- Light of Asia (by Sir Edwin Arnold, Online pdf book)
"In the Buddha you see clearly a man, simple, devout, lonely, battling for light — a vivid human personality, not a myth. He too gave a message to mankind universal in character. Many of our best modern ideas are in closest harmony with it. All the miseries and discontents are due, he taught, to selfishness. Before a man can become serene he must cease to live for his senses or himself. Then he merges into a great being. Buddha in different language called men to self-forgetfulness 500 years before Christ. In some ways he is nearer to us and our needs. He was more lucid upon our individual importance and service than Christ and less ambiguous upon the question of personal immortality."
For the first time in the history of the world, Buddhism proclaimed a salvation which each individual could gain from him or herself, in this world, during this life, without any least reference to God, or to gods either great or small.
It is always a question of knowing and seeing, and not that of believing. The teaching of the Buddha is qualified as ehi-passika, inviting you to ‘come and see’, but not to come and believe.
Excerpt from 'The Buddha and His Dhamma' by Bhikkhu Bodhi
Each of the major events in the Buddha's life gives us a specific object lesson in his teaching.
First, the Bodhisatta's awakening to the harsh realities of human existence — his discovery of our bondage to old age, illness, and death — teaches us the importance of deep reflection and critical thinking. His awakening reflects back to us the somnambulance in which we usually live, mired in our pleasures and petty concerns, oblivious to the "great affair" staring us in the face at every moment of our lives. His awakening reminds us that we ourselves must emerge from the comfortable but dangerous cocoon of ignorance in which we have settled down; that we must break away from our thoughtless infatuation with our youth, health, and vitality; that we must rise to a new level of mature understanding which will enable us to triumph in our inevitable encounter with the Lord of Death.
The Bodhisatta's departure from the palace, his "great renunciation," teaches us a lesson in values. It shows us that from among the wide range of values which we can draw upon to give order to our lives, the quest for enlightenment and liberation should reign supreme. This goal ranks far above the pleasure, wealth, and power to which we ordinarily give priority, even above the call of social duty and mundane responsibilities. This does not mean, of course, that everyone who wants to follow the Buddha's path must be ready to leave behind home and family and adopt the lifestyle of a monk or nun. The Buddha's community of disciples included many householders as well as monks, devout laymen and laywomen who attained high levels of awakening while living active lives within the world. But the Buddha's example does show us that we must all order our values according to a scale which gives the highest place to the most worthy goal, to that which is also the most real of all realities, Nibbana; and we should never allow the claims of mundane obligations to pull us away from pursuing our aspiration.
Next, the Bodhisatta's six years of struggle shows us that the quest for the highest goal is a strenuous undertaking that calls for deep dedication and unrelenting effort. Fortunately for us, the Bodhisatta found that the practice of self-mortification is a fruitless exercise, and thus we need not follow him in this direction. But his uncompromising pursuit of truth underscores the degree of effort that the quest for enlightenment requires, and those who seek such a goal in full earnestness must be ready to submit to a difficult and demanding course of training.
The Buddha's enlightenment teaches us that ultimate wisdom and deliverance from suffering is a real potential inherent in human beings, one we can realize for ourselves without the aid or grace of an external savior. His enlightenment also highlights the ideal of sensible moderation, "the middle way," which has characterized Buddhism throughout its long history. The quest for truth may be a difficult undertaking, one which makes harsh demands on us, but it does not ask us to subject ourselves to penance and self-punishment. Final victory is to be won, not by tormenting the body, but by developing the mind, and this takes place through a course of training that balances care for the body with the cultivation of our higher spiritual faculties.
The decision the Buddha made after his enlightenment brings home another lesson to us. At this critical juncture, when he was faced with the choice of either keeping his enlightenment to himself or taking up the challenge of teaching others, the mandate of compassion prevailed in his heart. Leaving behind the quietude of the forest, he took upon himself the burden of guiding errant humanity along the path to liberation. It was the Buddha's compassionate example that motivated Buddhist monks and nuns to travel across seas, mountains, and deserts, at the risk of their lives, to share the blessings of the Dhamma with those still lost in darkness. It is this example that inspires many Buddhists today, in a wide variety of ways, even when they can express their compassion only in humble acts of kindness and tender concern for those less fortunate than themselves.
Finally, the Buddha's passing away, his attainment of final Nibbana, teaches us once again that everything conditioned must perish, that all formations are impermanent, that even the greatest of spiritual masters is no exception to the very law he so often proclaimed. His passing away also teaches us that the highest bliss and peace comes only by relinquishing all, through the stilling of all conditioned things. For this is the final entrance way to the attainment of the unconditioned, the Deathless, Nibbana
On the full moon day of May, in the year 623 B.C. there was born in the Lumbini Park at Kapilavatthu, on the Indian borders of present Nepal, a noble prince who was destined to be the greatest religious teacher of the world.
His father was King Suddhodana of the aristocratic Sākya clan and his mother was Queen Mahā Māyā. As the beloved mother died seven days after his birth, Mahā Pajāpati Gotami, her younger sister, who was also married to the King, adopted the child, entrusting her own son, Nanda, to the care of the nurses.
On the fifth day after the prince's birth he was named Siddhattha which means "wish fulfilled". His family name was Gotama.
As a Royal child, Prince Siddhattha must have received an education that became a prince although no details are given about it. As a scion of the warrior race he received special training in the art of warfare.
At the early age of sixteen, he married his beautiful cousin Princess Yasodharā who was of equal age. For nearly thirteen years, after his happy marriage, he led a luxurious life, blissfully ignorant of the vicissitudes of life outside the palace gates.
With the march of time, truth gradually dawned upon him. His contemplative nature and boundless compassion did not permit him to spend his time in the mere enjoyment of the fleeting pleasures of the Royal palace. He knew no personal grief but he felt a deep pity for suffering humanity. Amidst comfort and prosperity, he realized the universality of sorrow.
Prince Siddhattha reflected thus:"Why do I, being subject to birth, decay, disease, death, sorrow and impurities, thus search after things of like nature. How, if I, who am subject to things of such nature, realize their disadvantages and seek after the unattained, unsurpassed, perfect security which is Nibbāna!" "Cramped and confined is household life, a den of dust, but the life of the homeless one is as the open air of heaven! Hard is it for him who bides at home to live out as it should be lived the Holy Life in all its perfection, in all its purity."
One glorious day as he went out of the palace to the pleasure park to see the world outside, he came in direct contact with the stark realities of life. Within the narrow confines of the palace he saw only the rosy side of life, but the dark side, the common lot of mankind, was purposely veiled from him. What was mentally conceived, he, for the first time, vividly saw in reality.
Realizing the worthlessness of sensual pleasures, so highly prized by the worldling, and appreciating the value of renunciation in which the wise seek delight, he decided to leave the world in search of Truth and Eternal Peace.
When this final decision was taken after much deliberation, the news of the birth of a son was conveyed to him while he was about to leave the park. Contrary to expectations, he was not overjoyed, but regarded his first and only offspring as an impediment.
The palace was no longer a congenial place to the contemplative Prince Siddhattha. Neither his charming young wife nor his lovable infant son could deter him from altering the decision he had taken to renounce the world. He was destined to play an infinitely more important and beneficial role than a dutiful husband and father or even as a king of kings. The allurements of the palace were no more cherished objects of delight to him. Time was ripe to depart.
Great was his compassion for the two dear ones at this parting moment. Greater was his compassion for suffering humanity. He was not worried about the future worldly happiness and comfort of the mother and child as they had everything in abundance and were well protected. It was not that he loved them the less, but he loved humanity more.
Leaving all behind, he stole away with a light heart from the palace at midnight, and rode into the dark, attended only by his loyal charioteer. Alone and penniless he set out in search of Truth and Peace. Thus did he renounce the world. It was not the renunciation of an old man who has had his fill of worldly life.
It was not the renunciation of a poor man who had nothing to leave behind. It was the renunciation of a prince in the full bloom of youth and in the plenitude of wealth and prosperity -- a renunciation unparalleled in history. It was in his twenty-ninth year that Prince Siddhattha made this historic journey.
He journeyed far and, crossing the river Anomā, rested on its banks. Here he shaved his hair and beard and handing over his garments and ornaments to Channa (charioteer) with instructions to return to the palace, assumed the simple yellow garb of an ascetic and led a life of voluntary poverty.
The ascetic Siddhattha, who once lived in the lap of luxury, now became a penniless wanderer, living on what little the charitably-minded gave of their own accord.
He had no permanent abode. A shady tree or a lonely cave sheltered him by day or night. Bare-footed and bare-headed, he walked in the scorching sun and in the piercing cold. With no possessions to call his own, but a bowl to collect his food and robes just sufficient to cover the body, he concentrated all his energies on the quest of Truth.
Having left behind his home and family, the Bodhisatta or "seeker of enlightenment" (as he is now called) headed south for Magadha (present-day Bihar), in whose environs small groups of seekers were quietly pursuing their quest for spiritual illumination, usually under the guidance of a guru. At the time northern India could boast of a number of accomplished masters famous for their philosophical systems and achievements in meditation. Prince Siddhattha sought out two of the most eminent, Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta. From them he learned systems of meditation which, from the descriptions in the texts, seem to have been forerunners of Raja Yoga. The Bodhisatta mastered their teachings and systems of meditation, but though he reached exalted levels of concentration (samadhi), he found these teachings insufficient, for they did not lead to the goal he was seeking: perfect enlightenment and the realization of Nibbana, release from the sufferings of sentient existence.
Having left his teachers, the Bodhisatta adopted a different path, one that was popular in ancient India and still has followers today: the path of asceticism, of self-mortification, pursued in the conviction that liberation is to be won by afflicting the body with pain beyond its normal levels of endurance. For six years the Bodhisatta followed this method with unyielding determination. He fasted for days on end until his body looked like a skeleton cloaked in skin; he exposed himself to the heat of the midday sun and the cold of the night; he subjected his flesh to such torments that he came almost to the door of death. Yet he found that despite his persistence and sincerity these austerities were futile. Later he would say that he took the path of self-mortification further than all other ascetics, yet it led, not to higher wisdom and enlightenment, but only to physical weakness and the deterioration of his mental faculties.
The ascetic Gotama was now fully convinced from personal experience of the utter futility of self-mortification which, though considered indispensable for Deliverance by the ascetic philosophers of the day, actually weakened one's intellect, and resulted in lassitude of spirit. He abandoned for ever this painful extreme as did he the other extreme of self-indulgence which tends to retard moral progress. He conceived the idea of adopting the Golden Mean which later became one of the salient features of his teaching, one which balanced proper care of the body with sustained contemplation and deep investigation. He would later call this path "the middle way" because it avoids the extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification. He had experienced both extremes, the former as a prince and the latter as an ascetic, and he knew they were ultimately dead ends.
To follow the middle way, however, he realized he would first have to regain his strength. Thus he gave up his practice of austerities and resumed taking nutritious food. At the time five other ascetics had been living in attendance on the Bodhisatta, hoping that when he attained enlightenment he would serve as their guide. But when they saw him partake of substantial meals, they became disgusted with him and left him, thinking the princely ascetic had given up his exertion and reverted to a life of luxury.
Now he was alone, and complete solitude allowed him to pursue his quest undisturbed. One day, when his physical strength had returned, he approached a lovely spot in Uruvela by the bank of the Nerañjara River. Here he prepared a seat of straw beneath an asvattha tree (later called the Bodhi Tree) and sat down cross-legged, making a firm resolution that he would never rise up from that seat until he had won his goal. As night descended he entered into deeper and deeper stages of meditation until his mind was perfectly calm and composed. Then, the records tell us, in the first watch of the night he directed his concentrated mind to the recollection of his previous lives. Gradually there unfolded before his inner vision his experiences in many past births, even during many cosmic aeons; in the middle watch of the night he developed the "divine eye" by which he could see beings passing away and taking rebirth in accordance with their karma, their deeds; and in the last watch of the night he penetrated the deepest truths of existence, the most basic laws of reality, and thereby removed from his mind the subtlest veils of ignorance. When dawn broke, the figure sitting beneath the tree was no longer a Bodhisatta, a seeker of enlightenment, but a Buddha, a Perfectly Enlightened One, one who had attained the Deathless in this very life itself.
For several weeks the newly awakened Buddha remained in the vicinity of the Bodhi Tree contemplating from different angles the Dhamma, the truth he had discovered. Then he came to a new crossroad in his spiritual career: Was he to teach, to try to share his realization with others, or should he instead remain quietly in the forest, enjoying the bliss of liberation alone?
At first his mind inclined to keeping quiet; for he thought the truth he had realized was just too deep for others to understand, too difficult to express in words, and he was concerned he would just weary himself trying to convey his realization to others.
The Buddha then gazed out upon the world with his profound vision. He saw that people are like lotuses in a pond at different stages of growth, and he understood that just as some lotuses close to the surface of the water need only the sun's rays to rise above the surface and fully blossom, so there are some people who need only to hear the noble teaching to win enlightenment and gain perfect liberation of mind. When he saw this his heart was stirred by deep compassion, and he decided to go back into the world and to teach the Dhamma to those who were ready to listen.
The first ones he approached were his former companions, the five ascetics who had deserted him a few months earlier and were now dwelling in a deer park at Sarnath near Benares. He explained to them the truths he had discovered, and on hearing his discourse they gained insight into the Dhamma, becoming his first disciples. In the months ahead his following grew by leaps and bounds as both householders and ascetics heard the liberating message, gave up their former creeds, and declared themselves disciples of the Enlightened One.
Each year, even into his old age, he would wander among the villages, towns, and cities of the Ganges plain, teaching all who would lend an ear; he would rest only for the three months of the rainy season, and then resume his wanderings, which took him from present Delhi even as far east as Bengal. He established a Sangha, an order of monks and nuns, for which he laid down an intricate body of rules and regulations; this order still remains alive today, perhaps (along with the Jain order) the world's oldest continuous institution. He also attracted many lay followers who became devoted supporters of the Master and his Sangha.
After an active ministry of forty-five years, at the ripe age of eighty, the Buddha headed for the northern town of Kusinara. There, surrounded by many disciples, he passed away into the "Nibbana element with no remainder of conditioned existence," severing forever his bondage to the round of rebirths.
 A pillar, erected at this sacred spot by King Asoka, still stands to this day to commemorate the event.