Life and Philosophy
Venerable Dhammasami, 1997
As we all know the Gautama Buddha was born a prince. He lived a princely life until he was 29. However, maybe driven by his mature instinct, he always tried to experience as many different ways of life as possible even before he renounced the world leaving his princely life. Being conscious of his spiritual quest, His father, King Suddhodana, took any possible measures to prevent his son getting fed up from worldly life.
Prince Siddhartha was so intelligent and compassionate that he felt with all his hearts for the sick when he was incidentally exposed to, according to the scriptures, a sick man for the first time. He came to fully appreciate the realities of life — decay and death even just to see them only on one occasion. His father did not want him to see these undesirable things for fear he would choose to become a recluse.
So, when we study his life we feel that he understands us whether you are a farmer, a professional, a householder, a monk, a businessman, a manual worker or even a soldier. His philosophy is embodied in His life.
Nevertheless, I would like to suggest here today that by studying the philosophy of the Buddha, we should understand His life.
Today I would like to focus upon three important things among His teachings: first — determination; second — equal opportunity; and third — self-reliance.
When we study His life, we will see so many extraordinary qualities, like patience, compassion, truthfulness and determination, to inspire us. Determination is most featured in His life as Sumedha, the ascetic, Prince Mahajanaka and Prince Siddhartha.
In Buddhism, we believe that every body has a potential to become a Buddha. It is up to individuals to choose either to become a Buddha or an Arahat. We believe there have been many Buddhas in the past and many will be there in future although there can only be one fully self-enlightened Buddha in a time.
When present Gautama Buddha in one of his previous lives as ascetic Sumedha met one of the previous Buddhas, the Dipankara Buddha, he was supposed to have already been in a position to free himself from suffering and become a Saint (Arahat). Instead of taking that opportunity of freeing himself alone from suffering he chose to take a much harder road to enlightenment so that he could help many to get out of suffering.
Although compassion obviously forms the basis of this vow, I consider that it was determination that made him choose a practice to become a Buddha. He was predicted by the Dipankara Buddha that one day he would become a Buddha after aeons. This he did not see something as impossible but was determined to achieve Buddhahood in order to guide people to the path leading to the end of suffering. If I were in his place, I might have said, "No way, too long, impossible or too hard"
In the course of perfecting himself for Buddhahood in many lives, difficulties could have put people like us off. Nevertheless, he never felt discouraged for his set goal. It is a great determination.
The Buddha was, just like Mahavira, very well known for His stands against any form of discrimination in social and religious life. He never took an advantage of being born to a royal family nor did he ever highlight the fact that he renounced the world as a crown prince. He was unconditionally against caste system. He established female monastic orders at the time women were deprived of the right to religious practices and social life. He appointed two chief female disciples. He appointed Lady Visakha as one of the members of inquiry committees whenever to investigate behaviours of the monks. He believed that all must be given equal opportunity. He, of course, was well aware that inequality existed in every sphere of life. What he did was not to legitimate the inequality but open equal opportunity to all so that any can come up economically, socially and spiritually. He absolutely accepted that change (impermanence) rules our life. Improvements are possible under the law of change that he perceived to be natural.
Self-reliance is another important feature in His philosophy. As human being, we can depend on ourselves if we develop our ability continuously. He was not a saviour in a sense of saving you from your sin. However, He was just a guide. He wanted to be seen only as a teacher, not God nor god all of whom are superstitious. He did not encourage superstition.
The subject of His philosophy is a real life we live everyday. If we turn away from human approach, it is indeed hard to understand His life and philosophy.
He pointed the way to spiritual upliftment. The people including monks and nuns have to uplift themselves by putting what He taught into practice.
He said all living beings are self-responsible for their actions. It is called 'Kamma' (Karma in Sanskrit). You can perform the action of your own choice but have to take any responsibility and consequences of it.
I have noticed you all chanting: "Buddham saranam gacchami" etc. I see Bhajan (devotional chanting), if with the right attitude, as a seed for spiritual development. Nevertheless, it is only a seed, not a plant nor a fruit. It still needs further nurturing, watering, oxygen, the sun and botanical knowledge. Do not stop at Bhajan but bring the teachings into your daily life.
This is the best way to honour a Great Being like the Buddha.
QUESTION & ANSWER
Q: What do we know about the first Buddha, which you have talked about?
A: Not the first Buddha. He was just one of the previous Buddhas. We may not be able to know who was the first Buddha as Buddhism believes that the beginning cannot be known. We know of the Dipankara Buddha through by-pass reference to the life of the Gautama Buddha. He was born a human being who became a Buddha through His own striving and taught people the way to the end of suffering. Dipankara Buddha lived longer than the Gautama Buddha whose teachings we are following.
Q: When do you become a monk? Do you ever imagine an ordinary life like us? And how do you control your mind? (Mahendran)
A: First of all, I did not choose to become a monk. As a part of tradition in Shan State, the Union of Burma, I was, like any other boys, ordained for a short period. It is to train young boys in monastic way of life and Buddhist culture. This is how Buddhist education is passed on from generation to generation over there. It was during summer. I think I was initiated for this purpose. Nobody forced me to stay or leave. It is now already more than 20 years since I was ordained, I have never left. My initial ordination took place when I was very young with 58 other boys, mostly of the same age with me. I think all of them left very soon. My grandaunt was a nun in the monastery where I was ordained. She looked after me just like my mother. I now see that she was the main unspoken factor that has helped me to remain a monk. She passed away at the time I was 23.
I used to imagine a lay life when I was about 16. I became disillusioned with the tension in the monastic institute where I was receiving a higher education as a resident novice. For some undefined reason, I happened to continue the life of the monk. I moved to another institute soon afterward. The idea has never really stroked me again.
To control our mind is the most difficult job we have to do. It is not always successful. At times, I have difficulty especially when it comes to attachment to books and aversion. But Buddhist monastic life has a very good training. There are many sorts of meditation to help you control your mind like chanting, meditation on disgusting things like your own waste and death, studying scriptures to develop your intellect and devotion.
Be open to the criticism of your colleagues. These can help you. Moderation in food and not exposing yourself very much to the attractions are some of the rules we follow. The common problem in controlling our mind is that we have to do it before we understand how our mind works. It is often frustrating to control your mind before you understand how it functions. We were too young to understand that.
Q: How do you control your anger?
A: Normally in two ways: First with teachings of the Buddha. He said anger destroys you physically and mentally. Even if injustice is done to you, He said, "You should not get angry". Anger can never be justified. Without getting angry, you should see to the question of justice and injustice. Anger harms your reputation. Such teachings are always in my mind and I try to live up to that. I must emphasise again I do not always succeed. However, if you make an effort, at least you certainly make some simple progress. If we accept that the infallibility just does not exist and the world is perfectly imperfect, you may find it easier to forgive yourself or someone else. This is philosophical way of controlling your anger.
Second way of dealing with anger is through meditative awareness. If you are aware the object, like criticism and injustice or insulting, you already restrain your anger. You have to detect it at the very stage of it happening. Then you contemplate the anger in your mind.
Q: When the Buddha was young what was his religion? Was it Hinduism?
A: He was born in a multi-religious India in the 6th century BC. In the life of the Buddha, we learn that the Brahmins were His father's advisers on many matters including religion. It is no doubt that Brahmanism (Hinduism today) was predominant. But we also see in the scriptures that soon after He was born, the ascetic Asita came to bless Him. He was also reported as the teacher of King Suddhodana, the father of Prince Siddhartha. Asita was leading a life that was quite different from the one approved in Brahmanism. This interpretation is supported by the existence of Alara Kalama and Udaka Ramaputta, the two renown religious teachers under whom the Ascetic Gautama first learnt meditation.
I am not sure which would be His religion. However, certainly liberalism was the feature of that multi-religious society into which He was born.