Life of the Buddha

We know very little about the life of Siddhartha Gotama, the Buddha, as it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between historical accounts and mythic narratives. But this is true for the founders of virtually all world religions, and many famous pre-modern people as well. Whatever Siddhartha Gotama actually did or said, whatever he experienced, and whatever he taught his followers so long ago, Buddhists today continue to draw inspiration from his example. In each Buddhist culture, new versions of his life story were told and retold. New teachings and practices were developed.

Buddhism is incredibly diverse, with different approaches applied as needed for different people at different times. Rather than try to present the Siddhartha of history, below is a very brief outline of some of the events presented in traditional accounts of the life of the Buddha. Mythic narrative and historical accounts both can teach us a great deal about life, and the history of Buddhism, and these sometimes fantastical stories can serve as vehicles for the delivery of key Buddhist truths and insights. It is therefore sometimes important to read myth and history together to better understand what has inspired Buddhists throughout the 2,500-year history of the tradition.  


Mythic Foundations: Sumedha and Dipamkara Buddha

Once upon a time, long, long ago, there was a rich Brahmin (someone born into the priest caste in India) named Sumedha. After Sumedha’s grandparents and parents had passed away, he began to think about the wealth his family had accumulated, and realized that it was unfortunate that they had worked their whole lives simply to acquire wealth. He decided that there had to be more to life than the accumulation of wealth, so he decided to donate all that he had to those who needed it. He then retreated to the mountains and became a hermit.

One day Sumedha learned that there was a Buddha in his land named Dipamkara Buddha. Using his magical powers (In Ancient India meditation was said to give one the power of flight, telepathy, clairvoyance, and so on.), he flew to where the people were gathering to greet the Buddha. Upon his arrival at the place where the Buddha would be, Sumedha saw that the Buddha was about to step in mud. He immediately laid down his body and long dreadlocks in the mud so that the Buddha could walk over him. While in the mud, Sumedha made a vow that he too would someday become a Buddha. Dipamkara Buddha then made a prediction that many eons in the future Sumedha would achieve his goal. He would be born in a land called India, in a clan called Shakya, in a family named Gotama. His name would be Siddhartha, and in that life he would become a fully awakened Buddha. The people of that world would call him Shakyamuni Buddha, “sage of the Shakya Clan.” This is the mythic background attributed to the figure we know as the historical Buddha, and the context within which his life and teachings has been traditionally understood.


Bodhisattva Path

The early Buddhist tradition included three different spiritual vocations.

The first of these vocations was to study the teachings of a Buddha to become an enlightened being known as an Arhat, or noble one. Arhats often served as pillars of Buddhist communities, teaching and leading by example. This path is called the Sravaka-yana, or “Vehicle of the Listener.” This is because the “sravaka” listens to the words and teachings of the Buddha and achieves awakening. The Theravada Buddhist traditions of contemporary South and Southeast Asia generally follow the Sravaka-yana.

The second spiritual vocation is the Pratyeka-buddha-yana, or “vehicle of the solitary Buddha.” This is the solitary path to awakening, whereby one practices on their own to achieve awakening without participating in a community or teaching others. Because pratyekas generally practice far away from others, they are not often discussed.

Third is the Bodhisattva-yana, or “vehicle of the enlightened being.” A Bodhisattva is one who vows to achieve full Buddhahood, and therefore, the Bodhisattva-yana is also sometimes called the Buddha-yana, or “Buddha vehicle.” The difference between a Bodhisattva, on the one hand, and the sravaka or pratyeka, on the other, is that the Bodhisattva vows to lead beings to awakening, and perhaps appear in the world at a time when the Buddhist teachings have disappeared. The Bodhisattva Path is the longest and most arduous of the three spiritual vocations of the early Buddhist community. Because practitioners of the Bodhisattva-yana aspire to guide all beings to liberation, this path came to be called the Mahayana, or “Great Vehicle.” Buddhists in East Asia and Himalayan cultures generally follow the Mahayana, aka “Bodhisattva-yana.”

According to traditional stories about the Buddha’s past lives, Sumedha pursued the Bodhisattva Path, and was eventually reborn as Prince Siddhartha Gotama, also known as the Buddha Shakyamuni.


Jataka Tales

Between his life as Sumedha and his rebirth as Siddhartha Gotama, the Bodhisattva, or “Buddha-to-be,” was reborn many times. Traditional Buddhist literature is full of past life stories of the Buddha. Some of these were compiled into what are known as the Jataka Tales. Some scholars speculate that the Jataka Tales may have inspired Aesop’s Fables.

One of these tales of the Buddha’s past lives is the Daddabha Jataka (Jataka, vol. 3, no. 322), which tells the story of a hare who, through his ignorance, caused a stampede. One day, asleep in his den under a tree the hare awoke as fruit fell to the ground with a crashing sound. To the sleepy hare, it sounded like the sky was falling. He ran out of his den and told all the animals in the forest that the sky was falling. The other animals uncritically accepted what the hare had told them and they all started running, causing a stampede. The noble lion stopped the stampede and asks them how they came to believe that the sky was falling. The Buddha is said to have been this lion in a previous rebirth. Embedded in this story is the Buddhist teaching on the importance of skepticism and critical thinking, questioning the source of our knowledge.


Queen Maya’s Dream and the Bodhisattva’s Miraculous Birth

In traditional narratives about the birth of the Buddha, we learn about how before the Bodhisattva achieves Buddhahood, he is born in the Tuṣita heaven, one of the many heavens in South Asian cosmology. From the Tuṣita heaven the Bodhisattva looks down and chooses a virtuous family into which they will be born. It is said that the Bodhisattva found just such a family in Queen Maya and King Shudodhana Gotama of the Shakya clan. The story says that the King and Queen had been unable to conceive, until one night, Queen Maya had a strange dream. A white elephant with six tusks came down from the heavens and entered her side. The next morning, she woke up and found that she was with child. The kingdom rejoiced.

According to the story, Queen Maya then set out to visit her parent’s home to give birth to the child. Along the way she gave birth in the Lumbini Gardens. It is said that a branch from a tree lowered itself so she could reach it, and as she grasped the branch, the child emerged miraculously from her side. Then the child walked seven steps, and seven lotus blossoms bloomed from each place the child’s feet had touched the earth. The baby Buddha-to-be then pointed to the heavens, pointed to the earth, and declared that this would be his last rebirth and that he would liberate all beings. After these miraculous events, we are told, the baby bodhisattva returned to the state of an ordinary newborn and was taken back to the palace.


Life in the Palace

At the palace, King Shuddodhana called the court seer to tell the fortune of the baby prince. The seer examined the child and began to weep. The king and queen worried that the seer had discovered something wrong with the child, but the seer told them that the prince would grow to be either a great king that would conquer the world, or a great meditator and teacher who would conquer death. The seer said that he was weeping simply because he was very old would not live long enough to see what the prince would become. The king was a member of the warrior caste, so he wanted his son to grow to be a great warrior and conqueror, not a great meditator or teacher. Seven days after the birth of the prince, Queen Maya passed away. Her sister Maha-Pajapati went on to raise the prince as her own.

Because the king believed that it was exposure to suffering that led one to seek the religious life, and because he feared that the premature death of the prince’s mother would leave a lasting impression upon the young prince, the king built for the prince three palaces: a winter palace, a summer palace, and a palace for the rainy season. The prince was instructed in all of the skills necessary for a warrior prince: horseback riding, archery, and martial arts. To keep him distracted and satisfied, the prince was given the best food and entertainment, and was eventually married to a beautiful wife named Yashodara, who would later bear him a son named Rahula


The Four Sights: Old Age, Sickness, Death, and Freedom

Eventually, however, the prince decided that he wanted to explore beyond the palace walls. Still heedful of the words of the seer, the king had the streets cleaned and all old or infirm people cleared away. In some version of the story we learn that the Hindu gods, however, knew that if the prince could truly see the real conditions of human existence, he would leave the palace life and fulfill his destiny, to liberate all beings. It seems that even the gods wanted to learn the path to awakening that the Buddha would teach.

On his first visit outside, one of the gods took the form of an old man. Prince Siddhartha had never seen an old person, and he asked his friend and charioteer what was wrong with him. His charioteer told him that all people eventually become old, and that the same fate would befall the king, the princess, the prince, and their son. This shocked Siddhartha who immediately asked to return to the palace.

On his second trip beyond the palace walls he saw a sick man. On his third, he saw a dead man. But on his fourth, he saw a shramana, or renunciant, someone who had left the householder life to pursue meditation and yoga so as to find answers to the fundamental problems of human existence. Seeing the serene look on the shramana’s face, Siddhartha decided he too would leave the palace and find an answer to the question of human suffering.


Ascetic Practice and the Middle Way

Having learned about the inevitability of old age, sickness, death, and rebirth, Prince Siddhartha vowed that he would discover a path beyond the pain and uncertainty of human existence, not only for himself, but for his family, and all beings.

Siddhartha entered the forest, exchanged his robes for discarded rags, and threw himself into the most difficult forms of meditation and yoga available in India at the time. In ancient India, some people believed that if you could free your soul from the body, you could escape the realm of death and rebirth and go to heaven and become one with God. This is a view the Buddha would eventually reject as unskillful.

Some ascetics would torture their bodies, forgo sleep, starve themselves, hold their breath, and meditate for long periods of time in the hot sun or freezing cold, all to overcome the limitations of the flesh, and achieve this divine union.

It is said that Siddhartha pursued these practices for six years, becoming so emaciated that he could grab his spine from the front! Though Siddhartha did indeed master his corporeal form, and he mastered the various states of meditative bliss and absorption, after the ecstasy he would return to his ordinary state, no closer to finding the end of all suffering, no closer to his goal.

Having realized that the path of extreme ascetic practice was a fruitless endeavor, Siddhartha began to search for a “middle way,” a path beyond the excessive comfort of the householder, and the extreme self-deprivation of the ascetic. For this reason, Buddhism is sometimes referred to as the “middle way.”


Under the Bodhi Tree

After Siddhartha had decided that he would seek a “middle way,” he met a young woman named Sujata who gave him a bowl of milk and rice. Siddhartha remembered a time when as a youth, he sat peacefully under a tree and attained naturally a state of calm abiding. He thought that perhaps he would try this again now that his body and mind had recovered from six years of deprivation. Siddhartha acquired a grass mat, and walked to a place in the forest where he would meditate until he found the answer to his questions: why do we suffer, and is there a path to liberation from suffering? Some version of the story state that Siddhartha made a vow that even if his bones should turn to dust, he would not rise from this spot before he found the answer. The tree under which Siddhartha sat came to be known as the Bodhi tree, the tree of enlightenment.

At this point, Siddhartha was on the cusp of discovering the truth. But Mara, the god of the realm of desire, confronted Siddhartha and tried to distract him from achieving his goal. According to traditional Indian texts, the world in which we live, the world of old age, sickness, death, and rebirth is called Samsara. In Samsara, worlds are born, abide for a time, and then fall apart, just to be reborn again. Sentient beings are like this as well. Just as our world is eternal, so too is our suffering as long as we are stuck in Samsara. Samsara is like an engine that functions because of the fuel we pump into it with our good and bad actions. The word for “action” in ancient India was “Karma.” Our Karma, or “action,” and the consequences of our actions, keep us stick in Samsara. Mara, the god of the realm of desire, is kind of like a mechanic who keeps the engine running. Should Siddhartha free himself from Samsara, should he become a Buddha, then this Buddha would free others from Samsara. If all beings became free from the cycle of death and rebirth, then Mara would be out of a job. So, Mara did his best to distract the Bodhisattva, Prince Siddhartha, on the eve of his awakening. Mara sent his sons and daughters in various forms horrifying or alluring forms to distract, frighten, or dissuade Siddhartha from seeking awakening. Undisturbed, the Buddha-to-be sat calmly and unafraid.

Many contemporary Buddhists psychologize this confrontation with Mara, seeing in this part of the story a mythic retelling of the struggle all people have experienced, as we strive toward higher goals, and do battle with inner “demons” that seem to want to distract us.

Whether one takes a literal, philosophical, metaphorical, or psychological perspective on the story, Buddhist tradition rests on the assertion that something powerful happened under that tree, the Bodhi Tree. How Buddhists have understood the nature of Buddha’s enlightenment, and how we ordinary beings may come to attain it or benefit from it, is as diverse as the men and women who strive to follow the example of Siddhartha.


Three Watches of the Night

Traditional accounts of the Buddha’s life state that under the Bodhi Tree, Siddhartha gained insight into the nature of the cycle of death and rebirth, the nature of reality, as well as the cause and final end of all human suffering.

At the first watch of the night, Siddhartha acquired knowledge of all of his own past lives, going back through endless time. This is where we get the Jataka Tales, presumably.

At the second watch of the night, Siddhartha gained insight into the past lives of all beings. Every bug, every animal, every man, woman, and child, every god in the heavens, every being suffering in the hells, Siddhartha saw the causes and conditions in past rebirths that had led them to their current state.

At the third watch of the night, Siddhartha saw the true nature of reality, and thus, became a Buddha.

What Siddhartha realized at the third watch of the night is generally understood to contain the very content of the Buddha’s awakening. It is therefore difficult to explain, and different traditions have different ways of explaining it. Some say that upon attaining enlightenment Siddhartha saw the mechanism whereby our ignorance about the true nature of reality keeps us stuck in cyclical suffering. He also saw how we might break the cycle and be freed from Samsara. He saw that all things are impermanent, composite, and dependent upon other things. There is no First Cause, there is no Creator, and there exists no eternally abiding core, essence, or permanent state within Samsara. Everything is interconnected and in a state of constant change. We therefore have the power to change. Because we are produced within this ever-changing reality, even ignorant beings like ourselves have the capacity to see the true nature of reality. We can become Buddha.

Having seen the “big all” Siddhartha Gotama, now the Buddha, thought to himself that it would be impossible to fully convey the truth he had achieved. At this point, some narratives state that the high gods of the Hindu pantheon appeared to the Buddha and begged him to teach. Gods in Buddhism are seen as stuck in samsara just like all beings. The gods said that “there are those who have little dust in their eyes” who might be able to understand and teach others. At this the Buddha agreed to teach. 


Diversity of Buddha’s Teachings

The Buddha was 35 years old when he achieved awakening, and died when he was 80 years old. In that time, he taught a great deal of things to a great number of people. The Buddha’s pedagogical prowess was often compared to a doctor who dispenses the perfect remedy for a specific ailment. In other words, what might be right for one person, might not be right for another. This is one way to explain the vast diversity of Buddhism as a religion.

One day the Buddha was teaching before a forest when he reached down and grabbed a handful of leaves. Holding up the leaves he said that what he had been able to teach in his lifetime was like the leaves. What there was to know and learn, was like the forest. The teachings of the Buddha, or whatever corner of the Buddha’s teachings you happen to encounter, is but one part of something greater than we can imagine. The point, perhaps, is to keep asking questions, follow in the Buddha’s example, and keep learning about the world, the nature of your reality, and how your mind works to construct that reality.

For more information on the life of the Buddha, please see the resources below.

For more information on the teachings of the Buddha, and the teachings of the Tendai Buddhist Tradition, please see our Dharma page.


Suggested Reading – Life of the Buddha:

Access to Insight: A Sketch of the Buddha’s Life, Readings from the Pali Canon 

The Life of the Buddha: According to the Pali Canon, by Bhikkhu Ñanamoli

Buddhacarita (In Praise of Buddha’s Acts, an ancient Indian account of the life of the Buddha that circulated widely, translated here from Classical Chinese, the canonical language of East Asian Buddhist traditions)

The Life of the Buddha, by Tenzin Chogyel  and Kurtis R. Schaeffer (translator from the Tibetan)

Buddha, Vol. 1: Kapilavastu, by Osamu Tezuka (famous Japanese comic book version)

Shakyamuni Buddha (Illustrated Story of His Life), by Akane Shodo et al.

Prince Siddhartha: The Story of Buddha, by Jonathan Landaw et al. (Illustrated life of Buddha)