The 6th century B.C. ushered in an era of intellectual upheaval and was, indeed a turning point in the religious history of mankind. In China, we had Lao Tzu and Confucius; in Greece Parmenides; in Iran, Zarathustra; in India, Mahavira and the Buddha.
Buddha, the light of Asia, occupies a peculiar place among the greatest men of the world. Buddha was born around 563 B.C. when his mother Mahamaya was traveling from Kapilvastu her parents home in Devdaha to have her first child. On the way, the queen gave birth to a son in Lumbini (Nepal) in a grove between two Saal (Shorea robasta) trees. The queen died after a week and the prince was brought up by his step mother Mahaprajapati Gautami. The child was called Siddhartha, meaning “The one whose purpose has been fulfilled.”
There is no precise account of Lord Buddha’s life, but texts give parts of the life story interwoven with historical matter as well as colourful legends. The legend tells us that a prophecy was made by Astrologers that the prince would be either a monarch or a great ascetic. King Suddhodan observed his spiritual inclinations and tried his best to protect the young prince from worldly suffering. At the age of sixteen, Siddharth was married to Yashodhara, a lady from an aristocratic family of the Koliyas. They had a son named Rahul. Siddhartha led a life of comfort and luxury, but material comforts never satisfied him. He had a very meditative nature.
The prince went one day with a charioteer for an excursion from his palace and saw an old man, a sick man and a dead body followed by a recluse. This completely changed his thinking. Prince Siddhartha resolved to gain freedom from old age, sickness and death. The sight of the recluse, healthy in body, cheerful in mind, without any discomfort of life, impressed the prince. He decided to renounce the world and devote himself to discovering find solutions to the problem of suffering. One night he left his palace for the forest; he was 29 at the time. He subjected himself to severe ascetic torture for 6 years in Bodh Gaya. He had enjoyed the richest life of sensuous pleasures. Now, he witnessed the other extreme of life. He ultimately realized the folly of self-torture and resumed eating and sleeping in moderation. At that time, he accepted rice pudding offered by Sujata and thus he gave up his ascetic practices. He gained bodily health and mental vigor. He spent seven weeks under the shade of the Peepal tree (ficus religiosa) later known as Bodhi tree resolving to enter the perfect enlightenment (Sammasambodhi) through meditation. At the age of thirty five, sitting in a state of the deepest and most profound meditation on full moon day of Vaisakha (April-May) he entered the blissful state of Nirvana: Enlightenments: the state of desirelessness: Samyak Sambodhi: Buddhatva.
After the enlightenment, he came to Sarnath,, known in Buddhist literature as Rishipattana and Mrigadava. In this ancient seat of learning, Buddha preached his first sermon about the four noble truths to the five ascetics who had earlier left him in despair. The first sermon is called “The discourse on the turning of the wheel of law” (Ddharma-Chakra Pravartan Sutra). Buddha propounded the four noble truths (Arya Satya) viz,. suffering (Dukha), cause of suffering (Dukha Samudaya), cessation of suffering (Dukha Nirodh), and the path to eliminate suffering (Dukh Nirodhgami Patipada).
Life is full of misery and pain. Suffering is inherent in the very nature of things. All beings are subject to decay, disease,and death. Even pleasures and worldly happiness lead one to sorrow because they are transitory. The Buddha admits that there are different forms of happiness but they are impermanent, full of suffering and subject to change. Therefore, the Buddha is realistic when he says “Every thing is Dukha. O Monks! Suffering is the noble truth: birth is sufferin;, decay is sufferin;, illness is suffering; death is suffering; separation from the desired object is sufferin;, and not obtaining one’s desire is suffering”.
The cause of suffering is our craving. There is nothing in this world which is produced without any cause or condition. All the states of the mind and matter are being conditionally produced by other states of mind and they are conditionally produced by still others and thus the process, the wheel of becoming (Bhava Chakra) moves on. Thus things are interdependent, relative and conditional.
There are twelve constituents in the law of conditionality:
2) Conditioned by ignorance comes (Karma formation) predispositions.
3) Conditioned by “Karma formation” comes consciousness.
4) Conditioned by consciousness comes mental and physical states.
5) Conditioned by mental and physical states comes six mental and physical faculties.
6) Conditioned by six mental and physical faculties comes contact with the object.
7) Conditioned by contact with the object comes sensation.
8) Conditioned by sensation comes grasping.
9) Conditioned by thirst comes grasping.
10) Conditioned by grasping comes process of becoming.
11) Conditioned by process of becoming comes birth.
12) Conditioned by birth comes death.
Thus, there are twelve connecting factors or spokes in the wheel of becoming (Bhavachakra). The conditional process goes on for ever till a person enters Nirvana.
The cessation of suffering is called ‘Nirvana’ beyond description. It is not a negative condition but a positive one an unconditioned state realized by mind, to eliminate suffering, one must eliminate its cause. Nirvana is nothing but elimination of craving. It is a placid state of mind, a place of liberation,an end to suffering,a sence of supreme joy, supreme tranquility, an end to the cycle of birth and death .
How can Nirvana be attained? By the fourth noble truth, the noble eight fold path. It is also called the middle path by which the wayfarer avoids two extremes. He neither follows the path of self mortification nor that of self-indulgence. Buddha has shown the path for removal of suffering. The noble eightfold path is an ethical path which when followed can removen and attain libration. The noble eightfold path consists of eight steps which are : (1) Right view. (2) Right resolution, (3) Right speech, (4) Right action (5) Right livelihood, (6) Right effort, (7) Right mindfulness and (8) Right concentration.
The first step is the right view. Rid yourself of all superstitions and animism. Give up your faith in the cruel animal sacrifice, in the inequality of human beings in the existence of a creator of the universe and depend on your own powers of pure reasoning. This is possible when the mind is free from all obsessions and impurities; this is achieved through ethical conduct and mental culture.
Right mental resolution is the foundation of all great achievements provided it is based on the right view. Right thought means the thought of renunciation, detachment, compassion, love and nonviolence. Words free from lies, anger, abuse and slander are the right speech which is followed by right action. Right action is refraining from killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct. It aims at promoting moral, honorable and peaceful conduct of a person.
Right livelihood is the product of right action. Wrong means of livelihood is doing those which cause suffering to others e.g. trading in weapons, living beings, intoxicants or poisonous articles.
Right effort consists in strenuous efforts by a person to raise his/her own mental and moral being. One should first give up one’s bad habits, keep oneself free from evil tendencies and promote the good qualities that one may have acquired already.
Right mindfulness means becoming constantly aware and mindful of activities of the body, sensations, mental states and ideas etc.Through right mindfulness man gains self-control and becomes self-possessed.One achieves a state of self-mastery.
The last step in the middle path is right concentration, the fixing of mental faculties on a single object. This ability is useful not only for mental uplifting but it is essential in all pursuits, whether they are scientific, literary, artistic or religious.
The noble eightfold path is a practical way shown by the Buddha for a tensionless, tranquil and peaceful life. It is the path of self purification. The essence of the path has been put in one verse by Buddha. “Abstinence from all evils, fulfillment of all good, purification of one’s mind.”
Thus in the Deer-park of Sarnath, Buddha proclaimed his Dhamma and unfolded the knot of darkness.