Genesis of a tradition | Daily News

Genesis of a tradition

Varana Rajamaha Vihara stairway. Picture by Amali Eheliyagoda.
Varana Rajamaha Vihara stairway. Picture by Amali Eheliyagoda.

If Vesak is important because Prince Siddhattha was born, then Esala is equally important as the prince was conceived in Queen Mahamaya. If Vesak is important because of the Buddha’s awakening, then Esala is equally important as Siddhartha left all his luxuries for an ascetic life; this is when his son Rahula was born.

Queen Maya was born to King Anjana and Queen Yasodhara of the Koliya caste. That night she dreamt of gods, arrived from four directions, take her to lake Anotatta. She was bathed and donned in heavenly garb and jewellery. A white baby elephant, after circling her three times, entered her body. As it is famously known, King Sudhodhana’s prophets predicted this as a sign of a great being’s arrival. The baby was conceived while the queen was on the way to her mother’s. 

The queen’s death, which occurred seven days after the prince’s birth, has caused contention. Some misunderstand that this took place as a result of the prince’s birth. The prince verified five factors, which included the mother’s age-span, before expiring for his last birth. Queen Mahamaya’s life was anyway spanned only up to 40, and when a princely sage is born, that particular womb would not be suitable for another being. 

Rahula, the son of Siddhartha and Yasodhara, was born after a long time the couple got married. When the news was brought, the prince uttered: “A fetter (Rahula) has been born, a bondage has been born,” and this is how the wee prince got his name. Some scripts believe he was named after a lunar eclipse (Rahu) that might have occurred around the time of his birth. Whatever it is, the little prince made his father take that giant leap, and life becomes harder later on. Towards evening Siddhartha finally decided to leave, taking one last look at Rahula and his mother in a peaceful slumber. But mother’s arm was covering the child’s face protectively – just as if to inspire him to go ahead with the decision.

Leaving the mansions

King Suddhodana did not ever want his son to leave the throne. It is common knowledge that the prince was given three palaces to spend the different seasons and the common man’s life is kept out of his sight. Siddhattha was already surrounded by the sights of pleasure: beautiful women, dancers, singers and musicians. 

But all this only made the prince curious about life. 

One day while sentries are in deep slumber, the prince is said to have taken a tour in the city with his ally Channa. Then, the scriptures state, deities have sent him the four ominous signs. And then he was determined to leave for sanctity. Another day, the day his son was born, Siddartha renounced. Legend has it that he cut off his hair and threw it up to the sky. Deities from the thirty-three heavens got hold of that and offered saffron robes worn. He exchanged his royal garments with a deity, as scriptures relate. Prince Siddhatta thus became an ascetic.

The little prince in the meanwhile knew his father was in robes, but his grandfather took every step to give him a proper education. No one can say the Buddha neglected his fatherly duties. He was particularly concerned about the moral education of his son in robes. He put him directly under Sariputta and Moggallana. Genes do wonders, and Rahula could grasp anything in a second. He was always concerned about his teachers’ instructions. The Buddha was happy about him, and named him as the ‘monk most concerned about training’. He gave his entire heritage, no matter how little his son is. 

Prince Siddhattha is much scoffed at, mostly among non-Buddhists, for leaving his son and wife when they needed his warm company. The question is what would happen if he did change his mind seeing his own baby’s face – Siddhartha, by all odds, was a 29-year robust young man. Some say the prince left the palace in the broad daylight when everybody was up. In that case, everyone must have attempted to make him stay. Suddhodana’s palace would have looked like a funeral. Becoming a monk, ironically or sadly, is still considered a bad option in many families, unless they have financial issues. Siddhartha had no hard feelings about his small family. A poet sees the Buddha’s giant step in that way: 

’Twas not through hatred of children sweet,
’Twas not through hatred of His lovely wife,

Whether he left in the broad daylight or at the night in secrecy, is still a mystery.

First discourse

Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta comes in the 56th chapter of Samyutta Nikaya of Sutta Pitaka. In English Dhamma can mean ‘nature’ or the Buddha’s teachings. In this case, it is the Buddha’s teachings, and Dhamma Cakka is the ‘wheel of the Buddha’s teachings›. Pavattana is ‘setting in motion’. The sutta is thus named because it was the Buddha’s first discourse, hence it’s the starting point of a long mission. Wikipedia introduces a list of the English translation by authoritative scholars: 

1. Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Dhamma (Bodhi, 2000, pp. 1843–7)
2. Setting in Motion the Wheel of Truth (Piyadassi, 1999)
3. Setting Rolling the Wheel of Truth (Ñanamoli, 1993)
4. Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion (Thanissaro, 1993)

After enlightenment and the invitation to preach his teachings, the Buddha scanned the world for a being who should be taught first. This is his show of gratitude. He realizes his first teachers - though their teachings did not help in the enlightenment - Alara Kalama and Uddakaramaputta are dead. Then he examines the five ascetics who helped him. 

The ascetics accept only the extreme of self-mortification. This is why they left Siddartha when he took up the middle path. They saw their erstwhile companion approaching towards them, and they had a resolution not to attend to him. 

But things took a different shape when the Buddha got closer. They noted something different, positive. They just forgot about their resolution and attended to him with care. In the discourse, the Buddha warns the ascetics against the two extremes: pleasure and mortification, and praised the middle path. 

The Buddha introduces four noble truths and the noble eightfold path to explain the middle path. The path leads to the right path of the journey of which the destination is enlightenment and Nibbana. The revelation was simple - the four noble truths - yet it was so deep to grasp. The truths, the Buddha explained, must be achieved in three aspects: recognizing, pursuing and fully achieving. 

Only Kondanna, of the five ascetics, could attain the first sainthood.

Following the first discourse at the DeearPark near Varanasi, now Benares in northern India, the Buddha took steps to form the monk order. 

All five ascetics became arahants within the first two months. This is when Yasa and fifty-four of his friends too became monks. And now the monk order was of 60 monks. Later it was to become an institution of more than 1000 monks. 

Preaching Vs performing miracles

When the Buddha was staying at Nalanda, Kevaddha came to pay homage. 

“Master. This city is booming with success. These people never starve. You have earned their confidence. Why don’t you, Master, get a monk to perform some supernatural powers to attract a bigger crowd?” 

This sounds very non-Buddhist, yet this was the then social setting. The Buddha responded calmly. 

“Kevaddha, that is not my teaching. If you go for physical supernatural powers such as appearing as many persons, going through the walls, flying in the air and walking on waters, then people of different faiths would take you in as a magician. If you can read others’ minds, then too, others will take you in as a magician. With all that apart, I teach one marvel.” 

“What is that, Master?” 

“Listen Kevaddha, as I speak. It is the power to steer people according to their mental progress. Just a magician cannot perform this trick. Just because you developed the mind a little, you cannot say you have reached the goal.” 

Any monk who performs miracles of the first two categories, the Buddha stressed, is a shame to the whole monk order. It will not help the man get rid of suffering. Only good instructions and convincing power could do it, and that is a marvel. 

With this said to Kevaddha, Vinaya rules out any miracle to impress and convert people. People should be enlightened more than impressed. This is the major difference between Buddhism and many other religions which believe in divine cures. 

When Arahant Pindola Bharadwaja easily performed a miracle to challenge a man who did not believe in saints, the Buddha did not approve of that. Similarly, the Buddha showed the skill of convincing the people.

Higher teachings

Abhidhamma is known as ‘higher philosophy/doctrine’ in English owing to its weight over other categories, Sutta and Vinaya, of the philosophy. According to the Buddhist text, the Buddha preached Abhidhamma to his mother, who was then reborn as a deity in Thusitha Heaven. This account suggests Abhidhamma remained one distinctive separate Dhamma.

This distinctive Dhamma was further categorised in the first council of assembling the whole Dhamma following the Buddha’s death. As commonly known, the Dhamma was categorised into three: Sutta, Vinaya and Abhidhamma.

The legend says that the matu deva putta – that is how Mahamaya was known in the Thusitha heavens – had lifted his spirits when he was spending six years of hard meditation. Queen Maya wished to become a Buddha’s mother during Padumuttara Buddha’s period. She spent a vast number of virtuous lives in the existences before her birth as Queen Maha Maya. 

Some scholars however do not buy the story of Abhidhamma. They claim Abhidhamma as a later addition. 

On the other hand, some learned monks maintain Abhidhamma as a must-read to acquire an idea of the whole philosophy. Ven Professor Rerukane Chandawimala compares suttas with medical prescriptions, whereas identifying Abdhidhamma as the whole medical science.

Books have been authored on studying Abhidhamma. The two most popular Abhidhamma authors are Venerables Professor Rerukane Chandawimala and Narada. Ven Chandawimala’s books attempt to convey the meaning of Abhidhamma simply as much as possible.

Although Abhidhamma is being taught at Dhamma schools, students merely mug them up by byhearting the calculations. Abhidhamma alone may not help achieve Nibbana, as some scholars imply. However, the philosophy is worth studying, since it gives insights into the depth of Buddhism.

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