Who Is Buddha, the Enlightened One? - History & Concept

Instructor: Denise Miles
Buddhism is based on the teachings of the Buddha, or the Enlightened One. This lesson will discuss the life of the Buddha such as it is known. From a magical birth to a young man searching, the story of the life of this religious leader is fascinating.

A Young Prince

The Buddha was born Siddhartha Gautama sometime between the 6th and 4th century BCE to Queen Mahamaya and King Suddhodana in Northern India or Nepal. The story of his birth is magical: supposedly, his mother gave painless birth to him in a grove of trees standing up by the light of a full moon. When he was born, his mother was visited by a soothsayer who declared that the young prince would become a 'renouncer,' someone who transcends the earthly life.

Seven days later his mother died and he was raised by her sister and his father. Siddhartha's father, as many parents do, sheltered his son from the outside, containing his life to within the palace walls. This, he believed, would allow Siddhartha to grow up to become a prince and warrior and not a renouncer as the soothsayer proclaimed. However, when Siddhartha grew older he took four chariot rides beyond the palace. These rides exposed the young prince to the suffering that stood in contrast to the luxury he had known. Siddhartha knew then that his purpose was to seek relief for this suffering.

A Man Seeking

Siddhartha Gautama was married at sixteen and soon had a son. However, the calling to find the answer to the suffering in the world was too strong and he left his wife and son and follow this calling. It's said that he initially went into the forest and meditated while starving himself seeking these answers. He met a group of ascetics (highly disciplined people who deny indulgences for religious purposes) in the forest and followed them for six years. After six years, he realized that starvation was the not the way to relieve this suffering so he left this group to find his own answers.

At the age of 35, after years of seeking, Siddhartha is believed to have achieved enlightenment. Enlightenment is the state of heightened awareness to what Buddhists see as the truth. It's a loose translation of the Sanskrit word for awakened, bodhi. During his enlightened period, Siddhartha achieved nirvana. Nirvana isn't just a popular grunge band of the 90s; it literally means 'unbinding', and is believed by Buddhists to be the release of all attachments and achieving peace, exiting the cycle of death and rebirth.

Sculpture of Buddha Meditating from Thailand
Buddha Meditating Sculpture, Thailand

Buddha, the Teacher

When he achieved enlightenment, Siddhartha had to decide whether would he keep this knowledge for himself or teach others how to end their suffering. 'Buddha,' ('Enlightened One' in Sanskrit) as he came to be known, spent the next forty-five years of his life writing, teaching, and traveling. Buddhists have several names for him including, Gautama Buddha, Buddha Sukyamani, and 'the Buddha.' For our purposes, we will refer to him simply as the Buddha moving forward.

Painting of Buddha Meditating from India
Painting of Buddha Meditating, India

The Buddha believed that avoiding the extremes in life was the way to enlightenment. Calling this life the Middle Way, he taught that if one could keep extreme thoughts, emotions, and actions at bay through meditation and living a moral life. This morality is defined by the Buddha's Four Noble Truths. These are:

  1. Life is suffering: an idea known as 'Dukkha'
  2. Suffering is caused by craving: seeking pleasure ultimately leads to suffering
  3. Suffering has an end
  4. There is a path to awakening: following the Middle Way and the Eightfold Path will lead to nirvana and the end of suffering

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