THE REALITY OF BUDDHA
The birth of the Buddha occurred in the sixth century before Christ. The Buddha was born in Kapilavastu (now on the border between India and Nepal). He was a son of the King of the Sakyas. This was a time of change even for princes and their kingdoms. The classless society of the tribe had vanished. The growth of cities and trade created and fostered the individual. Man was no longer faceless, a member of a community, but alone. The Buddha emerged from this period of transition. The Buddha, who was destined to become the Enlightened One, and a social reformer.
Buddha, as the young Prince Gautama, met the Four Classical Encounters. Buddha silently gave testimony to the power of an old man, a sick person, a corpse and a mendicant, to teach the nature of suffering.
Scarred by these symbols, the Buddha set out upon a quest for liberation. He renounced family, and left the palace. He wore the yellow robe of the ascetic, and went about shaven headed. He drove himself to starvation, exhaustion and profound philosophic enquiry.
Reaching the limits of human endurance, the Buddha seated himself beneath the Bodhi tree. He vowed that he would not leave that place until he had reached illumination. Here, the Buddha, in meditation, encountered the forces of negativity known in classical terms as "Mara", the evil one. The Buddha loosened past attachments. He witnessed lives already lived. He understood the moral ordering of the universe. He penetrated the law of Karma. He recognised the necessity of the Four Noble Truths.
On the forty-ninth day, the Buddha, the Blessed One, reached Enlightenment. Legend tells that trees blossomed, and fruit fell. Rocks split open releasing flowers. The sea became sweet. There were miracles. Yet, the Enlightenment itself? Had it been the result of ultimate philosophic analysis, or an ecstatic revelation?
The Buddha took his truth to the Five Ascetics in the Deer Park. They prostrated, and recognised Prince Gautama as the Blessed One. The Buddha having found a voice, the lion's roar, set in motion the Turning of the Wheel of the Law.
The first Turning of the Wheel of the Law dealt precisely with the Four Noble Truths, the Way that leads to the cessation of suffering. It brought man to terms with the Four Encounters - old age, illness, death and renunciation.
So great was the Buddha's impact, and the number of disciples that followed on the conversion of the Five Ascetics in the Deer Park, that it seemed Nirvana might be possible in life itself. The Four Noble Truths implied action not dialect, a reality far beyond any sermon.
The Buddha reached his end in a grove, lying upon a couch between two sala trees, with only Ananda in attendance. The Buddha had taught for forty-five years in India. He was now old, and the dissolution of the body was the natural thing. With injunctions that the search for liberation must never be abandoned, the Buddha was gone. He had entered rapturous stages of meditation. Then the flame of life was extinguished.
The teachings had rooted, thrived and bore fruit. The dharma, the imprint of the Buddha, spread. Ceylon, China, Japan and Tibet embraced Buddhism, absorbed the teachings into their own cultures.
In modern times, Buddhism is again taking on a social significance. It has brought about a social renewal in India. For three thousand years a whole class of people were kept in social subjection. They became known as Untouchables. They performed the jobs no one else would do. They burned the dead. They removed human excrement. The Untouchables were considered by Indian custom to be outside humanity. Finally, they found a leader in Dr. Ambedkar, an Untouchable lawyer. Dr. Ambedkar recognised Buddhism to be a system based upon equality and justice. He, and thousands of his fellow Untouchables, converted to Buddhism. The Untouchables chose to transform themselves by taking Refuge in the Buddha. Dharma was a real truth, and a social reality. The stigma of Untouchability was gone forever.
In Africa, Buddhism has such a relevance. Buddha exemplified social equality. His wisdom understood suffering as the condition of life. Buddha showed the Way to alleviate this. The Way means striving now when foundations in Africa are collapsing. A time when familiar customs and ideas are no longer viable. A time when conscience must be ruthlessly examined, and racial attitudes changed.
Africa is a continent between East and West. It is influenced by the technology of Europe, and the ancient past. In these powerful links of both history and culture, the message of the Buddha is alive.
The life of the Buddha exemplified the complete freedom. The teachings of the Buddha show the Way to Enlightenment.