Brief notes on Buddhist thought and practice
(more about these pages)

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.


Questions:
  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.


Questions:
  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.


Questions:
  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:

PaliSanskritChinese
KondannaAjnata-KaundinyaJiao Chenru
BhaddiyaBhadrikaBadi
VappaDashabala-KashyapaPosha-bo
MahanamaMahanama-KulikaMohe-nan (or Monan-juli)
AssajiAshvajitAshuo-shi

Questions:
  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.


Questions:
  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.


Questions:
  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

Rahula

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, "...an 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."


Questions:
  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

The Four Sights

Although his father had surrounded him with luxury, the young Prince Siddhartha was still curious about the world.

So his father let him go out into the city, but first he made sure that the people outside the palace looked like those inside: young, healthy, and happy. All the old, sick, and poor were removed from sight.

When the prince went out with Channa, his charioteer, the people lined the streets, waving banners and cheering. At first, the trick worked. The prince began to think that perhaps he had been wrong, and the world was indeed a wonderful, happy place. But then something happened.

Some say it all happened on one trip around Kapilavastu; others say it took place over four journeys. Some say the gods intervened in disguise; others say it was simply the way of nature.

But as Channa drove the prince, something walked across the chariot's path. Siddhartha asked Channa if it was a man. Yes, said Channa. But how could it be? It was bent over. Its hair was white, and it had no teeth. It was thin and weak.

The prince had seen an old man.

He questioned Channa more, and learned that this would happen to him, if he lived long enough, as it happened to all. Siddhartha was deeply disturbed.

Later he encountered a sick man. And later still, he witnessed the grief of mourners as a corpse burned on a funeral pyre. All of this confirmed his suspicions about the true nature of things.

But then, he saw something else. A man, with shaved head and saffron robe, who looked serenely calm.

A monk! Channa explained that this man was seeking a way out of suffering, and this really set him to thinking...


Questions:
  1. What feelings do you get when you think of old age, illness, and death?
  2. Is the world a happy place, or a place of suffering? Why do you think so?
  3. Why do you think Siddhartha found the monk so intriguing?
Next time: Rahula

Among the Beautiful People

Siddhartha's father now felt a little better about his son's future, but he was still on his guard, worried that his son might become a monk and lose the chance to be a universal king.

He had already had high walls built around all the gardens.

But now, he also hired all kinds of entertainers: singers, dancers, jugglers--anyone who could make the prince happy. But there was still one little problem.

With so many people around the prince--servants, gardeners, cooks, entertainers, and so on--the king was worried that some of these people might remind the prince of the sad things in life. They might talk about sad things, or they might get sick. Others among them would grow old.

So the king issued orders that no one was to speak of old age, sickness, or death. Furthermore, he ordered that only young, cheerful, healthy, pleasant people were to surround the prince. If anyone got sick, they should leave the palace at once, and not return until they were better. The king would not allow anyone to look sad or tired around the prince.

You see, the king was determined to do everything he could to keep the prince from leaving and becoming a monk.


Questions:

  1. What do you think of the king's plans? Was the king thinking clearly? Do his plans seem like good ideas?
  2. Were his plans fair to the prince? How about to those around him?
  3. As I read this story, I can see trouble brewing. I feel the king is trying too hard. What do you think?

Next time: The Four Sights

The Wedding Competition

But the wedding of Prince Siddhartha to Princess Yashodara could not be conducted just yet.

In those days, tradition required that a prince of the Kshatriya caste had to prove that he was a great warrior.

First he had to show that he was a good swordsman. To do this, Prince Siddhartha cut through the trunk of a tree. He did it so well that the tree didn't fall until the wind pushed it over!

Next he had to shoot an arrow farther than anyone. And he did, even beating his rival, Prince Devadatta.

Next, of course, was horsemanship. They had a race. Prince Siddhartha easily won on Kanthaka. So everyone said Siddhartha hadn't won: Kanthaka had!

To retry his horsemanship, the elders decided that all the young men should try to ride a wild, black stallion. No one was able, until it was Prince Arjuna's turn. Everyone thought that he was the best horseman among the young men. And in fact, he did get on the horse. But then it threw him off.

It was then Prince Siddhartha's turn. After Arjuna's injury, it would have been reasonable for him to just give up.

But he didn't. He walked up to the horse and spoke softly to it. Then he got on easily and rode the horse anywhere he wished.

So Prince Siddhartha won the competition. Soon he and Yashodara had a royal wedding as beautiful as you can imagine.


Questions:

  1. Why are the tests in the wedding competition all physical tests? Why would strength and fighting skill be so important?
  2. What do you think Siddhartha might have said to the horse? (Or does it matter?)
  3. Do you think Siddhartha "really" won, or could the competition have been "fixed"?

Next time: Among the Beautiful People

Choosing a Bride

How to keep the prince from becoming a monk? King Shuddhodana was stumped. So he summoned his royal advisors and asked for their advice.

They advised him to do the natural thing: although it was true that Prince Siddhartha was a very special young man, they figured that, like any sixteen-year-old, he would be happy if he married a beautiful wife with gentle manners.

The king agreed. He ordered them to summon all the most beautiful maidens in his realm. The Prince would give a gift to each of them, and the advisors would watch carefully to see which girl he favored the most.

And so it was. Many maidens came, and the Prince gave exquisite gifts to each, one by one. But the Prince seemed bored, not at all interested in any of the young women. Everyone was puzzled. Finally, all the gifts were gone, and all the maidens had left.

Suddenly, one more maiden rushed in!

"O Prince," she asked, "have you no gift left for me?"

Prince Siddhartha was so overwhelmed by her beauty and manner that, smiling warmly, he gave her the string of jewels from his own neck. He tied it around her waist, and asked her name.

She was Yashodara, and her father was the king of Siddhartha's mother's hometown.

The courtiers who watched the Prince were overjoyed to see how he accepted Yashodara. They reported to the king, and plans for the wedding were begun.


Questions:

  1. This seems a reasonable plan. Do you think it will work?
  2. In terms of storytelling, why do you think Yashodara arrives late, after all the gifts have been distributed?
  3. Is it significant, do you think, that Yashodara comes from the hometown of Siddhartha's mother?

Next time: The Wedding Competition

Three Beautiful Palaces

Because King Shuddhodana was worried about Prince Siddhartha becoming a monk, he came up with a plan: He would surround the prince with luxury.

He built three palaces for the prince's pleasure and comfort. One was built of sweet-smelling cedar. This was a place for the prince to live in during the winter months. A second one was made from marble. This kept the prince cool during the summer. The third was made of bricks. It had a strong blue tile roof. This kept the prince dry during the rainy season.

But the palaces were only the beginning. Each palace had beautiful gardens, with trees and flowers, lotus ponds and flowing streams. The prince enjoyed riding his horse Kanthaka around the gardens.

But even with all this beauty, and the horse that he loved so much, the prince continued to think about the suffering of the world. The king knew that something more must be done.


Questions:

  1. The "Three Palaces" reflect the three seasons of the Indian subcontinent. They also remind me of "The Three Little Pigs." Comments?
  2. Much is made of Siddhartha's relationship with Kanthaka. What modern parallels could you draw?
  3. Do you think the king is "on the right track"? Is there any chance that this kind of luxury could work?

Next time: Choosing a Bride

The Royal Plowing Festival

In ancient times, people felt that the king was responsible for the fertility of the land. In India, there was a ritual to celebrate this relationship. The king and his noblemen would go to a field and use gold and silver plows pulled by oxen. The peasants also plowed, with ordinary plows.

King Shuddhodana did this every spring. One year, when Prince Siddhartha was a boy, he went along and watched the Festival.

During the feast after the plowing, the Prince's attendants left him alone. He sat under a tree, and thought about what he had seen. He realized that the men had seemed happy, but the oxen had not. They had worked hard, and sometimes the men had whipped them.

While he was thinking about the animals' welfare, a wondrous thing happened. Some ants nearby were busy working, bothering no one. A lizard began eating them. Next, a snake came and ate the lizard. Then a hawk came down and carried the snake away.

This, the young Prince realized, is "the way of the world." He saw that life is difficult, and even on the way home, he was still thinking very quietly. This made King Shuddhodana worry about what the sages had predicted. Clearly, the Prince was already thinking about serious matters.


Questions:

  1. Why do you think the king was responsible for fertility of the land? How would the "Royal Plowing Festival" help? Why was it important for the people to join in?
  2. The Prince saw one animal after another being eaten by something bigger. Could this "vision" have been natural?
  3. Do you think the king should be worried about his son's behavior? Why?

Next time: Three Beautiful Palaces

Devadatta and the Swan

This story is another illustration of the young prince's compassion. I will tell it in the form of a simple play.

[Prince Siddhartha's cousin, Prince Devadatta, has just shot a swan. Both boys run to pick it up; Prince Siddhartha arrives first and tries to save it.]

Devadatta: What are you doing? It's mine! Give it to me!

Siddhartha: But can't you see? It's suffering! We have to help it.

Devadatta: Nonsense! I shot it with my bow and arrow, so it's mine!

Siddhartha: But it's not dead. As long as it's alive, we need to save it!

Devadatta: Give it here! [They struggle. Prince Siddhartha still has the bird.]

Siddhartha: Devadatta, let's go to the sages at my father's court. We'll let them decide.

Devadatta: OK. But I'm sure they'll give it to me.

[At the court]

Chief sage: What is the matter, O Princes?

Devadatta: I shot a swan. My cousin, Prince Siddhartha, wants to keep it for himself. But by custom, any prey should be kept by the hunter.

Chief sage: That is true. Prince Siddhartha, what do you say?

Siddhartha: O Sage, I understand the ancient custom. But I believe that compassion for all sentient beings is more important than our customs.

Chief sage: Please give us time to discuss this matter.

[The sages leave; they return much later.]

Chief sage: We have decided. By our custom, the swan belongs to Prince Devadatta. If it were dead, we certainly would give it to him. But a living thing certainly must belong to him who tries to save it; a life cannot belong to one who is only trying to destroy it. Let the swan be given to Prince Siddhartha.

Siddhartha: Thank you, O Sages.

[From this time forward, Prince Devadatta resented his cousin Prince Siddhartha.]


Questions:
  1. Who is a more "typical" boy, Devadatta or Siddhartha? Why do you think so?
  2. Have you ever killed an animal (besides insects)? How did you feel after that?
  3. Do you think Prince Siddhartha's idea (to help the swan) was "nonsense"? Why?
  4. "Compassion is more important than customs." Do you agree?
Next time: The Royal Plowing Festival

The Prince's Compassion

Prince Siddhartha was so compassionate that even animals loved him. Perhaps it was because they sensed that he loved them.

Once, when he was playing, he saw some other boys hitting a snake. He confronted the boys and stopped them.

You may think that this was very unusual for a young boy. But remember, Buddhists believe that he had been cultivating compassion over many lifetimes.

There are many stories of the Buddha-to-be's previous births. They are written in a book called the Jataka Sutra.

In a famous Jataka story, the Bodhisattva (a kind of "Buddha in training") was also a prince. He and his brothers were playing in the woods, when he saw a mother tiger that had just given birth to seven cubs. She was so weak that she was dying, and her cubs were crying for food.

The Prince was filled with compassion. He wasn't able to just bring her something to eat, however; there was nothing available. So he sent his brothers away and did a very unusual thing. He gave his own body to the mother tiger as a meal! He sacrificed his own life for her.

But she was too weak to simply eat him as he was, so he cut his own throat, and lay where the mother tiger could drink his blood. This gave her enough strength to eat his flesh, and the mother tiger and her cubs were saved.

This is one of the many stories that demonstrate the extraordinary compassion that the young prince had developed in his previous lives.


Questions:
  1. Would you save a snake if you saw someone hurting it? How about when you were a child?
  2. What do you think about the idea that the Buddha-to-be had "previous births"?
  3. What do you think of the Prince's sacrifice in the Jataka story? Why do you think the early monks told it?
Next time: Devadatta and the Swan

The Education of a Prince

When Prince Siddhartha was eight years old, teachers came to give him a proper education.

He studied the usual subjects, like reading, history, geography, science, and mathematics. But he also studied the Vedas, the Indian holy books. These were kept by the priests, called Brahmins. And, of course, he had to study the languages of the many groups around him.

He was excellent at his studie, and he quickly learned all that his teachers could tell him. His parents and teachers were amazed: whatever a teacher said, the young prince's mind took hold of it, and never let it go.

Nevertheless, he was never boastful or arrogant. The prince was always modest, and showed great respect to his teachers. His behavior was gentle and dignified toward everyone.

He was no bookworm, though. He was as good at sports and physical activities as he was at his studies. He was excellent at archery and good with a sword. He could shoot an arrow farther and straighter than any other boy. He was also a great horseman and chariot driver.

But even though he was good at winning races, he was willing to lose if his horse was tired. He felt that compassion was more important than competition.


Questions:
  1. What courses might be important for educating a "prince" in our day?
  2. Do you think the description of the Prince's excellence in all areas is realistic? (Bear in mind his extraordinary career later.)
  3. Why is it important that, in addition to his academic skills and personal virtues, he be considered excellent at the sports of his day?
Next time: The Prince's Compassion

The Death of Maya

Everyone was overjoyed at the news of the baby's promising future. But in the midst of this celebration, on the seventh day after the baby was born, disaster struck: Prince Siddhartha's mother, Queen Maha Maya, died.

King Shuddhodana arranged to have another of his wives raise the boy. Maha-Prajapati was Siddhartha's mother's sister, so she was both his step-mother and his aunt. In fact, she had just given birth to a baby boy on the day Maha Maya died, so she raised the two boys together, treating Siddhartha like he was her own son. Later, after he became the Buddha, she became the first nun.

The King was grieved, not only over the loss of his chief wife, but also because he worried about his son's future. Was this not the type of sadness that might turn the boy onto the religious path, preventing him from becoming a great king? Something must be done...

Many see in the death of the future Buddha's mother a clear symbol. "Maya," her personal name, also means "illusion." With the death of his mother, the boy could have no illusions about the cruelties of life.


Questions:
  1. "In the midst of joy, sorrow." Does the juxtaposition of events in this story feel "authentic"?
  2. What effect might the death of a mother have on a seven-day-old infant? Were Shuddhodana's fears reasonable?
  3. What is the complex relationship between illusion, truth, and sorrow indicated by the phrase "the death of Maya"?
Next time: The Education of a Prince

Siddhartha and the Sages

When the baby and his mother returned home, sages were summoned to cast his horoscope.

The first to arrive was Asita, King Suddhodana's old teacher. Like Simeon in the Gospels, he was overwhelmed to think that he had lived long enough to see "the promised one," though saddened that he wouldn't live long enough to see his great achievement come to pass.

Five sages (other numbers are sometimes given) also arrived, in a group.

The traditions diverge as to who said what, but the upshot is this:

Some sages said the baby would become a great king; others, that he would become a world savior. The difference between the two results would be determined by the boy's upbringing. If the king had his way, his son would become a universal monarch, a "chakravartin."

The baby was then named "Siddhartha," which means "the one who achieves his goal."


Questions:
  1. How do you feel about the idea of "life charts," where a person's entire fate can be determined at birth? What role does Fate play in our lives?
  2. If you were a king, would you want your son to be a king, or a Buddha? Why?
  3. Do you think the name a baby is given can affect the development of his or her character?
Next time: The Death of Maya

The Birth of the Buddha

With the birth of the Buddha, the legend begins to swell.

It is said that "King" Shuddhodana and "Queen" Maya (sometimes called "Maha Maya" meaning "Great Maya") were childless. But then, the queen had a dream of a white elephant with six tusks entering her side. (This is said to be auspicious. We will see the six-tusked elephant again, much later.)

Soon, she was pregnant.

When the time came for the baby to be born, according to custom, Queen Maya set out for her hometown. However, the baby arrived while she was on her way.

She stopped in Lumbini garden, and there gave birth standing up, and reaching up to hold the branch of a sal tree. The baby was born from his mother's side (as the elephant had entered there). Some legends say he was born at the level of her heart.

It was a full-moon day in spring. The baby was born well-developed. So much so, in fact, that he could walk and talk!

The legend says he immediately took seven steps, and a lotus sprang from each one. He then stopped and pointed up with one hand, down with the other, saying:

I am the most excellent!

I am the most developed!

I am the foremost in the world!

This is my last birth!

There shall be no returning for me!

Peculiar, isn't it? But it will make sense when we discuss his mission.

Queen Maya then returned to her husband's city of Kapilavastu, and presented the child to his father.


Questions:

  1. Why do you think we always wrap spiritual leaders in myths and legends? Why isn't "history" enough?
  2. What is the significance of the elephant entering Queen Maya's side, and the baby being born from there?
  3. What do you make of the baby's supernatural abilities, and his announcement about this being his "last birth"? How do you think Queen Maya might have felt about it?

Next time: Siddhartha and the Sages

The Buddha's Family and Society

The man we call "The Buddha" was born about 2,500 years ago in northern India, at the foot of the Himalaya Mountains, in an area that is now part of modern Nepal.

His personal name was Siddhartha, and his family name was Gautama (sometimes spelled "Gotama"). He was part of the Shakya clan or tribe. For this reason he is often called "Shakyamuni," meaning "Sage (muni) of the Shakyas."

His father, we are usually told, was a king. We must not mistake this for the European idea of a king. You can think of something more like a petty chief, a tribal leader or warlord. Still, compared to most of the other people in that day, his position was an exalted one.

Siddhartha's father was named Shuddhodana, and he was "king" of a city called Kapilavastu. His mother was named Maya.

Shuddhodana was a member of the Kshatriya caste. These were the administrators ("kings") and warriors of that Indian society. The other castes were the Brahmins, who were the scholars and priests, and were higher than the Kshatriyas; the Vaishyas, who were merchants and farmers; and the Shudras, the workers and craftsman. The last two castes were lower than the Kshatriyas.

This caste system will be of great importance in the story of the Buddha later on.


Questions:

  1. We seldom think of rich men becoming spiritual teachers. How do you think this might have affected the Buddha's teachings?
  2. Wouldn't you expect a spiritual teacher to come from the Brahmin caste? What is the significance of Siddhartha being born a Kshatriya?

Next time: The Birth of the Buddha

Welcome!

This disreputable layman has been favored with many wonderful opportunities:

  • I have studied with monks, nuns, priests, and lamas
  • I have completed several pilgrimages in Japan
  • I have worked in two temples, and lived in one
  • I have taught Buddhism in English to Chinese kids and monastics
  • I have studied formally for a PhD in Buddhism

Through all of this--whether for non-Buddhist temple visitors, or for sophisticated Buddhists with not-so-sophisticated English--I have often had to express complex Buddhist ideas in the simplest way possible.

In these pages I will share some of those ideas. These will include:

  • The world the Buddha lived in
  • The story of his life
  • The problem he faced (human suffering)
  • His solution (elimination of desire=Nirvana, enlightenment)
  • How this solution was adapted as it spread throughout the world

You must realize, though, that this is my understanding, representing an American's view of some Eastern concepts. Please don't blame my teachers for any mistakes I make!

You can read more about my involvement with Buddhism here.

Everything on these pages is © 2009 by James Baquet.

Me and the Buddha

(A much longer version of this essay is available here)

For most of my life I was a "Western Civ" kind of guy. But when midlife crisis arrived around age 35 (about 1990), all that changed.

In February of 1997 I found myself on a plane to Japan to take a job as an English teacher in a commercial English school. Almost five years later, I had studied with a lama, befriended several monks, completed four major pilgrimages (read details of one of those pilgrimages here), visited literally hundreds of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, chanted numerous Buddhist prayers, and sat Zazen. I had lit more incense, venerated more statues, and devoured more books than I can count.

And still my experiential knowledge hadn't "clicked."

Back in the States, I was seeking a way link up my knowledge of temples and pilgrimages with authentic Buddhist teachings.

To my surprise, in my own home town of Rosemead, California, there was a Buddhist university, the University of the West, operated by a vital, living monastic community--and they offered a Ph.D. for a mere $1,000US a semester.

So I went back to school.

By December of 2003 I had completed all of the coursework for a Doctor of Philosophy in the study of religions--and there I stopped, due largely to my departure to China. I lack the dissertation and the language requirement (Sanskrit, Pali, classical Chinese, or Tibetan). But I have learned enough to give the rest of my sojourn in this world a shape and a direction.

I also went to work full time at Hsi Lai Temple, the Chinese Buddhist temple which had sponsored the university, working as a tour guide, editor, and ESL teacher to the staff (including monks and nuns). (Follow my Tour of Hsi Lai Temple here.)

Since moving to China, I have had numerous opportunities to participate in this living tradition, including teaching kids for a week at a mountain temple in Fujian (read about that here) and teaching monks "Buddhism in English" for a year at a temple in Yangzhou, Jiangsu.

Throughout my experiences, I have tried to crystallize the Buddha's life and teachings in as simple a way as possible. Whether it was for curious friends in Japan, Western tourists at the temple in L.A., or the kids and monks in China, I have had to continually shave away the abstruse ideas and abstract language to get down to the core.

In these pages I will share some of the results of that winnowing. My sources have been many, both in print and in the flesh. I have benefited from the wisdom of many Buddhist traditions. But what follows is my take, my way of understanding. It may well differ from the teaching of a lama, a roshi, an ajahn, a fashi. But it is a living thing, and what is represented here is how it lives in me.