The life of the Buddha
Prince Siddhartha’s journey to Buddhahood...
The Vesak Full Moon Poya Day is tomorrow. It’s the Thrice Blessed
Day, the day the Buddha was born, attained Enlightenment and passed
away. When we commemorate this day, it would be great to reflect on the
lifestory of the Buddha. We know you are being taught this at Dhamma
School, but we hope the important incidents of His life we feature here
would further enlighten you.
The Buddha, Shakyamuni was born as Siddhartha Gautama, the son of a
local king in Kapilavastu, (what is now the Indian-Nepalese border)
around the fifth century BCE. He was a member of a privileged and
wealthy family and enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle.
The story goes back many eras to when there lived an ascetic called
Sumedha (the future Buddha) who encountered the Buddha Dipankara. This
meeting affected Sumedha in such a way that he too aspired to become a
Prince Siddhartha walking on lotuses soon after his birth.
His birth under the sal tree(inset).
Sumedha worked hard to set out on the path of the cultivation of the
“Ten Perfections.” The Bodhisattva cultivated these perfections over
many lifetimes. The life, in which he becomes the Buddha Shakyamuni some
time in the fifth century BC, represents the completion of Sumedha’s
past aspiration and tireless activities.
An old tradition tells us that shortly before his final rebirth, the
Bodhisattva spent his life as a god in Thusita (the Heaven of the
Contented). Surveying the world from Thusita, the Bodhisattva saw that
the time had come for him to take a human birth and at last become a
Buddha. The Bodhisattva looked upon for five necessities to be born;
time, country, place, race and mother.
He saw that the ‘Middle Country’ of the great continent of Jambudvipa
(India) was the ideal place in which to be born, for its people would be
receptive to His message. The Bodhisattva was conceived on the full moon
night in July; that night his mother, Maya, dreamt of a white elephant
carrying a white lotus in its trunk entering her womb through her right
Enjoying all the luxuries of a lay life.
The white elephant here symbolised perfect wisdom and royal power; in
India, an elephant was considered the most sacred animal on Earth.When
Queen Maya described this dream to the advisors, they said the Queen is
going to give birth to a very precious and powerful baby.
Having carried the Bodhisattva in her womb for exactly ten lunar
months, Queen Mahamaya gave birth.
On the full moon day in May, passing by the Lumbini grove on her way
to her home town, she was captivated by the beauty of the flowering sal
trees and stepped down from her palanquin to walk among the trees in the
grove. As she reached for a branch of a sal tree, which bent itself down
to meet her hand, the cramps of birth came upon her.
Prince Siddhartha leaving the palace.
As soon as the Bodhisattva was born, he took seven steps to the north
and announced: “I am chief in the world, I am best in the world, I am
first in the world. This is my last birth. There will be no further
rebirths.” Because no child can immediately walk or talk, let alone make
declarations at birth, these acts were taken to reveal the Buddha’s
extraordinary nature, even as an infant.
The Bodhisattva was born among the Shakya people into a khsatriya
family whose name was Gautama. Seven days after his birth his mother
died and was born in the Thusita heaven. The child was named Siddhartha,
which means “he whose purpose is accomplished.”
Subjecting his body to extreme hardships
Soon after his birth, the infant Bodhisattva was examined by Brahmin
specialists for “the thirty-two marks of the great man.” According to
Buddhist tradition, two destinies are open to one who possesses these
marks in full: he will either become a great “wheel-turning” king,
ruling the four quarters of the Earth in perfect justice, or he will
become a Buddha.
On hearing the Brahmins saying his son possessed the marks,
Suddhodhana, father of the Bodhisattva, determined that his son should
become a great king. To this end, he arranged matters that Siddhartha
should have no occasion to become unhappy and disappointed with his life
at home. In this way Suddhodhana hoped that he might prevent Siddhartha
from giving up his home-life for the life of a wandering ascetic.
In search of the truth
After the strange and marvellous circumstances of his birth,
Siddhartha grew up as the son of a royal family, confined within his
palace, leading a life of luxury enjoyed by the very wealthy and
privileged. This lifestyle made him more and more delicate and
sensitive. The King didn’t give any opportunity for him to think about
any unpleasant side to life.
After the Enlightenment
One day, when Siddhartha was riding with his charioteer he
encountered for the first time in his life a feeble old man, a severely
ill man, and a corpse being carried to the funeral by mourners. This
experience was shocking, and when afterwards he saw a wandering ascetic
with serene and composed features, Siddhartha resolved that he will
leave his home and take up the life of a wandering ascetic himself.
Siddhartha was now nearly thirty and married to Princess Yasodhara.
King Suddhodhana had already begun preparations for the crowning of his
heir, and in seven days, Siddhartha was to be crowned. Suddhodhana took
every precaution to prevent his son’s flight and even gathered together
all Shakya people capable of bearing arms to guard the palace exits. It
was then that Siddhartha’s son, Rahula was born.
“It is a bondage which has come to me,” said Siddhartha when he heard
of his first-born and only child, meaning that it was another tie added
to those already holding him back.
His first sermon
However, that night, as he left his palace, he wanted to see his son.
He went to the residence of his wife and opened the door. She was asleep
on a bed, her hand on her son’s head. Siddhartha, with one foot in the
doorway, stopped and watched.
“If I lift Yasodhara’s hand to take my son in my arms, she will
awaken and my departure will be held back. When I become the Buddha, I
will come back and see him.” And with these words he went to his horse,
accompanied by his charioteer, Channa; Siddhartha was then twenty-nine
years old and this was the beginning of a six-year quest for the truth.
During these six years, he first spent time with and practised the
systems of meditation taught by two leading ascetics of the time, Alara
Kalama and Uddaka Rama Putta.
Although he mastered their respective theories, he felt that here he
had not found any real answer to the problem of human suffering. So
next, in the company of five other wandering ascetics, the Bodhisattva
practised two extreme ways, which he thought would lead to
First he tried the way of giving extreme pleasure to his body, when
this failed, he restricted his food intake; as a result he became a
living skeleton, but neither did this work. Then he realised that the
only way to become the Buddha was to try the middle path.
One day, when he was seated quietly beneath the shade of a rose-apple
tree, his mind had settled into a state of deep calm and peace. Buddhist
tradition calls this state the first meditation or “dhyana”. As he
reflected, it dawned on the Bodhisattva that it was by letting the mind
settle into this state of peace that he might discover what he was
This required that he nourish his body and regain his strength. His
five companions thought he had turned away from the quest and left him
to his own devices.
Later, a young woman named Sujata offered milk-rice to the
Bodhisattva. Now nourished, he seated himself beneath a bo tree,
henceforth to be known as “the tree of awakening” or Bodhi Tree. It was
once more the night of the Vesak full moon and he made a final resolve:
“Let only skin, muscle and bone remain, let the flesh and blood dry in
my body, but I will not give up this seat without attaining complete
Mara is a being who, in certain respects, is like Satan in
Christianity. His name means “bringer of death” and his most common
nickname is “the Bad One”. Mara is not so much a personification of evil
as of the power of all kinds of experience to seduce and entangle the
So, as the Bodhisattva sat beneath the tree, firm in his resolve,
Mara approached, mounted on his great elephant and accompanied by his
dreadful armies. His one purpose was to assault the Bodhisattva and
frustrate his efforts of finding the way to immortality.
The king of death tried to encourage his troops on, but even the
arrows of his monsters lost their sharp points and were instantly
covered with flowers. Enclosed in a zone of complete protection, the
Bodhisattva laughed at his attackers because not a single hair on his
body was disturbed.
Having overcome Mara’s attempts to distract him, the Bodhisattva then
lifted his right hand and touched the ground calling on the very Earth
as his witness. It signalled the defeat of Mara and the Buddha’s
complete awakening. As the Buddha touched the Earth, Mara tumbled from
his elephant and his armies fled in disarray.
The Buddha had achieved His purpose. In Buddhist terms, He had had a
direct experience of Nirvana.
The first Buddhists
It is said that at that point His mind inclined not to teach: “This
Dharma that I have found is profound, hard to see, hard to understand;
it is peaceful, sublime, beyond the sphere of mere reasoning, subtle, to
be experienced by the wise. But this generation takes delight in
attachment, is delighted by attachment, rejoices in attachment and as
such, it is hard for them to see this truth, namely, Nirvana”.
Buddha spent His first seven weeks near the bo tree. He thought for a
while about whom He should first teach what He has accomplished. He
looked for His first two teachers, but realised that both of them are
dead already. Then He remembered the five ascetics who helped him.
In a deer park outside Benares, the Buddha approached the five and
gave them instructions in the path to the termination of suffering that
He had discovered. In this way, He set in motion the Wheel of Dharma,
and soon, there were six awakened ones in the world. For the Buddha,
this was the beginning of a life of teaching that lasted years. Those
were the first followers of Buddhism.