Siddhartha Gautama, the fourth historical Buddha and the Buddha of our era, was born in 563 BCE in what is now southern Nepal--a prince in a powerful family of the Shakya clan. His father was King Shuddodana, and his mother was Queen Mahamaya. At his birth, Asita--a well-known soothsayer--proclaimed that he would become a great king, even an emperor. Or he could become a great sage and savior of humanity. The king, eager that his son should become a king like himself, was determined to shield the child from anything that might result in his taking up the religious life. And so Siddhartha was kept in one or another of their three palaces and was not permitted to see the elderly, the sickly, the dead, or anyone who had dedicated themselves to spiritual practices. Only beauty and health surrounded Siddhartha.
Siddhartha grew up to be a strong and handsome young man. As a prince of the warrior caste, he trained in the arts of war. When it came time for him to marry, he won the hand of a beautiful princess of a neighboring kingdom by besting all competitors at a variety of sports. Yashodhara was her name, and they married when both were 16 years old.
As Siddhartha continued living in the luxury of his palaces, he grew increasing restless and curious about what lay beyond the palace walls and decided to explore the world outside. One day, he chanced to see a couple of old men. Then he came across some people who were severely ill. And finally, he came across a funeral ceremony by the side of a river and for the first time in his life saw death. He asked his friend and squire Chandaka the meaning of all these things, and Chandaka informed him of the simple truths that Siddhartha should have known all along: all of us get old, sick, and eventually die.
Siddhartha also saw an ascetic, a monk who had renounced all the pleasures of the flesh. The peaceful look on the monk's face deeply impressed Siddhartha. As a result, he renounced his life of power and wealth and became a wandering ascetic, determined to find a solution to the problem of suffering.
When he was 35 years old, he entered into a deep meditative state, and when he emerged, he was a person whose mind was tamed and free of ignorance, desire, and hatred--he was a "Buddha"--an enlightened being. He was awake. The Buddha continued to live about 45 more years, teaching his many followers throughout northeast India how to become awakened also.
When the Buddha was 80 years old, he told his friend and cousin Ananda that he would be leaving them soon. And so it came to be that in Kushinagara, not a hundred miles from his homeland, he ate some spoiled food and became very ill. He went into a deep meditation under a grove of sala trees and died. His last words were... Impermanent are all created things; Strive on with awareness.
A Brief History of Buddhism
Buddhism relies on wisdom and universal compassion to achieve enlightenment. From the teachings of Gautama Buddha, born in the sixth century BCE, three major branches of Buddhism emerged. The Pali canon was written in the first century BCE, the period when Buddhism also came to China. The Zen ("Chan" in Chinese) and Pure Land traditions became influential from the 4th century. Tibetan Buddhism, which arrived from India in the 9th and 10th centuries, focuses on the path of the bodhisattva, a Buddha who has foregone final liberation and remains in the world to help all beings.
Tibetan Buddhism, which emphasizes the development of compassion and wisdom, has four major schools. Traditionally, the large monastic universities, temples, and local monasteries served the needs of the various Tibetan communities. Three of the four schools were founded by Indian masters: the Nyingma School from the teachings of Padmasambha in the 7th century; the Old Khadampa School by Atisha in the 10th century; and the Kagyu School in the 10th century by Tilopa, who was succeeded in turn by the teachers Naropa, Marpaand, Milarepa. The Sakya School was founded in 1703 by Konchog Gyalpo. The New Khadampa, or Gelug School, was established in the 14th century by Lama Tsong Khapa, who spread the teachings throughout the region, including Mongolia and China. His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama belong to this school, as do TCC Director Arjia Rinpoche and President Emeritus Tagtser Rinpoche.
Lama Tsong Khapa, Founder of the Gelugpa Sect
The Buddha taught according to the abilities of his listeners to understandand apply his spiritual concepts. Accordingly, there are three scopes, or levels, of teachings:
- First Scope: the learner relies upon the Three Jewels to achieve a happy rebirth: The Buddha, The Dharma, and the Sangha.
- Second Scope: the learner applies the teachings of the Four Noble Truths to achieve individual liberation
Life is suffering
Suffering is caused by attachment
There is liberation from suffering
The path to liberation is the 8-fold noble path
- Third Scope: the learner applies the six perfections to his life with the altruisitic intention to liberate all sentient beings from samsara.
The spread of Tibetan Buddhism to the West has been facilitated by teachers from many countries. Travelers to Tibet from the 19th and 20th centuries have sparked interest in Tibetan culture, history and the philosophy of all schools of Buddhism. Western professors and independent teachers in modern times have joined Tibetan lamas in teaching Buddhist theory and practice in academic, cultural, and religious venues. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in particular, has brought increased awareness of Tibetan culture and religion.
Chenrezig, the Bodhisatta of compassion
The following is a prayer of a Bodhisattva (a person who has compassion for others). It is the favorite prayer of His Holiness the Dalai Lama
As long as space endures
As long as sentient beings remain
May I, too, prevail
To dispel the misery of the world