If the string is too tight, it will snap. If it is too loose, it will not play.” These were the great words of wisdom shared by a musician to his disciples while explaining how to calibrate a musical instrument to produce the best music. These were overheard by a true Seeker millennia ago and it transformed his life. Prior to this, the true Seeker after wandering for several years in the forest in search of the perfect eternal solution to the painful truths of life, found a group of ascetics and joined them in the hope of attaining enlightened. For six years he lived with them like an ascetic in extreme austerity, penance and hardship and he ate one grain of rice and drank from the river. But one day, he took the greatest lesson of his life from these words, found his solution to the biggest puzzle of life and mankind since time immemorial, and found the path to attain enlightenment.
The lesson learnt by the true Seeker through these words is called the Middle Path, that is, one must find a balance or the middle point between one extreme of sensual material indulgence and pleasures, and the other extreme of complete austerity, renunciation, abstinence from sensual material pleasures and indulgence, to find eternal peace and enlightenment. There it was, laid bare for the world to witness and follow, the true nature of reality and life and its eternal solution. That true Seeker spent most of his time thereafter in a region which is present day India and meditated under the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, Bihar, wherein he attained enlightenment and transformed into “Buddha”, the enlightened one, from an ordinary man called Prince Siddhartha.
Buddha Purnima is a Buddhist Festival celebrated to commemorate the birth of this great spiritual stalwart and pioneer, Gautama Buddha. He is also considered by many as the ninth of the Dashavatars, the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu. It is estimated that Gautama Buddha was born as Sidhhartha Gautama in a privileged family of the Shakya clan around 563–483 BC in Lumbini, Nepal. He spent most of his youth surrounded by his family amidst luxuries and prosperity; however, after four life-altering chance encounters, his life transformed. His father was informed upon Sidhhartha’s birth by an astrologer that if Siddhartha sees or experiences pain and suffering, he will leave his family. So, the doting father shielded his son from all pain and suffering, keeping him confined within their grand palace.
Siddhartha grew up in luxuries and pleasures abound and got married and had a son. Then, out of sheer curiosity, Siddhartha sneaked out of the palace on his chariot and travelled for four days. On the first day, he saw an old man. On the second day, he saw a sick woman. On the third day, he saw a funeral. It was his first-time seeing death. On the fourth day he saw a sage. This sage looked very poor. Siddhartha thought that the man still looked happy and content even though he was poor. Siddhartha also knew that he was not happy even though he was rich. The ugly dark truths of life hit him hard as he questioned the purpose of existence and the compulsion of the soul to experience these sufferings through the body. He decided to take action and to leave the palace in search of the answers. He left his family and residence in his quest for the true purpose of life and to find the eternal solution to the inevitable sufferings offered by life in the form of pain, disease, old age, and death.
In Buddhism, enlightenment is when one finds the truth about life, stops being reborn and face the inevitable pain and suffering that the cycle of rebirth is accompanied with, because one has reached Nirvana, an equivalent of the Sanatana Dharma’s concept of Moksha. We have all come across information about Buddha and his enlightenment countless times, but we never ask ourselves what kind of enlightenment Buddha attained under the Bodhi Tree, and was it truly the Bodhi Tree where he got truly liberated.
There are innumerable great life lessons which can be derived from the life of Buddha. Let us look at some of the most relevant ones. Firstly, when we closely look at the life of Buddha, we realise that his journey towards enlightenment began when he decided to think about the nature of pain and suffering of life that he encountered. He decided not to ignore it like all of us do by fooling ourselves into forgetting these hard facts of life by self-hypnotising ourselves by getting immersed into our temporary material duties and pleasures repeatedly. Just like how at times, we try hard to quickly go back to sleep to continue watching a blissful dream but the dream ends. However, that thought of the inevitable pain and suffering eclipsed all other thoughts in Buddha’s mind, he had this fierce craving to find an answer to put an end to the pain and suffering. The moment he decided not to ignore the hard dark truths of life, to take action to find an answer to his logical question, not to supress his innate curiosity, his journey towards enlightenment began. The learning here is not that leaving one’s home and family is necessary, but we must not deliberately suppress our curiosity, questions raised by the intellect bestowed upon us, and not take any action to satisfy our curiosity to find solutions to these eternal questions encountered by us. It has been said by Lao Tsu, “Journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” Buddha took that one step and we too must take that one step to seek answers to the same questions while fulfilling our family and other worldly duties, by taking the Middle Path taken and prescribed by Gautama Buddha, to get liberated instantly by that first step, as bondages are only created by us in our minds.
The second lesson we learn is that Gautama Buddha sought a solution to pain and suffering that is accompanied by the cycle of rebirth. By going within himself with concentration through meditation, he found what he sought – eternal peace and bliss. This eternal peace and bliss found within by Buddha is similar to the concept of “Self”, the “Atman”, the “Brahman” in the Vedas and Upanishads professing Advaita Vedanta, the crown jewel of Santana Dharma, discovered through the pinnacle of human thought, intellect, and curiosity. The Advaita Vedanta prescribes that there is no difference between the individual soul and God, no good and bad, no binaries, all is one and is part of one, the universal supreme consciousness, accessed within ourselves through meditation.
Buddha’s life and enlightenment teaches us that we can find what we seek. A Buddhist may seek and find Nirvana, a follower of Jainism may attain Moksha, a follower of Christianity – the kingdom of heaven, a follower of Islam – Jannat, a follower of Hinduism – Baikuntha Dham or the Abode of Lord Vishnu. Saint Tulsidas in Ramcharitmanas has stated that “One sees that form of God, which one wants to see God in.” The path to all above stated goals and destinations have similar qualities of eternal peace and bliss. They are similar across faiths. One should not be satisfied just by material pleasures, or even blind faith, rituals and superstitions, but by using the intellect and curiosity, one should seek and realise within through meditation.
The third lesson which is most needed in the society today is Non-violence. Ashoka had won most of the nation, but he was not satisfied by what he had achieved and he wreaked havoc to conquer Kalinga. After the Kalinga war, upon witnessing the death and destruction he had caused, he realised that all the violence perpetrated on the weak minor kingdom by the wealthy, powerful and far bigger Mauryan Empire due to his greed for conquering all of Bharat (India of the time), was in vain. Non-violence or Ahimsa in thought and action purifies one’s mind and heart preparing the fertile ground for sowing the seed of spiritual growth and development. It leads to winning of hearts the way Buddha won the heart of Angulimala, the feared dacoit, and changes people towards betterment.
Violence has its roots in ignorance and blind attachment to either defend or propagate one’s interests. This illusion or ego of “Me” and “Mine” leads to all sorts of sufferings and eventually if handled negatively leads to violence. Buddha referred to strict adherence to Non-violence which can be attained through stillness of mind through practice and non-attachment. This has been mentioned in the epic Mahabharata in Udyogparva – Anger is won over with calmness, that is without anger; the immoral are won with morals; a miser is won by giving; lies are won over with truth. In ancient times, arguments or differences were settled by duels to death, but the more mankind became civilised, we started to sort out differences by talking and discussing. We realised that empathy and dialogue were the two cornerstones of a civilised, harmonious, progressive and peaceful society, rather than the primitive way of violence.
The most important learning from Gautama Buddha is that he wandered several years as an ascetic, tortured himself with austerity and sought answers from many people, but all in vain; however, the words of a musical teacher or Guru opened his eyes and made him realise the right path to his destination. This is why a true seeker must seek a True Spiritual Master to get the answers to their life questions within themselves, just like a tour guide makes treacherous trek full of life-threatening situations, guiding others to experience the most pleasant views from the summit, as he has been there himself innumerable times and developed mastery over the path. Buddha also highlighted the criticality of a true living Spiritual Master in attaining Nirvana and walking the Middle Path. So, let us try to learn something from the life and teachings of Buddha and resolve to find our answers within ourselves through the teachings, blessings and guidance of the true living Spiritual Master.