Brief notes on Buddhist thought and practice
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The Sacrifice

On his way down the road from Rajagaha, Siddhartha saw a cloud of dust rising in the distance. Soon a flock of sheep and goats came toward him out of the dust. At the back of the flock was one little lamb, struggling along with an injured leg.

In compassion, he picked it up and carried it along with the flock. He caught up with the shepherd and asked why he was moving his flock at midday, instead of in the cool of the evening. The shepherd explained that there was going to be a great sacrifice at the king's palace. These animals were all to be offered to the gods.

Siddhartha had been planning to go into the hills to join a group of ascetics. Instead, he followed the flock back toward the city. As he reached a central courtyard of the palace, a large crowd had gathered. To the side were many animals, waiting to be sacrificed. At the front was a high platform, on which were gathered many priests and courtiers. In the center was a high priest. And next to him was King Bimbasara! Just as Siddhartha arrived, the priest raised his knife to cut the throat of the first victim.

"No, Your Majesty!" shouted Siddhartha, as he sprang to the platform. "Do not let this continue!"

He removed the rope from the goat and set it free, and no one, not the king nor the priests, tried to stop him. Then the prince spoke:

"Your Majesty, reverend priests, life is a wonderful thing. Anyone can destroy it; but who can restore it? Every living thing loves its life, and fears death, as much as we do. Why should we use our power to rob them of that which we ourselves love so much? This is the law of karma: If we want mercy, we must show mercy.

"What gods, I wonder, would be delighted by blood? Can they be good gods? We would not consider him a good man who takes pleasure in suffering and death. Then how about the gods?

"No, if men wish to be happy, they cannot cause unhappiness in others, even in animals, even if they believe the gods expect it. The man who sows pain and suffering gathers it in the future."

Siddhartha spoke so gently, and yet so powerfully, that King Bimbasara declared there would be no more animal sacrifices in Maghada. The people should offer only flowers, fruit, cakes, and other bloodless things.

Again the king invited Siddhartha to stay; again Siddhartha said no, he must be on his way.

  1. Why do you think the priests allowed this "beggar" to get away with such outrageous behavior?
  2. Does Siddhartha's argument in this story remind you of Devadatta and the Swan?
  3. Discuss the "law of karma" described here. What other meanings does it have?
Next time: Alara Kalama

King Bimbasara

Prince Siddhartha, now a mendicant, turned his steps to the south. He reached the country of Maghada, and the capital city of Rajagaha. Here he continued to beg for alms.

It wasn't long before Bimbasara, the king of Maghada, heard about this unusual "beggar." Around the same time, the king had also heard that Prince Siddhartha, of the Shakya clan, had left home to become a monk. So the king sent one of his own sons to ask this monk who he was.

When Bimbasara's son returned with news that this extraordinary mendicant was indeed Prince Siddhartha, King Bimbasara was so amazed that he decided to go meet Prince Siddhartha for himself.

King Bimbasara asked him if he were in fact Siddhartha, the prince and heir of Kapilavastu. Siddhartha affirmed that yes, that had been his role, but now he was just a seeker. Bimbasara then asked him what it was he was seeking, and he replied that he sought a way for all people to escape the effects of old age, sickness, and death.

Bimbasara, thinking this was extraordinary, offered him a place to stay in Bimbasara's own palace. The former prince replied that the answer was not in palaces, or he would have found it already. He needed to practice austerities in order to find the truth.

The king accepted this, but made Siddhartha promise that, if he found the truth, he would return and teach it to Bimbasara and his people. He agreed.

And so the ascetic Gautama continued out of the city.

  1. What are you seeking?
  2. Can the truth be found in palaces? Must one practice austerities in order to find the truth?
  3. Do you find it unusual that a king would ask a monk to come back and teach him and his people?
Next time: The Sacrifice

The Mendicant Life

Like all wandering ascetics, every morning Siddhartha and his five companions would get up, take their alms bowls, and beg for food from door to door. This was a common custom in those days, when there were many wandering monks. People believed that if you helped an ascetic, you would get some of the merit he developed.

Many of the people he begged from could see that Siddhartha was different from most monks. He still looked and acted like a prince. His clothes weren’t even ragged yet. So people gave him the best food they had.

Still, instead of feeling satisfied with that, the first time he looked into his bowl, Siddhartha was disgusted! He had always lived like a prince. All his life he had been given the best food available, served in an attractive way, "fit for a king," you could say. Now, even though the people were giving him their best, it was still mostly the scraps and leftovers of common people’s dinner.

Finally, though, he learned to eat it. He reminded himself that he had left home by choice, and had to accept all of the conditions of such a life.

  1. Put yourself in Siddhartha's place. What other conditions of the mendicant's life would be difficult to adjust to?
  2. If you were one of the people, would you be more likely to give food to a "princely beggar," or less?
Next time: King Bimbasara

The Five Companions

So Siddhartha, born a prince, was now a mendicant, a beggar.

He went to a mango grove called Anupiya, near the Anoma River. There he rested for seven days, getting used to his new life.

Meanwhile, back at the palace, there was an uproar. The king saw that his thirty years' effort was wasted. Chinese tradition says he sent five faithful servants to persuade the prince to return. Instead, he persuaded them! When he explained his reasons for leaving, they decided to become monks too and accompany him into the forest.

In the Southern tradition, though, the Bodhisattva's first five companions are not servants from the palace. They were connected to the sages who gave him his name as a baby. One was Kondanna, the youngest of those sages; the other four are sons of the four other sages. And in the Southern tradition, they didn't meet him until after he had studied with some masters.

There is an interesting connection between the two traditions, however. Although the names vary in both traditions, the most common set of Southern names and the most common set of Chinese names are nearly a perfect match (except for Kondanna). In other words, the Chinese tradition gives names that are clearly the Chinese version of those in the Southern tradition. They are even given in the same order.

Here's a chart:

KondannaAjnata-KaundinyaJiao Chenru
MahanamaMahanama-KulikaMohe-nan (or Monan-juli)

  1. What challenges would Siddhartha face, having been raised in a palace, and now living as a beggar?
  2. Discuss King Shuddhodana's feelings at this point.
  3. Why do you think the Chinese tradition was developed in a way so different from the Southern tradition?
Next time: The Mendicant Life

The Great Departure

Leaving the room where the dancers were sleeping, Prince Siddhartha called Channa, his chariot driver, and told him to saddle his horse Kanthaka for a long journey that very night.

Then he went to the room where his wife Yashodara and new-born son Rahula were, and he found that they were asleep, too. He decided not to wake them--perhaps because of compassion, or perhaps because he thought Yashodara might plead with him to stay.

Channa brought Kanthaka saddled and ready. Then he and Channa left the palace together. They rode out in silence. Legend says that the gods held up Kanthaka’s hooves so they wouldn’t make any noise as he left.

They passed through the sleeping city and out from the gates. Prince Siddhartha stopped and looked back at the city of his ancestors. Then, turning Kanthaka’s head to the road, he went silently toward the banks of the river Anoma.

There, on the banks of the river, the prince removed all of his fine jewelry and his fancy outer robes and gave them to Channa. He asked Channa to do one last service: to take his goods and his horse and return them to his father. He asked Channa to tell his mother, his father, and his wife that he was well, and that he had gone to seek the answer to the questions that had troubled him for so long.

Naturally Channa begged to be taken along. But the prince insisted that this was something he had to do alone. Besides, he said, it was not suitable for a wandering monk to have a servant. He promised that he would see Channa again.

Weeping, Channa could only obey. He led Kanthaka down the moonlit road. Tradition says the horse, too, wept. Some even say that his heart broke, and he died on the road. Channa then returned to the palace on foot, with the prince’s robes and Kanthaka’s saddle.

And so that night, Prince Siddhartha Gautama of the Shakya clan, heir to the throne of Kapilavastu, took his sword and, kneeling by the river, cut off his royal topknot. He then turned his face from the city where his loved ones slept and, with mindful steps, set out to solve for all people the problems of human suffering, and to lead the life of a homeless ascetic.

  1. What do you think of the prince leaving his wife and infant son this way?
  2. Why do you think tradition has inserted the supernatural details into the story?
  3. Imagine Channa returning to the palace. What could he possibly say to justify his role in the prince's departure?
Next time: The Five Companions

The Dancing Girls

After the baby's birth, Prince Siddhartha still wasn't ready to leave home. He needed one more little push.

Meanwhile, his father was still working hard to try to keep him happy. To this end, the very night Rahula was born, King Shuddhodana hired the most attractive women to sing beautiful songs and perform delightful dances.

Of course, it didn't work. As the prince tried to be a good son and watch the show his father had paid for, he became so bored he fell asleep. The girls noticed, and when they got tired of performing for a sleeping audience, they sat down to take a break until the prince awoke. Unfortunately, they fell asleep too.

While they lay in awkward positions, snoring, mouths open, saliva dribbling onto their exquisite clothes, the prince woke and saw these "beautiful" women. He was so disgusted that he slipped out of the room as quietly as possible.

He knew then and there that the beauty of the palace was only an appearance. Underneath its beauty all was unpleasant, all was suffering. It was time for him to leave.

  1. What is the value of entertainment? Is there any harm in forgetting our troubles for a while?
  2. What about beauty? Is it an illusion?
Next time: The Great Departure


After seeing the Four Sights, Prince Siddhartha sat thinking in the garden. Suddenly, a servant came running with news: Princess Yashodara had just given birth to a baby boy!

When he heard the news, the prince just sat and murmured over and over, " obstacle has been born…a fetter has arisen... an obstacle has been born..." Although most of us rejoice at the birth of a baby, the prince realized that even the joys of life also tie us to this world.

The Chinese have an expression, "sheng-lao-bing-si." It means "birth, old age, sickness, death." These are called the "four afflictions" that affect every person.

You may wonder how birth could be an affliction, but it's certain that to be alive is to suffer. If we were never born, we would never suffer. This insight would become very important in the thinking of the Buddha-to-be.

The servant who brought the news misunderstood what Siddhartha was saying, and thought the word "obstacle"--"rahu"--was to be the new baby's name.

And so the child was named "Rahula."

  1. Do you think birth is an "affliction"?
  2. Are you troubled by this young man's response to the birth of his first (and only) child?
  3. What "fetters" or "obstacles" are there in your life that might seem like "blessings" to others?
Next time: The Dancing Girls