Now that we've explored the nature of a Buddha, we can consider the specific person known to history as the Buddha.

Miracles and legends

The story Buddha’s life, like that of most great religious teachers, has been adorned with miracles and legends. But from these myths and allegories an historical core can be found, and even some mythical elements should not be dismissed as just as pure fantasy, since much of it contains important messages at the doctrinal level.

The previous lives of the Buddha

Although historically the story of the Buddha begins with his birth, from the traditional perspective the story goes back much further, eons into the past. For every Buddha arrives at his high attainment  though a career spanning many lives.  During this period he is called a bodhisattva — a being bound for complete enlightenment. And in his successive lives as a bodhisattva, he works to perfect in himself certain virtues that come to maturity with his attainment of buddhahood.

In the Theravadan tradition these virtues (paramis) or the sublime perfections are generosity, moral discipline, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, determination, loving kindness and equanimity.

Buddhahood is a totalistic accomplishment, a complete, all-embracing accomplishment. And all the qualities that enter into this complete perfection can only be acquired gradually in bits and pieces over many lifetimes.

The early years

The Buddha’s given name was Siddhartha; his family name was Gotama. Buddhists know him as the Buddha Gotama or Buddha Shakyamuni, the sage of the Sakya clan. The dates now recognized by scholars for the Buddha’s life are from 563 BC to 483 BC, although other dates are also recognized.

The future Buddha took birth as the son of King Soddhodana and Queen Maya among the Sakyan people in a small kingdom of northern India, in the foothills of the Himalayas and he grew up in the capital city, Kapalavatu.

His birth was, according to the texts, attended by many miracles and wonders. Soon after he was brought to the palace, a great ascetic, a sita, came to the palace and worshipped the newborn child.

Since the father, a ruler himself, wanted Siddhartha to become a ruler, the proper heir to his throne, he went to great length to shield him from the sufferings of the world. He built three palaces, one for each season – each with pleasure gardens, ponds flower beds, attended by musicians, dancers, singers. When he reached, manhood his father arranged marriage with beautiful princess Yosotera, and he lived with his wife in the palace

But when he reached his 29th year he became more and more reflective and thoughtful. He began to wonder if pleasure, power and fame, which were all transient and unreliable, were the ultimate goals of human life or if there was something more beyond this, something eternal and unchanging.

His first encounter with the hard facts of life is told in the texts in the form as a myth — a myth that expresses a real and powerful psychological awakening. According to this myth, up to his 29th year Siddhartha had lived in a totally illusory world in which the hard facts of life were completely hidden from him.

When he reached maturity curiosity burned in him and so he ordered his charioteer to take him out beyond the walls of the palace. There he saw four sites that determined his future destiny.

Old age
The first site was of an old man by the side of the road, bent over, leaning on a walking stick, his hair gray, his teeth falling out. “What is that?” he asked. “That is an old man” the driver responded. “What is an old man?” Siddhartha asked. "All of youth eventually leads to old age. No one remains young forever. As the years go by, eventually the hair turns gray, the skin wrinkles, one reaches such a state" he was told. When he asked if he too was subject again his driver responded, ”You and everybody else, we’re all subject to old age.”

Then he saw a sick man by the side of a road, his body covered by sores, trembling, shaking, vomiting. unable to control his limbs. Again the same kind of exchange took place. Now he saw for himself, for the first time, the fact of sickness.

Then he saw a funeral procession, pall bearers carrying a coffin. Inside the coffin he saw the corpse, the body lying still and lifeless, This was his encounter with the fact of death

These sights aroused in him an understanding that shattered all his illusions. He realized that, even though he now enjoyed he glory of youth, youth ends in old age. He saw that health becomes to sickness, that life ends in death, and as these thoughts bore into his mind, his satisfaction with the luxury of the palace life fell away, and he became inwardly very discontent, dissatisfied.

Then he saw a fourth sight — an aesthetic walking very peacefully and serenely carrying an alms bowl. He approached him and asked him who he was and how he was different from other men.  “I am a recluse, I live in the forest. I lead a life of meditation, a way to enlightenment, a way to deliverance from suffering."

And when he heard these words, the  prince now knew the direction he had to move. And so he decided to leave the palace and to follow the quest for spiritual truth, seeking a way out of the round out of suffering, of aging and death, by entering the life of an aesthetic.


The Buddha

2 of 5

Qualities of the Dharma
The Four Noble Truths
The Noble Eightfold Path
The True Nature of Existence
  The Five Aggregates of Clinging
  Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta
  Dependent Arising
  Kamma, Nibbana and Rebirth


The Sangha
The Buddhist Sangha