The Life of Shakyamuni Buddha

The Buddha was born as Siddhartha Gautama, a prince in the kingdom of the Shakya clan located close to the border between present-day India and Nepal. Destined to be the future king, he was given all of the education and training befitting him, but also sheltered from the unpleasant experiences of life. He was so sheltered, in fact, that he knew nothing of such everyday experiences as illness, aging, and death until he was a young man.

Upon seeing illness for the first time, he asked, “Did the sick bring this upon themselves?” The reply that came was that all living things must endure illness. The same questioning arose regarding aging and death. He asked himself, “Why were we born into human life if only to suffer from one painful experience to the next?”

He then encountered a monk with a peaceful and fulfilled countenance, who was walking the spiritual path, searching for answers to the mysteries of life. In this monk he saw his future. Rather than succeed his father as king, he found a more important quest, of finding a way to end suffering.

At age twenty-nine, he left the palace, leaving behind his wife, son, parents, and all the status and comforts of royalty, and embarked on his spiritual journey. He learned from the sages, the wise men of the forests, and eventually joined a group of five monks engaged in severe ascetic practice. Through subjecting himself to all types of austerities, including fasting and meditation, Gautama continued his search for spiritual insight.

After six years, he was reduced to flesh and bone, on the verge of death. Reflecting on his life to that point, he realized that he had been living at the two extremes and that neither was conducive to understanding the meaning of life. It is here that he discovered the Middle Path, avoiding the extremes of luxury and self-renunciation.

With clarity of thought, he sat under what was to become known as the Bodhi tree to reflect on true nature of life. It was through this period of meditation that Gautama watched a countless number of causes and conditions dependently arising every moment to constitute human life. He realized that it was our ignorance that became the causes and conditions leading to human suffering. Gautama was awakened to the truth—the Dharma.

In order to share his awakening and save people from their suffering, Gautama first encountered the five monks with whom he previously practiced. They took refuge in Gautama’s teaching and became his disciples. At this point, the Three Treasures were established—the Buddha (the person who teaches the Dharma), the Dharma (the truth that has become the teaching), and the Sangha (the community of people who follow the teaching). The Buddha also became known by the reverential title Shakyamuni (the sage of the Shakya clan).


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