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The Legend of Historical Buddha

Buddha, The Enlightened One, was born miraculously into the royal family of the Sakyas. He lived an enclosed and indulged life in a guarded palace whose rich gardens were surrounded by strong walls. His father saw to it that he lived a life of unalloyed pleasure, for he did not want to lose his son. After many years of this life, Siddharta expressed a desire to see the outside world; his father arranged for him to visit a nearby town, which had been cleaned, repaired and adorned so that his eyes would never fall on anything which might distress him. But by chance Siddharta came upon an old man. The shock was great for he had never seen advanced age before; he learnt with horror that all living things grow wrinkled and impotent before they die. Siddharta had never heard of death, nor of pain, sorrow, famine or disease. After this incident his father doubled the number of palace guards. He arranged a marriage in order to take his son’s mind off what he had seen. Siddharta became a father.

One night, unable to sleep, Siddharta wandered through the harem. He saw the dancing girls, sleeping off their excesses. Some snored, some dibbled down their chins, some lay open-mouthed, some talked in their sleep or ground their teeth and muttered drunkenly. The contrast of what he saw now to the memory of their disciplined, alluring dance movements struck the young prince with the force of a revelation. It was like looking into a pit of corpses. Siddharta made up his mind to leave the palace and seek the real world. To aid him, the gods sent the guards into a deep sleep. Siddharta and his groom, Chandaka, left the palace, the gods lifting the hooves of his favorite horse, Kantaka, so that they would make no clatter on the marble terraces.

Out in the real world Siddharta cut off his long scented hair, changed his rich robes for the working clothes of a passing huntsman, dismissed his groom and horse, and sought out a group of holy men. He changed his name to Gautama in the monastery.

Gautama found after a while that the monks were not able to satisfy his urgent spiritual needs, so he became a wandering beggar. He began to practice terrible self-torture, hoping to gain merit thereby. Before long he discovered that asceticism was as much of a trap as worldliness. He turned from his privations by accepting food from a young woman. His followers and companions left him in disgust. Gautama then traveled to Bodi-Gaya where he sat under a tree in meditation. The meditation grew into a profound experience. The demon Mara tried to distract Gautama by sending to him his seductive daughters, but they had no effect on the young prince. Mara then sent squads of disgusting and deformed spirits who hurled themselves on the seated figure. But they failed to move him or to interrupt his meditations. Finally Mara tried his ultimate weapon, a fiery disc capable of splitting mountains; but the sharp missile turned into a garland of flowers and hovered reverently over Gautama’s head like a halo. Mara fled, not a little annoyed. The prince remained steadfast and the next morning he achieved blissful enlightenment. He saw clear to the root-causes of suffering, and knew how it was to be avoided, namely by reaching a state of desirelessness. In the weeks of meditation which followed, Gautama realized that he could either enter Nirvana or stay on earth to help his fellow men, renouncing for a time his absorption into ecstatic awareness. Mara wanted him to leave earth but Brahma implored him to stay.

Buddha decided to remain and began preaching his doctrines of mercy, nonviolence, destruction of passions and desirelessness. Buddhism teaches that nothing has permanent identity; all things are made of constituent elements constantly in the process of change. It is this ephemeralness and mutability itself that is a cause of suffering. The religion founded by the Buddha spread over Asia, finding a more permanent home in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Burma, China, Japan, and southeast Asia than it did in his home country, India. Buddha is also regarded by Hindus as a Hindu deity.


— from A Guide to the Gods, by Richard Carlyon

Buddha Attains Parinirvana

The Buddha passed away at the age of eighty near Kushinagara, the capital of the ancient kingdom of the Mallas in what is today the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Lying down in a grove, between two shala trees, he preached his last sermon: “All composite things are by nature impermanent. Work out your salvation with diligence.” The Mahaparinibbana Sutra, a standard Pali canonical account, recalls the deathbed scene. The gods Brama and Indra recited poems. Gods and men wept. “Too soon has the Happy One passed away! Too soon has the light gone out of the world!” For his monks, the moment of Buddha’s passing is as Ananda described it: “Then there was terror! Then stood the hair on end! Then he endowed with every grace, the supreme Buddha, passed away!” Only the Arhats, the saints who had passed beyond all worldly sorrow, retained their composure.

On the seventh day after his passing, eight chiefs of the Mallas came to claim the body of the Blessed One. They bore his remains to a tribal shrine outside the town gates and there cremated the body. Although the chiefs vied for the honor of lighting the pyre, they were unable to do so until the monk Mahakashyapa arrived and the pyre spontaneously burst into flames.

When the Buddha’s death became known, seven other powers vied with the Mallas of Kushinagara for possession of his relics. Tradition credits a Brahman named Drona with the Solomon-like wisdom of suggesting that the relics be divided into eight parts.

Several days before the Buddha’s death, Ananda, the Buddha’s cousin and closest disciple, asked him what should be done with his earthly remains. The Buddha replied that like those of a king, the remains of a Tarhagata should be enshrined in a stupa.


— from Wisdom and Compassion: the Sacred Art of Tibet, by Marylin M. Rhie and Robert A. F. Thurman