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The Way to Enlightenment

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by Sangharakshita

... five years, that is to say from the Buddha's birth up to the attainment of Enlightenment, and this will give us a general idea of the way to Enlightenment; and then I'm going to take up for more detailed examination certain crucial events in his life, or groups of events in his life. That is to say events which have a very definite bearing on our own process of development and attainment of Enlightenment.

Now like the whole traditional account of the Buddha's life itself, the events, the special events with which we shall be dealing, are in substance historical - we know that they actually did happen - but at the same time they do contain, in the version which have come down to us, certain what we may describe as legendary elements, and these legendary elements as I've explained on other occasions, help to bring out the universal significance, the sort of inner spiritual dimension, of the events themselves, and they make it clear, among other things, that these events are not concerned just with the career of a particular person, however gifted, but they deal with, they describe we may say, the career, the potential career at least, of every man and every woman who wants to be an individual.

All right then, first of all the resume of the traditional account of the life of the Buddha. Very often books on the subject, books on comparative religion, will tell you that the Buddha was born in India, but this is not strictly correct. The Buddha was born in fact in Southern Nepal, the southernmost portion of what is now the state or kingdom of Nepal; and the father of the Buddha we know was Suddhodana, and Suddhodana belonged to a tribe of people known as the Sakyans who had lived in that particular area, that is in the foothills of the Himalayas, for many centuries. The Buddha's father Suddhodana was apparently a leading man in the tribe or in the clan, and at the time of the Buddha's birth he seems to have been occupying the position of elected head of the tribe. Apparently the Sakyans had a sort of semi-Republican form of government and they elected a sort of raja, a king or president, who governed, who administered at least, for a period of some twelve years, after which they elected somebody else. So it seems that at the time of the Buddha's birth his father, Suddhodana, held this office, this twelve year office of raja of the Sakyans. So we can see from this that the Buddha was born into a quite prominent family of the Sakyans.

The Buddha's mother was known as Maha Maya and she was the daughter of the chief of a neighbouring tribe which was known as the tribe of the Koliyas. And the Buddha happened to be born not in Kapilavastu where his father lived but in a grove, in a grove of sal trees in fact, at a little place called Lumbini, and this happened in the following way. It was then the custom, and it is still the custom in many parts of India, that the first child has to be born in the house of the mother's parents, so that when the mother-to-be feels her time approaching she goes to her own parents' house for the delivery of the child. So apparently this is what happened or was going to happen in the case of the future Buddha. His mother, Maha Maya, set out for her own father's capital city. She left Kapilavastu, which was her husband's city, and she was traveling, as far as we know she was being taken in a palanquin on the shoulders of four stout men, but halfway there, before she'd even reached her father's house, she was seized with the pangs of labour, she dismounted and in an grove of sal trees, at this little place called Lumbini in Southern Nepal, she gave birth to the future Buddha. And tradition tells us that she died seven days later back in Kapilavastu, and the Buddha was reared, was raised by his maternal aunt, that is to say by his mother's sister, whose name was Mahapajapati Gotami, whom apparently Suddhodana had also married.

Now we don't know very much about the childhood of the Buddha, that is to say his very early life. After all this all occurred some two thousand five hundred years ago. That's a very long time ago, and there's only one really authentic incident, as far as we can make out, which has come down to us from the period of the Buddha's early childhood, but it is very interesting and very significant in view of his later development, in view of his later spiritual attainment. Apparently one of the duties of the elected head of the Sakyan tribe or clan was to conduct the annual ceremonial ploughing festival. Now all over the world in the early days of civilisation when agriculture was so important the sowing of the seed, the sowing of the crop, in the spring, was of very great importance, not only of material importance, but as it were magical and mythic importance to the whole tribe, to the whole community. So the first ploughing was always undertaken by the king, the chief. This was one of the great duties of the old emperors of China, to inaugurate the annual ploughing, and it was still done by the emperors of Japan for instance, until very recently. So this was one of the duties of the future Buddha's father, to inaugurate the annual ploughing, and later legends tell us it was done with a golden plough drawn by beautiful white oxen and so on, etc., etc. - the storytellers always embroider if they get an opportunity. But this duty the Buddha's father did have. So the Buddha, on one of these occasions, one year, when he was very very young, was taken along just to be present, just to witness. So we are told that the Buddha, who probably was only about five or six or maybe even seven at the time, was just put to one side on a little bank in the shade of a jumbu tree to watch while his father performed the ceremonial ploughing. But what happened? We are told - the Buddha himself reminisces about this incident in a later discourse which his disciples remembered - what happened was that the Buddha, the future Buddha, sitting there in shade of the jumbu tree, had what we can only describe nowadays as a sort of mystical experience. He experienced what Buddhist tradition calls `jhana' or `dhyana', a higher state of consciousness, a sort of super-conscious state, while his father was ploughing; and he didn't even see the ploughing, he was quite oblivious to what was going on, and when the ceremony was over his father came to where the child was, and his mother, or rather foster mother came, and other people, they found him deeply absorbed, as it were, in this mystical state. And there's a rather interesting, perhaps symbolical, legend in connection with this incident. It's said that when he was put there, in the shade of the jumbu tree, it was noon, when the ploughing started, and when they finished the ceremonial first ploughing it was evening, but the later legend makers say that the shadow of the jumbu tree had not moved. In other words a sort of miracle if you like. But we can perhaps see the significance.

We can't take it literally but what does it mean? This is just another example of the sort of inner spiritual dimension revealed by, or manifested by, or suggested by, the mythical, the legendary material. The shadow does not move. It's as though the sun stood still. What does that mean? Time stood still. For the Buddha, even for the infant Buddha, time stood still. He wasn't aware of the passage of time, so deeply was he immersed in that inner spiritual experience, that mystical experience.

So this is the one thing that we do know about the Buddha's very early life, about his childhood - that he had this mystical experience while his father was conducting the ploughing festival. And we shall see a little later on, the early mystical experience was of very great significance for him later on in his career.

But anyway, mystical experience or no mystical experience, he was brought up as a young Kshatriya. The Sakyans were all Kshatriyas, that is to say they were warriors. Indian in those days was divided into four great castes - the Kshatriyas or the warriors, the Brahmins or the priests, the Vaishyas, the traders and agriculturalists, and the Shudras who were just the labourers. Those four castes you still find in India today - they are now though sub-divided into some two thousand sub-castes. So the Buddha was born into this Kshatriya community, this community of warriors, of fighters, and he received the education appropriate to a young Kshatriya. We don't very often realize this. We very often, perhaps unconsciously tend to think of the Buddha as a young man, studying perhaps religion, studying philosophy etc, but there's no evidence of this sort at all. All that we really know about the Buddha was that he was educated as a young Kshatriya, he learned to fight, he learned to draw the bow, he learned to use a sword, he learned to use a spear, he learned to drive a chariot, and so on. This is what the Buddha's early education consisted of.

So this was how he grew up, as a young Kshatriya. But in a way it wasn't quite as simple and quite so straightforward as that. Shortly after the Buddha's birth his father, apparently, had had his horoscope cast.

Now you know in India everybody, even now, has his son's or his daughter's, especially his son's, horoscope cast almost immediately after birth. There's hardly anybody even now, even among the Westernized so-called elite who don't have this done. A horoscope is cast. What's going to happen to the child? What's going to happen to the boy? What sort of life is he going to have? They want to know that.

So even two thousand five hundred years ago the Indians, the Hindus, were very much into astrology, so the Buddha's horoscope was cast. We don't know exactly how it was done but we are told that the Buddha as a baby was placed in the arms of the sage, the Rishi, of (unclear), and he made his calculations, produced the horoscope, and he predicted; and he said that `this child ...

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