Birth and Early Life
The future Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, was born in about 2,500 years ago in present-day Nepal. Siddhartha was born the son of an elected King. Early texts suggest that Siddhartha was not familiar with the dominant religious teachings of his time until he left on his religious quest.
By tradition, Siddhartha was destined by birth to the life of a price and had three palaces for seasonable occupation. Siddhartha’s father shielded Siddhartha from religious teachings and from knowledge of human suffering in order to prepare him to be a great king one day.
At the age of 16, Siddhartha entered into an arranged marriage. Siddhartha spent his first 29 years of life as a prince. While his father provided everything he could want or need, the future Buddha felt that material wealth was not life’s ultimate goal.
Renunciation and Ascetic Life
At the age of 29, Siddhartha left his palace walls to tour the countryside and meet his subjects. Despite his father’s efforts to shelter him from the sick, age and suffering, Siddhartha was said to have seen an old man.
When Siddhartha’s servant guide explained to him that all people grew old, the Siddhartha went on further trips beyond the palace. On these he encountered a diseased man and a decaying corpse. These sightings depressed him. Siddhartha decided to permanently leave the palace and renounce his life of luxury.
The Search for Enlightenment
Siddhartha initially went to a nearby city and began living an ascetic life (pain and self-mortification) by begging for alms in the street. Siddhartha attempted to end his suffering through extreme physical discipline such as enduring pain, holding his breath almost to the point of suffocation, and fasting nearly to starvation. Yet Siddhartha was still unsatisfied.
Eventually Siddhartha left the city to practice various forms of yoga and meditation under master teachers. Siddhartha was able to achieve a high level of meditative consciousness but was he was not satisfied, and so moved on.
At the age of 35, Siddhartha realized that contemplative mediation was the right path to awakening but that extreme asceticism didn’t work. It occurred to Siddhartha that extreme asceticism (pain and self-mortification) was simply the opposite of pleasure. Now Siddhartha considered a non-ascetic Middle Way between those two extremes.
This is described as a path of moderation between the two extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. After 49 days of meditation under a fig tree, Siddhartha obtained enlightenment and became known as the Buddha aka the “Awakened One” or the “Enlightened One.”
The Buddha as a Teacher and Later Years
Immediately after Buddha’s awakening, he was unsure whether or not he should teach the path to inner peace to others. He was concerned that people were so overpowered by ignorance, greed and hatred that they could never recognize the path, which is subtle, deep and hard to grasp.
However, whether on his own or by the convincing of others, the Buddha relented and agreed to teach with the hope that at least some will understand.
For the remaining 45 years of his life, the Buddha traveled the northern India and southern Nepal region teaching a diverse range of people. This wide range included nobles to servants, murders and even cannibals. At his death, the Buddha is famously believed to have told his disciples to follow no leader.
Some 2,500 years later, the Buddha’s teachings remain significant for many people throughout the world. Although Buddha left no written records of his teachings, his devoted disciples accurately preserved them by memorizing them and passing the teachings down orally from generation to generation.
Buddhism is now the world’s 4th largest religion with almost half a billion followers representing almost 10% of the world population.