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Introducing Buddhism

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by Sangharakshita

... According to the traditions his father was a Rajah. Rajah has two meanings in this connection: one is a hereditary monarch, and the other is a sort of elected president of the clan or tribe. So it seems that the Buddha's father, when the Buddha was born, was serving a term, a twelve-year term, as the elected President or Rajah of the Sakya tribe. And their political organisation was republican. There were many little republics in North-eastern India in those days, and the Buddha was born under those circumstances. So he received, so far as we can tell, what passed in those days for a very good education. He was initiated into the various traditions, the various customs of the tribe, of the clan to which he belonged, which incidentally was a Kshatriya tribe, that is a warrior caste, tribe, and became skilled in all sorts of martial exploits, learned genealogy and history, and things of that sort. When he was about sixteen, he was married to one of his cousins, and not very long afterwards a son was born to them.

Now with this sort of background, it is quite evident, it is quite obvious, that from a worldly point of view there wasn't very much that the future Buddha really was in want of. He had social position. He had health. He had youth. He had a happy and contented family life. He was educated. He was cultured. So from a worldly point of view, he seemed to have, one might say, everything. But in spite of that, despite everything that he had, from a very early period it seems as though he was dissatisfied. It seems that he developed the habit of spending long periods by himself, in seclusion, and just trying to think. He wondered sometimes, "Well, here I am. But what's the meaning of it ? Why is one born into this world at all ? After death what happens ? What's the meaning of life ? What's the purpose of life ?" These sort of questions started troubling him, even started disturbing, even started tormenting him. And some of the early scriptures put it in a very vivid sort of pictorial form, in the form of what some people regard as a legend, which may for all of that have actually taken place. We are told that on one occasion the future Buddha decided to go out from his palace on an excursion. So he called his charioteer, the horses were harnessed to his chariot, the charioteer whipped up the horses and off they went.

So as they were spinning along, the future Buddha looked at the roadside, and there he saw tottering along a very old man. Now I don't know whether any of you have ever been to the East, but in the East, especially in India, an old man often looks very old indeed. Sometimes he may not be more than 50 or 60, but he looks almost a hundred. So the Buddha saw an old man of this sort; very thin, bony, bent, tottering along with a staff, just able to support himself; with white hair.

So he was very much struck by this, because, according to this legend, the Buddha's father had secluded him from all unpleasant sights, wanted that he should only see beautiful things, beautiful people, and so on, and had carefully kept away all the old people. So the Buddha had never seen, we are told, an old man before. So he asked the charioteer, "What is this ?" So the charioteer thought, "Well, now the moment has come", and he said, "Well this is an old man". So the Buddha said, "Well how did he become like this ?" So the charioteer said, "Well it's natural, I'm afraid. Everybody becomes like this." Then the Buddha asked, "Well shall I become like this ?" And the charioteer said, "Yes, even you, though now you are young, strong, healthy, even you one day will become like this, cast down with old age." So this utterance made the future Buddha very, very thoughtful. And he started thinking, "Well if youth ends in this, in old age, in this state of emaciation and suffering and weakness, what is the use of it, what is the value of it ?" So very slowly and thoughtfully he turned back to the palace. And this is what is called The First Sight.

On a subsequent occasion, he went out and he saw another sight. This time he saw a sick man, lying at the side of the road, with an attack of fever or something of that sort, tossing this side and Tape 4/page 3 that, with no one to care for him. And he asked the charioteer, "What is this ?" The charioteer said, "It's a sick man." And again the Buddha asked, "Well, am I likely to suffer in this way ?" And the charioteer said, "Yes, sickness is something which comes, we can't prevent it. It might come at any time, at any moment you or I or anybody else may be struck down with sickness. We have to suffer." This also made the Buddha very thoughtful and again he went back to his palace, thinking it all over.

So on the third occasion, when he went forth, he saw, being carried along on a sort of bier by the mourners, a corpse. Now in India, people don't put a corpse into a coffin. They just put a white sheet over it, and with the face exposed they carry it on an open bier through the streets, and everybody can see. So the Buddha saw in this way. So he said to the charioteer, "What is this ? Why are they carrying that man ? Why is he so stiff ? Why is he so quiet ? What's happened ?" So the charioteer said, "He is dead." And again the Buddha asked, "Well shall I come to this state, must I also die ?" And the charioteer said, "Yes. You must die. I must die. Your father must die. Everybody who is born must one day die. Life ends in death. This is an inexorable law. No one can avoid it. No one can escape it. Death is king of all." So this made the Buddha more thoughtful than ever, and he went back to the palace, plunged deep in thought.

But there was a fourth occasion we are told, when the Buddha went forth. And this time he didn't see an old man, or a sick man, or a corpse. He saw a living man walking along in a yellow robe, a saffron coloured robe. Now in India a saffron coloured robe is worn by those who give up domestic ties, give up social obligations, and who wander about devoting themselves to the search for Truth, trying to understand life. And they are supported on the alms of the people. People just call them, give them food, invite them to their houses, look after them. This is considered very meritorious and this is the system, even now, in India. Such people are called sadhus, which simply means 'good people'. So on the fourth excursion the Buddha saw one of these people, one of these sadhus, just walking along in a saffron coloured robe, with a begging bowl, shaven head; but he looked quite different from any of the other people the Buddha had ever seen. He was calm, quiet, contented, peaceful, serene. So the Buddha started thinking to himself, "Well, what is this ?" and he asked the charioteer, and the charioteer said, "He is one who has given up all worldly ties. He has no wife, no family, no domestic responsibilities, social or political obligations. He is solely concerned with the Truth." So this also made the Buddha very thoughtful and again he went back to his palace.

So in this poetic sort of way the story is told, whether we take it literally or not the meaning is clear. The meaning is that the Buddha, during his youth, was deeply impressed by the facts of old age, disease, and death; by the fact that this human life of ours is lived under these limitations.

We may ignore them, we may overlook them, we may try to escape them or not to see them, but they are there all the time. So he realised this or came to realise this, and he also saw that perhaps there's a way of finding out, perhaps there's a way of penetrating behind the veil to the meaning and the mystery of it all. So we're told that after thinking all this over for a long time, the Buddha came to a decision. He decided that he would become a sadhu. He felt that these questions had to be answered. He felt that he couldn't rest until an answer was found. So he couldn't stay at home, he had to just get out, be free to search, to think, to meditate. So one night, we are told, he just left home, without anybody knowing, went out into the night, into the darkness, into the jungle, took off his princely robes, donned the saffron robe of a wandering monk - a sadhu, and set out in search of Truth.

Now we are told that he searched for quite a long time, for six whole years. He went from one teacher to another, learned what they had to teach; wasn't satisfied, found that the teaching took him only a certain distance but not to the ultimate goal, practised self-torture, self-mortification, asceticism, found that that also didn't work, then took up eventually, finally, the practice of meditation. So about six years after he left his palace, we are told, at a place in what is nowadays known as Bihar, in Bodha Gaya, he found a tree, afterwards known as the Enlightenment Tree, sat down beneath it and made a resolution: whatever might happen, until he'd gained Enlightenment, Tape 4/page 4 the knowledge that he was seeking for, the understanding that he was seeking for, he would not leave that spot. This was the resolution he made. So day after day, night after night, he was plunged in thought, and we are told that eventually, on the full moon day of Wesak - that's the month of April to May - one night when he was very deep in meditation, he suddenly saw the solution, suddenly saw the answer as it were to the problem which had tormented him; not only just saw it, but perceived it, ...

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