Story of the Buddha - Edith Holland




The First Disciples

The peepul-tree, under which Gotama was seated when heavenly wisdom enlightened his mind, has ever since been known as the sacred Bo-tree, or Tree of Wisdom. For many hundred years it continued to flourish, and countless pilgrims have visited the spot where the great Teacher first attained a knowledge of the truth.

For Gotama saw all things as they really are; few of us can do this, as our understandings are dull, and it is only those with the greatest minds who are face to face with the deep truths of life and eternity.

It would seem that Gotama was unwilling to leave the spot where he had found rest and peace after the weariness of those six years during which he was searching for Truth. We are told that for the space of seven times seven days he lingered in the neighbourhood of the Bo-tree, meditating on the Peace of Nirvana and the way of life leading to deliverance from sin and sorrow.

But there came a doubt to the mind of the Buddha, as to whether he should teach the new doctrine to mankind. The Truth, as he saw it, seemed too simple and natural for people who had been taught to believe that charms and sacrifices and priestly ceremonies could do away with sins. For the Buddha's faith differed from that of the Hindus in this—that it taught that none of these things have power to affect a man's destiny. Sins cannot be bought off. The great natural law of cause and effect cannot be interfered with by man. And thus it followed that the Buddha regarded moral conduct as of the highest importance. Not sacrifices to Brahma or Vishnu, not money paid to the priests to appease the angry gods, not fastings and penances—none of these things mattered; but speaking the truth, restraining evil passions, showing kindness to others—these were the things that were understood by the new doctrine, the 'Dhamma.' Doing good that good might follow, that the sum of goodness might be increased through countless ages to come.

Gotama, who well understood human nature, doubted whether mankind could be brought to believe in a religion having so little show or display. For it is much easier to offer a sacrifice or to utter a charm than it is to keep a bad temper under firm control. Also, it is hard for man to realize the fleeting nature of earthly things. "How," thought the Buddha, "will one who is intent on the pleasures of this life, who is heaping up riches for himself, be persuaded that the world is but as froth, even now vanishing away; that the days of man's life are as a river running swiftly by, and that nought endures but the righteousness which leads to everlasting Peace?"

So the Buddha reasoned within himself, uncertain whether alone to possess the knowledge he had gained, or whether to spread it abroad among men. But in the end his great love for all living beings prevailed, and he determined to preach the doctrine of salvation to mankind. "Surely," he thought, "there are some who will listen."

Gotama intended that his old teachers, Alara and Udaka, should be the first to hear the glad tidings, but finding that they were both dead he set out to walk to Benares in search of the five disciples who had lived with him in the jungles of Uruvela.

Taking his begging-bowl the Buddha went from village to village until he came near to the city of Benares, which lies along the banks of the river Ganges. In a beautiful forest known as the Deer Park, about three miles from the city, Gotama found his former disciples. But when they saw him approaching they said one to another: "Here comes he who forsook the only true path to holiness, who gave up fasting and penance, and eats and drinks like ordinary men; we will pay him no respect." And they treated Gotama coldly, almost rudely. But he, having now no doubts in his mind, and being fully assured that he was worthy to be a teacher of mankind, explained to them that he had become a Buddha and therefore deserved their highest respect. When the daylight was fading and the evening breeze stirred the great trees of the forest, Gotama seated himself and preached his first sermon. As the words flowed from his lips a thrill of joy ran through all Nature_ the flowers gave forth their sweetest scents, rivers murmured soft music, the stars shone with unusual brightness, and there was a rushing sound in the air as the devas came in thousands to hear the message of salvation. And the five disciples bowed themselves before Gotama and acknowledged him to be the Holy One—the Buddha. Long did the great Teacher continue speaking through the stillness of that Indian night, 2500 years ago; and the words he uttered have ever since been treasured up in the hearts of those whom he has led into the way of Peace.

To found the Kingdom of Righteousness—that was what the Buddha said he was come to do; and then he explained the meaning of the 'Four Noble Truths,' which all his followers must know and understand. And the four truths are these:

  1. The Truth that sorrow and suffering will exist as long as the world shall last.
  2. The Truth of the cause of sorrow—the clinging to earthly things which pass away.
  3. The Truth of deliverance from sorrow—the conquest over self and all evil passions.
  4. The Truth of the path leading to deliverance from sorrow, that is to say, the way of life which must be followed by all true Buddhists. This Path, leading to deliverance from sorrow, the Buddha called the 'Noble Eightfold Path,' because in it were set forth eight guiding principles which must be observed by all. These were:
    1. A right belief.
    2. High aims.
    3. Kind speech.
    4. Upright conduct.
    5. An honest profession in life.
    6. Perseverance in goodness.
    7. A right use of the intellect.
    8. Right meditation.

Truly he who can observe these precepts, in the way intended by the great Teacher, will lead a noble life, and give a noble example to his fellow-men.

The Buddha also called this 'path' the 'Middle Path,' because, as he explained, it lies midway between the two extremes, of self-indulgence, and the system of fasting and penance practised by the holy men of the Hindus. For we should above all be guided by reason and common sense, and it is wrong, the Buddha taught, to indulge ourselves so that our bodies become our masters and we have no control over our appetites; while it is equally wrong to deny ourselves the necessaries of life, and so injure or weaken our bodies.

It was no easy religion which the Buddha preached to his followers, for there is nothing more difficult than to practise perfect self-control, and no one could be a true disciple of Gotama until he had learnt this hard lesson.. It may surprise us to hear of the numbers who were attracted by the Buddha's preaching, but Truth has great power, and where there is true goodness and a true wish for right-doing there must be Truth, even if it is not exactly the same view of the Truth which we have been taught ourselves.

One of the first converts to the Buddha's doctrine was a young man named Yasa. He possessed much wealth, but gave up all he had and became a beggar like his great Teacher. You must not suppose that to be a true disciple of Gotama it was necessary to give up the world. It was quite possible to follow the Buddha's teaching and yet to continue living in the world. Indeed many of Gotama's great friends were ordinary citizens, or householders as they were called. It was the same with Christianity five hundred years later—all who kept Christ's commandments were his followers, but some were specially chosen for the higher life, and these were commanded to forsake their homes and all their possessions.

Gotama remained for some time in the Deer Park at Benares, preaching the Law to all who came to hear him—not like the Brahmins, only to privileged people but equally to rich and poor, old and young, men and women. When at the end of three months his disciples numbered sixty, Gotama called them together and thus addressed them: "Beloved Bhikkhus" (Bhikkhus signifies Beggars, name commonly used by Gotama in speaking to his disciples), "we have a great duty to perform, that of working for the salvation of men and angels, and showing them the way to deliverance. Let us part company, and each take a different way, so that no two shall go in the same direction. And you shall preach the Doctrine to all men and declare the Truths which I have made known to you. I myself will go to the village of Senani, on the borders of the Uruvela jungles."

So Gotama returned to the solitudes he knew so well, and there in the jungle he met three brothers, named Kassapa, who were worshippers of the Hindu god of Fire. They were looked upon as very holy men, and at first considered themselves greatly superior to Gotama in wisdom and knowledge, but, as day after day they heard the Master speak, they were gradually persuaded of the truth of his words, and the three brothers and their numerous disciples were converted.

Gotama, like other great teachers, often spoke in parables, taking symbols from Nature to make his meaning clear. One day he was seated with some of his new disciples on a high rock, known as the Elephant Rock, which overlooked the wide valley of Rajagaha. All at once the flames of a jungle fire shot up, reddening the sky with an angry glow; the wild beasts of the jungle fled panic-stricken as the fire crept on, like a devouring monster, consuming all that lay in its path.

Gotama, Who had been speaking of the subduing of evil passions, compared the fire to the inward excitement and anxiety which consume those who are intent on worldly pleasures. The fire will burn so long as there is fuel to feed it, and the fires of hatred and avarice will burn as long as we worry and distress ourselves with earthly longings. As an instance, take the man whose whole thoughts are intent on making money; he is never satisfied with what he has, but is always craving for more; never at rest, he is consumed by anxiety lest he should lose his wealth. But in those who have given up all their possessions the fires of avarice will cool down; having nothing and wanting nothing, they will enjoy perfect peace. The sermon preached by Gotama on the Elephant Rock became known as the 'Lesson on Burning'; it is found written in the old books among the collection of sermons preached by the Buddha to his disciples.

You will remember that after leaving his home the first city which Gotama entered was Rajagaha. There he had talked with Bimbisara, the king, and had promised him that, if he ever found the wisdom he was seeking, he would return and teach it to him. Thinking now upon this promise, Gotama left the jungle of Uruvela and took the road to Rajagaha, accompanied by a great number of disciples.

One day, as King Bimbisara was sitting in his palace, a messenger came to him, saying, "The Master is come." So the King rose, and, accompanied by many of his nobles and courtiers, went to the palm grove where the Buddha and a thousand disciples were staying.

It was nearly seven years since the noble Prince Siddhattha had walked through the city gates to beg for his food; a beggar's life was new and strange to him, and you will remember how distasteful he found the coarse food to which he was then unaccustomed. Since that time Gotama had learnt many things—the six year's penance in the Uruvela jungle had taught him what suffering and hardship meant; he had known and resisted temptation, and in the end had found the way to peace and deliverance from sorrow. And now, as the Buddha, the Enlightened One, Gotama returned to the kingdom of Magadha to fulfil his promise to the King.

Bimbisara was a mighty monarch, yet when he came to the palm grove where the Buddha was seated in the midst of his disciples, he bowed himself reverently at his feet, thus showing that he considered the might and majesty of a Buddha far above earthly power and greatness. Then Gotama addressed the assembled multitude, explaining the meaning of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path leading to peace and deliverance. At the end of the discourse King Bimbisara declared himself a believer, and repeated the form of words which it is still usual to repeat on becoming a member of the Buddhist Church: "I take refuge in the Buddha; I take refuge in the Doctrine; I take refuge in the Order." The 'Order' means the brotherhood of monks, or the Church.

Before Bimbisara left the palm grove he invited Gotama and all his disciples to come to the palace the next day for their morning meal.

The people of Rajagaha were greatly excited when they heard that the King had been converted to the new religion, and large crowds assembled to see the Teacher and his many followers as they entered the city on their way to the palace.

When the King had entertained his guests, he begged of the Buddha to accept a gift; this was a pleasant grove, called Veluvana, or 'the bamboo grove,' not far from the city gates. For the King thought the palm grove too far away, and he wished to have the Buddha near him that he might often go and visit him. So the bamboo grove was solemnly presented to the Buddha, and to the Order of Monks. A priceless golden goblet was brought, filled with water scented with fragrant flowers, and the King poured water over the Buddha's hands, saying: "May the Blessed One accept my gift."

Gotama stayed for two months in the bamboo grove, where he was joined by the sixty disciples he had sent out from Benares. About this time two noble youths, named Sariputta and Mogallana, were converted, and became monks. They were afterward known as the disciples of the Right and Left, which means that they were looked upon as the two chief disciples of Gotama, and were much beloved by him.