The Buddha: the first of the Three Refuges
About 2500 years ago, in a region close to the Himalayan foothills in what is now Nepal, a prince was born. He was given the name Siddhattha, and he was to become the Buddha.
Reared in utmost refinement it was to be some time before the prince would wake to the bleak realities of life. As a gifted youth he was trained by the very best teachers in a vast array of subjects, and, belonging to the noble caste, he mastered the ways of a warrior. He was married at sixteen and continued to live in his private world of palaces, musicians and blue lotus ponds.
But, when he was twenty-nine, this fragile world that had been so carefully guarded by his father was shattered. Striking him like a thunderbolt, the inevitability of old age, sickness and death vividly impressed itself upon his mind and a tremendous sense of urgency seized him. Seeing no other way but to turn his back on the world and go forth into the homeless life, he went in search of the “unailing, unaging, deathless, sorrowless, and undefiled supreme security from bondage, Nibbana.”
It was a search that was to last six years. During this time he lived in the forests and caves of North East India. Following the customs of religious wanderers of that period he practised severe asceticism, hoping that these methods might bring him the knowledge and vision which he yearned for. Such was his commitment and limitless determination that his fame spread “like the sound from a giant bell suspended in the sky”. But, having touched the door of death as a result of his austerities, he retreated and settled for a middle way, a way that avoids both indulgence and self-torment.
Alone, he found himself a beautiful grove on the banks of a river and sat cross-legged beneath a great tree. Steadying his mind he determined: “Even if my flesh and blood were to dry up, leaving only skin and bones, I will not leave this place until I have attained Full Enlightenment.”
With his mind suffused with confidence, energy, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom he gathered his mental energies to focus on one thing – his in-and-out breath. Steadily he moved through successively deeper states of concentration until his mental clarity reached a climax.
Then, in the first watch of the night, with his mind thus cleansed of imperfection, he directed it to the knowledge of the recollection of past lives. This was the first true knowledge that arose in him.
In the second watch, with the divine eye that surpasses the human, he directed his mind to the knowledge of the passing away and reappearance of beings, and he understood how they fare on according to their actions. This was the second true knowledge that arose in him.
In the third and final watch he penetrated to the fundamental level of reality; he uncovered the basic laws of existence; he understood: “This is suffering, this is the origin of suffering, this is the cessation of suffering, this is the way leading to the cessation of suffering.” This was the third true knowledge that arose in him on that night.
“When I knew and saw thus my mind became liberated from the taint of sensual passion, from the taint of being, and from the taint of ignorance. When it was liberated there came the knowledge: “It is liberated”. I directly knew: “Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been lived, what was to be done is done, there is no more of this to come.”
When dawn broke the figure sitting beneath that tree was no longer Prince Siddhattha. He was the Buddha, the ‘One Who Knows’, the ‘Awakened One’.
For the next forty-five years until his passing he walked the dusty roads of northern India teaching for much of the time. A community of monks and nuns which he called the Sangha steadily grew around him and monasteries began to rise from the plains and forest floors. His fame spread and people from every stratum of society came to hear him teach. And what did he teach them? He taught them “one thing and one only: suffering and the end of suffering.”
Was the Buddha a human being?
A brahman called Dona encountered the Buddha shortly after his enlightenment and, struck by the Buddha’s serenity, asked him:
“Sir, are you a god?”
“Are you an angel?”
“Are you a yakkha?
“Are you a human being?”
“When asked, ‘Are you a god?’ you answer, ‘No, brahman…’ When asked, ‘Are you an angel?’ you answer, ‘No, brahman..’ When asked, ‘Are you a yakkha?’ you answer, ‘No, brahman…’ When asked, ‘Are you a human being?’ you answer, ‘No, brahman…’ Then what sort of being are you?”
“Brahman, the defilements by which — if they were not abandoned — I would be a god: those are abandoned by me, their root destroyed, made like a palm tree stump, no longer subject to future arising. The defilements by which — if they were not abandoned — I would be an angel… a yakkha… a human being: those are abandoned by me, their root destroyed, made like a palm tree stump, no longer subject to future arising.
“Just as a blue or red or white lotus born in water, grows in water and stands up above the water untouched by it, so too I, who was born in the world and grew up in the world, have transcended the world, and I live untouched by the world. Remember me, brahman, as a Buddha.”