Who was The Buddha?
The Buddha was born as Siddhartha Gautama around 566 BC in the small kingdom of Kapilavastu on the Indian-Nepalese border. Siddhartha was born into a royal family and, by all accounts, the young prince enjoyed a privileged upbringing. At the age of 29, however, following his first extended foray outside the walls of his palace, Siddhartha was shaken out of his sheltered existence.
Witnessing the harsh realities of human existence firsthand, including the devastating effects of old age, sickness and death, had a profound effect on the young man. Siddhartha realized he was not immune to the same sorts of suffering as others. Now consumed with discovering the meaning of life, he decided to leave wealth and prestige behind and instead take up the traditional Indian path of the wandering holy man, a seeker after Truth.
In this role Siddhartha became very adept at the practice of meditation under various holy men. In his quest to understand the human experience and transcend bodily desires he also practiced asceticism, the belief that one could free the spirit by denying the flesh. To this end he sat in meditation for long periods of time and ate only roots, leaves and fruit, or sometimes nothing at all. In fact, Siddhartha was so determined to purify his spirit in this fashion that he almost starved to death.
Despite intensive meditation and bodily deprivation, however, Siddhartha was unable to find the satisfaction and purpose he searched for so relentlessly. True understanding seemed as far away as ever. It seemed that neither extreme of existence, a life of luxury nor a life of extreme denial, led to spiritual enlightenment. As a result, Siddhartha, left asceticism behind and instead focused on The Middle Way, a path away from all extremes.
Trusting his intuition, he resumed eating healthily and rededicated himself to the practice of meditation. Indeed, now nourished bodily, Siddhartha decided to nourish himself spiritually through intensive meditation. Sitting down beneath a Bodhi tree, he vowed to stay there until he discovered the truth he had been seeking for six long years. And after 40 days of deep meditation and searching his heart and mind, he finally found the answer.
At this point, Buddhists believe Siddhartha reached a state of being that transcends normal human experience, a state of enlightenment, whereby a person can become free from greed, hatred and ignorance. Siddhartha later spoke of this state of consciousness as one characterized by wisdom, compassion and complete freedom. He revealed that through meditation one can gain insight into the deepest workings of life and therefore into the cause of all suffering – human desires.
During the remaining 45 years of his life Siddhartha, now known as the Buddha, or ‘one who is awake’, traveled far and wide discussing the path to enlightenment. He and his followers practiced patience and compassion with all those they encountered. His teachings, known in the East as the Buddha-dharma or ‘teachings of the Enlightened One’, also emphasized the shedding of human suffering by eliminating greed and ignorance.
Perhaps most importantly, however, the Buddha taught that each of us can learn how to calm our minds and spirits and achieve abiding happiness. In the words of the Enlightened One, "all living beings have the Buddha nature and can become Buddhas". We are all capable of enlightenment and freedom from suffering if we follow the dharma and practice compassion.