The Life of Sakyamuni Buddha
One day in the last month of her pregnancy, the queen decided that she would like to pass the spring day in a flower garden. Receiving permission from the king and attended by a retinue of ladies-in-waiting, who had herself driven to the Lumbini Grove. The trees were abloom with beautiful flowers that gave off pleasant fragrances; the deep green grasses were like the tail feathers of a peacock and swayed like soft fine silk blown by the wind. The queen took a pleasant stroll; she leaned on the limb of an asoka tree which drooped down because of the weight of its flowers. At that moment, the Bodhisattva was born, suddenly and yet peacefully. Immediately after birth he took seven steps in each of the four directions and proclaimed, “In heaven above and on earth below, I am the most honored one. I shall dispel the suffering that fills the world.”
The divine beings residing in space praised the virtues of the mother, Queen Maya. The Naga king rained down cold and warm water and bathed the body of the Bodhisattva. The great earth trembled and shook with joy. Shortly thereafter, the infant was received by the queen, and since everything proceeded without difficulty, the prince was named Siddhattha (Whose Goal Is Achieved).
The story of Sakyamuni Buddha’s birth is shared during the observance of his birthday. The date of his birth is given as April 8. The story of the Buddha’s birth captivates us by bringing us into a world where the entire world is abloom with life; the flowers, the sky and even the earth itself are alive. Every element of the story shares in the life that is introduced in the birth of this child, the human child that will become a Buddha. To help us understand that this human child will become a Buddha, we are told the fantastic story of how the infant took seven steps in each of the four directions and then made his proclamation. This aspect of the story is especially intriguing to us. It is something that we find ourselves so unaccustomed to; it is something so unbelievable, that we might dismiss it outright. However, we should keep in mind that these stories are also meant to educate us and not simply to entertain or captivate us.
The newborn is said to have immediately taken seven steps in each of the four directions of East, South, West, and North. These seven steps represent how the infant would transcend the six realms of suffering and take the extra step into the awakened life that is the Buddha’s. At the end of his stroll of seven steps in each of the four directions, the infant child proclaims his future as the Buddha.
These directions, in this order, will be repeated in many other Buddha-Dharma stories. As a motif, these directions tell us that the Truth is neither static nor is it something that can change. Gravity, for example, influences everything including something as large and heavy as the planets as well as things that have no mass at all, like light. Gravity, however dynamic it may seem, cannot change. It cannot, for example, behave like electromagnetism. The significance behind the four directions as it relates to human life will be discussed again in the narrative of the prince’s search for meaning.
The infant’s proclamation announces the future Buddhahood of Siddhartha. It also reveals the desire of the Buddha to help all of us to understand the potential we all share. The Three Treasures, for example, begins by saying, “It is difficult to receive a human body; already, now, have I received it. It is difficult to hear the Buddha-Dharma; already, now, have I heard it.” This statement is made to keep us from taking our lives for granted, because if we take life for granted we cannot understand the potential of our humanity. The potential of our human birth is demonstrated by the words of the new born child:
Through this description of the Buddha’s birth, we are given a grand vision of the meaning of human life: we are the ones, by having been born into the human realm, who have the power to dispel the suffering that is found in the world. It is the Buddha, the person who would dispel suffering, who we call “the most honored one.”
The story of the Buddha’s birth is often accompanied by the ritual observance called Kanbutsu. As part of the ritual, an image of the baby Buddha in proclamation is placed within an altar that is decorated with flowers. The altar is often placed atop a stand that is fashioned after the white elephant that Queen Maya was said to have seen in her dream prior to giving birth to Siddhartha. Those who participate in the service are asked to come before this image and pour sweet tea over it, thus recreating the scene described in the Sutra. We become a part of the story, acting out the role of the Naga King who bathes the baby’s body, preparing him for his life journey. Through ritual, we participate in the birth of the Buddha; first as part of the narrative, and then as a human being who has the potential to become a Buddha.
The story of the future Buddha’s birth ends tragically with the death of Queen Maya seven days after the birth of the prince. We are reminded that even the most noble among us are unable to escape the impermanent nature of our existence in this world. It is this fundamental truth that we most confront and overcome if we, like the Buddha, are to understand the great meaning of our human birth.