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The life and teaching of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha

by Pierre To
27 minutes to read
The life and teachings of Siddharta Gautama Buddha

All the stages of the Buddha's life, his birth, his enlightenment, his death and how his teaching then spread throughout the world.


The Buddha, whose personal name was Siddhattha and whose surname was Gotama, lived in northern India in the 6th century BC.

His father, Suddhodana, ruled the Sakya kingdom (in modern Nepal).

His mother was Queen Maya (Māyādevī).

The Buddha "the Awakened One", Siddhārtha Gautama is also called Shakyamuni "sage of the Śākyas"

He is sometimes referred to as Shakyamuni Buddha to distinguish him from other Buddhas.

The birth of Buddha

He was born in Lumbini, on the road to Kapilavastu, the capital of the family clan, in the present-day Nepalese Terai.

The accounts of Siddhartha's birth are full of mythical details: his mother Maya (whose name means 'illusion') is said to have conceived him in a dream, penetrated at the breast by a white elephant with six tusks.

She is said to have given birth standing upright, clinging to a tree branch, while the Brahmin deities rained flower petals on her.

As soon as it emerged from its mother's side, the child would have stood up and "taken possession" of the universe by turning towards the four cardinal points, then would have taken seven steps towards the north.

The birth of the Buddha

The birth of the Buddha

Māyādevī reportedly died a week later, entrusting her son to her sister and co-wife Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī.

The sage Ashita, former guru of Śuddhodana (Buddha's father) and then a hermit in the Himalayas.

He is said to have seen the birth of Siddhartha through his powers and came to examine the child himself, on whose body he recognised the marks of a Buddha.

When the name was chosen on the fifth day, eight eminent Brahmins were present; seven predicted that the child would be either a great king or an ascetic, but the youngest, Kondañña, also saw clearly that he was the next Buddha.

The name given to him is not specified in the accounts of the ceremony.


Life in the palace and the marriage of Prince Siddharta

Some texts in the Pali canon claim that he had his first experience of meditation and attained the first degree of jhana (states of concentration, meditation) when he was still a young child, sitting under a jambu at a ploughing ceremony performed by his father.

Other texts place the event later in his life.

According to the Jatakas, it was at the age of sixteen that he married the young princess Yaśodharā who bore him a son, Rāhula.

According to André Bareau, Rahula's mother was unknown to the first four Nikayas and the Agamas, but her legend developed in great detail from the first century BC onwards.

the Buddha is said to have spent his first twenty-nine years in the observance of Hinduism and trained in the use of the bow like a true kṣatriya (warrior caste), but yet kept away from the sight of suffering and death, and even kept, according to some versions, within the confines of the family palace.

The Brahmins who had predicted a future as a king or ascetic had in fact advised his father to take this precaution if he wanted to avoid the second option coming true.

Śuddhodana of course hoped that his son would become a king and thought that a life of ease would prevent him from thinking about difficulties and suffering.

Prince Siddhartha discovers suffering

The young prince Siddhartha lived in his palace with all the luxuries at his disposal.

But he is confronted with the reality of life and the suffering of humanity and decides to find a solution.

The Four Encounters that Changed the Life of the Future Buddha

The meeting with an old man makes him aware of the suffering of the passing of time and the decay of the aging body.

The encounter with a sick person teaches him that the body also suffers regardless of time.

An encounter with a corpse that was being burned at the stake reveals the sordid nature of death to him.

Finally, an encounter with a hermit shows him what wisdom can be.

According to various sources in the canon, after the first encounter he expresses his astonishment to his coachman Channa, who takes him out of the palace where he discovers the other signs and becomes fully aware of the many facets of suffering.

He then decides to find a solution to put an end to it.

Renunciation and asceticism of Prince Siddhartha

At the age of twenty-nine, shortly after the birth of his only son, Rahula, he abandoned his kingdom and became an ascetic in search of a solution.

According to the Pale tradition, it is on a full moon night in the month of āsālha (July) that he leaves the kingdom of Kapilavastu on his horse Kanthaka accompanied by his coachman Channa, the four celestial guardians muffling the galloping and neighing of the horse so that no one notices.

Siddhartha Gautama with his coachman Channa and Kanthaka

Siddhartha Gautama with his coachman Channa and Kanthaka

For six years the ascetic Gotama wandered the Ganges Valley, meeting famous religious masters, studying and following their systems and methods and submitting to rigorous ascetic practices

His teacher was the Brahmin Arada Kalama, but what he learned - mastering the seventh dhyāna, the sphere of nothingness - did not seem sufficient.

He went to Rajagriha and took as his second master Udraka Ramaputra, who taught him the eighth dhyāna, the sphere of neither perception nor non-perception.

Here again, the Buddha felt that he had not found the path to Nirvana.

For six years he practised austerities with five other meditating ascetics, including Kondañña who had identified him as a future Buddha at birth.

Weakened by his abstinence, he almost drowned one day during a bath.

Finding that these practices had not led him to a greater understanding of the world, he decided to find another way.

He then recalled the past episode when he had attained the first jhāna (enlightenment) under a jambu.

He decided to abandon extreme austerities and concentrate on meditation, tracing the middle way which consists of denying excesses, refusing laxity as well as excessive austerity.

His companions thought he was abandoning the practice and abandoned him.

The awakening of the Buddha

On the same day, meditating under a banyan tree at Uruvelā near Bodh-Gaya, he ended his mortifications by accepting a bowl of rice pudding from the hands of the village girl Sujāta.

Then, after a ritual bath and an afternoon of meditation in a sals wood, he sits under a pipal and vows not to move from that spot until he has attained the ultimate truth.

Several legendary versions tell how Māra, demon of death and passions, frightened of the power the Buddha was going to obtain against him, tries to draw him out of his meditation by launching hordes of frightening demons against him.

In fact the fight with Mara can also be likened to the Buddha's mental fight, against bad thoughts, desires and lack of concentration.

But Mara's attacks are futile: it is with the gesture often represented in iconography of "taking the earth as witness" of his past merits (bhûmisparshamudra) that Siddhārtha repels them, simply denying the demonic presences without fighting them, in all serenity.

He can then continue his night of meditation and awaken at dawn.

The next four to seven weeks, depending on the version, see the sporadic return of Māra and her seductive daughters, always to no effect.

The Buddha meditates in different places, including a shelter made of the body of the Naga King Muchalinda.

Indeed, a terrible downpour took place, causing the nearby lake to flood.

The Buddha was meditating under a tree and did not notice this and continued to meditate despite the danger.

Muchalinda, the king-naga living in the tree or the lake, raised him or surrounded him with seven rings and sheltered him from the rain with his seven bonnets.

Representation of Muchalinda protecting Buddha

Representation of Muchalinda protecting Buddha

So it was that one evening, sitting under a tree (since known as the Bodhi or Bo tree, 'the tree of wisdom') on the bank of the river Neranjara at Buddha-Gaya (near Gaya in modern Bihar), aged thirty-five, Gotama attained enlightenment, after which he became known as the Buddha, 'the enlightened one'.

Having become Gautama Buddha, he hesitates to teach, wondering if such a word will be heard.

The tradition involves a Naga who convinces him to share his knowledge with humanity.

In another Buddhist legend, a Naga who has taken on the appearance of a man tries to follow the teaching and Buddha discovers him and explains that this teaching is only for men.

The Nâga then asked him for a favour: that all those who wanted to follow his teaching be called Nâga before becoming a monk and the Buddha would have accepted.

This is why, in Thailand, candidates for ordination are first called "the nak "Naga.

Buddha preached his first sermon to a group of five ascetics, his former companions, in the Gazelle Park at Isipatana (modern Sarnath) near Benares.

In Gautama's first sermon, the setting in motion of the wheel of the law, he states the four noble truths.

He claims that he has achieved enlightenment or full understanding of the nature and causes of human suffering and the steps necessary to eliminate it.

This enlightenment, possible for all beings, is called bodhi and gives Siddhārtha his new name: the one who has attained bodhi is a Buddha.

Gautama Buddha made it clear that he was neither a god nor the messenger of a god, and that enlightenment was not the result of a supernatural process or agent, but rather the result of a focus on the nature of the human mind, and that it could be rediscovered by anyone for their own benefit.

Two different interpretations of this statement separate ancient Buddhism and Mahāyāna Buddhism.

The first is that it is possible for everyone, as a listener to Gautama's teaching, to attain enlightenment and emerge from Samsara.

The second is that every sentient being possesses the Buddha nature (tathāgatagarbha), the true nature of mind, sometimes called the 'seed of enlightenment'.

This interpretation, which postulates the existence of a universal ontological or transcendent nature, is rejected by the orthodox théravāda.

Buddha's teaching

From that day on, for forty-five years, Buddha taught all classes of men and women - king and peasants, brahmins and outcasts, bankers and beggars, clerics and bandits - without making the slightest distinction between them.

Buddha's teaching

And in the Buddhist religion, one is not asked to believe stupidly, the Buddha Sakyamuni said to his disciples:

"Do not accept my teachings without having really studied them.

If you are given a gold nugget, you will naturally check in every possible way whether it is really gold.

In the same way, do this with my teachings to recognise their validity and accept them."

The 'Benares Discourse', the Buddha's first public teaching

The Doctrine (Dharma) was expounded by the Buddha in a teaching known as the Four Noble Truths.

This is the main teaching of his first public discourse, in Benares, shortly after his Awakening.

It is presented as a medical lecture:

1st Truth: the symptom - dissatisfaction is inherent in human existence;

Truth 2: The diagnosis - this dissatisfaction is rooted in ignorance and the ego's desire for ownership;

3rd Truth: Therapeutics - there is a state of health where, ignorance being abolished, desire is not expressed and does not give rise to dissatisfaction;

4th Truth: the remedy - to regain this state of health, one must follow a Way (a discipline of life in eight 'branches': the Eightfold Noble Path) that puts an end to ignorance and desire.

If the Buddha's observation seems pessimistic (all existence is subject to dissatisfaction), his teaching is optimistic, since he affirms that everyone can find health, where all dissatisfaction is abolished.

To achieve health (one's own 'Buddha nature'), one must engage in study and training.

The first three 'Truths' invite study, which helps to understand the origin of dissatisfaction (the nature of mind and phenomena), explains why our habitual experience is 'wrong' and proclaims the possibility of ending Ignorance.

These first three "Truths", developed, explained and commented, constitute the doctrine.

The fourth "Truth" advocates training through the concrete application of methods capable of transforming habitual experience into an awakening experience, free of all distortion and confusion.

This fourth 'Truth' sets out the principles that will give rise to the different forms of practice.

The doctrine taught by Buddha

The Buddha begins by explaining "our" vision of reality, then proposes a new analysis of it and, finally, teaches how to come to see things as he sees them, i.e. "as they are"...

The 'Self' and the ego

In our usual experience, we see the world and its phenomena, our body and mind, or our feelings and ideas... as if they were related to each other but fundamentally independent of each other and as shaped by patterns - a so-called 'essence', a 'Self'.

To explain the variety of the world, we imagine that each individual, each phenomenon is in fact a kind of "variation" on the theme of this "Self": horse, tree, rain, mountain, star, anger, freedom, love...

As far as our mind is concerned, we firmly believe in the existence of an insubstantial and permanent "ego" (âtman) which, through the body, apprehends the world, experiences feelings, reasons and conceives ideas.

The ego, even more than the body, is what we consider to be our personality, our individuality, what belongs to us.

Impermanence and suffering

Every moment of our lives we can see that everything in nature is subject to death.

Everything that appears will disappear one day or another.

This is also the case for our own body, as it is for all living beings and all material things.

This is also the case for our feelings and ideas: like the stars or the mountains, our love appears one day and one day will disappear, and we change our ideas and opinions.

It is this impermanence that makes us suffer.

Because we see that everything dies - everything that has a 'Self' for us - we fear that our own ego is also mortal!

But the same is true of things as of the ego: nothing exists 'in itself', independently.

Everything - including our ego - is born and dies. It is because we deny this reality of things 'as they are', because we maintain the illusion of the existence of a 'Self', that we suffer.

Karma and rebirth

In our daily lives, all our actions (karma) are closely related to this view: our actions, reactions, desires and fears are determined by this belief in the ego.

It is to maintain, protect and develop it that we act or react, depending on our ideas and feelings or on external events.

Whenever we feel that someone or something is challenging it, we act as if to prove to ourselves that we exist, that this ego exists.

Each of our acts, therefore, is born of this intention to prove its existence and, once the act is done, we rejoice in having proved it.

Whenever our ego is in danger of dying, we do everything to revive it, to keep it alive...

It is the belief in the ego that feeds the intention of each of our actions and it is the attachment to the result of these actions that sustains our belief in the ego.

Each act thus entails a 'new birth' - a rebirth - of the ego.


But, in fact, all phenomena exist only in interdependence.

Physical objects are compounds.

Just as the mountain is an aggregate of stone, earth and plant or animal residues, our body is composed of cells that come from our parents, from the food we ingest, from the air we breathe.

Our perceptions, too, are 'made up'.

They are the combined result of the existence of external objects, their contact with our body, the impression they leave on our senses and the interpretation our brain makes of them.

Our ideas, likewise, are composed.

They depend on the education we have received, our perception of the outside world, the events we have experienced, the ideas that other people have expressed.

And our ego - the idea we have of ourselves - is an idea like any other...

Emptiness and the mind

Reality appears to us as a relationship of duality: there is a subject (the ego) which experiences objects (external phenomena).

According to the Buddha, this 'objective' reality does not exist, it is an illusion.

It is this that sustains desire and suffering.

In fact, the phenomena we experience in our daily lives do not exist 'in themselves', independently of our experience of them.

They only have a "relative" existence. This is what the study of the Buddha's teachings can make us understand.

In reality - the 'absolute' reality - all phenomena are 'empty' because they exist only in interdependence.

This is called the 'emptiness' of phenomena (shunyata) and it is this emptiness that can be experienced in meditation practice.

See also : Learning to meditate

It is not then an experience lived by the ego, in desire and attachment, but a direct and intuitive knowledge of reality, "as it is", lived by the Spirit, our "Buddha nature".

The practice

Practice" includes various "trainings" and "spiritual exercises" that the Buddha's disciples use to verify, through their own personal experience, the truth of the teachings and their effectiveness, with a view to progressing on the spiritual path and thus attaining its goal: Awakening and Liberation.

What does the practice involve?

The practice is defined as a set of means made available to disciples to facilitate and make possible the direct and individual experience of Reality.

Everyone is invited to verify its effectiveness for themselves, but although it is available to all, it is only effective if it is put into practice, and this verification is only possible insofar as the disciple commits himself individually, has or develops the required abilities and follows the proposed method strictly and faithfully.

The Eightfold Noble Path

Set out in the Fourth Noble Truth, the Way - or Path - is presented in eight categories (Eightfold Noble Path), grouped under three headings:

sîla, ethical conduct, samâdhi, discipline of the mind, and prajñâ, 'intuitive' wisdom (to distinguish it from intellectual wisdom).

Sîla allows one to act in the field of samsâra, to reduce "negative" karma and to develop "positive" karma, in order to create an environment favourable to the practice, one's own and that of others.

It includes three categories: right speech, right action and right livelihood.

Samâdhi allows each individual to calm the mind, to know and master its functioning and its "powers".

It includes right effort, right attention and right concentration (or recollection).

This is generally referred to in the West as 'meditation'.

Prajñâ is the access to the ultimate reality, and its development increases as attachment decreases.

It is the result of listening, personal reflection and putting the lessons into practice.

It consists of right thinking and right understanding.

The basis of the practice is therefore discipline.

It is concerned with external behaviour, physical and verbal actions, but also with inner thought, and thus directly contributes to meditation training.

And meditation, in turn, supports discipline...

The Buddha founded the community of Buddhist monks and nuns (the sangha) to carry on his teachings after his death.

The death of the Buddha

At the age of 80, the Buddha died in Kusinara (in modern Uttar Pradesh).

He expired in meditation, lying on his right side, smiling: he was considered to have attained parinirvāṇa, the voluntary extinction of the self, complete and final.

The last words of the Buddha are:

"All constructive energies are impermanent; work efficiently without slackening; be of concentrated intent; watch the thought!

After his death, differences of opinion arose which, over the course of eight centuries, led to very different schools.

Four councils were held successively until the third century AD to try to define the essential texts common to all Buddhists, regardless of their order.

Each time they were failures: the essential principles were retained: the four Noble Truths and the three jewels.

And so today there are different forms of Buddhism, the Dalai Lama, contrary to what some people think, is not the religious leader of all Buddhists, but a representative of Tibetan Buddhism which is very different from Theravada Buddhism practiced in Thailand.

Personality and character of the Buddha

The Buddha presented in the Buddhist scriptures has the following characteristic features:

  • Siddhārtha Gautama was a man of great athleticism, skilled in martial arts such as wrestling and archery, and who could walk miles without difficulty and camp in the wilderness.Siddhārtha Gautama was an athletic man, skilled in martial arts such as wrestling and archery, and who could walk miles without difficulty and camp in the wilderness.The images of the large "Gay Buddha" or Laughing Buddha are not representations of Siddhārtha Gautama ;
    [symple_spacing size="30″]
  • an ideal teacher, who always finds the right metaphor, and who perfectly adapts his message to his audience, whoever it may be;
    [symple_spacing size="30″]
  • However, he becomes exasperated when he notices that monks are distorting his teachings;
    [symple_spacing size="30″]
  • Moderate in all bodily appetites, he lived a celibate life from the age of twenty-nine until his death, and was as indifferent to hunger as to the rigours of the climate.

Physical characteristics of Gautama Buddha

Although representations of Gautama were initially symbolic, only depicting him in human form from the first century onwards, his physical characteristics are described in the Pāli Canon.

The Buddha is presented as tall, sturdy and good-looking.

His eyes are blue, his skin golden, his ears abnormally long.

He would have asked his disciples not to be represented in the form of a statue or image so as not to be idolised, only his teaching would remain.

But men being what they are, we know the rest...

Buddha in Hinduism, Islam and Christianity

In India, all places associated with the life of the Buddha are still centres of pilgrimage, not only for Buddhists but also for Hindus from all walks of life, because as an avatar of Vishnu, he is considered a great guru 'spiritual master'.

In Muslim and Christian texts we find the life of Barlaam and Josaphat or Joasaph, a legendary life of the Bodhisattva Siddhartha Gautama, a Buddhist story in Sanskrit.

This Life of the Bodhisattva gave rise to a very large number of versions in different languages spoken in the first millennium in the Indo-Persian area.

The history of this legendary tale could be traced from a text of Mahāyāna Buddhism in Sanskrit dating from the 2nd - 4th century, to a Manichean version, which later found its way into Muslim culture in Arabic as the Kitab Bilawhar wa-Yudasaf (Book of Bilawhar and Yudasaf), a well-known text in 8th century Baghdad.

It was then translated into Georgian in the 9th or 10th century, where it was Christianised.

This Christian version was then translated into Greek in the 10th-11th century by St Euthymius the Hagiorite and into Latin in the mid-11th century.

From the 13th century onwards, the Golden Legend, a book in French by Jacques de Voragine, ensured its widest distribution.

Attestations of the legend in Sogdian lead some authors to believe that it comes from Central Asia.

Buddha, Christian saint!

In the Christian version, King Abenner or Avenier of India persecuted the church founded in his kingdom by the apostle Thomas.

When the astrologers predicted that his own son would one day be a Christian, Abenner took the young prince Ioasaf (Jehoshaphat) and isolated him from all outside contact.

Despite this confinement, Josaphat met the hermit Saint Barlaam and converted to Christianity. Josaphat kept his faith, even in the face of his father's anger or his attempts to convince him.

Eventually Abenner himself was converted, handed over his throne to Jehoshaphat, and retired to the desert to become a hermit.

Jehoshaphat himself later abdicated and went into hiding with Barlaam, his former teacher.

In the Middle Ages, both Barlaam and Jehoshaphat were considered Christian saints and included in the sixteenth century editions of the Roman Martyrology.

They appear in the calendar of the Orthodox Church of Greece on 26 August and in that of the Roman Catholic Church on 27 November.

In the Slavic tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church, both saints are commemorated on 2 December (19 November in the Julian calendar).

Documentary on the life of Buddha


Some Dharma teachings

Just some wonderful wisdom lessons to ponder.

A recommended book to learn more

Today, there are many currents in Buddhism and different teachings that sometimes deviate greatly from the original teaching.

If you want to know more about the true teaching of Buddha I advise you to read this book, the essentials are there and the most courageous or the wisest can certainly reach enlightenment with :

"The Buddha's teaching from the most ancient texts" by Walpola Rahula

 "The reThe Buddha's teaching according to the most ancient textsVerend Rahula received the traditional training of a Buddhist monk in Ceylon.

[...] The book he has kindly asked me to present to the Western public is a luminous and accessible exposition of the fundamental principles of Buddhist doctrine, as found in the most ancient texts, those called in Sanskrit 'the Tradition' (Agama) and in Pali 'the Canonical Corpus' (Nikdya), and to which Reverend Rahula, who possesses an incomparable knowledge of them, refers constantly and almost exclusively.

Paul Demiéville

Find it on Amazon.co.uk

See also :
Theravada Buddhism
Representation of Buddha, the fat one and the skinny one
Buddhism and Politics

Source: wikipedia.org Buddhism-university.org

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