In the years.800-2--B.C.E., known as the Axial Age, human beings longed for peace and wholeness, callin it "shalom" or Nirvana".
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In India, along the plains of the ganges, a man named siddhatta Gotama reached Nirvana and was from then on known as "Buddha" or "the awakened one.
In her book,"Buddha", published in 2001 in New York, Karen Armstrong notes that there is no chronological account of the Buddha's life, or record of his teachings. However, from Canons derived from oral tradition, armstrong has pieced together an arresting portrait of the Buddha, including four crucial periods: his birth, renunciation of domestic life, his enlightenment and teachings, and his death around 483 B.C.E.
Born into a wealthy family, Buddha left his wife and infant son, donned the yellow robes of a monk and "went forth", seeking an end to the pain of changeable life; birth, marriage, the suffering of old age, death and reincarnation.
As he began his quest, he was visited by the evil god, Mara, who taunted him and threatened to trap him whenever he would show a sign of weakness.
At the time, priests tried to reach Nirvana through the practice of yoga, but Gotam could not accept yoga alone because when he was not practicing the postures he reverted to normal.
He decided on ascetism, and became skeletal, but found he was still subject to cravings of hunger and thirst.
At this point, Gotama reflected on his childhood and remembered a state he had reached when sitting under a tree,he became engrossed in torn up grass and destroyed insects. The little boy felt extreme sorrow, but then,flooded with compassion, he eperienced a moment of spiritual release and calm happiness.
Gotam realized that yoga could be used for release of the mind that would lead the way to Nirvana, the supreme enlightenment.
He called it "The Middle Way", between greed and ascetism.
Buddha formulated four states of meditation: love, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity towards others. These would neutralize the ego and yield release of the mind.
The only new element in these truths was the fourth; the path to Nirvana which he called the "Noble Eightfold Path". He later codified this into three components: morality, meditation and wisdom.
Buddha then realized he must spread his method, or "dhamma" throughout the world. the next 45 years of his life were spent traveling and teaching until he died at the age of eighty-one.
At the moment of Buddha's enlightenment, Mara appeared again and threatened his existence. Buddha had no witnesses to his 'Awakening", but he cried out to the earch to save him. that is why he is pictured touching the earth with one hand. His teachings are grounded in reality.
Before Buddha died, he founded the "Sangha", or formal order of monks who had to renounce the cravings and strivings of the world and live a life of compassion and communal love.
Three months before he died, Mara, Buddha's "shadow self, appeared to him once more, begging him to achieve his final bliss, or "parenibbana" right away. Buddha refused, wanting to delay his death until he was certain that his Order was firmly established.
When he did die, his going was likened to a "snuffing out" of a lamp, but he had achieved the peace of Nirvana and the immunity of reincarnation.
armstrong's biography of Buddha is totally absorbing and illuminating. She explains the attraction of Buddhism, entirely dependent on the willingness of the person to renounce selfishness.
Armstrong's presentation of Buddha's teachings makes us realize that he would have laughed at the world's horror at the destruction of monuments to himself. His "dhamma" rules out reliance on these for inspiration. Rather , he depended solely on his "Middle Way" to lead to the attainment of Nirvana.
The review of this Book prepared by Betty-Jeanne Korson