Buddha's Great Departure: History and Legend

All religions use the power of myths and story telling to explain and spread their teachings. Buddhism, devoid of dogma and ritual, relies greatly on its vast collection of tales and parables to inform and educate ordinary people about simple, eternal truths. Over centuries, the followers of Buddha have narrated these stories, filled with the gentle wisdom of their founder, like lamps that light up the rocky path of life, beacons that show us how to conduct our lives with compassion and truth. Over the next few weeks, we bring you some of these stories, remarkably childlike in the telling, yet carrying within them subtle lessons.

Where better to begin our discovery of Buddhist folklore than from the life of Buddha himself – the fascinating journey of a prince who became one of the world’s greatest spiritual leaders! It is believed that Buddha’s birth as Prince Siddharth was the last of several thousand reincarnations – the circumstances under which he was born were remarkable in themselves. His mother, Queen Mahamaya, wife to King Suddhodana of the Sakya clan, dreamed one night that a white, six-tusked elephant had entered her body. Ten months later, as tradition required, Mahamaya left the kingdom of Kapilavastu for her father’s home to deliver her child. En route in Lumbini, while resting in a garden, her baby was born under a sal tree, emerging as a fully formed child who could walk and talk. He was named Siddhartha – one who achieves his goal. King Suddhodana invited eight Brahmin (priestly class) scholars for the child’s naming ceremony, one of whom predicted that little Siddhartha would become a renowned spiritual leader.

The King, though, had more worldly plans for his son, and wanted him to be a great ruler. To this end, he ensured that Siddhartha was kept away from religious teachings. Siddhartha was brought up in an atmosphere of unparalleled luxury and happiness with no knowledge of human misery or death that might cause him to turn to spirituality. At 16, he was married to his beautiful cousin, Yashodhara. When he was 29 years old, Siddhartha decided to explore the world outside his palace. For the first time in his life, the prince saw a wrinkled old man. On a later visit, his glance fell on a diseased man and sometime after that he saw a corpse in a funeral procession. Despite his father’s precautions, the inevitable happened, and Siddhartha questioned the way he was leading his life. Old age, disease and death – if this was the ultimate fate of all beings, was not his cocooned existence a foolish illusion? And if that was so, what was the true meaning of life?

Tormented by these painful thoughts, Siddhartha met a sage who advised him to renounce his present life in order to find the truth he desired. Siddhartha left his home, wife and young son, Rahula in secret. Shedding all external signs of his royal lineage, he entered a hermitage to seek answers to the doubts that plagued him. Prince Siddharth had disappeared; henceforth, he would be known as Sakyamuni or sage of the Sakya clan. This is known as The Great Departure.

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