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The Four Sublime States
Doctrine and Practice in Buddhism
Thich Vien Ly

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The Life of Sakyamuni Buddha

On the first full-moon day in May, Buddhists all over the world celebrate the three major events in the Buddha’s life – his birth, his enlightenment and his passing away. The Buddha, as he was manifest in human form in our world, is called Sakyamuni Buddha. He was a prince and only son of the king of the Sakya clan in Northern India.

This child was known by his personal, family name of Siddhartha Gautama, Prince of the Sakyas. He was born into the Gautama family in the year 660 Before Christian Era (B.C.E). In remembrance of Siddhartha’s birth, Buddhists listen to the story and read the scriptures (suttas) about these holy events in his life and his teachings. Near the time of giving birth, his mother, Queen Maya, asked to be taken to her parents’ home, where her child should be born. Lumbini park, a quiet, serene place was on the way and some distance from the palace grounds. It was there, accompanied by her court (her husband, King Suddhodana was not with her) Siddhartha was born.

He lived his early years in princely fashion, but on the upper floor for the palace so that he would be protected from seeing and knowing of the ills and woes of the outside world. At age sixteen he married Yasodhara, a beautiful princess. Upon venturing into the streets of the city to perform his princely duties, he saw sickness, old age and death as a condition of many people, and the world was lacking true happiness. He became dissatisfied with his life as a Prince, wanting to be able to help all human beings overcome their suffering.

At the age of twenty-nine, soon after his princess gave birth to their only son, Rahula, Prince Siddhartha left the palace, giving up a crown that held the promise of power and glory. In the guise of an ascetic, he retreated into forest solitude to seek a solution for the problems of life, in quest of the ultimate security from bondage to the cycle of innumerable births and deaths. Dedicated to this noble task, he sought guidance from famous religious teachers hoping these masters of meditation would show him the path to liberation. But, their spiritual experiences were not enough; he sought the supreme Enlightenment he thought they had. He left them, and five beggar-monks known as “mendicants” joined him as his first disciples. He was driven to soar to the heights of liberation, thinking that his deliverance could be gained only by self-mortification as an ascetic.

But, after six years of this life of self-denial, undernourished and starving, he came to death’s door and found himself no closer to his goal. He made the declaration, “I have not found liberation by these austere practices, so how can I lead others toward enlightenment”. After he took milk from a maiden to ward off death, his five disciples left him – for he did not impress them as a guru. He then went to Gaya and sat under a fig tree and decided to sit there until he reached enlightenment. For seven days and nights he applied himself to mindfulness on in-and-out breathing, and during the three watches of the seventh night, he began his progression to full enlightenment. He experienced life events necessary for all human beings and saw that the ills of greed, hatred and self-delusion were the causes of pain and suffering in this life. Siddhartha knew their presence and later taught that growth out of these states was necessary for enlightenment.

During the four hours of the first watch of the night, Siddhartha was able to recognize and admit that he was self-deluded to his own condition of humanness, which causes conflicts and disharmony at all attempts of happiness. In the second watch it became clear to him that the release of striving, yearning and attachments to self and things can open an insight into the cause of suffering. In the four hours of third watch of the night, he saw virtue as a condition of harmony with life events, and the practice of lovingkindness and compassion as the way to eliminate selfish desires. During this period he fought off visions of evil spirits which tempted him to return to his palace life of wealth and luxury.

To root out all ills of the mind and body by mindful concentration was the clarity which came to Siddhartha at dawn of the last watch. He experienced all intoxicants, impurities and biases pass from his body and mind; he understood that the desires to seek pleasures and comfort from without cause ignorance of the inward calm which is needed for the enlightened state. With this, he developed insight that the Middle Way was the manner to achieve balance in one’s life and laid out the conditions of Eight-Fold Path, a way to end human suffering.

Thus did Siddhartha Gautama, on a full moon day at the age of thirty-five, attain Supreme Enlightenment to become the Buddha. The stages of his coming to see the Ultimate Truth of his teachings were clear; these were later to be revealed to the world as the Dhamma: the understanding of, and release from, suffering by The Four Noble Truths and practice of the Eight-Fold Path.

As he taught the Dhamma, his original five disciples joined him, as did thousands more. In this, his words were preserved by his sangha/disciples, and their followers have in turn taught these beliefs and practices to millions through the world. Buddhism spread peacefully, the only weapon being that of universal lovingkindness and compassion. After forty-five years of his ministry, Sakyamuni Buddha, the Enlightened One, passed away at the age of eighty, with this final admonition to his followers:

‘Subject to constant change are all conditioned things. Strive on with heedfulness’.

The Buddha proved by his own experience that enlightenment and deliverance lie entirely in the hands of each one of us. Being an exponent of the strenuous life, by model of precept and examples to follow, the Buddha encourage his disciples to cultivate self-reliance with no dependence on external agents. The ills and disharmony of life must be rooted out be each person – as the path is cleared toward one’s own salvation.

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