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An Early Psychologist: The Buddha

Who was the man who became known as "The Buddha"?

Buddhist Psychology is based on the example and teachings of the man who came to be called "The Buddha." In many ways the teachings of the Buddha, known as "the dharma," sound more like psychology than what most of us think of as religion. Who was he; what was his story?

Born more than 2500 years ago, the Buddha was born a prince in a small kingdom in northern India. The king, following tradition, asked a soothsayer to offer predictions about his son's future. He was told that his son would grow up to be either a great spiritual teacher or a great monarch. The king, like many powerful men, wanted his son to follow him in the family business. To that end, the king made sure that his son, who was known then as "Siddhartha," didn't hear about spiritual things. Instead, he made sure that the young prince was surrounded by every possible luxury and pleasure. There were musicians and dancing girls, rich fabrics and clothing, delicious foods and fine wines. He lived within the walls of the palace compound and was indulged in all of his desires-as long as they didn't have anything to do with spirituality. Even more, he was protected from seeing anything unpleasant.

Once, when the king had a festival to oversee, he took his son along. The boy was left sitting under a tree while the king attended to his royal duties. Tradition has it that Siddhartha sat under a rose apple tree and had an experience of being simply present and awake. He glimpsed the nature of reality-what we have called "brilliant sanity" in an earlier blog entry. In that moment he was clear, open, and filled with compassion for all beings. And then, the moment passed and was forgotten-as such moments often are for all of us.

As young Siddhartha grew to become a man, he became curious about what lay beyond the palace walls. He convinced his chariot driver to take him on a tour outside the walls. That trip changed his life. There are many versions of that chariot ride, but they all agree that the prince saw things he had never seen before, living as he had in a protected, royal environment. He saw an old man-wrinkled and stooped over. Imagine if you had never seen an old person. How strange he would look! The prince asked his driver, "What is wrong with that man?"

"He is old. If we live long enough, all of us will grow old and look like that."

Next he someone who was sick. Perhaps he saw a woman who was young though barely able to walk, who was gaunt and feeble, whose skin was covered with sores. "What is wrong with her?" he may have asked.

"She is ill. We all become ill."

Then, they saw a dead body by the side of the road. "What is wrong with that person?"

"Ah, this person has died. We all die."

I imagine how shocking these experiences must have been for the prince whose protected life had shielded him from old age, sickness, and death. The next person who caught the prince's attention was a wandering religious mendicant: a spiritual seeker. Such people were common in India at that time. This monk seemed radiant, joyful and calm. The prince had never seen anything like it before.

When I think of that spiritual seeker, I think of great spiritual teachers I have had the good fortune to meet in my life: people like the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan masters. Perhaps you have met such people in your own life: people who seem to exude a quality of peacefulness and wakefulness. Such people may seem "more real" than others, yet they are still very much human beings, not gods.

The prince asked about this man, too. "He is a spiritual seeker," came the answer.

Upon his return to the palace, Siddhartha had much to think about. His eyes had been opened to the reality of pain and suffering. He had also seen the spiritual seeker and had glimpsed another way of being. How he had been living his life up to that point now seemed hollow and without meaning, and he couldn't imagine simply returning to it. What was he to do?

Next time, we will continue the story of how Siddhartha left the palace and eventually became the master teacher known to this day as "The Buddha," the "Awakened One."