The Supreme Buddha
Siddartha Gautama is the founder of Buddhism. He is generally
recognized by Buddhists as the Supreme Buddha -Sambuddha of our age. The
exact time of his birth and death are uncertain.
Most early 20th-century historians date his lifetime from 563 BCE to
483 BCE. More recently at a specialist symposium on this question, the
majority of those scholars who presented definite opinions gave dates
within 20 years either side of 400 BCE for the Buddha’s death, with
others supporting earlier or later dates.
Gautama, also known as Sakyamuni -“sage of the Shakyas”, is the key
figure in Buddhism, and accounts of his life, discourses, and monastic
rules were said to have been summarized after his demise and memorized
by the Sangha.
Passed down by oral tradition, the Tripitaka, the collection of
teachings attributed to Gautama by the Theravada, was committed to
writing about 400 years later.
“Scholars are increasingly reluctant to make unqualified claims about
the historical facts of the Buddha’s life and teachings.”
Conception and birth
Siddhartha was born in Lumbini and raised in the small kingdom or
principality of Kapilavastu. Culturally, these can be considered part of
the broader region of Ancient India. His father was King Suddhodana, the
chief of the Shakya nation, one of several ancient tribes in the growing
state of Kosala; Gautama was the family name.
As was the Shakya tradition, when his mother Queen Maya fell
pregnant, she returned to her father’s kingdom for the confinement, but
after leaving Kapilvastu, she gave birth along the way at Lumbini in a
garden beneath a Sal tree.
The day of the Buddha’s birth is widely celebrated in Theravada
countries as Vesak. Various sources hold that the Buddha’s mother died
at his birth, a few days or seven days later. The infant was given the
name Siddhartha, meaning “he who achieves his aim”.
During the birth celebrations, the hermit seer Asita journeyed from
his mountain abode and announced that the child would either become a
Universal Monarch (chakravartin) or a great holy man.
This occurred after Siddhartha placed his feet in ascetic Asita’s
hair and the ascetic examined the birthmarks. Suddhodarna held a naming
ceremony on the fifth day, and invited eight brahmin scholars to read
All gave a dual prediction that the baby would either become a
Universal Monarch or a great holy man. Kondagnna, the youngest of the
team and later to be the first Arhant, was the only one who
unequivocally predicted that Siddhartha would become a Buddha.
Early life and marriage
Siddhartha, destined to a luxurious life as a prince, had three
palaces (for seasonal occupation) especially built for him. His father,
King Suddhodana, wishing for Siddhartha to be a Universal Monarch,
shielded his son from religious teachings or knowledge of human
Siddhartha was brought up by his mother’s younger sister, Maha
Pajapati. As the boy reached the age of 16, his father arranged marriage
to Yasodhara , a cousin of the same age. In time, she gave birth to a
son, Rahula. Siddhartha spent 29 years as a Prince in Kapilavastu.
Although his father ensured that Siddhartha was provided with
everything he could want or need, Siddhartha felt that material wealth
was not the ultimate goal of life.
The Great Renunciation
At the age of 29, Siddhartha left his palace in order to meet his
subjects. Despite his father’s effort to remove the sick, aged and
suffering from the public view, Siddhartha was said to have seen an old
Disturbed by this, when told by his charioteer Channa that all people
would eventually grow old, the prince went on further trips where he
encountered, variously a diseased man, a decaying corpse, and an
Deeply depressed by these sights, he sought to overcome old age,
illness, and death by living the life of an ascetic.
Siddhartha renounced his palace, accompanied by Channa aboard his
horse Kanthaka, leaving behind this royal life to become a mendicant. It
is said that the horse’s hooves were muffled by the gods” to prevent
guards from knowing the Bodhisatta’s departure. This event is known as
“The Great Renunciation”.
Siddhartha initially went to Rajagaha and began his ascetic life by
begging for alms in the street. Having been recognised by the men of
King Bimbisara, Bimbisara offered him the throne after hearing of
Siddhartha’s quest. Siddhartha rejected the offer, but promised to visit
his kingdom of Magadha first, upon attaining enlightenment.
Siddhartha left Rajagaha and practiced under two hermit teachers.
After mastering the teachings of Alara Kalama, Siddhartha was asked by
Kalama to succeed him, but moved on after being unsatisfied with his
He then became a student of Uddaka Ramaputta, but although he
achieved high levels of meditative consciousness and was asked to
succeed Ramaputta, he was still not satisfied with his path, and moved
Siddhartha and a group of five companions led by Kondagnna then set
out to take their austerities even further. They tried to find
enlightenment through near total deprivation of worldly goods, including
food, practising self-mortification.
After nearly starving himself to death by restricting his food intake
to around a leaf or nut per day, he collapsed in a river while bathing
and almost drowned. Siddhartha began to reconsider his path.
Then, he remembered a moment in childhood in which he had been
watching his father start the season’s plowing, and he had fallen into a
naturally concentrated and focused state that was blissful and
refreshing, the Anapana-sathi meditation (awareness of breathing in and
The Great Enlightenment
After asceticism and concentrating on meditation and Anapana-sati ,
Siddhartha is said to have discovered the Middle path ,away from the
extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification.
He accepted a little milk and rice pudding from a village girl named
Sujata, who wrongly believed him to be the spirit that had granted her a
wish, such was his emaciated appearance.
Then, sitting under a pipal tree, now known as the Bo tree in Bodh
Gaya, he vowed never to get up until he had found the Truth. Kondagnna
and the other four companions, believing that he had abandoned his
search and become undisciplined, left. After 49 days meditating, at the
age of 35, he attained Enlightenment.
According to some traditions, this occurred approximately in the
fifth lunar month, and according to others in the twelfth. Gautama, from
then on, was known as the Buddha or “Awakened One.” Buddha is also
sometimes translated as “The Enlightened One.” Often, he is referred to
in Buddhism as Shakyamuni Buddha or “The Awakened One of the Shakya
At this point, he realized complete awakening and insight into the
nature and cause of human suffering which was ignorance, along with
steps necessary to eliminate it. These truths were then categorized into
the Four Noble Truths; the state of supreme liberation-possible for any
being-was called Nirvana. He then came to possess the Nine
Characteristics, which are said to belong to every Buddha.
According to one of the stories belongs to Samyutta Nikaya, a
scripture found in the Pali and other canons, immediately after his
Enlightenment, the Buddha was wondering whether or not he should teach
the Dhamma to human beings.
He was concerned that, as human beings were overpowered by greed,
hatred and delusion, they would not be able to see the true Dhamma,
which was subtle, deep and hard to understand.
A divine spirit, Brahma interceded and asked if he would teach Dhamma
to the world, as there will be those who will understand the Dhamma”.
With his great compassion to all beings in the universe, the Buddha
agreed to become a teacher.
Formation of the order of Sangha
After becoming enlightened, two merchants whom the Buddha met, named
Tapussa and Bhallika became the first lay disciples. They are given some
hairs from the Buddha’s head, which
are believed to now be enshrined in the Shwe Dagon Temple in Rangoon,
Burma. The Buddha intended to visit Asita, and his former teachers,
Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta to explain his findings, but they had
already passed away.
The Buddha thus journeyed to Deer Park near Varanasi (Benares) in
northern India, he set in motion the Wheel of Dharma by delivering his
first sermon to the group of five companions with whom he had previously
They, together with the Buddha, formed the first order of Sangha, the
company of Buddhist monks, and hence, the first formation of Triple Gems
(Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha) was completed, with Kondagnna becoming the
All five soon become Arahants, and with the conversion of Yasa and
fifty four of his friends, the number of Arahants swelled to 60 within
the first two months. The conversion of the three Kassapa brothers and
their 200, 300 and 500 disciples swelled the Sangha over 1000, and they
were dispatched to explain the dhamma to the populace.
For the remaining 45 years of his life, the Buddha is said to have
travelled in the Gangetic Plain, in what is now Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and
southern Nepal, teaching his doctrine and discipline to an extremely
diverse range of people- from nobles to outcaste street sweepers, mass
murderers such as Angulimala and cannibals such as Alavaka. This
extended to many adherents of rival philosophies and religions.
The Buddha founded the order of Buddhist monks and nuns - the Sangha
to continue the dispensation after his Parinibbana- the Great Demise and
made thousands of converts. His religion was open to all races and
classes and had no caste structure. He was also subject to attack from
opposition religious groups, including attempted murders and framing.
The sangha travelled from
place to place in India, expounding the dhamma. This occurred
throughout the year, except during the four months of the “Vassana”
rainy season. Due to the heavy floods travelling was difficult and
ascetics of all religions in that time did not travel, since it was more
difficult to do so without stepping on submerged animal life,
unwittingly killing them. During this period, the Sangha would retreat
to a monastery, public park or a forest and people would come to them.
The first “Vassana” was spent at Varanasi when the order of Sangha
was first formed. After this, he travelled to Rajagaha, the capital of
Magadha to visit King Bimbisara, in accordance with his promise after
Enlightenment. It was during this visit that Sariputta and
Mahamoggallana were converted by Assaji, one of the first five
disciples. They were to become the Buddha’s two foremost disciples.
The Buddha then spent the next three seasons at Veluvana Bamboo Grove
monastery in Rajagaha, the capital of Magadha. The monastery, which was
of a moderate distance from the city centre was donated by king
Upon hearing of the Enlightenment, Suddhodana dispatched royal
delegations to ask the Buddha to return to Kapilavastu. Nine delegations
were sent in all, but the delegates joined the Sangha and became
Arahants. Neglecting worldly matters they did not convey their message.
The tenth delegation lead by Kaludayi, a childhood friend, resulted
in the message being successfully conveyed as well as becoming an
Arahant. Since it was not the “Vassana”, the Buddha agreed, and two
years after his Enlightenment, took a two month journey to Kapilavastu
on foot, preaching the dhamma along the way.
Upon his return, the royal palace had prepared the midday meal, but
since no specific invitation had come, the Sangha went for an alms round
in Kapilavastu. Hearing this, Suddhodana hastened to approach the
Buddha, stating “Ours is the warrior lineage of Mahamassata, and not a
single warrior has gone seeking alms”, to which the Buddha replied,
“That is not the custom of your royal lineage. But it is the custom
of my Buddha lineage. Several thousands of Buddhas have gone by seeking
Suddhodana invited the sangha back to the royal palace for the meal,
followed by a dhamma deliverance, after which he became a Sotapanna.
During the visit, many members of the royal family joined the Sangha.
His cousins Ananda and Anuruddha were to become two of his five Chief
Disciples. His son Rahula also joined the sangha at the age of seven,
and was one of the ten Chief Disciples. His half-brother Nanda also
joined the order of Sangha and became an Arahant. Another cousin
Devadatta also became a monk although he later became an enemy and tried
to kill the Buddha on multiple occasions.
Of his disciples, Sariputta, Mahamoggallana, Mahakasyapa, Ananda and
Anuruddha comprised the five Chief Disciples. His ten foremost disciples
were completed by the quintet of Upali, Subhoti, Rahula, Mahakaccana and
In the fifth “vassana”, the Buddha was staying at Mahavana near
Hearing of the impending death of Suddhodana, the Buddha went to his
father and preached the dhamma, and Suddhodana became an Arahant prior
to death. The death and cremation led to the formation of the order of
Buddhist texts record that he was reluctant to ordain women as nuns.
His foster mother Maha Pajapati approached him asking to join the order
of Sangha, but the Buddha refused, and began the journey from
Kapilavastu back to Rajagaha. Maha Pajapati was so intent on renouncing
the world that she lead a group of royal Sakyan and Koliyan ladies,
following the Sangha to Rajagaha.
The Buddha eventually accepted them five years after the formation of
the Sangha on the grounds that their capacity for enlightenment was
equal to that of men, but he gave them certain additional rules - Vinaya
to follow. This occurred after Ananda interceded on their behalf.
Yasodhara too became a nun, with both becoming Arahants.
During his ministry, Devadatta (who was not an Arahant) frequently
attempted to undermine the Buddha. At one point Devadatta asked the
Buddha to stand aside to let him lead the Sangha.
The Buddha declined, and stated that Devadatta’s actions did not
reflect on the Triple Gem, but on him alone. Devadatta conspired with
Prince Ajatasattu, son of king Bimbisara, so that they would kill and
usurp the Buddha and Bimbisara respectively.
Devadatta attempted three times to kill the Buddha. The first attempt
involved the hiring of a group of archers, whom upon meeting the Buddha
A second attempt followed when Devadatta attempted to roll a large
boulder down a hill. It hit another rock and splintered, only grazing
the Buddha in the foot. A final attempt by plying an elephant with
alcohol and setting it loose again failed.
Failing this, Devadatta attempted to cause a schism in the Sangha, by
proposing extra restrictions on the Vinaya. When the Buddha declined,
Devadatta started a breakaway order, criticising the Buddha’s laxity.
At first, he managed to convert some of the Bhikkhus, but Sariputta
and Mahamoggallana expounded the dhamma to them and succeeded in winning
them back. When the Buddha reached the age of 55, he made Ananda his
The Great Demise
According to the Mahaparinibbana Sutta of the Pali canon, at the age
of 80, the Buddha announced that he would soon enter Parinirvana or the
final deathless state abandoning the earthly body.
After this, the Buddha ate his last meal, which, according to
different translations, was either a mushroom delicacy or soft pork,
which he had received as an offering from a blacksmith named Cunda.
Falling violently ill, Buddha instructed his attendant Ananda to
convince Cunda that the meal eaten at his place had nothing to do with
his passing and that his meal would be a source of the greatest merit as
it provided the last meal for a Buddha.
The Mahayana Vimalakirti Sutra explains, in Chapter 3, that the
Buddha doesn’t really become ill or old but purposely presents such an
appearance only to teach those born during the five defilements the
impermanence and pain of defiled worlds and to strive for Nirvana.
“‘Reverend Ananda, the Tathagatas have the body of the Dhamma - not a
body that is sustained by material food. The Tathagatas have a
transcendental body that has transcended all mundane qualities.
There is no injury to the body of a Tathagata, as it is rid of all
defilements. The body of a Tathagata is uncompounded and free of all
formative activity. Reverend Ananda, to believe there can be illness in
such a body is irrational and unseemly!’ Nevertheless, since the Buddha
has appeared during the time of the five corruptions, he disciplines
living beings by acting lawfully and humble.”
Ananda protested Buddha’s decision to enter Parinirvana in the
abandoned jungles of Kusinara of the Mallas. Buddha, however, reminded
Ananda how Kusinara was a land once ruled by a righteous wheel-turning
king that resounded with joy:
“Ananda, resounded unceasingly day and night with ten sounds - the
trumpeting of elephants, the neighing of horses, the rattling of
chariots, the beating of drums and tabours, music and song, cheers, the
clapping of hands, and cries of “Eat, drink, and be merry!” “
Buddha then asked all the attendant Bhikshus to clarify any doubts or
questions they had. They had no questions. He then finally entered
Parinirvana. The Buddha’s final words were, “All composite things pass
away. Strive for your own liberation with diligence.”
The Buddha’s body was cremated and the relics were placed in
monuments or stupas, some of which are believed to have survived till
present. For example, The Temple of the Tooth or “Dalada Maligawa” in
Sri Lanka is the place where the relic of the right tooth of Buddha is
kept at present.
According to the Pali historical chronicles of Sri Lanka, the
Deepavamsa and Mahavamsa, the coronation of Asoka is 218 years after the
death of Buddha. According to one Mahayana record in Chinese the
coronation of Asoka is 116 years after the death of Buddha.
Therefore, the time of Buddha’s passing is either 486 BCE according
to Theravada record or 383 BCE according to Mahayana record. However,
the actual date traditionally accepted as the date of the Buddha’s death
in Theravada countries is 544 or 543 BCE, because the reign of Asoka was
traditionally reckoned to be about 60 years earlier than current
At his death, the Buddha told his disciples to follow no leader, but
to follow his teachings (dhamma). However, at the First Buddhist
Council, Mahakasyapa was held by the Sangha as their leader, with the
two chief disciples Mahamoggallana and Sariputta having died before the