The name "Buddha" means "enlightened one" or "awakened one." However, the founder of the Buddhist religion was not born enlightened. He was born Siddhartha Gautama, son of King Suddodana and Queen Maya, rulers of Kapilavastu, India, in the foothills of the Himalayas in 566 BCE. When Siddhartha was born, a wise man predicted, "If the prince remains in the royal household, he will become a great king. But if he leaves the household, he will find Truth and become a great holy man." King Suddodana envisioned Siddhartha as a holy man: giving up all worldly possessions, a wandering teacher with a begging bowl. That was not the life he wanted for his only son, so he surrounded his son with everything he would ever need or want.
Sadly, the queen died seven days after Siddhartha's birth. Her sister moved to the palace to raise the baby. The days passed quickly, and Siddhartha grew. Despite having his every whim catered to, he was a sensitive and meditative boy. At age 16, he married his cousin, Princess Yasodhara. The king hoped that married life would keep the prince happy and at home. And so it was for the next 13 years.
One day, when he was 29, Siddhartha asked his friend and charioteer, Channa, to take him for a ride far away from the palace. On their journey, they encountered an old man. Siddhartha wondered what was wrong with this person. "Nothing is wrong," replied Channa. "He is just old. We will all be old one day." Siddhartha was very disturbed and asked to be taken home, where he could not stop thinking about the old man. "What good is youth if you will get old?" he wondered.
The next day, he asked Channa to go out again. On the way, they encountered another sight new to the prince. When he asked Channa about it, Channa replied, "That man is very sick. We are all vulnerable to sickness." Siddhartha reflected on this all day and all night, thinking, "What good is health if you will eventually get sick?"
In the morning, they went riding again. This time, Siddhartha witnessed a body being carried through the streets. Channa explained, "That man is dead. Death comes to all men, even princes." Siddhartha asked himself, "What good is life if you will someday die?"
Once more Channa and Siddhartha rode out into the city. There they saw a holy man in saffron robes. The prince asked, "Who are you?" The man replied, "I am a monk, a seeker of Truth, of life over death. To find it, I have given up everything on this earth." Siddhartha decided he must do the same if he was to find peace.
That night, Siddhartha crept out of the palace, regretfully leaving his father, his wife, and his newborn son. For a while, he traveled with monks. But he did not feel any closer to the Truth.
He spent the next six years living as an ascetic. Asceticism taught that the way to Truth was to deny the body. Ascetics denied themselves food and comfort and lived as hermits. Yet, after six years, Siddhartha felt no closer to the Truth. He decided that Truth was not to be found in extreme circumstances or by denying the body, but through the mind and the heart. From that day forward, he chose to follow a middle path of moderation.
After six years of seeking, one day Siddhartha came to a bodhi tree and sat down beneath it, vowing not to leave until he knew the Truth of how to conquer suffering and death. While meditating and searching his heart, he came to understand how he was connected to all life, and how to conquer suffering and death. He had become the Buddha—the awakened one.
He expressed what he had learned in the Four Noble Truths:
- Life is suffering.
- The cause of suffering is selfish desire.
- The end of selfish desire will end suffering.
- The way to end selfish desire is through the Eightfold Path.
The Buddha shared his insights with many disciples across the land, including his father, wife, and son, who joined him in practicing the Middle Way. At the age of 80, he lay down and entered permanently into nirvana, the state of eternal peace without rebirth or death.