Brief notes on Buddhist thought and practice
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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