On this auspicious night of Buddha Poornima, we reflect on the life and the message ofGautama Buddha, the Enlightened One. Of all the great founders of religions, the Buddha has always had a special place in my heart right from the time I first learnt about him in middle-school history texts. And the charm and fascination has still remained – the fascination really stems from the fact that here was a Man just like anyone of us, who strived for perfection and transcended all mundane limitations to reach out and become Divine. Here is a Lotus in the truest sense; growing in dirty water and yet managing to bloom into a most beautiful flower; and here is the classic case of Coal transmuting into Diamond!
The Buddha leads the charts in terms of having the most statues worldwide!
Unfortunately, (or perhaps truly), most other Great Men have been afforded some sort of Divine starting point – most have been born as Gods, or so we are told. However, Siddhartha’s story is different in that he was born a prince and led a very royal, ordinary sort of life. Although stories of his early life are scarce, we read about a sensitive individual who was for most part shielded from the sufferings of common man. He rarely came face to face with suffering as he lived mostly in the luxury of his palace.
The dramatic turnaround is said to have happened when he saw the suffering of Poverty, Sickness, Old Age and Death on a single day. Something must have told him that all the wealth and power of being a king was useless when it would be his time to fall sick, grow old and die. These were the universal truths. In a jiffy, he realised the impermanence of all that Man tries to achieve – and decided that he would have to search for some solution to all misery. According to legend, he left home the very day that his son Rahula was born. A most cowardly act one might argue – but for the fact that he eventually found Nirvana!
The next few years saw an intense period of soul-searching, the like of which has rarely been attempted by the billions of people who have lived after him. After about 7 years of relentless austerities and having gone through numerous teachers, Siddhartha finally almost lost hope and was lying beside a river. But for a passing woman who fed him a meal of rice pudding and milk, he may even have died! He was 35 years old then. Of course, greater things were written for him – and as the stories tell us; having gained strength from eating he decided to sit under a pipal tree – now known as Bodhi tree – and meditate till he discovered the truth. Various reports recount varying times from 12 hours to 45 days spent in meditation – till finally the moment of illumination came, Enlightenment happened and Siddhartha became The Buddha!
“Buddha” means “the Enlightened One” or “Awakened One”. At first it is written that He was skeptical of whether he should preach the Dharma; as people were so deluded with their own material and mundane pursuits to take time out to seek higher realities. Strange that we often say that we live in the heights of materialism, but the Buddha found people of his time (circa 600 BCE) to be just the same! Eventually he was convinced to preach and so set upon perhaps the longest preaching period amongst the great Spiritual leaders till the age of 80! For 45 years he roamed around the Gangetic plain, teaching people the essence of Buddhism – which was really about following a “Middle Path” without being in the extremes of self-indulgence or self-mortification. Also, the Buddha formed a sangha of monks; and was welcoming towards people of all faiths and social status. When viewed in the context of his times; this was ground-breaking because Hinduism had become an oppressive faith with a stifling caste system that made it almost impossible for the poor and downtrodden to have a direct link with God without having to pass through the affluent Priestly community. Also, Buddhism did away with a lot of the complex rituals of the Vedic period that had become stifling again. In these senses he was a rebel – and perhaps the greatest part of his doctrine was that he never spoke about God. He, in fact, shifted the focus to Man – and his need to improve his Humanity!
Since this is a Yoga blog; we’ll also reflect on the Buddha’s contribution to Yoga. He shifted the focus to Meditation and as such physical postures (asanas) and hatha yoga (as we know it today) took a back seat. It is only after about 1500 years when people were once again floundering and lacked proper grounding in their spiritual quests; that Yogis such as Swatmarama and others from the Nath clan once again propounded Yoga as a systematic approach to Nirvana – starting from body to breath to mind. Also, the Buddha’s message is perhaps the most intellectual of the famous religions of the world and he attracted (and continues to attract) mostly people of the mind – Jnana/ Dhyana Yogis as we might say. So Meditation (Dhyaan) was given pre-eminence. The Buddha taught a technique called “Kevala Kumbhaka“; to stop your breath with Awareness abruptly when you are undergoing some stress. Immediately the mind stops and often that’s all you need to change a debilitating thought pattern – however, it is very difficult as you are usually totally caught up in your thoughts when in stress and lack the witnessing awareness to step back and watch your mind.
To conclude this rather length piece, I’ll mention this incident from the Buddha’s life. Like many of the incidents that are gleaned from Puranas, Jataka tales and other biographies we’ll never know exactly the veracity of it. When the Buddha, returned home after about 3 years of having attained enlightenment; His wife prostrated in front of him as the Buddha. He himself was feeling apologetic as he had abandoned her and his new-born son. Finally, he told his (ex-) wife that ‘had he known what truth and enlightenment was; he would never have had to leave the palace – it could have been achieved staying right there!’ This really is the essence of Zen Buddhism – meditation in the marketplace; in your life just as it is, without the need to become an ascetic!
The famous last words before the Buddha left his earthly body: “All composite things pass away. Strive for your own liberation with diligence.”