By Ashin Sudhamma  (Ajan Chainoi)

The Pre-Buddhist Background

I would like first to examine the situation that happened in India before the time of the Buddha, that is to say, the pre-Buddhist background of Buddhism. It is impossible to have a clear understanding of Buddhism unless one takes into consideration the cultural, philosophical, and religious background of India before the time of the Buddha. I personally believe such an examination to be helpful because it enable us to understand the life of the Buddha and his teaching as well.

In the north of the Indian subcontinent there are two great rivers, the Ganges and the Yamuna. These two great rivers have separate sources in the high Himalayas but gradually they draw closer to each other and eventually unite in the plains of northern India, near the city known as Allahabad. Then they flow on together to the Bay of Bengal. The geography of these two great rivers exemplifies the original and development of Indian philosophy and religion because in Indian culture, there are two great currents of thought that were originally quite different.

When we look into the early history of India, we find that there was a very highly developed civilization on the subcontinent. It flourished from about 2800 to 1800 B.C. and was known as the Indus Valley. The Indus Valley civilization was literate and developed a script. In addition, there is evidence that the civilization enjoyed a very developed spiritual culture.

This great ancient civilization was interrupted sometime between 1800 and 1500 B.C., either by some natural disaster or by an invasion. The invading people were known as Aryans. This term designated a people who originally belonged to a region somewhere in Eastern Europe, perhaps the steppes of modern Poland and the Ukraine. The Aryans were very different from the people of the Indus Valley civilization. They were nomadic and pastoral. They were unused to urban life. When the Aryans arrived in India, they were soon became the dominant civilization and after that Indian society was largely dominated by Aryans values.

Let us now look at the religious attitudes of the people of the Indus Valley civilization. The religion of the Indus Valley civilization evidently contained several important elements. First of all, meditation or the practice of training the mind was clearly present. Second, the practice of renunciation was also common. Third, it is clear that there was some conception of rebirth or reincarnation, and, fourth, a sense of moral responsibility extending beyond this life- that is to say, some form of the conception of karma. Last, there was a paramount goal of religious life, namely, the goal of liberation, of freedom from the endless cycle of birth and death. These were the outstanding feature of the religion of the earliest civilization of India.

Next, let us look at the religion of the early Aryan people, which contrasted with that of the Indus Valley civilization. The religious attitudes and practices of the early Aryans are such simpler than doing so far the Indus Valley people. When the Aryans arrived in India, they brought with them a a religion that was completely secular in nature. The Aryans revered a number of gods, including Indra, the god of thunder and lightening; Agni, the god of fire, and Varuna, the god of water- to name just a few.

In brief, while the religion of the Indus Valley civilization emphasized renunciation, meditation, rebirth, karma, and the final goal of liberation, the Aryan religion emphasized this life, ritual sacrifice, loyalty, wealth, power, and heaven. Thus it is clear that the sets of religious attitudes and practices of this two ancient civilization of India were almost opposed to each other. But over the course of centuries of cohabitation, these two religious traditions did manage to merge. Little by little, the opposing religious cultures of the two people began to interact, influence, and even merge with each other.

How is it that two traditions initially so different were able to merge? I think the answer may be found in the dramatic changes that occurred in the life of the Indian people between the middle of the second millennium B.C. and the time of the Buddha. Aryan expansion came to an end when the Aryans has spread across the plains of India. The end of this expansion brought about many social, economic, and political changes. These changes contributed to a growing willingness on the part of the Aryan people to accept and adopt the religious ideas of the Indus Valley civilization. Although the Aryans had materially dominated earlier, they later come under the influence of religious attitudes, practices, and values adopted from the religion of the Indus Valley civilization. As a result, two major religions, Buddhism and Hinduism came into existence in India.

Buddhism inherited much from the religious culture of the Indus Valley civilization. The elements of renunciation, meditation, rebirth, karma, and liberation, which were important components of the religious culture of the Indus Valley people, are also important in Buddhism.

Hinduism inherited much from the Aryan tradition, such as the presence of the gods of the Vedas. Many schools of Hinduism still emphasize cast, the authority of the Vedas, and the importance of the practice of sacrifice. Hinduism also emphasizes the religious cultures of the Indus Valley people, such as renunciation, meditation, rebirth, karma, and liberation. These are how two great religions, Buddhism and Hinduism occur in Indian society.


The life of the Buddha

Now I would like to turn to the life of the Buddha, Two or three centuries before the birth of the Buddha, the center of Indian culture moved from the Indus River to the Ganges where the Buddha lived and taught. From the time preceding his birth, a number of powerful kings had struggled for supremacy in this area. As the political power of the ruling clans gradually grew stronger, the new land developed to become rich in agriculture and production. Large cities grew up in ;laces for land and water transport.

As politics and economics developed along these lines, human thinking grew in sophistication. People became aware of themselves. They came to see that not an outside force but the good and bad acts and the efforts of the individual exercised decisive influence. This gave rise to a belief in the law of cause and effect and of karma, or the results of actions, according to which theories a good cause produces a good effect and an evil cause an evil effect.

Another distinctive feature of the Upanishadic philosophy is the belief that the individual self (atman) is of the same nature as the universal self (Brahman). According to this doctrine, as long as human being remains under the control of the law of cause and effect, he is bound to an unending cycle of transmigrations and can never know true happiness. In order to find such happiness, it is necessary to break the cycle of transmigrations. To achieve this, the system of meditation was introduced. There were a number of Bramans who abandoned houshold life and went in search of enlightenment on their own. They were called Samana. The Buddha was one of these Samanas. He was born into an age of such spiritual and philosophical confusion. He observed all of this, experienced some of it directly.

At that time, India was divided politically into sixteen major states. The state of Shakya was not one of these states. Since it was subordinaate to the great kingdom of Kosala, it was not entirely independent. It is sometime referred to as the Shakya of Kosala. Since the Shakyas had moved to the region at the foothills of the Himalayas from the central part of India several generations before the birth of the Buddha, they were already an established royal clan, though the area they controlled was small. At the time of the Buddha's birth, his father Sudhodana had been elected king of the state. The five hundred families of the Shakya clan owned all towns and villages. As the most outstanding family in the bribe, the Gotama, Shakyamuni's family, owned the fortified town of Kapilavatthu, which was centrally located and which they made their capital.

It is said that the Buddha was born in the Lumbini Garden, which lay between the states of the Shakyas and the Kokiyas in the sixth century B.C. As was customary in her time, Maya, the mother of the Buddha, wished to give birth to her child in her own family home, which was located in Devadaha, the capital city of Koliya. On the way to Devadaha, Maya stopped to rest in the Lumbini Garden, where she admired the riot flowers. When she raised her right arm to grab a flowering branch from an asoka tree, she felt initial pains. Without further preparations, she gave birth under the tree. Another Buddhist legend says that immediately after birth the infant took seven steps and said, ''I am the greatest in the world''.

Sicne he had long awaited a child, King Suddhodana and everyone in the palace were overjoyed at the birth of a son. The king immediately called five famous seers in the country to see the future of the child. Four of them stated that, if he remained at home, the child would become the wheel-rolling king (Rajacakkavati) and that, if he left home, the child would become the great teacher, the Buddha. But among the seers, the youngest one named Kodanna stated that the child would exactly become the great teacher. Highly satisfied, the king gave his son the name Siddhattha, which means ''he who has accomplished his aim''.

In the midst of joy at the birth of the infant Siddhattha came sorrow when Maya died on seventh day after her delivery to a child. Fortunately for the child, his mother's young sister, Mahapajapati, was on hand to act in the capacity of foster mother. The prince grew up secure in the love of his father and Mahapajapati. But, as he gained understanding, the intelligent prince was sometime grieved. He did not have a true mother. Furthermore, the political position of the Shakyas, who were subordinate to Kosala, was most uncertain. Both of these factors must have inspired great uneasiness in him.

To cheer him, his father built three palaces, one for cold weather, one for hot weather, and one for the rainy season. He appointed many beautiful court ladies to wait on him and arranged dinners with dancing and music. Furthermore, they encouraged him to marry to lovely princess Yasodhara. For a while, the prince lived a happy life.

Hoping to give his son pleasure, the prince's father arranged four trips outside the capital city, one through each of its four gates. On three occasions, the prince encountered unhappy sights: an old man, a sick person, and a dead body. Finally, on the last trip, he met a calm and peaceful monk; this inspired in him a longing to lead the same kind of life.

It is clear that the mind of the young prince turned not to economics and politics but to a constant search for eternal truth. His interest was on concentrated on this search. This desire and awareness of the nature of the basic human problem led him to follow the custom of his time by leaving home and devoting himself to the search for a solution to human unhappiness and for spiritual peace.

The birth of his son, Rahula made it easier for him to leave. In the India of his day, providing an heir to carry on the family line was a major duty toward one's ancestors. To abandon home, even for the sake of enlightenment, was considered undutiful. In the middle of the night, accompanied by a retainer named Channa and mounted on his favorite horse, Kanthaka, the young prince departed. By down, the small group reached the boundary. After crossing the Anoma River, the prince told Channa to return with Kanthaka. Then changing his clothes in symbol of becoming a Samana in search of enlightenment, he went his way to Magadha.

Before leaving his family, he must have made preparations. He probably thought at once of the two major kingdoms of Kosala and Magadha as suitable places for training because both were rich in philosophers and men of religion. He decided therefore to go to Magadha, to the capital city Rajagaha. One day Bimbisara, king of Magadha met him and offered him all the wealth. The prince refused the king's offer, and Bimbisara could only say, "When you reach your goal and find enlightenment, teach me at once and bring me salvation". He promised to do what the king asked.

Refusing the offer of King Bimbisara, Siddhattha began to search for someone to study with. He met two teachers, Alara-Kalama and Uddaka-Ramaputta. He studied and practiced meditation under the guidance of these two teachers. He attained the same level of concentration in meditation as his two famous teachers, very quickly. Having learned that these achievements did not solve the problems of human life, he decided to practice asceticism.

The he traveled to a forest where other ascetics gathered and began a course of training in a wide variety of austerities that was to last for six years. He had done through to the end and did difficult things that no one before him had done. When he realized that his six years of suffering had failed to produce the effect he want and had done no more than torment his body, he gave up austerities.

Having seen that both meditation practice and ascetic austerities were mistaken, he followed the middle way. After recovering his physical strength, he prepared a seat with soft grass under an assattha, or bo-tree not far from the town of Gaya and, making a vow not to rise until he attained enlightenment, even if it meant death, sat in in meditation.

In the first hours of the night of his enlightenment (the hours from six till ten), he attained wisdom about all past things. In the middle hours (from ten until two in the morning), he attained wisdom about all future things. Then in the final hours (from two until six in the morning), he was freed of all bondage and attained wisdom without illusion. He became a Buddha. And this was the starting point of Buddhism.

From the day he attained enlightenment, for 45 years, he taught all classes of men and women, king and peasants, Brahmins and outcasts, bankers and beggars, holy men and robbers without making the slightest distinction between them. He recognized no differences of caste or social groupings, and the way he preached was open to all men and women who were ready to understand and follow it. At the age of 80, the Buddha passed away at Kusinara.

1. Kogen Mizuno, The beginnings of Buddhism, Tokyo, 1992
2. Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, Grove Press, New York
3. Walter Henry Nelson, Buddha: His life and his teaching, 1996, New York
4. Ruper Gethin, The Foundations of Buddhism, 1998, Oxford University Press.
5. Radian Mind: Essential Buddhist Teachings and Texts, 1999, New York

6. R.C. Zaehner, Encyclopedia of the world's religions, U.S.A., 1988



2005 All Right & Reserved.