For 2500 years people throughout Asia and the world have taken the Buddha's teachings and made them their own, Artists have created images of the Buddha that inspire and comfort, drawing on local traditions and materials that celebrate and venerate the life and the teachings of the Buddha. Through treasures from the Pacific Asia Museum's collection of Buddhist art, we'll learn why the Buddha has changed the lives of millions of people.
Even before his birth, his mother and father knew Prince Siddhartha would be remarkable. After all, his father was the king of the Sakya clan in what is now Nepal. His mother, Queen Maya, had strange dreams of a white elephant while she was pregnant, and her son was born out of her right side as she stood grasping a teak tree branch in her right hand.
If this were not extraordinary enough, wise men examining the infant proclaimed that he would either stay at home and become a powerful king or leave his family and become a great spiritual leader. It was even possible that he would become a Buddha, an awakened one.
Like many fathers, King Shuddhodana, preferred that his son become powerful rather than holy, and kept him at home, shielding him from the world’s sorrows and providing him with every luxury.
Did King Shuddhodana succeed?
Although his father King Shuddhodana tried to shelter him, Prince Siddhartha inevitably came face to face with the world’s pain. On a rare trip outside of his home when he was 29, the prince saw a decrepit old man and was shocked at the suffering old age brings. He didn’t know that pain like this existed in the world seeing a sick man and a corpse grieved him, and he tried to understand what he had seen. Finally, Siddhartha encountered a monk, whose peaceful expression impressed him after the misery he had witnessed.
To try and understand what he had seen, the prince gave up his luxurious home and became a monk. He took the name Gautama and wandered through northeastern India. After years of starvation and living in the open, he realized that he could not attain enlightenment through extremes. He arrived at a place now called Bodh Gaya and sat under a tree and meditated for 49 days. The evil Mara, King of Illusion, sent demons and seductive women to test Gautama's resolve and prevent him from achieving enlightenment. He was not distracted and reached down his hand to call on the Earth goddess to bear witness to his strength, a Mudra known as the Earth Touching Gesture. He then attained the enlightenment he sought, namely, he came to understand the truth of existence. He had been released from the cycle of birth and rebirth.
After enlightenment, then what?
Once Siddhartha Gautama becomes the Buddha, the Awakened One, and then what?
Siddhartha Gautama could return to Nepal and become and rich and wise prince, converting his kingdom to his new beliefs. He could become a great general and force men and women throughout the land to become his followers. Instead, he continued to live a simple life of moderation as a traveling monk and did not seek fame or wealth. He believed that possessions were a burden and led men and women down the wrong path.
The Buddha’s compassion and wisdom inspired many of his followers to give up their homes and belongings to practice the truths that he had realized, called the dharma. As he reached enlightenment, he became aware of the Four Noble Truths:
- Human existence is full of conflict and suffering.
- Suffering is caused by selfish desires.
- Humans can achieve liberation from suffering, which is called nirvana.
- The Noble Eightfold Path is the way to this liberation.
What is the Noble Eightfold Path?
Meditation, a system of mental concentration, was one of the tools that the Buddha used to achieve enlightenment. It is also one of the branches of the Noble Eightfold Path, and artworks often show Buddha sitting very still and calm in a meditative posture.
The Buddha taught his followers that following the Noble Eightfold Path would lead them out of their cycle of endless rebirth and suffering, the middle path that brings understanding, knowledge, and nirvana. The branches of the Noble Eightfold Path are:
- Right view
- Right thought
- Right speech
- Right action
- Right living
- Right effort
- Right mindfulness, and
The Buddha outlined these truths in his first sermon, which he gave in northeastern India. Buddha was quickly joined by five disciples and over the next forty-five years, converted thousands of others.
When the Buddha reached the age of 80 or 81; he knew his existence in human form was over. He traveled to a grove of trees in Kushinagara in northern India. There he died, surrounded by his followers, and attained Parinirvana, or final release from the cycle of rebirth.
Despite the Buddha's teaching that death is inevitable, his human followers and even the animals grieved. Only the cat, always detached, knew better than to mourn.
But that's not the end of the story.
With the Buddha’s death, his followers saw that it was possible to break the endless Wheel of Samsara, of birth, death, and rebirth. It really could be possible to attain enlightenment, to reach Nirvana. Roll your mouse over the image to see an example of a Tibetan wheel of birth, death, and rebirth.
In the decades and centuries that followed the Historical Buddha’s life, his followers memorized his teachings and passed along his wisdom. In time, these teachings and commentary and interpretation were written down in texts called sutras. Unlike Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Buddhism has no one holy book that is considered to be the word of god. Buddhist texts, nonetheless, are cherished and treated with great respect.
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