Why did Siddhartha quietly leave his home

Siddhartha's path to enlightenment

It is often said that Siddhartha Gautama, who became Buddha, was born in India. A hundred years ago this statement would have been true. Due to political changes we have to say today that his birthplace is in the south of Nepal. He belonged to the Shakya tribe who had settled at the foot of the Himalayas for several centuries. Nor is the usual representation that his father, Suddhodana Gautama, was the king of this tribe. While he was undoubtedly raja (literally 'king') at the time of Siddhartha's birth, today he would be more likely to be called president. Like other small tribes in what was then northeastern India, the Shakyas had given themselves a semi-republican form of government. The respective leader was elected by the council for a term of twelve years. Towards the end of the Buddha's life, these small states were swallowed up by the expanding Magadha Empire. In the first years of his life, however, most of them experienced a heyday. (In order not to have to constantly correct the old reports, in the following we will nevertheless occasionally speak of Suddhodana as 'King' and of the young Siddhartha as 'Prince'.)


Mayadevi, Siddhartha's mother, was the daughter of the head of the Kolijer, a neighboring tribe. As is still the custom in many parts of India today, the first child was to see the light of day in the mother’s home. When Mayadevi sensed that the time of childbirth was approaching, she therefore left Kapilavastu, the capital of the Shakya tribe, in order - as far as we know - to be carried in a litter towards her hometown. But labor began halfway through. Near the village of Lumbini they came to a grove of sala trees. There she left the litter and gave birth to the future Buddha. She died shortly afterwards - according to tradition, after seven days.


The boy Siddhartha was raised by his maternal aunt, Mahaprajapati Gautami, who was also Suddhodana's second wife. Hardly any more can be said about his childhood - after all, it was two thousand five hundred years ago. A single event, later vouched for by the Buddha himself, stands out. This is an experience he had when he was about five or six years old when he attended the annual ritual plowing of the fields in the spring. Throughout the ancient agricultural cultures, the first spring sowing was an event of magical and mythical significance. It was one of the duties of kings or chiefs to do the first plowing themselves. That was the opinion of the emperors in ancient China, and until recently the emperor of Japan also opened the annual plowing season. Siddhartha's father also had this role. In later accounts it is said that he used a golden plow that was pulled by a beautiful white ox. That may or may not have been the case. Regardless of the exact nature of the tool, we can say with certainty that Siddhartha's father performed this ceremony and that little Siddhartha was watching.


The boy had been placed on an embankment in the shade of a jambu, a rose apple tree. There he experienced what might nowadays be called a spontaneous mystical experience. Many years later the Buddha described in the circle of his disciples how he experienced a kind of superconscious state under the rose apple tree, a so-called dhyana. He was so absorbed in this inner immersion that he no longer noticed the plowing and was still in this state when they tried to bring him home.


At this point a remarkable legendary detail flows into the story. It is said that during the entire plowing ceremony, which began at noon and lasted into the evening, the shade of the rose apple tree did not move a bit. If we were to take this statement literally, we would have to speak of a miracle here. The story obviously assumes that the sun had stopped. But perhaps a symbolic interpretation says more. Seen in this way, the wondrous occurrence of the immovable shadow illustrates that time had stood still for the young Siddhartha.


We shall see that this experience - or rather the memory of it - later decisively influenced the direction of Siddhartha's spiritual path. For the time being, however, the time for further mystical experiences had not yet come. Siddhartha and his tribe belonged to the kschatriyas, the warrior caste, and accordingly he was educated as a warrior. To be born into a kschatriya tribe was quite literally to be born a warrior. Likewise, others were born as brahmins (priests), vaischyas (traders and farmers), or schudras (workers). That is still the case in India today, only the four main castes are now divided into about two thousand sub castes.


The future Buddha thus spent the formative years of his childhood and youth not with an intensive study of philosophy and cultic activities, but on the tournament ground, where he learned not only the arts of archery, javelin and sword fighting, but also how to drive a chariot. Because of his patrician origins, he probably received the best warrior training there was at the time. In addition, he was certainly introduced to the manners and customs, the beliefs and superstitions of his tribe, and he was taught some history and genealogy. All of this took place, of course, in oral instruction from the tribal elders. We don't know if he ever learned to read or write. It is best to think of him as someone who was well brought up, cultured, and educated without ever having attended anything like school. All in all, his life was quite comfortable: he was rich, had no special obligations, and was adored by his father.


But Siddhartha did not grow up as smoothly and undisturbed as it may seem afterwards. Shortly after his birth, his father had brought him to the sage Asita, a rishi, to have his horoscope set. Something like this was common in India back then and it still is today. Even the westernized so-called elite almost always have a horoscope drawn up for their children - especially if it is a son. Parents want to know what to expect for their children and what life path they will take, so they ask an astrologer. We do not know how the horoscope was set for Siddhartha. It only says that he was placed in Asita's arms, whereupon the rishi did his calculations. He predicted an extraordinary future for the child: Siddhartha would either grow into a great kschatriya, a great warrior and ruler, or else he would give up everything and become a great spiritual master.


Suddhodana, however, was deeply troubled by this prediction. He liked the idea of ​​his son becoming a famous conqueror - in fact, he was very fond of hearing it. But the thought that the boy could get it into his head to turn his back on the world in order to devote his talents to spiritual pursuit, he found terrible. The older Siddhartha got, the greater Suddhodana's fears became. He thought, “I want my son to be like me. He should be courageous and strong and enlarge our territory, yes, he should - as the Rishi says - become a great ruler who might even conquer all of India. I will know how to prevent him from wasting his time on religious nonsense. We have to keep him from brooding, he doesn't need to find out anything about the darker side of life - at least not yet. First of all, he should direct his heart and striving entirely towards worldly pleasures. "


Suddhodana was determined not to let the young prince want for anything. He should enjoy life and indulge in the most refined, sweetest of sensual pleasures. Later, in one of his autobiographical discourses, the Buddha related that his father had furnished him three beautiful villas, one for each season. Neither the cold, the heat nor the rainy season should cause him any harm. He also said that enchanting dancers and lovely singers populated these houses, with which he spent day and night drinking, singing and dancing. One pleasure replaced the other. There was no time for a moment of reflection or even sadness.


When he was sixteen he was married to his cousin Yashodhara. Of course, this marriage was arranged by the parents. Most marriages in India are still arranged by the families of the bride and groom and not by the young people themselves. Siddhartha was quite satisfied with that and lived like that for several years. But over time, he seems to have become more and more uncomfortable with this life. A certain restlessness drove him inside. When the news broke that his wife had given birth to a son, he did not react with fatherly pride. When asked what the boy should be called, he said: “I was born with a fetter. Call him Rahula ”because that is what the name Rahula means, 'fetter'. It was as if he was beginning to see through his father's intentions. He realized that Suddhodana was trying to chain him to the house with pleasure, property and power, with family, wife and child. He realized what was going on. From then on he began to neglect the practice of the martial arts and lost all interest in the amusements and diversions that were offered to him at home. Domestic life had become dreary and empty for him.


More and more often he withdrew for some time to reflect, until he finally apparently went through some sort of 'spiritual crisis' (although the early scriptures, of course, paraphrased it in other words). Buddhists around the world know this psychological and spiritual turning point in the life of Siddhartha as the dramatic narrative of the four exits - literally, the four sights. It is not known for sure whether this is a legendary decoration, the projected outward result of an intensive self-discovery or whether the whole thing actually happened roughly as the tradition portrays it. Be that as it may, the four exits convey some basic teachings of Buddhism in a very powerful way and at the same time illuminate the beginnings of the Buddha's spiritual development.


The story goes that one fine morning Siddhartha instructed his charioteer to harness the horses for an excursion: “I want to see what happens in the world and how people live.” The charioteer shook his head: “I don't think so, that we are allowed to do that could cost me my job. You know yourself that the king said you shouldn't go out among the people. "But the young prince insisted on his plan:" Don't worry. I take responsibility. If the king has something against it, let him tell me himself. Come on, let's go. ”And so they spurred the horses on and were up and away. They drove out into the village, and Siddhartha saw that the life and goings there was actually no different from what he had expected - until his gaze fell on a very old man.


The surviving texts describe the appearance of the old man quite vividly - he was weak, with withered skin, hunched back, and his bones protruded. Leaning on a stick, he padded along the path. His beard was long and white, and his eyes were watering. All of this may sound a bit thick to us, but by Indian standards it is by no means. Even today, old people look there - because of the climate and their harsh living conditions - sometimes really senile. At fifty or sixty, they can look like centenarians. Furthermore, we must not forget that until now Suddhodana had supposedly kept his son away from all the dark sides of life, and that of course included age. When Siddhartha saw this old man, he pointed to him and asked: "Who, eh, ... what is that?"


The charioteer probably thought to himself: “Well, sooner or later he'll find out after all”, and replied: “That's an old man.” - “But why does he look like that? Why is his back so crooked? Why are the bones sticking out? And why are his eyes watering? ”The charioteer was not very skilled at avoiding such questions, except perhaps with children. He just said: “Well, he's old.” But Siddhartha was not satisfied with that: “But how did he become like that?” - “It happens all by itself,” the charioteer explained patiently. “You don't have to do anything to get old; you get old all by yourself. Unfortunately, this is something very natural. Everyone gets old. "The young prince shuddered:" What? Everyone? ”The charioteer replied:“ Yes, of course, everyone. ”-“ Me too? Will I be like this one day too? "The charioteer nodded:" Your father, the king, will be like this, the queen, your wife, mother, your wife, me and you - we all - will grow old one day. "


It is said that Siddhartha was hit by this message like an elephant was hit by the clap of thunder. He broke out in a cold sweat in shock. "Then what is the use of being young?" He complained. "What is all this vitality and strength supposed to do when it ends in emaciation and frailty?" That tormented his heart, and he only said: "I've had enough for today. Let's go home. ”And while her car rattled back to the palace, he pondered his new knowledge.


So that's the legend of the first exit. Regardless of whether Siddhartha actually saw an old man for the first time in this way or not, the deeper meaning of what happened cannot actually be misunderstood. Perhaps he had even seen many old people without really noticing them. But that day he saw the old person as if it had been the first time. It's something very natural, it happens to all of us. We see something - maybe even every day, as we watch the sun rise and set. But somehow we don't really see it because we are not aware and don't think about it. We see and yet we do not see. We are blind You can work in a retirement home for years without letting the fact of age get any closer to you. If you develop just a little more mindfulness and clarity, you will find that many things appear to you in a whole new light, as if you had never seen them before. In this way, Siddhartha also recognized for the first time in his life, really and in the depths of his heart, that there is such a thing as old age and that his own youth would also be short-lived.


Though this realization had shaken him deeply, tradition has it that he drove out again a few days later. Again something happened to him that he had never seen before. This time he saw a sick man by the side of the road, who was suffering from a fever or something similar and tossing and turning without anyone caring for him. Again Siddhartha asked the charioteer for an explanation: “Say, what's the matter with this man? Why is he lying there on the side of the road? Why is he twitching like that? Why is he shivering and shivering? Why is he rolling his eyes so wildly? Why does his face look so terrible? ”And the charioteer had to tell him:“ Well, he's sick. ”Siddhartha, who until then had obviously always been in excellent health, wanted to know:“ Does something like this happen to other people too? Will it happen to me too? ”Again the chariot driver's answer was unmistakable:“ Yes. Everyone, women and men, can get sick. That can happen at any time. At any moment we can lose our strength and our health and get sick. ”That gave Siddhartha something to think about on the way home to the palace.


Nevertheless, a few days later they made another trip. This time they met four men who were carrying something together on a stretcher. They had the stretcher bars on their shoulders. On this stretcher lay a man wrapped in a yellow cloth. Only his face could be seen. Somehow it looked very strange. Not a muscle moved. It was expressionless, as if made of wax, and the eyes were closed.


Such a sight can be seen every day in India. An Indian funeral is very different from what we know in the west. If someone dies with us, we put them in a box and stealthily put them out of the way, and that's that. Much like rubbish that nobody wants to see, the deceased are tacitly disposed of. You put them in the incinerator or leave them in a small hole in the floor, which you then cover. It's different in India.There the deceased are laid out in the best room in the house, and all friends and relatives come to see them again. Then they say, “Yes, yes, that's exactly what he looked like. As in life. Ah, how happy and peaceful he looks. So, take care, old friend. "You shed a few tears and throw flowers on the body. Four strong men take him on their shoulders and carry him through the streets, his face still uncovered. The corpse is shaken up quite a bit on its way through the heat. A large crowd follows him, and the people on the side of the path look at him and say: "Oh, that's the old so-and-so, I didn't even know he died."


Siddhartha now also saw such a funeral procession, and he asked the charioteer: “How strange! Why are you carrying this man around? What shoud that? What did he do? ”In his usual laconic manner, the charioteer replied:“ Well, the man is dead. ”Again we mustn't forget that death was one of those things that were supposedly kept hidden from Siddhartha, and how to expect, he wasn't a bit wiser after this explanation: "Dead, what do you mean by that?" he does not breathe, he does not see, he does not hear, and he does not feel. He is dead. He is carried to the cremation site. There you will burn your body. This is how you do it when someone has died. "At these words, Siddhartha closed his throat:" Does that happen to everyone? Does everyone come to what you call this death? Am I going to die too? ”The charioteer sighed deeply:“ Yes, your father, your mother, your wife, your child - they all have to die one day. I have to die and you have to die. Who is born has to die. Since the world has existed, millions have been born and each of them has died again. In the future, many millions will certainly be born, but they will all die too. Nobody escapes the icy hand of death. He rules over everything. ”Sadder, more thoughtful, even more tormented than ever before, Siddhartha asked his charioteer to bring him back to the palace.


Those three trips had confronted him with what we might today call 'inescapable existential situations', facts of life that cannot be avoided. Nobody wants to grow old, but there is nothing we can do about it. We don't want to get sick, and yet it happens. We don't want to die, but, like it or not, it is inevitable. And so we begin to ask ourselves, “How did I get into this situation? I want to go on living forever, to be young, strong and healthy, but that won't happen. Why do I have this strong will to live when I have no chance of escaping death? That is puzzling. But why is one even confronted with this riddle? Why this mystery? Is God responsible for it? Is it fate Is it just the way it is? Is there an explanation or is there none? "


Siddhartha was still struggling with these basic questions of life and death when he made another discovery on his fourth trip. This time he saw a man who had shaved his hair and was not wearing the usual white clothing, but a yellow robe. He came quietly down the street. With a begging bowl in his hands, he went from door to door. Something about his level-headed walk caught Siddhartha's attention, and he asked his charioteer, “Who is this man who seems so completely at one with himself and the world?” The charioteer replied, “This is someone who has gone . ”-“ Gone? ”Asked Siddhartha,“ Gone away from where? ”-“ He left the world behind, ”explained the charioteer,“ he left his home and his family. He has given up everything worldly in order to devote himself only to the search for truth. He searches for the answer to the riddles of existence. That is why he has given up all ties - all family, social and political duties. In this sense he left. "


You can still meet such people in India. They still wear yellow robes today. These people are called sadhus, which simply means 'good people'. It is very meritorious to support them with alms. They are given food, invited home and fed there. Two and a half thousand years after Siddhartha was alive, this old system is still working. The sight of such a person aroused in Siddhartha the desire to break into homelessness himself. The ultimately unreasonable limitations of human existence had engraved themselves too deeply in his consciousness for him to deny them or dismiss them as insignificant. He just couldn't go on living as he had before. Of course, one can pretend that these things, which are always present, do not exist. Siddhartha couldn't and didn't want to. Because he had also seen that there was a way to fathom the meaning of it all. After careful consideration, he concluded that he had no choice but to become a sadhu himself: these questions required an answer, and he could not rest until he found that answer.


In the deep silence of a night with a full moon, Siddhartha said goodbye to his sleeping wife and their child. He didn't like to leave them, but he couldn't help it. He had not let anyone in on his plans, only his faithful charioteer, who now saddled the horse for him too. Siddhartha left the palace one last time as a prince. The story goes that the charioteer grabbed the horse's tail and ran after him until they came to the border river of the Shakya territory. There Siddhartha cut off his beard and long flowing black hair. At that very moment - dawn was just approaching - a beggar came along. Siddhartha suggested that they swap clothes with each other. As unusual as the proposal was, the beggar liked it. Beaming with joy at his new, richly embroidered robes, the gold and silver buttons and buckles of which sparkled in the first sunlight, he moved on. Siddhartha said goodbye to his faithful charioteer and his horse. He looked after them for a long time. Then he disappeared alone in the jungle.


He went in search of teachers whom he hoped would already have solved the fundamental riddle of life. Then, as now, there were many people in India who shed light on the paths to truth. He moved from one teacher to another, practicing according to their instructions, and soon mastering what they could teach him. But that wasn't enough for him. As good and profound as her teachings were, he knew that there was still something that went beyond all of her knowledge, which he had now also experienced for himself. Admittedly, he was not yet able to name this something himself. He didn't even know what it was. But he had to find it, he had to know. He had to continue his search.


He gratefully accepted what the teachers taught him, but it drove him on. He underwent extremely strict ascetic exercises. This is still widespread in India. This is based on a simple conviction: the thinner, in a sense, the fleshly shell, the more permeable it becomes for the light of the spirit. For years Siddhartha chased his body, and there was no one in India who surpassed him in it. It is said that the glory of his self-mortification echoed far across the country, like the sound of a great bell hanging in the sky. Gradually a group of supporters gathered around him. But then something happened that made him wonder whether he had made great strides in the wrong direction. One day he passed out from weakness and fell into a river. He was too weak to stand up and save himself, but luckily someone came to his aid. When he recovered, he said to himself, “This is nonsense. All this asceticism has brought me no closer to the truth. I wasted my time. That was a big mistake. "


So the famous ascetic Siddhartha began to eat regularly again. His five students found it less than impressive - in fact, they were more admirers or fans than actual students. They had left the effort to him and, as it were, hung on the tail of his coat, trusting that his achievements would somehow rub off on them. Should he one day achieve the goal through the power of his asceticism, then they would be the first to benefit from it. Her disappointment was all the greater when he decided to feed the body again with the nourishment it needed. “He's giving up,” they said to one another, “he's returning to worldly luxury. We were wrong about him. ”Disgusted, they left him. Siddhartha was alone again.


In this way, six years after leaving the palace, he came to the place that was to turn out to be the goal of his search. There was a small forest with beautiful trees on a river near the village of Uruvela in what is now Bihar State. Today this place is known as Bodh-Gaya. It seemed ideal to sit down there and meditate. Siddhartha did that too. He was sitting in the shade of a tree, there was a light wind, and then suddenly he remembered something that seemed to show him the way. He remembered the experience he had had as a child thirty years ago. At that time, while his father was performing the ritual of the first plow, he had sat under a rose apple tree. Very carefully he felt himself back into that collected state of deepening. He was not trying to force anything, but simply allowing the experience to ascend and at the same time let go of everything that was hindering its ascension. While he was sitting there, the wife of a cowherd from the next village brought him some rice pudding, which he ate. That gave him new strength. A grass cutter also visited him and gave him an armful of kusa grass, which he made into a more comfortable seat. Then he collected himself again and gave himself completely to the experience of meditation. He plunged deeper and deeper into another world of experience and passed through ever higher levels of superconscious states.


We don't know how long he sat there. Maybe it was a few days, maybe even weeks and months. We only know that on the night of the full moon in the month of vesakha he found the solution to the problem that had never left him since his 'Four Exits'. Now he had not only found the solution, he also understood it, penetrated deeply, became one with it and realized it completely. Complete clarity rose in him. He was enlightened.


Some early texts attempt to give us an idea of ​​the content of this experience, but it is not an easy task. Enlightenment is by its very nature indescribable. It is not something the mind can find words for. First of all, we can arguably say that it is a condition of pure, clear and radiant consciousness. This statement is sometimes supplemented to the effect that in this state of pure awareness there is no longer any emotional difference between yourself and others. The familiar experience of an inner world separated from and confronted with the outer world is completely transcended. All that remains is constant, pure, homogeneous awareness that freely expands in all directions. This is also an awareness of the world as it really is. That is, things are not experienced as objects, but in a way that transcends the duality of subject and object. That is why this pure, clear awareness is also called awareness of reality. It is a state of knowledge - but not of knowledge in the usual sense of a mere accumulation of opinions about the world - but a knowledge that sees the world itself directly and truthfully, without this seeing being conveyed by a somewhat independently existing subject . It is a spiritual vision or vision - a transcendent vision - that is free from all deception, free from erroneous assumptions or wrong, twisted ways of thinking, free of any vagueness and obscurity and beyond all mental conditioning and prejudice.


But that is by no means all. We cannot call enlightenment just comprehensive illumination, transcendent awareness, or wisdom. It is also very much an oozing of deep love and compassionate compassion for all living beings. Enlightenment is described as the highest happiness and at the same time as complete liberation - the bliss of liberation from all subjective defects and limitations of conditioned existence. Associated with this ecstatic freedom is a tireless bubbling up of energy, absolute spontaneity and uninterrupted creativity. None of these aspects of enlightenment exist and work on their own. For this reason, the actual experience cannot ultimately be described at all. Only by reflecting on the Dharma - and thus on the teaching and the living example of the Buddha - as well as through profound communication experiences with spiritual friends and, above all, through meditation, can one have a hint of what makes enlightenment a Buddha.


Tradition has it that the Buddha's enlightenment experience gradually unfolded during the full moon night of the vesakha month. One account describes how the Buddha looked back into the past - the "dark abyss of the past" - during the first night watch. Over millions of years of evolution, he looked back at the entire history of mankind. It is said that he had visualized all his previous lives and saw what he had done then and the consequences of his actions. He saw through the conditions he had created and the results that had resulted from them. And he saw that he had now finished and brought it to an end. He had completely transcended the entire course of conditional existence.


Then, during the second vigil, he looked around, so to speak, and saw the whole universe. He saw beings of all kinds - people, animals and also beings in higher worlds. He saw how each of them had come into being, what had become of them according to his deeds, and what they were now. In other words, he saw how beings are reborn according to their karma. It also became clear to him that this applies to every level of worldly existence, from the deepest depths of hell to the highest spheres of gods.


Finally, during the third vigil, he turned his mind to the destruction of the ashravas - literally 'poisonous currents' or 'inclinations'. In this context, the ashravas mean the natural and ingrained tendency of the mind to strive for a conditioned existence rather than that which is unconditioned. They consist in his tendency to ultimately not-be-true instead of true. There are three ashravas: the inclination or inclination of the mind to sensual experience; the urge to want to be a self-existent, ego-like personality and the tendency to spiritual delusion in the sense of not being aware of reality. So the Buddha directed his mind, completely purified by concentration, to the destruction of the ashravas. In the morning, just as the sun was rising, he knew that he had utterly destroyed the ashravas. He had achieved enlightenment. Siddhartha Gautama had become the Buddha.


Excerpt from: Sangharakshita, man? God? Buddha. Life beyond opposites, do evolution, Essen 1998, pp. 45-62

Reproduced with permission from do evolution.