3. Prince Siddhartha Gautama
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How did prince Guatama become the Buddha?
I haven’t told you about the prince or the Buddha yet because I had to get the business of the pointer out of the way first. Jizo makes it clear these stories are of a special kind. Some people call them legends, but this could make you believe they’re not true and that would be a mistake. Jizo calls them teaching stories. Each bit of these stories has something to say to monks as well as ordinary people who want to see clearly and follow the Buddha’s example.
The prince-who-became-a-Buddha was a real person, but he lived an incredibly long time ago so a lot of the details are missing. It’s like we know he was an awesome skate boarder who flew through the air and did moves no one ever thought of before, but whether he wore a billabong or a gold fish catch trucker nobody will ever know. So, this is his story:
Prince Siddhartha Gautama is born in a little kingdom in the foothills of the Himalayas. It’s 2600 years ago. For those of you who are counting, that’s about 600 years before Jesus Christ. Unbelievable as it may sound India is already civilized. They aren’t cave men. They build beautiful palaces and cities. They ride on elephants and horses. They sail up and down wide rivers and trade with countries thousands of miles away. Of course, there are a lot fewer people than today. There are no machines. The towns and fields are still surrounded by dense jungles filled with tigers and lions and other wild animals.
But the way society works in the Buddha’s time is all very organized. You don’t just grow up and decide what you want to do, like today. You’re born into a special group of people called a caste that does a certain thing and you’re supposed to do that job. You might be born as a farmer or a merchant or a crafts-person or just a bricklayer. The ruling caste are the warriors. The priests as a group are even more respected than the warriors, but they don’t rule
Siddhartha is supposed to become a warrior. He’s the only son of King Suddhodana and from the start he’s educated to become a king himself. And in the old days it isn’t just about cutting ribbons or running charities. You have to know how to hunt and shoot and ride horseback and go to war.
Siddhartha is a proper prince. He grows up strong and tall and good-looking with all the skills of a warrior. In fact, he wins his bride, this gorgeous princess called Yashodhara, by beating all the other princes in an archery contest. They say he split the arrow of his chief rival in two as he hit the bulls-eye. That’s the sort of detail that makes you wonder, but clearly the point is he’s the best in his class, not a useless dropout.
This is important because he does in fact drop the role he was meant for in a big way. He leaves his new wife and baby son, as well as his dad and his whole clan high and dry and disappears into the forest for six years. He might as well be dead, and, in a way, he does die, but what he brings back is so spectacular that it will influence the world for thousands of years.
The back-story of Siddhartha, and the only part we know in any detail, is this head-shaking decision to abandon his kingdom. From the beginning there are clues. When he’s born, the priests check him out from head to toe. They’re like palm readers except they read the whole body for signs and decide that he’ll either be a great ruler or give up the world to become the greatest of all wise men. And what the priests say is taken very seriously. Remember these geezers are born to be priests and they’re supposed to know things like telling the future and making the gods happy so the crops will grow. So, the king believes them, but he’s going to make sure that Siddhartha Gautama becomes a great king, not a great drop-out. Ok, that should read “great sage” but you can see where King Suddhodana is coming from.
The king makes sure that everything is done to make Siddhartha happy. The prince’s mum has died in childbirth so he’s being raised by his mum’s sister. We’re told that his auntie loves him even more than her own baby. He’s educated in all the arts and sciences. He lives in incredible luxury. There are servants around all the time to look after anything he needs. Remember, there are no machines, no computers. Everything is done by hand, and kings have hundreds, maybe thousands, of people working for them round the clock.
King Suddhodana has three palaces: one for summer, one for winter and one for the rainy season. So, Siddhartha never has to worry about getting very hot or cold and wet, like other people in India. During the four months of the rainy season, he’s constantly entertained by a girl band that sings and dances only for him. Wow! His dad sure isn’t leaving anything to chance.
The Buddha, looking back on his years as a prince, says,“I was spoilt, very spoilt.”
But there are clues to suggest that he wasn’t your ordinary prince. Once when his cousin Devadatta shoots down a bird with his bow and arrow, Prince Gautama sees that it’s only wounded and rescues it. Devadatta thinks the bird is his because he shot it, and goes before the king’s court to force Siddhartha to return the bird, but the prince says, “Who should a creature belong to? The one who tries to kill it or the one who tries to save it?”
This convinces the king and his advisers and they let the Prince save the bird. But – hang on – what a weird thing to say if you’re born to be a warrior!
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