We actually do not know too much about the historical Buddha’s life. According to tradition he was born some 2,500 years ago in the year 463 BC, as a prince of a small kingdom in southern Nepal. However, there is great uncertainty about the exact year, and a lot points to the fact that his family were influential politicians, rather than actually royals. Anyway: He was born a long time ago, in a wealthy and powerful family.
Buddhism’s founder, Gautama Buddha
His name was Siddhartha Gautama. Siddharta grew up in luxury, and for the first several years never left his father’s palace. Despite his father’s efforts to protect his son from life’s harsh realities he was still dissatisfied with life within the palace walls.
Siddharta decided to leave the palace and experience life outside its walls. Shortly after he wandered out, he met an old, senile man. This sight startled Siddharta, who had never seen anything like it. He asked his servant what was wrong with the man. The servant explained that this was old age, and said ‘It comes to us all.’ Then he saw a man who was plagued by illness. Then he saw a corpse, surrounded by grieving friends and relatives. Every time the servant explained, ‘It comes to us all.’ Eventually he saw a wandering holy man. The servant told him that this man had renounced ordinary life, and was looking for peace and the end of human suffering. Siddharta knew that was the path he would choose. He decided that he would defeat human suffering. That night he left the palace and became a monk.
For six years he lived a life of self-denial and strict discipline. His hope was that such practices would give him the insight he needed to find the answer to suffering. After six years, his body was so weakened that he was near death but he was still no closer to its goal. He realized that self-denial was as big of a hurdle to enlightenment as the dissolute life in the palace. At this time he realized the Middle Way truth. Just as the strings on a guitar should not be too tight or too loose for it to be in accord, niether should spiritual practice be too lax or too strict for it to be effective.
Siddharta becomes a Buddha
Upon regaining his health he sat under a fig tree in deep meditation, he removed all distractions from his mind. By considering his own life, he got a deep insight into human conditions. He considered the events of his previous life, the causes and circumstances; the karma he had created to reach this moment. Thereafter, he had deep insight into all living beings lives and saw how their lives were guided by the reasons and circumstances they each had created. He understood the very reason for this chain – how everything arises and how living creatures create their own lives. He saw that all living beings underwent the suffering-filled cycle of life and death, trapped by their ignorant desire. Siddhartha realized that all suffering comes from ignorance of the true nature of life. When the night was over, and the sun rose, Siddhartha realized the ultimate reality. He became a Buddha, or ‘an Awakened One’. From this time he was called Shakyamuni (Shakya clan sage) Buddha.
Driven by compassion, he set out to share his insights with all people. For the next forty years Buddha traveled throughout India and taught extensively. He died peacefully in a grove of sala trees in the year 383 BC (again, the actual year is uncertain, but it seems that he was eighty years old), surrounded by the spiritual community he founded: the Sangha; a community that eventually would grow large and worldwide.
Buddha and his teachings, the Dharma
He taught his Dharma: what was later to be known as Buddhism, the philosophy that basically are further developments of The Four Ennobling Truths – the truth about human suffering. His aimed to liberate all beings from suffering, by any means necessary. And how was it that Buddha led his disciples – and through them all people – towards enlightenment?
The Buddha would first teach new disciples how positive actions will produce positive effects and negative actions will produce negative effects in both this and future lives. This phenomenon is also known as karma or the law of cause and effect.
A deep realization of karma will naturally lead to an ethically justifiable life, where one lives in accordance with ones ideals. Such a life naturally leads to peace of mind, as you now are able to live without regret. Peace is the best foundation for meditative exercises, which in turn with time and practice will lead to wisdom: insight into the true nature of all things (and this insight will in turn lead to yet another level of ethics that will provide additional peace, which will create a basis for deeper meditations which will lead to more comprehensive insights that will lead to …)
All who accepted these teachings took refuge in the Buddha as the enlightened teacher, the Dharma as the teachings that lead to enlightenment, and the Sangha as the community that practiced and transmitted these teachings.