There are many ways to answer this question, for there are many aspects of the Buddha. There was the person, Siddhārtha Gautama, who truly existed. He was born, lived an interesting life which we know a little about, and died. Buddha is also a mythical character. While Siddhārtha was real, the stories that developed in the centuries after his death became diluted with the grandeur people feel for their holy leaders. And finally, despite his teachings to the contrary, there is the religious figurehead, the statue to whom people bow and leave offerings, that Buddha has become to many.
Buddha was born a man, not a god, nor a prophet. His name was Siddhārtha Gautama and he was born a prince to a noble family in an expansive kingdom. He was a star pupil and adept meditator from a very young age. His father was obsessed with his beautiful son and decided to raise the child in a world devoid of suffering, hate or malice. Siddhartha was rarely allowed to leave the palace, and when he did, the King had the royal guards clean the streets of any unsightly scenes on Siddhartha’s path before he arrived. So, Siddhartha grew up without ever seeing poverty, sickness or death. In this fabricated bubble of delusion, Siddhartha took a bride, had children, and lived a relatively normal life.
Then one day, at the age of 29, as he was walking the streets, he looked down an alley and saw a sick, old man that the royal guards hadn’t cleared away. In a moment of profound insight, Siddhartha realized the lie he had been living. In this brief moment he understood that we are born, we age, we get sick and die, just to be reborn and do it all over again. In a fit of rage, Siddhartha left his kingdom to find a way out of this endless loop, known as Samsara.
Siddhartha’s mission took him to two different mystical yoga teachers. He was such a good meditator that each of the teachers asked Siddhartha to succeed them. Siddhartha, however, felt that something was lacking and in both cases abandoned his studies. Accompanied by four fellow monks, Siddhartha set out to take his austerities even further. For years he lived eating no more than a nut a day and sat in meditation for weeks at a time. But he was still unable to find a path out of the endless loop of reincarnation.
One day, as Siddhartha was crossing a river, he became faint and nearly drowned. Sensing that something wasn’t right on the path he was leading, he told his fellow monks that he would sit under a tree (the Bodhi Tree in Bohd Gaya) and would not leave until he achieved enlightenment. While he sat, a little girl brought him milk and rice pudding to keep him nourished. Sitting quietly for 49 days the thoughts of his mind slowly disintegrated into nothingness. And in this silence he gained a new perspective of reality, for only by stepping back can one see the whole picture. And in so doing, Siddhartha attained enlightenment and became the Buddha, or the “Awakened One”.
How was Buddhism innovative?
Buddha disagreed with two of the predominant religious philosophies popular in India at the time. The first was a nihilistic belief common amongst atheists and other popular traditions. The devotees of these faiths felt that nothing we do or say matters because we are made up of five elements which inevitably dissolve into nothingness. In practice, many who believed in this philosophy were hedonistic and without discipline. Buddha rejected the philosophy and felt that the gluttonous lifestyle of its disciples was extreme. Instead, Buddha held that consciousness is real and exists independent of the 5 elements. Consciousness exists before we are born and will exist after we die and is, in fact, infinite in all directions.
Another prevalent philosophy with which the Buddha disagreed was a Hindu belief that originated in the Upanishads and held that Brahma (the macrocosm, the whole, the Everything) is an exact reflection of Atman (the microcosm, the individual, the Self). Thus, everything we see, do, touch, feel, experience, is both a reflection of the Self and the Whole. So, in order to experience God, we must experience Self in its most pure form. To do so we remove any bodily distractions from life. The Buddha, on the other hand, taught that neither Braman nor Atman were inherently real for both are constructs of the mind. Instead, our path is to experience the Anatman — "not soul" or "not self.” The practice which often manifested from the Hindu philosophy was asceticism (severe self-discipline), where devotees deprived themselves of normal bodily needs in order to commune with Brahma. To Buddha, this practice felt extreme.
The path Buddha prescribed is a balance between obsessive discipline and overindulgence… a Middle Way. This shift in perspective represented a huge revolution in the spirituality of Indian society. At the time only the men in the Brahman caste could pursue spiritual paths. If you were a woman or a man who did not belong to this caste, then you were meant to be a family person. In addition, it was expected that you pay Brahmans to represent you in the spiritual world. The Buddha rejected this and said that anybody could utilize his teachings to quiet the mind and discover the way out of samsara. The Buddha had found a path to liberation from the endless cycle of life and death and it was for everyone.
For the following 55 years, the Buddha traveled with his Sangha (spiritual community), teaching the Path to Enlightenment. At the age of 80, Buddha announced to his Sangha that he would soon be leaving his body. It is said that his last words were "All composite things (Saṅkhāra) are perishable. Strive for your own liberation with diligence”. His body was cremated and his ashes were put into many mausoleums and monuments that still exist today.
Coming soon… Part 2: Understanding Basic Buddhist Philosophy.