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The Birth of the Buddha

The Birth of the Buddha

1. The Conception of the Buddha

The earliest Buddhist sources state that the future Buddha Shakyamuni was born SiddharthaGautama, the son of a local king in Kapilavastu on what is now the Indian-Nepalese border around the fifth century BCE. He was thus a member of a relatively privileged and wealthy family, and enjoyed a comfortable upbringing. Buddhist world-view, however, views his birth not as a onetime event so much as a grand finale of a long series of countless previous lives as an enthusiastic seeker of religious truth.

The story goes back incalculable numbers of aeons ago to when there lived an ascetic called Sumedha (the future Buddha Shakyamuni) who encountered the buddhaDipamkara. This meeting affected Sumedha in such a way that he too aspired to becoming a buddha. Sumedha thus set out on the path of the cultivation of the "Ten Perfections."
(Nepalese image of Dimpankara from Patan Museum)
The Bodhisattva cultivated these perfections over many lifetimes. The life in which he becomes the Buddha Shakyamuni some time in the fifth century BCE, represents the fruition of Sumedha's distant aspiration and tireless endeavors. An old tradition tells us that shortly before his final rebirth the Bodhisattva spent his life as a god in Tusita (the Heaven of the Contented). Surveying the world from Tusita, the Bodhisattva saw the time had come for him to take a human birth and at last become a buddha; he saw that the "Middle Country" of the great continent of Jambudvipa (India) was the place in which to take birth, for its inhabitants would be receptive to his message. The Bodhisattva was conceived on the full moon night in July; that night his mother, Maya, dreamt that a white elephant carrying a white lotus in its trunk came and entered her womb through her right flank.

Figure 1 and 2 depict the scene of the Boddhisatva's descent into earth and entry into her mother's womb. Figure 1, the sculpture from the stupa of Bharhut, took on the task of illustrating the above-mentioned story in a simple manner. Maya is shown reclining, her head to the left of the spectator, on a four-legged bed. A water pitcher and a lighted lamp (indicating that the scene took place at night) complete the furnishings. Maidservants at the bottom watch over their mistress' sleep, one holding a fly whisk and the other being startled to see the entry of the white elephant into Maya. Above the medallion there are inscribed the words "the descent of the Blessed One." The white elephant here symbolizes perfect wisdom and royal power; in India, an elephant is accounted the most sacred animal on earth. As a matter of fact, prior to the descent, the Bodhisattva in the Tusita heaven consulted with other gods about what guise he should take to enter his mother's womb. The gods suggested all the divine forms imaginable, but one of them, who knew the writings of the brahmins better because of his recent birth, closed the discussion by stating, "In the form of a white elephant having six tusks."

Now the Bodhisattva enters his mother's womb in the form of a white elephant, but here we encounter a little problem in that we are not informed at what moment he exchanges his animal form for a human one. The Chinese thought they solved this problem by showing the Bodhisattva as entering his mother's womb "mounted on an elephant" as shown in Figure 2, the Chinese painting of the same scene. One more point that attracts our attention is that at this decisive moment of conception Maya is always shown alone on her couch; her husband is always absent. This restraint can be attributed to the religious belief of the time that everything having to do with the birth of the Buddha be physically and morally pure. This preoccupation with moral purity is carried over to the second act, the birth of the Buddha.

The Birth of the Buddha 2. The Birth of the Buddha