So far in my I-guess-it’s-kind-of-a-series of posts about Buddhism I’ve been talking about what Buddhists believe, without a whole lot of background, because the historical context isn’t really necessary to understand the core of Buddhism.
In my next post I’m going to narrow the focus down to Zen specifically, but before that I’d like to talk a bit about where Buddhism as an organized religion began, with one man in ancient India, Siddhartha Gautama.
Looking at the word “Buddhism” and thinking about religion, one would be tempted to conclude that there is something or someone, probably named something like “Buddha”, that followers of the religion worship as a deity. But even though that picture at top right shows a guy with a shiny thing around his head, there’s no deity in the core Buddhist beliefs, and there isn’t even one guy named Buddha!
The life of the Buddha
The guy that people mean when they talk about “Buddha” was an Indian prince, Siddhartha Gautama, who lived somewhere around 500 BCE. Shortly after his birth (which his mother did not survive), his father consulted a seer to learn his son’s future. The seer predicted that Siddhartha would become either a great king or a holy man. Having learned that, his father decided to do what he could to ensure his son became a king, because he wanted him to continue the royal line, and because he thought that “king” was a much better life than “holy man”.
So throughout his early years Siddhartha was confined to the palace, living the life due a prince, his every need met, and religion unspoken of. But doubts set in as to whether the princely life was all it was made out to be, and at 29 Siddhartha insisted that he leave the palace grounds to meet his subjects. His father knew he couldn’t refuse that request without making things worse, so instead he tried to pull a Potemkin, cleaning up the villages of filth and hiding the sick, old, and suffering.
As might be expected, that plan failed, and on his rounds Siddhartha saw a sick man, an old man, a corpse, and an ascetic holy man. Experiencing suffering of this scale for the first time he was deeply troubled by his discovery, and left the palace (and his wife and child) in the middle of the night to adopt the life of an ascetic monk, refusing all worldly goods including food and nearly starving to death. (That little fat statue? Not Siddhartha!) Hungry, he accepted a bowl of rice milk from a villager, and sat beneath a bodhi tree determined to remain there until he discovered the ultimate nature.
After 49 days he succeeded and reached Enlightenment — the full insight into the origin of suffering and its cessation — and shortly thereafter began to assemble a community of followers from the ascetics with whom he used to practice. He gave his first sermon, of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, to this community, and after they achieved their own Enlightenment they went out to spread his teachings to others.
Siddhartha’s role in Buddhism
So the original Buddhist was just a man, although a particularly wise (and maybe lucky!) one. He became a Buddha because he reached enlightenment — and all a Buddha is is one who has done so, and he became the Buddha because he was the first one to teach the Noble Truths, but he was neither the first Buddha or the last. Before him other men had reached that understanding but it had died with them or their followers, and after him there is a tree of Buddhas who have had understanding passed on from earlier ones and who in turn passed their understanding on to their own students.
(A brief digression for terminology you’ll encounter elsewhere: The teaching of the Buddha is the dharma; passing on that understanding to a student is a dharma transmission. The community of Buddhists, either locally or universal, is the sangha. Together, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha form the Three Treasures — look, a numbered list! — to which Buddhists dedicate themselves when they take formal vows. Enlightenment is nirvana, which you might have heard before. Note that it’s a level of understanding, not a place. You don’t go to nirvana.)
So for the most part — and, specifically, my part, which is really what I’m trying to convey with all of this — Buddhists don’t worship Buddha, or consider him (or anyone else) a god, or even consider him supernaturally gifted in any way. He is a big deal, but not a big deal along the lines of Yhwh, Jesus, or Mohammed! He is the spiritual ancestor of the community of Buddhists today and the man who first taught the teachings that Buddhists follow, and it is because he was only a man that Buddhists know that his accomplishment is within their reach.