Shakyamuni, or the Sage of the Shakyas, is the epithet by which the historical Buddha is best known today. According to accounts in the Buddhist scriptures, the founder of Buddhism was born to the king of the Shakyas, the people of a small state in northeastern India, about twenty-five hundred years ago. Siddhartha, as he was named (his family name was Gautama, another name by which the Buddha is often known), grew up surrounded by every comfort and was educated in the usual princely accomplishments of both art and arms. But as a young man he became keenly aware that all people, prince and pauper alike, are subject to the four sufferings of birth, aging, sickness, and death. The ephemeral pleasures of life lost all allure for him as he pondered the problem of suffering and its solution.
At the age of twenty-nine, he decided to renounce his princely status and become an ascetic in order to attain enlightenment to the causes of human suffering and the way to overcome it. Leaving his wife and small son, he walked into the forest to begin his quest for truth.
Siddhartha studied with a number of learned teachers, but none could satisfy him completely. He then practiced solitary austerities, but still the ultimate enlightenment eluded him. Finally, he seated himself beneath a bodhi tree and entered a deep meditative trance, during which he attained the supreme enlightenment that made him the Buddha, or "Enlightened One." He is said to have been thirty-five at the time.
For the next forty-five years Shakyamuni, as he was now known, traveled through north-central India, teaching the roots of suffering and the way to eradicate them and thus liberate oneself from the cycle of birth and death. He gathered many disciples, who became the core of the sangha, the community of believers. He died at the age of eighty, while traveling with some disciples. His last words to them were, "All phenomena are always changing. Endeavor to practice my teaching diligently."
Shakyamuni imparted a great many teachings (Dharma) in his lifetime, so many that they are often spoken of as "the eighty-four thousand sermons." The scriptures, or sutras, recording and organizing these teachings number approximately seventeen hundred. Since ancient times the Lotus Sutra has been widely accepted as supreme among these sutras.
Thus became the religion called Buddhism.
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The Dharma is the invisible entity that sustains us, guides us, and improves us, in a word, the source at the root of our being. But since it is invisible and intangible, we ordinary people cannot perceive it clearly. Therefore, the Dharma should be expressed in some concrete form or image.
Shakyamuni Buddha was the first human being who was awakened to the Dharma. Although we ordinary people can hardly grasp it, when we think of it in the form of the Buddha who communicates to us and regards all of us with compassion, we can form an image clearly in our minds. Through the image of the Buddha, we can be aware of the loving power of the Dharma, which is the life-force sustaining all of us.
For Buddhists, it is most natural to symbolize the Dharma with an image of Shakyamuni Buddha, who appeared in the world and not only preached what became Buddhism but was a living example of it. He is called the Eternal Buddha Shakyamuni, Great Benevolent Teacher, the World-honored One. Rissho Kosei-kai members express reverence before his image.
The Eternal Buddha is omnipresent in the universe and is the life-force that sustains and guides everything-human beings, animals, plants, and all other living and nonliving beings. To support and guide them, the Buddha appears in various forms appropriate to the particular time and place for their salvation by means suited to their capacity to understand his teachings.
Thus, the Eternal Buddha exists permanently everywhere from the infinite past to the infinite future, ready to help and relieve all living beings in the universe. He saves them in such a way that all can fully develop and manifest all the good potential they have within themselves. Since the Eternal Buddha is one with the truth of the universe, we have only to adjust the wavelength of our minds to that of the Buddha, and the Buddha will then appear to us. In other words, we become aware of the Buddha's calling us and working for us.