Gautama was born in northern India about 2500 years ago. The exact place of his birth is understood to be the Lumbini garden, which nowadays lies just inside the border of the Himalayan Kingdom of Nepal.
Gautama’s father, Suddhodana, was the ruler of the tiny kingdom of the Sakyas. Naturally, he was delighted to have an heir who could follow him on to the throne. Naturally he was not very pleased when a wise man predicted, upon seeing the new arrival, that if he did not become a great world ruler he would become a great religious teacher.
King Suddhodana knew that it would be experience of the hard, painful things of life that would turn Gautama’s mind in the direction of religion, so he did everything in his power to keep them out of the young prince’s life. Gautama was thus brought up in a sealed world of security and luxury. He lived in beautiful palaces, wore clothes of the most splendid materials, ate only the finest foods, and was generally entertained and waited upon in the best style.
Gautama grew up and eventually married a young princess, Yasodhara, who bore him a son, Rahula. One day, however, he persuaded his groom, Channa, to drive him down to the nearby town, where he had not been till then. In all, he was to make four trips to the town which were to totally change his life. On the first trip, he met an old man, on the second a sick man, and on the third he met a party of people carrying a corpse to the cremation ground. Not having seen old age, sickness and death before, he was naturally deeply shocked. In fact so shocked that palace life was no longer pleasant or even bearable for him. He became very concerned with the fact of suffering and with finding a way of ending it. On a fourth trip to the town, he came upon a possible way of finding an answer to his problem. He met an ascetic, a holy man: one who had given up everything to follow the religious life. Despite having nothing, this man radiated a calmness that suggested to Gautama that he had somehow come to terms with the unpleasant fact of suffering.
So Gautama decided to follow the example of the ascetic. He slipped out of the palace in the dead of night, exchanged his splendid silken robe for the simple orange one of a holy man, and cut off all his beautiful black hair. Then, carrying nothing but an alms bowl for people to put food in, he set off on his great search.
Gautama went to all the most famous religious teachers of his day and learned all they had to teach. In the process, he subjected his body to great hardship and torment. He lived in terrifying forests, burning in the heat of the midday sun and freezing at night; he slept on beds of thorns; sometimes he lived in cemeteries; he starved himself until he became so thin that if he touched his stomach he could feel his backbone. But still he could not find an answer to his fundamental problem and he realised that if he kept on that way he would probably die before finding one.
He therefore decided on a Middle Way between luxury and austerity. He took a little food much to the disgust of his fellow ascetics, who promptly left him. Then he sat himself on the immovable spot under a great Bo tree at a place nowadays called Bodh Gaya. He was determined to sit there until he found an answer or die trying.
During the night of the full moon of May, Gautama passed into deep meditation and gained various kinds of new knowledge. He saw into his past lives; he saw how karma works (karma means volitional action: action done by choice or conscious decision; it has inevitable effects – good actions produce good results, bad actions produce bad results); he also saw how to overcome desire, attachment to existence and clinging to false or fixed views. Finally, as the morning star rose, he awakened as from a dream and could declare: ‘It is liberated . . . birth is exhausted, the Holy Life has been lived out, what was to be done has been done, there is no more to come . . .’ He was Gautama no more but The Buddha The Awakened One. He had seen things as they really are. Sometimes he is spoken of as having attained Nirvana. Nirvana is – the extinction of greed, the extinction of hate, the extinction of delusion. Its true nature cannot be put into words; a person must know it for himself in his own heart.
At first the Buddha was reluctant to tell other people about what he had discovered. He felt they would not understand. He was persuaded, however, that there were some ‘with but a little dust in their eyes’ who might benefit from being told. He therefore went to Isipatana (modern Sarnath, near Benares) where he delivered his first sermon in a deer park. Thus began a forty-five year teaching career.
The Buddha taught all classes, conditions and types of men and women, and, indeed, all beings. The way that he taught is often called The Middle Way, because it teaches that we should try and keep to a middle path between all extremes. Soon the Buddha gathered around himself a following ready to give up everything to hear his teachings and put them into practice. Thus was born the Sangha: the community of Buddhist monks and nuns, which from the start was supported by a large lay community.
As a man, the Buddha’s life had eventually to end. He passed away when he was about 80 at Kushinara. Naturally, his followers were deeply grieved. His final words to them were: ‘Impermanent are all compounded things. Strive on heedfully.’ Afterwards, he passed into what Buddhists call his parinirvana or Full nirvana, a state that can no more be conveyed in words than his first Nirvana.
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