Born a wealthy prince in the state of Kapilavastu, in what would become India, as a young man Siddhartha Gautama became discontented with his life. He had wealth, power, a beautiful wife, a healthy son — everything a young man could want. He came to the realization, however, that all of these things were fleeting. Someday he, like everyone else, would become sick and old, and someday he would die. He realized that all of his material things and social benefits provided only temporary happiness, so he gave it all up to become an ascetic. Leaving his wife and infant son behind, as well as the kingdom he was to inherit, he began to wander in search of the meaning and purpose of human existence.
He studied with various teachers who were also renunciants. He tried many paths, the last of which called for six years of extreme self-deprivation. Eventually, he decided that this path was not working for him, and determined that he would sit in meditation until he found an answer. After a long night of meditative visions and insights, he was enlightened, becoming "The Buddha," or the Awakened One.
The Buddha did not represent himself as a supernatural being; he said he was simply a man who had a realization about the nature of human existence. In fact, he taught that only a human being could become enlightened. Nonetheless, after his death many legends about him arose.
Legends of his birth told that his mother was impregnated as she dreamed of a white elephant, and that she gave birth to him standing up, through her armpit. Another legend told how as a young man, he vied with others for the hand of a beautiful young woman, and demonstrated both intellectual and athletic prowess in winning her hand.
At the time of his birth, astrologers were said to have predicted that he would become either a great ruler or a great spiritual teacher. His father therefore tried to shield him from awareness of sickness, old age, and death, but the gods conspired with his chariot driver one day to take him past a sick man, an old man, and a corpse. That night he left home to spend years in spiritual study and ascetic living.
It was said that he lived on a grain of rice a day, and became so thin he could feel his backbone when he pressed upon his stomach. One day, after fainting from hunger, a young woman offered him a bowl of rice milk (or porridge) and he ate it all. This simple meal gave him the strength to continue his quest. He threw the bowl into a river, saying, "If this bowl floats upstream, I am to become a Buddha today." The bowl floated upstream.
Coming upon a tree now known as the Bodhi tree, in the small town of Bodhgaya, he decided to sit there until he attained enlightenment. During the night, Mara, the tempter, deity of desire, appeared and put him through many trials. Mara pounded him with violent storms. He created the illusion of a massive army shooting at Gautama with flaming arrows. When these failed, he sent his beautiful daughters to tempt him. Ignoring all these distractions, Siddhartha continued to meditate through the night until at last he attained realization. At the moment he became enlightened, the Buddha touched the earth as his witness and the earth trembled.
After about forty-five years as a spiritual teacher, the Buddha died. The cause of his death is not clear, but it was apparently some kind of food poisoning. According to legend, he was aware before he ate it that the food was deadly and he protected others from eating it. His body was cremated, and various relics taken from the remains were distributed. These remains of his physical body were believed to have sacred power. Eventually they were interred in stupas, which became important Buddhist symbols and objects of veneration.
Over the centuries, legends of the Buddha's previous lives emerged and were recorded as the Jataka Tales. It was said that in one life he was a rabbit who came across a hunter lost in the woods and starving. First shaking the fleas from his fur, so as not to sacrifice their lives too, he leapt into the hunter's fire in order to offer himself up as a meal. Another of these tales tells of a lifetime as an elephant that jumped from a cliff to provide food for hundreds of starving men.
Still later, the notion developed that there were many Buddhas in the universe, that Buddhas had been incarnated as humans many times previously, and that more would emerge in the future. It was predicted that Maitreya, the next Buddha to come, would appear sometime in the distant future.
1. Why did Siddhartha Gautama become an ascetic?
2. What was significant about Siddhartha's birth?
3. Why was the Buddha's body distributed upon his death?
4. Should the Buddha be considered a supernatural being? Why or why not?