The Historical Buddha
Siddhartha Gautama


 
 
Siddhartha’s Birth and Youth
Early Accounts and Later Legends
The exact date of his birth is a matter of contention among scholars. Different Buddhist sources claim that Gautama died either 100 years or 218 years before the consecration of King Asoka. Since that consecration can be plausibly dated anywhere between 280 and 267 B.C.E., and because Gautama is said in all Buddhist sources to have lived for eighty years, the date of his birth using these sources could be put between 578 and 447 B.C.E. On the other hand, scholars point out that the 100- and 218-year figures can also be seen as ideal numbers, hence the lack of consensus. Until recently, most modern scholars have accepted the earlier dating for Gautama’s life. But today, many scholars place his life fully in the fifth century B.C.E. ...
 
 
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, 8-9]
 
 
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, 10]
 
The Great Renunciation
Despite the many pleasures and luxuries Gautama enjoyed in his youth, he 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, 10-13]
 

Meditation
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, 14]
 
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 health of the body, thus negatively affecting the mind that is important for spiritual advancement. [
BIBE, 14-15]
 

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. ...
Sitting under the Bodhi Tree at Bodhgaya on the night of the full moon during the month of Vaisakha, Gautama attained Awakening. The early texts say that he did so by ascending what are called the Four Meditations (dhyana; Pali: jhana). The first meditation is one of concentation free from sensual pleasure and base thoughts but with discursive reflection, elation, and deep joy. This is what he had experienced in his youth. The second meditation sets aside any discursive reflection for a deeper and more unified mental tranquillity. The third meditation negates emotional elation, which is a hindrance to equanimity and clarity of mind. The fourth meditation transcends even joy so that its opposite, dejection or sorrow, is also transcended into a complete state of mindful equanimity. The mind, being purified at this point, is said to become stable, yet “soft and workable.”
          Having reached this state of meditative clarity, Gautama chose not to “work” his mind into the higher meditative absorptions that he had learned from Arada and Udraka. Rather, he purposely focused his attention into a penetrating insight into the truth about existence itself. In this manner, he is said to have ascended to the highest level of Awakening (bodhi) through three stages. During the first watch of the night (evening), Gautama saw all of his own previous lives, one by one. During the second watch of the night (midnight), he saw the rebirth of others according to their karma, and the whole of existence appeared to him “as if in a mirror.” During the third watch (late night), he destroyed all mental and emotional impurities, selfish desires, false views, and ignorance. With pure and penetrating insight, some early passages say, he realized the dependent arising (pratitya-samutpada) of all existence, how all [things] dependently come to be what they are. Other passages say that he was able to realize (1) the dissatisfactory nature of existence (duhkha), (2) the cause of its arising, (3) the cessation of its arising, (4) and the path that leads to that cessation. Later, Gautama would call these the Four Noble Truths. By dawn, all ignorance had been extinguished, as Gautama’s Awakening was complete. He was now Gautama Buddha, Gautama the Awakened One. [
BIBE, 15-17]