The one who became the Buddha (a generic term meaning “Awakened One”) was reportedly born near what is today the border between India and Nepal. He was named Siddhartha Gautama, meaning “wish-fulfiller” or “he who has reached his goal.” It is said that he lived for more than eighty years during  fifth century BCE, though his life may have extended either into the late sixth or early fourth century. His father was apparently a wealthy landowner serving as one of the chiefs of a Kshatriya clan, the Shakyas who lived in the foothills of the Himalayas. ... The epics embellish his birth story as a conception without human intercourse, in which a white elephant carrying a lotus flower entered his mother’s womb during a dream. He is portrayed as the reincarnation of a great being who had been born many times before and took birth on earth once again out of compassion for all suffering beings.
According to legend, the child was raised in the lap of luxury, with fine clothes, white umbrellas for shade, perfumes, cosmetics, a mansion for each season, the company of female musicians, and a harem of dancing girls. He was also trained in martial arts and married to at least one wife, Yashodhara, who bore a son. Despite this life of ease, Siddhartha was reportedly unconvinced of its value. As the legend goes, the gods arranged for him to see “four sights” that his father had tried to hide from him: a bent old man, a sick person, a dead person, and a mendicant seeking lasting happiness rather than temporal pleasure. Seeing the first three sights, he was dismayed by the impermanence of life and the existence of old age, suffering, and death. The sight of the monk piqued his interest in a life of renunciation. As a result, at the age of twenty-nine Siddhartha renounced his wealth, left his wife and newborn son (whom he named Rahula, meaning “fetter”), shaved his head and donned the coarse robe of a wandering ascetic. He embarked on a wandering life in pursuit of a very difficult goal: finding the way to total liberation from suffering.
Many Indian sannyasins were already leading the homeless life of poverty and simplicity that was considered appropriate for seekers of spiritual truth. Although the future Buddha later developed a new spiritual path that departed significantly from Brahmanic tradition, he initially tried traditional methods. He headed southeast to study with a brahmin teacher who had many followers, and then with another who helped him reach an even higher mental state.
Unsatisfied, still searching, Siddhartha reportedly underwent six years of extreme self-denial techniques: nakedness, exposure to great heat and cold, breath retention, a bed of brambles, severe fasting. Finally he acknowledged that this extreme ascetic path had not led to enlightenment. ...
Siddhartha then shifted his practice to a Middle Way that rejected both self-indulgence and self-denial. He revived his failing health by accepting food once more and began a period of reflection. On the night of the full moon in the sixth lunar month, it is said that he sat in deep meditation beneath a tree in a village now called Bodh Gaya, and finally experienced supreme awakening. ... After this experience of awakening or enlightenment, it is said that he was radiant with light. (Living Religions, 137-40)
The Four Noble Truths
Birth is suffering, old age is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering. Involvement with what is unpleasant is suffering. Separation from what is pleasant is suffering. Also, not getting what one wants and strives for is suffering. ... [In sum, the] five agglomerations (skandhas), which are the basis of clinging to existence, are suffering. (The Experience of Buddhism, 33)
The Buddha’s First Noble Truth is the existence of dukkha: pain, suffering and dissatisfaction. At some time or another, we all experience grief, unfulfilled desires, sickness, old age, phsyical pain, mental anguish, and eventually death. We may be happy for a while, but even when we feel happiness, it may be tinged with fear for we know that this happiness does not last. (Living Religions, 142-3)
  • Was the Buddha a pessimist? Why not try to maximize pleasure and minimize pain?
And what is the [second] Noble Truth of the origination of suffering? It is the thirst for further existence, which comes along with pleasure and passion and brings passing enjoyment here and there. This, monks, is the Noble Truth of the origination of suffering. (The Experience of Buddhism, 33)
The Second Noble Truth is that the origin of dukkha is craving and clinging — to sensory pleasures, to fame and fortune, for things to stay as they are or for them to be different — and attachment to things and ideas. The Buddha taught that craving leads to suffering because of ignorance: We fail to understand the true, constantly changing nature of the things we crave. We grasp at things and hold onto life as we want it to be, rather than seeing things as they are, in a constant state of flux. (Living Religions, 143)
  • Do you agree that desire is the cause of suffering? Why or why not?

And what is the [third] Noble Truth of the cessation of suffering? It is this: the destruction without remainder of this very thirst for further existence, which comes along with pleasure and passion, bringing passing enjoyment here and there. It is without passion. It is cessation, forsaking, abandoning, renunciation. This, monks, is the Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering. (The Experience of Buddhism, 33)
The Third Noble Truth is that dukkha will cease when craving and clinging cease. In this way, illusion ends, insight into the tru nature of things dawns, and nirvana is achieved. One lives happily and fully in the present moment, free from self-centeredness and full of compassion. One can serve others purely, without thought of oneself. (Living Religions, 143)
  • Does the elimination of desire inevitably lead to the extinction of suffering?
  • If suffering can be eliminated, then why do we fail to pursue this as a serious goal?
One common understanding of Buddhism is that it involves reincarnation. But if we go back to the original insights of the Buddha, we don’t find this teaching. What the Buddha taught was rebirth, not reincarnation. Though they are often confused, they are not the same at all. ... [T]he Buddha himself pointed out that this view [i.e. reincarnation] is inaccurate and extreme. It’s called the eternalistic view — the view that there’s an enduring self, a soul, that survives the body and persists in some fashion, perhaps through reincarnation. But the awakened see directly that permanence is never found, that the eternalistic view simply doesn’t hold up. ... The fact is, within this one life span, as we live from moment to moment, we are never a particular, unchanging person. You are not the same person you were ten or twenty years ago. In fact, you’re not the person you were ten or twenty minutes ago. ... Our problem stems from our deeply held assumption that the words you, me, I, and it refer to some real aspect of actual experience. But the fact is that we don’t experience a singular, unchanging self. With some careful examination, we can see this. We can see that the self is a mentally constructed notion — and a contradictory one at that. The Buddha spoke of rebirth (the full term is “rebirth consciousness”), not reincarnation. With each new moment, the universe is reborn, so to speak. Rebirth consciousness is the awareness that this moment is not this (new) moment. The person here now is not the same as this person here (in this newly formed moment) now. Nothing persists. Nothing repeats. Nothing returns. Each moment is fresh, new, unique —  impermanent. ... This observation, which is based solely on immediate, direct experience, is simply incompatible with any notion of reincarnation, since reincarnation assumes the persistence of some kind of self or embodied entity. There is no way to hold a view of reincarnation without holding a view of permanence. Thus any view of reincarnation is antithetical to what the Buddha taught. This moment has been born again and again, innumerable times while you’ve read this chapter. Learning to see this, and not the recycling of souls, is the liberation the Buddha pointed to. (Buddhism is Not What You Think, 42-6)
When you open the mind to the truth, then you realize there is nothing to fear. What arises passes away, what is born dies, and is not self — so that our sense of being caught in an identity with this human body fades out. We don’t see ourselves as some isolated, alienated entity lost in a mysterious and frightening universe. We don’t feel overwhelmed by it, trying to find a little piece of it that we can grasp and feel safe with, because we feel at peace with it. Then we have merged with the Truth. (Living Religions, 143)
  • How might adopting the perspective of “interconnectedness” (as opposed to “independence”) change the way one interacts with the world?

So who’s the pessimest now?

The Buddha’s path towards the cessation of suffering can be divided into 3 groups:


Right Understanding

Right Intention



Right Speech

Right Action

Right Livelihood



Right Effort

Right Mindfulness

Right Concentration