Historically speaking, we know very little about the life of Siddhartha Gotama, the South Asian man known to the world as “the Buddha,” the Awakened One. This is because it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between historical accounts and mythic narratives. But this is true for the founders of all world religions, and many famous pre-modern people as well. Whatever Siddhartha Gotama the historical individual 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 and the teachings attributed to him.
Queen Maya’s Dream and the Bodhisattva’s Birth
Siddhartha Gotama, the Buddha, was born to 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.
According to the story, Queen Maya then set out to visit her parent’s home to give birth. 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. Siddhartha had been so sheltered that he did not know about sickness. His charioteer informed him that all people eventually experience sickness. On his third venture outside the palace, he saw a dead man. The prince was beside himself with despair having learned that old age, sickness, and death befall all beings. On his forth visit outside, Siddhartha saw an ascetic, or renunciant. In ancient India, such a person was referred to as a shramana, meaning someone who had left the householder life to pursue meditation and yoga so as to find answers to the fundamental problems of human existence. Siddhartha was impressed with the shramana who, even though surrounded by the reality of old age, sickness, and death, appeared so serene. Siddhartha decided he too would leave the palace and find the 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. Some ascetics would torture their bodies, forgo sleep, starve themselves, hold their breath, mortify the flesh, 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. This is a view the Buddha would eventually reject as unskillful.
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, where he sat peacefully under a tree and naturally attained a state of calm abiding. He thought that perhaps he would try this again now that his body and mind had recovered from his years of self-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 eternally recurring, 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 stuck 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, to distract, frighten, or dissuade Siddhartha from seeking awakening. Undisturbed, the Buddha-to-be sat calmly and unafraid.
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 reality, as well as the causes 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. 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, and 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 all become Buddhas.
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 teaching of the Buddha, or whatever corner of the Buddha’s teachings you happen to encounter, is but one part of something far 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. In this way, we alleviate our own suffering and become more effective at alleviating the suffering of other.
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)