The Historical Buddha
Siddhartha Gautama

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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. ...
Buddha's Birth
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)
Prince Siddhartha in the Palace
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.)
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Buddha's Conception
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 her 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)
Buddha's First Seven Steps
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The Four Sights
The Four Sights
& 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. ...
1st century sculpture of Prince Siddhartha        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)
The Great Renunciation
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Meditating Buddha

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)
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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)
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Bodhgaya Tree

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.”
The cycle of rebirth
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)
Enlightened Buddha
I. Life Involves Suffering
The “Dissatisfactory” Nature of Existence

Now this, O monks, is the noble truth of duhkhaBirth is duhkha, old age is duhkha, sickness is duhkha, and death is duhkha. Sorrow, lamentation, dejection, and despair are duhkha. Contact with unpleasant things is duhkha, and separation from what one wishes is duhkha. In short, the Five Aggregates onto which one grasps are duhkha. (BIBE, 48)
Was the Buddha a pessimist?
How does this compare with Confucian & Daoist perspectives?
Wheel of Dharma Turning
Tanha: Leggo my Ego
II. The Cause of Suffering

Now this, monks, is the noble truth about the arising of suffering: It is craving [tanha] that leads to rebirth, along with the delight and the lust longingly now here, now there: namely, the craving for sensual pleasure, the craving for rebirth, the craving for extinction. Such, monks, is the noble truth about the arising of suffering. (OBS, 47)
Do you agree that desire is the cause of suffering?
Why or why not?
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The Buddhist Wheel of Life
Karma and Rebirth
My Karma Ran Over My DogmaIn the center of some of the artistic renderings of the Wheel of Life are pictures of the various realms in which living beings can be reborn through karma. Karma, according to the Buddha, is the result of willful intention: “It is will [cetana], O monks, that I call karma; for having willed, one acts through body, speech or mind” (Anguttara-nikaya, III, 415). In other words, the 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 intentional 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, 41-42)
Escher: interdependence (two people intertwined)
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)
If there is "no soul" (anatman),
then who produces karma — and who is reborn?

Wheel of Dharma Turning
Buddha defeating the temptations of Mara
III. The Cessation of Suffering
When Desires Cease, Suffering will Cease
Now this, O monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of duhkha. It is the complete cessation of that very craving, giving it up, renouncing it, release from it, detachment from it. (BIBE, 51)
Does the elimination of desire really lead to the extinction of suffering?
Nirvana: Mind connecting to cosmos
One thing that is interesting about the Buddha’s statement of the Third Noble Truth is the few words he uses in comparison to the number used in stating the other three truths. Perhaps the reason is that the Buddha never spoke very much about what Nirvana ultimately is. Up to this point we have been looking at teachings of the Buddha that he explicates at some length. Therefore, there is not a great deal of disagreement among scholars about what those teachings entail. However, this is not the case with Nirvana. In fact, volumes have been written in which scholars have tried to answer the question, “What is Nirvana?” Some claim that it is an absolute Truth. Others say it is a transcendent metaphysical Reality. Still others argue that it is a supermundane experience or a supreme and pure state of mind. (BIBE, 50)
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.
Nirvana: cosmic unity
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)
Confucius with Laozi and Zhuangzi
How does nirvana compare with the ultimate goals of Confucianism and Daoism?
Wheel of Dharma Turning
The Eightfold Path
IV. The Eightfold Path
Working Towards the Cessation of Suffering

Now this, O monks, is the noble truth of the way that leads to the cessation of duhkha. This is this Noble Eightfold Path, namely, Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration. (BIBE, 51)

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Mahavairocana (Dainichi Nyorai) making the "wisdom" mudra

1. Right Understanding

  • Adherence to Buddha’s understanding of the Four Noble Truths as a starting point.

2. Right Thought

  • Forming the intention to pursue the Buddha’s path, including the resolution to practice benevolence or nonharmfulness to sentient beings.

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Buddhist Morality: Karma

3. Right Speech

  • Ones speech should always be in accordance with the principle of nonharmfulness.

4. Right Action

  • Ones actions should also be in accord with the principle of nonharmfulness.

5. Right Livelihood

  • In line with the previous ethical principles, laypeople should pursue a line of work that promotes the welfare of other sentient beings and minimizes actions that might harm them.

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Buddha Meditating

6. Right Effort

  • The effort to eliminate harmful karma at the mental level; this represents the beginning of the self-examination process.

7. Right Mindfulness
  • Mindfulness meditation employs aspects of the two main techniques of Buddhist meditation: samatha (calming) and vipassana (insight). Samatha is good for stabilizing the mind and preventing new karma, but only “insight” leads to nirvana. Mindfulness meditation combines these by first stabilizing the mind by focusing on the breath, and then directing the mind to contemplate the nature of body, mind, and their relationship to the totality of things.
8. Right Concentration
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