A Prince Becomes a Buddha


This article is an excerpt from The Pali Canon – What The Buddha Taught

A Prince Becomes a Buddha is an article about Siddartha Guatama. Siddartha Gotama was born in Kapilavastu in what is now southern Nepal on the Indian border. Current research places his birth between 563 B.C.E and 463 B.C.E. His father was King Suddhodana, the leader of the Shakya clan. His mother, Queen Maha Maya, and the king were told by visiting holy men that he would either be a great king or a great holy man.

A traditionally arranged marriage to Yasodharā, a distant cousin, at the age of 16, bore a son, Rahula. Yasodharā would later become a nun and Rahula a monk, following the Buddha’s teaching.

Despite all the comforts of being a Prince and heir to his father’s throne, restlessness and dissatisfaction caused Siddartha to begin to question his values and his view of the world. At the age of twenty-nine, Prince Siddartha left the palace grounds. For the first time in his life, he observed a sick person, and then an old person, and finally a corpse. Later he came across a wandering mendicant. In stark contrast to his life of wealth and comfort, he noticed the stress that townsfolk experienced in their daily lives, and the aggression and competitiveness that occurred as a result of this stress.

This experience left Siddartha greatly confused about the purpose and meaning of life. If every human was subject to the uncertainty of physical life, the struggle to simply survive, and the certainty of disappointment, sickness and death, was there a way of experiencing and viewing the world which would liberate him and all others from the causes and conditions of stress, disappointment, disillusionment, and suffering?

Was there a way of living in the world and yet not be affected by the seemingly random events of life. What are the individual contributions stress, disappointment, disillusionment, and suffering? How could one escape suffering for good?

Under the cover of night, the future Buddha left his life of riches, comfort and power to find answers to these questions. As was somewhat common to the men in his culture, he became a mendicant, relying on the charity of others as he wandered and studied with the spiritual leaders of his time.

He first studied with Alara Kalama who taught a philosophy and meditation method in what would be called today “Yogic” meditation. (The “yoga” of today would not become a cohesive philosophy for at least another 1,500 years.) The future Buddha grasped these techniques quickly. He was able to enter “the sphere of nothingness,” the goal of this meditation, in which the meditator finally perceives a vast and empty nothingness.

Another teacher, Uddaka Ramaputta, instructed Siddartha in a meditation technique that lead to a mental state of neither-perception-nor-non-perception, a kind of non-dualistic view. At the time, these meditation methods were recognized as the highest methods attainable. Similar methods that both teachers used are still taught today.

Siddartha rejected both of these teachings as they were only an escape and diversion from the understanding he sought. Regarding the teachings of Alara Kalama Siddartha declared: ‘This Dhamma leads not to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to stilling, to direct knowledge, to awakening, nor to unbinding, but only to reappearance in the dimension of nothingness.”

Regarding the teachings of Uddaka Ramaputta Siddartha declared: “This Dhamma leads not to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to stilling, to direct knowledge, to awakening, nor to unbinding, but only to reappearance in the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception” [1, 1a]

These mind states are still taught as a goal today in modern schools as “awakened” mind states and states of Buddha-nature” and “Buddhahood.”

Siddartha saw clearly how these philosophies, regarded as highly advanced, only led to continued establishment of a self subject to confusion, delusion and suffering. Though not fully developed in his mind, Siddartha understood that any proliferation of an impermanent “self” in any phenomenal realm could only lead to more confusion, delusion, and suffering.

Though both of these teachers were highly respected spiritual teachers of his time, their doctrine only developed a continued doctrine of self-identity. Siddartha, with great courage and conviction, rejected both of these teachers and their teachings. He understood that lineage, popularity, power, or prestige alone did not qualify a teacher or their teachings. If those teachings did not bring an end to clinging to all views and cessation to the continued establishment of an impermanent “self” they must be abandoned.

He joined with five other mendicants and began severe ascetic practices. Their belief was that by denying the needs and pleasures of the body they could overcome the desires and cravings of the body. Many ascetic practices continue today in the form of extreme periods of forced silence, lengthy repetitive chanting, and ritualistic bowing. Extremely long meditation sessions is also a form of asceticism.

Siddartha was so intent and adept in this practice that he eventually would only eat a few beans or a few grains of rice a day. He became so emaciated that it is told that he could feel his spine by scratching his belly. Siddartha and his group also practiced breath-control and manipulation. Siddartha became able to slow his breath to an almost imperceptible level.

One day, while bathing in a river, he collapsed and nearly died. He realized then that severe asceticism was not the way of liberation and freedom. (Another story often told is that a young girl, Sujata, saw Siddartha lying by the side of the road, offered him food and nursed him back to health.)

Siddartha was left frustrated that 6 years of study with some of the most knowledgeable spiritual teachers of his time and many years of asceticism brought him no closer to the understanding he sought. The soon-to-be Awakened One now understood what would be called “The Middle Way.”

In describing the middle way between extreme views and resulting actions the Buddha stated “These two extremes are to be abandoned: the compulsion to indulge and gain pleasure from objects of sensual desire (all things we crave that arise from contact with our senses) which is inferior, low, vulgar, ignoble, and leads to more delusion, and compulsion to indulge in self torment, (asceticism) which is painful, ignoble and leads to more delusion.”

The Buddha would teach the Eightfold Path consistently for the forty-five years of his teaching career as the middle way. [2, 2a]

Deeply frustrated Siddartha remembered a time as a youth when he simply sat under the shade of a tree and placed his awareness on his breathing. He decided that he would sit in meditation under a Pipal tree, now called the Bodhi  Tree, in Uruvela, (now Bodh Gaya) India.

Most accounts have Siddartha sitting in meditation for around 40 nights. The length of time is not important. What transpired is. The near Buddha meditated using a meditation method known today as Shamatha-Vipassana meditation. Shamatha means tranquil, serene, and quiet. Vipassana means insight, or to gain insight.

He began to understand what an effective meditation technique would provide. Siddartha realized that attempting to enter a mental state where all thought was denied was only furthering distraction and only avoided what was singularly important, gaining insight into the qualities of his own mind and the impermanence of all things.

As his mind settled, a great peace arose within Siddhartha. As his concentration increased he recognized self-referential mental fabrications and the effect these had on his thoughts and views.

As desire, fear, and aversion arose in the Buddha’s mind, he recognized all impermanent conditioned views he held of himself and the phenomenal. With conviction he abandoned all views that arose in ignorance. With gentle determination, he put every conditioned thought aside, always returning to his breath. Through his own efforts, as the morning star rose in the sky, Siddartha awakened. A Buddha had entered the world.

The significance here is that Siddartha developed the strong resolve or intention (the second factor of The Eightfold path) to awaken. He utilized a meditation practice that would lead to gaining insight into his own mind and the impermanent environment he lived in. A human being through his own efforts awakened. He would spend the next forty-five years of his life teaching others to do the same.

Now the Buddha, The Awakened One, he touched the earth with his right hand, signifying that he understood the emptiness of an ego-self and had overcome the pull of worldly desires.

Upon his awakening the Buddha realized that the confusion, deluded thinking, and individual contributions to suffering were the result of ignorance. He came to understand that it was ignorance of four truths, Four Noble Truths as the common human problem. This often misunderstood and intentionally misapplied understanding is known as Dependent Origination. Dependent Origination states that from ignorance through twelve observable causative links all manner of confusion, delusion, and suffering arises.

Dependent Origination teaches how individual ignorance of Four Noble Truths leads to all manner of suffering. It is not a creation myth nor does it establish a doctrine of interdependence, inter-connectedness, or “inter-being.” These are modern adaptations that when seen in the context of The Four Noble Truths only encourage continued I-making. [3, 3a]

As a practical matter it is adherence to the Buddha’s understanding of Dependent Origination that determines the authenticity and effectiveness of Dhamma practice.

The Buddha’s great realization was his insight into the human problem, the human dis-ease. Due to clinging, craving, desire and aversion born of ignorance, human beings experience life in the phenomenal world as dukkha, as continued dissatisfaction.

The Buddha now understood that developing lasting peace and happiness is blocked by stress, disappointment and suffering caused by clinging to objects and views. He understood that greed, aversion and deluded thinking arose from this specific ignorance. He described this ultimate understanding in his first teaching to the same five mendicants.

In his first teaching he presented the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. This sutta set the wheel of truth in motion. Everything the Buddha would teach was taught in the context of The Four Noble Truths. To account for adaptations and accommodations to his Dhamma many later developed schools claim there were two additional “turnings of the wheel.” There is no reference to any additional “turnings” in the Pali Canon. The Buddha consistently declared “I teach understanding the arising of suffering and the cessation of suffering, nothing more. [4, 4a]

The Four Noble Truths:

  1. Dukkha Occurs (dukkha means stress, disappointment, disillusionment, suffering)
  2. Craving, desire and aversion born of ignorance is the cause of dukkha
  3. Cessation of dukkha is possible
  4. The Eightfold Path is the path to cessation of dukkha

As stated previously the Buddha would spend the next 45 years of his life instructing all that were interested, from the most powerful rulers to the most shunted and ignored, on The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path.

It was never the Buddha’s intention to create a religion based on dogma, intellectual scriptural study, or ritualistic worship. He did not teach to worship a supreme being or disincarnate deities or disincarnate “Buddha’s.”

He never viewed himself as a savior or his Dhamma as salvific.

He presented his teachings to those that were interested in developing understanding of the nature of their own suffering and a path leading to the cessation of all delusion, confusion and suffering.

There is nothing hidden or held back by the Buddha. The Buddha said that his teachings are not like that of a teacher with a closed fist who keeps something back” and “that his teachings are the same (in practice)  for monks and lay people.” (5)

Near the end of his life, when asked by the attending monks who would be their teacher when the he passed the Buddha replied that he had taught all that was necessary for each person to work out their own liberation. His final words were “Behold my dear monks, impermanence and decay is relentless, work diligently for your own liberation.” [5]

At the age of 80 the Buddha left this world awake and at peace.

There is nothing esoteric or magical about the Buddha’s Dhamma. No special abilities or “good karma” or encounters with other enlightened beings are necessary to follow the Buddha’s way. There are no special rituals or special empowerments taught by the Buddha. The only requirement is to develop his original teachings whole-heartedly. He taught the Eightfold Path as the direct path to realization.

Those who have a true understanding of the Dhamma can be of great assistance in initially understanding the teachings and the direction to take, and in remaining focused on the path.

There is nothing that can be added or imposed on Dhamma practitioners that is necessary to awaken. Awakening is not bestowed based on grace or the accumulation of “good works” or merit.  Awakening is realized by systematically abandoning ignorance and developing useful and practical wisdom.

The Buddha described an awakened human being as “released” and “unbound” and the mind state of an awakened human being as “calm.”

The Buddha taught a simple and straightforward path leading to liberation and freedom from Dukkha.

The Buddha taught an Eightfold Path that is to be experienced by each individual by becoming familiar with the nature of their own minds. The Buddha’s intention was to teach a path of virtue, concentration and wisdom which would liberate all humans from the stress, disappointment, disillusionment and suffering of day to day life, and live lives of lasting peace and happiness. His teachings are still available to every human sincerely interested in the original Dhamma.

The Buddha often used the word “Ehipassiko” which means “come and see for your self” in describing how to develop understanding. This is another teaching that has been altered to suggest that the Buddha taught to develop a personal dhamma that fit conditioned views. He also taught to “question everything” meaning to deeply investigate his teachings within the framework of the Eightfold Path, not to abandon what challenges or contradicts conditioned views or popular adaptations.  

Come and see for yourself.

1. Ariyapariyesana Sutta

1a. Noble Searches

2. Samyutta Nikaya 56.11

2a. Second Noble Truth

3. Samyutta Nikaya 12.2

3a. Dependent Origination

4. Samyutta Nikaya 56.11

4a. Four Noble Truths

5. Maha-Parinibbana Sutta

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