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Though often used in a general sense to identify any individual who has achieved enlightenment without the aid of others, the term Buddha usually denotes the historical founder of Buddhism, Siddhártha Gautama. Scholars generally deem Gautama a historical figure who passed along to his followers the foundations of Buddhist philosophy and practice. Frequently referred to as “the Buddha,” or the “Enlightened One,” most Buddhists believe Gautama to be the Buddha for this age (though there have been numerous buddhas throughout history). Accurately reconstructing the precise details of the Buddha’s life and teaching, however, proves difficult. The first biographies of his life did not appear until centuries after his death and it is often impossible to ascertain exactly where the biographies reconstruct the Buddha’s life according to ideal patterns as opposed to historical realities.
Conventionally, the Buddha was believed to have lived circa 560–480 BCE, though more-recent scholarship suggests the later dates of circa 485–405 BCE. Born in northern India (present-day Nepal), Gautama’s father was king of the city of Kapilavastu. Just prior to his birth, Gautama’s biographers hold that Gautama’s mother dreamed of a white elephant coming into her womb; this in turn led soothsayers to predict Gautama’s future as a buddha. Prepared throughout his previous lives for this his final reincarnation, Gautama could walk and talk immediately following his birth. Throughout his youth, however, Gautama’s father, Suddhodana, sought to guard him against suffering and prepared Gautama to succeed him as king. Gautama also married during this period and had a son, Ráhula (according to some traditions Ráhula [literally “fetter”] was not born until the day Gautama achieved enlightenment).
At age twenty-nine, however, Gautama’s life profoundly changed when he ventured outside the palace and encountered “four signs”: an old man, a sick person, a corpse, and a mendicant (Buddhist sources indicate that the gods orchestrated these events). Troubled by what he saw, Gautama then took on the life of an ascetic for the next several years and searched for an answer to the suffering he had encountered. In his search for enlightenment, Gautama excelled in meditation and ascetism (at one point it was said that he lived off a daily ration of one pea). Two teachers, Udraka Rámaputra and Alára Káláma, guided him during this period. Gautama eventually rejected the positions of his mentors, though, and concluded that strict self-denial did not free an individual from suffering.
According to Gautama’s biographers, six years after leaving the palace he finally experienced enlightenment. One night he sat under a bodhi tree determined not to leave until he found an answer to the perennial problems of suffering and death. A period of temptation ensued as Mára, the god of desire, assailed him through various means. Gautama resisted these assaults, however, and meditated throughout the night. By dawn, Gautama’s meditation culminated in a breakthrough. Though some traditions differ as to the exact nature of his enlightenment that night, the biographers agree that Gautama achieved the status of a buddha; he eliminated the ignorance that trapped individuals in the suffering (duhkha) associated with the endless cycle of reincarnation.
Following this experience, the Buddha’s biographers indicate that he basked in his experience for several weeks and stayed near the tree; soon thereafter he preached his first sermon at Deer Park in Sarnath, passing along to others his insight into the dharma (the truth). This first sermon is often referred to as the “first turning of the wheel of dharma.” Though it is important to note that many of the Buddha’s teachings reflect the influence of Hinduism, the Buddha thoroughly modified various Hindu concepts and did not embrace the Hindu caste system. The theme of his teaching revolved around the Four Noble Truths. The first Noble Truth stipulated the reality of suffering. Put simply, suffering persists throughout all the various stages of life. The second Noble Truth indicated that desire (tãØ£á) originated from ignorance (avidyá) and inevitably caused suffering. According to the Buddha, humans mistakenly posit the existence of an autonomous, permanent self (átman). As such, they inevitably experience suffering as they try to maintain a permanent hold on things that are constantly changing and impermanent. Instead, the Buddha’s teachings advanced the doctrine of “no-self” and insisted on the impermanence of all things. The third Noble Truth, the cessation of suffering (nirvá£a, literally “blowing out”), claimed it was possible to eliminate desire and ignorance and free an individual from suffering. Finally, the fourth Noble Truth pointed to the path that brings about the cessation of suffering, often referred to as the Eightfold Path. The path includes (1) right view, (2) right intention, (3) right speech, (4) right conduct, (5) right livelihood, (6) right effort, (7) right mindfulness, and (8) right concentration. This “Middle Path” avoids both the extreme of self-denial and the extreme of selfindulgence, and leads an individual to recognize the impermanence of all things.
Often, the different parts of the Eightfold Path are grouped under three main headings: moral precepts, concentration, and wisdom. The moral precepts (sila) usually include basic prohibitions against killing, stealing, lying, sexual promiscuity, and intoxication (these are commonly accepted by most Buddhists, though monks and nuns usually adhere to more stringent guidelines). Concentration (samádhi) involves various forms of meditation that differ among Buddhist traditions. Generally, however, Buddhist meditation requires careful control of the process of breathing and discipline of the mind. Finally, wisdom (prajñá) reflects the necessary insights required to eliminate desire and ignorance and achieve enlightenment. The Buddha would continue to teach throughout northeastern India for the next forty-five years of his life, and he soon attracted a cadre of followers. Many of his biographies say relatively little about this period of the Buddha’s life. Tradition indicates that the Buddha formed a magical double of himself, that he ascended to heaven to teach his mother who had died, and that he tamed a wild elephant. The Buddha also formed a monastic order of monks and nuns, though the Buddhist community (sa£gha) included laymen and laywomen as well. During this time, other accounts also suggest that the Buddha’s authority was challenged by his cousin Devadatta.
At age eighty, the Buddha died. Just prior to his death, the Buddha delivered one final message and lay down between two trees. According to tradition, the Buddha’s death signaled his parinirvá£a, or his release from the cycle of birth and rebirth. Following this event, his followers cremated his body and distributed his relics to be enshrined in what are known as stupas.
With no named successor, a council of elders formed and orally perpetuated the Buddha’s teachings. Centuries later, canonical collections of his teachings were created, such as the Tripitaka. These scriptures contain material directly attributed to the Buddha (buddhavacana) as well as authoritative commentaries. Elaborate works of art depicting various events from the Buddha’s life were also developed. Devotees lavished gifts on relics associated with the Buddha and annually celebrated his birth, enlightenment, and entrance into nirvana. Sites associated with the Buddha’s life served as places of pilgrimage. These included his birthplace (Lumbiní), the setting where he achieved enlightenment (Bodh Gayá), the location of his first sermon (Deer Park), and his place of death (Kusinagara).
Growth of Buddhism
Because Buddhism—unlike Hinduism—operated outside of the caste system, allowing its followers to interact freely with others, this helped it to spread beyond India and into other parts of Asia following the Buddha’s death. Different Buddhist traditions eventually took shape, spreading and elaborating on the Buddha’s teachings within various cultural contexts. The Theraváda tradition (literally “doctrine of the elders”) claims to adhere strictly to the Buddha’s original teachings. The Maháyána tradition, however, often referred to as the “Great Way,” recast many of the more traditional positions. In one key example, the Maháyána give a higher priority to the bodhisattva—the person who puts off nirvana to help others achieve enlightenment—as opposed to the arhat ideal, in which individuals focus on achieving enlightenment for themselves. The Buddha’s life, then, was reread as the quintessential model of the bodhisattva ideal. Numerous other traditions would follow as the religion initiated by the Buddha spread, ultimately attracting followers across the globe. By the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, for example, many Westerners became fascinated by the Buddha’s life and teachings, as can be seen in the popularity of Siddhartha (1922), a novel by Hermann Hesse. As Buddhism attracted adherents in countries such as the United States, however, many criticized Westerners for promoting superficial forms of Buddhism and of the Buddha’s teachings.
At the start of the twenty-first century there were approximately 400 million Buddhist adherents worldwide. Though the various Buddhist schools differ on the exact nature of the Buddha’s teachings and how to interpret them, the Buddha remains a venerated figure for all Buddhists; his life and teachings continue to shape the religious sensibilities of numerous followers around the world.
- Bechert, Heinz, ed. 1995. When Did the Buddha Live?: The Controversy on the Dating of the Historical Buddha. Delhi, India: Sri Satguru Publications.
- Foucher, A. 1949. La vie du Bouddha. Paris: Payot. Trans. Simone Brangier Boas as The Life of the Buddha, according to the Ancient Texts and Monuments of India (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1963).
- Lamotte, Étienne. 1988. History of Indian Buddhism: From the Origins to the Saka Era. Sara Webb-Boin under the supervision of Jean Dantinne. Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium: Université Catholique de Louvain, Institut Orientaliste.
- Ñá£amoli, Bhikku, trans. 1972. The Life of the Buddha, as It Appears in the Pali Canon, the Oldest Authentic Record. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society.
- Strong, John S. 2001. The Buddha: A Short Biography. Oxford: Oneworld.
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