What Was Sakyamuni’s Purpose in Preaching Buddhism?

Q: What was Śākyamuni’s purpose in preaching Buddhism?

A: World historian H.G. Wells (1866–1946) listed Śākyamuni Buddha as one of the greatest men in human history. The German historian of religion Friedrich Heiler also praised Śākyamuni in highest terms, calling him “the world’s greatest religious figure and the light of the world.” This man recognized as one of the greatest holy men of all time was born long ago in the Indian city of Kapilavastu, capital of the Śākya kingdom. The eldest son of King Śuddhodana, he was known until he attained enlightenment as Prince Siddhārtha.

Supreme social status, honor, and possessions were the prince’s birthright; in addition, he was doted on by his parents and assured of everything he could want. At the age of nineteen he married Princess Yaśodharā, said to be the most beautiful young woman in the land, and a year later he fathered a son, Rāhula. He lived in a palace for each season, attended by five hundred beauties, in a lifestyle of incomparable luxury and pomp. All of the benefits that we strive daily for, wishing that even one could be ours, Prince Siddhārtha possessed from the first.

On February 8 in the year he was twenty-nine, startled by his soul’s cry for deeper satisfaction, the prince turned his back on honor, status, possessions, and family, leaving the palace to enter on the life of a mountain ascetic. He had profound insights into the reality of human life:

“Nothing in this world lasts forever. All things will one day wither and ultimately die. As it is said, when pleasure has peaked, pain follows in profusion. Pleasure is haunted by impermanence. The singing and music of pretty girls only drives men to distraction with desire.

“Life is full of pain and anguish. It is like a raging fire or floating clouds, a phantom or foam upon the water. We love youth, but in the end we all break down and take our leave in old age, sickness, and death.”

What, he asked himself, was absolute, immutable happiness? Where could such a thing be found? That indeed was humankind’s deepest longing. And after six years of extreme effort, on December 8, at the age of thirty-five he achieved enlightenment and so became a buddha. From then until he died on February 15 at the age of eighty he continued teaching Buddhism.

Śākyamuni’s teachings over the course of those forty- five years were set down and gathered into what we now know as the Buddhist scriptures. The entire collection comprises over seven thousand volumes, but the ultimate purpose of Śākyamuni’s appearance in this world was only this: to explain the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha.

The evidence for this is various, but when he set out to preach on Amida’s Primal Vow, Śākyamuni made this solemn declaration: “Now I will reveal my ultimate purpose in appearing in this world.” He first astonished his disciples by focusing on Amida Buddha so completely that he took on a pure radiance such as they had never seen before.

Finally he said, “This sutra alone will remain.” The words are a prediction that when all other Buddhist scriptures have perished, only the Larger Sutra of Infinite Life will remain, and all people will be saved into true happiness. When he had finished discoursing on Amida’s Vow, he said with immense satisfaction and joy, “Now I have done all that I came to do as a buddha.” Therefore, all his teachings are contained in the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha.

The only way for us to repay our debt of gratitude to Śākyamuni Buddha is to hear and believe Amida’s Primal Vow and achieve absolute happiness. Let it not be forgotten that whether or not the sacred teachings of Śākyamuni become mere scraps of paper depends on whether or not we encounter Amida’s salvation.

(Petals of Shinran, The Cherry volume, Chapter 28)


Larger Sutra of Infinite Life: The one true sutra among all the seven thousand volumes of Śākyamuni’s teachings. Hear and believe (monshin): to encounter the Vow of Amida and have its truth revealed.

Kentetsu Takarmori (Translated by Juliet Carpenter)

Source: The Buddhist Village Times #28 | 2013, What Was Sakyamuni’s Purpose in Preaching Buddhism?

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