Monday, November 21, 2011

Twelve Great Deeds of the Buddha's Life, Part 1

8. The Six Years of Austerities

Wandering in his search for enlightenment, Buddha came to a pleasant hermitage by a lovely stream, where, for six years, he joined five mendicants in a way of discipline based on progressively severe fasting. He ate a single grain of rice for each of the first two years, drank a single drop of water for each of the second two years, and took nothing at all during the last two. Consequently, his bones stuck out like a row of spindles, and when he touched his stomach, he could almost feel his spine. His hair fell out and his skin became withered.

But all this was in vain. However severe his austerities, perhaps even because of them, the body still clamored for attention, and he was still plagued by material craving. In fact, he seemed more conscious of himself than ever. Buddha had to face the fact that asceticism had failed to redeem him. All he had achieved after this heroic assault upon his body was a prominent rib cage, and a dangerously weakened physique.

Finally, it dawned upon him that physical austerity is one of the two extremes, and that the 'Middle Way between these two extremes is the path to enlightenment.

He thus slowly rose, and went to bathe in the stream. He crossed over to the far bank where he met a village girl named Sujata who offered him a bowl of rice pudding (kheer). It was the first food he had accepted in years and it instantly restored his body to lustrous good health.

Thus nourished, and accompanied solely by his own resolve, Siddhartha strode majestically towards the bodhi tree, to make his last bid for liberation. Abandoning himself to meditation, he vowed not to move from that spot until he had attained full enlightenment.

9. The Defeat of Mara

Hearing this solemn vow, Mara, the Buddhist manifestation of death and desire, felt threatened. Mara's power over sentient beings originated from their attachment to sensuous pleasures and the consequent fear of death which lead to intense suffering. Enlightenment would free Siddhartha from Mara's control and provide an opportunity for others to free themselves also by emulating him.

Likewise, Mara first sent his three beautiful daughters named Desire (Future), Fulfillment (Present), and Regret (Past). The Buddha had already disengaged himself from these pinnings and thus remained unmoved. This prompted Mara to intimidate the venerable one by installing fear in his heart. Towards this end he generated an army of wrathful and hideous creatures, the very personifications of death. But all through the tribulations, Buddha sat calm and unflinching, and Mara had no other recourse than to withdraw, and thus was cleared the final hurdle on the way to Buddha's enlightenment.

10. The Proclamation of the Teachings

Having gained enlightenment, Gautama came to be called Shakyamuni, or the silent lion, indicating the explosive potential he carried within himself. He first went up to Sarnath near Varanasi where he met the five disciples with whom he had previously traversed the path of asceticism. Though they had deserted him after their failed experiment, the unearthly glow from his body now attracted them. Hearing his discourse, they became his first followers.

Amongst these five was a disciple named Assaji. Once when Assaji was begging for alms, he encountered an inquisitive gentleman named Shariputra, who was then a follower of Sanjaya Belatthiputta, a renowned skeptic sage of the times. Shariputra, along with his fast friend Maudgalyayana were Sanjaya's fervent and most important disciples. Of late however, they had both started experiencing disillusionment and felt dissatisfied by their master's nihilistic philosophy. Now in this state of mind, Assaji's noble mien and air of self possession so impressed Shariputra that he asked him who his teacher was and what doctrine he taught.

Assaji answered him only briefly but it was enough to convince Shariputra. He immediately bounded over to Maudgalyayana and related to him what had happened. Maudgalyayana was able to perceive the greatness of Buddha's teachings and he and Shariputra thereupon resolved to become followers of Shakyamuni. They also brought over Sanjaya's complete entourage of two-hundred-and-fifty disciples to Buddha's monastic order.

This story is symbolic of the transformation Buddha's teachings bought about in the prevailing milieu of the times, wherein an entire school of thought came under the influence of his teachings. Later on Buddha was to predict that these two would become the foremost of his disciples.

Thus, characteristically, in the narrative paintings outlining the significant episodes of Buddha's life, there is nearly always at the center, a dominating image of Shakyamuni, flanked by his two devoted disciples Shariputra and Maudgalyayana.

11. The Descent from the Trayatrimsa Heaven

Queen Maya, after her death, was said to have been reborn in the Trayatrimsa heaven. Having attained enlightenment, Buddha decided to ascend to the Trayatrimsa heaven, literally the heaven of thirty-three gods, to visit his mother. The name 'thirty-three' derives from the fact that it is the residence of the 33 gods of Hinduism, an ancient notion, having roots in Vedic thought. With three strides Buddha reached the heaven, where he preached before the divine congregation, including his mother, for several months.

In painted depictions, we see the Buddha seated on the throne of Indra, the king of the gods, sitting in the so-called European position, with his legs hanging down.

When the inhabitants of the earth fervently supplicated him to return, Buddha coasted downwards with the help of a ladder that had thirty-three rungs, handcrafted by the divine architect Vishwakarma. This descent is the most celebrated event of the entire episode and is often glorified in independent artworks.

This legend cosmicises the historical Buddha in several ways. His ability to move between the two worlds is clearly indicative of his transcendental and divine nature. Moreover, the ladder here, reminiscent of the story of Jacob's ladder in the Bible, serves as a cosmic pillar that connects heaven and earth and is echoed in Shiva's symbol, the lingam. There too the lingam stretches from the heaven down to the netherworld and is worshipped by Brahma and Vishnu.

Similarly, the descending Buddha is revered by Indra and the four-headed Brahma, as well as other sacred beings. Yet another link is reflected in Buddha's taking three steps, both on the way up and down. The idea is clearly related to Vishnu's three strides in the myth of the Vamana (dwarf) avatar.

12. The Passage into Parinirvana

Traveling great distances to disseminate his teachings, Buddha finally reached the city of Kushinagara, where he asked his disciples to spread a couch for him in a grove. He lay there, reclining on his right side, facing west, with his head supported by his hand.

Shakyamuni realized clearly that death was approaching. Towards midnight of the same day, the event known in Buddhist terminology as the Parinirvana, or "Final Nirvana," took place. It was a full-moon night and also his eightieth birthday. The Enlightened One passed through progressively higher planes of meditation until he attained entry into Parinirvana.

One scripture gives an eloquent description of the scene: "The trees burst into full bloom out of season, bent down over the Buddha, and showered his body with their flowers, as if to do him supreme honor. There were heavenly flowers that rained down and scattered over the venerable one. . . . And the world was like a mountain whose summit has been shattered by a thunderbolt; it was like the sky without the moon."

The death of a truly great man often marks the beginning rather than the end of an era in terms of the progress of human spirit. The difference lies in whether that man lived essentially for his own glory or devoted his life to the pursuit of eternal principles of truth and to the true happiness of all mankind. The image of the dying Buddha is not supposed to evoke sadness as much as a feeling that all beings have the potential to become enlightened and attain release from the sufferings which characterize samsara.

His serene, composed, and restful demeanor (he is actually slightly smiling) is meant to communicate his attainment of the highest state of Indian meditation, that of a deep, quiet and blissful sleep known in Sanskrit as 'turiya.' This is precisely the reason why 'Parinirvana' is thought of as the 'final' or 'highest' nirvana.