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Finding Liberation

These became oft-visited sites of pilgrimage. As a result, the life of the Buddha took a monumental turn, in every sense of the word. By visiting these sites, followers were able to relive each and every glorious episode of the life of their master and have these environments fill their imaginations.

However, these stupas were more than simple commemorative monuments; they were also primarily mausoleums or reliquaries containing parts of the body of Buddha. Contact with or proximity to these relics was said to have magical efficacy, increasing the chances of happiness in this world and of salvation in future lives.

One of these builders of stupas, the 3rd-century Mauryan emperor Ashoka, would have an immense impact upon the development of the Buddhist religion. Ashoka, whose empire extended across India, went on a pilgrimage to the birthplace of the Buddha in Lumbini, where he erected a commemorative pillar. However, tradition has it that he also ordered the construction of 84, stupas, where relics of Buddha would be deposited.

His role as a Buddhist sovereign played a significant role in the relationship between Buddhism and sovereignty in all the cultures of Asia.


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Without Ashoka, Buddhism would most likely have remained a minority religion, like Jainism, with which it shares many features. Related: Beneath the Eyes of the Buddha. These past lives form the focus of texts known as Jatakas. This same model is applied to the existence of other past buddhas. The Mahayana tradition in particular speaks of numerous cosmic buddhas, who are already present—although invisible to the human eye.

Initially presented as some kind of superhuman being, the Buddha was therefore gradually transformed into some kind of god.


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This development is documented in some scriptures of the Mahayana. In the Lotus Sutra , for instance, the Buddha himself calls his own historical authenticity into question. During a sermon, the Buddha declares to his disciples that he has already guided numerous beings toward salvation.

Faced with their skepticism, he calls upon these beings to show themselves, and a multitude of bodhisattvas suddenly spring up from the ground. While his disciples wonder how he has been able to carry out this task during his existence as a human, he reveals that his life is, in fact, eternal. He states that the time has come to reveal the real truth, namely that he has essentially always been the Awakened One. The weak-spirited which refers to what were then called the followers of the Hinayana—the lesser, or inferior, vehicle—but which we now prefer to call Nikaya Buddhism will, he says, continue to believe in the conventional truth of the biography of the Buddha, whereas his most advanced disciples will know the ultimate truth—the transcendent nature of the Buddha.

What does this belief signify? Is there any way to reconcile it with the proliferation of cosmic buddhas associated with the Mahayana tradition?


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  • The Orientalist scholars of Buddhism wanted to see it as a religion that would tie in with their own views: rather than being a religion revealed by a transcendent God, their Buddhism was seen to be a human, moral, and rational religion founded by an extremely wise individual. Related: What the Buddha Taught? My purpose here is not to deny the authenticity of a man who once was known as the Buddha. Rather, I want to highlight the fact that the question itself is irrelevant, except for a historicist—that is, Western—approach.

    The question is certainly of little consequence for traditional Buddhists, who see the life of the Buddha above all as a model and an ideal to be followed.

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    The imitation of this timeless paradigm is a fundamental fact of monastic life. It is not just about achieving awakening for oneself by identifying with the Buddha individually; it also involves recreating the Buddhist community ideal of the early days: bringing the Buddha back to life, not just as a detached individual but rather in close symbiosis with his disciples.

    So why is establishing the historical authenticity of the Buddha of such great importance to us modern folk? Because for us the authenticity of the life of the founder is the only guarantee of the originality of the religion he founded. Without a concrete biography, the Buddha disappears into the mists of time, and without the Buddha, Buddhism itself seems to become dangerously plural. But plural is what Buddhism has actually always been. Indeed, the conservative Nikaya Buddhism—that is, those schools based on the earliest strata of scriptures, nowadays represented by Theravada—in many ways stands in stark contrast to the abundance of images and mystical fervor of Mahayana Buddhism, as well as to Tantric Buddhism, with its emphasis on magic, sexuality, and transgression.

    In fact these two movements, while initially opposed, ended up complementing one another. While a religion based on orthodoxy such as the monotheisms of the West would most often have anathemized contradiction, Buddhism embraces more or less all of these competing or apparently irreconcilable trends.

    In this sense, it is perhaps preferable to talk of a Buddhist nebula rather than a unified religion. The image of the Buddha, which is constantly being renewed, is one of the elements that have enabled Buddhists of all denominations to identify with the same tradition. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Wiley-Blackwell.

    Who Is The Buddha? - The Story of Siddhartha Gautama

    Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! He put on the saffron robe of an ascetic and wandered off into the wilderness. They taught him several meditation techniques and passed on all their insights. He continued on his journey and met five other homeless wanderers. Together, the group pursued a strict ascetic lifestyle. He barely ate or drank at all, and practised extreme forms of self-mortification. After six years, he was nothing but skin and bone. Eventually he collapsed. Regaining consciousness, he realised that extreme ascetic practices were not the right path either. A girl herding cattle passed by and offered him some rice porridge, which he accepted.

    Disgusted, the other five ascetics went on their way without him. He vowed to remain seated there and meditate until he had found a path to liberation. At dawn, when the morning star shone in the sky, he achieved the enlightenment that he had sought for so long. He perceived the transience of all physical and mental phenomena and saw that nothing in this world can exist in a vacuum, in isolation from everything else. As a result, all selfish desires were extinguished in him and he was filled with loving kindness and compassion towards all living beings.

    Biography Newsletter

    Then he travelled to the city of Benares Varanasi , a major religious centre in India. It was to them that he delivered his first sermon. Afterwards, one of the five immediately achieved enlightenment. Over the next few days, the Buddha continued teaching the ascetics. The other four also achieved enlightenment and subsequently remained with him as his disciples. After some time, he travelled to Kapilavastu to share his insights with his family. His son entered the monastic order as a novice. At the request of the aunt who had brought him up, the Buddha also established an order of nuns.

    After this visit, the Buddha spent forty-five years travelling around the Ganges basin and instructing all who requested it. Death At the age of eighty, the Buddha told his disciples that he would not be with them much longer. Soon afterwards he fell seriously ill, but recovered sufficiently to be able to travel with a group of students to Vaisali, a city dear to his heart. Not long after this, he suffered serious food poisoning. There he asked them to prepare a couch for him between two Sal trees Shorea robusta.

    He lay down on the couch and announced that he was about to die.

    Buddha’s early life

    He told his disciples to summon the rulers of the Malla tribe, because he did not wish to die on their land without them witnessing this. Surrounded by his disciples and the Mallas, he asked three times if they had any remaining questions or doubts about his teachings.

    All remained silent. Then he entered into a meditative state and died. The trees shed their blossoms and the birds stopped singing. The body of the Buddha was cremated and his ashes were given to the rulers of eight kingdoms in northern India, and stupas were built to house the ashes. The first eye-catcher in the exhibition is a big Buddha statue. In this way he tries to preserve history.