The Buddha lived about 2,500 years ago in Northern India. And today his spiritual teachings are widely practiced in a variety of forms throughout China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Tibet, Nepal, and various parts of Southeast Asia, including Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand & Vietnam.
The earliest Buddhist texts give slightly varying versions of the Buddha's life story, so we will focus only on those stories that are widely accepted as being accurate by all the main branches of Buddhism.
According to the earliest Buddhist texts, the Buddha was born into a princely family in North India sometime around 563 BCE. As was the custom, his pregnant mother-to-be, Queen Maya, planned to travel from her husband's kingdom, Kapilvastu, in order to give birth in her own parent's kingdom. And it was during this journey that she gave birth to little Siddhartha under a tree in a garden in Lumbini. Unfortunately she died a few days later. Despite his deep grief, her husband, King Suddhodana, held the formal "naming ceremony" and the infant was named "Siddhartha Gautama". Siddhartha, means, "he who achieves his aim", and his last name, Gautama, was the family name. His mother's sister kindly and lovingly raised him in his father's palace, as if he were her own child.
Interestingly, during this period, a widely respected sage visited the king and prophesied that the infant would grow up to become either a great ruler or great spiritual leader. The idea that his child might grow up to be a great spiritual leader troubled his father who deeply desired that his son should inherit his throne and become a great ruler. So he decided to arrange Siddhartha's life in such a way as to ensure that Siddhartha would desire to become a king, and minimize the chances that he would want to become a holy man. Thus, in order that he would acquire the many desires that could only be satisfied by a kingly lifestyle, Siddhartha grew up with all of the luxuries of palace life, was highly trained in the arts of leadership & horsemanship, and in due time married to a lovely princess, to whom a son was born. Simultaneously, young Siddhartha was deliberately sheltered from those aspects of life that would naturally cause him to start asking the deeper questions about the meaning of life and death. Nor was he told much about the lives of sages and wandering holy men.
For many years, all seemed to be going well with his father's plan. But, one day when Siddhartha was about 29 years old, he was traveling outside of the palace, when he unexpectedly came upon what has since become famously known as "The Four Sights". Perhaps he was in a much higher, more sensitive state of consciousness than usual, because the four sights that he saw caused him to question the meaning of life and the existence of human suffering in a much deeper, more profound way than usual. Here's what happened. First, he came across someone who was suffering from a severe illness. This caused him to wonder about the frailty of human existence. He pondered something like this: "If life has a sacred purpose, then why is sickness, and the suffering it brings, so much a part of life?" He was affected deeply by it. A short time later he came upon the "Second Sight" - an elderly person who was exceptionally weak and crippled with age and suffering accordingly. So now, Siddartha began pondering the inevitability of old age and the mysterious decline of human strength as one enters old age, and the severe suffering which often accompanies it. Then, a little further on they came upon the "Third Sight" - a funeral procession that was carrying the body of a dead person on a funeral bier and the people accompanying it who were all suffering from grief. The sight of it shocked him into contemplating the inevitable death of every human being, including those who were near and dear to him, as well as his own mortality. Likewise, he wondered why the suffering of grief accompanying the inevitable death of a loved one. So these three "Sights" caused him to ponder the source of all this suffering in the world, which illness, old age, and death brings to so many people. And since Siddhartha was an unusually deep, sensitive, kind, thoughtful young man, these three "sights" of course awakened within him some of the very deepest questions anyone can ask about the meaning and purpose of life, such as "Why is there so much suffering in life?"; "Why are we born only to die?"; "Is there life after death?"; and "What is the ultimate meaning and purpose of life?"
Pondering upon these eternal questions, it now seemed to him that life would be empty and meaningless unless he could discover the answers to them. But where could he even hope to find such answers? It was then that they came upon the last of "The Four Sights": a wandering holy man. Since Siddhartha had been sheltered from learning very much about holy men, he asked his princely attendant why someone would become one. When he discovered that holy men contemplate the deepest spiritual questions concerning the meaning, purpose and mysteries of life, suffering, death and the hereafter, Siddhartha began to consider the idea of also trying to find the answers to these deepest of all questions by following a similar path of spiritual inquiry.
Thus, these "Four Sights" and the questions that arose within him at their sight, became the profound turning point in his life. From this point on he had to find out the true, underlying cause of human suffering, and how it can be alleviated.
Siddhartha now realizes that for him, life would always have an unbearable emptiness and futility to it, unless he truly understands its real purpose and meaning. And he could see that he was not going to learn these ultimate truths by living the same kind of life of a prince that he had been living. But how would he do it? He knew that his dear wife and father would not want him to leave the palace in search of these deep spiritual truths. So what could he do? Upon deep consideration, and knowing that his princess wife and son would be taken good care of in the palace, he kisses his sleeping wife and little son goodbye one night without awakening them, quietly leaves the palace without being seen, and enters into the life of a wondering holy man. This since has become known as "The Great Departure". Thus, all of his father's carefully laid plans and precautions to prevent him from becoming a holy man had been in vain, and the divine plan unfolded as it was meant to be. Now the stage was set for the alternative part of the great sage's prophecy to be fulfilled: that Siddhartha Gautama would become a great world spiritual teacher.
Siddhartha now launches into a deep, sustained study of his own inner spiritual nature. He spends the next few years traveling with fellow Hindu religious ascetics; studying various spiritual teachings, and practicing various spiritual techniques and austerities, including a rather extreme form of fasting. In fact, he was so sincere in his fasting, that he was now dying of starvation, despite the fact that it was not resulting in any kind of increased spiritual awareness. Faced with imminent death, he now begins to ponder the futility of these various extreme austerities that he has been practicing for so long, and is forced to face the fact that these fanatical beliefs and practices have not resulted in any kind of spiritual awakening or understanding. They have only damaged his health and distracted him from more fruitful spiritual practices. At this point, a compassionate village girl notices the starving ascetic and offers a bowl of food to him. Realizing that he has more to gain from eating the food and living, than dying of starvation still far from his goal of complete spiritual awakening, he gratefully accepts the food, which saves his life. And from this moment forward, he starts living a more balanced approach to spirituality, which avoids the two extremes that are so common in life. The first extreme is that of unbridled selfish indulgence in worldly pleasures, or at the very least wasting one's time wishing one could indulge in such a life. The second extreme is the pitfall which is sometimes encountered by deeply sincere spiritual aspirants whose zeal may exceed their wisdom: extreme fanaticism and asceticism. By avoiding these two extremes and living a more balanced and more fruitful common sense approach to spirituality Siddhartha began to evolve the teachings that later would be known as "The Middle Way".
It now has been six years since he left the palace seeking a deep understanding of some of the world's great spiritual questions, and at the age of 35, the stage is now set for his full spiritual awakening and enlightenment. He has been sitting for 49 days under a tree meditating, and that night, he finds himself becoming aware of a profound transcendent spiritual consciousness gradually expanding within him. But there's a problem. He's simultaneously being attacked by dark forces that are trying to prevent his full spiritual awakening. For several hours he is assaulted by dark forces, including being presented with various temptations that would prevent his full awakening, if he gave in to them. But he overcomes them all and awakens into the fully Enlightened state of his own "Buddha Nature". (This moment, when he completely frees himself from these attacks and fully awakens into his Buddha Nature, is often illustrated in sculpture and painting by showing him seated cross-legged in the "lotus posture" and touching the ground with his right hand.) Thenceforth, he is known as "the Buddha", which means the "Awakened" or "Enlightened" One. He is also sometimes referred to as "Shakyamuni Buddha, which means "The Awakened One of the Shakya Clan", since his father had been king of the Shakya nation. And the tree under which he was meditating has since become known as the "Bodhi Tree", which means the "tree of spiritual awakening". He now has a deep inner intuitive understanding of the true cause of human suffering, and is now fully aware of the spiritual path that leads out of suffering and into the bliss of awakening into one's own "Buddha Nature" - the bliss of "nirvana". (The word "nirvana" means "to extinguish the flame" and it refers to the deep inner peace and blissful contentment that comes when we finally remove the last of the selfish desires and attachments which burn so strongly within us.)
In his newly awakened state it is now obvious to him that this blissful inner spiritual consciousness is not meant just for him, but is the birthright of everyone on earth. And since most of humanity are still in ignorance of this blissful, peaceful contentment (nirvana) that can be found within each one's heart, he realizes that he must share his new found understanding with others of like mind and interest. So he walks to Sarnath, on the banks of the Ganges River, and in a deer park he finds his five previous companions with whom he had practiced extreme asceticism. They are amazed at his transformation. A calm, blissful, peaceful contentment now radiates from him and they feel spiritually uplifted just to be in his presence. He kindly shares with them his teachings on the "Four Noble Truths" and the "Eightfold Path" which are his spiritual insights or "Dharma" which embodies the message of loving kindness, benevolence, compassion, harmlessness, selflessness, detachment and contemplative meditation. They love what they are hearing and experiencing and instantly become his lifelong disciples.
From this point on he spends his life traveling all over the Ganges Plains of North India sharing his teachings with everyone who wants to learn, and gradually a large number of people become his followers. As this community of followers grows he begins giving specific rules for monks and nuns to follow, as well as more general rules for everyone else. As the years go by, this community of followers, the "Sangha", becomes ever larger, until finally after teaching for 45 years, the time comes for the Buddha to leave earthly life behind him.
According to one branch of Mahayana Buddhism, the night before the Buddha was to leave this earthly life behind him, he gave forth one of the most important of all his sermons. This is now known as the Mahaparinirvana Sutra. There are two basic versions of this sermon. In the Mahayana version of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra the Buddha explains that we all have a Higher Self, the Tathagathagarbha or Atman, which is eternal and perfect and which is one with the Infinite "Buddha Nature" which pervades the Cosmos at all levels and in all realms. This Higher Self or Tathagathagarbha is referred to as the "Atman" or "Atma" in Hindu spiritual teachings; as the "I AM Presence" in the Ascended Master teachings; and as the "Higher Self" or "Christ Self" in some New Age teachings.
After he delivers this sermon, which summarizes all of the most important elements of his teachings, he leaves his physical body behind him (his physical body dies) and he enters into Parinirvana. Parinirvana, the "Great Nirvana", is only achieved when you no longer need to re-embody on the earth. This is achieved once you have learned all of the important earthly lessons; have let go of all selfish desires, thoughts, feelings, words, actions and attachments; have become an embodiment of loving kindness and compassion to all life everywhere; and have rendered a sufficient quantity and quality of selfless service to others. Once you have achieved this level of spiritual advancement, you are now forever free of all future earthly embodiments. In other spiritual paths this concept is often termed "reaching liberation"; "achieving moksha" (a Hindu term); "graduating"; or as it is explained in the Ascended Master teachings you have "Ascended" or have achieved the "Ascension".
To learn about the teachings of the Buddha, please click here: The Teachings of the Buddha.
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