In Sanskrit Buddha means the “Awakened One”. It is a term frequently used to refer to anyone who reaches a level of full enlightenment. A Buddha is a man or woman who is free of the misconceptions and negative emotions that beset the rest of humanity.
In Buddhism, there are two main schools of thought. One school believes that all people will one day reach this state of perfection, the other that there is just one Buddha for each historical age. A Historical Age lasts thousands of years. The Buddha of the current age was born more than 2500 years ago.
The historical Buddha is not the first, nor will he be the last. According to various records, he is either the fourth, the seventh or the twenty-fifth. Buddhists believe that the next Buddha will come when all of the relics and teachings of the current historical Buddha have totally vanished from the face of the earth.
The Birth of Buddha Shakyamuni
The Historical Buddha, known as Buddha Shakyamuni, never claimed to be a god. He was a man who sought enlightenment. He was born Siddhartha Gautama in the 6th century BC in the country that today is called Nepal. His place of birth is Lumbini close to the Indian border.
Siddhartha Gautama was the child of royalty, part of a Warrior Caste. Siddhartha Gautama’s first name means “he that achieves his aim”. His father Suddhodana was a king. His mother Maya, a princess, died a week after giving birth to him. Her younger sister subsequently reared Siddhartha. During the celebration of his birth, a holy man had prophesied a great future for him as king or sadhu.
Siddhartha Gautama, the Youth
As a child and young man, luxury and pleasure surrounded Siddhartha. Intelligent, athletic and good-looking, the young man was well educated but innocent of human hardships and indignities. He received no religious instruction. By protecting him from the realities of life his father had hoped to prevent him from becoming an ascetic. The king arranged for the young Siddhartha to marry at sixteen.
Siddhartha Ventures out of his Father’s Home
In his late twenties, after years of opulent seclusion, Siddhartha finally ventured out of the palace grounds. Here, for the first time, he saw a sick man, an old man and a corpse. He suddenly realized the impermanence of life and the frailty of the human condition. This deeply upset him. He started to make more regular trips into the outside world.
Along the way, he encountered a mendicant. He understood that this man had renounced the world in his search for relief from the fear of death. This made Siddhartha realize that the path to perfection lay in the mind. Siddhartha left the palace, his wife and his son, Rahula. He cut off his hair with a sword, shed his royal robes, and donned the clothes of a hunter. He then went in search of enlightenment. Buddhists call this moment “The Great Renunciation”.
Siddhartha’s Life as an Ascetic
Siddhartha spent the next six years mastering the meditation techniques of some of the most talented religious teachers. He and five others lived an ascetic lifestyle. Siddhartha’s commitment to finding enlightenment so impressed his companions that they became his followers.
Over this period, he lived a life of extreme hardship, denying himself food, water and sleep, never speaking, meditating for ten hours every day. He lived this harsh lifestyle believing that to understand the meaning of life he needed to venture close to death.
No matter how much deprivation he suffered, enlightenment eluded him. He almost starved himself to death, one day collapsing as a result of the deprivation. A young girl offered him a bowl of rice and milk. He decided to break his fast and ate it, washing it down with water, and taking a bath.
This prompted his followers to abandon him. He had realized, however, that a life of extremism would not lead to spiritual enlightenment which depended, instead, on a well-balanced life. This he called the Middle Way. The Middle Way permitted neither self-mortification nor self-indulgence.
Siddhartha Finds Enlightenment
Now with neither teachers nor followers, Siddhartha sat for several days beneath a Bodhi tree and meditated on his lives current and past. He was determined to awaken his mind to the secrets of the Universe. During that time, the demon, Mara, challenged him, claiming the position of Buddha for himself.
Siddhartha managed to banish him by calling on the Earth to bear witness to his enlightened state. It was now in the full moon of May that Siddhartha achieved the enlightenment that he sought, seeing with clarity the meaning of life and the cause of suffering. Now he knew how to eradicate that suffering. He had become the Buddha.
It was just a week before his thirty-fifth birthday when he reached the state of enlightenment that he had been seeking. He knew that what he had learned would be very difficult to teach others, so he was reluctant to take his teaching out into the world.
Legend has it that the king of gods, Brahma descended onto the earth and convinced the Buddha to teach his knowledge to others. He pointed out that humans were at different levels of enlightenment.
The First Teaching
The Buddha set out on foot traveling through Northern India in search of the five ascetics who had abandoned him. At a deer park, Sarnath, close to Varanasi, he found them. He spoke to them about the Middle Way and then taught them and others the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path in a sermon in Sarnath. This is the foundation upon which the Buddhist religion is based.
The ascetics, impressed by his charisma, became his first disciples. They started the Sangha, the first community of monks. This community admitted people of all classes, race and gender with no discrimination. The monks went out into the communities to teach the dharma.
The Buddha Dedicates his Life to Teaching Others
For the next forty-five years, the Buddha traveled by foot across northeast India with a group of disciples. He taught people from all levels of society, no matter their caste or profession, about how to find the ultimate enlightenment. As he walked from town to town, village to village he gathered more disciples. His fame grew and wealthy people donated parks and retreats to his cause. He never, however, left the road to stay in any of his retreats.
The Buddha lived to the age of eighty. Shortly before his death, he warned his followers that he would die shortly. He refused to leave any instructions on how they should spread his teachings, saying that he had taught them enough to continue his legacy.
He died at a place called Kusinara. According to Buddhist beliefs, a person who has reached such an elevated level of enlightenment enters Nirvana at the time of their death. Nirvana is an altered state of being, which frees the Buddha from the cycle of birth and death.
The Foundations of the Buddhist Religion
This spiritual leader and teacher laid the foundations of the Buddhist religion. In 2010, there were around 500 million Buddhists on earth. Recently there has been a resurgence in the number of people who are practicing Buddhists. The Chinese government now officially supports Buddhism and is actively rebuilding temples.
A Buddhist temple is also under construction in Moscow. There is a reason to believe therefore that the number of Buddhists has grown considerably with some organizations claiming that the number may now have reached more than 1.5 billion people or 22% of the global population.
The Four Noble Truths
The basis of the Buddhist teaching is the Four Noble Truths.
- The First Truth explains that we live a life of dukkha. Dukkha is Sanskrit and means a lack of satisfaction or stress.
- The Second Truth tells us that the anxiety of not understanding ourselves and our reality causes dukkha. The roots of the anxiety and dissatisfaction originate in negative feelings, actions and words. These feelings include hatred, ignorance, and desire. We seek to overcome the feelings of anxiety and frustration by finding ways to fill the unhappiness, but satisfaction is brief and then we revert to our anxious state. Only when we fully understand ourselves can we accomplish The Third Truth.
- The Third Truth explains that the route to releasing ourselves from the uncomfortable cycle of frustration and dissatisfaction is to fully understand the cause of the anxiety.
- The Fourth Truth offers a route to a happier life through the adoption of the Eightfold Path which rests on the pillars of meditation, ethics and wisdom.
Who is Buddha?
Many of the stories of the life of the Buddha were passed down by word of mouth and only written down several centuries after his death. For this reason, there are many historical uncertainties regarding his life and death. There are also many differences in the various schools of thought around the world.
One thing remains certain, however, and that is that Buddhism is not merely a religion or belief. It is a philosophy and way of life. Buddha is not a god. He was a man who lived a simple life, finding the ultimate awakening that all of his followers seek.