Without a Prayer?

The truth about atheism. Plus there’s more than one type of atheist, what drives religious skepticism, and more.

Who Was the Buddha?

The Buddha was not a god; he was a human being like you and me.

Prince Siddhartha
This is the story of how a young man came to be known as The Buddha ("Buddha" means "awakened one"). He was not a god. He was a human being like you and me. As with all ancient tales, we can't know what is to be taken literally and what is to be taken metaphorically. It doesn't matter to me. I'm inspired by his story either way.

The Buddha was born a prince in a small kingdom that is part of modern-day Nepal. His name was Siddhartha Gautama. His father, the king, indulged his son's desires and protected him from being exposed to human suffering. The king posted guards at the palace gates to keep Siddhartha from seeing how less fortunate people lived and even had attendants hold a parasol over his son so he wouldn't experience heat or cold or dust. Everything unpleasant about life was hidden from him.

When Siddhartha was nine-years old, his father took him to a plowing festival. At one point, the nurses left the prince unattended under a rose-apple tree. In striking contrast to the noise of the festival, it was calm and quiet under the tree. Siddhartha sat cross-legged and became aware of the sensation of his breath going in and out of his body. It was his first experience of true calm and peacefulness. Soon his nurses returned and broke this peaceful abiding, but the experience had a profound effect on the young prince.

One day, when Siddhartha was a young man, he talked his attendant, Channa, into taking him beyond the walls of the palace. For the first time, Siddhartha was exposed to life as the rest of us experience it.

As the story goes, when he saw an old person with shriveled skin, bent over and leaning on a walking staff, he asked Channa what was wrong with him. Channa replied, "He is old. Everyone who lives for a long time gets old and looks like that."

When Siddhartha saw a person who was delirious with fever and whose skin was covered with blotches, he asked Channa what was wrong with him. Channa replied, "He is sick. Everyone is subject to disease."

When Siddhartha saw a corpse on the side of the road, he asked Channa what was wrong with him. Channa replied, "He is dead. We all die, sweet prince."

Then Siddhartha saw a man seated cross-legged under a tree, looking calm and peaceful. He asked Channa, "What sort of man is this?" Channa replied, "He is a homeless wanderer in search of truth."

Siddhartha was shaken to the core by this first glimpse of human suffering and by the man he'd seen sitting cross-legged under the tree.  He felt called to leave his life of luxury and become a wanderer himself. He sought the answer to three questions: Why do people suffer? Can they find freedom from suffering? If so, how?

Siddhartha's renunciation is unparalleled in history. At 29, he was a prince in the prime of his life—a life of power, privilege, and wealth. But he gave it all up. He traded his opulent clothes for a robe made of scraps of material he found lying around. He ate only what was given to him. He slept under a tree for shelter.

Siddhartha practicing asceticism
He sought out spiritual teachers and undertook many different practices. He found that he could easily attain transcendent states of mind, but they always passed, leaving him with his three unanswered questions. At one point, he became an ascetic, starving himself in an attempt to gain spiritual awakening. This extreme didn't bring him any closer to understanding suffering or to the freedom he sought than had the other extreme of a life of luxury and sensual pleasure at his father's palace.

So, Siddhartha decided to go off by himself. Recalling his experience as a child under the rose-apple tree, he accepted some much-needed food from a young girl and then sat down under a fig tree, vowing not to get up until he knew the answers to his questions.

As he sat, he was assailed by mental suffering in all the forms that are so familiar to each of us—the painful mental states of greed, ill-will, confusion, and their cousins: temptation, fear, and doubt. He just sat. After seven days and nights, he had his great awakening, which people have been speculating about for 2,500 years and which I describe here based on my study and understanding of his teachings.

I don't believe there was anything supernatural about the Buddha's awakening. From this intense period of sitting and observing his experience, he saw that everything arises due to causes and conditions, and that everything is subject to dissolution—both the physical body and mental states.

When he saw that painful mental states arise as the result of causes and conditions and are impermanent (as opposed to being a fixed part of who he was), they lost their hold on him. He realized that when he reacted with aversion to these mental states, his suffering intensified; but when he simply witnessed and acknowledged their presence, a contented peace came over him.

In this stillness, he found the answers to his questions: why do people suffer, can they find freedom from it, and if so, how? He became the Buddha—the awakened one—seeing clearly these things:

  • Sorrow is present in the life of all beings because everyone is subject to illness, old age, death, and separation from loved ones.
  • Suffering arises when we resist this truth.  
  • Freedom from suffering is possible. It is attained by engaging our lives with open-hearted acceptance, knowing that in this ever-changing world, some experiences will be joyful, some will be sorrowful, some will be pleasant, some will be unpleasant. By being fully present for whatever arises, all of us have the potential to attain the contented peacefulness of the Buddha.

The Buddha spent the rest of his life—45 years—as a wandering monk, sharing his insight with others, regardless of their caste or gender. He devised an astounding number of practices to help people understand suffering and to point the way to the peace and contentment that he attained under that fig tree. I've written about some of these practices, such as the cultivation of compassion and equanimity (see 4 Qualities of Mind that Alleviate Suffering) and the practice of mindfulness (see 6 Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness Outside of Meditation).

It is said that soon after the Buddha's experience under the fig tree, he passed a stranger on the road who was so struck by the Buddha's calm radiance that he asked him, "Are you a god?" The Buddha replied, "No. I am not." "What are you then?" the man asked. And the Buddha said, "I am awake." For me, this story is inspiring because it means that, through our own effort, the peaceful contentment we see in the many statues of the Buddha is within the reach of all of us.

The Buddha's teachings have given rise to dozens of schools and traditions. Some of them have elevated the Buddha to a god-like figure to be worshipped. But the ancient texts make it clear that he was just a human being—if a remarkable one—who embarked on an extraordinary journey of discovery. This is why I and many others don't consider Buddhism to be a religion.

To me, Buddhism is a path of practice that points the way to resting in the peaceful contentment of the Buddha, even as we open our hearts so wide that compassion becomes a natural response to suffering in the world—both our suffering and that of others.

© 2011 Toni Bernhard www.tonibernhard.com

You might also like "New Years Resolutions the Buddha Might Have Made."

Thank you for reading my work. My most recent book is titled How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.

I'm also the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers

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Without a Prayer?