Buddha Biography

Biography (Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Areas of Achievement: Religion, philosophy, and monasticism Indian religious leader and philosopher{$I[g]India and Sri Lanka;Buddha} By his own example and teaching, Buddha showed that all people can attain an enlightened state of mind by cultivating a combination of compassion (loving-kindness toward all beings without exception) and wisdom (seeing things as they really are).

Early Life

The historical Buddha (BEW-duh)—known variously as Gautama, Siddhārtha, and Śākyamuni—was born in Lumbinī, in the Himālayan foothills of what is now Nepal. His father, Śuddhodana, was king of nearby Kapilavastu, a town whose archaeological remains have yet to be found. His mother, Māyā, died seven days after giving birth to the young prince; Śuddhodana then married her sister, who brought up the boy.

According to legend, the infant’s conception and birth were accompanied by unusual signs, and he walked and talked at birth. Legend also has it that an ancient sage prophesied that the young prince would become either a Buddha (an enlightened one) or a universal monarch. Śuddhodana, determined on the latter career, kept his son confined within the palace walls to prevent him from seeing unpleasant sights that might cause him to renounce the world and take up the religious life of a wandering mendicant.

The Buddha’s given name was Siddhārtha (he who has achieved his goal). Later, he was called Śākyamuni (Sage of the Śākyas), because his family was part of the warrior (kśatriya) Śākya clan, which also used the Brahman clan name Gautama (descendant of the sage Gotama). He is described as a handsome, black-haired boy.

The oldest Buddhist canon is in the Pāli language and was transmitted orally for several hundred years after the Buddha’s death; it was written down on palm leaves on the orders of the Sri Lankan king Vattagamani (d. c. 77 b.c.e.). The Pāli Canon records few details about Siddhārtha’s early years, but it does mention that he spontaneously entered a state of meditation while sitting under a tree watching his father plowing. It also recounts his becoming aware of the inevitability of old age, illness, and death, supposedly by seeing his first old man, ill man, and corpse on clandestine trips outside the palace gates.

When he came of age, Siddhārtha was married to Yaśodharā. They had a son who was named Rāhula (“fetter”), perhaps because Siddhārtha was already turning away from householder life. Indeed, at the age of twenty-nine, he left home forever to seek enlightenment, initially by studying with two teachers, then through extended fasting and other austerities, in which he was joined by five other ascetics. At the age of thirty-five, having failed to attain his goal, he ate enough to regain strength and sat under a tree (later known as the Bodhi Tree) at Uruvelā, near Benares (modern-day Varanasi), vowing to stay there until he reached enlightenment.

The Pāli Canon includes several different descriptions of the enlightenment that followed, “as though one were to describe a tree from above, from below and from various sides, or a journey by land, by water and by air” (Ñānamoli, Life of the Buddha According to the Pali Canon, 1972). What these accounts have in common is Śākyamuni’s claim of having attained direct knowledge of the final nature of mind itself.

Examining the mind via meditation, Śākyamuni found it empty of independent existence. In combination with compassion (an altruistic attitude toward everyone, especially one’s “enemies”), this knowledge led to Buddhahood. It was this discovery that Gautama Buddha would spend the rest of his life setting forth to those who came to listen to him teach.

Life’s Work

The newly enlightened Buddha’s first impulse was not to disseminate the truth that he had worked so diligently to uncover. He realized that every human being had the potential to attain enlightenment, just as he himself had done, but he also knew that enlightenment could not be bestowed by anyone else; each person had to...

(The entire section is 1704 words.)