Buddha’s life offers a lesson in values

by Alfred Bloom, Honolulu Star Buleltin, April 7, 2007

Honolulu, Hawaii (USA) -- Buddhism, like other world religions, expresses through its myths and legends humanity's deepest aspirations and hopes to transcend the limitations of finite existence.

Gautama Buddha, also known as Sakyamuni Buddha, was born in India more than 2,500 years ago, around 563 B.C. He lived some 80 years, dying in 483 B.C.

In Japan the occasion of his birth on April 8 was singled out as the Hanamatsuri, or flower festival. In northern countries the advent of spring and a new agricultural season was a time for the revitalization of life and renewal of hope. It heralded the emergence of beauty in a barren world.

Through Gautama's birth stories and his life, Buddhism conveyed a message of universal spiritual liberation and emancipation from the domination of circumstance and fate. According to the story, the future Buddha chose the time, place and parents for his birth. When he was born, he spoke, talked and walked -- things no ordinary child can do at birth.

He transcended time and space, which place severe limits on our ordinary human life. After his birth, a sage, Ajita, prophesied that the child would become a universal monarch, a leader in the political realm or a Buddha who liberates people from all forms of bondage.

Through such legendary incidents Buddhism proclaimed that despite our human limitations, there is a way to surmount and rise above the narrow confines of our spiritual outlook and experience. There is more to us and life than we can ordinarily perceive; we are all potential Buddhas.

According to Buddhism, the fulfillment of our potential depends on the inner life of the mind and spirit. What we do with our minds is the key to our destiny. When we come to understand the nature of our minds and consciousness, completely new perspectives on reality and human relations open up to us.

Consequently, a central feature of Buddhism has been meditation. Meditation has taken many forms in its history, though most popular today is sitting meditation to calm and still the mind, enabling us to confront the challenges of daily life.

Our attachments and addictions to external things blind us to our true self. We come into competition and conflict with others in the pursuit of worldly goods. Advertisements aim to convince people of the necessity of products. Our acquisitions define the self. We measure our value by success in our work, the size of our house, the model of our car, the number of our shoes or jewelry.

Buddhism teaches that life is marked by three signs: suffering, impermanence and nonsubstantiality. The first noble truth is, Life is suffering. Despite our affluence, we suffer from dissatisfaction, frustration, anxieties. This suffering is caused by the transiency of life, changes in our health. Our social and financial situation threatens our identities, leading to depression and despair. Our suffering results from not recognizing that the things to which we are attached do not really have the value we attribute to them.

The birth of the Buddha and his life provide an opportunity to bring our lives into perspective and reprioritize our values.

Alfred Bloom is a professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii.