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Who is the Buddha

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by Sangharakshita

... 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 of the house, and all your friends and all your relations come and have
a good look and say, "ah well, looks just like old so-and-so. It's him to the life, as it were. Well
he looks quite happy, quite peaceful. Yes, bye-bye"; and they shed a tear, too, throw a few
flowers on the corpse. And then the corpse is hoisted onto the shoulders of four strong men, and
borne through the streets, with the face still uncovered, and the corpse is jolting along on the
shoulders of these people, and it's a hot day, and crowds of people are following behind, and the
people passing by they look and they say, "Oh yes, look there's old so-and-so, didn't know he was
dead, look they're going to take him to the burning ground !" And this is what happens in India.
So the Buddha saw a procession of this sort, people moving along, the corpse, and he asked the
charioteer, "What on earth is this ?" The charioteer, who seems to have been quite a wise man,
the charioteer says, "Well this is just a dead body." Then the Buddha asked, "Dead ? Well what's
happened to him ?" "Well you can see, he's stiff, lifeless, doesn't breathe, doesn't see, doesn't hear.
He's dead." So the Buddha sort of gave a gasp and he said, "Well, does this happen to everybody
this death ?" So the charioteer, drew a long sigh and he said, "Well, I'm afraid so." And of
course the Buddha realised it would happen also to him one day. So this also struck him, this
revelation as it were, very forcibly like a thunderbolt.
And he was brooding over these things. He had come up against what nowadays we'd call these
existential situations which one can't escape from. You don't want to grow old but you can't help
it. You don't want to fall sick but you can't help it. You don't want to die but you can't help it.
So you start asking yourself the question: Well how do I come to be here. Here I am, a living
human being, and I can't even live as I want to. I want to go on living for ever, young and strong
and healthy, but it doesn't happen like that. I don't want to die but I have to die. So what is it that
has brought this situation about ? Here am I with this urge to live and to go on living, yet I've got
to die. Why ? What is the meaning of it all ? Why this mystery, why this riddle, why have I
been made like this ? Is it God who is responsible ? Is it fate, is it destiny ? Has it just
happened ? Is there an explanation ? Or is there no explanation ? In this way the Buddha was
brought up against these existential situations of life and death, and he started thinking about them
very very deeply.
But he saw a fourth sight. This sight was the sight of what in India is called a sadhu, a holy man,
walking along the village street with his begging bowl, going from one door to the next for alms,
very quietly, very peacefully; in very ordinary dress, a yellow robe, a saffron robe. He seemed so
calm, so quiet, so peaceful, that the future Buddha thought, "Maybe he has understood, maybe he
knows, maybe this is the way, maybe I should do likewise. Maybe I should cut off all ties, all
connections, go forth as this man. May be I shall see the Truth, maybe I shall find an answer to
these problems which are tormenting me."
Tape 1/page 3
So the legend continues - and it's a very beautiful, almost romantic story - that one night, when
everything was quiet, and there was a full moon in the sky, no sound, the Buddha bade a last
farewell to his sleeping wife and his child. He wasn't happy to leave them but he had to go all the
same. He went out into the Indian moonlight and he rode many miles that night till he reached
the river; left his horse there, left behind his princely garments, cut off his long hair and his beard,
and he became a homeless wanderer in search of Truth. And this going forth, psychologically is
very important, very significant. I've sometimes thought I'd like to give a talk one day, just on this
topic: the Significance of the Going Forth. It is not just becoming a monk. It's much more than
that. It means cutting off all ties, cutting off what Fromm calls the incestuous ties to blood, and
soil, and kindred, and all the rest of it; and leaving yourself free, as an individual, to work out your
own salvation and your own destiny for yourself. So the Buddha got away from it all. To use
the fashionable phrase, he opted out. He'd had enough. He was going to try to find out, try to see
the Truth.
So for six years he was searching. And in those days in India, there were many people who taught
ways leading to realisation, leading to the attainment of Truth. One of these ways was the way
of Self-torture. Now in this country we can't quite take this seriously. It has never been a way,
really, in the West, apart from perhaps the hermits of the Egyptian desert in the 2nd century AD.
But apart from that it has never been a part of our daily life. We don't go to work, say, in the
morning and on the way we see a man sitting on a bed of nails. It is not part of our way of life.
But in India it is very much in the air, very much in the atmosphere, and even now Indians do have
this very strong belief that self-torture is the way to heaven, or the way even to self-knowledge and
Enlightenment. So in the Buddha's day there was a very powerful movement of this sort and if
you wanted to gain the Truth, you had to subdue and subjugate and even mortify the flesh. So
that's what the Buddha did, for many a long year. For six years. He practised austerities, he
limited his food, he limited his sleep, he didn't wash, he went about naked. All this is described
by the Buddha himself when he became an old man, in the Buddhist scriptures, all these austerities.
And it is said that the fame of his austerities was noised abroad like the sound of a great bell hung
in the canopy of the sky. He became famous for this asceticism and his self-torture. He
afterwards said that "no one in India went beyond me in self-torture and self-mortification. But",
he said, "it led me nowhere." It didn't lead to the Truth, it didn't lead to Enlightenment.
And the Buddha had the courage to give up. He had become quite famous. He was well-known
as a great ascetic, had a number of disciples who were with him, but when he realised that this
wasn't the way, he gave it up. He started eating again, took regular meals (yes terrible isn't it ?),
he started eating again after this fast and this austerity, and his disciples said, "Well, what is this
? He's backsliding. He isn't the man we thought he was." So they left him in disgust. They
went away. And he was left quite on his own. And this is also significant, that he was left on his
own. He already had left his family, left his friends, left his tribe, but in the end even his disciples
deserted him. There wasn't a single person remaining with him. He was entirely on his own.
So he remained on his own, he went about from place to place, and eventually he decided that he
would sit down and he would meditate. He felt maybe this is the way, the way of meditation.
So eventually, we are told, he came to very beautiful, a very pleasant spot, in what is now Bihar,
on the banks of a fresh running river, and he sat down in the shade of a great tree, and he made the
resolution: I will not rise from this spot until I am Enlightened. There is a very beautiful and
dramatic verse which is put into his lips by some of the early compilers, saying that "flesh may
wither away, blood may dry up, but until I gain Enlightenment I shall not move from this seat."
So day after day, night after night, he sat there, controlled, concentrated the mind, purified the
mind, suppressed the hindrances, the defilements, and gradually, we are told, the light dawned.
And on this Wesak night, the night of the full moon of May, just as the morning star was rising,
just as he fixed his mind on that star, glittering near the horizon, full illumination, full
Enlightenment arose.
Now it is obviously very difficult to describe this sort of state. We can say it's the plenitude of
wisdom, or we can say it's the fullness of compassion. We can say that it's seeing the Truth face
Tape 1/page 4
to face. But these are only words; they don't mean very much. So let us ...

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