Mar Ngok Summer Teachings
9 September 2021
Having explored the history of India and Brahmanical religions, Karmapa began teaching on the Buddha’s life and the rise of Buddhism. The date of Buddha’s birth is not known for certain, but it was probably the end of the 6th century BCE.
Karmapa began by reminding us how the Brahmanical religions had helped India develop a rich philosophical tradition and a great deal of freedom, even for women, who debated philosophy alongside men. By the time of Buddha’s birth, however, the Brahmanical religions were in decline. A few scholars and teachers still investigated the fundamental questions of philosophy, but most clung to the external aspects of the Brahmanical traditions. Teachers debated with the hope of becoming famous. Because there weren’t that many differences between their positions, they began to rely on sophistry and many developed wrong views. People of all levels of society lost intensity in their faith, but held onto the traditions. Karmapa compared the tradition to a cup that had belonged to your father. “It might be old and beat up,” he said, “but it’s important because it’s your father’s!”
By this time, the Brahmans’ power had been codified into law, and they grew more audacious in their oppression of the lower castes. Brahmans were seen as people “whose thirst would not be quenched by drinking an ocean and whose hunger would not be sated by eating a mountain.” The lowest, laboring caste of Shudras did all the work, but were not treated well or respected. This was the social situation Buddha was born into and Karmapa said he must have responded with a strong feeling in his heart that it was unjust.
In his teachings, Buddha turned the old ways on their head. Everyone was equal in their capacity to achieve liberation, he said. Loving-kindness and compassion were the most important qualities in a person. People of the lower Vaisya and Shudra castes received a warm welcome from Buddhists. There were also many among the Kshatriya caste, including kings, who took refuge in Buddhism. “It did not take more than a century or two for Buddhism, like a tiger who grew wings, to become the largest religion in the world,” Karmapa said.
The Buddha’s Clan, Family Lineage and Caste
Karmapa then gave some context on who Buddha was in terms of his family lineage and clan. Buddha was a member of the Gautama clan, whose name means “supreme bull,” or “best cattle.” His father was Shuddhodana; his mother was Maya; and his aunt was Prajnaparamita, who raised him after his mother died. His mother gave birth to him in Lumbini, and he grew up in Kapilavastu. “All the philosophies and histories agree that the founder of the Buddhist religion was the Buddha,” Karmapa said. Other Indian religions and philosophies called his followers Buddhists.
It’s interesting to note that the Jains also used the term ‘buddha’. All of their 45 Sages were called buddhas, meaning they would not take rebirth. Buddhists and Jains both use the words Muni (Sage), Bhagavan, arhat, jina, etc. The Jain founder Mahavīra (“the great hero”) was called the Jina or Victor, which gave the religion its name. “In Tibetan we call ourselves ‘insiders’ or nang pa,” Karmapa added. “The followers of other religions are outsiders.”
Generally, Buddhists say that there are many buddhas, such as the buddhas of the three times, but the historical Buddha Shakyamuni is accepted as the founder and teacher of Buddhism. He was called Shakyamuni Because he was the greatest being born in the Shakya ethnic group. His clan was called Gautama, so many westerners call him Gautama Buddha. In the Northern tradition he is called the Buddha Shakyamuni.
The Shakyas were a small ethnic group living in an area around the present-day borders of Nepal and India, with Kapilavastu as the capital. In the Saundarananda-kāvya (The Poem of Saundarananda), the great Indian poet and Buddhist master Aśvaghoṣa wrote that the Shakyas were descendants of King Ikṣvāku. They got the name Shakya because King Ikṣvāku sent his feuding children to practice austerities in a forest where were many śāk or teal trees. They spent such a long time in that forest that they were given the name Śākya. The same text also says that Kapilavastu got its name because the sage Kapila had lived there and after he had passed away, the inhabitants named their town for him.
The Shakya were descendants of King Ikṣhvaku and the Suryavamsa, so they were a well-known people whom everyone respected. They had a lot of freedom, were of high caste, and were very prosperous – the most prosperous region in the larger kingdom of Kosala.
The rulers or kings of the Shakya were chosen according to their age and qualities. Buddha’s father, King Shuddhodana, ruled Kapilavastu, and Shakya Suppabuddha ruled a town called Rāmagrāma. These two rulers formed an alliance and got along very well.
Shakya had political independence and power over its internal affairs, but it was a vassal state of Kosala, the largest kingdom of Northern India at that time. Kosala was led by Prasenajit, a skillful king who ruled from the city of Shravasti. Kosala covered a very large area, and the lands of the Shakya were encircled almost entirely.
To the south of Kosala was another powerful kingdom, Magadha, which was ruled by King Bimbisara; its capital was Rajagriha. To the east of Magadha was the kingdom of Anga, whose capital was Champaka. Those two kingdoms were allies. There were many other smaller kingdoms, but Karmapa did not go into them.
What caste was Buddha? He was probably Kshatriya, the caste of warriors and kings. However, it seems that there were no distinctions of the four castes among the Shakyas. They were all primarily farmers growing rice. Were the Shakyas Indo-Aryans? It is not possible to say decisively that they were. Some people argue that they were an Asian ethnic group, however Karmapa said decisively, “They were not.”
Regarding the family lineage of the Shakya, there is no agreement among scholars, Karmapa said, but it is beneficial to know it in general. He explained it according to a Chinese translation of the Abhiniṣkrama Sutra, filled in with research by the great scholar William Rhys Davids.
On Buddha’s family tree, King Jayasena had two children, Simhahanu and Yashodhara. King Simhahanu’s daughter, Lumbini, was King Lekpa-rab-se’ s queen. Lumbini bore two girls, Māyā and Prajapati, who both became Shuddhodana’s queens. Māyā gave birth to Siddhartha, who became Buddha. Prajapati gave birth to Nanda, Buddha’s half-brother.
There were two Devadattas so they are sometimes confused. One was the Buddha’s student, and the other his rival. In the Southern tradition, Devadatta was from the city Devadatta. According to the Northern tradition, Devadatta was the opponent of the Buddha. As the son of Dhonodhana, one of King Suddhodhana’s brothers, Devadatta was Buddha’s cousin.
Some say that Maya and Prajapati were the daughters of Shakya Suprabuddha; in the Abhinsishkrama Sutra it says that Prince Siddhartha’s wife was Shakya Dandapani’s daughter Yashodhara. There are many different explanations, Karmapa said, but the most important things to remember are that the Buddha’s father was named Śhuddhodana, the ruler of or king of the Shakya ethnic group, and his mother was Māyā, who passed away seven days after the Buddha’s birth.
Many explanations are given as to why she passed away. One is that if she had lived, she would have died of shock when Buddha left and renounced the kingdom. “That’s a nice explanation,” Karmapa said, “but at the time when Buddha was born both Shuddhodana and Maya were old. To have a baby when you’re older is dangerous even these days, Karmapa said, and his opinion was that she died from childbirth. The Buddha was raised by his maternal aunt, Mahāprajapati, the second queen of Shuddhodana and mother to Nanda, Buddha’s half-brother.
The Life Story of the Buddha.
When Buddha entered the womb, his mother had a dream of a white elephant dissolving into her body: this is called “the deed of entering the womb.”
Shortly before the Buddha was born, his mother Māyā developed the wished to return to her homeland of Devadaha. While traveling there, she came to the grove of Lumbini, which was like a garden or park, and there she gave birth to the Buddha.
While it is commonly said that Buddha was born from Māyā’s right side, Karmapa expressed the opinion that the story probably arises from the Hindu tradition that says different castes were born from different parts of Brahma’s body: Brahmans from the top of his head; the Kshatriya from his arms; the Vaishyas from his thigh; and Shudras from his feet. “It was a way of saying the Kshatriya caste was important,” Karmapa explained. “I’m sure he came out the normal way. If he came out between her ribs it would be strange and quite frightening, right?”
Later the emperor Ashoka visited the Buddha’s birthplace and erected a temple and a pillar there, as was described by the Chinese master Xuanzang in records of his travels to India. In 1896 some archeologists excavated the site and found the pillar underground, with an inscription that identified the spot as the Buddha’s birthplace. The place is now called Rummindei.
At the time Buddha was born, all of King Shuddhodana’s aims or wishes were accomplished, including the discovery of a trove of precious jewels. As a result he was named Siddhartha, which means “the accomplishment of all aims.”
The actual date of Buddha’s birth is a mystery. “Take your choice,” Karmapa said. “You can’t even say what year, much less what month or date. There are only disagreeing positions.”
It was tradition at that time for skilled soothsayers to examine a baby for marks and signs, in order to predict the child’s future. The soothsayer said Siddhartha might become a universal emperor, gaining control over all of India, or he might go forth and become a monk, becoming a great being who realized wisdom. King Shuddhodana realized that if Siddhartha became a monk, he would have no one to care for his kingdom. He had the worries of a father, Karmapa said, and took special care in raising Siddhartha.
The Deed of Going Forth
In the sixth century CE the Indian master Jñānagupta translated Abhiniṣkramaṇa Sūtra into Chinese. It’s an early sutra so Karmapa relied on it for the following accounts of Buddha’s life.
Prince Siddhartha was allowed to play games without study until the age of eight; at that time he began to learn reading, writing and athletic or military skills. By the age of 12 Siddhartha reached mastery of those areas of knowledge.
Karmapa then told the story of Siddhartha’s first conflict with his cousin Devadhatta. Shakya youths were practicing archery in a park when a crane flew in the air. (“Some say it was a goose.”) The young Devadatta, “who was not yet the demon we know”, was showing off and decided to shoot the bird, which fell to the ground in front of Prince Siddhartha. Having compassion, Siddhartha stroked the bird, pulled out the arrow, and treated the wound with honey.
Devadatta insisted that Siddhartha give him the bird because he was the one who shot it. Prince Siddharth said, “If this bird dies, I will give it to you, but if it does not, I won’t.” Devadatta would not give up. “Whether it dies or not, you absolutely must give it to me. I shot it first and then it fell to the ground. Why would you keep it?” Prince Siddartha replied, “In the past I made an aspiration to protect all sentient beings and this bird is one of those sentient beings.” The two could not agree, so the Shakya elders had to convene a meeting to resolve the dispute. “From then on, Devadatta only caused problem for the Buddha,” Karmapa said.
According to the Abhiniṣkramaṇa Sūtra, King Shuddhodana took Prince Siddhartha with him to the fields one day. Siddhartha saw how the animals suffered, how the large ones ate the weak, and how the farmers were bent from their hard labors. “He felt a great world weariness, a great despondency,” Karmapa said. He went and sat under a tree, meditated, and achieved the level of the first dhyana, which he was able to do because of his practice in prior lives.
When Siddhartha turned 16, King Shuddhodana recognized him as the crown prince and had him marry the Shakya princess Yaśodhara, They had one son named Rāhula.
There is a story about how Prince Siddhartha displayed his athletic prowess and martial skills – “kind of like kung fu,” Karmapa said – at a gathering and amazed his fellow Shakyas. There are different positions as to when this happened. . The Southern tradition says Siddhartha displayed his prowess before or after getting married. The Northern tradition says that it happened before the marriage in order to choose who would become Yaśodhara’s husband. It was important at that time for members of the Kshatriya caste to show off their martial skills they would use in war “It’s not like today,” Karmapa said. “You had to fight hand to hand!” The Shakyas were the most skilled in archery in all of India, and no one who could rival them.
Ten years after getting married, Prince Siddhartha decided to become a wandering mendicant. He “showed his weariness with the world” at the four gates of the city, when he left the palace and saw an old person, a sick person, a corpse, and a shramana. Because of these experiences, he knew that life is impermanent and changing by nature, and decided to go forth.
By tradition he left the palace at midnight, but Karmapa said that the main point is that he left in the middle of the night, maybe one or two a.m. He rode his favorite horse, Kanthaka, and took the charioteer Channa with him as he left Kapilavastu. The next morning King Shuddhodana sent a messenger to ask Prince Siddhartha to return to the palace, but he refused.
How old was Siddhartha when he left the palace? He might have been 31, but 29 is the age that most people accept these days. Karmapa commented that Prince Siddhartha’s deed of fleeing the palace was taken as an example by many later practitioners. They thought you had to flee the house suddenly, like Prince Siddhartha, without considering whether they truly had renunciation.
Prince Siddhartha cut his hair, put on the robes of a mendicant, and became a wandering practitioner. He headed to Magadha because it was famous for its many excellent dharma practitioners. He begged for alms in Rajagriha, where King Bimbisara recognized him and advised him to listen to his father, return home, and become a king.
The prince did not follow his advice. Instead, he went to study with Āḷāra-Kālāma, one of the two most famous dharma practitioners in Magadha. Āḷāra-Kālāma had developed samadhi of the third level of nothingness and taught Prince Siddhartha the technique of “nothingness samadhi.” Prince Siddhartha achieved this easily, but found it unsatisfactory because he realized that he would not achieve liberation using it.
He then went to another teacher, Uddaka-Rāmaputta, who had achieved the highest samadhi of the form or formless realms, called “neither existent nor nonexistent.” Siddhartha also achieved this samadhi and had an extremely peaceful mind. There was no motion in his mind; it became the same in flavor as the unchanging nature, “like water poured into water.” He was peaceful during meditation, but when he arose from the samadhi, his mind would move as usual. Thus Siddhartha realized that liberation cannot be achieved merely through the methods of samadhi meditation.
He decided to go practice in a forest on the banks of the Nairañjana River, next to the Uruvela forests. There, he began severe ascetic practices that we can hardly imagine, Karmapa said. The point of these practices was to learn to rest his mind one-pointedly, even as he experienced physical suffering.
One practice was the samadhi of blocking the movement of breath – “similar to mantras binding the prana,” Karmapa said. Siddhartha blocked all the breath from moving through his mouth and nostrils; the air then came in through his ears, however he was able to stop that as well.
He also practiced the austerity of not eating any food; he decreased the amount of food he ate to very little, then stopped eating altogether. “He was fasting for so long that his arms and legs grew very thin,” said Karmapa. “His skin hung off his body, his hair fell out, and he had to experience extreme physical suffering.”
He was so emaciated that when the farmer’s daughter gave him yogurt (though some say it was kheer), she thought it was the tree god, Karmapa said. She didn’t see the person, she just saw something that was blending into the trees.
When Siddhartha was practicing austerities alone in the forest, he probably had thoughts about returning home to the luxurious life he had known and whether he could achieve liberation. The nights in the forest were filled with beasts of prey, who wandered at will. “That would provoke fear in any human being,” Karmapa remarked. “Whoever you are, you are going to be afraid, right?”
Prince Siddhartha took such thoughts and fears as representations of evil Mara and refused to seriously entertain them. In brief, all on his own, Prince Siddhartha faced up to hardships such as no one else had ever experienced. He applied mindfulness and awareness continuously in his mind, but nonetheless did not achieve the view and state of transcending the world as he had wished.
“He had an aim!” Karmapa exclaimed. “There was a reason for doing austerities – it was to realize the nature of things. He wasn’t able to achieve the view and level that he wanted, even though he had practiced with so many hardships. So how do you achieve that? That is what I will speak about tomorrow,” Karmapa promised.