In Bhutan and Himalayan countries, the Buddha’s long and rich biography is often presented in the framework of the Dzépa Chunyi (མཛད་པ་བཅུ་གཉིས་) or the Twelve Great Acts. This grouping is traced to the earliest sutras, and masters such as Nāgārjuna used it to recollect his enlightened personality and activities through song, text and prayer. The motif is also commonly illustrated in Bhutanese temple murals. The acts are as follows:
- Descent: In his previous life, the Buddha was at the helm of gods in Tuṣita heaven. When the time arrived to depart Tuṣita, he passed the celestial regnal duties on to his successor, Maitreya, and descended to earth. This first act of the Buddha should not be confused with his later descent from Trāyastriṃśa heaven.
- Conception: After ascertaining the appropriate place, time, father and mother, the Buddha entered the womb of Queen Māyādevī in the form of a six-tusked white elephant.
- Birth: The Buddha was born miraculously in Lumbini, allegedly from the right armpit or side of his mother. He is believed to have taken seven steps right after his birth and declared: “I am the supreme in the world.”
- Upbringing: The Buddha, as Prince Siddhārtha, grew up in the palace of Kapilavastu mastering all the arts and skills expected of a prince at that time.
- Princely Life: Prince Siddhartha ruled over the kingdom with his father and lived a luxurious life in the palace. He married Yaśodhara and had a son named Rāhula.
- Renunciation: Disillusioned with the state of ordinary life after he came in direct contact with illness, old age, death and renunciation, Prince Siddhārtha renounced his life in the palace to instead seek a solution to the problems of life.
- Austerity: As was common in his time, Siddhārtha undertook physical penance as a way to liberation. He spent six years undertaking severe fasting and meditation.
- Adopting the Middle Way: When, like decadent palace life, austere penance did not lead him to inner fulfilment and liberation, he eschewed the two extremes of excessive indulgence and physical austerity and adopted the Middle Way to enlightenment.
- Overcoming Evil: After eating the rice porridge offered by Sujātā and sitting on a woven mat, Siddhārtha entered meditative absorption and overcame the evil forces of attachment, aggression and ignorance.
- Enlightenment: Having defeated the inner demons, at age 35 the Buddha attained full enlightenment under the Bodhi tree.
- Teaching: Seven weeks after attaining enlightenment, the Buddha gave his first sermon to his five former colleagues. This teaching at Deer Park marked the beginning of 45 years spent teaching others.
- Passing Away: The Buddha entered the state of Mahāparinirvāṇa on his 81st birthday. As he did with his life, the Buddha used his final act of dying to reinforce his message of impermanence.
Karma Phuntsho is the Director of Shejun Agency for Bhutan’s Cultural Documentation and Research, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of The History of Bhutan. The piece was initially published in Bhutan’s national newspaper Kuensel in a series called Why We Do What We Do.