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Who is the Buddha

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by Sangharakshita


Dharmachakra Tape series 1 - 3 (1968) Tape 1: Who is the Buddha? (55 minutes)

"After an account of the Buddha's life, Sangharakshita asks how, if at all, the Buddha can be defined or categorized."

Friends, yesterday we had a talk on Living Buddhism just, as it were, to strike the right note if not to set the pace for these ten days; but that talk, as it were, stood apart and today we are beginning a series of talks on Buddhism. So the question which arises is: How and where to begin? Now we know that Buddhism itself begins with the Buddha. This teaching or this tradition, which in the West we now call Buddhism, grew out of, sprang out of the Buddha's experience of Enlightenment underneath the bodhi tree 2500 years ago. So inasmuch as Buddhism begins with the Buddha, perhaps it is only right, perhaps it is only appropriate that this short series of talks on Buddhism should also begin with the Buddha. But the question which at once arises is: Who was the Buddha?

Now this is not the sort of question which Buddhists will ask. It is not the sort of question which regular students of Buddhism would ask or would even feel it necessary to ask. But though we do have today, though we do have with us throughout the retreat quite a number of our regular friends, even some members of our Order, there are nevertheless also quite a number of you who are comparatively new to Buddhism; and it is mainly for you, for your benefit, for your information and guidance, and we hope inspiration, that this short series is intended. The others, the more experienced people, they are just, as it were, listening in and taking, perhaps, notes against the time when they, from a platform like this, will be trying to answer the question Who was the Buddha? We might even go so far as to say that it is by no means an un-useful thing, even for those who regard themselves as Buddhists, who regard themselves even as Buddhists of long standing, to think about this question which at stands as the title of our talk.

So, Who was the Buddha? The first thing that we have to observe, the first point that we have to make clear, is that the word 'Buddha' is not a proper name. It is not a name like John or Frances or Mary. It's not a proper name at all but it's a title; and the word 'Buddha' means One who knows, One who understands, and it also means One who is awake, One who has woken up, as it were, from the dream of life, who is awake because he sees the Truth, he sees Reality. So this title of the Buddha, the One who knows or the Wise One or the Enlightened One, or the Awake One, this title was first applied to a man whose personal name was Siddhartha and whose clan or family name was Gautama and who lived 500 years before Christ, in the area which is now partly in Southern Nepal and partly in Northern India. We know, fortunately, quite a lot about his early career. We know that he came from a well-to-do, even a patrician family. Tradition sometimes represents his father as having been the King of the Shakya clan or tribe; but it seems more likely that he wasn't so much the King as the elected President of the Assembly, the clan Assembly, and that he held office for twelve years with the title of Rajah, and that it was during this twelve-year period of office that his son, Siddhartha Gautama, who subsequently became the Buddha, the Enlightened One, was born.

So he was born in this sort of family, against this sort of background. As a young prince or patrician at least, we know that he received what was, by the standard of those days, a very good education. He didn't go to school - education really has got nothing to do with going to school.

It is not really clear whether the Buddha could read or write. But we know that he had a very good training in all sorts of martial arts and martial exercises (we saw something of those in a more Buddhistic form this morning out on the lawn) and we can imagine the young, the future Buddha as spending his time more in that way than in browsing over books, much less still reading newspapers and things like that. And he learned by word of mouth from the wise old men of the clan, of the tribe, the various traditions, the genealogical lists, the various beliefs and the superstitions and the ideas, and so on. And he led on the whole a quite comfortable, a quite well-to-do sort of life, had no particular responsibility. His father, apparently, was a very affectionate, even a doting parent; married him off when he was quite young, some accounts say when he was only sixteen, because as you probably know, in India in those days, as usually today also, such things as marriages are arranged by one's parents. It's nothing to do with oneself personally, it's the affair of the family, it isn't your individual concern. So his father arranged a marriage for him and he married a distant cousin, and in due course a son was born to him, and you might have thought that he led a happy and comfortable and pleasant enough existence.

But the accounts make it clear that despite all these comforts, these luxuries, despite the well-to-do way of life, Siddhartha Gautama was very deeply dissatisfied. H. G. Wells, I remember, when describing this period in the Buddha's existence, says perhaps rather appropriately, "It was the boredom of a fine mind seeking employment, seeking occupation for itself, seeking something to do, something positive, something worthwhile". But the legends, the traditions which we find in the Buddhist scriptures, speak of a sort of spiritual crisis, a sort of turning point when this young prince, this young patrician, saw what the Buddhist texts call The Four Sights. Now scholars are not quite agreed as to whether he literally went out one day, or four days, and saw these four sights in the village street, or whether The Four Sights are a sort of projection externally of essentially psychological and spiritual experiences. It would seem in fact that they do represent psychological and spiritual experiences which later writers transcribed, as it were, into an interesting narrative, even dramatic form, these four sights. But these four sights are very expressive, they mean a very great deal. And they summarise, even they crystallise in a very powerful form certain fundamental teachings of Buddhism, and throw, and cast a very great deal of light on the Buddha's own early inner spiritual development.

So the story goes, the legend goes that one day, one morning - it was a beautiful bright day, the sun shining - the Buddha felt like going out in his chariot. So he called his charioteer, whipped up the horses, they went out into the village, drove around, and then suddenly the Buddha saw this first sight: he saw an old man, and according to the legend he had never seen an old man before. Now if you take it literally it means he had been shut up in his palace and hadn't take much notice of other people, and hadn't really realised there was such a thing as old age. But you can take it in another way because sometimes we see something as though for the first time. In a sense we've seen it a hundred, a thousand times before, but one day, one day a moment comes, a moment strikes when we see it as though for the first time, as though we had never seen it before, and probably it was something like this which happened in the case of the Buddha, when he saw the first of these sights, the old man. And this gave him a sort of shock and he said to his charioteer, "who on earth is that?" There was the old man - and in India old people look really old, when a woman is 40 she looks about 80, and men also pretty much the same because of the climate and the hard life - so there was this old man tottering along with a stick, and a long white beard, and the rheum trickling from his eyes, just able to support himself and move along. So the Buddha says, "What is this?" And the charioteer, we are told, replied, "This is an old man". So the Buddha said, "Why is he like that? Why is he so bent? Why is he so frail?" So the charioteer replied, "Well he's just an old man." So the Buddha said, "Well how has he got like that?" "Well everybody gets old, it's natural, it just happens." Then the Buddha asked, or the future Buddha rather, asked, "Well does this happen to everybody?" And the charioteer replied, "Yes indeed, it happens to one and all." And the Buddha then put the crucial question, "Will this happen also to me?" And the charioteer of course had to reply, "Yes, even to you, young as you are. This must inevitably happen one day. One day you will be old." So this word of the charioteer struck the future Buddha like a thunderbolt as it were, and he said, "What is the use of this youth? What is the use of this vitality and this strength if it all ends in this?" And very sick at heart, very despondent, he returned to his palace. And this was his first sight.

The second sight was the sight of a sick man. It's as though he had never seen anyone sick before and he realised that all human beings are subject to sickness, that human life is prey to sickness of various kinds, and he had to face the fact that he, too, might at any time - healthy as he was, strong as he was - be struck down by sickness.

And then the third sight that he saw was the sight of a corpse, a corpse being carried to the burning ground on a stretcher; and you can see this sight, in India, any day. In India a funeral is a very interesting thing, it's a very public thing. Here when you die you are smuggled away in a little box, and that's that. No one sees anything of you. You're just quietly disposed of like so much garbage that no one even wants to look at, that's put into the incinerator or into a little whole in the ground and covered over. But in India it isn't like that. When you die you are laid out very publicly, in the best room ...

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