Siddhartha’s Birth and YouthThe 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. ...
Early Accounts and Later Legends
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]
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]
MeditationIn 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]
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 AwakeningAfter 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. ...