Many people ask: was the Buddha a real person? The answer is yes. Buddhism, although classified as a religion, is not theistic like other religions. Buddhists do not believe in or worship a god. The Buddha was an actual historical figure – a man called Siddhartha Gautama who lived 2500 years ago. In this article, we will discuss the life and history of the Buddha and his journey to enlightenment.
Let’s start by defining the word. Buddha is a term that means ‘awakened one.’ It refers to someone who has become enlightened. That is, awakened from the sleep of ignorance and illusion of separateness and realised the truth of reality.
In one world era, there is only one Samma-Sambuddha or ‘fully enlightened one.’ The Buddha that we study and follow is the Samma-Sambuddha of our era.
The Buddha was not born a Buddha, however. He was a human who attained enlightenment through his own volition and efforts. He never claimed to be a prophet or a god, and he did not ask to be worshipped as such.
Siddhartha Gautama is thought to have been born in the 6th-4th century BC. He was born to King Shuddhodana and Queen Mayadevi of the Shakya Tribe of Lumbini, a kingdom on the Nepal-India border. The Queen had a dream one night that a white elephant descended from the heavenly realms and entered her womb. She found out later that she was pregnant with Siddhartha and the night of the dream was the night of his conception. Seven days after giving birth to Siddhartha, Queen Mayadevi died.
King Shuddhodana wanted to know about his son’s future, so he invited a seer to the palace to see the infant prince. The seer told the king that the child was to be either a powerful king and ruler or a great spiritual leader and teacher.
Siddhartha Gautama had a rich and privileged upbringing, wanting for nothing. King Shuddhodana saw Siddhartha as the heir and successor to the throne and tried to shield him from any influence that might make him not want to take on the role and choose the spiritual path. The king gave Siddhartha every luxury and indulgence available and tried to stop him from seeing real life that existed outside the palace walls.
But despite a luxurious life with the prospect of power in his future, Siddhartha felt that there must be more to life. When he was 16 years old, Siddhartha Gautama married a lady called Yashodhara, predominantly to please his father, and they had a son named Rahula. But family life did not quench Siddhartha’s inner stirrings to discover the purpose of life.
The Four Sights of Siddhartha Gautama
When he was 29 years old, Siddhartha went out on a chariot ride into the village and surrounding countryside with his aide. During his outing, he witnessed ‘four sights’ that would change the course of his life. The first sight was an old man. The second sight was a sick person. The third sight was a corpse. These sights made Siddhartha realise that life inevitably contains suffering because all humans will become old, sick, and they will die.
The fourth sight Siddhartha Gautama saw on that fateful day was a holy man who had renounced everything for a spiritual life and the search for truth. Siddhartha felt so inspired by this man that he was compelled to walk the same path in search of the meaning of life and the knowledge of how to overcome the suffering of the human condition. And so, much to his father’s protests and dismay, he left his opulent life as a royal prince, and his wife and son, and went forth on his search for wisdom.
Siddhartha’s Search for Wisdom
Siddhartha Gautama donned the saffron robes of a monk and began the life of a sadhu, a wandering holy man. He sought apprenticeship from the leading spiritual teachers of the age and learned all that there was to learn about the spiritual quest for insight and truth. One of the main spiritual paths at the time was to live an ascetic life – practising extreme fasting, purification rituals, and physically punishing the body. It was thought that only by depriving the body, could the mind achieve enlightenment.
So Siddhartha practised asceticism until he was near death. But he still did not have the wisdom and insight that he sought. It was then that he realised a balanced way of life was more appropriate for a person who seeks spiritual truth and liberation. A woman from the village nursed him back to health with rice milk.
The Buddha Under the Bodhi Tree
When Siddhartha Gautama was strong again, he decided enough was enough. He was going to sit in the same spot and meditate until he had the answers he was so desperately seeking. He made his way to Bodh Gaya and found an appropriate place to meditate, which happened to be underneath a fig tree situated next to the river Neranjara. There he sat, under the tree, and meditated for several days straight, recalling all the events of his life, and events from his previous lives, too. He saw the ultimate nature of all phenomena and realised the truth of human suffering.
Mara the Destroyer
During his intense meditation, he was visited by the demon Mara. Mara is also known as the ‘Lord of Death.’ The name Mara means ‘destruction,’ and Mara tried his best to destroy Siddhartha’s awakening in as many ways as he could. He whispered temptations of fame and riches into Siddhartha’s ear, ways that he could better humanity with worldly treasures. The serene Siddhartha did not respond.
Mara sent an army of hideous monsters to try and frighten the Buddha-to-be. The monsters fired hundreds of arrows at the meditating Siddhartha, but before they struck, the flowers transformed into a rain shower of flowers. Mara was furious and sent his three beautiful daughters to seduce Siddhartha Gautama back to the realm of desire and craving, but he did not stir from his meditation.
Finally, in a last desperate attempt to obstruct Siddhartha from reaching enlightenment, Mara tried mocking Siddhartha, telling him that he was not worthy of enlightenment and that his efforts were all in vain since there was nobody present to bear witness to his awakening. At this, Siddhartha reached out and touched the ground to symbolising that the Earth itself was his witness. The landscape trembled and shook, and Mara knew he had been beaten.
Siddhartha had overcome all the worldly temptations in his resistance of Mara. And with his insight meditation, the veil of ignorance had been lifted from his eyes. He saw the true nature of reality and the real causes of human suffering. He realised the answers that he had sought for so long as supreme wisdom dawned within him. In that moment, he attained enlightenment. He became the Buddha. Thus, the fig tree where he gained enlightenment became known as the Bodhi Tree. Bodhi means enlightenment in Sanskrit.
The Wheel of Dharma
The Buddha meditated silently under the tree for 49 days, until he was spoken to by the gods. The gods told the Buddha to go out into the world and teach what he had realised to others so that they might end their suffering too. The Buddha gave his first discourse to five of his old ascetic companions in Sarnath, near Varanasi, India.
This discourse is recorded in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta as containing the Four Noble Truths (cattāri ariyasaccāni) and the Noble Eightfold Path (ariya aṭṭhaṅgika magga), which are the foundational principles of the Dharma (the Buddha’s teachings on the path to enlightenment). This first sermon also introduced the concepts of the Middle Way (Majjhimāpaṭipadā), dependent origination (Pratityasamutpada), and impermanence (Anicca). And so began the Wheel of Dharma and the formulation of Buddhism.
FAQs About The Buddha’s Life
Was the Buddha a real person?
The Buddha was a human being just like us. He was born Siddhartha Gautama to the King and Queen of the Shakya tribe.
When was Siddhartha Gautama born?
Siddhartha Gautama was born in the 6th-4th Century BC.
Where was Siddhartha Gautama born?
Siddhartha Gautama was born in the town of Lumbini, on the border between India and Nepal.
How did the Buddha achieve enlightenment?
The Buddha achieved enlightenment by meditating underneath the Bodhi Tree until he overcame all worldly desires and realised the true nature of reality.
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