The Early Life of Siddhartha Gautama

Siddhartha Gautama, or as he later became known, the Buddha, had an exceedingly strange birth into a very wealthy and powerful, and Hindu of course family. He was born in 563 BC in Lumbini, in what today would be the country of Nepal. His father, Shuddhodana, was a very powerful man, but not known is whether he was a noble or just high-class citizen of the Shakyas. Siddhartha's birth is shrouded in legend, and perhaps we will never know the exact truth about it. It is said that the Boddhisattva entered his mother Mahamaya's womb as a white elephant, from Tushita Heaven. The pregnancy lasted for 10 months, and when Siddhartha was finally born, he was born from his mother's side, standing! In fact, in his perfect birth he was born entirely clean but water still poured from the heavens to clean him and his mother. It is also said that upon being born, Siddhartha stands and walks perfectly with long steps 7 paces to the north, under a parasol from the gods, and affirms, "I am the chief in the world, I am the best in the world, I am the first in the world. This is my last birth. There is now no existence again." He was a very special child, and this was of course not his first birth. He had been able to reach his last through many cycles of death and rebirth, slowly reaching the highest, luckiest, most wondrous existence of all: to become a buddha.

Indeed, his birth was not the only thing special about this man. It is worth remembering that he lost his mother as a week-old infant, and his sister Mahapajapati would take care of him as his mother. Shortly, Asita, a sage, would come to Kapilavastu. When he saw Siddhartha, he was awe-struck at what he saw: no less than thirty-two special signs on this infant! He began to cry thereafter, and was asked why. To Shuddhodana's dismay, the reply was that there was nothing wrong with Siddhartha, but he (Asita) would not live to be able to learn from the wisdom that Siddhartha would eventually gain and teach. He would not be able to be enlightened by the Enlightened One, Buddha. Now of course, Shuddhodana decided to do the only thing that would make sense for him: shelter his son. Shuddhodana had his own plans for Siddhartha, and they did most certainly not involve him becoming a religious leader!

Shuddhodana was able to realize that to become such a great teacher, his son would have to see the negative aspects of life. He decided Siddhartha would have none of this: this child would be kept inside or very close, given his every desire, want, and whim. He would not experience real life, and not become a buddha, without having contact with reality. As he grew, and began to become independant, he would need to be guarded much more closely than the mere chaperones of his early childhood. And so he was built three marble palaces, each for one season. He was kept inside these buildings, spoiled with clothes, food, musicians, girls, and entertainers. He turned out to be amazingly well-rounded, and a great sportsman. He was able to beat the other suitors and marry his cousin Yashodhara at the age of sixteen. Eventually, at about twenty-nine, they did have a single child: a son named Rahula (but when that time came, he would be leaving).

The Path to Enlightenment

One day, after tiring of being held back and inside for so long and hearing of the real world but not experiencing it, Siddhartha decides to secretly (most likely) leave. He takes four journeys. On his first journey with his groom, Channa, they encounter an old man. On the second, they encounter a sick man. On the third, they see a dead man. However, the biggest effect is encountered the fourth time they leave: they will meet a sadhu. He was a wandering holy person, of the alternative shramana ways, rather than the popular brahmana. He was underwhelming, seeming very poor, but yet there was something special about him: he seemed to have a tranquillity and a lack of worry that others had.

Siddhartha now felt inner conflict: he was learning of a way to be free of suffering, but he would have to give up those that he loved! He had a strong force which he could not ignore, and he didn't. On the night when his son Rahula was born. He and Channa left silently on horse, and at a riverbank, parted. Siddhartha chopped off his hair and donned the robe of a wandering holy man, and left walking alone. He seeked the shramana teachers, Kalama and Ramaputra. He was the studious disciple of both of them, and he learned everything possible that they could teach him. Alas, though becoming much more knowledgeable, he left with the great spiritual problem still unsolved.

Siddhartha then went through many forms of asceticism in the jungle, because he thought that by forcing his physical self to suffer more and more, he could eventually overcome suffering. He caused physical suffering upon himself in many ways. He lived without clothing, he suffered both extreme heat and cold. He endured sharp pain of sharp things, and even at times held his breath till he passed out. He even starved himself for many a day, till he was really nothing more than skin and bones. The only thing he gained was the admiration of five other ascetics, who wished to join him. He was very weak, and very unhealthy, but not spiritually any better because of all of his suffering. He ate some, losing the respect of his followers, but of course enabling him to continue living. Siddhartha had gone from being pampered and sheltered to starving and abusing himself, and realized that neither life could fulfill him, instead, he thought that there could be a good compromise. Remember sitting under a tree as a child, and meditating, he pondered if this could be a way to Enlightenment. So this is what he tried: at present-day Bodh Gaya, India, he sat beneath the famous bodhi tree (ficus religiosa), and this would be his final attempt at Enlightenment. He would sit under this tree until either death or Enlightenment came to him. As he did this, Mara, the evil force, did his best to stop him, for he did not want anyone to learn the secrets of life and how to be safe from suffering. He tried to tantalize Siddhartha with demons, warriors, seductresses, and even attempting to lead him to the wrong path of thought. But of course, Siddhartha dejected Mara's ways and was victorious over evil as time passed. This can be analyzed to mean that he had inner struggles under the bodhi tree, that he had come close to giving in to his desires, to giving up, and to revert to being fearful. Another possibility of his stay under the tree, probably more believable, would be that he sat in vipassana, a state of meditation in which one could gain insight. For forty days he sat under the tree. At last, he awoke, and he was greater: he was no longer just Siddhartha Gautama, a son of a wealthy family whom he had given up, but Buddha, The Enlightened One.

His Enlightenment

The Buddha, as he now would be known, had learned many things under the bodhi tree. He had gained understanding of dharma and karma, reincarnation, and the world. He had knowledge of the asavas: sexual desire, desire for life, and ignorance. He saw the universe as a whole now: there are no individuals, but only an entire universe, a unity. Once attaining this Enlightenment, Buddha continued to meditate under the tree for yet longer, to live in the wonder and awe this awakening brought him. He didn't think it would be worth trying to share his knowledge since people are of course not willing to accept it. Eventually, though, he was "snapped out of it": the god Brahma Sahampati interrupted him, and gave him hope. This god told Buddha that there were those of us who are not too deluded, that can learn and benefit from the Buddha's deep universal knowledge.

He had a problem, at this point. He was told that indeed he would have followers and those who were ready to accept his teachings, but he did not have anyone he could think of that would want to accept his teachings... except his five ascetic followers who had shunned him earlier, when he had eaten so that he may continue living. He was able to find them, and they could tell he was a different man. They succumbed to their desire that they should follow him, so they did. While teaching his five first disciples, one of them, Kaundinya, understood immediately about the Four Noble Truths, the Middle Way, and the evils. He was pronounced the first bhikshu (Buddhist monk) to follow the way of Buddha. He wanted to share his enlightenment to more, so he wandered with his followers, to various places. He was not only the founder of a religion (or more accurately, the current re-founder of his time), but also quite a missionary and teacher to many. He converted an ascetic group Kshyapa, all of about 500 persons, to his Buddhism. He gained lay-persons, who did not wish to become monks or nuns, as well, for he did not disallow anyone, and he treated all equally. To his community, the sangha, he gained yet more followers from other disciples, he led both rich and poor. There was controversy, however, relating to one of his earlier misgivings: he was breaking up family bonds and teacher-student bonds. It was now that he also defined the religion more clearly. For instance, the ceremony in which one was accepted into the sangha required shaving one's hair, wearing the now-customary yellow robe, and repeating the Refuge. The Refuge was a simple enunciation of what could be defined as faith or trust, but is better described as acceptance of values, "I go for refuge to the Buddha; I go for refuge to the dharma; I go for refuge to the sangha." The sangha was also rather well-received, compared to ascetics of the time. These Buddhists were close-knit, and were always good and content, with remarkable personalities. In Rajagrha, where Buddha was well-received by King Bimbisara (a now-follower), a sign of good-will was given to the sangha. The king generously donated a large grove to them, and it was to become the first monastery.

More monasteries would come after this: one paid for, by a faithful man named Anathapindika, by covering the area with gold (Jetavana). Another would be in a neighboring area, and called Purvarama. The sangha found its place in these early areas, with a wonderful coexistence as per the lay-persons. Buddha and his bhikshus would help out in any ways necessary with the citizens, including to teach them the ways of the Eightfold Path and the Four Noble Truth. The people returned the generosity they were shown to the sangha, with various necessities of life (food, clothing, and shelter). There have of course been some opposition, but definitely not very much. After some five years of Buddha's teaching, his father Shuddhodana died. Mahapajapati, his sister and his father's wife, wished to become a nun in the sangha, but he refused three times. Yet she still persisted: she cut her hair, wore the yellow robe, and became a follower without having his consent. When Mahapajapati and the other females, like eventually his ex-wife, were noticed by Ananda, he finally convinced the Buddha to ordain them, respecting them for their persistence and dedication. Yet they were lower than the bhikshus, the bhikshunis. No matter how experienced, the woman would always be lower than the man (for this time period). He was worried that women would weaken his dharma, but they did have the same abilities as men, including religious ones. Buddha had spent time in these years doing many great things. He kept people on the right path when their values were deluded. He solved many disputes, and recruited many people, giving them hope. Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, was definitely not just some random wandering monk.

The Teachings of Buddha

Buddhism is based on Four Noble Truths:
Duhkha is existant.
Duhkha has a specific cause.
The cause of duhkha can be removed, gaining nirvana.
The marga (paths) must be followed to remove the cause of suffering.
There are certain ways to remove the cause. Duhkha is a concept which is simplified to mean "suffering". Yet, beyond that, duhkha refers to any dark part of life, including diseases, pain, and loss. Of course, there is also the sukha, which is the light part of life. And so this is where Buddhism begins: recognition of duhkha. Once duhkha has been identified, it will be possible to eventually escape it, but more importantly, to start to fully understand life. Duhkha's cause is identifiable to be trishna: basically "desire". Trishna can take the form of lust, greed, or many other various, subtle yet recognizable forms, not all necessarily being very bad. Freedom of trishna, and hence duhkha, is nibbana, or nirvana. Nirvana can take multiple forms, such as pure bliss of realization during meditation, or the peace of passing away after having become a buddha and reaching spiritual perfection. Nirvana, though, can not be truly defined, except by vague allusions. Nirvana is a concept that is not easy to grasp: while not actual nothingness, as nirvana is not a lack of something, and not heaven, as many would probably tend to conclude, it is something yet still in-between. While not being defined, it is described, as pure bliss. And of course, more basically, to reach perfection. In order to terminate duhkha, it is necessary to follow the Eightfold Path, which defines standards to live by and is a guide to spiritual success. The Eightfold Path is as follows:
  1. Right understanding
  2. Right thought
  3. Right speech
  4. Right action
  5. Right livelihood
  6. Right effort
  7. Right mindfulness
  8. Right concentration

Even though enumerated, there is no specific sequence in which to achieve all of these various goals. All of these are ultimately miniature goals in and of themselves, and should be attempted singularly. Though they are counted as eight, there are truly only three different goals: right wisdom, morality, and meditation. Right understanding means a lot: you have listened to the Buddha's teaching. Moreover, you have accepted, understood, and applied those teachings to your own life. Right thought is detachment from the ego. Right thought is learning, and becoming one with the universe, in harmony.


Buddhism has a very strong code of ethics, coming straight from the Eightfold Path. Karma plays heavily in this: the old parable "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" applies well. Karma is the idea that since the universe is connected in every way, hurting another will hurt you. Being "good" will bring you closer to nirvana. Right action is a definition of behavior, the Five Precepts. The first of these states to refrain from taking life. This defines as morally wrong not only the killing of humans, but also to hunt animals for food is unacceptable. The second precept is to refrain from taking what is not given to you. This of course refers mainly to stealing, but could also refer to the appropriation of less visible things. The third precept is to refrain from misusing the senses. It is wrong to overuse taste, for gluttony is both unhealthy, and is eating what the needy should be. It is wrong to use the mind to indulge only oneself. And of course, sexual actions would have been considered morally wrong, for not only is it indulgence of the senses, but it also leads to feelings which directly work against the ideals which would lead to nirvana. The fourth is to refrain from telling lies. Buddhism is built on truth and honesty, and lying would only bring about bad karmic fate. Fifth is to refrain from intoxication. You should not use either alcohol or drugs, perhaps because anything that would alter your perception would be considered bad.

Right livelihood mainly refers to work. The principle member of the total livelihood concept is harmlessness. Your work should not harm or interfere with others. Your livelihood should be productive and not destructive. Once again, you should have a right mind, for you will delude no one but yourself. Right effort is not what would be thought to most at first. Right effort does not mean to strain yourself and spend too much energy trying to do as much good as possible. You should instead find a middle ground between laziness and overexertion.

The last paths are right mindfulness and right concentration. The path to these is meditation. Meditation is a complex concept. Though it may look like it, meditation is not rest, for meditation is the awakening of the mind. When you meditate, you can explore your inner self and the universe. You can understand things more clearly. The traditional form of meditation is cross-legged, single or double lotus. There are other subtleties: hands together, eyes closed, mouth shut (not tightly), back straight, which would suggest sitting as being a primary position. This does not mean that meditation cannot occur laying down, or even standing fully upright. When meditating, the first step is to focus on a single thing, or nothingness, and to clear your mind. You should not be thinking of anything thought-provoking. Do not let your mind wander, as it most likely will try; you should bring it back to that single point of concentration. Eventually, you should have a completely clear and calm mind. When this has been attained, you can now open your mind. Slowly, you should be able to concentrate more clearly than any other time on whatever should happen to enter your consciousness. The five hindrances to this are sensual desire, ill will, sloth, worry, and doubt. These are the major obstructions to having a sound dharmatic existence.

The concept of the self, the ego, is a false concept. To define something is to make it constant. But surely, how would you define yourself? Well first of all, you have a name. You could define yourself as having a certain physical appearance, of course. And you could define yourself as a person who has certain opinions, and certain mental aspects. But look closer, through these things. Your name is letters, but only sounds, and holds no real meaning. How do you look? You won't look like that in 10 years, nor did you 10 years before. If you were to wear different clothes, shave or not shave, get a new haircut, you would look different. You would look different, not constant. And of course your mentality has always been the same, right? You think exactly as you did at any other point in time, didn't you? Of course you don't. There is no "self", for any way to define yourself would not be constant, and therefore be an illusion. But when you expand your view beyond this ego, you realize there is an entire world, and all is part of this single world.

The Perfections

There are perfections, or more accurately virtues. These are the ideal values and the goals to strive for as a Buddhist. You should have generosity. Be selfless, and be caring to others. One should have morality, a sense of what is right and what is wrong. Morality should dictate proper actions. One must discover renunciation, for one must abandon things which only lead to emptiness. One should have wisdom, a true understanding. Wisdom does not much come from learning, but from meditative exploration. Energy is of course important to have. Sloth helps no one. As they always say, patience is a virtue! Be kind and understanding to others, and don't rush things. A Buddhist should have truthfulness. A true Buddhist would not lie, not for fear of karmic retribution, but instead out of deeply understanding why it's wrong. A follower should have determination. A follower should not give up in the face of diversity, and strive! Loving-kindness is important as well. Compassion for others makes the world worth living in. Perhaps most important is equanimity. Equanimity is not to detach yourself from the world, nor should you ignore it. Equanimity is to take things in stride, realize that things are not "good" or "bad", but rather even out. It is only those who desire to not have peace with the world that must separate an event into either being positive or negative.

Buddhism in Today's Societies

Today, Buddhism is not the most widespread religion in the world. However, its practitioners number in the many millions in much of Asia, for instance. Although not a major religion in the United States, the effects of Buddhism are definitely here. A prime example from the past few years is the Tibetan Freedom Concert, an event that brings the Tibetan Buddhist culture to the forefront of our society, and highlights the perfections present in everyone. The Tibetan Freedom Concert is the work of the Milarepa Fund, existing out of the goodness of people today. While raising awareness to help to free Tibet, the Milarepa Fund (founded in part by Buddhist Beastie Boy Adam Yauch) emphasizes many Buddhist ideals, especially non-violence. All the previous buddhas would be very proud of what is happening today.