How are the Teachings of Gautam Buddha Relevant Today?

In 563 BC, Hindu King Shuddhodhana and his wife, Mahamaya, were blessed with a baby boy, Siddhartha. In popular opinion, Siddhartha was born in Lumbini and brought up in Kapilavastu. Yet, some researchers claim this to be untrue. Whatever the truth be, a wise man prophesied that the Prince would conquer the world if he stayed inside or conquer himself on venturing out.

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Gautam Buddha

Consequently, the king made every effort to shield Siddhartha from the harsh realities of the world. However, his confrontation with suffering was inevitable. Soon enough, he witnessed an old man, a dead man, a sick man, and an ascetic. He, then, realised the meaning of pain, suffering, and death, all of which he was unaware of previously. Hence, the Great Renunciation followed. Siddhartha abandoned his palace, his wife, and his son. He had questions. Why do people suffer? What can lead to the end of this suffering? And, he wanted answers right away.

DISMISSIVE APPROACH TOWARDS MATERIAL DESIRES


Siddhartha attained enlightenment at the age of thirty-five in Bodh Gaya. It finally dawned upon him that desire was the root of all suffering. Desire inherently promotes behaviour that harms oneself and social well-being too. Real freedom lies in breaking free from the cycle of birth and death (Nirvana). He laid down the Ashtangika Marg or the famous eightfold path’ to achieve the same. He disseminated his ideas to five monks in Sarnath (presently in Bihar). This event is popularly known as Dharmachakraparivartana (turning of the wheel of Dharma). The key tenets are to dismiss material desires, refrain from theft, luxuries, ill feelings, and instinctual drives.

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The Noble Eightfold Path

The best exhibition of renouncing worldly temptations is Buddha’s stand-off with Mara (the demon of desire). References to Mara are noticed in Jataka commentary. Mara employs all the tools in his shed to somehow distract Siddhartha. While he meditated under the Bodhi tree, Mara sent an army of demons his way. The demons represented Lust, Rebirth, Thirst, Hunger, Hypocrisy, and False Conceit. He then sent his three daughters to seduce him. He even offered to make him a universal monarch. Mara challenged him to prove his capacity to obtain Nirvana. Despite his efforts, Siddhartha remained still, unscathed, and resisted. He calmly touched the ground in his meditative posture. The earth shuddered, thus bearing witness that Siddhartha deserved enlightenment.

This does not sound pragmatic in the modern context. Does it? How can one possibly strive to be a minimalist in the 21st century?- you may ask. Believe it or not, you will have to embrace Gautam Buddha's teachings, eventually. As the threat of a climate crisis looms before the human race, a sustainable lifestyle will be the only way out. Naturally-renewable resources will exhaust faster than they replenish. Soon enough, essentials for survival will fall short too when the last river dries and when the last tree falls. After all, you can’t eat money, can you? If you don’t make sustainable choices now, they will be made for you.

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Buddha's battle with Mara, Image via Wikimedia Commons

MORAL LESSONS THROUGH JATAKA TALES


Written in Pali, merely 547 of the Jataka tales have been discovered to date. The Jataka tales are accounts of Buddha’s past lives. It is believed that moments before attaining enlightenment, he gained recollection of his previous births. He not only assumed the body of a human but also appeared in the form of animals. The stories dispense advice on morals, ethics, and goodwill in a Panchatantra-like fashion (Panchatantra were fables composed by Pandit Vishnu Sharma). In the Jataka stories, Buddha is either the narrator or a part of the story in the form of an animal or a Bodhisattva (a monk who has embarked on a journey for truth but hasn’t achieved enlightenment yet).


One of the most popular fables is ‘The Golden Goose.’ A hardworking woman encounters a golden goose that routinely awards her a golden feather, which would sustain the woman and her two daughters. Soon enough, the woman outgrew her share. She wanted more. She wanted more instantly. She succumbs to her greed and cuts the feathers of the goose. As soon as she does so, they lose their shine and turn to ordinary feathers. In the modern context, one should, therefore, not hurry in one's pursuit to be successful.

Jatakas were spread across the common masses through Jataka Bhanakas (storytellers)- monks who recited Jataka tales to people. The dominant theme was the principle of Karma. One must perform deeds that add to the general well-being. Good Karma brings one closer to attaining Moksha, while Bad Karma draws one further away. The value of these tales and their dissemination is crucial in the Contemporary World.


At present, we are witnessing a moral collapse in society. The world of ideal ethics and values does not exist anymore. Interpersonal relationships lack an emotional component. The concentration of wealth and power seems to be the ultimate goal of the human race. A lesser-known fact- the Tibetan Buddhist text of Kalachakra Tantra already predicted such degeneration. The founder of Tibetan Buddhism, Guru Padmasambhava or Rinpoche, also mentioned the prospects of environmental crisis, shorter life-spans, subversion from moral values, death, despair, and widespread discontent with life.


So, are you also tired of your deteriorating mental health and socio-political issues? Go! Grab that Good Karma before it’s too late. Liberate yourself, or else you’re doomed to be born once more, and exclaim, “Not this again!”


AUTHOR

Pratha Editorial Team


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