One of the most crucial spiritual leaders in world history, the Buddha is seen by hundreds of millions as the supreme embodiment of compassion and knowledge.
Technically, “Buddha” is a title, meaning “enlightened” or “awakened” in the ancient Pali language in which much of the Buddhist canon was written. According to Buddhist teachings, there are many buddhas, in the sense of individuals who have actually attained enlightenment (including the future Maitreya Buddha, who it is thought will appear in the last days). Nevertheless, when Buddhists discuss “the” Buddha, they normally refer to Siddhartha Gautama.
Born in the early 5th century B.C., Siddhartha was the kid of the king of Kapilavastu in Nepal. Siddhartha’s daddy, wishing to safeguard and pamper his boy, isolated him in a spectacular enjoyment palace, where Siddhartha’s every whim was satisfied by a host of servants. When Siddhartha became a young man, nevertheless, he grew curious about the world outside his palace. Making several secret journeys to explore this strange world, he was shocked to discover things he had actually never ever seen in the past– such as illness, appetite, aging and death. To his scary, he realized that not everybody lived a life of total enjoyment like his; quite the contrary, almost all mankind lived lives filled with suffering.
This discovery transformed him. He could no longer stay in hedonistic isolation in his fantasy palace. Deserting his royal title and all his belongings– including his other half and boy– Siddhartha set out on a journey to find the purpose of life and find an escape from suffering and death.
He began a spiritual quest, looking for the greatest spiritual instructors of India. For a while, he followed a narcissistic course of extreme spiritual asceticism, mortifying his flesh to reinforce the spirit. Almost starving himself to death, he understood that this did not bring the fulfillment he was looking for, and that it brought no help to others. Finally, in desperation, he sat under a bodhi tree, solving not to move up until he had actually achieved enlightenment. There it is thought Siddhartha passed through progressive stages of magnificent insight and revelation, culminating in his full enlightenment, hence ending up being the Buddha or “enlightened one.”
Although, at the minute of his enlightenment according to the mentors, the Buddha could have gone beyond mortality, he selected instead to return to this world of suffering in order to teach mankind the principles by which they, too, might obtain this knowledge. He invested the next 45 years, till his death in the late fifth century BC, as a wandering instructor in India, serving humankind, forming Buddhist neighborhoods and teaching mankind the path to knowledge.
The essential mentors of the Buddha were summarized in his First Preaching at the Deer Park, the Buddhist equivalent of the Preaching on the Mount. There he taught the Noble Truth that “life is suffering.” This suffering can only be overcome by following the Eightfold Path, which includes improving both one’s inner life, thoughts, speech and conduct. The ethical teachings of the Buddha broadly parallel the rules of Jews and Christians, however the essence is that a person must not do anything that hurts another.
The Buddha taught that males and females ought to follow the “Middle Course,” between the extremes of spiritual asceticism or self-denial and the vacuum of hedonism or pleasure-seeking. According to a Buddhist parable, an individual’s soul is like a stringed instrument. If strung too tightly, it will snap, however if too loose, it can produce no music. Only the soul in best balance and harmony can correctly play the music of life.
At an allegorical level, the life of the Buddha serves as an example to his followers. Too many people lead lives of separated abundance, neglecting the suffering of those around us. Indeed, in the modern world of super-abundance, many individuals seem genuinely puzzled by the Buddha’s mentor that “life is suffering.” Like Siddhartha in his satisfaction palace, they can’t comprehend that, for the huge majority of males and females throughout history, the Buddha’s teaching makes absolute sense: Life is, certainly, filled with suffering. (At least, not up until they are touched by major illness, the death of a liked one, or a great individual loss or dissatisfaction.)
By following the teachings and example of Siddhartha, the compassionate Buddha, millions have learned to conquer their egocentric jails of selfish desire through committing their lives to alleviating the suffering of others. (For further reading, see Peter Harvey, “An Intro to Buddhism,” second ed., 2012.)
Daniel Peterson established BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Effort, chairs The Interpreter Structure and blog sites on Patheos. To name a few things, William Hamblin co-authored “Solomon’s Temple: Misconception and History.” They do not speak for BYU.