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The Man Who Woke Up

Huston Smith

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BUDDHISM BEGINS with a man. In his later years, when India was afire with his message and kings themselves were bowing before him, people came to him even as they were to come to Jesus asking what he was. How many people have provoked this question—not "Who are you?" with respect to name, origin, or ancestry, but "What are you? What order of being do you belong to? What species do you represent?" Not Caesar, certainly. Not Napoleon, or even Socrates. Only two, Jesus and Buddha. When the people carried their puzzlement to the Buddha himself, the answer he gave provided a handle for his entire message.

"Are you a god?" they asked. "No." "An angel?" "No." "A saint?" "No." "Then what are you?"

Buddha answered, "I am awake."

His answer became his title, for this is what Buddha means. The Sanskrit root budh denotes both to wake up and to know. Buddha, then, means the "Enlightened One" or the "Awakened One." While the rest of the world was wrapped in the womb of sleep, dreaming a dream known as the waking state of human life, one of their number roused himself. Buddhism begins with a man who shook off the daze, the doze, the dream-like vagaries of ordinary awareness. It begins with the man who woke up.

Indian Buddha with cobra       

His life has become encased in loving legend. We are told that the worlds were flooded with light at his birth. The blind so longed to see his glory that they received their sight; the deaf and dumb conversed in ecstasy of the things that were to come. Crooked became straight; the lame walked. Prisoners were freed from their chains and the fires of hell were quenched. Even the crimes of the beasts were hushed as peace encircled the earth. Only Mara, the Evil One, rejoiced not.

THE HISTORICAL FACTS of his life are roughly these: He was born around 563 B.C.E. in what is now Nepal, near the Indian border. His full name was Siddhartha Gautama of the Sakyas; Siddhartha was his given name, Gautama his surname, and Sakya the name of the clan to which his family belonged. His father was a king, but as there were then many kingdoms in the subcontinent of India, it would be more accurate to think of him as a feudal lord. By the standards of his day his upbringing was luxurious. "I wore garments of silk and my attendants held a white umbrella over me .... My unguents were always from Banaras." He appears to have been exceptionally handsome, for there are numerous references to "the perfection of his visible body." At sixteen he married a neighboring princess named Yasodhara, who bore him a son whom they called Rahula.

Here, in short, was a man who seemed to have everything: family, "the venerable Gautama is well born on both sides, of pure descent"-appearance, "handsome, inspiring trust, gifted with great beauty of complexion, fair in color, fine in presence, stately to behold"-wealth, "[He] had elephants and silver ornaments for [his] elephants." He had a model wife, "majestic as a queen of heaven, constant ever, cheerful night and day, full of dignity and exceeding grace," who bore him a beautiful son. In addition, as heir to his father's throne, he was destined for fame and prestige.

Despite all this, there settled over him in his twenties a discontent which was to lead to a complete break with his worldly estate.

The source of his discontent is impounded in the legend of The Four Passing Sights, one of the most celebrated calls to adventure in all world literature. When Siddhartha was born, so this story runs, his father summoned fortunetellers to find out what the future held .for his heir. All agreed that this was no usual child. His career, however, was crossed with one basic ambiguity. If he remained with the world, he would unify India and become her greatest conqueror, a Chakravartin or Universal King. If, on the other hand, he forsook the world, he would become not a world conqueror but a world redeemer. Faced with this option, his father determined to steer his son toward the former destiny. No effort was spared to keep the prince attached to the world. Three palaces and forty thousand dancing girls were placed at his disposal; strict orders were given that no ugliness intrude upon the courtly pleasures. Specifically, the prince was to be shielded from contact with sickness, decrepitude, and death; even when he went riding, runners were to clear the road of these sights.- One day, however, an old man was overlooked or, as some versions have it, miraculously incarnated by the gods to effect the needed lesson: a man decrepit, broken-toothed, gray-haired, crooked and bent of body, leaning on a staff, and trembling. That day Siddhartha learned the fact of old age. Though the king extended his guard, on a second ride Siddhartha encountered a body racked with disease lying by the roadside; and on a third journey, a corpse. Finally on a fourth occasion he saw a monk with shaven head, ochre robe, and bowl and on that day he learned of the life of withdrawal from the world. It is a legend, this story, but like most legends it embodies an important truth. For the teachings of Buddha show unmistakably that it was the body's inescapable involvement with disease, decrepitude, and death that made him despair of finding fulfillment on the physical plane. "Life is subject to age and death. Where is the realm of life in which there is neither age nor death?"

Once he had perceived the inevitability of bodily pain and passage, fleshly pleasures lost their charm. The singsong of the dancing girls, the lilt of lutes and cymbals, the sumptuous feasts and processions, the elaborate celebration of festivals only mocked his brooding mind. Flowers nodding in the sunshine and snows melting on the Himalayas cried louder of the evanescence of worldly things. He determined to quit the snare of distractions his palace had become and follow the call of a truth-seeker. One night in his twentyninth year he made the break, his Great Going Forth. Making his way in the post-midnight hours to where his wife and son were locked in sleep he bade them both a silent goodbye, and then ordered the gate-keeper to bridle his great white horse. The two mounted and rode off toward the forest. Reaching its edge by daybreak, Gautama changed clothes with the attendant who returned with the horse to break the news, while Gautama shaved his head and "clothed in ragged raiment," plunged into the forest in search of enlightenment.

Excerpted from The World's Religions (HarperCollins, 1991), a revised and updated edition of The Religions of Man
(Harper & Row, 1958). Reprinted with permission from HarperCollins.

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tara123's picture

Is there a first buddha? We hear of buddhaverses from teachers such as Robert A. F. Thurman, and Chogyam Trungpa introduced me to the concept of "primal buddha" (as did Thurman). There is a reason why science, cosmology, universes, and evolution are essential in Buddhism. There is no beginning. There will be no end. We widen our minds when we widen our concepts, which is always the direction in which the greatest teachers (as Huston Smith) are leading us. We go back to the words of the Buddha - the sutras. We are all men and women with the potential to open that third eye and "wake up." We ARE "The Man Who Woke Up."

Dominic Gomez's picture

Re: "Is there a first buddha?'
Shakyamuni, who lived nearly 3,000 years ago in what is now Nepal, would be the first historically documented "buddha" (a person enlightened to the Law of the life). Likely, there have been others prior to him as well others since his time. The key is understanding what the life condition of buddhahood is and how it is manifested in each individual.

mkwart's picture

How about a cultural context for the Buddha's spiritual development. There are enough similarities between what the Buddha believed and universal indigenous people's thought to make this an interesting investigation. The Buddha didn't invent his ideas--they evolved from what went on before him and what he was exposed to. I also question the efficacy of the Buddha awakening story--I am beginning to feel that the story is less one of universally applicable spiritual awakening than of the maturing and coming of age of a young man. What would have happened if the Buddha was a woman? Would she have felt the need to abandon family and turn her back on the world to find truth--or would she have tried to find it in the ordinary circumstances of everyday life? I think the latter is the story we need today.

mralexander99's picture

It is a metaphor to be seen as similar to "The Hero with a thousand faces"....his family was taken care of and he suffered probably the worst type of trauma as a child...his Mother died after he was born.

avalmez's picture

Can anyone recommend a resource for learning about the historical Buddha? The story, or legend, presented above is well and all, but it would be great to learn what, if anything, the historical record says about the Buddha. It's interesting that the author places Buddha and Jesus as the only two of a "class" or "species". It's even more interesting to compare some of the basic Shinto teachings to those of Christ. Anyways, recommendation sappreciated.

mralexander99's picture

"the LIFE of the BUDDHA" by Bhikkhu Ñānamoli printed by BPS

sspowell1219's picture

Thich Nhat Hanh's ,Old Path White Clouds, is a beautiful book not only about the historical Buddha, but also the teachings. Someone once told me if it was the only book one read on Buddhism, it would provide all one needs to know.