by Chogye Trichen Rinpoche
This is a teaching about the importance of cultivating positive emotions such as loving kindness and compassion, and how this will promote well being, not only in ourselves, but also in the greater world we all share.
[A Buddhist Aeon] In order to put the Buddhist tradition into context and understand how a fully enlightened one appears in this world, it is important to know about kalpas, the aeons or cycles of time. Within a given cycle of time, there is always the formation of a physical environment of the ‘outer elements’, and this environment will be inhabited by sentient beings such as ourselves. A kalpa time cycle is divided according to three phases: First, there is the process of coming into being or 'creation’; next, the time span during which the environment and beings abide; and finally, the phase of cessation, where that cosmos and the beings within it disappear. A kalpa or aeon in which a fully enlightened one appears is called an aeon of light, or 'fortunate’ aeon. It is fortunate because a fully enlightened one appears in the world and bestows the light of spiritual intelligence upon the beings there. In contrast, there are the dark aeons, those cycles of creation in which no enlightened being will appear. It is also said that the dark aeons are more numerous than the aeons of light.
[A Fortunate Aeon] The particular cycle in which we now live is of a very special type, known as a 'fortunate’ aeon. At the beginning of this fortunate aeon, there was a Chakravartin, a universal monarch of great power known as Tsibkyi Mugyu, or Arenemi. As ruler at an early stage in the formation of that aeon, King Arenemi enjoyed a reign of great prosperity, harmony, and well being. This was true not only for the realm of the gods, but also for the human worlds. Although officially King Arenemi may not have had many queens, still it is said that as a great universal regent, he had thousands of queens. We are also told that these queens bore him more than one thousand princes. Due to his vast merit, merely by gesturing to one of these women and calling her his queen, she was able to bear him a son. King Arenemi gave rise to the wish that each of his sons could share among themselves the rule of his kingdom.
In those times, there lived a Buddha, the historical Buddha of that era, just as the historical Buddha of our era is Shakyamuni. These are fully enlightened Buddhas who display the twelve great deeds of an enlightened one. The Buddha of that era was known as Mahavairochana. The king approached Buddha Mahavairochana, saying that he had fathered more than one thousand sons, and asking how he might bless each son to enjoy a worthy and meaningful reign as king. The king asked if he might offer the services of these princes to Buddha Mahavairochana, in order that his sons might bear even greater fruits of virtue. The Buddha accepted King Arenemi’s request, taking the princes as his disciples. The king offered his sons to the Buddha with great aspirations, wondering in his heart when they would become equal to the Buddha himself. He asked Mahavairochana, 'When will they be like you?’ The Buddha reassured the king that all of the princes, as his disciples, would one day certainly become fully enlightened ones. Over the progression of the cycles of time, it is said that an aeon of light is generally followed by a dark aeon. This particular aeon in which we dwell is known as a Bhadrakalpa, an 'extremely auspicious aeon’. At the beginning of the formation of this aeon, it is said that in the middle of the universal ocean there blossomed a one-thousand petalled golden lotus flower. This wondrous lotus sprung up with such force that it reached to the heights of the realms of the gods or devas. The appearance of the golden lotus caused the gods to exclaim, “What a wonder it is to witness the blooming of the thousand petalled golden lotus! It is an auspicious omen, signifying the coming of one thousand Buddhas in this aeon.” Thus the blossoming of the lotus foretold the birth of the thousand princes destined to Buddhahood.
[Previous Buddhas] Delighted by Mahavairochana’s prediction, the king further wondered in what order his sons would become enlightened. He requested the Buddha to reveal this to him. Mahavairochana ordered that the name of each prince be written out, and the names were gathered in a cloth and placed in a vase. Then the Buddha drew names, one by one, unfolding the sequence in which each of the princes would reach Buddhahood. The first name selected, the one who would become the first Buddha of our fortunate aeon, was the one we know as Buddha Krakuchandra. The second name drawn was the one who became Buddha Kanakamuni, the second Buddha of our kalpa. The third name drawn was the prince who would be born as the Buddha Kashyapa, the third Buddha of our fortunate aeon. The fourth was the name of the prince who was to become the enlightened one of our present era, Buddha Shakyamuni. Hence Shakyamuni is known as the fourth great emancipator, or liberating one. The fifth name drawn was the one to appear as our next Buddha, Lord Maitreya. The sixth will come as Buddha Simhanada. In this way the names of each of the more than one thousand princes were drawn. It was further prophesied by the Buddha that the prince whose name was drawn last, upon taking birth as the final Buddha of this fortunate aeon, was to be an extraordinary enlightened one. This Buddha would embody all the realisation, qualities and activities of all the previous Buddhas united within himself. Our present era is that of the fourth prince, known to us as Buddha Shakyamuni.
[The Coming of the Buddha of this Age] Prior to Shakyamuni’s descent into our world, he reigned in the realm of the gods known as Tushita. Whoever ruled in the Tushita heaven assumed the name of Svetakirti, and so this was Shakyamuni’s name while he dwelt there. During his reign in the Tushita heaven, Svetakirti received many requests from gods as well as humans, beseeching him that he might appear in our world and manifest the twelve deeds of a supremely enlightened one. In response, he made five careful and specific observations regarding the circumstances of his future birth. These included the place in our world in which he would be born, at what time and on what date, as well as whose child he would be, and so forth. From these five careful observations, Svetakirti determined that he would appear in this world as a prince, the son of King Suddhodana and Queen Mayadevi in the kingdom of Kapilavastu. The remains of Kapilavastu are found in southern Nepal, not far from the border with India.
[Lumbini Garden] Just to the east of Kapilavastu there was in those ancient times a small kingdom whose capital was known as Devadaha. The two kingdoms enjoyed prosperous matrimonial bonds, with frequent marriages occurring between them. In those days, the woman who was to be the grandmother of Shakyamuni Buddha, whose name was Lumbini, dwelt in Devadaha. While Lumbini, a queen, was dwelling in the capital city of Devadaha, she used to visit a very beautiful garden nearby, which was owned by a wealthy family. As she went there frequently, she grew to wish that she be given the garden as her own. Her husband, the king, told her, “Although I may be the lord of this land, it would not be right for me to claim someone else’s garden for you. Still, if you so wish, I shall build for you just such a garden.” And so it was that the king built a most unique and splendid garden in the countryside between the two cities. He named the garden in honour of his queen, and that place is known to this day as Lumbini. Queen Lumbini became the mother of two beautiful princesses. As was the custom in those times, she consulted the astrologers and soothsayers, so that she might know what future best suited her daughters the princesses. The seers unanimously predicted that both girls had the great merit to marry either a powerful ruler, or to become the mother of a mighty being who would become a supreme enlightened one. In the light of these predictions, her husband Suprabuddha, the king of Devadaha, wished to form a bond of marriage with the king of Kapilavastu, a man of great fame and reputation. As it happened, the king of Kapilavastu harboured a similar wish. Thus Queen Lumbini’s eldest daughter, Mayadevi, was chosen to marry Shuddodhana, the prince of Kapilavastu. The marriage between Mayadevi and Shuddhodana was a grand celebration.
[Birth of Shakyamuni] In due course, the future Buddha Shakyamuni entered into this world. It is said that Queen Mayadevi conceived her son on the full moon night of the sixth lunar month in the earth sheep year. Then, in the fourth lunar month of the following year, the year of the iron monkey, on the seventh day of the month, she gave birth to a son. The normal period of growth in the womb is nine months, yet it is said that she carried her child for almost ten months. This is the account of the gestation and birth of the Buddha as it is given in the traditional histories. After Mayadevi found herself heavy with child, she remained for the most part in confinement, away from the social activities of the royal court. But, as the time to give birth grew near, she wished to withdraw to somewhere more peaceful. When asked what place she would find more pleasing, Mayadevi proposed a visit to her mother’s garden, Lumbini, to relax and take rest. As she strolled in the Lumbini grove, the time for Buddha’s birth suddenly came upon her. Just as Queen Mayadevi reached out to grasp the branch of a plaksha tree, the Buddha miraculously issued forth from her. Causing Mayadevi neither pain nor injury, Buddha was born from under her right arm. The legends of the Buddha’s birth tell us that from the day he entered Mayadevi’s womb, all the devas and gods from the golden celestial realms watched over and protected him. It is even said that Buddha emerged from the ribs of Mayadevi’s right side in the form of shimmering, scintillating golden light. Thus his appearance in this world was not by means of an ordinary birth, but was accompanied by miraculous events. We are also told how, immediately upon emerging from Queen Mayadevi, the Buddha walked seven steps in each of the four directions. Taking those steps, Buddha uttered four profound statements. The translation of these four statements is wonderful in the Tibetan language, where they reflect a play on the words for east, south, west, and north. As the Buddha took his first steps, in the eastern direction, he said, 'From here I arrive to attain nirvana, enlightenment.’ The word for east in Tibetan also means 'to arrive’. Stepping to the south, the Buddha said, 'I will be in harmony with worldly understanding.’ As he moved to the west, the direction of the setting sun, he said, ’ This is my final birth.’ And, with seven steps to the north, Buddha said, 'I have purified all my deeds in samsara, worldly existence…’ playing on the word for north which also means 'purify’. Naturally, a child born in the ordinary way would never be able to walk and speak with such eloquence and dignity. Yet at his birth the Buddha strode forth in each of the four directions, heralding the event of his birth to all the world as he fearlessly proclaimed, 'I am unexcelled by anyone ever to appear in this world.’ The child was raised as prince Siddhartha, and all people held great hopes for him as the future leader of the Shakya clan.
[Marriage] When his time of maturity had come, two fair princesses were proposed who might serve as his future queens. They were called Yasodhara and Gopaka. Both princesses belonged to highly respected and wealthy families, and there were many princes in the surrounding kingdoms who eagerly sought their hands in marriage. And so a competition was arranged, and all their suitors had to display their skills and sportsmanship, in hopes of winning such widely coveted brides. Prince Siddhartha defeated every rival and had the honour of claiming both princesses as his Queens. In this way, Siddhartha prepared to succeed his father as ruler of the kingdom of the Shakyas. Having married, Siddhartha reigned as prince of the Shakya kingdom. One day, he went on his first excursion outside of the palace and into the city of Kapilavastu. On this journey, the prince witnessed four events that would change him forever. These events brought Siddhartha face to face for the first time with human suffering, from which he had so far been carefully shielded by his father the king. Having never in his life seen such conditions, Siddhartha immediately understood that all living beings are subject to the inevitable sufferings of illness, old age, and death. As the full force of this understanding struck his mind, Siddhartha wondered how any one could pretend that all was fine in the world and carry on as if such suffering did not exist! This experience quickly caused Prince Siddhartha to give rise to a powerful sense of renunciation, and it forced him to recognise the futile nature of this world. All the activities of this life were ultimately meaningless, since all who inhabit this world must one day experience the same pains and pass away, leaving the experiences of this world to fade away like a dream. Having come to this realisation, Siddhartha resolved to leave the palace life and wander in search of the truth. He sought to extract from life its essential meaning.
[Leaving the Palace] The young prince had a faithful attendant known as Chanda, and he had a most excellent horse known as Kanthaka. Siddhartha summoned his attendant and ordered him to prepare his mount. Bidding his wife and infant son farewell as they lay asleep, he stole from the palace in secrecy, under cover of night, lest his subjects learn of his departure. Prince Siddhartha ordered his attendant to grasp the tail of his horse Kanthaka, who then miraculously bound over the walls of the palace compound and into the city. It is said that the four great guardian deities of the directions offered their service to Siddhartha, each lifting one hoof of the horse and spiriting them off through the air, until at last they brought them to the place known as Vishuddha stupa, the ‘stupa of great purity’. It was there that the prince formally abandoned the life of a householder and adopted the life of a total renunciation. Seizing a blade, he cut off the length of his hair, as a sign that he had parted from all attachment to this world. Siddhartha discarded his princely garb, his gown and ornaments. It is said that hosts of gods and devas magically appeared all about him, offering him the robes of a spiritual mendicant. Donning these garments, bestowed upon him by the gods themselves, he declared, ‘I have renounced worldly life in order to seek the path to enlightenment.’
[Early Asceticism] Now Siddhartha pondered carefully the nature of the path he sought. He understood that all the Buddhas of the past had reached enlightenment through ascetic practice. He knew with certainty that there was no way for him but to follow the same path. Siddhartha resolved to practice the ascetic way, making a solemn vow of fasting, and abstained from all food for six years. He further determined to remain motionless in meditation, and so it was that he sat continuously for six years without moving. This period of Siddhartha Gautama’s life has come to be known as the six years of asceticism, of unbroken, solitary meditation practice. This is how penances led him to the threshold of enlightenment, on the banks of the river Niranjana. During these six years of fasting, Siddhartha also kept a vow of noble silence. He did not speak to anyone, but remained absorbed in the silence of meditation. Once, as he sat motionless and speechless, some local cowherds came upon him, and wondered if he was a human being or a statue. They went so far as to poke burning irons into his ears, but Siddhartha showed not the slightest reaction. In this way he demonstrated the greatest determination to succeed in his meditation and austerities.
[Enlightenment] Now Siddhartha Gautama’s mother had passed away seven days after giving birth to him, and she had been reborn in the land of the gods known as the 'realm of the thirty-three.’ As a deva of this realm, she possessed some limited clairvoyance, and was able to see that her son from her previous life, Gautama, was undergoing great hardships. As this goddess, the former Mayadevi, wept for Siddhartha, her tears fell miraculously from the celestial world, forming a small pool in front of the meditating Buddha. In response to this, the great meditator Gautama broke his silence, just one week before he was to attain enlightenment. He spoke out reassuringly to his mother, saying, 'Although I have gone through these ascetic practices of unimaginable difficulty, yet I still have not reached my goal. I have only one week before I will gain enlightenment. Then I will repay your kindness, and will come to teach you in the near future.’ In this way, his mother was the first person for whom Gautama broke his vow of silence, just prior to attaining enlightenment. Completing his six years of meditation, Siddhartha arose from that place, setting out on foot for what would come to be known as Bodhgaya, the diamond seat. Thus he came to arrive before the great Bodhi tree there. He knew that this was indeed the very place where all the past Buddhas, such as Krakuchandra, Kanakamuni, and Kashyapa, had attained enlightenment, on the very seat he himself now approached. In deepest reverence, Gautama bowed before the vajra seat and then took his place upon it, leaning his back against the Bodhi tree. Upon that very throne of enlightenment of the Buddhas of the past, Siddhartha repeated the greatest act of all of history, achieving complete enlightenment under the Bodhi tree at Bodhgaya. Gautama had spent six years meditating on the banks of the Niranjana, and had come to the diamond seat of Bodhgaya to finish his meditation training. He entered again into seated meditation at dusk on the full moon night. Terrifying hosts of mara-devils and evil beings swarmed around him in a jealous frenzy. They threatened him with fearsome apparitions, brandishing terrible weapons and hurling them at him in rage and envy. These demons had great power and were able to destroy whatever they set themselves upon. Yet, due to the invincible power of meditation, compassion, and loving kindness emanating from Siddhartha, they could not defeat him. Now only hours from gaining enlightenment, in a meditation of unassailable stability, he transformed all that was flung at him into celestial flowers. He suffered not the slightest harm. Thus conquering and subduing all the mara-devils during the period of dusk on that night, then continuing on through the middle watch of the night he remained in the deep Samadhi of meditation. Finally, in the early dawn that followed the full moon night, he gained complete and perfect enlightenment, samyak sambuddha. Having attained enlightenment, Siddhartha Gautama, now the Buddha, entered into the most sublime and indescribable state of bliss and emptiness that is the enlightened state. In this profound condition he gave rise to a great wish, thinking, 'How wonderful it would be if all sentient beings could share in this realisation which is now my own.’