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Gautama Buddha (approximately 563 BC - 483 BC) (1) was born Siddhartha Gautama (Sanskrit form, or Siddhatta Gotama, Prakrit form); the title Buddha (enlightened one) was later bestowed upon him by his followers. He is also commonly known as Shakyamuni (or Sakyamuni), "The sage of the Shakya/Sakya clan", and as the Tathagata (untranslatable: roughly, "The thus-come one" or "The thus-gone one", emphasizing the nature of a Buddha to go about in the world without adding or subtracting anything from his experience.)

Biographical sketch

Accounts of his life were passed down by oral tradition and first written a few hundred years after his death. The Buddhist scriptures do contain accounts of metaphysics and magic in the Buddha's life. Some, such as calming an angry elephant his enemies had released to kill him, may be acceptable to materialist readers. [some of these tales are on this website, follow the links in this article] Others, such as his conversations with gods or instantaneous teleportation to Sri Lanka, may not. Stripped of these metaphysical or magical aspects, a sketch of his life runs thusly:

Prince Siddharta was born in Lumbini (in modern day Nepal), to the kshatriya caste of warrior-aristocrats. (The Indian caste system was also probably somewhat more informal at this time than it later became). He was the heir to the position of "prince" ("village chieftain" may be more accurate) of the Shakya clan's village of Kapilavatthu or Kapilvastu in the foothills of the Himalayas in what is now Nepal.

Siddharta married and had a son: Rahula, but at age 29, around 534 BC, having become increasingly dissatisfied with the contrast between a life of aristocratic luxury and the suffering he observed endemic in all people, Siddharta abandoned his inheritance and palace and began living an ascetic life, training with ascetic philosophers, and practicing austere meditative practices.

After six years, around 528 BC, he found that the severe practices did not lead to greater understanding, abandoned them and concentrated on meditation and the "middle way" (a practise of non-extremism), and soon afterwards claimed he had realized complete awakening or enlightenment into the nature and cause of human suffering and the steps necessary to eliminate it. This enlightenment is called a state of "Bodhi," and hence the name "Buddha," or "enlightened one." [More on Buddha's path to enlightenment and his meditation teachers]

The Buddha emphasized that he was not a god nor the messenger of a god and that Enlightenment was not the result of a supernatural process or agency, but rather the result of a close attention to the nature of the human mind which could be rediscovered by anyone for themselves.

For the remaining 45 years of his life, he traveled the Gangetic Plain of central India (region of the Ganges/Ganga river and its tributaries), teaching his meditation practice to an extremely diverse range of people, from nobles to street sweepers, and including many adherents of rival philosophies and religions. He founded the community of Buddhist monks and nuns (the Sangha) to continue the teachings after his death (considered to be the paranirvana or complete ending of the Buddha).

After intermittent illness, the Buddha died at Kusinara (now Kusinagar, India) at the age of 80. His last meal was sukara-maddava which he had received as an offering from a smith. The correct translation of this term is unknown; sukara means "pig", maddava apparently means something like "delicacy". Sukara-maddava may mean "tender pork" or "mushrooms or tubers enjoyed by pigs". Vegetarianism is for Buddhists an ideal rather than a mandate, and monks and nuns in particular are enjoined to accept all offerings of food made to them (unless they know an animal has been killed especially to feed them). One account gives the Buddha's last words as: "All things which are made of parts eventually come apart. Be mindful, and achieve Enlightenment!", while another gives, "Subject to change are all things. Strive on with diligence."
Personality and character

The Buddha as presented in the Buddhist scriptures is notable for such characteristics as:

* Both a comprehensive education and training in those fields appropriate to a warrior aristocrat, such as martial arts, agricultural management, and literature, and also a deep understanding of the religious and philosophical ideas of his culture.
* Gautama Siddharta was reported to have been athletic and fit throughout his life, competent in martial arts such as chariot combat, wrestling, and archery, and later easily hiking miles each day and camping in the wilderness. Images of a fat "Jolly Buddha" or Laughing Buddha are actually depictions of the future Buddha, currently Bodhisattva Maitreya.
* A superb teacher, with a fine grasp of the appropriate metaphor, and tailoring his teachings to the audience at hand.
* Fearless and unworried at all times, whether dealing with religious debate, a patricidal prince, or a murderous outlaw. He was not, however, past exasperation when monks of his order misrepresented his teachings.
* Completely temperate in all bodily appetites. Lived a completely celibate life from age 29 until his death. Indifferent to hunger and environmental conditions.


1) The picture of Buddha as given above is from Digibeeld an online database maintained by Kern Institute, University Leiden, The Netherlands. Shahr-i-Bahlol is an archaeological site in Gandhara (Northern Pakistan). Ellen Raven (teacher of Buddhist art at Leiden University) estimates that it dates from the third century A.D.
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