Sanskrit Buddhacarita puts it:
“Thus these womenfolk, lying in various attitudes according to their natures, family and breeding, presented the appearance of a lotus-pond whose lotuses have been blown down and broken by the wind.”78
So we find the prince, once enamoured by such women, seeing them in a new light, a growing distaste for the world of sense-pleasures and sexuality. With such a condition deeply embedded in his heart, he was finally truly ready to depart.
Siddhartha first fetched his horse, Kantaka, saddled him and made ready.79 The devas dampened the sound of the horse’s joyous neighing, as to not alert the sleeping guards (for the Lalitavistara tells us that the devas put to sleep all the peoples of Kapilavastu that night80). The sound of Katanka’s steps on the pavement of the palace was muffled also by the devas. All care was made that not a sound should be heard. They came then to the gates and, we are told:
“The city gatehouses, which were closed with gates furnished with heavy bars and which could not easily have been forced even by elephants, opened noiselessly of their own accord as the king’s son passed along.”81
Here the Nidana-Katha first introduces the Great Ensnarer, King Mara.82 As Siddhartha passed through the gates, he finds Mara awaiting him, disguised as Vasavatti. Mara implores Siddhartha to stay and wait seven days, for then the treasure-wheel would be given to him, making him sovereign over the “four continents”. Siddhartha, recognizing Mara’s disguise and avowedly detached from the desire of sovereignty, turns him away and continues on his path. Thus, with this swift encounter, the long battle between the two foes began.
Upon leaving the city of his youth and the kingdom of which he had been born the heir, resolute in his vow, Siddhartha voiced a promise:
“Until I shall have beheld the further shore of birth and death. I shall return no more to Kapilavastu.”83
In time he would indeed return home, but, as promised, it would be as one who had reached the other shore.
IN THE FOREST
Having left the city, Siddhartha (who we will now refer to as Gautama,84 leaving his childhood name behind) and his charioteer Chandaka travelled a great distance,85 finally arriving, according to the Buddhacarita, at the hermitage of Bhrigu’s son (Bhargava). Here we find several common elements to the Buddha’s story, beginning with the return of Chandaka to Kapilavastu.
There are several symbolic meanings to be found in the character of Chandaka. As the charioteer he early on (under divine inspiration) plays a similar role as does Krishna to Arjuna, in answering the prince’s questions as to old age, sickness, death and the path of renunciation. At the point of leaving the castle he plays the role of the questioner himself, raising doubts, hesitations and inquiring as to the rightness of renunciation, and again, having left the city of Kapilavastu along with his prince and reached the hermitage of Bhargava, we find another aspect of the character coming to light. Gautama praises Chandaka for his loyalty and devotion, and then bids him to return to the palace with his horse, Kantaka, and with a message for the King, that he may grieve less for the loss of his son. Chandaka begs the prince, one last time not to follow the path of renunciation, but to return to his father and his kingdom, or, “if, O my master, you are determined to abandon your father and your kingdom, you should not abandon me. For your feet are my sole refuge. I cannot leave you in the forest, as Sumantra did Raghava, and go to the city with burning heart.”86 Gautama implores Chandaka to forgo his affliction and emotional pain at having to leave his lord, as, he says, “separation is the fixed law among corporeal beings”,87 or, as in the Chinese Buddhacarita:
“You now have given rise to the suffering of separation because of me. You should give up this sadness and soothe your mind! Each being has a different destination. The principle of separation is, of course, permanent. Even if it would not let me give up my family today, death will arrive and my body and spirit will be separated. How then would I be held back? . . .”.88
The dialogue between Gautama and Chandaka, both in the palace and after, represents not only the type of the conversation nearly every renunciant will have with family and friends (likely on more than one occasion), but primarily an inner dialogue the renunciant will have within him or herself. We may also see the sending back of Chandaka—while he presents the aspects of doubt and questioning as to the validity of renunciation—as symbolic of Gautama’s complete and firm inner conviction, his resoluteness to walk the path, the turning of that part of him that rules sensory life upwards and inwards towards the “mark” of his true Self.89
What we find in these early stages of Buddha’s story, through his childhood and during the tale of his renunciation and flight from the palace, is a focus upon the resistance that is offered from every angle. There is, outwardly, family and social resistance of many kinds, and there is a continual (and very strong) inward resistance (symbolized in these dramatic tales through the use of characters and objects). The inner resistance far outweighs the outer, as the renunciant finds himself locked in a battle between two sides of his own nature. In this, the momentary appearance of Mara, standing as personified desire, shows us that while the outer family and social renunciations may have been passed through, the true inner battle is only just beginning. Renunciation of worldly life is but step one on the path.
These aspects of the story of the Buddha, brushed aside so easily by dry scholars, are of the utmost importance for renunciants, for in them we are given an ideal example of how to face the most common inner and outer challenges that are so inevitable in the early stages of the path. We are shown how Buddha himself, with his firmness of resolve and godlike strength, faced these challenges. It is an ideal worthy of our every effort.
There are two other elements at this point in the Buddha’s story that are worth mention. First, there is the cutting of his hair. This is recorded in all the traditional biographies we have used, and remains significant to Buddhists to this day—the cutting or shaving of hair is almost universal among Buddhists. The subject of hair, and its inner significance, is covered at length in the Theosophical Glossary, wherein we read:
“The Buddhist still shaves his head to this day—as sign of scorn for life and health. Yet Buddha, after shaving his hair when he first became a mendicant, let it grow again and is always represented with the top-knot of a Yogi.”90
The second element of the story here is Gautama’s change of clothes, trading the “garments of plain silk” of a prince for the ocre-robe of a renunciant. The story relates that a deva took on the form of a hunter, with bow in hand, but wearing an ocre-robe (the reason, one version relates, is so the deer will trust him near them, making it easier to kill). Gautama offers a trade, his silk clothes for the ocre-robe, and thereby obtains the last outward necessity of his new life. The Nidana-Katha provides us with a slightly different version, skipping the story of the hunter.
“Now the great Brahma Ghatikara, who had formerly been his [Buddha’s] friend in the time of Kassapa Buddha,91 was led by his friendship, which had not grown old in that long interval, to think: “Today my friend is accomplishing the Great Renunciation, I will go and provide him with the requisites of a recluse”
Then we have a list of the eight requisites:
“The three robes, and the alms bowl
Razor, needle, and girdle,
And a water strainer—these eight
Are the wealth of the monk devout.”92
These eight requisites remain central in many Buddhist schools even today, as the only items monks are permitted to own. It is likely that Gautama would’ve come into possession of these items, including his robes, from one of the hermitages he stayed in during his early ascetic life.
The order of events varies between the biographies we’ve been using, though the general storyline is maintained in all, with key situations standing as lamp-posts along the way. We will merge these variances into the simplest order, based on a steady south-eastern route of Gautama’s journey from Kapilavastu to Gaya.93
The Lalitavistara immediately gives an account of the sorrow and grief in the palace at Kapilavastu upon awaking in the morning to find the prince gone. Chandaka arrives home to tell the tale of the prince’s flight, and all are saddened and dejected. The Buddhacarita provides a similar account, a little later, and includes the effort of Suddhodana to bring his son back, by sending out his royal preceptor and chief minister to find Gautama and convince him to return. Their effort is, of course, in vain, but we find here a very human touch: certainly many a renunciant, from Buddha’s day to our own, has faced a similar situation, similar pleading from those who do not understand the draw to the holy life.
We may view this aspect of the story as occurring simultaneous to the travels of Gautama, though details of its place in the chronology vary. Having sent Chandaka back to Kapilavastu, Gautama moved from hermitage to hermitage,94 receiving the hospitality of the Brahman monks and observing their methods of asceticism, sacrifice and self-mortification. As the Chinese Buddhacarita has it:
“The Bodhisattva observed the brahmans all over the forest. They were practicing all kinds of meritorious actions. They were all seeking for the happiness of rebirth in heaven. He asked elder brahmans about the true path he should practice. ‘I have just now arrived here. I do not yet know which way to practice. Consequently I beseech you to please give me your explanation!’ Then the twice-born consequently and in due order spoke about the austerities they were practicing and about the fruition of their asceticism. [they told him of] several paths, each one different. . . . When the worthy one, the most honored one among two-legged beings, heard about these austerities, he did not see their real meaningfulness and his inner feelings were not pleased. In his consideration he felt grief for them. In his mind and verbally he said to them: ‘Alas, for your great austerities! You seek only for recompense as a human or god. As the wheel revolves, you turn to birth and death. The suffering will be plentiful but the happiness little.’”95
Having rejected the popular exoteric practices of the Brahmans in the north, Gautama is encouraged to seek out the sage Arada. He tells the Brahmans:
“. . . your dharma aims at Paradise, while my desire is for release from rebirth and leads me not to wish to dwell in this grove.”96
To which they reply:
“If therefore this is your settled purpose, go speedily to Vindhyakostha. There dwells the sage Arada,97 who has gained insight into final beatitude. From him you will learn the path of the tattvas,98 and, if it pleases you, you will follow it. But since your resolution, I see, is such, you will depart, rejecting his theory also.”99
The Lalitavistara tells us that the first meeting between Gautama and Arada took place in the city of Vesali (Vaishali).100 We may imagine Gautama making his way south-east, perhaps along the Rapti then Ganges rivers, from town to town with his alms-bowl in hand, before meeting his first teacher.
The Lalitavistara provides us with a first-person account of the initial meeting and Gautama’s resulting practice:
“Monks, I walked up to where Arada Kalapa was staying and addressed him in the following way: ‘Arada Kalapa, I have come to learn spiritual practices from you.’ Arada Kalapa replied: ‘Gautama, I shall give you a teaching through which a faithful person of good family can accomplish omniscience with very little hardship.’ Monks, I then thought to myself: ‘I have faith. I am also diligent. I am mindful and I can practice absorption. I also have knowledge. So therefore, in order to master and actualize that teaching, I will practice on my own in a solitary place, without getting distracted.’ Monks, I then practiced on my own in solitude with carefulness and diligence. And indeed, with only little hardship, I was able to understand and actualize the teaching.”101
Here we have a wonderful example of the old adage that “the Master can but point out the path; the Disciple must walk it.”
The Buddhacarita provides a more complete picture of the meeting in its twelfth chapter, where we have an extensive example of Arada’s Samkhya teaching.102 What we find in this chapter is an overview of the central tenets of Kapila’s system, including a basic description of the tattvas, the Manifest and Unmanifest, and the issues of identification and ego. “Ignorance, action, desire, you should know, are the causes of samsara”,103 Arada tells him—a teaching which would help shape core elements Buddha’s doctrine.
Following Arada’s teaching, composing the central theory of Samkhya philosophy, Gautama asks him a very meaningful question:
“How does one walk this brahma-course? For how long a time? And where? What’s the limit of this dharma? Please, Sir, explain that to me.”104
Arada proceeds to give an overview of what we might call the Yoga side of his teachings, as we must understand Samkhya and Yoga to be but two sides (one might say: the theory and practice) of one and the same doctrine.105 The careful reader will find many similarities between the overview given by Arada and the detailed teachings provided by Patanjali in his famous Yoga Sutras.
Gautama, finding that Arada’s teachings, even when mastered, had not brought him yet beyond birth and death, that the teachings fell “short of the absolute”, he left Arada (and thus his position as teacher in Arada’s hermitage106). The Buddhacarita proceeds to give us an explanation, from Gautama himself, as to why Arada’s teachings were limited, and in his words we find a few quite significant statements. The following selections bring us to the heart of the issue:
“I have listened to this subtle knowledge that grows progressively more and more pure; But since the Field-knower [Kshetrajna] is not forsaken, I think it is short of the absolute. For, although the Knower of the field is freed from Primal nature [Prakriti] and Transformations, Yet I think it still has the quality of giving birth and serving as a seed. For, though the soul [atma], being wholly pure, you consider to be released; Yet, because the causal roots are present, it will once again become unreleased. . . . This soul is not attributeless when it is not released . . . And it is not viewed as released, when its not free of attributes [nirguna].107 . . . Prior to the body there does not exist a possessor of the body; and prior to attributes [gunas] there is no possessor of attributes; Therefore, although released at first, a possessor of the body is bound over again. And without the body, the Knower of the field should be either a knower or not a knower; If he’s a knower, there’s something for him to know; and if there is something for him to know, then he is not released.”108
The subtleties of these metaphysics demonstrate Gautama’s profound wisdom, and his place among the truly great teachers of humanity. Having studied and practised Arada’s teachings, he yet finds limitation and lack of true “release”, and so he seeks a greater teacher, one who can show him the further steps of the path. He comes then, to Udraka (or Uddaka, or Rudraka), whose teachings indeed take Gautama one step further, but yet again fall short of the goal, if only ever so slightly.
“For the sage Udraka perceived the fault of cognition and of non-cognition, and attained the state beyond nothingness, that’s characterized by neither cognition nor non-cognition.109 Because cognition and non-cognition are both states that contain subtle substrates, so he thought that the state beyond them was neither cognition nor non-cognition, and, therefore, he longed for that. Because the intellect [buddhi], subtle and static, remains in that state alone, without proceeding elsewhere, therefore, in that state there’s neither cognition nor non-cognition. But, because even after attaining that state a man returns once again to the world, the bodhisattva then left Udraka behind, aiming to attain a state beyond that.”110
Here we have a most wonderful metaphysical distinction: even beyond differentiation (“characterized by neither cognition nor non-cognition”), wherein buddhi does not proceed elsewhere, i.e. rests within itself (buddhi per se, is nirguna—the gunas, composing the substance of buddhi (prakriti), being in perfect equilibrium and at rest, are thus pradhana or mulaprakriti), there may yet remain a tie to the world of manifestation, if, as Buddha says elsewhere, one relishes or remains fastened to the equanimity of that state.111 Thus, rising beyond differentiation leaves one still yet within the ties of manifestation, so with Udraka’s highest state, as with Arada’s, “the causal roots are [still] present”. Gautama, unsatisfied with the reach of this state—the very highest of the Jhanas—continues to aim beyond.
It is significant—and students may have much to learn from the example—that Gautama does not remain satisfied with even these exceedingly high spiritual states. While the greatest teachers of his age plateau at these subtle states of consciousness, Gautama remains fixed on the Absolute, weaving his way through even the subtlest metaphysical distinctions in his steadfast journey to the heart of reality.
We may come to see, then, that Gautama was, indeed, fully trained and accomplished in the traditional wisdom of India, receiving his teachings from Masters of that wisdom, in the age-old manner. As the Lalitavistara tells us, he “was able to understand and actualize the teaching”.
While these traditional biographies describe Gautama as rejecting the teachings of Arada and Udraka, the essence of their teachings come to form core elements of the Buddha’s doctrine, and, as we will see, it is ultimately their teachings (of the states of Jhana) that Gautama uses in order to attain enlightenment under the Bodhi tree.
Gautama’s disdain for the exoteric rites of the Brahmans is certainly a core aspect of his life and teachings, as we see the subject arise time and time again in the suttas of the Pali cannon,112 however, this does not imply a disdain for the esoteric wisdom itself,113 for instance, as recorded in the great Upanishads or in the Bhagavad Gita and other such works. The exoteric Brahmans had as little knowledge of this hidden wisdom in Buddha’s day as they do today,114 but the “twice-born”, the initiates, certainly held (and hold today) to essential teachings that are identical to the core of Buddha’s doctrine. These esoteric teachings include the wisdom that underlies both the Samkhya and Yoga systems, and Buddhist philosophy (and practice) are certainly capable of being reconciled with what we might call “esoteric Vedanta”, particularly in its later presentation as given by Sankaracharya.115 Buddha does not wholesale reject esoteric Vedanta, as many modern Buddhists suppose, but simply insists on following the steps to the highest goal—that is to say, he was not satisfied with the plateaus found at each step of the way, wherein his teachers may have remained, but was intent upon the plateauless plateau at the pinnacle of the teachings. Once he had reached that pinnacle, he was also not satisfied with keeping all knowledge secret, which may mark the most significant difference between himself and the initiated Brahmans of his day.
In this we may truly see the position of Gautama Buddha in Indian history: he was not, as some may suppose, but a rebel, denying Indian tradition and seeking to replace it with something new or better. No. He was fully versed in those traditions, had fully “actualized” the teachings as they were understood by the Brahman masters of his day—and then he went further. The teachings he gave to the world represent the pinnacle of Indian thought, drawn from an understanding of the full scope of esoteric wisdom. Buddhism thus stands, not as a counter to Brahmanism or Vedanta, but as the fulfillment of them.
TEMPTATIONS, ASCETICISM AND VICTORY OVER MARA
Our story now brings us to the meeting between Gautama and King Bimbasara, recounted in each of the biographies we have relied upon. Symbolically, this story compliments the later temptations offered by Mara, and has its type in the great Upanishads, as we will see.
The Lalitavistara recalls the meeting immediately after Gautama had left his teacher, Arada, while the Buddacarita places it immediately before arriving at Arada’s hermitage. For our part, and specifically due to its symbolical significance (though also due to geographical considerations), we follow the chronology of the Lalitavistara. Having left his teacher(s), Gautama travels south, across the Ganges,116 to the city of Rajagriha (modern day Rajgir) and finds a place to reside on the slopes of Pandava mountain.117 Having witnessed him arrive, the city is abuzz, and the king decides upon a visit to the sage.118 Their meeting follows the course of a well-established symbolism, one we may source to the Upanishads and which has found its way also into the Western traditions. In the Lalitavistara we read:
“As they discuss many issues, the king says: ‘I will give you half my kingdom. Enjoy the sense pleasures here; I will give you all you need.’ . . . [to which Gautama replies:] ‘I have already discarded a beautiful kingdom and become a monk In order to search for peace with no expectations for the future.’ . . . [the king again presses:] ‘You are young and in the prime of life; You have a beautiful complexion and you are strong. Let me offer you much wealth and many women.’ [and again:] ‘Please be my friend, and I will give you my entire kingdom. Please enjoy its abundant pleasures.’”119
But Gautama responds:
“I have abandoned many delights. And thousands of women so beautiful to behold. I now wish for the perfect peace of sacred awakening. Since I find no joy in conditioned existence, I have left it.”
This is symbolic, through and through. Let us compare it with an older story, drawn from the Katha Upanishad. There Nachiketas, the seeker after truth, has come to the abode of Yama, Lord of Death. Death has granted Nachiketas three wishes, each of which we will find mirrored in the story of Gautama.
The first wish Nachiketas gives is:
This we see mirrored in the ninth chapter of the Buddhacarita, when, after hearing once again that his father is deeply saddened by his renunciation, or as the Chinese version has it, that “a sharp dart has pierced his heart” so that he “is drowning in a sea of grief because of you”, Gautama explains his decision, as before, in an attempt to put his father’s heart at ease. The same occurs when he is sending Chandaka back to the palace in the earlier chapter, wherein it is Chandaka (representing his father) who Siddhartha attempts to put at ease.
The second wish Nachiketas gives is as such:
“In the heavenly world there is no fear at all; nor art Thou there, nor is there fear because of decay. Crossing over both hunger and thirst, passing beyond sorrow, he rejoices in the heavenly world. Thou indeed knowest the heavenly fire, Death! Declare it to me, possessing faith. The heavenly worlds enjoy immortality; this as my second wish I choose.”122
This is mirrored in Gautama’s search, and specifically in his requests given to Arada and Udraka to learn the divine wisdom of their teachings. Yama (Death) imparts this wisdom “of the heavenly fire” to Nachiketas, just as Arada and Udraka impart it to Gautama. But, this is not yet the complete wisdom; it is limited, unfinished, does not lead to total liberation. So both Nachiketas and Gautama push forwards. Thus we have the third wish of Nachiketas:
“This question that there is, in the case of the man who has gone forth; some saying that he is, while some say that he is not; a knowledge of this, imparted by Thee—this, of my wishes, is the third wish!”123
Nachiketas is seeking the knowledge of Liberation, of Immortality. He is asking Death himself for the wisdom that leads beyond the cycle of birth and death. Yama’s response brings us to the shared symbolism of Gautama’s meeting with Bimbasara:
“Choose sons and grandsons of a hundred years, many cattle, elephants, gold, horses; choose the wide dwelling of the earth, and live thyself as many autumns as thou wilt! If thou thinkest this an equal wish, choose thou wealth and length of days. Be thou great on the earth, Nachiketas! I make thee an enjoyer of thy desires!
“Whatever desires are hard to gain in the world of mortals, ask all desires according to thy will! These beauties with their chariots and lutes not such as these are to be gained by men; be waited on by these, bestowed by Me! Ask me not concerning dying, Nachiketas!”124
These promises, of cattle, elephants, gold, horses (symbols we have seen already in Buddha’s story), along with women (“beauties”) and all sense pleasures, are the exact offering Bimbasara makes to Gautama (as well as the same offering Suddodhana has made). Nachiketas’s reply is exactly that of Gautama’s:
“Because these things, lasting only until the morrow, Thou who makest an end, consume this fire of all a mortal’s powers, and even the whole of life is little; Thine, verily, are chariots, Thine are dance and song!
“Not by wealth is the son of man to be satisfied. Shall we choose wealth, if we have seen Thee? Shall we live, so long as Thou art lord? But that is the boon to be chosen by me!
“Having drawn near to the unfading Immortals, a fading mortal here below, and understanding Them, thoroughly considering the enjoyment of these beauties and of desire, who would delight in long-drawn life?
“This, concerning which (even the Radiant Divinities) question, Death, What is in the Great Beyond tell us that! This boon which enters the hidden no other than this Nachiketas chooses!”125
This once again demonstrates the roots of Buddhism, deeply embedded as they are in the ancient esoteric wisdom of India, the same wisdom that underlies the great Upanishads.
A similar exchange as that between Gautama and Bimbasara also occurs in the Brihad Aranyaka Upanishad.126 The Brahman youth Shvetaketu had gone to the Kshatriya King Pravahana, where the king asked him if he knew the mystery doctrine (i.e. that of reincarnation and liberation). Shvetaketu is asked five questions (which contain the essence of the doctrine) but is unable to answer even one of them. Afterwards, Shvetaketu’s father—who also belonged to the Gotama clan, and who was intent on learning the mystery doctrine—comes himself to the King, and there we find the following exchange:
“That descendant of Gotama went to where Pravahana, son of Jivala, was. . . . To him the king said: ‘We give a wish to the worshipful descendant of the Gotamas.’ He said: ‘This wish is promised to me: the speech that thou didst speak in the presence of the boy, tell me that!’ [i.e. teach me the true doctrine]. The king said: ‘That, O descendant of the Gotamas, is among the wishes of the gods. Say a wish of men!’ He said: ‘It is well known! There is store of gold, of cattle and horses, of slave-girls and tapestries and robes! [i.e. already available to him] May the Master not be niggardly [stingy, ungenerous] toward us, in that which is great, infinite, illimitable!”127
Here again we have the “descendant of Gotama”, a wealthy Brahman, dismissing the pleasures of the world with his heart set upon the highest truths, for the doctrine Pravahana was in possession of was that of true true Liberation.128 This is the same reply Gautama gives to Bimbasara, and in these older stories we no doubt find the type of which the story of the Buddha is a reiteration, dressed in yet another garb, as the wisdom of the ages so often is.
So again we glimpse just how deep the symbolism of Buddha’s story goes. This very same symbolism found its way into the western tradition, as recorded in the “temptation in the wilderness”, which, likewise contains three stages, the final of which is:
“. . . the devil taketh him [Jesus] up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.”129
The “Devil” here; Yama or Death in the Upanishad; and Kings of the Earth in the Buddha’s story—each of these standing as symbolic for aspects of our inner nature, that which gives rise to worldly desires. In Sanskrit this is called Kama,130 which is identified with Mara, who we were introduced to earlier, and who will arrive on the scene again as the chief opponent to Gautama’s Liberation, who he must obtain victory over if he is to reach Enlightenment. These aspects of the story are all deeply symbolic, on several levels.
While Gautama’s response in the Lalitavistara is relatively concise, in the Buddhacarita (chapter 11), we find an extensive response to Bimbasara, which one translator has titled “The Passions Spurned” and another “Condemnation of Passion”.131 The full chapter is well worth reading for any student interested in understanding the path of renunciation.
Gautama thereafter left Rajagriha and continued southwards to Gaya.132 He is joined at this point by five mendicants (bhikkhus)—Kondanna, Bhaddiya, Vappa, Mahanama and Assaji—who are said to have been with Gautama at the hermitage of Udraka and to have followed him when he left.133 These five were thus the first of the Buddha’s disciples.
The group of six, having arrived in Gaya, set themselves up “at Uruvela on the bank of the Nerañjara River”134 as the suttas have it.135 Gautama is then said to have engaged in “fierce austerities [tapas] by fasting,”136 or as the Chinese Buddhacarita has it:
“Purifying his mind, he observed a fast that any practitioner would find unbearable. He meditated in silence for a full six years. He ate one sesame seed and one grain of rice a day,137 and his body became utterly emaciated.”138
During this time, he was waited upon with reverence by his five disciples. This is all very symbolic. The Sanskrit Buddhacarita lifts a corner of the veil when it says of the disciples that they lived “under his control and obedient because of their training, like fickle senses waiting on the mind”.139
Further, we may find another important aspect of the symbology if we once again reach back to the Upanishads. There food is the symbol of experience, particularly of experience gained through sense powers, while the “eater of food” is the one who is engaged in experience through the senses. As one translator has explained:
“Food is, in the symbolic language of the Upanishads, a general term for experience gained and assimilated.”
“Food and water are universal symbols for bodily and mental experience, the elements which nourish the physical and psychical life.”140
The meaning here may also be seen to relate to Gautama’s comments on the “Knower of the field” [Kshetrajna] earlier. We may see, then, that the six years (itself symbolic) of fasting holds the meaning of one who has withdrawn themselves from their outer senses, having those five serving him in strict obedience as though they were his disciples. Furthermore, the mention of “silent meditation” is also meaningful, for Voice is the symbol of ideation, of active and creative will in operation, or the “power to manifest”.141 Thus Gautama, in his quest for liberation is seen to embark upon a meditation wherein he is withdrawn from his senses and has also withdrawn his will from all active, creative powers. He is, it would seem, attempting to go beyond the states of consciousness which he learned under the guidance of Arada and Udraka. The “body” that becomes “utterly emaciated” is—according to one approach to the symbology—the “body of desires”, or again, the “body of skandhas”. Gautama is restraining both his hunger (kama) and his thirst (tanha), as well as his outwardly creative voice (sakti);142 that is, he has turned all his power inward.
We may, from a certain perspective, also view Gautama’s efforts here as representing an attempt to be completely inactive, as a way to the Absolute—a fully self-restrictive path, which many spiritual aspirants have attempted. His eventual course-correction (which we will shortly come to) may represent a realization that action is inherent and necessary, that Liberation is not to be attained through inaction or complete withdrawal alone. The same is taught to Arjuna by Krishna in Chapter 3 of the Bhagavad Gita. Thus we may see here the first stirrings of the Buddha’s doctrine of the “Middle Way”.
There is further symbolic meaning here, when we consider Gautama’s “silent meditation” and reflect upon the description given in the Lalitavistara:
“Cutting off all movements of the breath,
Immutable, he showed his strength.
For six years he practiced the supreme concentration—
The all-pervasive concentration.
Without any conceptual thought,
Immutable and mentally still,
He practiced the all-pervasive concentration
That merges with the element of space.
“This absorption is called all-pervasive because as the Bodhisattva rested in equanimity in the fourth absorption, from the very beginning all movements of the breath slowed down and ceased, and the absorption was non-conceptual. There was no thought, no movement, no conceptual mind, and no change, yet it was all-pervading and not dependent on anything. . . . This absorption is likened to space, because like space—which is motionless, uncaused, and changeless—there is nowhere it cannot reach. In that way it is similar to space, and therefore it is described as such.”143
The idea of non-conception is at the heart of the symbolic meaning of “silence”. Gautama is here, as when practicing Udraka’s method earlier, rising through the states of Jhana, of which traditionally there are eight (or nine).144 As we’ve seen, he has already gained the ability to rise into the eighth Jhana (fourth arupa Jhana), called “the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception” (or “neither cognition nor non-cognition”)—this being a state near to, but not yet fully reaching complete liberation or nirvana.
We may also bring forward another system of transcending states for comparison, being that which is detailed in the Mandukya Upanishad and later Vedanta teachings. The fourth state of that system is described thus:
“Nor outwardly perceiving, nor inwardly perceiving, nor perceiving in both ways, nor a sphere of spiritual perception, nor perception, nor non-perception; invisible, inapprehensible, ungraspable, indistinguishable, unimaginable, unindicable, whose essence is realization of oneness with the Eternal, where forth-going is ended, still, benign, beyond duality, is held to be the fourth; this is the Divine Self, this is the goal of wisdom.”145
A verse from the Rig Veda may shed light on the earlier use of “silence” when describing Gautama’s meditation, making the connection to the fourth absorption or state:
“Speech, Voice, consists of four defined grades, these are known by the knowers of the divine who are wise; they do not reveal the three which are esoteric—men speak the fourth grade of speech.”146
Thus we may see Gautama’s experience here as following the age-old passage inwards through three planes, through three conditions (waking, dreaming and dreamless-sleep) and into the fourth, the Turiya state.147 It is “silent” meditation, because, as said here, it is “non-conceptual”, where “forth-going is ended”, or as we saw with Udraka’s teachings, where buddhi “remains in that state alone, without proceeding elsewhere”—that is, one’s outwardly active ideations and outwardly receptive perceptions have come to rest (one has withdrawn from food, water and voice).
So we have another example of the profound, and multi-layered symbology embedded into the story of Buddha’s life. Such symbology comes into further meaning as one studies the ancient systems of thought that prevailed during Buddha’s day and during the time in which the biographies were composed. There is much more of this nature of symbolism in these stories, which may be searched for by the earnest student.
The Buddhacarita tells us that, “although shrunk in body, reduced to skin and bones, drained of fat, flesh, and blood,148 yet, with his profundity unimpaired, he sparkled like the sea”.149 Even so, Gautama had still yet to find the complete liberation he sought. Keeping in mind our symbolism, we read:
“His suffering body was like a dead log for almost six years. Fearful of the suffering of birth and death, he wanted only the cause of right awakening. He thought to himself, ‘Not through this will I be free from desire or will quiet contemplation arise. The wonder I previously obtained beneath the jambu tree is better still. Know that that is the right path! The path will not be obtained by an exhausted body. It must be sought after with corporal strength. When food and drink fulfill the faculties, the faculties rejoice, so that the mind is at ease. When the mind is at ease, it complies with quietude. Tranquility is the snare for trances. Through meditation one knows the Right Law, and with the power of the Law one may obtain what is hard to obtain. In quietude one may leave old age and death, in the highest form free from any impurity. Such fine ways all come from food and drink.’”150
This may be seen as identical to Krishna’s teachings that action (and thus experience, symbolically “food and drink”) is a necessity and cannot be avoided. We cannot simply withdraw from any and all action and experience in the hope of reaching enlightenment; no, we must learn to engage in action rightly—that is, without attachment to results, without personal desire.
With this realization we find a shift, or we might say, a breakthrough in Gautama’s practice, again full of symbolism: first he bathes himself in the (Naga’s) river151 and then the “naga girl”, Nanda, also to be identified with Sujata, daughter of Nandika,152 “impelled by the gods, the joy of her heart spilling over”,153 dressed in blue and white “just like something immersed in purifying water,”154 provides him with milk-rice, so that “he became, with his six senses content, able to attain the Awakening.”155 Then “the five mendicants, holding that he had renounced the holy life, left him, as the five elements leave the thinking soul when it is liberated.”156 This last line gives us great insight into the symbolism.
The Lalitavistara gives us more on this aspect of the story, wherein it is said that in addition to the five mendicants, Gautama was served by ten village girls. In this version of the story the ten girls replace the five mendicants as the servants who feed Gautama, with Sujata, daughter of Nandika as the eleventh, who “gathered the milk of a thousand cows” in order to feed him. We may suggest an approach to the symbolism here, building on what has already been said. We have seen the five mendicants to symbolize the five senses, who serve Gautama, feeding him (outward experience) while he performs his austerities, but Gautama withdraws from this food—that is, he fasts, or ceases to “eat food”, i.e. to gain experience, through those outer sensory channels. We see then, after his breakthrough, that upon deciding to eat again, Gautama does not get his food from those five, but instead gets it from the ten girls and from one who had gathered milk from a thousand cows. In the Upanishads, there is often a similar approach to the numbers five and ten in relation to senses and powers, using cattle to represent the “knowers of the field” (the senses). As one translator/commentator notes:
“There is a point of symbolism in the number of the cattle, which, according to a convention in many sacred books, represent the senses, “the knowers of the field” of perception. The lesser number . . . represent only the outer, physical senses, with the lower mind correlating their perceptions; the ten, or ten hundred, represent the perfected powers, where the spiritual senses are added to the physical.”157
“. . . five stand for the natural powers, vision, hearing and the rest; where the number is ten, or a multiple of ten, the inner senses, spiritual vision, spiritual hearing, and the rest, which are developed and awakened by Initiation, are added.”158
“The cattle in the field are man’s perceptive powers, normally, in the man who has not been spiritually reborn, represented as five (or five hundred), standing primarily for the five external powers of sense, sight, bearing and the rest. But when the man has been spiritually reborn, he enters into possession of the spiritual senses, the inner powers of perception also; he now possesses ten (or a thousand) cattle.”159
As our five mendicants represent the senses, just as the cattle in these Upanishads, our ten girls may be seen likewise to represent the ten inner senses and powers developed and awakened through initiation or meditation (these ten being female also connects them with the feminine powers, saktis). So Gautama ceases to eat food (gain experience) through the five outer senses, and instead begins to gain experience through ten inner spiritual senses and powers.
Upon being offered the milk of the thousand cows from Sujata, “The Bodhisattva then had this thought: ‘Sujata has offered this food, and if I eat it now, there is no doubt that I shall truly attain perfect and completely unexcelled awakening.’”160 Thus we see the importance placed upon the development and use of these inner senses and powers.
The Nidana-Katha gives us another hint of symbology when it speaks of the meal Sujata gave to Gautama:
“. . . he sat down with his face to the East; and dividing the rice into forty-nine balls of the size of so many single-seeded palmyra fruits, he ate all that sweet-milk rice without any water. Now that was the only food he had for forty-nine days, during the seven times seven days he spent, after he became a Buddha, at the foot of the Tree of Enlightenment.”161
These numbers are well familiar to students of eastern esoteric philosophy.
There is further symbolism in the Lalitavistara, including Gautama punishing his “body” until sweat fell to the ground, landed, turned to frost, then heated up and evaporated, or again the “immense sound” heard within when he had stopped all breath, or again the mistaken-perception of onlookers and devas that Gautama was dying or dead while engaging in the “all-pervading absorption”, or again the exchange between Gautama and his mother (now residing with the devas), and so on. We may also find symbolic meaning in the changing of Gautama’s robes,162 in the type of food eaten,163 in his bathing in the river, etc., etc. All these, and more, contain multi-layered symbolic meanings.
There are no doubt historical truths underlying the story as well, which have been used as a basis for weaving a symbolic tale, one that can be used by students to learn on several levels—to learn of the Buddha’s life, to learn of basic, we might say, exoteric Buddhist doctrine and practice, and, for those able to pierce the symbolism, to learn of deeper truths. In this way are nearly all texts of ancient India written.
The Lalitavistara tells us something else of profound importance, in regards to Gautama’s austerities and meditations. We are told:
“Not merely for his own sake
Did he practice the all-pervasive concentration.
With compassion for others,
He practiced for their sake as well.
. . .
Motivated by compassion for others,
He sought to bring about vast benefits to the world.
He did not practice for himself,
Neither for pleasure nor to feel the taste of absorption.164
Here we find the keynote of the Path of the Bodhisattva, the Path of Compassion,165 wherein the final rest and reward of Nirvana is forsaken in order to remain to aid mankind. Gautama’s motivation is repeatedly portrayed as the liberation from death and rebirth, but here we have a taste of the expansiveness of that motive: it was not for himself alone, for his own liberation, but rather for the liberation of all.
“The Bodhisattva, who is like the great Brahmā, proceeds to the seat of awakening with the desire to awaken to unexcelled, perfect and complete buddhahood in order to tame the armies of Mara. He proceeds in order to perfectly accomplish the ten powers, the fourfold fearlessness, and the eighteen unique qualities of a buddha. His aim is to turn the great wheel of Dharma and utter the lion’s great roar.”166
Thus we come to the final stage in Gautama’s journey to liberation. In both the Lalitavistara and the Nidana-Katha, we are given an extensive description of Gautama’s approach to the “Seat of Awakening” beneath the Bodhi Tree. His “strides” to the tree167 as well as his circling of it168 are purely symbolical, as is the light that radiates from him as he approaches the seat.169
The Lalitavistara tells us that “sixteen divine sons” guarded the “seat of awakening”, and that “four deities” awaited him at the base of the tree.170 Both sets venerate the Buddha-to-be, the sixteen adorning the seat of awakening and the four modelling the Bodhi tree “to give it a perfect root, trunk, branches, leaves, flowers, and fruits, as well as a perfect height and circumference.”171 This is highly symbolic, as we will see.
It is important to gain a foothold in the symbolism of the Tree itself, in order to more fully appreciate the story of Buddha’s enlightenment. We will therefore digress for a moment before returning to the story. We begin with a selection of quotes on the symbolism of the tree.
“From the highest antiquity trees were connected with the gods and mystical forces in nature. Every nation had its sacred tree, with its peculiar characteristics and attributes based on natural, and also occasionally on occult properties, as expounded in the esoteric teachings. Thus the peepul or Ashvattha of India, the abode of Pitris (elementals in fact) of a lower order, became the Bo-tree or ficus religiosa of the Buddhists the world over, since Gautama Buddha reached the highest knowledge and Nirvana under such a tree.”172
“Rooted above, downward branching is this immemorial Ashvattha tree: this, verily, is the luminous one, this is the Eternal [Brahma]; this, verily, is called the immortal. In this all worlds are set firm, nor does any transcend it.”173
“The Sephirothal Tree is the Universe, and Adam Kadmon represents it in the West as Brahmâ represents it in India.”174
“Men say that the Asvattha, the eternal sacred tree, grows with its roots above and its branches below, and the leaves of which are the Vedas; he who knows this knows the Vedas. Its branches growing out of the three qualities with the objects of sense as the lesser shoots, spread forth, some above and some below; and those roots which ramify below in the regions of mankind are the connecting bonds of action. Its form is not thus understood by men; it has no beginning, nor can its present constitution be understood, nor has it any end. When one hath hewn down with the strong axe of dispassion this Asvattha tree with its deeply-imbedded roots, then that place is to be sought after from which those who there take refuge never more return to rebirth, for it is the Primeval Spirit from which floweth the never-ending stream of conditioned existence.”175
“. . . the Asvattha, tree of Life and Being, whose destruction alone leads to immortality, is said in the Bhagavatgita to grow with its roots above and its branches below (ch. xv.). The roots represent the Supreme Being, or First Cause, the LOGOS; but one has to go beyond those roots to unite oneself with Krishna, who, says Arjuna (XI.), is ‘greater than Brahman, and First Cause . . . the indestructible, that which is, that which is not, and what is beyond them.’ Its boughs are Hiranyagharba (Brahmâ or Brahman in his highest manifestations, say Sridhara and Madhusudana), the highest Dhyan Chohans or Devas. The Vedas are its leaves. He only who goes beyond the roots shall never return, i.e., shall reincarnate no more during this ‘age’ of Brahmâ.”176
“’Accurately understanding the great tree of which the unperceived (Occult nature, the root of all) is the sprout from the seed (Parabrahmam) which consists of the understanding (Mahat, or the universal intelligent Soul) as its trunk, the branches of which are the great egoism [Ahamkara], in the holes of which are the sprouts, namely, the senses, of which the great (Occult, or invisible) elements are the flower-bunches [the five tanmatras of earth, water, fire, air and ether, the producers of the grosser elements], the gross elements (the gross objective matter), the smaller boughs, which are always possessed of leaves, always possessed of flowers . . . . which is eternal and the seed of which is the Brahman (the deity); and cutting it with that excellent sword—knowledge (secret wisdom)—one attains immortality and casts off birth and death.’ This is the Tree of Life, the Asvattha tree, only after the cutting of which the slave of life and death, MAN, can be emancipated.”177
“To the Eastern Occultist the TREE of Knowledge in the Paradise of man’s own heart, becomes the Tree of Life eternal, and has nought to do with man’s animal senses. It is an absolute mystery that reveals itself only through the efforts of the imprisoned Manas and the Ego to liberate themselves from the thraldom of sensuous perception and see, in the light of the one eternal present Reality.”178
This Tree of Life is represented across all major religious and philosophical traditions, both east and west. It is, as said, the Aswattha tree and the Bodhi tree; it is also the Sephirothal Tree or Otz-Chiim (Kabalistic), the Yggdrasil (Scandinavian), the Gogard (Avesta, Persian, Hellenic), Sung Ming Shu (Chinese), Zampun (Tibetan), the Sycamore (Egyptian), Tz’ite (Quiche), the Norse Ask and the Hesiodic Ash-tree, etc., etc.. It appears in the Christian bible,179 and is one and the same, symbolically, as the cross.180 It is also the rod of the cadeceus in the ever-important dual-symbol of tree and serpent.181
So we may gain some appreciation of the significance of the Bodhi Tree in the story of Buddha’s enlightenment. The symbolism of the four devas making the tree perfect takes on a much deeper meaning, as does Gautama’s chosen seat at the base of the tree, and so on.
Let us return to the story.
Having completed his austerities and meditations, having come to understand what was needed in order to reach enlightenment,
“. . . he then obtained some grass,182 repaired to the foot of that great pure tree, and sat down with the vow to become awakened. Then, he took up the posture with folded legs, supreme, unshakable, drawn together like the coils of a sleeping snake, thinking: ‘I’ll not break this posture on earth until I have fulfilled my task.’”183
“Monks, as the Bodhisattva now sat at the seat of awakening, he thought to himself, ‘Mara is the supreme lord who holds sway over the desire realm, the most powerful and evil demon. There is no way that I could attain unsurpassed and complete awakening without his knowledge. So I will now arouse that evil Mara. Once I have conquered him, all the gods in the desire realm will also be restrained.’”184
This is akin to Krishna’s teaching that one must “hewn down with the strong axe of dispassion this Asvattha tree”, for dispassion is the weapon used against the desire nature (signified by Mara). It is also significant that Gautama himself purposefully arouses Mara: he does not passively await the battle, nor is he satisfied to go through life walking on eggshells so as not to arouse the darkness within himself. No, he takes the fight straight to Mara, he initiates the battle through his own self-devised and self-induced efforts.185
“Mara is in exoteric religions a demon, an Asura, but in esoteric philosophy it is personified temptation through men’s vices, and translated literally means “that which kills” the Soul. It is represented as a King (of the Maras) with a crown in which shines a jewel of such lustre that it blinds those who look at it, this lustre referring of course to the fascination exercised by vice upon certain natures.”186
Mara is said to tremble in fear upon hearing of Gautama’s intent,187 but he is not one to leave the battle unfought, for it is in the very nature of Desire to take up the fight at every moment of every day. We are, as humans, constantly dealing with this greatest of inner foes. And Mara is not alone in the battle. Just as in the Bhagavad Gita, where the blind king Dhritarashtra is accompanied by one hundred sons, his attendants, his generals and his army (the Kurus), so too is Mara accompanied both by his children (of which, the Lalitavistara tells us, there are one thousand,188 but of which 3 sons and 3 daughters play the central role) and by his army of Maras. Our desire nature manifests as a thousand vices, each with their own specialized weapon. In the current story this is all symbolically represented.
“And he [Mara] created for himself a thousand arms, and seized all kinds of weapons. And of the remainder, too, of the company of Mara, no two took the same weapon; but, assuming various colours and various forms, they went on to overwhelm the great being.”189
In the Buddhacarita Mara is accompanied by: “His three sons—Fluster, Thrill, and Pride, and his three girls—Discontent, Delight, and Thirst”,190 which we may see to represent the summation of desire-types.
In the Lalitavistara it is said that upon setting his intention a light “was emitted from the hair between his [Gautama’s] eyebrows”, and this light called out to Mara, arousing him through an explanation of the situation. If we keep in mind our symbolism, we will see in this explanation an essential characteristic of our own desire natures.
“From this light a voice called out to Mara, the evil one:
“Here is a pure being who has acted well for many eons.
As Suddhodana’s son he abandoned his kingdom;
He appeared as a benefactor seeking immortality.
He has arrived at the Bodhi tree, so you should now make an effort!
“Himself having crossed, he causes others to cross;
Himself liberated, he also liberates others.
Having found relief, he gives relief to others;
Having passed beyond suffering, he will cause others to transcend suffering.
“He will empty the three lower realms totally,
And fill the city of gods and humans.
He, the Benefactor, will attain immortality,
And bestow absorptions, higher knowledge, immortality, and happiness.
“He will empty your city, O evil kinsman;
With your army powerless, you will be without an army and without allies.
When the Self-Arisen One, by his nature, pours down the rain of Dharma,
You will not know what to do or where to go.”191
These are the words of light that awaken Mara to the fight, thus we may identify the essential awakener of personal desire: fear. Fear of loss is inherent in the very fabric of desire, for all desire arises essentially from a false sense of lack, whether present or imagined for the future. Disciples who have made attempts in this very battle within themselves will easily see in these words the common inward resistance that is faced whenever one attempts to rise above the personal nature. Immediately we are faced with fear and doubt: we become afraid to take our leaps of faith because of our attachments to what we already have (or, rather, perceive ourselves to possess), we fear that if we make spiritual change we will lose something of value, namely our sense of self and all the identifications that make up our current personality. Thus our desire nature, complete with its vast army, are immediately aroused to confront any who dare propose to rise above it.
So Mara’s army comes forward to confront Gautama. The army is described at length in the Lalitavistara, full of the most terrible descriptions, each holding layers of symbolic meaning. The world (that is, the constitution of the one who arouses it) trembles at their coming:
“They hold up sickles, brandish discuses, roll their eyes,
Lift great mountaintops in their hands,
And bring down storms and rains of rock and meteor.
These are the terrifying malevolent spirits approaching.
“They blow hurricanes, bring down rainstorms,
Shoot off billions of lightning bolts,
Roar with thunder, and sway trees.
Yet the leaves on the Bodhi tree remain still.
“The rain pours down in torrents;
Rivers overflow and flood the land.
So many terrifying things have appeared
That even inanimate trees fall over
As they witness these terrible forms,
All of them ugly and misshapen.”192
These storms are all inward; they are the storms of desire and thirst and attachment and aversion and all that afflict mankind. They are storms that are well known to every human being, and they manifest with all their might, unveiling their true nature, in he who would challenge their rule (and let us be clear with ourselves, they do rule over nearly every one of us; we are living within their kingdom so long as we are governed by our desire-nature).
“Yet the One Who Has Qualities, Marks, and Splendor
Keeps his mind unshaken, like Mount Meru.
“He sees all phenomena as illusion,
Like a dream, and like clouds.
Since he sees them in this manner that accords with the Dharma,
He meditates steadfastly, established in the Dharma.
“Whoever thinks of ‘me’ and ‘mine’
And clings to objects and the body,
Should be afraid and terrified,
Since they are in the clutches of ignorance.
“The Son of the Sakyas has realized the essential truth
That all phenomena arise in dependence and lack reality.
With a mind like the sky, he is just fine,
Unperturbed by the spectacle of the army of rogues.”193
This gives us the key to the battle with Mara: he who is stuck in “me and mine” ought indeed to be afraid, for they will certainly be swept over by the desire nature and will inevitably “return to earth the slave of Mara”.194 But he who is dispassionate, who realizes the fleeting nature of all phenomena, who does not identify oneself with personality, stands ready to overcome his desire nature.
Each of the biographies we have relied upon give varying details as to the battle between Gautama and Mara. The Buddhacarita comes quickly to the dialogue between the two, the Nidana-Katha discusses the role of the Maras and the Devas in the early stages of the battle, while the Lalitavistara includes extensive details of the approach to the battle by Mara and his host. We will here sketch out a few of these elements, many of which have profound symbolic meaning.
Let us begin with the Nidana-Katha. There we find Gautama sitting beneath the Bodhi tree; we find Mara approaching with his army, and then we have the Devas standing on the side of Gautama. As the battle begins, “the devas of the ten thousand world-systems continued to speak praises of the great being [Buddha]”, while Sakra (or Sakka), Lord of the Devas blew his trumpet, the king of the Nagas “stood there uttering his praises in many hundred stanzas” and Maha Brahmā held a white canopy over Gautama. Seeing this display the army of Mara “fled each one from the spot where the army met them”. However, the king of the Nagas, Sakra and Maha Brahmā were also forced to flee, so that “not a single deity was able to keep his place” and “the great man sat there alone”. This is quite similar to the great battle of the Mahabharata, with its two armies ranged on either side. Both stories represent the collective of powers, habits and tendencies, desires, aspirations, noble qualities, and so on, which are constantly arranged on either side of our nature: both armies are within us, and the story is symbolic of that inner struggle of the Good over the Evil within, or, we might say, the war between the impersonal and the personal, the unselfish and the selfish.
With this first stage of the battle compete, Mara regroups and instructs his host not to attack Gautama face to face, but to attack from behind. It is relatively easy to counter the dark sides of ourselves when they are obvious, when they are right before our eyes, unveiled to us; it is much more difficult when their attack is less obvious, when we hide them from ourselves, when we delude ourselves or convince ourselves that our dark tendencies are actually light. Here is where the true weapons of the disciple are brought into the battle.
“Beholding the hosts of Mara coming thick upon him from the North, he [Gautama] thought: ‘Against me alone this mightly host is putting forth all its energy and strength. No father is here, nor mother, nor brother, nor any other relative to help me. But those ten perfections have long been to me as retainers fed from my store. So, making the perfections like a shield, I must strike this host with the sword of perfection, and thus overwhelm it!’ And so he sat meditating on the Ten Perfections.”
The Ten Perfections are the great Paramitas,195 which are variously given throughout Buddhist texts. In the southern schools, they are typically listed (using the Pali terms) as:
Dana: generosity, giving of oneself, etc.
Sila: virtue, morality, discipline, proper conduct, etc.
Nekkhamma: renunciation, emancipation from worldliness, dispassionateness, etc.
Paññā: wisdom, insight, etc. (equivalent of the Sanskrit prajna)
Viriya: energy, diligence, vigor, effort, etc.
Khanti: patience, tolerance, forbearance, acceptance, endurance, etc.
Sacca: truthfulness (equivalent of the Sanskrit satya)
Adhitthana: determination, inflexible courage, etc.
Metta: loving-kindness, benevolence, etc.
Upekkha: equanimity, proper discrimination, etc.
In the northern schools, six are typically given (using the Sanskrit and Tibetan terms), thus:
Dana (sbyin-pa): generosity, giving of oneself, etc.
Sila (tshul-khrims): virtue, morality, discipline, proper conduct, etc.
Kshanti (bzod-pa): patience, tolerance, forbearance, acceptance, endurance, etc.
Virya (brtsong-’grus): energy, diligence, vigor, effort, etc.
Dhyana (bsam-gtan): one-pointed concentration, contemplation, etc.
Prajna (shes-rab): wisdom, insight, etc.
To make these six into ten, four additional paramitas may be added (using the Sanskrit terms), thus:
Theosophical teachings include a slightly different set, adding Viraga196 (indifference to pleasure and to pain) to the original six, to which some have added:
Adhisthana: inflexible courage, “proper method or discipline in following the Path”, etc.
Upeksha: equanimity, proper discrimination, etc.; also “the urgent wish to achieve success for the sake of being an impersonal beneficent energy in the world”.
Prabodha or Sambuddhi: awakening, illumination, etc.; also “a continuous exercise of the intellect in study of self, of others, and incidentally of the great religious literatures and philosophies of the world.”197
thus making the complete ten.198 These are the weapons of the Bodhisattva, used to fight the army of Mara.
While the Nidana-Katha involves the devas and the maras on opposing sides, the Lalitavistara takes another angle, also full of important symbolism. There we find the maras themselves being divided into two: those who stand on the right side of Mara and those who stand on the left side. As the Buddha says, in a first-person reflection:
“Monks, among the one thousand sons of Mara, the evil one, there were some, such as Sarthavaha, who began to feel devotion toward me, the Bodhisattva. They all assembled on the right side of Mara, the evil one, while those who supported Mara took a stand on his left side.”199
This is significant in demonstrating that in our inner battle, our desire nature is not wholly inimical, but rather may be seen to represent both the light and the dark. We not only have lowly, base desires, driven by personal selfishness; we also have high, noble aspirations, driven by selflessness. As we’ve seen already, Gautama drew great motivation from a sincere desire to alleviate the suffering of humanity. Thus, his desire nature involves a wide range, from personal desires that must be overcome, to noble desires that fuel the very process of overcoming. In Buddhist texts, Mara is called the “god of Kama”, or Kamadeva, and we may gain insight into the range of our desire nature by considering two definitions from the Theosophical Glossary:
Kama (Sk.). Evil desire, lust, volition; the cleaving to existence. Kama is generally identified with Mara the tempter.
Kamadeva (Sk.). In the popular notions the god of love, a Visva-deva, in the Hindu Pantheon. As the Eros of Hesiod, degraded into Cupid by exoteric law, and still more degraded by a later popular sense attributed to the term, so is Kama a most mysterious and metaphysical subject. The earlier Vedic description of Kama alone gives the key-note to what he emblematizes. Kama is the first conscious, all embracing desire for universal good, love, and for all that lives and feels, needs help and kindness, the first feeling of infinite tender compassion and mercy that arose in the consciousness of the creative ONE FORCE, as soon as it came into life and being as a ray from the ABSOLUTE. Says the Rig Veda, “Desire first arose in It, which was the primal germ of mind, and which Sages, searching with their intellect, have discovered in their heart to be the bond which connects Entity with non-Entity”, or Manas with pure Atma-Buddhi. There is no idea of sexual love in the conception. Kama is pre-eminently the divine desire of creating happiness and love; and it is only ages later, as mankind began to materialize by anthropomorphization its grandest ideals into cut and dried dogmas, that Kama became the power that gratifies desire on the animal plane.”
So we find a range of desire nature, from the highest, noblest “all embracing desire for universal good” down to “evil desire, lust”, etc.. Mara’s army becomes divided along these lines when they come to face Gautama, and indeed when they come to face any sincere aspirant.
In the Lalitavistara the two sides of Mara’s army engage in a dialogue, both addressing themselves to Mara—the left confidently asserting their power to overcome Gautama, the right confidently asserting the power of Gautama to overcome. The dialogue results in Bhadrasena, the general of Mara, attempting to persuade him to withdraw from the battle, saying:
“Since he [Gautama] is neither taken aback nor stirred
When seeing this wild and fierce army,
So hideous and frightening,
His victory is certain now.
. . . If you do not retreat,
He will reduce this army to dust
. . .
Since the immaculate hair between his eyebrows
Beautifies a trillion realms
And outshines all of us,
He will surely conquer Mara’s army.
Since the gods at the peak of existence
Are unable to see the crown of his head,
So, surely, without being taught by others,
He will attain omniscience.
. . .
“It is certain that the one with the power of merit,
The powers of knowledge and wisdom,
And the powers of forbearance and diligence,
Will render Mara’s factions powerless.
Like an elephant stepping on a fresh clay pot,
Or a lion fighting a fox,
Or the sun effacing a firefly,
The Bliss-Gone One will obliterate our army.”200
We are reminded of the beginning of the Bhagavad Gita, where king Dhritarashtra’s advisor and charioteer Sanjaya relates to him that “this army of ours, which is commanded by Bhishma, is not sufficient, while their forces, led by Bhima, are sufficient.”201 All such ancient texts include this element, that, ultimately, the forces of Light are more powerful than the forces of Darkness, and in the definition of Kama and Kamadeva we see why: ultimately desire is rooted in selfless Love—that is its essence and source—lower, personal and selfish desires are nothing more than a corruption of that original divine Love, and thus it is inherently inferior.202 In this sense, Mara and his army are not sufficient to defeat Gautama, or any sincere aspirant armed with the Ten Perfections.203
Even while seeing the inevitable result, even with his own army divided and its General intent on withdrawal, Mara engages Gautama with all his might.
“Assisted by his followers, they now began to hurl various weapons upon the Bodhisattva. However, even when they threw mountains as big as the central mountain at the Bodhisattva, the mountains all turned into flower canopies and celestial palaces. Those with poisonous gazes, those with poisonous snakes, and those with poisonous breath shot flames of fire at the Bodhisattva. Yet this circle of fire just turned into what seemed to be the Bodhisattva’s halo of light. . . . They threw swords, arrows, darts, lances, axes, clubs, javelins, bludgeons, discuses, vajras, hammers, uprooted trees, rocks, lassos, and iron balls. However, as soon as the demons released the weapons, the weapons turned into garlands and canopies of flowers, and a cooling rain of flower petals fell on the ground. The flower garlands hung as adornments on the Bodhi tree.”204
Or, as the Nidana-Katha describes:
“Mara deva . . . caused a whirlwind to blow. And immediately such winds rushed together from the four corners of the earth as could have torn down the peaks of mountains . . . could have rooted up the shrubs and trees of the forest and could have made of the towns and villages around one heap of ruins. But through the glow of the merit of the great man, they reached him with their power gone, and even the hem of his robe they were unable to shake. Then . . . he [Mara] caused a mighty rain to fall. And the clouds gathered, overspreading one another by hundreds and thousands, and poured forth rain; and by the violence of the torrents the earth was saturated; and a great flood, overtopping the trees of the forest, approached the Bodisat. But it was not able to wet on his robe even the space where a dew-drop might fall. Then he caused a storm of rocks to fall. And mighty, mighty mountain peaks came through the air, spitting forth fire and smoke. But as they reached the Bodhisat, they changed into divine garlands. Then he raised a storm of deadly weapons. And they came—one-edged, and two-edged swords, and spears, and arrows—smoking and flaming through the sky. But as they reached the Bodhisat, they became divine flowers.”205
Four more “storms” follow, that of charcoal, embers, sand and mud, all reduced to divine flowers or powder at Gautama’s feet.
“Then [Mara] brought on a thick darkness. And the darkness became fourfold; but when it reached the future Buddha, it disappeared as darkness does before the brightness of the sun.”206
There is deep symbolism running throughout these verses, but the general thought is that of transmutation. The weapons and powers of Mara’s army are not countered or destroyed with an opposing force, they are transformed. Just as with the alchemists of old, our lower nature must be transmuted—from “lead” into “gold”—by the power of the paramitas. By the force of true Goodness, all that is low and ignoble in us must be raised up; the corrupted power of Kama must be raised back to the original uncorrupted splendour of Kamadeva.207
Having failed to stir Gautama with his army’s attacks, Mara steps forward and engages in a different manner:
“You, kshatriya, rise quickly! Death is very dreadful. You should practice your own duties! Give up the Law of deliverance! Practice warfare and be generous to meritorious gatherings! Having subdued all the worldly, you will obtain the happiness of rebirth in heaven in the end! This path is very famous, practiced by your excellent ancestors. A descendant of a great family of seer kings should not be a beggar! If you do not rise now, make your purpose firm! Beware, do not give up on your solemn oath! Dare me to let loose my arrow! . . . This arrow’s poison is fierce. It will cause you to shiver and tremble! If someone relies on his strength to endure my arrow, even his own safety may be difficult [to obtain]. All the more so if you cannot endure it! How could you not be frightened?”208
In the Sanskrit Buddhacarita, Mara adds:
“So, rise up quick and come to your senses, for this arrow is set, licking its chops! I wont shoot men servile to their lovers and delighting in sexual pleasures.”209
“When the sage of the Shakyas paid no heed and did not even give up his posture, even after he was so admonished, Mara then discharged the arrow at him, placing his sons and girls [daughters] in front of him. But even after he shot the arrow at him, he [Gautama] paid no heed and did not veer from his resolve; seeing him thus, Mara was despondent, and, filled with anxiety, he spoke softly: ‘Shambhu, although a god, was stirred with love for the daughter of the mountain [Uma] when struck with this arrow; Yet this one takes no notice of that same arrow! Has he no heart? Or is this not the same arrow? He’s not a suitable object, therefore, for the flower-arrow, for arousal, or even to rouse erotic passion; He’s only fit to be frightened, threatened, and beaten up by the fierce throngs of fiends.’”210
We see that the primary weapon of Mara is the arousal of the lower, passional desires. The arrow may be compared with that of Cupid, who is himself a degenerate or corrupted version of the divine Eros, corresponding exactly with our comparison of Kamadeva and the corrupted Mara. The weapon, along with Mara’s “sons and daughters” (Fluster, Thrill, and Pride, and Discontent, Delight, and Thirst) are designed to cause the meditator to “come to his senses” and to once again “delight in sexual (or sensual) pleasures”. Having already overcome such things, through the practice of the Paramitas, Gautama is not capable of being struck by the arrow: it is fired, but never reaches its target, who remains firm in his resolve.
“While he was assaulted with these tribulations
and torture of body and mind of various kinds,
the Shakya sage did not waver from his posture,
guarding his resolve as if it were a kinsman.”211
“The less the sage was fearful of that troop of fiends,
who were attempting to make him afraid,
the more Mara, foe of those who uphold dharma,
became despondent with sorrow and rage.”212
The Buddhacarita and the Lalitavistara both show Mara engaging in one more full attack. In the Buddhacarita, the attack is a mirror of that described in the Nidana-Katha, with Mara’s host bringing forth thunder and lightning and stone and mountain and fire, and these all failing to disrupt Gautama. In the Lalitavistara Mara sends forth his daughters, who “assembled in front of the Bodhisattva and began displaying the thirty-two ways of female trickery”, all of which are attempts to arouse sexual appetite.
“Monks, the Bodhisattva just smiled with unblinking eyes. He sat there smiling, with calm senses, physically at ease, resplendent, without attachment, free from anger, and without delusion. Like the king of mountains he was immutable, confident, unconfused, and untroubled. Since he had totally abandoned, all by himself, all disturbing emotions through his well-established intelligence and wisdom”213
As one reads of the attack of Mara and his host, one is confronted with a great truth: the forces that keep us bound are not complicated, but rather very simple; they are merely our own desires. There is really no other weapon available to be used against us in our spiritual path. Mara’s weapons seem impotent, powerless, in the face of one who is not enslaved by their own selfish desires. As Gautama says to Mara’s daughters:
“Desire results in a great deal of suffering; it is the root of suffering. For the unwise, desire ruins their concentration, magical ability, and austerities . . . The thirst of someone who pursues desires increases evermore, Just like one feels after drinking salty water.”
“When seeing that sensual enjoyments are without good qualities, and that they lead away from the noble path of wisdom, and that they are the same as poisonous plants or fires, or like angry vipers, only fools would call them happiness.”214
Once we see the real nature of desire, its insatiableness, then it becomes but a matter of letting such desires go, allowing them to melt away, standing firm in our resolve not to be governed by such motives but rather to serve others with true Love and selflessness. The path, though complex in its metaphysics, is not complex when we see these underlying truths, as Gautama did.
In their desperation, the daughters of Mara resort to the most basic temptations: sexual displays (putting on “sixty-four displays of amorous behavior”), promises of earthly kingdoms and slave-girls to serve him, promises of the same awaiting him in heaven. But, as we have seen, such desires were long ago abandoned by Gautama, first in his Great Renunciation and later reaffirmed during his meeting with Bimbasara.
We are then given another taste of the supreme transformation of this process of liberation.
“With all the billions of skills that induce amorous infatuation, the girls were unable to seduce the Bliss-Gone One who has the gait of a young elephant. So with shame and embarrassment, they now bowed to the feet of the Sage; giving rise to respect, joy, and love, they praised the Benefactor.”215
What was once “Discontent, Delight, and Thirst” become “Respect, Joy and Love”. The corruptible is made incorrupt, the lower is merged back into the higher, a return to the source of that which had fallen. This transformation is the cornerstone of a great deal of religious symbolism, in whichever tradition one might look.
The Lalitavistara contains a wonderful dialogue between Gautama and Mara, where we find Mara beginning to reach the limits of his own power. He says:
“I am lord of desires and master of the universe.
I rule over gods, demigods, humans, and animals;
All of them fall under my control.
So get up! Since you are in my realm, follow my orders!”
To which Gautama replies:
“If you are master of sense pleasures, you are clearly not a master at all;
Look who I am in reality—I am master of the Dharma.
If you are the master of sense pleasures, you should not go to the lower realms;
While you watch powerlessly, I shall attain awakening.”
“Monk, what are you doing here in the wilderness on your own?
It is not an easy task to find that which you seek.
Bhrigu, Angiras, and others who exerted themselves in austerities
Did not attain that supreme state, so forget about you, an ordinary man.”
Can we not relate this voice to our own experiences when pushing the boundaries of our states of consciousness? Do we not all face this seemingly tireless voice of self-doubt?
Gautama then touches upon what would come to form the core of the religion founded on his teachings:
“With a mind possessed by anger and full of desire for the divine realms,
And a belief that the self is either permanent or impermanent,
And the thought that liberation is a place you can go to,
With such mistaken preconceptions, past sages practiced austerities.
“Not knowing the truth, they preached the existence of a soul,
Variously claiming that this soul is all-pervasive, confined to locations, eternal,
With form, without a form, with qualities, without qualities,
An agent, and not an agent. This is what they claimed.
“But today, sitting here on this seat, I will attain stainless awakening;
I will defeat you, Mara, and repel your army and soldiers.
I will explain to the world about the origin and arising of things,
And also about nirvana, the cool state where suffering is pacified.”
Mara, upset, angry, and furious, shouted harsh words:
“Catch that Gautama, who sits alone in the wilderness, and bring him quickly to me!
Take him to my palace, shackle, fetter, and yoke him, and make him my gatekeeper!
I will watch him suffer and cry out uncontrollably in many different ways, a slave of the gods.”
Gautama calmly replied:
“It is possible that someone can make drawings in the empty sky,
Or catch the blowing wind with a lasso,
Or make the bright sun and moon fall from the sky to the earth,
Yet you, or countless beings like you, will never force me away from this tree.”
Then follows the final effort of Mara:
“Mara, being thus restrained, became angry;
He held aloft his unsheathed, sharp sword.
“Monk, quick, get up and do as I tell you,
Or I will cut you right away like a bamboo twig or durva grass.”
“Even if this trichiliocosm were filled with demons,
And each of them brandished a sword as large as Mount Meru,
They could not bend a hair on my body, let alone kill me.
Do not disbelieve me; I am reminding you of my firm resolve.”
One final attack of Mara and his host, as Gautama calls upon earth and water and fire and wind,216 upon Brahmā, Prajapati, moon, sun and stars, and the Buddhas of the ten directions, and finally upon his discipline, his powers and “all the gradual practices of awakening” as his witnesses, and then:
“He gracefully touched his hand to the earth
So that the earth resounded like a copper vase.”
“As Mara heard this he fell to the ground,
And then heard the words, ‘Strike! Catch this friend of darkness.’
As Mara’s body started to sweat, his splendor disappeared and his face grew pale;
Mara now saw himself overcome by old age.
“He beat his chest and cried out in fear, with no protector in sight;
Mara’s mind was confused and his thoughts befuddled.
. . .
The great army of demons, so utterly unshakable,
Was now all gone, dispersed, and no more together.
For seven days they did not see each other,
And when they finally did see their phantasmal forms, they said, ‘Great to see you alive.’
“The goddess in the tree felt compassion;
She took her vase with water and sprinkled the friend of darkness.
‘Quick, get up! You must depart without delay!
For this is what happens to those who pay no heed to the words of the Master.’”
“I did not listen to the kind and helpful advice of my sons,
And offended against a perfectly pure being.
Therefore I now reap suffering, fear, misfortune, grief, ruin,
Lamentation, loss of honor, and this miserable state.”
The goddess replied:
“A fool who offends against those who are faultless
Shall himself meet with many troubles—
Fear, suffering, calamities, misery,
Lamentation, murder, and bondage.”
“The leaders of gods, demigods, garudas, kimnaras, and rakshasas,
Brahmā, Indra, and the gods in the Heaven of Making Use of Others’ Emanations
And the Heaven of Joy all proclaimed his victory and called out:
‘You have conquered Mara’s army! Hero of the World, be victorious!’
. . .
“At this supreme seat, you have conquered with love the wicked army of demons.
Hero, today you shall attain awakening!
The ten powers, the unique qualities, the distinct realizations,
And the experiences of a buddha you shall attain today.
“In order to tame Mara, you entered this battle.
There were 360 million beings who witnessed
The power and might of a perfect bodhisattva,
And 240 million who formed the wish for the perfect awakening of a buddha!”217
These verses, like so many before them, are pregnant with symbolism. But in this case, the pure and simple outer meaning, the glory of one who have conquered himself, shines above all others. In this we have the pinnacle of the journey of Man, the attainment of Buddhahood, the Perfect and Complete Awakening, and because of the utter selflessness in the heart of Gautama, we have the birth of a Bodhisattva, a Buddha of Compassion, a great Teacher and Leader of Mankind.
The Lalitavistara tells us that upon vanquishing his opponents, the Buddha passed through the stages of four-fold dhyana (or jhana),218 and then gained three sets of knowledge, each corresponding to one of three “watches of the night”.
“After achieving full control
over all the techniques of trance,
he recalled during the first watch
the series of his former births.”219
This is called “pubbenivāsānussatiñāna”, the recollection of past births.220 The Buddha, through concentration and meditation221 “produced the intent to actualize the knowledge that sees the wisdom of recollecting past lives”, and so:
“In this way he recollected the previous lives of himself and other sentient beings, starting with one, two, three, four, and five lifetimes, then ten, twenty, thirty, forty, and fifty more lifetimes, then one hundred lifetimes, one thousand lifetimes, one hundred thousand lifetimes, then many hundreds of thousands of lifetimes, ten million lifetimes, a billion lifetimes, ten billion lifetimes, a trillion lifetimes, and a quadrillion lifetimes, then several billion, several tens of billions, several trillions, and several quadrillions of lifetimes, all the way up to the lifetimes in an eon of destruction, an eon of formation, an eon of both destruction and formation, and several eons of both destruction and formation. He remembered the former lives of himself and others in the greatest detail, thinking: ‘In that place I had this name, this surname, this family, this caste, this diet, this lifespan, stayed for this duration, and experienced these kinds of pleasure and pain. After falling from there, I was born here. After falling from there, I was born here . . .’”222
His knowledge of past lives was thus complete, just as we see with Krishna, when he tells Arjuna that:
“Many are my past births and thine also, Arjuna; I know them all, but thou knowest them not . . .”223
Having gained this first knowledge:
“the Bodhisattva, with the pristine divine eye beyond that of humans, looked at sentient beings. He saw them dying and being born, in all their beauty and ugliness, in favorable and unfavorable circumstances, degenerating or advancing precisely in accordance with their actions [karma].”224
This is called “cutūpapātañāna”, knowledge of the death and rebirth of beings, or the “cycle of existence”, samsara.225 So, the Buddha fully realized, that “the world here is without refuge, and rolls round and round like a wheel . . . that samsara had no substance.”226
Having gained these two realizations, the Buddha naturally turned his attention to the great problem of life, thus:
“. . . during the final station of the night, just at the break of dawn, right at the time of night when the morning drum is beaten, the Bodhisattva produced the intent to actualize the knowledge that brings suffering and its origin to an end and realize the insight that exhausts defilements, and so he directed his mind to that purpose.”227
This is called “āsavakkhayañāna”, the knowledge of the eradication of defilements.228 This knowledge revealed to the Buddha the full twelve-fold chain of causation, known as the Twelve Nidanas. In the Lalitavistara (along with several other suttas), the Buddha traces these causes of suffering, beginning with “old age and dying” (jaramarana), of which the cause is birth (jati); then from birth he traces the causes backwards through “becoming” (bhava) “clinging” (upadana), “craving” (trishna or tanha), “feeling” (vedana), “contact” (sparsha), “sense fields or bases” (sadayatana), “name and form” (namarupa), “consciousness” (vijnana), “formations” (samskara), and “ignorance” (avidya).
So he summarizes:
“Ignorance provides the causal condition for formations. Formations provide the causal condition for consciousness. Consciousness provides the causal condition for name and form. Name and form provides the causal condition for the six sense fields. The six sense fields provide the causal condition for contact. Contact provides the causal condition for feeling. Feeling provides the causal condition for craving. Craving provides the causal condition for clinging. Clinging provides the causal condition for existence [or becoming]. Existence [or becoming] provides the causal condition for birth. Birth provides the causal condition for old age and death, lamentation, pain, despair, and torment. Such is how this massive heap of pure anguish comes into being.”229
The Buddha then traced this understanding:
“When there is no ignorance, formations do not form. Preventing ignorance prevents formations. By preventing formations, consciousness is prevented, and so on, until birth is prevented, thus putting an end to old age and death, anguish, lamentation, pain, despair, and torment. Such is how this massive heap of pure anguish is brought to an end.”230
Tracing this knowledge to the very roots of causation led the Buddha to the heart and soul of his doctrine, that of the Four Noble Truths. The Mahaasaccaka Sutta recounts the Buddha’s gaining of this knowledge under the Bodh tree thus:
“He understood as it really is: ‘This is suffering (dukkha), this is the arising of suffering, this is the cessation of suffering, this is the path leading to the cessation of suffering.’ He understood as it really is: ‘These are defilements (āsavas), this is the arising of defilements, this is the cessation of defilements, this is the path leading to the cessation of defilements.’”231
So the Noble Truths may be numbered as:
1. The noble truth about sorrow and pain (dukkha), that is: “Suffering and sorrow exist in all manifested beings.”
2. The noble truth about the cause of sorrow and pain (dukkha samudaya), that is: “There is a cause for the suffering and the sorrow that exist.”
3. The noble truth about the cessation of sorrow and pain (nirodha), that is: “There is a way to render extinct the causes of the suffering and sorrow that exist.”
4. The noble truth about the path that leads to this cessation (aryastanga-marga), that is: “There is a path, by following which the causes of the suffering and sorrow that exist are rendered extinct.”232
The Buddha had gained a precise understanding of the very causes of suffering and thus saw a method by which these could be overcome. This method is the fourth of the Four Noble Truths, known as the Noble Eightfold Path (aryastanga-marga).233 The eight steps of this path are as follows:
1. right view/belief (samyag-drishti): “Recognition of the truth of the preceding four verities.” (the Four Noble Truths)
2. right resolve/intention (samyak-samkalpa): “Holding the objective to be attained clearly in the mind, holding it firm, with discrimination.”
3. right speech (samyag-vach): “Right words, or controlled and governed speech at all times and in all places.”
4. right action/behavior (samyak-karmanta): “Controlled and governed action at all times and in all places.”
5. right occupation/livelihood (samyag-ajiva): “Appropriate and honorable means of livelihood.”
6. right effort (samyag-vyayama): “An inflexible will to achieve the objective visioned.”
7. right contemplation (samyak-smriti): “An eager intellect, always open for a greater truth, and ready to learn; and the cultivation of a strong and retentive memory.”
8. right concentration (samyak-samadhi): “An unveiled spiritual perception, combined with great care in thinking, which is the keynote of all the preceding items, and which expressed in other words means right meditation with a tranquil mind into which wisdom thus enters.”234
So with Gautama Buddha’s enlightenment under the Bodhi tree came the realization of a grand teaching, that which would become the heart of Buddhism.
The three watches passed and then came the fourth, the moment of dawn, when “all that moves or moves not was stilled” and “the great seer reached the stage which knows no alteration, the sovereign leader of the states of omniscience.”235
“He became the king of physicians, who would liberate beings from all suffering and establish them in the bliss of nirvana; he took his seat on the magnificent royal throne of the thus-gone ones [tathagatas], the essence of the thus-gone ones. He discovered the means to complete liberation and entered the city of omniscience, where he mingled perfectly with all buddhas and became inseparable from the comprehension of the realm of phenomena.”236
“Then for seven days, free from discomfort of body, he sat, looking into his own mind, his eyes never winking. The sage fulfilled his hearts desire, reflecting that on that spot he had obtained liberation. Then the sage, who had grasped the principle of causation and was firmly fixed in the system of impersonality, roused himself, and, filled with great compassion, he gazed on the world with his Buddha-eye for the sake of its tranquillity. Seeing that the world was lost in false views and vain efforts and that its passions were gross, seeing too that the law of salvation was exceeding subtle, he set his mind on remaining immobile. Then remembering his former promise, he formed a resolution for the preaching of tranquillity.”237
Each of the traditional biographies contain symbolisms and allegories as a means by which to describe the Buddha’s awakening. We find statements such as: “all the worlds throughout the ten directions shook in six ways”,238 “lotus wreaths hung from the sky; and lillies by sevens sprang, one above another, even from the very rocks”,239 and “the hells whose darkness the rays of seven suns had never been able to disperse, became filled with light”,240 among many others.
The “seven days” spent in meditation, or “gazing steadfastly”, with “eyes unblinking” at the tree, along with another “seven days” walking to and fro, and a full “seven weeks”, up to the “forty-ninth day”, spent near the Bodhi tree, all have deep symbolic meanings, as does the “treasure house” built by the devas near the Bodhi tree.241
The entire twenty-third chapter of the Lalitavistara is dedicated to a wonderful exultation, where one after another the beings of the heavens and the earth, even including Mara’s host, come forward to praise and pay homage to the new-born Buddha. All this is wonderfully poetic, symbolic and inspiring. It also gives us a glimpse into the range of Buddhist cosmology.
There is also a series of verses in the Lalitavistara that provide insight into perhaps the most important aspect of the Buddha’s enlightenment. Having “awakened to unsurpassable, perfect and complete buddhahood”, the Buddha is approached one last time by Mara, for one final temptation.
“Then Mara, the evil one, approached the Thus-Gone One [tathagata] and said, ‘Since the time has now come for the Blessed One to pass into paranirvana, may the Blessed One pass into paranirvana! May the Bliss-Gone One pass into paranirvana!’
“Monks, when he said this, the Thus-Gone One responded to Mara, the evil one: ‘Evil one, I will not pass into paranirvana until my elder monks have become restrained, lucid, proficient, courageous, and learned; until they have embarked on the Dharma in an authentic way and become masters themselves; and until they can overcome opponents in concordance with the Dharma and teach the Dharma . . . Evil one, I will not pass away into paranirvana until the tradition of the Buddha, his teaching, and his community are well established in the world; and until infinite bodhisattvas are prophesied to reach unexcelled, perfect and complete awakening. Evil one, I will not pass away until all four of my assemblies become restrained, lucid, proficient, and courageous, and can teach the Dharma.’”242
This final triumph over the temptations of Mara represents the highest renunciation, which is the heart of the Bodhisattva path. As the Voice of the Silence tells us:
“To don Nirmanakaya’s humble robe is to forego eternal bliss for Self, to help on man’s salvation. To reach Nirvana’s bliss, but to renounce it, is the supreme, the final step—the highest on Renunciation’s Path. Know, O Disciple, this is the Secret PATH, selected by the Buddhas of Perfection, who sacrificed The SELF to weaker Selves.”243
Having attained enlightenment and gained the threefold knowledge—of past lives, of samsara and of the causes of misery—the Buddha:
“. . . gave up his diligent application and stayed silent. He thought back to his previous solemn oath. He again thought about expounding the Law, and observed the strength of the afflictions of living beings. Brahmadeva knew what was on [the Buddha’s] mind, [and understood] that he should be invited to turn the [wheel of the] Law.”244
The Lalitavistara gives us further details, which are of great interest. There, the Buddha reflects:
“Alas! This truth that I realized and awakened to is profound, peaceful, tranquil, calm, complete, hard to see, hard to comprehend, and impossible to conceptualize since it is inaccessible to the intellect. Only wise noble ones and adepts can understand it. It is the complete and definitive apprehension of the abandonment of all aggregates, the end of all sensations, the absolute truth, and freedom from a foundation. It is a state of complete peace, free of clinging, free of grasping, unobserved, undemonstrable, uncompounded, beyond the six sense spheres, inconceivable, unimaginable, and ineffable. It is indescribable, inexpressible, and incapable of being illustrated. It is unobstructed, beyond all references, a state of interruption through the path of tranquility, and imperceptible like emptiness. It is the exhaustion of craving and it is cessation free of desire. It is nirvana. If I were to teach this truth to others, they would not understand it. Teaching the truth would tire me out and be wrongly contested, and it would be futile. Thus I will remain silent and keep this truth in my heart.”
“Then, by means of the Buddha’s power, Great Top-Knotted Brahmā, became aware of the Thus-Gone One’s notion. Having understood that the Blessed One was set on keeping the Dharma to himself without teaching it, he thought, ‘I will most certainly approach and solicit the Thus-Gone One to turn the wheel of Dharma!’ . . . then the Great Top-Knotted Brahmā, surrounded and escorted by 6.8 million Brahmās, went to the Thus-Gone One. When he arrived, he bowed his head to the feet of the Thus-Gone One, and with palms joined, said this to him: ‘Thus-Gone One, even having awakened to unexcelled, perfect and complete awakening, you are bent on keeping the Dharma to yourself without teaching it. Alas, Blessed One! This world is doomed! Alas, Blessed One, this world is really doomed! There are clever sentient beings of good disposition with the potential, fortune, and ability to comprehend the meaning of what the Blessed One says. Such being the case, O Blessed One, please eloquently teach the Dharma! Please, O Bliss-Gone One, teach the Dharma!’”245
This great exhortation, from Brahmā himself, continues on with a series of beautiful verses, begging the Buddha to teach the Dharma to the world. The Buddha, however, remains hesitant for some time, considering that since the subtleties of the truth will not be understood, it would be harmful (even perhaps to himself) to attempt to teach it. We are reminded of the words of another great teacher:
“Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.”246
Brahmā does not give up lightly; he returns and continues to exhort the Buddha to rise and teach humanity, finally reminding him of the solemn vow he had previously taken:
“In your previous existences you had the thought:
‘Once I myself have crossed, I will ferry others across!’
Now that you have surely reached the other shore,
Fulfill your solemn vow, you with the dynamic power of truth!
“O Sage, clear away the darkness with the lamp of Dharma!
Raise high the banner of the Thus-Gone One!
The time has come to utter melodious speech!
I beg you to resound like a lion, O You of Drum-like Voice!”247
The Buddha, urged by Brahmā’s exhortation, turns his eye to humanity and observes among them three groups: “one that was sure to be wrong, one that was sure to be correct, and one that was undetermined.” He thought to himself:
“Whether I teach the Dharma or not, this group that is sure to be wrong will not understand the Dharma. And whether I teach the Dharma or not, this group that is sure to be correct will understand the Dharma. Yet the group that is undetermined will understand the Dharma if I teach it, but will not understand the Dharma if I do not teach it.”248
He then understood the exhortation of Brahmā, and why he had been so insistent in wishing the Buddha to teach. Having understood, he acquiesced to turn the Wheel of Dharma for the good of humanity.
He reflected within:
“Who should hear the Law first? Yes, there are Arada and Udraka Ramaputra. They are fit to receive the Right Law, but their lives have now come to an end. Next, there are the five bhikshus [mendicants] who should hear the first exposition of the Law. He wanted to expound the Law of tranquility, just as the sunlight does away with darkness. He went to Varanasi,249 the place where the seers of the past had dwelled.”250
Thus begins the Buddha’s mission, the grand teaching of liberation that would spread across the lands of Asia and eventually the world.
TURNING THE WHEEL OF THE LAW
At the end of the seventh week spent at the Bodhi tree, the Buddha was approached by two merchant brothers, Trapusha and Bhallika, who were travelling north with their caravan. Seeing the Buddha and recognizing him as a renunciant, the two stopped and offered him a meal. There is an allegory here (continuing from a previous one) which tells of the devas furnishing the Buddha with his alms bowl (the full story of the bowl is symbolic through and through),251 after which the Buddha accepted the meal offered by the two brothers. The Lalitavistara contains another deeply symbolic section here, wherein the Buddha gives a prophecy to the two brothers, the full version of which should be read by any students interested in symbology.
“When they heard the Victorious One’s prophecy,
The two brothers were elated and supremely pleased.
Together with their companions,
They went for refuge in the Buddha and the Dharma.”252
Thus Trapusha and Bhallika became the Buddha’s first disciples following his enlightenment, and the first to take the great vows of refuge. In the Nidana-Katha’s description of the event, the third refuge, that of the Sangha, is also included, while in the Lalitavistara the third is not included until after Kondanna had attained arhatship, thus giving rise to the true Sangha.253 These three—the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha—are known as the Three Jewels or Triple Gem (Triratna),254 which form the basis of the vows of Buddhist monks to this day.
The Buddha, discovering where the five mendicants were residing, left the grove of the Bodhi tree and travelled to Varanasi. He first sought alms in the city and then proceeded to the Deer Park called Sarnath or Isipatana. The five mendicants, upon seeing the Buddha approaching, were at first skeptical, still considering that the Buddha had abandoned the Path in order to indulge in worldly life.255 But as he reached them, or perhaps after having engaged in discussion, they began to realize that this man was no long the same Gautama whom they had once known and served, that he had indeed been transformed.
The Lalitavistara tells us that:
“. . . the closer the Thus-Gone One [tathagata] came to the five companions, the more overwhelming his splendor and radiance became. They began to quiver in their seats, and then their prior plan [to ignore and not serve him] fell apart completely and they all stood up from their seats. One went to greet him. One approached him and held his robe and alms bowl. One prepared a seat for him. One made a footrest. One brought water for washing his feet and said, “Welcome, Venerable Gautama! Welcome, Venerable Gautama! Please sit on this seat that we have laid out.”256
If we reflect again upon the symbolism discussed earlier, wherein the five mendicants stand for the five physical senses, we may see the continuation of the symbolic meaning. Having reached Nirvana, then having renounced it to return to the world, the Buddha first rests for “seven weeks” at the Bodhi tree (symbol of Spiritual Man, with his seven principles, or the full seven planes manifestation257), then he seeks out the five mendicants; i.e., he descends once again into operation through the five senses, which, as his full divine presence draws nearer and nearer, fall into place and begin again to serve him.
“Right away the five monks bowed to the Thus-Gone One’s feet and confessed their wrong behavior. In the Thus-Gone One’s presence, they developed their recognition of him as their teacher, as well as their love, devotion, and respect for him.”258
The Buddha, surrounded once again by his five mendicants, says to them:
“Monks, I have actualized immortality and the path that leads to immortality. Monks, I am the awakened one, the omniscient one, the all-seeing one. I have become tranquil and have exhausted all faults. Monks, being the master of phenomena, I will teach you the Dharma. Come, listen and understand.”259
With this the Buddha began his first great teaching, summarizing the core elements of his doctrine in a sermon that has come to be called the “Dhammacakkappavattana” (Sanskrit: Dharmacakra Pravartana), the “setting in motion of the wheel of Dharma”.260
The sermon reads, translated from the Sanskrit version of the Lalitavistara,261 thus:
“Monks, there are two extremes that you should avoid when you have taken ordination. First do not follow self-indulgence, which is shallow, worldly, ordinary, unworthy of a noble one, and attended by undesired consequences. In the long run it will prevent you from practicing your religion. You will become distracted and unable to develop nonattachment. You will not enter into the state of cessation nor develop higher knowledge, or attain the perfect awakening of nirvana. On the other hand, straying from the middle way, you will not pass beyond suffering. If you mistreat your body so that it suffers and is harmed, you will face difficulties as can be observed right now, and in the future even further misery will fall on you.
“Monks, the Bliss-Gone One teaches the Dharma by showing the middle way that does not fall into either of the two extremes. The Dharma that he teaches is one of correct view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration.262
“Monks, there are also four truths of the noble ones. What are these four? Suffering, the origin of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path that leads to the cessation of suffering.263
“What is suffering? It is the pain that accompanies birth, growing old, falling sick, and dying. It also includes the suffering of meeting the unpleasant and parting from the pleasant. Not finding what is being sought is also suffering. In short the five perpetuating aggregates [skandhas]264 are suffering. This is what we call suffering.
“What is the origin of suffering? It is the craving that perpetuates existence, which is attended upon by the passion for enjoyment, and which finds pleasures here and there. That is the origin of suffering.
“What is the cessation of suffering? It is the complete and dispassionate cessation of craving that perpetuates existence, which is attended upon by the passion for enjoyment, and which finds pleasures here and there. This is the cessation of suffering.
“What is the path that leads to the cessation of suffering? It is exclusively the eightfold path of the noble ones. This is the path that starts with correct view and ends with correct concentration. It is called the path that leads to the cessation of suffering—a noble truth.
“Monks, these four truths are the truths of the noble ones.
“Monks, this teaching I had not heard previously. I understood it by intensely and introspectively focusing my mind on suffering. In this way my wisdom, vision, understanding, intellect, intelligence, knowledge, and insight became manifest.
“Monks, this teaching I had not heard previously. I understood it by focusing intently on the origin of suffering. In this way my wisdom, vision, understanding, intellect, intelligence, knowledge, and insight became manifest.
“Monks, this teaching I had not heard previously. I understood it by focusing intently on the cessation of suffering. In this way my wisdom, vision, understanding, intellect, intelligence, knowledge, and insight became manifest.
“Monks, this teaching I had not heard previously. I understood it by focusing intently on the path that leads to the cessation of suffering. In this way my wisdom, vision, understanding, intellect, intelligence, knowledge, and insight became manifest.
“Monks, within this teaching that I had not heard previously, suffering must be known. This I understood by focusing intently on suffering. In this way my wisdom, vision, understanding, intellect, intelligence, knowledge, and insight became manifest.
“Monks, within this teaching that I had not heard previously, the origin of suffering must be abandoned. This I understood by focusing intently on the origin of suffering. In this way my wisdom, vision, understanding, intellect, intelligence, knowledge, and insight became manifest.
“Monks, within this teaching that I had not heard previously, the cessation of suffering must be actualized. This I understood by focusing intently on the cessation of suffering. In this way my wisdom, vision, understanding, intellect, intelligence, knowledge, and insight became manifest.
“Monks, within this teaching that I had not heard previously, the path that leads to the cessation of suffering must be practiced. This I understood by focusing intently on the path that leads to the cessation of suffering. In this way my wisdom, vision, understanding, intellect, intelligence, knowledge, and insight became manifest.
“Monks, within this teaching that I had not heard previously, I have fully understood suffering. This I did by focusing intently on suffering. In this way my wisdom, vision, understanding, intellect, intelligence, knowledge, and insight became manifest.
“Monks, within this teaching that I had not heard previously, I have abandoned the origin of suffering. This I did by focusing intently on the origin of suffering. In this way my wisdom, vision, understanding, intellect, intelligence, knowledge, and insight became manifest.
“Monks, within this teaching that I had not heard previously, I have actualized the cessation of suffering. This I did by focusing intently on the cessation of suffering. In this way my wisdom, vision, understanding, intellect, intelligence, knowledge, and insight became manifest.
“Monks, within this teaching that I had not heard previously, I have practiced the path that leads to the cessation of suffering. This I did by focusing intently on the path that leads to the cessation of suffering. In this way my wisdom, vision, understanding, intellect, intelligence, knowledge, and insight became manifest.
“Monks, in this way I genuinely contemplated each of the four truths of the noble ones while I recited them three times. Still I did not develop the wisdom that sees their twelve aspects. Monks, therefore I did not make any claims of having awakened to unsurpassable, perfect and complete buddhahood, and I still lacked the insight of wisdom.
“However, monks, once I had recited the four truths of the noble ones three times, I developed the wisdom that sees their twelve aspects.265 At that point my mind was free and my insight was now free and pure. Monks, at that point I declared that I had awakened to unsurpassable, perfect and complete buddhahood. My wisdom vision had been developed, my births had been exhausted, I had carried out my religious practice, I had done what needed to be done, and I will not have another life.”
This is the heart and soul of Buddha’s teachings, which appears in various versions of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta and throughout all later suttas. The version in the Lalitavistara continues on with a second teaching that traces the path of causation through the Twelve Nidanas, which we have discussed earlier.
Of the five bhikkhus (mendicants), Kondanna (or Kaundinya) became the first to understand the Buddha’s meaning, and thus the first to become a Srotapatti266 (or Sotapanna in Pali), the first degree of Arhatship, later said to have become the first full Arhat under Buddha’s guidance. With him begins the monastic tradition of Buddhism, and from that beginning follows 45267 years of the Buddha’s mission throughout the Gangetic plains of northern India, gathering disciples, spreading the Dharma and setting in motion a ripple that would become a wave, that would spread around the world.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE SANGHA
We have been largely following three traditional biographies—the Nidana-Katha, the Lalitavistara, and the Buddhacarita (in both its Sanskrit and Chinese versions). The Sanskrit Buddhacarita brought us up to the Buddha’s enlightenment—the end of its fourteenth Canto—and no further. The Lalitavistara brings us up to the present point, the teaching of the Buddha in the Deer Park, the turning of the Wheel of Dharma, and then concludes. In its 27th and final chapter, it says:
“Friends, this sutra known as The Play in Full [Lalitavistara] is a very extensive account of the Bodhisattva’s playful activity. It constitutes an introduction to the play that is the domain of the Buddha. The Thus-Gone One has taught it to introduce himself. So now you should absorb it, preserve it, and cause it to be retold. In this way, this Dharma-method of mine will spread.”
The Lalitavistara is a most wonderful biography, full of colour and poetry, brimming with mysticism and symbolism. It stands, in our mind, as the most symbolically dense of all the biographies. But we must now leave it behind as we tread into waters not covered in its pages.
Both the Nidana-Katha and the Chinese Buddhacarita continue on from the present point, recounting first the reaching of the Srotapatti stage by the other four mendicants, and then on to the conversion of many more disciples. We will continue to follow these texts to their conclusion before moving on to other sources.
Having brought all five mendicants to the Srotapatti stage of the Arhat path, the Buddha remained at the Deer Park outside Varanasi for the remainder of the rainy season. This is an important aspect of the Sangha’s life: throughout the year, the Buddha would travel from place to place with his disciples, but during each rainy (monsoon) season they would remain in one place, usually a forest grove where there was good shelter, as ascetics had been doing for generations. During the rainy season the Buddha would instruct his disciples, and many visitors would come to hear him speak. These rainy-season retreats are known as vassas (Sanskrit varsika). These regular retreat periods provide recurrent cycles in the Buddha’s activity, each year containing a period of travel and a period of rest. In time, as the Sangha grew, Viharas (monasteries) would be built at several locations, and during the rainy seasons the disciples and Arhats would fill them.
In the biographies, we find Buddha’s Sangha expanding quickly. The first disciple to take refuge after the five mendicants was Yasa, the son of a noble man who seems to have somewhat mirrored young Siddhartha’s growing aversion to worldly life. Upon Yasa reaching Srotapatti, we are told that fifty-four of his companions268 joined him as the Buddha’s disciples. Thus the early Sangha quickly expanded to sixty in total, each of which had entered the Arhat path.
“Now when there were thus in the world sixty-one persons who had become Arahants [including Buddha], the Master, after the rainy season and the function with which it closes were over, sent out the sixty in different directions . . .”269
“The sixty bhikshus then accepted his instruction and widely propagated the Law. In agreement with their previous causality, they each went at will in different directions.”270
The Buddha, however, directed himself back towards Uruvela (Gaya, the place of the Bodhi tree), and:
“. . . going towards Uruvela he overcame at the Kappasiya forest, half-way thither, the thirty young Bhadda-vaggiyan nobles. Of these the least advanced entered the First [Srotapatti], and the most advanced the Third Path [Anagamin]: and he received them all into the Order [Sangha].”271
The Buddha likewise sent these thirty out across India to spread the word and teach the Dharma. He continued on alone, finally arriving at Uruvela. There he met with the three Kassapa brothers—Uruvela Kassapa [Uruvilva Kasyapa] and his brothers Nadi and Gaja272—whom he also taught the Dharma, just as he had to Yasa. Kassapa was the first to see the truth of the Buddha’s teachings, after which “The five hundred disciples of Uruvilva Kasyapa accepted the Right Law in due order,”273 as also did the five hundred followers of his brothers, thus bringing one thousand more disciples to the Sangha. But the Buddha was not yet done. Before his enlightenment, the Buddha had made a promise to King Bimbasara, that once he had reached enlightenment he would return to the kingdom and teach the Good Law. So Buddha, with his company of 1000 disciples, made his way to Rajagriha.
Arriving in Rajagriha, the Buddha and his disciples stayed at the Valuvana or Yastivana, the “Bamboo Grove”, just outside the city walls. King Bimbasara, hearing of the Buddha’s arrival, left the city and came to the grove, along with a large company.274 At first the King’s company was unsure whether the Buddha had become a disciple of Kassapa (who, with his brothers and their one thousand followers, must’ve been well known in Rajagriha) or whether Kassapa had become a disciple of the Buddha. Thus follows a conversation between the Buddha and Kassapa that has deep meaning. He asks Kassapa: “What hast thou seen, thou of Uruvela, that thou hast left the Fire votary austere?”275 or again “What meritorious gain did you see when you abandoned the practice of making offerings to fire?”276 Kassapa replies:
“When one develops merit making offerings to the spirit of fire, the fruition in any case means that the wheel keeps turning. In births and deaths afflictions increase. That is why I have abandoned it.
“When one strenuously makes offerings to fire to seek for the objects of the five desires, the desires one experiences increase without end. That is why I have abandoned it.
“Making offerings to fire and practicing the method of incantations, one experiences rebirth but no deliverance. Experiencing rebirth is the basis of suffering. That is why I have given it up, further seeking contentment.
“I once thought that asceticism, offering sacrifices, and arranging for a great gathering were foremost and of the highest excellence, but these still go against the right path. That is why I have abandoned [these practices] now, further seeking excellent tranquility.
“Freedom from birth, old age, illness, and death is a cool place without end. Because I know this is meaningful I have abandoned the practice of making offerings to fire.”277
There is a long tradition of yajna, or fire-sacrifices, among Brahmans, with a whole body and system of priesthood built around it. The system of practices are based entirely upon the desire for reward, whether earthly or heavenly, whether for oneself, one’s family or one’s departed ancestors.278 It is this system and its priests that had come to dominate the landscape of Indian religion before the time of Buddha. In the suttas, we find him again and again working to remove the heavy burden of such beliefs and desires. So with Kassapa we have an illustration of one of Buddha’s great battles, that being against the power of the Brahman priestcraft and the crippling hold it had over the mind of India.279
It’s important to note that the Buddha and Kassapa have this discussion in front of King Bimbasara and his vast company. This demonstrates the Buddha’s willingness to directly and openly challenge the dominant religious practices and attitudes of his time; it shows a profound fearlessness, both by the Buddha and by his disciples, to be willing to stand and proclaim that the popular beliefs of the time were founded in error. As another author notes:
“. . . we find the Buddha in constant conflict with the peculiar ideals of the Brahmans, more especially their sacrificial system of bartering with the gods. This conflict with the Brahmans and their characteristic ideals comes out very clearly in the Tevijja Sutta, which is of high value as a historical landmark, showing, as it does, that in the Buddha’s days, two thousand five hundred years ago, the Brahman caste had reached an advanced stage of exclusiveness and degeneration. . . .”280
As was inevitable, “the new teaching unsettled many great minds which had previously followed the orthodox Brahmanical lead.”281 While it is a note of praise to Buddha and his disciples that they were willing to speak the truth and directly challenge the prevalent beliefs of the time, with their immense underlying power structures, it is likewise a note of high praise to King Bimbasara that he was willing to accept this teaching (which is, and was even then, a very old teaching)282 and not remain stuck in the traditional exoteric views and practices.
After explaining the superiority of the Buddha’s teaching over the traditional approach of Brahman ascetics, Kassapa is requested (by Buddha) to demonstrate the truth of what he says. In both the Nidana-Katha and the Chinese Buddhacarita, Kassapa does this through a seeming miracle of swiftly flying up into the sky, symbolic, of course, of the “rising upwards” in meditation.283
Kassapa thus makes it clear to the crowd that it is he who is the Buddha’s disciple, that the Buddha had taught him a higher path than the traditional (exoteric) Brahman practices were capable of. The Buddha, recognizing that Bimbasara and his entire company were capable of entering the Arhat path, proceeds to give the following teaching:
“O lord of the earth, O thou who art possessed of great majesty and hast control of the senses, Form (rupa) is born and decays accompanied by the mind and the senses. Their birth and passing away should be known for the furtherance of virtue, and, by knowing these two matters correctly, come to a right understanding of the body. By knowing the body with the senses to be subject to birth and passing away, there is no appropriation at all, no coming to the idea that it is ‘I’ or ‘mine.’ The body and the senses have no objectivity outside the mental conceptions; they are born as suffering, as suffering they pass away. When all this is understood to be neither ‘I’ nor ‘mine,’ then the supreme unchangeable Nirvana is reached. Through the sins of assuming the existence of the ego and the like men are bound in the false conception of self (atmagraha),284 and when they see that there is no self, they are released from the passions. The false view binds, the right view releases; this world, abiding in the thought that there is a self, does not grasp the truth. If a self did exist, it would be either permanent or impermanent; great defects follow from either alternative.
“Just suppose it to be impermanent, then there would be no fruit of the act; and, since there would be no rebirth, salvation would come without effort on our part. Or if it were permanent and all-pervading, there would be neither birth nor death; for space, which is all-pervading and permanent, neither passes away nor is born. If this self were all-pervading in nature, there would be no place where it is not; and when it passed away, there would simultaneously (ca . . ca) be salvation for everyone together. As being all-pervading by nature, it would be inactive and there would be no doing of the act; and without the doing of acts, how could there be the union with the fruit of them?
“If the self did perform deeds, it would cause no suffering to itself; for who, that is his own master, would cause suffering to himself? The theory of a permanent self leads to the conclusion that it undergoes no change; but, since it experiences pleasure and suffering, we see that it does incur change. Salvation comes from the winning of knowledge and the abandonment of sin; and since the self is inactive and all-pervading, there would be no salvation for it. One should not say this, namely that there is a self, since in reality it has no existence (asattvabhavat tattvena); moreover, as having no causal efficiency, it is incapable of any action. Since then it is not clear what is the work to be done nor by whom it is done, the self cannot be said to exist in such wise (i.e. as either permanent or impermanent), and therefore it has no existence.
“Listen, best of listeners, to this teaching how the stream of the cycle of existence flows along, bearing away this body, in which there is neither one who acts, nor one who experiences sensations (vedaka), nor one who directs. A sixfold consciousness arises based on the six organs of sense and their six objects; a system of contact develops separately for each group of three, whence awareness, volitions and actions come into activity. Just as, from the conjunction of a burning-glass jewel, fuel and the sun, fire is produced by virtue of the union, even so all actions dependent on the individual take place, based on the consciousness (buddhi), the objects of sense and the senses. Just as the shoot is produced from the seed, and yet the shoot is not to be identified with the seed, nor can either of them exist without the other, on such wise is the body and the interaction (krama?) of the senses and the consciousness.”285
This is the essence of the “anatta” or “anatmic” doctrine286 of Buddhism, the doctrine of “no self”, which has become one of the most crucial and central principles of the Buddhist systems of thought, though it has come down to us with various interpretations from various schools. This doctrine is treated at length in the Maha-nidana Sutta (The Great Causes Discourse), which has been translated in two parts, with valuable commentary, under the titles: “The Chain of Causation” and “The Ladder of Consciousness”.287
It is worthwhile for the student to make a comparison between this teaching, as given above, and that of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, in particular chapters 13-18. Also of value is a comparative study between the doctrine of anatma and the teachings of Sankaracharya,288 as well as with the teachings of atma and paramatma as found in the oldest Upanishads.289 Interested students may also study the fifth section of The Key to Theosophy for a theosophical approach to the question of anatma.290
Having heard the Buddha’s teaching, “the King of Magadha [Bimbasara], with nearly all of his retinue, attained to the Fruit of the First Path [Srotapatti], and the rest became lay disciples [Upasakas].”291
The biographies take us through this process rather quickly, as a matter of poetic licence and expediency, but we may imagine for ourselves the more expansive historical events. Having reached the pinnacle of the Path, symbolized by the attainment of enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, the Buddha is unanimously recognized to have very quickly gathered a large company of disciples. It is quite likely, historically speaking, that the Buddha had spent a good deal of time in and around Rajagriha292 (itself a spiritual hub), had learned from the many teachers there (exemplified by Arada and Udraka), had come to master their teachings and—exceed them. Having done so, he most certainly would’ve been well known among the most learned Brahmans of the day. Even though the biographies tend to portray him as a lone ascetic for many of these years, we suspect that this (used as it is largely for symbolic reasons) may veil other aspects of the historical story. There may be great truth in the following statement, for instance:
“His [Buddha’s] Secret Doctrine . . . differed in no wise from that of the initiated Brahmins of his day. The Buddha was a child of the Aryan soil; a born Hindu, a Kshatrya and a disciple of the ‘twice born’ (the initiated Brahmins) or Dwijas. His teachings, therefore, could not be different from their doctrines, for the whole Buddhist reform merely consisted in giving out a portion of that which had been kept secret from every man outside of the ‘enchanted’ circle of Temple-Initiates and ascetics.”293
If this be true we might speculate that, upon his decision to openly teach the secret wisdom—jealously guarded by the initiated Brahmans—there may have been a split within that esoteric community, some following the Buddha, others holding firm to the traditional ways of secrecy and caste exclusion. The thousands of followers gathered in but a few pages of the traditional biographies may be an indication that many Brahmans, particularly those in Rajagriha, saw the purpose and value of the Buddha’s decision to reveal a portion of the hidden teachings to the “uninitiated” masses and that they found themselves supported, encouraged and perhaps even protected by King Bimbasara. On the other hand, those who did not see the value of Buddha’s decision seem to have done all that was possible to oppose and refute his open teachings.294
It is worthwhile to note that the first three vassas (rainy-seasons) after Varanasi were spent by the Buddha and his disciples in Rajagriha,295 thus, perhaps, demonstrating the protecting hand of the King during the early growth of Buddha’s mission, when the powerful opposition of the Brahmans may have been a direct threat to it.
Let us return to the traditional biographies.
King Bimbasara is said to have donated the Bamboo Garden (Valuvana or Yastivana) to the Sangha, which became the first Vihara (monastery).296 The Sangha had grown exponentially in a very short time, resulting in 1000 “Arhats” (of varying degrees, of course). We can imagine the Buddha, along with a good many disciples, remaining at the Bamboo garden for the initial three years of the Sangha—the students learning directly from their teacher, developing the inner wisdom of the Arhat path, and building a firm foundation upon which the teachings could rest in later years, when both teacher and disciples would engage in wide travel.
We are then told of two very important conversions, that of the two Brahman ascetics: Sariputta (also Sariputra or Upatisya) and Moggallana (also Maudgalyayana or Maugala), both of whom were students of a great “skeptic” philosopher named Sanjaya.297 Sariputta’s introduction to the Buddha’s teaching came when he met Assaji, one of the original five mendicants, on the path between the Bamboo Grove and Rajagriha. Sariputta asked Assaji to tell him who his teacher was and what his teachings were. Assaji obliged, saying:
“He [the Buddha] is endowed with omniscience, born in the excellent family of Iksvaku [i.e. he is a Kshatriya of the royal line]. He is most excellent among gods and humans. He is my great teacher. Because my age is young, my time of study is still limited. How could I propagate the very profound and subtle meanings of my great teacher? With my shallow knowledge I will now briefly explain the Law taught by my teacher: The arising of any existing factor comes from causality. The factors in birth and extinction may all be extinguished; the exposition of the path is the means.”298
However “shallow” his learning, we think Assaji did a fine job in relaying the heart of the Buddha’s teaching. And so too, if we believe the story, did Sariputta, though of course, this likely veils a fuller account of Sariputta’s introduction to the Buddha’s teachings. We are told that Sariputta was deeply moved by this introduction, and upon returning home his usual serious demeanour had become light and joyful.
Many years earlier, Moggallana and Sariputta (who had grown up together) had made the joint decision to renounce worldly life and seek Liberation. When they did so, they had also made a promise to each other: the first to discover the truth would share it with the other. After having heard the Buddha’s teachings, Sariputta relayed them to Moggallana, and together they came to the Buddha as disciples.299
It is said that these two brought with them 250 additional disciples,300 raising the total of the Sangha to 1250. This is the common number given for the nucleus of the Sangha, even in later years, when many more disciples had been added. We may imagine that much effort was put in to strengthening this nucleus in the early days of the Bamboo Garden, such that it could have the strength and wisdom to gather new disciples and to oppose the prevalent Brahmanical dogmas of the time, without losing its integral core.
The two Brahmans quickly rose to be recognized as among the Buddha’s chief disciples. Not only did they fully understand the Dharma, they were able to teach and exemplify it. In them we find two sides of the Dharma wonderfully represented, what we might call: the intellectual side and the practical side. As a biographer of Sariputta notes:
“The discourses of Sariputta and the books attributed to him form a comprehensive body of teaching that for scope and variety of exposition can stand beside that of the Master himself. Sariputta understood in a unique way how to organize and present the rich material of the Dhamma lucidly, in a manner that was intellectually stimulating and also an inspiration to practical effort.”301
A biographer of Moggallana explains that:
“In the discourse about the disciples who excelled in special capacities and qualities, the Buddha said that Moggallana was foremost among the Bhikkhus who possessed magical faculties.”302
Thus the two were able to demonstrate both sides of the Dharma, and this explains the common illustrations of the Buddha where he is found with Sariputta on his right side and Moggallana on his left. There is, in addition to the historical context of his two chief disciples, a deep symbolic significance to their placement on either side. Just as the five mendicants were symbolic for the senses, so also can the two chief disciples be viewed in their symbolic significance as two “sides” of the principle Buddhi: the side of Ideas,303 or wisdom itself, and the side of Power.304
In addition to this, we find another important role of these two disciples, as explained thus:
“In the canonical scriptures there are many reports about common activities of the two Chief Disciples who were the best assistants of their master in taking care of the Order. Both did much work for the advancement and benefit of the community of monks. Their activities directed to maintain inner concord, stability and discipline within the Order deserve special mention.”305
Again we find the strengthening of the nucleus of the Brotherhood, an all-important function in Buddha’s mission.306
Following these two, the next key disciple to take refuge was another Brahman, named Pipphali Kassapa, later known as Maha-Kassapa (or Mahakasyapa),307 the “lamp of the Kassapa clan”, “who was possessed of colour, beauty and riches, [and had] abandoned his wealth and his beautiful wife, and, taking on himself the ochre-coloured robe, went in search of salvation.”308
This, however, does not justice to the beauty of the story of Maha-Kassapa, which we may briefly cover. Like young Siddhartha, Maha-Kassapa was born into a wealthy family, and like Siddhartha he did not share the common desires for worldly life. However, being the first-born son, he assented to be married so as not to disappoint his parents. He was thereafter married to Subhadra, later to be known as Bhadda Kapilani.309 On the night following their marriage, they returned to their room, where both sat apart, not speaking and looking worried. Finally, Kassapa broke the silence and asked his new wife why she looked distraught. She admitted to him that she had always wanted to renounce the world and live the spiritual life, but now that she was married, that would not be possible. One can imagine the relief of Kassapa upon hearing this news! The two, both intent upon a life of renunciation decided to sleep in separate beds. Eventually Kassapa, just as Siddhartha had done, chose to leave their home in search of the truth, as an ascetic. He promised, however, that if he should find it that he would send for her.
Years later, having found the Buddha, learned the Dharma and taken refuge in the Sangha, he followed through with his promise. He sent for Subhadra, who in the interval of time had herself renounced life and become an ascetic. She then joined the newly established Order of Bhikkhunis (more on this later). While Kassapa became a leader among the male disciples, Baddha Kapilani became likewise among the female disciples.
In this we have a wonderful example of Buddhist ideals. There is much love between these two, a bond that, we are told, developed over lifetimes, and there is much mutual support in walking the path—a true life partnership and in many ways an ideal Buddhist marriage.
Maha-Kassapa, as said, would become a natural leader within the Sangha, both during and after the Buddha’s life. For example, it was Maha-Kassapa who, upon the Buddha’s paranirvana, called the First Buddhist Council310 as a means to protect and preserve the teachings of the Dharma, and also as a means of maintaining the strength of Brotherhood within the Sangha.
In Maha-Kassapa we find an exemplification of the binding and unifying force of true Wisdom. His leadership demonstrates the ability to develop unity within diversity. In Buddhist tradition he is viewed as one of the three chief disciples, along with Sariputta and Moggallana, which three “had the triple knowledge (trividya)”.311 If we return to our symbolism of the first two chief disciples, we will naturally see Maha-Kassapa’s place between them, a third aspect of Buddhi in activity, that which binds and unifies power and wisdom into outer manifestation (symbolized by the Sangha, the outer body). We might, perhaps, imagine an upright diamond, with Buddha at the pinnacle, Sariputta and Moggallana at either side-corner, and Maha-Kassapa at the base-point, and in imagining such, we open ourselves to a wealth of symbolic meaning. For instance, we have a clear symbolic representation of the Triple Jewel: the Buddha atop, the Dharma between (in its two aspects of theory and practice), and the Sangha below. In the three chief disciples we may also see a kind of symbolic archetype of a trinity, comprising the “spirit, soul, and body” of the Sangha, or the triple manifestation of Buddha’s Dharma. These are, of course, but a selection of possible symbolic interpretations; the student is encouraged to seek other approaches as well.
In addition to the three chief disciples, the Buddhacarita tells us of another important convert: Sudatta, who was also known as Anathapindika,312 “One who gives alms (pinda) to the unprotected (a-natha)”.
“Then there was an important elder, called Anathapindada. He was enormously wealthy and his riches were countless, but he freely gave donations, saving the poor. He came from far to the north, from the country of Kosala, and was staying in the home of a good friend. His host was called Sula. When he heard that the Buddha had appeared in the world and was staying nearby in the Venuvana, he went to the grove that very night, having received his name and full esteem for his virtues. The Tathagata knew that his faculties were mature and that his pure faith had arisen. As fitting, he called him by his real name and expounded the Law to him.”313
The teachings given to Anathiapindika can be found in the 18th chapter of the Buddhacarita;314 they provide a wonderful supplement to the teachings already given in the traditional biographies. It is said that, though remaining a householder, and thus a lay-disciple, Anathapindika reached the stage of Srotapatti. He became the chief benefactor of the Sangha, his greatest donation being the Jetavana monastery in Savatthi (Shrivasti), which he is said to have purchased from the Crown Prince Jeta of Koshala,315 who himself became devoted to the Buddha.316 Jetavana would serve as a center of teaching during the whole of Buddha’s life—in fact, the majority of the Buddha’s teachings recorded in the suttas were given at Jetavana, and we are told that at least 19 of the 45 vassas (rainy seasons) were spent there.317
In but three years following the Buddha’s enlightenment the Sangha had grown from the seed of his enlightenment, and had planted strong, deep roots. Its nucleus became a firm foundation upon which the teachings could be spread across northern India. So after three rainy seasons spent in the Bamboo Grove, the time had come for the Buddha and his disciples to venture out.
RETURN TO KAPILAVASTU
Both the Nidana-Katha and the Buddhacarita tell us that while staying at the Bamboo Grove in Rajagriha the Buddha received an invitation from his father to return to Kapilavastu.
“Now, whilst the Tathagata was dwelling there in the Bamboo Garden, Suddhodana the king heard that his son, who for six years had devoted himself to works of austeriy, had attained to complete enlightenment, had founded the Kingdom of Righteousness, and was then dwelling at the Bambook Grove near Rajagaha. So he said to a certain courtier: ‘Come, I say, take a thousand men as a retinue, and go to Rajagaha, and say in my name: ‘Your father, Suddhodana the king, desires to see you’: and bring my son here.’”318
The Nidana-Katha gives us a humorous story here. We are told that upon delivering the message to the Buddha, the messenger and his retinue stayed to hear the Buddha’s instruction on the Dharma. Having heard his teachings, they remained with him, taking the first step on the Arhat path. The king, not receiving word from his messenger sent another, again with a retinue of one thousand men. These also heard the Buddha’s teachings and remained with him. Nine times, this occurred, and then the king, desperate to know why his messengers were not returning to him, sent Udayin along with a tenth retinue, to Rajagriha. On this tenth attempt, Udayin was finally able to convince the Buddha to return to Kapilavastu to visit his father.
This is not only rather humerous, it is deep with symbolism. We may, for instance, interpret it along the lines of symbolism touched upon in an earlier chapter and in-line with that of the Bhagavad Gita. The king, in both these symbolisms (Suddhodana here, Dhritarashtra there), represents the blind sense-mind (the lower manas) and its thousand (or hundred) sense tendencies (the “sons” or Kurus in the Gita, the retinues or messengers here). These “messengers” (tendencies of perception sent along well-worn groove of habitual sense-pathways) are placed before Buddhi, where they are received and purified (“become Arhats”). The awakened Buddhi of an Enlightened One purifies all lower tendencies, withdrawing them from their roots in personal desire and replanting them in the faultless soil of Wisdom. This is but one approach to the symbolism, of course.
If we keep such symbolic meanings in mind we may also see much more to the story of the Buddha’s return to Kapilavastu than the simple return of a son to his family. Just as with the Buddha’s return to the five mendicants, and just as with the gathering of his chief disciples, we see here an outer story veiling several inner meanings.
The Buddha did eventually accept the king’s request and, along with a thousand disciples of his own (or twenty-thousand disciples, as the Nidana-Katha has it), began the trek northwards to Kapilavatsu. We are then told of the first meeting of father and son upon the Buddha’s arrival. With our eyes on the basic story we cannot help but feel for the king, to imagine the emotions of such a homecoming. With our eyes on the symbolism we may find much more. The Buddhacarita tells us that, upon meeting:
“The Buddha knew that in the mind of the king, his father, there still existed the notion that he was his son. In order to open up his mind and also out of mercy for the entire crowd, he rose in the sky through his supernatural power and with both hands held up the sun and moon. He wandered through the sky and made all kinds of transformations. He divided himself into countless bodies and united again in one, or walked on water as on the ground, or entered into the ground as into water. Walls of stone did not hinder him, and left and right he emitted water and fire. The king, his father, was overjoyed, and his feelings of father and son were all done away with.”319
When the king is understood as the symbol of the sense-bound mind, the lower manas, with its accompanying ignorance, we can see here a clear indication of the true meaning of anatma, the doctrine of no-self, as it pertains to the false-ego. The father (sense-bound mind) still clings to the notion that the higher faculty of Buddhi is its son; that is to say: there remains a false identification wherein the ego’s imagined status of “creator” and initiator of selfhood lingers. The Buddha displays his “supernatural powers” (supernatural only from the perspective of the lower mind) in order to put this lingering false superiority of Manas over Buddhi to rest. The personal ego (or what remains of it) realizes fully that it is not “father” and the true Self (Atma-Buddhi) is not its “son”.
The whole journey of the Buddha in these tales can be viewed as a symbolic representation of the ascent and descent of the Adept in meditation or initiation. When looked upon in that light, the enlightenment under the Bodhi tree symbolizes the rising into realization of oneness with the Spiritual or Heavenly Man with all his interior faculties and powers and wisdom, after which there is a necessary re-descent back into physical consciousness (necessary because past karma must play itself out until the end of the current incarnation)—this descent being symbolized by the regathering of the five mendicants—then an assembling of the faculties and powers and wisdom on the physical plane, or an inspiration of them into the physical brain-mind, and then a full assertion of the true Self over the false personal ego (the reversal of the notion that ego is father and Self is son), and then the former “father” becomes a disciple of the formerly imagined “son” who now stands upright as the true Father Guru.
Again, this is but one of several possible symbolic interpretations. If one sticks with such meanings, the “return home” of the son comes to represent the self-conscious overshadowing of Buddhi over Manas in the fully awakened one, the Jivanmukta, in this case a full Buddha.
The Buddhacarita follows the initial meeting of father and son with a dialogue between the two, wherein the Buddha instructed Suddhodana in the Dharma, after which many of those in Kapilavastu took refuge, including some significant names, such as: Ananda, Nanda, Krimila, Anirudha, Nanada, Upananda, Kunthadhana, Devadatta, Udayin, Upali, and finally Suddhodana himself.320 In addition to these, the Nidana-Katha tells us that Rahula (Siddhartha’s son) was also admitted into the Sangha.321 The Nidana-Katha goes into greater detail about the homecoming, expanding on the activities of the Buddha and the Sangha upon their arrival (including several more examples of fine symbolism). There we read of the Buddha’s reunion with his wife:
“[Yasodhara], though she told her attendants to go and salute their lord, stayed behind, saying: ‘If I have virtue in his eyes, my lord will himself come to me; and when he had come I will pay him reverence.’
And the Blessed One, giving his bowl to the king to carry, went with his two chief disciples to the apartments of the daughter[in-law] of the king, saying: ‘The king’s daughter[in-law] shall in no wise be spoken to, however she may be pleased to welcome me.’ And he sat down on the seat prepared for him.
And she came quickly and held him by the ankles, and laid her head on his feet, and so did homage to him, even as she had intended. And the king told of the fullness of her love for the Blessed One, and of her goodness of heart, saying: “When my daughter heard, O Master, that you had put on the yellow robes from that time forth she dressed only in yellow. When she heard of your taking but one meal a day, she adopted the same custom. When she heard that you renounced the use of elevated couches, she slept on a mat spread on the floor. When she heard you had given up the use of garlands and unguents, she also used them no more. And when her relatives sent a message, saying: ‘Let us take care of you,’ she paid them no attention at all. Such are my daughter’s virtues, O Blessed One!’
“’Tis no wonder, O king!’ was the reply, ‘that she should watch over herself now that she has you for a protector, and that her wisdom is mature: formerly [i.e. in a past life], even when wandering among the mountains without a protector, and when her wisdom was not mature, she watched over herself.’”322
While these biographies give us some such details, more may be filled in from other sources, as, for instance, details as to Ananda’s admittance into the Sangha and of the formation of the Female Order upon the request of Mahaprajapati, both of which we will address shortly.
The Nidana-Katha tells us that after his return to Kapilavastu, the Buddha and his disciples returned to Rajagriha, where they then met Anathapindika, after which they covered the same ground on their way back north to Koshala and the Jetavana Monastery (which is immediately west of Kapilavastu). However, the Buddhacarita, as we have seen, tells us that the Buddha met Anathapindika before travelling north to Kapilavastu, and so, having already been given the Jetavana monastery, the Sangha went immediately from Kapilavastu to Jetavana in order to formally recieve the gift. Thus, in the Buddhacarita, the visit to both Kapilavastu and Jetavana occur between the 4th and 5th vassas. If we attempt to focus purely on the historical, laying aside the symbolic meaning of the return home as much as is possible and assuming some of the main events to be historically-based, it would seem far more likely that the return to Kapilavastu occurred several years later than in either of these texts, but was brought forward in the story to align with the symbolism. The first thirteen of the Buddha’s vassas (rainy season retreats) were spent in the south-country of modern day Uttar Pradesh—largely in and around Rajagriha and Varanasi—excepting one (the seventh), which he is said to have spent in Tushita heaven. It is possible that this exception (which is undoubtedly symbolic) hides the historic trip north to Kapilavastu, after which they returned back south, to return again north, in the fourteenth year, to Jetavana. It is only in that fourteenth year that he is said to have actually spent a vassa in Jetavana, and it seems unlikely that the Sangha would trek so far north (on foot and begging for alms each day, hence very slow travel) to receive the donation of the monastery without remaining there for a rainy season. Historically speaking, it seems likely that the Buddha would’ve met Anathapindika in Rajagriha (either before or after the return to Kapilavastu); the benefactor would’ve thereafter secured the grove at Jetavana and began construction on the monastery, and only after it was completed did Buddha and his followers make the trek north to reside there for a season.323 This is, of course, all speculation, impossible to verify historically, and rather unimportant to the overall narrative.
However the details actually occurred, sometime after his return to Kapilavastu, the Buddha and his disciples travelled to Savatthi, where the Jetavana monastery awaited them along with their benefactor, Anathapindika. The dedication ceremony then took place,324 handing the Jetavana monastery over to the Sangha. Jetavana would become the center-point of much of the Buddha’s future mission, there being no other place he spent more time.
As we’ve touched on, it is at this point that the detailed and relatively consistent chronology of the Buddha’s life becomes much more blurred. The Nidana-Katha ends here, with a statement that the Buddha remained for the rest of his days in Jetavana (a suggestion quite inconsistent with other records), while the Buddhacarita continues on, first recounting a list of disciples converted and taught by the Buddha,325 then briefly recounting the story of Devadatta’s mischief (which we will touch upon shortly), after which it proceeds directly to the story of Amrapali (which brings us to the Buddha’s final journey and paranirvana). So the Buddhacarita passes by nearly 40 years of the Buddha’s life in silence, dropping off the narrative and then picking it back up again near the beginning of the Maha-parinibbana sutta, a mere 30 days before the Buddha’s final nirvana.
The wealth of Buddhist suttas available to us today give many insights into the various activities of Buddha and the Sangha during these years—after the dedication ceremony at Jetavana and before the Buddha’s Last Journey—but it is left to us to piece them together into a coherent story. Thus we will leave the Buddhacarita (last remaining of our traditional biographies), in order to cover a few meaningful events in the life of the Sangha. We will attempt to explore these intervening stories in what may perhaps be a logical order, before returning to the Buddhacarita and the Maha-parinibbana sutta to address the Buddha’s final days and Nirvana. Students are encouraged to fill in the gaps through a study of the Suttas themselves.326
NOTABLE EVENTS IN THE LIFE OF THE SANGHA
Before approaching a few notable events, we must first more fully introduce another of the key disciples of the Buddha. We mentioned earlier that among the disciples accepted into the Sangha in Kapilavastu, there was one was named Ananda,327 who was, in fact, the Buddha’s first cousin. Among all the Buddha’s disciples, none are featured in more suttas than Ananda, and none are described with a more well-rounded humanness than he. Ananda is portrayed as quintessentially human: imperfect, struggling at times, full of sympathy and concern; he mourns when those close to him pass and works hard to convince the Buddha to admit women into the Sangha; he questions many things and in bringing those questions to the Buddha he is often shown to have been mistaken. In addition to these superbly human qualities, Ananda is also said to have been extremely handsome, something that caused more than one woman to fall in love with him during his life as a Bhikkhu.
Ananda took refuge at quite a young age, but though he attained to the stage of Srotapatti, he remained at that stage for the entirety of the Buddha’s life, attaining Arhatship only later in life. Ananda was no ordinary disciple, however: his role is unique and central both during the Buddha’s life and after.328 The reasons for this are several: first, he was so well liked and relatable that others automatically looked up to and admired him; second, and perhaps most importantly, midway through the Buddha’s career Ananda became his personal attendant, thus establishing a close relationship with the Buddha and coming to be present at nearly all major events; and third, due to his astoundingly accurate memory, which would impart upon him a central role in the First Buddhist Council when the initial compilations of the Buddha’s teachings were recorded and organized.
Because of these features, there are several important moments in the life of the Sangha in which Ananda plays a central role, not the least of which is the acceptance of women into the Sangha, or more specifically the creation of a special Order of women Bhikkunis.
Earlier we recounted the Buddha’s reunion with his wife, Yasodhara, and in quoting from the Nidana-Katha we saw that she had become a devoted renunciant, mirroring the practices of her husband in his quest for enlightenment. Upon the Buddha’s return to Kapilavastu, we are told that Yasodhara requested three times to be permitted to join the Sangha, and three times the Buddha refused.329 But Yasodhara was not alone in her resolve. Mahaprajapati,330 Siddhartha’s foster-mother, had likewise been deeply impacted by the Buddha’s teachings in Kapilavastu and had herself become a convert.
The Buddha had such a profound impact upon the people of his homeland that not only did his father Suddhodana take refuge, so too, we are told with varying details, did five hundred other men. In giving themselves to the homeless life, these men left their wives and families, as had Siddhartha before them, and naturally this left a great deal of women bereft of their traditional roles, whether as wives or consorts, dancers or musicians.331
It is worthwhile to note here that the position of women in India at the time of the Buddha (as it sadly is even today) was generally one of subjugation; that is, the general society (among all castes) was heavily patriarchal. The following explains the situation well:
“In ancient India the position of women does not appear to have been a very happy one. Generally women seem to have been looked upon as being inferior to men. And, at times they were considered as being on the same level as the Sudras, the lowest of the four castes. Their freedom was extremely limited. The general view appears to be that they had to be under the care of parents in their childhood, under the protection of husbands in their youth; and in their old age they had to be under the control of their sons. Therefore, it was thought that they do not deserve any freedom. Their main role was considered to be that of housewives, managing the affairs in the house according to the wishes of their husbands. . . . Women did not have educational freedom. Education was not considered as being of any importance to women. Their religious freedom, too, was restricted. As they had only little freedom, their chances of performing meritorious religious rites, too, were very limited. Generally a woman was considered a burden on the family because the males had to bear the responsibility of looking after her.”332
Given this prevalent cultural prejudice—strongly supported and fostered by the Brahmanical system of law—it is not altogether surprising that the Buddha was reluctant to allow women to renounce their caste, position and culturally-instituted responsibilities in order to become homeless ascetics. There are, of course, further reasons why a mixture of female and male disciples may not be advisable, even in our day and under very different cultural views. These are well-illustrated in the difficulties faced by Ananda given his apparent attractiveness to women and his accompanying friendliness towards them. The difficulty is chiefly that which is involved in overcoming tanha, or the thirst for life, and kama, or the personal desire nature, which can be made unnecessarily difficult if one is constantly faced with the temptations of sexuality and the deeply imprinted desires that arise from such temptations. In general, as practised in nearly all religious systems, there may be a healthy distance between men and women disciples (particularly at certain stages of the path), which when maintained adds to the strength of the Sangha, but when not may lead to many unnecessary difficulties and strife. These considerations may shed light on the Buddha’s reluctance to admit women into the Sangha, and some of the stronger language used in the texts that describe his early position.333
Neither Mahaprajapati nor Yasodhara, nor the other women converts, were to be so easily turned aside, however, and their persistence itself holds for us a profound lesson. As much, or more, than the men, who were easily invited into the ascetic life of the Sangha, did the women demonstrate a profound aspiration towards the Spiritual life. Just as we saw with Gautama, and as demonstrated in religious texts around the world, when one comes to choose renunciation one is inevitably challenged on all sides: by one’s culture, by one’s family and caste, by one’s own inner voices of doubt and fear. Among the early women of Buddhism we find ourselves faced with an exemplification of pure spiritual aspiration the likes of which would be difficult to find matched elsewhere.
Indeed, the The Great Chronicle of Buddhas takes the position that this itself constitutes the Buddha’s primary reason for his reluctance to admit females into the order. Therein it is stated that:
“The reason for such rejection was because the Tathagata had decided to grant admission of women to the Order not easily but only after pains-taking efforts on the part of women to gain permission for ordination. Only then would they realize that becoming a bhikkhuni in the Dispensation was a thing difficult of attainment and would safeguard their bhikkhuni status with constant vigilance. The Tathagata wished them to cherish the hard won admission to the Order obtained after a great struggle.”334
Not only were these women challenging themselves, as their male counterparts did, they were challenging deeply-embedded cultural beliefs—beliefs that were likely to react upon them not only with ill-feeling but with violent force. In ancient India, and particularly among the powerful patriarchal systems of thought, it was unacceptable that a woman should choose her own life, should renounce the responsibilities imposed upon her, and should seek to walk the “still, small path that stretches far away”, as it is described in the Upanishads. In a culture in which it was common to demand such extreme behaviour as, for instance, that a wife should commit suicide upon the death of her husband—she being seen as having no value apart from him—it is easy to imagine the courage required of these exemplary women. Mahaprajapati, Yasodhara and the other early Bhikkhunis stand as a pillar of strength, resolve and spiritual ardour, and the power of persistence demonstrated by them is one that from their day to ours continues to crumble the old edifices of patriarchy the world over.
This intense resolve is described with glowing colour in The Great Chronicle of Buddhas:
“. . . The five hundred deserted wives considered that ‘it would not be appropriate to seek for new married life’ and decided unanimously to go to Mahapajapati Gotami to appeal to her ‘to obtain permission from the Tathagata for admission to the Order as bhikkhunis.’ Accordingly they went in a group to the step-mother Mahapajapati Gotami and made their, appeal to her.
“Their request reminded her of her failure to obtain permission for the women to receive ordination when the Tathagata was taking up residence at Nigrodha monastery on a previous occasion and so she caused a hair-dresser to shave their heads, including that of her own, and asked the ladies to wear dyed clothes to assume the form of bhikkhunis while they were still in the royal palace. Then they made arrangements to set out all together for Mahavana forest of Vesali where the Tathagata was then residing.
“The distance between Kapilavatthu and Vesali was fifty yojanas; and when Sakyan and Koliya royal families considered arrangements for their journey, they concluded, ‘It would not be possible for these princesses and royal ladies brought up so regally and gently to make the journey on foot’ and they arranged to provide them with five hundred sedans to solve the problem.
“The five hundred ladies agreed amongst themselves that such a mode of traveling might be tantamount to an act of disrespect to the Tathagata and they therefore made the journey of fifty one yojanas on foot. Royal families of both countries arranged for regular provision of food at every stop and sufficient number of escorts for their security en route to Vesali.
“Having made the difficult journey of fifty yojanas, their delicate feet were swollen with boils that took turns to rise and burst, looking as if they were covered with seeds of clearing-nut, Strychos potato rum. All the five hundred fair ladies headed by Mahapajapati Gotami who arrived at Vesali with swollen feet, bodies besmeared with dirt and dust, with tears streaming down their cheeks and in sore distress, stood in a group at the gate of the Kutagara monastery in the forest of Mahavana [where the Buddha was residing].”335
And there they stood, outside the gate, having cut their hair, donned the robes of bhikkhunis and pushed themselves beyond all expectation. Such spiritual resolve and dauntless courage is hard to find equalled among any but the Buddha himself!
Ananda, seeing Mahaprajapati “standing outside the porch of the gateway, her feet swollen, her limbs covered with dust, with tearful face and crying”,336 asks her why she is crying. She tells him that she and the five hundred others cry because women are not permitted to enter the Sangha, even though this is their great wish. It is a sign of Ananda’s endearing character that he immediately thrusts himself into the role of the women’s spokesman, taking it upon himself to request their entrance into the Sangha.
But, just as with Mahaprajapati and Yasodhara, he is three times turned away by the Buddha, who thus denies their entry for the sixth time. In this we may see definite symbolism: three times the women request entrance into the Sangha, then three times a male makes the request for them; and, as we will see, it is only upon the seventh request—in which the Buddha is approached in an entirely different manner—that the request is finally accepted.
Ananda, having been turned away three times resolves to try again.
“Then the venerable Ananda addressed the Blessed One thus: ‘Are women competent, venerable Lord, if they retire from household life to the homeless state, under the doctrine and discipline announced by the Tathagata, to attain to the fruit of conversion, to attain to a release from a wearisome repetition of rebirths, to attain to saint-ship?’ The Blessed One declared: ‘Women are competent, Ananda, if they retire from household life to the homeless state, under the doctrine and discipline announced by the Tathagata, to attain to the fruit of conversion, to attain to a release from a wearisome repetition of rebirths, to attain to saint-ship.’337
This is not only important in Ananda’s strategy to convince the Buddha, it is deeply important in terms of breaking down the patriarchal monopoly on spirituality that had existed in India for countless generations (and, sadly, still lingers in that and many other cultures). The Buddha here gives the definitive answer to the question as to whether women can succeed on the spiritual path of the Arhat, and the answer is: Yes.
Ananda, having obtained this all-important answer from the Buddha, pressed forward with his argument in favour of the women:
“If, Lord, women, having gone forth . . . are able to realise . . . perfection—and, Lord, the Gotamid, Pajapati the Great, was of great service: she was the Lord’s aunt, foster-mother, nurse, giver of milk, for when the Lord’s mother passed away she suckled him—it were well, Lord, that women should obtain the going forth from home into homelessness in the dhamma and discipline proclaimed by the Truth-finder.”338
We must smile at good Ananda’s two-pronged strategy: first establish that if women were accepted into the Sangha, they would indeed be fit to attain Arhatship, and then, appealing to Buddha’s sympathies, reminding him that he, the great Enlightened One, owes a very great deal to his foster-mother! The strategy proved itself worthy, and the Buddha finally assented to allow the women to join the Sangha, setting up a distinct Order of Bhikkhunis from that day forth.
In this story we may perhaps find a glimpse at the modus operandi of a Buddha, or indeed of any great teacher of humanity. The Buddha does not himself drive each and every event; does not direct his disciples as a puppet-master with his strings, but rather he allows the disciples to impel their own lives, to draw upon their own Will and inherent Wisdom. Thus, as told in this story, it is not the Buddha who instigates the rounding out and completion of the form of the Sangha, but the disciples themselves. It is the women who decided it was time for them to become bhikkhunis, in fact, they had initiated themselves—cutting their hair, donning the robes and leaving home—prior to the Buddha’s consent. In one very real sense, they were already bhikkhunis and there was already an order of bhikkhunis before the Buddha ever agreed to it. And it was Ananda who, through his own inner searching as to the rightness of it, determined that the women should be allowed and took up their banner to push for their rights. This latter point may seem small in our day, but it is no insignificant mark that Ananda, a man of a culture in which women were almost entirely subjugates, came, of his own accord, to realize that there is no inherent reason that women should not be placed upon equal footing with men in the most important choices and paths of human life, and furthermore, took it upon himself to argue in favour of their rights.
So we find the Buddha allowing his disciples to make the Sangha what it is, based on their own wisdom, not solely on his own. We find that Buddhism, as we know it today, is not the development of one man, but that of a community, and in this we may perhaps see the real greatness of the Buddha, the qualities of a true leader, one who helps others to gain the wisdom needed to self-govern and self-devise their own life-path.
As one modern author rightly notes: “The nun’s Sangha was a radical experiment for its time.”339 And not only for its time, but for its place. And not only radical, but entirely revolutionary—a revolution that would, sadly, be swept out of India by the Brahman priesthood in their expulsion of Buddhism from the land many centuries after the Buddha’s paranirvana. We find the subjugation of women in Brahman India to have carried on up to our time, while in Buddhist countries women are given far more freedom of choice, particularly in regards to spiritual life.
At the time of the Buddha’s assent to allow women into the Sangha, he is said to have laid down eight special rules for bhikkhunis340—which do, in actuality, maintain a kind of subjugation in themselves—and we find specific requirements for bhikkhuni ordination.341 In addition to these, a whole host of rules and regulations for both bhikkhus and bhikkhunis have been established, both during the Buddha’s day and over the intervening centuries.342 These rules are, like the Sangha itself, the product of the disciples of Buddha and Buddhism, following their own developing understanding of the precepts of the Aryastangamarga, the Noble Eightfold Path.
With the addition of the Bikkhuni Order, the form of the Sangha was completed. We have, then, the male order and the female order of disciples, and then the male and female lay-disciples. Each and all take refuge in each other, in the Dharma and in the Buddha. Thus it is a true community of interdependence and mutual upliftment.
During the Buddha’s four decades of open teaching there are countless stories that wonderfully illustrate his wisdom, his style as a teacher, his humour, and so on. We may suggest the following articles, which are running translation/commentaries, for the student wishing to delve into these stories.
In addition, we highly recommend students study the Dhammapada, which contains the essence of the Buddha’s public teachings. We may also put forward the following quote for consideration. The main schools of Buddhism have quite different approaches to the idea of whether or not the Buddha had an “esoteric” side to his teachings. The following provides a theosophical approach:
“Indeed, the secret portions of the ‘Dan’ or ‘Jan-na’343 (‘Dhyan’) of Gautama’s metaphysics—grand as they appear to one unacquainted with the tenets of the Wisdom Religion of antiquity—are but a very small portion of the whole. The Hindu Reformer limited his public teachings to the purely moral and physiological aspect of the Wisdom-Religion, to Ethics and MAN alone. Things ‘unseen and incorporeal,’ the mystery of Being outside our terrestrial sphere, the great Teacher left entirely untouched in his public lectures, reserving the hidden Truths for a select circle of his Arhats. The latter received their Initiation at the famous Saptaparna cave (the Sattapanni of Mahavansa) near Mount Baibhâr (the Webhâra of the Pali MSS.). This cave was in Rajagriha, the ancient capital of Mogadha, and was the Cheta cave of Fa-hian, as rightly suspected by some archæologists.
“Time and human imagination made short work of the purity and philosophy of these teachings, once that they were transplanted from the secret and sacred circle of the Arhats, during the course of their work of proselytism, into a soil less prepared for metaphysical conceptions than India; i.e., once they were transferred into China, Japan, Siam, and Burmah. How the pristine purity of these grand revelations was dealt with may be seen in studying some of the so-called ‘esoteric’ Buddhist schools of antiquity in their modern garb, not only in China and other Buddhist countries in general, but even in not a few schools in Thibet, left to the care of uninitiated Lamas and Mongolian innovators.
“Thus the reader is asked to bear in mind the very important difference between orthodox Buddhism—i.e., the public teachings of Gautama the Buddha, and his esoteric Budhism.”344
Next we can discuss a series of events and characters that provide a great deal of context for the final years in the life of the Buddha. In these we may also come to appreciate some of the external difficulties faced by the early Sangha, both during and after the Buddha’s paranirvana.
Earlier we touched upon the relationship between Buddha and King Bimbasara of Rajagriha. By all accounts that relationship was both intimate and mutually beneficial—the Buddha providing spiritual teachings to the people of Rajagriha, Bimbasara providing the first monastery (Veluvana) in the outskirts of the royal capital. We might further imagine that Bimbasara may have provided an important protecting hand during the early formative stages of the Sangha. And it seems that this relationship endured throughout both men’s long lives.
According to the records of the vassas, a significant portion of the Buddha’s early ministry occurred in the south-lands in and around Rajagriha—up until the 14th year when the Sangha spent their first vassa at the Jetavana monastery. Following the 14th year, and a 15th spent in Kapilavastu, the Sangha once again returned south to the area in and around Rajagriha. In these records, we then find a shift in the general wandering tendency along with a simultaneous return to the north. We are told that, between the 20th and 43rd years of the ministry, the Buddha remained almost entirely at Jetavana, or in its immediate vicinity.345
However, these records (partial and fragmentary as they are) most certainly contain errors and ommissions. Firstly, it seems altogether strange and highly unlikely that, given the relationship enjoyed between the Buddha and king Bimbasara, and given the Buddha’s frequent returns to Rajagriha during the first 20 years of his ministry, and given the prominence of Rajagriha and Bimbasara’s kingdom in the region—not only as housing the first monastery and as having supplied the core of the Sangha,346 but also as a city noted as a great centre of spiritual freedom under Bimbasara’s rule347—that a full 25 years of the Buddha’s life would then be passed far to the north, without once returning to Rajagriha. As we’ll see, the suttas make it clear that the Buddha did indeed spend several vassas in the south during the latter part of his life. This said, it must be admitted that the prominence of Jetavana in the suttas make it very probable that a great many vassas were indeed spent there. The truth of the Buddha’s movements will likely remain veiled so long as more substantial records are absent.
There is one prominent character in the events of the region whose relation to and communications (though minimal) with the Buddha provide us with both a wide-reaching historical context and a significant instance of symbology. This character is Ajatasatru, son of king Bimbasara.
To understand the significance of Ajatasatru on the later life of Buddha, and his profound impact on the political landscape after the Buddha’s paranirvana, we must reflect upon the nature of the region, the kingdoms, their rulers and the external situations between the various kingdoms. We have, as stated, the kingdom of Bimbasara, called the Magadha kingdom, in the south with its capital at Rajagriha. We have also, just a short ways northwards, the centre of the Confederacy of the Vajjians, with their capital Vesali (Vaishali), wherein lived the Licchavi, a powerful Kshatriya tribe. To the immediate west of Rajagriha lived the Kasis, with their capital at Varanasi (modern Benares); further westwards was the Vatsa kingdom, with their capital Kosambi. Eastwards of Rajagriha we have the kingdom of Anga, with its capital Champa. And, to the north-west we have the Buddha’s birthplace of Kapilavastu and the kingdom of the Shakyas, which was under the influence of the Kosalas, a powerful kingdom who traced their roots to Lord Rama, king of Ayodhya—its capital, Savatthi, was to the west of Kapilavastu, across the Rapti river and is the location of the Jetavana monastery. These kingdoms are each included in the Mahajanapada, the sixteen “great realms” of the India of the 6th century BCE, a rough map of which can be found here.
As said, in his early days the Buddha enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship with king Bimbasara. He also travelled throughout all the above kingdoms, excepting Anga, and seems to have been treated relatively well by all. He attained his enlightenment just south of Bimbasara’s capital; preached his first sermon in Varanasi; spent rainy seasons in both Vesali and Kosambi, along with other locations in their vacinity; he travelled north to Kapilavastu and received the Jetavana monastery (which had been purchased from the royal family of the Kosalas) in Savatti.
Both the Buddhist and Jain traditions record slightly varying accounts of an event that changed the landscape of the region, but both agree on the fundamental note: King Bimbasara was prematurely supplanted as monarch of the Magadha’s by his son Ajatasatru. According to Buddhist tradition, as recorded in the Samaññaphala Sutta, Ajatasatru killed his father in order to ascend to the throne.
This sutta helps us piece together a rough timeline. It records the first (and, it seems, the only) direct meeting between Ajatasatru and the Buddha, and tells us that this meeting took place while “the Blessed One was staying at Rajagaha [Rajagriha], in Jivaka Komarabhacca’s mango grove”, at a time when Ajatasatru was already king. Buddhist tradition gives us several details of Bimbasara’s life that allow us to determine the rough date of this meeting. From these traditions we can outline the following approximations:
|ascends to throne|
|makes great renunciation|
|Bimbasara takes refuge|
* Bimbasara is said to have been five years younger than Buddha.
† He ascended the throne at age 15.
‡ Another 15 years until he hears the Buddha speak in Rajagriha and takes refuge in the three jewels.
§ We are told Bimbasara reigned for 52 years.
This places Bimbasara’s death and Ajatasatru’s rise to the throne between 6 and 8 years prior to the Buddha’s paranirvana. Thus the Buddha’s stay in Rajagriha in which he met with Ajatasatru must have occurred during these last years of his life, prior to the narrative that follows his final journey, as recorded in the Paranirvana Sutra. In addition to this, the Cullavagga records that the Buddha was in both Kosambi and Rajagriha immediately before Bimbasara’s death.350
We thus have a rough date for the actions of another notably infamous character who, tradition tells us, helped orchestrate Ajatasatru’s rise to the throne. According to the Buddhist suttas, the central figure in these events was the bhikkhu Devadatta,351 brother of Ananda, cousin of Siddhartha. Many suttas touch upon Devadatta’s trechery and scheming, but we will rely primarily on one chief source, the Cullavagga (section VII), which will provide us with a narrative of the events. The Mahayana tradition also recounts portions of these events in the Amitayurdhyana Sutra.
First let us say that Devadatta is said in some accounts to have grown up with Siddhartha and to have been a troublemaker even in childhood.352 Other accounts pick up his story only when the Buddha returns to Kapilavastu, where Devadatta is recorded as among those who took refuge after hearing the Buddha speak.353 From this point he seems to have enjoyed a fair position within the Sangha, even being praised on occasion, but we are also told something of key interest about his character: we are told that he “acquired the power of iddhi possible to those who are yet of the world (puthujja nika iddhi)”354 If we remember the warning given in the Voice of the Silence, as to the “dangers of the lower Iddhi”,355 we may gain some valuable insight into Devadatta.
Having taken refuge, but having focused, it seems, on the attainment of lower powers for the sake of self, Devadatta eventually took a turn away from the righteous path and towards a downwards one. His focus on self is revealed in the Cullavagga:
“As Devadatta was meditating in private a reasoning arose in his mind thus: ‘Whom now could I please, so that because he is pleased with me, much gain and honour would accrue (to me)?’ Then it occurred to Devadatta: ‘This Prince Ajatasattu is young and also has an auspicious future. What now if I were to make Prince Ajatasattu pleased, so that because he is pleased with me, much gain and honour would accrue (to me)?’”356
This self-directed thought is exactly that which is warned against by the Buddha, and all true spiritual teachers. The text continues:
“Then Devadatta, having packed away his lodging, taking his bowl and robe, set out for Rajagaha; in due course he arrived at Rajagaha. Then Devadatta, having thrown off his own form, having assumed the form of a young boy clad in a girdle of snakes, became manifest in Prince Ajatasattu’s lap. Then Prince Ajatasattu was afraid, anxious, fearful, alarmed. Then Devadatta spoke thus to Prince Ajatasattu:
“’Are you, prince, afraid of me?’
“’Yes , I am afraid. Who are you?’
“’I am Devadatta.’
“’If you, honoured sir, are really master Devadatta, please become manifest in your own form.’
“Then Devadatta, having thrown off the young boy’s form, stood, wearing his outer cloak and (other) robes and carrying his bowl, before Prince Ajatasattu. Then Prince Ajatasattu, greatly pleased with this wonder of psychic power on Devadatta’s part, morning and evening went to wait on him with five hundred chariots, and five hundred offerings of rice cooked in milk were brought as a gift of food. Then there arose to Devadatta, overcome by gains, honours and fame, his mind obsessed by them, some such longing as this: ‘It is I who will lead the Order of monks.’ But at the very occurrence of this thought Devadatta declined in his psychic power.”357
This narrative, quite likely based upon real-world events, those of the deception and cunning of Devadatta and the nature of the relationship between himself and the prince, also leads us into very deep and meaningful symbolism. We glimpse here another case of the “tempting serpent”, we find Ajatasatru “greatly pleased” with the display of powers, and we find a budding thirst for “gains, honours and fame”. These are all inner experiences of one who, while treading the path, is overcome by his own vices. As the Voice of the Silence graphically warns:
“The ladder by which the candidate ascends is formed of rungs of suffering and pain; these can be silenced only by the voice of virtue. Woe, then, to thee, Disciple, if there is one single vice thou hast not left behind. For then the ladder will give way and overthrow thee; its foot rests in the deep mire of thy sins and failings, and ere thou canst attempt to cross this wide abyss of matter thou hast to lave thy feet in Waters of Renunciation. Beware lest thou should’st set a foot still soiled upon the ladder’s lowest rung. Woe unto him who dares pollute one rung with miry feet. The foul and viscous mud will dry, become tenacious, then glue his feet unto the spot, and like a bird caught in the wily fowler’s lime, he will be stayed from further progress. His vices will take shape and drag him down. His sins will raise their voices like as the jackal’s laugh and sob after the sun goes down; his thoughts become an army, and bear him off a captive slave.”358
The symbolism will go further and become further revealed, as Devadatta and then Ajatasatru act again and again upon selfish desires. But first, it seems that Moggallana, the great disciple, caught wind of Devadatta’s scheming and came to the Buddha, who was staying at Kosambi, to report it. The Buddha’s answer is rather significant; he is said to have responded thus:
“Mind what you say, Moggallana, mind what you say, Moggallana. This foolish man [Devadatta] will now betray himself, by himself.”359
The Buddha, having conquered his own lower nature, symbolized by his defeat of Mara, knows in full that the inevitable end of all selfish motive and act is self-betrayal and self-destruction. There is no need for the Buddha to put a stop to Devadatta’s scheming, for the monk plays a game that can have only one final result: his own demise. Such is the case with all who self-seek.
To shed light on the Buddha’s actions following Moggallana’s report, we can return briefly to another, earlier record: Once, while in Jetavana, the Buddha had faced adversity in a certain village:
On a certain occasion, an evil-minded woman bribed the citizens of a town near Jeta Vana, and said to them:
“When the ascetic Gautama comes to the town, do you revile and abuse him, and drive him out.”
So,when the Buddha entered the city, they followed after him shouting: “You are a robber, you are a fool, you are a camel, you are an ass, you are a denizen of hell!”
The venerable Ananda said to the Buddha: “Master, they are reviling us; let us go elsewhere.”
“Where shall we go, Ananda?”
“Master, let us go to another city.”
“What if they should revile us there?”
“Master, we shall go to yet another city.”
“Ananda, we shall not so act. Where a tumult arises, there we shall remain until the tumult ceases. Ananda, I am like an elephant that has entered the battle. Such an elephant should withstand the arrows that come from every side. So it is my duty to endure with patience the words of wicked men.”360
Though the Buddha advised Moggallana to mind what he says, and explained that Devadatta would be his own undoing, he also acted upon his own advice given earlier to Ananda. The Cullavagga tells us that, after meeting with Mogallana, the Buddha left Kosambi and marched to Rajagriha, where Devadatta was residing. He thus exhibited the quality of a true Sage, one who does not merely wait for the opportunity to overcome evil, but actively places himself at the centre of the storm.
Having arrived there, he is immediately approached by the bhikkhus of Veluvasa, who report to him that:
“Prince Ajatasattu, Lord, goes morning and evening to wait on Devadatta with five hundred chariots, and five hundred offerings of rice cooked in milk are brought as a gift of food.”
The Buddha replies:
“Do not, monks, envy Devadatta’s gains and honours and fame. For as long, monks, as Prince Ajatasattu goes morning and evening to wait on Devadatta with five hundred chariots and (as long as) five hundred offerings of rice cooked in milk are brought as a gift of food, there may be expected for Devadatta decline in skilled mental states, not growth. It is as if, monks, they were to throw a bladder361 at a fierce dog’s nose—as that dog, monks, would become much fiercer, even so, monks, . . . Devadatta’s gains, honours and fame bring about his own hurt, Devadatta’s gains, honour and fame bring about his destruction. . . .”362
The “fierce dog” is, of course, our own lower nature, the selfish demoniac part of each of us, that which is “of the earth, earthly”.363
The Buddha remained in Rajagriha among the members of the Sangha stationed there. One night, while sitting with the bhikkhus and the king (Bimbasara), Devadatta approached the Buddha with the following appeal:
“Lord, the Lord is old now, worn, stricken in years, he has lived his span and is at the close of his life; Lord, let the Lord now be content to live devoted to abiding in ease here and now, let him hand over the Order of monks to me. It is I who will lead the Order of monks.”
To which the Buddha replies:
“Enough, Devadatta, please do not lead the Order of monks.”
This is repeated three times in the story, until finally the Buddha makes his position absolutely clear:
“I, Devadatta, would not hand over the Order of monks even to Sariputta and Moggallana. How then could I to you, a wretched one to be vomited like spittle?”364
This is, perhaps, the strongest language used by the Buddha in any of the suttas. He is unsparing, and even unkind. This prompts Devadatta to feel malice towards the Buddha, and that malice spurns on his further and increasingly destructive actions. This, then, brings us again to his relationship with Ajatasatru, both in its symbolic and historical sense.
Devadatta devised a scheme by which he would turn the tables on the Buddha. He went to Ajatasatru with the following proposal: Ajatasatru should kill his father and assume the throne; Devadatta would likewise kill the Buddha and take his place as leader of the Sangha. Thus they would together secure their power and dominion.
“Prince Ajatasattu, thinking: “Now, master Devadatta is of great psychic power, of great majesty; master Devadatta must know (what is right).”365
So the scheme is put into action, first by Ajatasatru, then by Devadatta. The former would be successful, the latter would, of course, fail to kill the Buddha, though not for lack of trying.
First, he was supplied with assassins by Ajatasatru, but when the Buddha approached they could not follow through with their plan, taken as they were by his saintliness. Next, Devadatta tried himself, by hurling a rock down on the Buddha, but this too failed. Finally, he tried to incite an angry elephant to trample the Buddha, but the elephant was instead easily subdued by the Buddha, through his power of loving-kindness. All these contain symbolic meanings, of course. The full version of these events is recorded in the Cullavagga and elsewhere, and include many points of interest and insight.
There is also a deeply symbolic meaning to the events and relationship between Devadatta and Ajatasatru, and Ajatasatru’s portion of the scheme. This is partly revealed in a verse from the Amitayurdhyana Sutra:
“Instigated by his wicked friend, Devadatta, he seized his father, King Bimbisara, confined him in a room with seven-fold walls, and forbade all the court officials to visit the king.”
Here the Father stands for the Higher Self, the Son, Ajatasatru for the lower self, and Devadatta for the “God-Given”366 power of Will and Choice, by which we may choose, in the words of the Upanishads, either the “better or the dearer”,367 the higher or the lower path. It is clear which path is chosen here, and the whole story embodies, in its symbolism, the results of such a choice. The Higher Self becomes locked within the seven-fold walled room (the embodied self of seven principles), and cut off from all court officials—i.e. the path of communication between higher and lower self, the “antaskaranic path” is sealed off, thus breaking the silver thread that binds the soul to its Master, in the words of the Voice of the Silence.368
While Devadatta was failing in his task to kill the Buddha, Ajatasatru was successful in his. Having locked his father in the dungeon, he eventually, according to Buddhist tradition, murders him in his cell,369 thus ascending to the throne on a foundation of violence—the lower self becomes a “slayer of his own soul” in the words of the Upanishads.370
Two things occur after this point: (1) Devadatta creates a schism within the Sangha and (2) Ajatasatru begins a rule that would be centred upon military conquest and would forever change the region of northern India. We will begin with Devadatta.
Devadatta, having failed to kill the Buddha, and likely seeing the futility in making any further attempts, resorted to a lesser plan. With the help of three other bhikkhus—Kokalika, Katamorakatissaka and Samuddadata—he formulated five strict rules that they would use to force a schism in the Sangha. These rules would make it compulsory for all bhikkhus to:
1. Dwell all their lives in the forest
2. Live only on alms obtained by begging
3. Wear robes made from rags collected from the dust heaps and cemeteries
4. Live at the foot of trees
5. Refrain from eating fish or meat throughout their lives.
These were calculated to cause the schism, and would be successful largely because of the continued and prevalent reverence for strict austerities among the general populous and among some bhikkhus. As we’ve seen, the Buddha himself attempted this path and later dismissed it as unnecessary and even harmful, but many of the bhikkhus continued to believe in such austerities. Devadatta further knew that the Buddha could never agree to such rules as absolutely compulsory for all bhikkhus, as this would go against the foundations of the Middle Way. The plan to create the schism was well-devised.
Indeed when Devadatta brought these rules to the Buddha his reply was, that anyone who felt inclined to follow these rules was welcome to do so, but that he would not make them obligatory. This was exactly in fitting with Devadatta’s plan.
“Then Devadatta, having entered Rajagaha with his friends, taught the people by means of the five items, saying: ‘We, friends, having approached the recluse Gotama, asked for five items, saying: “Lord, the Lord in many a figure speaks in praise of desiring little . . . whoever should eat fish and flesh, sin would besmirch him.” The recluse Gotama goes not allow these five items, but we live undertaking these five items.’
“Those people who were there of little faith, not believing, who were of poor intelligence, these spoke thus: ‘These recluses, sons of the Sakyans371 are punctilious, are expungers (of evil) but the recluse Gotama is for abundance and strives after abundance.’ But those people who had faith and were believing, who were wise and intelligent, these looked down upon, criticised, spread it about, saying: ‘How can this Devadatta go forward with a schism in the Lord’s Order, with a breaking of the concord?’”372
So the divide was accomplished. It will be remembered that the good disciple Ananda was Devadatta’s brother, and in them we may see the type of both the ideal disciple and its opposite; we may also see, symbolically, the characteristics of humility on one side and arrogant self-assurity on the other, the qualities of selflessness in Ananda and selfishness in Devadatta. We are told that, upon conversing with Devadatta, Ananda returned to the Buddha with the report that, indeed, Devadatta was intent upon creating a permanent schism in the Order. The Buddha’s response is one of those great shining lights of wisdom that we find over and over again in the suttas. His reply to Ananda’s concern was simply this:
“Easy is good for the good, good for the evil is hard.
Evil for the evil is easy, evil for the noble ones is hard.”
If we pause to consider, we may glimpse the profound compassion underlying these words. The Buddha shows no enmity, no anger, not even a hint of “eye for an eye” thinking. Instead, he shows, to our mind, supreme pity. Each individual is endowed with their own “god-given” free-will; each is capable of choosing between good and evil, the “better or the dearer”: the Buddha cannot make the choice for them, but can only point the way and allow them to choose and to reinforce their choice with every step. It is easy for the good to choose good; it is not easy for those accustomed to choosing the dearer to choose the better.
In the Mahayana Mahaparanirvana Sutra, we find King Ajatasatru posing a critical question to the Buddha:
“How, O World-Honoured One, can you be All-Knowledge, or are you not? Devadatta had for innumerable ages past an evil intent and thought of following and harming the Tathagata. Why is it that you allowed him to become ordained?”
to which the Buddha replies:
“I follow what others say,
And do not speak against [them].
And I do not look at others [to see]
If they do or do not do;
I only look back upon the good
Or not-good of what I do.”373
So again we gain insight into the Buddha’s character. Though endowed with the ability to recognize Devadatta’s intent, he does not, he admits, use his abilities to concern himself with the doings of others, but rather concerns himself with his own right-action. This is a profound lesson for every aspirant to the path of enlightenment.
Devadatta then puts the final stage of his plan into effect by handing out voting tickets among the bhikkhus, saying:
“We, your reverences, having approached the recluse Gotama,374 asked for five items . . . The recluse Gotama does not allow these, but we live undertaking these five items. If these five items are pleasing to the venerable ones, let each one take a voting ticket.”375
A full five hundred bhikkhus (all “newly ordained and not properly versed”, we are told) were taken in by Devadatta’s scheme, and following him, left Rajagriha towards Gaya. The Buddhist tradition, as recorded in the Cullavagga and elsewhere, tells us that the Buddha sent Sariputta and Moggallana after Devadatta, and that they were able to convince the bhikkhus to return to the Sangha, but in its historical significance, this is highly doubtful. It would seem that the divide in the Order was indeed accomplished and indeed became rather lasting. Faxian, a Chinese traveller of the 5th century CE, records that there were still followers of Devadatta in his day, a full thousand years after the schism, and other records seem to support this.376
The true historical events here have likely been veiled in the records in order to better conform to the symbolic meanings of the story, but we may at least glimpse some of the difficulties faced by the Buddha and the Sangha during the early days. Overcoming the prevalent tendency towards both ritualism and strict asceticism among the religiously-minded Indians must have proven a Herculean task, almost insurmountable—and, indeed, over 2500 years later it still seems almost insurmountable, India remaining all this time under so many superstitions and outright harmful interpretations of religious duty. It is also very likely that, as we find in the stories of nearly all great reformers, there would’ve been opposition to the Buddha both within the entrenched religious community and among the royalties of the time, and it is highly likely that such opposition would’ve manifested itself in such schemes as represented by that of Devadatta and Ajatasatru.
The schism being completed, Devadatta seems to have gone on his way, with his new followers. Various accounts of his end are recorded, but all lean towards his death and inevitably rebirth in a very low hell, but there is also the prophetic note that he would, eventually, on the power of past good actions, return to take up the noble path in some far distant future.
We may now pick up the thread of the story of Ajatasatru as it continues to relate to the Buddha and the life of the Sangha. And we can do this by following the narrative of the Samaññaphala sutta. It begins sometime shortly after Ajatasatru’s assumption of the throne—we might say, sometime between 2 and 6-8 years before the Buddha’s paranirvana.
“Now at that time—it being the observance day, the full-moon night of the water-lily season, the fourth month of the rains—King Ajatasattu of Magadha, the son of Queen Videha, was sitting on the roof terrace of his palace surrounded by his ministers. Then he felt inspired to exclaim: ‘How wonderful is this moonlit night! How beautiful . . . How lovely . . . How inspiring . . . How auspicious is this moonlit night! What brahman or contemplative should we visit tonight who might enlighten and bring peace to our mind?’”377
This, besides revealing the time of year (thus indicating that it was during a vassa, in which, we will see, the Buddha was staying at Rajagriha), reveals something important in the character of Ajatasatru. While his father, Bimbasara, was without a doubt a keen follower, lay-disciple and benefactor of the Buddha, his son had no such dedication. Having previously schemed to murder the Buddha, he is in no hurry to visit him or to view him as pre-eminent among the sages of the time (as his father had done). Rather, he opens the question to himself and his ministers: which Brahman or contemplative (Jaina) should we visit?378 This reveals a kind of dilettantism towards spiritual teachings, a kind of casual interest, as though the teachings were a form of entertainment one might take in on a lovely night.
The mention of Jainas here is also of importance, as it touches upon another notable figure in operation at the same time and place as the Buddha: the 24th Tirthankara of Jainism, known as Mahavira. Mahavira seems to have been the younger of the two, and perhaps to have been less prominent while the Buddha was still alive, than he was after the Buddha had passed. While both Buddhist and Jain traditions tend to claim Ajatasatru as a follower, it would seem that the Jains have far greater substance to their claim than do the Buddhists,379 though we may be equally justified in attributing him as a follower of neither, nor necessarily of any other specific teacher or teaching, besides, perhaps, that of worldly ambition.
The Samaññaphala sutta continues with the king’s ministers listing several teachers they might visit, including Mahavira (there named Nigantha Nataputta). Eventually it is suggested that they visit the Buddha. Ajatasatru is at first reluctant to do so—we can easily imagine why!—but finally assents and makes his way to the grove where the Sangha was staying.
Upon arriving, Ajatasatru begs permission to ask the Buddha a question, and is granted the opportunity. The question he asks also reveals a good deal about his character. His question amount to this: there are many trades and professions in this world and I can clearly see their results; can you show me visible, tangible results from the contemplative life?
This is the question of one who may be presumed to have a rather materialistic bent, or perhaps better to say: one who is full of doubt about that which he cannot see or hear or touch or taste, or which does not seem to supply common worldly gains. We may also perceive not only an attitude of skepticism, but perhaps a continued antagonism towards the Buddha: “why should we believe what you say and teach?” is essentially the question asked. Ajatasatru wants results that, in his own words, are “visible in the here and now”, that is, in the physical world. This is not surprising, given the path of life he has chosen (and the results thereof, which we we will shortly discuss).
The Buddha answers his question with one of his own, likewise revealing something key in the Buddha’s character. His question is:
“Do you remember, great king, ever having asked this question of other brahmans and contemplatives?”
To which Ajatasatru replies:
“Yes, I do.”
So the Buddha asks:
“If it isn’t troublesome for you, how did they answer?”
This provides an opportunity for the sutta to give a comparison of the teachings of other sages during the Buddha’s day and to contrast them with his teachings. But we are also interested in what the Buddha’s question reveals about his technique of teaching. Again and again in the Pali suttas we find the Buddha using a method that draws the questioner to his answer through his own reasoning. Again and again the Buddha replies with questions that draw out the inner wisdom of his questioners. It is a powerful technique, one in which the teacher begins the lesson from the point at which the student currently is in their own understanding, and gently encourages them towards answers that come, very often not from the Buddha himself, but from their own lips. In this way, the Buddha, as with all Masters, simply “points the way” and allows the student to travel the path into greater wisdom.
Following the discourse of this sutta, after Ajatasatru has the answer to his initial question as to the “fruits of contemplative life”, and following a long and very valuable discourse on the fundamentals of the Buddha’s teachings, Ajatasatru makes a confession:
“A transgression has overcome me, lord, in that I was so foolish, so muddle-headed, and so unskilled as to kill my father—a righteous man, a righteous king—for the sake of sovereign rulership. May the Blessed One please accept this confession of my transgression as such, so that I may restrain myself in the future.”
The Buddha accepts his confession and their dialogue comes to a close. We may take this confession with a rather large grain of salt: it is entirely possible that this Buddhist tradition is historically accurate, including the king’s repentance, but it is equally as possible that only pieces of the story contain historical accuracies. To our mind, it is rather difficult to believe that Ajatasatru would’ve come to the Buddha and made such a repentance, and then, only a very short time later (as we will see) would scheme and connive to instigate a war against good and by all accounts peaceful kingdoms, and without provocation—a war that would engulf the region for decades. Such inconsistencies in character seem rather unlikely.
The Samaññaphala sutta closes with the following words:
“Not long after King Ajatasattu had left, the Blessed One addressed the monks: ‘The king is wounded, monks. The king is incapacitated. Had he not killed his father—that righteous man, that righteous king—the dustless, stainless Dhamma eye would have arisen to him as he sat in this very seat.’”
But, instead of choosing the way of the Dhamma (Dharma), he chose the way of power and conquest of the world. In short, he chose exactly the opposite as young Siddhartha, who was faced with the very same circumstance: Siddhartha chose renunciation instead of kingship; Ajatasatru chose violent kingship instead of renunciation. And that made all the difference in the course of their lives. We may, then, perhaps gain a glimpse into the life that might’ve been for Siddhartha Gautama had he failed to make the Great Renunciation and instead had chosen to become a great ruler of men, as had been prophecized as a possible paths for his life. This contrast provides us with a clear illustration of two paths, the worldly and the spiritual, the selfish and the selfless. Two born princes, each chooses one of the two paths, and the results are painted for us in vivid colours: on one side a Buddha, having conquered himself in the inner war of Self and self; on the other a conquering king, following the course of outer, material war, covered in the blood of men, for Ajatasatru’s life became one of incessant war and material conquest, becoming the ruler of a vast territory and laying waste to several good kingdoms along the way.
The Mahayana teachings record the Buddha explaining to Ajatasatru the consequences of his decision:
It is important to keep the various symbolisms of Father and Son in mind when approaching the question of this “greatest of sins” and its consequence. In this instance, the most appropriate symbolism would seem to be that wherein the Father is the Higher Self, the Son the lower personality: when the latter kills the former and “breaks the silver thread that binds her to the Master”382 it may be said to be the greatest of sins, the greatest of crimes against SELF. The result is Avichi, the state of a personality devoid of higher principles, which sinks inevitably into its own self-conscious dissolution, ground down by the great and ceaseless mill of Nature.
We may also compare the destiny of both fathers, Suddhodhana and Bimbasara, again keeping in mind the several symbolic meanings of Father and Son. Bimbasara’s son imprisons and murders him; Suddhodana’s son seeks and finds enlightenment and then, returning home, teaches his father the dharma—and Buddhist tradition tells us that Suddodhana entered the path and reached Arhatship himself. The contrasts between these two sets of father-son, king and prince, is itself a powerful teaching tool.
THE BUDDHA’S FINAL JOURNEY
The story of Devadatta and Ajatasatru brings us to the beginning of the Maha-parinibbana Sutta,383 which records in vivid colours, the final days of the Buddha’s life. In it we find the opening sentences occupied with the fallout of Ajatasatru’s usurpation of the throne.
“Thus have I heard. Once the Blessed One dwelt at Rajagaha, on the hill called Vultures’ Peak. At that time the king of Magadha, Ajatasattu, son of the Videhi queen, desired to wage war against the Vajjis. He spoke in this fashion: ‘These Vajjis, powerful and glorious as they are, I shall annihilate them, I shall make them perish, I shall utterly destroy them.’”384
With this intention in mind, Ajatasatru sends his chief minister, Vassakara,385 to meet with the Buddha, in the hope of discovering a means to defeating the Vajjis (Vajjians). When Vassakara arrives at the Buddha’s side and explains Ajatasatru’s intention, the Buddha, instead of immediately responding to Vassakara, turns instead and begins a dialogue with Ananda. The dialogue has become known as the “Conditions of a Nation’s Welfare”, wherein the Buddha describes seven conditions that make for a prosperous nation.386 Each of these the Vajjians are said to possess, having been instructed in them by the Buddha himself. Thus, having made these conditions known to Vassakara, through his dialogue with Ananda, the Buddha turned to him and explained:
“So long, brahman, as these endure among the Vajjis, and the Vajjis are known for it, their growth is to be expected, not their decline.”387
The minister’s response is very telling, hinting at the plans for conquest that would come to fruition following the Buddha’s paranirvana.388
“If the Vajjis, Venerable Gotama, were endowed with only one or another of these conditions leading to welfare, their growth would have to be expected, not their decline. What then of all the seven? No harm, indeed, can be done to the Vajjis in battle by Magadha’s king, Ajatasattu, except through treachery or discord. Well, then, Venerable Gotama, we will take our leave, for we have much to perform, much work to do.”
The Buddha’s response is equally telling, revealing once again the heart of his approach as a world-teacher:
“Do as now seems fit to you, brahman.”389
The Mahayana Mahaparanirvana Sutra390 forgoes nearly all of the episodes of its Pali namesake, but does touch upon certain biographical aspects that we may find quite interesting in light of the above. For instance, we find at the outset, while listing a whole host of beings—divine, human and otherwise—who were present at the Buddha’s paranirvana, we find the following rather noteworthy remark:
“At that time, there were present the King of Vaisali and his consort, the people of the harem, and all the kings of Jambudvipa, excepting Ajatasatru and those of the castle town and villages of his kingdom.”
And again, a short while later:
“At that time, there were the consorts of the kings as numerous as the sands of seven Ganges, excepting those of King Ajatasatru.”
“All the great Bodhisattvas of all the innumerable Buddha lands of the ten directions were gathered together there. In addition, all the people of Jambudvipa were assembled there, except for the pair, Mahakasyapa and Ananda, and also Ajatasatru and his retinue, and the poisonous serpents that harm people, the dung-beetles, haly-vipers, scorpions, and the doers of evil of sixteen kinds.”
Though later we are told that, despite his absence, and apparently despite his role in the earlier attempted assassinations, and despite his scheming use of the Buddha in order to learn how to “utterly destroy” the Vajjis, Ajatasatru “very much respects the Buddha”.391 This we feel quite justified in doubting.392
Following the meeting with Vassakara, the Buddha called for an assembly of the bhikkhus in Rajagriha, wherein he imparted several very practical teachings. We may imagine, historically speaking, that these teachings would’ve been well known, and that the account here given may have been simply a final reiteration on the part of the Buddha, or a summary composed by the authors of the sutta.
These teachings are given in groups of seven—five sets of seven “conditions of welfare” for the bhikkhus—with a final group of six at the close. The first set of seven mirrors the conditions of welfare for a nation, and is directed to the Sangha:
“The growth of the bhikkhus is to be expected, not their decline, bhikkhus, so long as they assemble frequently and in large numbers; meet and disperse peacefully and attend to the affairs of the Sangha in concord; so long as they appoint no new rules, and do not abolish the existing ones, but proceed in accordance with the code of training (Vinaya) laid down; so long as they show respect, honor, esteem, and veneration towards the elder bhikkhus, those of long standing, long gone forth, the fathers and leaders of the Sangha, and think it worthwhile to listen to them; so long as they do not come under the power of the craving that leads to fresh becoming; so long as they cherish the forest depths for their dwellings; so long as they establish themselves in mindfulness, so that virtuous brethren of the Order who have not come yet might do so, and those already come might live in peace; so long, bhikkhus, as these seven conditions leading to welfare endure among the bhikkhus and the bhikkhus are known for it, their growth is to be expected, not their decline.”393
The second set is more specific to each bhikkhu in the Order:
“The growth of the bhikkhus is to be expected, not their decline, bhikkhus, so long as they do not delight in, are not pleased with, and are not fond of activities, talk, sleep, and company; so long as they do not harbor, do not come under the spell of evil desires; have no bad friends, associates, or companions; and so long as they do not stop halfway on account of some trifling achievement”
The third set gives seven good qualities to develop:
“The growth of the bhikkhus is to be expected, not their decline, bhikkhus, so long as they shall have faith, so long as they have moral shame and fear of misconduct, are proficient in learning, resolute, mindful, and wise.”
The fourth set gives seven factors of enlightenment:
“The growth of the bhikkhus is to be expected, not their decline, bhikkhus, so long as they cultivate the seven factors of enlightenment, that is: mindfulness, investigation into phenomena, energy, bliss, tranquillity, concentration, and equanimity.”
The fifth set gives seven key perceptions to cultivate:
“The growth of the bhikkhus is to be expected, not their decline, bhikkhus, so long as they cultivate the perception of impermanence, of egolessness, of (the body’s) impurity, of (the body’s) wretchedness, of relinquishment, of dispassion, and of cessation.”
And the final set of six provides an outline of good conduct:
“The growth of the bhikkhus is to be expected, not their decline, bhikkhus, so long as they attend on each other with loving-kindness in deed, word, and thought, both openly and in private; so long as in respect of what they receive as due offerings, even the contents of their alms bowls, they do not make use of them without sharing them with virtuous members of the community; so long as, in company with their brethren, they train themselves, openly and in private, in the rules of conduct, which are complete and perfect, spotless and pure, liberating, praised by the wise, uninfluenced (by mundane concerns), and favorable to concentration of mind; and in company with their brethren, preserve, openly and in private, the insight that is noble and liberating, and leads one who acts upon it to the utter destruction of suffering.”
These instructions provide us with great insight into the practical teachings of the Buddha, the day-to-day practices that must form the essence of the bhikkhu’s life. As we found with the Buddha’s doctrinal teachings, there is no hint of the supernatural here, no need for blind-faith or reliance upon powers outside of ourselves. The teachings are simple, concise, and, in their initial delivery, quite secular.
From Rajagriha, the Buddha made his way to Ambalatthika, then on to Nalanda. In Nalanda we find the Buddha giving a teaching to Sariputta that not only demonstrates the Buddha’s humility, but also provides an important lesson for future generations and to the religious-minded everywhere. Sariputta comes to the Buddha and speaks with lofty words of his teachers superiority and pre-eminence among all great teachers. The Buddha, hearing this praise, sets out to teach Sariputta a lesson. He says:
“Lofty indeed is this speech of yours, Sariputta, and lordly! A bold utterance, a veritable sounding of the lion’s roar! But how is this, Sariputta? Those Arahants, Fully Enlightened Ones of the past—do you have direct personal knowledge of all those Blessed Ones, as to their virtue, their meditation, their wisdom, their abiding, and their emancipation?”
“Not so, Lord.”
“Then how is this, Sariputta? Those Arahants, Fully Enlightened Ones of the future—do you have direct personal knowledge of all those Blessed Ones, as to their virtue, their meditation, their wisdom, their abiding, and their emancipation?”
“Not so, Lord.”
“Then how is this, Sariputta? Of me, who am at present the Arahant, the Fully Enlightened One, do you have direct personal knowledge as to my virtue, my meditation, my wisdom, my abiding, and my emancipation?”
“Not so, Lord.”
“Then it is clear, Sariputta, that you have no such direct personal knowledge of the Arahats, the Fully Enlightened Ones of the past, the future, and the present. How then dare you set forth a speech so lofty and lordly, an utterance so bold, a veritable sounding of the lion’s roar, saying: ‘This faith, Lord, I have in the Blessed One, that there has not been, there will not be, nor is there now another recluse or brahman more exalted in Enlightenment than the Blessed One’?”
Sariputta is forced to admit that “No such direct personal knowledge, indeed, is mine, Lord”. And yet he proceeds to explain that he has come to know the Dharma and that by so knowing he has come to recognize the nature of an Arahat.
The lesson here is clear. One must rely upon one’s own inner recognition of truth, must not fall into the trap of blindly abiding by authority, must try to give light to the lamp within. Until one unfolds the truth within, until one has become an Arahat themselves, one cannot rightly judge the stature of another. We find a quite similar teaching in the Kalama Sutta, wherein the Buddha explains the criteria for the acceptance or rejection of an idea:
“Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are bad; these things are blameable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,’ abandon them. . . . Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are not blameable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter on and abide in them.”394
Such is the Buddha’s teaching: do not follow even him and his teachings unless there is within you an inner recognition of the truth of them. Following blindly is not the path, for the path is about spiritual development, and part of that development is a discerning mind, a capable inner voice, and an expanded intuition.
From Nalanda, the Buddha continued his journey, accompanied by a large assembly of bhikkhus, to Pataligama (or Pataliputra, modern day Patna). Here we may once again pick up the thread of the Buddhacarita (beginning in Chapter 22) alongside the Maha-parinibbana Sutta, the latter providing much greater detail, while the former selects out only certain salient points.
While in Pataligama the Buddha once again instructed his disciples, this time describing the fruits of both an immoral and a moral life. For these he gives five opposites, thus:
“The immoral man, householders, by falling away from virtue, encounters five perils: great loss of wealth through heedlessness; an evil reputation; a timid and troubled demeanor in every society, be it that of nobles, brahmans, householders, or ascetics; death in bewilderment; and, at the breaking up of the body after death, rebirth in a realm of misery, in an unhappy state, in the nether world, in hell.
“Five blessings, householders, accrue to the righteous man through his practice of virtue: great increase of wealth through his diligence; a favorable reputation; a confident deportment, without timidity, in every society, be it that of nobles, brahmans, householders, or ascetics; a serene death; and, at the breaking up of the body after death, rebirth in a happy state, in a heavenly world.”395
Step by step through the first chapter of the Maha-parinibbana Sutta we have qualities, characteristics and conditions that the bikkhu is encouraged to cultivate, and here we have a brief picture painted of the result.
During his time in Pataligama, we are also told that “Sunidha and Vassakara, the chief ministers of Magadha, were building a fortress at Pataligama in defense against the Vajjis” thus hinting at the war to come. The Buddha, learning of this, confides in Ananda that he has, “with the heavenly eye, pure and transcending the faculty of men” foreseen that Pataligama would become a great city, a centre of trade in the region.
Next we have the wonderfully symbolic story of the Crossing of the Ganges. Having left Pataligama, the Buddha and his assembly travelled north until they reached the banks of the great river.
“But when the Blessed One came to the river Ganges, it was full to the brim, so that crows could drink from it. And some people went in search of a boat or float, while others tied up a raft, because they desired to get across. But the Blessed One, as quickly as a strong man might stretch out his bent arm or draw in his outstretched arm, vanished from this side of the river Ganges, and came to stand on the yonder side.
“And the Blessed One saw the people who desired to cross searching for a boat or float, while others were binding rafts. And then the Blessed One, seeing them thus, gave forth the solemn utterance:
“’They who have bridged the ocean vast, Leaving the lowlands far behind, While others still their frail rafts bind, Are saved by wisdom unsurpassed.’”396
There may or may not be an historical event veiled beneath this story, but there is certainly a great deal of symbolic meaning packed into these few words. To “cross to the other shore” is a universal symbol397 for the transcendence from our worldly condition to that of an enlightened one. As the Buddha describes in the Dhammapada:
“A few only reach the farther shore. Most people go their rounds on this one. Those, however, who listen to the Law and live up to its precepts cross over to the farther shore. This crossing over the dominion of Mara is difficult indeed.”398
In the present sutta we find a description of the way in which most people try to make the trip: they attempt to find a boat to carry them across; that is, they wish for some system or practice or dogma upon which they may fasten themselves, such that they may make the journey without depending upon their own inner efforts. We may find the ultimate expression of this desire in the idea of vicarious atonement. The Buddha, however, merely vanishes from the one shore and appears on the other. We may find insight by referring to Krishna’s words in the Dhyanesvari:
“When this Path is beheld . . . whether one sets out to the bloom of the east or to the chambers of the west, without moving, O holder of the bow, is the travelling in this road. In this path, to whatever place one would go, that place one’s own self becomes.”399
The Buddha does not depend upon a “raft”, but crosses to the other shore entirely under his own impulse, with no intermediary, and indeed without so much as taking a step. For him, we may venture, there is no duality of this shore and that, there is only the endless Ocean of Being. As the Isha Upanishad tells us:
“Without moving, that One is swifter than mind. Nor did the bright Powers (devas) overtake It; It went swiftly before them. That outstrips the others, though they run, while It stands still. . . . That moves, That moves not; That is afar off, That is as if near. That is within all this; That is outside all this.”400
The Katha Upanishad explains that the “triple fire” within:
“. . . is the bridge of those who sacrifice, and which is the imperishable Eternal, the Supreme; the bridge of those who seek to pass over to the farther shore where no fear is.”401
The Chhandogya Upanishad reiterates:
“And so, that which is the divine Self, that is the bridge, holding the worlds apart, that they may not blend together.”402
And the Mundaka Upanishad:
“He who knows the supreme Eternal, becomes the Eternal . . . He crosses beyond sorrow, he crosses beyond sin, freed from the knots of the heart he becomes immortal.”403
Crossing the other shore is not a journey from a here to a there, but rather a self-becoming wherein here and there vanish into the singleness of the Eternal All.
Across the Ganges, and with these profound lessons ringing in their ears, the assembly of bhikkhus arrived in Kotigama. Once there the Buddha again instructed his disciples, first with a recapitulation of the Four Noble Truths, wherein the Buddha brings us again to the causes at the heart of human suffering.
“Bhikkhus, it is through not realizing, through not penetrating the Four Noble Truths that this long course of birth and death has been passed through and undergone by me as well as by you.”404
The Buddha’s teaching in Kotagama culminates with an element that has come to form the core of Zen philosophy to this day, that of mindfulness.
“Then the Blessed One addressed the bhikkhus, saying: ‘Mindful should you dwell, bhikkhus, clearly comprehending; thus I exhort you.
“’And how, bhikkhus, is a bhikkhu mindful? When he dwells contemplating the body in the body, earnestly, clearly comprehending, and mindfully, after having overcome desire and sorrow in regard to the world; and when he dwells contemplating feelings in feelings, the mind in the mind, and mental objects in mental objects, earnestly, clearly comprehending, and mindfully, after having overcome desire and sorrow in regard to the world, then is he said to be mindful.
“’And how, bhikkhus, does a bhikkhu have clear comprehension? When he remains fully aware of his coming and going, his looking forward and his looking away, his bending and stretching, his wearing of his robe and carrying of his bowl, his eating and drinking, masticating and savoring, his defecating and urinating, his walking, standing, sitting, lying down, going to sleep or keeping awake, his speaking or being silent, then is he said to have clear comprehension.
“’Mindful should you dwell, bhikkhus, clearly comprehending; thus I exhort you.’”405
We can certainly begin to understand the importance of this aspect of the Buddha’s teaching: it is one thing to dwell in contemplation or meditation for set periods each day, but what can one do while engaged in the regular actions of daily-life? Here we find the Buddha covering both: mindfulness when dwelling in contemplation and “clear comprehension” when “he remains fully aware of his coming and going”, or in other words mindfulness in action, or as a modern teacher has called it, the “subtle thread of a life meditation”.406 This is a practice in which the wandering “monkey-mind” is stilled and the mind brought fully into every action, in which every thought and word is purposeful, chosen with self-conscious deliberation, with care and with wisdom, such that our life becomes a steady stream of higher light, where we exercise our full will in choosing our life’s meditation and thus our very life itself. But of high importance is the qualitative sentence—“after having overcome desire and sorrow in regard to the world”—which Buddha adds to this teaching, echoing his predecessor, Lord Krishna and his exhortation of “actionless action” or non-binding action, that is: detaching ourselves from the results of our action. To be desireless is to perform right action for the sake of right action, and to let it go. To us belongs the action, not the result. The mindfulness the Buddha teaches depends upon our following of that primary Buddhist teaching: overcome the desires of the world. Only then will we find the full effectiveness of such a practice. But it is a practice; it is developed through effort, through trying.
The Buddha’s journey continues on from Kotagama to Vesali (Vaishali), where we are told the story of Ambapali.407 The story runs as follows:
The lady Ambapali, having heard that the Buddha had arrived in Vesali, made way to him immediately and invited he and the bhikkhus to join her for the next day’s meal. The Buddha assented, after which we find the tale, rather humorous in its surface meaning, of the Licchavis and Ambapali each vying to provide the meal, with the Licchavis losing out at each step and eventually finding disappointment when informed that the meal is already promised to Ambapali. This aspect of the story couches an immensely significant symbolism, of which the initial key is given when the Buddha compares the Licchavis with the “Thirty-three gods”, which are, as defined by the ancient Master Yajnavalkya:
“Eight Vasus, eleven Rudras, twelve Adityas, make one and thirty; Indra and Prajapati make three and thirty.”408
The Licchavis, hearing that the Buddha had arrived, “ordered a large number of magnificent carriages to be made ready, each mounted one, and accompanied by the rest drove out from Vesali.” But “Ambapali the courtesan drove up against the young Licchavis, axle by axle, wheel by wheel, and yoke by yoke.” Thus the Licchavis, here standing as a symbol of the bright powers, the devas, which are, in truth, not “gods” but powers of the inner Man, are each matched by the one female, Ambapali, which we may thus view as symbolizing feminine Nature, for each power, whether in cosmos or in Man, must work through an appropriate vehicle of substance—spirit always working through matter. When we recall the symbolism of food from the ancient Upanishads,409 as indicating the “consuming” of outer experience—the eating of the fruit of the tree of life—we may see further significance in the fact that the competition between these two factions is for the prize of feeding the Buddha and his bhikkhus. The Buddha’s admonition of the bhikkhus prior to their meal with Ambapali, wherein he tells them “to be steadfast and mindful, lest they should lose their heads about her”410 likewise compliments our symbolism, not only associating Ambapali with feminine Nature, but, as we’ll see, more specifically with physical matter and the physical, earthly world.
A further touch on the symbolism offers itself here, which will take us to the heart of the meaning: the thirty-three—residing in Trayastrimsa heaven, at the peak of mount Sumeru,411 the highest heaven that maintains a link to the earthly world—these powers make for themselves chariots412 (being, in the symbolism, substantial yet non-physical vehicles), and, coming to the Buddha (that is, descending to the earth-plane, or following the Buddha to where he has travelled (i.e. to where he has met Ambapali), as the powers of Man must follow the direction of his consciousness) they are immediately matched by a physical counterpart to their chariots (“axle by axle, wheel by wheel, and yoke by yoke”), thus taking on a physical vehicle modelled after their subtle vehicle (the inner powers of perception come into and begin to operate through physical organs). The bhikkhus (representing now the powers of the thirty-three, the powers of the inner man, while embodied, i.e. while working through physical organs of perception) are warned not to “lose their heads” over Ambapali (that is, not to become attached to or deluded by their contact with physical matter). The whole scene, with this and further symbolism in mind, becomes a vivid picture of the descent of an awakened one from the spiritual plane to the physical plane, with full self-consciousness—he is able to admonish his powers during the descent, thus showing an awakened consciousness in action, a purposeful movement. This is the same movement each and every human follows when they pass from dreamless sleep (symbolized by the devas on their own plane, “vehicle-less”, or rather, residing in the causal body) into the dream state (the devas in their chariots; the powers in the subtle body) and into waking consciousness (arrival at the “meal” of Ambapali; the powers in the physical body),413 but the transit is done here with full consciousness and without attachment or delusion.
Having eaten the meal given them by Ambapali, for “Ambapali herself attended on the community of bhikkhus headed by the Buddha, and served them with choice food, hard and soft” (i.e., having gained experience in the physical world through physical powers of perception, which “eat the food of the world”, the food that is both “hard and soft”, which is the “apple of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil”) and having done so without the bhikkhus losing their heads (that is, without becoming attached to or deluded by such experience), Ambapali then offers the Buddha her “park” or “grove” (i.e., the awakened one, having mastered this transit from higher to lower, while fully awakened, unaffected by contact with matter, without losing his identity in a false personality or succumbing to the delusion of separation, thus comes into full possession of his faculties in the physical world; he rules over it, is Lord over his entire lower nature, is a Jivanmukta, “free even in life”).414
Thus we may begin to glimpse a deeper significance to certain aspects of the Buddha’s final journey as recorded in the Maha-parinibbana Sutta. It seems of profound importance, symbolically speaking, that this episode is placed as the final act of the Buddha prior to the first onset of “illness” that will ultimately lead to his paranirvana.
At this point the Buddha also engages in a set of teachings to the Licchavis415 which introduce certain practical teachings for disciples. As the very term “disciple” implies, the single quality highlighted above all others is discipline. We will take our selections from the Buddhacarita.
“Know the man who abandons discipline and yet desires final beatitude to be like one without wings who wishes to fly, or like one without a boat who wishes to cross a river.”416
“Therefore discipline, like the guide in the desert, should not be killed; discipline, which is self-dependent and hard to acquire is the boat that conveys man to Heaven. He whose mind is overcome by the sins loses everything in life. Taking your stand on discipline, destroy the sins and cherish faith. Therefore he who desires progress should first rid himself of the thought of self; for the thought of self obscures the virtues, as smoke obscures the fire.”417
Discipline begins with the abandonment of the thought of self (the “I” and “mine”), which highlights the primary foe of all disciples: Desire.
“Desire is a huge calamity. It pretends to be your friend but is a secret foe. The fiercest fires come from within. This also applies to the fire of desire. The blaze of desire is worse than any fire in the world. A fire may be great but water can extinguish it. Desire is hard to extinguish. When a fierce fire is set in the wilderness, the grass is destroyed but it will grow back. When the fire of desire burns the mind, it is hard for the Right Law to come into existence. Desire seeks worldly happiness, and [worldly] happiness increases impure actions. Through evil actions one falls into a woeful destination. Among one’s enemies, none surpasses desire. Desire produces love, and through love one indulges in what one may want. By indulging in what one may want, one incurs all suffering. Among faults, none surpasses desire. Desire is a great illness. . . . A truthful observation with wisdom can extinguish that wrong desire. That is why one should develop truthful observation of the object. When a truthful observation has arisen, desire is undone. Seeing qualities, one produces desire; and seeing faults, one gives rise to anger. When both qualities and faults become nonexistent, desire and hatred are removed.”418
“When one gives in to hatred and does not stop it from burning, the fire of mournfulness subsequently flares up. If someone gives rise to anger, he first burns his own mind. Afterward, when [the fire] is increased by a breeze, it may also burn [others]. The suffering of birth, old age, illness, and death oppresses beings, but one may further add the harm of hatred. Having many enemies, one further increases enmity. Seeing that the world is oppressed by all suffering, one should give rise to compassionate thoughts!”419
After having resided at Ambapali’s grove for a time, the Buddha and his bhikkhus proceeded to the nearby village of Beluva,420 where he would spend his final vassa. During this final rainy season, “there arose in him a severe illness”, but the Buddha, perceiving that there were still tasks for him to complete before he departed the world, held off the sickness by the power of his will.
Having recovered from his temporary illness, the Buddha sat down with his beloved Ananda.
“Now I am frail, Ananda, old, aged, far gone in years. This is my eightieth year, and my life is spent. Even as an old cart, Ananda, is held together with much difficulty, so the body of the Tathagata is kept going only with supports.”
He then touches upon a most-important subject:
“What more,” he asked, “does the community of bhikkhus expect from me, Ananda? I have set forth the Dhamma without making any distinction of esoteric and exoteric doctrine; there is nothing, Ananda, with regard to the teachings that the Tathagata holds to the last with the closed fist of a teacher who keeps some things back.421 Whosoever may think that it is he who should lead the community of bhikkhus, or that the community depends upon him, it is such a one that would have to give last instructions respecting them. But, Ananda, the Tathagata has no such idea as that it is he who should lead the community of bhikkhus, or that the community depends upon him. So what instructions should he have to give respecting the community of bhikkhus?”
“Therefore, Ananda, be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge; with the Dhamma as your island, the Dhamma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge. . . .
“Those bhikkhus of mine, Ananda, who now or after I am gone, abide as an island unto themselves, as a refuge unto themselves, seeking no other refuge; having the Dhamma as their island and refuge, seeking no other refuge: it is they who will become the highest, if they have the desire to learn.”
While the Buddha points out that there is no real need for him to give final instructions, we may, perhaps, view this as itself constituting that final instruction. Earlier we have recounted the triple-jewel, the three-refuges of the Buddha, the Sangha and the Dharma; but here we have the Buddha, prior to his passing, explaining that it is to the Dharma that one must hold, above and beyond any other refuge. It is the teaching of upright-man, of full inner Self-dependence.
The idea of being an island unto oneself reminds us of the great teaching of “the Isolation of the soul” in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.422 This “Isolation” is akin to Emancipation, to Mukti, to Nirvana, which may be looked upon as the culmination of self-dependence, or “self-induced and self-devised efforts”;423 the very path the Buddha himself walked.
In the Maha-parinibbana Sutta we find the following words from the Buddha to his assembly of bhikkhus:
“My years are now full ripe, the life span left is short.
Departing, I go hence from you, relying on myself alone.
Be earnest, then, O bhikkhus, be mindful and of virtue pure!
With firm resolve, guard your own mind!
Whoso untiringly pursues the Dhamma and the Discipline
Shall go beyond the round of births and make an end of suffering.”424
Both the Buddhacarita and the Maha-parinibbana Sutta relate here a visit to the Buddha by his old adversary, Mara, who reminds him that:
“In the past . . . you made a truthful pledge: ‘When the thing I have to do is completed, I will enter nirvana.’ What you had to do is now done. You must comply with your former intention!”
“The Buddha then said to [Mara], ‘The moment of my extinction is not far off. Later, after three full months, I will enter nirvana.’”425
Seeing that his work in the body was coming to a close, the Buddha withdrew his will to live. This contains a symbolic as well as an outer meaning: the outer being the Buddha’s acceptance of bodily death when it had arrived; the symbolic relating to the surrender of all such desire at the gateway of Nirvana.
We now find the telling of the Buddha’s final meal, in the home of Cunda, the metalworker. Cunda serves the Buddha a meal called “sukara-maddava”, which many have literally translated as the “delight of a pig”, or “that which excites or intoxicates the pig”, and others have imagined to mean simply “soft pork” (an interpretation we take great issue with).426 The term maddava comes from the root mad, “exhilaration, rapture, intoxication,” etc.. The same root brings us the term madhu, the nectar or honey of the gods, which plays a prominent role in certain Upanishads. If we look to the Sanskrit equivalents of the Pali terms we will see further symbolic significance. The term sukara is derived from su and kara; su indicates “good, beautiful, pleasant”, while kara, from the root kri indicates the act of “creating, producing or preparing”, thus the compound meaning: “producing the good, the beautiful, the pleasant”. Sukara-maddava may thus be taken to indicate “that which excites the production of the good, the beautiful, the pleasant”. Of this meal, the Buddha says:
“I do not see in all this world, with its gods, Maras, and Brahmas, among the host of ascetics and brahmans, gods and men, anyone who could eat it and entirely digest it except the Tathagata alone.”
This statement itself rules out the possibility that the meal was merely “soft pork”. As we’ve seen, to “eat” is symbolic of gaining experience (whether outwards or inwards); to eat that which excites the good, the beautiful and the pleasant—or perhaps we may take Plato’s terms “the Good, the Beautiful and the True”—and to be able to fully “digest” such experience is thus symbolic of one in whom the highest experience, that which excites the innermost nature, is capable of being interpreted and understood.
What, then, is the final meal of the Buddha? The final “meal” (or experience) is a feast upon the “nectar of the gods”, a tasting of, and full assimilation of that which is itself Bliss, Ananda—one of the three aspects of Brahma, along with Sat (Being) and Chit (Consciousness).427 Thus true Being, through full Consciousness, experiences Bliss. And thus one becomes a complete “knower of Brahma”, a true Brahmana, as the Buddha was, by his own admission.428 The drinking of this drought of bliss, the eating of sukara-maddava, is the experience of oneness with the Eternal, the recognition of the sameness of one’s Self with the Absolute (which, in Buddhist terms, is a realization of the truth of non-self). It is, as the Buddha says, not an experience that could be digested by any but a Tathagata, one who has developed in themselves the ability to enter into such an experience and fully assimilate it.
We may find further symbolism in the fact that Cunda is said to have been a metalworker by trade, if we keep in mind the common symbols used by the Alchemists of old, where the highest success of their trade was that of the philosopher’s stone, that which brings immortality.
Following this meal, it is said that the Buddha once again became dreadfully sick, experiencing much pain but enduring it all with mindfulness, unperturbed by “nature’s pangs”.
We may briefly summarize the symbolic process of the Buddha’s approach to Nirvana: first coming to Ambapali for her meal—embodied experience without attachment thereto—then a short sickness, followed by the withdrawal of the will to live, and then the final meal—divine experience of the drought of bliss—then another, final, sickness.
On a deeper level we may perhaps be confronted here with a series of symbols related to the process by which a Nirmanakaya is born at the death of the physical body, or in other words, the process by which the consciousness and life of such a one is withdrawn from the natural body and transferred to the body of the Spiritual Man, echoing the words of St. Paul, that: “this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality”.429 However, such symbolism is beyond our ability to fully interpret. Certainly the hints are there for those who may be able to see more keenly.
Further symbolism is found in verses that follow, such as:
“Now on the way the Blessed One went aside from the highway and stopped at the foot of a tree. And he said to the Venerable Ananda: ‘Please fold my upper robe in four, Ananda, and lay it down. I am weary and want to rest awhile.’ ‘So be it, Lord.’ And the Venerable Ananda folded the robe in four and laid it down.”430
And the “clearing of the water”:
“’Please bring me some water, Ananda. I am thirsty and want to drink.’ And the Venerable Ananda answered the Blessed One: ‘But just now, Lord, a great number of carts, five hundred carts, have passed over, and the shallow water has been cut through by the wheels, so that it flows turbid and muddy.’ . . . And he [Ananda] took the bowl and went to the stream. And the shallow water, which had been cut through by the wheels so that it flowed turbid and muddy, became clear and settled down, pure and pleasant as the Venerable Ananda drew near.”431
Here we are undoubtedly dealing with inner processes that precede the passing of a Buddha or Bodhisattva from physical embodiment, as in the clearing of the “mud” that stains the “waters” of the inner (mental) nature, and so on. Further symbolism is revealed by the following:
“At one time, Lord, Alara Kalama was on a journey, and he went aside from the highway and sat down by the wayside at the foot of a tree to pass the heat of the day. And it came about, Lord, that a great number of carts, even five hundred carts, passed by him, one by one. And then, Lord, a certain man who was following behind that train of carts, approached and spoke to him, saying: ‘Did you, sir, see a great number of carts that passed you by?’ And Alara Kalama answered him: ‘I did not see them, brother.’ ‘But the noise, sir, surely you heard?’ ‘I did not hear it, brother.’ Then that man asked him: ‘Then, sir, perhaps you slept?’ ‘No, brother, I was not sleeping.’ ‘Then, sir, were you conscious?’ ‘I was, brother.’ Then that man said: ‘Then, sir, while conscious and awake you still did not see the great number of carts, even five hundred carts, that passed you by one after another, nor heard the noise? Why, sir, your very robe is covered with their dust!’ And Alara Kalama replied, saying: ‘So it is, brother.’”
The “robe” of the master is covered by the “dust” (karmic tendencies, or skandas) of past lives that were not seen nor heard by him (i.e. in the current life). These past lives have muddied the waters (the currents of karma), through the ceaseless turning of the wheel of the law. Samsara covers all with such dust, and fills all our streams with murky waters. But the Buddha, rising towards the gate of Nirvana, through his faithful following of the noble path, removes such stains from his nature; his waters become crystal clear once more; he is purified throughout his being.
The above story is told by Pukkusa, a former disciple of Alara Kalama, who took refuge with the Buddha at this late stage of his life. Pukkusa, having taken refuge in the triple-jewel, gives the Buddha the gift of two golden robes. After having laid the golden robes upon the Buddha, Ananda relates that they appeared dull and faded in comparison with the radiance of the Buddha. The Buddha tells him that on two occasions does a Tathagata shine such; once when he reaches enlightenment (as did the Buddha under the Bodhi tree), and once when he passes into Nirvana.
“Clad in Pukkusa’s gift, the robes of gold,
The Master’s form was radiant to behold.”432
Thus, one who has realized their oneness with the Eternal, with Brahma, comes to wear a golden, radiant robe (gold being a symbol of purity), the “luminous fire mist”433 or Hiranyagarbha of Brahma. There is certainly further symbolism involved in these robes, one of which may perhaps relate to the three robes—Nirmanakaya, Sambhogakaya, and Dharmakaya—explored in the Voice of the Silence.434 The symbolism is furthered by the name of the river itself, Hirannavati—from hiran, “gold”, and vat, “enclosure”—on the “farther shore” of which the Buddha is said to have passed on.
We return to the historical narrative.
To reach this river, the Buddha and his bhikkhus had made their way quite far northwards from Vesali, moving from town to town until reaching Kusinara (Kushinagar), which is known today as the Buddha’s final resting place.435 There the Buddha came to rest “between two sala trees”. Ashvagosha’s descriptions of these final stages of the Buddha’s life are filled with profound human realism, bringing the reader’s mind to bear upon the very real sorrow experienced by all present.
“[The Buddha] instructed Ananda, ‘Sweep clean the space between two trees there and put up a charpoy. I will now enter nirvana in the middle of the night.’ As Ananda heard the Buddha’s instructions, his breathing became difficult and he felt sad at heart. He let his tears flow and followed the instructions. After he had made the arrangements, he came back to inform [the Buddha]. The Tathagata went to the charpoy and lay down on his right side, his head turned north. He used his hand as a pillow and rested one foot upon the other, just like a lion king. Once he lay down his last body, whose suffering had ended, he would never rise. The group of his disciples surrounded him and cried out in grief, ‘The eye of the world is extinguished!’ The wind stopped and the streams in the grove went quiet. Birds and animals were silent and did not make a sound. The sap of the trees flowed like tears. Flowers and leaves fell down out of season. . . . When the Tathagata had finally laid himself down, he said to Ananda, ‘Go and tell the Mallas! The moment of my nirvana has arrived. If they have not seen me, they will always be regretful and feel great suffering.’ Ananda accepted the Buddha’s instructions. Sadly weeping, he went on his way, and told the Mallas about the World-honored One’s final end. When the Mallas heard this, they became utterly fearful. Men and women left in a hurry, and in tears arrived where the Buddha was. With torn clothes and disheveled hair, their sweating bodies coated in dust, they went to that grove wailing, just like gods whose merit had ended. They let their tears fall and made obeisance at the Buddha’s feet, pale with grief.”436
It is through the faithful disciple Ananda that we are given our keenest sense of such sorrow.
“Then the Venerable Ananda went into the vihara and leaned against the doorpost and wept: ‘I am still but a learner, and still have to strive for my own perfection. But, alas, my Master, who was so compassionate towards me, is about to pass away!’”437
But the Buddha remained true to the message he had brought to the world.
“Then the Blessed One spoke to the Venerable Ananda, saying: ‘Enough, Ananda! Do not grieve, do not lament! For have I not taught from the very beginning that with all that is dear and beloved there must be change, separation, and severance? Of that which is born, come into being, compounded, and subject to decay, how can one say: ‘May it not come to dissolution!’? There can be no such state of things. Now for a long time, Ananda, you have served the Tathagata with loving-kindness in deed, word, and thought, graciously, pleasantly, with a whole heart and beyond measure. Great good have you gathered, Ananda! Now you should put forth energy, and soon you too will be free from the taints.’”438
The Buddha then greatly praised Ananda before the other bhikkhus. We may, perhaps, imagine the final setting with very real human colours: the noble teacher, lying on his death-bed; the grieving disciple, who had given his life to serving his teacher in every moment, sitting by his side, tears rolling over his cheeks. The teacher does all he can to set the disciple’s heart at ease. Do not grieve, he says, you have served me well all these years; you have shown great virtue. Remember the teachings, focus on them, do not be thrown from the path by grief; remember the teachings and hold true to the dharma.
Night fell upon the Sala grove, and all remained, awaiting the inevitable parting of their teacher. Ananda kept watch over the Buddha, allowing him peaceful rest and silence and permitting no visitors, but, we are told, there was one final visitor who the Buddha insisted be allowed to see him: the ascetic Subhadda, who would become the final convert in the long life of the Buddha.
To Subhadda the Buddha gives an overview of the Dharma, focusing upon the Noble Eightfold Path. One statement in particular is worth highlighting:
“In whatsoever Dhamma and Discipline, Subhadda, there is not found the Noble Eightfold Path, neither is there found a true ascetic of the first, second, third, or fourth degree of saintliness. But in whatsoever Dhamma and Discipline there is found the Noble Eightfold Path, there is found a true ascetic of the first, second, third, and fourth degrees of saintliness.”439
With Subhadda’s refuge in the triple-jewel complete, the Buddha engaged in one final exortation of his bhikkhus, once again insisting on a complete reliance upon the Dharma and themselves.
“It may be, Ananda, that to some among you the thought will come: ‘Ended is the word of the Master; we have a Master no longer.’ But it should not, Ananda, be so considered. For that which I have proclaimed and made known as the Dhamma and the Discipline, that shall be your Master when I am gone. . . .
“It may be, bhikkhus, that one of you is in doubt or perplexity as to the Buddha, the Dhamma, or the Sangha, the path or the practice. Then question, bhikkhus! Do not be given to remorse later on with the thought: ‘The Master was with us face to face, yet face to face we failed to ask him.’ . . .
“It may be, bhikkhus, out of respect for the Master that you ask no questions. Then, bhikkhus, let friend communicate it to friend. . . .
“. . . the Tathagata knows for certain that among this community of bhikkhus there is not even one bhikkhu who is in doubt or perplexity as to the Buddha, the Dhamma, or the Sangha, the path or the practice. For, Ananda, among these five hundred bhikkhus even the lowest is a stream-enterer, secure from downfall, assured, and bound for enlightenment. . . .
“Behold now, bhikkhus, I exhort you: All compounded things are subject to vanish. Strive with earnestness!
“This was the last word of the Tathagata.”440
We then come to the actual passing of the Buddha into Nirvana, or, as we may believe, esoterically, the passing from physical life into life as a Nirmanakaya. The nature of this passing is given in the Maha-paranibbana sutta in terms of the states of Jhana, thus:
“And the Blessed One entered the first jhana. Rising from the first jhana, he entered the second jhana. Rising from the second jhana, he entered the third jhana. Rising from the third jhana, he entered the fourth jhana. And rising out of the fourth jhana, he entered the sphere of infinite space. Rising from the attainment of the sphere of infinite space, he entered the sphere of infinite consciousness. Rising from the attainment of the sphere of infinite consciousness, he entered the sphere of nothingness. Rising from the attainment of the sphere of nothingness, he entered the sphere of neither-perception-nor-non-perception. And rising out of the attainment of the sphere of neither-perception-nor-non-perception, he attained to the cessation of perception and feeling.”
So we have a rising “upwards”, an expansion inwards, so to speak, of the consciousness from the lowest to the highest state of meditation. This need not be seen as “death”, as that term is commonly understood and experienced—for the personality of Siddhartha Gautama must be seen to have died far before this moment—but is a self-conscious passing from one life to a higher life. The difference is announced in the sutta itself:
“No, friend Ananda, the Blessed One has not passed away. He has entered the state of the cessation of perception and feeling.”
But this single “ascent” is not the whole picture given. The text continues:
“Then the Blessed One, rising from the cessation of perception and feeling, entered the sphere of neither-perception-nor-non-perception. Rising from the attainment of the sphere of neither-perception-nor-non-perception, he entered the sphere of nothingness. Rising from the attainment of the sphere of nothingness, he entered the sphere of infinite consciousness. Rising from the attainment of the sphere of infinite consciousness, he entered the sphere of infinite space. Rising from the attainment of the sphere of infinite space, he entered the fourth jhana. Rising from the fourth jhana, he entered the third jhana. Rising from the third jhana, he entered the second jhana. Rising from the second jhana, he entered the first jhana.
“Rising from the first jhana, he entered the second jhana. Rising from the second jhana, he entered the third jhana. Rising from the third jhana, he entered the fourth jhana. And, rising from the fourth jhana, the Blessed One immediately passed away.”
The Buddhacarita expresses the same in one concise statement:
“[The Buddha] entered the samadhi of the first trance and the nine concentrations441 in due order. He followed the concentrations in reverse order, and again entered the first trance. He again rose from the first trance and he entered the fourth trance. As he left concentration and his thoughts had nowhere to resort to, [the Buddha] immediately entered nirvana.”442
There is an essential element in this description of the Buddha’s nirvana, and it is this: the Buddha did not merely ascend into the highest state possible for Man443 and then vanish; he ascended to that state, reached its peak, and then returned. He re-descended, back down to the lowest state of jhana or dhyana, and then re-ascended. We suspect there to be a great truth veiled in the description of this process.
“To don Nirmanakaya’s humble robe is to forego eternal bliss for Self, to help on man’s salvation. To reach Nirvana’s bliss, but to renounce it, is the supreme, the final step—the highest on Renunciation’s Path.
“Know, O Disciple, this is the Secret PATH, selected by the Buddhas of Perfection, who sacrificed The SELF to weaker Selves.”444
“On the Arya Path thou art no more Srotapatti, thou art a Bodhisattva.445 The stream is cross’d. ‘Tis true thou hast a right to Dharmakaya vesture; but Sambogakaya is greater than a Nirvanee, and greater still is a Nirmanakaya—the Buddha of Compassion.446 Now bend thy head and listen well, O Bodhisattva—Compassion speaks and saith: ‘Can there be bliss when all that lives must suffer? Shalt thou be saved and hear the whole world cry?’ Now thou hast heard that which was said. Thou shalt attain the seventh step and cross the gate of final knowledge but only to wed woe—if thou would’st be Tathagata, follow upon thy predecessor’s steps, remain unselfish till the endless end.”447
Thus, as esoteric tradition has it, the Buddha renounced Nirvana at its very gate, and returned to don the robe of the Nirmanakaya, to become a Bodhisattva and remain on Earth, though unseen (i.e. beyond form, or rupa), in order to continue aiding mankind in its spiritual evolution.448
The Maha-paranibbana sutta concludes with the ritual treatment of the Buddha’s body and the partition of the relics,449 while the Buddhacarita concludes with the Eulogy of Nirvana (ch. 27) and the partition of the relics (ch. 28). We will complete our biography here, with the Buddha’s ascension into Nirvana, but with one final suggestion: that the story of the Buddha does not end with his passing, that, in fact, it only just begins.450
2. See, for instance, S. Radhakrishnan’s introduction to his translation of the Dhammapada (1950), H. P. Blavatsky’s entry in The Theosophical Glossary (1892), and Charles Johnston’s series “The Noble Teachings of Lord Buddha”, among countless others.
5. “The whole events of his noble life are given in occult numbers, and every so-called miraculous event—so deplored by Orientalists as confusing the narrative and making it impossible to extricate truth from fiction—is simply the allegorical veiling of the truth, it is as comprehensible to an Occultist learned in symbolism, as it is difficult to understand for a European scholar ignorant of Occultism. Every detail of the narrative after his death and before cremation is a chapter of facts written in a language which must be studied before it is understood, otherwise its dead letter will lead one into absurd contradictions.”—Theosophical Glossary, “Buddha Siddharta”.
“The 5,000 jâtakas, or the events of former births (re-incarnations) are taken literally instead of esoterically. Gautama, the Buddha, would not have been a mortal man, had he not passed through hundreds and thousands of births previous to his last. Yet the detailed account of these, and the statement that during them he worked his way up through every stage of transmigration from the lowest animate and inanimate atom and insect, up to the highest—or man, contains simply the well-known occult aphorism : “a stone becomes a plant, a plant an animal, and an animal a man”. Every human being who has ever existed, has passed through the same evolution. But the hidden symbolism in the sequence of these re-births (jâtaka) contains a perfect history of the evolution on this earth, pre and post human, and is a scientific exposition of natural facts.”—Theosophical Glossary, “Buddha Siddharta”.
H.P. Blavatsky touches on this enumeration in the Secret Doctrine, thus:
“Gautama Buddha, named Shakya Thub-pa, is the twenty-seventh of the last group, as most of these Buddhas belong to the divine dynasties which instructed mankind. . . . Of these ‘Buddhas,’ or the ‘Enlightened,’ the far distant predecessors of Gautama the Buddha, and who represent, we are taught, once living men, great adepts and Saints, in whom the ‘Sons of Wisdom’ had incarnated, and who were, therefore, so to speak, minor Avatars of the Celestial Beings—eleven only belong to the Atlantean race, and 24 to the Fifth race, from its beginnings. They are identical with the Tirtankaras of the Jainas.”—Secret Doctrine, II:423fn.
“As the reader is supposed not to be acquainted with the Dhyani-Buddhas, it is as well to say at once that, according to the Orientalists, there are five Dhyanis who are the ‘celestial’ Buddhas, of whom the human Buddhas are the manifestations in the world of form and matter. Esoterically, however, the Dhyani-Buddhas are seven, of whom five only have hitherto manifested, and two are to come in the sixth and seventh Root-races. They are, so to speak, the eternal prototypes of the Buddhas who appear on this earth, each of whom has his particular divine prototype. So, for instance, Amitabha is the Dhyani-Buddha of Gautama Sakyamuni, manifesting through him whenever this great Soul incarnates on earth as He did in Tzon-kha-pa.1 As the synthesis of the seven Dhyani-Buddhas, Avalokiteswara was the first Buddha (the Logos), so Amitabha is the inner ‘God’ of Gautama, who, in China, is called Amita(-Buddha).”—Secret Doctrine, I:108
1. “The first and greatest Reformer who founded the ‘Yellow-Caps,’ Gyalugpas [Gelugpas]. He was born in the year 1355 A.D. in Amdo, and was the Avatar of Amitabha, the celestial name of Gautama Buddha.
17. “MAITREYA is the secret name of the Fifth Buddha, and the Kalki Avatar of the Brahmins—the last MESSIAH who will come at the culmination of the Great Cycle.”—Secret Doctrine, I:384. See also: H.P. Blavatsky, Theosophical Glossary, “Maitreya Buddha”.
18. See the section “The Antiquity of India” in Hidden Wisdom: Collected Writings of Charles Johnston. See also: T. Subba Row “Replies to Inquiries suggested by ‘Esoteric Buddhism’”, Theosophist, October & November, 1883 (Reprinted in Five Years of Theosophy).
19. See the section “Race and Caste in Ancient India” in Hidden Wisdom: Collected Writings of Charles Johnston, along with the articles “The Upanishads and the Brahmans”, “The Religion of India”, and commentaries on the Chhandogya and Brihad Aranyaka Upanishads by the same author.
20. See previous note.
24. Buddhacarita, Canto I:1 (E.H. Johnston translation)
25. Ibid. I:2
26. See, for instance, the early chapters of the Lalitavistara, particularly Chapter 5.
27. Lalitavistara, Chapter 6 (Rajendralala Mitra translation)
29. “Lumbini, or Rummindei, the name by which it is now known, is one hundred miles north of Varanasi and within sight of the snow-capped Himalayas. At this memorable spot where Prince Siddhattha, the future Buddha, was born, Emperor Asoka, 316 years after the event, erected a mighty stone pillar to mark the holy spot. The inscription engraved on the pillar in five lines consists of ninety-three Asokan characters, among which occurs the following: “hida budhe jāte sālyamuni. Here was born the Buddha, the sage of the Sakyans”—Ven. Piyadassi Thera, The Buddha, His Life and Teachings (1982).
Lumbini is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
32. Some common dates from modern scholars include 563 BCE (as held by T.W. Rhys Davids, S. Radhakrishnan and others), or even as late as 483 BCE (as held by H. Nakamura and others). For our part, we hold to the traditional chronology, for many of the same reasons given by T. Subba Row in “Sakya Muni’s Place in History”, Theosophist, October, 1883 (Reprinted in Five Years of Theosophy).
33. Buddhacarita, Canto I:12-13 (E.H. Johnston translation)
37. Buddhacarita, Canto I:34-36 (E.H. Johnston translation)
38. Buddhacarita, Canto I:68-71, 75 (E.H. Johnston translation)
39. Quotes are from the Chinese version of the Buddhacarita. See: Charles Willemen, Buddhacarita: In Praise of Buddha’s Acts (2009), verses at the close of Chapter 1.
40. Ibid., Chapter 1:109
41. Ibid., Chapter 2:17-18
42. Buddhacarita, Chapter 2:1-2 (Charles Willemen translation)
43. Buddhacarita, Canto II:1-2 (E.H. Johnston translation)
45. Buddhacarita, Canto II:24 (E.H. Johnston translation)
46. Buddhacarita, Chapter 2:4 (Charles Willemen translation)
47. See: Lalitavistara, Chapter 10.
48. Buddhacarita, Canto II:25 (E.H. Johnston translation)
49. Buddhacarita, Chapter 2:24-29 (Charles Willemen translation)
50. Buddhacarita, Canto II:31-32 (E.H. Johnston translation)
51. See the close of Chapter/Canto II of the Buddhacarita.
52. Buddhacarita, Canto II:45 (E.H. Johnston translation)
54. Buddhacarita, Chapter 2:44 (Charles Willemen translation). Whether or not the story of Yasodhara and Rahula has any historical accuracy, or is solely symbolical, is difficult to say. Having a son, here, may simply indicate the beginning of a new life, an inner-rebirth, as the story of Rahula precedes Siddhartha’s awakening to the pitfalls of worldly life and resulting renunciation. See H.P. Blavatsky, “[Adepts and Marriage]” for a statement that may have implications as to the historicity of Gautama’s wife and child.
57. Lalitavistara, Chapter 13.
58. Lalitavistara, Chapter 14.
59. We may see additional symbolic meaning in the “charioteer”, in conformity with the symbolism of the Bhagavad Gita and the Katha Upanishad.
“Know the Higher Self as the lord of the chariot, and the body as the chariot; know the soul as the charioteer, and the mind and emotional nature as the reins.
“They say that the powers of perception and action are the horses, and that objective things are the roadways for these; the Self joined with the powers through the mental and emotional nature is called the enjoyer of experience by the wise.
“But he who is without understanding, with mind and emotional nature ever uncontrolled, of such a one his powers of perception and action are not under his command, like the unruly horses of the charioteer.
“But he who is possessed of understanding, with mind and emotional nature controlled, his powers of perception and action are under his command, like the well-ruled horses of the charioteer.
“But he who is not possessed of understanding, with ungoverned mind and emotional nature, ever impure, gains not that goal, but follows the circling path of death and rebirth.
“But he who possesses understanding, with well governed mind and emotional nature, ever pure, he indeed gains that goal, from which he returns not to rebirth.
“But the man who, using the wisdom of the charioteer, keeps the mind and emotional nature, the reins, well in hand, he gains the consummation of the way, the supreme goal of the divine Pervading Power.—Katha Upanishad, I:3:3-9
60. Buddhacarita, Canto III:5 (E.H. Johnston translation)
61. Buddhacarita, Canto III:13-22 (E.H. Johnston translation)
63. Buddhacarita, Chapter 3:26 (Charles Willemen translation)
64. Buddhacarita, Canto III:37 (E.H. Johnston translation)
65. Buddhacarita, Canto III:39 (E.H. Johnston translation)
66. Lalitavistara, Chapter 14 (Rajendralala Mitra translation)
67. See Buddhacarita, Canto/Chapter V (Sanskrit and Chinese versions) for the fourth excursion.
68. Buddhacarita, Chapter 4:21-25 (Charles Willemen translation)
69. Buddhacarita, Chapter 4:40-55 (Charles Willemen translation)
70. Buddhacarita, Chapter 4:60 (Charles Willemen translation)
71. Buddhacarita, Canto IV:103 (E.H. Johnston translation)
72. Lalitavistara, Chapter 15 (Dharmachakra Translation Committee trans.)
73. Buddhacarita, Canto V:28-38 (E.H. Johnston translation)
74. Buddhacarita, Chapter 5:49 (Charles Willemen translation)
75. Lalitavistara, Chapter 15 (Rajendralala Mitra translation)
77. Sources vary slightly on Siddhartha’s age when he made the Great Renunciation, ranging from 24-29 years old. See, for instance: Ven. Piyadassi Thera, The Buddha, His Life and Teachings (1982), p.13 (the commonly accepted age of 29 is given here); or H.P. Blavatsky, Theosophical Glossary, “Buddha Siddharta” (an age of 24 is given here).
78. Buddhacarita, Canto V:62 (E.H. Johnston translation)
79. The Lalitavistara (Chapter 15) has an extended conversation here between Gautama and his charioteer Chandaka that may hold interest for those looking into the symbolism of these stories (noting terms such as the “four continents”, “seven jewels”, the “female apartments”, etc., all of which have inner meanings). One may also find a similarity of general feel between these verses and the opening chapters of the Bhagavad Gita, during Arjuna’s despondency. Chandaka here gives voice to those questions and hesitations every disciple finds within himself when true renunciation is made or impersonal duty followed.
80. See: Lalitavistara, Chapter 15
81. Buddhacarita, Canto V:82 (E.H. Johnston translation)
83. Buddhacarita, Canto V:84 (Charles Johnston translation, from “Buddha’s Renunciation”). In the Chinese Buddhacarita this statement is made to Chandaka after they had arrived at the forest hermitage, when Siddhartha was ordering Chandaka to return (see Chapter 6:50).
84. In the traditional biographies the Buddha is called by various names and epithets, including Siddhartha, the Bodisattva, the Buddha, Tathagata, Sakyamuni, etc.. As there are three main stages of Buddha’s life: 1. his life in the palace, 2. his life as a homeless spiritual aspirant, and 3. his life as a great teacher, an awakened Buddha, we propose to mark these stages through the use of three names: 1. Siddhartha, which was his given name at birth, 2. Gautama, from gāu (on earth) + tama (the most victorious), and 3. Buddha, lit., “The Enlightened”. After his enlightenment, when his first disciples (the five mendicants) continued calling him by the name Gautama, the Buddha said to them:
“Because a buddha can save the world, one calls him a buddha. He has an equal mind toward all beings, thinking of them as his children, as it were. But to call him with his former name is like an offense of arrogance against one’s father.”—Buddhacarita, Chapter 15:29 (Charles Willemen translation)
The threefold division of names is our own use, for the purpose of this biography, but need not be taken as the traditional approach.
86. Buddhacarita, Canto VI:36 (E.H. Johnston translation)
87. Buddhacarita, Canto VI:43 (E.H. Johnston translation)
88. Buddhacarita, Chapter 6:41-42 (Charles Willemen translation)
“The Self-being pierced the openings of the senses outward; therefore man looks outward, not within, toward the Self. A certain wise man, with reverted vision, turned his sight toward the Self, seeking immortality.—Katha Upanishad, II:1:1
91. See: Buddhavamsa, XXV: The Twenty-Fourth Chronicle: That of the Lord Kassapa. Gautama Buddha is the Twenty-Fifth therein.
94. See: Lalitavistara, Chapter 16
95. Buddhacarita, Chapter 7:12-21 (Charles Willemen translation)
96. Buddhacarita, Canto VII:48 (E.H. Johnston translation)
97. Named Arada Kalama, Arada Kalapa or Alara Kalama, among other variances.
99. Buddhacarita, Canto VII:54-55 (E.H. Johnston translation)
100. Vaishali was a prosperous city, and one that Buddha would visit several times, as recorded in the sutras. It is also the city wherein he gave his final sermon before Nirvana. Vaishali is about 350kms south-east of Buddha’s birthplace, Lumbini.
101. Lalitavistara, Chapter 16 (D.T.C. translation)
102. For a study of the teachings given by Arada, we recommend Patrick Olivelle’s translation of the Buddhacarita, titled: “Life of the Buddha, by Ashva-ghosha” (which includes both the original Sanskrit (romanized) and a skilled English translation). For further study of the Samkhya system, see here.
103. Buddhacarita, Canto 12:23 (Patrick Olivelle translation)
104. Buddhacarita, Canto 12:44 (Patrick Olivelle translation)
105. As Krishna tells us: “Children, not wise men, speak of Sankhya and Yoga as different; he who has perfectly mastered one finds the fruit of both. The goal that is gained by the Sankhyas, is also reached by the followers of Yoga; who sees Sankhya and Yoga as one, he indeed sees!”—Bhagavad Gita, V:4-5. For more on Yoga, see here.
106. An indication that this was no passing meeting, or short-term residency. Gautama stayed long enough with Arada to become not only his disciple, but a high-ranking one in his hermitage, one who instructed other disciples.
107. See Chapter 13 and 14 of the Bhagavad Gita. We may imagine, from Gautama’s critique of Arada’s teachings, that those teachings brought him only to the wisdom contained in Chapter 13 (called “The Discrimination of the Kshetra from Kshetrajna”, or of the “field” and the “knower of the field”), but failed to take the next step to the wisdom contained in Chapter 14 (“Separation from the Three Qualities [gunas]”), which step leads one on to the culmination of Krishna’s teachings. Arada’s teachings, then, may be seen as incomplete, though the essential wisdom of which they form a part is, in itself, complete. It is the latter that Gautama continues to seek after leaving Arada.
108. Buddhacarita, Canto 12:69-80 (Patrick Olivelle translation)
109. This is the eighth (or the fourth arupa) Jhana or Dhyana, called “the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception”, as described by the Buddha in the Anupada Sutta. In the Mahaasaccaka Sutta, the Buddha tells us plainly that Arada taught him to reach the third arupa Jhana (the “sphere of nothingness”), and Udraka taught him to reach the fourth arupa Jhana (the “sphere of neither perception-nor non-perception”). It is these same states that the Buddha later passed through under the Bodh tree, which ultimately allowed him to gain the three “knowledges” (Tevijja or Trividya) and gain Enlightenment, and the same states that he once again passes completely through during his paranirvana.
For more on the Jhanas, from a traditional Buddhist perspective, see: The Jhanas in Theravada Buddhist Meditation, by Henepola Gunaratana (1995)
110. Buddhacarita, Canto 12:85-88 (Patrick Olivelle translation)
113. We likely see a veiling of the complete story in this aspect of the biographies. We are told that Gautama spent time with Brahmans, learning then dismissing their methods, but the truth is likely that he entered fully into the Brahman schools, was initiated into their mysteries, and dismissed but the common, outward interpretation of the teachings. As H.P. Blavatsky tells us:
“His [Buddha’s] Secret Doctrine . . . differed in no wise from that of the initiated Brahmins of his day. The Buddha was a child of the Aryan soil; a born Hindu, a Kshatrya and a disciple of the ‘twice born’ (the initiated Brahmins) or Dwijas. His teachings, therefore, could not be different from their doctrines, for the whole Buddhist reform merely consisted in giving out a portion of that which had been kept secret from every man outside of the ‘enchanted’ circle of Temple-Initiates and ascetics.” (Secret Doctrine, I:xxi)
114. See the Tevigga Sutta, in which Gautama Buddha is approached by two Brahmans, Vasettha and Bharadvaga, and asked to settle a dispute in regards to the paths taught by various Brahmans. The state of the Brahmans in Buddha’s day is made quite clear through his dialogue with the two.
115. “Brahmanism and Buddhism, both viewed from their orthodox aspects, are as inimical and as irreconcilable as water and oil. Each of these great bodies, however, has a vulnerable place in its constitution. While even in their esoteric interpretation both can agree but to disagree, once that their respective vulnerable points are confronted, every disagreement must fall, for the two will find themselves on common ground. The ‘heel of Achilles’ of orthodox Brahmanism is the Adwaita philosophy, whose followers are called by the pious ‘Buddhists in disguise’; as that of orthodox Buddhism is Northern mysticism, as represented by the disciples of the philosophies of Aryasanga (the Yogacharya School) and Mahayana, who are twitted in their turn by their correligionists as ‘Vedantins in disguise.’ The esoteric philosophy of both these can be but one if carefully analysed and compared, as Gautama Buddha and Sankaracharya are most closely connected, if one believes tradition and certain esoteric teachings. Thus every difference between the two will be found one of form rather than of substance.” (Secret Doctrine, II:637)
116. Buddhacarita, Canto/Chapter 10:1
117. As Patrick Olivelle explains: “The Pandava mountain is the north-easterly of the five hills around Raja-griha, and the name is a clear reference to the Mahabharata episode where Krishna, Arjuna, and Bhima approach the city across these hills to kill its king, Jara-sandha.”—note on 10.17, Life of the Buddha by Ashva-ghosha, trans. Patrick Olivelle. See also Rajgir Hills (wiki).
118. This indicates that Gautama was known, or at least recognized as a wise sage even before his attainment under the Bodhi tree.
119. Lalitavistara, Chapter 16 (D.T.C. translation)
120. A different Gotama, from a different Gotama clan who were Brahmans and who far predated Gautama the Buddha.
122. Ibid. I:1:12-13
123. Ibid. I:1:20
124. Ibid. I:1:23-25
125. Ibid., I:1:23-29
127. Ibid., VI:2:4-7 (trans. Charles Johnston)
128. This is, in fact, a record of the first time the old Rajput (Kshatriya) Kings accepted a Brahman as a disciple, and thus represents the passing of esoteric wisdom (the wisdom of the twin doctrines of Reincarnation and Liberation) from the Kshatriyas to the Brahmans, who later claimed the doctrine as their own. See Charles Johnston’s commentary upon the Mukhya Upanishads for more on this subject.
130. Kama (Sk.). Evil desire, lust, volition; the cleaving to existence. Kama is generally identified with Mara the tempter.
Mâra (Sk.). The god of Temptation, the Seducer who tried to turn away Buddha from his PATH. He is called the “Destroyer” and “Death” (of the Soul). One of the names of Kâma, God of love.—H.P. Blavatsky, Theosophical Glossary
131. E.H. Johnston and Patrick Olivelle respectively.
132. The Sanskrit Buddhacarita tells us that he “betook himself to the hermitage, Nagari by name, of the royal seer Gaya.”, while the Lalitavistara leaves out the hermitage, saying that “the Bodhisattva proceeded through Magadha and eventually arrived at Gaya”. The Nidana-Katha gives us a bit more, telling us that “showing his might and resolution to devas and men, he went to Uruvela”. Today the site is known as Bodh Gaya, the place of Buddha’s Enlightenment.
133. Lalitavistara, Chapter 17:
“At that point there were five ascetic companions who were learning religious practices under the guidance of Rudraka, the son of Rama. They thought to themselves: ‘Even though we have tried and persisted for a long time in this way, we have not been able to realize our goal. Yet this mendicant Gautama was able to realize it and manifest it through such little hardship. And now he doesn’t want it! Surely he must be searching for something even higher than that. Surely he will become a teacher of the world. Whatever he is about to discover, he will probably share it with us.’ And with this, the five ascetic companions left Rudraka, the son of Rama, to follow the Bodhisattva instead.”
The Nidana-Katha tells us that these five had been sent by Suddhodana to accompany Gautama, but this seems unlikely given that Gautama would not even take Chandaka, his trusted charioteer, with him, and repeatedly made it clear that he was renouncing all benefits of the kingdom to which he was born. The Lalitavistara scenario seems much more likely.
134. In the Lalitavistara this river is called “Nairañjana”, and is significantly referred to as “the river of nagas.”
Nâga (Sk.). Literally “Serpent”. The name in the Indian Pantheon of the Serpent or Dragon Spirits . . . In Esotericism, however . . . this is a nick-name for the “wise men” or adepts. . . . The term has simply reference to their great knowledge and wisdom. This is also proven in the ancient Sûtras and Buddha’s biographies. The Nâga is ever a wise man, endowed with extraordinary magic powers, in South and Central America as in India, in Chaldea as also in ancient Egypt. In China the “worship” of the Nâgas was widespread, and it has become still more pronounced since Nâgârjuna (the “great Nâga”, the “great adept” literally), the fourteenth Buddhist patriarch, visited China. . . . The tradition that Nâgas washed Gautama Buddha at his birth, protected him and guarded the relics of his body when dead, points again to the Nâgas being only wise men, Arhats, and no monsters or Dragons. This is also corroborated by the innumerable stories of the conversion of Nâgas to Buddhism. The Nâga of a lake in a forest near Râjagriha and many other “Dragons” were thus converted by Buddha to the good Law.”—H.P. Blavatsky, Theosophical Glossary
135. See, for instance: the Maha-Parinibbana Sutta, the Garava Sutta, the Ayacana Sutta, etc. Of Uruvela, the Buddha is reported to have said that it was “a beautiful stretch of ground, a lovely woodland grove, a clear flowing river with a beautiful ford, a village nearby for support . . . a suitable place for making an effort” (M.I,167) (source)
136. Buddhacarita, Canto 12:94 (Patrick Olivelle translation)
138. Buddhacarita, Chapter 12:77-78 (Charles Willemen translation)
139. Buddhacarita, Canto 12:93 (Patrick Olivelle translation). Italics are ours.
141. See “Logos”, the “Word of God”, etc., in its many symbolic meanings throughout the sacred literature of east and west.
143. Lalitavistara, Chapter 17 (D.T.C. translation)
144. See the Anupada Sutta for a description of these Jhanas. There are eight in total—four rupa, then four arupa—after which, if one does not cling to the last, one may become “totally unbound” (see Aneñja Sappaya Sutta)
148. Here is another example symbolism—blood, for example, being the physical representation of Kama, while flesh and fat may likewise carry similar symbolic meanings.
149. Buddhacarita, Canto 12:99 (Patrick Olivelle translation)
150. Buddhacarita, Chapter 12:81-85 (Charles Willemen translation)
151. This may be seen as an esoteric version of taking refuge in the Sangha: it is the immersing of oneself in the brotherhood of the Nagas, or wise-ones; it is a bathing in the clear waters of their teachings and the wisdom therein.
152. See Lalitavistara, Chapter 17
153. Buddhacarita, Canto 12:109 (Patrick Olivelle translation)
154. Buddhacarita, Chapter 12:88 (Charles Willemen translation)
155. Buddhacarita, Canto 12:112 (Patrick Olivelle translation). Italics are ours. The significance of the additional sense here should not be overlooked.
156. Buddhacarita, Canto 12:114 (Patrick Olivelle translation)
160. Lalitavistara, Chapter 17 (D.T.C. translation)
163. Milk, Rice, Honey, etc., all have their symbolic meanings.
164. Lalitavistara, Chapter 17 (D.T.C. translation)
166. Lalitavistara, Chapter 14 (D.T.C. translation)
167. See Lalitavistara, Chapter 14
169. The Lalitavistara tells us that “as the Bodhisattva was walking toward the seat of awakening, rays of light streamed forth from his body. The light pacified all the lower realms and caused all unfortunate states to cease.” Etc.
170. See, for instance, the Upanishads, for possible symbolism of the “sixteen”:
“Man, dear, is made of sixteen parts.”—Chhandogya, VI:7
“Here, verily, within the body, dear, is the Man in whom the sixteen parts are manifested. . . . In whom the parts are set firm, like the spokes in the wheel’s nave, him I know as the Spiritual Man to be known, therefore let not death perturb you.”—Prashna, IV:2-6
“So the circling year is a Lord of beings. He is made up of sixteen parts. His nights, verily, are fifteen parts. His sixteenth part stands firm. He is increased and diminished only by the nights. On the night of the new moon, entering with that sixteenth part that possesses Life-breath, in the morning he is born. Therefore, let him not cut off the Life-breath of any being that possesses Life-breath, not even of a lizard, on that night, as an act of reverence for that Divinity. The spiritual man who thus knows, is this circling year, this Lord of beings possessing sixteen parts. His possessions are the fifteen parts; Atma, the Self of him, is the sixteenth part. Through his possessions he is increased and diminished. Therefore, this Atma is the nave of the wheel; his possessions are the rim of the wheel. Therefore, if he suffer the loss of all his possessions, if he yet live, because of the Self, they say, ‘He has come off with the loss of the rim!’”—Brihad Aranyaka, I:5:14-15
The four likewise have their symbolic meanings. As it is said that Gautama circled the tree in all four directions, we may draw a correspondence here between the “four devas” and the four Maharajas of the four quarters. We may also, perhaps, see a link between the four and the four planes/states of the Mandukya Upanishad, particularly since the four are said to make the tree perfect, and since the tree stands, ultimately, for the “Spiritual Man” and Universe—for both the Macrocosm and the Microcosm.
171. Lalitavistara, Chapter 14 (D.T.C. translation)
177. Ibid., I:536
178. Ibid., II:587
182. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells us that “He who has attained to meditation should constantly strive to stay at rest in the Supreme, remaining in solitude and seclusion, having his body and his thoughts under control, without possessions and free from hope. He should in an undefiled spot place his seat, firm, neither too high nor too low, and made of kusa grass which is covered with a skin and a cloth.” (trans. William Q. Judge)
Kusa (Sk.). A sacred grass used by the ascetics of India, called the grass of lucky augury. It is very occult.—H.P. Blavatsky, Theosophical Glossary (see also “Srastara” in the same glossary)
The Lalitavistara (Ch. 14) has an extensive treatment of Gautama obtaining and using the grass for his seat, just as the “previously gone ones” did when they “attained unsurpassed, genuine and perfect awakening.”
183. Buddhacarita, Canto 12:119-120 (Patrick Olivelle translation)
184. Lalitavistara, Chapter 21 (D.T.C. translation)
185. “No purely spiritual Buddhi (divine Soul) can have an independent (conscious) existence before the spark which issued from the pure Essence of the Universal Sixth principle,—or the OVER-SOUL,—has (a) passed through every elemental form of the phenomenal world of that Manvantara, and (b) acquired individuality, first by natural impulse, and then by self-induced and self-devised efforts (checked by its Karma), thus ascending through all the degrees of intelligence, from the lowest to the highest Manas, from mineral and plant, up to the holiest archangel (Dhyani-Buddha). The pivotal doctrine of the Esoteric philosophy admits no privileges or special gifts in man, save those won by his own Ego through personal effort and merit throughout a long series of metempsychoses and reincarnations.”—Secret Doctrine, I:17, Proem.
187. The Lalitavistara elaborates on the process of arousing Mara, including a symbolic dream of Mara’s. See Chapter 21.
188. See: Lalitavistara, Chapter 21
190. Buddhacarita, Canto 13:3 (Patrick Olivelle translation). E.H. Johnston translates the same verse thus: “His three sons, Caprice, Gaiety and Wantonness, and his three daughters, Discontent, Delight and Thirst.”
The sons are:
1. Vibhrama, which others translate as: Pertubation, Confusion, Error; lit. “to roam, wander about, whirl or wheel around”, etc.
2. Harsa, which others translate as: Joy, Delight, Thrill, Gladness, Rapture, Glee, Exultation, Sexual Excitement, Elation, etc.
3. Darpa, which others translate as: Pride, Arrogance, Insolence, Haughtiness, Vanity, etc.
The daughters are given variously as: Tanha, Arati, and Raga, or Rati, Priti, and Trishna, or again Rati, Arati and Trishna. Of these, Tanha and Trishna are equivalents (Tanha being the Pali term, Trishna being the Sanskrit). We may summarize the daughters as:
1. Arati, which others translate as: Aversion, Dislike, Discontent, Unrest, Displeasure, Boredom, etc.
2. Rati, Priti or Raga, which others translate as: Attachment, Lust, Pleasure, Liking for, Fondness of, Delight, etc.
3. Tanha or Trishna, which others translate as: Thirst, Craving, “the fever of unsatisfied longing”, “the thirst for life, desire to live and clinging to life on this earth”, etc.
191. Lalitavistara, Chapter 21 (D.T.C. translation)
194. “Beware, Lanoo, lest dazzled by illusive radiance thy Soul should linger and be caught in its deceptive light. This light shines from the jewel of the Great Ensnarer, (Mara). The senses it bewitches, blinds the mind, and leaves the unwary an abandoned wreck. The moth attracted to the dazzling flame of thy night-lamp is doomed to perish in the viscid oil. The unwary Soul that fails to grapple with the mocking demon of illusion, will return to earth the slave of Mara.”—The Voice of the Silence, Fragment I.
195. Paramita (Sanskrit) Pāramitā [from pāram beyond + ita gone from the verbal root i to go] Gone or crossed to the other shore; derivatively, virtue or perfection. The paramitas vary in number according to the Buddhist school: some quoting six, others seven or ten; but they are the glorious or transcendental virtues—the keys to the portals of jnana (wisdom).—Encyclopedic Theosophical Glossary
196. Viraga is not included in traditional texts, but has been added in modern theosophical thought. The term Viraga comes from the Sanskrit vi (without) + rāga (passion, desire), thus “without passion”, or more clearly the “feeling of absolute indifference to the objective universe, to pleasure and to pain”. Raga, we have noted above, is one of the names sometimes used for one of Mara’s daughters, Viraga being that which overcomes her power. Thus the six paramitas become seven with its addition. See: H.P. Blavatsky, The Voice of the Silence, Fragment III.
199. Lalitavistara, Chapter 21 (D.T.C. translation)
202. This very same idea came to inspire the relationship between the “Devil” (a gross personification of our desire nature) and “God” (a gross personification of the Higher Self within) in common exoteric Christianity.
203. “Be of good cheer, O daring pilgrim ‘to the other shore.’ Heed not the whisperings of Mara’s hosts; wave off the tempters, those ill-natured Sprites, the jealous Lhamayin in endless space.”—The Voice of the Silence, Fragment III
204. Lalitavistara, Chapter 21 (D.T.C. translation)
207. “It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power: It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. . . . Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed . . . For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.”—St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 15:40-54.
208. Buddhacarita, Chapter 13:11-18 (Charles Willemen translation)
209. Buddhacarita, Canto 13:13 (Patrick Olivelle translation)
210. Ibid., Canto 13:14-17
211. Ibid., Canto 13:43
212. Ibid., Canto 13:55
213. Lalitavistara, Chapter 21 (D.T.C. translation)
216. The four Elements: Earth, Water, Air and Fire.
217. The preceding verses are all from the Lalitavistara, Chapter 21 (D.T.C. translation)
218. There are various approaches to the different states or stages of dhyana (jhana), from various sources. The traditional approach is that of four-fold dhyana, four distinct stages, which is what the Lalitavistara traces for us here. A further arrangement gives eight dhyanas—four rupa, four arupa, in ascending order (see note 144). H.P. Blavatsky speaks of four-fold dhyana in The Voice of the Silence, but also speaks of the “six stages of Dhyan” (see Theosophical Glossary, “Dhyâna”).
219. Buddhacarita, Canto 14:2 (Patrick Olivelle translation)
220. For more on the subject of recollection of past births from a Buddhist perspective, see the article “The Memory of Past Births” by Charles Johnston. See also Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga, trans. Bhikkhu Nanamoli, p. 404.
“A knowledge of past and future events comes to an ascetic from his performing Sanyama in respect to the three-fold mental modifications . . .
“A knowledge of the occurrences experienced in former incarnations arises in the ascetic from holding before his mind the trains of self-reproductive thought and concentrating himself upon them.” (Book 3:16, 18, W.Q. Judge interpretation)
222. Lalitavistara, Chapter 22 (D.T.C. translation)
224. Lalitavistara, Chapter 22 (D.T.C. translation)
226. Buddhacarita, Canto 14:5-6 (Patrick Olivelle translation)
227. Lalitavistara, Chapter 22 (D.T.C. translation)
228. These three “knowledges”, obtained during the three watches of the night, are commonly referred to as the Tevijja (Pali) or Trividya (Sanskrit).
229. Lalitavistara, Chapter 22 (D.T.C. translation)
233. Mârga (Sk.). “The “Path”, The Ashthânga mârga, the “holy” or sacred path is the one that leads to Nirvâna. The eight-fold path has grown out of the seven-fold path, by the addition of the (now) first of the eight Marga; i.e., “the possession of orthodox views”; with which a real Yogâcharya would have nothing to do.—Theosophical Glossary
235. Buddhacarita, Canto XIV:86 (E.H. Johnston translation)
236. Lalitavistara, Chapter 22 (D.T.C. translation)
237. Buddhacarita, Canto XIV:94-97 (E.H. Johnston translation)
238. Lalitavistara, Chapter 22 (D.T.C. translation)
241. Ibid., p.198-205 & Lalitavistara, Chapter XXIV.
242. Lalitavistara, Chapter 24 (D.T.C. translation)
244. Buddhacarita, Chapter 14:62-64 (Charles Willemen translation)
245. Lalitavistara, Chapter 24 (D.T.C. translation)
247. Lalitavistara, Chapter 24 (D.T.C. translation)
250. Buddhacarita, Chapter 14:74-76 (Charles Willemen translation)
251. See Lalitavistara, Chapter 24
252. Lalitavistara, Chapter 24, final verse. (D.T.C. translation)
“When the wheel of Dharma was turned
With its twelve aspects,
Kaundinya understood the meaning,
And so the Three Jewels came to be.”
A deeper understanding of the Three Jewels may shed light on the differences between these biographies. See next note:
254. Triratna, or Ratnatraya (Sk) The Three Jewels, the technical term for the well-known formula “Buddha, Dharma and Sangha” (or Samgha), the two latter terms meaning, in modern interpretation, “religious law” (Dharma), and the “priesthood” (Sangha). Esoteric Philosophy, however, would regard this as a very loose rendering. The words “Buddha, Dharma and Sangha”, ought to be pronounced as in the days of Gautama, the Lord Buddha, namely “Bodhi, Dharma and Sangha” and interpreted to mean “Wisdom, its laws and priests”, the latter in the sense of “spiritual exponents”, or adepts. Buddha, however, being regarded as personified “Bodhi” on earth, a true avatar of Âdi-Buddha, Dharma gradually came to be regarded as his own particular law, and Sangha as his own special priesthood. . . . The philosopher of the Yogâchârya School would say—as well he could—“Dharma is not a person but an unconditioned and underived entity, combining in itself the spiritual and material principles of the universe, whilst from Dharma proceeded, by emanation, Buddha [‘reflected’ Bodhi rather], as the creative energy which produced, in conjunction with Dharma, the third factor in the trinity, viz., ‘Samgha’, which is the comprehensive sum total of all real life.” Samgha, then, is not and cannot be that which it is now understood to be, namely, the actual “priesthood”; for the latter is not the sum total of all real life, but only of religious life. The real primitive significance of the word Samgha or “Sangha” applies to the Arhats or Bhikshus, or the “initiates”, alone, that is to say to the real exponents of Dharma—the divine law and wisdom, coming to them as a reflex light from the one “boundless light”. Such is its philosophical meaning. . . .
[the “Buddha” here] “is not Buddha (Gautama, the mortal man, or any other personal Buddha) . . . it is neither one Buddha who is meant, nor any particular avatar of the collective Dhyâni Buddhas, but verily Âdi-Bodhi—the first Logos, whose primordial ray is Mahâbuddhi, the Universal Soul, ALAYA, whose flame is ubiquitous, and whose influence has a different sphere in each of the three forms of existence, because, once again, it is Universal Being itself or the reflex of the Absolute.”—Theosophical Glossary.
255. Some of the traditional biographies portray the five mendicants as quite hostile towards the Buddha when he first arrived, referring to him as a “lazy glutton” and so on. Whether historically accurate or not, this attitude is certainly consistent with the manner in which many who have dedicated themselves to harsh austerities and self-mutilations tend to view those who have turned back from such a course. In this aspect of the story we may find an illustration pointing towards the common condition of many spiritual aspirants during Buddha’s time, thus showing one of the great challenges he faced in teaching the Dharma across northern India. At the very least we find an apt illustration of the challenge faced in promoting the middle-way: at all times there are those who stand on one and the other side of this way, each side viewing it as inadequate and inferior to their harsh extremes. As we will see, it is this subject that composes the very first words of the Buddha’s first teaching after enlightenment.
256. Lalitavistara, Chapter 26 (D.T.C. translation)
258. Lalitavistara, Chapter 26 (D.T.C. translation)
261. Lalitavistara, Chapter 26, for the Sanskrit Mahayana version, beginning about half way through the chapter.
262. Noble Eightfold Path (aryastanga-marga)
263. Four Noble Truths (catvari aryasatyani)
264. Skandha or Skhanda (Sk.). Lit., “bundles”, or groups of attributes; everything finite, inapplicable to the eternal and the absolute. There are five—esoterically, seven—attributes in every human living being, which are known as the Pancha Skandhas. These are () form, rûpa; () perception, vidâna; () consciousness, sanjnâ; () action, sanskâra; () knowledge, vidyâna. These unite at the birth of man and constitute his personality. After the maturity of these Skandhas, they begin to separate and weaken, and this is followed by jarâmarana, or decrepitude and death.—Theosophical Glossary
265. As Bhikkhu Bodhi explains:
The three phases (tiparivaa) are: (i) the knowledge of each truth (sacca-nana), e.g., “This is the noble truth of suffering”; (ii) the knowledge of the task to be accomplished regarding each truth (kicca-nana), e.g., “This noble truth of suffering is to be fully understood”; and (iii) the knowledge of accomplishment regarding each truth (kata-nana), e.g., “This noble truth of suffering has been fully understood.”
The twelve modes (dvadasakara) are obtained by applying the three phases to the four truths.—Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta: Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Dhamma (see note).
266. Srotapatti—(lit.) “he who has entered the stream” that leads to the Nirvanic ocean. This name indicates the first Path. The name of the second is the Path of Sakridagamin, “he who will receive birth (only) once more.” The third is called Anagamin, “he who will be reincarnated no more,” unless he so desires in order to help mankind. The fourth Path is known as that of Rahat or Arhat. This is the highest. An Arhat sees Nirvana during his life. For him it is no post-mortem state, but Samadhi, during which he experiences all Nirvanic bliss.—Voice of the Silence, Fragment III, Note 6.
267. Some calculations would yield 49.
268. The Pali Vinaya tell us that, in addition to the fifty-four, his family was also converted, becoming lay-believers.
270. Buddhacarita, Chapter 16:23 (Charles Willemen translation)
272. Buddhacarita, Chapter 16:40 (Charles Willemen translation)
273. Buddhacarita, Chapter 16:38 (Charles Willemen translation)
276. Buddhacarita, Chapter 16:55 (Charles Willemen translation)
277. Buddhacarita, Chapter 16:57-61 (Charles Willemen translation)
278. “Strictly speaking, we should mean by Brahmansim the system of priestcraft and ceremonial bartering with the gods, ‘milking the gods,’ to use a chaste expression from the Vedic hymns, which was denounced in the Upanishads, treated as futile by Krishna, and finally rejected by Buddha, the system of priestcraft, with its promises of material success in this life, and sensual reward in heaven, which finally triumphed in the expulsion of Buddha’s religion, and which is the very antithesis of the spiritual ideal of the Rajputs [kshatriyas].”—Charles Johnston, “The Upanishads and the Brahmans”, The Open Court, October, 1896, Re-printed in Theosophical Forum, August, 1902.
In the Upanishads, this system of reward-based desire is called “the Path of the Fathers”, which is that of inevitable reincarnation, while the path taught by the great Upanishadic teachers is called “the path of the Gods”, which is that of Liberation, the same path taught by Buddha.
279. For more on this subject, see: Charles Johnston, “The Religion of India”, “The Heritage of the Brahmans”, “The Upanishads and the Brahmans”, and commentaries on the Principle (Mukhya) Upanishads.
282. Buddha’s teaching is essentially identical with the essence of the teachings recorded in the Principle (Mukhya) Upanishads. Indeed, his teachings represent the esoteric tenets of the Upanishads.
283. In the Buddhacarita we are told that Kassapa “immediately controlled himself and entered right mindfulness” [samyak-smriti], the seventh step of the Noble Eightfold path, before swiftly rising into the sky. This seventh step corresponds with Dhyana in the Paramitas, and Kassapa’s “rising” indicates the rising through the stages of dhyana (or jhana).
284. This demonstrates that the notion of “self” here discussed is that of the personal (aggregate) and illusory self or personal egoism. As one author notes:
“It is clear that the Atta of the Pali scriptures is not the Parama-Atma of the great Upanishads, but is the lower self of the false personality; and that the purpose of the Buddha, when he teaches in detail the unreality of Atta, is, to help the disciple, or, perhaps, we may almost say, to compel the disciple, to that abandonment of self, which is the first step on the path of wisdom and attainment.”—Charles Johnston, The Ladder of Consciousness
As another author, in comparing modern theosophical teachings with the doctrine of anatma, notes:
“In The Gospel of Buddha [by Paul Carus], we find the following statement given as part of a discourse by the Buddha: ‘That which men call the ego when they say ‘I am’ is not an entity behind the skandhas; it originates by the cooperation of the skandhas.’ If we may assume that this quotation is a valid representation of the original teaching, then it throws a considerable light upon the meaning of the anatmic doctrine as it was meant by Buddha Himself. The ‘I am’ in this sense seems to be none other than personal egoism, which carries the force of ‘I am I and none other,’ and, therefore, is separative and the base of selfishness.”—Franklin Merrell-Wolff, Is Theosophy Authentic? Part IV.
285. Buddhacarita, Canto XVI:73-93 (E.H. Johnston translation)
286. For a comparison between the anatma doctrine and theosophical teachings, see: Nancy Reigle, “Ātman/Anātman in Buddhism and Its Implication for the Wisdom Tradition” and Franklin Merrell-Wolff, Is Theosophy Authentic? Part IV. See also: Kamaleswar Bhattacharya, The Atman-Brahman in Ancient Buddhism (2015); English translation of L’Ātman-Brahman dans le Bouddhisme ancien (1973).
287. These articles, by Charles Johnston, are running translation-commentaries. For a stand-alone translation (with an introduction from a traditional Buddhist perspective), see: Maha-nidana Sutta: The Great Causes Discourse, translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
288. See, for instance: Charles Johnston, The Vedanta Philosophy of Sankaracharya (2014)
289. See: Charles Johnston, The Mukhya Upanishads (2014)
ENQUIRER. What does Buddhism teach with regard to the Soul?
THEOSOPHIST. It depends whether you mean exoteric, popular Buddhism, or its esoteric teachings. The former explains itself in the Buddhist Catechism in this wise: “Soul it considers a word used by the ignorant to express a false idea. If everything is subject to change, then man is included, and every material part of him must change. That which is subject to change is not permanent, so there can be no immortal survival of a changeful thing.” This seems plain and definite. But when we come to the question that the new personality in each succeeding re-birth is the aggregate of “Skandhas,” or the attributes, of the old personality, and ask whether this new aggregation of Skandhas is a new being likewise, in which nothing has remained of the last, we read that: “In one sense it is a new being, in another it is not. During this life the Skandhas are continually changing, while the man A.B. of forty is identical as regards personality with the youth A.B. of eighteen, yet by the continual waste and reparation of his body and change of mind and character, he is a different being. Nevertheless, the man in his old age justly reaps the reward or suffering consequent upon his thoughts and actions at every previous stage of his life. So the new being of the re-birth, being the same individuality as before (but not the same personality), with but a changed form, or new aggregation of Skandhas, justly reaps the consequences of his actions and thoughts in the previous existence.” This is abstruse metaphysics, and plainly does not express disbelief in Soul by any means. . . .
ENQUIRER. But we are distinctly told that most of the Buddhists do not believe in the Soul’s immortality?
THEOSOPHIST. No more do we, if you mean by Soul the personal Ego . . . But every learned Buddhist believes in the individual or divine Ego. Those who do not, err in their judgment. They are as mistaken on this point . . .
ENQUIRER. But surely Buddha must have repudiated the soul’s immortality, if all the Orientalists and his own Priests say so!
THEOSOPHIST. The Arhats began by following the policy of their Master and the majority of the subsequent priests were not initiated, just as in Christianity; and so, little by little, the great esoteric truths became almost lost. . . .
In India the Brahmins, jealous of their superior knowledge, and excluding from it every caste save their own, had driven millions of men into idolatry and almost fetishism. Buddha had to give the death-blow to an exuberance of unhealthy fancy and fanatical superstition resulting from ignorance, such as has rarely been known before or after. . . . He had to arrest first of all this muddy torrent of superstition, to uproot errors before he gave out the truth. And as he could not give out all for the same good reason as Jesus, who reminds his disciples that the Mysteries of Heaven are not for the unintelligent masses, but for the elect alone, and therefore “spake he to them in parables” (Matt. xiii. 11)—so his caution led Buddha to conceal too much. He even refused to say to the monk Vacchagotta whether there was, or was not an Ego in man. When pressed to answer, “the Exalted one maintained silence.”* [this refers to the Ananda Sutta of the Samyutta Nikaya]
* Buddha gives to Ananda, his initiated disciple, who enquires for the reason of this silence, a plain and unequivocal answer in the dialogue translated by Oldenburg from the Samyuttaka Nikaya:—“If I, Ananda, when the wandering monk Vacchagotta asked me: ‘Is there the Ego?’ had answered ‘The Ego is,’ then that, Ananda, would have confirmed the doctrine of the Samanas and Brahmanas, who believed in permanence. If I, Ananda, when the wandering monk Vacchagotta asked me, ‘Is there not the Ego?’ had answered, ‘The Ego is not,’ then that, Ananda, would have confirmed the doctrine of those who believed in annihilation. If I, Ananda, when the wandering monk Vacchagotta asked me, ‘Is there the Ego?’ had answered, ‘The Ego is,’ would that have served my end, Ananda, by producing in him the knowledge: all existences (dhamma) are non-ego? But if I, Ananda, had answered, ‘The Ego is not,’ then that, Ananda, would only have caused the wandering monk Vacchagotta to be thrown from one bewilderment to another: ‘My Ego, did it not exist before? But now it exists no longer!’” This shows, better than anything, that Gautama Buddha withheld such difficult metaphysical doctrines from the masses in order not to perplex them more. What he meant was the difference between the personal temporary Ego and the Higher Self, which sheds its light on the imperishable Ego, the spiritual “I” of man.
292. “In the Buddha’s day, Rajagaha was the capital of the most powerful country in India, the most technically advanced city, and relatively free from the shackles of traditional Brahmanism.”—Hajime Nakamura, Gotama Buddha: A Biography Based on the Most Reliable Texts (2001), p.318
294. See the many suttas that deal with the attitude of the Brahmans towards Buddha. One may also consider a tradition recorded in the Secret Doctrine as possibly shedding light on this opposition and the forms it took:
“[The Upanishads] CONTAIN the beginning and the end of all human knowledge, but they have now ceased to REVEAL it, since the day of Buddha. . . . the Upanishads were originally attached to their Brahmanas after the beginning of a reform, which led to the exclusiveness of the present caste system among the Brahmins . . . They were complete in those days, and were used for the instruction of the chelas who were preparing for their initiation. This lasted so long as the Vedas and the Brahmanas remained in the sole and exclusive keeping of the temple-Brahmins—while no one else had the right to study or even read them outside of the sacred caste. Then came Gautama, the Prince of Kapilavastu. After learning the whole of the Brahmanical wisdom in the Rahasya or the Upanishads, and finding that the teachings differed little, if at all, from those of the ‘Teachers of Life’ inhabiting the snowy ranges of the Himalaya, the Disciple of the Brahmins, feeling indignant because the sacred wisdom was thus withheld from all but the Brahmins, determined to save the whole world by popularizing it. Then it was that the Brahmins, seeing that their sacred knowledge and Occult wisdom was falling into the hands of the ‘Mlechchhas,’ abridged the texts of the Upanishads, originally containing thrice the matter of the Vedas and the Brahmanas together, without altering, however, one word of the texts. They simply detached from the MSS. the most important portions containing the last word of the Mystery of Being. The key to the Brahmanical secret code remained henceforth with the initiates alone, and the Brahmins were thus in a position to publicly deny the correctness of Buddha’s teaching by appealing to their Upanishads, silenced for ever on the chief questions. Such is the esoteric tradition beyond the Himalayas.”—H.P. Blavatksy, Secret Doctrine, I:270-71
295. See: Ven. Piyadassi Thera, The Buddha, His Life and Teachings (1982), chapter titled: “The Buddha’s Ministry”, for an explanation of the vassas, their order and locations. See also: The Great Chronicles of the Buddhas, Volume 3, p. 105, and Hajime Nakamura, Gotama Buddha: A Biography Based on the Most Reliable Texts (2001), Volume I, Table 6, p.274-75
296. “Veluvana was so called because it was surrounded by bamboos (velu). It was surrounded by a wall, eighteen cubits high, holding a gateway and towers.” (SNA.ii.419; Sp.iii.576).
“On one side of the main building of the Veluvana vihara was a building called Ambalatthika” (MA.ii.635). “There was also a senāsana [dwelling-place], built for the use of monks practising austerities” (MA.ii.932).
See here for Pali Canon abbreviation codes as used here.
297. Sanjaya’s teachings are commonly portrayed as “evasive”, and many of his statements come across as rather agnostic. In one sense he seems to have been arguing, as the great Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna would later, against fixing our minds to any specific concept, but unlike Nagarjuna and other Buddhist philosophers, he seems to have focused on an approach of negative denial-reasoning without establishing positive teachings that would help one realize greater truth. A sample of his argumentation can be found in the Samaññaphala Sutta, alongside other prevalent systems of thought of the time. Whatever the specifics of his teachings were, it is clear that they had not helped either Sariputta or Moggallana to reach their goal of liberation and the end of suffering.
298. Buddhacarita, Chapter 17:8-10 (Charles Willemen translation)
299. The lives of both Sariputta and Moggallana are described at length across many sutras and other writings. See, for instance:
The Life of Sariputta, compiled and translated from the Pali texts by Nyanaponika Thera
Buddhist Studies (buddhanet.net): Sariputra
Maha-Moggallana, by Hellmuth Hecker
Buddhist Studies (buddhanet.net): Maha Mogalana
Buddhist Studies (buddhanet.net): The Two Chief Disciples
300. Whether these disciples were their students at the time, or other students of Sanjaya who followed them into the Sangha is unsure. It is recorded in several places that Sanjaya was quite unhappy with losing his disciples to the Buddha, who he viewed as a rival. This, again, illustrates the deep waves the Buddha’s teachings had upon the spiritual community in and around Rajagriha at the time. It is obvious from these and other events that strong opposition to him was inevitable—in time this opposition would manifest in many ways, both during, and especially after, his life.
303. See Platonic philosophy.
304. That is, of the Saktis.
306. As one author notes:
“It has been suggested that the principal purpose of the Buddha, in all that he did and taught, was the founding of an Order which should train disciples, not for abstract or general ends, but for the definite goal of Chelaship. It may be added that every detail of his words and acts gains new light from the recognition of this primary aim.”—Charles Johnston, “The Ideal Brahman”, Theosophical Quarterly, July, 1929.
Chela is a term used at length in modern theosophical teachings, which we might define as “discipleship on the Arhat path, under the direct guidance of a Master”. See theosophical literature for more on the meaning of the term.
307. For a detailed biography of Maha Kassapa, see:
Maha Kassapa, Father of the Sangha by Hellmuth Hecker (revised and enlarged translation from the German by Nyanaponika Thera)
See also: Buddhist Studies (buddhanet.net): Maha Kassapa
308. Buddhacarita, Canto XVII:24 (E.H. Johnston translation)
309. For the story of Bhadda Kapilani, see: First Buddhist Women: Poems and Stories of Awakening, by Susan Murcott.
311. Buddhacarita, Canto XVII:41 (E.H. Johnston translation)
Trividyâ (Sk.). Lit., “the three knowledges” or “sciences”. These are the three fundamental axioms in mysticism—(a) the impermanency of all existence, or Anitya; (b) suffering and misery of all that lives and is, or Dukha; and (c) all physical, objective existence as evanescent and unreal as a water-bubble in a dream, or Anâtmâ.—Theosophical Glossary
312. For a detailed biography of Anathapindaka, see:
Anathapindika, The Great Benefactor by Hellmuth Hecker
See also: Anathapindika, The Man of Wealth by Paul Carus
313. Buddhacarita, Chapter 18:1-4 (Charles Willemen translation)
314. E.H. Johnston’s translation seems to cover the teachings with the most detail, accuracy and insight.
316. See: Buddhacarita, Canto XVIII:81-87 (E.H. Johnston translation)
317. See note 295.
319. Buddhacarita, Chapter 19:15-18 (Charles Willemen translation)
320. See: Buddhacarita, Canto XIX:39 etc. (E.H. Johnston translation)
323. See here for a map showing some of the Buddha’s locations following his enlightenment in Bodhgaya and up to his arrival at Jetavana Monastery in the fourteenth year. The locations, with possible order correlating with the vassas, are:
2. Bodhgaya, the place of enlightenment, visited after the first vassa.
7. Chunar, possible site of Sumsumara-giri, site of the 8th vassa.
8. Back to Kaushambi for the 9th and 10th vassas.
11. Calika (not shown), site of the 13th vassa. Location is unknown, but potentially also north of the Ganges.
12. Jetavana monastery, in Savatthi, site of the 14th vassa.
325. See Canto/Chapter 21.
326. To begin such a study we highly recommend Charles Johnston’s series “The Noble Teachings of Lord Buddha”. Paul Carus’s The Gospel of Buddha is another good starting point. Thereafter many suttas and other writings can be found in English translations at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/, http://www.buddhanet.net/, and http://buddhasutra.com/, among others.
327. For a detailed biography of Ananda, see:
Ananda, The Guardian of the Dhamma by Hellmuth Hecker
329. See: Mara Upasatha Sutra. In other versions it is Mahaprajapati who is said to have made the request three times (see, for instance, the Cullavagga). We may perhaps imagine both to have made such requests, and may also recognize the inherent symbolism of the “three times”, especially when looking to the Upanishads and other Indian texts for comparison.
331. Susan Murcott, in First Buddhist Women: Poems and Stories of Awakening, provides wonderful insight into the women who had been left “without husbands or other primary male relations” in a culture with heavy expectations on the role of women. She notes well that in addition to those whose husbands took refuge, there were also those who had formed young Siddhartha’s harem (and, of course, those belonging to the harems of other noblemen), who likewise found themselves without their expected life’s role. These women naturally bonded together, finding in each other a new family, which itself gave the initial strength of mutual commitment in the early community of Bhikkhunis.
332. Buddhist Studies (buddhanet.net): Buddhism and Women: Position of Women at the Time of Buddha
333. An example of the Buddha’s position, rather strongly put, is found in the Mara Upasatha Sutra, thus: “The Blessed One, foreseeing the danger that lurked in admitting women to the Sangha, protested that while the good religion ought surely to last a thousand years it would, when women joined it, likely decay after five hundred years . . .”. This need not indicate that the women themselves would be at fault for such a potential result, but rather that the mixture of male and female disciples may become such a cause. We must also keep in mind that such strong views may be more an indication of the perspective of the authors of the suttas than of the Buddha himself.
335. Ibid., p.268-269. See also: The Book of the Discipline (Vinaya-Pitaka), Volume V (Cullavagga), p.352, etc. (I.B. Horner translation)
336. The Book of the Discipline (Vinaya-Pitaka), Volume V (Cullavagga), p.353 (I.B. Horner translation)
338. The Book of the Discipline (Vinaya-Pitaka), Volume V (Cullavagga), p.354 (I.B. Horner translation)
339. Susan Murcott, First Buddhist Women: Poems and Stories of Awakening, Introduction to the Therigatha.
(1) A bhikkhuni, even if she enjoys a seniority of a hundred years in the Order, must worship, welcome with raised clasped hands and pay respect to a bhikkhu though he may have been a bhikkhu only for a day. This rule is strictly to be adhered to for life.
(2) A bhikkhuni must not keep her rains-residence at a place that is not close to the one occupied by bhikkhus. This rule is also to be strictly adhered to for life.
(3) Every fortnight a bhikkhuni must do two things: To ask the bhikkhu Sangha the day of Uposatha and to approach the bhikkhu Sangha for instruction and admonition. This rule is also to be strictly adhered to for life.
(4) When the rains-residence period is over, a bhikkhuni must attend the Pavarana ceremony at both the assemblies of bhikkhus and bhikkhunis, in each of which she must invite criticism on what has been seen, what has been heard or what has been suspected of her. This rule is also to be strictly adhered to for life.
(5) A bhikkhuni who has committed a Sanghadisesa offence must undergo penance for a half-month, pakkha manatta, in each assembly of bhikkhus and bhikkhunis. This rule is also to be strictly adhered to for life.
(6) A bhikkhuni must arrange for ordination by both the assemblies of bhikkhus and bhikkhunis for a woman novice only after two years probationary training under her in the observance of six training practices. This rule is also to be strictly adhered to for life.
(7) A bhikkhuni should not revile a bhikkhu for any reason whatsoever. This rule is also to be strictly adhered to for life.
(8) Bhikkhunis are prohibited from exhorting or admonishing bhikkhus with effect from today. Bhikkhus should exhort bhikkhunis when and where necessary. This rule is also to be strictly adhered to for life.
See also: The Book of the Discipline (Vinaya-Pitaka), Volume V (Cullavagga), p.354-55 (I.B. Horner translation)
342. See, for instance, the Patimokkha Rules, including the Bhikkhu Patimokkha and the Bhikkhuni Patimokkha. Various schools have varying rules, and there are differences to be found between the Therevada and the Mahayana.
343. “Dan, now become in modern Chinese and Tibetan phonetics ch’an, is the general term for the esoteric schools, and their literature. In the old books, the word Janna is defined as ‘to reform one’s self by meditation and knowledge,’ a second inner birth. Hence Dzan, Djan phonetically, the ‘Book of Dzyan’.— Secret Doctrine, I:xx fn.
345. Some have Buddha staying at Jetavana (in Savatthi) from the 21st until the 43rd vassa, while others have the 21st-24th at Calika, then the remainder at Jetavana, until the 44th and 45th which mark the beginnings of the final journey. See note 295.
346. The first 1,250 bhikkhus having all come from within Bimbasara’s kingdom.
347. See note 292.
348. For the dates given by Piyadasi Thera, see: The Buddha, His Life and Teachings (1982). For those from H.P. Blavatsky, see: The Theosophical Glossary (1892), “Buddha Siddhârta”. See also: T. Subba Row, Sakya Muni’s Place in History, Theosophist, October, 1883 (Reprinted in Five Years of Theosophy.)
350. The Book of the Discipline (Vinaya-Pitaka), Volume V (Cullavagga), p.259 etc. (I.B. Horner translation)
351. For biographical information on Devadatta, see:
Ven. Piyadassi Thera, The Buddha, His Life and Teachings (1982), Chapter on Devadatta; Devadatta (palikanon.com); Devadatta (wisdomlib.org); Buddhist Studies (buddhanet.net): Devadatta, the Buddha’s Enemy and Ajatasattu and Devadatta; also Devadatta (Wiki).
352. “The Sanskrit books (e.g., Mtu) give several stories of his youth which show his malice. When Siddhattha was about to show his skill in the arts, a white elephant was being brought for him, and Devadatta, out of envy, killed it. The carcase blocked the city gates till Siddhattha threw it outside. The Pali Commentaries (e.g., SA.i.62) say that Devadatta had the strength of five elephants. On another occasion he quarrelled with Siddhattha, who protested against his shooting a goose.” (source)
353. See, for instance: Buddhacarita, Canto XIX:39 etc. (E.H. Johnston translation)
355. “The Pali word Iddhi, is the synonym of the Sanskrit Siddhis, or psychic faculties, the abnormal powers in man. There are two kinds of Siddhis. One group which embraces the lower, coarse, psychic and mental energies; the other is one which exacts the highest training of Spiritual powers.”—Voice of the Silence, Fragment 1, Note 1.
356. The Book of the Discipline (Vinaya-Pitaka), Volume V (Cullavagga), p.259 (I.B. Horner translation)
357. Ibid., p.260
359. The Book of the Discipline (Vinaya-Pitaka), Volume V (Cullavagga), p.261 (I.B. Horner translation)
362. The Book of the Discipline (Vinaya-Pitaka), Volume V (Cullavagga), p.263 (I.B. Horner translation)
364. The Book of the Discipline (Vinaya-Pitaka), Volume V (Cullavagga), p.264 (I.B. Horner translation)
365. Ibid. p.267
366. Deva-datta, lit. “god-given”, or “gift of the gods”. It is also the name of Arjuna’s conch, which he blows at the outset of the war at Kurukshetra, a war symbolizing the battle between the higher and the lower within each Man, and within Humanity. (see Bhagavad Gita, I:15)
367. See Katha Upanishad, I:2:1. “One thing is the better; other than that, verily, is the dearer. These two draw a man in different directions. Of the two, for him who takes the better it is well; he fails of his goal who, verily, chooses the dearer.”
369. The Jains record a slightly different version of Ajatasatru’s climb to power, saying that he had at first merely imprisoned his father in order to become king, and then, having repented, went to release his father. Upon seeing his son coming to his cell, Bimbasara believed he was coming to kill him, and thinking it better to take his own life than to be murdered, committed suicide before Ajatasatru could set him free. Either story is possible, though the Buddhist tradition seems, to us, far more likely, given the nature of Ajatasatru’s rule as king, full as it was with bloodthirsty military conquest. There is also nothing in any records of Bimbasara that would indicate a man willing to take his own life.
371. It is said that those who broke off from the Sangha with Devadatta were primarily Shakyas, from within Suddhodana’s kingdom.
372. The Book of the Discipline (Vinaya-Pitaka), Volume V (Cullavagga), p.277 (I.B. Horner translation)
374. It should be noted that using the term “the recluse Gotama” or “the ascetic Gotama” is seen as a derogatory and disrespectful way to address the Buddha.
375. The Book of the Discipline (Vinaya-Pitaka), Volume V (Cullavagga), p.279 (I.B. Horner translation)
376. See, for instance: Xian, Fa, A Record of Buddhistic kingdoms; being an account by the Chinese monk FA-HIEN of his travels in India and Ceylon, A.D. 399-414, in search of the Buddhist books of discipline, trans. James Legge (1886), p. 62.
378. The sentence in Pali is: “Kam nu kh’ajja samanam va brahmanam va payirupaseyyama, yam no payirupasato cittam [mind] pasīdeyyâ ti”. See Samañña,phala Sutta, translated with notes by Piya Tan, p. 9 for an explanation.
379. See, for instance, Arthur Smith’s well-reasoned conclusion:
“Both traditions have claimed him as one of themselves. The Jaina claim appears to be well founded. Whereas Ajatasatru met Buddha only once, he had several meetings with Mahavira. Buddha spent only 5 monsoon camps in Rajgriha and none in Champa, Ajatasatru’s capital, while Mahavira spent 14 monsoon camps in Rajgriha and 3 in Champa.”—History of India: From Sixth century B.C to Mohammedan Conquest (Vol. 2) (1907).
See here for more on the subject of Ajatasatru’s leaning towards either Buddhism or Jainism.
380. Avîtchi (Sk.). A state: not necessarily after death only or between two births, for it can take place on earth as well. Lit., “uninterrupted hell”. The last of the eight hells, we are told, “where the culprits die and are reborn without interruption—yet not without hope of final redemption”. This is because Avitchi is another name for Myalba (our earth) and also a state to which some soulless men are condemned on this physical plane.—Theosophical Glossary
Avichi (Sanskrit) Avīci [from a not + vīci waves, pleasure] Waveless, having no waves or movement; without happiness; without repose. “A generalized term for places of evil realizations, but not of ‘punishment’ in the Christian sense; where the will for evil, and the unsatisfied evil longings for pure selfishness, find their chance for expansion—and final extinction of the entity itself. Avichi has many degrees or grades. Nature has all things in her; if she has heavens where good and true men find rest and peace and bliss, so has she other spheres and states where gravitate those who must find an outlet for the evil passions burning within. They, at the end of their avichi, go to pieces and are ground over and over, and vanish away finally like a shadow before the sunlight in the air—ground over in Nature’s laboratory” (OG 16-17).
Avichi is a state, not a locality per se; nevertheless, an entity, whatever state it may be in, must have location, and consequently so far as the human race is concerned, avichi is Myalba, our earth in certain of its lowest aspects. Furthermore, in avichi, although it can be looked upon as being the representation of stagnation of life and being in immobility, nevertheless this refers to the temporary or quasi-inability to rise along the evolutionary ladder—yet not completely so. Beings entirely in avichi are born and reborn uninterruptedly, with scarcely intermissions of time periods. But “suppose a case of a monster of wickedness, sensuality, ambition, avarice, pride, deceit, etc.: but who nevertheless has a germ or germs of something better, flashes of a more divine nature—where is he to go? The said spark smouldering under a heap of dirt will counteract, nevertheless, the attraction of the eighth sphere, whither fall but absolute nonentities; ‘failures of nature’ to be remodelled entirely, whose divine monad separated itself from the five principles during their life-time, . . . and who have lived as soulless human beings. . . . Well, the first named entity then, cannot, with all its wickedness go to the eighth sphere—since his wickedness is of a too spiritual, refined nature. He is a monster—not a mere Soulless brute. He must not be simply annihilated but punished; for, annihilation, i.e. total oblivion, and the fact of being snuffed out of conscious existence, constitutes per se no punishment, and as Voltaire expressed it: ‘le neant ne laisse pas d’avoir du bon.’ Here is no taper-glimmer to be puffed out by a zephyr, but a strong, positive, maleficent energy, fed and developed by circumstances, some of which may have really been beyond his control. There must be for such a nature a state corresponding to Devachan, and this is found in Avitchi—the perfect antithesis of devachan—vulgarized by the Western nations into Hell and Heaven . . .” (ML 196-7).
As long as the entity does not sink by attraction into the Eighth Sphere, or Sphere of Death, it still has within it the possibility of regaining its foothold on the ascending evolutionary ladder and rising again. Rare indeed are those who succeed in so rising, but the case is not absolutely hopeless. And finally, an entity may be in avichi not only after death, but also during life on earth, as avichi is a state and not a place per se.—Encyclopedic Theosophical Glossary
383. In exploring the Buddha’s final days, we have relied chiefly upon the following translation: Maha-parinibbana Sutta: Last Days of the Buddha, translated from the Pali by Sister Vajira & Francis Story (1998).
385. For biographical information on Vassakara, see:
386. The seven conditions taught to the Vajjis are:
1. to have frequent gatherings, well attended.
2. to assemble and disperse peacefully and attend to their affairs in concord.
3. to neither enact new decrees nor abolish existing ones, but proceed in accordance with their ancient constitutions.
4. to show respect, honor, esteem, and veneration towards their elders and think it worthwhile to listen to them.
5. to refrain from abducting women and maidens of good families and from detaining them.
6. to show respect, honor, esteem, and veneration towards their shrines, both those within the city and those outside it, and to not deprive them of the due offerings as given and made to them formerly.
7. to duly protect and guard the arahats, so that those who have not come to the realm yet might do so, and those who have already come might live there in peace.
388. Of Vassakara and Ajatasatru’s actions we are told, in summary, that:
“At Ajatasattus suggestion, Vassakara visited the Buddha to discover, indirectly, whether, in the Buddhas view, there were any chances of Ajatasattu conquering the Vajjians in battle. The Buddha said that as long as the Vajjians practised the seven conditions of prosperity which he had taught them at Sarandada cetiya, they would prosper rather than decline, and this gave Vassakara the idea that the downfall of the Vajjians could be brought about by diplomacy (upalapana) or disunion (mithubheda). He thereupon conspired with the king (D.A.ii.522ff) and, by agreement, the latter expelled him on the charge of showing favour to the Vajjians during discussions in the assembly. Vassakara then went to the Vajjian country, and the Licchavis, all unsuspecting, welcomed him and appointed him as the teacher of their children. By means of cunning and questioning the children in secret, he made them quarrel with each other, and these quarrels soon spread to the elders. In three years the Licchavis were completely disunited, and when the assembly drum was beaten, they failed to appear. Vassakara then sent a message to Ajatasattu, who was able to capture Vesali without meeting any resistance.” (source)
391. Ibid., Chapter Seventeen, p.148 (Kosho Yamamoto translation)
392. We are told, by Buddhist tradition and several sources, that Ajatasatru provided the space for, and himself attended the First Buddhist Council immediately following the Buddha’s paranirvana. Whether this was done due to actual reverence for the Buddha, or merely as a kingly duty in order to uphold the ancient tradition of religious tolerance among subjects, is, in our mind, open for debate. It is also interesting to note that T. Subba Row indicates a later Ajatasatru who participated in the Second Buddhist Council, 100 years after the Buddha’s paranirvana. We are unsure whether these two have been confused historically, but consider it a possibility.
“The Indian annals specify King Ajatasatru as a contemporary of Buddha, and another Ajatasatru helped to prepare the council 100 years after his death. These princes were sovereigns of Magadha . . . etc.”—Sakya Muni’s Place in History, T. Subba Row, Theosophist, October, 1883; Reprinted in Five Years of Theosophy.
397. The symbolism of “crossing over to the other shore” is common throughout eastern religious systems. See, for instance, Rig Veda, 1:97:8, Bhagavad Gita, IV:36, Dhammapada, 85-86 (Buddhism), Uttaradhyayana Sutra, 23:73 (Jainism). The idea plays a role in western traditions as well. See, for instance: Joshua, 3, etc..
400. Isha Upanishad, 4-6
401. Katha Upanishad, I:3:2
402. Chhandogya Upanishad, VIII:4:1
403. Mundaka Upanishad, III:2:9
407. For biographical information on Abmapali, see:
409. “Food is, in the symbolic language of the Upanishads, a general term for experience gained and assimilated.”
“Food and water are universal symbols for bodily and mental experience, the elements which nourish the physical and psychical life.”—Charles Johnston, Chhandogya Upanishad, Introduction to Part V, Sections 11-24 and Introduction to Part I, Sections 7-13.
See also Buddhacarita, Chapter 22, where the Buddha extorts his bikkhus to be careful of developing desire or attachment to the woman Ambapali.
411. Meru (Sanskrit). The mythological sacred mountain, said in Hindu mythology to be the abode of the gods. Each nation also has its own sacred mountain—Mount Sinai for the Hebrews, Olympus for the Greeks, Tai-shan for the Chinese, etc. Theosophical and Puranic teachings place it as the north pole, pointing to it as the center of the site of the first continent of our earth after the solidification of the globe: “It is the north pole, the country of ‘Meru,’ which is the seventh division, as it answers to the Seventh principle (or fourth metaphysically), of the occult calculation, for it represents the region of Atma, of pure soul, and Spirituality” (SD 2:403). It is described in the Surya Siddhanta as passing through the middle of the globe, and protruding on either side. On its north end are the gods, on the nether end are the demons or hells. Its roots are in the navel of the world, which connects it with the central imperishable land, the land in which each day and night lasts six months. The above also has its symbolism in the human body.—Encyclopedic Theosophical Glossary
413. This has reference to the threefold nature of manifested existence, which we experience as three states (Jagrat, Svapna and Sushupti) in three bodies (physical, subtle/astral, causal; or Sthulopadhi, Sukshmopadi, Karanopadhi), above which is the fourth state, Turiya, or seventh principle, Atma. See Voice of the Silence, Fragment I; The Secret Doctrine, I:157; Mandukya Upanishad; and the works of Sankaracharya, specifically Tattva Bodha and Atmanatma-viveka.
416. Buddhacarita, Canto XXIII:18 (E.H. Johnston translation)
417. Ibid., Canto XXIII:27-30
418. Buddhacarita, Chapter 23:29-37 (Charles Willemen translation)
419. Ibid., Chapter 23:41-43
420. In the Buddhacarita, the name of the village is given as Venugramaka or Venumati.
421. The idea that the Buddha held back no esoteric teachings is common in most schools of Buddhism today, but is denied by certain Mahayana sects, who maintain that he reserved his esoteric teachings for only the innermost group of bhikkhus. The quote here could be read either way, as applied to that inner group, or as applied to all bhikkhus. Theosophical teachings on the subject are well illustrated in our earlier quote from the Secret Doctrine.
425. Buddhacarita, Chapter 23:52-53 (Charles Willemen translation)
426. H.P. Blavatsky also took great issue with the interpretation that the meal contained the meat of a pig. She approaches the question thus:
“The exoteric or allegorical biography of Gautama Buddha shows this great Sage dying of an indigestion of pork and rice, a very prosaic end, indeed, having little of the solemn element in it. This is explained as an allegorical reference to his having been born in the ‘Boar,’ or Varaha-Kalpa when Brahma assumed the form of that animal to raise the Earth out of the ‘Waters of Space.’ And as the Brahmins descend direct from Brahma and are, so to speak, identified with him; and as they are at the same time the mortal enemies of Buddha and Buddhism, we have the curious allegorical hint and combination. Brahminism (of the Boar, or Varaha Kalpa) has slaughtered the religion of Buddha in India, swept it away from its face; therefore Buddha, identified with his philosophy, is said to have died from the effects of eating of the flesh of a wild hog. The idea alone of one who established the most rigorous vegetarianism and respect for animal life—even to refusing to eat eggs as vehicles of a latent future life—dying of a meat indigestion, is absurdly contradictory and has puzzled more than one Orientalist. But this explanation, unveiling the allegory, explains all the rest. The Varaha, however, is no simple boar, and seems to have meant at first some antediluvian lacustrine animal ‘delighting to sport in water.’ (Vayu Purana.)”—Secret Doctrine, I:368-9fn.
427. See the works of Sankaracharya.
“The Arhats of the “fire-mist” of the 7th rung are but one remove from the Root-Base of their Hierarchy—the highest on Earth, and our Terrestrial chain.” “Gradually, mankind went down in stature . . . save the hierarchy of the ‘Elect,’ the followers and disciples of the ‘Sons of Will and Yoga’—called later the ‘Sons of the Fire Mist.’” “The ceremony of passing through . . the temple Hiranya gharba (the radiant Egg)—in itself a symbol of Universal, abstract nature—meant spiritual conception and birth, or rather the re-birth of the individual and his regeneration.” etc.
436. Buddhacarita, Chapter 25:49-58 (Charles Willemen translation)
441. The “nine concentrations” are the four trances (dhyānas) of the realm of form, and the four immaterial attainments, samāpattis. See Chapter XII, stanzas 44–50 and 70. The ninth is the attainment of extinction, nirodhasamāpatti. (Note by Charles Willemen)
442. Buddhacarita, Chapter 26:104-5 (Charles Willemen translation)
443. . “When Buddhi absorbs our Ego-tism (destroys it) with all its Vikaras, Avalokiteshvara becomes manifested to us, and Nirvana, or Mukti, is reached, ‘Mukti’ being the same as Nirvana, i.e., freedom from the trammels of ‘Maya’ or ‘illusion‘ . . . The mystery that shrouded its chief dogma and aspirations—Nirvana—has so tried and irritated the curiosity of those scholars who have studied it, that, unable to solve it logically and satisfactorily by untying the Gordian knot, they cut it through, by declaring that Nirvana meant absolute annihilation.” . . . “Up to the day of the Yogacharya school the true nature of Paranirvana was taught publicly, but since then it has become entirely esoteric; hence so many contradictory interpretations of it. It is only a true Idealist who can understand it. Everything has to be viewed as ideal, with the exception of Paranirvana, by him who would comprehend that state, and acquire a knowledge of how Non Ego, Voidness, and Darkness are Three in One and alone Self-existent and perfect. It is absolute, however, only in a relative sense, for it must give room to still further absolute perfection, according to a higher standard of excellence in the following period of activity” . . . “Besides being the final state it is that condition of subjectivity which has no relation to anything but the one absolute truth (Para-marthasatya) on its plane. It is that state which leads one to appreciate correctly the full meaning of Non-Being, which, as explained, is absolute Being.” . . . “To see in Nirvana annihilation amounts to saying of a man plunged in a sound dreamless sleep—one that leaves no impression on the physical memory and brain, because the sleeper’s Higher Self is in its original state of absolute consciousness during those hours—that he, too, is annihilated. The latter simile answers only to one side of the question—the most material; since re-absorption is by no means such a ‘dreamless sleep,’ but, on the contrary, absolute existence, an unconditioned unity, or a state, to describe which human language is absolutely and hopelessly inadequate. The only approach to anything like a comprehensive conception of it can be attempted solely in the panoramic visions of the soul, through spiritual ideations of the divine monad. Nor is the individuality—nor even the essence of the personality, if any be left behind—lost, because re-absorbed. For, however limitless—from a human standpoint—the paranirvanic state, it has yet a limit in Eternity. Once reached, the same monad will re-emerge therefrom, as a still higher being, on a far higher plane, to recommence its cycle of perfected activity. The human mind cannot in its present stage of development transcend, scarcely reach this plane of thought. It totters here, on the brink of incomprehensible Absoluteness and Eternity.”—Secret Doctrine, I:xix, xxi, 43, 53 & 266.
445. A Bodhisattva is, in the hierarchy, less than a “perfect Buddha.” In the exoteric parlance these two are very much confused. Yet the innate and right popular perception, owing to that self-sacrifice, has placed a Bodhisattva higher in its reverence than a Buddha. (Note by H.P.B., from The Voice of the Silence)
446. This same popular reverence calls “Buddhas of Compassion” those Bodhisattvas who, having reached the rank of an Arhat (i.e., having completed the fourth or seventh Path), refuse to pass into the Nirvanic state or “don the Dharmakaya robe and cross to the other shore,” as it would then become beyond their power to assist men even so little as Karma permits. They prefer to remain invisibly (in Spirit, so to speak) in the world, and contribute toward man’s salvation by influencing them to follow the Good Law, i.e., lead them on the Path of Righteousness. It is part of the exoteric Northern Buddhism to honour all such great characters as Saints, and to offer even prayers to them, as the Greeks and Catholics do to their Saints and Patrons; on the other hand, the esoteric teachings countenance no such thing. There is a great difference between the two teachings. The exoteric layman hardly knows the real meaning of the word Nirmanakaya—hence the confusion and inadequate explanations of the Orientalists. For example Schlagintweit believes that Nirmanakaya-body, means the physical form assumed by the Buddhas when they incarnate on earth—”the least sublime of their earthly encumbrances” (vide “Buddhism in Tibet”)—and he proceeds to give an entirely false view on the subject. The real teaching is, however, this:
The three Buddhic bodies or forms are styled:
The first is that ethereal form which one would assume when leaving his physical he would appear in his astral body—having in addition all the knowledge of an Adept. The Bodhisattva develops it in himself as he proceeds on the Path. Having reached the goal and refused its fruition, he remains on Earth, as an Adept; and when he dies, instead of going into Nirvana, he remains in that glorious body he has woven for himself, invisible to uninitiated mankind, to watch over and protect it.
Sambhogakaya is the same, but with the additional lustre of “three perfections,” one of which is entire obliteration of all earthly concerns.
The Dharmakaya body is that of a complete Buddha, i.e., no body at all, but an ideal breath: Consciousness merged in the Universal Consciousness, or Soul devoid of every attribute. Once a Dharmakaya, an Adept or Buddha leaves behind every possible relation with, or thought for this earth. Thus, to be enabled to help humanity, an Adept who has won the right to Nirvana, “renounces the Dharmakaya body” in mystic parlance; keeps, of the Sambhogakaya, only the great and complete knowledge, and remains in his Nirmanakaya body. The esoteric school teaches that Gautama Buddha with several of his Arhats is such a Nirmanakaya, higher than whom, on account of the great renunciation and sacrifice to mankind there is none known. (Note by H.P.B., from The Voice of the Silence)
450. Readers of an open-mind and an eye for the esoteric may consider the following:
“The Mystery of Buddha”, by H.P. Blavatsky (CW Vol. 14).
“Gautama the Buddha”, from Fountain-Source of Occultism, Section 10: The Hierarchy of Compassion, by G. de Purucker.
“The Secret Doctrine of Gautama the Buddha”, from The Esoteric Tradition (Ch. 23), by G. de Purucker.
“Reincarnations in Tibet”, by H.P. Blavatsky, Theosophist, March, 1882