Buddha or ‘the enlightened one’ is the name given to Siddhartha Gautama who was born a prince in the royal Shakya clan. Gautama’s year of birth is estimated to be about 583 BC at a place called Lumbini in today’s Nepal.
The religion of Buddhism came to be founded based on the Buddha’s teachings. It is said that he practiced a form of meditation known as Vipassana to attain enlightenment after many years of hard penance. Most images of the Buddha portray him in a serene meditating posture radiating inner peace and contentment.
Today, Vipassana or mindfulness meditation is associated mainly with the Theravada branch of Buddhism. In this article, we provide a brief summary of the Buddha’s life and path to enlightenment.
The Early Life of the Buddha
Prince Siddhartha was raised amidst great luxury but he was shielded from human suffering and religion. This was because a learned man had prophesied that the boy would become either a great spiritual master or military conqueror. So Siddhartha grew up with little knowledge or experience about the wide world outside the palace walls.
Exposure to Reality
One day when he was about 29 years old, Siddhartha went on a ride in his kingdom. He saw sights such as such as an old man, a sick person, a funeral procession and an ascetic. Siddhartha thus got exposed to the harsh realities of life such as old age, sickness and death. From then on, the prince lost interest in the luxuries of palace life.
He began to think about the meaning and purpose of existence. One night, he renounced his princely life and left the palace to seek knowledge and enlightenment.
Siddhartha met many renowned teachers and learnt religious philosophies and how to meditate. But still he was not satisfied as the questions in his mind remained unanswered. He performed extreme austerities and almost starved himself to death. Even these measures did not fetch him the desired results. So he resorted to a middle path between the extremes.
Now, Siddhartha sought to nourish himself physically to become strong enough to liberate himself. He realised that enlightenment could only be achieved by disciplining his mind.
Siddhartha sought refuge under a fig (Bodhi) tree to meditate deeply. His efforts were disturbed by a demon named Mara, who represents the emotions that delude and snare us. Siddhartha persevered bravely and was finally able to overcome all his mental obstacles. He became enlightened under the Bodhi tree and came to be known from then on as the Buddha.
The Buddha’s compassion for fellow humans motivated him to start teaching spiritual practices to enable lay persons to attain enlightenment. He attracted many followers including his wife Yasodhara who became his disciple and started life as a nun. Even his young son Rahula became a Buddhist monk and accompanied his father.
The Buddha traveled tirelessly and preached his noble doctrines and precepts till his death at the age of 80. His last words to his followers emphasized the impermanence of all things. He exhorted them to work hard and persevere to attain salvation.
Relevance of Buddhism Today
Buddhism offers many techniques such as Vipassana and Zen meditation for the harried modern man to obtain inner peace, contentment and happiness. By being mindful of our physical sensations and thoughts we can gain deep insights about our true nature. The Buddha’s teachings and meditation methods continue to be relevant and important even today.Images by AlicePopkorn and Nieve44/Luz.