Buddha’s Quest for Enlightenment
If we look at the trials and tribulations that the Buddha went through on his search for enlightenment, it is interesting to learn what such a great soul had to endure on his spiritual journey and what experiences he went through – because we have to tread a similar path. So as we follow the story of the Buddha, we may see some parallels in our own lives.
The Buddha started life as a member of the Shakya clan, which lived in northern India bordering on the present-day kingdom of Nepal. He is thought to have lived from 563 to 483 BCE. He was born in the era of Zoroaster in Persia and Lao Tzu in China. So during that particular period in history there was a spiritual awakening in many parts of the world.
Initially known as Prince Siddhartha, he was being groomed to take over the leadership of his clan. The prince gave up the trappings of royalty to search for an end to suffering.This search eventually brought him to the famous bodhi tree, where he received enlightenment at the age of thirty-five. This awakening earned him the name of Shakyamuni, a title which means ‘Sage of the Shakyas’. He spent the remaining forty-five years of his life teaching the path that leads from suffering and dissatisfaction to genuine spiritual fulfilment.
What motivates a person to follow a spiritual path? What brought us to this path? No matter where you happen to be on this planet, whether you belong to a tribe in a remote part of the Amazon jungle or whether you happen to live amid the hectic pace of a modern city, if you are destined to come on to this path, the Master will use whatever means necessary to draw you into his fold. Just as an iron filing is drawn to the magnet, so the magnetism of the Master will draw his disciples to him.
In the final analysis what brings us to the path is the grace of the Master. If you are one of his marked sheep he will draw you into his fold. If you are accepted for initiation it is due to his grace. It is all his grace.
So what prompted the prince to seek spiritual enlightenment? He had all the trappings of royalty and wanted for nothing. His father, the king, was grooming him to take over leadership of the clan. And he was hoping that the prince would never want to leave. When the prince reached the age of twenty-nine the king decided that the time had come for his son to view the kingdom that he would one day rule. So he arranged the removal of all unpleasant sights in the area that the prince would visit.
Together with his charioteer, the prince set out, and everything went well; he was greeted with affection and great joy by his subjects. But then they came across a person obviously in great pain. The prince asked his charioteer the meaning of this. It was explained to him that sooner or later nearly everyone experiences disease and discomfort. The next two occasions he entered the city, he came across old age and death, and the prince was devastated. He wondered how people could possibly live with the knowledge that old age, disease and death were their inevitable fate.
He pondered deeply on what he had seen. He could not accept that these three woes were the be-all and end-all of life. It made no sense. Finally on his fourth excursion he came across a homeless wanderer. Despite his appearance, the wanderer possessed an aura of calmness and determination. The prince asked who he was and the man replied: “I am one who has given up the household life to search for a way out of the suffering of this world.”
The prince then realized what he had to do. He saw that humanity could not escape the three woes as long as it lived within the domain of the senses. So he made it his goal to find a way to transcend the senses, to find the meaning of man’s existence.
His father was enraged by the prince’s decision and forbade him to leave the palace. But the prince managed to escape, leaving behind his wife, a young child and a life of luxury. This became known as the Great Renunciation.
What do the mystics mean by renunciation – a word that is often misunderstood? On our spiritual quest, we don’t have to leave our loved ones, give up all our possessions, and go and live in a cave somewhere. What we have to give up is attachment, which is the real cause of our suffering and dissatisfaction. We can enjoy something without it becoming an obstacle on our spiritual quest.
When the prince started on his spiritual quest, he heard of a forest in the kingdom of Magadha where ascetics lived. These ascetics believed that by enduring pain and hardship they could, through the force of will power or concentration of the mind, control the senses. The prince adopted these measures: he subjected his body to the elements day and night, and he hardly ate. These austerities reduced him to a skeletal state. But he was no nearer his goal. The austerities taught the prince a lesson: he had to avoid extremes to succeed – he would have to adopt the Middle Way. Even today Buddhism is widely known as the Middle Way. And this is an important lesson for us. We have to maintain a balance in our lives.
Then the prince went through a period of his life which every spiritual seeker has to contend with. In Buddhist terminology, the prince was tempted by Mara the Tempter. Mara the Tempter embodies the evil that plagues the mind and leads to all the problems that are associated with living in the body.
What is it that we have to overcome? What is the root cause of our problem? We suffer from two maladies: ignorance and amnesia – ignorance of who we really are and amnesia as to how this came about. When we entered this physical realm, the true self, our true being, became identified with the body, the mind and the senses, and an ego was created. All our problems can be attributed to our identifying with this ego. The Masters tell us unequivocally that this is the major obstacle to overcome on our spiritual quest.
At one point in his life after attaining enlightenment, the Buddha was asked by one of his followers: “Who are you? Are you a prophet, are you an angel, are you God?” The Buddha replied: “I am one who has awakened.”
When we look at the question of suffering, it is difficult to understand the reason for all the misery that is apparent on earth. It can only be understood in the context of the soul which is deathless, timeless and limitless. When we experience that paradigm shift to a higher level of consciousness, then we will realize that there is a divine plan. We see that everything going on around us is for a specific purpose.
We don’t have to give up house, home and family on this path. What we have to give up is our attachment to these things. We don’t have to subject the body to austerities in pursuit of our spiritual quest. The body is the temple of the Shabd. We have to respect it. It is our shrine of worship and a priceless gift.
All spiritual seekers are essentially following the same path. We are here on the same mission: to go beyond association with the body and the senses. We may call it liberation, salvation or enlightenment. But the ultimate goal is union with the divine. That is our objective. We are going to the region of light. We are going home.