The logical place for us to begin our journey is by learning about the man that started it all: the Buddha.
I will not go into his life story. There are so many books and websites available, and since I am neither a historian nor an archeologist, I believe that, if that is your interest, you could easily find a good narrative of his story. Some of them are extraordinarily mystical and magical, while some are strictly scientific and base their assertions on actual evidence. However, I will briefly explain who he was and why he is so important as it is a fundamental key to the explanation of his teachings.
The Buddha or Siddhartha Gautama, as was his birth name, was born about 2,500 years ago in northeastern India, now southwestern Nepal, in a town called Lumbini.
He was born into a life of wealth and luxury and was pampered all through his youth.
In those days in the Indian sub-continent, there was a fairly substantial movement of ascetics: people that had renounced worldly comforts to discover the profound meaning of life and its real purpose, as well as to achieve spiritual enlightenment. The most popular methods used to seek the accomplishment of their goals were meditation and abstinence; in some cases, in a very extreme manner.
Siddhartha, comfortable as he was (he was married and had a son), knew that there had to be more to life than merely existing and eventually dying. He perceived life as being much too plagued with suffering for it to be thoroughly enjoyable.
Intending to find a better living experience from an existential point of view for himself and his loved ones, he decided, in his early thirties, to renounce his luxurious lifestyle and set out on a quest to find a way to end the seemingly inevitable anguishes of life. He wanted to discover a definitive way to end all suffering.
At the beginning of his life as a renunciate, he joined the ascetics who seemingly shared his goal and began to follow their teachings. He is said to have joined many groups, but none of them could yield the goal he was looking to achieve.
In his mid-thirties, he decided to go on his own. He sat under a ficus tree with the firm resolution of not getting up until he had achieved his goal, and after a few days of deep meditation, he reached enlightenment.
What is enlightenment? We will examine this question in detail in later chapters, but for now, let us say that he achieved such a heightened state of awareness that he was able to perceive reality as it is, which led him to discover the true nature of mind and how it works. He thus identified the origin of suffering, its causes, and how to achieve its cessation. He reached his goal.
After concluding this monumental task, he took on an even greater one: to teach what he had learned, and, for the next four decades of his life, the Buddha would devote himself to providing his students with the tools they needed to attain the same enlightened state he had reached.
When he was about eighty years old, he passed away, teaching up until his very last breath.
After his death, his disciples continued on his footsteps, teaching what they had learned and what is now known as Buddhism was born.
There are many essential lessons we can take from The Buddha´s life story, but for now, let’s focus on those that must mold our perception if we are considering taking on the study of Buddhism.
First and foremost, The Buddha is by no means the “god” of Buddhists.
He was a human being just like us but, unlike us, he achieved the heightened, and I dare say ultimate, state of awareness and consciousness we call enlightenment. He never claimed to be a deity nor a prophet and much less a god.
In the nearly 45 years that he devoted to teaching, he insisted that his main goal was to explain what his achievement meant, what it entailed, and how to get there so that his students could, by themselves, reach the same state he had.
He wanted colleagues, not a massive audience that expected to gain spiritual progress by merely being in his presence.
As westerners, when we think about any religion or formal spiritual path, we tend to try and tie it to a specific supreme deity that demands unconditional and undivided devotion. Blind worship is not only not required in Buddhism, but most Buddhist teachers will advise you to steer away from it.
Now, a natural question arises: Why is it that when you enter a temple or Buddhist center, it would seem that there is not an inch of space not filled with images or statutes? As westerners, when we see a statue of someone or something that is considered “holy,” and we see people sitting o kneeling in front of it, we think that those people are somehow “worshiping” the statue and probably, pleading a favor or seeking forgiveness.
In Buddhism, it does not work that way.
When a young basketball player is beginning his formal training and places a poster of his or her´s favorite athlete on the wall, he knows that it will do him no good in the development of his skills to merle stare at the image and plead for his abilities to improve. He knows he has to get in the court and do the work if he wants to get better. The poster represents his goal, a reminder of how his hard work may pay off and, of course, there is always a sense of admiration of what his idol has done for the sport.
Buddhist iconography works in this same way. We revere the image, but we do not worship it.
When we see a statue of the Buddha or any other Buddhist historical figure, we do not ask for his divine intervention in the progress of our spiritual development. We recognize the image as our goal and the fact that the goal is achievable if we are willing to do the work, we admire it, and we thankfully acknowledge who it represents for all of his o her´s contribution to humanity by teaching the way to enlightenment.
When we study the teacher-student relationship, we will return to this point to analyze the dangers of “personifying” Buddhism. For now, bear in mind that there is no blind devotion in Buddhism; you need a certain degree of trust in the effectiveness of the teachings, but it is by no means blind for we will be able to see this effectiveness reflected in our teacher, who has to be able to embody it and portray the person we want to become.