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The story of the Buddha and his awakening is more than an account of the birth of a religious tradition: it is also one of the great archetypal tales of the spiritual quest, colorful in its many details and thrilling in its depiction of the world transformed by an enlightened human being. Sherab Chödzin Kohn’s retelling of the Buddha’s life is both readable and historically informed, and presents the Buddha’s teachings along with the events of his past lives to final nirvana. Library Journal called it “a ...
The story of the Buddha and his awakening is more than an account of the birth of a religious tradition: it is also one of the great archetypal tales of the spiritual quest, colorful in its many details and thrilling in its depiction of the world transformed by an enlightened human being. Sherab Chödzin Kohn’s retelling of the Buddha’s life is both readable and historically informed, and presents the Buddha’s teachings along with the events of his past lives to final nirvana. Library Journal called it “a splendid combination of biography and instruction.” This new edition of the book previously entitled The Awakened One has been updated to include a short history of Buddhism as well as a selection of resources for further reading.
Drawing on traditional sources--including the Lalitavistara Sutra, the Buddhacharita by Ashvaghosha, the Mahavastu, and the Pali canon of scripture--Kohn has created a simple and beautiful retelling of one of the world's great spiritual biographies for a contemporary audience.
"A splendid combination of biography and instruction. Highly recommended."—Library Journal
"To enable the modern reader to visualize the Buddha's life so vividly is already quite an achievement. Doubtless an even greater challenge is to present the teachings themselves as part of the narrative flow. The author has succeeded admirably. The principal doctrines are presented in a way that is not only clear and succinct, but that—most importantly—enables the reader to understand them not as abstract doctrine, but as insights which were themselves events in the life of the Buddha."—Parabola
From Chapter 4: Turning the Wheel
During the time the Buddha was meditating in various places in the vicinity of the Bodhi Tree, once the thought occurred to him, “I am free from those useless ascetic practices. I am mindful and aware. I have attained enlightenment.”
Mara was aware of the Buddha’s thought and appeared, chiding: “You have abandoned the path of asceticism by which homeless ones purify themselves. You think you are pure, but in reality you are far from pure, and you have given up the means of purification!”
The Buddha at once recognized Mara and replied, “Ascetic practices are as irrelevant for gaining liberation as oars for moving over dry land. It is through discipline, meditation, and knowledge that I attained enlightenment. And now that I have done so, you, Mara, are forever beaten!”
Mara thought, “The Blessed One knows me” and he vanished. Another time the Blessed One thought, “It is not a good thing to live without anyone to look up to, follow, or take refuge in. But there is no holy teacher or brahmin, no one in this world, who surpasses me in discipline, meditation, or knowledge whom I could honor and venerate. All there is for me to honor and venerate is the Dharma, the holy teaching that I have discovered myself.” Then he thought, “That is good. I shall place myself under that. The enlightenment buddhas of the past ages of the world also lived honoring and venerating the precious holy Dharma.”
Now the Buddha thought whether he should teach the Dharma to others. “It is too profound and too difficult to be taught,” he thought. “It runs too much against the grain of stubborn and all-pervasive delusion. Being in its essence beyond concept and thought, it is too subtle for even the wise to grasp. A world so totally caught up in attachment, so used to living in lust and aggression, has too much dust on its eyes ever to be able to perceive the truth that it hides from.”
Thus the Blessed One concluded he would not teach. He would remain silent. He would simply rest in his illumination, since it would be futile to try to convey it to others.
Then the god Sahampati became aware of the Buddha’s decision. He vanished from the heavenly realm of the brahma gods and appeared before the Blessed One. With one knee to the ground and his palms joined, Sahampati entreated the Blessed One on behalf of all beings to “turn the wheel of Dharma.” He pleaded that there were many who were genuine seekers of the truth with but little dust on their eyes. These would be able to perceive the Dharma in its subtlety and depth. “If you will only teach,” he said, “you will liberate countless beings from the cycle of suffering.”
Having been entreated in this manner, the Buddha was moved by compassion. He consented to the god’s request by remaining silent, and when he knew he had been heard, Sahampati bowed and departed. In all the Buddha spent forty-nine days after his enlightenment meditating near the Bodhi Tree. At the end of this time, two wealthy merchants from the north, Trapusha and Bhallika, were passing on a nearby road with their train of wares. Some of their carts got stuck in the mud, and they were delayed. Walking about in the vicinity to pass the time, they caught sight of the Buddha meditating beneath a tree. They were struck by his majesty and radiant presence, so they determined to make him an offering. They got some rice cakes and honey from among their stores, which they returned and offered to the Buddha, bowing with respect.
The Blessed One thought to himself, “Tathagatas, perfected ones, do not accept alms in their hands,” and made no motion. Then the four celestial kings who guard the four quarters of the world appeared and presented him with a bowl, saying, “Lord, please take the food in this.” Then the Buddha received the rice cakes and honey from the two merchants in this bowl.
The merchants were wonderstruck. After the Buddha had spoken a few words to them, the two of them prostrated themselves and said, “We take refuge in the Buddha and the Dharma, his teaching.” These two were the first to declare themselves followers of the Buddha by “taking refuge.” All later followers took a threefold refuge, the third refuge being in the Sangha, the community of followers. But at this time there was no Sangha.
After the merchants had gone their way, the Buddha ate the rice cakes and honey, thus breaking his forty-nine-day fast.
The Tathagata then considered whom he might teach. The first who came to his mind were his two former teachers Arada Kalama and Rudraka Ramaputra. “Those two,” he thought, “truly have little dust on their eyes.” But as he deliberated this possibility, his divine eye revealed to him that these two venerable brahmins had died, the first a week ago and the second only the previous night. Then he thought again and concluded that the best course open to him was to try to transmit his understanding to those five erstwhile followers of his who had deserted him when he had begun to eat again after his years of starvation. He knew them to be staying at the Deer Park, or Rishivadana, near Varanasi, a place frequented by many mendicant seekers.
Having now remained by the Bodhi Tree near Gaya in the region of Uruvilva as long as he chose, the Blessed One started north for Varanasi. One day on the road, he met a naked ascetic by the name of Upaka, who was struck by the Buddha’s serenity and radiance.
“Friend,” said Upaka, “anyone with eyes can see that you are highly accomplished spiritually. Who is your teacher and what dharma do you follow?”
The Buddha replied, “I have transcended all existence and become omniscient. My insight is unobstructed, and I am liberated from all desire. I have achieved this on my own, without a teacher. Because I alone in the world am completely enlightened, I myself am the world’s teacher. Extinguished are all my passions, all my obscurations, gone. I am now on my way to the capital of the Kashis to turn the wheel of the true Dharma. In a world of the blind, I shall beat the great drum of Dharma.”
“So you claim to be a victorious one, a jina?” Upaka asked.
“If a jina is one,” said the Buddha, “whose defilements and obscurations are completely exhausted and who sees things as they are with unimpaired clarity, then that may be said of me.”
“Well,” said Upaka, shaking his head, “I hope you’re right.” And he continued on his wandering, taking a side road.
After a few days, having crossed the Ganges, the Blessed One arrived at the Deer Park not far from Varanasi. The group of his five former disciples who were sitting there saw him coming. They quickly agreed among themselves that since he was a backslider from the true path, they should not show him any deference. Still they thought that out of politeness, they could at least prepare him a seat and let him sit with them. But when he approached them, his presence was so overwhelming that they were unable to hold themselves back. One of them hopped up to take his blanket and bowl, another arranged his seat, and a third fetched water so that he could wash his feet.
So the Blessed One sat down on the seat they had prepared for him and washed his feet. When they began talking, however, the five still refused to address him in honorific terms. They called him “friend” and “Gautama.”
“Bhikshus [mendicant or monk],” he said, “do not address a Tathagata by name and as ‘friend’: such a one has completed the task and is fully enlightened. Listen, bhikshus, the unborn, the deathless, has been attained. I shall teach you. I shall instruct you in the true Dharma. If you practice according to my instructions, you will be able to realize it yourselves through your own direct knowledge. You will achieve the goal of the holy life for the sake of which clansmen rightly leave the householder’s life and enter homelessness.”
But the five said, “Now, Gautama, you know well that even though you practiced extreme austerities, you never attained any particular exalted state beyond the human level. You may have advanced beyond us, but then you gave up what you had gained. Now you carry on indulging yourself and living as you please. How do you expect us to believe that you have attained the ultimate goal?”
“Listen,” the Buddha told the five, “a Tathagata is not self-indulgent, nor does he give up the struggle.” Then he repeated his words, exhorting them to listen to the Dharma. A second time, the five gave their skeptical answer. A third time, the Blessed One exhorted them in the same terms: “The unborn, the deathless, has been attained. I shall teach you. I shall instruct you in the true Dharma.” A third time, they answered as before.
Then he asked them if they had ever known him to speak like this before.
1. Birth, Youth, Renuciation 1
Previous lives and the Heaven of the Contented • The bodhisattva enters Mahamaya’s womb • Mahamaya’s dream • Birth • The great rishi Asita’s prophecy • Death of Mahamaya • Shuddhodana’s protectiveness • The plowing festival • Siddhartha displays his prowess • Siddhartha marries • The four visions • Siddhartha frees the slaves and oxen • The palace women in disarray • Siddhartha leaves the palace
2. Homelessness, Teachers, Asceticism 16
Mara appears • The bodhisattva doffs his finery • The mendicant Gautama in Rajagriha • King Bimbisara seeks out Gautama • Gautama studies with Arada and Rudraka • Gautama practices asceticism
3. Enlightenment 27
Gautama’s dream • Sujata’s gift • The night under the Bodhi Tree • Buddahood
4. Turning the Wheel 35
The Buddha meditates near the Bodhi Tree • Muchalinda protects the Buddha • The Buddha takes refuge in the Dharma but decides not to teach • The god Sahampati • Trapusha and Bhallika take refuge • Upaka on the road • The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path • The first five arhats • The doctrine of nonself • The conversion of Yasha and his friends • The Buddha disperses the Sangha • The pleasure outing • The three Kashyapas
5. Gathering the Sangha 53
Mara and his three daughters • The fire discourse • The conversion of the Rajagnhan householders • Bimbisara gives the Venuvana • Conversion of Shariputra and Maudgalyayana • Mahakashyapa’s illumination • Return to Kapilavastu • Shakyan arrogance tamed with wonders • King Shuddhodana’s conversion • Nanda and Rahula enter homelessness • The Shakyan princes and Upali the barber
6. Establishing the Dharma 72
Buddha permits the monks to live in shelters • Conversion of Anathapindada • Anathapindada outwits Prince Jeta • Anathapindada gives the Jetavana • The Buddha institutes the rainy-season retreat • The Shakyans and Koliyans dispute • The Buddha accepts women into the community • Queen Khema and the phantasmic maiden • The competition between the orders • The Buddha teaches his mother • Attempts to discredit the Buddha • Father and Mother Nakula • The great Kaushambi quarrel • Tuskers serene • The quarrel healed • Simile for Bharadvaja • Rahula instructed • The famine at Veranja • Supprabuddha’s demise
7. Compassion's Ripeness 95
Vishakha becomes Mrigara’s mother • Vishakha gives the Purvarama • The Buddha appoints Ananda • Conversion of Angulimala • The Buddha dismisses and recalls the Sangha • Sudinna’s tryst • The Buddha proclaims the monastic code • The Buddha’s daily routine • The Buddha refuses to recite the pratimoksha • Three robes are enough • Instruction to Shrona • Care for the sick
8. Devadatta 109
Ajatashatru elevates Devadatta • Devadatta asks the Buddha to retire • The Buddha denounces Devadatta • Ajatashatru and Devadatta plot • Devadatta wounds the Buddha • The Buddha tames Nalagiri • A schism in the Sangha • Devadatta’s defeat
9. Last Years 121
King Prasenajit pays a visit • The future Pataliputra • The courtesan Amrapali and the godlike Licchavis • The Buddha is gravely ill • Death of the great disciples • The earthquake at the Chapala Shrine • The Buddha announces his parinirvana • The meal at Chunda the goldsmith’s • Kusala presents the golden robes • Conversion of Subhadra • Parinirvana
A Short History of Buddhism 141
Suggested Further Readings 155