A Brief History Of Buddha’s Awakening

He remembered a time when he was just a boy sitting under a rose apple tree. By dawn, he realised the four noble truths and the end of dukkha and became the Buddha.
Mal Huxter is a clinical psychologist, Dharma teacher and author.
Buddha awakening
Mal Huxter is a clinical psychologist, Dharma teacher and author.

Psychologist and Dharma teacher Mal Huxter writes about Buddha’s awakening and how his teachings spread around the world and still help people today to find freedom from suffering.

Finding Freedom From Dukkha

The term “Buddha” refers to an awakened one. The aim of Buddhism is to wake up to the realities of life and death in order to find freedom from dukkha. Dukkha is the Pali term used to describe the Buddha’s first truth. Dukkha is often translated as suffering, but it is better to consider it as un-satisfactoriness. It can be gross such as our struggles with mental torment, severe illness and death, or it can be subtle, such as not getting what we want exactly how and when we want it.

Essentially, Buddhism is about reducing and uprooting the root causes of dukkha: greed, ignorance and hatred. The teachings of the Buddha invite us to see and realise awakening for ourselves, as no one else can do it for us. A traditional Buddhist approach to meditation is experiential and offers broad and flexible applications of skills in order to ease suffering and wake up to freedom.

Read more: Explore the Four Seals of Buddhism as foundational principles of the Buddhist path.

The Life Of Siddhartha Gautama

Around 2,600 years ago the man who was to become the Buddha, was born in the town of Lumbini near the current Nepalese-Indian border. His name was Siddhartha Gautama and he was the son of a leader of one of the many small kingdoms in northern India at that time.

Siddhartha excelled in the arts and sciences and led a life of luxury, protected and sheltered from life’s difficulties. Siddhartha enjoyed all the pleasures that life had to offer until he was 29 years old. Around that time, he was exposed to four circumstances, which were later understood as messages.

The first was seeing someone very old, the second was seeing someone stricken with illness and the third was seeing a corpse. He was deeply disturbed by what he saw and confronted by the realisation that all beings are subject to these realities. The fourth sight was that of a wandering monk or seeker of spiritual freedom.

Seeing a homeless wanderer seeking the truth inspired him to leave his comfortable existence in search of a resolution for the human suffering that he had become aware of. That night, Siddhartha left his life of comfort and his family to seek an end to suffering and became an ascetic.

Buddha’s Awakening Under A Tree

He studied with the prominent meditation teachers of the time and mastered all the techniques on offer, yet he felt that these techniques did not satisfy. Siddhartha followed the teachings of ascetics and mistakenly believed that the way to freedom was to completely deny bodily needs and any pleasure. He practiced the extremes of austerity and self-mortification in the forests of northern India for six years.  Towards the end of this period, he almost died from emaciation and exhaustion.

Despite his strenuous determination, Siddhartha realised his efforts were futile and that these extremes of self-mortification were not the way to freedom. After some reflection, he decided to accept nourishment, cared for his body and changed the way he was seeking enlightenment.

He remembered a time when he was just a boy sitting under a rose apple tree. At that time, he had slipped into a very pleasant and absorbing, serene state of mind. As an adult, Siddhartha thought that this focussed state could be helpful to realise the freedom he sought, and he was right.

According to accounts, on the full moon night in May, just before his 35th birthday, Siddhartha sat comfortably under a Bodhi tree and began practicing mindfulness of breath and entered the same state of concentration he experienced as a boy. This meditation led to more refined states and eventually a series of insights. By dawn, according to historical accounts, he realised the four noble truths and the end of dukkha and became the Buddha.

The Buddha And His Teachings

The Buddha taught about the truths that he had realized for another 45 years and then, according to reports, died and passed into parinibbana on the full moon of May in the year 483 B.C., when he was 80 years old.

The truths that the Buddha realised and taught are known as the Dhamma (Pali) or Dharma (Sanskrit).  There are several meanings for this term that include: the realities of life and death, laws of nature and nature itself, phenomena, doctrine, virtue, the truth of the Buddha and the way things are. 

Regardless of whether someone was a poor farmer, rich merchant, spiritual seeker or royalty, the Buddha taught Dharma to people from all walks of life regardless of status. He broke away from the social and religious systems of the time and taught individuals equally according to their temperament and needs. He taught in such a way that the principles of managing emotional and mental suffering could be realised by individuals for themselves and were not dependent on an external authority. As a teacher with spiritual and psychological genius, the Buddha organised the teaching so that it could be adapted to different cultures regardless of time or place.

Read more: Explore a reflection and meditation on what Buddha-nature is.

Buddhism Comes To The West

Originating in northern India, Buddha Dharma or Buddhism spread to many different countries and cultures throughout Asia, such as Tibet, Burma, Bhutan, Thailand, China, Japan, Korea and more. Though the essence of the teaching remained the same, the form of the teaching would change dependent upon the culture within which it was hosted.

Interest in Buddhism in Western cultures first started in the late 1700s with translations of ancient texts into English. Throughout the 20th century interest in Buddhism grew and accelerated in the 1960s. Since the 1970’s interest in Buddhism has flourished in Western cultures and Buddha Dharma has been adapted in many ways. One way that is evident is through the culture of science and psychotherapy. Modern researchers and psychotherapists are finding that Buddha Dharma and the practices associated with Buddhism, such as mindfulness and compassion, can help individuals realise freedom from stress, anxiety and depression.

As part of the Insight Timer community, Mal Huxter freely offers guided meditations in order to reduce the suffering of others and increase their wellbeing and happiness. Start practicing meditation with these handpicked and popular guidances:

  1. Mindfulness Of Sound With Bells And Birds Mal Huxter 8:00
  2. Relaxing With The Breath Mal Huxter 12:08
  3. Resting In Awareness Mal Huxter 15:21
  4. Mindfulness Of Breath At Three Places Mal Huxter 16:41
  5. Loving Kindness Mal Huxter 17:24

The Buddha’s Awakening Still Moves People Along Their Path Of Awakening

My own journey into Buddhism began in 1974 when I was 18 years old. Although I didn’t fully realise it at the time like the Buddha, I wanted to be free from suffering.

Like many teenagers I was confused, anxious and out of balance.  As an adult reflecting on this time I can see this imbalance was due to difficulties I had experienced in early adolescence. During this time my parents acrimoniously divorced, I was separated from my father, who then died suddenly from a heart attack, and I was subjected to drunken violence from my mother’s boyfriends. Like many lost teenagers I hung out with the wrong crowd and engaged in petty crime, and used alcohol and other substances to ease my pain.

I was introduced to Buddhist meditation in 1975. It seemed to ease the pain that I did not at that time fully understand. The Buddha’s teachings which included meditation also provided some clarity about my suffering, its deeper causes, the possibility to be free from the suffering and a non-harming lifestyle inclined to mental, emotional and spiritual health.

Moving along a pathway of awakening seemed the most important thing that I could possibly do, so I travelled to Thailand and lived as Buddhist monk for two years. During that period, I immersed myself in Thai culture, learnt the language and lived according to the precepts of a monastic.

Read more: Buddhist monk Karma Yeshe Rabgye reflects on eight Buddhist precepts and how to adhere to them on a day of observance and self-restraint.

The life of a monk involved training in ethical living, meditation and wisdom. It involved connecting to the monastic community and its wise elders and being an active contributor to this community. This training did not provide all that I needed but it set the foundations for living a wholesome life of integrity. Now I have been a Buddhist meditation practitioner for nearly 44 years, have attended many intensive silent retreats and have a regular daily practice.

On The Path Of Awakening

My own Buddhist journey has had a profound effect on me. It has transformed confusion into clarity, ignorance into wisdom, self-preoccupation into altruism and suffering into a sense of psychological freedom.

The practice has not been easy, and I have experienced many pitfalls along the way. In the Buddha’s framework these difficulties are understood as part of the awakening process, and the teachings provide strategies to work with and transform them.

Compassionate wisdom has helped me to find freedom from suffering. Graceful understanding and acceptance that the Buddha’s first noble truth, suffering, is an essential part of the process of realizing the third truth, freedom, has also helped with facing difficulties on the path. The practice of taking refuge in the awakening of the Buddha, the Dharma and the support found from a community of friends, peers, mentors and teachers is also a great support. In traditional Buddhist societies taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha (the community of those on the Buddha’s path) is the key sign of being a Buddhist.

Read more: We asked Buddhist monk Ajahn Achalo and Buddhist teacher Dr. Miles Neale what it means to be Buddhist. Read their inspiring and personal answers.

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