Monday, January 6, 2014

The Birth of Buddha

The Birth of Buddha
And the Death of His Mother 9 Days Later

Siddhartha Gautuma, the sage on whose teachings Buddhism was found, was born in the 6th century BC in a garden in Lumbini, Nepal.  His teachings inspire the belief system of most of Asia with an estimated 1.2 billion followers. This child who grew to be a man of such respect and reverence, lost his mother shortly after birth.  Although the story often focuses on hi discovering the nature of suffering when he first leaves the confines of his home, we may also reflect on the pain and suffering of losing a mother at such a young age and growing up knowing that your birth was a cause.

His mother, Queen Maha Maya, was traveling to her parents house to give birth to her first child. Her husband, Buddha's father, was an elected chief of the Shakya Clan; a small  city-state in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains.   Legend tells us that she had a dream before she conceived in which she was visited by a large white elephant who entered her body. This was seen as a sign that she would have a baby; one of the many types of dreams that accompany a normal pregnancy.  

On her journey to her parents' home, it is said, she stopped to rest in the beautiful gardens of Lumbini and there went into labor. The River Ol flowed beside the garden and there was a pool where she may have relaxed and bathed before giving birth.  As the strength of her contractions increased, the Sal tree lowered a branch for her to hold onto while she pushed out her baby.  In the ancient sculpture, we see her surrounded by caring women in an upright position, under the shade of a tree.  Some say that the baby was born from her side.  She may have given the newborn a bath in the sacred pools of the garden or perhaps as legend tells us, a warm rain came and gave him his first bath.

She returned home to her husband, after the birth  There the baby was named when he was five days old as was the custom. He was given the name Sidhatta which means "he who achieves his aim." Astrologers and wise men were called who predicted his greatness.  He would be a great statesmen or a great sage.  It is impossible to know what happened in those days after the birth when the baby Sidhatta was first introduced to the world he would give up everything in just to help relieve the suffering of humans.

As his mother took her last breath and someone carried the crying newborn away, did he understand loss and suffering as only a newborn who has lost their mother can?  His mother's younger sister, who was also married to his father, raised him;  in the midst of mourning the loss of her sister picked up her baby and promised to be a good mother to him.

But why did she die?  Was the birth from the side really an indication of an early c-section or did she die of some other cause.  I run down the lists of possible causes; an existing health problem, malaria, anemia, post partum eclampsia.  I lie there, when I hear of her death, and try to prevent it and treat the cause; 2,500 years later.

I wonder if he would have been the Buddha without this early window into suffering.  I also know that for most children who loose a mother at birth, they do not live a protected life and then go on to become the Buddha.  They suffer from poverty and a lack of maternal protection.  They are more likely to die.

Throughout my walks in Vietnam and Cambodia, we would visit temples and see the young Sidhatta withe one finger pointing towards heaven, where is mother was, and one to the earth, where he would live his life.  They say his mother sometimes came to him and spoke with him throughout his life.  We see his footprints and we see Buddha, sitting, lying and surrounded by children.

Today the gardens of Lumbini, where Buddha was born beneath a tree, are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It is visited by millions of pilgrims and tourists from around the world.  Each year his birth celebration is known as Buddha Poomima.  

Although Communism strove to eliminate religion and to turn temples into cultural centers, Buddhism survived the Khmer Rogue and the early days of Vietnam's communism.  Today, it is an ever present part of daily life in these SE Asia cultures.   From the sounds of temple bells to the chanting of monks, the baby Siddhartha who lost his mother at birth, is an ever present reminder of his quest to eliminate suffering from our lives.


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