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Under the Bodhi Tree:The Drama of Shakyamuni Buddha
As the story has been passed down for some 2,600 years, Shakyamuni, also known as Siddhartha Gautama, or the Buddha, began life as a prince of the Shakya tribe (Shakyamuni means "sage of the Shakyas") in what is today modern Lumbini, Nepal. He grew up sometime around 600 B.C. in a household in which he was loved, educated, and provided for in every possible way. He lacked for nothing: He had fine clothes, as much as he wanted to eat, a lavish palace, and beautiful women to choose from. The King, his father, had received a prophecy that young Siddhartha would grow to become either a powerful king or a great spiritual leader. Eager for Siddhartha to succeed him politically, the King overprotected him, as we might say today, surrounding him with the best life had to offer and isolating him from the sufferings of the people outside of the palace gates. Despite such a privileged life, however, Siddhartha wondered why he wasn't happy.
According to what by now sounds a lot like an apocryphal story, Siddhartha one day managed to leave his palatial home and visit a nearby city. There, he discovered the reality of the world and witnessed the four sufferings of birth, sickness, old age, and death. These sufferings—common to all, whether a king or a member of the lowest caste—profoundly troubled him, and he contemplated how they might be overcome. Eventually, most likely in his late twenties, he cut off his hair and renounced his throne, his riches, and, according to most accounts, his wife and young son, and embarked on a spiritual quest.
Of course, his actions may be better understood in the context of his times. The quest for personal enlightenment was a serious, and not unpopular, endeavor in the Indian subcontinent of his day. Groups of ascetics were engaged in that era in Shramana or Vedic Hinduism practices, and these movements ultimately gave rise not only to Buddhism, but also Jainism and Yoga as well. Were Shakyamuni to leave his family in such a manner today, a photo of his son undoubtedly would appear in a tabloid under the headline: SURE, HE'S THE BUDDHA, BUT HE'S BEEN A LOUSY FATHER TO ME! But according to Buddhist tradition, his wife, the queen, and his son, a prince, were well cared for by the Shakya tribe. Moreover, it is said that each of them subsequently attained enlightenment as disciples of his teachings.
For years after the renunciation of his worldly life, Shakyamuni subjected himself to harsh meditative and ascetic practices, most of which were likely associated with Shramana or Jainism. Some of their more elaborate ascetic practices, such as long periods of fasting or living in forests unclothed, were so extreme that Shakyamuni nearly died of starvation and exposure. After years of such study, he came to realize that all he had achieved was illness and self-destruction. He then sat down where he happened to be—under a pipal tree, a descendant of which, the Bodhi Tree, still stands on the spot in today's northern India—and he determined to meditate until he reached enlightenment. Then, after some two weeks of what surely was an intense, embattled, and determined meditation, Shakyamuni awakened to the true nature of life and the law, or dharma, that underlies the processes of life and the universe.
What was this enlightenment? It was, in part, a realization of the endless cycle of birth and death, an awakening to the eternal nature of life spanning past, present, and future.
Within days, Shakyamuni began to teach and ultimately traveled throughout India. Interestingly, he embraced both men and women, rich and poor, and held that Buddhism was a practice for all people without regard to sex or caste. Over his some fifty years of teaching, Shakyamuni, who lived to be approximately eighty years old, generally presented his philosophy in ways that were most accessible to his audiences: thus, in the sutras, his sermons are often presented by way of parable or in a question-and-answer format. As would be the case with many Buddhist leaders who followed, Shakyamuni's life was far from easy. He often encountered jealousy from leading disciples or intrusions from powerful authorities and was said to have endured nine great persecutions. These included an attempt by his jealous cousin, Devadatta, to kill him by pushing a boulder off of a cliff onto him; a second attempt, at Devadatta's instigation, to crush him under a charging, mad elephant; two false accusations by women that he had impregnated them; and various other indignations, including attempts by envious and disaffected disciples to establish a competing Buddhist order.
These efforts, none of which succeeded, mark the first in a long line of attacks, throughout the centuries and up until the present, on individuals who either taught, or sought to reform, the practice of Buddhism.
Daisaku Ikeda of the Soka Gakkai has observed that Shakyamuni's life "was completely untrammeled from dogma," and that his interactions stressed the importance of dialogue. Moreover, it's clear from each of the innumerable sutras attributed to Shakyamuni that he was a person of profound consideration and compassion. And throughout, the theme of his teachings was how to overcome suffering and become happy in this world.
The multitude of different Buddhist schools found today may in part be attributed to the many years over which Shakyamuni taught, as well as the nature and transmission of his teachings. Only a very few of his disciples would have accompanied Shakyamuni on all his travels. Accordingly, many contemporaneous disciples who accepted his philosophy did so based on the perhaps one or two years they actually heard him teach. On a more mundane plane, think of followers of the Grateful Dead over the years: someone who followed them in the 1970s might not consider a Deadhead from the 1990s to have experienced "the real thing" and hold fast to that view, listening only to tapes from the older period, certain in his or her opinion and belief.
Because Shakymuni's teachings, so long ago, were not contemporaneously recorded but only orally transmitted, different Buddhist orders or practices would be established based on the specific teachings that were heard. Indeed, the so-called First Buddhist Council was convened almost immediately after Shakyamuni's death in response to disagreements over how some of the Buddha's precepts were intended to be carried forward. And it would be hundreds of years—approximately in the first century B.C.—before the first of these orally transmitted teachings were finally inscribed, beginning with the Fourth Buddhist Council, which was held in Sri Lanka and resulted in the writing on palm leaves of the Theravada Pali Canon. Moreover, the written sutras we know today were produced not from the perspective of Shakyamuni himself but from his followers. Accordingly, many sutras begin with the phrase "Thus I heard," or "This is what I heard."
The Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has pointed out that, inevitably, certain distortions in the original teachings must have occurred over such a long period of oral transmission. Further, even Shakyamuni himself, in his final sermon, the Nirvana Sutra, perceived the confusion that might occur after his death—he specifically warned future Buddhist sanghas to "rely on the Law and not upon persons," and to "rely on sutras that are complete and final and not on those that are not complete and final." It appears from these statements that the Buddha warned against following monks in the future who would seek to betray his teachings and noted that many errors are bound to be introduced after his sutras are transmitted to other countries. But Thich Nhat Hanh, not to mention several other Buddhist figures from antiquity, demonstrates that enough of the sutras overlap so that any inconsistency often can be corrected by comparing and contrasting the sutras and other reliable scriptures. Nhat Hanh refers to it as stringing precious jewels together to form a perfect necklace.
The Development of Buddhism throughout Asia
As Buddhism spread after Shakyamuni's death from India to China, the philosophy would be renewed and reformed over the centuries. The older traditions are broadly known as Theravada or, historically, Hinayana Buddhism; the "newer" schools, dating from as far back as the first or second century, are called Mahayana. In addition, the tantric practices of Buddhism are referred to as Vajrayana. Zen and Soka Gakkai Buddhism are in the Mahayana traditions, while Tibetan Buddhism, generally a Vajrayana practice, borrows both from Theravada and Mahayana traditions. Zen itself is a reform movement that rejected the formalities of contemporaneous Mahayana sects. And the Soka Gakkai, a relatively modern phenomenon, grew out of the teachings of the thirteenth century Japanese monk Nichiren—who, for his part, rejected the earlier teachings of Zen and other Mahayana schools prevalent at the time. So Buddhism, while traditional and conservative in nature, periodically undergoes spasms of revolutionary reform. Often, such periods are stimulated by the transmission of the teaching to new cultures.
Buddhism spread quickly throughout India after Shakyamuni's death, but it didn't rise to prominence as a major religion until embraced by Ashoka the Great in approximately 260 B.C. Ashoka was a fierce conqueror of the Indian subcontinent, and, at first, a pathologically violent and bloodthirsty ruler. He supposedly came to power by throwing the legitimate heir to the throne into a pit of hot coals and by killing 99 of his 100 brothers. He established a torture chamber, contemporaneously known as "hell on earth," for his own harem of women. Ashoka's empire stretched from Afghanistan in the north, to Bangladesh and parts of Burma in the east, to Pakistan and parts of Iran in the west, and included almost the entire Indian subcontinent. After a particularly terrible battle in Kalinga, on the east coast of India, in which more than 100,000 were slaughtered, Ashoka was said to have been made sick by the sight of so much suffering. His reaction to the aftermath of the conquest led him to convert to Buddhism, which subsequently became his state religion.
Ashoka was to Buddhism as Constantine was to Christianity. But Ashoka, in a relatively drastic, non-Constantinian shift, incorporated an official policy of nonviolence—although his armies remained strong enough to deter any potential invaders. Ashoka established freedom of religion throughout his realm, built roads, established schools and universities, instituted a policy of vegetarianism, and even constructed veterinary hospitals. His rule is considered the model of the relationship, at least in south Asia, between Buddhism and the state. Rather than dominating his subjects under the threat of a sword or divine favor, Ashoka secured his legitimacy by seeking the approval of the Buddhist sangha. Such a model still exists today, particularly in Thailand.
Moreover, Ashoka sent missionaries to propagate Buddhism to the north of India and as far as Greece, Egypt, and Rome. Interestingly, some think that it was actually the Greeks who first established the now-ubiquitous, green or gold statues of the Buddha. Such statues had not existed throughout the first several hundred years after Shakyamuni's passing, likely because he never taught that he was divine. But some Greeks, who had established trade routes with India during this time and came to settle in what is today Pakistan, may have adopted Buddhism and then blended their polytheistic views, which incorporated idolatry, into the practices they discovered in south Asia. This practice of venerating a statue of the Buddha not only was merged into many, though not all, schools of Buddhism, but it inspired some of the most exalted art that survives from Asian antiquity. In any event, most Buddhists don't consider Buddha statues to be idols but instead, like a cross, symbols that may be helpful to inspire religious devotion.
Buddhism appears to have entered China in the first century a.d. And while the first translations of scriptures and sutras occurred around 150 a.d., Buddhism did not widely spread until the capture in battle of the sublimely pivotal translator Kumarajiva toward the end of the fourth century.
The National Teacher
Kumarajiva was taken by a Chinese general following a losing battle with the Buddhist kingdom of Kucha, where Kumarajiva lived, on the Silk Road in today's northwestern region of China. According to historians, the battle specifically was waged to capture Kumarajiva, already widely known as a great scholar of Buddhism. The Chinese warlord who captured the scholar, Lu Kuang, was supposed to deliver him to the Emperor Fu-chien. Instead, Lu Kuang declared his own state and imprisoned him for some fifteen years, during which Kumarajiva was said to have learned Chinese. Finally, the scholar was ransomed by the Chinese in 401 a.d. at the age of fifty-five.
Fu-chien had since passed away, but a new Chinese emperor bestowed on Kumarajiva the title of National Teacher, and he set to work translating many important sutras, including the Lotus Sutra, which became central to the Tendai, Nichiren, and Soka Gakkai schools of Buddhism, and the Diamond Sutra, which is not attributed to Shakyamuni but nevertheless held in high regard by Tibetan and Zen Buddhists, among others. As a result of Kumarajiva's efforts, a variety of Buddhist sects based on these sutras began to spread widely throughout the Asian continent.
As with early Christianity and the founding of most great religions, Buddhism was subject to violent and repressive periods throughout its history in China. Shortly after Kumarajiva's death, a fifth-century emperor who was a believer in Taoism persecuted its followers for seven years. In the sixth century, another emperor went after both Buddhism and Taoism: both were outlawed. In the ninth century, again at the instigation of Taoists, Buddhists were harassed and executed. And in the tenth century, more than half of all Buddhist temples in China were destroyed in a state-sanctioned effort. Throughout these periods, priests and nuns were forced to return to secular life or were simply murdered, and unknown numbers of temples, statues and sutra texts were destroyed. More modern Chinese persecutions against Buddhism occurred in the seventeenth century, and another, regrettably, is ongoing today in Tibet.
Although Shakyamuni's teachings ultimately reached Japan, the home of modern Zen and Soka Gakkai Buddhism, around the eighth century, the major teachings of Buddhism in America today ultimately are rooted in the fifth-century work of Kumarajiva, the first translator into Chinese of the teachings of Shakyamuni.
Important Buddhist concepts that Kumarajiva introduced to China, and ultimately to the world, include the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.
The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path
The Four Noble Truths, which were among the earliest of Shakyamuni's teachings as he emerged from his enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree, are:
1. The truth of suffering.
2. The truth of the origin of suffering.
3. The truth that suffering can cease or be overcome.
4. The truth of the path leading to the cessation of suffering.
The first of these truths encompasses more than simply suffering. It is meant to indicate that we will inevitably suffer if we anchor our happiness on external matters. Since things outside of ourselves will always change, we will always be at the mercy of such suffering when we lose them.
The second noble truth relates to the nature of suffering, which is rooted in the craving for things outside of ourselves. Such cravings, in turn, are caused by the Three Poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance.
The third noble truth promises that an individual can overcome such sufferings caused by the Three Poisons if he or she learns how to either detach from or not be swayed by them. This process, or the manifestation of this third noble truth, varies between Buddhist schools.
Finally, the fourth noble truth provides a practical method to overcome suffering. This method, too, differs in terminology between Buddhist schools, but it's generally referred to as the Eightfold Path. According to the Zen and Tibetan Buddhist traditions, the Eightfold Path consists of Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. These are eight dimensions of human behavior that operate simultaneously and in dependence on one another. The Soka Gakkai embraces a similar but streamlined approach to overcoming suffering, which it refers to as "human revolution." Essentially, adherence to the Eightfold Path, or the road to human revolution, leads a person to transform their sufferings or cravings into a state of higher awareness and happiness. This does not, however, indicate that a person needs to detach him- or herself from all desire or retreat to a mountaintop far away from the vicissitudes of modern society.
Excerpted from The Star Spangled BUDDHIST by JEFF OURVAN. Copyright © 2013 Jeff Ourvan. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted September 2, 2013
I read this book in less than a week. Not only was the writing accessible, but it was also thoroughly engaging in a way that I had not expected.
This was the third book that I had read about Buddhism, but the first to help me get a firm grasp on how (and why) Buddhism is practiced
in the U.S. Before reading this book, I didn't really understand the differences between any of the popular Buddhist traditions in America.
I was very curious, and a little skeptical of what I came across in other literature on the subject before reading this book. This is a must-read for anyone interested in Buddhist
practices, or anyone who has a family member who practices Buddhism. I recently joined SGI, but I don't think i would have followed through with it if my fears about it being a cult had not been alleviated by this book. Read this book.
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Posted September 4, 2013
A good look at Zen, Tibetan, and Soka Gakkai forms of American Buddhism, their differences and common ground and the challenges they face. The focus on Soka Gakkai (the folks who chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo) is especially welcome since we don't usually hear much about them. Does not cover other forms of Buddhism in America.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 2, 2013
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