On the Path to Buddhahood—The Story of Buddha Sakyamuni
The prince who became the purveyor of Buddhism traveled no easy journey on his path to enlightenment. This is his story displaying the courage of an innocent, truth-seeking heart to move beyond the dimensions of ordinary life.
Birth of the “lion sage” prince
In the 6th century B.C., there was a kingdom called Kapilavattsu in ancient Nepal ruled by the warrior caste Shakyas (meaning “lion”). The king was Suddodana Gautama and the queen Mahamaya Devi. The royal couple was expecting their first child. As the legend goes, one night the queen had a very strange dream.
She saw a brilliant white light shining on her and in the light there was a magnificent pure white elephant with six tusks. It flew closer to her and melted into her body. After waking up she told her dream to the king. That morning the king sought the counsel of the wise men. They told him that it was an auspicious sign and that the queen is going to give birth to a great man.
The king was thrilled with the news of the arrival of his successor. As per tradition, Maya Devi took a journey to his father’s home to give birth. It was on the full moon day of the Indian month of Vaishak in May. When she reached Lumbini and saw beautiful groves, she asked to stop and rest for a while. As she was walking past a huge sal tree, her labor pains started and she gave birth to a baby boy. The prince of Kapilavattsu was born.
The legend says that the birth was almost painless and a gentle rain fell on the mother and child to cleanse them. On that same day, seven other beings were born—namely, the bodhi tree, princess Yashodhara, the horse Kantaka, the charioteer Channa, the elephant Kaludayi (the prince’s childhood friend), and seven treasure troves.
The baby was taken back to the capital on the same night. Five days later, the baby was named Siddhartha, which means “one who has attained his goals.” Many wise men came to see and bless the child, one of which was a devout old man named Asita, a former tutor to the king and an ascetic of high attainments.
The king, honored by Asita’s visit, carried the young prince up to him in order to make the child pay the ascetic due reverence. Instantly, Asita rose from his seat and recognized certain signs in the body of the prince that pledged high religious and spiritual vocation. With his supernormal vision, he saw the future greatness of the newborn prince and saluted him with clasped hands.
Wise men predict Prince’s future religious life
Seven days later, queen Mahamaya died and her place was taken by her sister Mahaprajapati, who raised the prince with love and affection. When Siddhartha was 12 years old, the king called oracles to predict the prince’s future. They revealed that Siddhartha would follow asceticism if he chanced upon signs of old age, sickness, death, or met an ascetic hermit.
King Suddodana wanted his son to be a great monarch, thus he put the palace under strict guard and proclaimed that the use of the words “death” and “grief” was forbidden. He shielded Siddhartha from anything that would inspire him to take up a religious life. So the prince was kept in one or another of the three royal palaces amid luxury and splendor. The prince grew up to be a strong young man. As a prince of the warrior caste, he trained in the art of war. He won the hand of a beautiful princess named Yashodhara from a neighboring kingdom by defeating the rest of the competitors at a variety of sports. They married at the age of 16.
The four historic encounters with truth
Siddhartha continued living a luxurious and entertaining life, but as time flew by, he became restless and wanted to see the world outside the walls of his palace. Therefore, he decided to visit his nearby town, his people, and his land.
The king carefully arranged his visit, decorating everything and making it beautiful. Ugly or sad sights were removed to avoid the four signs told by the wise men. But all precautions were in vain as the prince led the way with his charioteer, Chandaka.
In town, Siddhartha saw a wrinkled old man who accidentally wandered near the parade route. Siddhartha was amazed and asked Chandaka what the man was. Then he saw a sick man coughing and could not understand it either. Finally, he saw a funeral ceremony at the bank of a river. The prince also saw an ascetic—a monk who had renounced all the worldly pleasures to attain eternal peace and happiness. The peaceful look on the monk’s face stayed with Siddhartha for a long time. He asked Chandaka the meaning of all these things. The charioteer then informed the prince of the simple truths of life that he should have known all along.
When they came back to the palace, Siddhartha asked his father to allow him to go out in the world like a beggar monk to search the truth of life, as he understood that all things in life are illusory and transitory. Grief stricken, his father doubled the security around the palace and increased the pleasures and distractions therein. At this point Yashodhara gave birth to their son whom he called Rahula, meaning “chain” or “fetter.”
Siddhartha was not satisfied with his life and decided to run from the palace on his horse Kantaka with the help of his stable master, Channa. He rose one night, took a last look at his wife and son, mounted his horse, and rode off. At the city gates, he cut off his long hair and handed over his princely robes to Channa.
Siddhartha’s search for the truth of life
After leaving his palace, Siddhartha journeyed to the capital of Magdha, Rajghira in ancient India, where he came across several monks meditating in hill caves. He became a disciple of an ascetic named Alara Klama, who taught him how to upgrade his character or cultivate himself.
After a period of cultivation, the prince couldn’t progress anymore and thus began cultivation under a recluse named Uddaka Ramaputta. After cultivating for some time, again he realized that he couldn’t make further progress. Thereafter he joined five sages in the woods of Benares to cultivate by way of severe fasting and observing austerity. From then onward, others began to refer to Prince Siddhartha as Sakyamuni, meaning Lion Sage. After cultivating like this for six years, Sakyamuni discovered that he hadn’t become enlightened but his physical body had become emaciated.
While meditating one day, he overheard the conversation of two musicians traveling in a boat. The experienced one taught the novice that the strings of the lute should be neither too tight nor too loose. If the strings were tuned too tight, they would break; and if the strings were tuned too loose, the music would not come out right.
Upon hearing this, Sakyamuni suddenly enlightened to the principle of taking the middle path and not going to extremes; he then left to wander about. On his way, he met a village girl named Sujata, who offered rice pudding to the emaciated Sakyamuni. Legend says that Sakyamuni’s body returned to normal upon eating it.
He then sat under a Pipal tree (Ficus religiosa) in the jungles of Urvela and vowed not to come out of meditation until enlightened. He encountered demonic interference from a demon named Mara, who tempted him in a variety of ways but failed to break Sakyamuni’s resolve. Upon seeing that Sakyamuni was about to transcend his domain of desires and attachments, Mara became infuriated and sent armed monsters to attack Sakyamuni, but Sakyamuni remained unmoved by these assaults and all subsequent distractions.
Upon being defeated and realizing that he couldn’t break Sakyamuni’s concentration, Mara mocked him by saying that although he had won, there was no one to witness his victory. Sakyamuni touched the ground, indicating that the earth would bear witness. The earth trembled in response, indicating that it would indeed bear witness to Sakyamuni’s triumph.
Sakyamuni continued his diligent cultivation from that moment on and later reached enlightenment—attaining the realm of Buddha.
Upon attaining Buddhahood, he set out on his predestined mission to offer salvation to humans. Sakyamuni delivered his first sermon to his former companions, the five sages in Benares. Slowly, his number of disciples grew to around 80,000.
When King Suddodana learned that his son has become a Buddha, he invited him to his kingdom and criticized him for begging for food though he was rich enough to feed thousands of followers. Sakyamuni explained to his father that it was a requirement of his cultivation system.
During this time, Sakyamuni’s half brother Ananda, who was about to be declared crown prince and be married to princess Sundari, decided to practice cultivation himself and became a disciple of Sakyamuni. Later, Sakyamuni’s son Rahula and mother also became his disciples.
However, not all went smoothly; Sakyamuni’s cousin Devadutta tried to kill him many times out of jealousy, but the Buddha forgave him out of compassion. A notorious brigand named Angulimal also tried to kill him but ended up being his student.
Sakyamuni traveled far and wide to offer salvation to people. While he was with his disciples on the bank of the Hiranyavati River, he took the meal offered by a blacksmith and fell ill. On the full moon night in the month of his birth in 483 B.C., Sakyamuni spoke to all his disciples one last time before he entered nirvana.