Buddhism originated in India over 2,500 years ago and has spread throughout most of Asia where it has had a tremendous influence on religion, culture, philosophy, and psychology. Within the last century, its popularity has spread to the West, particularly Europe and the United States.
Buddhism is the name given to the practice of the teachings of Sakyamuni Buddha. The Sanskrit word Buddha means “awakened one,” and refers to those who have awakened to the Dharma, the truth. The historical founder of Buddhism was an Indian prince of the Sakya clan named Siddhartha Gautama. After his awakening he was known as Sakyamuni, “sage of the Sakyans.” Sakyamuni Buddha’s teachings on the truth of reality and how to awaken to one’s intrinsic nature are as relevant today as they were in his time. However, before we discuss the teachings of the Buddha in depth, let us look at the life of the man whose quest for truth continues to be the model for those seeking an end to suffering.
The Life of the Buddha
Before Sakyamuni Buddha was born on earth and became a Buddha for the sake of all sentient beings, he spent countless lives as a “bodhisattva,” one who is practicing to become a Buddha. For many lifetimes, the bodhisattva diligently practiced and cultivated, developing the virtues of Buddhahood. In his penultimate birth, the bodhisattva was born into Tusita Heaven, where he waited for conditions to be right in the human realm for him to appear in the world and become the next Buddha. When the conditions for his rebirth were right, the bodhisattva entered the womb of his earthly mother, Queen Maya.
It was around 500 bce when the bodhisattva took his final rebirth. The kingdom of Kapilavastu, in present-day southern Nepal, was ruled by the Sakyas. The bodhisattva’s father, Suddhodana, was king of the Sakyas, and his mother, Maya, was a princess of Devadaha.
At the end of spring, on the eighth day of the fourth lunar month, a prince was born in Lumbini Garden. It is said that in the first moments after his birth, he took seven steps and, with one hand pointing toward the sky and the other pointing toward the earth, said, “This is my final rebirth in this world. I have appeared in this world to become a Buddha. I will realize the truth of the universe. I will liberate sentient beings everywhere.” The prince was named Siddhartha, which means “accomplishing all.”
As was the custom, King Suddhodana summoned the most learned of wise men to foretell his son’s destiny. One of the prince’s first visitors was a renowned sage named Asita who predicted that Siddhartha would become a great king of the world if he remained a layperson, or he would become a Buddha who liberates sentient beings if he left the home life. On the seventh day after Siddhartha’s birth, Queen Maya died. Her sister, Queen Mahaprajapati, lovingly raised the child as her own.
From an early age, it was quite evident that the young prince was extremely bright and that he excelled in all things. By the time Siddhartha was twelve years old, he was adept at the classical “five sciences” of composition, mathematics, medicine, logic, and philosophy and excelled at the study of the four Vedas. In addition to his abilities in a wide range of scholarly subjects, he was also an adept warrior who was skilled in the martial arts.
The prince grew into a young man who was greatly admired for his strength, intelligence, dignity, and beauty. When Siddhartha reached marrying age, King Suddhodana arranged for his son to take a wife. Yasodhara, the beautiful daughter of a Sakya nobleman, was chosen.
Still, King Suddhodana feared that Prince Siddhartha might leave the palace and his royal position. To prevent his son from leaving, King Suddhodana sheltered him from the world by building him special pleasure palaces and surrounding him with beautiful women, music, wine, and other luxuries. Nevertheless, these worldly pleasures of the palace could not satisfy the feelings of loneliness that had crept into the prince’s heart.
One day, Siddhartha went to tell his father that he wished to travel outside the palace walls to see the kingdom. Hearing this, King Suddhodana immediately ordered that the kingdom be decorated and cleared of anything unpleasant. Furthermore, the elderly, the sick, the ascetics, and corpses were not permitted near the prince lest they arouse feelings that disturbed his mind.
On his first journey, the prince and Chandaka, his personal charioteer, saw a frail-looking man who was bent over with age. Siddhartha, shocked by the sight, asked Chandaka about the old man and discovered that old age was a part of the human condition. The prince was so upset that he asked to be taken back to the palace.
During his second outing, Siddhartha encountered a man who was extremely sick. The prince again looked to Chandaka for answers. When Chandaka explained that all people fall ill at some point in their lives, the prince became deeply troubled. Unable to continue onward, the prince returned to the palace with a heavy heart.
The third time they went driving in the chariot, Siddhartha and Chandaka came upon a funeral procession. The prince watched as grief-stricken relatives carried a lifeless body through the streets. Some mourners wept softly while others openly wailed in suffering. Distressed by the spectacle, the prince wished to know why people had to die. Chandaka explained that no one could escape death and everything that is born must one day die. Siddhartha then contemplated all that he had seen, and lamented the realization that life was impermanent.
On a fourth and final journey, Siddhartha and Chandaka encountered an ascetic who walked towards them. The prince stood up to receive him and asked about his unusual clothing. The man explained that he had renounced the world to seek liberation from the suffering of old age, sickness, and death. After Siddhartha heard these words, his heart filled with joy and his mind gave rise to the thought of taking up the life of a wandering ascetic.
These visions beyond his life of contentment left an indelible impression on Siddhartha. His father noticed the change in him and desperately tried to divert him with more music, beautiful women, feasts, and fine things. However, Siddhartha could not be deterred from his resolve to leave the worldly life behind.
In the prince’s twenty-ninth year of life, his wife bore him a son, Rahula. Not long afterward, the prince decided to leave the palace to seek liberation from old age, sickness, and death. With one last look at his sleeping wife and infant son, Siddhartha vowed that he would return to see them when he had awakened to the truth. As everyone slept, he rode away from Kapilavastu with faithful Chandaka by his side.
When they reached a serene forest outside the city, the prince took off his fine silken clothing and removed his jeweled ornaments. Handing them to Chandaka, Siddhartha told his attendant to return with the horse to Kapilavastu. Then, with his sword, he cut off his long hair and severed all attachments to his old life.
For the next six years, Siddhartha—who now went by his family name, Gautama—sought out teachers in order to learn how to be free from old age, sickness, and death. Since he had entered the life of an ascetic, Gautama followed the practices of fasting and meditating under extreme conditions of hardship and deprivation. After six years had passed in this way, Gautama was near death. He realized that complete liberation still eluded him, so he abandoned asceticism.
From there, he made his way to Nairanjana where he bathed the filth from his body. As Gautama meditated beneath a banyan tree, he was given an offering of milk rice from the maiden Sujata. When his strength returned, he traveled to Bodhgaya where he seated himself beneath a tree that would later be known as the “bodhi tree,” and began to meditate. He swore that he would not stir from his seat, even at the cost of his life, until he had liberated himself from the cycle of birth and death and attained awakening.
Sitting in meditation, Gautama conquered the demons of his mind—greed, anger, and ignorance—as well as Mara, the king of the demons. After defeating Mara, Gautama entered a deep meditative state called samadhi. Through this deep contemplation, he first saw all of his countless past lives. Then, he realized the non-duality of birth and death. He saw sentient beings within the six realms of existence suffering endlessly from karmic cause and effect. In the third realization, he came to understand dependent origination. Even after he realized the truth of the universe, Gautama continued to meditate and contemplate under the bodhi tree for twenty-one days.
At the first light of dawn, Gautama finally awakened to the root of suffering—ignorance. Thus, he found the way leading to the cessation of this suffering. Forty-nine days after he had made his vow, on the eighth day of the twelfth lunar month under a night sky filled with stars, Gautama attained complete awakening. He was thirty-five years old. From this moment forth, he was known as Sakyamuni Buddha.
After his awakening, the Buddha spent forty-nine years teaching the Dharma. At the age of eighty, on the fifteenth day of the second lunar month, under a pair of sala trees, the Buddha entered final nirvana. The legacy he left his disciples was profound, for the Buddha had dedicated his earthly life to teaching others the Four Noble Truths, dependent origination, karma, the three Dharma seals, emptiness, the Noble Eightfold Path, the five precepts, the six perfections, and the Middle Way. Ever since Sakyamuni Buddha transmitted the Dharma to his disciples, countless sentient beings through the centuries have heard the teachings, cultivated the path, and attained awakening.