The Historical Buddha
Siddhartha Gautama

Siddhartha’s Birth & Youth
Early Accounts and Later Legends
The earlier Buddhist scriptures say that the historical Buddha was born to the warrior-caste Gautama family of the Sakya clan in the state of Kosala. ... A personal name for the Buddha was not given in the earlier texts, but appears in later texts as Siddhartha, meaning “one who has achieved his goal.” In earlier texts, Gautama’s father is named Suddhodana ... [and is referred to] as one of the council of rulers of the Sakya clan and leader of the town of Kapilavastu where the family lived. Later biographies of the Buddha claim that Suddhodana was actually a king. (BIBE, 11-2)
All Buddhist texts agree that Gautama grew up enjoying the luxuries of an aristocratic life. Reflecting on those days, he is reported in an earlier text to have said:
I was comfortable, extremely comfortable, incomparably comfortable. My father’s mansion had lotus pools of blue, red and white all for my benefit. ... Day and night a white canopy was held over me to protect me from the cold, heat, dust, chaff or dew. I had three palaces, one for winter, one for summer and one for the rainy season. During the rainy season, I was at the palace suited for the rains surrounded by female entertainers, and was never left alone. (Anguttara-nikaya, I, 145 ff.)
In later biographies, this luxury was explained with a legend concerning the conception of Gautama. In that legend, it is said that when he was conceived, his mother dreamed that a white elephant with a white lotus in his trunk entered his body. The astrologers interpreted this dream to mean that if Gautama married and remained a householder, he would be a great warrior and perhaps unite all of India, something that had not been accomplished up until that time. However, if he would leave the householder state and retreat into the forest like the sramana were doing, he would be a great religious leader. Suddhodana, who was certainly influenced by the fact that during his day many nobles were creating great empires throughout India, told the astrologers that he wanted Gautama to remain a warrior and not to wander off to follow the religious life. They responded that to ensure that Gautama would not pursue the religious life, his father should surround him with sensual pleasures and hide from him anything that might make him dissatisfied with his householder life. ... (BIBE, 12-3)
The Great Renunciation
Despite the many pleasures and luxuries enjoyed in his youth, Gautama was disturbed by certain negative aspects of the human condition that he could not avoid. After giving the previously quoted description of his comfortable life, the Buddha goes on to say that he could not help “observing old age in another person.” And when he would observe old persons as well as diseased persons and even corpses, he would feel “annoyed, ashamed and disgusted.” ... In due time, Siddhartha Gautama married a young woman named Yasodhara, and eventually they had a son, who was named Rahula; the name Rahula means “fetter.” Some interpret this name to mean that Gautama considered the birth of his son to be an obstacle to his pursuit of the religious life. ... Gautama’s struggle with the householder life and the religious quest noted in the early texts would later be woven into the story of the Four Sights. In this legend, as he approached his thirtieth birthday, Gautama found himself in the grips of a very painful struggle between his attachment to his “home,” with everything his family meant to him, and his attraction to the “homeless” religious life with its spiritual quest. This crisis was said to have been precipitated by Four Sights. It seems that one day while on a chariot ride, he passed beyond the area around his home that was secured by his father from anything upsetting. It is said that for the first time he saw a decrepit old man. When he asked his charioteer about this person’s sad condition, the charioteer answered that the ills of old age are the fate of all people. Returning to the palace, Gautama fell into melancholy and could no longer find any enjoyment in the pleasures of his princely life.
          On a second ride, it is said that for the
first time Gautama saw a severely diseased man, and he understood more deeply that disease is not kept at bay by worldly power. Returning to the palace, Gautama’s melancholy deepened. On his third trip, for the first time he saw a corpse, and again he was faced with the ultimate fate of all humankind from which no amount of worldly security can keep one safe. Deeply depressed about the plight of the human condition, Gautama set off on a fourth trip and saw a religious hermit practicing meditation. The charioteer told Gautama that this person had left the material comforts of the householder life to seek spiritual liberation from the ills of the human condition. ... The story then goes on poignantly to recount the deeply emotional parting of Gautama from his beloved family and home when he finally made the decision to pursue the religious quest for liberation. ... Reaching the banks of a river, Gautama dismounted, shaved his head, and exchanged clothes with a passerby. Finally, it is said that Gautama sent his charioteer back to his father with a message explaining his actions, and then he set off on his spiritual quest called the “Great Renunciation.” (BIBE, 13-5)

In what is referred to in some of the later texts as “a short distance away,” Gautama found ... the hermitage of Arada Kalama, a teacher of meditation. The early texts say that Arada taught his disciples how to attain the “state of non-existence” in meditation. Gautama attained this state, and was even asked by Arada to help him teach in his community. However, Gautama responded, “This Dharma (Teaching) does not lead to avoidance, to separation from desire, to cessation, to peace, to wisdom, to true Awakening, to Nirvana (Pali: nibbana). It merely makes us attain the state of non-existence.” (Majjhima-nikaya, I, 165). In other words, the meditation taught by Arada produced a high state of absorption in which all forms of existence disappear. But when one emerges from that trancelike-state, his or her life is still lacking in peace, wisdom, selflessness, and true Awakening.
          After Gautama studied with Arada, he went to stay with Udraka Ramaputra, another teacher of meditation. Udraka taught Gautama the attainment of “neither perception nor non-perception.” Again, Gautama reached this highest state of meditative absorption, but found that it too did not produce the freedom from desires, inner peace, wisdom, Awakening, and Nirvana that were the goals of his spiritual quest. Although Gautama left Udraka as he had Arada, it seems that he was influenced by both of these teachers. Early Buddhism included both of these types of formless absorbing meditation among its practices to foster an encouraging meditative “taste” of Nirvana. (
BIBE, 16)
After leaving Udraka, Gautama journeyed east to the area of Uruvela. ... The early texts state that it was at this time that five ascetics joined Gautama because they were so impressed with the degree to which he practiced self-mortification in hopes of spiritual freedom and Awakening. However, after several years of ascetic practice, Gautama was still unable to attain Awakening and Nirvana. He finally realized that the ascetic path was not the true way to the spiritual life he was seeking and decided to give it up. But what was the true way? Facing this question, Gautama remembered the meditative state he had entered when he was a young boy sitting under a shady tree while his father was working. In that tranquil repose, his mind had attained a deep state of meditation that brought him a great joy and freedom from worldly desires and immoral thoughts. Overcoming his ascetic aversion to anything pleasant, Gautama considered turning to a more moderate way or spiritual practice that naturally welled up within him. Later, he would call this path the “Middle Way” because on the one hand it rejects the sensual indulgence he had enjoyed as a young man, and on the other hand it rejects the mortification of the flesh that he had practiced as an ascetic. The former ignores the spiritual journey, and the latter inhibits its progress by destroying the organic mind-body unity that is important for spiritual advancement. (BIBE, 16-7)

The Awakening
After regaining his strength, Gautama remained in seclusion on the banks of the Nairanjana River near Bodhgaya. The opposite shore was a popular place for ritual practices and ascetic sacrifices offered by both priests and ascetics. Symbolically turning his attention away from both of those types of religious activities, Gautama began practicing meditation in order to seek liberation within himself. He sat under the Bodhi Tree, faced east, and vowed not to move from that place until he attained awakening. (BIBE, 17-8)

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 Buddhism43)
  • What does the Buddha mean by the term “suffering” (dukkha)?
  • Is this a pessimistic perspective on life?
  • How does this conception of life as “suffering” compare with Confucian and/or Daoist perspectives?
  • What underlying assumptions in the Indian worldview may help to explain this difference?

Brahman ~ Atman ~ Karma ~ Moksa
While the earlier Vedas had emphasized the ritual worship of many gods, the Upanisads presented the more mystical belief in a universal and unitary spiritual Reality, called Brahman, which is the true essence, or Atman (Self), of all things. It was believed that the personal realization of this divine essence through insight, matured in the depths of meditation, would lead one to spiritual liberation, or moksa. Liberation was understood to be release from karma (Pali: kamma) and rebirth. Karma was thought to be a subtle form of moral energy that results from one’s good and evil actions. This karmic energy was believed to determine what kind of rebirth one will experience after death. To gain liberation, according to the Upanisads, it is not enough to worship the gods; one has to destroy one’s karma and attain spiritual realization of the divine in all things in order to escape the rounds of rebirth. Only by the practice of spiritual discipline can one’s true Self, the eternal Atman, find liberation from rebirth by merging with the divine Brahman. (BIBE, 9-10)
  • Note: Although the Buddha was influenced by this early Indian conception of reality, he would ultimately develop his own perspective, which preserved the principles of karma and moksa (which he typically referred to as nirvana), but rejected the belief in a creator deity (Brahman) as well as the existence of a soul (Atman).
II. The Cause of Suffering
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, 44)
  • How is this understanding of the cause of suffering similar to Confucian and/or Daoist perspectives? How does it differ?
The Buddha always affirmed that persons have an empirical selfhood constituted by a body and a mind. But he also claimed that the various constituents of this conventional selfhood are characterized by impermanence and dukkha; they are always changing, and they ordinarily produce mental and physical processes that are experienced as ultimately dissatisfactory. The Buddha also taught that when one examines these constituents of conventional selfhood, one does not find any permanent substance. Impermanence is not just a characteristic of the phenomena of the external world; it applies to oneself. The Buddha’s notion of no-self expresses humankind’s radical finitude. It was also the Buddha’s view that the belief in a permanent substantial self is not only false, but also leads to selfishness and egoism, which, in turn, make the world so dissatisfactory for everyone. The Buddha found in his own Awakening that the realization of the absence of such a permanent self leads to selfless loving kindness and compassion for others. (BIBE, 37)
[T]he good or bad willful intentions that motivate the doing of good or bad actions are what result in karmic fruition. Accidental or unintended good or bad actions, like nonmoral actions, do not result in karma. However, all international moral or immoral acts condition or mold one’s consciousness in ways that, in turn, condition one’s life in the future, and ultimately one’s rebirth. Remember that it is consciousness that, like a flame in this life, lights the flame of one’s next life. In this regard, good or bad rebirths are not to be seen simply as rewards or punishments, but as the resulting effect of one’s conscious character molded by lives of good and bad actions that reflect how one ultimately chooses to live. (BIBE, 42-3)
III. The Cessation of Suffering
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, 44)
  • How does this description of nirvana compare with the ultimate goals of Confucianism and Daoism?

Nirvana is said by the Buddha to be more than just a moral attainment or an insight into the Truth. It is said to be a “supreme status” that is “holy.” This supreme holiness, the Buddha said, is a “full consummation,” or a “final end,” that brings into human experience the “blessedness” of the “highest good.” When one reads descriptive terms such as these, one can see that Nirvana is ultimately a sublime religious status. Since our words and concepts are derived from ordinary experience and reflection, language cannot fully convey this sublime status. Nirvana is a blessedness that is ultimately beyond ordinary conceptual understanding and description. Since this is so, the Buddha sometimes used a type of via negativa to help people understand something about Nirvana by saying what it is not.
Three negative words he often used are “unborn,” “unconditioned,” and “deathless.” For example, in one text we read, “That monk who here is devoid of craving and passion attains to deathlessness, peace and the unchanging state of Nirvana (Sutta-nipata, 204). ... That Nirvana is “unborn,” “not become,” or “unproduced” means that it is not the result of anything; it is not dependently arisen, or “born,” like all worldly phenomena. ... Only Nirvana is unchanging, uncompounded, unarisen, and not conditioned or moved by any factors of existence. (BIBE, 63)

IV. The Noble Eightfold Path
The Buddha’s path towards the cessation of suffering can be divided into 3 groups:

Right Understanding
Right Thought
Right Speech
Right Action
Right Livelihood
Right Effort
Right Mindfulness
Right Concentration