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in Buddhadharma

On Buddha Śâkyamuni

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"All compounded things are ephemeral.
Work diligently on your salvation."
Buddha's last words


Amaravati Stupa - India
1st century BCE - limestone (BM)


In the early, aniconic stage of Buddhist Art, the Buddha was represented by his footprints ("Buddhapâda"). These imprints are venerated in all Buddhist countries.

Feet, symbolizing the Earth, or the grounding (manifestation) of the Divine, have been objects of respect in India long before Buddhism. According to legend, after the Buddha attained enlightenment, his feet made imprints in the stone where he stepped. These footprints symbolize the presence of the Buddha. After his final enlightenment ("parinirvâna"), they signify his absence.

Usually, these footprints were depicted with toes of equal length and a wheel ("dharmacakra") in the center. Other early Buddhist symbols also appear on the heels and toes, such as the Lotus, the Swastika and the Three Jewels or Triple Gem ("triratna"). Some can be large and detailed, displaying the 32, 108 or 132 distinctive marks of a Buddha.

About 2500 years ago, Siddhârtha Gautama (ca. 563 - 483 BCE) was born to a life of privilege & wealth in a town called Lumbinî, near Kapilavastu, just inside the borders of Nepal. This was the home of the capable Śâkya clan and Siddhârtha ("one who has accomplished his goal"), as he was probably called, was the son of Śuddhodana, a warrior of wealth and power, and Mâyâdevî, a woman of refinement. Alternative research suggests he was born ca. 450 or ca. 485 BCE. In 2013, at one of Buddhism's most revered pilgrimage sites at Lumbinî (the Mâyâ Devî Temple) an excavation revealed a previously unknown timber shrine, evidencing Buddha lived in the sixth century BCE. But scholars like Gombrich dismisses the evidence as "self-serving hype, more worthy of a politician than of an academic" (Website of the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, december 2013). We know emperor Aśoka sent various missionaries abroad. In the Southern (Singhalese) tradition Aśoka came to the throne 218 years after Buddha's death. Correlating this ascension with Hellenistic rulers puts it at 268 BCE, giving 486 BCE for the death of the Buddha. But some (like Gombrich) place Aśoka's ascension 136 years after Buddha's death ... Scholars tend to place the death of the Buddha nearer to 400 than 500 BCE. The truth is, we do not know.

At the time of his birth, among the foothills of the Himalayas, there were clan-based republics resisting the expansion of the new monarchies of the central Ganges basin. Most likely, the traditional brahmanical society had not yet made any great impact upon this region. The republic of the Śâkyas was ruled by Śuddhodana, belonging to the ruling oligarchy and a member of the Ksatriya or warrior-nobility caste, the second of the four Indian castes. Later traditions dubbed Siddhârtha a "prince" and his father a "king".

From all various sources dealing with the founder of the "śâsana" or dispensation of the Buddhadharma, a central core dawns, detailing important events in the life of Siddhârtha Gautama the Buddha, or Buddha Śâkyamuni, at least as perceived by his disciples, for -like most spiritual founders- he left no autobiography, nor did he write down any of his thoughts ...

 Short Biography of Siddhârtha Gautama the Buddha

The short story-line of Buddha's biography served as the archetypal model for Buddhists over the centuries and can be summarized as follows (cf. the Buddhacarita, postdating the Buddha by 500 years !) :

  • 563 - 533 BCE : early life : as a "prince", Gautama had three palaces, one for each of season. His life was luxurious and his father, wishing him to become a worldly ruler instead of a spiritual master, surrounded him with every possible pleasure. Although elegant & refined, Gautama found his homes crowded and dusty. When his son, Râhula, or "fetter" was born, he felt no pleasure and yearned for an "open" existence ;

  • 533 BCE : after witnessing the Four Signs (a sick person, an old person, a dead person and a religious mendicant), Gautama decided to leave his family to find a spiritual solution to the problems of the human condition, in particular rebirth. At 29, taking a last look at his sleeping wife & child, he departed to become an ascetic of the Śramana Movement, wandering renunciants adopting a path alternate to Vedic rituals :

    • they denied an omnipotent Creator-God ;
    • rejected the Vedas as revealed texts ;
    • believed in "karma", "samsâra" and rebirth of the soul ;
    • believed in purification of the soul to attain enlightenment ;
    • sought liberation by non-violence, renunciation & austerities ;
    • denied the efficacy of sacrifices and rituals of purification ;
    • rejected the caste system.
  • 533 - 528 BCE : to enlightenment : the first teacher he took was Âlâra Kâlâma. Soon he mastered his teaching, entering the four levels of concentration on form ("dhyânas") one after the other. Offering him joint leadership, Gautama refused because, although blissful and serene, one eventually exited these concentrations on form and returned to the fundamental problems of waking consciousness : birth, sickness, old age and death. Then he found Uddaka Râmaputta, who had mastered the four formless ("ârûpya") absorptions ("samâpattis"). But the fourth, or most sublime state of mind possible in the formless realm, was again not the goal he sought. Râmaputta wished to become his disciple, but Gautama refused. Next, he turned to austerities, aimed to subdue the desire nature. Neither did these self-mortifications produce the result he was seeking ! Emaciated, his hair began to fall out. He was unable to sit upright. After six years of hard austerities, he spontaneously realized extremes of any kind were unproductive. When the cord of the bow is too stretched it may snap, when it is too loose, one cannot play it. Moreover, only one criterion should persist, namely direct personal knowledge (hearsay, tradition, intellectual speculation & the ways of honourable ascetics are rejected). So "Know for Yourselves !" sums it up. This measured asceticism was designated as "the Middle Path" ;

  • April/May 528 BCE : enlightenment : in the course of a single night, seated beneath a large tree, later kown as the Bodhi tree (Ficus Religiosus), Gautama attained a complete state of awakening or enlightenment and was henceforth called "the Buddha" (the awakened one). He acquired the power to remember all his previous lives, became clairvoyant, knew he had rooted out ignorance, clinging & aversion once and for all and put an end to his own rebirth. Staying at Bodh Gayâ for seven weeks, Buddha Śâkyamuni pondered his future. Considering humanity too gross to benefit from his teachings, he decided to remain silent about his profound realization. Only after the "pure ones", like Brahmâ Sahampati & Indra, came down from the highest planes of existence begging him to teach the Dharma, did the Buddha decide to help and teach those with only "little dust in their eyes" ;

  • 528 - 483 BCE : the First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma : arriving in the royal deer park near Vârânasî, he was welcomed by the group of five ascetics who had earlier turned their backs on him for rejecting the path of austerities. He proclaimed himself a "Tathâgata", a word etymologically meaning "a speaker of the Truth", but also "one who has attained what is really so" or "one who is thus gone" (remarkably, "tathâ âgata" means "one who is thus come") and gave his First Sermon, called "Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Dharma".

    The Mahâyâna Mind-Only School introduced the pedagogic scheme of the "Three Turnings". When Buddhist Tantra became academic (in the 7th century CE), a "Fourth Turning" was added ... These Turnings organized the various teachings, some of which were considered "definitive" and others "provisional". The latter implies the style of explanation shows its meaning indirectly, aiming to guide someone gradually (like a finger pointing at the Moon). The former shows the meaning directly (like immediately revealing the Moon itself).

    The different "Turnings" are said to represent various levels of the teachings, and therefore call for different audiences. Together, they constitute the "84.000 Dharma Doors".

    1) The First Turning contained the essential teachings : the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path & the Two Truths, acting as the foundation for the entire Buddhadharma : the Hînayâna (Tripitaka), the Sûtras & the Tantras. All five became his disciples and soon realized enlightenment. A large number of people realized the same and the teachings spread. An order of monks and one for nuns was established. Travelling on foot through the town and villages of North-East India (an area somewhat smaller than Ireland), the Buddha addressed a variety of audiences and gave teachings adapted to each of them.  Because in this Turning reality is not yet analyzed and its samsaric substance-nature taken for granted, all schools accept these teachings as provisional.
    2) The Second Turning is said to have taken place at Vulture Peak Mountain in Râjagriha, Bihar. It focused on compassion ("karunâ") & emptiness ("śûnyâta"). Compassion is the primary constituent of the "mind of enlightenment" ("Bodhicitta"), essential to the Mahâyâna, and a preliminary to the understanding of emptiness. In the Middle Way Consequence School (Nâgârjuna, Âryadeva, Chandrakîrti, Shantideva, Tsongkhapa), the Second Turning is deemed "definitive".
    3) The Third Turning, in Kuśinagarâ, had our Buddha-nature as object (the "Tathâgatagarbha" doctrine). In the Great Middle Way (Other Emptiness or "zhentong", commonly spelled "shentong", accepted by Nyingmapas, Kagyus & Jonangpas), the Third Turning is considered "ultimate definitive" and the Second Turning "non-ultimate definitive", whereas in the view of the Consequentialists (all Gelugpas & most Sakyapas), the Third Turning is provisional. The view expressed in this Turning is also found in Ch'an Buddhism (later Zen), Mahâmudrâ & Mahâsandhi (Dzogchen).
    4) Lastly, in the Fourth Turning, Buddha explained the Tantric teachings, crucial to the Vajrayâna. This Turning is said to have occurred on the subtle planes of reality, with Buddha appearing to superior meditators as Vajradhâra. This last turning is not accepted by those refusing to incorporate the special methods of Tantra into the Buddhadharma.

    It should be remarked the oldest texts, the Pâli Canon, mostly cover the contents of the First Turning, but also refers to the Second Turning. The "tathâgatagarbha" thematizes the innately pure luminous mind ("
    prabhâsvara-citta") briefly mentioned in the Anguttara Nikâya, I.10 (49/9). Tantric Buddhism, with is secret and esoteric doctrines, is however absent in the early texts ...

    "I have taught the Dharma Ânanda, making no 'inner' and 'outer' : the Tathâgata has no 'teacher's fist' in respect to doctrines." (Digha Nikaya, II. 100.)

  • 483 BCE : physical death : when he was 80 and in failing health, the Buddha continued his travels on foot, eliminating the effects of his infirmity with his mental powers. He did not appoint a successor, for none was needed. After his physical demise, the Dharma would be the only guide. On matters of doctrine, so he told his disciples, each person should make up his or her own mind, cross-referencing views and opinions against the teachings. In Kuśinagarâ, lying on his right side between two Sal trees, the physical body of the Buddha died. His last words were :  "All compounded things are ephemeral. Work diligently on your salvation." ;

  • 483 BCE : final enlightenment : dying serene and self-composed, the Buddha passed through several levels of meditative absorption, entering "parinirvâna", often equated with the state of "nirvâna" after physical death. Entering this state did not annihilate him, nor did it sustain him. The "Dharmakâya" is beyond conceptual affirmation & denial. The Buddha is the First Jewel of the Triple Gem.


© Wim van den Dungen
philo@sofiatopia.org l Acknowledgments l SiteMap l Bibliography

Mistakes are due to my own ignorance and not to the Buddhadharma.
May all who encounter the Dharma accumulate compassion & wisdom.
May sentient beings recognize their Buddha-nature and find true peace.



initiated : 29 XI 2008 - last update : 09 VII 2020 - version n°2