stories , Buddha , India , podcast

The Birth of Buddha

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Read by Jana
Chants by Jana
Adaptation and production by Bertie
Buddha images courtesy of Deposit Photos

Hello, this is Jana, and welcome to Relaxivity. In this episode, I will tell you the story of the birth of Buddha. But first, what is the difference between a Buddha and the Buddha?

“Buddha” is an ancient Sanskrit word that means “a person who is awake.” A buddha is awake to the true nature of reality, and free from the fog of daily illusions, such as hate, greed, and folly. To become a Buddha, you must reach Nirvana, a transcendent state where there is no sense of self. It is a place of happiness and peace.

When we talk about The Buddha, we are referring to Prince Siddharttha Gautama who was born about two and half thousand years ago. The birthplace of Gautama Buddha was the land of Shakya, which would now be in southern Nepal, along the border with India. He grew up to become both a Buddha and the founder of the Buddhist religion.

As you will hear, in his early years, Siddharttha Gautama lived an opulent and pampered existence until, at the age of 29, he saw four signs that made him disgusted at the way of the world. He renounced his wealth and set out on his spiritual path of awakening.

We retell his story, retaining some of the flavour of the ancient texts.

It was the time of the Midsummer Festival in the city of Kapilavastu in the foothills of the Himalayas. For the six days before the full moon, the people were celebrating. Day and night, the streets resounded with the ten noises - the sounds of elephants, horses, chariots, drums, tablas, sitars, singing, cymbals, gongs, and, last but not least, people crying out: "What are you waiting for? Eat! Drink! Be Merry!"

On the day of the full moon, Queen Māyādevī, as beautiful as the water-lily and as pure as the lotus, rose early, bathed in scented water, and gave four hundred thousand pieces of money to charity. In the evening time, she sampled the choicest foods while not touching a drop of strong drink. After eating, she took the eight vows of purity and lay down on her royal couch to sleep.

That night, she dreamt that four angels lifted her, together with her couch, and whisked her away over the Himalayan Mountains. Eventually, they put her down under a beautiful Sal Tree, where they stood guard over her. The wives of the angels came to bathe her. Then they took her to a golden palace, where they laid her down on a divine couch.

While this was happening, the Future Buddha turned himself into the form of a great white elephant. This elephant descended from the golden mountain holding a white lotus in his trunk. Then he entered the palace where the Queen was sleeping. He walked three times around her couch before entering her womb.

The following day, the Queen awoke and told the dream to King Śuddhodana. After hearing this strange tale, he summoned sixty-four holy men. He ordered places to be laid for them on the ground with green leaves and flowers. Servants set out gold and silver plates. They ate the finest Dahl with ghee and honey. And then the King gave them generous gifts. When all their desires were satisfied, he asked the wise men to interpret the dream of Queen Māyādevī.

"Do not be anxious, my lord!" proclaimed the wisest of the wise men, "A child has planted himself inside the womb of the Queen. He will grow up to be the greatest human being in the World."

In the tenth month, the Queen knew the time of the birth was close. She asked the King if she could return to her parents. He gladly granted her wish. On the way home, Queen Māyādevī's road took her through a lovely grove of trees at a place called Lumbini. She ordered the men carrying her palanquin to put her down so that she could enjoy a stroll. Lumbini was a little paradise, with carpets of flowers, happily humming bees, and sweetly chirping birds. The Queen wandered around, savouring the tranquility. As she passed under the tallest Sal Tree, she felt her labour pains, and she knew that her time had come. She clung onto a branch of the tree and gave birth while standing up. At that moment, four angels caught her baby, the Future Buddha, in a golden net. Some say that the future Buddha emerged from his mother's side. Others that he came down from her womb like a monk descending a flight of stairs.

The angels showed him to his mother, and she saw that her son was shining and spotless like a jewel upon a Benares cloth. A brief shower of pure rain fell to refresh both the mother and son. The angels wrapped him in the skin of a black antelope, soft to touch.

Then the baby proclaimed:

"I am the chief of the world!" On this same day, the thirty-three gods celebrated in heaven, waving their cloaks and giving other signs of joy because a boy had been born who would one day sit under a Bo Tree and become a Buddha.

Now on the fifth day, it was time to choose a name for the baby. A hundred and eight holy men came to the ceremony to hear The King and Queen pronounce that the boy would be called Prince Siddhartha Gautama. Eight of the holy men, skilled in magic, examined the baby for marks that would foretell his future. Seven of the eight seers made a double prophecy:

"If he remains inside the palace, he will become the One and only Ruler of the World! But if he leaves the palace, he will become a Buddha."

But the eighth and youngest of the holy men told only one fortune that was not pleasing to the ears of the King.

"No force shall keep him inside the palace. Four signs will make him renounce all luxury and retire from the World. He shall become a Buddha and pull back the clouds of sin and folly from this World!"

The King was dismayed.

"What are these four signs?" he demanded.

The youngest of the holy men replied:

"The four signs are a frail old man, a diseased man, a dead man, and a monk." "From this time forth," commanded the King, "let no such persons come near my son. It will never do for him to become a Buddha. I wish him to rule the four great continents and the two thousand islands and to walk through the heavens surrounded by his attendants!"

And when he had spoken, he placed guards on all four sides of the palace grounds with strict orders not to let any of the four types of people come in. And the future Buddha grew up sealed inside the palace, surrounded by a vast number of servants and magnificent splendour.

On his sixteenth birthday, the King gave the future Buddha three palaces and forty thousand dancing girls. The boy lived like a god surrounded by his brightly dressed dancers and musical instruments that sounded by themselves. He married Princess Yaśodharā, and they had a son called Rāhula, who was his pride and joy.

Now one day, when he had reached the age of twenty-nine, the Future Buddha mounted his chariot and proceeded to the park. The gods in heaven looked down and decided that the time had come for the prince's enlightenment. "We must show him a sign," they said. One of the gods took the form of a decrepit old man, broken-toothed, grey-haired, crooked and bent of body, leaning on a staff, trembling, and showed himself to the Future Buddha.

The prince turned to his driver and asked, "Who is this? He is not like other human being." The charioteer replied that he was an old man and that old age awaits us all.

"Shame on birth, if that is our fate!" declared the prince, and he returned to the palace greatly agitated. When the king saw him, he summoned the charioteer to his chamber and asked:

"Why has my son returned so soon?"

"Sire, he has seen an old man," replied the charioteer.

"Do you want to kill me that you say such a thing?" asked the King in dismay. "Hurry. Call some girls to dance and perform and show him the pleasures of the World!"

Soon, on another day, the Future Buddha saw a diseased man whom the gods had put in his way. He returned to the palace greatly vexed, and the King ordered double the number of guards to watch the four sides of the grounds. And again, on his way to the park, the Future Buddha saw a dead man.

When he learned that life leads to death, he was more distressed than ever. The King, in despair, called for yet more guards.

But despite the King’s best efforts, it was not long before the Future Buddha came across the fourth and final sign, a monk. He asked his charioteer: "Pray, who is this man walking peacefully along the road, wearing an orange robe and carrying a bowl? "

"Sir," replied the driver, "This man has retired from the world." And after what he had learned about the sadness of life, the idea of retiring from the World intrigued the young man. The Future Buddha returned to his palace, but the splendour no longer uplifted him. Straightaway, richly dressed women, as beautiful as celestial nymphs, gathered about him with all kinds of musical instruments, and with dance, song, and music, they tried to please him. But the Future Buddha was not interested, and he fell into a brief slumber. When the women saw the eyes of the master shut, they, too, lay down while the lamps, fed with sweet-smelling oil, continued to burn. A little later, the Future Buddha awoke and saw these women asleep, with their musical instruments scattered about them on the floor. He noticed some of them were wet with sweat and saliva; some of them with their mouths open, snoring, grinding teeth, and muttering in their sleep; and some of them with their dresses falling apart to reveal their nakedness. This change in their appearance increased his aversion to sensual pleasures. To him, that magnificent apartment seemed like a cemetery filled with dead bodies left to rot.

"How oppressive and stifling it all is!" he exclaimed. He called his faithful attendant, Channa, to ready his mighty horse, Kanthaka. And when Kanthaka felt how Channa saddled him up tightly, he realised it was not a typical day when he went for a ride in the park. 

"It must be that today my master will retire from the world," he thought. And in his delight, he neighed loudly.

Meanwhile, the Future Buddha visited his rooms to take one last glance at his wife and son. He opened the door of his wife's chamber, where a lamp was burning with sweet-smelling oil. The mother of Rahula was sleeping on a couch strewn deep with jasmine, her hand resting on the head of her son. He thought, "If I were to raise my wife's hand from off the child's head and take him up, she would awake and prevent my departure. I will first become a Buddha and then come back and see my son." So saying, he departed from the palace and headed for the stables. There he vaulted onto the back of Kanthaka. The future Buddha rode out on his mighty horse and made his attendant, Channa, hold onto his tail. At midnight, they arrived at the great gates of the city. The King had ordered the gates to be so heavy that it would take a thousand men to open them. But the future Buddha possessed the strength of many thousands of elephants. He was ready to pick up both his horse and his servant and leap over the gates carrying them both. But there was no need, because the divinity who inhabited the gates flung them open. .

Just then, Mara, the demon tempter, appeared in the gateway. He called out to the Future Buddha, “Sir! Do not leave the city! An Empire awaits you. Just seven days from now you shall become Universal Ruler of the four continents and the two thousand islands!”

“But when I become a Buddha,” replied the Prince, “the ten thousand worlds shall shake and thunder.”

And so, the future Buddha, cast away the prospect of worldly power, spitting it out as if it were mere phlegm, and left the city of splendour, and his life of opulence, behind him.

And that was the story of The Birth of Buddha and the Four Signs read by me, Jana, for Relaxivity. I hope you find our spiritual stories both absorbing and relaxing. We are building a collection that covers many cultures, religions and ideas. Keep listening to enrich your life.

Source for our adaptation: Buddhism in Translations, by Henry Clarke Warren (1854-1899), published in 1896 as Volume III of the Harvard Oriental Series. Thanks for all.