March 6-8. 1987

Beginner's Retreat

A Brief Sketch of the Life of the Buddha


This is a beginner's retreat. I know most of you are not beginners, but I will regard you all as complete beginners. Most of today will be spent with study. Until 7:00pm I will be giving talks. So I have prepared the notes for you. When you listen to me, please refer to these notes.

During this retreat we are going to practice loving-kindness and VipassanA meditation. VipassanA meditation especially could be found only during the time of the Buddha and when his teachings are available. VipassanA is a distinct type of meditation found only in Buddhism. Since you are going to practice VipassanA meditation, it is proper that you know something about the person who discovered this method of meditation and taught it to the world. The person who discovered this type of meditation was the Buddha. We will begin with a brief account of the life of the Buddha.

I will give some important dates to begin with. The Buddha was born on the full moon day in May of 624 B.C. In some books it says 623 B.C., but one year of difference is not much. How do we get dates like 624 B.C. and so on? In our countries especially Myanmar, SrI Lanka and Thailand we have an unbroken tradition. We celebrate every year the full moon day of May as the day the Buddha was born, gained enlightenment and died. So I think it is fairly reliable with regard to these dates.

However western scholars reckon in a different way. They give some years later than the years given here. But I don't think it need bother us because there may be some difference in calculating. It remains a fact that the Buddha was a historical person and he was born more than 600 years before the Christian era.

How did we get the dates? In 1956 Buddhists from all over the world celebrated the 2500th year of the death of the Buddha. So 1956 was the 2500th year after the death of the Buddha. If we subtract 1956 from 2500 we get 544. That is the year Buddha died. The Buddha lived for eighty years. If we add eighty to 544 we get 624 B.C. So Buddha was born on the full moon day of May in 624 B.C.

He was born in a place called Kapilavatthu. It is on the border of Nepal. Maybe some of you have visited that place. If you have been to India, you may have gone there. It is just across the border of India in Nepal. The place was just called Kapilavatthu. At that time there was no India. There was no Nepal at the time of the Buddha. There was Jambudipa, the continent of the rose-apples. Buddha was born in the kingdom of Kapilavatthu which is on the border of present day Nepal.

The Buddha's parents were King Suddhodana and Queen MahA-MAyA. So he was born as a prince. King Suffhodana and Queen MahA-MAyA were reigning at that time in the kingdom of Kapilavatthu. Perhaps in those days they thought these kingdoms to be large. Under present conditions they are like districts or a state in this country. King Suddhodana and Queen MahA-MAyA were the parents of the Buddha.

He was not yet called the Buddha at that time. His name was Siddhattha Gotama. Gotama was his clan name. Siddhattha was his personal name. He was given the name Siddhattha Gotama.

A few days after his birth on the day when he was given this name the king invited Brahmins to read the signs of the child and to give predictions. Seven of them said this boy would become either a universal monarch or a Buddha. One of them, the youngest of them said, "No, he will definitely become a Buddha." A person with such signs (They are called signs of a super man.) will not stay in the household life. He will eventually leave household life and become a Buddha. This Brahmin's prediction was true.

An important incident occurred during the Buddha's infancy at the king's ploughing ceremony. People in those days were mostly farmers. In order to promote cultivation the king had a ploughing ceremony every year. The king would take a plough and do ploughing for some time in a ceremonial way. Many people gathered to see the king and also the ministers plough.

At that time the king left the infant son with the nurses under a tree. The nurses wanted also to go see the ceremony. So they left the prince under the tree which was surrounded by gardens. They wanted to see the ceremony. After some time they remembered the baby and went back to him. When they went back the baby was no longer lying down but was sitting and meditating.

It may seem impossible, but everything is possible for such very gifted persons. Even in the west there have been people who could compose very complicated music at the age of four. So it is not impossible even though the infant may have not been a year old at the time. If the king had to leave the child with nurses, it means the baby was not more than a year old.

When the prince did not see anyone around him, he just sat up and began to practice meditation, breathing meditation. It is said in our books that he attained the first absorption. the first JhAna. He was in the first JhAna when the nurses came back. The nurses were surprised and reported to the king. When the king came and saw his son sitting in meditation, he bowed down to his son. This is an important incident because the remembrance of this incident was a turning point in the Bodhisatta's struggle for enlightenment in the forest.

Following the custom of that time Siddhattha was married at the age of sixteen to Princess YasodhAra of the same age. He enjoyed the life of a prince for thirteen years.

Then in his 29th year he saw four great signs. They are also important in his life. He saw them when going to a pleasure garden. He occasionally went to the pleasure garden. One day when he went to the pleasure garden, he saw an old man. It is said in the books that these signs were shown by the gods. When he saw the old man, he asked the driver of the chariot what it was. The driver said it was an old man. It is said that the prince had never seen an old man before. So he asked if he would become old like this man. The driver said yes that he would become old like that man. The prince was dispassioned or disgusted with this. So he returned to the palace.

Next time when he went out, he saw a sick man. He was sick and he could not carry his own weight. The same questions and answers followed.

The third time he saw a dead man. These three signs taught him the realities of life. Although life at the palace may be pleasurable, with little suffering, when he saw these three signs, he realized that there was so much suffering in the world and that nobody could escape age, disease and death. So he was not happy with his life at the palace.

The fourth time he went out he saw a recluse or a monk perhaps sitting under a tree, sitting there meditating. When he saw the monk, he was very pleased with him. He wanted to become one himself. So he decided to leave the palace. He decided to leave all behind so he could become a monk and practice meditation and find a way to end all suffering.

When he went back to the palace, the birth of his son was reported to him. The son, later named Rahula, was born in the l3th year of his marriage that is when he was 29. But the Bodhisatta was not happy at the good news of the birth of his son. The first thing he said upon hearing of the birth was: “A bondage has been born.” He thought, “It is another bondage for me. I will not be able to get out if I stay any longer. A son is a strong bondage.”

The PAli word for bondage is Rahu. Rahu was the name of a demon. That demon was supposed to take hold of the moon every now and then. We call such a thing an eclipse now. Eclipses were interpreted as the demon Rahu taking hold of the moon. Rahu means bondage.

That is why Siddhattha's father named the infant Rahula. He asked the men what the prince said when he heard of his son's birth. They reported that the prince had said Rahu has been born. Therefore the grandfather gave the name Rahula to the grandson.

So a son had been born to him, but he was not happy. On that very night he left all. He left his parents. He left his son. He left his wife. He left his country. He left everything. It is called the great renunciation. This great renunciation took place on the full moon of July in 595 B.C. with only one man, the driver of the chariot. They rode all night on a horse until they reached a river. After reaching the river, the Bodhisatta changed himself into a monk or recluse and sent the driver back to the city.

After becoming a recluse, he tried to find a way to get out of this suffering. He approached one teacher. That teacher was able to teach him a very high form of absorption, JhAna. He was soon able to get that JhAna, but he found it could not lead to freedom from suffering.

So he left that teacher and went to another teacher who was able to teach him a step higher. But that JhAna was also found to be defective because it also would not lead him to final deliverance from suffering.

So he left the second teacher. He was on his own after that. He practiced many types of meditation practices popular at that time. Mostly in those days the recluses thought if you inflict pain on your physical body, you will be able to dry up the defilements, dry ………….. in your mind. Austerities were the popular practice of that time.

So the Bodhisatta practiced these austerities for six years. He himself after becoming the Buddha related how he practiced. Sometimes he stopped breathing and felt great pain in the body and the head. Also he thought going for food was a waste of time. He reduced eating little by little until he was eating only about a handfull of pea soup each day. Sometimes he did not eat even that much. He became very thin and his skin became black. For six years he practiced these austerities, but he did not get any nearer to his goal.

One day he thought to himself, "I have been practicing this for so many years and nobody can practice more than I have either in the past, in the future or at the present time. Perhaps I am not practicing the right way." So he reviewed his practice and had some doubts about the correctness of his practice. Then the remembrance of that incident as an infant came to his mind. So he remembered when he was a child, and the time he practiced breathing meditation and entered JhAna. He remembered how it was so peaceful, how it was so calm at that time, how he was so happy at that time. He remembered this and thought that might be the right way.

Later on he decided it was the right way and he would practice this kind of meditation. But at that time his body was very weak. He was just skin and bones. So he decided to eat food again.

At that time there were five recluses attending upon him with the expectation that he would become the Buddha and that they would gain the benefits from his Buddhahood. These five recluses were the Brahmins that had predicted he would become the Buddha. So they were disgusted with him because they thought taking food was a luxury. So they left the Buddha-to-be and went to another place.       Siddhattha was left alone, but he was not depressed. He began taking food. When he gained enough strength to practice meditation again, he approached what is now known as the Bodhi Tree. He went to the tree and sat down under the Bodhi tree and practiced meditation. That tree came to be known as the Bodhi Tree. Bodhi means enlightenment. It is called Bodhi Tree because the Buddha became enlightened under that tree.

After approaching the Bodhi Tree he sat down and made a resolution: “I will not break this sitting until I become the Buddha.” He made a great firm resolution. He practiced breathing meditation again. He reached first JhAna. Then he reached second JhAna, third JhAna and fourth JhAna. He also reached the other JhAnas in succession. There are eight or nine JhAnas.

During the first watch of the night he gained the supernormal knowledge of remembering his past lives. During that time he could remember all his past lives.

Then he carried on meditating. During the second watch of the night, some time around midnight, he gained another kind of supernormal knowledge by which he could see beings dying in one life and being reborn in another life. When he saw beings dying here and being reborn there, and when he saw this being did good things in this life and was reborn in a better life, or this being did bad things in this life and was reborn in hell. He saw all these deaths and births as if it were with his own eyes. That supernormal knowledge he attained during the second watch of the night.

During the third or the last watch of the night, from 2:00am - 6:00am, he reflected upon the Doctrine of Dependent Origination. That is everything is caused by something. Nothing comes out of nothing. Everything is relative. So he reflected on the Doctrine of Dependent Origination back and forth, again and again.

After that he practiced VipassanA meditation. At about dawn he became the Buddha. He became the fully self-enlightened one. That was in his 35th year. At the age of 29 he left the palace, did the great renunciation. He struggled for six years in the forest to become the Buddha. So at the age of 35 he became the Buddha, the fully enlightened one. That was on the full moon day of May in 589 B.C.

The place where he gained enlightenment can be seen today. It is in Bodh GAya in India. There is now a meditation center there.

Under the Bodhi Tree he gained full enlightenment and became the Buddha. The word 'Buddha' is not his personal name. It is a name like the president. The Buddha means the enlightened one or the awakened one. It is a title, not a personal name.

After becoming Buddha he was known as Gotama-Buddha. His personal name was not used after that. He was called the Buddha or Gotama-Buddha.

After becoming the Buddha he taught for 45 years. After becoming the Buddha he spent seven weeks under and near the Bodhi Tree. In the eighth week he went to where the five former disciples were living to teach them. So he went to them and two months after his enlightenment he gave his first sermon, the sermon of turning the wheel of Dhamma, turning the wheel of Truth.

After that he taught day and night for 45 years. He became the Buddha at the age of 35 and taught for 45 years. At the age of 80 he died. On the full moon of May in 544 B.C. at the age of 80 he passed away. That is a very brief account of his life. There are books written on the life of the Buddha. I think you can find some of the titles in these leaflets.

Now let us study some of the characteristics of the Buddha, Buddha’s qualities or attributes are said to be immeasurable. So we cannot describe all of his qualities, but here we will give some of them.

Number one he was a human being. He was not god with a capital G, not a god, not a prophet. He was 100% a human being. As a human being he was born. As a human being he lived. As a human being he died. Since he had the body of a human being, he had to suffer the pains of human beings. He had the pains of the physical body. Sometimes he had headaches. Sometimes he had backaches. Sometimes he had illness or sickness. He was not free from these things. Buddha was not a god nor the prophet or a representative of any god. He was a human being.

But by his own human effort he became the extraordinary human being the Buddha. Although he was a human being, he was not an ordinary human being. He was an extraordinary human being. He became the Buddha by his own effort. Nobody made him into a Buddha. He had to go through the practice of meditation. That is only in this last life. In order to accumulate what we call PAramIs, perfections, he had to spend countless rebirths or countless lives. So to become a Buddha is not an easy thing. Not many people aspire for Buddhahood for this reason. One must give up many things and accumulate these perfections. It is not easy.

The Buddha was fully self-enlightened and possessed total purity of mind. What is enlightenment? It can mean different things to different persons. According to our scriptures enlightenment means realizing the Four Noble Truths, seeing NibbAna and eradicating mental defilements. That is what is called enlightenment. If we say a person is enlightened, he must have seen the Four Noble Truths clearly through direct experience. He must have seen NibbAna. And he must have eradicated the mental defilements.

There are four stages of enlightenment. When a person has reached the first stage of enlightenment, he must have eradicated some of the mental defilements. When he reaches the second stage, he eradicates some more. When he reaches the third stage, he eradicates some more. And when he reaches the fourth stage, no defilements will remain with him. After a person reaches the fourth stage of enlightenment, his mind becomes totally pure. No mental defilements can be found in his mind. The same is true for the Buddha but there is some difference. When we say a person is fully enlightened, then he possesses total purity of mind. No attachment, no greed, no hatred, no delusion, no pride, no envy arise. All impurities of mind are totally destroyed. So Buddha was not capable of being attached to anything. He was not capable of greed, not capable of anger, not capable of pride and so on.

When I said this one time a man told me, "Then Buddha would be abnormal." I told him, "Yes, maybe, but I think Buddha was supernormal, not abnormal." If you see a beautiful thing, then you must have attachment. You must enjoy it. You must be happy with it. And if there is provocation, you must be angry. That is normal for ordinary persons. If you don't do that you are supposed to be abnormal. It is above normal, supernormal. Buddha had total purity of mind. It is very difficult to get to that stage. Compare with yourselves. When you drive and someone cuts in front of you or something like that, you will be angry.

The Buddha possessed omniscience. That is very important. Omniscience is knowing everything. With its help he knew exactly what to teach, how to teach and when to teach so that listeners became enlightened. That is why he was so successful when he taught beings or people. He could go into the minds of the listeners and find out what kind of temperament a person had, what were his likes and dislikes. Buddha also knew whether a person was mature enough to gain enlightenment or not. If he was not mature yet, the Buddha would not teach him. He would wait for a time when his mental faculties were mature and knew exactly what to teach.

There are different people with different temperaments. That is why Buddha's teachings are very varied. Sometimes he called one thing aggregate. Sometimes he called the same thing a sense base. Sometimes he called the same thing an element and so on. That was because some people were accustomed to the word 'aggregate'. So for them Buddha used the word 'aggregate', so they could understand easily. Others may not be familiar with the word 'aggregate' but were familiar with the word 'sense-base' or something similar. So the Buddha would use the name that a particular person was familiar with. That is why we have many categories in the teachings of the Buddha. The same thing may have many different names. So the Buddha knew exactly what to teach, how to teach and when to teach. That is why he was so successful in his teaching.

The Buddha allowed freedom of thought, freedom of investigation even of his teachings. He said, "Do not take something to be true simply because you hear it from someone or something, or because it was carried down through tradition, or simply because it accords with your religious books, or simply because it was said by a person for whom you have respect or respectful persons, because it is your teacher or monk." Buddha said, "Investigate it and try it. If it seems to be good accept it and practice it. If it doesn't seem good to you discard it." He said something like that. So Buddha allowed freedom of thought and freedom of investigation of his own teachings. You can have doubt about anything. But you should try to remove this doubt by reading books, by discussing with other persons, or best by practicing it, by practicing meditation and trying to find out for yourself whether a thing is true or not.

That means Buddha's teachings are not to be taken just on faith. Although faith is an important factor or an important faculty in Buddhism, one must rely on one's own practice, on one's own judgment to arrive at the truth of anything.

The Buddha taught self-reliance and self-responsibility. We cannot rely on even the Buddha to become enlightened. We have to rely on ourselves. Even though there are teachers, there are Buddhas, if we do not practice, we cannot get anything from their teaching. We must rely on ourselves.

We must be responsible for ourselves. Whatever we get from this life, good or bad, is the result of what we did in the past. So we are responsible for our happiness here or our suffering here. Nobody makes us suffer here. Nobody makes us happy here. We ourselves make that. So the Buddha taught self-reliance and self-responsibility.

A teacher cannot practice meditation for the student and the student cannot practice for the teacher. A teacher must practice for himself. The student also must practice for himself. Only we ourselves can eradicate or destroy the mental defilements in our own minds and not other persons simply because they are in our minds. So we must rely on ourselves. We do not have to rely on anyone else.

The Buddha was only a teacher. As such he showed us the way to enlightenment. We must make effort ourselves to achieve the goal. This is more or less the same as self-reliance and self-responsibility. We look to the Buddha as our teacher, as a guide, not as some authority or power that would give us something we want. We cannot ask the Buddha to give us enlightenment, to give us happiness, to give us whatever we want. We have to strive ourselves to achieve our goal. Buddha taught us, gave us instructions. If we follow these instructions, if we practice what he taught, we will be able to achieve our goal, the goal of final deliverance from suffering. These are some of the characteristics of the Buddha. There are many more. In connection with the Buddha we should understand the Dhamma and also the SaGgha. Let us try to understand something about the Dhamma.

What is Dhamma? Everybody says the teachings of the Buddha are the Dhamma. When Buddhists say, "I go for refuge in the Dhamma or I take refuge in the Dhamma", what do they mean? His teachings are comprised of what he realized upon enlightenment and what he taught to beings. What he realized upon enlightenment means at the moment of enlightenment there arises in any person a particular kind of consciousness. That kind of consciousness is very powerful. So that kind of consciousness can eradicate mental defilements altogether. That type of consciousness only lasts for a moment, a very very brief moment. a billionth of a second maybe. Immediately following that consciousness are two moments of a different type of consciousness. The first we call path and the other two we call fruition because path is something like the cause and fruit is something like the result. There is path consciousness and then come moments of fruit consciousness.

Since there are four stages of enlightenment, we get eight types of consciousness. There are path and fruit consciousnesses for first stage, second stage, third stage and fourth stage. So altogether we get eight types of consciousness. When we say enlightenment or realization of truth we mean one of these pairs of consciousness. So we get altogether eight types of consciousness.

These consciousnesses take NibbAna as an object, the destruction of defilements and the cessation of suffering as object. So we now we have nine altogether - eight types of consciousness plus NibbAna.

Then we also mean when we say. "I go to the Dhamma for refuge", the teachings given to us by the Buddha which are to be found in the Buddhist scriptures. By the Dhamma we mean the eight types of consciousness which constitute realization of truth, their object which is NibbAna and the teachings given to us by the Buddha. There are altogether ten kinds of Dhamma. When we say Dhamma we mean not only his teachings found in the scriptures but also what he realized at the moment of enlightenment. Everybody who practices meditation can realize this Dhamma.

Let us look at some of his teachings. We cannot go through all of his teachings in a day or many days. The first of his teachings is the Four Noble Truths. He taught the Four Noble Truths in his first sermon to the five monks. Among these Four Noble Truths is the Noble Eightfold Path or Noble Way. It has eight factors - right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. When we say the Four Noble Truths, we include the Noble Eightfold Path because the Fourth Noble Truth is the Noble Eightfold Path. These Four Noble Truths the Buddha taught in his first sermon and also throughout his ministry of 45 years. He taught these Four Noble Truths again and again.

He also taught SamsAra. SamsAra means round of rebirths. Buddha said this life is not the only life we have. We have had many lives, countless lives in the past, and we will have many lives in the future if we do not become Arahants in this life. The beings travel along from one life to another in this SamsAra. SamsAra is the round of rebirths.

The Buddha taught the law of Kamma and rehirth. Good Kamma gives good results. Bad Kamma gives bad results. Because of this Kamma there is rebirth. Buddha taught this law of Kamma and rebirth. When the Buddha taught the law of Kamma, he taught it from his own experience. He had personally seen it for himself. During the middle watch of the night of his enlightenment he had seen beings dying in one life and being born in another. He saw this law of Kamma clearly through direct experience. The law of Kamma taught by the Buddha was not based on logic, not based on speculation, but based on real understanding.

He taught Dependent Origination. This actually is part of the law of Kamma. In Dependent Origination it is taught that because there is ignorance there are good and bad actions. Because there are good and bad actions there is rebirth in the next life. When there is rebirth, there is mind and body and so on. Dependent Origination teaches us that everything is dependent upon some other thing. There is nothing which is absolute. There is nothing which we can call a first cause because this dependency goes on and on and we cannot arrive at a first cause. Everything is relative according to the teaching of Dependent Origination. It is a very important teaching in Buddhism.

He taught Abhidhamma. Abhidhamma is the study of mind, the study of matter, actually the study of everything. It is like psychology because it explains mind by itself and then with reference to the concomitants, and then with reference to the material properties. Also it explains how things are related, in what ways one thing is related to another. Abhidhamma is a very interesting subject, but it is not so easy to understand. A knowledge of Abhidhamma is very helpful in the practice of meditation, especially VipassanA meditation. And VipassanA meditation can help make you understand Abhidhamma more thoroughly. The Abhidhamma and meditation help each other.

What is taught in Abhidhamma can be seen for one's self only through the practice of meditation. Maybe not everything can be seen by an ordinary person, but many of the teachings in the Abhidhamma can be seen by people who practice meditation.

The Buddha showed us the way to purification of mind. He clearly mapped out something like a blueprint for the spiritual development of people. For the spiritual development of people the Buddha gave this blueprint.

The first part of the spiritual blueprint is SIla. That is purity of bodily and verbal actions. That means taking precepts and keeping them. Sometimes it is called virtue. Sometimes it is called moral purity or moral precepts. It is keeping our bodily and verbal actions pure. SIla controls bodily and verbal actions, but not necessarily mental actions.

For example you may be thinking of killing a being, but so long as you do not kill with your body or with your speech, you are not breaking that rule. Simply by thinking you cannot break the rule of not killing, or of not stealing and so on. So SIla the first step controls the bodily and verbal actions. It helps us purify the bodily and verbal actions.

The second part of the spiritual development is SamAdhi, concentration. We have mental defilements almost all of the time. SamAdhi helps us to get rid of these mental defilements or to keep them away from our minds. This is SamAdhi.

SamAdhi takes care of the mental actions, not bodily or verbal actions, but mental actions. When you practice SamAdhi, you have to control your thoughts. You are not to think unwholesome thoughts. You are not to allow unwholesome thoughts to come to you.

The third part of spiritual development is PaJJA, wisdom. Purity of wisdom is gained through concentration and penetration into the nature of things. PaJJA here means PaJJA through VipassanA. When you practice VipassanA, you penetrate into the nature of things. You come to see the true nature of things. That is PaJJA.

PaJJA cannot come to us without SamAdhi. Without SIla we cannot get SamAdhi. These three must be practiced one after the other. Without SIla there can be no SamAdhi. Without SamAdhi there can be no PaJJA. Step by step instructions were given by the Buddha.

SIla is to be achieved by taking precepts and keeping them. SamAdhi and PaJJA are to be achieved through meditation. When you want SamAdhi, you practice meditation. When you want PaJJA, you practice VipassanA meditation. We will talk about meditation in detail later on.

The teachings of the Buddha in brief are: "Not to do evil, cultivate good, and purify your mind." There is a verse in the Dhammapada which states in brief the teachings of the Buddha. That teaching is not to do any evil, cultivate what is good and purify your mind. Those are the teachings of the Buddha.

If you can practice these three, you are a saint. You are an Arahant.

I want to take a little about the importance of the Abhidhamma.

Tape ends.

SAdhu!   SAdhu!   SAdhu!