Buddha was an actual man, and his life story has been told by many. The facts vary from one retelling to the next, but the story of the founder of Buddhism is about the path to enlightenment, not about earthly specifics. Buddha's message is one of love: "You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe deserve your love and affection."
What we think, we become.
The birth and death dates of Siddhartha Gautama, commonly referred to as Buddha, are uncertain. He is said to have been born either in 563 B.C. or 480 B.C., but, in either case, he lived for 80 years.
Gautama was born in Lumbini, or modern-day Nepal, then raised in Kapilavastu, the Shakya capital, which is either modern-day Tilaurakot, Nepal, or Piprahwa, India. His given name, Siddhartha, means "he who achieves his aim."
Gautama's father was King Suddhodana, who ruled over the Shakya clan. His mother died seven days after his birth; he was raised by his mother's sister, Maha Pajapati.
A holy man prophesied great things for young Gautama - that he would be a great king or a military leader. As Buddha, in later years, Gautama himself said, "I was born into the world as the king of truth for the salvation of the world."
Gautama's father decided to shield his son from the misery and suffering of the world, raising him in opulence in a palace, or, according to some versions of the story, in three palaces equipped for seasonal use. Gautama was also protected from knowledge of any religion.
Gautama was married at 16 - an arranged marriage with a cousin of the same age, named Yasodhara. They had a son, Rahula, and Gautama continued his life of seclusion for thirteen more years.
Learning About the Human Condition
At the age of 29, Gautama ventured out of the palace with his charioteer, Channa. When Gautama saw an old man, a diseased man, a decaying corpse, and an ascetic, he realized that he knew little of the world. Channa explained to him that people get old and they die, and that the ascetic had renounced the world to seek release from his human fear of death and suffering.
Gautama decided to leave the kingdom, his wife, and his son to live an ascetic life and find a way to relieve the suffering of humanity. For a time he was a student under two hermit teachers - first Alara Kalama, then Udaka Ramaputta - both of whom practiced yogic meditation.
Gautama spent six years as an ascetic. He practiced with five other ascetics, who became his followers because they admired his dedication. Dissatisfied because no answers were forthcoming, Gautama increased his effort by fasting, enduring pain, and refusing water. He nearly drowned in a river while bathing, because he was so weak, but a young girl rescued him and offered him a bowl of rice or payasam pudding. This gesture made Gautama realize that deprivation was not the path to inner liberation. He ate the rice or pudding, drank some water, and bathed in the river. His five followers abandoned him, thinking he had given up on his quest.
Gautama realized that a path of balance, the Middle Way, was better than extremism. That night he sat under a Bodhi tree and vowed he would not rise until the truth came to him. He said, "Let my skin and sinews and bones dry up, together with all the flesh and blood of my body! I welcome it! But I will not move from this spot until I have attained the supreme and final wisdom."
He meditated for 49 days, saw his previous lives, and resisted the threats of Mara, an evil demon, who tried to disrupt his progress. Gautama touched his hand to the ground and asked Earth to bear witness to his enlightenment, and the Earth banished Mara. "The mind is everything. What you think you become," he said. In a moment of pure enlightenment, at the age of 35, Gautama became Buddha.
Buddha was hesitant to teach at first, believing his knowledge could not be communicated through words. Brahma Sahampati, a deity, convinced him to try.
Buddha found his five former followers and preached his first sermon - "Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Dharma." He explained to them about the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, both central to Buddhism. The Noble Eightfold Path is the fourth of the Four Noble Truths, but the first item on the Eightfold Path is understanding the Four Noble Truths. One cannot exist without the other.
The five men became his disciples and formed the foundation of the sangha, or community of monks. Many others joined as word spread. Anyone who truly desired to reach enlightenment was welcomed, regardless of class, race, or previous background.
When Buddha returned home, his father celebrated with a feast. His son, Rahula, joined the Buddhist monks known as sanga at age seven. Maha Pajapati, the aunt who raised him, asked to join the sangha as well, but Buddha refused her. She and a group of royal ladies followed the sangha anyway, for five years, until Buddha reconsidered and ordained them as nuns.
Buddha traveled throughout the countryside, sharing his wisdom with anyone who would listen, gathering more sangha along the way.
At the age of 80, Buddha announced that he would soon reach Parinirvana, or the final deathless state, and that he would abandon his earthly body. He said, "Even death is not to be feared by one who has lived wisely." He instructed his disciples to follow no leader.
Following the death of Buddha, his teachings were passed down by oral tradition. Four hundred years later, his words were preserved in writing for the first time. As a result, any quote attributed to Buddha must be appreciated for its content, not as his precise words.
The first Noble Truth is Dukkha - the concept that all temporary things and states are unsatisfying.
The second Noble Truth is the origin of Dukkha - the fact that we crave things, so we are constantly reborn.
The third Noble Truth is the cessation of Dukkha - if we stop craving and clinging, we won't be reborn.
The fourth Noble Truth shows the way to liberation from Dukkha - follow the Noble Eightfold Path, behave decently, don't act on impulses, practice mindfulness and meditation.
Buddha said, "Better than worshiping gods is obedience to the laws of righteousness."
The Eightfold Path is represented by spokes on a Dharma wheel. Sometimes the eight items are grouped into three divisions.
The first division, Wisdom, is made up of right view and right intention.
The second division, Ethical Conduct, is made up of right speech, right action, and right livelihood.
The third division, Concentration, is made up of right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
Buddha said, "He who walks in the Eightfold Noble Path with unswerving determination is sure to reach Nirvana."
Truth was a simple concept for Buddha: "Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth."
In some versions of Buddha's story, he is depicted with supramundane abilities, including a painless birth following a miraculous conception, no need for sleep or food, no need for bathing except by choice to conform with the world, omniscience, and the ability to suppress karma.
Buddha valued virtue and peace. "Just as treasures are uncovered from the earth, so virtue appears from good deeds, and wisdom appears from a pure and peaceful mind. To walk safely through the maze of human life, one needs the light of wisdom and the guidance of virtue," he said.
Buddha was not chubby, as he is often depicted in statues. This artistic choice stems from the fact that chubbiness is symbolic of happiness in the east. Buddha practiced moderation, plus he spent most of his days walking and spreading his philosophy. Buddha said, "To keep the body in good health is a duty... otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear."
Buddhism may be practiced in a temple or at home. The path to enlightenment is available to everyone. "No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path." Buddha said.
Buddha shared his love and wisdom with as many people as possible over the course of his life. "Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle," he said, "and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared."