The life of the Buddha
We shall now briefly examine the life story of Buddha Shakyamuni.
A long time ago, he first of all developed the "thought of enlightenment" (Bodhicitta or desire to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of beings), and then, during long Kalpas, accumulated the two qualities of merit and transcendental wisdom. Finally he became a perfect Buddha in the paradise of 'Og-min and, for the sake of beings, performed the following twelve acts :
1. Taking various and manifold incarnations in order to help sentient beings.
2. Leaving the celestial kingdom of dGa'-lDan and coming to our earth.
3. Entering the womb of his mother.
4. Being born.
5. Showing his supreme mastery in all domains of science.
6. Enjoying himself in the company of his wives.
7. Turning his back to worldly life when he ordained himself a monk.
8. Practicing asceticism.
9. Defeating demons and obstacles.
10. Manifesting enlightenment.
12. Entering nirvana or passing beyond suffering.
When the Buddha was staying in the paradise of dGa'-lDan to teach the gods, the Buddhas came to request and remind him that the time had come for him to incarnate on our earth.
He took five choices regarding time, country, caste, lineage and mother, and then put his crown on the head of rGyal-ba Byams-pa (Maitreya), thus consecrating him to be the next Buddha to come after himself.
The Buddha first of all chose to incarnate at our time, when humans do not live more than about one hundred years. As his place of incarnation he also chose our realm of humans and the continent of India, which was already blessed by the coming of the preceding Buddhas and where a great number of disciples would be ready to receive his teachings.
He also chose to incarnate in the royal caste, which was the best caste at the time. His fourth choice concerned the lineage, which was continuing without a break for seven generations.
Finally, he chose the beautiful sGyu-'Phrul-ma (skt. Maya) to be his mother, because she possessed all necessary qualities and had taken the vow to become the mother of the future Buddha a long time ago.
Having taken these five choices, he entered the womb of his mother through her right side in the form of a white elephant endowed with six defenses. At this moment, she felt an unprecedented joy.
He spent ten months in the womb of his mother. Then, when she was just walking around the park of Lumbini and was stretching to get hold of a branch of the Paksha tree, he was born from her right side.
Thus he was born, his body shining in the radiant brilliance of pure gold resembling ten million suns. The sky was all filled with divine offerings. An incalculable number of gods and goddesses came to welcome him, took hold of him, bathed his body and clothed him in divine garments.
But he ordered to be released, and, putting his feet down to the earth, he made seven steps in each of the four directions and declared his supremacy within the entire universe. Bright light pervaded the world and everybody was filled with joy. That day, still other miracles happened in great number, which induced his father, King Zas-gTsang (skr. Shuddodhana), to give him the name of Don-sGrub (skr. Siddharta), which means: "He, who realizes all aims".
Later, the prince went to see a scholar who was very knowledgeable in the different kinds of scripts. This scholar taught him 500 different scripts, but the child claimed that he already knew them all and to the astonishment of his teacher, revealed many additional scripts which were yet unknown.
Likewise, he also manifested his incomparable supreme mastery in all other domains of science and exercises of dexterity or strength.
Then, to teach beings leaning towards the ways of the world, and in order to point out the possibility of being liberated within this very world, he married and enjoyed the company of numerous wives.
One day, when he left his palace, he met with and recognised the suffering of old age, sickness and death, as well as the serene calm of renunciation as seen embodied by the person of a noble monk. At that point he decided, for the benefit of beings and to teach them., to also apply himself to the search for the way of liberation from suffering.
At the age of 29, he went away from his palace and, at the foot of the rNam-Dag Stupa (sacred buddhist monument), he cut his own hair and ordained himself a monk as an outer sign of his renunciation of the world.
He then joined a group of hermits, who practiced extremely austere and strict asceticism; in order to teach the necessity of the virtue of effort and perseverance in the Dharma (sacred teachings), he practiced even more severe asceticism himself. For six long years, he applied himself to this type of meditation and almost complete fasting.
Then, in order to teach beings that physical mortification and weakening do not lead to enlightenment, and on request of the celestial Buddhas, he abandoned these practices and accepted the food and milk two young village girls offered to him.
He then thought about where to manifest the act of perfect enlightenment. Following the request of the gods and his own considerations, he traveled to Boddhgaya, which is the place where all the Buddhas of the three times show the act of enlightenment. At each of his foot steps, a lotus flower sprang up. When he arrived at the Vajra seat (Boddhgaya), he sat down in meditation and, remaining there, attained incomparable enlightenment.
The demons and evil spirits, unable to tolerate this, raised their terrifying army, and a rain of deadly weapons came pouring down on the Buddha. But through the power of his meditation on love, he immediately transformed them into a rain of flowers and divine offerings.
He then showed the appearance of enlightenment and omniscient Buddhahood; all the celestial Buddhas came up to him to inquire about his well-being, and the Bodhisattvas who have made the vow of benefiting others offered him an umbrella made of rays of light, which was large enough to cover the entire universe.
Remaining in his cross-legged posture, the Buddha rose up high into the sky and declared :
"The illusion of existence has been ended ; suffering has come to a stop and infinite happiness has been obtained."
For seven weeks the Buddha still remained leaning against the tree of enlightenment, reflecting on the universe.
At last on the request of the god Tshang-pa (skr. Brahma), he decided that it was necessary to start his teaching activity. At Sarnath, near the Indian Benares of our modern times, he transmitted the first group of his teachings dealing with the Four Noble Truths, which constitute the essence of the teachings of the small vehicle or Hinayana.
At various places he later gave many precepts regarding the discipline of monks.
For the benefit of beings, he also accomplished a great number of miracles. For example, at the age of 57, he defeated six Hindu masters, who held wrong views, in the land of mPyan-Yod (skr. Shravasti) by means of his superior knowledge and powers. This fortnight of miracles is being commemorated every year, starting on the first day of the Tibetan calendar.
On the Vulture Peak mountain near Rajgriha he gave most of the second group of his teachings, comprising the Sutras (words of the Buddha) of the ultimate perfection of wisdom (skt. Prajnaparamita). These teachings deal with the profound empty nature of dharmas (phenomena). This means they are devoid of all characteristics of either existence or non-existence. Buddhism is also called "the middle way", because it avoids the two views which fall into either the extreme of existence or the extreme of non-existence. This second group of teachings constitutes the philosophical basis of the Great Vehicle or Mahayana.
Finally, mostly at Yangs-pa-can (skr. Vaishali), the Buddha transmitted the last group of teachings of Sutras and Tantras which are the foundation of the Tantric Vehicle or Vajrayana, Mantrayana. This is the vehicle which is predominantly practiced by Tibetans and Mongolians, and which has also developed in China and Japan. This Tantric Vehicle contains a great number of specific meditations and yoga practices, but it has also incorporated the other two vehicles.
The Buddha has thus shown an immense number of teachings to meet all kinds of inclinations among would-be disciples.
Towards the end of his life, he turned to the north and prophesied the extraordinary development that the Buddha's doctrine would enjoy in the land of snow (Tibet).
In order to teach beings impermanence and death, which inevitably follow each birth, at the age of 81, the Buddha showed the appearance of passing away in the village of Kushinagar. He entered "nirvana", the state beyond suffering.
For the benefit of future beings, to help them develop merit, the relics of his body were distributed to eight different Stupas to be a support for faith.
Later they multiplied spontaneously, due to the faith of disciples, and these days they can still be found throughout the Buddhist world.
The Three Vehicles
In this short biography of the Buddha, we have seen that his teaching can be grouped into three vehicles :
- The Smaller Vehicle (Hinayana)
- The Greater Vehicle (Mahayana)
- The Tantric Vehicle (Vajrayana).
The Smaller Vehicle is called small because the main motivation of its followers is not the benefit of others, but the personal extinction in the peace of nirvana. Consequently, the state obtained is not that of a perfectly accomplished Buddha able to realize the benefit of all forms of beings.
The Greater Vehicle is much superior to the first vehicle in that its followers, from the very beginning of their practice, take the Bodhisattva vow. This is the resolution not to desire the peace of the extinction of nirvana just for oneself, but to remain close to sentient beings so as to help and guide them towards perfect enlightenment. But this path of accomplishing the perfections is slow.
In contrast, the Tantric Vehicle, due to the special skillfulness of its methods of realisation, makes it possible to obtain enlightenment in just one lifetime. This is why it is the very heart of the Buddha's doctrine.
The greater vehicle and the Tantric vehicle have also a much larger scope in that the attainment of the ultimate result is equally in reach for monks and householders, whereas in the smaller vehicle the ultimate result seems almost reserved for monks.
Of these three vehicles, the Small Vehicle (Hinayana) is predominantly found in Ceylon, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, etc. , the Great Vehicle (Mahayana) in China and Japan, the Tantric Vehicle (Vajrayana, Mantrayana) in Tibet. This last vehicle incorporates all the teachings of the three vehicles and thus goes beyond apparent contradictions between certain teachings. These contradictions are dissolved, if one considers the diversity of disciples, circumstances and context which these teachings are designed for.
We thus understand the immense richness and abundance of teachings and spiritual techniques such as meditation with and without form, or, to mention one of the characteristics of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism, yoga and breathing techniques for mastering the mind and bodily energies, etc..
Another important characteristic of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism is "the skillfulness and ease in the method". This does not mean that it is easy to become a Buddha, but that, if one understands the method or way to proceed, all circumstances of everyday life, including even those which usually seem to be obstacles to religious life such as passions, faults, anger, hate and all others, are being used as the very method for realisation, by understanding that their essence is emptiness, and that they are but artificial creations of the mind.
The specific methods of Tantric Buddhism can only be practiced if there is a solid foundation of firm resolution, which is obtained by meditational training. They can be divided into two main groups :- General Preliminaries
- Specific Preliminaries of Tantric practice.