The following very short story about the Buddha’s journey is written by the great author Paulo Coelho, author of the classic pilgrimage story: The Alchemist. If you have never read The Alchemist then I would highly recommend it, and if you want to read a longer story about the Buddha, which goes into much better detail, then read Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. I found this story on Paulo Coelho’s blog, which you should definitely check out if you like to read, or are a fan of the man, because he writes short stories very frequently!
The following story is divided into 3 parts, each part only about 400-500 words. It makes for a quick read, and definitely contains some of Paulo Coelho’s writing flair. But it is still very short, and leaves a lot to be desired. But I suppose this is fitting considering it is a story about the Buddha; he would say to us: Desire = Suffering. Meditate on this. At least I think he would say this. Anyway, here’s the story!
Siddhartha – whose name means “the one whose objective is attained” – was born into a noble family around the year 560 AC. in the city of Kapilavastu in Nepal.
Legend says that at the moment that his mother was making love with his father, she had a vision: six elephants, each one with a lotus flower on his back, were coming in her direction. The next instant, Siddhartha was conceived.
During her pregnancy, Queen Maya, his mother, decided to call the wise men in the kingdom to interpret the vision she had had, and they were unanimous in affirming that the child about to be brought into the world would be a great king or a great priest.
Siddhartha’s childhood and adolescence were very like ours; his parents wanted by all means to protect their son from knowing about the misery of the world. So he led his life confined between the walls of the gigantic palace where his parents lived and where everything seemed perfect and harmonious. He married, had a son and knew only the pleasures and delights of life.
One night, however, when he turned 29, he asked one of the guards to take him into town. The guard objected, for the king could become furious, but Siddhartha was so insistent that the man eventually gave in, and they left the palace together.
The first thing they saw was an old beggar with a sad expression on his face, asking for alms. Further ahead they came across a group of lepers, and right after them a funeral procession passed by. “I have never seen this before!” he must have said to the guard, who may have answered: “Well, that’s old age, and that’s disease, and death.” On their way back to the palace, they came upon a holy man, his hair shorn and wearing only a yellow cloak, who said: “my life was a torment, so I have given everything up so that I don’t have to incarnate as myself and suffer old age and sickness and death all over again.”
The following night, Siddhartha waited until his wife and son had fallen asleep. He entered the room quietly, kissed them both and again asked the guard to escort him out of the palace; there he handed him his sword with the jewel-set hilt, his clothes made with the finest tissues that the human hand could weave, asking him to return them all to his father; then he shaved his head, covered his body with a yellow mantle and set out in search of an answer to the suffering of the world.
For many years he wandered all over the north of India, meeting monks and holy men who traveled around there, learning the oral traditions that spoke of reincarnation, illusion and paying for the sins of past lives (karma). When he felt that he had learned enough, he built himself a shelter on the banks of the River Nairanjana, where he lived doing penance and meditating.
His life style and will power ended up drawing the attention of other men who in their search for the truth came to him for spiritual advice. But after six long years, all that Siddhartha could notice was that his body was weaker and weaker and the constant infections did not let him meditate as he should.
The legend says that one morning, when he went into the river to make his toilet, he no longer had the strength to rise. When he was about to drown, a tree bent down its branches and let him clutch to them not to be swept away by the current. Exhausted, he managed to reach the river bank before fainting.
Hours later, a peasant passed by, a milk-vendor who offered him a little food. Siddhartha accepted, to the disgust of the other men who lived there with him. Believing that saint no longer to possess the strength to resist temptation, they decided to leave him immediately. But he gladly drank the milk offered him, feeling that it was a sign from God and a heaven-sent blessing.
Encouraged by the meal he had just eaten, he lent no importance to being abandoned by his old disciples; he sat himself down next to a fig-tree and decided to go on meditating about life and suffering. To test him, the god Mara sent three of his daughters to try to distract him with thoughts of sex, thirst, and the pleasures of life. But Siddhartha was so absorbed in his meditation that he did not notice any of this; at that very moment he was experiencing a sort of revelation, remembering all his past lives. As he did so, he also recalled the lessons he had forgotten (all men learn the necessary, but rarely are we are able to put to use what we have learned).
In his state of ecstasy, he experienced Paradise (Nirvana), where “there is no earth, nor water, nor fire, nor air, it is neither this world nor another world, and there is no sun, no moon, no birth and no death. There lies the end of all of man’s suffering.”
When that morning came to an end, he had reached the true meaning of life and become Buddha (the Enlightened One). But instead of remaining in this state for the rest of his days, he decided to go back to living among others and to teach everyone all that he had learned and experienced.
He who once was called Siddhartha, now transformed into Buddha, left behind him the tree under whose branches he had managed to reach enlightenment, and set out for the city of Sarnath, where he met his old companions and drew a circle on the ground to represent the wheel of existence that leads constantly to birth and death. He explained that he had not been happy as a prince who owned everything, nor had he learned wisdom through total renunciation. What human beings should seek in order to reach Paradise was the so-called “middle way”: neither seeking pain, nor being a slave to pleasure.
Impressed at what they heard from Buddha, the men decided to follow him on his pilgrimages from town to town. As they heard the good news, more and more disciples joined the group, and Buddha began to organize communities of devotees, following the principle that they could help one another mutually in the duties of body and spirit.
On one of his journeys, Buddha returned to his home town, where his father grieved deeply on seeing him begging for alms. But he kissed his father’s feet and said: “you, Sire, belong to a lineage of kings, but I belong to a lineage of Buddhas, and millions of them also lived begging for alms.” The king remembered the prophecy that had been made when his son was conceived, and made his peace with Buddha. His son and his wife, who for so many years had complained of having been abandoned, eventually understood his mission and founded a community which began to spread his teachings.
When he was approaching the age of eighty, he ate something spoiled and realized he was going to die of food poisoning. Helped by his disciples, he managed to travel as far as Kusinhagara, where he lay down for the last time beside a tree.
Buddha called his cousin Ananda and said:
- “I am old and my pilgrimage in this life is nearing its end. My body looks like an old cart that has been used a great deal and is still working only because some of its parts are precariously tied up with straps of leather. But that’s enough, now it’s time to go.”
Then he turned to his disciples and asked if anyone had any doubts. Nobody said a word. He asked the same question three times, but they all remained in silence.
Buddha died smiling. His teachings, today codified in the form of a philosophical religion, are spread across most of Asia. In essence, they consist of understanding oneself profoundly and having a deep respect for one’s neighbor.