The Buddha was born as a prince in a northern India kingdom around 2,500 years ago. His name was Siddhartha Gautama. The title ‘Buddha’ means ‘Enlightened One’ or ‘one who is awake’. Siddhartha’s journey from prince to holy man to Buddha is the basis of Buddhism.
Siddhartha’s father ruled a small kingdom and his mother was a princess of another clan. The king wished his son to inherit the kingdom and rule. So that Siddhartha wouldn’t ask difficult questions about life, the king ordered the young prince to be protected from all evidence of suffering and imperfection, including sickness, old age and death.
However, as he got older, Siddhartha felt that his life of luxury was empty. He persuaded his chariot driver, Channa, to take him out of the palace and into the city. There he encountered the Four Sights. The first three of the Four Sights were an ill person, an old person and a dead person. Channa had to explain what these three sights meant. Siddhartha was shocked and didn’t really understand what he had seen.
Next he encountered a holy man, the fourth sight. The holy man seemed calm and serene amid the crowds and noise. This person made Siddhartha curious, as the holy man was trying to understand truth. Siddhartha realised that his own path in life should be one of understanding, not the privilege and responsibility of royalty.
Siddhartha became a wise and popular teacher, able to journey into deep understanding of the nature of reality during periods of meditation. Buddhists believe that Siddhartha achieved enlightenment while sitting under the Bodhi Tree.
As he meditated, a demon called Mara tempted him with beautiful women and threatened him with an army of monsters. However, Siddhartha did not give in. Mara demanded to know what authority a mere human had to seek enlightenment. Siddhartha placed his hand on the ground, which meant,
I bear witness.
Finally, Siddhartha became a Buddha, or an enlightened being. He is often called Gautama Buddha. Buddhists believe that Siddhartha was not the only Buddha and there will be others.
Samsara is the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. All Buddhists aim to escape from this cycle by attaining enlightenment and nirvana. When a Buddhist attains nirvana, their soul is no longer reborn, which means they no longer have to live another life of suffering.
Nirvana (also spelt nibbana) means ‘blowing out’, as a lamp is blown out. When a person achieves nirvana, their soul is finally blown out and is freed from suffering. Enlightenment is necessary to attain nirvana. Enlightenment is a state of complete understanding and complete compassion.
The Buddha remained on Earth to communicate his insights to others. He attained enlightenment around the age of 35 and did not die until he was 80. This is called nirvana with remainder, as his body remained on Earth. When the Buddha died, he achieved nirvana without remainder, or final nirvana.
Over the course of his life, the Buddha gave many teachings. They were collected into five volumes called nikayas, which today form Buddhist scripture. These five volumes are collectively called the Theravadin scripture, and they form one ‘basket’ of the Pali canon.
These teachings help Buddhists to understand the nature of reality and how they can achieve enlightenment. For example, Samyutta Nikaya 35.199 is a parable that warns Buddhists to be restrained in their desires and not be impulsive.
The five nikayas are:
What were the Four Sights that Siddhartha Gautama saw?
Illness, old age, death and a holy man.