Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, was born in the 6th or 5th century BC in the kingdom of the Sakyas on the borders of present day Nepal to King Suddhodana and Queen Mahamaya of the warrior caste. The boy would grow to become the Buddha, the spiritual leader whose life and teachings are the foundation of the lives of millions of Buddhists today.
The story of Siddhartha’s life actually begins with a dream that Queen Mahamaya had before the prince was born: She dreamt that a white and silver elephant entered her womb through her side. Brahmans (wise men) who interpreted the dream said that her child would become either a great ruler or a great spiritual leader.
Predictions of Siddhartha’s greatness were made again when Mahamaya gave birth to her son in Lumbini on the full-moon day of May. Upon Siddhartha’s arrival the King’s religious advisor, the great sage Asita, determined also that the prince had the bodily markings of one who would become a buddha, and five days later at the naming ceremony for Siddhartha (which means “one whose aim is accomplished”) eight Brahmans who specialized in interpreting bodily marks echoed these sentiments.
Queen Mahamaya died seven days after the birth of her son, and Siddhartha was raised by his aunt Mahapajapati. Because the king wanted his son to become a great ruler he filled boyhood days with luxury so as to dissuade him from ever wanting to leave the
palace for a religious life. In the “Collection of the Gradual Sayings of the Buddha” the Buddha himself reported to have said:
Bhikkus [monks], I was delicately nurtured, exceedingly delicately nurtured, delicately nurtured beyond measure. In my father’s residence lotus-ponds were made: one of blue lotuses, one of red and another of white lotuses, just for my sake….Of Kasi cloth was my turban made; of Kasi my jacket, my tunic, and my cloak….I had three palaces: one for winter, one for summer and one for the rainy season…in the rainy season palace, during the four months of the rains, entertained only by female musicians, I did not come down from the palace.
Although the young prince was provided with comfort he was not satisfied with life. He married a princess named Yasodhara at 16 years of age, but the real turning point in his life came when he was 29 years old.
At the age of 29 Siddhartha saw four signs of suffering which he had never seen; an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and an ascetic. Realizing now that all beings are subject to suffering and death, Siddhartha became overcome with grief, and he was impressed with the calmness and tranquility of the religious man. After hearing of the birth of his son, Rahula, he decided to make what is known as the Great Renunciation. In the middle of the night he left his princely life for the life of an ascetic.
Siddhartha traveled as an ascetic for years. He became the pupil of sages and rapidly mastered their philosophies. From Alara Kalama he attained the mystical state of “the sphere of no-thing.” He then went to Uddaka Ramputta, another great sage, where he learned “the sphere of neither-perception-nor-nonperception.” Still not satisfied with his spiritual attainment, Siddhartha continued his quest for absolute truth.
On his journey Siddhartha was joined by a group of five ascetics, among them was Konanna, a Brahman who had predicted at the name-giving ceremony that the child Siddhartha would most certainly become a Buddha one day.
For nearly six years Siddhartha practiced extreme asceticism. What he looked like and what happened to him is described in words attributed to the Buddha himself in the ancient text Majjhima Nikaya:
Because of so little nourishment, all my limbs became like some withered creepers with knotted joints; my buttocks like a buffalo’s hoof; my back-bone protruding like a string of balls; my ribs like rafters of a dilapidated shed; the pupils of my eyes appeared sunk deep in their sockets as water appears shining at the bottom of a deep well; my scalp became shriveled and shrunk as a bitter gourd cut unripe becomes shriveled and shrunk by sun and wind; the skin of my belly came to be cleaving to my back-bone; when I wanted to obey the calls of nature, I fell down on my face then and there; when I stroked my limbs with my hand, hairs rotted at the roots and fell away from my body.
Many of the pictures and other representations of the Buddha portray him in this poor state of health. Siddhartha realized that such an extreme way of life could not lead him to what he sought, his companions were disappointed with his rejection of their way of life and left him.
Alone, Siddhartha accepted a meal of milk-rice from a young lady, and meditated under what is known as the Bodhi tree, or the tree of Enlightenment. He was determined to stay under the tree until he had attained Enlightenment. It was here that Siddhartha faced Mara, the lord of the world of passion, who tried to keep him from reaching his goal. Armed with demons, Mara was unable to defeat Siddhartha who was supported by the 10 paramitas or great virtues. Siddhartha Gautama had perfected the great virtues during his previous lives as a bodhisattva (buddha-to-be). After having defeated Mara, Siddhartha remained under the tree (one night to several according to different accounts). It was during this meditation that he attained Enlightenment, and realized the Four Noble Truths, and continued to meditate on the dhamma, or truths that he now understood.
The first witnesses to the teachings of the dhamma by the Buddha were the five ascetic companions who had left him. When they met again the Buddha informed the five men that he was now an arhat (perfected one), a sammasambuddha (fully awakened one), that he had realized the amata (immortal), and that he wished to teach them the dhamma. The Buddha delivered his first sermon “Sermon on Setting in Motion the Wheel of Truth” to the five men. In the sermon he talked of the Eightfold Path and the Four Noble Truths. At the end of the sermon the men were admitted by the Buddha as monks and they became the first members of the sangha (community or order).
The Buddha continued to teach the dhamma and soon had 60 disciples who all had become perfected ones. The 60 travelled in different directions to spread the teachings of the Buddha. The Buddha himself travelled back towards his homeland and eventually met with his family again. They all became followers of his teachings, and his aunt became one of the first nuns in the order.
At the capital of the Kosala kingdom a banker built the famous monastery at Jetavana. This monastery became the place where the Buddha spent most of his time and delivered most of his sermons, but the teachings of the Buddha were so popular that there were monasteries built for him and his sangha in most of the important cities in the Ganges Valley.
The Buddha did obtain some jealous enemies, one of whom was his cousin and a follower, Devadatta. About eight years before the Buddha’s death Devadatta conceived of the idea of becoming the Buddha’s successor. When the Buddha rejected the suggestions Devadatta vowed vengeance. He made three attempts on the life of the Buddha, which all failed. Next he tried to break up the sangha by taking with him a group of newly ordained monks to establish a new community, all of these monks were pursuaded to return to the teachings of the Buddha.
At the age of 80, with a group of monks the Buddha set out on his last journey. During the journey north became seriously ill, but recovered. Later the Buddha told his most devoted attendant that he had decided to die in three months, and asked him to assemble in the hall at Mahavana all the monks who were residing nearby. The Buddha advised these monks to follow what he had taught them and to spread it abroad for the good of many. The Buddha then continued his journey.
Eventually arriving at the town Pava the Buddha and his monks were invited to the house of a devoted follower, Cunda, for a meal. Cunda had prepared a special dish called sukara-maddava intended to prolong the Buddha’s life. The dish is interpretted in ancient pali commentaries in several ways: as pork, as bamboo sprouts trodden by pigs, as a kind of mushroom growing in a spot trodden by pigs, as rice pudding rich with milk, or as an elixir. Whatever it was, the Buddha requested that he be the only one to eat it and that the remaining portion be buried. This was the Buddha’s last meal. About the dinner The Buddha had this to say to Ananda:
Now it may happen, Ananda, that someone should stir up remorse in Cunda by saying that the Tathagata [Enlightened One] died after eating his meal. Any such remorse in Cunda should be dispelled. Tell him, Ananda, that you heard directly from my mouth that there are two offerings of food which are of equal fruit, of equal profit: the offering of food before the Enlightenment and the offering of food before the Parinibbana (the passing away) of a Tathagata. Tell him that he has done a good deed. In this way Ananda, you should dispel any possible remorse in Cunda.
The Buddha arrived at Kusinara, modern day Kasia, toward evening and rested on his right side between two trees. This was the full-moon day in May. During his rest he was very ill, but bore the pains without complaint. That evening many families came to pay homage to the Buddha, and among them was Subhadda, the Buddha’s last direct disciple.
Knowing that he was going to soon pass away, the Buddha offered these words to comfort Ananda:
It may be, Ananda, that to some of you the thought may come: ‘Here we have the Word of the Master who is gone; our Master we have with us no more.’ But, Ananda, it should not be considered in this light. What I have taught and laid down, Ananda, as Dhamma (Truth, Doctrine) and as Vinaya (Discipline), this will be your Master when I am gone….If the sangha wish it, Ananda, let them, when I am gone, abolish lesser and minor precepts (rules).
Next the Buddha addressed the monks and requested three times that they ask him questions to clear up any doubts or concerns they had. All of the monks were silent and The Buddha spoke his last words:
Then, bhikkhus, I address you now: transient are all conditioned things. Try to accomplish your aim with diligence.