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The Historical Buddha, Sakyamuni

The following is a slightly technical description of the historical Buddha, from a mahayana Buddhist point of view. It comes from Maitreya's master work on Buddha Nature, the mahayanottaratantrashastra, seen here in the translation found in Ken Holmes' book Maitreya on Buddha Nature (Altea, 1999). It describes the Buddha's life through 12 main stages.

This page, the first of four on the historical Buddha  second of four on the historical Buddha  third of four on the historical Buddha  last of four on the historical Buddha

General  The historical Buddha was an emanation of the Buddha mind, referred to here as a supreme nirmanakaya, i.e. most perfect emanated form. Such emanations manifest, even to worldly beings, as having the thirty-two major marks and eighty signs of perfection of an Enlightened Being, teaching dharma in order to set the world into a cycle of wisdom and goodness. According to the Good Aeon Sutra, 1,002 such Buddhas have come and will come throughout the lifetime of this world, to awaken it over and over again to the timeless universal truths. Sakyamuni was but the fourth of these. Maitreya, the ‘Loving One', will be the fifth, and the being who is known in these times as the Gyalwa Karmapa will be the sixth, the ‘Lion Buddha'.

The various major events of Sakyamuni's life, such as his family background, his asceticism, etc., were not simple accidents but the meaningful and perfect conclusion to a very long and special story. In Mahayana Buddhism, it is considered that, from the time he first uttered the bodhisattva vow, the bodhisattva who was to become Sakyamuni Buddha took many hundreds of lifetimes to reach ultimate perfection. Altogether, these incarnations of systematic purification and steady development along the bodhisattva path spanned three cosmic aeons (a cosmic aeon, in this case, is the time from the inception of a solar system, such as our own, until its final destruction). After this extraordinary length of time, in which three universes had come and gone, he had purified absolutely everything in his being that there was to purify and he had attained every quality that a human being can attain. He achieved his final enlightenment in the ‘Highest' deva realm, called Aknstha, in Sanskrit, and og.min in Tibetan. From there, he emanated into all the human realms of the thousand million cosmic systems with which he was associated. His ‘lives' in those realms, such as the one he led in India some 2,500 years ago, were a very meaningful yet spontaneous drama, enacted to make the dharma teachings he imparted have the finest and most enduring effect on the world.

Such a vision of the purposefulness of the Buddha's life gives a very different image of him than that of a simple prince, at first influenced by Hinduism, who gradually became disillusioned with the royal life and one day set out into the unknown on a spiritual quest. His wisdom and perfection were there from the start, as bore witness the special signs on his body and the golden aura which shone for almost a kilometre around him as a child. The twelve major activities of his life, and their significance, are given in the following verses.

220. Through greatest compassion knowing all worlds,
having seen all worlds, while never leaving the dharmakaya, through various forms, apparitional by nature,
the one excellently born into the highest birth

Manifestation of the twelve deeds of a supreme nirmanakaya: The great master Jamgon Kongtrul, in his commentary, underlines the wonder of these deeds. They are amazing, inasmuch as the enlightened mind, without ever leaving its pure domain of formless dharmakaya, manifests awe-inspiringly beautiful and meaningful forms in many worlds, such as our own, through the deepest of compassion. These emanations are the best thing that ever happened in our universe. The presence of the Buddha in each world, playing out the story of the most meaningful of lives, is even more wonderful since it takes place like an apparition, i.e. it is vividly apparent but totally insubstantial, like a rainbow. In the particular case of Sakyamuni, he first emanated as ‘Summit of Goodness' to the deva paradise called 'Realm of Great Joy' (Tus´ita) and taught many gods there the paths to liberation and maturity. Then he had a fivefold vision, indicating that our world was ready for the dharma and that the many beings with whom he had established a dharma link in previous incarnations were now born or being reborn on Earth.