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The Heroic Ideal in Buddhism

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by Sangharakshita

... of background, the sort of attitude.

He's not called the chief disciple, he's called the Dhammasenapatti, the commander in chief of the dharma.

If the Buddha is the king, well the chief disciple obviously is the commander in chief, the commander of the army. So in Pali Sariputta is regularly referred to as the Dhammasenapatti or in Sanskrit the Dharmasenapatti.

Now all this, all this sort of terminology, all this sort of symbolism of royalty, even of the military, the army - all this is not unconnected perhaps with the Buddha's original social background. The Buddha as we learned yesterday was born into the Ksatriya or the Warrior caste. In ancient India there are four principal castes.

According to the Hindu reckoning they are first of all the Brahmins, the priests; then the Ksatriyas, the rulers and fighters; then thirdly, the Vaisyas, the merchants, traders and farmers, and lastly the Shudras, the labourers. the serfs. So the Buddha was born into the second of these, the Ksatriya caste. But it's rather interesting, it's rather significant that the Ksatriyas did not regard themselves as the second caste. They regarded themselves as the top caste, the first caste. And we find it rather interesting that in the Pali texts this sort of attitude of the Ksatriyas is reflected because in Pali when they enumerate the four castes they always put the Ksatriyas first, In Pali you never find Brahmana, Ksatriya, Vaisya, Shudra. You always find Ksatriya, Brahmana, Vaisya, Shudra. So this reflects the sort of attitude of the social group from which the Buddha himself originally sprang. We find also (This is just a point of interest in passing) that the Buddha not only sprang from this sort of background but he came from a rather patrician sort of family and at the time of the Buddha's birth his father was the elected king or president of the Sakya republics. It's not always appreciated that in India in the Buddha's day there were two forms of government - there was monarchy but there was also republican government. Towards the end of the Buddha's lifetime the little republics of India Lecture 64: The Heroic Ideal In Buddhism P age 5 ____________________________________________________________________________ were swallowed up by the developing Magadha empire, but when the Buddha was born these republics were for the most part in a very flourishing condition and they elected their head. He sometimes had the title of raja but he was nevertheless elected, and in the case of the Sakya republic, it seems he was elected for a period of twelve years, and the Buddha it seems was born while his father, Suddhodana, was serving a twelve year term of office. Now born as he was into this sort of environment, the Buddha as a young man became highly proficient in all sorts of martial arts. We might tend to think of the Buddha as a young man as studying philosophy and studying maybe literature and all that sort of thing, but there's no evidence for that whatever.

The Buddhist texts say nothing at all about the Buddha's studies as a young man except that he learned how to fight, that he learned how to use the bow and arrow and the sword and the spear. He learned how to ride a horse and he learned how to drive a chariot, but there's nothing at all about studying. There were of course no books in those days. He must have picked up a bit of legendary law, fie might have learned a few mantras from some of the elders. Brahminism hadn't penetrated into Sakya territory. We know that. He might have learned a bit about the history of the tribe, about the constitution of the republic, the way things were administered, but there's no sign that he received anything like what we would regard as a good education.

I said he learned to fight and he learned various kinds of weaponry and that was about all.

There is a very interesting legend that when he became betrothed to his cousin Yashodhara some of Yashodhara's kinsmen objected that he wasn't good enough at fighting, so he had to demonstrate his prowess, and there are all sorts of legends about this - how he beat the kinsmen of his betrothed at all sorts of contests, whether it was archery, swordplay and so on.

So therefore with this sort of background, with this heroic background it isn't surprising that the Buddha even before his Enlightenment exhibited heroic qualities. We know that he left home when he was about twenty- nine. That must have been a great wrench, it isn't easy to break away in that fashion. If you've been brought up in comfort, even in luxury in the bosom of one's family and one's tribe. One has everything that one could wish for. The Buddha as a young man, we are told, had three mansions, one for each of the three seasons and they were full of singing girls and dancing girls we are told. This is the sort of background from which the Buddha came. Not a university background or a background of bookish study - this is the sort of background from which he emerged. But he left it all. He left it all behind. He wrenched himself away and it wasn't easy and this certainly called for great and heroic qualities, to go out alone into the darkness, into the forest, going he knew not where, only knowing that he went in search of the Truth. And then we find that for six years the Buddha practised austerities. It's interesting to note there's a very human touch indeed, that the scriptures relate or the Buddha himself relates in the scriptures - that when as a wandering monk he begged his food for the first time what happened? As you know traditionally in the East the mendicant monk including the Buddhist mendicant monk begged from door to door, You take a big black begging bowl and you move from door to door. You stand there for a few minutes and people come and put a few scraps of food in it and you move to the next door. When you feel you've collected enough for your meal you go off to a quiet spot outside the village and you sit down and eat it. So the Buddha once related to his disciples according to the scriptures, and this is a story that has all the ring of truth because it's not the sort of thing that anyone would invent later on. He related to his disciples how the first day that he lived in this way, the first time he sat down outside the village with this bowl full of scraps, he looked at it and he vomited, because he hadn't been brought up in that way, He had been used to the best, and when as a monk, as a wanderer, for the first time he found himself face to face with that bowl of scraps his stomach just turned.

But he forced himself to eat, he forced himself to live this sort of life, to subsist on this sort of diet. He no longer wore his rich princely garments, He just wore some rough yellow stained robes. (We say robes but they were probably more like rags. When we go around the modern Buddhist world we tend to think that the Buddha lived rather like a modern Buddhist monk but I don't think it was like that at all. In the East Buddhist monks usually go around in beautifully laundered, very neat, very clean, very new yellow robes, and I'm afraid in some Buddhist countries it's considered rather disgraceful for a monk to go around in a rather old robe. I remember once I came down to Calcutta myself to a Buddhist monastery and I happened to be wearing a very old robe and some of my monk friends were quite scandalised and said, "well that's terrible what will people think!". But it obviously wasn't like that in the Buddha's time but the Buddha had to get used to this gradually and it represented a complete change from his previous way of life).

Lecture 64: The Heroic Ideal In Buddhism P age 6 ____________________________________________________________________________ So for six years he not only endured these minor hardships but he practised austerities. We're told that for some time he went without clothes altogether, even in the snow. You don't often think of it snowing in India but on the slopes of the Himalayas it does. And we're told that the Buddha even in that bitterly cold weather with snow on the ground, at a certain period in his early life he just went about naked without any clothes at all, and he also gradually reduced his diet. He experimented in different ways. He was after all trying to find a path. He didn't know He was just using the method as we discussed this morning of trial and error.

So some people said that well if you cut down your food and if you just live on a few grains of rice or barley a day and a few sips of water that will bring you very nearly to Enlightenment. So he tried this method and he found that it didn't work. We are told in the scriptures that at one time in his career he became just like a skeleton with skin clinging to it, and there's a very famous image in Gandhara Buddhist art showing the Buddha at this stage of his career and it's a very very terrible figure indeed, You see just the skeleton with all the veins visible, the muscles visible and just the skin clinging on to that. framework, onto that bony skeleton. So this is how the Buddha lived for several years. So what tremendous determination this must have taken. How heroic was that life, how heroic was that endeavour.

But then, when he'd become quite famous for these austerities and was regarded by many people as a really holy man, because in India even today people are very much impressed by austerities. I remember in this connection - this is just by the way - Vinova bhave(?) once went to Sarnath, which is a Buddhist centre and his disciple told some monk friends of mine that Vinova bhave only ate a certain type of grain for his breakfast, and it had to be ready right on the dot of seven o clock. So the disciples impressed this upon the Buddhist monks so much that the abbot there, ...

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