nearly six hundred years before time restarted itself at 0 (the beginning of the common era), a child was born. many children were born, of course. but one in particular we’re interested in. his name was, loosely, as it wasn’t either in english or a latin alphabet, siddhartha gautama and his experience was about to change the world, possibly more than any other figure in history (ok, maybe not more than temjuin or qin shihuang but a solid case could be made). in a world that was completely disconnected in the modern sense, such an impact from a relatively-obscure minor aristocrat was impossible to predict and may be the only example before jesus — and that’s not really the story of jesus having an impact on the world as much as the emperor constantine deciding to use his name and change the world for his own purposes and he was, after all, an emperor when rome was still a big deal. it’s not really the story of a public figure we’re talking about, though. so what was so important about young gautama’s life that gave him that impact? in the millennia to come, emperors and rulers had that kind of power but none were able to compete with the impact of his message, even today it’s proclaimed loudly all over the world as if it’s breaking-news and people flock to temples to learn his methods and study his teachings to improve their lives. and they still work. this wasn’t just a popular figure in history. this was a revolution whose message just happened to be contained in a single teacher.
from his birth, his father dreamed of keeping him safe from the pain of life. his father knew all-too-well exactly what suffering was out there in the world and keeping his son from it wasn’t an unusual desire — any parents will certainly relate to the desperate hope for a child to have a safe, happy, peaceful life. of course, this is unreasonable. but it’s usually what everyone attempts. as a local leader, though, gautama’s dad was pretty successful. the young boy was kept in the palace, surrounded by happiness and luxury. if you’re curious where all this was happening, modern maps will locate where he spent his young life as almost exactly where the border between india and nepal is found. it was called “kapilavastu” then but it’s not so much a specific place now as a vague region. where in that sense, though, is unimportant. it was india nearly three-thousand years ago and that tells us many things. for one, he spoke a language that is the precursor to what we now identify as “pali”, a language loosely-related to sanskrit and other indian languages (like modern hindi). he was part of a fairly minor clan (shakya) and india was a hotbed of religious and philosophical teaching from vedic and more then-modern schools. he was in exactly the right atmosphere to learn and develop a revolutionary system to teach people how to live. nothing happens in a vacuum, especially not enlightenment. he was a product of his environment. but perhaps more than his environment, he was a product of the shock of luxury.
his mother mahamaya was approximately what we’d call a princess now but titles are imprecise. she was the daughter of nepalese royalty. his father suddhodana was a more minor figure, though his exact ruling role has been the subject of debate for centuries and is relatively unimportant to the story. the important part is that, for most of his young life, the child-buddha was confined to the palace — like a town within a town — where he saw only beauty and happiness. this could be thought of as the ideal life for a child. but when he saw the real world for the first time, everything collapsed around him and his beautiful life suddenly became dark.
this may be what truly happened or it may not. but i think this is as likely to be the reality of it as anything else and it is a clear causal explanation for what followed so we’ll go with it for now, especially as the source of the discovery is unimportant, only that it happened.
when he first left the palace, he saw four things he had never seen before — an elderly person, a sick person, a dead person and a religious ascetic, what we can think of in modern terms as a monk or nun. he had been completely shielded from these aspects of daily life in the palace but they eventually occur. he was shocked, though. he asked his guide how these first three could have been left suffering so badly when there was so much happiness and peace in the palace just minutes away. the answer was both everyday and stunning.
we all age. we all become sick. we all die.
if you’re a young person who has never encountered old-age, illness or death, encountering them all for the first time in a single day then summarily discovering not only are they present in the world but they are your destiny and the result of everyone you love, everyone surrounding you, likely before you even experience them is a life-changing experience. this was the beginning of his awakening (or, as we often call it in buddhism, enlightenment). it was only the first step but the first step is often the most important one as it points us in the right direction. in his case, this was very true. it pointed him from darkness to acceptance. and in acceptance was where he would find his “middle path” or “balanced way” (or one of a thousand other terms for it).
when he returned to the palace, he made a decision that was certainly unpopular with his family, not least the woman he was likely to marry had that day not happened. he made a clear decision — to find the source of suffering in the world and fix it. the fact that this was impossible and that suffering is an inevitable part of human biology never occurred to him or he might never have left the palace. thankfully, though, he didn’t know it was a fool’s errand he had decided to take on and, despite never achieving the original goal, he made several vital discoveries that were instrumental in improving the lives of billions of followers from his time to hours.
when he first left the palace, he sent back his guide with everything he owned and became a beggar in the streets of rajagaha (today called rajgir, a small city in northeast india). he first studied with a pair of yogis to master yogic meditation but having been able to find his mind clear and empty gave him nothing to solve the problem of suffering — for one, it just made him unaware of his suffering rather than actually eliminating it. that aside, it was only a solution for him, even if it was a solution, which he was clear it was not. this was the problem with indian philosophy of the time — it focused on escaping awareness of pain rather than actually facing the pain itself and was self-focused rather than community-aware. moving on to a second method of meditation, he discovered there was a pattern. peace through lack of awareness is dissatisfying. it was all people thought they could achieve but it simply didn’t fix the problem. he had to look elsewhere.
he thought the solution was to become more hardcore. what’s more hardcore than studying meditation with a yogi in the wilderness? giving up food. he controlled his food intake, even his breathing and bodily processes. but the result was even more overwhelming in how dissatisfying it was. he was starving himself into the suffering he was trying to solve — premature old-age, illness and, likely, if he hadn’t stopped, death. he was on the wrong path. it took a little time and it was likely very necessary as part of the learning experience. but he came awfully-close to suicide, as many ascetics tend to do before they realize their mistake and gradually recover.
one day, malnourished to the point of approaching a coma, he was discovered in near-unconsciousness meditating under a tree by a girl named sujata who offered him soft, sweet rice. in that moment, he realized self-sacrifice and asceticism was the wrong path and began to eat. his ascetic followers left him, thinking he had betrayed the only way they knew to a better life. whether they all eventually discovered his wisdom is a subject of much debate. either they died of their practices or realized the joy of food for themselves, though — simply put, this is not a complex discovery — starvation isn’t the road to happiness even if it’s the road to unawareness.
having regained his strength, he made a decision. he would sit and meditate in this new, stronger state under a tree until he discovered the answer to his questions — what is the cause of suffering and how do we eliminate it? the tree he sat under is now known as the “bodhi tree”, though at the time i’m sure he just thought of it as a tree. while this is a subject for another time, the simple answer will do for the moment. what he discovered was that suffering is caused by obsessive attachment — put another way, suffering is the result of lack of acceptance. and the solution isn’t to eliminate the pain but accept it as a fundamental part of life but not let it destroy peace. he became aware life is not a collection of disparate, separate beings but an interconnected web of continuous interaction — the opposite of ascetic and yogic practices to walk away from suffering by confining awareness, eliminating all other lives and senses, destroying a connection to the world. he found the answer wasn’t just to live in the world but to apply what can be called “radical acceptance”, knowing we are only a tiny portion of life and we must accept our environment and circumstances and must find our peace where we are rather than in our dreams or escapism.
having made these discoveries, he is said to have achieved “enlightenment” — this is really just a traditional way of saying he became aware of the truth of life, that it’s fundamentally interdependent and the only peace and harmony we can hope to find doesn’t come from escaping illness and death but being able to accept them as inherent parts of complete life.
with this awareness, he began the much larger section of his life — his teaching. he was hesitant at first, of course, as most teachers are. he wasn’t sure he could convey his message. but he thought if he could find just a few who could understand, it could be amplified and he might be successful. the rise of buddhist teachings to the point it has touched the lives of untold billions may have been overwhelming to him. but he began with just a few. his first thought was to share his discovery with his former teachers. unsurprisingly, though, given their style of practice, they had already died.
continuing, though, he encountered a group of five other ascetic practitioners seeking the truth about life. having told them his story, they gave up their self-destructive approaches and followed him. the first sangha (community of learning) was born.
for the next almost-fifty-years, the buddha wandered throughout india and parts of nepal teaching an ever-increasing number of followers. he eventually spent most of the last couple of decades of his life in sravasti, a city in modern-day uttar pradesh, northern india on the nepalese border about halfway between pakistan and bangladesh. he established a monastic order to continue his learning and teaching and eventually, as he had always accepted he would, passed away. but, like many great teachers, his followers continued to share his enlightenment after his death. what we now know as buddhism isn’t exactly what he taught but it is certainly a system of philosophy and knowledge where the foundation is the buddha’s sudden realization of the inherent oneness of all life and all that surrounds us, that we are part of a cohesive and interconnected world and that the only way to relieve suffering is not to try to walk away from it but to accept it and breathe peacefully through it as we continue to live.
while there are myriad supernatural events attributed to the buddha, this is silliness — he was a great teacher and to talk about these things in religious terms is disrespectful to what he achieved and influenced for millennia. of course, this is only a very basic overview for those interested in understanding a little of the story of the buddha’s historical life. i hope in the next year to finish my more narrative, book-length approach to his life, discoveries and teachings. until then, though, i highly-recommend, if you’re interested, the excellent (and short) book by thich nhat hanh discussing the same subject, [old path white clouds]. it is a beautiful story whose depth i haven’t even begun to cover in this short article for obvious reasons — length being paramount.
i hope i have, however, managed to stimulate your interest in both the person and his discoveries. please let me know if you would like answers to specific questions. i’m always happy to talk about buddhist thought and theory, as anyone in my life will attest. thanks for your eyes. you have honored me today with your time.
may you be at peace. may peace bring you happiness. may happiness bring you life.