Stories of Faith
The most important stories in Buddhism concern the historical Buddha, Siddattha / Siddhartha Gotama / Gautama and can generally be found in the Suttas. They concern his birth, his going forth into homelessness, his effort to reach Enlightenment, his attainment of nibbana / nirvana, his first sermon, and his parinibbana / parininirvana.
Birth: Gotama / Gautama was born in Lumbini in modern day Nepal. On the night Siddattha / Siddhartha was conceived, Queen Maya (his mother) dreamt that a white elephant with six white tusks entered her right side. Ten months later she gave birth, standing up, under a sal tree. Eight Brahmins then read the baby’s future and stated that he had the Thirty-Two Marks of a great man, which meant he would either become a great king or a Buddha.
Going forth: Gotama / Gautama’s father wanted him to be a great king so kept him away from unpleasant experiences and ensured he lived in absolute luxury. However, at the age of 29, when out with his chariot driver, Gotama / Gautama was shocked to see an old man, a diseased man, a corpse and finally an ascetic. He decided that he needed to overcome disease, death and suffering so decided to leave his royal life and become a medicant.
Effort: Gotama / Gautama became a wandering ascetic begging for alms food on the street. He then studied under a number of hermits and meditation teachers, surpassing their achievements and moving on. He then joined five ascetics led by Kondanna, who aimed for enlightenment through extreme asceticism and self-mortification. Restricting his daily intake to a leaf or a nut a day, Gotama / Gautama collapsed in a river and nearly drowned. He then remembered a meditative state he had naturally fallen into as a child (jhana) and realised that this might be the best starting place
Enlightenment: having accepted milk and rice pudding from a girl called Sujata, Gotama / Gautama sat down under a pipal tree known as the Bodhi Tree and vowed not to arise until he had discovered the truth. After 49 days of meditating he discovered the Four Noble Truths, the Middle Way and became Enlightened.
First Sermon: the Buddha then journeyed to a deer park in Sarnath and delivered his first sermon expounding the Dhamma / Dharma / Dharma to his five ascetic companions. They then joined the Buddha and became the first members of the Sangha.
Parinibbana / Parinirvana: the Buddha continued to teach for the remaining 45 years of his life and his Sangha continued to grow. Having eaten a meal offered by a blacksmith named Cunda, the Buddha became ill. He asked his monks whether they had any questions or doubts that needed clearing up. They replied that they did not. Then the Buddha entered Parinibbana / Parinirvana. His last words were: “All composite things pass away. Strive for your own liberation with diligence”.
These stories are sacred because the concern the Buddha. They are told in the Buddhists texts – in the Suttas of the Pali Canon for example. As such they are preserved unchanged. The stories concerning the Buddha are very important to Buddhism and its followers since they show the struggle that the Buddha went through to achieve Enlightenment. They show that the Buddha started out human and unenlightened like us, but through diligent effort he managed to attain Nibbana / Nirvana. Thus the stories offer a paradigm of religious effort. They offer a model that adherents try and live up to today.
Many Buddhist symbols need to be examined within the culture of adherents. A number of early symbols relate to ancient India and are shared with Hinduism, although usually with a different meaning.