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5-08-2015, 23:16

The Birth of Buddhism

Siddhartha Gautama seemed to have everything anyone could possibly need. His father was King Suddhodana, a member of ancient India’s warrior class. Siddhartha lived in approximately the 500s BCE in Kapilavastu, located at the foot of the Himalayan Mountains in an area that is now Nepal.

The king wanted to protect his son from the woes of the world. Siddhartha grew up in a lavish palace and had everything he could possibly need or want. The king kept Siddhartha from learning about the troubles of life. He did not introduce Siddhartha to religion. The king married Siddhartha to a cousin at age 16. Siddhartha led a mostly secluded life. That changed in his late 20s.

One day, the young man traveled beyond his palace walls for the first time. He saw a sick man. The young prince had never seen a sick person before and asked his chariot driver about the man. The driver explained that everyone gets sick. Intrigued by

Early Buddhism avoided using images of the Buddha, but later followers across Asia created artwork depicting the Buddha.

what he had seen, the prince made three more trips to the world beyond his palace walls. Each time, he saw more scenes of suffering. He also saw death. These scenes were foreign to Siddhartha. His chariot driver explained that people get old and everyone faces death. Siddhartha realized this was his fate, too. Siddhartha also saw an ascetic, someone who lived very simply and strictly, avoiding physical pleasure in an attempt to achieve spiritual enlightenment. The chariot driver told Siddhartha the ascetic had given up the physical pleasures of the world, including food, possessions, and physical contact, in an effort to overcome the fear of suffering and death that humans often experience.

What Siddhartha experienced on his trips beyond his life of comfort affected him greatly. Siddhartha chose to adopt the ascetic lifestyle.

At age 29, the young prince walked away from his father, his beautiful home, and his wife and their son. Siddhartha explained the drastic change: “I had been wounded by the enjoyment of the world, and I had come out longing to obtain peace.”1

“There are countless stories of the Buddha. Each tradition, each culture, each time period has their own stories. We have lots of visual narratives and artwork from all over Buddhist Asia. But the first written material actually, the first biography say of the Buddha really we don’t see that before about 500 years after his death. For the first few centuries, Buddhist narrative was oral.”2

For six years, Siddhartha dedicated himself to his new life. He studied with religious teachers. He practiced yoga. He meditated. Still, Siddhartha did not reach the enlightenment he desired.

He joined five ascetics who practiced an extreme form of asceticism. The ascetics believed punishing themselves physically would give them peace and wisdom. Siddhartha lived without shelter, choosing instead to live in the elements. He sat in the cold and in the rain, spending his waking hours meditating. He ate almost nothing.

The five men were so impressed by Siddhartha’s devotion to his new way of life they became his disciples, or followers. Siddhartha, however, was still not satisfied.

Siddhartha nearly killed himself with his extreme form of asceticism, as shown in a modern artist's interpretation.

Siddhartha’s asceticism grew so extreme he ate as little as a single pea a day. One day, a girl offered Siddhartha a bowl of rice. When he agreed to take it, Siddhartha had an important realization: the physical harshness of asceticism was not the way to reach the spiritual goal he desired. He needed to embrace life, and by taking the rice, he did just that.

Siddhartha’s five followers thought he had given up on living an ascetic life and stopped following him. They believed he had chosen extravagance over simplicity. However, Siddhartha had not given up his quest. He realized he needed to turn his journey inward.


Siddhartha bathed in a river and then took shelter beneath the Bodhi tree, a sacred fig tree. He decided he would not leave the spot until he achieved enlightenment. He meditated. He saw his current life and previous lives. Siddhartha considered the entire universe. At last, answers emerged to the many questions about suffering he had spent years asking.

The Buddha's First Sermon

In his enlightenment, the Buddha realized his early life of luxury and his recent life of asceticism were not the answer to suffering. They were extremes. Enlightenment would come from living a lifestyle between the two, pursuing the middle way. He explained, “There are two ends not to be served by a wanderer. . . . The pursuit of desires and of the pleasure which springs from desire . . . and the pursuit of pain and hardship. The Middle Way . . . avoids both these ends. It is enlightened, it brings clear vision, it makes for wisdom, and leads to peace, insight, enlightenment, and Nirvana.”3

By morning, Siddhartha had a moment of pure enlightenment. He freed himself from the sufferings all humans faced and gained a new understanding of the universe. At that moment, Siddhartha became the Buddha, the awakened one.

The Buddha, now 35 years old, began teaching. Initially, he was hesitant. He knew it would be difficult to explain what he now understood. Still, he set out, walking more than 100 miles (160 km) before encountering the five ascetics who had once been his followers. In a deer park near Sarnath, which is near the Ganges River in India, the Buddha spoke to them, giving his first lesson. He shared what had happened to him.

The Buddha taught about suffering in principles known as the Four Noble Truths, which address what suffering is, its origin, its end, and the path to its end. The fourth Noble Truth, Magga, includes eight steps to ending suffering. The steps address conduct, meditation, and wisdom. Collectively, the steps make up the Eightfold Path, and this path is

the middle way the Buddha encouraged, avoiding the extremes of excess and denial. The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path became the foundation of Buddhism, a new religion based on the Buddha’s teachings.


For the next 45 years, the Buddha traveled and taught. At age 80, he accepted a meal of spoiled food. The food made him sick. He lay down in Kushinagar, in northeast India, and died.

Before dying, the awakened one told his followers to continue their Buddhist work. He spoke of dharma, Buddhism’s basic principle for existence:

It may be that after I am gone that some of you will think, “now we have no teacher" But that is not how you should see it. Let the Dharma and the discipline that I have taught you be your teacher. All individual things pass away. Strive on, untiringly.4