Gautama Buddha is the historical personage referred to when people speak of Lord Buddha or simply the Buddha. However, according to Buddhist thought, there is in fact an infinite stream of Buddhas who manifest according to the different phases of reality from the distant past of the universe to the far future. Gautama Buddha is the Buddha who is manifested in the phase of the universe in which we live.
Buddhahood represents the state of having achieved enlightenment, and this enables the Buddha to demonstrate to others how to achieve nirvana, which is the state of enlightenment and the means of escaping from the otherwise eternal wheel of suffering caused by desire and represented by endless reincarnations.
Gautama Buddha’s Early Life
The great majority of Asian Buddhists accept the reality of Gautama Buddha and see little value in establishing more accurate details. Buddha’s teachings were passed from monk to apprentice orally for some centuries, so it is possible for some errors to have entered into the canon.
The only source of contention about historical details has been the dispute over the dates of Gautama Buddha’s life, which are generally taken to be c. 563–483 b.c.e., but are believed to be c. 448–368 b.c.e. in Japan.
He was born into a high social position as a member of the Kshatriya, or warrior class, and his parents were royalty. His mother, Mahamaya, while carrying Guatama is said to have dreamt that the child would turn out to be either a universal ruler or a Buddha, depending on whether he remained at home or wandered abroad.
Mahamaya visited her parents in the last month of her pregnancy and, while passing through Lumbini Park, gave birth. A guru of the king attended the child and then proclaimed the Buddhahood as the child’s destiny.
On the child’s naming day, five days after birth, 108 Brahmans attended to predict the future and also to worship the baby, as his father and guru had already done. He was then named Siddhartha, meaning "One Who Has Achieved His Goal".
Two days after that Mahamaya died, and Gautama was raised by his father Suddhodana’s second wife, known as Mahapajapati Gotami. The family lived in Gautama, and the name was taken by Buddha as a personal designation, even though it was never his own name.
As a child, Gautama Buddha was pampered by his father and lived a life of luxury, in part because his father was reluctant to permit the boy to take up his destiny by wandering the world and preferred him to remain close by and become a universal, temporal ruler. Gautama was greatly interested in spiritual issues and at the age of seven was found in a jhani trance.
This incident formed the basis of one of Buddha’s early sermons. Even though Guatama married the princess Yasodhara at the age of 16, his interest toward the spiritual and the ascetic never waned, although his marriage is believed to have been successful.
Buddha’s Great Renunciation
This peaceful life continued until the age of 29 when, traveling the countryside in the company of his charioteer, he encountered a sick man, a decrepit and aged man, and finally a corpse. In a fourth encounter, he observed a yellow-robed man going about his business with an air of serenity.
This coincided with the birth of Gautama’s son, whom he named Rahula (fetters), and he became determined to discover the secret by which the yellow-robed man was able to travel about the world apparently happily in the face of such misery.
This epiphanic event is referred to as the Four Great Signs. Buddha left his wife and son to travel the world to try to attain detachment from the suffering of the world. This act is known as the Great Renunciation, which refers to Buddha’s rejection of all his family, his previous worldly possessions, and ties.
Gautama wandered south into India and received teaching from a number of scholars. One of these was Alara Kalama, under whose tutelage Gautama achieved the mystical state known as the sphere of nothing, which he later recorded in one of his suttas.
This achievement was a significant one in spiritual terms, but the Buddha wanted to extend his learning until he was able to reach the ultimate state of nirvana, total enlightenment.
Consequently, he left his teacher and wandered further. During the next years Buddha found a peaceful environment at Uruvela and settled there to search for the truth. Five ascetics joined him, wishing to learn from him.
Gautama sought enlightenment through the extreme application of asceticism. He spoke of this time, later, as one in which extreme fasting made his bones protrude through his skin, while also facing the travails of other forms of self-mortification. Asceticism had long been an important strand of Indian religious thought.
However, it can be divisive in society because the number of people who are able to participate is necessarily limited, while others, especially women, are obliged to continue domestic duties to make sure that society as a whole can continue to function.
When Buddha ultimately rejected asceticism, he effectively ensured that Buddhism could inspire all members of society. Buddha’s retreat from extreme asceticism disappointed at least some of his early followers.
However, the path of moderation in all things became a central part of Buddhist teachings. Buddha rejected the course that had left him so weak that on one occasion he fainted and was believed to be dead. Afterward he ate according to a healthy regimen and also took care of his bodily health.
Buddha and The Four Noble Truths
Gautama entered a more productive search for enlightenment and eventually reached his goal. One morning he sat under a bodhi tree and resolved not to leave his position until he reached nirvana. It is recorded that this search involved a lengthy and difficult battle with the evil spirit Mara and his many minions. The Jatakas are the scriptures that describe Buddha’s previous lives prior to the incarnation in which he finally reached nirvana.
They record the many virtuous works that Gautama Buddha completed, which meant that he accumulated many virtues that were transferred to him in his battle with Mara. They included the great virtues, or paramitas, which include patience, diligence, meditation, and transcendent wisdom. Buddha subsequently taught these to his followers.
Armed with the paramitas, Gautama Buddha was able to resist the evil one, and by demonstrating close understanding of Mara’s armies and weapons he was able to defeat them.
This enabled him to concentrate on the Four Noble Truths, which are that existence is suffering, which is caused by the nature of desire for impermanent things of the universe, that the suffering can be defeated nevertheless, and that it is the noble eightfold path which provides the means by which that victory can be achieved.
The path requires right thinking, doing, speaking, and understanding. People should at all times be mindful of the existence of other people and things of the world and avoid committing any offense against the path toward nirvana, while also not hindering others from their own paths. These realizations enabled Gautama Buddha to achieve enlightenment under the bodhi tree when he was 35 years old.
Disciples and The Spread of Buddhism
Having reached nirvana, Buddha spent several more weeks under the bodhi tree contemplating additional aspects of the universe and of philosophy. He was persuaded to undertake a life of teaching and instruction, in part as a result of the intervention of the divine Sahampati.
Buddha was initially reluctant to leave his position, but he acquiesced and then sought to convert others, including those ascetics who had previously rejected his teachings.
The five ascetics embraced Buddha’s teachings and became disciples of his: They were the first monks, and their conversion marks the beginnings of the sangha, the monkhood that supports Buddhism and has come to be part of the triple gems that underlie a Buddhist society.
Buddhism is now followed in most countries of eastern Asia, particularly in Japan, Korea, China, Thailand, and mainland Southeast Asia, and also in countries that have been Islamized. In the modern age Buddhism has spread to Western countries as well.
The early disciples also had the opportunity to achieve enlightenment. Buddha joined them by traveling and seeking out those who would listen to his message. As was customary for those who had become enlightened, he accepted charity and food from people.
When he returned to his hometown, his father was unhappy with the path that his son had chosen but relented his initial resistance, and peace was made. Many members of the palace were converted, and several of his family members were ordained into the sangha. Buddha was invited to the capital of the Kosala kingdom, where its ruler built a monastery for him. Buddha also attracted enemies.
Among the many different religious beliefs of northern India, some were unhappy with the success of the Buddha’s teachings and sought to challenge his authenticity. However, the success of conversions greatly outweighed those of any religious opposition.
By the age of 80 Buddha had presided over the creation of an efficient sangha and could contemplate a growing number of followers. He undertook his last journey accompanied by a small number of followers.
Wherever he went, the Buddha lived simply, accepting the charity of people and speaking to them about the path to enlightenment. In the village of Beluva he became seriously ill.
He recovered from the immediate illness, although was still in a frail condition. Knowing that his end was near, Gautama Buddha announced that he planned to die after three months and set about arranging his last affairs and his final messages for his disciples. When all this had been achieved, he died.