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Who is the Buddha

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by Sangharakshita

INTRODUCING THE THREE JEWELS OF BUDDHISM
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."
---oOo---
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.
---oOo---
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.
Tape 1/page 1
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 histime 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.
---oOo---
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
Tape 1/page 2
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 ...

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