Buddha was born around 563 BC in Kapilavastu, in the region of what is today Nepal. He received a name Siddhartha Gautama, and since he came from the Shakya clan, he was later called Shakyamuni (the Shakya monk). His father was a king, his mother Maya Devi died seven days after giving birth. Prince Siddhartha was raised in affluence and received a perfect education. At the age of seventeen, he married Yasodhara and received three palaces and splendid gifts. Despite his richness, the prince was not free, he rarely left the royal palace, he never saw the real world, he lived only in luxury and joy. On his errands, he saw an old beggar, an ill man and a corpse. He felt deep compassion then. Meeting an old begging monk decided his future journey. The monk had a bowl in his hand and a calm look, and his appearance manifested the perfect peace of his spirit. Gautama was then thirty years old and he ran away from the palace. He went to look for the way how to overcome suffering and find peace of spirit. He went through an ascetic life and yoga meditations, but even these could not bring him to his goal. In the end, he decided to look for the answers to his questions inside himself.
Travelling he reached the village of Gaya. Here he sat down under the pipal tree (ficus religiosa, later called the Bodhi Tree). He sat in the meditation pose: his head and body upright, his legs crossed and his hands joined in his lap, one hand resting in the other. At the beginning, he controlled his body by his mind, but he soon stopped doing that and changed the technique. He practiced a deep asceticism and remained perfectly still. In the end, he almost did not look like a human any more, and people passing by thought that he was a demon. After six years of practicing like this, he stopped and stated that: “this is not the way leading to enlightenment and ending of birth, aging and death”. He finished fasting, ate some food, had a bath, shaved and cut his hair. He made a grass pillow, so that he could sit in a more comfortable position, and sat down again under the Bodhi tree, facing east. He swore: “Let my body go dry on this pillow, let my bones and muscles fall apart, but I will do not leave this place, until I have reached enlightenment, no matter how long or difficult it may be”. On a full moon night, Gautama went through four levels of revelation, in which he reached a deep understanding. In the morning, the rising sun shone not on one of many ascetics, but on a unique being, Buddha, or “the enlightened one”. Buddha said: “Here is suffering, here is the reason for suffering, here is removing suffering, here is the way leading to removing suffering, I learned all of this such as it is”. He called his way the Middle Way, because it refuses extremes, such as asceticism and hedonism. He decided to pass this deep truth on to people. In his teachings, Buddha explained the Four Noble Truths about the origins of suffering and the so called Noble Eightfold Path – a programme of education and studies leading to the goal, i.e. freeing oneself.
Buddha was followed by crowds of people and surrounded by an enthusiastic group of disciples. His message transcends all aspects of being. Buddha passed to all the following generations not only a deep philosophical teaching, but also an important practice – a perfect sitting position, in which he reached enlightenment. It was in this position that he came to understand that the cycle of existence full of suffering has no base or essence. He refused to waste time by trying to penetrate the secrets of the beginning or end of existence: it is enough that he understood its painful emptiness, he created the method and continued to teach it for more than forty years.
One night in a small village in northern India, Buddha Shakyamuni sat surrounded by his disciples. The end of his earthly life was coming to a close. Ananda, his favourite, asked him: “Master, we have been following your teachings for years. Can you tell us, what is its essence?” Everyone was waiting for the answer. But Buddha, without a word, picked a flower that was in front of him, raised it and smiled. Only one disciple, Mahakasyapa, intuitively understood the meaning of this silent response and became the first patriarch of Zen, because Zen derives its tradition from this wonderful meeting of the flower and the Buddha´s smile.
Buddha was a philosopher, a doctor of the mind and a founder of a religious movement, which embraced all Asia and which has been followed by millions of people from all over the world for twenty five centuries. The universal sitting position, in which Buddha attained enlightenment, has been passed on from a master to his disciple for seven centuries in India, for seven centuries in China and for seven centuries in Japan. In this original zazen position, those that have practiced it, have reached enlightenment and thus freed themselves from suffering. This original position has been transmitted in an uninterrupted line of buddhas and patriarchs for 2500 years all the way until the present days.
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