The Poignance of the Buddha's Life


Preethi Ritambhari -- India

The purpose of this article is not so much to look at the teachings of the Buddha, as to use the example of his life as an allegory into the discovery of the Buddha within him. In so doing, we might find intimations in our lives of similar awakenings. The inner life of each one of us begins at the same point.

The soul at its inception into the womb is already aware of the purpose of its birth. As the soul is encased in a body and imbued with mind, it brings impressions from previous births into the current life. These impressions cloud the inner intelligence as the infant is born into the outer world. At his birth, astrologers predict that Prince Siddhartha will set out to do great things, perhaps even leaving the kingdom for the greater good. The parents fearing this forbid those who are sick, suffering, and dying to seek the company of the Prince.

Siddhartha is a quiet, but healthy and vigorous boy. The most poignant incident of his childhood is of him contesting the claim of his brother, Suddhodhana, upon a dove the latter shot with an arrow. Siddhartha picks up the wounded bird and seeks to heal it while his brother Suddhodhana claims the bird for himself. Refusing to give up the bird, Siddhartha suggests they go to the king for counsel; and proclaims while there that the one who gives life has a greater claim to it than the one who takes it away.

This stage of life represents innocence, yet unspoiled by the vagaries of life and the conditioning that adults place upon children. At this stage, children feel one with the Universe. There is compassion, a sense of justice, an inner knowing of the laws of life and death. The child is yet in touch with his Divine nature. But while it is innocent, it is yet unknowing of the trials and travails of life. It is a life that is secluded in its own sense of fulfillment and completeness, unaware that a whole world exists beyond this happy and carefree realm.

As the young prince grows into adulthood he marries a princess from a neighboring kingdom and his life is filled with all the pleasures that riches can afford. Beauty surrounds him everywhere and he has a son, learning through these the joys and pains of parenthood. His every need is fulfilled by the King and the denizens of his kingdom. This stage of young Siddhartha’s life can be compared with the pleasure-bound lives we live ensconced in our own day-to-day living. The soul is as yet asleep to its interconnectedness with and responsibilities to life. Siddhartha’s understanding of life is limited by the adults in his life thus far – his parents, his teachers, his playmates – all those who give us the conditionings we walk with and limit ourselves to while in the sleep stages of life.

But Life the Great Teacher seeks ever to awaken us to our responsibilities. So Siddhartha is awakened to the realities and travails of suffering – sickness, pain and death/loss. Coming for the first time into contact with these, the great Soul is shocked into Life.

It is a very beautiful, yet ironical, thing about Life that we are united in our suffering and isolated in our pleasures. The young Gautama confronted with the suffering existent in the world seeks then an answer to the suffering which he feels at the sight of the sick man, the suffering woman and the dying man.

The quest always starts with the personal. For the Buddha too it was a personal quest that eventually grew to a Universal one; and it becomes universal only if we persevere long enough – as the example of the young Prince turned Teacher shows. It is not personal in the sense that he sought answers not for himself, but the world. It is personal in the sense that it began from a reaction to suffering in the world.

In beginning his journey, the young prince sought answers in familiar places – religion, rituals, fasting etc. and realized that none of these provided the answers he sought. In the course of his quest which began with the sphere of knowledge, he eventually needed to walk away from all of it, rejecting each as being inadequate. He had to discover the truth of suffering for himself. This is the journey of atma-vidya or self-knowing each of us must embark on, when we find that outer knowledge – whether of religion, science or philosophy – leads to no real answers. The only way is to become one with the knowledge or the quest.

The act of walking away is essential to the quest and a mark of a soul that is individuating into a whole, inwardly-reliant being.
Having awakened to the knowledge of the Self or Atman which is beyond suffering, the Buddha then walks back towards the world – the very world he had walked away from before. The Brahmins whose teachings and practices he had rejected scoff at him, but there are always those who are hungry for new teachings. With these he formed a sangha, and to them he gave his essential teachings which came down to us as the Four Noble Truths inherent in Life, and the Noble Eightfold Path leading to the cessation of suffering. I will not dwell here on these, but rather on two of his exhortations to his disciples for daily life.

The first of these is simple living. Simplicity is essential to living wholly in the moment with awareness. This simplicity is not just a physical matter of living frugally. It is more importantly an inner attitude that comes from knowing the difference between the essential and the nonessential. The more cluttered one’s inner life is, the more difficult it will be for one to live with awareness.

What clutter the inner being are our desires, attachments, need to manipulate, fear, sensuality, and our need to maintain our individual identity or isolation. Needless to say, physical simplicity is easier to achieve than the psychological one, but our efforts to clean the clutter must continue if we seek to raise our consciousness to the next or higher levels.

The second of these exhortations of daily living concerned the going out by the monks to receive their meals from the people of the village. Taken to the inner level of attitude, this also has a significant message to give us. Just as we nourish our physical bodies by taking in aliments from Nature, so too our interactions with the world serve as nourishment for the mind or soul. The Buddha exhorted his disciples to receive from a family only that which they willingly gave or could afford to give; never demanding from anyone that which they were unwilling or incapable of providing.

And so it is that on the path that leads from the sleep of innocence to the sleep of ignorance to the moment of awakening to the aware state of being, one develops the ability to receive from the Universe what it is willing to give, without force and disrespect to both giver and receiver. Sitting with oneself, one meditates in the quietness of one’s being. Going out one receives from others what they have to offer, using these to nourish one’s Self. In such an act of receiving giving naturally occurs. When one develops this attitude, loss or pain no longer causes suffering, for one is aware of the instrumentality of the self and the other – each playing a role in the great drama of Life.

Life thus becomes a journey of joy, for every act or event becomes a means to know oneself and to merge with the One. That which causes the hurt is an obstacle worthy of examination. All the obstacles we perceive lie in our ego that seeks to maintain its identity and to secure its place in Life.

If our thirst to know ourselves is strong enough, then every reaction we have toward others becomes a way for us to know who we are; every action we engage in teaches us about ourselves. When we thus see everything that happens to us, we appreciate their happening, and become willing to bear responsibility for our lives and what we do or cause to happen to ourselves and the world. In other words, hurt is purpose misunderstood. When we no longer hurt, what remains is perhaps joy.

At this stage everything is seen in its rightful place and Life takes on a new meaning – a meaning that changes from moment to moment – as we live with awareness. This awareness does not stop anywhere. It is endless, ever-expanding, growing into greater dimensions and subtler realms.

In the Buddhist scriptures, there is a beautiful message: “All beings by nature are Buddha, as ice by nature is water.” The ability to awaken is present in each of us. It was not the sole privilege of Siddhartha Gautama, the Shakya prince. As the great Teacher’s life and teachings merged into one whole such that one can look at it from any angle and glean the same lessons, so is our life and purpose waiting to be discovered and merged through an inner awakening.


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