Buddha As A Contemporary Teacher For Our Time
David Xi-Ken Astor
Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, was born in the sixth century B.C.E. in what is now know as Nepal. The traditional stories about his life tells us that he was a member of the Shakya clan and that is father sat on the thrown. He was his father’s heir and as such his life was one of comfort and privilege. But rather than follow the conventional expectation as the heir, he chose to leave palace life at the age of twenty-nine, renounce his inheritance, and retire to the wilderness in search of a way to end human suffering. During this time in India there was a great spiritual energy where ascetic wandering sages and philosophers were engaging fundamental questions that remained central to the Indian religious traditions. This activity reverberated throughout the culture for centuries that followed. Questions like what is the role of karma in shaping one’s life and fate, and is there rebirth after death? Assuming there is rebirth, is it possible to escape samsara, that would end the cycle of life and death. Siddhartha’s answers to these questions informed the development of Buddhism throughout Asia and continues to do so in America today.
Siddhartha’s worldview was developed over a long period of time as he struggled to find convincing answers to these complex questions. He studied and practiced harsh disciplines taught to him by teachers he encountered on his journey. Finally at the age of thirty-five he awakened to his own understanding of the nature of the causal universe while in deep meditation sitting under a bodhi tree, the legend tells us. He also came to understand how karma influenced the shaping of events both in the present moment and in the future. But more importantly, Siddhartha analyzed how karma worked to trap human beings in unsatisfactoriness, and he realized a path to follow that gains liberation, and human flourishing, referred to as nirvana.
The term nirvana is often not an easy one to understand as we read the legacy teachings. Among Buddhist traditions, how nirvana is taught can be seen as conflicting, as there is no one clear definition shared by all. The word literally means “unbinding,” reflecting the notion that like a fire trapped by its fuel source while burning it is freed when the source is no longer available. This kind of reasoning reflected how Siddhartha’s understanding that the path of liberation involves extinguishing passionate attachments that keep human beings trapped in a cycle of unsatisfactoriness. His path away from suffering is know as “the middle way,” a point of balance between indulgences of only seeking life-pleasures on the one hand and sever inflexibility on the other. His teaching of the middle-way was varied, but his primary teaching is know as the Four Noble Truths (or Four Noble Realities). As a result of his awakening to this reality, Siddhartha became know as the Buddha, or “the awakened one”.