Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Buddha

Tonight, PBS will air a documentary on the life of the Buddha. From what I have seen of this film, I highly recommend it. Here is a little bit about the life of this amazing man, taken from my master's thesis, Vipassana Meditation and Counseling Psychology: A Pathway to the Unconscious.

The man who would eventually be known as the Buddha was born Siddhartha Guatama, and lived some time in the Fifth and Sixth Centuries, B.C.E. The son of a royal family, Prince Siddhartha was raised in a small kingdom in what is now northern India near the border with Nepal.

Safe in his father’s palace, he led a life of ease and abundance, completely protected and totally segregated from the realities of human existence. In fact, his father did everything he could to conceal life’s unpleasant experiences from his son. When he reached his teens, however, Siddhartha began to find the cloistered palace life too stifling, and so he set out on his own to explore the surrounding city. Even then, his father the king “ordered all unpleasant sights to be covered up, the city to be painted, flowers and incense to be place all about, and all people who were suffering to be hidden away” (Goldstein & Kornfield, 1987, p. 80). Despite these efforts, however, Siddhartha eventually discovered the undeniable truth that there is sickness, old age, and death, and that everyone is eventually subject to these fates, including himself.

After that experience, Siddhartha relinquished his title and left the palace in order to find for himself a way out of the suffering he had encountered. First, he studied various kinds of yoga and meditation with India’s greatest living masters. Eventually he became a forest ascetic practicing torturous and body-denying austerities, such as eating only one grain of rice per day. As a result of his extreme self-mortification, it is said that “when he tried to touch his belly, his hand would grasp his backbone. After six years of this kind of practice, Siddhartha realized that this was not the path to freedom, to the end of suffering” (Goldstein & Kornfield, 1987, p. 81).
Siddhartha subsequently renounced his life of renunciation, began to take nourishment again, and soon regained his strength. He then vowed to sit in meditation beneath a pippala tree, and not get up again until he understood the nature of suffering and had reached a state of enlightenment. The celebrated Vietnamese teacher and Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh (1991), described what happened next:
Beneath the pippala tree, the hermit Guatama focused all his formidable powers of concentration to look deeply at his body. He saw that each cell of his body was like a drop of water in an endlessly flowing river of birth, existence, and death, and he could not find anything in the body that remained unchanged or that could   be said to contain a separate self. Intermingled with the river of his body was the river of feelings in which every feeling was a drop of water. . . . Some feelings were pleasant, some unpleasant, and some neutral, but all of his feelings were impermanent: they appeared and disappeared just like the cells of his body. (p.114)
During his meditation, Siddhartha Guatama had become “the Buddha,” meaning “Awakened One,” and he spent the next weeks in continued contemplation of these, and many other truths that had been revealed to him. For forty-five years, he would teach about the truths he had learned beneath the pippala tree, and his experience there would become the model for vipassana practice.


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