Gautama Buddha was an Asian spiritual leader who lived between approximately 563 BC and 483 BC. Born Siddhārtha Gautama (Sanskrit, Siddhattha Gotama Pali – descendent of Gotama whose aims are achieved/who is efficacious in achieving aims), he later became the Buddha (lit. Enlightened One or Awakened one). He is also commonly known as Shakyamuni or Sakyamuni (lit. "The sage of the Shakya clan") and as the Tathagata (lit. which may mean "thus-come-one" or "thus-gone-one").
Gautama is the key figure in Buddhism. Accounts of his life, discourses, and monastic rules, were summarized after his death and memorized by the sangha. Passed down by oral tradition, the Tipitaka was written about one hundred years later.
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Few of the details of the Buddha's life can be independently verified, and it is difficult to determine what is history and what is myth. Therefore this article will describe the life of Siddhartha Gautama as told in the earliest Buddhist texts.
Siddhartha Gautama was born in Lumbini (a town situated in modern Nepal near the Indian border) under the full moon of May to the clan of the Shakyas, a warrior tribe. The day of his birth is widely celebrated in Buddhist countries as Vesak. Gautama's father was the king of Kapilavastu in Magadha, and Gautama was born a prince, destined to a life of luxury. It is said that, before being born, Gautama visited his mother during a vision in the form of a white elephant. During the birth celebrations, a seer announced that this baby would either become a great king or a great holy man. His father, wishing for Gautama to be a great king, shielded his son from religious teachings or knowledge of human suffering.
As the boy reached the age of 16, his father arranged a marriage to a cousin of the same age, Yashodhara, and she gave birth to a son, Rahula. Although Gautama had everything he could want, he was dissatisfied.
At the age 29, Gautama was escorted by his attendant Channa on one of his rare visits outside of the palace. There, he came across the "four sights": an old crippled man, a diseased man, a decaying corpse, and finally an ascetic. Gautama realized then the harsh truth of life—that death, disease, age, and pain were inescapable, that the poor outnumbered the wealthy, and that even the pleasures of the rich eventually came to nothing. Thus inspired, Gautama left his home, his possessions and his family at age 29 after fathering Rahula. He chose to become a monk.
Abandoning his inheritance, he dedicated his life to learning how to overcome suffering. He pursued the path of Yogic meditation with two Brahmin hermits, and although he achieved high levels of meditative consciousness, he was not satisfied with this path.
Gautama then chose the robes of a mendicant monk and headed to southeastern India. He began training in the ascetic life and practicing vigorous austere practices. After 6 years, and at the brink of death, he found that the severe ascetic practices did not lead to greater understanding, but merely clouded the mind and tortured the body. Once discarding asceticism and concentrating on meditation, he discovered the middle way, a path of moderation away from the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. Under a fig tree, now known as the Bodhi tree, he vowed never to leave the position until he found Truth. At the age of 35, he attained Enlightenment under the full moon in May. He was then known as Gautama Buddha, or simply "The Buddha", which means "the awakened one."
The Buddha claimed he had realized complete Awakening and insight into the nature and cause of human suffering, along with the steps necessary to eliminate it. This understanding manifested itself in the Four Noble Truths. This supreme Awakening, possible to any being, is called the state of Bodhi, and at that moment, he achieved Nirvana.
At this point, the Buddha had to choose whether to be content in his own salvation, or whether to teach his new understanding to all people. He considered that the world may not have been ready for such a deep teaching, but he decided in the end to travel to Sarnath and give his first sermon in the Deer Park. This sermon described the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.
The Buddha emphasized that he was not a God but that the position of Buddhahood is reserved for the human, in whom possesses the greatest potential for Enlightenment. Explained by Gautama Buddha, he also stated that there is no intermediary between mankind and the divine; distant gods and God are subjected to karma themselves in decaying heavens. The Buddha is solely a guide and teacher for those sentient beings who must tread the path themselves, attain spiritual awakening, and see truth and reality as it is. The Buddhist system of insight, thought and meditation practice was not divinely-revealed, but rather, the understanding of the true nature of the human mind which could be discovered by anyone for themselves. Penetration of this reality accompanies the shocking truth that ignorance can be eliminated.
For the remaining 45 years of his life, he traveled the Gangetic Plain of central India (region of the Ganges/Ganga river and its tributaries), teaching his doctrine and discipline to an extremely diverse range of people, from nobles, street sweepers, outcastes, and including many adherents of rival philosophies and religions. His religion was open to all races and classes and had no caste structure, though according to tradition the Buddha was reluctant to include women, and according to monastic rules certain deformities rendered one inadmissable. He founded the community of Buddhist monks and nuns (the Sangha) to continue the dispensation after his Paranirvana or complete Nirvana. He made thousands of converts.
At the age of 80, he ate his last meal, which, according to different translations, was either tainted pork or a mushroom delicacy which he had received as an offering from a blacksmith. Gautama Buddha realized that his end was fast approaching. He told his disciple Ananda to prepare a bed between two Sal trees in Kushinagar. Just before his passing, a 120 year-old mendicant monk named Subhadra, walked by. Being earlier turned away by Ananda, Buddha overheard this and called the Brahmin to his side. He was admitted to the Sangha (Buddhist order) and immediately after, Gautama passed away on a full moon day in May. The Buddha's final words were, "All things must pass away. Strive for your own salvation with diligence."
Personality and character
The Buddha as presented in the Buddhist scriptures is notable for such characteristics as:
- Both a comprehensive education and training in those fields appropriate to a warrior aristocrat, such as martial arts, agricultural management, and literature, and also a deep understanding of the religious and philosophical ideas of his culture.
- Gautama Siddharta was reported to have been athletic and fit throughout his life, competent in martial arts such as chariot combat, wrestling, and archery, and later easily hiking miles each day and camping in the wilderness. Images of a fat "Jolly Buddha" or Laughing Buddha are actually depictions of a different character, sometimes called Hotei (or Hoti).
- A superb teacher, with a fine grasp of the appropriate metaphor, and tailoring his teachings to the audience at hand.
- Fearless and unworried at all times, whether dealing with religious debate, a patricidal prince, or a murderous outlaw. He was not, however, past exasperation when monks of his order misrepresented his teachings.
- Completely temperate in all bodily appetites. Lived a completely celibate life from age 29 until his death. Indifferent to hunger and environmental conditions.
Many Schools of Buddhists sects disagree as to what the Buddha actually taught. There seems to be major agreement on these points:
- The Four Noble Truths: that suffering is an inherent part of existence; that suffering is caused by craving; that craving can be ceased; and that following the Eightfold Path will lead to the cessation of craving (and suffering).
- The Eightfold Path: proper understanding, proper thought, proper speech, proper action, proper livelihood, proper effort, proper mindfulness, and proper concentration.
- The law of dependent causation: that events are not predestined, nor are they random, but that events are caused by the actions that preceded them.
- Rejection of the infallibility of accepted scripture: teachings should not be accepted unless they are borne out by our experiences.
- Anicca: That all things are impermanent.
- Anatta: That there is no eternal soul, and that the perception of a constant "self" is an illusion.
- A sketch of the Buddha's Life (http://www.accesstoinsight.org/ptf/buddha.html)
- Critical Resources: Buddha & Buddhism (http://www.synaptic.bc.ca/ejournal/buddhist.htm)
Wikipedia. (2004). Gautama Buddha (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gautama_Buddha). Retrieved Sept. 21, 2004.