Peeps at Many Lands: Siam/Chapter 7

Peeps at Many Lands: Siam  (1908)  by Ernest Young
Chapter 7 The story of Buddha
Chapter VII
The Story of Buddha

The religion of the Siamese is Buddhism. It is so called after the Buddha who was its founder and first missionary. The Buddha lived so many, many years ago that we know very little about him. For centuries after his death wonderful stories were told about his power, his kindness, and his great wisdom. As the stories passed from mouth to mouth they became more and more marvellous, and at the present time there are scores of tales about him that are little better than fairy-stories. In the following account of this great and holy man the known facts of his life and some of the legends about himself and his doings are interwoven. It must be remembered that the Buddha was a man who did actually live upon the earth, and that, though the fables about him are unbelievable by us, yet these fables are useful as showing us what other people thought about their wise and saintly teacher.

About five hundred years before the birth of Christ the Buddha was born at a small village in India, only a few days' journey from Benares, the sacred city of the Hindus. His father was the Rajah of the tribe of Sakyas. The boy's family name was Gautama, and under this name we shall oftenest speak of him in this chapter. But his followers never use the name Gautama, thinking it too familiar and intimate. They always speak of him under some title, such as "the Lion of the Tribe of Sakya," "the Happy One," "the Conqueror," "the Lord of the World," "the King of Righteousness," and so on. When he was only seven days old his mother died, and he was brought up by his aunt.

The boy was quiet and thoughtful, and seemed to take no pleasure in hunting or in practising any of those exercises which would fit him to lead his tribe in war. His friends and relatives and the great Sakya nobles were very cross at this, because they feared that, when their enemies should attack them, the young prince would be found unequal to lead them in their conflicts. So they went to his father, and complained that the boy did nothing but follow his own pleasures, and that he learned nothing useful. When Gautama heard of this, he asked the King, his father, to fix a day on which he could show his skill and strength in all the manly arts. On the appointed day thousands of people thronged to the place that had been chosen to see what the Prince could do. He surprised every one, for he could ride the fiercest horses and fling the heaviest spears. He shot arrows with a bow that 1,000 men could not bend, and the sound of whose twanging was heard 7,000 miles away. After this the people held their peace and wondered.

When he was nineteen he married his cousin, a girl singularly beautiful and good. For the next ten years after that we know nothing at all about him, but we are sure that he lived a quiet, peaceful life, treating all around him with gentleness and courtesy, and thinking little about sickness or sorrow. One day, when he was about twenty-nine years old, he was driving to the pleasure-grounds when he saw a man broken down by age—weak, poor, and miserable—and he asked the man who was driving his chariot to explain the sight. To which the charioteer replied that all men who live to a great age become weak in mind and body, just like the poor old wreck they had seen in the street. Another day he saw a man suffering from disease, and again the charioteer explained that all men have to suffer pain. A few days later he saw a dead body, and learned for the first time—a fact that had been kept from him through all the days of his childhood and his manhood even up to that hour—that all human beings must die.

Gautama was very sad when he thought of the misery that there is in the world, and he began to wonder if it could not all be done away with. He made up his mind to go away secretly and become a hermit. He would live away from towns and crowds, and see if he could not discover a way to lessen the sorrows of his fellow-men.

Just about this time his son was born. He loved this son very dearly, but he thought that if he were to find the path to happiness, he would have to free himself from all earthly ties and relations. One night he went into the room where his wife lay sleeping. There, in the dim yellow light of the lamp, he saw the mother and the child. The mother's hand rested caressingly on the head of the little baby; flowers were strewn upon the floor and around the bed. He wanted to take the tiny mite in his arms and kiss it ere he went away; but he was afraid of waking either of the slumberers, so he took one last, long, loving look at them both, and then fled into the night, accompanied only by Channa, his charioteer. Under the full light of the July moon he sped away, having given up his home, his wealth, and his dear ones to become an outcast and a wanderer.

Then there appeared to him Mara, the evil one, who tempted him to give up his plans for a lonely life. Mara promised him, if he would return to wealth and worldly ease, to make him in seven days the sole ruler of the world. But Gautama was not to be persuaded, and the evil one was defeated.

The prince and the charioteer rode on for many miles until they came to the banks of a certain river. There Gautama stopped. Taking his sword, he cut off his long flowing locks and gave them to Channa, telling him to take them, his horse, and his ornaments back to the town of his birth, in order that his friends and his relatives might know exactly what had happened to him. Channa was loath to leave his master, but was obliged to obey him.

When Channa had departed, Gautama sought the caves where the hermits dwelt. There he stayed a while, fasting and doing penance, in the hope of finding out in this way the true road to happiness and righteousness. So long did he go without food, and so severely did he inflict torture on himself, that one day he fell down exhausted. Every one thought he was dead, but he recovered after a little while. It seemed to him, when he once more regained consciousness, that this life of self-denial and hardship did not lead to that which he was seeking. So he left off fasting, and took his food again like an ordinary man. This disgusted the few disciples who had been living with him in retirement, and they all fled away and left him to himself. When they had gone, he strolled down to the banks of the neighbouring river. As he went along, the daughter of one of the villagers offered him some food. He took it, and sat down under the shade of a large tree. This tree is known to all Buddhists as the Bo-tree, and is as sacred to them as the cross is to Christians. While sitting under the tree, Gautama thought seriously about the past and the future. He felt very disappointed with his failure and at the loss of his late friends. The evil one came to him again, and whispered to him of love and power, of wealth and honour, and urged him to seek his home, his wife, and his child. For forty-nine days and nights Gautama sat under the Bo-tree, his mind torn with the conflict as to what was his duty. At the end of that time his doubts vanished, his mind cleared, the storm was over, and he had become the "Buddha"—that is, the "Enlightened One." He knew now that it was his duty to go and preach to people the way to happiness and peace, to show them how to avoid misery, and how to conquer even death itself. It would take too long now to tell you what it was that the Buddha preached to those who would listen to him. Some time when you are older you must read this for yourself in another book.

Gautama now returned to Benares, and addressed a great crowd of angels, men, and animals. Each man in the multitude, no matter what his language might be, understood the words of the speaker, and even the birds of the air and the beasts of the field knew that the wise man spoke to them, too. He remained in the neighbourhood of Benares for a long time, gathering round him a number of men and women, who were determined to do as he told them. When the rainy season was over, he dismissed them, sending them away in all directions to carry his gospel to whomsoever they should meet. He himself went to his native land, his father having sent to say that he was now old, and would like to see his son again before he died. His uncles were very angry with him, and when he arrived at the town where his father lived, they offered him no food. So in the early morning he took his begging-bowl and went out to beg his daily meal. When his father heard of this he was very cross, for he thought it a disgrace that the King's son should walk like a common beggar from house to house asking alms. The King met the Buddha and reproached him, but anger soon was lost in love, and the father, taking the son's bowl, led him to the palace.

The people in the palace crowded to meet them. But Gautama's wife remained in her own room waiting for him to come to her, in a place where she could welcome him alone. Presently he asked for her, and, learning where she was, he went to see her, accompanied by a few disciples. As soon as his wife saw him, she fell weeping at his feet. Somehow she knew, almost without looking at him, that he was changed, that he was wiser and holier than any man she had ever met. After a time he spoke to her of his message to men, and she listened earnestly to his words. She accepted his teaching, and asked to be allowed to become a nun. The Buddha was not at first inclined to permit this, but at last he yielded to her entreaties, and his wife became one of the first of the Buddhist nuns.

For forty-five years the Buddha worked as a missionary in the valley of the Ganges, till the time of his end came, and he passed away from earth. As he lay dying, he said to his cousin Ananda, who had been a loving and faithful disciple, "O Ananda, do not let yourself be troubled; do not weep. Have I not told you that we must part from all we hold most dear and pleasant? For a long time, Ananda, you have been very near to me by kindness in act, and word, and thoughtfulness. You have always done well." And again speaking to the same disciple, he exclaimed, "You may perhaps begin to think that the word is ended now that your teacher is gone; but you must not think so. After I am dead let the law and the rules of the Order which I have taught you be a teacher to you."

He passed away leaving behind him many who sorrowed for his death. And after all these years temples are still built in his honour; monks still follow the rules that he laid down; and men and women lay flowers upon his altars, bend before his images, and carry his teachings in their hearts.