Like so many ancient tales that come to us largely through oral traditions, what we think we “know” is often only speculation and interpretation. Stories get embellished along the way – added to and altered in many ways, often taking on a life of their own. Whether or not the man who was to become the Buddha existed, as I will describe below, is not really too important to the ideals of Buddhism. If he were totally fictitious, the ideals and ideas of Buddhism would likely stand up to vigorous intellectual testing. Still, I gain some small comfort in at least imagining the Buddha existed.
Siddhartha Gautama's Early Life It is suggested that Siddhartha Gautama – the man who was to become the Buddha – was born in the 5th or 6th century BCE in Lumbini, in what is now Nepal. We are told that his father, King Suddhodana, was leader of the large Shakya clan. Siddhartha’s mother, Queen Maya, died shortly after giving birth to her son. Siddhartha was raised by his aunt.
A few days after Siddhartha was born, an acetic told the king that his son was destined for great things, either on the field of battle or as a spiritual teacher. King Suddhodana would rather his son be a great military leader and raised him in that manner. As such, Siddhartha was shielded from knowledge of religion and much of the world with it’s suffering and pain. He was not allowed to travel beyond the palace walls, or if he did, he was insulated from the goings on of the “real” world.
The Four Passing Sights
Somewhere near his 29th birthday, Siddhartha asks his charioteer to take him outside the walls of the family compound. Against his better judgment, the charioteer (Channa) agrees. As they drive through, or towards the city, they happen upon four sights that were to have a lasting impact on the prince. First, they come upon and old man or woman. Siddhartha asks Channa what has happened to this person that causes them to walk slowly, with a hunched back. Why is their skin so wrinkled, their hair grey and why do they not seem alert? Channa replies, this person has done nothing, they are merely old. Age comes to us all. The prince falls silent and seems lost in thought, troubled or both.
Next they come across a sick man. Siddhartha asks, what has happened to this person? Channa replies that nothing, per se, has occurred to this individual, they are only ill – suffering from one disease or another. Sickness and pain is the fate of everyone as they go through life. The prince continues to be troubled by these sights.
Further along in the day they come across some people carrying a corpse along the road. Siddhartha asks Channa what has happened to this man – why is he not moving? Channa replies that this is death. The man has done nothing to deserve it, it’s just a part of life. Like ageing and sickness and pain, this is the fate that awaits everyone.
Finally, they come across a holy man – an ascetic. Upon speaking with him the prince learns that the man is devoting his life to finding the cause of human suffering and its cure.
Having experienced these four sights, Siddhartha and Channa make their way back to the palace. For some time the prince participated in the palace life but found little pleasure in its distractions. News comes that his wife has given birth to a son, but even this does not bring him any joy. The son is named Rahula, which means ‘fetter.’ One story suggests that when Siddhartha hears the news he says, something along the lines of, “Rāhu jāto, bandhanam jātam” — "A rāhu is born, a fetter has arisen." (Whew. That’s a tough name to hang on a kid.)
That very evening, after some festivities, Siddhārtha finds himself wandering around the palace. He observes that the performers who were, only hours ago, alive and vibrant are now drunkenly asleep, snoring and sputtering. He reflects on the four sights he previously observed – the sick man, the old man, the dead man and the holy man – and realizes that all things are impermanent, everything and everyone ages, all things pass away.
He realizes he is no longer satisfied with the protected and privileged palace life. He shaves his head, discards his royal clothing and dons a beggars robe. He then proceeds to leave the palace and his family behind and begin his life as a wandering ascetic that evening. The Search When Siddhartha left the palace life behind, he took up a search for teachers who could help him with his quest to relieve human suffering as well as teach him how to meditate. Indeed, he found many teachers and learned from them what he could. Still, he was dissatisfied and eventually took leave of these teachers, taking with him five companions. He and these companions turned away from the teachings to seek their own way. They sought relief through the practice of physical discipline. They would endure pain, deprivation and near starvation in their quest.
At one point, when he was at his lowest ebb and near starvation, Siddhartha recognized that in his renunciation of the privileged life he began grasping and glorifying it’s opposite – depravation. The life of physical pleasure or the life of physical discipline and depravation seemed polar opposites. The middle way between these two seemed forgotten.
About this time a young woman comes to him and offers him some rice milk and he quickly realizes that he can’t really search for the end of human suffering if he is too ill of body or weak of mind. He took the milk and drank it, ate some food and bathed in the river. His five companions, upon seeing this, turned away from him, believing he was turning against and abandoning them and so he left was to carry on in his quest alone.
The Enlightenment of the Buddha
Years pass and Siddhartha finds himself in the town of Bodh Gaya, where he decides to sit beneath a particular fig tree in deep meditation for as long as it takes for him to come up with the answers to human suffering. Using calming meditation to clear his mind and then mindfulness meditation to open himself to the truth, he sought answers.
Many days later, on a day in May he finally has a revelation and the answer to the question of suffering and became the Buddha, which means “he who is awake.” Siddhartha is now 35 years of age. He continues to sit beneath the tree for many more days, thinking over the difficulty of trying to communicate his new knowledge to others. It’s seemed too difficult. In one story, Braham, King of the Gods, comes to him and convinces him to spread his knowledge by saying that some people only have a little dirt in their eyes and might be awakened if only they could hear his story.
The Buddha somehow meets up with his five companions (with whom he had practiced earlier) near Sarnath, about 100 miles away from Bodh Gaya. There, in a deer park, he is said to have given his first sermon, which was called “Setting of the Wheel of Teaching in Motion.” He tells them of the Four Noble Truths and the Eight Fold Path and they become his first disciples and the basis for the sangha or community of monks. The Buddha carries on with his teaching for 45 years, traveling throughout northwestern India.
At the age of eighty, The Buddha tells his friend and cousin, Ananda, that he will soon be leaving them. It comes to pass that in the town of Kushinagara, about 100 miles from his hometown, he inadvertently consumes some spoiled food and falls ill. He enters a deep meditation and, according to the story, his last words are; “Impermanent are all created things; Strive on with awareness” Alternatively ... "Behold, O monks, this is my last advice to you. All component things in the world are changeable. They are not lasting. Work hard to gain your own salvation."