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Basic Buddhism
A Modern Introduction to the Buddha's Teaching
by Dr Victor A. Gunasekara

The Life of the Buddha

The founder of Buddhism was an historical person, Siddhatta Gtama who lived in North India from 563 BCE to 483 BCE. (8) His father was Suddhodana the ruler of the Sākyas a people inhabiting a country which lay on the border between modern Nepal and India. At the time of his birth his mother Mahāmāyā was on a journey and he was born in a park at Lumbini on the full moon day of the month of April-May in the year 563 BCE. A commemorative pillar was erected on the spot by King Asoka some three centuries later.

Several legends are attached to the birth of Sidhatta, including a prophecy by the brahmin Asita that he would either be a great ("universal") ruler or a fully enlightened teacher. It is said that Suddhodana wanted his son to become a monarch rather than a great religious teacher, and accordingly brought him up in the lap of luxury with the training befitting a future king. But very little is known of the early life of Sidhatta. No indication of his future destiny is recorded other than a reference to an incident when as a child he went into a meditative trance while seated in an open field watching an agricultural festival. When he was sixteen Sidhatta was married to Bhaddakaccānā (also known as Yasodarā).

The events that forced his decision to renounce the life of luxury he was leading and take to the religious life occurred when he was about 29 years of age. It is claimed that at this time he encountered the famous four signs, that of an old man, of a sick man, of a corpse and of a religious recluse, and that these led him to question the unsatisfactoriness of life and the need to find a way of escape from its travails. The misery and brevity of human existence struck him with force, and also the desire to find a solution to the problems of life. But the critical event was the birth of his first child, a son who was named Rāhula. When the child was born Gotama realised that if he were to assume the role of a parent he would never leave the household life in this quest for the meaning of life, and accordingly he decided to renounce the household life. Fearing that a public announcement would bring pressure to change his mind, he left his palace with only his charioteer accompanying him, donned the garments of a recluse and went into the homeless life.

Gotama thus became a samana [sramana] or religious mendicant. The samanas were people who devoted their entire time to the search for religious truth. They did not adhere to the prevailing religious orthodoxy of the day, the Brahmanical religion based on the ancient Vedas. They were highly individualistic and engaged in a variety of practices. The next seven years of Gotama's life were devoted to his quest. He became the pupils of the leading religious teachers of his day, such as Ālāra Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta. They were the leading exponents of meditation of the day, and Gotama mastered all the meditation techniques they could teach including the development of the jhānas. Since these did not provide the solution he was seeking he continued in his search.

By this time his wandering had taken him south of the Ganges river. He now formed an association with five other samanas, who were more inclined to the practice of austerities. But even these did not satisfy Gotama. He now continued his search alone. His search finally ended on the full moon day in the month of Vesākha (April-May) in the year 528 BCE when he meditating under an Asattha or Pippala tree (ficus religiosa) near Uruvelā (now known as Buddha-Gayā). He had become the Buddha (a term meaning the "Enlightened One"), by which title he was henceforth to be universally known. The tree has come to be known as the Bodhi (or Bo) tree, and is regarded as a symbol of the Buddha's enlightenment.

After considerable thought he decided to proclaim his discovery for the benefit of mankind. His hesitation arose from the complexity of the system he had discovered, and its opposition to the comfortable beliefs which then as now appeared to offer an easier solution to the spiritual needs of people. The first proclamation of the Dhamma took place at the deer-park in Isipatana close to the city of Sarnath (near modern Benares) to the five former ascetic companions, who became the Buddha's first disciples. From that day on until his death some 45 years later the Buddha travelled around Northern India tirelessly proclaiming his message. The five ascetics became the first members of the Buddhist Sangha (or Community of disciples) which has survived to this day in unbroken succession.

The exact chronology of the Buddha's ministry has not been recorded and cannot be reconstructed. His more important discourses are preserved, but while they indicate the circumstances leading to each discourse, and often the place of its delivery, there is generally no indication of the date or even year of the discourse. From the places mentioned in the discourses it is possible to reconstruct the area of the Buddha's travels. This was confined mainly to the middle Gangetic plain with Kapilavatthu to the North, Uruvelā to the South, and Campa to the East. The Western extent is not certain, some suttas being delivered not far from the modern Delhi. This area straddled the Ganges river, and included parts of two important kingdoms in the Buddha's time. These were Kosala which was located North of the river Ganges with Sāvatthi as its capital, and Magadha which was to the South of Kosala with Rajagaha as its capital. The Buddha became well known in both these kingdoms and their capital cities. There are legendary accounts of visits of the Buddha to places as far away as Sri Lanka, and even to heavenly domains, but these have no historical basis.

The Buddha and his followers initially followed the wandering life of the samanas, but soon developed the habit of staying at least part of the year in a monastery. The period of monastic sojourn came to be known as the "rains retreat" (vas) because it coincided with the Indian monsoon. The monasteries were donated by wealthy lay followers. In the early years the Buddha spent his rains retreats south of the Ganges river mainly at Rājagaha, but gradually moved north. In the later years the most frequently visited location was Sāvatthi, where the Buddha spent 23 of the last 25 rains retreats. The very last rains retreat was spent at Vesali when the Buddha was on his last journey from Rājagaha to Sāvatthi.(9) The Buddha's death (parinibbāna) took place at a place called Kusināra mid-way between Vesāli and Sāvatthi.

While some debate may attach to the exact dates of the Buddha's life there can be no doubt about the historicity of the Buddha (10). The Buddha's teaching, unlike that of many other founders of religious systems, was so unique, original and consistent that it could only have been the work of a single person. The Buddha did not appropriate on himself the role of a God or of a prophet of God, in order to validate his teachings. His teachings were derived from his own unaided efforts. (11)

Recently discovered archaeological evidence corroborate the accounts in the texts. These include the discovery of urns with inscriptions indicating that they were the receptacle for the relics of the Buddha. King Asoka's pillars, though a few centuries after the death of the Buddha also identify the places associated with the life story of the Buddha. The most recent discoveries have been archaeological remains authenticating the birthplace of the Buddha as Lumbini.

There is a detailed account of the last days of the Buddha in the Mahāparinibbāna sutta, but no such detailed information is available for any other part of his life. After his death the relics of the Buddha was distributed and stupas were built over them.


Updated: 1-2-2001

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