Siddhartha Gautama (560-480 B.C.) was descended from the noble family of the Shakyas who shared in governing the small state of Kapilavastu near the powerful principality of Kosala, what is today Nepal. He grew up beneath the snowy summits of the Himalayas, which could be seen glittering in the distance throughout the year. As a boy and young man Gautama experienced the worldly happiness of his wealthy aristocratic world. His son Rahula was the fruit of an early marriage.
His father carefully sheltered him from all misery. However, his happiness was shattered when he became conscious of the basic facts of existence. During four excursions away from the palace he encountered four signs: an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and a monk. The first three symbolized humankind's suffering; the fourth, Siddhartha's destiny. Horror and disgust at the wretchedness of the flesh are ill becoming of me, he said to himself, for I too shall grow old, sicken and die. "As I thought these thoughts, all my courage failed me." The consequence was his decision (which took traditional Indian forms) to leave his home, his country, his family, and his wealth, to seek salvation in asceticism. He was twenty-nine years old. One narrative runs: "As a young man in the bloom of his youth, in the first flush of life, the ascetic Gautama left his home and went into homelessness. Though his parents did not wish it, though they shed tears and wept, the ascetic Gautama had his hair and beard shorn off and put on yellow garments."
Instructed in the ascetic exercises of Yoga, he practiced mortification of the flesh for many years in the woods. "When I saw a cowherd or one who was gathering wood, I fled from forest to forest, from valley to valley, from peak to peak. And why? In order that I should not see them and that they should not see me." For meditation demands solitude. "Verily, this is a lovely bit of earth, a beautiful wood; clear flows the river and there are delightful places in which to bathe; round about there are villages. This is a good place for a noble man striving for salvation." Here sits Gautama, waiting for the moment of Enlightenment, his "tongue cleaving to his palate," "clutching, squeezing, tormenting" his thoughts.
But all in vain. His mortification brings no awakening. He comes to understand that the truth remains veiled in asceticism which is nothing more than asceticism, that empty constraint accomplishes nothing. Then he does something monstrous in the eyes of his Hindu faith; he begins to eat plentifully in order to restore his strength. Regarding him as a renegade, the ascetics with whom he has made friends break with him. He is alone, practicing pure meditation without asceticism.
One night as he meditated beneath a fig tree, the Great Awakening came to him. All at once a vision made everything clear to him: what is; why it is; how beings are caught up in blind lust for life; how they stray from body to body in a never-ending chain of rebirths; what suffering is, whence it comes, how it can be overcome.
His insight is uttered as a doctrine: neither worldly pleasure nor ascetic mortification of the flesh is the right way of life. The former is ignoble, the latter is rich in suffering, and neither leads to the goal. Buddha's discovery is the Middle Path. It is the path of salvation. It starts from the belief, not yet illumined by understanding, that all existence is suffering, and that the essential is redemption from suffering. Then, by way of the decision to live righteously in word and deed, the Path leads to immersion in various degrees of meditation and through meditation to the knowledge of what was already present in the initial faith: the truth of suffering. It is only at the end that one attains clear knowledge of the Path one has traveled, Enlightenment. The circle closes, fulfillment is achieved. This Enlightenment is the step from endless coming-into-being and passing-away to eternity, from worldly existence to Nirvana.
For seven days Gautama, now the Buddha (the Enlightened One), squats at the Fig tree, tasting the joy of redemption. And then what? In the certainty of his Enlightenment, he resolves to keep silent. His knowledge is foreign to the world. How can the world be expected to understand him? Why put himself to "vain trouble"? The world will take its inevitable periodic course through eras of destruction and eras of re-creation; the blind, unknowing creatures will be carried along forever by the wheel of rebirths, in the rise and fall of their form of existence. The actions performed in any present existence are the karma that determines the form of the next rebirth, just as the existence was itself determined by a preceding one. The world does not change, but in it salvation is possible for the Knowing One. Liberated from further rebirths, he enters into Nirvana. Buddha acquired this knowledge in solitude. "No man is my friend." He knows of his redemption. "Enough, I will not reveal it to others; from those who live in love and hate, the doctrine remains hidden."
But Buddha cannot preserve in his self-sufficiency, keeping his redemption to himself. After an inner struggle he decides to divulge his doctrine. He does not expect much, and later, when his preaching attracts throngs of people, he predicts that the true doctrine will not long endure. But he continues on his helping way. "In a world gone dark I will beat the deathless drum."
His preaching begins in the Deer Park in Benares, where he attracts his first disciples. He was to live for another forty years, wandering, teaching in the vast territories of northern India. Spiritually, nothing new happened to him. The core of his sermons was a finished doctrine; he varied an identical theme. Consequently, one can speak of this period only as a whole. Buddha taught in lectures, stories, parables, maxims; we hear dialogues, of countless scenes and situations, of conversations. He preached not in Sanskrit, but in the vernacular. He thought in concrete images, but he made use of concepts taken from Hindu philosophy.
His immense historical influence rests very largely on the monastic communities he founded. The disciples left home and occupation and family. They wandered far and wide, in poverty and chastity, tonsured and clad in yellow monks' robes. Having attained the redemption of Enlightenment, they desired nothing more in this world. They lived by begging, carrying bowls into which people put food as they passed through villages. From the very start the communities had their rules and regulations, their leaders and discipline. They were joined for periods of time by lay companions, including kings, wealthy merchants, nobles, and famous courtesans. All were generous with their gifts. The monastic communities came into possession of parks and houses where large throngs who wished to receive the doctrine could be lodged during the rainy season.
As it spread, this monasticism met with resistance. "The people grew restive: The ascetic Gautama has come to bring childlessness, to bring widowhood, the end of generations. Many noble youths are turning to the ascetic Gautama to live in holiness." When the throngs of monks appeared, the people mocked them: "Here they come, the baldheads. Here they come, mawkishly hanging their heads in meditativeness; yes indeed, they are as meditative as a cat lying in wait for a mouse." But for Buddha it was a matter of principle to offer no resistance. "I fight not with the world, ye monks. The world fights with me. He who proclaims the truth, ye monks, fights with no one in the world." The struggle was carried on with spiritual weapons. Buddha did not confront a united spiritual power. The Vedic religion had many tendencies; there were already ascetic communities, there were numerous philosophies and even a sophist technique of confusing an adversary with many questions, each of the possible answers to which involved him in contradictions. But since Buddha rejected the sacrifices of the Vedic religion, and the authority of the Vedas themselves, his preaching was a radical break with the whole traditional religion.
The texts give us a colorful picture of the life and activity of Buddha and his monks. The rainy season obliged them to spend three months in the house with its vast halls and storerooms, or by the lotus ponds in the adjoining park. The rest of the year was spent in wandering. On their wanderings the monks were lodged by the faithful or slept in the open. When groups of monks met, an immense hubbub arose. When Buddha was about to appear, someone hushed them, for he was a lover of peace and quiet. In carriages or on elephants came kings and merchants and nobles to speak with Buddha and the monks. Each day Buddha himself took up his beggar's bowl and passed from house to house. Throngs of disciples followed him everywhere, and lay companions accompanied the procession, some in wagons bearing provisions.
The memory of Buddha's death and the period preceding it has been preserved. The date of his death, 480 B.C., is regarded as certain. His last wandering is described in detail. At first he tried to get the better of his painful illness and cling to his life. But then he put his will behind him: "three months hence the Perfect One will enter into Nirvana." Journeying onward, he casts a last glance back at the beloved city of Vesali. As they enter a little wood, he gives his last instructions: "Make me a bed between two twin trees, my head to the north. I am tired, Ananda." And he lay down as a lion lying down to rest.
When one of his disciples wept, he said: "Not so, Ananda. Do not mourn, do not lament. Have I not taught you that it is in the very nature of all things near and dear to us to pass away? How then, Ananda, since whatever is brought into being contains within itself the inherent necessity of dissolution, how can it be that such a being should not be dissolved?"
The disciples believe that with Buddha's death the word would have lost its master. "Think not so. The doctrine and the order that I have taught you, they will be your master when I am gone. The Perfect One thinks not that it is he who should lead the brotherhood...I am now grown old, my journey is drawing to its close, I am turning eighty years of age. Therefore, O Ananda, be ye lamps unto yourselves. Rely on yourselves. Hold fast to the truth as a lamp. Seek salvation alone in the truth."
His lasts words were:"All accomplishment is transient. Strive unremittingly." Then, rising from one stage of contemplation to the next, Buddha entered into Nirvana.