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The Buddha’s Awakening
When discussing the Buddha’s teachings, the best place to start is with his Awakening. That way, one will know where the teachings are coming from and where they are aimed. To appreciate the Awakening, though, we have to know what led Prince Siddhattha Gotama – the Buddha before his Awakening – to seek it in the first place. According to his own account, the search began many lifetimes ago, but in this lifetime it was sparked by the realization of the inevitability of aging, illness, and death. In his words:
I lived in refinement, utmost refinement, total refinement. My father even had lotus ponds made in our palace: one where red lotuses bloomed, one where white lotuses bloomed, one where blue lotuses bloomed, all for my sake. I used no sandalwood that was not from Varanasi. My turban was from Varanasi, as were my tunic, my lower garments, & my outer cloak. A white sunshade was held over me day & night to protect me from cold, heat, dust, dirt, & dew.
I had three palaces: one for the cold season, one for the hot season, one for the rainy season. During the four months of the rainy season I was entertained in the rainy-season palace by minstrels without a single man among them, and I did not once come down from the palace. Whereas the servants, workers, & retainers in other people’s homes are fed meals of lentil soup & broken rice, in my father’s home the servants, workers, & retainers were fed wheat, rice, & meat.
Even though I was endowed with such fortune, such total refinement, the thought occurred to me: “When an untaught, run-of-the-mill person, himself subject to aging, not beyond aging, sees another who is aged, he is horrified, humiliated, & disgusted, oblivious to himself that he too is subject to aging, not beyond aging. If I – who am subject to aging, not beyond aging – were to be horrified, humiliated, & disgusted on seeing another person who is aged, that would not be fitting for me.” As I noticed this, the [typical] young person’s intoxication with youth entirely dropped away.
Even though I was endowed with such fortune, such total refinement, the thought occurred to me: “When an untaught, run-of-the-mill person, himself subject to illness, not beyond illness, sees another who is ill, he is horrified, humiliated, & disgusted, oblivious to himself that he too is subject to illness, not beyond illness. And if I – who am subject to illness, not beyond illness – were to be horrified, humiliated, & disgusted on seeing another person who is ill, that would not be fitting for me.” As I noticed this, the healthy person’s intoxication with health entirely dropped away.
Even though I was endowed with such fortune, such total refinement, the thought occurred to me: “When an untaught, run-of-the-mill person, himself subject to death, not beyond death, sees another who is dead, he is horrified, humiliated, & disgusted, oblivious to himself that he too is subject to death, not beyond death. And if I – who am subject to death, not beyond death – were to be horrified, humiliated, & disgusted on seeing another person who is dead, that would not be fitting for me.” As I noticed this, the living person’s intoxication with life entirely dropped away.
Before my Awakening, when I was still an unawakened Bodhisatta (Buddha-to-be), being subject myself to birth, aging, illness, death, sorrow, & defilement, I sought (happiness in) what was subject to birth, aging, illness, death, sorrow, & defilement. The thought occurred to me: “Why am I, being subject myself to birth… defilement, seeking what is subject to birth… defilement?
What if I… were to seek the unborn, unaging, unailing, undying, sorrowless, undefiled, unsurpassed security from bondage: Unbinding.” So at a later time, when I was still young, black-haired, endowed with the blessings of youth in the first stage of life, I shaved off my hair & beard – though my parents wished otherwise and were grieving with tears on their faces – and I put on the ochre robe and went forth from the home life into homelessness.
These passages are universal in their import, but a fuller appreciation of why the young prince left home for the life of a homeless wanderer requires some understanding of the beliefs and social developments of his time. Prince Siddhattha lived in an aristocratic republic in northern India during the sixth century B.C.E., a time of great social upheaval. A new monetary economy was replacing the older agrarian economy. Absolute monarchies, in alliance with the newly forming merchant class, were swallowing up the older aristocracies. As often happens when an aristocratic elite is being disenfranchised, people on all levels of society were beginning to call into question the beliefs that had supported the older order, and were looking to science and other alternative modes of knowledge to provide them with a new view of life.
The foremost science in North India at that time was astronomy. New, precise observations of planetary movements, combined with newly developed means of calculation, had led astronomers to conclude that time was measured in aeons, incomprehensibly long cycles that repeat themselves endlessly. Taking up these conclusions, philosophers of the time tried to work out the implications of this vast temporal frame for the drama of human life and the quest for ultimate happiness. These philosophers fell into two broad camps: those who conducted their speculations within the traditions of the Vedas, early Indian religious and ritual texts that provided the orthodox beliefs of the old order; and other, unorthodox groups, called the Samanas (contemplatives), who questioned the authority of the Vedas. Modern etymology derives the word Samana from “striver,” but the etymology of the time derived it from sama, which means to be “on pitch” or “in tune.” The Samana philosophers were trying to find a way of life and thought that was in tune, not with social conventions, but with the laws of nature as these could be directly contemplated through scientific observation, personal experience, reason, meditation, or shamanic practices, such as the pursuit of altered states of consciousness through fasting or other austerities. Many of these forms of contemplation required that one abandon the constraints and responsibilities of the home life, and take up the life of a homeless wanderer. This was the rationale behind Prince Siddhattha’s decision to leave the home life in order to see if there might be a true happiness beyond the sway of aging, illness, and death.
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