Editor’s Note: This is the story of Buddhism’s origin and initial progression throughout the eastern world. Historical records and oral tradition are not consistent on many details of the Buddha’s life. In instances of ambiguity, we implemented the consensus of majority opinion. For further study, consult the sources listed at the end of this article.
Birth of a Buddha: A Buddhist Legend
Before the Buddha was born, his mother, Maya, dreamed a white elephant, thought to foretell her child’s future greatness, descended from heaven and entered her womb. When the time came, she journeyed homeward for the birth. Along the way she came to a beautiful grove of trees and decided to rest. There in the garden, assisted by Hindu gods, her child was born from her side. Seven days later Maya died. She had given birth to a Buddha and could serve no further purpose on earth.
The child was Siddhartha Gautama. His father, Suddhodana, was a wealthy ruler from the prestigious Sakya clan of northern India. Their royal home was in Kapilavastu, a city nestled near the foothills of the Himalayas in present-day Nepal. When Siddhartha was five days old, his father invited one hundred Brahmins—nobles from the highest Hindu caste—to his palace to foretell the future of his baby son.
Seven of the men prophesied Siddhartha would become either a powerful ruler of the world or a wandering holy man who would found a great religion. But an eighth man named Kodanna was certain Siddhartha was destined for the latter. He prophesied the boy would become a Buddha who would achieve full enlightenment. Kodanna also foretold Siddhartha’s renunciation of the world upon his sight of four things—an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a monk.
Siddhartha’s father hoped his son would become a great king, so he vigilantly sought to prevent his son from fulfilling Kodanna’s prophecy. He worked tirelessly to shelter Siddhartha from the knowledge of human suffering and made sure he was surrounded with every comfort and luxury within the palace walls.
Going Forth: The Four Sights
On a chariot ride through the park one afternoon, Siddhartha passed by an old man. Shocked by the man’s withered appearance, Siddhartha asked the driver of his chariot what was wrong with him. The driver explained there was nothing wrong, and that the man was only old. Siddhartha returned to the palace agitated and disturbed. On two subsequent drives, Siddhartha encountered a sick man and a corpse. Last of all, he saw a religious man dressed in yellow robes, deep in meditation. Siddhartha was stunned by the pain and suffering he suddenly realized awaited all humanity—even a prince like himself.
Later that evening, Siddhartha was entertained by beautiful women before he fell asleep. When he awoke sometime in the night, he was repulsed by the chaos and discomposure of the women who had fallen asleep around him. His impressions of the world had undergone a dramatic change, and he decided to leave the palace that very night. Before he left, he stole one last glimpse of his sleeping wife and infant son but did not say goodbye. Once he fled, the twenty-nine-year-old Siddhartha shaved his head and dressed in the robes of a monk. He would spend the next six years seeking the answer to human suffering.
Enlightenment: The Cessation of All Things
In northern India during Siddhartha’s time, many people felt enslaved to a painful existence of suffering. Wandering Hindu holy men renounced family and a normal life to seek universal truth. They hoped to attain nirvana—that transcendent state beyond self, suffering, and desire that leads to complete peace and happiness. Many believed reaching enlightenment—a perfect state of wisdom and knowledge—would provide insight into the true nature of reality and thus release them from the endless cycle of death and rebirth and into nirvana.
At first, Siddhartha studied Hindu scriptures and practiced meditation and yoga under the guidance of several Brahmin priests. When he mastered their techniques but remained unchanged, he lost his enthusiasm for the teachings and left. However, when Siddhartha later reached enlightenment and began to formulate his own teachings, he retained some elements of Hinduism.
“They hoped that punishing their bodies would lead to the ultimate liberation from worldly desires that cause human suffering, thus escaping the cycle of rebirth.”
Next, Siddhartha turned to asceticism. He joined a group of five monks, and together they lived in the jungle and devoted themselves to extreme practices of self-mortification and meditation. They slept outside and survived on little to no food in hopes that punishing their bodies would lead to the ultimate liberation from worldly desires that cause human suffering, thus escaping the cycle of rebirth.
Eventually, Siddhartha became so weak he fainted while bathing and reached the conclusion that asceticism was not the path to enlightenment either. His five friends soon abandoned him when they discovered him eating a bowl of food.
Left alone, Siddhartha sat down under a bodhi tree and resolved he would not get up until he became enlightened. For the next few weeks, Siddhartha progressed through several stages of consciousness until he reached the state beyond suffering.
In his first stage of meditation, Siddhartha saw all his past lives and cycles of death and rebirth, called samsara. In the second stage, he discovered the law (called dharma) that guides this endless cycle, and the consequence of good and bad deeds (karma) that affect rebirth. Finally, he attained his goal in the third stage of meditation. He reached nirvana, the cessation of all things, and became the Buddha. He was thirty-five years old.
Buddha’s Teachings: A Crash Course
The Buddha did not believe in the existence of a supreme being or the souls of men, and he never claimed to be divine. He insisted his teachings were based solely on his own experiences, and though he could point the way, it was up to each follower to find his or her own path to nirvana.
After he became enlightened, the Buddha’s first students were the five monks who abandoned him after they saw him eating. He intuitively made his way to the deer park in Benares (now Varanasi) where his friends resided. When they saw him, they knew immediately he was transformed and listened to his first sermon.
“Buddha taught that suffering exists, suffering is caused by our desires and cravings, we don’t have to suffer, and there is a path to end suffering.”
Now known as The Four Noble Truths, the Buddha’s teachings state that suffering exists, suffering is caused by our desires and cravings, we don’t have to suffer, and there is a path to end suffering. He called the path to end suffering The Eightfold Path. His five friends eventually became the first community of Buddhist monks, called a sangha.
Buddha’s Death and the Spread of Buddhism
The Buddha spent forty-five years traveling across the Ganges Plains in northern India, spreading his teachings to whoever would listen. When he was eighty years old, the Buddha accepted a meal from a blacksmith, got food poisoning, and died. His body was cremated, and the ashes and charred bones were distributed to his followers as relics. These relics were sacred objects that had the power to heal and bless and were enshrined in monuments and temples around the region.
Buddhism remained confined to northern India for two hundred years but later began to spread under King Asoka’s power (274–232 BC). After the king waged a bloody war with devastating losses to expand his kingdom, he felt deeply remorseful and converted to the peaceful and tolerant teachings of Buddhism. He used the Buddha’s dharma to reform his government and sent Buddhist missionaries throughout India, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, China, and North Africa. Buddhism became a powerful cultural influence in Asia and has remained the majority religion for thousands of years.
Over time, Buddhism developed into several distinct branches. Theravada Buddhism, the most conservative school, is prominent in Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar. Mahayana Buddhism, the more liberal, is practiced in East Asian and South Asian countries such as China and India. Vajrayana Buddhism is most prevalent in Tibet and other Himalayan countries.
Read more about Buddhist beliefs and how it’s practiced today.
Leigh Merryman is a writer for IMB. She lives with her family in Southeast Asia.
The Story of Buddhism by Donald S. Lopez Jr
The Path to Enlightenment by John R. Davis
From Buddha to Jesus by Steve Cioccolanti
Buddha by Karen Armstrong
Gautama Buddha by Vishvapani Blomfield
“Buddhism: A Christian Perspective”
“Buddhism through Christian Eyes”